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Victory in Europe Legacy of Liberation

The only way to end the Second World War in Europe would be the total destruction of Nazi Germany. This meant the invasion of Germany itself, to finish what the years of fighting outside of Germany, on land, at sea and in the air, had set up.

Although German resistance was profoundly weakened by their losses in the Ardennes over the winter, and those suffered trying to prevent the Allies from reaching and crossing the Rhine, Allied armies would still have to fight hard for victory.

German prisoners taken during crossing of the Rhine operations, 24 March © IWM BU 2332

After crossing the Rhine on 23-24 March, three Allied armies fanned out across the north German plain – the Canadians turning north into the Netherlands, the British advancing northeast toward the German coast, and the Americans east into the Ruhr valley. Soviet armies were rolling west towards Berlin and central Germany.

FROM THE RHINE TO THE BALTIC

The British 6th Airborne Division had jumped into Germany as part of the Rhine crossing. Now they advanced rapidly on the right-hand side of British Second Army as they angled across north west Germany towards its Baltic coast. At times they could make 40 miles a day, but they also encountered stiff resistance in places.

Aircraft and gliders full of airborne troops about to jump into Germany, 24 March © IWM CL 2232

Serjeant Sidney CORNELL

Sidney was born and lived in Portsmouth. His father was a former circus acrobat from the USA, his mother a gardener’s daughter from Somerset. Sidney married his childhood sweetheart Eileen in 1934; they had one child when war broke out and he joined the army. He volunteered for the airborne forces, dropping into Normandy on the night of 5-6 June 1944 and receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions during that campaign: ‘a truly magnificent parachutist’.

7 April 1945 found Sidney and his comrades pushing far into Germany after jumping in under fire during the crossing of the Rhine (24 March). They needed to secure Neustadt am Rübenberge and its river crossing, but found the bridge wired with explosives. They immediately rushed it, hoping to surprise the defenders and keep the bridge intact, but an arch was blown as they were crossing. Sidney was one of 22 of his battalion killed that night. The missing are named on the Groesbeek Memorial. Sidney and 15 others lie together in Plot 15 of Becklingen War Cemetery. He was 31 and left three boys, the youngest a toddler.

The 4th Canadian Armoured Division was pushing north east on the left of British Second Army as it drove for Bremen. The Canadians were heading for Oldenburg and the North Sea coast beyond, over very difficult ground for heavy vehicles - low lying and boggy – meaning their infantry units had to bear the brunt of the fighting with little support from tanks. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (Princess Louise’s) were one such infantry unit. Their commander was Frederick Wigle.

Argylls of Canada riding on an armoured personal carrier, Wertle, Germany, 11 April © Capt. Alexander M. Stirton / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-159065

Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ernest WIGLE

Frederick Wigle was born in July 1913 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He attended Trinity College School in Port Hope, then McGill University in Montreal, studying commerce and finance. He was an American football star at TCS and McGill, and a great hockey player. He joined the Howell Lithographing Company as their Montreal representative, and married Margaret in 1937.

He joined the Canadian army in May 1941 and rose rapidly, first in an armoured unit, then to command ‘the Argylls’, an infantry unit, in February 1945. They fought their way to the Rhine and over it in March, and 14 April found them deep in North West Germany, pushing for Oldenburg. At first light that day they took Friesoythe, but later that morning lost their beloved commanding officer when Frederick was killed in an attack on his HQ by a group of German soldiers who were still free and fighting. He was 31.

His headstone is inscribed with lines by Rupert Brooke, a famous First World War poet:

“HE LEAVES A WHITE UNBROKEN GLORY, A GATHERED RADIANCE ... A SHINING PEACE”

HOLTEN CANADIAN WAR CEMETERY

Holten Canadian War Cemetery. Cross of Sacrifice installed, while crosses await replacement with permanent headstones © CWGC

The cemetery was made after hostilities ended. Today over 1,390 Commonwealth servicemen are buried here.

The great majority died during the last stages of the war in Holland, during the advance of the Canadian 2nd Corps into northern Germany, and across the Ems in April and the first days of May 1945. The cemetery was designed by Philip Hepworth.

Holten Canadian War Cemetery © CWGC

BREMEN AND BEYOND

By 8 April, leading troops of British Second Army had advanced about 150 miles from the Rhine, even though they had had to deal with many well-defended spots aiming to slow their progress. Canal and river crossings were vital to quick progress in vehicles and tanks, and these were frequently points where German defenders concentrated.

Captain Ian Oswald LIDDELL

Ian was born in 1919 in Shanghai, where his father was a merchant trader. He moved to the UK aged 11, boarding at St. Andrews Eastbourne and then Harrow, and hoped for a career as a veterinarian. In May 1940 he joined the army and was soon selected for Sandhurst. He was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards, did some Royal protection duty, and then trained with his unit for D-Day. They fought in Normandy, took part in Operation Market Garden, and in February-March 1945 played their part in the slow, hard-fought progress towards and across the Rhine into Germany.

