The Campaign in North-West Europe:
The Advance to Victory,
"Over the Rhine, Then, Let Us Go"
By 20 March 1945 there were no German troops in the field west of the Rhine except those remaining in the pocket east of the Saar and the Moselle, which was being carved away by the Americans with incredible rapidity. The Allied armies stood on the western bank ready for the killing thrust into the heart of Germany, and the plan for this thrust was ready. The Supreme Commander writes:
The plan of campaign for crossing the Rhine and establishing a strong force on the far bank was, thanks to the success of the operations west of the river, basically the same as that envisaged in our long-term planning in January, and even before D Day. Its fundamental features were the launching of a main attack to the north of the Ruhr, supported by a strong secondary thrust from bridgeheads in the Frankfurt area, directed initially on Kassel to complete the envelopment of the Ruhr. Subsequently, offensives would strike out from the bridgeheads to any remaining organized forces and complete their destruction.
The main attack thus fell to Field-Marshal Montgomery's 21st Army Group, in which the Ninth U.S. Army was still included. The task of Montgomery's armies, however, was considerably eased by the existence of the First U.S. Army's Remagen bridgehead, which had drawn large enemy forces in against it and proportionately disturbed the German arrangements for defence of the Rhine elsewhere. And twentyf-our hours before the main attack was delivered, General Patton's Third U.S. Army further disrupted the defence by slipping a division across the river south of Mainz.
The 21st Army Group attack (Operation PLUNDER) was to take place on a two-army front between Rheinberg and Rees, immediately to the north of the great urban area of the Ruhr. The Ninth Army would go in on the right and the Second (which as already noted had been planning for this operation while the First Canadian Army was conducting the drive between the rivers) on the left. The 18th U.S. Airborne Corps, composed for this operation of the 6th British and 17th U.S. Airborne Divisions, was to take part under General Dempsey. The airborne men, however, were not to drop before or simultaneously with the waterborne assault, as in previous operations, but only after the ground troops were established on the far bank of the Rhine. Their mission was to seize commanding ground from which German artillery could sweep the area,
and to prevent the arrival of enemy reinforcements.
General Crerar's Army Headquarters had no part in the crossing operations. Its immediate tasks were to hold the line of the Rhine and the Maas from Emmerich to the sea, and to prepare to bridge the Rhine at Emmerich and to take control of the lodgement beyond the river north and north-west of that place when so ordered. General Simonds' 2nd Canadian Corps, however, passed for the moment under Dempsey's orders and was given a share in PLUNDER; and Canada was to be represented in the first phase of the operation by the 9th ("Highland") Infantry Brigade, which would be under the 51st (Highland) Division for the occasion. When the time came for the First Canadian Army as such to go into action again, it would be far more completely Canadian than before; for, as we have seen, the Headquarters of the 1st Canadian Corps and all the Canadian formations that had fought so long in Italy had now been transferred to North-West Europe, and General Foulkes had taken over a section of the line there on 15 March. In the operations about to begin, two Canadian army corps would face the enemy side by side for the first time in history.
The way was prepared for PLUNDER by a programme of widespread air bombing second only to that preceding the Normandy landings; and a smoke-screen 50 miles long concealed our movements west of the Rhine from the enemey. Under its cover, amphibious vehicles and even naval craft were brought up across country by road to the points of assault. On the eve of the attack, Field-Marshal Montgomery issued one of his personal messages to the troops, reviewing the enemy's recent losses and his desperate situation, and concluding:
21 ARMY GROUP WILL NOW CROSS THE RHINE.
The enemy possibly thinks he is safe behind this great river obstacle. We all agree that it is a great obstacle; but we will show the enemy that he is far from safe behind it...
And having crossed the Rhine, we will crack about in the plains of Northern Germany, chasing the enemy from pillar to post. The swifter and the more energetic our action the sooner the war will be over, and that is what we all desire: to get on with the job and finish off the German war as soon as possible.
Over the Rhine, then, let us go. And good hunting to you all on the other side.
May "the Lord mighty in battle" give us the victory in this our latest undertaking, as He has done in all our battles since we landed in Normandy on D-Day.
PLUNDER began on the evening of 23 March with one of the greatest artillery bombardments of the war; over 1300 British guns were firing. On the British front the 51st Division launched the attack across the river on the left at 9:00 p.m.; an hour later the 1st Commando Brigade assaulted Wesel (which had been completely flattened by the R.A.F). In both sectors the troops secured their first objectives in a matter of minutes. On
their front, the Americans were equally successful. With very few exceptions the amphibious attacks encountered only light opposition.1
While the Commando Brigade was dealing with Wesel, forward units of the 51st Division were making progress in the direction of Rees. At 4:00 a.m. on 24 March the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade began to cross the Rhine. Using the familiar "Buffaloes", the Highland Light Infantry of Canada were the first Canadians to reach the further shore. They suffered only "sporadic shelling" while afloat and were soon in position near the bend of the river west of Rees. Later in the day they were joined by the Glengarrians and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders.
