Page 564

Chapter 21: The 1st Corps in the Western Netherlands, 1–22 April 1945

(See Map 13)

While the drive from the Rhine to the North Sea was gathering momentum, important operations were also taking place in the more westerly sectors of the Canadian Army front.

It will be recalled that early in November 1944, when First Canadian Army assumed responsibility for the Nijmegen salient, Field-Marshal Montgomery instructed it to plan offensive operations “northwards across the Neder Rijn, to secure the high ground between Arnhem and Apeldoorn with a bridgehead over the Ijssel river” (above, page 428). As we have also seen, consideration was then given to a preliminary operation, SIESTA, designed to clear the “island” between the Waal and the Neder Rijn. Powerful factors combined to postpone the carrying out of these plans: German action in partially flooding the “island”, the Battle of the Ardennes and Allied preoccupation with preparations for Operation VERITABLE imposed fully five months’ delay.

The actual launching of VERITABLE on 8 February did not, however, put an end to interest in operations north of the Neder Rijn. We have noted (above, page 481) General Simonds’ proposal to the Army Commander on 14 February that his Corps could be most usefully employed during the next few weeks in securing the Arnhem crossing and then developing operations along the right bank of the Rhine. Simonds felt that a crossing at Arnhem was in many ways preferable to one at Emmerich. While ruling that for the moment the 2nd Corps must go through with the commitment in the Battle of the Rhineland already planned for it, General Crerar nevertheless saw attractive possibilities for the future in the Arnhem scheme, and instructed his Plans Section to make a study of the operation proposed by Simonds.1 Only a couple of days later the 21st Army Group directed Crerar’s headquarters to study a subsidiary operation across the Neder Rijn in conjunction with PLUNDER, the object being to assist in opening up the Emmerich route (above, page 530).

Problems of an Assault Across the Neder Rijn

On 21 February Crerar’s planners produced their study of Operation ANGER, which they defined as “the operation by First Canadian Army out of the Nijmegen

Page 565

bridgehead across [the] River Neder Rijn to assist in opening the Emmerich crossing of [the] River Rhine”.2 This paper assumed that Lieut.-General Charles Foulkes’ 1st Canadian Corps, then moving from the Mediterranean to North-West Europe, would plan the details and conduct ANGER. In accordance with the Army Group directive, the operation was subordinated to the larger requirements of the projected PLUNDER offensive across the Rhine.

Before the end of February, well in advance of assuming responsibility for the Nijmegen area, General Foulkes prepared his own appreciation for ANGER.3 The objects were still the capture of Arnhem and the opening of a route to Emmerich; but he assumed that the operation would not take place until VERITABLE had been completed. His appreciation, based on a careful study of terrain, possibilities of further flooding (either by natural or artificial means), weather conditions and the enemy’s defences, reached a cautious conclusion:

There are so many limiting factors to this operation during the months of March and April that quick decisive results cannot be expected. A careful examination of the enemy’s preparations shows that he is fully aware of the dangers of such an operation and is preparing to counter such a thrust east of the Rhine. Even if the initial stages of the attack were highly successful the enemy has such counter measures prepared, i.e., flooding of the Ijssel, that an early thrust towards Emmerich is highly improbable if the enemy has any troops available to man the Doesburg–Zevenaar switch line. It is therefore my opinion that this operation should be considered only as a subsidiary operation to be undertaken only if conditions of weather and of the enemy prove advantageous.

Accordingly, ANGER was shelved for the time being, General Crerar telling Montgomery that there was little prospect of launching it before the latter part of April.4 Since, however, as part of its later role in PLUNDER, the 2nd Corps was ordered to attack the Ijssel defences from the rear, with a view to capturing Apeldoorn and the high ground between that town and Arnhem (above, page 551), the Army Commander instructed Foulkes to coordinate his plans for ANGER with Simonds’ future progress.5

Although there was no immediate prospect of attacking across the Neder Rijn, the 1st Canadian Corps could undertake another important if disagreeable task during the interval. This was the business of clearing the enemy out of the remainder of the flooded “island” between the Waal and the Neder Rijn. When the Corps took over the Nijmegen sector on 15 March the Germans still controlled the northern portion of the “island” and a rectangular area west of the Pannerdensch Canal, connecting the two rivers. The southern portion of the “island” was held by the 49th (West Riding) Division, the only division as yet under General Foulkes’ command, with the 18th Armoured Car Regiment (12th Manitoba Dragoons) along the lower Waal, north-east of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Two difficulties arose when the possibility of clearing the “island” was discussed in mid-March. First, the 49th Division was not considered sufficiently strong to hold the island and clear it at the same time; secondly, it was feared that any long pause between the elimination of German resistance on the island and the launching of ANGER might result in heavy casualties to the troops holding the southern bank of the Neder Rijn. Consequently, Major-General G. H. A. MacMillan, then

