This is a story that Canadians talk about every spring. It’s a story about kindness, courage and gratitude. It involves one of the many heralds of spring – the beautiful, graceful and colourful tulip.
It starts one fateful afternoon in May 1940. Nazi Germany ignores the Netherlands proclamation of neutrality and cross their borders anyway. Queen Wilhelmina and her son-in-law Prince Bernhard want to stay and fight, but they also understand the risk such a move will have on their immediate family. For the sake of their children, the Dutch Royal Family pack their bags and escape to Britain while they still can.
Queen Wilhelmina, her daughter Crown-Princess Juliana, her two grand-daughters two year old Princesses Beatrix and eight month old Irene and her son-in-law Prince Bernhard, arrive safely in England on May 13, 1940. Three days later, Germany completes their brutal invasion of the Netherlands.
Suddenly the possibility that Germans could invade England becomes real.
New plans are made. While Queen Wilhelmina and Prince Bernhard remain in Britian, Princess Juliana and her two daughters are secretly whisked on board a Dutch cruiser bound for Halifax, Canada. It is for their safety and the preservation of the Dutch royal lineage. On June 24, 1940 they are welcomed as guests at Rideau Hall by the Earl of Athlone, Canada’s Governor General and his wife, Princess Alice, Queen Wilhelmina’s first-cousin. In a wireless broadcast shortly after arriving in Canada, Princess Juliana is quoted as saying, “Do not give me your pity. Pity is for the weak and our terrible fate has made us stronger than ever before.”
Later they move to Stornoway, now the residence of the leader of the Official Opposition, where they live for the duration of the war.
The citizens of Ottawa are charmed by Princess Juliana. She is a loving mother who simply wants to give her daughters as normal a childhood as possible. She enrolls her children in a local nursery school and then the Rockcliffe Park Public School. She does her own shopping and lines up for movies.
Princess Alice, described Princess Juliana as magnificent. “Juliana was someone who never complained or expressed unhappiness. She threw herself into everything that was being done for the war. She was one of the first blood donors when the campaign started and waited upon patients regularly.”
On January 19, 1943, Princess Juliana gives birth to a new daughter, Princess Margriet. The Canadian Government proclaims the Ottawa Civic Hospital four room maternity suite as “extraterritorial”, allowing the baby to be born on Dutch Territory and receive full Dutch citizenship. The happy birth is followed by three days of celebrations across Canada, including one in Guelph, Ontario where the Dutch troops were in training.
Meanwhile the war continues to rage in Europe. Holland, like other countries, endure unfathomable atrocities during their years of German occupation. The “Hunger Winter” of Netherland in 1944-45 is horrific. Food supplies are exhausted. Many are reduced to eating tulip bulbs for survival. Furniture is burned to keep warm. That winter, an estimated 20,000 Dutch men, women and children perish from starvation and cold.
The tide turns at last for Holland April 1945. The First Canadian Army wages a successful campaign and clears the German occupying forces from the northeastern part of the Netherlands. Together with the British forces, the Canadians advance into the western Netherlands. The Canadians plough past the cities and into the farmer’s fields where they fiercely fight the Germans from one farm house to the next, one canal to the next.
On April 28th, Germany negotiates a truce with the Allies. The next day Lancaster bombers begin flying new missions over the enemy territory; dropping food, not bombs, for the citizens of Holland. This is followed by convoys of Canadian trucks loaded with food and supplies. On May 5, 1945, 117,000 German troops surrender to Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Foulkes of the First Canadian Corps in the Netherlands. Two days later, the war in Europe is over.
The Dutch Royal Family returns to their homeland.
The Canadians living in Ottawa celebrate the return of spring in 1946 with a showcase of 100,000 tulips, bulbs sent with gratitude the previous fall by the Royal Family from the Netherlands. Since then, tulips have held a special place in the hearts of many Canadians. Every May Ottawa hosts the annual Canadian Tulip festival with over a million tulips blooming in countless beds across the Capital region. Each year, the grateful Dutch Royal Family sends 10,000 new bulbs; the Dutch Bulb Growers Association sends another 10,000. Each spring we repeat the story of the Dutch Royal Family and the bravery of our soldiers and their citizens during a very difficult period in history.
As I wander through the tulip beds at Butchart Gardens, I rejoice in the beauty, the grace and hope these flowers bring to my heart.