The Campaign in North-West Europe:
The Battle of the Rhineland,
Planning the Rhineland Offensive
In February 1945 the First Canadian Army entered the Battle of Germany. The next three months were to witness the clearing of the western Rhineland, the crossing of the Rhine, the liberation of the Netherlands and the destruction of Hitler's empire. In these historic operations General Crerar's army--incorporating, before the end, the whole Canadian field force including the men from Italy--was to take a major part.
Let no one misconceive the severity of the fighting during these final months. In this, the twilight of their gods, the defenders of the Reich displayed the recklessness of fanaticism and the courage of despair. In the contests west of the Rhine, in particular, they fought with special ferocity and resolution, rendering the battles in the Reichswald and Rochwald forests grimly memorable in the annals of this war.
We have already seen how the opening of the port of Antwerp and the build-up during the winter months had laid the foundation for a further offensive on the western front. The enemy's costly effort in the Ardennes had imposed delay, but the broad pattern of Allied strategy remained unchanged. In his subsequent report, General Eisenhower wrote:
In planning our forthcoming spring and summer offensives, I envisaged the operations which would lead to Germany's collapse as falling into three phases: first, the destruction of the enemy forces west of the Rhine and closing to that river; second, the seizure of bridgeheads over the Rhine from which to develop operations into Germany; and third, the destruction of the remaining enemy east of the Rhine and the advance into the heart of the Reich. This was the same purpose that had guided all our actions since early 1944.
The time was propitious for launching the first phase, for on the eastern front the Russians had begun a tremendous new advance on 12 January and before the end of the month had crossed Germany's 1939 frontier. They were soon on the banks of the Oder, within fifty miles of the centre of Berlin.
The plan for defeating the enemy's forces west of the Rhine visualized a series of massive blows along the entire length of the front. The direction, timing and strength of these great operations were
influenced by conditions of weather and terrain, the necessity of capturing suitable sites for crossing the Rhine, and the obvious advantage of forcing mobile warfare upon an enemy whose reserves of motor fuel were known to be dangerously low.
The campaign was to begin in the north. Here, Field-Marshal Montgomery, with the Ninth United States Army under his command in addition to his British and Canadian forces; was to develop two formidable thrusts which would converge on the Rhine opposite Wesel. From the Nijmegen salient the First Canadian Army would launch Operation VERITABLE, its offensive between Maas and Rhine, southeastwards through the barrier of the Reichswald Forest (the western edge of which forms the Dutch-German frontier) and the northern tip of the Siegfried Line. From the Roer River, the Ninth Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General W. H. Simpson and built up to consist of four corps totalling twelve divisions, would thrust north-eastwards (Operation GRENADE) to link up with the Canadian drive on the Rhine. Originally, the Commander-in-Chief intended to employ the Second British Army in a third thrust, directed across the Maas. But the difficulty of carrying out regrouping in the American sector on the eve of the offensive resulted in a reduction of Simpson's command to ten divisions; this eliminated forces that would have been used by General Dempsey and it became necessary to cancel his attack. As Crerar was to use most of the divisions normally allotted to the Second Army, that army's tasks during VERITABLE would be limited to holding the line of the Maas--and planning for the crossing of the Rhine.
Montgomery's view of the coming operations, and of the general situation after the defeat of the German Ardennes offensive, was expressed in a directive sent to his Army Commanders on 21 January:
The enemy is in a bad way; he has had a tremendous battering and has lost heavily in men and equipment. On no account can we relax, or have a "stand still", in the winter months; it is vital that we keep going, so as not to allow him time to recover and so as to wear down his strength still further. There will be difficulties caused by mud, cold, lack of air support during periods of bad weather, and so on. But we must continue to fight the enemy hard during the winter months.
The main objective of the Allies on the western front is the Ruhr; if we can cut it off from the rest of Germany the enemy capacity to continue the struggle must gradually peter out.
A further, and very important, object of our operations must be to force mobile war on the Germans ...
The first stage in carrying out this policy must be to close up to the line of the Rhine... When the opportune moment arrives the Allied armies will cross the Rhine in strength north of the Ruhr and at such other places as may be ordered by the Supreme Allied Commander.
For VERITABLE, a most impressive array of divisions was placed under
General Crerar's command. Indeed, for a time in February, he was to control thirteen divisions, including nine from the United Kingdom. During this period the fighting strength of the First Canadian Army rose above 380,000 men; while attached personnel (civilian labour, prisoners of war, etc.) raised its "ration strength" above 470,000.
If the British army headquarters was temporarily to take a back seat, a British corps was to make up for this by the part it played under the Canadian Army. It was considered desirable that a single corps should control the whole front of attack in the first phase; and this was to be Lieutenant-General B. G. Horrocks' 30th Corps. It would consist for this operation of no less than seven divisions--one armoured and six infantry--plus three armoured brigades, special assault units from the 79th Armoured Division, and a great force of artillery. The initial attack was to be delivered by five divisions. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions were under General Horrocks during this phase.