Page 566

commanding the West Riding Division,* suggested that the operation be postponed until early in April. This was done, it being understood that the operation would only be undertaken if the opposition was weak and the weather favourable. Reports indicated, however, that German morale was particularly low in this sector.6

Problems of regrouping within the 1st Corps and coordination of its projected operations with those of the 2nd Corps in PLUNDER were under consideration throughout the rest of March. As General Foulkes saw the operation on the 17th, the 1st Canadian and 49th Divisions would clear the “island” and establish a bridgehead across the Neder Rijn at Oosterbeek, immediately west of Arnhem, with the 5th Armoured Division passing through to expand the holding to the north and west; however, if the ground on the island would not permit a direct assault across the Neder Rijn, he had an alternative plan under which the 1st and 5th Divisions would use the 2nd Corps’ bridges at Emmerich and across the Ijssel to attack Arnhem from the north and east.7 Administrative considerations made this alternative difficult. Unless the proposed crossing facilities in the Emmerich area were expanded, not more than four divisions could be maintained over them. Since General Simonds required three divisions (the 2nd and 3rd Canadian and 1st Polish) for his responsibilities in Operation HAYMAKER, it was evident that only one could be employed across the Ijssel.8

On 24 March the Army Commander issued firm instructions9 to coordinate the operations of the 1st and 2nd Corps:

When 2 Canadian Corps has captured the Stokkummer Bosch and Hoch Elten features and is proceeding to secure the objective Doetinchem–Pannerden, 1 Canadian Corps will clear the enemy from the south-eastern portion of the Nijmegen ‘Island’, and make contact with 2 Canadian Corps along the Pannerdensch Canal. As 2 Canadian Corps develops its operation northwards and secures its left flank to the line of the R. Ijssel between Doesburg and Westervoort, 1 Canadian Corps will clear the enemy from the northern portion of the ‘Island’ and gain control of the left bank of the Neder Rijn as may be necessary to permit the subsequent launching of operations across the Neder Rijn. ...

After 2 Canadian Corps has secured the general line Delden–Holten–Deventer, its task will be to force the crossing of the R. Ijssel at [al selected sector, or sectors, between Deventer and Doesburg, both inclusive, and secure the general line Apeldoorn–Otterloo. 1 Canadian Corps will then be responsible for establishing a bridgehead north of the Neder Rijn, to the west of Arnhem, following which Arnhem will be captured. This assault crossing by 1 Canadian Corps will be planned to take place at the same time as, or slightly subsequent to, the crossing of R. Ijssel by 2 Canadian Corps.

Three days later General Foulkes issued his own detailed directive.10 His immediate responsibility, coinciding with the expansion of the PLUNDER bridgehead, was to hold securely his portion of the line along the Maas and the Neder Rijn. Thereafter, the 1st Corps would carry out active operations in three phases: first, the 49th Division would clear the south-eastern sector of the “island”; then the 49th, together with the 5th Canadian Division, would clear the remainder of the “island” and dominate the left bank of the Neder Rijn (these two phases would constitute Operation DESTROYER); finally, either the 49th Division, with an additional infantry brigade under command, would make a “scramble crossing” of the

* On 25 March he took command, as we have seen, of the 51st (Highland) Division; three days later Major-General S. B. Rawlins, previously Commander Corps Royal Artillery, 30th Corps, assumed command of the 49th Division.

Page 567

Neder Rijn at Oosterbeek (QUICK ANGER), or—in the event of the Germans still holding the right bank of the Neder Rijn after the 2nd Corps had crossed the Ijssel—the 1st Corps would force the river about five miles downstream, at Renkum (ANGER). The target date for the initial stage of DESTROYER was set for 2 April.

Considerable regrouping was necessary to implement these plans. On 21 March The Westminster Regiment (Motor), of the 5th Canadian Armoured Brigade, took over the sector previously held by the 18th Armoured Car Regiment, the Westminsters recording their astonishment, after their Italian experience, at finding “electric light, running water and radios in a forward area”.11 They were assisted by No. 12 Company of the Netherlands Forces of the Interior.*12 Two days later the 11th Armoured Regiment (The Ontario Regiment), of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, came under the command of the West Riding Division and began moving its squadrons into the “island”.13 The buildup for DESTROYER continued on 28 March when the 11th Infantry Brigade, under Brigadier I. S. Johnston, also joined the 49th Division, relieving its 56th Brigade in the vicinity of Oosterhout. Both the Westminsters and the 11th Brigade reverted under Major-General B. M. Hoffmeister’s 5th Canadian Armoured Division on the 31st, when that division took over the western sector of the island from the 49th. The inter-divisional boundary ran from De Hulk, six miles west of the Nijmegen bridge, in a north-easterly curve towards Arnhem. Hoffmeister’s responsibilities extended downstream, along the line of the Waal, to near Heerewaarden, north-east of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where the 1st British Corps took over.14

