Chapter 19: The Battle of the Rhineland, Part II: Operation BLOCKBUSTER, 22 February–10 March 1945
(See Map 11 and Sketches 38, 39, 40 and 41)
Plans for a Renewed Offensive
Operation VERITABLE had gone slowly. Ground conditions could scarcely have been worse; and the enemy, fighting on the soil of Germany and in the valley of the Fatherland’s great river, had resisted with fierce determination. The Roer flooding had prevented the Ninth US Army from launching the converging attack which had been planned, and the Germans had been able to concentrate their resources on the First Canadian Army’s front. By 20 February we had clawed our way forward between 15 and 20 miles from our start-line; but the enemy still maintained an unbroken front, and the “Hochwald Layback” was still before us. It now seemed necessary to mount a new offensive with fresh troops to restore the momentum of the attack and break through to Xanten.
General Crerar had been holding daily conferences with his corps and divisional commanders to review progress and issue orders.1 At the conference on the afternoon of 21 February, held at a convent near Materborn, the “plot” for the new offensive was given. On the 22nd the 15th (Scottish) Division was to attack a wooded area north-east of Weeze; on the 24th the 53rd (Welsh) Division was to drive south from Goch, take Weeze and exploit south-westward. On 26 February the 2nd Canadian Corps would launch the operation designed to capture the Hochwald position and exploit to Xanten. This was christened BLOCKBUSTER on 22 February. Arrangements were made for the 4th Canadian and 11th British Armoured Divisions to come forward to take part; their G.Os.C. and brigadiers were to come at once to be “put in the picture” about the plan.2
On the 22nd General Simonds presented his plan to the divisional commanders (no written operation order was issued). He emphasized the opportunity presented by the availability of two fresh armoured divisions, and said that he proposed to strike hard at the enemy now in an all-out effort rather than “dribble in” these reserves.3 The intention was to launch a deliberate assault across the ridge which curved south-westward from Calcar to beyond Üdem, and having breached the
enemy’s strong Hochwald defences to exploit towards Xanten and Wesel. The task was in effect the completion of the second and third phases of Operation VERITABLE (page 464 above). To maintain the maximum pressure on the enemy, every available division would be deployed, each on a narrow front, with the majority engaged simultaneously. The key to final success, in the Corps Commander’s estimation, lay in the capture of the German positions at the southern end of the Hochwald, for it was from here that exploitation would achieve the best results. But first it was necessary to secure firmly the Calcar-Üdem ridge, both to withstand counter-attacks from the east and to provide a base from which the armour could advance over the low-lying fields in front of the Hochwald.
The maintenance difficulties which had slowed the 30th Corps’ advance in the early stages of VERITABLE emphasized the need for securing a route along which the momentum of the coming offensive could be sustained to a successful conclusion. Of three possible routes forward the northern Moyland-Calcar-Xanten axis would be the most obvious choice in the enemy’s eyes.*4 In addition to this disadvantage, air photographs showed the road to be badly cratered, and deployment, especially on the left, would be limited by flooding. A southern route through Goch, Kervenheim and Sonsbeck would have to serve the 30th Corps also. with resultant congestion. But in the centre the Goch-Xanten railway ran along a solid embankment which was reported to be free of mines and untouched by demolition. Most fortunately the line traversed the gap which separated the Hochwald from the smaller Balberger Wald. This axis was General Simonds’ choice. His engineers would tear up the track and develop the roadbed for traffic as the battle moved forward.5
The initial blow would fall on the plateau immediately south of Calcar; for not only was this an important objective in itself, but an attack here might mislead the enemy into expecting a drive along the northern axis and conceivably cause him to draw his reserves in that direction, leaving the Üdem end of the ridge more vulnerable to assault. The task was given to the 2nd Canadian Division. Striking at 4:30 a.m. on the 26th, General Matthews, with the support of two regiments of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, was to put two brigades astride the road from Goch where it climbed over the ridge. At the same time on Matthews’ right a battalion of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade from the 3rd Canadian Division would secure high ground just north of Keppeln, a village which formed an intermediate strongpoint between Calcar and Üdem where the enemy’s flanks were anchored. Once the northern end of the ridge was secure, the second phase of BLOCKBUSTER would see General Spry capturing Keppeln with the balance of his 8th Brigade, while 2500 yards farther east a battle-group from the 4th Armoured Division would push southward between the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions to extend our hold on the ridge as far as Todtenhügel. In Phase III (not to begin before midday) the Corps thrust would continue towards the south, with Spry passing the 9th Infantry Brigade through against Üdem-which would also be
* On 24 February an intelligence report from von Rundstedt’s headquarters concluded that forces were “being assembled for an attack astride the road Cleve-Xanten. 2 Cdn Corps, held back up to now, may be committed there.”
threatened from the north-east by the 4th Armoured Brigade group. At the same time the 11th Armoured Division would pass south of Üdem to seize the southernmost tip of the ridge where it petered out north-east of Kervenheim.
The final phase was to be the armoured break eastward. Crossing the ridge east of Üdem the 4th Armoured Division’s infantry brigade would head over the flats to seize positions astride the railway where it passed through the Hochwald gap. On the Corps right the 11th Armoured Division, continuing its advance south-eastward, would capture Sonsbeck and put a brigade on the high ground to the north. It would be the task of the two Canadian infantry divisions to follow up and protect the armoured divisions’ flanks. Exploitation would depend on developments, the armour probably being directed on Xanten and Wesel.
A gigantic artillery programme was to back the operation. The barrages for the first phase would come from twelve field, six medium and three heavy regiments in support of the 2nd Division, and seven field and two medium regiments on the 3rd Division’s front. In subsequent phases the 3rd and 4th Divisions would be supported on a similar scale, and heavy concentrations would be available on call should the enemy’s resistance prove unusually strong. During the final phase each armoured division would be supported by three field and five medium regiments.6
The air plan for BLOCKBUSTER utilized all available aircraft. Of 25 targets selected for attack, fighter-bombers would take on 18 covering all likely trouble spots in the path of the advance, extending from the Calcar-Üdem ridge to the western fringe of the Hochwald and Balberger Wald. Medium bombers would attack targets north of Kervenheim and in the woods with anti-personnel bombs, and carry out interdiction bombing on Kehrum and Marienbaum on the northern flank and Sonsbeck on the south.7
During the four days preceding the launching of BLOCKBUSTER the First Canadian Army front was comparatively quiet, but there was local fighting on the 30th Corps sector. The 15th Division attack north-east of Weeze on the 22nd (above, page 491) gained ground in the face of heavy opposition; the 53rd’s on the 24th met still fiercer resistance, and on the morning of the 25th, when it was apparent that Weeze was not to be easily cleared, a halt was called with the Welsh Division’s foremost troops about a mile short of the town.8
This period brought very welcome news from the American front. On 23 February Operation GRENADE, so often put off because of the Roer flooding, was launched at last. At 3:30 that morning, after a brisk 45-minute bombardment, the Ninth US Army began crossing the river on a two-corps front in the Julich sector. Simultaneously the First US Army (Lieut.-General Courtney H. Hodges), charged with protecting General Simpson’s right flank, assaulted astride Duren. Opposition was slight, for, as we have noted, the enemy had been forced to denude this part of his front to meet General Crerar’s offensive farther north. By the end of the first day 28 infantry battalions were east of the Roer, and early on the 24th eleven traffic bridges and a number of ferries and footbridges were carrying troops and equipment across the swollen river. By 26 February the American bridgehead
was some twenty miles wide and ten miles deep. At a cost of very few casualties the Ninth Army had collected close to 6000 prisoners.9
By the evening of 25 February General Simonds had completed the considerable regrouping which the BLOCKBUSTER plan entailed. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions had changed places; the latter was now on his right. The 43rd (Wessex) Division, which had come under command on the 21st, was between Moyland and the Rhine; its task was to protect the left flank and take over captured ground. General Vokes’ 4th Armoured Division had assembled in the Cleve area, ready to drive forward between the two Canadian infantry divisions; while the 11th Armoured Division (Major-General G. P. B. Roberts) was moving towards the north-eastern edge of the Reichswald, whence at the appropriate time it would be launched along the Corps’ right flank.
Between the Canadian Corps and the Maas the 30th Corps, forming the First Canadian Army’s right wing, stood ready to deal with any counter-attacks developing from the south. Next to the river, near Afferden, was the 52nd (Lowland) Division. The 51st (Highland) Division, south of Goch, was soon (27 February) to be squeezed into reserve and begin training for the Rhine crossing. Waiting to renew its attack on Weeze and advance south-eastward along the Goch-Geldern railway was the 53rd (Welsh) Division; while on its left the British 3rd Division, which had just relieved the 15th (Scottish) Division, was directed on Kervenheim and Winnekendonk.10 When the time was ripe for exploitation General Horrocks would commit the Guards Armoured Division. This was the only armoured division assigned a role in the early stages of Operation VERITABLE; yet up to now ground conditions had been such that only its infantry formation, the 32nd Guards Brigade, had had active employment. Since 13 February it had been fighting with the 51st Division west of Goch.11
On 25 February, the day before BLOCKBUSTER was to open, General Crerar drew the attention of his corps commanders to the need for reconsidering the general plan because of the enemy’s determined resistance in front of Weeze. He was concerned that the delay in clearing the lateral road from Weeze to the Maas River at Well would prevent early construction of the Wanssum–Well bridge, which was important for the 30th Corps’ maintenance.*12|13 If by D plus 1 it was apparent that extensive regrouping was needed for a further deliberate attack, he pointed to the possibility of accepting a “partial” operation, which would end with the securing of the Calcar-Üdem ridge (i.e., Phase III of the original plan). In either event, whether BLOCKBUSTER was to be “partial” or “complete”, the 30th Corps would continue to keep “its left shoulder well up and to exploit any favourable situations”.14
On the Enemy Side
The lull in the fighting had produced a new German estimate of the situation. At the end of the first week of VERITABLE von Rundstedt and Hitler had discussed
* The eastern end of the bridge site was finally captured on the night 3-4 March by troops of the 52nd Division, and by the 6th Second Army engineers had completed their bridge. By that date two bridges were operating at Venlo, and two more were under construction there.
