This year 2020 marks the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II. May 8 is marked as VE (Victory-Europe) Day, when the German Wehrmacht surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. A wave of bitter joy and crushing relief swept through the weary nations, as all the guns fell silent.
Or did they?
A little-known footnote in the conclusion of hostilities in World War II’s European Theater is that the guns didn’t really fall silent until May 20 — almost two weeks after the official Nazi surrender. This is the story of the Battle of Texel Island — a last spasm of violence witnessed firsthand by Canadian soldiers operating in the Netherlands.
Following the Battle of Britain in 1940, the Wehrmacht High Command knew that Germany was temporarily unable to invade the United Kingdom as fast as the Fuhrer demanded, and so the the Blitzkrieg swung to other likely targets of Nazi expansionist ambition — the Balkans, North Africa, the Atlantic supply convoys, and finally the Soviet Union. German garrisons stationed in Nazi-occupied France, Belgium, and the Netherlands began construction of the so-called Atlantic Wall — a long interlocking network of trenches, concrete bunkers, heavy gun emplacements, tank traps, and MG-equipped pillboxes than ran for several thousand kilometres along the Atlantic coast, from Friesland down to the Pyrenees Mountains bordering Spain — all built in an effort to defend against the Allied counter-attack that was bound to come.
The truth was by June 1941 the German War Machine was overstretched and undermanned as a result of its own winning streak. As the Wehrmacht conquered country after country, they recruited collaborationist divisions (known as “Hiwis,” an abbreviation of the German term for “Auxiliary Volunteers”) to beef up their ranks. Nowhere were the Germans more successful in raising Hiwi units than in the USSR. Anti-Soviet hatreds in the communist-absorbed regions of the Ukraine, the Baltic States, the Caucasus, and Central Asia made the incoming German invaders initially welcomed as liberators … at least until the SS and the Einsatzgruppen arrived after them. Even as the ugly war on the Eastern Front rapidly devolved into butchering madness, the Germans were still able to raise well over 1,200,000 Hiwis into Ostlegionen, mostly assigned in ongoing operations against the Red Army — or sent to coastal defense duties along the Atlantic Wall.
One of these units was the 882nd Queen Tamara Battalion of the Georgian Legion. Comprised of 800 ethnic Georgians (mostly captured Red Army troops given a choice of either rotting in POW-camp conditions, or donning Wehrmacht uniform) and 400 German NCOs and officers, this particular unit had considerable combat experience with anti-partisan operations in Nazi-occupied Belarus before transfer to the Dutch coast. The isle of Texel is the largest of the Wadden Islands, overlooking the open waters of the North Sea 105 km north of Amsterdam, which made it ideal for naval reconnaissance against the threat of Allied invasion — which finally came on 6 June 1944 with the famous D-Day landings on the Normandy coast of France.
As the powerful Allied armies smashed their way out of Normandy and rolled their way through France and up into the Low Countries, the battle-hardened 1st Canadian Army (under command of General Harry Crerar) was assigned by Field-Marshal Montgomery to handle the capture of the German-held ports and strongholds along the English Channel and the North Sea coastline, while the main American and British divisions tackled the main Wehrmacht forces head-to-head in their drive for the border of Germany itself.
While the concept of the mission was militarily sound — the speed of the Allied advance made fast resupply more and more difficult, the farther the units moved east from the main Normandy ports — the reality of the mission was harsh, dirty, bloody, and rather thankless.
Disingenuously described by Winston Churchill as the “Cinderella Campaign,” this slow slog up the winding, swampy coast of the Netherlands was the farthest from a cushy job. German garrison commanders holding the strongpoints in question (who usually found themselves bypassed and trapped in place while the Allies roared past) were all sharply informed by the Wehrmacht High Command that any casual surrender to the Allies would see said German officers’ families immediately handed over to the Gestapo.
As such, many of these isolated German garrisons fought bitterly to the last man.
The Queen Tamara Battalion’s commander was the ruthless Major Klaus Breitner, a fanatical Nazi who planned to make the price of the Allied liberation of Texel Island very dear. Breitner’s grim resolve ground against the burning resentment of the disillusioned Georgian officer Shalva Loladze, a 29-year-old former Red Army Air Force captain who’d been a distinguished Hiwi for three long, horrific years — and an unwilling witness to the blood-drenched sunset of the Third Reich, atrocity after atrocity. Loladze knew all too well the rapid demoralization, growing distrust, and abject disgust between the war-weary Georgian troops and their hard-bitten German officers, and the tense seeds of rebellion were sown.