Operation DESTROYER: Clearing the “Island”

The 49th Division carried out its role in Operation DESTROYER on 2-3 April, clearing the rectangular area held by the Germans at the eastern end of the “island”. The timing of the attack (6:00 a.m. on the 2nd) was carefully synchronized with the 3rd Canadian Division’s operations east of the Rhine (above, page 548); it was hoped that General Keefler’s troops would clear the angle formed by the Neder Rijn and the Ijssel as far as Westervoort while, simultaneously, the 49th occupied the opposite bank of the Neder Rijn.15 Under General Rawlins’ command for DESTROYER were the Ontario Regiment and the 11th Army Field Regiment RCA as well as “Crocodiles” and “Flails” of the 79th Armoured Division. The artillery support for the operation included the 1st Army Group RCA, under Brigadier L. G. Clarke,† and a troop of the 1st Rocket Battery RCA16

DESTROYER developed smoothly in two phases. First, the 147th Infantry Brigade rapidly cleared the south-eastern comer of the “island”, advancing some three miles from Haalderen to Doornenburg, which was cleared in the early afternoon

* These companies, organized from resistance troops after the liberation of Netherlands territory, formed part of the forces under Lieut.-General H. R. H. Prince Bernhard, who had been appointed Commander of the Netherlands Forces and Commander of the Netherlands Forces of the Interior as from 3 September 1944. The policy was to consolidate and reorganize them as soon as possible into Light Infantry Battalions of the Dutch Army.

† On 4 April Brigadier Clarke exchanged commands with Brigadier E. R. Suttie, previously Commander, Royal Artillery, 3rd Canadian Division.

Page 568

of the same day. The Ontarios’ tanks gave good support, although they encountered many mines and road blocks.17 The second phase began at 3:30 p.m. when the 146th Infantry Brigade turned north, clearing the left bank of the Neder Rijn, below the Pannerdensch Canal, in the direction of Angeren and Huissen. These objectives were secured with the assistance of fighter-bombers, and British troops entered Huissen before nightfall on the 2nd. On the following morning they crossed the river to Westervoort. Heavier German resistance east of the Rhine had prevented the 3rd Canadian Division from conforming to the British advance; General Keefler’s main strength had to be directed north towards Zutphen. Accordingly, early on 3 April, General Rawlins sent reconnaissance elements through the Emmerich bridgehead to link up with his force in the Westervoort-Pannerden area.

By 5:00 p.m. on the 3rd the West Riding Division had eliminated all opposition in its area south of the Neder Rijn. The Ontarios continued to support it throughout this final phase. In general, resistance had been very light, although a communiqué issued by Hitler’s headquarters referred to “fierce fighting” in the Arnhem sector.18 With few casualties to themselves, Rawlins’ troops had performed an essential preliminary task over difficult terrain, capturing nearly 200 prisoners.19

Meanwhile, on the 5th Armoured Division front on the left, the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade had cleared the “island” westwards to near Randwijk, some eight miles downstream from Arnhem. At dusk on 2 April all three battalions, supported by tanks of the 3rd Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The Governor General’s Horse Guards), advanced northwards along roughly parallel axes towards the Neder Rijn. There was very little opposition. On the brigade’s left (western) flank, The Irish Regiment of Canada encountered many mines, but not much active resistance. By mid-morning on the 3rd they possessed Randwijk; their patrols then pushed forward to the river bank and established contact with The Cape Breton Highlanders on their right. The Highlanders also had trouble with mines and craters, but secured their objectives, including Heteren. On the right flank The Perth Regiment had a somewhat harder task. After clearing Driel they were counter-attacked twice on the afternoon of the 3rd, but “beat the enemy off without much trouble”. Forced back to the northern bank of the Neder Rijn, the Germans remained active during succeeding days, employing artillery, mortars and machine-guns against movement in our lines.20

Intermission: Preparations for Further Operations

With the completion of Operation DESTROYER on the evening of 3 April General Foulkes’ 1st Corps occupied a wide salient thrusting into the western Netherlands: a 20-mile stretch of the left bank of the Neder Rijn and the Pannerdensch Canal, from the latter’s junction with the Waal to north-west of Randwijk. At the top of this arch, on the opposite side of the Neder Rijn, stood the battered city of Arnhem—the prize which had tragically eluded the grasp of British airborne troops nearly seven months before. A significant change had, however,

Page 569

occurred during the interval: in September 1944 the Wehrmacht was still potentially dangerous, but in April 1945 Hitler’s forces in the western Netherlands could have no policy except a hopeless improvised defence. That nine days elapsed between the clearing of the “island” and the final amphibious assault at Arnhem was due less to the enemy’s strength than to the requirements of Allied strategy and tactics.

