Links with the world: the Dutch Training Camp in Stratford during WWII
By Marianne Brandis
One of the many connections between Stratford and world events was the training camp for recruits of Dutch nationality that was located here during the Second World War. Young men from many different places passed through our city on their way to a military base in England and then into active combat. They were all emigrants, or the sons of emigrants, from the Netherlands; when the war began, they were living in Canada, the United States, and the Caribbean; though they had different “new homes,” they were connected by having the same country of origin. Being Dutch nationals, they were subject to conscription into the Dutch army, even though that army had been defeated by the Germans and demobilized.
The story began in the Netherlands with the defeat of the Dutch army in May 1940. After it was demobilized, about 1,200 of the soldiers managed to escape the then-occupied Netherlands, either directly crossing the North Sea in small boats or making their way through Belgium and France to England. From there they hoped to be able to continue fighting. 1
At that point they were known in England as the Netherlands Legion. Initially they were an unorganized gathering of individual refugees, but by January 1941 they had been organized and were officially named De Koninklijke Nederlandsche Brigade “Prinses Irene” [the Royal Netherlands Brigade “Princess Irene”]. (Princess Irene was the second child of then-Princess Juliana, who since about June of 1940 had been living in Ottawa with her children.) It was decided to try to increase the ranks of the Brigade by recruiting young men with Dutch nationality who were living overseas.
Already before that renaming, in July 1940, the Dutch war ministry had approached the Canadian government to discuss setting up a battalion of Dutch troops in Canada. The Canadian authorities agreed, and regulations were drawn up. There were to be no Canadian nationals or British subjects in the unit. Recruiting would be done in the United States as well as in Canada. The Dutch government – then in exile and based in London, England – was responsible for all expenses, but the troops would be subject to Canadian civil and military laws and authorities. It was forbidden to recruit men who were working in essential occupations. Eligible men already serving in the Canadian armed forces were allowed to transfer to the Netherlands Legion if they wished. This agreement was signed on 22 August 1940. The Canadian authorities assisted the Dutch with the locating of nationals living in Canada. Conscription was for “eligible young Dutch men, including emigrants and the offspring of emigrants.” 2
The headquarters was initially based in Ottawa, and the recruiting process began there. On 15 January 1941, however, the whole operation was moved to Stratford, to the former McLagan furniture factory at 93 Trinity Street; at the beginning of the war the building had been converted into barracks and had been used by the Perth Regiment and the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, but in January 1941 it was apparently available for occupation by the Dutch training camp. 3
The building became known as the “Prinses Juliana Kazerne [barracks],” and the camp would remain in Stratford until October 1942. The commanding officer for much of that time was Lt. Col. G. J. Sas.
It has to be said, however, that the recruitment was not a great success. 4 There was apparently no way of enforcing it, and there were loopholes. Many young men preferred to join the army of their country of adoption because their families would receive a better household allowance in their absence and because military service would speed the process of obtaining citizenship. 5 In fact, many of the men had been away from the Netherlands for so long that they spoke little or no Dutch: however, all the words of command were in Dutch, so that must have made for some muddles at first. 6
However, well over a thousand men eventually passed through the training program. 7 The number of men subject to conscription living in Canada in August 1940 amounted to only 508, but there were also potential recruits in the United States and in the Caribbean islands and Surinam where Dutch emigrants lived or to which they had fled. Besides that there were volunteers – clearly men for whom their Dutch nationality was meaningful and who probably had strong enough ties to the Netherlands so that they wanted to join the fight for its liberation. 8
Over the twenty-month period during which the camp was located in Stratford, before it was moved to Guelph, the men came in groups of, apparently, varying sizes; altogether, eleven detachments were sent overseas during that time. 9 Several official photos were taken of the groups trained in Stratford, and each shows about 50-100 men. Typically each group was here for six weeks, but one group from South America was here for three months. 10 After training here, they were moved to England, where they joined the Prinses Irene Brigade, which had its headquarters first in Congleton, Cheshire, and then in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. Some went to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The camp was visited six times by Princess Juliana 11 and twice by Prince Bernhard, 12 and also by the Governor General, the 1st Earl of Athlone.
