C.B. Highlanders success at Delfzijl remembered
Cape Breton Post
Published: Nov 08, 2013 at midnight
Updated: Oct 02, 2017 at 11:21 a.m.
One of the last battles of the Second World War in Europe was one of the fiercest fought by the Cape Breton Highlanders.
In the northeast of the Netherlands along the border with Germany, the Dutch town of Delfzijl had been transformed into a fortress by the Nazi regime.
Swamp land, flooded by broken dykes, and landmines and barbed wire, created enormous problems for the Allies trying to free the town — one of the last regions of the country that was under German occupation.
Ted Slaney, 90, remembers the last battle with crisp accuracy.
A sergeant in the anti-tank platoon, Slaney, a Cape Breton Highlander, was one of 400 men from the regiment on the frontline. Another 400 Highlanders were used in a support role for the troops in the attack code named “Operation Canada.”
The Cape Breton Highlanders attacked Delfzijl from the north while its sister regiment, the Perth regiment, attacked from the southeast just after midnight on April 30, 1945.
“They (the Germans) had concrete placements with big naval guns attached that covered the whole area,” said Slaney, in a phone interview from his Montreal home on Thursday.
“One of our 25-pounder shells couldn’t penetrate them, and neither could the tanks, which made it pretty hard.
“It was very swampy ground and in this particular case where (the Germans) captured Delfzijl, a lot of the vehicles couldn’t move forward because they were sinking in the mud and so forth. There was a lot of rain at that time.”
The low cloud cover and fog made it impossible for the Canadians to use firepower from the air. An invasion of the town from the North Sea was also ruled out because of the number of German U-boats patrolling the coast.
Mostly light armoured vehicles were only able to make it into the town using roads that hadn’t been heavily damaged.
Slaney, who grew up and lived in Glace Bay, wrote a book on the Cape Breton Highlanders experiences during the Second World War with fellow soldier, Alex Morrison.
The book, entitled, The Breed of Manly Men: The History of the Cape Breton Highlanders
, included extensive research and excerpts from soldier war diaries, was published in 1994.
The battle of Delfzijl lasted for most of April 1945, and included Canadian, American and British involvement.
However, it was the Highlanders and the Perth regiment that were called in to claim the town for the Allies.
Other Canadian regiments which were part of the battle included the Westministers, the Irish regiment, the British Columbia Dragoons, 8th New Brunswick Hussars, and a couple of field artillery regiments.
Slaney said the battle lasted a little more than 48 hours. Many German soldiers — some 1,700 were captured — fled to the other side of the River Ems into the Germany port city of Emden.
“As a matter of fact, I think everybody (Cape Breton Highlanders) were catching (the Germans) at the end,” he said.
“They were just overrun and I guess they were just trying to get away somewhere but they were actually giving themselves up.”
Although many buildings in the town caught fire, the harbour remained intact. Slaney said the Germans had planned to detonate mines on the waterfront but never had the chance.
John Clarke, the curator of the Cape Breton Highlanders museum at the Victoria Park Garrison in Sydney, said German intelligence officers were key to maintaining control over Delfzijl.
Its soldiers, on the other hand, proved not as experienced, he said.
“Many of them were new soldiers so they lacked experience but their dedication to their job did remain. They really did make every effort to keep the enemy out spirit-wise, but a lot of them were green troops and not very familiar with how to repulse the enemy,” Clarke said.
“They held the strongpoints as long as they could and the Highlanders had to overpower each one of those strongpoints as they worked their way through the town.”
He said many residents of the town remained inside during the fighting, holed up in basements and cellars waiting for the guns to stop blasting.
“A lot of the homes were getting damaged from bombs and from the attacks themselves. The population did stay in the city. They didn’t leave to go someplace else.”
He said the Dutch people were very grateful for everything the Canadians did to free them from German repression in Delfzijl and hundreds of other towns and cities in the Netherlands.
“The Dutch people were very good to us. You couldn’t find better people. I still have correspondence from people over there,” said Slaney.
Once shelling and artillery fire abruptly halted over Delfzijl, Slaney remembered saying: “Thank God. It’s over!”
In all, there were 20 Cape Breton Highlanders killed in action — the last action they would see during the Second World War. Another 53 Highlanders were injured in the fight.
After the war ended in Europe on May 7, 1945, Slaney decided to remain in the military.
He continued to work in the regular Canadian Forces for another three decades and retired as a captain.
Slaney also served as honorary lieutenant-colonel of the 2nd Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders (Cape Breton) and as honorary colonel of the Nova Scotia Highlanders over a 10-year period.
Cape Breton Highlanders who died in the battle at Delfzijl, the Netherlands:
• Pte. C.E. Gillcash – Glenwood, P.E.I.
• Pte. P.H. Long – Euereka, N.S.
• Lt. N.J. Nixon – Halifax, N.S.
• Lt. B.A. Nunn – Halifax, N.S.
• Sgt. H.D. MacLellan – Meat Cove, N.S.
• Cpl. J.B. MacInnis – Grand Narrows, N.S.
• Cpl. G. MacLean – Florence, N.S.
• Pte. R.H. MacLean – Sydney, N.S.
• Pte. V. Penny – North Sydney, N.S.
• Pte. D. Pearo – Florence, N.S.
• Pte. E.M. Brown – Springhill, N.S.
• Pte. F.H. Spidle – Parkdale, N.S.
• Pte. K. Butt – Winnipeg, Man.
• Pte. O.B. Marshall – Bridgetown, N.S.
• Pte. F. Mombourquette – Lower L’Ardoise, N.S.
• Pte. A.J. O’Handley – Dominion, N.S.
• Pte. E.J. Votour – Chatham Head, N.S.
• Pte. A. Szarka – Welland, Ont.
• Pte. J.A. MacLaren – St. Peter’s Bay, P.E.I.
• Lt.-Sgt. R.B. Thomas – Louisbourg, N.S.
Source: "The Breed of Manly Men: The History of the Cape Breton Highlanders"
History of the Cape Breton Highlanders:
• The Battalion was organized on Oct. 13, 1871 as The Victoria Provisional Battalion of Infantry from four independent companies and based in Baddeck, Victoria County.
• It was known as The 94th Victoria Regiment (Argyll Highlanders) until 1920 when the regiment became known as the Cape Breton Highlanders.
• Between 1920 to 1954 the Cape Breton Highlanders were dressed under the Sutherland tartan (Black Watch).
• From 1954-2011, the regiment was known as the 2nd Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders (Cape Breton). It adopted the Clan Donald tartan but maintained its motto – Siol Na Fear Fearail – which translates into “Breed of Manly Men.”
• In October 2011, Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay presented the regiment with the camp flag of the army reserve unit. The flag had not been flown at Victoria Park in Sydney since 1954 when the regiment merged with Nova Scotia's other two Highland regiments. The regiment reverted to its previous name, the Cape Breton Highlanders.
Source: The Cape Breton Highlanders Association