When DESTROYER was launched there was still some uncertainty regarding the future tasks of the 1st Corps. We have already seen (above, page 541) that Montgomery was anxious to avoid any large-scale diversion of forces to clear the western Netherlands. Early in April the strategic object of operations along the Neder Rijn and the Ijssel was to open a supply route through Arnhem and Zutphen to maintain the great Allied drive east of the Rhine. However, this strictly military aim was inevitably affected by political considerations of mounting urgency. The Supreme Commander afterwards referred to the “peculiar difficulty”21 of the situation which arose in the western Netherlands due to steadily deteriorating civilian conditions under German occupation. The resulting uncertainty was clearly reflected in General Crerar’s directive to his Corps Commanders of 2 April (above, page 546). It was dispelled, for the moment at least, at a conference in Crerar’s caravan on 5 April, when Field-Marshal Montgomery announced that, following the completion of Operations CANNONSHOT (above, page 551) and QUICK ANGER, the 1st Corps would “undertake a new task, namely, the clearing of West Holland”.22 Two days later Crerar sent out detailed instructions implementing the Field-Marshal’s directive issued on the 5th (above, page 548).23

Tactically, the assault at Arnhem was delayed by the necessity of coordinating Foulkes’ operations with those of Simonds east of the Rhine. We have already seen that Crerar’s overall plan depended on the 2nd Corps’ progress—in particular, its ability to launch an attack across the Ijssel, taking the German defences in the rear, between Zutphen and Deventer. As described in the previous chapter, it was not until 11 April that the 1st Division, temporarily under the 2nd Corps, was able to launch this attack (CANNONSHOT) and advance towards Apeldoorn. The Army Commander ruled that the operation against Arnhem would not begin until 24 hours after the launching of CANNONSHOT.24

The 49th Division, we have noted, was to carry out QUICK ANGER. In mid-February the divisional staff had prepared plans for an operation (then known as WALLSTREET) to cross the Neder Rijn and capture Arnhem.25 But there were many changes before the operation was launched. We have seen that at the end of March the favoured site for the attack lay west of Arnhem, in the vicinity of either Oosterbeek or Renkum. Efforts were made to blind the enemy’s observation in this sector with a 15-mile smoke-screen stretching from Huissen to Randwijk; but various difficulties, including lack of suitable generators and contrary winds, reduced its effectiveness.26 Our reconnaissance and dumping activities near Driel were not completely shielded from the enemy, who was believed to be expecting the attack; moreover, ground conditions on the “island” deteriorated. Accordingly, on 7 April General Foulkes decided that Arnhem would have to be attacked from the east,

Page 570

and the plans were then revised to provide for an assault across the Ijssel in the vicinity of Westervoort, this involving some delay.27

General Rawlins planned to force the Ijssel and capture Arnhem in three phases. First, the 56th Infantry Brigade Group (including a troop of Ontario Regiment tanks) was to cross the river, secure a limited bridgehead and clear the southern sector of Arnhem. The 146th Brigade Group, supported by the remainder of the Ontario Regiment, would then pass through to enlarge the bridgehead. In the final phase, the 147th Brigade Group would secure high ground west of Arnhem and be prepared to exploit west and northwest. The supporting guns included, in addition to the 49th Division’s own artillery, the 1st Army Group RCA, the divisional artillery of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, the 11th Army Field Regiment RCA and the 1st Rocket Battery RCA28

The 5th Division cooperated initially by holding the “island” and carrying out deceptive measures in the Driel area, aided by the continuing smoke-screen along the left bank of the Neder Rijn. However, to free it for active operations northwest of Arnhem, the 5th Division was relieved on the morning of 12 April by the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, under Brigadier W. C. Murphy. The latter then became responsible for the entire “island” sector from the junction of the Ijssel and the Neder Rijn to the Corps’ left boundary near Tiel. Murphy was given the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade (two battalions), and a composite force under the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment RCA, which had previously held the southern bank of the Neder Rijn east of Arnhem.29 With these arrangements completed the 5th Division gradually withdrew from the “island”, crossing the Rhine at Emmerich and concentrating in the Didam-Doetinchem area, where it was poised to pass through either the 1st Canadian Division’s or the West Riding Division’s bridgehead.30

