Chapter 17: Winter on the Maas, 9 November 1944–7 February 1945
(See Map 9 and Sketches 33, 34 and 35)
At the end of the Battle of the Scheldt the formations of the First Canadian Army, and its three Canadian divisions in particular, were thoroughly exhausted. It was fortunate, in the circumstances, that a static period now intervened. It was the Army’s only such period during the campaign. For precisely three months, from the cessation of organized resistance on Walcheren on 8 November to the opening of the Battle of the Rhineland on 8 February, there were no major operations on General Crerar’s front.
It was not a period of mere “inactivity”. There was constant patrolling under difficult winter conditions, and some very nasty small-scale fighting. And there was much planning and preparation for the next offensive. The period of rest would in fact have been a great deal shorter if the enemy had not disrupted our arrangements by launching his last great offensive in mid-December. The fighting in the Ardennes did not directly affect First Canadian Army, but the apprehension that the German attack would extend to the Canadian front, and the precautions necessary to provide against this, were a complicating factor for a considerable time.
Lieut.-General Crerar, his health restored by the treatment received in England, returned to Headquarters First Canadian Army on 7 November and resumed command of the Army at noon on the 9th. Soon afterwards his distinguished services were recognized by his government by promotion to the rank of General, a rank never before held by an officer of the Canadian Army while in the field.*1 Lieut.-General Simonds returned to his command at the 2nd Canadian Corps. Major-General Foulkes, who had commanded the Corps in an ‘acting capacity during the Battle of the Scheldt, now left for Italy to take over the 1st Canadian Corps there. He was succeeded at the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division by Brigadier Bruce Matthews, formerly CCRA of the 2nd Corps; the latter appointment went to Brigadier PAS Todd. Shortly Major-General H. W. Foster of the 4th Armoured Division exchanged commands with Major-General C. Yokes, commanding the 1st Infantry Division in Italy; Yokes took over the 4th Division on 1 December.
* It may be noted that General Crerar already held the Companionship of the Bath, the highest rank in one of the orders of chivalry for which the government could recommend him within the limits of existing Canadian policy. The promotion was effective on 16 November.
Strategy for the Next Phase
On 18 October General Eisenhower had held a conference at Brussels with Field-Marshal Montgomery and General Bradley, and outlined his plans for the next stage of the campaign. The importance of the 21st Army Group concentrating fully, for the present, on the opening of Antwerp was again emphasized. As for the 12th Army Group, now charged with the capture of the Ruhr, its First Army was to attack from the Aachen area and establish a bridgehead across the Rhine south of Cologne, while the Ninth Army covered its left flank. The Third Army to the south was to advance in support, and farther south again General Devers’ 6th Army Group was to cross the Rhine, if possible, in its own sector.
It was apparently hoped that the First US Army would get its bridgehead early in November. Thereafter, probably not before the 10th of the month, the 21st Army Group would direct the Second British Army south-east between the Maas and the Rhine, while the Ninth Army, which would be under Montgomery’s command in this second phase, would make a northerly converging thrust. These operations would clear the west bank of the Rhine opposite the Ruhr. Subsequently-before the middle of December, if all went well-the 12th Army Group would seize the Ruhr, the Ninth Army attacking eastward across the Rhine, the First moving north from the Cologne-Bonn area, the Third swinging up on the southerly flank. Simultaneously, it was hoped, with the Second Army’s offensive between the rivers, the First Canadian Army would be directed northward into the Ijssel valley.2
Operations actually developed rather differently and less rapidly, due in great part to interference by the enemy. On 27 October the Germans launched an attack on the Second Army from their bridgehead west of the Maas in the Venlo area. Strong British reinforcements had to be put in before this thrust was held.3 And in the first week of November the First US Army suffered a small but unfortunate reverse at Schmidt, a town south-east of Aachen covering important dams on the upper reaches of the River Roer.4
After further consultation with the Supreme Commander, Montgomery issued a new directive to his Army Commanders on 2 November5 He wrote:
3. It is now clear that the next operation to be undertaken by Second Army must be the liquidation of the Meuse pocket west of Venlo, and the driving of the enemy back to the east side of the Meuse in that area.
4. It is also clear that the attack by the left wing of 12 Army Group towards Cologne, so as to secure a bridgehead over the Rhine, will not be so strong as is desired because 12 Army Group is holding a very long defensive front and also a number of its divisions are now serving in 21 Army Group.
To remedy this situation, Montgomery intended to release the American divisions, extend his southern flank to take over some of General Bradley’s front and develop offensive operations on our right [southern] flank, in close co-operation with the left flank of 12 Army Group”. But looking beyond his immediate commitments, he directed First Canadian Army to prepare plans for offensive operations
a. south-eastwards from the Nijmegen area, between the Rhine and the Meuse;
b. northwards across the Neder Rijn, to secure the high ground between Arnhem and Apeldoorn with a bridgehead over the Ijssel river.”
It will be observed that he now proposed that First Canadian Army should undertake the offensive between the rivers at first intended for the Second Army. These plans were to set the pattern of Allied strategy in the north throughout succeeding months of the campaign.
Apart from this responsibility for future planning, First Canadian Army assumed new tasks immediately the Scheldt battle ended. Montgomery’s directive of 16 October (Appendix E) had indicated that, once the area south of the Maas from ‘s-Hertogenbosch westwards had been cleared, it would be possible to hold the line of the river with “about two divisions”, thus gaining “about five” for operations elsewhere. The new directive instructed the commander of First Canadian Army to release the 104th Division to the 12th Army Group on 5 November, and the 49th (West Riding) Division to Second British Army after the enemy had been driven north of the Maas on the front west of a line through Geertruidenberg and Oosterhout. Thereafter, Sir John Crocker’s 1st British Corps would hold the line of the lower Maas as far east as Maren, north-east of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, with “the minimum strength necessary, maintaining a reserve of mobile and armoured troops in suitable positions to deal with any enemy attempts to cross the river”.
The 2nd Canadian Corps was directed to take over the Nijmegen sector from the 30th British Corps (of Second British Army) by 10 November. This would extend General Crerar’s right (eastern) boundary along the Maas to “about Middelaar” (some eight miles south-east of Nijmegen). Initially, General Simonds’ command would include the 82nd and 101st US Airborne and the 50th (Northumbrian) Divisions. However, when General Dempsey’s forces had eliminated the Maas pocket west of Venlo, the 49th and 51st (Highland) Divisions were to be transferred to the Nijmegen sector for the relief of the 50th and 101st, and one of the Canadian divisions would relieve the 82nd. The 2nd Corps was now taking over the “Nijmegen Salient”, established by Operation MARKET-GARDEN in September. Simonds emphasized the significance of the new responsibilities in his directive of 6 November:6
The Nijmegen bridgehead is the most important bit of ground along the front of 21 Army Group. Here we hold the only bridge across the main course of the Rhine. If the Germans accept a decision west of the Rhine, the eastern face of the Nijmegen bridgehead between the Meuse and the Rhine forms a base through which an attack can be launched against the northern flank of the German battle line. If the Germans withdraw to the east bank of the Rhine, the Nijmegen bridgehead forms a base from which an assault across the Neder Rijn turns the main course of the Rhine itself.
Military bridging of the lower course of the Rhine is a doubtful possibility under winter conditions. Therefore, the Nijmegen bridge is of the greatest importance to us and must be protected against all forms of attack.
Control of the Nijmegen bridgehead actually passed to First Canadian Army at noon on 9 November, the front of the 30th British Corps from Cuijk (near
Middelaar, above referred to) to De Voorn (near Maren) being taken over by the 2nd Canadian Corps, which had pulled out from the Scheldt sector before the last shots were fired on Walcheren.7 General Crerar’s front now extended in a great curving arc of 140 miles from the tip of Walcheren along the lower Maas, the Waal and the Neder Rijn to Cuijk. Dunkirk was an additional responsibility.
Before describing developments in the Canadian sector it is well to outline briefly the course of operations on the rest of the front during the remainder of November and the early part of December. Already, on 8 November, the Third US Army had launched its offensive in the direction of the Saar. General Patton afterwards explained that he had not advised General Bradley of the beginning of the attack “for fear I might get a stop order”.8 However, weather and the enemy proved more formidable obstacles than any reluctance of higher authority to Patton’s plan for an all-out drive to the Rhine. After capturing Metz, he was still held back at the beginning of December by the Saar River and the Siegfried defences. Farther south the 6th Army Group (Seventh US and First French Armies) made considerable progress. French troops fighting under the Seventh Army took Strasbourg late in November, and French and Americans together steadily compressed the Germans into the “Colmar Pocket” on the west bank of the Rhine.9
Meanwhile, in the Aachen sector, the First and Ninth United States Armies advanced slowly towards the Roer. Aided on 16 November by the largest aerial support operation yet staged—the Eighth Air Force and the RAF Bomber Command together dropped some 10,000 tons of bombs10—the Americans developed powerful thrusts in the direction of Eschweiler and Geilenkirchen. But although 17 divisions were eventually committed to this battle (with 10 divisions on a 24-mile front)11 progress was exceedingly difficult. The enemy made full use of his West Wall defences, and the Hurtgen Forest proved an effective barrier to armour. By 3 December the Ninth Army had managed to reach the Roer. Unfortunately, however, the Germans still controlled the Schmidt Dams, enabling them to flood the Roer Valley and trap any American forces which crossed the river. Consequently, in mid-December, General Bradley was still using his First Army to capture these dams as a preliminary to continuing the offensive.12
On the 21st Army Group front, on 14 November, General Dempsey duly delivered his attack against the German bridgehead west of Venlo. The 12th Corps advanced on the southern flank, between the Maas and the Noorder Canal, while farther north the 8th Corps seized the town of Meijel and crossed the Deurne Canal. Weather and marshy terrain combined to delay these operations. Conditions were, in fact, not unlike those experienced by Canadian troops during the Battle of the Scheldt. Nevertheless the advance went on, and when Blerick, opposite Venlo, fell to a set-piece attack on 3-4 December British formations had eliminated all enemy on the west bank of the Maas in their sector. Meanwhile, to the south the 30th Corps captured Geilenkirchen, between the Maas and the Roer, on 19 November with an American division;13 but operations here were halted by rain which made the ground virtually impassable to vehicles.
