In 1944 & 1945, the Netherlands was liberated by Canadian, British, Polish, Dutch, and American troops. This page focuses on the U.S. contributions to the liberation of the Netherlands.
Occupation and suppression
The Netherlands was occupied in May 1940 after five days of sometimes heavy fighting. At that time, the city center of Rotterdam was virtually leveled with nearly 900 killed and 85,000 made homeless. Later, during the German occupation, thousands of civilians died as a result of the Nazi rule and air raids. The Allied bombings of German targets in the Netherlands also resulted in the substantial loss of Dutch lives, for instance in The Hague and Nijmegen.
The Jewish population suffered especially: three quarters of the Dutch Jews did not survive the war. The Diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager, documents her life in hiding from 1942 to 1944, during the German occupation of the Netherlands. It is one of the world’s best known books, and has been the basis for several plays and films.
An important part of the hostilities during WWII took place in the air. As the war drew on, the Allied industries began to produce increasing numbers of aircraft. The inhabitants of the occupied Netherlands witnessed the overflight of huge air fleets on their way to Germany.
Through intensive air bombardments the Allies tried to paralyze the German war industry and break the morale of the population. Fierce battles over the Netherlands with German aircraft were the result, while the notorious FLAK (the German anti-aircraft gun) also took its toll. Nearly 4,000 U.S. lives were lost during this air combat above the Netherlands. Of the 3,850 Allied planes shot down in Dutch air space, one fifth were American. The Study Group Air War 1939-1945 (SGLO) collects all the data of planes that crashed in the Netherlands during World War II. On their website, they provide overviews of every one of the 263 American B-17 planes, 94 B-24 planes, 29 B-26 planes, 51 P-38 planes, 147 P-47 planes, 105 P-51 planes and 61 C-47 planes that crashed.
Suriname and the Dutch Carribean
In November 1941, Dutch Prime Minister Gerbrandy stated for “Radio Oranje”: “The war will be won on waves of oil and freights of bauxite.” Suriname had large amounts of bauxite, which was used for the production of aluminum and therefore for building airplanes. In 1943, Surinamese mines provided 60 percent of the U.S. demand for bauxite. Eighty percent of the oil for the gas for British planes came from refineries on the Dutch Carribean islands of Curaçao and Aruba. The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) played in important in the protection of the islands against attacks by German submarines.
June 6, 1944 – better known as D-Day – was the day of the Normandy landings. It began the Western Allied effort to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi Germany. The operation kicked off the liberation of German-occupied France (and later Europe) from Nazi control, and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front. Supreme Commander of the allied invasion in Northern Europe was U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On that day, a 48-star American flag was flown from the stern of U.S. Navy vessel LCC 60. This ship led the invasion fleet and the first American troops to Utah Beach. The commander of the first landing craft was Lieutenant Howard Vander Beek, whose father was born in the Netherlands. Vander Beek took the flag and carried it in his backpack as a lucky charm throughout the rest of the war. Once at home, he kept the flag in a chest in his basement. After his death in 2014, the battered flag was offered up for auction and acquired by Mr. Bert Kreuk, an art collector from Rotterdam, who lost family during the bombing of the city in 1940.
Since 2016, the flag has been on display in the Dutch Military Museum in Soesterberg and the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. On July 18, 2019, the flag was presented to President Trump by Prime Minister Rutte during a special ceremony at the White House. The D-Day flag is now on permanent display at Smithsonian’s National Museum for American History in Washington DC.
South Limburg: American liberators set foot on Dutch soil
On September 12, 1944, at 10:00 am, the first American ground troops of the 30th Infantry Division (nicknamed the “Old Hickory Division”) set foot on Dutch soil in the small village of Mesch. The next day, the capital of the province of Limburg, Maastricht, was reached. The U.S. 9th Army stayed in the Tapijn barracks in Maastricht from October 22, 1944 until March 10, 1945. Other American troops remained in South Limburg until August 1945, and as a result, the region became the most “Americanized” part of the country.
