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National Defence and the Canadian Forces

Joint Task Force Central & Land Force Central Area

31 Canadian Brigade Group

 

Victory in Europe Revisited: 60 Years Later

Cpl Nicholas P.K. Ellens

Cpl Nick Ellens was lucky enough to be selected for a position on the Honour Guard for the Victory in Europe tour organized by Veteran's Affairs Canada (VAC) this past May. This is his report.

When I learned that I had been selected to go to Holland I was very excited. At the most basic level, it was a paid trip to Holland. However, I soon realized it was so much more. My father was born in Holland and I was raised in a Dutch immigrant community. My grandparents frequently spoke of the Canadians liberating their village and so the news of my selection greatly pleased three generations.

This Sherman tank is a suitable monument to our veterans. Although not the best tank of the war, it proved vital to our infantry and saved the lives of many while at the same time costing the lives of many armoured corps members. Cpl Ellens displays the RHLI "camp flag" from the top to mark the occasion.

I arrived in Holland on April 22 and quickly began drill practise. Fortunately, we were given our evenings and nights off and were free to explore the environs of our camp. I visited Haarskamp, less than a kilometre from base, some relatives in Amersfoort, and Arnhem, the location of Operation Market Garden (portrayed in A Bridge Too Far ). Arnhem was fascinating as it is home to several memorials and historical sites.

As our drill improved, we were taken to some smaller towns to perform and visit. I had the privilege of taking a battlefield tour of Woensdrecht with the Canadian Forces Chief Historian, Dr. Steve Harris. This was one of the most exciting moments for me. When being trained as a Riley, I remember being told by my course staff about this battle where the RHLI company commander called artillery onto his own position because they were dug in and being overrun. This gutsy move paid off and the RHLI were able to hold the town (the RHLI took Woensdrecht October 16, 1944, allowing Allied forces to advance to the island of Walcheren and open the port of Antwerp – Dr. Steve Harris, DHH) . The town now contains an impressive monument, praising the heroism of the RHLI. This story was recounted to me on the very hills where my regimental forebears fought some 60 years ago. For further details, visit our story RHLI Returns to Antwerp Belgium.

On May 2, the veterans arrived. We, the honour guard, and the combined military band waited at the airport to give them a hero's welcome. I met with the RHLI veteran representative, Lt. Frank Volterman, and his son Paul. Later that night, we had a social at the base mess to mingle with the veterans and hear their stories. Lt. Volterman told me of his experiences, including Dieppe and several tense moments in Holland and Germany later in the war. It was exciting to hear these battles recounted by an eyewitness.

Lt. Frank Volterman is not only an RHLI veteran, he is a Dieppe veteran and one of the few who returned, to fight on through Europe when the RHLI took on the toughest jobs and won. Lt. Volterman, in the medical section, saw the results of those hard-won victories. His son Paul accompanied him on the tour. Both are frequent visitors to the unit lines.

In the subsequent 10 days, we had a tight schedule of cemetery ceremonies, parades, and tattoos. The drill was more challenging than I have ever encountered in my time in the army, but I have never found drill to be so rewarding. The culmination of our training consisted of parades through packed cities on May 5 (the date of Holland's liberation) and May 8 (Victory in Europe Day). Thousands and thousands of spectators lined the streets, cheering and covering us in confetti. Marching down cobblestone streets, I believe I caught a glimpse of what the Allied soldiers witnessed as they liberated Europe during the closing months of World War II.

Sgt Ernest "Smokey" Smith, VC, proved an inspiration to all who met him before his recent passing away. He became a national icon and well-represented the valour of Canadian troops in combat.

At each ceremony and event, I met more and more veterans who had fascinating stories to tell. Many RHLI veterans made the trip over and I picked them out, or they me, and we shared a brief conversation. It was exciting to spot the familiar cap badge on an old, battle hardened soldier. I spoke for hours with a Devil's Brigade veteran named Joe Pasquino. He spoke from a wheelchair, but his eyes burned with life, recounting captivating stories and uproariously funny adventures. On May 10, we saw the veterans off, and, after a few days of much appreciated rest and relaxation, we too headed back to Canada.

 

Riley vet Jack Hearns immediately spotted Cpl Ellens cap badge - it is the same one he wore while fighting through Europe in WW 2.

The Rileys contributed soldiers to the famed Devil's Brigade during the war, and Joe Pasquino is one of them. His stories found a willing audience.

Sadly Joe passed away on November 22nd 2010.

Editor's Note: Click here for more historical information on this tour and RHLI and CF history

 

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