Schouwen and the Salient
Through this period First Canadian Army was not called upon for any largescale offensive operations. However, as General Crerar pointed out to his Corps Commanders in a directive of 13 November,14 “...with an eye on possible future requirements, it is important that we should seize any opportunity to improve our present positions vis-a-vis the enemy, if such can be done without marked cost in casualties or matériel”; it was “also important to keep the enemy anxious, and guessing, concerning our immediate intentions in order that he will retain considerable forces facing the First Cdn Army”. Therefore, patrolling along the Army’s extended front was to be “active and aggressive”; the services of Dutch Resistance Groups would be utilized and the enemy would be encouraged to believe that we were reconnoitring “with a view to early offensive intentions”.
Special responsibilities were allotted to each Corps of First Canadian Army. The 1st British Corps, holding the south bank of the lower Maas with the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Armoured Divisions right and left respectively,* was ordered to capture the large island of Schouwen north of the Bevelands, which our troops had visited but not occupied early in November. German occupation of this island, projecting into the North Sea, was regarded as a potential danger to our shipping using the Scheldt estuary. Consequently, the plan was to seize Schouwen (Operation SAILMAKER) and establish a radar station there which would give warning of German attacks. Although—much consideration was given to SAILMAKER, the planners ultimately concluded that the problems attending the enterprise were out of proportion to the results which might be achieved. There was a report that the German garrison on the island had been strengthened; thus at least one brigade would be required for the attack, and elaborate arrangements would be necessary for aerial bombardment and provision of assault shipping. Finally, there were even some doubts in naval minds about the necessity for the operation. Therefore, on 20 November, on the recommendation of First Canadian Army, SAILMAKER was “postponed indefinitely”.15
The 2nd Canadian Corps had assumed its new responsibilities in the Nijmegen bridgehead with four divisions in the line: from right to left, the 2nd Canadian opposite the Reichswald, between Cuijk and Groesbeek; the 3rd Canadian east of Nijmegen; and the 50th (Northumbrian) and 101st United States Airborne Divisions on the so-called “island” beyond the Waal south of Arnhem. The 50th was commanded by Major-General DAH Graham, the 101st by Major-General Maxwell D. Taylor. The 82nd US Airborne Division (Major-General James M. Gavin) was under the 2nd Corps very briefly, until midnight of 12-13 November, when it was relieved by the 3rd Canadian Division.16 When the 50th and 101st Divisions were also withdrawn into reserve, at the end of November, their respective places were taken by the 49th (West Riding) and 51st (Highland) Divisions.17 As we have seen, the Corps’ most important task was the defence of the Nijmegen
* The 52nd (Lowland) Division continued to occupy Walcheren until it relieved the 4th Canadian Armoured Division at the end of November. The 4th Special Service Brigade then assumed responsibility for Walcheren and North and South Beveland.
bridgehead, and of the Nijmegen bridges themselves. However, General Simonds was instructed to carry out this task offensively, giving the enemy the impression that we intended to secure a bridgehead across the Neder Rijn between Arnhem SF and Wageningen. He was also given a special requirement in the north-eastern sector of the Salient, where the Pannerdensch Canal connects the main streams of the Waal and the Neder Rijn. If the Corps could secure the western bank of this Canal, between Pannerden and Huissen, General Crerar pointed out, our grip on the Nijmegen bridgehead would be strengthened and there would be better prospects of controlling floods in that vulnerable area.18
The enemy fully appreciated the significance of the Nijmegen bridgehead. During the concluding phase of the Scheldt operations Army Group “Student”, commanded by Colonel-General Kurt Student (it was redesignated Army Group H on 10 November), had been formed to coordinate the German defences in this vital sector. Under it Fifteenth Army held the lower reaches of the Maas as far upstream as Ochten, some 13 miles west of Nijmegen, while Student’s left flank, including Arnhem and the line of the Maas south to near Boxmeer, was the responsibility of the First Parachute Army.19 At this stage of the campaign the Germans were quite unable to launch a large-scale offensive against the Allied positions north of Nijmegen; but, apart from local counter-attacks, they menaced the bridgehead with two dangerous weapons: persistent attempts to destroy the bridge at Nijmegen, and systematic flooding of the low-lying “island” between the Waal and the Neder Rijn.
Two permanent bridges, captured intact during the MARKET-GARDEN operation, spanned the swirling waters of the Waal at Nijmegen. One was a railway bridge, the other the tremendous road-bridge, beside which a barge bridge had since been built. Over the road-bridge passed troops and supplies to maintain our control of the “island”; and since the Waal is the main stream of the lower Rhine, it was a vital factor in our future offensive plans. Having failed either to prevent the bridge from falling into our hands or to recover it, the Germans during the autumn and winter of 1944 made a wide variety of attempts to destroy it. Of many air attacks, the heaviest was on 27 September, when the German 3rd Air Fleet sent out 73 aircraft against the bridges.20 On 29 September the enemy dispatched 12 “frogmen” (specially trained and equipped swimmers) with mines. They did well: “A gap of 80 feet was made in the road bridge, and one span of the railway bridge was destroyed.” But the road bridge was rapidly repaired.21 In November and December mines floated down the Waal damaged the barge ‘bridge and threatened the road bridge. Various types of nets and booms having been tried without complete success, the Canadian Forestry Corps were now called in; Lieut. J. Johnson designed a “finning boom” to protect the bridges, and it was built by a party from No. 30 Forestry Company.22
On 13 January the persistent and ingenious enemy tried another plan. He sent a flotilla of “Biber” one-man midget submarines down the Waal. The First Canadian Army situation report for the twelve hours ending at midnight of 13-14 January tells the story as we saw it:
Two midget submarines engaged by artillery area E 773636 [above the bridges] and one submarine destroyed. Mine attached to log floated down stream blew 150 ft gap in naval boom east of Nijmegen Bridge. Gap being repaired tonight.
The 12th and 14th Field Regiments RCA and the anti-tank guns of The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders all seem to have been in action against the submarines, and one officer claimed to have seen three.23 But in fact the Germans’ operation had been on a larger scale than we suspected. On 15 January, by which time all the facts were available, their Naval Operations Staff made the following entry in its war diary:
According to the report of the leader, the operation against the Nijmegen Bridges has not succeeded. Numerous explosive means were employed, of which 19 mines being towed were lost due to a direct hit. [The previous day’s diary attributes this to a mortar hit.] 54 floating mines had been released earlier, followed by 17 Biber, of which 8 reached the designated slip-point one kilometre in front of the first net. 7 Biber ran aground in the river during the trip; 2 had to be destroyed prematurely. 16 of the Biber Travellers [crews] returned and have stated that the bridge is undamaged. All told the undertaking has resulted in 8 casualties, mostly due to freezing in the water.
Though the Germans do not specifically say so, it would seem that the majority of the submarines, if not all of them, were lost. In spite of all these attempts, and a great deal of sporadic shelling and bombing, the great bridge continued to stand, and to give indispensable service to Allied operations throughout the remainder of the campaign.
The second danger to the Nijmegen bridgehead was the possibility that the enemy would flood the “island” between the Waal and the Neder Rijn. It was well known that, under certain conditions of high water in those rivers, he could swamp a large area by breaching dykes at the eastern end of the “island”. “Such
flooding could cover the country to a depth of three feet, and under the worst conditions flood-water might reach Elst [halfway between Nijmegen and Arnhem] in about 12 hours.”24 This action could only be taken after some weeks of rain; but 1 November would mark the beginning of the period of greatest danger. In assessing the threat, our planning staffs did not overlook the possibility that the enemy would combine flooding with renewed efforts to destroy the Nijmegen bridge and trap our forces in the “island”.
Detailed arrangements were made, under the appropriate code name NOAH, to meet the threat of inundation.25 If flooding occurred the 2nd Corps was to evacuate the area, treating the operation as a normal withdrawal in the face of opposition. Careful consideration was given to the problems of traffic control, civilian refugees and livestock. On the evening of 1 December the Army Commander sent a senior staff officer to warn Corps Headquarters (where General Rennie of the 51st Division was temporarily in command in General Simonds’ absence) of the importance of being ready for flooding by the enemy. The emergency came the very next day, when the 49th Division reported dykes blown north of Elst and west of Arnhem; and an orderly evacuation began.26 On the 4th General Simonds’ Chief of Staff (Brigadier N. E. Rodger) toured the “island”, recording this description of the scene:27
The water was spreading slowly and rising into low corners of fields-and in places flowing across roads westward. Civilians (the few who were left) were collecting belongings in farm carts and were collecting herds of cattle and driving them north on small roads to the railway and then east to a collecting area near bridges...Most of the marching troops came off by storm boat and thought that at least a good lark. Civilians also allowed to use storm-boats.
The flood spread westward towards Zetten and Heteren until, after three days, it reached approximate equilibrium with the northern three-quarters of the former “island” under water.28 In conjunction with the flooding the enemy put in a local attack against the 49th Division on 4 December. It was sharply repulsed, and the situation gradually settled down, units of both the 49th and Highland Divisions retaining footholds on the “island” (all under Headquarters 49th Division from the morning of the 6th) with the Nijmegen bridge still well covered. Both divisions’ headquarters had moved south of the Waal by noon of 7 December.29
Meanwhile, General Simonds had studied the special requirements given to his Corps in the Army Commander’s directive of 13 November and had issued detailed instructions to subordinate formations.30 In his view the Corps might undertake any of three offensive operations: a limited attack to clear the eastern end of the “island”; a major assault against the Reichswald to break through the northern extremity of the Siegfried Line (this requiring the assistance of British and American Armies on our right flank); and, finally, another large-scale attack across the Neder Rijn to capture high ground north of Arnhem and bridgeheads over the Ijssel. It was clear that successful assaults against either the Reichswald or Ijssel positions would dislodge the northern anchor of the German line in the west.
The Corps Commander reiterated the intention to “hold and develop the Nijmegen salient as a base for offensive operations directed south-eastwards between
the Maas and Rhine or northwards across the Neder Rijn”. Pending resumption of mobile operations, he stressed the need for aggressive patrolling and offensive use of centralized artillery to inflict casualties on the enemy and undermine his morale. His final injunction looked forward to the resumption of active operations:
Though weather and resources limit the scope of offensive operations for the present, it is vitally important that the offensive spirit should be maintained and enhanced. Full advantage must be taken of static conditions to have the maximum number of troops out on active training. Great opportunities are now open to properly absorb reinforcements and re-weld battle teams. Aggressive patrolling against the enemy is the best schooling in junior leadership.
