THE DRAMATIC LIBERATION OF AMSTERDAM
By L. MARSLAND GANDER who, as The Daily Telegraph War Correspondent, entered Amsterdam with the first British troops of the 1st Canadian Army on May 7, 1945.
Although the surrender of General Blaskowitz’s 21st German Army in Holland seemed a secondary affair in the great collapse of May 1945 it brought in train surprises, joy turning to terror, and exciting, strenuous days for the war correspondents attached to the 1st Canadian Army. The war was over. Yet on that fateful May 7, when all Amsterdam was wild with hysterical relief, war broke out again in its cruelest form. I became involved in one of the most dangerous situations I had experienced in four years’ reporting of five campaigns.
The surrender conference was held at the battered little village of Wageningen between Arnhem and Utrecht. Here the opposing battle-lines had frozen, and for some days before the final surrender-food lorries had been passed through to succour the starving civilians of western Holland. We had our first surprise when the massive, grunting Blaskovvitz acknowledged that he had 110,000 men under command. Our Intelligence had not expected more than 60,000 or 80,000. This great army had been contained and pressed back by an Anglo-Canadian force greatly inferior in numbers, while the main offensive tide flowed northwards and north-west into Germany.
Into the Last German Strongholds
We had two divisions only on this section of front, and were therefore outnumbered by about four to one. Our moral and material superiority had been equal to the task up to the standstill, when Germany’s armies on all other fronts were melting away fast. The only question was whether this comparatively small force could effectively control the situation and preserve order in an area which contained so many armed Germans, surrounded by a starving, persecuted population who hated their oppressors with cold, concentrated fury.
My own concern was to get into Amsterdam at the earliest possible moment. I was teamed with John Redfern of The Daily Express. We scouted around and found that at dawn on May 7 the tape barriers at Wageningen—which were all that separated us from the defeated enemy—would be removed and armoured cars of the 49th (West Riding) Reconnaissance Regiment, leading the 49th Division, would advance into the last German strongholds of western Holland. ” B” squadron, commanded by Major Hamish Taite, of Lutterworth, near Rugby, would be in the van.
It must be confessed that there was a certain amount of good-natured rivalry between the British and Canadian elements in the 1st Canadian Army ; the British felt that it was not generally realized that they were fighting in the Canadian Army. These reconnaissance boys had achieved many daring feats during the advance into Holland, and they sensed that at last here was a deserved “piece of cake,” a fitting climax to their war record. When two lame war reporters ca me along anxious to be taken into Amsterdam, or as near to it as we could get, the troops were hugely delighted.
Major Taite agreed to attach us to a troop consisting of 30 men in four armoured cars and six carriers, under the command of Lieut. George Bowman, of Scarborough, and Lieut. John Rafferty of Cardiff. Most of these troops had landed in France soon after D-Day. In the early hours of May 7, Redfern and I piled into our jeep, with our French-Canadian conducting officer and driver, and slung our bed-rolls and typewriters into the trailer. We wedged our vehicle. By arrangement, between two armoured cars and waited in the traffic jam at the Wageningen tape. There was no official “starter,” no ceremony. Suddenly we began to roll forward—and we were in the midst of the German army.
New Dutch Flags Were Everywhere
The first German I saw was walking sulkily along the road with a stick grenade in his hand. He took no notice of us, and we swept on. Than a couple more passed, on bicycles, rifles slung across their backs. But the Germans were only slinking back into their camps, barracks, and concentration areas. Soon we hardly noticed them, for the population went wild with delight, their welcome mounting in enthusiasm with every yard we progressed. They shouted, danced and ran—anything to let off steam. I saw girls leaping into the air clapping their hands above their heads as if they were doing Swedish drill. New Dutch flags floated everywhere from the houses.
My scarcely legible notes are eloquent. They read: “lilac tulips, people cycling like mad, comic hats, statuesque figures in toppers, orange dresses, flags, streamers, Japanese lanterns, people shouting “good-bye” “welcome”,’ Hullo”. In Utrecht and Hilversum the police managed to keep a road free through the dense throngs. As we passed the old ramparts of Naarden people with tears streaming down their checks bombarded us with flowers and Illuminated addresses. At last, after one or two hold-ups at blown bridges, we were running between flooded fields into the outskirts of Amsterdam. What we had already experienced should have prepared us ; but we were hardly ready for the Tumultuous reception in the Dam Square, the heart of the old city.
Excited Crowds in Dangerous Mood
The jubilant people simply engulfed us. There were a dozen laughing, half-hysterical girls on the bonnet of our jeep, and a score of demonstrative youths and boys on the trailer. They thought the whole British Army had arrived—instead of which it was only 30 men, while the main librating force of Canadians was 40 or 50 miles away.
A few score German troops who had apparently been on street duty and were fully armed, made a sheepish, half-hearted attempt to push the milling mob back with their rifles before they, too, were overwhelmed. So far the crowd, intoxicated with joy, was in carnival mood. But it was an inflammable situation. We were completely stuck. I felt most uneasy, not only because one shot would have caused a massacre, but also because our force was far too small te control the town which we knew contained at least 3,500 regular German troops, unknown numbers of the hated Grünpolizei and thousands of the brave Dutch Resistance forces, who were now pouring out into the open with their Sten guns.