By this time German resistance was stiffening and the Canadians were ordered to capture the village of Speldrop, some three miles inland, which had already repulsed several attacks. The H.L.I., advancing against it, had to cross open flats which were swept by artillery and mortar fire from positions which had survived our bombardment. The enemy's paratroops fought in the manner to which we had become accustomed; our infantry reported that "houses had to be cleared at the point of the bayonet and single Germans made suicidal attempts to break up our attacks". Only on the following day (25 March) was the enemy driven out of Speldrop.
Meanwhile, on the morning of the 24th, Operation VARSITY, the third great Allied airborne attack of the campaign, had been launched and had been successful. As the aerial armada, three thousand aircraft and gliders, roared over the river the troops below were cheered by what a Canadian unit called the "tremendous spectacle". Nine hundred fighters provided a protective "umbrella" for the landings while a still larger force farther east isolated the battle area.
Shortly before ten o'clock in the morning the airborne troops began to drop. Although tactical surprise was achieved, and initial casualties to men and aircraft were light, German light anti-aircraft guns made some trouble. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, still serving with the 6th Airborne Division, dropped along the northern fringe of Diersfordt Wood, north-west of Wesel, in an area which was under heavy fire. The commanding officer (Lt.-Col. J. A. Nicklin) was killed, but the battalion quickly concentrated and cleared its objectives along the wood's western edge. Further east, British airborne troops captured Hamminkeln and bridges over the Issel, while the Americans seized other crossings and the village of Diersfordt. During the 24th the airborne troops took over 3500 prisoners, "destroyed or reduced all the artillery positions", and joined up with the divisions of the ground assault.
In the course of this day's work a non-commissioned officer of the Canadian Parachute Battalion won the Victoria Cross. Corporal F. G. Topham, a medical orderly who had dropped with his unit, was treating casualties when he heard a cry for help from a wounded man in the open. Although two other orderlies had already been killed while attempting to help this man, the corporal immediately responded. He received a painful wound in the face but nevertheless dressed the soldier's hurts and carried him through intense fire to safety. Refusing treatment himself, Topham continued to work devotedly, and when at last he was ordered evacuated he "interceded so earnestly on his own behalf that he was eventually allowed to return to duty". He then further distinguished himself. A carrier had been hit and was burning furiously as its own ammunition exploded. Again Topham went forward across open ground to bring back the three men in the carrier. In the words of the citation, he displayed "sustained gallantry of the highest order, for six hours, most of the time in great pain". His actions recall and typify the selfless heroism and devotion shown on many occasions by noncombatant soldiers of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps and of unit medical staffs.
At this point it may be noted that the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion continued to serve with the 6th Airborne Division throughout the remainder of the campaign. Advancing rapidly on the right flank of the 21st Army Group, this division captured Erle and Lembeck; the pace then accelerated and on 3 April the Canadian battalion recorded that "approximately 40 miles were covered during the day". They took Minden and then pushed on through Celle to reach the Elbe east of Hamburg. The Canadians crossed this river on 30 April and thereafter were in the forefront of the notable advance which carried the airborne division to the Baltic Sea. A Russian officer arriving at Wismar on the night of 2-3 May was surprised to find the town in Canadian hands. Thus the first Canadian battalion to engage the enemy in Normandy also enjoyed the distinction of penetrating deeper into Germany than any other Canadian unit,--deeper, indeed, than any British unit except its associates in the 6th Airborne Division.
The airborne phase of PLUNDER led to rapid expansion of the bridgehead beyond the Rhine. By nightfall on 24 March the Ninth Army had two divisions across the river, and soon the Americans were thrusting forward on a broad front along the north edge of the Ruhr. At Wesel, on the boundary between the Second and Ninth Armies, the Commandos linked up with the airborne troops, who then began their eastern drive. Further north, in the British sector, the 12th Corps made a rapid advance towards Bocholt and Borken. Somewhat stiffer resistance was encountered on the left by the 30th British Corps: At Rees the
enemy's stubborn parachute troops held out until 26 March; by-passing this pocket, other British formations pushed eastwards to the Issel.
On the extreme left flank of the 30th Corps, the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade met continued determined opposition along the road to Emmerich. At Bienen the North Nova Scotias lost heavily in fighting that was at such close quarters that our artillery could not help. On the morning of 26 March the H.L.I. finally subdued what was left of the enemy in the town. On the same day, the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, which had come under the 9th Brigade's orders, cleared nearby Millingen.2 As the Canadians advanced towards Emmerich, and the bridgehead expanded, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, now commanded by Major-General R. H. Keefler,3 assumed responsibility for the left flank of the 30th Corps. By 28 March this division had come back under the 2nd Canadian Corps and with it General Simonds took over the left sector of the bridgehead. During the last days of March, the 3rd Division forced its way into the shattered debris of Emmerich. This industrial town had been almost pulverized by bombing, but the enemy fought on amid the desolation. From across the Rhine, the whole tank strength of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, firing as artillery, supported Keefler's battalions. Repeated counter-attacks were beaten back by the 7th Infantry Brigade; then the 8th occupied the high wooded hill known as Hoch Elten, north of the city. This completed the initial Canadian task in Operation PLUNDER.