The possibility of mounting an operation (SIESTA) to clear the “island” eastward to the Pannerdensch Canal was still under active consideration by Field-Marshal Montgomery and General Crerar at the end of November. However, plans for this operation, which the Army Group Commander described as “important”,31 were complicated by the regrouping of formations within the 21st Army Group. Later, when the Germans flooded the “island”, it speedily became apparent that for the moment at least the operation was “off”.32 In any event, Canadian attention was soon focussed on other matters of greater importance.
Life in the Line
While commanders and staffs planned future operations, the administrative services and the troops in the line were far from being inactive. Long before the Army took over the Salient, detailed consideration had been given to the special problems of winter conditions in the Netherlands, and provision had been made for special clothing and equipment to meet these conditions. Snowfalls and heavy frosts were anticipated; camouflage, accommodation and vehicle maintenance were recognized as major problems.33 The measures taken bore fruit through the ensuing months.
On the Reichswald front the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions lost no time in demonstrating the “offensive spirit” enjoined by General Simonds. Each division generally had two brigades in the front line and one in reserve; reliefs were organized on a rotational basis, with brigades spending two weeks in the line and one in reserve.34 Divisional instructions called for “aggressive local activity”, with the object of creating and dominating a substantial no-man’s-land.35 Much of the terrain lent itself to this policy: open, undulating ground, strewn with the remains of gliders wrecked in the great airborne attack of the previous September. Some gliders were booby-trapped, and there were many mines (especially the troublesome Schu mines).* Numerous rough roads and tracks, some hedge-lined, traversed the open ground, connecting hamlets and isolated farms. The opposing front (between the Maas and the Waal) was held by the 84th and 190th German Infantry Divisions of the First Parachute Army. Our Intelligence assessed each of these divisions as “the equivalent of three weak regimental [brigade] battle groups”.36
* Small, box-like anti-personnel mines, feared particularly because the few metal parts used in their construction made them difficult to detect.
Both sides enjoyed good observation over the ground west of the Reichswald in daylight; both also made strenuous efforts to establish control over it during darkness. There were frequent clashes between German and Canadian patrols, especially in the Groesbeek sector. There were, in general, four types of patrols. Reconnaissance patrols were sent out to gain information without fighting for it; these included efforts “to capture a prisoner by stealth” in order to gain information. Fighting patrols were normally composed of ten or 12 men, although they might include up to a platoon, if their action was rehearsed; their object could be to obtain information or prisoners, or to destroy hostile positions. They were prepared to fight to accomplish their missions. Third were contact patrols, establishing communication with flanking units. Finally, standing patrols, not exceeding one platoon in strength, occupied protective positions forward of our main defences and gave early warning of impending attacks; such patrols were prepared to fight, but not to stand their ground at all costs.37
Apart from patrolling, raiding parties of greater strength than one platoon were invariably given well-defined objects and were carefully rehearsed in advance; they were generally supported by a prepared fire plan, utilizing artillery and other supporting weapons, including machine-guns, mortars and the divisional countermortar organization. Many such raids were launched, an example being the well-organized organized Operation MICKEY FINN, carried out near Knapheide, south of Groesbeek, on 7 December by The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada. In this company raid it was estimated that the enemy lost about 25 killed, while one prisoner was taken. The Black Watch had nine fatal casualties.38 No enemy records are available for the affair.
Somewhat similar conditions prevailed on the front of the 1st British Corps during November and early December. The 18th Armoured Car Regiment (12th Manitoba Dragoons), then on loan to Sir John Crocker from 2nd Canadian Corps Troops, patrolled a 25-mile stretch of the Maas from its mouth, opposite Schouwen, to near the Moerdijk bridges. It was perhaps symptomatic of the enemy’s disorganized state in this sector that the Canadian troopers enjoyed telephonic communication with Dutch resistance groups on German-held Schouwen.39 In the centre of the 1st Corps’ sector the 1st Polish Armoured Division held the front between Moerdijk and Raamsdonk. General Maczek’s men rested and re-equipped without relaxing their vigilance. “Until the middle of December conditions were relatively quiet, interrupted at times by an artillery fire duel, and mortar and machine-gun exchange of fire, combined with frequent sorties by enemy patrols.”40 On the right flank, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division held the south bank of the Maas as far east as Lith, east of Maren.* The swampy nature of the ground confined all operations in the forward area to the roads.41 Here, as elsewhere, the principal activity was patrolling and observation of the enemy; security regulations were also tightened as a precaution against infiltration of German agents. On 26 November the 52nd (Lowland) Division relieved the 4th Division, which then
* The division’s artillery commander, Brigadier J. N. Lane, was killed on 10 November when his jeep struck a mine during a reconnaissance.
passed into Army Reserve. When the 52nd left for the Second Army area on 5 December, the 4th resumed its operational role in the ‘s-Hertogenbosch sector of the Maas under the 1st Corps.42
Planning the Rhineland Offensive
At the end of November Field-Marshal Montgomery was displeased with the state of things on the Allied front. Progress had been slow in recent weeks; and on the 30th the field marshal wrote a letter to General Eisenhower pointing out that the programme of the Brussels conference (above, page 427), which the Supreme Commander had recapitulated in a directive of 28 October, had not been carried out. Montgomery wrote, “We have therefore failed; and we have suffered a strategic reverse.”43 On 28 November General Crerar had written Montgomery commenting upon Operation VALEDICTION, the name then given to the proposed south-easterly advance between the Maas and the Rhine. Weather and ground conditions, he said, were unfavourable to the project at the present time, and he could not see it as practicable until after SIESTA (above, page 434) had been completed. Montgomery replied on the same day on which he wrote Eisenhower.44 The important thing, he said, was to get on with SIESTA; as for VALEDICTION,
There is no intention of launching this operation now, and I have never expressed any wish to do so. All I want you to do is to examine it and put the planners on to thinking it out. It will NOT be launched till the spring, i.e., March or later.
This intention was radically altered shortly. There was a rather sharp exchange between Montgomery and Eisenhower. The former had suggested that since the Supreme Commander did not want a single land force commander, then there should be “one commander in full operational control north of the Ardennes, and one south”; this, he recalled, had been indicated as a possibility by Eisenhower himself. He proceeded:
I said that Bradley and I together are a good team. We worked together in Normandy, under you, and we won a great victory. Things have not been so good since you separated us. I believe to be certain of success you want to bring us together again; and one of us should have the full operational control north of the Ardennes; and if you decide that I should do that work—that is OK by me.
Montgomery also observed, “we must get away from the doctrine of attacking in so many places that nowhere are we strong enough to get decisive results”; what was necessary was to “concentrate such strength on the main selected thrust that success will be certain”. It would seem that his views were communicated to Mr. Churchill, for on 6 December the British Prime Minister wrote President Roosevelt commenting on the failure “to achieve the strategic object which we gave to our armies five weeks ago” and “the serious and disappointing war situation which faces us at the close of the year”. He suggested that the President might send his Chiefs of Staff overseas to effect more closely concerted action.45
The Americans declined to be worried or moved. Eisenhower showed himself quite unwilling to make the command reorganization suggested by Montgomery,
and wrote, “I have no intention of stopping Devers’ and Patton’s operations as long as they are cleaning up our right flank and giving us capability of concentration. On the other hand I do not intend to push these attacks senselessly.” And Roosevelt’s reply to Churchill on 10 December amounted to a declaration of unwillingness to interfere with the field commander.46
The strategic question was argued out on 7 December at a conference at Maastricht, attended by Eisenhower, Tedder, Montgomery and Bradley, which had been suggested by Montgomery.47 It was agreed to keep up the pressure on the enemy through the winter. The main attack was to be north of the Ruhr. This was now again to be entrusted to the 21st Army Group, with an American army under command. A supporting attack was to be put in on the American front farther south, but the precise point was not settled. The Americans favoured a thrust on the line Frankfurt-Cassel (in Patton’s area); but Montgomery, evidently feeling that this would involve rather too wide an encirclement of the Ruhr, much preferred an attack in the Bonn region. Montgomery’s proposal to place all operations north of the Ardennes under one command was again rejected by the Supreme Commander; and the Field Marshal was left feeling that he had lost another round in his long fight for concentration of effort as against dispersion.48
With reference to this conference, an American official historian makes a pertinent comment on the unresolved issues between Montgomery and Eisenhower. “General Eisenhower, with control of the US forces and supplies that Field Marshal Montgomery deemed essential to the all-out attack in the north, was in a position to make his view prevail.”49 The fact that the United Kingdom—and, indeed, the United Kingdom and Canada together—could not produce larger forces, was the fatal weakness of Montgomery’s position in all these strategic controversies. On 1 December the Allied order of battle in the West showed 68 divisions; of these, 15 were British and Canadian, eight were French (and French African), one was Polish—and 44 were American.50
It was about the moment of the Maastricht conference, and partly as a result of it, that the plan for the offensive between Maas and Rhine took, in essentials, its final shape. At Headquarters First Canadian Army, in the period of study following Montgomery’s directive of 2 November (above, page 427), the tacit assumption was that the operation would be undertaken by the 2nd Canadian Corps.51 The Canadian planners made use, in their study, of an outline plan for the operation (then known as WYVERN) made in October by Lieut.-General Sir Brian Horrocks’ 30th Corps, and handed over to the Canadians when they relieved that Corps in November.52 On 6 December Field-Marshal Montgomery visited General Crerar and discussed his army’s future operations.53 There is no actual record of the discussion; but the following day General Crerar’s plans section, in a “Note on Possible Developments” concerning Operation VALEDICTION, remarked that it was understood that the Army Group Commander desired that the attack south-easterly from the Nijmegen area should be “under the control of Second British Army”, and that the Americans should take over from his army group the area south of Roermond (then held by the 30th Corps).54 That was the
day of the Maastricht conference, and on that day,* in the outskirts of Maastricht, before the conference, Montgomery met General Horrocks and discussed this operation with him. Horrocks said he would need five divisions—the number indicated in the WYVERN plan-if he was given the task; and after the conference, if Horrocks’ recollection is accurate, Montgomery telephoned to say that he would get them and that he was to start thinking out the operation.55
At 6:20 p.m. on the 7th—this is definite—Montgomery telephoned Crerar and said he had had a talk with the Supreme Commander and that the Americans would take over the southern part of the British front. Having thought over the operation to break through the Reichswald position south-east of Nijmegen, Montgomery now considered that the Canadian Army should have the responsibility for it. The target date was 1 January. Crerar’s memorandum of the conversation56 proceeds:
3. I would need another Corps for this, and 30 Corps, including up to four Inf & one Armd Div would be at disposal. Whether I decided Cdn or 30 Corps to do [the operation], 30 Corps would require to be brought in on right of Cdn Army for future reasons.