The training camp wove itself into the war-time life of Stratford: details are skimpy but we can make some informed guesses on the basis of what information there is. By then the city was well into “war-production” mode. 13 The factories made “shells and other instruments of war … wing spars for Mosquito bombers [and] plywood parts for Mosquito and Lancaster bombers, furniture for cargo vessels, molded rubber parts for tanks and armoured cars, brass parts for war equipment, and machine tools with which to make war equipment.” It also produced textiles: “battle dress serge, over a million pairs of army, navy, and air force gloves, even felt shoes for men on the Alaska Highway.” 14 This vigorous and highly-motivated activity would have permeated the town, and the Dutch troops – no doubt lively and sociable young men – would have blended in. A revealing glimpse is offered by an article from the Beacon Herald 15 about the departure of the fourth detachment to be sent overseas, in October 1941. The group – which, incidentally, included Polish troops who had been trained in Owen Sound – was given an enthusiastic send-off at the Stratford railway station by a large crowd of well-wishers and by the Stratford Boys Band playing the Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmus. Individually and as a group, these young men clearly made friends in Stratford, and showing hospitality was part of Stratford’s war effort. 16
It is easy to imagine individual scenes: new recruits arriving in the camp would be asked where they were from, not only where they were living now but where in the Netherlands they and their families came from. The Netherlands is a very small country and the Dutch are always eagerly looking for family or acquaintances or home-towns that they share. The bonding typical of military units would have been enhanced by the similarities of background that already existed.
The royal visits would have been significant events in the life of Stratford, and we catch a glimpse of that in a snippet from my family’s history. One of the officers training the recruits was Capt. A. P. van Stolk, a cousin of my father’s. During their time in Stratford, he and his Canadian wife Enid lived on Church Street. 17 Enid’s obituary states: “As wife of a Dutch army officer, Enid helped entertain royalty, as well as heads of military and state.” It’s very likely that some of this entertaining took place at the van Stolks’ house in Stratford.
As for the training program itself: on the “Prinses Irene Brigade” website there are photos which give some glimpses. One shows the men doing outdoor training in a snowy Stratford winter landscape. In the Stratford-Perth Archives is a picture of the men engaged in outdoor exercises on a baseball diamond. No doubt the training program was typical of any first stage training, to be followed by additional and more specialized work when the groups joined the Prinses Irene Brigade in England.
The camp was based in Stratford until 31 October 1941. 18 But the building was larger than was needed, and was expensive to heat in the winter, so it was decided to move the camp to smaller buildings at the Winter Fair in Guelph. The recruiting and training continued there until 23 October 1943.
The Prinses Irene Brigade was based in England until 1944, but not all the men recruited in Canada remained there: in September 1941 the British government asked the Brigade to send troops to Surinam, the Dutch possession on the north-east coast of South America, where there were important bauxite mines and other natural resources. A detachment was promptly sent consisting mainly of men who had come from Stratford only two months earlier and were under the command of Capt. van Stolk. 19
The Brigade took part in the invasion of Normandy and the push across Belgium and into the Netherlands; appropriately, they were among the troops who liberated that country.
This episode in Stratford’s history is commemorated by the “Wounded Bird” statue in the Dutch Memorial Garden. The setting up of the statue was the result of the initiative of Capt. Sidney J. van den Bergh, one of the officers stationed here. 20 Along with the Perth Regiment’s role in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945, the training camp is one of the strongest threads connecting the Netherlands and Stratford.
The principal source was the (Dutch-language) website of the Prinses Irene Brigade: http://www.prinsesirenebrigade.nl/index.html. It is an extremely detailed history of the whole Brigade, not only the troops who came from Canada. Information not otherwise footnoted comes from it, especially the page dealing with the recruiting in Canada and the U.S.: http://www.prinsesirenebrigade.nl/rekruten-uit-canada-en-vs.html. All accessed in November 2020.
Other principal source:
Leitch, Adelaide, Floodtides of Fortune: The Story of Stratford. Corporation of the City of Stratford, 1980.
3 Adelaide Leitch. Floodtides of Fortune: The Story of Stratford. (Corporation of the City
of Stratford, 1980), p. 172.
6 Globe and Mail, 6 Feb 1941, and also the “Prinses Irene Brigade” website and the article in GoDutch.
7 I have been unable to find the precise number.
8 GoDutch article.
9 Beacon Herald, 7 Dec 1981. The sources do not indicate clearly whether this number includes detachments sent later from Guelph.
10 Beacon Herald, 21 Oct 1941.
11 Beacon Herald, 22 March 2004. It is not clear whether all six visits were to Stratford or whether this includes the ones made to Guelph.
13 Leitch, p 173.
15 Beacon Herald, 21 October 1941
16 Leitch, p. 173.
17 Personal communication from Enid to the author.
18 Leitch, p. 175.
20 Leitch, p. 175.