The campaign to liberate Holland involved the largest army to be placed under the command of a Canadian—some 400,000 soldiers—and yet it is largely ignored in popular history of World War II. The Canadian general in charge of the Netherlands operation was a Hamiltonian–Henry (Harry) Duncan Graham Crerar. Crerar was descended from prominent Hamilton upper middle class families the Crerars and the Stinsons. His half sister married Sir Adam Beck of London. His was a privileged upbringing—Upper Canada College, and trips to Europe rounded out his education. After school he entered the militia where he rose through the ranks right up until the beginning of the Great War. Around this time he married Marion Verschoyle Cronin—whose family were one of the leading families in London, Ontario.
Crerar joined the Canadian forces at the beginning of the war and saw his first action at Ypres in 1915. He fought with distinction throughout the war taking part in the assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917; leading to his promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel just before the end of the conflict. After the war Crerar decided to join the permanent force and spend the inter-war years as a teacher at the Royal Military College. In 1929 he was tapped to help Andrew McNaughton overhaul the Canadian peacetime army. After lengthy stints in Britain at military colleges Crerar was appointed director of military operations and intelligence when he returned to Canada early in 1935. He would hold this influential post until 1938, drawing up the plans that would shape the army during World WarII. When the Second World War broke out Crerar was in Britain helping in the preparations for D-Day. He was placed in charge of the Canadian Army in 1944.
Following the Normandy Campaign the Canadians were given the task of clearing the Germans out of Belgium and Holland, starting with opening up the Scheldt estuary that connected to the port of Antwerp—a critical asset for the continued supply of Allied troops. Crerar missed this campaign due to illness but resumed command for what would be the most costly battle of the War for Canadians—Operation “Veritable” a plan to push the Germans back to their side of the Rhine. Crerar would eventually have under him 13 divisions, 9 of them British, and an amalgam of Polish, Dutch, Canadian and Belgian units, the largest force ever commanded in the field by a Canadian. Hamilton’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada would play a prominent role in the engagements. Rain, mud, and the steadfast resistance of the enemy turned Veritable and the subsequent “Blockbuster I” and “Blockbuster II” into costly infantry conflicts. The Americans were unable to enter the fight because the Nazis had sabotaged dams and caused the Roer River to flood the whole of the American front, and their inactivity increased the pressure on the Canadian forces. Crerar was a steady and calming presence. His 2-seater plane a Vigilant (built by the Stinson Aircraft Company, no relation to his mother) aircraft, pockmarked by enemy fire, became a common sight as he flew to visit his subordinate commanders. For almost two weeks British and Canadian soldiers fought their way forward in conditions as grim as any on the Western Front in World War I. The results of the battle were a vindication for a general who, throughout the campaign had to contend with the machinations of Field Marshall Montgomery who did not like Crerar and repeatedly attempted to have him removed. The saving grace was that the Supreme Commander, Dwight Eisenhower had a deep mistrust of Monty. “Probably no assault in this war,” wrote Eisenhower in his congratulatory note to Crerar, “has been conducted under more appalling conditions of terrain than was that one. It speaks volumes for your skill and the valor of your soldiers, that you carried it through to a successful conclusion.” With the end of the war, Crerar retired into a life of relative obscurity. He was honoured in Hamilton. He died in Ottawa in 1965.