Although Montgomery had courteously left the formal decision to Crerar, in the circumstances he had described logic demanded that the 30th Corps should conduct the offensive; and at a conference at Headquarters First Canadian Army later that evening it was explained, “First Cdn Army’s offensive will, initially, be undertaken by 30 Brit Corps.”57 The code name VALEDICTION was now changed to VERITABLE.58
Detailed planning for VERITABLE continued through the second week of December, with close consultation between British and Canadian headquarters.59 Following a conference with Montgomery on 9 December, Crerar issued a preliminary directive to Corps Commanders on the 10th. On the 14th he sent an amended directive.60 It noted that the Commander-in-Chief’s intention was “to continue operations throughout the winter, allowing the enemy no respite”, and added,
The Winter campaign of 21 Army Group must be so designed that it leads into, and prepares the way for, the Spring offensive. The governing factors in reaching decisions concerning these operations are:—
a. The selected objectives must be of a decisive nature-this points to the Ruhr.
b. Our operations must force the enemy into engaging in mobile warfare, in which he will be at a disadvantage due to lack of petrol, mechanical transport and tanks.
The target date for VERITABLE was “1 Jan, or as soon thereafter as conditions permit”. The initial phase was the business of the 30th Corps. Subsequently the 2nd Canadian Corps would come in on the left; “The second, and succeeding, phases will, therefore, be conducted on a two Corps front.” In the beginning, the task of the 2nd Corps would be merely “to secure the left flank of 30 Brit Corps”. However, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was to take part in Phase I under the 30th Corps. General Simonds would presumably have preferred to see his own corps rather than a British one cast for the leading role in VERITABLE. General
* General Horrocks, lecturing on the operations in 1947, placed this interview at “approximately 21 November”. But he recalled that Montgomery was at Maastricht to attend a conference with Eisenhower and Bradley. This, combined with the course of events described in the text, seems to leave no doubt that the date was 7 December.
Crerar gave him an outline of the proposal on 8 December; and that afternoon Simonds wrote the Army Commander “drawing attention to the unfortunate situation which would develop” if no Canadian formations took part in this important battle.61 This may have been the origin of the commitment of the 3rd Division.
As for the 1st British Corps, its chief role was to “implement and maintain” a cover plan indicating a prospective attack across the Waal and the Lek directed on Utrecht, designed to liberate the northern Netherlands. It was hoped that the movement of British units from Second Army into the Canadian Army area might be interpreted by the enemy as related to this project.
Field-Marshal Montgomery issued his own directive on VERITABLE on 16 December.62 It dwelt again on the importance of the Ruhr, and of forcing mobile warfare on the Germans. The general concept was thus stated:
6. The future layout that we want to achieve is to face up to the Rhine from Orsoy northwards on a front of two armies, Second Army being on the right and Canadian Army on the left.
American formations are then to be included in 21 Army Group and, with the co-operation of strong airborne forces, the Rhine will be crossed.
Before we can begin to develop successfully large scale operations across the Rhine we must clear the enemy completely from the west of the river, and must join up with the American Ninth Army coming up from the south; we must in fact be in undisputed possession of all territory west of the Rhine from inclusive the general line Orsoy-Venlo northwards.
First Canadian Army was to launch its offensive south-eastward between Rhine and Maas as soon as possible after 1 January; “the date selected to be reported to me by Canadian Army by 22-12-44”.
Montgomery’s estimate of the Germans’ capabilities has, not surprisingly in the circumstances, often been quoted:
3. The enemy is at present fighting a defensive campaign on all fronts; his situation is such that he cannot stage major offensive operations. Furthermore, at all costs he has to prevent the war from entering on a mobile phase; he has not the transport or the petrol that would be necessary for mobile operations, nor could his tanks compete with ours in the mobile battle.
This, it will be recalled, was issued on 16 December. On that same morning the enemy launched “major offensive operations”, driving forward through the snow-covered Ardennes in a final great gamble for victory in the West.
The opinion expressed by Montgomery was merely that generally held at Allied headquarters. General Bradley has remarked that he would have said precisely the same thing at the time.63 It is true that on 10 December the First US Army (on which the blow was actually to fall) issued an intelligence summary64 forecasting “an all-out counterattack with armor, between the Roer and the Erft, supported by every weapon he [the enemy] can bring to bear”; but the forecast lacked complete definition. Five days later the same intelligence staff described “a limited scale offensive” as a possibility; and when the attack actually began its chief was on leave in Paris.65 As we have noted elsewhere, the German reserves not in the line were the intelligence responsibility of SHAEF; and the SHAEF intelligence staff certainly did not emphasize the enemy’s offensive capabilities or intentions.
They observed that the Germans had built up a “panzer pool”66 under the Sixth Panzer Army, and had no doubt that the situation had formidable possibilities; but they seem to have thought of it in terms of determined German defence rather than of fierce German attack. Their last weekly intelligence summary before the offensive67 remarked,
In the West, the enemy still faces two major problems, the defence of the Saar and the Ruhr. ...
In the Cologne-Dusseldorf sector, Sixth SS [sic] Panzer Army has been cleverly husbanded and remains uncommitted. And until this army is committed, we cannot really feel satisfied. German losses have been very high and attrition is costing him dearly but so far the battle must have gone better for him than he had anticipated. This is his vital sector, and so we cannot expect anything else but continued reinforcement: hard and bloody fighting; every sort of defence, mines and booby traps. It will be a bitter and hard struggle to reach the Rhine.
Hitler appears to have been very nearly right when he said after the attack that the Allies “lived exclusively in the thought of their own offensive”.68
The Ardennes Offensive and Its Results
The German offensive had the effect of postponing Operation VERITABLE for some five weeks.
The failure of the Mortain enterprise in Normandy had not destroyed Hitler’s confidence in German ability to strike a decisive blow in the west. There is evidence that as early as 19 August—the day the Falaise Gap was closed—he was thinking in terms of another counter-offensive, which he recognized could not take place before November.69 On 13 September he ordered the formation of the Sixth Panzer Army for the purpose.70 Not even the inexorable Russian advance in the east could turn him from his purpose of inflicting a severe reverse on the Western Allies. By the early days of October he and his advisers had selected the Ardennes—the scene of the successful German penetration in 1940—as the springboard for the venture.71
It is not necessary in this book to review in detail the background and development of the Ardennes offensive.* One senior German participant has written, “Tactically speaking the Ardennes breakthrough was the last great achievement of the German General Staff, a stroke in the finest tradition of Gneisenau, Moltke and Schlieffen.”72 But the strategic conception seems to have been entirely Hitler’s. He determined the objectives, the timing and all essential features of the plan, and even Rundstedt was not consulted until these were virtually settled. Hitler intended to use two Panzer Armies, the Fifth and Sixth, in twin drives directed on Brussels and Antwerp respectively. As the operation progressed, the Fifteenth Army would make a converging thrust towards Maastricht to assist the drive on Antwerp. “The primary aim of this operation”, said General Hasso von Manteuffel, commander of the Fifth Panzer Army, “was the encirclement and destruction of 21st British Army Group.”73 However, there seems little doubt that Hitler’s basic aim was to effect temporary stabilization on the Western Front and thereby win a breathing
* The enterprise was first known by the code name WACHT AM RHEIN (obviously a cover name). Later it was redesignated HERBSTNEBEL (AUTUMN FOG).
space in which to achieve a stalemate on the Russian front with forces transferred from the West.74
Rundstedt, Model and other commanders argued for a less ambitious and more practical plan with more limited objectives—a blow at the American salient east of Aachen, which might have inflicted most painful damage. But Hitler, as his fashion was, was adamant.75 German armour lunged forward on 16 December from well-hidden harbours in the Eifel. A combination of skilful deceptive measures and dirty weather which prevented Allied aerial reconnaissance gained for the enemy complete strategic and tactical surprise.* Nevertheless, obstinate defence by certain American units foiled his hopes of reaching the Meuse by the end of the second day. Thereafter, although German spearheads penetrated more than 50 miles from their start line, and actually got within a couple of miles of the river, the offensive gradually lost momentum. Tenacious American resistance at key points, notably Bastogne, the speed of Allied regrouping, and more favourable weather after Christmas which permitted Allied air power full play, were the main factors in the ultimate defeat of Hitler’s ambitious design.76
Apart from several companies of No. 1 Canadian Forestry Group,†77 then working in the Ardennes Forest, and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, brought from the United Kingdom with the rest of the 6th Airborne Division to assist in meeting the emergency, no Canadian units were directly involved in the battle. The Canadian loggers found themselves in close proximity to the enemy and had to take up defensive positions for a time before being evacuated from the Ardennes. The parachute battalion did not reach the front at Rochefort (only a few miles from the previous locations of the forestry companies) until 2 January, by which time the activity required of it was mainly confined to aggressive patrolling.78 However, the German counter-offensive was significant for First Canadian Army: partly by its effect upon its future operational role and partly because of a subsidiary threat on General Crerar’s front.
At 5:00 p.m. on 19 December Field-Marshal Montgomery telephoned General Crerar. The German penetration of the First United States Army’s front, he said, was “deep and, potentially, serious”. Consequently, he had decided “to make immediate re-dispositions in 21 Army Group, in order to secure its right flank”. That same evening the 30th British Corps was to move from Boxtel to Hasselt, 15 miles west of the Meuse, and come under the command of Second British Army. The 51st (Highland) Division would remain under Crerar, but would be kept ready for speedy transfer to the Second Army. Ten minutes after this conversation Crerar issued the necessary instructions to carry out Montgomery’s orders.79 In effect, all plans for launching VERITABLE about 1 January were temporarily shelved.
