I’ll Be Home for Christmas?

| December 9, 2019

After the Battle of the Scheldt, the First Canadian Army prepared to winter. For three months, between November 8th, 1944, and February 8th, 1945, Canadians were not involved in any large-scale operations. Rest was more than welcome. The 3rd Infantry Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade had been fighting since early June, other units since July. 

During this well-earned rest, the Canadian army made a conscious effort to raise the morale of its soldiers, especially those in fighting units. Infantry and armoured soldiers rotated out of the line near Nijmegen. The small Dutch city became a Canadian town, with Canadian troops billeted with local civilians in the area. In return, the Canadians shared rations with their hosts. In December, the troops began receiving additional supplies of “baking powder, flour, dried eggs, pickles or sauces, rice and oatmeal, cheese and jam” to supplement their usual diets. 

Lance-Corporal Harry Repay of the Scout Platoon, South Saskatchewan Regiment, visiting a Dutch family in their home near Nijmegen, Netherlands, 8 December 1944 (Lieut. Michael M. Dean / DND / LAC / PA-161302).
Private Fernand M. Bonneau distributing bread to children attending Christmas party sponsored by the 1st Canadian Army, Tilburg, Netherlands, 24 December 1944 (DND / LAC / PA-114066).
Sapper Bert Stenhouse offering candy to a Dutch girl on a sleigh, Nijmegen, Netherlands, ca. 9-10 January 1945 (Lieut. Michael M. Dean / DND / LAC).

Leave was also available in a variety of forms. There were 48-hour passes, giving the troops enough time to visit French, Belgian, and Dutch towns. Nijmegen was home to the Canada Club, where Canadian servicemen could eat and drink, see a show, or dance with army nurses. Next door was the Blue Diamond, Northwest Europe’s “greatest hamburger emporium.” Enlisted men and nurses dined on “beef hamburgers smothered in onions, crispy brown doughnuts, light as the proverbial feather, flaky pie, fat baked beans … and coffee … All for free!”   

The Cosmopolite Hotel, requisitioned as the Maple Leaf leave centre for Canadian military personnel, Brussels, Belgium, 22 October 1944 (Lieut. Frank L. Dubervill / Library and Archives Canada / Dept. of National Defence / PA-116751).
Canadian military personnel examining the “This Week In Brussels” poster at the Cosmopolite Hotel, now the Maple Leaf leave centre, Brussels, Belgium, 22 October 1944 (Lieut. Frank L. Dubervill / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-116711).

After Christmas, week-long passes allowed Canadian troops to travel back to England. The Canadian army had spent nearly five years in Britain, so many of the men had strong connections. They visited the English families they had billeted with during training. They reunited with sweethearts, wives, or even children (some meeting their sons or daughters for the first time). Others visited family who still lived in Britain.

Personnel of The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (M.G.) and unidentified British soldiers preparing to board the first leave train en route to England, Oisterwijk, Netherlands, 31 December 1944 (Lieut. H. Gordon Aikman / DND / LAC / PA-138301).

A select few received 30 days leave to Canada. Four hundred and fifty soldiers with five years overseas service arrived in Canada just in time for Christmas. After receiving a hero’s welcome in Montreal, the men scattered on trains to destinations across the country. Loved ones greeted their arrival with warm embraces amid the cold Canadian winter. 

Troops serving in Italy were included in the 30-day home leave program. Private Lyle Enright, a dispatch rider from the 1st Anti-Tank Regiment, 1st Canadian Infantry Division, greeting his wife upon returning from overseas for Christmas (DND / LAC / e010778956).
Unidentified personnel aboard H.M.T. MAURETANIA arriving from England for thirty-day rotation leave, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 11 December 1944 (Lee / DND / LAC / PA-160950).

Private J.S.P. Bowen, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (P.P.C.L.I.), saying goodbye to a young friend before leaving Italy for a thirty-day Christmas leave in Canada. Italy, 1944 (DND / LAC / PA-173667).

All the while, the war continued. Canadian soldiers continued to die: 68 officers and 1,171 other ranks lost their lives between November 9th and December 31st. Nevertheless, the Canadian soldiers took advantage of this regeneration period to steel themselves for the final battles to end the war.

Dispatches from Juno shares all the news, events, and stories from the Juno Beach Centre in France and Canada. Interested in contributing a story to the blog? Email the editor at jbca@junobeach.org.

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