what to do in the event of a successful Allied thrust towards the Rhine. At that time the C-in-C West had correctly appraised the assault on the Reichswald as the first phase of a general offensive that would include a frontal attack between Venlo and Roermond, to be followed by strong thrusts to the Rhine by the American armies to the south. In facing all this it would be the task of the German command to maintain a cohesive front. Hitler instructed von Rundstedt to submit at the proper time his plans for the defence of the Rhine between Arnhem and Bonn, but to issue no precautionary directives to subordinates that would suggest any thought of falling back to the Rhine in a so-called “delaying action”.15
Now, on 25 February, the High Command learned from the Field Marshal that he saw no immediate danger of an Allied break-through between the Rhine and the Maas. Although the Maas had been crossed in the Fifteenth Army’s area, the expected big thrust towards Cologne had not materialized. Von Rundstedt was far more worried about the situation along the Moselle, where an American advance was threatening Trier. But the Führer, regarding these operations in the south as mere holding attacks, saw the focal point of the Allied effort as being on the Maas-Roer front. In a personally signed message transmitted to the C-in-C West on the 27th he reiterated the need to prevent a break-through here, even if it meant moving in reserves from the Fifth Panzer Army (on the Fifteenth Army’s left). Yet that very day von Rundstedt, reporting on the crisis arising from the Ninth Army’s advance, asked for permission to pull back the southern wing of Army Group H to a line running from Kessel (on the Maas midway between Roermond and Venlo) to Nieder-Kruchten, ten miles east of Roermond. Only 24 hours earlier Hitler had refused to allow any withdrawal, but now “with a heavy heart” he gave his consent.16
General Schlemm had four corps with which to keep the Allies from reaching Wesel. On his right von Lüttwitz’s 47th Panzer Corps, in front of Marienbaum, and the 2nd Parachute Corps in the Weeze-Üdem sector, would be the first to feel the weight of BLOCKBUSTER. From Weeze south to Venlo was General Straube’s weakened 86th Corps; while the army’s left, to south of Roermond, was held by the 63rd Corps (General of Infantry Erich Abraham).17
Von Lüttwitz was defending. the Calcar sector with the 6th Parachute Division, whose 17th and 18th Parachute Regiments were both still fully fit for action. On its left, centred on Keppeln, was the 116th Panzer Division, strengthened in manpower, tanks and guns by the recent arrival of its rear elements from the Eifel. Üdem was held by the 7th Parachute Regiment (2nd Parachute Division), whose commander was directly responsible to General von Lüttwitz.18 South of Üdem the commander of the 2nd Parachute Corps controlled a group of forces of varying equality, of which only the 7th Parachute Division was in good condition. Meindl had half the 8th Parachute Division, mostly green troops, and the remnants of the—15th Panzer Grenadier Division and the 84th Infantry Division—the latter now almost negligible. With the idea of employing these mixed resources to the best advantage in holding his position about Üdem, the Corps Commander repeated tactics which he had formerly used in Normandy. He strung weak outposts along his front line and held a strong reserve in the woods south-east of the town to counter-attack any Allied penetration.19
General Crerar’s forces were now about to assail the First Parachute Army’s last prepared position on the Rhine’s left bank. These defences we called unromantically, as we have seen, the Hochwald Layback. The Germans indicated the importance they attached to them by naming them, after one of the most celebrated of German strategists,* the Schlieffen Position.20 The position had been built by local construction staffs to guard the Wesel bridgehead. Of three successive trench-lines (about 500 yards apart) the most easterly extended from the village of Kehrum directly along the western edge of the Hochwald and Balberger Wald to a wooded area a mile and a half west of Sonsbeck. Dug on a forward slope, the position had the best defensive possibilities at its northern end, where it dominated the outpost area which extended more than a mile to the west. Farther south, in the vicinity of the railway, woodlots east of Üdem limited the field of fire, which was further restricted by the intensive cultivation of the outpost area. This section of the line was also partly exposed to observation from the heights south-east of Üdem. The southern end of the position ran through low-lying ground, and in consequence did not present a very formidable defensive barrier. According to the Chief of Staff of the 47th Panzer Corps, belated attempts had been made with the new forces available to repair the partly-collapsed trenches and construct dugouts. Some wire entanglements had been erected, but when the time came to man the defences the work was far short of completion.21
Potentially the anti-tank defences formed the strongest element of the Schlieffen line. During the third week of February General Schlemm, acting without authority from Berlin, ordered the transfer to the Hochwald of some fifty 88-mm. guns from the West Wall defences between Geldern and Roermond. These were in their new sites before the offensive opened, but according to Schlemm the gunners manning them were inexperienced and poorly disciplined. They suffered heavy casualties from the opening artillery barrage on the 26th, and many deserted their weapons. There were claims that one 88 knocked out 20 Allied tanks; but the other 49 were said not to have accounted for a single tank between them.22
BLOCKBUSTER Goes In
As soon as darkness fell on 25 February the troops of the 2nd Canadian Division who were to launch the assault began taking their positions in the muddy fields south-west of Calcar. The expectant enemy, knowing this was the only suitable forming-up area, kept it under fairly heavy shelling. The soft, wet ground hampered the supporting armour, but thanks to careful rehearsal and good infantry-tank liaison the movement was completed without major complication, and well ahead of schedule five infantry battalions were ranged along a 3000-yard front west of the Goch-Calcar road. On the extreme left, in the area of Heselerfeld, captured at such cost by the Canadian Scottish on the 17th (above, page 483), was Le Régiment de Maisonneuve of Brigadier Megill’s 5th Brigade, with The Black
* Alfred Count von Schlieffen, Chief of the Prussian General Staff 1891–1905; author of the plan of operations which was the basis of the German campaign in 1914.
Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada on its right. Forming the division’s right flank were the battalions of the 6th Brigade (Brigadier Keefler)—from north to south, The South Saskatchewan Regiment, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada.23
In the early hours of the 26th German paratroopers, supported by an estimated six tanks, made a sudden attack against the right of the 2nd Division’s front, which the 4th Brigade was holding as a base through which the main offensive would be launched. It was a critical moment, for this ground was needed as the start line for the 6th Brigade’s assault. But D Company of The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, though heavily pressed, drove off the attackers with the aid of well-directed artillery fire and the support of a troop of the Fort Garry Horse which came up in time to knock out a Panther. Quiet fell again along the front just fifteen minutes before the artillery programme for BLOCKBUSTER was to open.24
At 3:45 a.m. the guns burst into action to clear the path for the assaulting forces. At half-past four the 6th Brigade’s three battalions, all armour-borne, crossed the start-line, following a barrage which moved at tank pace. On the right the Cameron Highlanders and a squadron of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers advanced in three columns, the tanks leading, followed by the infantry in Kangaroos of the 1st Canadian Carrier Regiment. On the brigade left The South Saskatchewan Regiment, also in Kangaroos, and ‘supported by a second Sherbrooke squadron, attacked in two columns. In the centre two squadrons of the Fort Garry Horse began ferrying forward Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, who were supported by the remaining Sherbrooke squadron. Searchlights playing on the low clouds provided artificial moonlight, while streams of Bofors tracer fired overhead on to the objectives kept the columns moving in the right direction.25 The affinity with the plan for Operation TOTALIZE in the old Normandy days is obvious (above, page 218).
The 6th Brigade’s nearest objective was the Fusiliers’, immediately east of the Calcar-Üdem road. Although ten of the carrying tanks bogged down and one hit a mine, Lt.-Col. Dextraze’s battalion had taken its ground by 5:10 a.m.26 On the left The South Saskatchewan Regiment were transported safely through considerable machine-gun fire to their assigned positions on high ground near the Cleve-Xanten railway. The Camerons’ objective lay on the Calcar ridge two miles east of the start-line, but soon after the attacking force crossed the line soft going and mines along the Calcar-Üdem road compelled it to swing north and advance along the axis used by Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal. It was now seven o’clock. The barrage had been lost and the Cameron columns encountered heavy fire as they moved on. The Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. E. P. Thompson, was killed by a sniper.27 The capture and consolidation of the battalion’s objectives, vital to the success of the brigade and indeed the whole corps operation, was due in great part to the gallantry of the commander of A Company, Major D. M. Rodgers, which won him the DSO Single-handed he cleared two houses of enemy snipers who were blocking his company’s advance, and taking over battalion headquarters he personally disposed of a third houseful of Germans whose fire was sweeping the headquarters area. Visiting each company in turn he ensured that all unit objectives were taken and held against counter-attack. By midday on the 26th the
6th Brigade’s task in Phase One of BLOCKBUSTER had been successfully completed. It was an example of what detailed planning, a high standard of training and excellent morale can accomplish. At a cost of only 140 casualties (including those of the supporting armour) the brigade had taken between 400 and 500 prisoners and accounted for many enemy killed.28
Meanwhile the 5th Brigade on the division’s left had made slower progress. Its task was to clear a fringe of woods a mile south-west of Calcar and secure the 6th Brigade’s flank by capturing commanding positions astride the road to Goch. Le Régiment de Maisonneuve was able to occupy three of its company objectives before the battle began, but efforts to reach the most easterly one, a wooded area beside the junction of the Goch and Cleve roads, were halted by heavy fire. The only armour at first assigned to the brigade, one squadron of the 1st Hussars, was needed to support the Black Watch, which had the important role of maintaining contact with the 6th Brigade on the right. The trouble spot was contained by the Maisonneuves D” Company until mid-morning, when two troops of tanks became available. Thus supported and making effective use of Wasp flame-throwers, the battalion overcame the stubborn resistance of the Germans, some of whom fought to the death in their slit-trenches rather than surrender.29
Early that morning as they advanced on foot the Black Watch had found their right-hand objectives swept by the fast barrage laid down for the 6th Brigade’s armour-born battalions. The slow barrage farther north assisted them to gain the nearer of their company positions on the left, but the 6th Brigade’s axis of advance made it impossible to advance this supporting fire to B Company’s objective, a built-up road junction one mile south of Calcar. The CO, Lt. Col. B. R. Ritchie, therefore concentrated for the moment on his nearer objectives, for it was apparent that the enemy still had troops in the western part of the Black Watch area. But by ten o’clock B Company, backed by the remaining Hussar tanks (half the squadron having bogged down before reaching the start line) had captured the crossroads, taking 50 prisoners.30
On the 3rd Division’s front The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada were having a difficult time. The mile or so of open slope up which the battalion had to advance was dotted with several farmsteads whose buildings were fiercely defended by German paratroopers. At first the sodden ground ruled out direct tank support, and at 4:40 a.m. Lt.-Col. S. M. Lett sent his two assaulting companies across the start line alone. Hard fighting developed on the left, where D Company found the hamlet of Mooshof strongly held. The enemy had converted three farm buildings into strongpoints, and from these the leading platoon was twice driven back by sustained fire. A German counterattack was beaten off in bitter, confused fighting at a cost of many casualties, including the platoon officer.31
In this emergency Sergeant Aubrey Cosens took command of the other survivors of his platoon, only four in number. Through the thick of the enemy fire which was sweeping the area from all sides he ran twenty-five yards across an open space to a tank of the 1st Hussars which had now come up in support. Seating
himself in front of the turret he calmly directed the gunner’s fire against the German positions, and then broke up a second counter-attack by plunging the tank into the midst of the startled paratroopers. Next, taking the offensive, he reorganized his little group and, still crouched on top of the Sherman, ordered the driver to ram the first of the three buildings. While his men gave covering fire he went inside, killed several of the defenders and captured the rest. When he entered the second house he found that the occupants had not awaited his coming. Covered by the tank’s fire he then crossed the road alone to clear the third strongpoint-a two-story building held by several Germans. “We followed him from building to building gathering the prisoners”, one of his comrades later reported. Having thus broken the hard core of resistance in Mooshof, Cosens gave orders for consolidating the position, and set off to report to his company commander. On the way he was killed by a sniper’s bullet. This very gallant non-commissioned officer had himself killed at least twenty of the enemy and captured as many more, and had gained an objective vital to the success of the 8th Brigade’s operations.32 The Victoria Cross posthumously awarded to him was the first to come to the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.
