OUT OF MY FATHER’S SHAVING BOX: Dad’s War, Algonquin Regiment & Liberation of Holland

 

Out of My Father’s Shaving Box

 

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Dad’s War, Algonquin Regiment & the Liberation of Holland

 

“This is yours now, Brian. He wanted you to have it.” And my mother handed me an old wooden shaving kit Dad had made some thirty years earlier. The wood smelled of shaving cream (it still does) but now held articles of his soldiering years. It was 1967 and Dad had died from “gastrointestinal problems” that had plagued him all the years I knew him. He was only 54, and it took me some time to realize how young that was.

The box held his few military items.  His discharge papers, showing that Pte. Albert Chester Burhoe, known to his friends as “Chester”, was demobbed from the Canadian Army (Active) in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Aug 20, 1945.  Old Paybooks.  Medals, including a France-Germany Campaign Star.  Assorted pins such as his Army Active Service badge and well-worn Legion pin. [1]

And three items that he had shown me years before. Each had a story.

Every Remembrance Day I take out that shaving box and replace last year’s poppy with a new one, the one I’d just been wearing.

And I look at those three items.

First, his REGIMENTAL BADGE. Which I shine every November. Dad belonged to the Algonquin Regiment and never hid his pride in it.

Formed on Dominion Day, 1900, the Algonquin Regiment was considered a Northern Ontario unit, although Dad, with a number of fellow Nova Scotians, joined and trained with the regiment at the Debert Military Camp.

The Algonquin Regiment was a rifleman unit, including many lumberjacks, trappers and hunters from the Northwoods.  Many of them were First Nations, especially Northern Cree. Hence the motto emblazoned on the badge under the moosehead: NE-KAH-NE-TAH, in the language of the Algonquin People: “We Lead – They Follow”. First in. Often the task of the infantry, eh?

Dad fit right in. My Uncle Fulton told us the story of how, as boys (after seeing a Western), “I dared Chester to shoot a coin — a quarter — out of my fingers, as in the movie. I held it up as high as I could and Chester took his hunting rifle and — BANG! — he did it. We got a whipping for that! I was just glad that I still had all of my fingers.” In the mid-Thirties, Dad, being the youngest son, had gone to work in the lumber camps of New Brunswick, sending money home to keep the family farm going.  He was working as a carpenter at the Saint John shipyard when the War broke out.  Although he was designated as having an essential job, he enlisted in the No 7 District Depot on June 3, 1941.

The Algonquins steamed out of Halifax’s Bedford Basin on the ocean liner Empress of Scotland on June 10, 1943.  The Empress dodged German U-boats on its long unescorted voyage to the bomb-damaged city of Liverpool, England.

For a year, they continued to train and prepare on British soil, mostly at an Army base in Ripon, Yorkshire.  They trained with other Canadian units, including the Argyll Highlanders, the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, and the South Alberta Regiment.

In that year, he took leave when he could, meeting a young double-decker bus conductress, a Yorkshire lass who took his fancy.  Together, they took long walks on Ilkley Moor, saw the latest movies (Alan Ladd was a favourite of theirs) and stopped at the Hope & Anchor for a “wee drop of Scotch.”  Before he left for Normandy in June ’44, they married.

The Algonquins’ battle-filled progress from Juno Beach through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into northern Germany is well recorded. [2]

In the early days, supplies and material were low — at one point, ammunition got so scarce that the order of the day was, “One round, one German.”  The Algonquins found themselves battling the 1 SS  Panzer Division, described as “quite the toughest troops the Germans had in Normandy.”

The “Long Chase” through the summer and autumn would make regimental history: Tilly-la-campagnethe Seine district, the Scheldt, the Lower Maas, the Month of Dikes — the Liberation of Holland, especially Waalwijk and Steenbergen.  And, in winter, into the Rhineland…

Dad spoke little of the battles they endured.