The scale of the assault was warranted by the enemy's strength west of the Rhine. He had three main lines of defence: first, a screen of strong outposts; then the Siegfried Line, running through the Reichswald; and finally, the Hochwald "layback" position covering the approach to the Rhine at Xanten. General Crerar's plan was based upon the assumption that the enemy would "strongly man and fight his several lines of organized defences". In a directive issued on 25 January, the Army Commander wrote: "The operation, as a whole, will comprise several phases and, after each phase is completed, it will be necessary to move up the artillery and supporting weapons and commence the next phase with co-ordinated and heavy fire support, and with controlled movement". In the first of three phases, the 30th Corps would clear the Reichswald, and make good a line running from Gennep through Asperden to Cleve. Thereafter, the operation was to be conducted on a two-corps front: General Simonds' 2nd Canadian Corps was to come in on the left and advance abreast of the 30th to a line extending through Weeze, Udem and Calcar to the Rhine opposite Emmerich. In the final phase we would break the Hochwald defences and secure the general line from Geldern to Xanten.
The build-up for VERITABLE was enormous. The weight of artillery was particularly impressive. More than a thousand guns, one-third of which were mediums, heavies or super-heavies, were to bring down a volume of fire equal to, if not greater than, that supporting any British army during the war. Seven divisional artilleries were supplemented by five Army Groups Royal Artillery, including the 2nd Canadian, and two anti-aircraft brigades. Also in support was a relatively new organization, the 1st Canadian Rocket Unit.1 The elaborate fire-plan included
provision for counter-battery and counter-mortar tasks, a barrage covering the fronts of four divisions, an extremely long smoke-screen to blind the enemy, and a "Pepper Pot". The latter was another of the gunners' innovations, designed to neutralize targets at relatively short ranges by the coordinated fire of all available tanks, machine-guns, heavy mortars, anti-tank guns and light anti-aircraft guns.
Air support was also planned on a maximum scale. The Second Tactical Air Force, with a potential strength, including the First Canadian Army's own associated Tactical Group, No. 84, of 1000 fighters or fighter-bombers, was to provide close support. The R.A.F. Bomber Command was to employ up to 1000 heavy bombers in the immediate area of the battle and further assistance was expected from the medium bombers of the Ninth and the heavy bombers of the Eighth United States Army Air Forces. A feature of this overwhelming offensive in the air was to be the complete destruction of three German towns vital to the enemy's defences, Cleve, Goch and Emmerich.
General Crerar recognized that, from D minus three (5 February) onwards, it would become increasingly difficult to conceal from the enemy the concentration of the assaulting force in the forward assembly areas. This problem was aggravated by the movement of so many formations, over a few main routes, into the restricted area opposite the Reichswald. Accordingly, the Army Commander decided that even the advantage of full air support, which would result from favourable weather conditions, could not justify any delay in launching VERITABLE. Regardless of the weather, the attack would begin on 8 February.
That the German High Command had not fathomed our intentions was made clear by the subsequent interrogation of Field-Marshal von Rundstedt. The Commander-in-Chief West admitted that he had not anticipated a large-scale attack in the Reichswald sector. He expected a "diversionary assault" from this direction, but felt that "the main offensive effort would come from opposite Venlo, combined with an American attack across the Roer River". This opinion was shared by Colonel-General Blaskowitz, who had succeeded Student as commander of Army Group "H" at the northern end of the front. General Schlemm, whose First Parachute Army faced the Canadians, afterwards claimed that he had anticipated the offensive through the Reichswald; but he was unable to convince his superiors until the battle had begun. One of the principal circumstances serving to mislead the enemy was the fact that until VERITABLE was actually launched the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions continued to hold the entire front facing the Reichswald. Consequently, although the enemy sent patrols into our lines, he was
unable to secure identifications confirming the presence of new formations in the area. His limited air reconnaissance contributed little information; the result was that the strength of the attack when it came surprised even the allegedly prescient Schlemm.
Meeting war correspondents the day before the attack began, General Crerar spoke of the administrative foundations of this vast operation: the 1880 tons of bridging equipment that had gone into five bridges across the Maas leading into the forward assembly area; the 100 miles of road that had been constructed or improved; the 35,000 vehicles and 1,300,000 gallons of petrol used to carry the troops and their equipment and supplies forward; the 500,000 air photographs; the 800,000 special maps; the incredible quantities of ammunition, of which there were 350 types. He mentioned too that whereas, as a result of the absence of the 1st Canadian Corps in Italy, the First Canadian Army's composition had hitherto usually been only about half Canadian, for this particular operation the Canadian component would be only about one-quarter of the total; and he especially asked the newspapermen to give "proper recognition to English, Scottish and Welsh formations" in their dispatches.2
Operation VERITABLE Begins
VERITABLE began in the early morning of 8 February. During the night the heavy bombers had smashed at the enemy's communication centres behind the Reichswald--in particular, Cleve, Goch, Weeze, Udem and Calcar. At five o'clock the thunder of the artillery preparation broke out. After more than two and half hours of bombardment a sudden silence fell on the entire front for ten minutes: during this period the flash spotters and sound rangers endeavoured to locate active enemy batteries not previously known. Then the artillery spoke once more. In the words of one observer:
The weather promised to be fair, and the sight of the airbursts and tracer in the sky, against the yellow light of the rising sun was very impressive ... There was little reply from the enemy and, at this stage, the spectator was left with the impression that hostile positions were being simply smothered.
Now began the barrage, during which our batteries were to fire over 160,000 shells; and to the growing roar of gunfire was added the guttural rumble of tanks moving forward and, overhead, thé heavy drone of supporting aircraft. All tanks carried fluorescent panels,
"glowing like red hot plates against the dull background", for identification from the air.
At 10:30 a.m. the infantry advanced. Four divisions moved forward simultaneously on a six-mile front between the NijmegenCleve road and the Maas. From north to south they were: 2nd Canadian, 15th (Scottish), 53rd (Welsh) and 51st (Highland). On the extreme northern flank, by previous arrangement, the 3rd Canadian Division did not begin its advance until later. Thus began what Field-Marshal Montgomery afterwards called "the memorable battle which, in intensity and fierceness, equalled any which our troops have experienced in this war".