From Mooshof the two reserve companies of the Queen’s Own fought grimly forward towards the battalion’s final objectives about Steeg and Wemmershof, north of Keppeln. Intervening strongpoints were reduced with the aid of Wasps. By the time they reached their final goals the armour of the 4th Division had passed through the two villages, but the stubborn enemy had still to be driven from the cellars. By five o’clock all was secure, and Phase One of BLOCKBUSTER was over. The day’s fighting had cost the battalion 37 killed and 64 wounded.33
The 8th Brigade’s assault on Keppeln—the 3rd Division’s role in the second phase—had begun at 8:45 that morning when The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment and Le Régiment de la Chaudière attacked south-eastward on either side of the Cleve-Üdem road. The advance was across flat country devoid of cover, but no armour was available to carry the infantry. Indeed, so extensive were the demands on the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade that though the Chaudières on the right had the support of the 1st Hussars B” Squadron, on the left the North Shore would be without tanks until the squadron with the Queen’s Own Rifles could be released. The North Shore Regiment, led by Lt.-Col. J. W. H. Rowley, had to advance about 1500 yards to reach Keppeln, but before the leading companies had covered half this distance heavy mortar and machine-gun fire forced them to dig in. While our artillery held the enemy in check, the infantry awaited the arrival of the armour from the Queen’s Own on their left.34 Meanwhile on the brigade’s southern flank the Chaudière CO, Lt.-Col. G. O. Taschereau, had sent two companies forward, working closely with their tanks, against a series of strongpoints about Hollen, a smaller hamlet half a mile west of Keppeln on the Üdem road. By ten o’clock they had captured intermediate objectives on the right, but progress on the left was held up by flanking fire from in front of the North Shore Regiment. An attempt by B Company to exploit the success on the right ended in a costly lesson to the attackers. At the sight of what appeared to be a white flag in a German position the company relaxed its vigilance, whereupon three Panther tanks suddenly
appeared and machine-gunned the unbalanced troops, inflicting many casualties and forcing a withdrawal.35
By mid-afternoon a successful renewal of the North Shore Regiment’s effort had eased the situation on the left, where a quick Chaudière thrust now secured Hollen. Eighty-four prisoners were taken, together with three anti-tank guns and a store of ammunition. A well-coordinated tank-infantry attack, backed by heavy artillery concentrations, carried the Chaudières to their remaining objectives, which fell without long resistance. The day’s fighting impressed the battalion as being “as hard as any it had met to date”. In fulfilling their role on the 3rd Division’s right flank the Chaudières had captured 224 prisoners, most of them from the 6th Parachute Division’s reconnaissance regiment. Their own casualties were 16 killed and 46 wounded.36
The North Shore Regiment’s renewed attack on Keppeln had been made possible by the arrival of the 13 surviving tanks of the 1st Hussars C” Squadron. In a hastily summoned O Group, Lt.-Col. Rowley set out a revised plan for an “armour-cum-infantry” attack. It worked admirably. The tanks picked up a platoon of A Company and at 2:12 p.m. dashed off towards Keppeln, followed by B and C Companies on foot and the battalion’s Wasps and carriers, ready to engage any anti-tank weapons which disclosed themselves. Enemy tanks on the outskirts of the village knocked out three Shermans, but were in turn set on fire by the Wasps. In the face of heavy machine-gun fire the infantry platoon dismounted and made its way into Keppeln, soon to be joined by the rest of A Company, and by D, brought up from reserve. The tanks moved in, and by five o’clock all objectives had been taken. An important factor in the success had been the accuracy of the supporting artillery fire. The North Shores had suffered 81 casualties, 28 of them fatal; in supporting the two infantry battalions the Hussar squadron had lost nine tanks to enemy action, besides four bogged down.37 The 3rd Division’s part in the second phase of the Corps operation was now completed, and the 9th Brigade was ready to pass through Brigadier Roberts’ battalions in Phase Three—the capture of Üdem. At the 47th Panzer Corps Headquarters that evening von Lüttwitz credited the 116th Panzer Division with having prevented a break-through towards Üdem, and completed arrangements for that formation’s relief on the 28th by the 180th Infantry Division from the 86th Corps to the south.38
While the 8th Brigade was engaged in the struggle for Keppeln, the 4th Armoured Division’s battle group had successfully carried out its task of securing the northern half of the Calcar-Üdem ridge. About mid-morning, even before the 2nd Division had taken all its objectives, TIGER Group, commanded by Brigadier R. W. Moncel, had begun its attack south-eastward along the 6th Brigade’s right flank. It was composed of the armoured brigade’s three armoured regiments and motor battalion, plus two battalions from the 10th Infantry Brigade, and was divided into five forces. The plan was to press home the attack on either flank with an armoured regiment (less one squadron) accompanied by two infantry companies borne in Crusader or Ram armoured gun tractors.*39 The
* These vehicles were furnished respectively by the 5th and 6th Anti-Tank Regiments RCA.
force on the left was supplied by the British Columbia Regiment and The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, that on the right by the Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In rear of each of these forces another, consisting of the balance of the infantry battalion and the remaining tank squadron, would mop up; while a fifth force, comprising the Governor General’s Foot Guards and The Lake Superior Regiment (Motor), brought up the rear in readiness for action in the succeeding phase. Each of the two leading groups included a troop of Flail tanks to deal with mines, while the other three were each supported by a troop of Crocodile flame-throwers and a troop of self-propelled anti-tank guns.40
As with all armoured movement that day the tanks found the going heavy and slow, and in the first two hours the leading squadrons covered little more than 500 yards. On both axes of advance the enemy was fighting back with vigour and his Panzerfaust or bazooka men accounted for several Canadian tanks. Gradually however the armour overran the German positions, and the marching troops gathered in large batches of prisoners. By four o’clock the leading groups were firm on their objectives in the Todtenhügel area north-east of Keppeln and the infantry were beginning to reorganize as battalions.41 With 350 prisoners in the 4th Division’s cage and signs of lessening enemy resistance it remained for TIGER Group to capture the high ground north-east of Üdem. This operation, coupled with the 9th Infantry Brigade’s assault on Üdem, constituted the third phase of the Corps offensive. It was the task for which “Smith” Force (named for Lt.-Col. E. M. Smith, commander of the Governor General’s Foot Guards) had been held in reserve. The objectives included the Pauls-Berg and the Katzen-Berg, the highest points of the Calcar–Üdem ridge.
Shortly before six o’clock, as dusk was falling, the Foot Guards’ No. 3 Squadron moved off towards the Pauls-Berg, Smith’s first objective. C Company of the Lake Superior Regiment abandoned their half-tracks to ride on the armoured regiment’s Shermans. The hill was taken without difficulty, but almost immediately a strong counter-attack developed. In the darkness the fighting was close and confused-a German despatch rider is reported to have stopped at No. 3 Squadron’s command tank to ask directions!42 This and a subsequent attack were beaten off, and the position was secure by 10:30 p.m. In the next two hours the remaining armoured squadrons, each carrying an infantry company, seized the Katzen-Berg and an unnamed hill midway between the main objectives.43 The capture of this part of the Üdem ridge by “Smith” Force—described by the Lake Superior diarist as “an armoured classic”—had been well planned and was executed on schedule. Casualties had been light—19 for each of the two participating units. Indeed the entire operation by TIGER Group had been carried out with remarkably few losses. The heaviest had fallen on the Argyll and Sutherland, with 53 killed and wounded; the Lincoln and Welland had lost 34. By daybreak on the 27th the important plateau was in Canadian hands from the outskirts of Calcar to east of Üdem, and the thrust to the Hochwald could now go forward.44
* It may be noted that the armoured gun tractor, used mainly in the anti-tank regiments of armoured divisions, provided a means of towing anti-tank guns over fire-swept ground to selected positions.
The Fighting for Üdem
While the 4th Armoured Division was extending our hold southward along the ridge, it had been the 3rd Division’s task to capture Üdem and so pave the way for the 11th Armoured Division’s advance eastward. From the Keppeln area, won by the 8th Brigade’s hard fight during the day, Brigadier Rockingham planned that his 9th Brigade would attack southward with two battalions—The Highland Light Infantry of Canada on the left and The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders on the right. When these were firm in the north end of Üdem, The North Nova Scotia Highlanders would pass through to complete clearing the town. Each battalion had been allotted a squadron of the Fort Garry Horse, but so extensive were the 2nd Armoured Brigade’s commitments farther north that when the time came to launch the assault no tanks were available.45
At 9:00 p.m. the attack went in after thirty minutes of artillery preparation. The SD and G. Highlanders, moving down the main road from Cleve, had to clear Bomshof on their start line, but thereafter made good progress; on the left the Highland Light Infantry, advancing from Keppeln, lost several carriers on mines. The night was illumined by the searchlights and the glare from burning farmhouses. Both battalions crossed Üdem’s encircling anti-tank ditch without much difficulty, but as they entered the town’s northern outskirts about midnight the 7th Parachute Regiment’s opposition stiffened and tough fighting ensued. By 4:00 a.m. resistance had dwindled to occasional sniping, and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders pushed through into the centre of the town.46 Through the early hours of the 27th snipers continued to give trouble, and Brigadier Rockingham ordered the Highland Light Infantry to clean these up before the North Novas went on to their final objectives. At daybreak one of their companies was on the move through the south-eastern fringe of the town, and by 9:30 it reported securing positions along the Goch-Xanten railway.47 About mid-morning the Fort Garry tanks came to the aid of another company, which had been pinned down in the south-west corner of Üdem. The end of the afternoon saw all battalions consolidated on the brigade objectives. The 3rd Division’s situation report that night estimated that the brigade had taken 500 prisoners, most of them from the 116th Panzer Division.48
The occupation of Üdem opened the way for the 11th Armoured Division to take on the German positions at the southern tip of the long ridge. During the night of 26-27 February a battle group of the 4th British Armoured Brigade had reached the railway at Stein, a village 2000 yards south-west of Üdem. The brigade’s objective was the Gochfortzberg feature a mile north-east of Kervenheim, but progress was halted by German tanks and anti-tank guns, which were still extremely active in the area south of the railway. General Roberts therefore ordered the 159th Infantry Brigade to pass through the 9th Canadian Brigade and take the height.49 As the British brigade moved forward, the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade followed up and occupied positions south of the tracks astride the road from Üdem to Kervenheim.50
The Battle for the Hochwald
Thus far the BLOCKBUSTER offensive had lived up to the planners’ intention that it should be carried out as a continuous operation, the difficulties of darkness being overcome by the use of “movement light”. All across the battlefront piece after piece of the intricate puzzle fell into place as each formation, having completed its allotted task in a particular phase, moved on to a fresh assignment while a relieving force came up to take over the newly-won ground.
