Battle of Groningen, April 1945

In April of 1945, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was given the task to clear the approaches and capture the city of Groningen, in northeast Holland. What they found was a city that had been transformed into a fortified stronghold. Then as now, Groningen is composed of an inner city that was built in the late medieval period. Most of the streets were narrow, barely wide enough for one-way traffic and lined with high-density 3-5 storey brick apartment flats and buildings on a 15th and 16th century street pattern. The inner city is completely enclosed by a wide ring canal. Access to the city proper could only be gained by twelve bridges--three on each geographical side. By April of 1945, many of these bridges were either destroyed by the Germans or simply raised in order to make them inoperative. Several canals entered the city both from the south and form the west, some of which lay in the path of the Canadian advance and needed to be crossed to gain entry into the "old" city. Two large municipal parks, both of which were heavily defended, dominated both the southern and western approaches into the city. Throughout the city a number of water towers as well as several tall factories and church spires gave the enemy an excellent view of the battlefield.

The battle began on Friday, April 13th, when lead elements of the Division reached the outskirts of the city. They met strenuous resistance from SS troops and snipers, forcing them in many cases to clear buildings room-by-room. By midnight that same day, however, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry had cleared the southern edge of town up to the Paterswoldseweg (a major street running in north-south direction, just west of and parallel to the canal). But the cost of the day's combat--eight killed and twenty wounded--suggested that Groningen might pose a difficult problem. The defenders, consisting of elements of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, and German and Duch SS units, were determined to hold onto Groningen to cover the retreat of their forces from Friesland, and to defend the Ems River entrance into Germany and the port of Emsden, still used by U-boats and surface vessels.

Major General A.B. Matthews met with his brigadiers and decided to commit the entire Division to the battle, hoping to overwhelm the enemy as quickly as possible with their superior numbers. The German command structure in Groningen was poor, and the defenders had never drilled together, yet they still constituted a force great enough to prevent the Canadians from liberating the city for another four days. On the morning of April 14th, the Calgary Highlanders along with two battalions of the 5th Brigade, Black Watch--including Sandy Sanderson--would enter the city's western and northern suburbs, while the French Canadian Le Regiment de Maisonneuve would move toward the defended sugar beet factory. The heaviest fighting took place around the central market square, where the Germans had fortified the houses with machine gun positions along the north side. These defences were eventually overcome by manoeuvring tanks into position to destroy the buildings occupied by the enemy gun crews. Air strikes and artillery had not been used during the battle for fear of causing unnecessary casualties amongst the friendly civilian population.

The German garrison commander surrendered at noon on April 16th when it was clear that further resistance was useless. The next day, the last holdouts laid down their weapons and joined their comrades as prisoners, totalling 95 officers and 5,117 other ranks. The 2nd Canadian Division had suffered 43 fatalities and another 166 wounded. In addition to this, 110 civilians had been fatally caught in the crossfire. This was a high price to pay at this late stage of the war. However, it must be remembered that 4.5 million people in the western part of the Netherlands had been cut off from all food supplies since the Market Garden operations and were rapidly nearing the point of starvation. Supplies had to reach them soon. Despite the civilian casualties and the destruction of 270 buildings, the city of 124,000 in 1940 (which had swelled to over 150,000 by 1945 due to refugees from the southern provinces) gratefully accepted the cost of liberation. One of the buildings to survive the battle was the University of Groningen. One of the oldest and largest universities in the Netherlands, the University of Groningen was established in 1614, and today houses a Canadian Studies Centre. In 1995, the city of Groningen set aside six hectares of land to establish a liberation park of Maple Leaf trees. On each Remembrance Day its citizens plant more, in the hope of creating a forest of living, lasting memory of those who paid the price for their freedom.