* Marshalling his forces with uncommon skill, choosing his weather and his sector with exemplary care, von Rundstedt has launched an operation on which he is prepared to ‘gamble everything”‘ (21st Army Group Intelligence Review No. 169, 20 December 1944). In the opinion of RAF historians, information provided by Allied air reconnaissance had not been properly assessed and disseminated.
† Nos. 1, 9, 14, 25 and 27 Companies had been operating sawmills south-east of Names, in the St. Hubert area; No. 16 Company had been employed at Spa, south-east of Liège.
These arrangements were confirmed and extended on the following day, when the Supreme Commander placed the First US Army as well as the Ninth under Montgomery’s command and gave him control of all Allied ground operations on the northern flank of the German penetration. General Bradley had the responsibility for the southern flank.80 At his tactical headquarters, on the morning of 20 December, the British Commander-in-Chief told Generals Dempsey and Crerar that steps had been taken to secure all crossings over the Meuse between Liège and Givet. “At all cost”, he said, “the enemy must be prevented from crossing the River Meuse, in any strength, along this front.” Responsibility for the defence of the river in this sector devolved mainly upon Second British Army, with the 30th Corps held in readiness for a counter-stroke. However, the Field Marshal was still thinking of what he considered this Corps’ primary mission, in the north; if the Allied situation in the Ardennes improved materially he said, “it was quite probable that HQ 30 Corps and several Divisions [including the 51st, which had already moved south] would be returned to First Cdn Army, in order to proceed with speed on Operation VERITABLE’. Therefore the work of improving communications in the Canadian area, leading to the Nijmegen Salient, would be vigorously pressed.81 However, it proved impossible to disengage the 30th Corps from the Ardennes until mid-January—when “the Black Boar* returned to Boxtel to sharpen his tusks for the next affray”.82
Apart from the delay imposed upon future operations, the enemy’s offensive caused considerable anxiety concerning First Canadian Army’s most important responsibility—the defence of the Nijmegen Salient. When the storm first broke in the Ardennes there were few immediate repercussions in the north. On 16 December General Crerar’s intelligence staff correctly identified the German formations from Arnhem westward as the 6th Parachute and 712th, 711th and 346th Infantry Divisions.83 On succeeding days the front remained quiet, except for “spirited” German patrolling in the Reichswald sector, where the enemy also serenaded our troops over a public address system with Im an Old Cow Hand from the Rio Grande”. On 18 December there were indications that the 712th Division might be withdrawing some of its troops north of the Neder Rijn.84
However, by the 21st, Intelligence at Headquarters First Canadian Army had gathered “reasonably conclusive” evidence that the enemy was “preparing a large paratroop operation to take place very shortly, to disrupt the communications of the armies dependent on Antwerp and Brussels”:
It is abundantly clear that there are paratroops in German Holland, and that their movements tie in to this design. It is equally clear that were the Ardennes plans to succeed to the extent that the enemy crossed the Meuse between Liège and Givet in force, a parachute landing behind our forces opposing him would assist him immeasurably and might, in the longer view, disorganize our offensive plans. Similarly such a landing in the rear areas of First Canadian Army and Second Army might reasonably be expected to delay the movement of reserves to the Ardennes battle. ...
Information on the build-up of German parachute formations was based on numerous reports from hitherto reliable sources. These indicated that four parachute divisions were available, airfields had been improved and redispositions of
* The Black Boar (rampant) was the identifying sign of the 30th British Corps.
airborne troops had occurred in the Amersfoort-Arnhem area. However, Intelligence emphasized the necessity of correlating the suspected northern threat with the drive towards Antwerp, pointing out that “without a land operation, reasonably likely to reach the area, it is only a possible and NOT a probable operation”.85
Nevertheless, apprehension continued to mount on succeeding days, although there was a perceptible change in the degree and nature of the threat. German patrols were active across the entire Canadian front and at night the noise of tanks and other vehicles was heard, suggesting movement from north to south behind the enemy’s lines. Civilian sources indicated that the enemy was concentrating in the area along the Maas between Geertruidenberg and Heusden with assault equipment such as rubber boats; numerous German anti-radar devices were reported in action. On 22 December, while 12 German divisions were exerting fierce pressure against the First United States Army in the Ardennes, Canadian Intelligence visualized the enemy making “a short term parachute raid across the Maas to distract attention and prevent [Allied] reserves moving south”. Yet information the following day made the possibility of the use of airborne troops seem “more nebulous”. Rumours circulated among civilians in Nijmegen that the enemy would attack in the early hours of Christmas Day with six divisions.86
On 23 December General Crerar issued to his Corps Commanders a cautionary directive pointing to the possibility of “a subsidiary operation, both water and airborne, directed against North Brabant and possibly on Antwerp”.87 While a southern drive along the Gorinchem-Breda-Antwerp axis appeared to offer the best results to the enemy, he noted that no sector of the Army’s front could be excluded from the possibility of attack and emphasized the need for particular vigilance over the Christmas period:
Commanders will, therefore, be very much on the alert and the organization and disposition of forces under command will be made to suit the contingencies as described. Plans will be made to deal vigorously and decisively with any enemy penetration of outpost positions and Forward Defended Localities and, at the same time, to contain, localize and mop-up any landings of enemy paratroops in Divisional, Corps and Army rear areas.
General Vokes’ 4th Armoured Division, which had been relieved by the Poles on the 21st, was placed in Army Reserve in the Boxtel area, on six hours’ notice to move.*88 On General Simonds’ front the 2nd Canadian Division was brought into Corps Reserve on the 26th, the 3rd Division, with the 5th Brigade from the 2nd Division under command, extending its southern flank to cover the new dispositions. The 3rd British Infantry Division and its front along the Maas between Venlo and Boxmeer came under the 2nd Canadian Corps from Second Army on 29 December and remained under General Simonds until 19 January.89 Special arrangements were made for the security of the Army Headquarters area, and plans were in readiness for withdrawing the headquarters to an alternative area in rear if this proved desirable.
As Christmas passed without any large-scale German demonstration tension
* Subsequently, the division occupied positions farther west, in the Breda-Tilburg area, coming back under the 1st British Corps. The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group (of the 2nd Division) took over the Boxtel area as Army Reserve on 29 December.
relaxed to some extent.90 In the Ardennes, Hitler ordered new attacks in a supreme effort to reach the Meuse; but Allied counter-measures, including very powerful blows from the air, exerted increasing influence on the battle. On 26 December the Third Army made contact with the 101st US Airborne Division which had been fighting virtually surrounded in Bastogne.91 In the north Field-Marshal Montgomery expected the enemy to make “nasty faces” and “diversionary ‘jabs’” but did not anticipate serious attacks against the Canadian Army or the Second Army’s left sector.92 At the end of December, General Crerar issued further instructions to his Corps Commanders.93 There was a possibility, he thought, that, even if the German offensive failed in the Ardennes, some desperate enterprise might be attempted on his Army’s front.
It should now be assumed that the assembly and deployment of enemy forces, of approximate strength four to five Divisions, has been completed North of R Maas, between Hedel and Perenboom. The main thrust line for this enemy force, should a bridgehead be successfully established by it South of R Maas, would be Oosterhout–Breda–Antwerp. A secondary thrust, to secure ‘s-Hertogenbosch, should also be anticipated.
Crerar also mentioned the assembly of a German force, estimated at one brigade group, on the islands of Schouwen and Overflakkee—presumably intended for diversionary amphibious attacks against the mainland and the island of Tholen. Since the 21st Army Group’s commitments in the Ardennes precluded any possibility of reinforcing First Canadian Army, the latter had to counter these threats with its own resources. Nevertheless, General Crerar emphasized that it was important to do this without “dangerously compromising” the ability to mount Operation VERITABLE later.
On New Year’s Day the Germans launched another offensive, not in the north but in the south, in the region of Strasbourg. Their success here was less than in the Ardennes, though they gained considerable ground. Their last abortive thrust on 25 January was followed by a successful Allied counter-offensive.94 The only major enemy enterprise in the north—also on New Year’s Day—was mounted by the Luftwaffe. It took the form of what No. 83 Group RAF called “an extremely well planned and, on the whole, well executed attack on a number of airfields in Holland and Eastern Belgium”. The “Hangover Raid” further shook our complacency and cost us, by one computation, 156 aircraft, most of them destroyed on the ground. But the Germans lost even more heavily, their personnel casualties being crippling; according to the commander of their fighter force, they “had a total loss of nearly 300 fighter pilots, including fifty-nine leaders”.95
The Other Side of the Maas
How real was the German threat in the Netherlands during the Ardennes offensive? At the time, as was natural, there was some disagreement on our side. General Simonds in particular was critical of the conclusions of First Canadian Army Intelligence.96 Today, with considerable German evidence available, it seems evident that the threat was real; but it was a relatively minor portion of the plans of the German high command.
No orders concerning the offensive were issued to General Student’s Army Group H before it actually began on 16 December; Student however states* that he was personally informed about the Ardennes project on the 8th.97 Army Group B was the formation primarily concerned. and the local planning was concentrated at its headquarters. On 16 December the war diary of the Commander-in-Chief West98 noted,
With the launching of the battle, Army Groups H and G are being notified of their own tasks in the frame of the entire operation.
Army Group H: To follow up as soon as retrograde movements by the enemy can be recognized. ...
Later the same day this was added:
If the operations of Army Group B continue to develop as successfully as they seem to promise up to now, and headway is quickly made in the direction of Antwerp, an advance by strong elements of the Twenty-Fifth Army across the lower Maas can contribute materially to the success [of the entire operation] by completing the large envelopment of the enemy forces in the area north of the front under attack.
The Twenty-Fifth Army, it should be noted, was Student’s right-hand army, having under its command the 30th Corps (remnants of the 346th Infantry Division and odds and ends) in the area west of Dordrecht, and the 88th Corps (711th and 712th Infantry Divisions and 6th Parachute Division, with the 2nd Parachute Division slated to join it) between Dordrecht and Arnhem.99
By 18 December, though the German infantry divisions on the main front were moving well, the armour, particularly on the Sixth Panzer Army front on the right, was having trouble. On this day Hitler cancelled an intended attack by the Fifteenth Army (on the Sixth’s right) so that some of its troops could be used on the Ardennes front. The Commander-in-Chief West’s diarist recorded,
All the more important is the speedy completion of Army Group H’s preparations for a thrust across the Waal and Maas, so that the [operation] can be carried out immediately if the situation so demands. C-in-C West gives orders to carry out the preparations in such a manner that, without any further warning orders, as of 22 Dec, the attack can be launched on 24 hours’ notice. ...