First Canadian Army Returns To the Battle
The First Canadian Army as a whole was about to resume its active role. On 27 March General Crerar conferred with Field-Marshal Montgomery, who told him that "in view of the favourable situation which was developing in front of the two assaulting armies, he had decided to thrust them forward to the river Elbe". General Simpson's Ninth Army was to advance with its right aimed at Magdeburg, while the left wing of General Dempsey's Second Army was to be directed on Hamburg. The Canadian Army, in the words of a formal directive issued by the Army Group Commander on 28 March, was "to open up the supply route to the north through Arnhem, and then to operate to clear North-East Holland, the coastal belt eastwards to the Elbe, and West Holland".
The German commanders could do little to interfere with the development of the Allied strategy. Germany was disintegrating before their eyes. The hysterical orders continued to flow from Berlin, but the
generals in the field, whose vision was less obscured by Nazi histrionics, knew that resistance was fast becoming hopeless. When Blumentritt took over the First Parachute Army, he found that his new headquarters seldom knew the disposition of German formations on the flanks and lacked intelligence of our movements. "If they heard that white flags had been hung out in a certain town, they would phone the town's Burgomaster and ask if the Allies had already taken it". Obviously, the end was near.
By the beginning of April a situation was developing which resembled that after the Battle of Normandy. The enemy's remaining reserves having been consumed in the struggle west of the Rhine, the Allied armies broke out of the bridgehead which they had established on the eastern bank and drove deep into German territory. This great advance was comparable to the previous autumn's pursuit through Northern France and the Low Countries. There were, however, important differences. The enemy now had no Rhine and no Siegfried Line to fall back upon; nor had he the manpower, the industrial resources or the communication facilities to rebuild his shattered armies a second time. And in the east the Russians were approaching Vienna and were almost ready to advance over the Oder against Berlin itself.
On the evening of 1 April, only thirty-two hours after General Crerar's Chief Engineer (Brigadier Walsh) had received orders to begin the work, the Canadian sappers completed a bridge across the Rhine at Emmerich. At midnight the 2nd Canadian Corps came again under the direction of Crerar, who thus took over its part of the line beyond the river. Almost simultaneously, he relinquished the direction of the 1st British Corps, which had fought continuously, and most valiantly, under his headquarters for over eight months. As we shall see, the 1st Canadian Corps, lately arrived from Italy, was about to begin operations about Arnhem. The 2nd Corps was building up quickly east of the Rhine: the 2nd Division had already entered the bridgehead and was soon to be followed by the 4th.
Important developments were taking place on the southern flank. By 1 April the First and Ninth United States Armies had effected a junction near Lippstadt--thus completing the long-planned encirclement of the Ruhr. The Supreme Commander now decided that the central sector offered the best field for the main Allied effort, which would be directed towards Leipzig with a view to linking up with the Russians and severing Germany in two. Consequently, the Ninth Army left Field-Marshal Montgomery's command and returned to General Bradley's. 12th Army Group. In the Field-Marshal's words, "the aim of 21 Army Group remained to reach the line of the Elbe in our sector, and to reduce the ports of Bremen and Hamburg". While the Second British
Army advanced to an intermediate line formed by the Weser, Aller and Leine, the First Canadian Army was to clear north-east Holland and the German coast as far as the mouth of the Weser. Thereafter, as prescribed by Montgomery's directive of 5 April, it was to be ready to protect the Second Army's flank as that army pushed on to the Elbe, and to clear the Cuxhaven peninsula. In addition, however, one corps, of at least two divisions, was to operate westwards to clean up western Holland. "This may take some time", wrote Montgomery; "it will proceed methodically until completed".
The 2nd Canadian Corps' northern drive rapidly gathered momentum. Recrossing a portion of the meandering German frontier, the troops found themselves back in the Netherlands. Although the weather was cold and rainy, there were compensations; as one officer observed, "the route was enlivened by the enthusiastic demonstrations of the recently liberated Dutch people, who had their red, white and blue flags flying, and who all wore orange-coloured rosettes". After the grim processions of refugees in Germany, he found the sight "very cheering and moving". So did everyone else.