He told me of the better times. His friendship with First Nations soldiers, who taught him (although he was already an experienced woodsman) how to “listen” to the forest — something he tried to pass on to me. Out of those yarns, I developed an image of Native and English Canadians, not antagonists, but standing side by side, with the word CANADA on both their shoulders. Fighting our common enemies and building our uncommon nation.

And the cold night he and a Cree buddy were at the front line “along the dikes” when suddenly the night lit up above their heads. A jeep had stopped at the top of an embankment behind them. The jeep’s bright lights began to draw German fire. A lot of it. Bullets spattering in the damp soil, and more loudly off rocks. “Got to be officers,” said Dad. “Chester,” said the other, putting his bolt-action Lee Enfield rifle to his shoulder. “You take the left headlight — I’ll take the right.” So they did. And the night went dark again. And two young officers jumped out of the jeep and ran off. Dad heard later that the two had been fresh from an officers’ training centre in Canada. The official story told by the brass was that an unknown drunken Private had stolen the jeep.

The welcome the Canadians received when they liberated Holland has forever after brought tears to the eyes of aging soldiers who were there. The Algonquins were certainly given a warm welcome.  “We were treated like family,” said Dad, who years later, was still touched by the memory.

Which leads me to the second item, THE DUTCH GIRL IN THE PHOTO.

 

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That photo says a hell of a lot. The Dutch girl in the old snapshot is showing where the girls escaped to when the German soldiers were heard approaching. Under a hay stack, in an underground hideaway. And that says it all, doesn’t it? When the German soldiers came, the girls hid away. When the Canadian soldiers came, they showed the Canadians where they had hidden from the Germans. We were the Good Guys.  Family.

Christmas Eve, 1944, was spent in Sint-Michielsgestel — a cold, clear day where they enjoyed an early Christmas dinner, beer and carols sung by Canadian nurses. Christmas day began the storming through Belgium and the drive into Germany.

And by frigid February, Operation Blockbuster would be underway.

The road to Germany lay through the Hochwald Forest.

The Battle for Hochwald Gap has been called one of the “Greatest Tank Battles,” and it was. As the History Channel said, in introducing the Hochwald episode in their televised series: “In February 1945, the First Canadian Army launches an attack to cross the Rhine and enter the German heartland. This is the story of the struggle for the Hochwald Gap – the final obstacle blocking the Allies, which the Germans are determined to hold at any cost.” [3]

But First: The Germans controlled the Hochwald Forest and were hidden and dug in with artillery, mortars and anti-tank weapons, which overlooked the open area through the forest called the Hochwald Gap.  The Gap was a wide, cleared stretch through which a road and railway tracks rolled.  Supported by Canadian Sherman tanks and possible Allied air cover, it would be the job of the Algonquins, who were trained and experienced in forest warfare, to cross the exposed Gap and engage the enemy among the tall silver fir trees.  “The main Canadian effort was the infantry’s, for until the enemy had been driven out of the woods and particularly from the commanding ground south of the railway there seemed little chance of our armour breaking through to the east.” [4]

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Men of Algonquin Regiment, Hochwald area, March 1, 1945
 

March 2, 1945.  Morning.  Hochwald Gap.  Due to winter storms, Allied aircraft were grounded.  For Dad, who was in D Company who were tasked with capturing the bridge over the Hohe Ley Stream, it got really bad when the Canadian Sherman tanks suddenly withdrew from the field, leaving D Company totally exposed and on their own. Their only protection was their hand-shovelled slit trenches and fox holes, hastily dug in the muddy ground within clear sight of the evergreen forest, their objective.  The mystery of why our tanks retreated was never fully explained, and not even mentioned by the men of the tank division who were quoted in the History Channel episode.  Although the Official History of the Canadian Army blamed it on “deadly anti-tank fire” from the Germans in the forest.

Major G L Cassidy, a commander in the Algonquin Regiment, later wrote:

“At any rate, they (the Canadian tanks) pulled out about 7:45, and the infantry force had to cling to their slits (trenches) in desperation from that time on.