Around midnight of the 26th–27th units of the 4th Infantry Brigade had assumed control of the Todtenhügel area, freeing Brigadier Moncel’s TIGER Group to reorganize for further operations.51 On the far left the 129th Brigade of the 43rd (Wessex) Division had relieved the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade south of Calcar and was probing eastward in its role of protecting the Corps flank. During the afternoon of the 27th the 5th Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment (Duke of Edinburgh’s) entered Calcar unopposed, to find all bridges destroyed, while farther south the 214th Brigade took over the ground gained by the 6th Canadian Brigade on the previous day. In contrast to these unspectacular tasks the 43rd Reconnaissance Regiment (The Gloucestershire Regiment) had made excellent progress in sweeping the river flats between the Cleve-Xanten railway and the Rhine. On the evening of 26 February one squadron had crossed the Kalflach Canal opposite Huisberden to occupy Wissel without meeting opposition. Two more villages, Grieth and Hönnepel, were taken on the 27th as the enemy fell back eastward from Calcar. During the next three days the reconnaissance regiment, working in its proper role for a change, patrolled forward vigorously north of the railway towards Marienbaum.52
In the centre of the 2nd Canadian Corps front the force earmarked for the initial assault on the Schlieffen Position had been concentrating during the early hours of the 27th. The move forward through the darkness had been accompanied by much floundering on the ruined roads and in the muddy fields, but by half past four the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment) was formed up in a sunken road outside Kirsel, a hamlet 2000 yards north-east of Üdem. Huddled beside the tanks which had brought them forward were the assaulting companies of The Algonquin Regiment—although one company and part of another were missing, apparently because the tanks carrying them had bogged down.53 The two units, placed under the Algonquins’ CO, Lt.-Col. R. A. Bradburn, formed the spearhead of LION Group, whose commander, Brigadier J. C. Jefferson (10th Canadian Infantry Brigade), was soon to be reinforced by the return of two of his infantry battalions from TIGER.54 A mile to the north, in the Todtenhügel area, units of the 5th Brigade were sorting themselves out for their advance on the left flank.55
The Algonquin objective was a rounded hill which filled the western end of the gap between the Hochwald and the Balberger Wald. This was Point 73, though it was seldom so called at the time.* The plan was that when two companies had
* On at least one map the height is erroneously given as 79 metres. On the German maps reproduced for the use of our forces it appears as 72.6 metres. The hill’s code name for the operation ALBATROSS.
breached the defences along the edge of the forest, others would be leapfrogged through to secure the important crest. Each company would be supported by a troop of tanks from the South Albertas B” Squadron.56 At the same time, in order to ensure the presence of armoured support in the gap should B Squadron fail to negotiate the muddy valley west of the Hochwald, A Squadron of the South Albertas, accompanied by the Algonquin carrier platoon, was to carry out a right hook, crossing the railway south-east of Üdem and striking eastward along the road to Üdemerbruch, a small village close to the Algonquins’ initial objective. This venture, which would take the small force well into enemy territory, did not greatly appeal to the people involved; the diarist of the South Alberta Regiment recorded, “This attack will be made in spite of our protestations—it is a Bde order.”57 LION Group would have the support of a substantial artillery programme. After an initial two-hour bombardment by three field and five medium regiments, the 25-pounders would engage the enemy’s western defence lines while the medium guns blasted the area of the gap.58
Because of the known strength of the enemy’s defences, particularly in antitank guns, it was imperative to cross the open valley in darkness, maintaining direction with the aid of Bofors tracer and red marker shells fired on to the objective. But the non-arrival of the missing Algonquin sub-units delayed the start, and at five o’clock enemy shells began falling on the Kirsel area. Accordingly at 5:15, with daylight less than an hour away, Bradburn gave the order to advance. At first things went well. The Germans manning the outpost area were completely surprised, and as the two leading Algonquin companies supported by the South Alberta tanks moved down the eastern slope from the Üdem ridge they met little resistance from the occupants of farmhouses and slit trenches. By the time it was full daylight both companies had crossed anti-tank ditch, minefield, and knee-high wire (which the artillery had gapped in several places) and had driven the enemy from his forward line of trenches. As they consolidated on these objectives—A Company immediately north of the railway and about 500 yards in front of the gap, with B on the left—C Company, which had been garnering a steady stream of prisoners behind the assaulting companies, passed between them to seize the final line of entrenchments and extend the battalion’s right flank to the railway line.59
The Algonquin Regiment had breached the last German prepared positions before the Rhine, but the enemy was beginning to react strongly. Counter-attacks were beaten off with the help of B Squadron’s tanks and solid defensive artillery fire which came down in response to the Algonquin call. The enemy was quick to recognize the need for eliminating this isolated Canadian spearhead; as yet the 2nd infantry Division’s flanking attack to the north had not progressed far enough to affect the situation, and to the south the 3rd Division was still held up in Üdem. From south, east and north, German guns and mortars concentrated their fire upon the approaches to the gap, and even from north of the Rhine heavy-calibre pieces contributed to the weight of explosive falling upon the Canadian positions. Well dug in, the Algonquin companies hung on grimly, suffering casualties whose evacuation across the shell-swept valley became increasingly difficult as the day wore on.60
On the right the diversionary thrust had met disaster. It was six o’clock when the small column of tanks and carriers headed southward from Kirsel, and what was to have been a night attack was “swamped in daylight”.61 After skirting Üdem the force missed its way in the network of roads and ditches and reached the railway by the main road to Kervenheim, some distance west of its intended crossing. This area had not yet been cleared by the 9th Brigade, and south of the tracks the high ground forming the tip of the Üdem ridge, still uncaptured by the 11th Armoured Division (above, page 493), provided German anti-tank guns with excellent positions. As the leading Canadian tanks filed over the level crossing and through a narrow cutting beyond they ran into a deadly ambush. Three were instantly knocked out by 88-mm. fire. The remaining eight were trapped and had no room to turn. Soon these and all but one of the thirteen Algonquin carriers had fallen victims to anti-tank guns or Panzerfaust bombs delivered at close range by emboldened German infantrymen. Survivors of the crews gathered together as many of the wounded as they could and made their way back to the Kirsel area.62 The débâcle had been witnessed by troops of The North Nova Scotia Highlanders as they emerged from the southern outskirts of Odem,63 and as news of it reached the headquarters of LION Group every effort was made to bring aid to the Algonquins, whose right flank was now wide open.
On the left the 5th Brigade’s thrust across the valley had started before daylight, and by ten o’clock The Calgary Highlanders, followed by Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, had mastered the German defences and reached Schmachdarm, a cluster of houses on the forest edge, 3000 yards north of the railway. Both battalions experienced the same heavy shelling and mortaring that was hitting the Algonquins, and a plan for the Black Watch to pass through and push south-eastward towards the gap had to be postponed until the next morning.64
With the battalions that had been employed with TIGER Group back under his command, Brigadier Jefferson ordered the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to advance through the Algonquins and secure the eastern end of the disputed passage between the woods. As they closed up to the forest during the late afternoon of the 27th, however, the Argylls were stopped by the shelling and mortaring, and forced to dig in 500 yards west of the gap.65 A more massive effort was needed, and at a conference that evening General Vokes issued his orders for restoring the momentum of the offensive. First of all, the 10th Infantry Brigade must capture the near half of the Hochwald gap and clear the north-western corner of the Balberger Wald (called the Tüschen Wald), at the same time securing the way from south of Üdem into the forest, in order that divisional engineers might develop this much-needed maintenance route. Through the area thus won the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade would then pass a battle-group (consisting of the Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Lake Superior Regiment) to seize a small wooded area traversed by the railway a mile east of the gap.66
The 10th Brigade’s new effort was to start at 2:00 a.m. on the 28th. After heavy artillery concentrations on the woods on both sides the Argylls would again try to reach objectives on the lateral road which crossed the gap about 1500 yards m its western end. The Lincoln and Welland Regiment would then go through
to capture the railway and clear the Tüschen Wald. The South Alberta Regiment’s C Squadron, which having been held back on the Üdem ridge the previous day was in relatively good condition, would support the operation.67
During the night the Argyll and Sutherland CO, Lt.-Col. F. E. Wiggle, reorganized his weakened companies and briefed them for the coming battle. Shortly before three o’clock the battalion advanced uphill into the gap behind a heavy artillery barrage fired into the darkness. By first light the leading companies had fought over Point 73 and on down the eastern slope to the lateral road, taking 70 prisoners. There they hung on, repelling repeated efforts by German infantry and armour to dislodge them. The opponents included a fresh battalion of the 24th Parachute Regiment which von Lüttwitz, whose headquarters had “looked forward to this day with great anxiety”, had brought in from the 8th Parachute Division to fight alongside the tanks of the 116th Panzer Division. Wigle’s B Company, on the left, took the brunt of the enemy’s pressure, and by nightfall had been reduced to 15 men, besides some wounded who could not be evacuated. Throughout the day C Squadron of the South Alberta Regiment, reinforced by B in the afternoon, gave valiant support, assisting the forward infantry with fire and helping further by bringing up ammunition and supplies and evacuating wounded. Terming the enemy shelling “the most concentrated that this Regt had ever sat under”, their diarist elaborated: “That includes the Falaise show.”68
The Lincoln and Welland Regiment’s attack was timed for 12:30 p.m., but on the way to the start-line two companies were caught by mortar, artillery and rocket fire which, bursting in treetops, inflicted heavy casualties (the unit had 49 this day) and disrupted the advance. Virtually no contemporary German records are available for this phase; but it seems evident that the enemy had concentrated an unusually large force of artillery to help him hold the Schlieffen Position.*69 (Field-Marshal Montgomery has written, “the volume of fire from enemy weapons was the heaviest which had been met so far by British troops in the campaign”.) It was impossible to reorganize under the continued vicious shelling, and the Lincoln and Welland attack was abandoned. During the day an Algonquin company crossed the railway tracks and cleared Üdemerbruch.70 In the circumstances, the 4th Armoured Brigade’s battle-group, though committed, did not get beyond the 10th Brigade’s forward positions, and a plan to put in Brigadier Moncel’s other armoured regiments was cancelled because of boggy approach routes and the heavy shelling of the forming-up places west of the forest.†
[Reference to footnote71 is missing]
As plans were made for relief by the 6th Infantry Brigade the word went to the sorely-tried units in the gap to hang on.72
While the situation in the gap remained unpromising, the picture was somewhat brighter on the Corps’ flanks. In the 2nd Division’s sector General Matthews
* First Canadian Army Intelligence estimated that during the first week in March the First Parachute Army had available to it 717 mortars and 1054 guns; self-propelled guns were not included.