The Capture of Arnhem and a Revision of Strategy

With CANNONSHOT successfully launched, on the afternoon of 11 April, the way was clear for ANGER,* which began late in the evening of the following day. Although the delay between the clearing of the “island” and the attack caused some apprehension at Rawlins’ headquarters,31 events soon proved that the enemy had profited little. Only a few days before the attack the area held by the Twenty-Fifth German Army had become Festung Holland; but the change in designation could not remedy the deficiencies of troops and equipment in the “Fortress.” By this stage of the war German “divisions” were composed mainly of mere remnants of the original formations, reinforced by units of diverse origin and states of training. However, the senior commands and staff appointments remained in experienced hands. At this time the great right angle formed by the Ijssel and the Neder Rijn was defended by the depleted 30th German Corps, commanded by General Philipp Kleffel. While the 361st Volksgrenadier Division and miscellaneous formations were resisting the 1st Canadian Division’s advance west of the Ijssel,

* Both ANGER and QUICK ANGER occur as code names in the records of the operation to capture Arnhem; but ANGER was used in the 49th Division’s operation order.

Page 571

the 346th Infantry Division held the Arnhem sector with the 858th Grenadier Regiment, and miscellaneous units, including reinforcements and the divisional “Battle School”.32 The composition of this force remained something of a mystery to our Intelligence before the attack, especially as it was difficult to gauge the enemy’s reaction to CANNONSHOT. Nevertheless, Arnhem’s natural defences, the high ground on the right bank of the Neder Rijn, and the Neder Rijn itself, and the Ijssel, were formidable; and it was believed that the Germans held the city in some strength.33

RAF Spitfires and Typhoons repeatedly attacked the Arnhem defences on the afternoon of the 12th; later in the day diversionary fire on the 1st Corps’ left flank drew German retaliation on Driel. As the evening wore on, our main artillery bombardment began; it was to make the task of the assaulting infantry “considerably easier”. Then, at 10:40 p.m., the 56th Infantry Brigade swam the Ijssel in “Buffaloes”. German guns fired on the forward areas, but the attackers penetrated the south-eastern outskirts of Arnhem with little difficulty, repulsing a counter-attack on the morning of the 13th and establishing firm control over the initial bridgehead.34

Assistance in building up our forces in Arnhem was given by Force U of the Royal Navy and engineers of the 1st Canadian Corps. After participating in Operation PLUNDER, Force U dispatched LCMs. to help in ANGER. These craft helped to carry British troops across the Ijssel.35 The Canadian sappers’ contribution included the striking expedient of prefabricating a Bailey pontoon bridge near Doornenburg on the Pannerdensch Canal, floating it some five miles downstream with the help of No. 3 Inland Water Transport Group RE, and placing it in position at Westervoort. This was successfully carried out, after careful trials, by the 12th Field Company RCE, under Major D. H. Evers. Some difficulty was experienced in handling the heavy landing bays (one piece was over 150 feet long), but the bridge was opened for traffic on the morning of the 13th, less than 11 hours after movement began from the construction site. Meanwhile, the 14th Field Company RCE had constructed four Bailey pontoon rafts; two were used at Huissen and the others, towed into position with naval assistance, operated across the Ijssel at Westervoort.36

Thus aided, the 49th Division soon completed the capture of Arnhem. On the morning of 13 April the 146th Brigade crossed the Ijssel and began clearing a large factory in the eastern outskirts. The Ontario Regiment (whose leading tanks presumably crossed on one of the 14th Field Company’s rafts which began work at 8:00 a.m., earlier than the bridge) assisted in dealing with snipers and machine-guns. In general, however, resistance was light, the Ontarios’ diary recording that “the enemy nowhere showed much willingness to fight”. By nightfall the main core of resistance was broken and the 147th Brigade was preparing to pass through the 56th. Although many mines and demolitions were encountered, Arnhem was completely cleared on the 14th. The West Riding Division captured 601 prisoners during the whole operation.37

On the 12th the Corps Commander had issued instructions for operations to “clear the Germans out of Western Holland”.38 While the strength of German

Page 572

garrisons was “still a matter of considerable speculation”, he believed that “at least one or two field formations” might be left to man defensive lines. After completing ANGER, the 49th Division was to advance from Arnhem and occupy the National Highway south of Utrecht. The 5th Armoured Division would advance west, bypass Amersfoort and secure the high ground west of that city. The 1st Division would take Amersfoort, relieve the 5th and capture Utrecht. The 5th Division would then mop up any enemy between the Ijsselmeer and the Ijssel River. In succeeding phases the 49th Division would advance through Gouda, capture The Hague and attack Rotterdam from the west, while the 1st Division advanced on Amsterdam by way of Leiden and Haarlem. Foulkes noted that his Corps was “responsible for setting up civil administration in Western Holland and for feeding the population as early as possible after liberation”.

