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The Canadians Who Fought at Arnhem

 

This guest feature was posted here with the kind permission of Paul Reed, editor of World At War.

CANLOAN officers serving with the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, London [NAC]

The Battle for Arnhem in September 1944 is an action closely associated with the British 1st Airborne Division and their heroic struggle for Arnhem Bridge and fighting in the Oosterbeek Perimeter. The units within this Airborne formation were all from the British Army and at the time Operation Market Garden was taking place the Canadian Forces were advancing along the ‘Long Left Flank’ from Belgium towards the Netherlands. So how could Canadian soldiers take part in the battle for Arnhem?

The answer is CANLOAN.

In late 1943 the British Army was fighting on a number of fronts and infantry officer casualties were higher than the British ability to replace them. With the forthcoming invasion of Europe, the need for officers would be great. At the same the Canadian Army had a surplus of officers, partly due to the disbandment of units that had been on home defence in Canada, and also because they were only fighting on one major front, in Italy. And while casualties there were high, there was enough personnel to replace them. In total 673 Canadian officers volunteered for the CANLOAN system. All of them had ‘CDN’ added to their army number and were sent to England for battle training. Their casualty rate by 1945 was 75% – indicating just how costly the last year of the war in Europe was.

In September 1944 a number of CANLOAN officers were in the 1st Battalion Border Regiment, 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment and 7th Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers. These were all ‘glider’ battalions that were part of Airborne Divisions at that time, with some Airborne troops being sent into battle by parachute and others by glider. As part of 1st Airborne Division they played a vital role in Operation Market Garden and flew into Arnhem, the Staffs losing heavily in efforts to get to Arnhem Bridge and the others taking part in the defence of the Oosterbeek perimeter up to the point of evacuation.

CANLOAN officers serving with the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, London [NAC]

Lieutenant George Comper fought at Arnhem with the 1st Battalion Border Regiment in the battle for the Oosterbeek Perimeter. There were a number of fellow Canadians in his battalion and in the fighting on 25th September 1944 their positions were overrun. An account of the death of his fellow CANLOAN officer, Lieutenant John Wellbelove, survives.

“Lieut Wellbelove’s platoon was on our left. We were attacked by the Herman Goering Officer Corps behind four German tanks. The only way the tanks could get at us was up the short road to the restaurant but coming through the trees were hundreds of Germans. Four of us were on the left hand side of the restaurant and Lieut Wellbelove approximately 50 yards to our left. When they got to about 30 yards of us our Bren jammed and Lt Barnes’ batman was shot between the eyes. To our left we could hear Lt Wellbelove encouraging his lads and hear his Sten firing. We jumped over the parapet as the Germans came round the other side. We could still hear Lt Wellbelove shouting, “Come on you Heine bastards” It was the first time I had ever heard him swear. He was a perfect gentleman and it must have upset him seeing his lads being slaughtered. He kept firing his Stem until he was overrun. You can’t do any more than that. God knows how many Germans he killed before they got him. Over the years I’ve told my sons about him and what a brave chap he was. No braver man ever came out of Canada. He was a credit to his country and his regiment.” (from Code Word CANLOAN by Wilfred I. Smith, Dundurn 1992, p.173)

Lieutenant G.P. Comper (left), a paratroop officer who fought at Arnhem, talking with Major-General E.G. Weeks at the first annual reunion of CANLOAN officers, Royal Empire Society, London, England, 14 April 1945. [NAC]

Lieutenant John Wellbelove was from Eston, Saskatchewan and was 24 years old. He is buried in Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery, one of several CANLOAN officers in the cemetery – distinguished by the Maple Leaf badge on their headstones.

By the end of the operations at Arnhem of the 23 CANLOAN officers in 1st Airborne Division only three made it back across the Rhine. The rest were all killed or taken prisoner, with several of the POWs being wounded. The sacrifice and service of these men is barely known in Canada, let alone in Britain. It was later said of them:

“… the gallant young officers loaned to the British Army under its terms did their country credit and made a distinguished and significant contribution to the Military effort of the Commonwealth and the winning of the war. “

I once travelled to Normandy with a British veteran who had a CANLOAN platoon commander. His epitaph on him says much of them all. He said this young Canadian was the “toughest b*****d” he’d ever served with.

Paul Reed is a leading military historian and author who also works in television, appearing in Dig WW2, War Hero in My Family and Who Do You Think You Are amongst others. More of Paul’s work can be found on his excellent website, World At War.

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