Resistance was weakest for the moment on the right, where General Vokes' 4th Division crossed the Twente Canal and pushed forward to capture Almelo on 5 April. In the centre, the 2nd Division, under General Matthews, advanced very swiftly and established a bridgehead over the Twente Canal on the night of 2-3 April. Counter-attacks and shelling of the rafts with which we were ferrying troops across the canal were vain; the bridgehead was expanded and the Germans driven back to their next obstacle, the Schipbeek Canal. On the Corps' left flank, which was open, the 3rd Division, charged with clearing the area immediately adjoining the Ijssel, had to isolate and contain small pockets of resistance before turning against historic Zutphen, near the scene of the Elizabethan battle in which Sir Philip Sidney got his deathwound. On 6 April the 8th Infantry Brigade attacked this town and met fierce opposition from paratroopers ensconced behind its old water defences. Le Régiment de la Chaudière and the North Shore Regiment had two days stiff fighting before the place was clear.
The drive to the North Sea was speeded by the action of French paratroops of the Special Air Service who were dropped behind the enemy's lines, in the Meppel-Assen area, on the night of 7-8 April. They were subsequently joined by British and Belgian elements of the same force. These tough fighting-men seized bridges and airfields before the retreating enemy could complete demolitions, and generally spread confusion in his rear areas. By 11 April the 8th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment of the 2nd Division had established contact with the S.A.S. nearly fifty miles north of the Twente Canal. Further east, the 4th Division linked up with other groups.
The enemy continued to fight stubbornly here and there, but his improvised positions were soon outflanked and overrun. In spite of intense machine-gun and mortar fire, the 2nd Division had secured a bridgehead over the Schipbeek Canal on 7 April. During the following week this division advanced nearly seventy miles in a virtually straight line to the outskirts of Groningen, the most important city in northern Holland. Here it was momentarily checked. On the left flank the 3rd Division, pushing forward against somewhat heavier resistance, captured Deventer on 10 April. Four days later it took Zwolle and, with its western flank secured by the operations of the 1st Canadian Corps, then drove north in the direction of Leeuwarden.
While General Simonds' infantry divisions were thus liberating north-eastern Holland, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had curved east, re-entering Germany along an axis directed against the city of Oldenburg. On 8 April, it won a bridgehead over the River Ems at Meppen and then pressed forward through Sogel to Friesoythe. At first light on 14 April the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada attacked this town. They took it, but not without bloody fighting in which they lost their Commanding Officer, Lt: Col. F. E. Wigle.
On this part of the front the Canadians were now fighting across the North German Plain, an extension of the neighbouring low lands of Holland, and just as flat and wet: a countryside prosperous but extremely dull, and a very difficult battlefield. General Vokes' Division was advancing "on a single axis and that axis in the heart of a peat bog which permitted no deviation from the straight and narrow". Such secondary roads as there were tended to disappear under the weight of our vehicles, and since tanks could not move anywhere except on the roads, the brunt of the fighting had to be borne by the infantry brigade and the motor battalion (the Lake Superior Regiment). The enemy (the 2nd Parachute Corps) made the most of this situation; he clearly intended to defend Oldenburg and the naval bases of Emden and Wilhelmshaven as long as possible, using the water-lines of the Küsten Canal and the Leda River, running through the bogs athwart our line of advance, to the best possible advantage. To strengthen our armoured thrust to the north-east, the 1st Polish Armoured Division was now brought up from the Lower Maas, placed under General Simonds' command and directed northward between the 2nd and 4th Canadian Divisions.
The 2nd Canadian Corps was operating over a hundred-mile front, from Friesoythe to the Ijsselmeer4 In Rolland, the 1st Armoured Car Regiment (The Royal Canadian Dragoons), operating under the 2nd Division, reached the North Sea at Zoutkamp on 15 April. The unit set up its headquarters at Leeuwarden, receiving a rapturous welcome from
the overjoyed population. Meanwhile, the enemy was making more than a show of resistance at Groningen. He had sited machine-guns in the basements of houses to cover all approaches through the streets and his snipers were everywhere. Nevertheless, the 2nd Division made steady progress and by 16 April all but the northern outskirts of the city had been cleared. During the next two days the 3rd Division completed its northward drive to the coast. The enemy still held out around Delfzijl, across the Ems estuary from Emden; with this exception, the whole of the northeastern Netherlands was free.
Operations In the Western Netherlands
In the meantime, General Foulkes' 1st Canadian Corps had likewise been busy. This formation was concerned with the Germans remaining in western Holland north of the Maas.