† The Chief of Staff of the 47th Panzer Corps, writing retrospectively, felt that the Germans were so thin on the ground that a bold thrust would have reached the Wesel bridges on the evening of the 28th. He underestimated the difficulties caused by the concentration of German artillery and the state of the ground.
had directed the 4th Brigade against the northern part of the Hochwald, to the left of the 5th Brigade. The Royal Regiment of Canada spent most of two days clearing an area on the eastern slope of the Calcar ridge opposite Todtenhügel. The job was finished by nightfall on the 28th, and at 9:00 p.m. the Essex Scottish passed through to assault the German positions at the edge of the forest.73 On General Simonds’ other flank the 11th Armoured Division was moving. Units of the 159th Brigade supported by tanks of the 4th (British) Armoured Brigade successfully stormed the troublesome Gochfortzberg ridge on the afternoon of the 27th, and then struggled through boggy and treacherous terrain to reach the outlying Schlieffen defences.74
For the first time since BLOCKBUSTER started, there had been appreciable help from the air. Bad weather on 26 and 27 February had deprived the troops on the ground of close air support, but on the 28th conditions improved sufficiently for No. 84 Group to fly 602 sorties, of which 258 were in prearranged and 31 in immediate support. Sonsbeck was bombed and the village of Winnekendonk almost obliterated. Nearer the battle line attacks were made on gun and mortar positions, troop concentration areas and factory buildings.75
To the south the 30th Corps was maintaining the required pressure on the enemy. The Welsh Division had still to take Weeze, but on its left the 3rd British had relieved the 15th (above, page 494) and cut the Üdem-Weeze road in the woods east of Goch. Between Goch and the Maas the 52nd Division had squeezed out the Highland Division about Siebengewald, and patrols of the 155th Brigade occupied Groote Horst on the 28th. With the 1st Commando Brigade coming under its command on the Maas flank the 52nd Division could use two axes for its exploitation to the south-west and a rendezvous with American forces.76 This contact promised not to be long delayed, for the Ninth US Army was driving relentlessly northward on a three-corps front.
The last six days of February had seen General Simpson’s forces complete their tremendous build-up and begin steadily expanding their bridgehead between the Roer and the Erft, while General Hodges’ First Army held the right flank. On the 25th the Ninth Army’s armour began to roll-the 2nd Armoured Division in the 19th Corps on the Erft-Rhine flank, the 8th Armoured in the 16th Corps on the left beside the Roer and Maas, and in the centre the 5th Armoured Division of the 13th Corps. The direction of the offensive was gradually shifting from east to north, and there were several cases of enemy groups still facing west being caught in the rear by local thrusts. The big breakthrough started on the last day of February—the sixth of Operation GRENADE. By then the hard fighting which accompanied the reduction one by one of the towns dotting the plain between the Roer and the Erft had broken the back of the German resistance and opened the way to the Rhine and the Maas. Thereafter events moved rapidly. On 1 March the 19th Corps entered Neuss, at the junction of Erft and Rhine, and captured the big industrial city of München-Gladbach after only weak opposition from the Panzer Lehr Division (above, page 489). The same day the 16th Corps occupied Roermond and put a motorized task force into Venlo—only 18 miles from the First Canadian Army’s foremost positions.77
The Enemy’s Plight
The virtual destruction of the right flank of the Fifteenth Army on his left by the American thrust had put General Schlemm’s First Parachute Army in deadly peril. In the opening days of BLOCKBUSTER Schlemm’s main concern had been that the 47th Panzer and 2nd Parachute Corps should prevent a decisive breakthrough by the First Canadian Army. But now he was threatened with encirclement and must devise a safe means of withdrawal across the Rhine. “I was sure”, he wrote later, “that after reaching the Rhine at Neuss and to the south, the US forces would turn to the north in great strength and attack [my] Army in the rear.” A powerful American thrust down the Rhine’s left bank to Wesel would cut off his retreat.78
As soon as the American threat developed Schlemm informed Army Group H of his intention to establish a bridgehead in front of Wesel along the general line Marienbaum–Kevelaer–Geldern–Kempen–Krefeld, reducing it as the situation might require.79 Although this was clearly the only logical course to follow, the C-in-C West in seeking the High Command’s approval had to emphasize the importance of thus maintaining a continuous front rather than endangering it by holding fast to individual areas. “I repeat”, he said in a teletype message to Hitler on 27 February, “that I am striving with all my strength to prevent a folding back of the front to the Rhine.” This assurance must have convinced the Führer, for on the 28th he expressed his confidence in von Rundstedt and gave the required permission.80 The resulting orders to Schlemm “to hold the west bank of the Rhine at all costs” stressed the necessity for thus securing the passage of the coal boats from the Ruhr. This vital traffic for supplying German shipping came in from the Rhine-Herne Canal at Orsoy and left the river at Wesel to follow the Lippe and Dortmund-Ems Canals* to the North Sea ports.81
Schlemm’s first concern was to strengthen the southern end of the bridgehead perimeter, thinly held by the 63rd Corps. Drawing help from the Twenty-Fifth Army on his right, he moved elements of the 2nd Parachute Division south to plug the gap between Krefeld and the river and bolster the remnants of the 84th Infantry and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions which had been put in to hold the line westward to Kempen. Whereas at an earlier stage divisions had been withdrawn from the Ninth Army front to oppose First Canadian Army, the process was now being reversed. At the same time Schlemm began preparing a second and shorter bridgehead line running from Xanten along the western edge of the Bönninghardt forest (south of Veen) to the Rhine at Mörs (opposite Duisburg), manning this with supply troops and the rear elements of the formations engaged in the front line.82
This reduction in the perimeter permitted the evacuation across the Rhine of the headquarters staff of the 86th Corps under General Straube to organize defences on the east bank. To fill its place the 2nd Parachute Corps took over the 190th Division on 28 February and extended its responsibility southward to Kempen.83
As if the dilemma of having his isolated army caught between the closing jaws
* This roundabout route may have been the result of bomb damage.
of BLOCKBUSTER and GRENADE were not enough, Schlemm had to contend with a series of extraordinary orders from Berlin. He was made personally responsible for seeing that none of the nine Rhine bridges in his army sector fell into Allied hands. Should one be captured intact he would answer for it with his life. To make matters worse, he might not blow the bridges immediately; all must be kept standing to the last minute. Another order forbade him to send back to the east bank one man or a single piece of fighting equipment without special permission from Hitler himself. As a result the diminishing bridgehead became cluttered with damaged tanks, transport, artillery without ammunition and all the other debris of an army fighting a heavy losing action. The problem of accommodating Schlemm’s own ineffectives was intensified by the presence of large numbers of administrative personnel from the broken supply-lines of Army Group B who had escaped northward into the First Parachute Army’s area and were without weapons or equipment to enable them to be of any use. Through the intervention of General Blaskowitz this restriction was partly removed when Schlemm was supplied with a specific list of equipment which might be sent east of the Rhine. But men might be evacuated only on the certification of commanders that they were unfit for further fighting.84
The Struggle in the Gap
Although the American threat forced Schlemm to strengthen his left at the expense of the forces facing First Canadian Army, he maintained a determined resistance on the Hochwald front. Here he put in what were probably his best reserve units: two strong independent parachute battalions,*85 one of which was the Parachute Army Assault Battalion.86 With this reinforcement and the great force of artillery they had concentrated, the Germans succeeded in holding us at the Hochwald barrier for three days more.
On 1 March the main Canadian effort was the infantry’s, for until the enemy had been driven out of the woods and particularly from the commanding ground south of the railway there seemed little chance of our armour breaking through to the east. Changeable weather made air support spasmodic; No. 84 Group flew 246 sorties, including 100 against pre-planned targets and 20 in “immediate” support.87 The 6th Brigade relieved the 10th’s exhausted battalions in the area of the gap and before nightfall had established contact with patrols of the 5th Brigade working down through the forest from Schmachdarm.88 The 2nd Division’s heaviest action of the day took place on the left, where the 4th Infantry Brigade forced its way into the northern part of the forest.
The assault by the Essex Scottish went in at 7:45 a.m. supported by artillery and a troop of tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. The German positions at the edge of the woods were strong, and their paratroop defenders, reinforced, it seems probable, from the Calcar garrison, met the attack with savage determination. The fighting was fiercest on the left, where the Essex C Company, led by Major
* Precisely when the two battalions were put in cannot be stated. The Army battalion was identified by us on 3 March, but was probably in action earlier.
F. A. Tilston, had to cross 500 yards of open ground and ten feet of barbed wire to reach the foremost trenches. That they succeeded in their task was largely due to the inspired leadership of their commander. Although wounded in the head during the advance, Major Tilston was the first into the enemy trenches, silencing with a grenade a machine-gun post that was holding up one of his platoons. As he pressed on with his main force to the second line of defences he was again severely wounded in the thigh but remained in command. In vicious hand-to-hand fighting the Essex cleared the trenches; but before there was time to consolidate the Germans launched a counter-attack heavily supported by mortars and machine guns. Through this hail of fire Tilston calmly moved in the open among his depleted forces (now one-quarter of their original strength), organizing his defences platoon by platoon. Six times he crossed bullet-swept ground to the flanking Essex company to carry grenades and ammunition to his hard-pressed men. Though hit a third time lie refused medical aid until, lying in a shell-hole, he had ordered his one remaining officer to take over and had briefed him concerning the plan of defence and the absolute necessity of holding the position.89 Nightfall found the Essex Scottish clinging firmly to their hard-won gains. The day’s fighting had cost the battalion 31 killed and 77 wounded.90 But it had secured a solid base for the 4th Brigade’s operations to clear the northern forest. Major Tilston’s gallantry cost him both legs, but brought him the Victoria Cross.
South of the gap, where the 3rd Canadian Division was striving to help the 11th Armoured Division forward, an attempt by the 8th Brigade to clear the Tüschen Wald and the Balberger Wald accomplished little on 1 March. An evening attack southward by Le Régiment de la Chaudière was thrown back by an overwhelming concentration of fire. However, a renewed effort by the Chaudières next morning with tank support from the 1st Hussars reached the eastern edge of the wood, and at 2:30 p.m. the North Shore Regiment and the Queen’s Own Rifles passed through to begin clearing the larger Balberger Wald. The 3rd Division had been assigned the task of widening the “present bottleneck approach to Xanten”, but it was not easy.91
The early morning of the 2nd saw the entire Corps front flare up, with all five divisions surging forward. In the 2nd Division’s sector the 4th Brigade’s attack continued with renewed fury as the RHLI took over from the battered Essex Scottish and pushed 500 yards north-eastward along the road through the Hochwald towards Marienbaum.92 Farther south in the vital gap one of the bitterest of the battle’s many bitter struggles was being waged. In a determined endeavour to break through to the east Brigadier Moncel* was given The Algonquin Regiment to employ with his motor battalion and his armour. His plan, a bold one, assumed that the enemy’s resistance was at the breaking point, and that a determined effort, even though not in great strength, would turn the balance in our favour and open the path to the Rhine. From the foremost positions in the gap along the lateral road three companies of the Lake Superiors, carried in Kangaroos, and supported by a squadron of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, were to drive
* Moncel himself fell ill and was evacuated to hospital during the morning. During his absence (until 13 March) the 4th Armoured Brigade was commanded first by Lt: Col. E. M. Smith and subsequently by Lt.-Col. G. D. de S. Wotherspoon.