But on the same day on which General Foulkes issued these instructions a change occurred in Allied strategy. Field-Marshal Montgomery came to General Crerar’s headquarters at Grave and outlined his plans for the advance to the Elbe and operations against Bremen and Hamburg. High Allied authorities, considering the situation in the western Netherlands, had, we shall see, decided against an immediate operation to liberate the area. Although its people were in desperate straits for food, there was hope of relieving them without exposing them to the dangers of battle (below, pages 584-5). Montgomery’s policy with respect to the region was thus defined:39

Present operations in the Arnhem area will be designed with the object of securing and opening the Arnhem route to the North. Only two divisions are allocated for securing the flank South of the Zuider Zee [Ijsselmeer]. If they can advance Westwards on, their own resources they will do so, but no additional engineer units or transport are available until a later stage, and their advance must therefore stop when the limit of their own resources has been reached. After Canadian Army has completed its higher priority roles [clearing the north-eastern Netherlands and the Emden-Wilhelmshaven peninsula, and dominating the Weser below Bremen and the Elbe Estuary below Hamburg]... resources will be switched to Western Holland for the completion of the liberation of Holland.

General Crerar passed these instructions to his Corps Commanders verbally on the afternoon of the 12th, issuing a written confirmatory directive on the following day.40

On 14 April, accordingly, General Foulkes in his turn issued new verbal orders to his divisional commanders, confirming them in writing on the 15th.41 The letter stated the Corps’ new task briefly and baldly. For the “1 Cdn Corps will clear the Germans out of Western Holland” of three days earlier it substituted:

1 Cdn Corps will clear enemy from Western Holland between the Ijssel and the Grebbe Line.

The Grebbe Line was a system of field fortifications between the Ijsselmeer and the Neder Rijn, based on the Eem and Grebbe rivers, and pivoting on the Neder Rijn at the extremity of a ridge called the Grebbeberg, just east of Rhenen. It had been the scene of fighting in May 1940, when the Dutch Army sought to hold this line against the advancing Germans. The Germans, in preparing to defend the

Page 573

Netherlands, had somewhat developed this line, but their defences mainly pointed west, towards the sea.42

The tactical situation in the area was changing. On the 13th the 1st Canadian Division had reverted to Foulkes’ command from the 2nd Corps (above, page 552). This division was then encountering stiffened opposition east of Apeldoorn, whereas the 49th Division was making good progress in clearing Arnhem. In these circumstances Foulkes now ordered the 5th Division to pass through the 49th’s bridgehead and drive north to the Ijsselmeer, a distance of some 30 miles, capturing Otterloo, Barneveld, Voorthuizen and Putten. At the conclusion of this operation (to be known as CLEANSER) the 5th Division would pass under the 2nd Corps for employment in the north-eastern Netherlands, leaving the 1st Corps only the 1st Canadian and 49th Divisions. Meanwhile, the 49th Division was to open up the road leading from Arnhem to Zutphen, thereafter turning westward to take Wageningen and Ede and clear the right bank of the Neder Rijn up to the Grebbe. The 1st Division would capture Apeldoorn and advance along a parallel axis towards Voorthuizen, relieving the 5th Division between that place and Barneveld. It will be seen that the effect of these instructions was to project the 5th Division at right angles to the other divisions’ main lines of advance and in rear of the German defences based on Apeldoorn. Throughout these operations the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade with the Belgians under command would continue to hold the line of the Neder Rijn and the “western approaches”.* This directive set the pattern for the 1st Corps’ final operations in North-West Europe.

The Capture of Apeldoorn

We may now turn back to consider the course of operations on General Foulkes’ north-eastern flank, where the 1st Canadian Division was steadily expanding its bridgehead over the Ijssel towards Apeldoorn. Initial resistance to CANNONSHOT had come from the 162nd Naval Infantry Regiment, an improvised formation which was easily swept aside. However, General Foster’s veterans then encountered tougher opposition from the 361st Volksgrenadier Division—in particular from its 953rd Grenadier Regiment. Thus on 13 April the Canadians were still fighting east of Apeldoorn. On that date the 3rd Infantry Brigade, under Brigadier J. P. E. Bernatchez, joined the remainder of the division west of the Ijssel. While the 2nd Brigade continued clearing the general area of its original bridgehead, the 1st and 3rd advanced west towards Apeldoorn in the angle formed by the railways connecting that town with Zutphen and Deventer.43

On the right (northern) flank Brigadier J. D. B. Smith’s 1st Brigade, supported by tanks of the 6th Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars), which had come under the 1st Division on 6 April, moved steadily forward against moderate resistance, including artillery and mortar fire. At noon on 13 April The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was approaching the village of Teuge, only three miles east of Apeldoorn, while The Royal Canadian Regiment kept pace on its left. By midnight

* Much of the brigade’s tank strength was in fact employed in the more active operations north of the Neder Rijn.