In this region, still under the heel of the Nazis, were the greatest cities of the Netherlands; and harrowing stories of misery and starvation were coming from them. The Dutch government in London naturally was urging the Allies to take steps to liberate the area at the earliest possible moment. The military commanders, however, saw it as their task to destroy the German armies in the field, and from this point of view an attack on the western Netherlands represented merely a diversion of resources from the main object. With the enemy armies defeated, all problems would be solved, but while they remained in being nobody was safe. Moreover, it was questionable if it would be a kindness to the folk of western Holland to turn their country into a battleground; if we attacked across it our shells and bombs would spread devastation, and the Germans were likely to flood still more land as a measure of defence or of spite. Montgomery's views had been defined in his basic directive of 9 March, which had prescribed the tasks of the Canadian Army in terms of operations northward to attack the Ijssel river defences (designed by the Germans primarily against attack from the west) in rear; capture Deventer and Zutphen; cross the Ijssel and capture Apeldoorn and the high ground between Apeldoorn and Arnhem; and bridge the Neder Rijn at Arnhem and open up the supply route through that place to the north-east as already noted. The directive proceeded:
A secure flank will be formed facing west on some suitable line running northwards from the Neder Rijn about Renkum.
Operations will not be undertaken to the west of this flank into western Holland; having opened up a good supply route ... the axis of operations will be eastward.
In a subsequent report to the Minister of National Defence, General Crerar recorded the Field-Marshal's statements made during their conference on 27 March:
The C.-in-C. went on to say that recent intelligence indicated that the enemy might be intending to evacuate the western Netherlands, a likelihood which would be increased as the 2nd Canadian Corps pursued its northward advance. On the other hand, if the enemy did not withdraw and for high political reasons it became necessary to carry out military operations against him in that part of the country, these would require to be conducted under my direction. Field-Marshal Montgomery hoped, and was inclined to believe, however, that such a diversion of forces would not be necessary as it would tend to detract from the effort to achieve the main object--which was the complete defeat of the main German armies in North West Europe.
The enemy did not withdraw, and the continued representations of the Dutch government evidently could not be overlooked. The result we have already seen: on 5 April a new directive from Headquarters 21st Army Group instructed General Crerar to employ one corps to undertake the "methodical" clearing of western Holland. The directive added that the available engineer resources might not be sufficient for all the widespread tasks assigned to the First Canadian Army. If so, the operations to clear north-east Holland and the coastal belt of Germany, and to protect the left Rank of the Second Army, would take priority in this respect over the proposed offensive against the Germans in the west.
General Foulkes, with the 5th Canadian Armoured Division and the 49th (West Riding) Division under his orders, had begun his task in the Arnhem area on 2 April. The first essential was to expand the "island" south of the Neder Rijn and gain a bridgehead beyond that river and east of the Ijssel. Attacking with the West Riding on the right, the 1st Canadian Corps made rapid progress and by evening of 3 April we were well established between Neder Rijn and Ijssel. The plan was to attack Arnhem from the west, across the Neder Rijn, and the Corps regrouped accordingly; the bad condition of the routes across the island from Nijmegen, however, and the fact that the enemy clearly expected the western attack, now prompted a decision to attack instead across the Ijssel from the east. The 49th Division was moved back to the right and on the evening of 12 April it launched Operation QUICK ANGER, crossing the river and assailing Arnhem. The Engineers had built a bridge at Nijmegen; the Royal Navy pushed it along the rivers to the point of assault; it was swung into position across the Ijssel and the enemy's first intimation of its existence was the arrival of our tanks in Arnhem. He made strenuous efforts to hold the place and there was much house-to-house fighting, but by nightfall on the 14th Arnhem was clear. Five days later a visiting officer wrote a description of this town, the scene of two fierce battles:
This city is one of the most saddening sights I have seen in this war, for though the destruction is very far from total every building is smashed in some degree. There has been little bombing and in most areas not a great deal of shelling, but the whole town seems marked by small-arms fire. The greater part
of it was entirely empty of civilians, and the doors of many houses were standing open. The effect was that of a ghost city, oddly pathetic and disturbing.
The 1st Canadian Infantry Division, fresh from the Mediterranean, had now entered the battle. Coming for the moment under General Simonds' command, on 11 April it launched Operation CANNONSHOT across the Ijssel south of Deventer, directed upon Apeldoorn. The attack went well, and on the 13th the Division came back to General Foulkes, who would henceforth control all operations west of the Ijssel and north of the Neder Rijn. As the advance neared Apeldoorn opposition stiffened; but by the evening of 14 April General Foster's troops had closed up to the canal which runs through the eastern edge of the town.