“As it became evident that there were no tanks in D Company’s position, the German armour became bolder. A German Tiger tank appeared very close in on the left flank, with infantry behind it…

“Meanwhile, on the right flank, a group of enemy tanks supported their infantry on a move to the rear of D Company’s feeble little handhold and little could be done to stop it…

“In the next few moments, the enemy had succeeded in virtually encircling D Company. Capt. Jewell was killed by a shell-burst, others were wounded, and the little garrison, leaderless, bewildered, and far from assistance, was overrun.

“The bold gamble had been lost, not because of any lack of determination or courage of the men and their leaders, but because of a heart-breaking series of difficulties and misfortunes.” [5]

That battle was over and Mum would receive a telegram telling her that Dad (she called him “Canuck”) was “Missing in action, presumed dead.”

Dad regained consciousness with a German soldier treating his left side. He was numb there, a lot of blood. He gradually learned that, being in a lone observation fox hole ahead of the rest of the Company, he had been picked off by an enemy sniper.  The bullet had torn though his left collar bone and gone out the back with bits of bone and making a bigger jagged wound.

“We hated the German snipers,” Dad told me years later.  “But this one was a good shot.  I didn’t give him much of a target.”  For the rest of his life, Dad would have trouble getting full use out of that arm.

What followed was a grueling trip under dark German skies. Marching on foot, cold open trucks, colder railway cattle cars, lots of high-pitched shouting and a German officer, complete with monocle, asking Dad, “Why do you fight our Fuhrer?”

Stalag 11B, Fallingbostel, was in the Lüneburg Heath region of North Germany. Not much fun. There were already British paratroopers and American GIs imprisoned there. Close by were Russian prisoners — the Soviets had no active Red Cross and their captive soldiers, abandoned by Moscow, were dying by the hundreds from brutal treatment, disease and starvation. [6]

Dad, weak from his wound, developed yellow jaundice and lockjaw (tetanus), and would soon be suffering from malnutrition. The Germans basically provided turnips for food, little medication and no clothing. Dad always praised the Canadian Red Cross for their packages, which contained some canned food like corned beef and luncheon meat, dried fruit, tea, milk powder, chocolate bars, as well as knitted wool socks and mittens handmade by women back home.

And he had the third item: A NEW TESTAMENT. He was a Baptist and he loved to read, so he read the Biblical passages. He may even have been inspired by the introductory message from H M The King, who made sure that all soldiers fighting for Britain got a copy of this little gold book. But what really inspired Dad was the little bow of orange ribbon pinned in the inside cover.

The bow was given to him by a member of the Dutch resistance movement. The Resistance  was a group of daring men and women who carried out sabotage, smuggled out downed Allied airmen, performed intelligence gathering and much more — always aware that getting caught got you beaten and shot. And the Gestapo had its own turncoats out there looking for them. The only form of identification among these freedom fighters was this little orange bow, pinned secretly in their clothing. “I give you this in gratitude,” the Resistance fighter told Dad.

Dad would open the Book and look at the orange ribbon. If the people of Holland could survive for four long years, he could hang in there…

On a rainy April day, after hearing explosions in the distance, their guards suddenly disappeared and a tank of the British 8th Hussars Recce smashed through the fortified front gate of Stalag 11B.  The prisoners were liberated.

Gaunt from malnutrition, the freed soldiers weren’t allowed to raid the well-stocked German store-rooms. On orders of the British medical staff, Dad was fed a small serving of pea soup. “It was all I could hold anyway.”  For the next few days meals consisted mainly of orange juice and vitamin pills.

In his letter to Mum from the prison camp, dated April 20, 1945, he began: “Edna Dear, Am going to drop you a line or two to let you know all is well with me. As you may know, I’ve had a brief spell as a prisoner and can’t say that I’ve enjoyed the experience. That’s over now tho and I hope to be seeing you very soon…

“…I do hope Edna that all has been going well with you and you’ve not been doing too much worrying.  Give my very best wishes to your Dad, Mum & All.  I’m looking forward to sampling some of your mother’s cooking.  And if I feel able, maybe some of my wife’s too.  I ducked then just to be on the safe side…  Your Canuck.”