forward 1000 yards to capture a group of farm buildings beside the road which ran down the east side of the forest from Marienbaum to Sonsbeck. Through these positions tanks of the Governor General’s Foot Guards would carry an Algonquin company another 1000 yards eastward to seize a bridgehead over the Hohe Ley, a small stream which skirted the near edge of the woods (“Weston”) which had been the 4th Armoured Brigade’s objective on 28 February (see above, page 505).93
With the painful lessons of earlier armoured attempts in mind, every effort was made to advance in darkness. But the sodden ground, in many places now a mere quagmire, delayed the arrival of the Kangaroos, so that instead of 2:00 a.m. as planned it was after 4:30 and dawn was near when the attacking force drove down the slope out of the gap. The Lake Superior companies were by no means at full strength-the largest had only 44 all ranks. The unit had been fighting steadily since the opening of BLOCKBUSTER, but because of their previous experience with the personnel-carriers, the tired troops were being sent back into action without rest.94
The impetus of the assault carried A and B Companies through heavy shelling to their first objective, some battered houses in a shallow gully midway between the two lateral roads. Here they came under vigorous anti-tank and machine-gun fire from all sides. Tanks went up in smoke as they were hit by 88-mm. shot from self-propelled guns and Tiger tanks south of the railway. C Company fought its way through to the regiment’s final objective on the further road, where it was immediately pinned down among the ruins of farm buildings. It was growing light when two platoons of the Algonquins D” Company reached this position, and five of the eight tanks on which they started had been knocked out. All efforts to get forward to the Hohe Ley stream failed, and they were fain to dig in some 300 yards in front of the Lake Superiors and within plain sight of their objective. The deadly anti-tank fire forced the Canadian tanks to withdraw from their exposed position shortly before 8:00 a.m. Left without armoured support the Algonquins became the target of counter-attacks by infantry and tanks. In the fog of battle erroneous reports came back that D Company had reached the wood “Weston”, and spurred by frequent urgings from Brigade Headquarters the remaining Algonquin companies strove desperately to get forward in relief.95 On the right A Company was disorganized by heavy small arms fire coming from buildings south of the track; C was similarly held up at the north shoulder of the gap. In the late afternoon a survivor from D brought back word that the forward platoons had been encircled by German tanks and overrun. The Lake Superior Regiment’s C Company suffered a like fate; only eight men got back to the smouldering rubble-heaps held by A Company.96 They brought with them a story of magnificent courage in the face of odds. When their commander and all the company officers had become casualties, Sergeant C. H. Byce (who had won the Military Medal at the Maas in January) took charge. Single-handed he knocked out a tank with a PIAT, and with a companion cleared an enemy-held house with grenades. As more German tanks closed in, making C Company’s positions untenable, he extricated the survivors and got them back to relative safety. Finally he took up a sniper’s position and was reported
to have killed seven Germans and wounded eleven more as they attempted to come over the railway embankment. Byce’s gallantry won him the Distinguished Conduct Medal.97
Once again an attempt to break through to the east had failed. Early on 3 March the two battle-worn units turned over custody of the devastated gap to the 5th Infantry Brigade. Since the morning of the 2nd the Algonquins had had 87 casualties, including 32 men taken prisoner; the Lake Superior Regiment had lost 53, including 16 captured. The credit for stopping the Canadian attack seems to belong to the 24th Parachute Regiment and the Parachute Army Assault Battalion, supported by tanks and artillery of the 116th Panzer Division.98
Recking little of Allied progress on their southern flank, the Germans in the Hochwald area continued to fight fiercely. A plan by the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade to leapfrog its units along the north side of the gap had achieved little. During the morning of 2 March, while the Algonquins and Lake Superiors were waging their bitter battle in the open, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada moved through Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal but were stopped 500 yards short of their objectives at the south-eastern edge of the forest. As a result neither The South Saskatchewan Regiment nor the Fusiliers were able to follow through to the north as planned. Not until the morning of the 3rd, after the 5th Brigade had taken over the gap, could Brigadier Keefler’s units get forward. Keeping well within the cover of the woods, by nightfall they had cleared the eastern part of the Hochwald to a point 2000 yards north of the railway.99 This progress was matched on the 2nd Division’s left, where by the end of the day the 4th Infantry Brigade was in firm control of all the forest lying west of the Marienbaum road.100
In the 3rd Division’s sector it took the 8th Brigade two more days to complete clearing the Balberger Wald after Le Régiment de la Chaudière had secured the Tüschen Wald on 2 March. As they probed southward and then eastward through the woods, the Queen’s Own Rifles and the North Shore Regiment encountered persistent resistance by small enemy bands; often a machine-gun position was manned by only two well-trained soldiers. Every advance was counter-attacked, and more than once companies found their positions infiltrated in the darkness. Thickly-sown Schü-mines beset the path of the infantry, and the 1st Hussars, held up by numerous anti-tank mines, could only give supporting fire through the trees from stationary positions. There were no large-scale engagements, but by the time the brigade reached the eastern edge of the woods on the afternoon of the 4th it had suffered more than 100 casualties.101
On the 3rd Division’s right the first three days of March saw the 11th Armoured Division closing up to Sonsbeck. There was stiff fighting on the 2nd when its left column, having advanced on the 3rd Canadian Division’s axis, breached the main Schlieffen defences at the south-west corner of the Balberger Wald, while farther south the crossing of the Kervenheim-Sonsbeck road over these defences was secured.102 A frontal attack on Sonsbeck promised to be costly, for the western approaches were pitted with numerous craters and well-guarded by strongpoints. Accordingly the armoured division now marked time while the 3rd Canadian
Division moved against the long Hammerbruch spur which extended south-eastward from the Balberger Wald behind Sonsbeck.103
Meanwhile the effect of the Ninth Army’s drive northward was most notable on the 30th Corps’ front, where the tempo of the advance by General Horrocks’ divisions showed a quickening which increased from left to right. Next to the inter-corps boundary the 3rd (British) Division, pushing forward three miles a day, captured Kervenheim on 1 March, Winnekendonk on the 2nd and next day reached the deserted Schlieffen line in front of Kapellen.104 Also on the 2nd the 53rd Division found Weeze free of the enemy and its advanced units exploited along the axis of road and railway to Kevelaer without establishing contact. The long-awaited junction between the First Canadian and Ninth US Armies came on the afternoon of 3 March, when the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, working ahead of the 53rd Division, encountered cavalry of the 16th US Corps in the village of Berendonk, three miles north-west of Geldern.105 On the extreme right flank fast-moving patrols of the 1st Commando Brigade, operating under the 52nd Division, entered Langstraat on the 2nd and Well on the 3rd, and next day made contact with the 17th US Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in Walbeck.106 By the morning of the 4th there was no enemy west of Geldern, and as the 52nd Division’s northern prong passed Wemb, south of Weeze, without regaining contact, orders came for the division to concentrate between Geldern and the Maas.107
Eastward from the Hochwald
On the Hochwald front the first break in the German resistance came on the night of 3-4 March. Towards noon on the 3rd the 47th Panzer Corps received orders to pull the 116th Panzer Division back to Alpen, midway between Veen and Rheinberg. At midnight the 180th Infantry Division took over the sector thus vacated; on its right the 6th Parachute Division withdrew to a line about three kilometres east of the Hochwald. In the south-west corner of the shrinking bridgehead the 2nd Parachute Corps ordered the 190th Division back to the Alpen area, leaving the 7th Parachute Division, and what remained of the 8th, to face the increasing pressure from British and American forces.108 Although the enemy continued to maintain heavy mortar and artillery fire, these adjustments enabled the 2nd Canadian Division to complete the occupation of the Hochwald on 4 March. The 5th Brigade, attacking out of the gap early that morning, found the enemy gone. Everywhere abandoned equipment and German dead told of the intensity of the past battle.109 On the left the 214th Brigade, taking over from the Wessex Division’s reconnaissance regiment, occupied Kehrum on the 3rd and Marienbaum the following morning. Before the day ended the brigade had troops in Vynen and a patrol on the outskirts of Wardt, less than two miles from Xanten.110
The pattern of the next phase was forecast in the First Canadian Army’s intentions for 4 March.*111 The 43rd Division was to push south-eastward astride
* On Sunday, 4 March, the First Canadian Army was visited by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who was accompanied by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (Field-Marshal Sir Alan Brooke) and Field-Marshal Montgomery. After being briefed at General Crerar’s tactical headquarters, the Prime Minister drove with the Army Commander to the Reichswald and the Siegfried Line, and was dissuaded, on account of the danger of mines, from going further. The party lunched with General Simonds at his headquarters, and Mr. Churchill was then conducted by General Crerar on a visit to the 30th Corps area.
the Calcar-Xanten road, while the 2nd Canadian Division regrouped for a converging attack towards Xanten from the west. As for the 3rd Canadian Division, with the clearing of the Balberger Wald completed the 9th Brigade would capture the Hammerbruch spur, while on its right the 7th Brigade opened a route southward through Sonsbeck. The 4th Armoured Division was to be prepared to advance through the 3rd Division towards Veen.112
As contacts between the 30th Corps and American troops continued to seal the inter-army boundary the direction of General Horrocks’ drive was swinging to the north-east, with room now for only two divisions to advance. Having taken over Geldern from an American battalion early on the 4th,113 the 53rd Division was given as its axis the main road to Wesel, through Issum and Alpen. On its left Major-General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division was at last to get back into action. It was to pass through the 3rd Division at Kapellen and exploit eastward to Bönninghardt.114 By midday on the 4th the Welsh Division had occupied Issum, but the parallel thrust by the Guards Armoured had run into trouble. Leaving Goch at half-past one that morning, the 5th Guards Armoured Brigade had successfully contended with traffic congestion and rubble-blocked roads until stopped by a blown bridge west of Kapellen. An alternative route through Winnekendonk brought a column into Kapellen in the late afternoon, and by nightfall the 2nd (Armoured) Battalion Irish Guards had taken Hamb, a small village one mile to the east.115 To reach Bönninghardt it was necessary to clear a high wooded area about two miles square which was being held by strong infantry rearguards well supported by self-propelled anti-tank guns. Employing the same tactics as in the Balberger Wald, these held up the Guards’ advance for two more days, forcing them to mount two set-piece attacks. On 5 March in bitter hand-to-hand fighting units of the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards secured the hamlet of Metzekath in the heart of the Bönninghardt woods, and next day the 1st Welsh Guards captured Bönninghardt village, taking 200 prisoners from the 8th Parachute Division.116 It was an important gain. Possession of the hills about Bönninghardt gave the Allies a full view of the remaining bridgehead and made it possible to direct observed fire on any movement in the area.117 That same evening the 53rd Division, fighting in the Die Leucht forest south of Alpen, received word of its impending relief next morning by the Lowland Division.118
These successes reflected the continued rapid advance of the Ninth Army. By 5 March General Simpson’s two right-hand corps, having reached and cleared the west bank of the Rhine—the 19th from Neuss to Uerdingen and the 13th as far north as Orsoy—had completed their role in Operation GRENADE. Only the 16th Corps on the left was still engaged; by the morning of the 6th it was fighting in Rheinberg, less than two miles from the Rhine.119
While General Crerar’s right wing folded remorselessly inward upon the diminishing bridgehead, progress on the northern flank, though encouraging, had been much less rapid. The 3rd Canadian Division’s thrust had achieved its objectives.