No relevant contemporary German Army or Army Group records are available; but fortunately we have the war diary of the 88th Corps, which would have had the main responsibility for any thrust from north of the Maas directed towards Antwerp. This corps began planning on the 16th and next day gave the Twenty-Fifth Army its outline plan for an operation in which the 711th Division would cross the Maas and advance on Breda, the 6th Parachute Division would cross farther east directed on Tilburg, and two regimental groups of the 712th would cross west of Heusden to cover the left flank. On the evening of 21 December it issued a formal operation order; the 712th Division was now to operate in the centre and the 6th Parachute Division to cover the left, and no immediate objectives were prescribed farther south than the crossings of the Wilhelmina Canal at Oosterhout and Dongen.100 These crossings would be the means of advancing on Breda
* Conversations recorded in the war diary of HQ 88th Corps on the 12th suggest indirectly the possibility that Student may actually have got word on the 11th.
—and subsequently Antwerp—if the situation developed favourably; but these possibilities are not mentioned in the order.
To mislead us as to the point of attack, the 88th Corps on 18 December ordered special activity about Tiel, on the Waal well to the east of the intended crossings. We duly observed this and, the activity continuing, late in December a super-heavy battery was sent “to beat up Tiel”.101 However, as we have seen, First Canadian Army was not deceived as to the projected point of main effort.
According to Student, some 150 tanks were to be available to him (they never actually arrived) and would presumably have been used to exploit beyond the canal. He had a parachute battalion which he first thought of dropping on Headquarters First Canadian Army, which the Germans, apparently as a result of wireless interceptions, knew was then in Tilburg; later he decided to use it instead against our artillery positions north of Tilburg, from which the Maas crossings could be harassed. And simultaneously with the 88th Corps attack there was to be one in the 30th German Corps area by the 346th Division from Schouwen and Overflakkee, landing about Dinteloord; Student counted upon the 7th Parachute Division being available to exploit here.102 This is confirmed by the war diary of the C-in-C West for 23 December, which notes that the division “has been earmarked by Army Group H for the latter’s undertaking in preparation” but adds that it “is also counted upon by C-in-C West for new operations by Army Group G”.
As the days passed it became apparent to the Germans, first, that the offensive in the Ardennes was not making the progress which would make Student’s attack practicable and profitable; and secondly, that there was no sign of withdrawal or weakening on the First Canadian Army Front—on the contrary, it became evident that we had observed the enemy preparations and were acting to counter them. On 23-24 December the commander of the 88th Corps (General Hans Reinhard) was replaced by Lieut.-General Felix Schwalbe. Student states that he was responsible for the change, feeling that Reinhard was not the man for a difficult and dashing operation; he asked for General Eugen Meindl of the 2nd Parachute Corps, but got Schwalbe, who had had the task of controlling the withdrawal of the Fifteenth Army across the Scheldt.103 On 26 December Schwalbe sent a signal to his divisions stating that intercepted Allied air force messages indicated that we had observed the German troop concentrations at Gorinchem and south of it; we were “now aware of the massing of troops north of the Maas”.104 He had already told them that “an order to launch the attack was not to be expected at the moment”; and a new operation order issued on the 25th noted that it would “presumably” not be launched before the 30th.105
With surprise lost, the operation must have looked much less attractive. On the 26th it received its death-blow. Already on the 23rd the C-in-C West had refused to allow the 7th Parachute Division to move from its position on the left flank of First Parachute Army, Student’s left-hand army.106 This seriously damaged his plan for the 30th Corps front outlined above. Now the needs of the Russian front supervened. General Heinz Guderian, Acting Chief of the General Staff at OKH, came to Rundstedt’s headquarters and represented the necessity of giving
up one infantry division to save the situation about Budapest.* The C-in-C West ordered the immediate transfer of the 711th.107 When Schwalbe heard of this he pointed out that his projected operation was now virtually impossible. He was told that the job would have to be done with the forces to hand; and on 30 December he issued a new operation order accordingly.108 But from this time no one seems to have taken the idea seriously.
There is a possibility—though an inherently remote one—that the German command above Army Group level considered the whole project merely as a deception scheme, and sought to lend it greater realism by keeping the true facts from Student and his subordinates. Student himself referred to the operation as a “deception and holding attack”.109 There is an enigmatic passage in the diary of the C-in-C West for 27 December: “Characteristic of the situation at the other Army Groups [other than B] is the particularly close attention the enemy is paying to Army Group H—perhaps due to certain intelligence regarding an undertaking in preparation.” This may—or may not—carry an undertone of satisfaction at the working of a deception plan. By this time, it must be noted, any real possibility of the attack being made was a thing of the past. The following day the same diary remarked that it was necessary to prevent the Allies from moving more forces from other fronts to the Ardennes:
For this reason C-in-C West is continuing with the preparations for the undertaking of Army Group H, even if for the time being in view of the situation it seems that its only purpose is to remain that of deceiving the enemy.
In the absence of any real evidence whatever to the contrary, we must assume that the records of the C-in-C West and the 88th Corps mean what they say; that a subsidiary attack across the Maas was planned, and would have taken place if the Ardennes offensive had made greater progress; and that when the situation in the Ardennes developed unfavourably the project was maintained as a deception scheme with the object of preventing us from withdrawing troops from the area.
Canadian Army Intelligence saw the menace in good time and assessed it fairly accurately, though the proportions of the airborne threat were much exaggerated. The forces actually available to Student were not equal to mounting more than a secondary operation, but the precautionary measures taken on our side were fully justified, particularly in view of the fact that the fighting value of the Polish Armoured Division, then holding the lower Maas, was at this time rated very low.110 Bad flying weather for reconnaissance hampered our Intelligence staffs in discerning the subsidence of the threat after 26 December. The first evidence of abandonment of the operation was reported on New Year’s Day; the next day we were still expecting an attack from Schouwen; and only on 4 January did Army Intelligence make the comment, “The evidence... increases and continues to show that
* Guderian in his book Panzer Leader (p. 385) says that he visited Rundstedt on 31 December and was promised three divisions from the West. But the diary of the C-in-C West mentions no visit on 31 December and in connection with that on the 26th speaks only of the 711th Division. It is of interest that the procedure was apparently objectionable to Hitler. On 2 January OKW issued orders that transfers of formations and GHQ units from one theatre to another could be authorized only by OKW itself; direct arrangements between theatre commanders were forbidden.
the enemy has probably changed his mind about an offensive operation over the lower Maas.”111
While the Canadians were narrowly watching the Germans on their front, other armies were taking measures to turn the Ardennes offensive to Allied advantage. General Eisenhower afterwards wrote:112
My plan was to hold firmly the shoulders of the penetration, particularly the Monschau area on the north and the Bastogne area on the south, prevent enemy penetration west of the Meuse or in the Liège-Namur area, and then to counterattack with General Patton’s Army in the general direction Bastogne-Cologne. This counterattack was to be followed by an attack by the forces under Field-Marshal Montgomery, directed as the result and progress of General Patton’s operations should indicate.
Accordingly, as we have seen, Field-Marshal Montgomery took over the direction of all Allied operations north of the line Givet-Prüm on 20 December. Three days later, acting on the assumption that “it is better to attack with a small force at once, and attain surprise, than it is to wait and lose it”,113 General Patton drove three divisions towards Bastogne. Meanwhile, Montgomery regrouped and prepared to intervene on the northern flank of the German salient. With Allied air power again thrown into the scale, by the 26th the Supreme Commander was confident that the battle had been brought under control.
During the later stages of the battle in the Ardennes Montgomery renewed his proposal that the Allied forces engaged in the northern thrust towards the Ruhr (that is, the 21st and 12th Army Groups) be placed under a single commander (namely, himself). Eisenhower, strongly urged and supported by General Marshall, again rejected it; and according to the American official historian of SHAEF, a hint was passed through Montgomery’s Chief of Staff “that in a showdown someone would have to go and it would not be the Supreme Commander”. Montgomery withdrew his letter.114 Preparations continued for an offensive against the northern flank of the German salient by the First US Army and the 30th British Corps under the Field-Marshal’s direction. The Allies were able to take the initiative on 13 January. Vigorous attacks on the enemy’s exposed flanks then drove him back and, by the 28th, he had lost virtually all the ground he had gained in the early stage of the battle.115 Both sides had suffered heavy casualties in men and equipment during the struggle-but on the German side these losses were largely irreplaceable. Thus, although the enemy had delayed the start of the northern Allied offensive, he had drastically weakened his own resources to meet it.
[Reference to the * footnote is missing116]
Among the Allies the Ardennes episode unfortunately left some friction behind it. On 7 January Field-Marshal Montgomery held a press conference. In the course of it he had paid a warm and well-deserved tribute to the fighting qualities of the American soldier, who had beaten the Germans in the recent crisis; he paid tribute also to General Eisenhower (“I am absolutely devoted to Ike”) and said it grieved him to see uncomplimentary articles about the Supreme Commander in the British press. But the tone of his remarks struck some American officers, already sensitive about the late temporary command reorganization, as claiming
* Beginning on 20 January the Sixth Panzer Army, with four armoured divisions under command, was sent east on Hitler’s orders to seek to restore the desperate situation on the Russian front.
undue credit for the victory for the speaker himself (“The battle has been most interesting—I think possibly one of the most interesting and tricky battles I have ever handled. ...”)117 General Bradley was particularly angry. According to his own account, he told the Supreme Commander later that after what had happened he could never serve under Montgomery.118 The American official writer cited above has suggested that the incident could not fail to influence Eisenhower in the strategic debates of the next phase, particularly with respect to placing additional US forces under Montgomery’s command.119
During the latter half of January, Montgomery took advantage of the renewed Allied initiative to clear the Roermond Triangle—a pocket of resistance, north of Aachen, between the Roer and the Meuse. This operation, BLACKCOCK, carried out by the 12th British Corps, had been completed by 26 January.120 Canadian “Kangaroos” assisted the 43rd (Wessex) Division, earning a tribute in the divisional history.121
The Fighting at Kapelsche Veer
Before returning to the main theme of Canadian planning in January 1945, we must consider an unusual series of small-scale operations which took place during this period on the lower Maas. Here, in a waterlogged area north-east of Geertruidenberg, the Oude Maasje (a secondary channel of the Maas) forms an island several miles long and up to a mile wide along the river’s southern bank. The island is very flat and the whole area interlaced with hundreds of canals, ditches and embankments; it is “polder” country similar to that of the Scheldt Estuary. About half-way along the Maas side of the island, at a ferry crossing, was a tiny silted-up harbour called Kapelsche Veer. This desolate spot was the scene of a protracted struggle beginning at the end of December and lasting through January.