The capture of Arnhem and the threat to Apeldoorn now enabled Foulkes to use the 5th Canadian Armoured Division for a bold stroke. General Hoffmeister was directed to make a northward dash from Arnhem to the shore of the Ijsselmeer, some thirty miles away, to cut off the enemy still resisting about Apeldoorn. It will be seen that this operation (CLEANSER) was to be conducted along an axis at right angles to the 1st Division's anticipated western advance. The drive began on 15 April and the armoured division soon cut the main road and railway which connect Apeldoorn with the western Netherlands. In consequence the Germans in Apeldoorn were compelled to beat a hasty retreat, which they did in three main groups. Remnants of one reached the Ijsselmeer and escaped in boats; a second retired by road along the shore of the Ijsselmeer to Amersfoort, and another attempted to break away to the south-west through the 5th Division. In the early hours of 17 April this last group blundered on to the 5th Division's headquarters and the gun positions of the 17th Field Regiment, R.C.A. This occasioned the "Battle of Otterloo", in which "staff officers, clerks, runners, signallers, drivers, batmen, cooks" turned their hands to fighting and (not without assistance from the 17th and the Irish Regiment of Canada) beat off the attack and took a couple of hundred prisoners. The same day the 1st Division occupied Apeldoorn; the 5th Division's drive was completed on 18 April, when the 5th Armoured Regiment (8th New Brunswick Hussars) reached the south-eastern corner of the Ijsselmeer.
Operations QUICK ANGER, CANNONSHOT and CLEANSER, together with a further thrust by the West Riding Division along the right bank of the Neder Rijn, had cost the enemy over 7000 prisoners, including great parts of two of his attenuated divisions. The Corps was now in position on an arc running south from Harderwijk, on the Ijsselmeer, through Barneveld to Renkum on the Neder Rijn. In a week's fighting the enemy had been driven back nearly thirty miles from his defences along the Ijssel. His troops in Western Holland, now entirely isolated, had manned new positions known as the Grebbe Line, based on waterways and inundations running south-easterly through Amersfoort.
The 1st Canadian Corps had completed the task of securing the route to the north through Arnhem for the rest of the Army Group, and had liberated a large area of the Netherlands to boot. As it turned out, this was the Corps' only active task in North-West Europe.
The Allies' inability to divert large forces to clear Western Holland had been emphasized during a conference on 12 April between Fiel-dMarshal Montgomery and General Crerar. Only two divisions, it emerged, could be allocated to the flank south of the Ijsselmeer. They would advance westward on their own resources if they could, but with no extra engineers or transport available till later they would have to stop when the limit of those resources was reached. For the moment, then, General Foulkes with the 49th and 1st Canadian Divisions, plus the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade and his corps troops including the 1st Army Group Royal Canadian Artillery, faced General Blaskowitz's Twenty-Fifth Army across the inundations protecting the Grebbe Line. Blaskowitz had about 120,000 men under his command, and though they were of mixed quality it was hardly practicable for a two-division corps to attack such a force holding prepared defences.
At the same time, however, information coming from behind the German lines indicated that the food situation in Western Holland was getting steadily worse and that it was essential that something be done for the people there. In these circumstances, it was fortunate that the decline in the enemy's fighting spirit on this front rendered it possible to make a temporary arrangement with him that would meet the need. At the middle of April contact was made with the Reichskommissar in Holland, the notorious Seyss-Inquart, through a representative of the Dutch resistance forces. Seyss-Inquart is reported to have spoken frankly. He said that he had been ordered "to hold out under all circumstances" and, if necessary, to carry out demolitions and inundations which would bring utter disaster upon the western provinces. He added, however, that if the Allies would halt their advance short of the Grebbe Line he could avoid taking such measures and at the same time save face with Berlin. In such a case he would refrain from further repressive action against the Dutch population. He also suggested his readiness to facilitate the movement of food into the provinces, and made it clear that in the case of Germany ceasing to resist he was prepared to surrender.5
The matter was now discussed between Supreme Headquarters, the Combined Chiefs of Staff and the Allied governments concerned. It was obvious that the German's hints offered the means of reconciling the requirements of strategy with those of humanity, and the decision was
taken to deal with him accordingly. General Montgomery's directive of 22 April ordered, "In western Holland, the army will not for the present operate further westwards than the general line now held east of Amersfoort". On 28 April Allied representatives met Seyss-Inquart's delegates in a conference which the Canadian Army' had been instructed to arrange at Achterveld, just inside our lines. At 8:00 a.m. that day what amounted to a truce came into effect on the 1st Canadian Corps front, our troops being ordered not to fire on the enemy unless attacked. From that moment hostilities in Western Holland may be said to have ceased; there was no more fighting of any importance, although there were various alarms and a very occasional exchange of shots with venturesome or ill-informed enemy patrols. (Perhaps it is relevant to note that on the night of 28 April the West Nova Scotia Regiment reported "much mirth, hilarity, and general celebrating going on in enemy lines".)
Arrangements for moving food into the stricken area had been in preparation for some time, and on 29 April Allied bombers dropped 510 tons. As a result of further conferences with the Germans on 30 April and 1 May, food began to move in by road. Beginning on the morning of 2 May the 1st Canadian Corps became responsible for sending 1000 tons a day into a dump set up behind the enemy's lines; thence it was to be distributed by the Dutch civil authorities, whom the Allies provided with lorries and petrol. Thus the immediate needs of the people of the Western Netherlands were fairly well provided for, pending the enemy's final collapse.