Page 574

the brigade was closing up to the Apeldoorn Canal, which runs north and south through the eastern part of the town, and the RCR had patrols in the suburbs.44

During the night of 13-14 April a squadron of the 1st Hussars and a company of the RCR attempted to secure a crossing over the canal. But the two tanks leading the attack were knocked out and the plan had to be abandoned. Meanwhile, on the southern flank of the main divisional thrust, the 3rd Brigade made progress against light opposition, although some strongpoints offered brief stubborn resistance. The German withdrawal was covered by snipers and self-propelled guns. Late on the 13th the brigade held an area in the vicinity of Achterhoek, some four miles east of Apeldoorn. Its front line was then about two and a half miles east of the Apeldoorn Canal.45 On the morning of the 14th the boundary between the 1st and 49th Divisions ran west from the Ijssel, midway between Arnhem and Apeldoorn, and roughly parallel to the Neder Rijn. It seemed certain that the enemy intended to make a serious stand behind the canal, and the 1st Division’s General Staff diarist noted gloomily, “It’s the Lombardy Plains all over again.” The German resistance was presumably connected with a harsh order, issued over Himmler’s signature on the 12th, threatening battle commanders with death if they neglected to take adequate measures for the defence of towns and significant communication centers.46

General Foster’s original intention was to use the 1st and 3rd Brigades against Apeldoorn, holding the 2nd in reserve. But as a result of the quick success attending the 49th Division’s assault at Arnhem he was now ordered to link up with the 49th on the left and open the main road connecting Arnhem with Zutphen along the west bank of the Ijssel.47 Accordingly, at 6:25 p.m. on the 14th, Foster issued new orders to the 2nd Brigade, which had been clearing the Hoven bridgehead, opposite Zutphen. Brigadier M. P. Bogert was instructed to eliminate all enemy from the west bank of the Ijssel as far south as Dieren, where his brigade would establish contact with the 49th Division. The boundary between the two divisions in this area was now to be the Apeldoorn Canal. The remainder of the 1st Division would continue its operations against Apeldoorn.48

Leaving The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in the Hoven bridgehead area as a protective force, the 2nd Brigade began its task on the morning of the 15th. Progress was rapid, for not only were the 49th and 1st Canadian Divisions exerting strong pressure against the enemy’s ramshackle formations between Arnhem and Apeldoorn but, as we shall see, on this date the 5th Armoured Division began its drive for the Ijsselmeer, cutting directly behind the German forces facing Foster. The 2nd Brigade cleared the left bank of the Ijssel with The Loyal Edmonton Regiment and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on the eastern and western sides, respectively, of the railway joining Arnhem and Zutphen. During the afternoon of the 15th the Edmontons pushed south of the village of Brummen, “meeting only token resistance from small pockets of enemy”, while the PPCLI pressed forward through close country on the right flank.49 Many prisoners were taken, and as the 5th Division’s northern drive gathered momentum German opposition crumbled. On the morning of the 16th the Edmontons entered Dieren

Page 575

unopposed, while the PPCLI made contact with forward elements of the 49th Division near Eerbeek. A Squadron of the 12th Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers Regiment) supported the Canadian infantry during these operations.50

The rapid completion of the 2nd Brigade’s task had an important influence on Foster’s plan to capture Apeldoorn. He later explained,51

It had never been my intention to assault Apeldoorn frontally. It was a friendly city, filled with refugees, and I was not prepared to use artillery on it. The plot was to isolate the city, by having 1 Cdn Inf Bde face up to it and thus keep the enemy garrison there occupied, and by putting 3 Cdn Inf Bde across the canal south of Apeldoorn, thus coming in from the rear. This plan was modified because 2 Cdn Inf Bde’ had as usual, done a fine job in the south, and were able to get across the canal at Dieren. Thus it was not necessary for 3 Cdn Inf Bde to do an opposed crossing farther north.

The engineers built a bridge over the canal at Dieren and the Edmontons then turned north to cover the construction of a second near Veldhuizen, some five miles south of Apeldoorn. Here the remainder of the 2nd Brigade began crossing in the late afternoon of the 16th, preparatory to expanding the bridgehead as a base for the 3rd Brigade’s operation against Apeldoorn.52

Apeldoorn, with a population in 1939 of 72,600, is pleasantly situated in a fertile agricultural region at the foot of the ridge that runs north from Arnhem. Het Loo, the summer residence of the Dutch royal family, stands on the northern outskirts. Before the war the town was a prosperous manufacturing place. It is an important communication centre, connected by main roads and railways with Amersfoort, Arnhem, Zutphen and Deventer. On the evening of 16 April the 1st Division was ready for the decisive stroke against the town. By this time the 5th Division had cut the enemy’s principal escape route from Apeldoorn to Amersfoort and the garrison’s position was untenable. There was now a new urgency in the 1st Division’s operations. Late on the 16th the Chief of Staff of the 1st Corps (Brigadier George Kitching) informed divisional commanders that the 5th Division would be required to concentrate about noon on the 18th in preparation for its new commitment in the north-eastern Netherlands. Consequently, it was imperative for the 1st and 49th Divisions to secure their objectives between the Neder Rijn and the Ijsselmeer before last light on the 17th.53