On 5 April 1945, with the Nazi situation collapsing in flames on all fronts, and with advance vanguard units of the II Canadian Corps patrolling the adjacent shores of the northern Dutch mainland facing Texel, Breitner’s order to transfer infantry units from the Queen Tamara Battalion to do battle with the Canadians finally sparked off Loladze’s rebellion. With nothing to lose, the Georgians went for broke.
Over 200 Germans died in the first night of the Georgian Uprising, with scattered firefights (and dozens of hand-to-hand knife fights) raging back and forth across the whole length of the confused darkness of Texel Island — all 161 square kilometres of it. Members of the Dutch Resistance hurriedly rafted across to Texel to give aid to the Georgians, guided through the moonless night by the explosions and muzzle-flashes. An enraged Breitner radioed for any and all straggling Germans within earshot to abandon any lingering posts on the Dutch mainland and cross to Texel to stiffen the counterattacks against the Georgian rebels.
Within hours the island was an abattoir of madness and savagery: Germans versus Georgians, both sides wearing the same uniform, with the terrified Dutch farmers and fishermen of Texel caught between the fire and the fury. No mercy was shown or given.
The berserk fighting raged unabated all throughout the month of April and into May, as the churning gyre of the Western Front moved further and further away to the east, deep into the ruins of Nazi Germany. The death of Adolf Hitler and the surrender of the Wehrmacht High Command to the Allies on May 8 went unheeded by the warring factions engaged on Texel.
Which was much to the dismay of the astounded Canadian troops, who watched the towering flames and thunderous explosions from the Dutch shore. II Canadian Corps was commanded by Lt-General Guy Simonds (praised by Field-Marshal Montgomery as the most talented senior officer in the Canadian Army) but even through all his experiences on the Italian Front, and after the ten grueling months following D-Day, he still hadn’t seen it all. Not until Texel.
Simonds and his junior commanders continually pleaded in vain over the radio for the Germans and the Georgians to stop the needless slaughter. All requests went unheeded and unanswered. Simonds begged Montgomery’s Allied HQ directly for elite Commando brigades to intervene, but was denied. As far as the world was concerned, the war was over in Europe, and whatever leftover mayhem happening on Texel was a lingering embarrassment, to be allowed to peter out on its own — from a discreet distance.
With the enraged combatants of Texel’s private war finally running low on ammunition, explosives, sharp knives, big rocks to bludgeon with, on May 17 Simonds ordered two companies of Canadian troops under command of Lt-Colonel Kirk to raft across to the charred, remains of Texel Island to take the surrender of anybody left standing, if smoldering. Over the next two days, Kirk’s tense, frustrated Canadians — missing out on all the colorful VE Day celebrations, the wine, the girls, the cheering — disarmed over 1500 ragtag, scowling, muddy German troops, and on May 20 the last fighting on Texel finally ground to a crunching, smoking halt.
The uprising lasted six weeks, and had cost the lives of 565 Georgians, including Loladze. Also dead were 812 Germans, either active members of the Queen Tamara Battalion, or gathered stragglers from battered, shore-based Wehrmacht units who had rafted in to the ‘rescue.’ Major Breitner survived the battle and the war and went to his deathbed unrepentant of his dark war record.
Saddest of all, 120 Dutch civilians and Resistance members alike died in the uprising. Dozens of Dutch farms and homes across the island had burned to the ground, with the destruction estimated at 10 million Dutch guilders (in 1945 money).
Due to the terms of inter-Allied agreements involving Axis prisoners of war, the 228 Georgians who survived the horror of Texel were passed over into the hands of the feared NKVD (later the KGB) as traitors to the Motherland. Most of them were sent — along with their entire families, as per Stalin’s personal order — to the Gulags, the infamous forced-labor camps in icebound Siberia.
Those few who survived were only finally released in 1957.
And thus World War II in Europe truly ended, with a bang and a whimper, on full display to the despair of Canadian eyes.