The enemy's resistance at first was disorganized and confused. There is ample evidence to prove that, except here and there, his troops had been stunned by the weight of the bombardment. General Schlemm later asserted that he had at once "smelt the big offensive"; but not until late on the first day was he able to produce identifications for Army Group "H" proving, beyond all doubt, that several British divisions were included in the assaulting force. Tardy approval was then given to his request for the 7th Parachute Division to be moved into the Reichswald. In the meantime the 84th German Infantry Division, which bore the brunt of the onslaught, had been shattered.
The enemy now began to repeat disastrous mistakes he had made in Normandy. Not only did he choose to contin¯e the battle west of the Rhine when it would have been wiser to withdraw his forces intact behind that great obstacle, but he fed his irreplaceable reserves piecemeal into the grinder in the desperate hope of stabilizing an impossible situation.
Our initial assault was hampered less by the Germans than by the weather. Throughout January the ground had remained firmly frozen, thus facilitating the movement of thousands of vehicles over a few main roads. However, during the week preceding the attack, a sudden thaw combined with the heavy traffic to reduce these roads to little more than muddy tracks. Great efforts on the part of drivers, mechanics and administrative staffs enabled the concentration to be completed on schedule. But, when the operation began, many armoured vehicles became hopelessly bogged down and subsequent progress was materially affected. Moreover, the situation was aggravated in the northern sector by the flooding just before the operation of a large area south of the Waal,3 along the main road from Nijmegen to Cleve. Dykes here had been breached by the Germans earlier; now the river rose, another important dyke gave way, and the flood penetrated as far east as the Siegfried defences.
Advance was most difficult on the right. The Highland Division met heavy resistance as they attacked the south-western tip of the Reichswald and endeavoured to clear the main road from Mook to Gennep. In the centre the 15th and 53rd Divisions advanced across the open ground east of Groesbeek (still strewn with skeletons of innumerable gliders from the airborne attack of the previous September), crossed the German frontier and entered the northern out skirts of the Réichswald. Minefields were encountered but the principal obstacle was mud. Routes were soon churned up by the armour; in some cases the axes of advance became impassable to all but infantry and the lightest of vehicles.
On the Scottish Division's northern flank the 2nd Canadian Division, using one brigade, did its work rapidly. The 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade had the task of seizing a triangular area dominating the main road from Nijmegen to Cleve. Following the barrage, Le Régiment de Maisonneuve went through Den Heuvel to the frontier. The Calgary Highlanders had more trouble in taking Wyler. Mines were plentiful and caused casualties. In some cases the enemy had interspersed schumines4 on the ground with others under the surface, and in attempting to avoid the more obvious ones men were caught on those which were hidden. However, by making a surprise attack on Wyler from the rear, with the assistance of artillery and heavy bombers, the Highlanders were able to complete their task by nightfall of the 8th.
On the extreme left, the 3rd Canadian Division had advanced late in the afternoon to clear the flooded area between the Nijmegen-Cleve road and the Waal. It was fortunate that the "Water Rats" had accumulated an almost unique experience of amphibious warfare, for now the knowledge gained on the beaches of Normandy and the shores of the Scheldt was invaluable. The flooding which took place almost on the eve of the attack had necessitated a revision of plans and the substitution of amphibious "Buffaloes" and "Weasels" for tanks.--In these General Spry's men floated over anti-tank ditches, wire and mines. On the right of the divisional front the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade advanced as far as Zyfflich on the first evening; on the left the 8th met more opposition but soon secured Zandpol and Leuth. At times the troops went forward through water three feet deep.
The first day of the battle had carried us across the frontier and into the Reichswald along the whole front. Reporting later to the Minister of National Defence, General Crerar wrote: "That morning the enemy commander held strong positions some 6000 to 7000 yards in advance of the Siegfried Line with probably seven infantry battalions. By
nightfall six of these battalions had been decimated. Driven back from the line which they had held all the winter forward of the Reichswald, they lost some 1300 prisoners." The outpost screen had been broken. The next obstacle was the Siegfried Line.
Breaching the Siegfried Line
The northern end of the Siegfried Line or West Wall passed through the centre of the Reichswald. General Straube, who commanded the German 86th Corps here, afterwards declared that the defences of this portion of the Line were farcical. "It wasn't a wall", he said, "it was an idea". However, according to the Army Commander, Schlemm, the idea had reality in the mind of Hitler: "The Führer envisaged huge cement fortifications, kilometres in depth, behind which the Reich was secure". Accordingly, orders had been issued for an immediate report to Berlin whenever a single bunker of the defences was lost.
Whatever its limitations, the Siegfried Line was no paper wall. The main defences ran south from Kranenburg (southeast of Wyler) across the Reichswald and over open ground to the south of it. The northern and southern ends of this sector of the Line were anchored to the Rhine and Maas, respectively, by anti-tank ditches. Other defences had recently been constructed east of the Reichswald between Cleve and Goch. In addition to trenches, weapon-pits and antitank ditches throughout the entire length of the Line, the enemy had a number of large concrete fortifications in the Goch-Asperden area. These were intended to protect the vulnerable southern flank of the Reichswald, where relatively open country extended to the Maas. Although they did not possess heavy armament, they were skilfully sited for mutual support with automatic weapons covering excellent fields of fire.