By the early morning of 6 March the 9th Brigade had cleared enough of the Hammerbruch feature for the Canadian Scottish to begin the 7th Brigade’s attack on Sonsbeck. At the northern outskirts the Regina Rifles went through to take the town against only moderate resistance. From Sonsbeck the Reginas patrolled forward to meet the 3rd British Division, which after seeing the Guards Armoured on their way through Kapellen, had turned northward to clean out the Winkelscher Busch. This was easily done, and that evening patrols from the two 3rd Divisions met a mile south of Sonsbeck, the junction pinching out the 11th Armoured Division into Army Reserve.120
Bad flying conditions were still restricting air support. The best day was probably 2 March, when in spite of far from favourable weather No. 84 Group flew more than 300 sorties over the battle area, chasing off enemy aircraft and striking at known gun and mortar positions and at barges and ferry jetties along the Rhine. At night Mosquitoes attacked the river crossings and harassed movement in the German rear. As the German bridgehead continued to shrink our pilots found their difficulties increasing. Choice of targets west of the Rhine became very limited, and the converging Allied advance made it necessary to exercise extreme care in attacks. The enemy’s anti-aircraft guns in the bridgehead, were now in an unpleasantly high concentration. Moreover, No. 84 Group had been suffering such heavy casualties that on 1 March it was decided to reduce the number of aircraft operating in close support of the ground forces. This situation, combined with persistent bad weather, resulted in no close air support being available to our troops during the final week of BLOCKBUSTER.121
The Capture of Xanten and Veen
The enemy’s chief remaining lateral communication in front of Wesel was the highway which crossed the bridgehead in a south-easterly direction from Xanten to Ossenberg and Rheinberg. To preserve this important route as long as possible Schlemm had to retain possession of Xanten, Veen, and Alpen. Xanten, in history a Roman town, in German legend the home of Siegfried, was a place of 5000 inhabitants at the northwest angle of the bridgehead. To capture it and Veen, a small village three and a half miles east of Sonsbeck, became the main tasks of the 2nd Canadian Corps. General Matthews’ 2nd Division was given the northern assignment in collaboration with the Wessex Division; the 4th Armoured Division was to secure Veen.
By 5 March British and Canadian troops had closed to within two miles of Xanten. The 43rd Division held Wickermanshof, on the highway from Marienbaum, and Wardt, midway between the road and the Rhine. Within the fork of the railways two farmsteads marked the 2nd Division’s forward positions. On the left, Roschhof, 2500 yards north-west of Xanten, was in the hands of the 6th Brigade; on the right the 5th Brigade, moving forward from an unopposed occupation of the “Weston” woods, had the Maisonneuves at Birkenkampfshof.122 Both formations were thus in position to carry out the Corps intentions for 6 March—the 6th Brigade (assisted by the 43rd Division) to capture Xanten, and the
5th Brigade the high ground south-east of the town.123 Late on 5 March General Matthews, appreciating that a strong infiltration forward by the 6th Brigade might keep the enemy from stabilizing his position in front of Xanten, directed the 6th Brigade to put in a battalion attack next morning.124 When the resulting attempt by the Camerons was forced back, General Simonds ordered a regrouping for a direct assault by the 4th and 5th Canadian Brigades and the 129th Brigade of the Wessex Division. The code name BLOCKBUSTER II suggested that the operation was to be a major affair.125 Preparations were completed on 7 March as units of the 6th Brigade took over the forward holdings between the railways. The plan called for the 4th Brigade to capture the west side of Xanten, while the 129th moved in from the north-west to seize the main part of the town and the hamlet of Beek beyond. With this accomplished the 5th Brigade would move through on the right to secure the high ground between the railway and the sickle-shaped body of water called the Alter Rhein.126
The attack opened at 5:30 a.m. on the 8th with an artillery concentration by seven field and four medium regiments—“like all hell breaking loose”, reported the Essex Scottish war diary. Fifteen minutes later the assaulting battalions of the 4th Brigade moved forward in driving rain—the Essex on the left through the South Saskatchewans’ position at Röschof and The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry on the right through Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal at Birkenkampshof. In support was the Sherbrooke Fusiliers B” Squadron together with an assortment of Flails and Crocodiles. Helped forward by the barrage the assaulting companies of both battalions at first made good progress. By seven o’clock the Essex Scottish had begun clearing farmhouses between the railways, though they were still west of the main road from Sonsbeck. This task went slowly until the Crocodiles came forward about mid-morning. Almost invariably their flame flushed the Germans out of their positions on the run; in one such attack a large moated house yielded 68 enemy.127 By midday all Essex companies were reported secure on their objectives.128
As the day wore on, however, the situation on the 4th Brigade’s right became obscure, for communication with some of the RHLI companies had failed. Attacking astride the secondary road just north of the east-west railway tracks, the battalion met fierce and crafty opposition. The enemy let the two leading companies pass through his forward position, then opened fire on them from the rear. Moreover, a road crater 55 feet wide held up all vehicles. A bulldozer went to work under extremely heavy fire but it was late afternoon before even light tracked vehicles could pass. The infantry were under constant mortaring and machine-gun fire from the defenders of Xanten and were being shelled by big guns on the far side of the Rhine.129 Casualties mounted rapidly. The commanders of A and B Companies were killed. D Company was cut off and had its OC taken prisoner.130
Shortly after midday Brigadier Cabeldu launched The Royal Regiment of Canada into the battle, hoping thereby to assist the 129th Brigade’s attack and at the same time ease the pressure on the RHLI Aided by Wasp flame-throwers, which came into the fight when the soft ground bogged the heavier Crocodiles, the
Royals got their two left-hand companies into the outskirts of Xanten, where before the day ended they made contact with troops of the Wessex Division.131 But things were still bad on the brigade right, where Cabeldu was concerned about the failure to secure a start line for the 5th Brigade’s attack. Although A Company of the RHLI had reached its objective beyond the highway from Sonsbeck, darkness found B and C Companies, which had swung south of the tracks, still pinned down west of the road.132 At this critical juncture, even though the 4th Brigade’s objectives were not all taken and the situation in Xanten was obscure, an additional blow against the enemy might well turn the tide in our favour. At 7:00 p.m. General Matthews ordered the 5th Brigade to attack as soon as it could get into position.133
On the northern wing the attack by the 129th Brigade, carefully planned to cope with the known strength of the defences, had achieved success. Moving off at 5:00 a.m., while it was still dark, the 4th Somerset Light Infantry advanced behind a powerful barrage to the wide anti-tank ditch of the heavily-bombed town.* The infantry fought their way across, and the timely arrival of a scissors-bridge enabled the Crocodiles to follow and help evict the stubborn paratroopers from the rubble piles. By late afternoon all was over in Xanten. British and Canadians had met, and the Somersets had pushed on to secure Beek.134
On the brigade left the 5th Wiltshires, striking out from Wardt, had fought their way across flat, open fields toward Luttingen, midway between Xanten and the river. In the village a bitter hand-to-hand struggle ensued, as the enemy reinforced
* Xanten had been repeatedly bombed, notably by mediums of No. 2 Group on 1 March.
from the east, and the last resistance ended only next morning. The movements of the advancing Wessex battalions had been hidden from watchers across the Rhine by an extension of the dense screen of oil smoke that had been maintained since the opening of VERITABLE (above, page 480). From two emission points on the left bank north-west of Wardt generators beamed a curtain which a favourable north-west wind carried up the river as far as Xanten-a distance of nearly five miles.135
The second phase of BLOCKBUSTER II began at 10:45 p.m. on the 8th, when Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, carried in Kangaroos and supported by Sherbrooke tanks and Flails, advanced down the main Calcar-Xanten road. They drove through the ruins of Xanten without meeting any serious opposition, and within two hours were secure on the wooded hills immediately south of Beek, having collected more than 100 prisoners. The Canadian Black Watch, following through on foot, also gained their objectives without difficulty. To secure his right flank Brigadier Megill now ordered The South Saskatchewan Regiment (temporarily under his command) to block off the north-eastern edge of the high Die Hees forest, and when this was done The Calgary Highlanders pushed on to occupy positions between the north-eastern tip of the woods and the Alter Rhein.136 It was now daylight, and to keep the advance moving Megill sent the Maisonneuves through the Black Watch with orders to gain crossings over the Winnenthaler Canal where it joined the south-west angle of the Alter Rhein. The move started at 9:00 a.m. on the 9th against stiffening resistance. An enemy pocket holding out in a small wood south of Birten was dealt with “in textbook style”. Two troops of Sherbrooke Fusiliers tanks led a late afternoon attack across open fields to the edge of the wood. Crocodiles and Wasps then moved in to set buildings and trees on fire. Finally came the infantry, to receive their objectives (records the 2nd Armoured Brigade) “on a silver platter”.137 The Maisonneuves captured upwards of 200 paratroopers, including the commander of the 17th Parachute Regiment.138 During their attack Sergeant Maurice Bossé won the DCM by the determination with which he pushed his section of Wasp flame-throwers on in spite of having been three times wounded.139 On the right The Calgary Highlanders had come forward early in the day, and that night they crossed the canal unopposed.140
The enemy’s tenure of the Rhine’s west bank was drawing to a close. On 6 March the German High Command had given permission for the bridgehead to be evacuated by the 10th; and it appears that by midnight on the 6th–7th three corps headquarters and the remnants of several divisions had already withdrawn across the river. From his forward command post, still on the left bank, General Schlemm was controlling the final operations with the 2nd Parachute Corps Headquarters. Under General Meindl were what was left of the 6th, 7th and 8th Parachute Divisions, the 116th Panzer Division, a battle-group of the 346th Infantry Division, and remnants of some anti-tank and flak units.141 Events at Xanten had shown that these forces would not readily abandon their last holdings. In that bitter action units of the 6th Parachute Division had inflicted more than 400 casualties
on the 2nd Canadian Division. Hardest hit had been the 4th Brigade’s RHLI and Essex Scottish, with losses respectively of 134 and 108.142
More evidence of the enemy’s determination to resist to the last came from the Veen area. Here the 4th Armoured Division made an attempt at exploitation by using small battle-groups, each consisting of an infantry company with a squadron of tanks. Organized in this manner The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment) attacked on the 6th along the road from Sonsbeck towards Veen, where the enemy was not believed to be numerous. A 70-foot crater stopped the armour a mile west of Veen, and a little farther east heavy machine-gun fire pinned down the infantry.143 Under cover of darkness one company pushed forward on foot and entered Veen, only to be cut off by the Germans holding the outskirts. The Argylls lost heavily; 32 were taken prisoner. Only a few survivors, guided by tracer from a South Alberta tank, succeeded in fighting their way out of the trap. The remaining companies dug in beside the road, whence they were not to get forward for two more days. Veen was in fact strongly held, in part at least by the fierce fighters of the Parachute Army Assault Battalion.144 Realizing the immediate need for stronger measures Brigadier Jefferson ordered an attack by two regimental groups—the Algonquins with the South Alberta tanks north of the road, and the Lincoln and Welland with the British Columbia Regiment to the south.145
At four in the afternoon of the 7th each battalion sent two companies forward under smoke while the artillery blasted all objectives with high explosive. On the left the Algonquins were struck by shelling and mortaring almost at their startline, and from there on fought against the most stubborn opposition. Innocent-looking groups of farm buildings between them and Veen proved to be miniature forts, with brick walls of double thickness, in some cases reinforced by concrete. With three of its four supporting tanks knocked out A Company gained its first objective, a crossroads 1000 yards southwest of Veen, but was stopped there. Farther north B Company, having suffered 50 per cent casualties from the withering enemy fire, and C Company, sent forward in relief, were forced to dig in for the night with objectives untaken.146 On the right of the main axis the Lincoln and Welland’s frontal attack reached a point south of Veen; and a flanking company with a squadron of BC tanks swung out to capture a crossroads more than a mile south-east of the village. This threat to their rear, however, failed to concern Veen’s defenders. Through the whole of the 8th, while four miles to the north Xanten was undergoing its final attack, they kept the Algonquins and Lincoln pinned down by their persistent fire, their anti-tank guns dealing deadly blows at our armour, whose manoeuvre was seriously hampered by mud and mine.*147 Finally, during the night the enemy withdrew, and by mid-morning of 9 March the 10th Infantry Brigade was firm in Veen.148
A mile to the east fighting was still going on in the small village of Winnenthal.