"We Were Out In Front Pushing On"
For the 2nd Canadian Corps in Germany and Northern Holland there was still no respite. On its long front the enemy continued to fight hard, even though it was abundantly clear that now the fight could have only one ending. The Russians had taken Vienna on 13 April and on the 15th had launched a fierce offensive across the Oder towards Berlin. In the west, the Americans finally liquidated the great Ruhr pocket, now far behind the front, on 18 April. "The total bag of prisoners reached the immense figure of 325,000, including 30 general officers." General Bradley's armies had lunged forward towards Leipzig and a junction with the Russians on the Elbe. The Second British Army was also rapidly approaching the Elbe and developing operations against Bremen and Hamburg. In Italy the Germans were beginning to disintegrate under the blows of the 15th Army Group.
Throughout, during these last days, the First Canadian Army's primary task was clearing the "coastal belt" of Germany and protecting the left flank of the Second Army. This involved continued bitter
fighting as the Canadians pushed north in the damp corridor between the Weser and the Ems. At one time it seemed possible that the Army's responsibilities might be extended to include the capture of Bremen and the Cuxhaven peninsula. But the rapid advance of the Second Army and the other commitments of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Corps made it necessary for General Dempsey to assume these tasks. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division came under General Simonds' command on 21 April to relieve the two infantry divisions in north-eastern Holland; the 3rd Canadian Division, in turn, relieved Polish elements near the mouth of the Ems and drove north; and the 2nd Division made a long move from Groningen, the scene of its final success in the Netherlands, to the Oldenburg sector, on the 2nd Corps' far right flank. Here its function was to give further security to the Second Army during its operations against Bremen.
"Notwithstanding the collapse of the German armies elsewhere on the western front", wrote General Crerar afterwards, "the 2nd Parachute Corps was still maintaining good control. In part the troops available to defend this territory and the ports ... were composed of naval units. These nautical elements showed more spirit than dexterity in their unaccustomed role as infantry. But ... the parachutists still fought with their accustomed fanaticism and skill at arms." Fighting was particularly fierce in the area west of Oldenburg and north of the Küsten Canal. Infantry of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had effected a crossing over the canal on the night of 16-17 April; but thereafter the enemy reacted savagely. As so often before, his defence was greatly helped by the ground, which was interlaced with streams and bogs. Less suitable country for tanks would have been hard .to find. Under the weight of heavy vehicles, roads deteriorated quickly and only the indefatigable efforts of the engineers kept the routes open. After the infantry had consolidated and expanded the bridgehead over the Küsten Canal, the armour continued the northward drive. On 27 April the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier G. W. Robinson, came under General Vokes' command. Further west, the Polish Division had also secured a bridgehead over the canal but found itself held up by wet ground and the difficult crossings of the Ems and Leda Rivers which here are tidal. The resources of an armoured division being unsuited to such an operation, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division made the crossing on 28 April; the Poles then passed through and pushed on towards Jever, northwest of Wilhelmshaven.
Bremen fell to the Second Army on 26 April. On Dempsey's left, Simonds was soon directing the advance of six divisions. The 3rd British Division came under his command on 28 April and pushed forward on the Corps' extreme right, meeting little opposition. Next to it, the 2nd Canadian Division made steady progress towards Oldenburg, which fell
without further serious resistance on 3 May. But there was still hard fighting on the 4th Canadian Armoured Division's front, where the report on 30 April was "few but determined enemy". On 1 May the Division occupied Bad Zwischenahn and pushed on. In the middle of the Emden--Wilhelmshaven peninsula the Poles were driving forward; and on their left the 3rd Canadian Division, having cleared Leer, was approaching Emden and Aurich. West of the estuary of the Ems, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division fought its last battle on 1 and 2 May when it attacked and cleared the pocket around Delfzijl, taking over 3000 prisoners. By the evening of the 2nd the mainland of Northern Holland was clear of the enemy.
The whole great Nazi edifice was falling into sudden ruin. The Third Reich,
Her strong enchantments failing,
Her towers of fear in wreck.
Her limbecks dried of poisons
And the knife at her neck.
could no longer terrify the world. On 25 April, United States and Russian troops met at Torgau on the Elbe, and Germany was cut in two. In the north, the German commanders in Hamburg and in Denmark had intimated their readiness to surrender to the Western Allies provided they could be secured against the possible arrival of "diehard S.S. formations" from central Germany; Field-Marshal Montgomery was accordingly ordered to drive on to the Baltic and cut off these areas. On 2 May the Second Army reported the completion of the task: "The Baltic was reached in the course of the afternoon both at Wismar and at Lübeck, and. 17,000 prisoners were taken including four generals". The same day the German forces in Italy surrendered to Field-Marshal Alexander. By that time Hitler himself, the author of so many of the world's misfortunes, had gone to his account. On the afternoon of 30 April (it appears), with the Russians inexorably fighting their way across Berlin, he put the muzzle of a pistol into his mouth in the bunker in the Reichschancellery garden.
