Nick Lees: Second World War veteran recalls liberation of Netherlands at Edmonton’s Kipnes Centre

“What he did in the war really mattered to him. He becomes emotional and is at times unable to finish a story”

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The German Army had its back to the sea and Canadian 5th Division Bren gun truck driver and mechanic Ray Lewis thought the Second World War in Europe was winding down.

“My friend and I were in the Netherlands towards the end of the war in 1945 and had signed up to go on to action in the Pacific,” says Lewis, who grew up on a farm near Athabasca.

“One day we went up to this elevated railroad track and looked down to see a German tank maybe five hundred yards away. We saw a puff of smoke and ducked immediately, almost at the same time as a shell hit maybe 20 feet away.

“We went back and to our base in the little northern town of Delfzijl and took our names off the Pacific list.”

Last week, 96-year-old Lewis told his story at the Kipnes Centre for Veterans after being honoured with other Second World War veterans for their service in helping liberate the Netherlands from Nazi rule. Last year’s 75th Liberation events were postponed because of the ongoing pandemic.

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With a little help from his daughter Dawn Miller, Lewis told his story about an incident that would have made anyone cautious.

At 17, and with his mother’s resignation, he had been able to join the Canadian army on his third, under-age attempt. His driving-mechanical skills saw him head overseas at the age of 18 to join B.C’s Westminster Regiment in May 1944.

“I had never had a rifle in my hands, but I learned to drive a Bren-gun carrier,” he says. “We had a 30-calibre machine gun mounted on the front and a PIAT, a projector, infantry, anti-tank weapon.

Ray Lewis, now 96, is pictured here in 2015 when he visited the Netherlands to take part in a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Canadian troops liberating the country from Nazi rule. “People were so grateful, they rushed out to touch the hand of a man who had fought to free them,” says his daughter Dawn Miller, who had travelled with her dad.
Ray Lewis, now 96, is pictured here in 2015 when he visited the Netherlands to take part in a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Canadian troops liberating the country from Nazi rule. “People were so grateful, they rushed out to touch the hand of a man who had fought to free them,” says his daughter Dawn Miller, who had travelled with her dad. Photo by Supplied photo

“In Italy, I replaced a guy who had been killed in action. I was wounded by shrapnel and the fellow who took my place was killed. Another fellow who took his place was also killed.”

Returning to the regiment with his wounds still seeping, and changing the bandages himself, he was later posted to northern Holland with most of the Canadian Army.

Moving forward and one day checking to make sure a house offered no threat, a German with a Luger pistol appeared from a room.

“He called us comrades and seemed like a nice guy,” says Lewis. “Like the rest of us, he just wanted to go home.”

Daughter Dawn says her father joined the Canadian ranks later in the war and subsequently was one of the last to be repatriated from Holland.

“He tells of his unit giving a discarded uniform to a woman who remade it for her boy and today, he still relishes talking about how cute the youngster looked,” she says.

“What he did in the war really mattered to him. He becomes emotional and is at times unable to finish a story.”

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Lewis returned to Canada before he was 21 and notes he legally could not vote or buy liquor.

Children’s thanks

Dutch schoolchildren had last week sent a letter of thanks to each of the 23 Canadian Second World War veterans living at the Kipnes Centre for their part in liberating their country from Nazi brutality in early May 1945.

At a ceremony at the centre, Honorary Col. Ralph Young of the South Alberta Light Horse Regiment (SAR) saluted each recipient, while Jerry Bouma, the Netherlands honourary consul in Edmonton, shook hands and congratulated each veteran.

“More than 7,600 Canadians lost their lives to free the Netherlands,” said Bouma. “The Canadians fought in fierce battles while many Dutch people died of starvation when isolated German troops had their food supplies cut off and brutally turned on the people of the country they occupied.”

South Alberta Light Horse Regiment Honourary Lt. Col. Ralph Young salutes on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, during a commemorative event at the Dianne and Irving Kipnes Centre for Veterans for 21 Canadian soldiers who helped liberate the Netherlands in 1945. Each of the veterans were presented with a personal handwritten letter from a Dutch student and one from the Dutch Embassy.
South Alberta Light Horse Regiment Honourary Lt. Col. Ralph Young salutes on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, during a commemorative event at the Dianne and Irving Kipnes Centre for Veterans for 21 Canadian soldiers who helped liberate the Netherlands in 1945. Each of the veterans were presented with a personal handwritten letter from a Dutch student and one from the Dutch Embassy. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

Young retraced the important role SAR soldiers played in liberating the Netherlands after the force had landed at Normandy’s Juno Beach on D-Day June 6, 1944.

“SALHR, with its roots dating back to 1885, is considered Alberta’s Regiment for its lengthy and distinguished history and locations in Edmonton, Medicine and Lethbridge,” he says.

“It successfully cleared the heavily-guarded Scheldt Estuaries near Antwerp to allow allied ships to reach the important shipping port to provide critical supplies to support the advancing allied Armies.

“Further actions led it to the border of Germany and WW VE Day victory on May 8, 1945.”

The Canadian RCAF had sought to relieve the densely populated area of Randstad, where some 18,000 Dutch civilians died of starvation and malnutrition when the Germans commandeered food supplies.

“It is because of Canada’s action during the war, which also included hosting the Dutch Royal Family in exile, that led our countries to the special relationship we enjoy today,” says Bouma.

It is no coincidence the ceremony here was on May 5. That is Liberation Day in the Netherlands and in 2019, Canada proclaimed it as Dutch Heritage Day.

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