During the days following the launching of VERITABLE, the battle in the pine woods of the Reichswald grew in violence. Realizing now the potential danger of the new offensive, the German Command brought reinforcements forward in increasing numbers; and it was favoured by developments elsewhere. For it had become necessary to postpone the Ninth Army's converging operation. General Simpson's advance had been scheduled to begin on 10 February, after the capture of the Roer dams by the First United States Army. As long as these remained in German possession, the enemy was able to flood the area opposite the Ninth Army at will. After heavy fighting the Americans captured the last of the seven dams on 10 February; but, meanwhile, the enemy had succeeded in opening the sluices and raising the level of the Roer some four feet. Consequently, Operation GRENADE could not begin on time and it was in fact to be delayed almost a fortnight. This development was an "extreme disappointment" to Field-Marshal
Montgomery. VERITABLE had to continue alone, and against it the enemy was able to concentrate all his available reserves; it was therefore inevitable that progress was slower than had been hoped".
Following the first assault, in which the 2nd Canadian Division had completed its immediate limited task, the advance was continued by the remaining four divisions. On the second day the Highland Division pushed through the southern fringe of the Reichswald and cut the main road from Mook to Gennep. On their left, the Welsh Division drove through the centre of the forest to occupy the high ground south-west of Materborn; while the Scottish Division broke the Siegfried Line further north and was soon in the outskirts of Cleve. On the extreme left, the 3rd Canadian Division continued to struggle through the flooded countryside south of the Rhine. Many vehicles were lost in the rising water and, at times, forward battalions were completely marooned; but the troops' fortitude and determination carried them into the Millingen area. Then, on 10 February, the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade launched an attack which broke the northern tip of the Siegfried defences. Using "Buffaloes" the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders and the Highland Light Infantry of Canada reached the Spoy Canal, immediately north of Cleve. During this advance there was particularly severe fighting at Rindern, where the enemy counter-attacked with paratroops, and at Duffelward, where pillboxes and fortified houses marked the extremity of the Line.
The Reichswald battle now entered its crucial stage. In addition to the 7th Parachute Division, the enemy threw in the 6th Parachute, 15th Panzer Grenadier and 116th Panzer Divisions. He was greatly assisted by our communication difficulties. By 10 February five miles of the road from Nijmegen to Cleve, our "main axis", was under two feet of water. Within three days the depth had doubled. In spite of herculean efforts by the sappers, other routes broke down under the impossible strain imposed by the requirements of the advance. South of the Reichswald the only good road--that leading to Goch--was held in force by the enemy.
Another British formation now came in: the 43rd (Wessex) Division joined the vanguard, at the north-eastern corner of the forest, and intervened in the heavy fighting near Cleve. Moreover, FieldMarshal Montgomery ordered the 11th Armoured and the 52nd (Lowland) Divisions transferred to Crerar's command. In the Commander-in-Chief's words, "the difficulty was to deploy additional strength through the Reichswald Forest in view of the communications, but I wanted to make certain that General Crerar had at his disposal all the resources he could use for the battle". Not until D plus five (13 February) was the Reichswald finally cleared. In the south, the Highland Division captured Gennep--thus
facilitating the construction of another bridge across the Maas--while the Welsh drove the enemy out of the eastern corner of the forest. Beyond the Reichswald, the important junction of Bedburg fell to the Wessex, while the Scottish Division secured the ruins of Cleve, which were then taken over by the 3rd Canadian Division; the Allied air forces, they found, had left very little of the town from which Henry VIII got his fourth wife. Although, by now, the northern portion of the Siegfried Line was completely overrun, the enemy still held formidable positions around Goch.
With the first phase of VERITABLE completed, the offensive continued according to plan on a two-corps front. At noon on 15 February the 2nd Canadian Corps took over the left sector from the 30th Corps and General Simonds became responsible for all operations north of a line running through Grave, Groesbeek and Cleve to Emmerich. Simultaneously the 3rd Canadian Division came back under his command; he also had the 4th Canadian and 11th British Armoured Divisions and the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Elements of ten German divisions and supporting units still barred the way to the Rhine. Employing a powerful "left hook", to be developed by the 2nd Canadian Corps, General Crerar planned to break through the enemy's remaining defence line in the Hochwald Forest; but, before its reduction could begin, it was necessary to clear the stubbornly contested area of Goch.
The 30th Corps attacked Goch on 18 February. After the Wessex Division had driven the enemy out of the Forest of Cleve and seized the escarpment overlooking Goch from the north-east, the 15th Division passed through and attacked the town from this direction while the 51st assailed it from the west. The fortifications hereabouts provided a special problem. The embrasures of many pillboxes were of four-inch steel, mounted in concrete two feet thick. Mines and trip-wires covered the approach to each post. But these defences rapidly succumbed to coordinated attacks of armour and infantry. The enemy's failure to site antitank guns in his pillboxes made the latter very vulnerable to "Crocodiles" and engineer assault vehicles (A.Vs.R.E.). After a pillbox had been isolated, with the help of smoke, a Churchill tank would engage its embrasures. If resistance continued an A.V.R.E. would then use its petard to blast open the entrance and a "Crocodile would spray the interior with flame. Confronted with this technique of assault, the remaining defenders of the Siegfried Line in due course lost heart. The German commander at Goch surrendered on the second day of the attack; but his men continued to fight from house to house and two more days were required before the 15th and 51st Divisions finished mopping up the town. This was the last of the northern sector of the Siegfried Line.