Early September 1944, plans were already in place to deploy the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 1st Airborne, all of which at that time were stationed in England, to seize a series of bridges over major Dutch waterways. This military operation was known as “Market Garden.” It was the largest airborne drop in history, as well as the most extensive U.S. military deployment ever on Dutch soil. On September 17 and the days that followed, more than 20,000 American troops parachuted into the south of the Netherlands in the vicinity of Eindhoven and Nijmegen. Their objective was to capture the bridges between these two cities. Ultimately, the 1st British Airborne’s attempt to secure the bridge at Arnhem failed, ending instead in weeks of fighting in the South of the Netherlands in which the American airborne troops were heavily involved.
More to the west, between Roosendaal and Breda, the U.S. 104th ‘Timberwolves’ division moved northwards to Standdaarbuiten. On October 31, the Germans blew up the local bridge. The Americans crossed the river Mark, but their bridgehead did not hold the German attacks. Two days later, the Timberwolves crossed the Mark for the second time, and this time they succeed. The road to the Hollands Diep was now open. Standdaarbuiten was liberated.
The Battle of Overloon and fights in the Peel region
On September 30, 1944, the Allies began a large attack to extend the corridor that was made during operation Market Garden with the 7th American Armored division, which had been called in specifically for this purpose. It was the beginning of one of the fiercest battles in Western Europe. For nine days, the American Sherman tanks tried to breach the German defences, but time and time again, they ran into German mines, artillery and Panther tanks. On October 8, the Americans were relieved by the 11th British Armoured division and the 3rd British Infantry division.
The Americans troops were sent to the Deurne–Meijel-Weert area. Here they were attached to the British Second Army, under Lieutenant General Sir Miles C. Dempsey, and ordered to make diversion attacks to the east, in order to divert enemy forces from the Overloon and Venlo areas, where British troops pressed the attack. This plan succeeded, and the British were finally able to liberate Overloon. By mid-October, the battle of Overloon, one of the largest tank battles in the Netherlands, was over. Overloon and Venray were nearly completely destroyed, and in total more than 3,100 people were killed. Approximately 2,500 of these were soldiers.
On October 27, 1944, the main part of the 7th Armored Division was in essentially defensive positions along the line Nederweert (and south) to Meijel to Liessel, with the diversion force still in the attack across the Deurne canal to the east. The Germans launched a two-division offensive centered on Meijel, catching the thinly stretched 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron of the 7th Armored Division by surprise. However, the response by the 7th Armored and by British Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor‘s British VIII Corps, to which the division was attached, stopped the German attack on the third day, and then from October 31 to November 8 gradually drove the enemy out of the terrain that they had taken.
Eisenhower in Maastricht
The Allied advance practically came to a standstill by the end of 1944. To discuss further plans, U.S. Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, William H. Simpson, and British Field Marshall Bernard L. Montgomery met in Maastricht on December 7, 1944.
Christmas in the caves
On Christmas Eve, 1944, a special mass was celebrated in the caves of Maastricht, attended by more than 250 American soldiers, who were based in Maastricht and surrounding areas. This was an emotional Christmas celebration for many young men who knew they would soon be going into battle. The Schark Cave was a place of brief refuge in wartime. After the Mass these young soldiers signed their names in charcoal on the cave wall. In the final days of 1944, they found themselves fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, which many of them did not survive. The Dutch foundation “Commemoration of the American Christmas Celebration 1944” (SHAK 1944) organizes an annual commemoration each Christmas Eve to honor the event.
Venlo and Roermond
Early in 1945 the Allied forces started a new offensive. On February 23, 1945 Operation Grenade was launched. German troops in the Rhineland area were attacked from two sides. They fought back hard, but the U.S. 9th Army was too strong. From the German side, the American 35th Infantry Division (Santa Fe) finally could liberate the cities of Roermond and Venlo, and the surrounding region on March 1.
Hunger winter and Operation Manna/Chowhound
By the end of 1944 only the southern part of the Netherlands was liberated. The Hongerwinter was a famine that took place in the German-occupied Netherlands, especially in the densely populated western provinces north of the great rivers, during the winter of 1944-1945, near the end of World War II. A German blockade after a strike by the personnel of the national railway company cut off food and fuel shipments. Some 4.5 million people were affected. Many ate tulip bulbs in an effort to stay alive. But many died. From September 1944 until May 1945, the deaths of 18,000 Dutch people were attributed to malnutrition as the primary cause, and for many more it was a contributing factor.
