Seven days before Jan Jansma turned 10 years old, he was helping his father deliver milk when he saw something he has never forgotten.
Jansma, now of Port Alberni, grew up in Een, in the province of Drenthe, northern Netherlands. Born in 1935, he lived through the final years of the Second World War, when Germany occupied the Netherlands and much of Europe.
On that day—April 13, 1945, to be exact—Jansma was drawn to people shouting as he waited for his father to deliver milk to a customer. His father was considered an independent contractor in food distribution so he had a work permit that allowed him to travel by road. “People started yelling ‘here come the Canadians,’ here come the Canadians,’” Jansma recalled.
A half-track on rubber, an army truck and a rubberized gun carrier from the Canadian Army rode by, passing to the northwest. They were on their way to fight the German army.
“That was the beginning of the end for the Germans,” he recalled. “Our town was on the route that the Canadians or Allied Forces had picked for the Germans to go back to Germany.”
From September 1944 to April 1945 Canada’s First Canadian Army fought German forces to open up Antwerp, a port city, for the Allied Forces to use. Canadians were responsible for clearing out Germany’s army from north and west Netherlands, which meant reopening trade routes that allowed food resources to enter the starving country.
A battalion of 30 to 35 Canadian soldiers erected a large cooking tent behind Jansma’s uncle’s house, and Jansma remembers going up to the camp to see how they cooked their food. In later years, Jansma’s brother was talking to a veteran of the Second World War in a seniors’ home in Victoria, B.C. and the man told him that when he was stationed in Roden he had to travel to Een “for our big meal in the evening.”
As a child not quite 10 years old, Jansma didn’t know much about what was happening on the battlefield, but he could see and lived with the results. He remembers the desperation people felt at the approaching cold winters with very little food and heat. His family had an open attic in the house they rented, and the landlord allowed them to move the local teacher’s family from an area where Allied Forces were advancing into the attic so they would be warm and fed.
Jansma remembers a neighbour would keep bicycle parts stored at his house, under an overhang. He recalled putting his bicycle away one night and seeing a head over the top of a wall that didn’t quite reach the roof.
The head quickly disappeared below the wall; he did not ask his family about it. He discovered years later that a neighbour two doors down had been helping downed Allied pilots escape back to England, and has always wondered whether he spied one of those pilots that night.
Jansma’s family eventually immigrated to Canada by ship, landing first in Taber, Alta. via train to work at a farm. He and one of his brothers eventually found their way west as jobs working in the woods were plentiful. That is how he ended up in Port Alberni, where he met and married his late wife Margaret. Coincidentally, she hailed from Apeldoorn, a milk pail’s toss from Een.
The 75th anniversary of the Dutch Liberation was May 5, 2020. People from the Netherlands—including Jansma—still thank Canadians for the part they played in freeing their country 75 years ago.