 

Thanks, Dad.  Miss ya.

 

DEDICATION: This post is written in remembrance of my Father, of course.  But also in proud memory of all the other war vets it’s been my honour to know and grow up with — and of all members of the Algonquin Regiment, especially those my father served with and who he never forgot.

 

To see more of our family history, including Dad’s life after his liberation, go to The Life & Works of Brian Alan Burhoe

 

[1] NOTE: To See the Full Sized Image of the Shaving Box & Contents, Click Here: Pte. Albert Chester Burhoe, Algonquin Regiment.

[2] To read more about the Algonquins, Click Here: Canadian Army – The Algonquin Regiment – History

[3] The “Greatest Tank Battles” series was produced by National Geographic and shown on the History Network in Canada, the Military Network in the U. S., and on Discovery Networks throughout western Europe and elsewhere.

[4] “…until the enemy had been driven out of the woods…there seemed little chance of our armour breaking through to the east.” Official History of the Canadian Army.  HyperWar: The Victory Campaign, Chapter 19, The Battle of the Rhineland, Operation Blockbuster, 22 February – 10 March 1945.  http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/UN/Canada/CA/Victory/Victory-19.html

[5] “…a heart-breaking series of difficulties and misfortunes.”

Warpath-PaperJacksMajor Cassidy’s account of that battle was based on a report from a D Company survivor who was able to escape back to Canadian lines.  From G L Cassidy’s book, WARPATH: The Story of the Algonquin Regiment 1939-1945, published in 1948 by Ryerson Press, Toronto. And later reprinted as a quality trade paperback in 1980 as #3 in the PaperJacks Canadians At War Series, retitled WARPATH: From Tilly-la-campagne to the Kusten Canal.  Illustrated with photos, war art and detailed maps.

Major Cassidy served with the Algonquins for the entire Second World War and writes with firm knowledge of the subject, as well as understanding and moments of sentiment and humour.

With the many books being released celebrating our stories of the two world wars, this one surely should be back in print.

[6] If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then this photo of “Newly Liberated British POWs of Stalag XIB” says a lot: Collections US HMM

 

 

OUT OF MY FATHER’S SHAVING BOX: Dad’s War, Algonquin Regiment & Liberation of Holland – by Brian Alan Burhoe

Keywords: #netherlands70, #VE70,  algonquin regiment ww2, stalag xib fallingbostel, canada

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About Brian Alan Burhoe

A Graduate of the Holland College Culinary Course, Brian Alan Burhoe has cooked in Atlantic Coast restaurants and institutional kitchens for over 30 years. He is a member of the Canadian Culinary Federation. Brian's articles reflect his interests in food service, Canadian history, imaginative literature, wildlife writing, animal rights, wilderness preservation and our best friends -- our dogs. See his CIVILIZED BEARS!
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4 Responses to OUT OF MY FATHER’S SHAVING BOX: Dad’s War, Algonquin Regiment & Liberation of Holland

  1. Larry Cole says:

    I appreciated reading your post on your father. I only recently saw it. My father was also in the Alqonquins in D company. He was also in the Hochwald Gap on the morning of March 2, 1945. His first cousin, who was also in the unit, died that morning, and Dad went to Stalag IIb. (I have his wooden prison ID tag that he had to wear around his neck).

    I asked Dad why the tanks pulled out and left the infantry there. His reply was that the two captains could not agree. The tank captain said he was too exposed and would lose all his tanks if he stayed there. Captain Jewell said his orders were to hold firm and not pull back. Because there was no radio contact, and no higher ranking officers around, they both did their own thing.

    • Hi Larry

      Thanks for your reply. I added it to the posting, but if you don’t want it made public I can take it off.

      “Dad’s War” was difficult to write but I wanted to honour Dad and the men he served with and worked with.