* For two days and nights the 10th Independent Machine Gun Company (The New Brunswick Rangers) had guarded the left flank with continuous fire on the Latzen Busch, a small wood north of the Algonquin positions. They fired 135,000 rounds of Vickers, and with 2720 mortar bombs reduced the wood to what their CO described as “a series of holes joined together by bits of mud.”
That morning a battle-group consisting of the Algonquins’ fourth rifle company and a squadron of the Canadian Grenadier Guards had reached Winnenthal from the south after a detour by the Bönninghardt woods. While the tanks, kept by mines from entering the village, fired in support, the infantry fought their way in. Before nightfall a company of the Lake Superior Regiment with tanks and flame-throwers arrived in time to mount a quick attack against a strong force holding a monastery on the east side of Winnenthal—with “a bazooka in each window”, according to one report. Early next morning some 200 paratroopers surrendered.149 This ended the 4th Armoured Division’s operations west of the Rhine. In the fighting for Veen and Winnenthal (6-10 March) the battalions of the 10th Infantry Brigade, with little time to recover from the losses of the Hochwald struggle, had again suffered heavily; Algonquin casualties numbered 141, those of the Lincoln and Welland 101, and of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 69. The BLOCKBUSTER casualties were the heaviest the brigade ever had.150
The Rhineland Victory
All along the bridgehead line, events had been moving steadily to a climax. On 5 March the Germans blew four Rhine bridges downstream from Duisburg, leaving only the rail and road bridges at Wesel.151 These survived attacks on the area by the RAF, including particularly a heavy one by medium bombers of No. 2 Group in daylight on 5 March in which hits were claimed, and evidently made, on both bridges.152 Along with ferries the bridges served for evacuating the troops and equipment which Schlemm was contriving to salvage. German officers later expressed surprise at our air forces’ failure to harass this movement more effectively; one spoke particularly of the tempting target offered by the bridges on the afternoon of 6 March, when, the damage done by the bombing having been repaired, vehicles were steadily streaming across them in daylight.153 But he forgot the weather: on that day it stopped flying by the tactical air forces almost entirely.154
The German withdrawal was well conducted. There was little sign of disorder as Schlemm’s bridgehead slowly shrank. Stubborn rearguards fiercely disputed the possession of every town, and then withdrew by night. At the southern end of the lateral highway the 16th US Corps captured Rheinberg on the 6th, but took two more days to secure Ossenberg, where the defenders “made a strong point of every house”.155 East of Bönninghardt the 52nd Division occupied Alpen on the 8th, going on next day to evict the enemy from the Haus Loo fort, one of his few remaining strongholds west of the Xanten-Rheinberg road.156
As the line shortened, control of all Anglo-Canadian operations against the bridgehead passed to General Simonds. At 6:00 p.m. on 8 March, 30th Corps Headquarters, transferring its divisions to the 2nd Canadian Corps, went under command of the Second British Army to plan future undertakings.157 On the 9th, under arrangements made at a conference at Field-Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters that morning, the 16th US Corps came temporarily under General Crerar’s operational command for the final stage.158 One division received orders to “stand down”. For 10 March the 2nd Corps intentions gave
further objectives to only the 3rd British and the Lowland Divisions.159 By then enemy resistance was virtually at an end. At 10:40 that morning an air observation post reported both Wesel bridges demolished.160 The daily intelligence report by the C-in-C West read: “Own troops withdrew from the Wesel bridgehead according to plan. Rearguards still on [west] bank.”161 These slim rearguards provided little opposition. By nightfall on the 10th the 52nd Division had occupied Menzelen and Ginderich, gathering in a few stragglers, and had linked up with the 2nd Canadian Division on its left and the 35th US Infantry Division on its right. The end of the Rhineland battle came on the morning of 11 March when two American platoons took the surrender of a few tired Germans in old Fort Blucher, on the river bank opposite Wesel.162 The 21st Army Group now lined the west bank of the Rhine from Dusseldorf to Nijmegen.
Thus ended more than a month of continuous bitter fighting by the First Canadian Army in which weather and ground had seemed almost invariably to side with the enemy. Day after day, clouded skies had robbed the Army of its air support; flood and mud had too frequently immobilized its armour. The enemy had concentrated an unusual amount of fire-power, which in General Crerar’s phrase “had been more heavily and effectively applied than at any other time in the Army’s fighting during the present campaign.”163 The German opposition had been formidable in both quantity and quality. The force facing First Canadian Army grew from one reinforced infantry division on 8 February to a peak of ten divisions as the battle proceeded.*164 After the Ninth Army’s attack was launched on 23 February this force was again reduced, but, consisting now mainly of skilful and hard-bitten parachute troops, it continued to offer the fiercest resistance. The, First Parachute Army was soundly beaten; but it was certainly not humiliated.
In these circumstances the victory, inevitably, was costly. The total casualties of First Canadian Army for the period beginning on 8 February and extending through 10 March were computed at 1049 officers and 14,585 other ranks; the majority of these were British soldiers, Canadian casualties numbering 379 officers and 4925 other ranks. The Canadian losses had of course been heaviest after Operation BLOCKBUSTER went in on 26 February; from that day through 10 March they were 243 officers and 3395 other ranks.165 The Ninth US Army’s losses in the 17 days of Operation GRENADE had been just under 7300.166
The loss inflicted on the enemy was much heavier. During the whole period from the beginning of VERITABLE until the German withdrawal east of the Rhine, First Canadian Army captured 22,239 prisoners, and our Intelligence estimated the enemy’s loss in killed and “long-term wounded” at 22,000. On the Ninth US Army’s front the parallel figures were 29,739 prisoners and 16,000 other casualties. Thus the two armies’ converging operations had cost the Germans, according to our best figures, approximately 90,000 men.167 It is no disparagement of the splendid feat of General Simpson’s soldiers to say that First Canadian Army had had somewhat the harder task of the two. During the period when the Roer flooding postponed the launching of the Ninth Army offensive the Germans were able
* The 84th, 180th and 190th Infantry Divisions, the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, the 116th Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions, and the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 8th Parachute Divisions.
to concentrate against General Crerar. It would seem also that Schlemm’s paratroopers were rather more formidable antagonists than the divisions on the right wing of the Fifteenth Army which collapsed under the American blows. But as we have often seen there were few formations in the German Army that were not capable of determined resistance. The teamwork of the two Allied armies had produced an excellent result and a great contribution to the final victory, now not very far away.
On 26 March the Supreme Commander wrote a letter to the GOC-in-C:–
I have previously sent out general messages of congratulation to the several parts of this Allied force, covering our more recent operations. The purpose of this note is to express to you personally my admiration for the way, you conducted the attack, by your Army, beginning February 8 and ending when the enemy had evacuated his last bridgehead at Wesel. Probably no assault in this war has been conducted under more appalling conditions of terrain than was that one. It speaks volumes for your skill and determination and the valor of your soldiers, that you carried it through to a successful conclusion.
With warm personal regard,
Dwight D. Eisenhower.
General Crerar replied on the 30th thanking General Eisenhower and adding,
I believe that no troops could have put up a finer exhibition of enduring gallantry and determination than was demonstrated during those weeks of bitter, bloody and muddy fighting. With such soldiers, British and Canadian, no Commander could ever fail in the tasks he had been set to accomplish.168
While the First Canadian and Ninth US Armies fought their hard battle in the north, tremendous events had also been taking place elsewhere on the front. General Bradley’s 12th Army Group (the First and Third US Armies) lunged forward on 1 March in Operation LUMBERJACK. Cologne fell a few days later, and on 7 March the First Army seized intact the Ludendorff Bridge across the Rhine at Remagen and, brilliantly exploiting this unexpected opportunity, began to build up beyond the river. On 15 March it was the turn of General Devers’ 6th Army Group, which had cleared the “Colmar pocket” early in February and now launched Operation UNDERTONE to clear to the Rhine in the area south of the Moselle. The Seventh US Army, with a considerable French group under command, swept forward and, in conjunction with a devastating south-easterly thrust by the Third Army across the Moselle, soon completed its task. The German Army Group G suffered a great reverse. Coblenz and Mainz fell, and by 25 March all organized German resistance west of the Rhine had ended. By that date, indeed, we were across the river at two other points besides Remagen. General Patton’s men had “bounced” a crossing on the night of 22-23 March near Oppenheim, south of Mainz; and the following day the main planned crossing took place in the north at Wesel.169 The total of prisoners taken from the Germans in the West since 8 February now stood at over 230,000. SHAEF commented, “This, with killed and wounded, is equivalent to the destruction of divisional troops to the extent of 20 full divisions.”170
The German plan of standing and fighting west of the Rhine, instead of retiring behind the river and forcing us to attack across that formidable obstacle, undoubtedly represented the only strategy that Hitler would have tolerated, and there is no evidence that a retirement was considered. In Field-Marshal Montgomery’s view, this was the enemy’s “third major blunder” of the campaign, the others being the decisions to fight south of the Seine in Normandy and to launch the Ardennes counter-offensive.171 No doubt its origins were the desire to cover the Ruhr, and sentimental reluctance to yield any of the soil of the Fatherland until forced to do so. We have also noted (above, page 509) the German desire to protect the barge traffic, particularly the coal traffic, on the Rhine. But fighting west of the river was certainly a serious mistake. Germany had already lost the war; but she could still have lengthened it considerably by husbanding her military resources and using them to the best advantage. Instead, she fed those resources into the grinder in the Rhineland. She forced us to fight a costly battle there, but it was the last of the really great battles of the campaign. The Germans could not rebuild the Wehrmacht a second time as they had rebuilt it after Normandy.
The German armies in the West faced the coming struggle east of the Rhine not only with utterly inadequate forces but with a new Commander-in-Chief. Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, old and tired but still highly competent, received on 11 March his second congé from the Western command from Hitler, who probably had not forgiven him for criticizing his Ardennes plan. In his place, Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring was brought in from Italy to carry on a campaign which was now clearly hopeless.172