Bob Elliott, Tank Commander, Canadian Army, 19th Field Regiment
Soldier’s blanket a gift to remember
Scratchy wool coat symbolizes Dutch girl’s war
For The Calgary Herald
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
The scratchy wool coat waits for remembrance at the Olds Legion. It’s hard to believe this coat, sewn during the Second World War from a Canadian Army blanket, was one of the most precious Christmas gifts ever received by one little Dutch girl.
Bob Elliott, a tank commander in the Canadian Army’s 19th Field Regiment, remembers Suzy Cretier as a wide-eyed, terribly skinny, 10-year-old.
To this day, he can see Suzy as she looked during the war, sharp elbows cutting through her thin coat, sitting atop his tank, sweetly singing for chocolate treats and cigarettes for her papa.
“Suzy loved to sit up on the tanks, even when we were firing at the Germans across the river,” remembers Elliott. “Poor Suzy wasn’t very well dressed, but she was everyone’s favourite.”
Elliott’s tank troop, battle weary from the long fight to free the waterways into Antwerp, was stationed on the Maas River, on what was known as the winter line, near the village of Alphen.
Suzy’s family had arrived in Alphen months earlier from Rossum, a town behind German lines.
Her father, Willem, was a freedom fighter who had been passing information to the Allies before the Germans discovered him in the winter of 1944.
As small children, Suzy and her brothers, Kees, 13, and Gerard, 8, didn’t understand their father’s role in the war. However, they were old enough to recognize the terror in their mother’s face as they watched the Germans hunt for their father.
The Cretiers were also hiding a young Jewish girl, putting the family in even more danger.
The day Suzy’s father got word the Germans were coming to arrest him will be forever burned in her memory.
“Dad fled on his bicycle and ended up at the minister’s house. He told me later that he ran into the house and said to the wife, ‘They are after me, don’t tell them I’m here.’ ”
He fled upstairs and was hiding in the attic. A little boy in the house was crying because Germans were throwing grenades and shooting. The father was afraid he would be given away.
“It was an unreal situation. Mom was standing there in our house with all of us around her and she said, ‘I don’t know if we are gonna see Dad ever again.’ I was numb and then we were told to leave, the Germans were coming for us — we had to leave right then with nothing but the clothes we were wearing.”
They escaped over a canal and had just gotten to the other side when the Germans closed the bridge and all the other ways out of town. Her father was still in the village.
The Germans found the Cretiers hiding in a house that same day, but the family escaped a second time.
“We were under fire this time, hiding between trees and stuff and then we came to an open field where they could see us from the village steeple.
“Dad was an experienced hunter and he told us, ‘No holding hands, zigzag as fast as you can, all by yourself’ — we were very lucky that day.”
The Cretiers settled in an old farm house with another family in Alphen, a village liberated by the Allies.
Living in one room, they waited out the rest of the war.
Tank commander Elliott, who moved to Olds from Scotland when he was two and to Calgary when he was nine, signed up for the war at 16.
“All my older brothers, John, Matt and Bill, were signed up and overseas and I wanted to be fighting, too. Of course I had to lie about my age, but I was a big fella. I told them I was 20 and they said ‘Sign here’ — I did.”
He was 19 when his tank regiment arrived in Alphen.
“Suzy’s dad, an excellent mechanic, loved to maintain the tanks and we became good friends,” said Elliott.
Elliott said he remembers everyone feeling sorry for how badly dressed Suzy was.
It was Christmas and the Canadian soldiers decided to do something about it.
“There was a whole bunch of us talking about it. One of us said he knew of an old seamstress who lived up on the dyke and she could make Suzy a coat and pants out of one of our blankets. We told the woman what we wanted and she made it without even measuring Suzy,” said Elliott.
Two of the men went on leave to Paris at the same time, so everyone chipped in to buy Suzy leather shoes, a sweater and a scarf.
It was Christmas Day 1944, when Suzy received her gifts.
“Mom was feeling very sad that Christmas because she couldn’t dress me the way she was used to. . . .
“On Christmas morning, I was sent to get milk at the farm like always. As I was walking by, the troops called me over.”
Elliott said the guys were in their tanks shooting at the Germans when Suzy walked over (about 60 metres and a river separated the Germans from the Canadians).
Suzy put everything on right then and there.
The Canadians had all donated buttons from their own uniforms for the coat. Now Suzy was truly one of them.
Every Tuesday, when they polished their rifles, buttons and shoes, Suzy polished hers, too.
Elliott chuckles at the thought of Suzy’s fearless nature. “We would be getting shot at and she would want to peek out, I said, You shouldn’t do that, it’s dangerous.”
This little girl had stolen everyone’s heart.
By February, the tanks moved on into Germany.
The Cretiers returned home to Rossum they had been robbed of everything.
Elliott stayed in Europe in postwar service and came back to Holland for his 20th birthday and to visit Willem.
Christmas cards kept Willem and Elliott in touch over the years.
Promises to come to Canada for a hunting trip were never realized.
It wasn’t until 1981, when an invitation to the Cretiers’ 50th wedding anniversary party arrived, that Elliott considered going back to see his friends in Holland.
Although he couldn’t be at the party, he was planning a trip to Scotland later that year and decided to fly to Holland while in Europe.
Elliott contacted the Cretiers to let them know when he would be there.
Sue decided there was no way this Canadian would be returning to Holland without a familiar face to greet him at the airport.
“I thought the Dutch were there to greet Canadians when the tanks came rolling in and we will be there to greet him in the good times, too,” she said. “At the airport I thought, my God what if I don’t recognize him? But sure enough I turned around and there he was — I said ‘Bob?’ and he screamed ‘Suzy!’ ”
Neither were aware of each other’s circumstances — both Sue and Elliott were divorced.
It was love at first sight, said Elliott. They were married later that year.
Elliott brought Sue home to Edmonton, where they live, sharing their time between Canada and Holland, where Sue takes care of her mother, Geert, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
The coat was once again a gift of friendship, this time from Sue to the Olds Legion, where she, Elliott and his brother Bill are members.
The little Dutch girl is now a proud Canadian citizen.
And every November, the tattered coat, so carefully preserved and loved by the little Dutch girl, is brought out by Elliott, who shows it to elementary students about the same age as Suzy when she received it that cold Christmas morning.