The origin of the fight for Kapelsche Veer may have been in part the enemy’s desire to give battle experience to his formations, and in particular to the 6th Parachute Division. Student, the commander of Army Group H and chief of German paratroops, afterwards said that recruits from the Luftwaffe a were committed to “small offensive operations” for “battle inoculation during the expected lull of the winter months”.122 Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Germans first occupied the place in strength in connection with their projected offensive across the Maas. Kapelsche Veer was one of the crossing areas prescribed in the 88th Corps order of 21 December (above, page 446); the 712th Division was to “thrust across the Maas on both sides of Kapelscheveer”.123 On the same day on which this instruction was issued the 711th Division, then holding the sector, reported to the 88th Corps, “Outposts at Kapelsche veer have been strengthened as ordered.” Another message of the same date specifies that the outposts have been “increased to one company and one advanced observation post”. The implication seems to be that the Germans had had a standing patrol at Kapelsche Veer
before this time. On 23 December an adjustment of boundaries brought the place within the area of the 712th Division; and on this day the commander of that division himself visited the bridgehead. A further boundary adjustment at the end of the month led to the 6th Parachute Division relieving the 712th.124
On the night of 30-31 December the 1st Polish Armoured Division made the first effort to capture Kapelsche Veer. Some prisoners were taken; but the Poles had 46 casualties and the attack failed, for the enemy was very well dug in with support from medium artillery, self-propelled guns and mortars north of the Maas.125 The diary of Rundstedt’s headquarters commented:126
Worthy of note are the enemy assaults against our bridgehead at Kapelsche Veer, which he has been repeating time and again. It seems possible that being aware of our preparations he had the idea that the undertaking might be launched from this particular bridgehead.
During the following week the Germans ferried two self-propelled guns across the Maas* and consolidated their “firm base”. Then, early on 7 January, the Poles renewed their assault. The 9th Infantry Battalion cleared the harbour area by noon; but stubborn paratroops, dug in along the dyke nearby and aided by mortar fire, prevented further progress and again forced the Poles to retire.127
After another pause the 47th Royal Marine Commando took over the task of reducing the bridgehead. In Operation HORSE on 13-14 January the Marines made a gallant but fruitless attack against the position from both flanks; the exposed nature of the approaches, together with exhaustion of ammunition and loss of control through casualties to leaders, resulted in a further repulse. The Commando suffered 49 casualties.128
It was now evident that only a deliberate operation on a larger scale, including a greater weight of supporting artillery, could dislodge the enemy from Kapelsche Veer. On 14 January, as soon as it was apparent that HORSE had failed, Crocker’s headquarters issued orders for a new operation, ELEPHANT. It was to be undertaken by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, which would take over as much of the Polish Armoured Division’s front as was required for the purpose. The orders emphasized that thorough preparation, rather than speed, should determine the date of the next assault. A request had been made for daily aerial bombing of Kapelsche Veer, and the entire Corps artillery was to support the attack. General Vokes ordered Brigadier J. C. Jefferson’s 10th Infantry Brigade to carry out the operation, specifying that it was to make thrusts “from each flank onto the objective” while also putting in a waterborne assault against the enemy’s rear.129
The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, whose acting commander at this time was Major J. F. Swayze, was given the leading role. It prepared the operation with care, producing the only detailed order on paper which it wrote during the campaign. In addition to the artillery of the 1st British Corps (including the guns of the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Armoured Divisions and the 4th Army Group Royal Artillery) it had available in support the tanks of the 29th Armoured
* Very categorical accounts of their presence and location were recorded in the intelligence log of HQ First Canadian Army for 2 January. But they must have been withdrawn before the Canadian attack on the 26th, for they are not mentioned in connection with it.
Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment) and a large number of heavy mortars—the heavy mortar company of the Toronto Scottish having been borrowed from the 2nd Canadian Division. Unfortunately, air support during the operation was frequently reduced to nil by bad weather. The main attack was to be put in by A Company, supported by C, on the right, that is from the east; B would attack on the left; and a force in 15 canoes would paddle down the Maas from the east and land at the harbour. Elaborate arrangements were made for smoke cover and flame support.130
After a week’s careful training ELEPHANT was launched on the freezing morning of 26 January. That day’s attack was a failure, and cost many men. Ice along the river bank hampered the canoe party in launching their craft and made them late; they then came under heavy fire from the north bank, had several canoes sunk and were forced to land east of their objective. With their weapons “frozen and useless” they had to withdraw. A Company were virtually on their objective, the enemy positions about the harbour, when the Germans, having held their fire until that moment, suddenly opened up and then counter-attacked fiercely. At 9:55 a.m. it was reported that all officers of both A and C were casualties. Both companies pulled back from the island. As for B on the other flank, it got to its objective half a mile west of the harbour only to be counter-attacked off it. Both the leading platoon commanders were killed, but Sergeant L. C. Stewart took charge of their platoons, and thanks to his exertions and those of the company commander, Major E. J. Brady, who came forward, the company held half a mile west of its objective and was reinforced by D. Brady later received the DSO and Stewart the MM The battalion’s anti-tank platoon was put in on the right, where it was relieved after nightfall by A Company of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada supported by two South Alberta reconnaissance tanks.131
The Germans were extraordinarily well dug in; and the only practicable approaches were those from east and west along the high “Winter Dyke” (some 300 yards inland from the actual edge of the river) on which stood the two houses near the harbour—known by the code names RASPBERRY and GRAPES—that were the core of the enemy position. And the paratroopers fought with a determination that deserves the word fanatical. For five days—days of frigid misery for both sides—they resisted all the power we could bring to bear. But in the circumstances bringing power to bear was difficult. Sherman tanks were brought into action, across a rickety bridge at the east end of the island and by rafting over the Oude Maasje farther west; but at this season the tracks which passed for roads on the island were almost impassable for armour.
The infantry advanced slowly, digging in after each short forward movement. Among the infantrymen in the front positions on the dyke, Forward Observation Officers of the 15th Field Regiment RCA directed the fire of the artillery; this regiment alone fired over 14,000 25-pounder rounds during the operation. (The Argylls recorded on the 29th that the shelling “had rid the island completely of the thin layer of snow that had covered it”, and a platoon commander asked for reinforcements not wearing the white camouflage snowsuits that had been used so far.) The German positions were largely invulnerable to this fire, but the gunners
repeatedly broke up determined attempts to reinforce the German garrison by boat from the north shore of the Maas. On 29 January the Argylls finally took GRAPES, the easterly house, and a few men reached RASPBERRY but could not capture it. On the evening of the 30th they finished the job here. The enemy had had enough at last; that night, it appears, he evacuated his surviving men across the river, and the Commander-in-Chief West recorded, “Bridgehead NE of Oosterhout has been vacated.” Early on the morning of the 31st the Lincoln and Welland coming in from the west made contact with the Argylls on RASPBERRY. No Germans except prisoners remained alive south of the main stream of the Maas.132
As Rundstedt’s situation report covering the events of 29 January said, this struggle by the frostbound Maas caused “many casualties on both sides”. There are no actual German statistics, but First Canadian Army’s final estimate of the enemy losses during ELEPHANT was 145 killed and 64 wounded; we took only 34 prisoners. Plocher, the commander of the 6th Parachute Division, estimated afterwards that the whole bridgehead operation cost him 300 to 400 “serious casualties” plus 100 more men frostbitten. The enemy had succeeded in putting fresh troops into the bridgehead from time to time during the fighting; it is doubtful whether he ever had much more than 150 fighting men there at any one moment.133 As for our own losses, The Lincoln and Welland Regiment had 179 casualties, of which 50 were fatal; seven officers lost their lives. The vast majority of these losses were on the first day. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada had 48 casualties, 13 being fatal. The South Alberta Regiment had seven, including two officers killed by snipers.134
On a smaller scale, the fighting at Kapelsche Veer recalls that at Ortona in Italy thirteen months before.* In both cases Canadian infantry and armour were locked with German paratroopers in protracted struggles which cost ourselves and the enemy losses larger than the immediate objective seemed, intrinsically, to be worth. In both the objective acquired a certain symbolic significance and was contested with fierce obstinacy; and in both the Germans ultimately gave up. At the time and later, many Canadian soldiers certainly thought that our costly victory at Kapelsche Veer gained only
... a little patch of ground,
That hath in it no profit but the name.
When the fighting on the island began the place had a special tactical importance as a jumping-off point for the anticipated German offensive across the Maas, which we did not yet know had been abandoned. By the time Operation ELEPHANT was ordered and launched, this threat had evaporated, though there was always a possibility of its reviving. But while there is little or no written evidence, it seems fair to assume that General Crocker—and General Crerar—felt that to abandon the struggle after an initial reverse would be to concede to the enemy a moral superiority which might have very serious practical consequences. As noted above, we know that Sir John Crocker just at this time was painfully aware of the low battle-worthiness of the once-formidable Polish Armoured Division, whose ranks
* See Nicholson, The Canadians in Italy, Chap. XI.
were now full of inadequately trained reinforcements who only a few weeks or months before had been Polish soldiers serving under compulsion in the German Army. Crocker felt that the division needed to be taken out of the line and re-trained, but at that moment this was not practicable.135 To have left an active German bridgehead on the front of this formation in such circumstances would have been foolish. On the German side, Plocher attributed the length of the resistance to the obstinacy of General Student. He said that he could not get authority to abandon the bridgehead until Student was replaced by General Johannes Blaskowitz as commander of Army Group H.136 As this change took place on 29 January, and the evacuation was on the night of the 30th, Plocher may well be right.
