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The island where Canadians kept fighting

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Den Burg, Netherlands — Helga Vos picked the flowers from beside the road and deposited them on the graceful monument without knowing exactly why she was doing it.

The Belgian tourist had stopped at the Georgian war cemetery on a whim, unaware of why hundreds of soldiers from the Caucasus were buried here.

"I only know what I read on the board over there," she said.

Her ignorance is far from unique. And it's certainly a lot more understandable than the virtually complete lack of knowledge in Canada of the sensational battle on the island of Texel off the Dutch coast, a fight that marked the last mission by Canadian soldiers in the Second World War.

It's a state of affairs that has been eating away at veteran Joe Bernier for years.

Six decades ago, as a gunner for the 1st Survey Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, he played a central role in defusing a bloody battle between German soldiers and rebellious German conscripts, nearly two weeks after V-E Day.

Mr. Bernier was one of about 100 Canadian soldiers who were diverted from the postwar task of demobilizing German troops in mid-May, 1945, and sent to this patch of lush fields and white beaches in the North Sea.

"They said there were some Germans with a problem, that's all we knew," he said yesterday, sitting in the living room of Den Burg's mayor.

Some problem.

While the rest of Europe was celebrating the end of the war, the German garrison on Texel was fighting for its existence. By the time the Canadians arrived, nearly 400 of them had been killed by the Georgians. Deadly skirmishes were an everyday occurrence.

The trouble began April 5, but its roots went back several years to when the Nazi regime organized many Soviet prisoners of war into German non-combat battalions. One of the battalions, a group of Georgians who reluctantly chose a German uniform over near-certain death in a PoW camp, arrived on Texel in late 1944 and was put to work maintaining the Nazis' North Sea defences.

The unit's members quickly established contacts with the Dutch underground, and its carefully laid rebellion plans were activated on April 5, when 500 of the supposedly non-combat Georgian troops were ordered to the front against the advancing Allies.

At 1 a.m. the next day, they crept up on the sleeping Germans and slaughtered 246 of them with their shaving knives. Other Germans raised the alarm, however, and after a quick consultation with Berlin — "kill all the Georgians immediately," was the order — a counterattack began and reinforcements streamed onto the island.

The battle was relentless. Neither side took prisoners and anyone who surrendered was shot. The Germans turned their seafront batteries inland and fired more than 2,000 shells on Den Burg.

The fighting reflected the animosity between the two groups, who were still wearing the same uniform. The Georgians were bitter about the appalling treatment of Soviet Army prisoners of war, but the Germans were enraged by the sneak attack.

"Everyone realized that we were about to lose the war, but we wanted to take revenge on the Georgians first," the battalion's German commander told local historian Dick van Reeuwijk 35 years later.

The outnumbered Georgians resorted to classic guerrilla operations, aided by a sympathetic population. By V-E Day, May 8, the Germans had gained control of most of Texel, but they refused to hand over their weapons to the Allies, fearing reprisals from their former prisoners. They wanted to kill as many Georgians as possible before the Allies arrived on the island.

Not that this seemed imminent. The rest of the Netherlands was celebrating the ouster of the Nazi occupiers, but as Mr. Reeuwijk recalled, "the Allied forces seemed to have forgotten about Texel, and the fighting on the island continued to smoulder on."

By the time Mr. Bernier and his comrades arrived on May 20, 572 Georgians, at least 430 Germans and 117 local residents had been killed.

With the aid of the surviving 228 Georgians, the Canadians set to work rousting the occupiers from their underground hideouts. There was no resistance, although the Germans insisted on keeping their weapons until they left the island. The Canadian mission lasted just 10 days.

"They went pretty nicely, considering what they'd been through and what we'd been through," said Mr. Bernier, who fought in Italy before joining the campaign in the Netherlands.

The Canadian veteran, now 83, joined two of the surviving Georgians on Wednesday at a cemetery ceremony to honour those who died in the five-week uprising.

The ceremony was also attended by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who paid homage to "all Georgians as heroes who fought bravely in that war against more than one totalitarian regime."

Mr. Bernier, meanwhile, is waiting for any sort of recognition at all for his regiment. Its work was barely known on Texel until he visited there five years ago.

This is changing — Mr. Bernier is mobbed by well-wishers when he goes out in the quiet streets of Den Burg wearing his medals. But Canada itself is a harder nut to crack.

Mr. Bernier is angry at the federal government for being denied the $1,000 subsidy that Canadian veterans attending ceremonies around Apeldoorn are receiving. He was told he would receive the money if he attended an official event, but not for going to the ceremony on Texel.

"In the back of my mind, I said, well, they can shove their subsidy," he said. "I'm going to go to Texel anyway."

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