Skip to main content

Canadian Second World War veteran Sandy Sanderson, 88, of Niagara Falls, Ont., who served as a sniper in a scout platoon salutes while the Last Post is played during a commemorative ceremony at Holten Canadian War Cemetery in Holten, Netherlands.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Seven decades ago, Donald Somerville's life was spared by a twist of fate during the liberation of Holland and this week the Canadian veteran paid what will likely be his final respects to the man who took a deadly sniper's bullet that should have killed him instead.

"You've given me 70 years. Thank God," the 92-year-old Mississauga man said to the grave marker of Wilfred Alfred Martel at Holten Canadian War Cemetery in the central Netherlands.

"Goodbye. I'll see you when I get there."

Mr. Martel had switched places with Mr. Somerville in an assault boat and was felled by a shot in April, 1945. He is one of about 1,350 Canadian soldiers who died in the bloody assault on German defences in Holland and Germany, and who are buried in Holten.

More than 7,600 Canadian lost their lives freeing the Netherlands from Nazi oppression in the months and weeks leading up to the Germans' Second World War surrender on May 5, 1945.

Each year – and particularly every 10th year – Canadian veterans have visited to commemorate the enormous sacrifice and receive the gratitude of the Dutch people.

The passage of time is thinning their ranks.

This year, which marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Holland, the numbers of Canadian vets making the trip is between 115 to 130, according to Ottawa's estimates.

For many, now in their 90s, this may be their final visit.

"This will be my last trip over," Mr. Somerville said Monday as he surveyed the hundreds of white grave markers, many bearing poignant epitaphs such as "Sleep peacefully, dear Daddy."

It's a major change from the 50th anniversary in 1995 when more than 1,000 Canadian veterans marched through the streets of Apeldoorn, Netherlands.

On Monday, a crowd of more than 4,000 – mostly Dutch – gathered in Holten cemetery along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Princess Margriet of the Netherlands with bands, bagpipes and speeches to honour the dead.

An aircraft dropped bright red poppies over the cemetery, a vintage Spitfire roared overhead and hundreds of Dutch people lined up to shake the hands of Canadian vets and say, simply, "Thank you for our freedom."

Those vets who can still make the trip marvel they survived. It was Canada's task to clear the Germans from the muddy and sodden low-lying lands along the Scheldt estuary in the Netherlands that led to the Belgian port of Antwerp. The Allies needed access to the port to carry their forces to Germany.

"It was the worst battleground of the Western campaign," Canadian Press's wartime correspondent Ross Munro wrote of the Scheldt. In his book Gauntlet to Overlord, Mr. Munro said German officers along the Scheldt had been required to sign pledges they would fight to the death in a suicide mission to stall the Allied advance.

The vets on Monday talked of scrambling over 45-degree-angle dike walls in sleeting rain and under withering fire, not only from the Germans but sometimes errant artillery from their own side.

In some cases, luck saved them.

Russell (Sandy) Sanderson, 88, recalls how, later in the Netherlands campaign, he happened upon dozens of German soldiers when he was too far from comrades to call for help.

He was forced to bluff his way through the situation, tricking the Germans into thinking there was a larger Canadian force just around the corner.

"I'm all alone. The nearest Canadian is friggin' nearly a mile away," Mr. Sanderson recalls of that day in April, 1945, in Groningen, Netherlands.

"So I run out into the street and I wave my arm like crazy,"

"I'm hollering like I've got lots of support and I've got none," Mr. Sanderson said.

"I say 'Get that Bren gun over here. Get the machines guns over here," he said.

After his charade, a German officer in the group turned away from Mr. Sanderson.

"I thought 'Jeezus man, you're going to get it now.'"

To his relief, the Germans bought his act and surrendered, laying their weapons on the ground.

Mr. Harper, addressing the crowd at Holten, asked Canadian and Dutch students in attendance to try to see themselves in the aged Canadian vets.

"I know that when one is your age, it is easy to look at an older generation and to see, simply, people from another time," the Prime Minister said.

"I ask you to look at these veterans and see instead people who were once young like you and who desired to enjoy all the good things that life … has to offer and who wanted no part of terrible things happening elsewhere in the world," Mr. Harper said.

The memories of the war have carried them through a lifetime.

Lloyd Swick, 93, was a lieutenant in the spring of 1945 when Canadians were fighting the Germans from house to house.

He was outside of Groningen and found a scared Dutch boy in the doorway of one of the homes. The boy said "Come," and Mr. Swick followed him onto the roof where, dodging sniper fire, he spotted Germans in a nearby park.

Mr. Swick and his unit captured 12 prisoners that day. As he stripped the Germans of their weapons, he found a fancy sheathed silver dagger.

"I took the dagger off the German officer, went over to the kid who was still cowering nearby and I said "Son, this is for you."

About 30 years later, Mr. Swick met the now-grown boy again.

"His first words to me were 'I still have that dagger.'"

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe