It is well known that Canada played host to many allied soldiers from other countries during World War II, such as those who trained as pilots with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. However, there was also a time when another group of foreign soldiers occupied Canadian soil. But don’t worry, they were not invaders; in fact, many of them were already living here.
On the 10th day of May in 1940, the German Army invaded the Netherlands. During the Nazi occupation of the country, the Dutch Royal Family was in exile in London, England. The heir to the throne, Princess Juliana and her family escaped to Canada and took up residence in Ottawa. During this time, one of their children was even born here at the Ottawa Civic Hospital which was temporarily declared Dutch territory during the Princess’s birth.
The Dutch did not give up hope of reclaiming their country. The Royal Netherlands Army, with assistance from the Canadian government, began the “recruitment” of male Dutch citizens for military service. It was agreed that Dutch Canadians who were landed immigrants and not dual citizens would be subject to Dutch laws as opposed to Canadian law, and therefore could be conscripted into the Dutch army even though they lived on Canadian soil.
Posters were put up around Canada asking Dutch male citizens of military age to report to the nearest Dutch consulate for service. Although there was no effective way to enforce conscription among Dutch landed immigrants, most of those who were eligible did report for service. These men were eventually sent to a training camp in Guelph, Ontario, run by officers from the Royal Netherlands Army who had escaped occupation.
One of these soldiers was my grandfather. Klaas (Claude) Keller, was a young Dutch man living in Edmonton who had come from northern Holland twelve years earlier. Like the others who volunteered, Klaas soon found himself on a train to Ontario and housed in cramped barracks with several hundred of his fellow countrymen. Klaas and his fellow soldiers underwent rigorous training through the winter and summer with the intent of joining a larger unit of Dutch exiles that was forming in England.
His son and my father, Jeff Keller, says that Klaas often told him of how boring this specific period was for him. “I’m assuming that he wanted to, you know, he wanted to be in the thick of it, see some action,” he says. “This is probably why he tried to enlist in the Canadian army at the end of 1942 but was rejected, because he didn’t have permission from the Royal Netherlands Army to do that.”
My father also says that some of the troops were sent to the Dutch West Indies, an area now known as the Dutch Caribbean, on garrison duty to keep them occupied. “Since he was an MP (Military Policeman), this generally consisted of rounding up drunken soldiers who went AWOL or breaking up bar fights – not exactly his idea of honourably serving his country.”
Eventually, Klaas got his wish. In June 1943, he was honourably discharged from the Royal Netherlands Army. While most of his comrades eventually joined the Princess Irene Brigade in England, Klaas managed to join the Canadian Army and was sent overseas to France, Belgium and Holland. Along with the rest of the Canadian Army, Klaas took part in the liberation of the Netherlands. In the last few weeks of the war, he even helped to liberate his own hometown of Groningen.
Klaas Keller died in 1980. Although this was many years before I was born, I am happy that I was able to find out more about a lesser-known chapter in Canadian and Dutch military history, one that is linked inextricably with the unique relationship that exists between Canada and the Netherlands as a result of Canada’s crucial role in liberating the country in World War II.