Moyland Wood and the Golch-Calcar Road
While British troops were capturing Goch, the Canadians were fighting a stiff battle south-east of Cleve. In this sector, the enemy's stubborn resistance now centred about Moyland Wood-a narrow strip of forest midway between Cleve and Calcar--and the main road from Goch to Calcar. He held both of these localities in force, for he had been strengthened by the arrival of the Panzer Lehr Division and another infantry division.
After a brigade of the Scottish Division had secured the western end of Moyland Wood, the 3rd Canadian Division on 16 February began the task of clearing the rest of it. The 7th Brigade met fierce opposition from determined paratroopers. On the second day of the struggle, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles reported the heaviest shelling the battalion had ever been under; while the diary of the Regina Rifle Regiment records that the fighting was "just as bad as anything encountered in Normandy". In addition to artillery, machine-guns and mortars, the enemy was using rockets. On the evening of 19 February, one company of the Canadian Scottish beat off no less than six counter-attacks. "The thin line of troops on the ground was tired and dirty and hungry". For the moment the Germans retained a foothold in the wood.
In the meantime the 2nd Canadian Division was heavily engaged to the south, along the road joining Goch and Calcar. This road was of great importance to the enemy since it covered the approach to the ridge between Calcar and Udem, an essential feature of the Hochwald defences. Here the 4th Infantry Brigade under Brigadier F.N. Cabeldu fought one of its bloodiest battles. The attack began at noon on 19 February. The assaulting battalions, the Essex Scottish and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, were transported over open ground in "Kangaroos"5 and were supported by tanks of the 10th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse), while ten field and six medium artillery regiments fired a rolling barrage. Nevertheless, the progress of the armour was hindered from the beginning by boggy ground; and, it soon became evident that a strong screen of anti-tank defences, including many 88millimetre guns, lined the Goch-Calcar road. The enemy, moreover, had brought in fresh troops, including units of the Panzer Lehr Division.
Although the infantry were able to penetrate to the immediate vicinity of their objectives they suffered severely. In particular, the Essex Scottish were cut off and overrun during the following night; for a time, it was feared that this battalion had been destroyed as a fighting unit. The enemy made repeated counter-attacks with tanks and infantry, and the position became so desperate that one company commander called
LE RÉGIMENT DE MAISONNEUVE CLEARING DEN HEUVEL, 8 FEBRUARY 1945
From a painting by Capt. G. D. Pepper
The regiment is seen advancing towards the German frontier behind the great barrage on the first morning of Operation VERITABLE, the winter offensive of the First Canadian Army between the Rivers Maas and Rhine.
for fire support on his own headquarters. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, however, were able to hold their positions against the most desperate assaults, and the Royal Regiment of Canada restored the situation with a further attack on 20 February. When the brigade commander visited the R.H.L.I. on the 21st he found them "in rare fighting trim--very cocky--greedily adding up their totals in enemy tanks K.O.'d." As a result of this fierce fighting, the enemy lost control of the vital road. Furthermore, his resistance in Moyland Wood was weakened, and a carefully coordinated attack made by the Winnipegs on 21 February cleared the remainder of it. Two of the three German lines had now been smashed by British troops and Canadians in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. But very formidable obstacles still stood between the First Canadian Army and the Rhine. Xanten was covered by an ideal natural defensive position: a boomerang-shaped ridge upon which stood the forests known as the Hochwald and the Balberger Wald.
Operation BLOCKBUSTER: On To the Rhine
General Crerar's plan for the final phase of the drive to the Rhine involved "a deliberate assault across the plateau between Calcar and Udem against the strong enemy defences of the Hochwald". With these defences broken, the Army Commander intended to finish the operation with an armoured thrust at Xanten. BLOCKBUSTER, the code name given to this final phase of VERITABLE, was to be carried out mainly by the 2nd Canadian Corps. In addition to the three Canadian divisions, General Simonds had at his disposal the 11th Armoured and 43rd (Wessex) Divisions, the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and the 2nd Army Group Royal Canadian Artillery.
While preparations were being completed for the renewal of the northern offensive, the Ninth Army was at last able to begin its long-delayed attack. The flooded Roer had gradually subsided during the middle of February, and on the 23rd General Simpson launched Operation GRENADE. Ever since the beginning of VERITABLE, the enemy had been shifting troops from the American front to that of the First Canadian Army. This made Simpson's task somewhat easier, and within two days of his first attack both Düren and Jülieh had fallen. On the front of the 21st Army Group, the Germans west of the Rhine were now caught in the powerful pincers of two converging armies. But for the moment this did not lessen their stubborn resistance in the north. As Crerar wrote later, "the American attack led to the strategic defeat of the enemy, but it did not immediately have any substantial effect upon our own hard battle between the rivers".
The new phase of the offensive was launched early on 26 February. General Simonds had decided that success depended upon the capture of
the enemy's defences at the southern end of the Hochwald. Between this forest and the smaller Balberger Wald a railway ran almost due east towards Xanten. The Corps Commander intended to use this railway as his, main axis of advance. However, in order to deceive the enemy and draw his reserves away from the main effort, he ordered a preliminary attack in force against the high ground south of Calcar. A strong attack here was necessary in any case to provide a "firm base" for an armoured thrust from Udem across the forest ridge which barred the way to Xanten.
