The Liberation of Belgium

Vehicles of the 3<sup>rd</sup> Canadian Infantry Division moving through Bockhoute, Belgium. October 18, 1944.</p><p>Credit: Donald I. Grant. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada PA-137188

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Canada played an important role in the liberation of Belgium during the Second World War. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen helped defeat the Germans and restore peace to the country after more than four years of occupation.

Fortress Europe

Germany occupied Belgium and most of Europe for much of the Second World War. The Germans transformed the continent into what came to be known as "Fortress Europe." Formidable defences bristled along the coasts as the Germans watched and waited for the Allies’ move to retake the continent. The Allies came ashore in Italy in 1943 and began to battle their way north. Then on June 6, 1944—D-Day—the opening move to free Europe from the west finally came in Normandy, France.

The Canadians Break Out

In the months following D-Day, the embattled Germans began to give way and the Canadians broke out north and east against the retreating German defences. The First Canadian Army was tasked with securing the ports along the English Channel as they pushed their way up through coastal France and into Belgium and the Netherlands on their way toward Germany itself.

The Canadian advance held extra importance because the Allies were in need of a good port. They were still using the vulnerable temporary facilities they had constructed on the Normandy beaches to supply their forces. Ensuring that the flow of Allied men and materiel into the battle zone continued was vital.

Into Belgium

By early September of 1944, the First Canadian Army—with some British, Polish and other troops under their command—had liberated much of the French coast north of Normandy and pushed on into Belgium (although several fortified coastal towns in France would still have to be captured with great effort in the ensuing weeks). As the Canadian Army swept along the coast, they encountered abandoned V-1 (or “Buzz Bomb”) launch sites. Knocking these powerful and terrible weapons out of action offered great relief to the people of southeast England, who were their primary targets, and gave the Canadians much satisfaction.

It seemed the German resistance was faltering in places and Allied hopes were high for a quick end to the war. Brussels, the capital of Belgium, was liberated in the first days of September. Some Belgian villages were empty of the enemy when Canadian soldiers got to them, and others had to be fought for in what were usually brief but costly affairs. Large parts of western Belgium were quickly liberated as the Germans marshalled their defences in certain key areas. It was not always this fast, however, as the battle to cross the Ghent Canal was a bitter one.

The Battle of the Scheldt

The first ports liberated in Northwest Europe were either too small or too damaged to solve the Allies’ supply problems. Antwerp, a major port in Belgium, was taken relatively undamaged in early September. The problem was that it was 80 kilometres from the open sea. Between it and the English Channel lay the West Scheldt estuary, passing through parts of Belgium and the Netherlands that were still controlled by the Germans. In mid-September, the vital task of clearing the enemy from the Scheldt and allowing the Allies to make use of Antwerp fell largely to the First Canadian Army.

Much of the Battle of the Scheldt took place over flat and often flooded terrain that offered little cover for the advancing Canadians. Mud that stuck to men and machines, the many dikes and canals that had to be crossed, and an entrenched, battle-hardened enemy made the struggle to clear the area a mighty effort. Indeed, some of the toughest fighting of the war would be to cross the flat, wet, ditched terrain around the Leopold Canal in the north of Belgium.

Despite the challenges, the Allies persevered and the last German defenders were defeated by early November. The Scheldt was then cleared of mines and by late November Antwerp was finally opened to shipping. Interestingly, the first Allied ship to arrive was the Canadian-built freighter SS Cataraqui.

Sacrifice

Many Veterans would tell the story of entire Belgian towns coming out to joyously greet the Canadian soldiers, showering them with flowers as they passed through in dogged pursuit of the retreating Germans.

However, victory in Belgium only came at a high cost. More than 6,000 Canadian soldiers would become casualties during the Battle of the Scheldt and more than 800 are buried in Belgium, having made the ultimate sacrifice in helping drive out the enemy and liberate the country. Others returned home with injuries to body and mind that they would bear for the rest of their lives.

The Legacy

The Canadians who helped liberate Belgium were true heroes, but these heroes were regular people—volunteers willing to fight for their country to uphold the basic human rights of others and to defeat the forces of tyranny. Our country and the world owe an everlasting debt of gratitude to these brave men and women who have achieved and sacrificed so much.

Canada Remembers Program

Column of 'Alligator' amphibious vehicles passing 'Terrepin' amphibious vehicles on the Scheldt River. October 13, 1944 / Neuzen, Belgium (vicinity). Credit: Donald I. Grant. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada PA-114754

The Canada Remembers Program of Veterans Affairs Canada encourages all Canadians to learn about the sacrifices and achievements made by those who have served—and continue to serve—during times of war and peace. As well, it invites Canadians to become involved in remembrance activities that will help preserve their legacy for future generations.

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