      Like most vets, Dad told me stories growing up about the good times and the funny times he’d had with his comrades – not many about the bad. He spoke a lot about the days they spent with the local people of Holland they had helped liberate. Good times for our guys.

      Dad passed just weeks before I graduated high school and I went to work with same Highways crew he’d worked with. It was from those guys I got some of the darker details of his War (as well as from Mum in later years). Guess a lot of Vets told each other things they wouldn’t tell others.

      The guys mentioned that there had been an article (with diagrams showing positions) in the Legion magazine about that battle. But I’ve never found it. It must have been published in late Sixties.

      At least there was Major Cassidy’s WARPATH for details. Not a good feeling the first time I read “A. C Burhoe” in the Missing section of “Casualties from 26 Feb – 3 March/45.” Just one name of many. Next to Dad’s name I see “D. M. Cole.”

      One of the things I’m left with after all these years is his immense pride in serving with the Algonquins. And another is his gratitude and respect for the Canadian Red Cross – those packages the guys received in 11B kept them alive. I’ve given to the Red Cross whenever possible.

      Keep well,
      Brian

      • Larry Cole says:

        Thanks for your reply, Brian.

        Dad only passed away last year, and I found that as he grew older we had some good conversations about the war. He obviously was younger than your Father, as Dad was still only 19 when they were liberated from the prisoner of war camp. He did say he was down to 90 lbs by that time.

        I also had the opportunity to meet another of the men in their unit, Ivan Sloss I believe his name was, who was with the Captain and my father’s cousin when they died in the German counterattack.

        Dad did not mention anything about snipers, but did say that a machine gun was sweeping the area they were in, and that they all kicked out depressions in the soft earth to keep below it’s fire. He also said that there was a tank (German) that kept peeking out from behind a barn and firing at them. Apparently there was a bag of PIAT shells lying out in the open. Dad said that one of the guys yelled out something to the effect of ‘a Victoria cross to who ever grabs those shells’, but his comment was that everyone knew the machine gunner also was watching them.

        Dad also had a collection of things from the war that I did not know he had until it was too late. These included the tag he wore at the prisoner of war camp. He also had the telegram sent to my grandmother announcing he was missing in action, and then one after they were liberated announcing he was alive. My grandmother had already lost her oldest son in Italy (Royal Canadian Regiment) so it is hard to imagine how difficult a time it must have been for her. He had talked about a bullet with a wooden head he took off of a German prisoner once, which I was surprised to find in there. Also a box full of new death head pins he got off somebody.

        It was difficult for Dad to talk about a buddy he lost in the camp due to illness. He did chuckle when he talked about one of the guards who he said they referred to as ‘one eyed Joe’. Apparently he had lost an eye in Russia. Apparently this guard yelled a lot.

        This past Summer my wife and I along with one of our sons where in Germany for a wedding. (A former exchange student). I was able to find the spot in the Hochwald gap where they were overrun. It is beautiful farmland now. No hint of the devastation of early March, 1945. The grave of my Dad’s cousin in Holland is immaculately kept by the Dutch. It is pretty sobering to see those rows of young men buried there.

        Thanks, Larry

        • Hi Larry

          Yes, thanks for the answer. Liked the “Victoria Cross to…” quote. Never knew that. “Wooden bullets” is a new one on me, too.

          Dad had his 32nd birthday three days after they landed in France. Mum said that Dad had been offered a chance to stay in England at a desk job at the rank of Corporal but he “insisted on going with his comrades to fight Hitler.” There was some pride in her voice when she would say that – but I think she was miffed, too.

          I’m only aware of there being one Algonquin comrade of his in the Saint John region. Don’t remember his name but I know that he asked Dad to help him sponsor a Russian POW who did not want to go back to the Soviet Union.

          Told my brother Ray about your response. He was only ten when Dad passed and is just as interested in what happened during the War.

          Gives us more to think about on D-Day remembrances and November 11th, eh?

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