Aided by a heavy artillery bombardment, infantry of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions opened the initial attack against the heights. They were supported by tanks of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and the assaulting troops were assisted by "artificial moonlight". The operation produced the bitterest kind of fighting. In the centre, Brigadier R. H. Keefler's 6th Brigade attacked with all three battalions mounted on either "Kangaroos" or tanks. The enemy offered determined opposition. Keefler afterwards remarked, "It ws as known that German paratroops were holding the position being attacked and, in spite of fairly heavy artillery fire, it was a case of the infantry fighting their way forward right from the outset against small arms fire, anti-tank weapons and self-propelled guns." In spite of this resistance, and very soft ground, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal soon forced their way through to their objectives. The South Saskatchewan Regiment likewise succeeded in capturing theirs--a height which dominated the ridge south of Calcar. When on the following day the enemy counter-attacked here he was beaten back with heavy casualties. The third battalion, the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, ran into bad going, mines and repeated counter-attacks; only after very severe fighting were the Camerons able to clear their final objectives. By noon of the first day of BLOCKBUSTER the 6th Brigade had completed its task. Throughout, the infantry had received notable assistance from the tanks of the 10th and 27th Canadian Armoured Regiments.
Meanwhile, on the left flank, the 5th Infantry Brigade had advanced to secure positions along the ridge southwest of Calcar. The two leading battalions, the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada and Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, were supported by tanks of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment as well as by timed artillery concentrations. The enemy had reinforced this--front before the attack and fought hard. In Brigadier Megill's words, "The struggle developed into a very slow infantry fight in close contact with the enemy, which made effective artillery support difficult to arrange". Nevertheless, helped by the armour and "Wasps", the battalions succeeded in taking their objectives early on the first day of the operation.
On the extreme southern flank of the attack one battalion of the 3rd Division had been particularly heavily engaged. During the opening
phase of BLOCKBUSTER the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada had the task of seizing positions astride the road from Calcar to Udem immediately north of Keppeln. Here as elsewhere the enemy resisted fiercely. Only after very heavy fighting, in which grenades and bayonets were freely used, did the Queen's Own take their objectives. In the course of the advance a supreme act of bravery won for Sergeant Aubrey Cosens the Victoria Cross. Supported by two tanks, his platoon attacked enemy strongpoints in three farm buildings and encountered bitter resistance. With his platoon commander killed, the platoon reduced to four other men and himself, and the enemy counter-attacking fiercely, Sergeant Cosens took command. Heavy mortar and shell fire was raining down, but he ran across open ground to direct the fire of the remaining tank upon the enemy. The little group broke up a further counter-attack, but this did not satisfy their leader. The enemy still held the strongpoints; he must be evicted. Reorganizing his tiny command, the sergeant ordered the tank to ram the first building. Single-handed, he then faced intense machine-gun and small arms fire to clear all three. Every man in them was killed or captured. In the moment of triumph, with his task completed and the objective secured, Sergeant Cosens, who had "himself killed at least twenty of the enemy", was slain by an enemy sniper.
On the same day (26 February), the other battalions of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade were also able to capture their final objectives. With the assistance of the 6th Armoured Regiment, the infantry secured Keppeln and the 9th Brigade then launched an attack against Udem. Possession of this important place was hotly contested. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada reported tersely that "paratroops held out in strongpoints and counter-attacked numerous times". When the town finally fell, on the 27th, this phase of BLOCKBUSTER was brought to a successful conclusion.
Meanwhile, on the morning of the first assault, two armoured formations had been projected into the battle. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division's armoured brigade, commanded by Brigadier R. W. Moncel,6 lunged forward between the two infantry divisions. It found the ridge immediately north-east of Udem "ringed with anti-tank guns". The men of the Lake Superior Regiment rode into the assault on the tanks of the 21st Armoured Regiment (The Governor General's Foot Guards). The objectives were taken, along with several hundred prisoners, but we lost 35 tanks. By the second day the Brigade had advanced as far as the gap between the Hochwald and the Balberger Wald. To penetrate this was the task of Brigadier Jefferson's 10th Infantry Brigade; but the Germans held this vital area in force, and
"hellish fighting" and heavy losses followed without our troops being able to make much progress. While preparations were being made for another thrust through the gap in the direction of Xanten, farther to the right the 11th Armoured Division was advancing south-east on Sonsbeck. The capture of this town would permit an outflanking operation at the base of the Balberger Wald.
Up to a point the enemy had reacted as General Simonds had hoped. Fearing further development of the attack against his right, Schlemm had committed the 116th Panzer Division in the fighting south of Calear. Moreover, he was so apprehensive about this area that he brought up reserves of experienced paratroops to block the Calcar-Xanten road north of the Hochwald. But, at the same time, he had the foresight to place other special troops (the Parachute Army Assault Battalion) in the gap between the Hochwald and the Balberger Wald, where he also had many tanks and much artillery. Aided by bad weather, soft ground and the natural strength of his positions, the enemy was prepared to fight a most stubborn delaying battle. By the end of the month he had temporarily stabilized his line. It was apparent that succeeding phases of BLOCKBUSTER would involve very heavy fighting.
In the meantime the Ninth Army was gathering momentum in the south. From this time onward GRENADE had an increasing effect upon the Canadian and British operations. As General Simpson's troops drove north the enemy was compelled to send against them first the Panzer Lehr and then the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. This desperate shuffling of diminishing resources was of no avail. By the beginning of March the Americans had captured the important industrial centre of München-Gladbach and had entered Neuss, opposite Düsseldorf. Further south, the First United States Army was approaching Cologne. It is against this background of highly successful operations elsewhere, the consummation of Allied strategy, that the concluding stages of BLOCKBUSTER must be seen.
