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The mud flats of the Netherlands' Kapelsche Veer island are revealing more of their grim secrets, 56 years after a bloody battle that slashed through the ranks of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment from St. Catharines, Ont.

The Dutch Army recently identified two Canadian soldiers whose remains were discovered in February by a crew clearing munitions from the island in the Maas River. The regiment suffered 183 casualties, including 50 dead, in the battle to capture a German position in January, 1945.

"This is where the regiment stood tall and did the job, but the cost was so high," Major Alan Woolley, deputy commanding officer of the regiment, which is now a part of the reserves, said in an interview from his home in Fort Erie, Ont.

"It was brutal, just brutal."

Until last year, six of the regiment's dead remained unaccounted for, seemingly lost forever in the mud of the island, which is just over a kilometre long.

Then in January, 2000, the remains of Private Victor Howey were discovered as munitions were being cleared so construction work could begin on reinforcing riverside dikes.

By now, the skeletons of 29 soldiers -- 26 Germans and three Canadians -- have been found, along with hundreds of munitions from grenades to 500-pound bombs, said Jack Schippers, one of two Dutch contractors who have been working on the clearance of the island for almost two years.

Warrant Officer Fred Bolle, one of two officers from the Dutch army's Recovery and Identification service, remembers getting a call in February that another body had been found.

"They told me that they had found equipment, helmets, a rifle and human remains," he said in an interview.

At the site, he saw skeletal remains buried about 30 centimetres beneath the surface of the dike, and soon realized he was looking at two soldiers.

He believes they lay where they fell, perhaps in a foxhole that collapsed after being struck by a mortar. Mr. Schippers, however, believes their bodies were placed in a bomb crater that was turned into a makeshift battlefield grave.

There were no identification tags on the men. But by analyzing the equipment, WO Bolle knew they were Canadians. For one thing, the boots were partly rubber, a material not used by the British or Germans.

Using dental records supplied by Ottawa for the six missing soldiers, the remains were identified. Pte. Howey had been identified in the same way.

"We've got two names," confirmed a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs, who said they would not be made public until relatives have been notified. "We're trying to track down family members."

The recent discovery recalls a battle that was a controversial part of the Canadian war effort.

It took place as the Allies occupied the Netherlands south of the Maas River, and the Germans were still holding on to the north. The Kapelsche Veer was a German outpost on the south bank, which made it a clear target for the Allies, who feared it could be used to launch an effort to break out to the south.

The Canadian soldiers -- there were troops from two other regiments besides the Lincoln and Welland -- were charged with taking the German outpost after three earlier attempts by Polish and British troops failed.

The Canadian attack was called Operation Elephant.

Many of the Lincoln and Welland troops were young soldiers who had been transferred into the regiment with little infantry training.

The attack included the bizarre use of canoes. The idea was to sneak across while smoke from mortar fire protected them from the view of the Germans.

But the wind didn't co-operate and the canoes got caught in ice.

The waterborne soldiers were decimated.

The men were clothed in special white camouflage gear, which was supposed to shield them from view in the wintry conditions.

The uniforms were stripped off the injured soldiers as they were treated at the regiment's first aid station, according to a veteran of the battle.

"One of the worst things that he saw was this pile of bloody white uniforms that kept getting bigger and bigger," Major Woolley said.

The fighting dragged on for five days before the Germans gave up.

Military historians don't believe it was worth the cost.

Donald Graves, who has written a history of the battle, noted that C. P. Stacey, Canada's official war historian, called it "a little piece of ground that hath in it little but the name."

Mr. Graves said in an interview that the Germans had cemented in their positions in the dikes, making it even more difficult for the Canadians to capture. "It's a miserable place. . . . It was fought because of Allied prestige and that is the tragedy."

Including the previous failed efforts to capture the island, a total of 522 Allied soldiers suffered casualties.

"By the time they were attacking it, it was no longer of any strategic significance," said Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Carter, the current commander of the regiment.

Lt.-Col. Carter led the regiment's contingent of more than 30 representatives, including veterans of the battle, who attended the burial of Pte. Howey on the eve of Remembrance Day last November.

Pte. Howey, who was 24 when he fell, was buried with full military honours at the Canadian War Cemetery in nearby Bergen op Zoom. Relatives of the young soldier travelled from Ontario, but his widow, Phyllis, was too ill to attend and remained home in Newfoundland.

Pte. Howey was the first Canadian soldier to be buried in the Netherlands for 22 years. But every year, the Dutch recovery service identifies the remains of 10 to 15 soldiers from the Second World War, most of them Germans.

The Canadian regiment wants to honour the two other soldiers in the same way as Pte. Howey, but wants to delay the burials until the final three missing men are found.

Dutch authorities are convinced that finding those three is a real possibility.

"It would be great if we can finally close the book on this . . . and do the right thing by them," Major Woolley said.

That's also the view of the Dutch.

"We never forget what they have done for us," said Albert Hartkamp, secretary of the Netherlands' National Thank You Canada Committee, which organizes activities to commemorate Canada's war effort. "They liberated us."

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