Another point was that it was my professional duty to get a dispatch rider away with the story of the Liberation. I talked earnestly to Lieutenants Bowman and Rafferty, counseling a withdrawal in the hope that our departure would calm the excited crowds. They agreed, but we could not move. So with persuasion and expostulation, having autographed hundreds of identity cards and distributed scores of cigarettes. We removed most of our would-be passengers and began slowly to bulldoze our way out. At first only two of the armoured cars and our jeep got away from the square. It was fatal to stop again and wail—as we did on the Amstel Dijk beside the river—for we were immediately surrounded again by cigarette beggars and hero worshippers.
Killed in Panic Act of Terrorism
The other cars and jeeps struggled out to join us at a farmhouse on the outskirts. There Bowman wirelessed back to headquarters while Redfern and l wrote our stories and sent them of by dispatch rider. We did not know that terrible events had occurred immediately we withdrew. Exactly how it all started must remain a mystery, but as I pieced it together later it appeared something like this. German officers- were hustled in the crowd whose mood changed from minute to minute, ranging from the heights of hilarity to raging anger. Some Dutch Resistance men—acting contrary to the armistice terms—attempted to disarm a German who resisted. Somebody fired a shot—whether Dutchman or German I do not know. Thereupon German marines, who were holding the De Groote Club building, overlooking the Dam, in some strength, opened fire.
Between 20 and 30 people, including old women and tiny children, were killed outright in this ruthless, panic act of terrorism.
I saw some of their bodies with terrible wounds, later. How typical of the Germans to fire into the crowd instead of firing warning shots overhead! Shooting also broke out near the railway station. Immediately. The Dutch Resistance forces, their only uniforms blue overalls, encircled the Germans in the Dc Groote Club and the railway station.
That was the situation when we received radio orders at the farmhouse to return into Amsterdam. This time I went in an armoured car, but as there was no room inside I had to ding precariously to the outside, feeling most unpleasantly conspicuous. We nosed cautiously through the maze of narrow streets and waterways round the Dam Square. Bullets were flying, but it was not easy to decide who was shooting at whom or what. Blue overalled men crouched in doorways with weapons at the ready.
People shouted at me, “Keep your head down, sir !” and I felt most unhappy. For the war was over, and to be killed now. Rafferty and Bowman held a conference. Should we turn our 37-mm. guns on the murderers in the De Groote Club ? It was a great temptation. Yet we felt that it would not check the useless slaughter and might easily develop into a-minor battle. We decided to retire again and ask for further instructions. After all, what could a handful of men in four light Humber reconnaissance cars do but aggravate matters ?
Period of Troubled Truce
It so happened that while we deliberated, the gallant commander of the Dutch Resistance forces. Major Overhoff, president of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, was taking dramatic steps to stop the bloodshed. Under a flag of truce he drove in a motor-car into the Dam for a parley. Unhappily, his driver was shot dead, but Overhoff was spared and induced the Germans to cease fire pending the arrival of the British. The trouble was that while the Germans were prepared to surrender to the British they would not do so to the Dutch Resistance forces.
Meanwhile, outside the city, we were joined by Major Taite and the rest of “B” Squadron, making, if memory serves, ten armoured cars altogether. So for the third time that momentous day 1 found myself being whisked into Amsterdam. Through darkening, deserted streets, where fearful faces peered from the doorways, we drove straight to the Burgomaster’s office in the Prinsenhof Stadhuis. Major Taite took Redfern and me into a room where we met Major Overhoff, the Burgomaster, Mr. De Boer and several other Dutch Resistance leaders. It was heavily furnished and dimly lighted by an oil lamp. The atmosphere was tense, and outside an unnatural quiet brooded over the city that had lately been so boisterously happy.
Major Taite took command of the situation in a calm and confident manner. He telephoned for the German commander, Lieut.-Colonel Schroeder, who came in five minutes. Schroeder offered his hand which the Major refused. Then, looking sheepish and uncomfortable, the German sat mute, making pencil notes of Major Taite’s orders, which were that after curfew his men were to proceed to certain concentration areas. They were no longer to be scattered in **penny packets” all over Amsterdam.
So ended the tragic battle of Amsterdam, though for days the electrical situation lasted while the Germans remained in their barracks heavily guarded by their own armed sentries, and Dutch Resistance forces roamed the streets arresting Fifth Columnists and openly displaying their arms, which they had kept hidden for months or years. At night, we frequently heard outbursts of firing, and the atmosphere did not become easy until the arrival of the Canadians in force two or three days later.
Caption picture at the Dam
In The Dam Square, Amsterdam, many people were killed and wounded when German Marines opened fire without warning shortly before Canadian troops occupied the city early in May 1945. The author of this story was mobbed there by a wildly excited crowd just before the tragedy occurred. The Royal Palace, originally used as the Town Hall, overlooks the Dam. Beside it is the now Church, where lie some of the Netherlands’ most illustrious dead, including the famous Admiral de Ruyter.
Caption photo Driving Zuiderzee
Driving to the Zuider Zee, Bren carriers of the 49th Division’s Reconnaissance Regiment halted outside Kampen, near the mouth of the river IJssel, on April 19, 1945. Tumultuous welcom was accorded the British and Canadians by the jubilant population. The area was practically free of German troops, and the historic old town was unharmed.
This article was publiced in The War Illustrated, no 252 vol10
and also translated in Dutch language and publiced in ‘t Lichtspoor.