Although we did not emulate the Germans in seeking to establish a bridgehead on the farther bank of the Maas, we continued to be active there with a view to establishing and maintaining a moral superiority over the enemy and gaining information about his doings. In this latter connection the capture of prisoners was particularly important. Accordingly, small patrols regularly crossed the Maas at night by boat; sometimes a larger patrol was supported by artillery; and occasionally a raid in some strength was made. One such enterprise took place on 17 January 1945, when The Lake Superior Regiment (Motor), commanded by Lt.-Col. R. A. Keane, sent a company across in daylight to raid the village of Hoenza-Driel, on the north bank of the river north-east of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The object of Operation SCHULTZ was to establish the identity of the enemy holding this sector of the front by capturing two or more prisoners. The raid was very heavily supported: not only the tanks of the three armoured regiments of the 4th Armoured Brigade, but also two field regiments and one medium regiment of artillery fired, in addition to mortars and medium machine-guns. SCHULTZ was completely successful; three prisoners were taken-though as it happened they were from an independent unit, “Battalion Koch”, which did not help much in establishing the general situation—and the Lake Superior company returned across the river in good order, having suffered only four casualties,*137 none of them serious.138
Planning for VERITABLE is Resumed
Throughout the critical battle in the Ardennes the Supreme Commander’s staff had “continued to work on plans for clearing the area west of the Rhine, for crossing the Rhine, and for advancing eastward into Germany”.139 Likewise, in spite of commitments in the Ardennes and the threat to the northern front, neither Field-Marshal Montgomery nor General Crerar had lost sight of the requirements of their Rhineland offensive. On 16 January, in conference with Crerar, Montgomery outlined his plan “to get Allied forces across the River Rhine, North of the Ruhr, in strength”. This plan, presupposing clearance of the Rhineland, could
* The company commander was wounded soon after landing. Lieut. H. K. Bird took command and directed the rest of the operation and the withdrawal. He was awarded the Military Cross.
only be carried out with extensive American assistance and, at the time of the discussion, the question of whether the Ninth United States Army would be left under Montgomery’s control had not been decided.140 However, this difficulty had been resolved when, five days later, Montgomery issued a formal directive141 announcing his intention of destroying “all enemy in the area west of the Rhine from the present forward positions south of Nijmegen as far south as the general line Jülich–Dusseldorf, as a preliminary to crossing the Rhine and engaging the enemy in mobile war to the north of the Ruhr”. The enemy’s situation was described in precisely the words used in the earlier directive issued the day the battle began in the Ardennes (above, page 439). Following the pattern then outlined, Montgomery visualized converging attacks by the First Canadian and Ninth United States Armies. The target date for VERITABLE, the Canadian operation, was 8 February; but that for GRENADE, the American one, could not yet be fixed.
Commencing on 18 January, the 30th British Corps, 51st and 53rd Divisions and ancillary formations had returned to General Crerar’s command for VERITABLE. When the Army Commander addressed his senior officers on the 22nd, he noted that the concentration of “most of the additional forces required for the operation” was well advanced. The overall plan for VERITABLE, he pointed out, had not been materially changed during the month-long delay imposed by the emergency in the Ardennes, but remained as he had outlined it in December (above, page 438). He emphasized how vital it was to achieve surprise-chiefly by the elimination of “prolonged preliminary bombardment” and the substitution of “really overwhelming fire” from the air and the ground as the operation commenced, or was about to commence. He reminded his hearers-as he had before Operation TOTALIZE (above, page 215)—of the consequence of “keeping the initiative, maintaining the momentum of the attack and of driving on, and through, the enemy without let-up”. And finally he directed them to ensure that “all ranks taking an active part in the operation are adequately briefed and that all obtain a clear appreciation not only of what is expected of them, but of the importance of the contribution which each man can, and must, make”.142
On 23 January Field-Marshal Montgomery indicated that preparations by the First US Army for an offensive towards Bonn might have a delaying effect on VERITABLE and GRENADE, since the latter could not begin until the Ninth Army had been brought up to a strength of 12 divisions. However, he assured General Crerar that he would have six days’ warning of any postponement of VERITABLE. In the interests of surprise, “no forward assembly of formations concerned” would begin until 2 February. Lieut.-General W. H. Simpson, commanding the Ninth Army, was requested to make every possible effort to launch GRENADE by the 15th.143 General Crerar issued his own directive on Operation VERITABLE144 to the commanders of the 1st and 30th British and 2nd Canadian Corps on 25 January.*
* Details of the plan are given in the next chapter. It may, however, be noted that at this stage the 2nd Canadian Division was added to the formations under General Horrocks for the initial stage of the assault. Also, the number of supporting Army Groups Royal Artillery was increased from four to five.
One week later he was advised that D Day had been confirmed for 8 February. It would go in whatever the weather. “The C-in-C considered that the urgency was so great that it was undesirable to delay the operation, even by 24 hours, in order to obtain air support.” This presumably reflected a SHAEF directive issued the same day which instructed Montgomery to mount VERITABLE “at the earliest date and not later than 8th February”.145
At the Field-Marshal’s final conference with his senior commanders on D minus four, he mentioned a ruling by SHAEF that, excepting only First United States Army’s capture of the Roer dams, VERITABLE and GRENADE were to be “carried out as first priority tasks”. At this time General Simpson expected to be able to launch his attack on the 10th. Outlining the probable pattern of the later assaults across the Rhine, Montgomery said that, for administrative reasons, he intended “to keep Ninth US Army on the right, Second Brit Army in the centre and First Cdn Army on the left”.146 General Crerar gave a synopsis of Canadian preparations for VERITABLE in the course of which he said:
I have ... assumed that the operation, as a whole, will divide itself into several phases and, after each phase is completed; it may be necessary to move up our artillery and supporting weapons,. regroup our assaulting formations, and commence the next phase with co-ordinated and heavy fire support and with controlled movement. It may be that with air and ground conditions in our favour, things will go very well, indeed, and a ‘break-in’ offer the possibility of becoming a real ‘break-through’. In this much more desirable situation, 30 Corps and 2 Cdn Corps will lose no time in exploiting the possibilities to the full.147
The Administrative Foundation
While senior commanders and their staffs hammered out final details of the operational plan, a great administrative “build-up” provided the sinews for VERITABLE. The wide scope of these requirements can only be suggested here, but their importance to the success of the operation can scarcely be exaggerated. Basically, there were three essentials: rations for the troops, ammunition for their weapons and what military terminology described as POL—that is, petrol, oil and lubricants for their vehicles. Since the strength of First Canadian Army was to rise as high as 449,865 during the operations, with civilian labour, prisoners, etc., raising the total number of mouths to feed to 476,193 at its peak,148 the problem of supplying rations alone was no small one.
From the outset a heavy burden fell upon the Royal Army Service Corps and Royal Canadian Army Service Corps for the actual movement of supplies, and on the Royal Engineers and Royal Canadian Engineers for the maintenance of routes and bridges. But maintenance depended, in turn, on the weather, and this proved fickle. Although cold weather and firm ground persisted throughout most of January—the temperature sank to 5° Fahrenheit on the 26th149—a thaw set in at the end of the month, and routes soon deteriorated under the heavy traffic. By 5 February a section of the Turnhout–Eindhoven road was “impassable even to jeeps in four-wheel drive” and the Chief Engineer at Army Headquarters commented ruefully, “We have had every disadvantage possible in weather with the
highest flooding in fourteen years in November, the lowest water level ever recorded in January, a severe frost followed by very rapid thaw, bad icing conditions and now another flood.”150 For a time, nearly 50 companies of engineers, plus three road construction companies and 29 pioneer companies, were fully employed in maintaining the roads in the British-Canadian sector.151 Among other commitments two road construction companies of the RCE, with pioneer labour and civilian assistance, maintained the Eindhoven-’s-Hertogenbosch route forward to the Maas, while sappers of First Canadian Army Troops constructed a permanent bridge across the river at Mook.152
Fortunately, the completion of a railway bridge over the Maas at Ravenstein on 4 February enabled trains to reach railheads around Nijmegen. This had the double effect of absorbing some of the strain of moving supplies by road and of enabling stone to be brought forward to help our engineers in maintaining the roads.153 The RCASC also arranged for bulk shipments of petrol to be brought forward by rail in order to build up the reserves of fighting formations. Expressing available stocks in terms of operational mileage, the Deputy Director of Supply and Transport at Headquarters First Canadian Army noted on 7 February: “The target of 150 miles for 30 Corps in Army Depots was reached today and holdings include 200 miles for 1 Corps, 2 Corps and Army Troops and 153 miles for 30 Corps.”154 Meanwhile, a total of 2,318,222 rations for the troops had been accumulated.155 Likewise, a vast quantity of ammunition had been collected in forward dumps. As the Army Commander put it,
If the ammunition allotment for the operation, which consists of 350 types, were stacked side by side and five feet high, it would line a road for 30 miles. The total ammunition tonnage, provided for the supporting artillery from D Day, to D plus 3, would be the equivalent in weight to the bomb-drop of 25,000 medium bombers.156
To mention one category alone, there were 1471 rounds of high explosive available for each 25-pounder, plus 206 rounds per gun normally carried in the regimental “first and second lines” (that is, with, or immediately available to, the guns).157
Apart from these essentials, the multifarious requirements of VERITABLE affected all branches and services of the army. The Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps produced detailed plans for the evacuation of wounded, casualties requiring specialist care, ambulance control, blood banks and medical stores.158 With troops crammed into the limited assembly areas, accommodation was at a premium: in one instance Canadian engineers found a troop of heavy guns located in a bridging dump, using a shelter made of pontoons. (“It was arranged that the guns would cease fire when loading was in progress in the dump.”)159 Special arrangements were also necessary to control the flow of reinforcements. A particularly heavy burden fell on the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps; but with the single exception of spare parts for certain amphibious vehicles, all demands were met and the supplying of stores was “smooth and rapid”.160 The organization for the great offensive was the result of admirable teamwork—not only within the Army, but between the Army and other, Allied formations.
On the morning of 7 February General Crerar was preparing to move his
Tactical Headquarters from Tilburg to Uden, in readiness for battle on the following day. With all preparations completed, the Army Commander found time to address a gathering of war correspondents on the background of VERITABLE. These were his concluding words: “This operation may be protracted and the fighting tough and trying. All ranks are quite confident, however, that we will carry through to a successful conclusion, the great task which we have been given the responsibility, and the honour, to fulfil.”161