On 1 March there was bitter fighting in the Hochwald and Balberger Wald as the Canadian infantry renewed the assault on the forest ridge. The 5th Brigade secured a bridgehead in the Hochwald and pushed patrols into the gap at the southern end. Further north, the 4th Brigade encountered particularly severe opposition. Heavy casualties were suffered, but the Essex Scottish finally made their objectives good.
As this battalion advanced across open ground against enemy posts on the western edge of the Hochwald, a company commander, Major F. A. Tilston, was wounded in the head. Nevertheless, he pressed forward, "shouting orders and encouragement and using his Sten gun with great effect", and was the first to reach the enemy position. He ordered his reserve platoon to clear it and then led the rest of his men against the German second line, maintaining the momentum of the attack by the
force of his example. As he approached the wood he was again severely wounded but continued to urge his men forward. In the German positions he reorganized his sadly depleted company, now but one-quarter of its original strength, and continually exposed himself while successive savage counter-attacks were beaten back. He was now hit a third time. "Although very seriously wounded and barely conscious, he would not submit to medical attention until he had given complete instructions as to the defence plan, had emphasized the absolute necessity of holding the position, and had ordered his one remaining officer to take over". In due course he received the Victoria Cross.
While the 2nd Division was clearing the Hochwald of its stubborn defenders, the 3rd was pushing into the outskirts of the Balberger Wald. Here, as elsewhere, vehicles soon bogged down in the mud and minefields failed to reveal any recognizable pattern. Le Régiment de la Chaudière made a night attack against the northern annex of the Balberger known as the Tuschen Wald but were repulsed by "an overpowering artillery and mortar concentration". On the following day (2 March), after a further effort, the battalion succeeded in capturing this wood and then the Queen's Own and the North Shore Regiment passed through to clear the Balberger Wald. On 2 March also the 4th Canadian Armoured Division made a further thrust in the gap. Opposition here was as vicious as ever, and we lost many men, particularly of the Algonquin and Lake Superior Regiments, without breaking clear through. The enemy continued his counter-attacks and not until the evening of 4 March could it be said that the great forest obstacle of the Hochwald and Balberger Wald was clear.
While the Canadians were fighting through this last important barrier between them and the Rhine, the Americans were continuing their powerful northward drive. To facilitate a junction with them, General Crerar had directed the 30th Corps to make a converging thrust south-east of Weeze, which had been captured by the Welsh Division; and contact between the First Canadian and Ninth United States Armies was made at Geldern on 3 March. Thereafter, the 30th British and 16th U.S. Corps turned eastward and made parallel drives towards the Rhine in the direction of Wesel. The German defence of the approaches to the Ruhr was crumbling. Crerar saw that the enemy was "executing a withdrawal to a line before Xanten, Sonsbeck, Bonninghardt and Rheinberg". It was obvious that he would make strenuous efforts to retain this narrow bridgehead to cover the evacuation of his decimated formations across the Rhine.
Resistance further west gradually diminished as the paratroops were pulled back to their final positions close to Xanten. North of the Hochwald and east of Calcar, the Wessex Division cleared an area which extended as far as the Rhine. Further south, the 3rd Canadian
Division secured Sonsbeck as a base for a new armoured thrust to the east, and on 6 March the 4th Canadian Armoured Division attacked towards Veen. This attack made some progress, but extensive cratering of roads, minefields and increased resistance held the armour up short of Veen. Moreover, this town proved to be a particularly nasty obstacle and the 10th Infantry Brigade suffered severely in assaulting it. The war diary of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada described the enemy's defences:
The houses in this area were obviously built with a view to turning them into improvised pillboxes. They all possessed extremely strong concrete walls, with narrow slits to be used for machine guns and Panzerfauste.7 The cellars of these houses were subdivided into box like concrete compartments, ideal for last-ditch, suicidal defences.
Veen fell only on 9 March. The following day the Lowland Division, advancing on the Canadians' right flank, secured Menzelen.
With British and American troops threatening his flanks, and the Canadians advancing against his centre, the enemy's position was hopeless. The commander of the First Parachute Army claims that he was plagued with repeated, frantic and contradictory orders from Berlin. It became his personal responsibility to ensure that none of the nine bridges in his sector fell into Allied hands;8 he also received a stream of instructions forbidding the evacuation of "a single fit man" to the east bank of the Rhine. Schlemm's shrinking bridgehead contained the remnants of four corps--nine emaciated divisions occupied an area of about fifteen square miles and three divisional headquarters were crammed into a single group of buildings.
For the First Canadian Army there was still the problem of breaking into the Xanten area and eliminating the remaining enemy west of the Rhine. The task was not easy. All experience indicated that the daredevil paratroopers would offer fierce resistance. And they held strong positions: an anti-tank ditch, minefields and dug-in emplacements protected Xanten. Accordingly, preparations were made for a deliberate attack, using special assault equipment and infantry of the 2nd Canadian and Wessex Divisions. While the Canadians were seizing the western edge of the town and high ground to the south of it, the Wessex were to capture Xanten itself.
On 8 March both divisions attacked from the north-west along lines roughly parallel to the main road from Calcar to Xanten. On the
northern flank, the Wessex Division advanced over open ground subject to observation from the east bank of the river. However, this was little help to the German artillery, since a "beamed" screen of oil smoke, more than three miles long, hid the flank of the attack. As anticipated, the enemy fought stubbornly and there was some difficulty in bridging the anti-tank ditch. Nevertheless, with the aid of "Flails" and "Crocodiles", the British troops overcame all obstacles and the final objectives in Xanten were secured by nightfall on the first day of the assault. During the following day, the Wessex Division mopped up isolated strongpoints on the north-eastern outskirts.