On 4 May the divisions of the 2nd Canadian Corps were still advancing northward and still meeting opposition. At 12:55 p.m. a telephone call from Field-Marshal Montgomery's Headquarters informed General Crerar that negotiations were in progress for the unconditional surrender of all German forces facing the 21st Army Group. The Army Commander immediately telephoned General Simonds to "call off" the attacks, then imminent, by the Poles towards Jever and the 3rd Canadian Division upon Aurich, and to limit our troops' activity to reconnaissance and the improvement of dispositions. That evening came the news (first from the British Broadcasting Corporation, later more officially) that the surrender had been duly
signed at Montgomery's headquarters on Luneburg Heath, and would become effective at 8:00 a.m. next day. For the Canadians in Europe the war was over. They had been in action to the last. On the 4th Division's front, the 22nd Armoured Regiment (Canadian Grenadier Guards) and the Lake Superior Regiment had fought forward together during 4 May as they often had before; and the Grenadiers recorded proudly, in words that a good many other units might have echoed, "the end came when we were out in front pushing on".
On the evening of 5 May, General Crerar's two Corps Commanders accepted on his behalf the submission of the enemy commanders on their respective fronts. In "the shell-scarred hotel in the small village of Wageningen" General Blaskowitz, tired, and disconsolate, received from General Foulkes his orders for the disposition of the defeated Twenty-Fifth Army. "The terms of surrender were read over by General Foulkes, and Blaskowitz hardly answered a word". At General Simonds' headquarters at Bad Zwischenahn, General Straube, now commander of a rudimentary army known as "Armee Abteilung Straube" organized only three days before, was more wordy and less dignified. It was a bad day for Straube, who is reported to have been particularly shaken by information received from Brigadier J. A. Roberts, the commander of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade, who escorted him. "General Straube asked Brigadier Roberts the age of the Corps Commander. To learn he had just surrendered to a man of 41 unnerved him, to learn that Brigadier Roberts was also years younger than himself increased the unhappy state, but to learn that Brigadier Roberts was not even a regular army soldier, but a manufacturer in civil life, was the final blow to the dignity of the German General Staff".
Three hundred and thirty-three days after the Normandy landings, the Canadians and their allies had come to the end of the road. The men of the First Canadian Army could look back upon eleven months of hard and bloody campaigning and reflect that they had done their full share in the liberation of Europe. In due course the Supreme Commander was to write in his report
In attempting very briefly to assess the factors underlying the Allied success in this campaign, I would stress the importance of three episodes as being the most decisive in insuring victory.
The first of these was the battle of the Normandy beaches. The second vital battle was that of the Falaise pocket. The third decisive phase in the campaign consisted of the battles west of the Rhine during February and March ...
In all three of these episodes Canadian soldiers were among the chief actors.
The formal surrender of the German forces at large was signed at
Rheims on 7 May. The 8th was the official "VE Day". That day Field-Marshal Montgomery wrote a letter to General Crerar:
21 Army Group.
My dear Harry
I feel that on this day I must write you a note of personal thanks for, all that you have done for me since we first served together in this war. No commander can ever have had a more loyal subordinate than I have had in you. And under your command the Canadian Army has covered itself with glory in the campaign in western Europe. I want you to know that I am deeply grateful for what you have done. If ever there is anything I can do for you, or for your magnificent Canadian Soldiers, you know that you have only to ask.
Since it entered the line east of Caen on 23 July 1944, the First Canadian Army's formations--Canadian, British, Polish and othershad taken 192,000 prisoners from the enemy (not counting the 185,000 that capitulated in the. end in North-West Germany and Western Holland). No less than sixty enemy divisions--had been identified at various times among the German armies which it had met and worsted. "These divisions", wrote General Crerar, "had ranged from the fanatical S.S. and tenacious Paratroopers to the mediocre 'Training' formations and others drawn from the German navy and air force. But throughout the campaign we had always been opposed by the best forces available to the German High Command."
The victory had been bought at a price. Canadian battle casualties for the final phase, from the completion of the clearing of the west bank of the Rhine to the German surrender, were 368 officers and 5147 other ranks, killed, wounded, and missing. For the whole of the North-West Europe campaign, from D Day to VE Day, the toll was 3680 officers and 44,272 other ranks. Of these, 1033 officers and 11,546 other ranks had given their lives. Many a home across Canada had been darkened by these tragic losses; but the bereaved were not without consolation. A tyranny, callous and cruel almost beyond belief, which had menaced the whole free world, had been brought down in ruin; and the way lay open--if men were wise enough to see it--to "broader lands and better days".
The Final Phase: The Netherlands and Germany, March-May 1945
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (15) * Next Chapter (17)