A no-fire corridor was negotiated with the Germans for emergency food delivery to the starving Dutch. Operation Manna (British) and Operation Chowhound (American)were humanitarian food drops, carried out to relieve the famine. They were undertaken by Allied bomber crews during the final days of World War II in Europe. Manna was carried out by British RAF units, as well as squadrons from the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and Polish air forces, between 29 April and 7 May 1945. Chowhound (1–8 May) was an operation by the U.S. Army Air Forces which, together with Operation Manna, dropped a total of over 11,000 tons of food into the still-unliberated western part of the Netherlands, with the acquiescence of the occupying German forces, to help feed Dutch civilians in danger of starvation. As they flew, grateful Dutch civilians spelled out “Thanks Boys” in the tulip fields below. Many Americans who flew in Operation Chowhound would claim it was the best thing they did in the war. In 2006, a monument was unveiled in Rotterdam to commemorate the food drops.
Liberation of the Netherlands
On 5 May 1945, the Canadian General Charles Foulkes and the German Commander-in-Chief Johannes Blaskowitz reached an agreement on the capitulation of German forces in the Netherlands in Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen. According to the NIOD, between September 1944 and May 1945 about 13,000 allied troops lost their lives while fighting in the Netherlands. The British lost about 6,700 military, the Canadians about 4,000, the Americans 1,135 and the Poles 630. There is an estimate of between 15,000 and 20,000 German casualties. 23,000 Dutch civilians lost their lives because of the fighting.
Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten
This war grave cemetery is located in the village of Margraten, 10 km east of Maastricht, in the most southern part of the Netherlands. The cemetery, the only American one in the Netherlands, was established in 1944 and officially dedicated in 1960. It contains 8,291 American war dead and covers 65.5 acres (26.5 ha). It is administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. There is also a Wall of the Missing, on which 1,722 names are recorded. Each year on the American and Dutch Memorial Days, and in early September, commemorations take place at the cemetery.
On Memorial Day 2005, President George W. Bush became the first American president to visit the cemetery.
In 2014, Dutch author Mieke Kirkels published the book “From Alabama to Margraten” about the role of African-Americans in relation to Margraten cemetery. It was a tribute to life of Jefferson Wiggins and the African American soldiers of WWII.
Unique to the cemetery is the connection with the Dutch people. Since 1945, members of the local community have adopted every single grave of the fallen soldiers. There is a waiting list to adopt a grave of a fallen soldier. The adopters bring flowers to the cemetery and research the life of the service member as a way to honor their sacrifice.
Today, the Foundation for Adopting Graves American Cemetery Margraten manages this program. They work closely with the Fields of Honor Foundation, which created a program known as The Faces of Margraten. This group collects photos of the fallen, and sponsors a bi-annual event at the cemetery during Dutch Memorial Day weekend. More than 6,250 photos are on display that weekend next to the headstones and the Wall of the Missing, bringing visitors face-to-face with their liberators.
End of World War II in Asia
On August 15th, 1945, the Second World War officially ended for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Every year on this date, the Dutch commemorate all victims of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies at the Indisch Monument in The Hague. Every year, the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in The Hague attends the commemoration.
Commemorations in the Netherlands
After the liberation in 1945, Liberation Day (May 5) was celebrated every five years. In 1990, the day was declared a national holiday for the annual remembrance and celebration of the liberation. On May 4, the Dutch hold “Dodenherdenking” – the Remembrance of the Dead – to commemorate those who fought and died during World War II and in other wars. There are remembrance gatherings all over the country, the better-known being at the National Monument on Dam Square in Amsterdam and at the Waalsdorpervlakte in the dunes near The Hague, one of the infamous Nazi execution places.
Throughout the country, two minutes of silence are observed at 8 pm. On May 5 the liberation is celebrated and festivals are held all over the Netherlands with parades of veterans, and 14 musical festivals.
Every night at sunset, on the Waalsprong bridge in Nijmegen, everyone can participate in the so-called Sunset March, to honor the 48 soldiers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division who died during the Waalcrossing on September 20, 1944.
Special thanks to
Mr. Jeroen Koppes and Mr. Ewoud van Eig, Stichting Informatie Wereldoorlog Twee STIWOT (Traces of War).
Mr. Erwin van Loo, Netherlands Institute for Military History
Source: Four Centuries of Dutch-American Relations 1609-2009 – edited by Hans Krabbendam, Cornelis A. van Minnen, Giles Scott-Smith