Langley veteran saw best and worst of humanity in WWII

Emaciated bodies clung to wire fences of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, pleading in their broken English with the British soldiers to help them.

It was April 1945 and one of those soldiers was Bill Holliday, a longtime resident of Walnut Grove.

Holliday and his comrades could see dead bodies piled up on carts, other scattered around the camp, but his unit was told to push ahead so they drove on. A special unit coming up behind them went in to try and help.

“When we came upon the camp, we didn’t know it was there,” he said.

The memory that sticks with him the most from that encounter is the smell, a sickly sweet overpowering stench.

“You could smell it a long ways off,” Holliday recalled.

The smell was the 13,000 corpses lying around the camp in addition to the malnourished and diseased 60,000 prisoners whom liberators found. Around 14,000 of those prisoners would die post-liberation, too sick or weak to survive.

“It’s a smell like no other in the world,” Holliday said.

Being a young person during the Second World War meant facing many harsh realities, including concentration camps devoted to exterminating certain races and societal groups.

“What did I know of life? I was only 18.”

Bergen-Belsen was where Anne Frank died only months earlier, and was the only concentration camp liberated by the British.

The prisoners were thrilled to see British arrive on the scene (versus dreading the Russians coming from the other direction). He said they met up with the Russians at the Elbe River after going into two other camps.

Holliday said they heard later that the special unit went to the town, and marched the mayor and others through to see the horrific conditions.

Holliday once stumbled upon a few hundred of the ‘enemy’ in 1945. They surrendered to him.

“A lot of them were old men. They’d had enough.”

Holliday said it is vital to remember what happened during the war, and counter the Holocaust deniers.

In the 27th Armourd Brigade, he drove a recovery truck (the military term for a tow truck) even though he had wanted to go into the navy. It wasn’t pretty work. He had to retrieve one truck that drove over a cesspool hole.

“He sank in it right up to the turret,” Holliday said.

He and his fellow soldiers slept where they could and weren’t issued adequate clothing for the environments they endured.

But he has no regrets, not after seeing the camps.

“That made it necessary,” he said of the Allied sacrifice.

The war may have ended in 1945 but that didn’t mean everyone rushed home. Holliday wouldn’t leave Germany until 1947. Soldiers were rotated out in the order they rotated in, and this boy from the Lancashire moors joined up in the later part of the war even though he was underage.

Holliday, like other young British males during the war, received a letter from His Majesty’s welcoming them to the military.

“All they wanted was soldiers because D-Day was coming,” he said.

On June 6, 1944, D-Day or the Normandy landings was when the Allies shipped thousands of troops over to Germany-occupied western Europe and is considered a turning point in the Second World War.

Soon after Holliday’s concentration and prisoner of war camp encounters, his soldier book was stamped for Burma. Holliday was supposed to be sent to the Eastern front.

“Then they dropped the [atomic] bomb so I was sent back to Germany,” he said.

Of course the higher ups issued orders like no fraternization with the local inhabitants who used to hang white towels or sheets out the windows to show they would not resist the Allied forces.

The kids would come out of the houses to meet the soldiers. Holliday said soldiers used to give the kids pieces of biscuit, the only thing the men had to offer.

On one occasion, a pregnant woman fell nearby.

Holliday was tasked.

“Holliday, get that woman to that hospital,” he recalled being told by a superior.

He had to use an old, captured Volkswagen to take her, and there was no lack of potholes on the route.

He ran inside the hospital to get help, and the woman sat down on the steps – where the baby was born.

His fellow soldiers issued Holliday a maternity medal and ribbed him, but helping that baby enter a world not at war remains a special memory.

After the war, he continued to work with vehicles, and in the 1950s signed onto a ship destined for Montreal, but labour trouble had him looking elsewhere.

He was in Ontario when Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954.

“Man did we take a pounding,” he commented.

He would work in a garage and in Goose Bay, Labrador, where he saw an ad for the American Air Force. Thinking he might find work in a milder climate (Goose Bay had 10 feet of snow when he was there), he got a job with the Yanks. He signed on for three years and went to New York, where he found out exactly what the job entailed – he was sent to Goose Bay.

From there, it was only farther north. He was sent to Frobisher Bay and ,Baffin Island, all work related to the radar warning system set up during the Cold War.

“I loved every day of it,” he said of the far north.

Once on leave, he visited Vancouver and would end up working for the CPR ships on the run between Vancouver and Alaska.

He bought his home in Walnut Grove in 1969 and has returned to Europe on war-related anniversaries.

Holliday has served as sergeant-at-arms for Langley’s Royal Canadian Legion, and remembers the sacrifice of so many.

“It’s annoying when [people] say it never happened,” he said of the holocaust. “It did. It sure did.”

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