On 3 April Liddell and his company needed to capture a vital bridge over the River Ems intact. It was wired for demolition and heavily defended, and he ran forward alone under fire, crossing and re-crossing the bridge to disconnect all the charges: he was recommended for the Victoria Cross. On 21 April, in action 170 km further into Germany at Rotenburg an der Wümme, he was killed by a sniper. He was 25. He had been married just three months. His widow would collect his Victoria Cross from the King.

His headstone in Becklingen War Cemetery is inscribed

“INTO THE MOSAIC OF VICTORY WE PLACE THIS PRECIOUS JEWEL OF HUSBAND AND SON”

BECKLINGEN WAR CEMETERY, Germany

Becklingen War Cemetery © CWGC

Some 2,400 servicemen of the Second World War are buried here. Most of them died in the last two months of the war in Europe.

The site was chosen after the war for its position overlooking Luneberg Heath, where Field-Marshal Montgomery accepted a German surrender.

The design emphasizes the view, with the Cross of Sacrifice at the top of the slope above the widest point of the cemetery. Graves were brought here from smaller cemeteries and isolated sites in the countryside.

The cemetery was designed by Philip Hepworth.

Becklingen War Cemetery © CWGC

Divisions of the British Second Army reached Bremen on 20 April and captured it on the 26th. Their next challenge was crossing the Elbe south east of Hamburg on 29 April and by 2 May they had reached the Baltic sea, cutting off the remaining German forces west of their line from Berlin and central Germany.

Meanwhile, American armies were advancing east and south east through Germany. On 25 April, at the Elbe near Torgau, American and Soviet troops met. Soviet forces had surrounded Berlin and were fighting bitterly to take it, block by block. When would Hitler and Germany’s senior military leaders be convinced that Allied victory was inevitable?

LIBERATING THE NORTHERN NETHERLANDS

While British, American and Russian armies carved up Germany, First Canadian Army protected their left by freeing the northern Netherlands of their Nazi occupiers. One Canadian corps fought their way north through Arnhem to Harderwijk on the Ijsselmeer, sending troops west to a line just short of Amersfoort. The other corps worked their way north to liberate Leeuwarden, Groningen, and the northern-most Dutch-German borderlands along the Ems river.

Dutch children riding on Sherman tank of Lord Strathconas Horse (Royal Canadians), Harderwijk 19 April © IWM

Private John Gerard SPICER

John was from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Born in 1923, he attended the Basilica and Cathedral schools in Hamilton. He worked for steel fabrication companies, first the B. Greening Wire Company and then the Hamilton Bridge Company, whose employ he left to play his part in the Second World War.

His regiment, the Irish Regiment of Canada, fought in the Canadian 5th Armoured Division. In late April 1945 they were clearing German forces out of the northern Netherlands and the Ems estuary. The German garrison of the important port of Delfzijl was holding out. For the Irish Regiment trying to reach Delfzijl the going was slowed by mines and road demolitions while being shelled from Emden, across the estuary in Germany. On 1-2 May, John and his comrades attacked and cleared the Delfzijl pocket, capturing vital lock gates and canal installations intact. This would be both his division’s last battle, and his own.

VICTORY IN EUROPE

Soviets raise flag over Reichstag, 2 May © IWM

On 2 May, the northern Netherlands were now in Allied hands, as was Berlin, and German forces in Italy had surrendered.

On 4 May, two German generals surrendered all German forces in the Netherlands, Denmark, and North West Germany to British Field Marshal Montgomery. Later that day, forces in Bavaria surrendered.

When besieged Breslau surrendered to the Soviet army on 6 May, Admiral Donitz (acting head of state after Hitler’s suicide on 30 April ) agreed the complete and total surrender of all German forces to the Allies, which was signed on 7 May. 8 May was declared ‘Victory in Europe’ day and celebrated across Europe and around the world. Church bells rang. Throngs of revellers crowded streets, singing and dancing.

HOLLOW BELLS

John Betjeman, who would become a Poet Laureate of the UK, wrote a poem remembering a friend who was killed in April 1945, setting it on VE Day. It ends

‘Stop, oh many bells, stop pouring on roses and creeper Your unremembering peal this hollow, unhallowed V.E. day,- I am deaf to your notes and dead by a soldier’s body…’

For all the rejoicing felt by millions that Nazi Germany had been defeated, for hundreds of thousands the bells may well have sounded hollow, as they already knew their loved one would not be returning. Betjeman’s dear friend had died fighting the Japanese army in Burma. The knowledge that the war against Japan still had to be won also dampened some VE spirits. All eyes turned now to the Pacific, where no quick or easy victory seemed likely.

With thanks to Imperial War Museums, Library and Archives Canada, McGill University Archives, the Pegasus Journal, and The Canadian Virtual War Memorial.