South of the Calcar-Xanten road, the 2nd Canadian Division also made steady progress against strenuous opposition. The assaulting battalions of the 4th Infantry Brigade suffered heavy casualties, particularly among officers. The enemy held out in fortified houses until the flame-throwers arrived to support the infantry; then, as the diary of the Essex Scottish remarks, "The Crocs put the finishing touches on the Germans with shell and flame". At one point, scouts of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry were pinned down, up to their necks in the icy water of a ditch, for several hours and one of the men afterwards remarked that "it was just like battle courses in England, but the bullets were aimed at them instead of over their heads". Forward companies were temporarily cut off and vehicles bogged down; but a critical situation was averted after the Royal Regiment of Canada succeeded in re-establishing contact with the forward troops and those on the flanks of the brigade.
Late on the night of 8-9 March, the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade (with the South Saskatchewan Regiment under command) passed through the area already won to capture the ridge south of Xanten. This second phase of the attack was completed with comparative ease, for the coordinated pressure of two divisions had broken the core of the enemy's resistance. Early on 9 March all battalions secured their objectives and the brigade drove on southward along the bank of the Alter Rhein, a horseshoe-shaped pond once part of the main course of the river. During the advance a wood in which enemy troops were forming was cleared and over 200 prisoners were taken.
While the 6th Brigade on the right flank cleared the high wood called Die Hees, the 5th moved on towards the Rhine. The Calgary Highlanders recorded that "burning buildings cast a rosy glow in the sky and the constant rumble of guns drowned out whatever noise the advancing troops made". Small parties of disorganized paratroops were overcome and patrols were pushed east towards Ginderich and the Rhine bridges. At one stage, in this final phase, a possibility appeared that the 7th Brigade might be used to "bounce a crossing" of the Rhine at Wesel. But, warned by the example of Remagen, the enemy blew up
the Wesel bridges in the early hours of 10 March. That day the Lowland Division, moving forward swiftly, captured Ginderich; and infantry and tanks of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division overcame desperate resistance in a monastery at Winnenthal, just east of Veen. Off to the right, the 16th U.S. Corps had come under General Crerar's direction to assist in liquidating the enemy's bridgehead. By 10 p.m. on the 10th all organized resistance in this bridgehead had ceased. The redoubtable First Parachute Army had withdrawn the bulk of its divisions across the river in good order; but these divisions were now greatly depleted.
The Victory In the Rhineland
After more than a month of incessant sanguinary fighting the enemy had been driven back over the Rhine. Operations VERITABLE and GRENADE had carried the Allied forces to the west bank along a front extending from Düsseldorf to Nijmegen.
For the Canadians, and the great force of troops from the United Kingdom associated with them in the First Canadian Army, these battles had been among the most grim and gruelling of the war. The conditions of weather and ground, particularly in the early stages, had been almost beyond belief; and the enemy--largely paratroopers had fought with a combination of disciplined skill and wild fanatical resolution. (One Canadian diarist wrote in February, "How he comes in in the face of what is thrown at him is a mystery to us".) During the offensive Rundstedt had gradually built up his force opposite General Crerar's army to a total of three infantry, four parachute, one panzer grenadier and two panzer divisions. And this force had unusual fire-power behind it; Intelligence estimated that at the beginning of March the First Parachute Army, had available over 700 mortars and more than 1000 guns of various calibres, apart from self-propelled pieces. It is not surprising, in these circumstances, that our losses were heavy. The casualties of the First Canadian Army from the beginning of the offensive on 8 February through 10 March were 1049 officers and 14,585 other ranks, of whom 379 officers and 4925 other ranks were Canadians. During the operations the Army had captured over 23,000 prisoners.
Commentary may perhaps be left to the Supreme Allied Commander. On 26 March he wrote to the G.O.C.-in-C.:
I have previously sent out general messages of congratulation to the several parts of this Allied force, covering our more recent operations. The purpose of this note is to express to you personally my admiration for the way you conducted the attack, by your Army, beginning February 8 and ending when the enemy had evacuated his last bridgehead at Wesel. Probably no assault in this war has been conducted under more appalling conditions of terrain than was
that one. It speaks volumes for your skill and determination and the valor of your soldiers, that you carried it through to a successful conclusion.
With warm personal regard,
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER.
The general significance of the victory is clear. The Germans' failure to withdraw across the Rhine after their defeat in the Ardennes was, in Field-Marshal Montgomery's opinion, their third "major blunder" of the campaign--the others being the decisions to fight the battle of France south of the Seine and to launch the Ardennes counteroffensive itself. This mistake led to the destruction west of the Rhine of the formations that might have opposed our crossing and prolonged the defence east of the river. VERITABLE and GRENADE together cost the Germans about 90,000 casualties; and the total was vastly increased by Operations LUMBERJACK and UNDERTONE further south, in the course of which the First, Third and Seventh U.S. Armies closed up to the Rhine and (thanks to the Remagen "windfall") even got across it.9 The enemy, as General Eisenhower wrote, "was now in no condition to hold fast in the defensive line to which he had been compelled to retreat". Ills defeat in the Rhineland led straight to his complete collapse less than two months later.
Battle of the Rhineland,
First Canadian Army Front,
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