German resistance in Apeldoorn disintegrated during the night of 16-17 April. On the 1st Brigade’s front there were exchanges of small arms fire across the canal until three o’clock in the morning, when quiet suddenly descended on the German side. Members of the Dutch Resistance then advised the RCR that the enemy had evacuated the town. Moving quickly, the battalion captured two German soldiers before they could demolish lock gates on the canal and, with this crossing in their hands, the RCR had a firm hold on the eastern edge of the town by 4:30 a.m. The brigade commander at once ordered The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment and the 48th Highlanders of Canada to follow the RCR at dawn. By mid-morning the Highlanders had secured the north-western section of Apeldoorn, the Hastings were in the palace grounds at Het Loo and the RCR were established in the town square. At noon Brigadier Smith opened his headquarters in the building recently vacated by the German commander. Meanwhile, The West Nova Scotia Regiment of the 3rd Brigade moved against Apeldoorn

Page 576

from the south and, before noon, occupied the south-western perimeter.54 Wild rejoicing greeted our troops. “National colours of the Netherlands were flying in the brilliant sunlight from almost every house and shop.” Mixed with the enthusiasm of the people who thronged the streets was profound relief that the operations had caused so little damage to the town.55 Such scenes were repeated many times in these last days of the campaign.

The operations of the seven days 11-17 April cost the 1st Division’s infantry battalions 506 casualties: units of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigades had 184, 183 and 125 respectively, while The Saskatoon Light Infantry (MG), which had effectively supported all the brigades, lost 14 men. During the same period 40 German officers and 2515 other ranks passed through the 1st Division’s prisoner of war cages.56

There was no pause at Apeldoorn. On the morning of the 17th General Foster ordered his brigades to drive west as quickly as possible to relieve the 5th Division at Barneveld and Voorthuizen.57

Operation CLEANSER: The Drive to the Ijsselmeer

While the 1st Division was pressing towards Apeldoorn, the 5th Armoured Division was preparing the quick thrust north to the Ijsselmeer, for which General Foulkes gave instructions to General Hoffmeister on the afternoon of 14 April.

By this date our Intelligence had a clear appreciation of the enemy’s strength and dispositions in the area between Arnhem and the Ijsselmeer. The 346th Division was being gradually expelled from the vicinity of Arnhem, though its flanks were still anchored to the Ijssel in the east and the Neder Rijn in the west. The Germans were being forced to use gunners as infantry on the neighbouring front of the 361st Volksgrenadier Division opposing the 1st Division. The right (western) flank of the 346th Division was protected by the 34th SS Division (Nederland) which, however, held a long front. As General Hoffmeister looked north-west from his temporary headquarters at Didam, the only German troops capable of barring his way were a unit of the 858th Grenadier Regiment, a battalion of engineers (both were then holding the left flank of the 346th Division) and a construction battalion. Nor was there any effective armoured support for these; no tank formations or units were “known to exist in the country”. But we might expect to encounter self-propelled guns, mines of all types and “delaying strongpoints” as the enemy withdrew to the shelter of the Grebbe Line.58

At noon on the 14th Hoffmeister issued his orders. The most direct route followed the road from Arnhem through Otterloo and Barneveld to Nijkerk. The divisional commander planned to advance on this axis, seizing the high ground north of Arnhem, crossing the main road from Apeldoorn to Amersfoort (thereby cutting the Apeldoorn garrison’s escape route) and exploiting north-westerly to the coast. The leading role fell to the 5th Armoured Brigade Group, under Brigadier I. H. Cumberland, who was given for CLEANSER the 8th Field Regiment RCA (with one battery of the 3rd Medium Regiment RA) and special units from the 79th Armoured Division. The brigade group would be supported by the remainder

Page 577

of the divisional artillery and the 3rd Medium Regiment RA, and the divisional engineers. Although this was primarily an armoured thrust, the 11th Infantry Brigade was held in readiness to take over, if needed, at any stage. The move was to begin at first light on 15 April.59 The armour commenced crossing the Ijssel on the afternoon of the 14th, completing its move into an assembly area on the northern outskirts of Arnhem in the early hours of the 15th. Convoys were compelled to travel slowly over constricted routes; indeed, the movement was only accomplished by giving the Canadians running rights over the bridges at Arnhem at the expense of the West Riding Division.60

Operation CLEANSER began about 6:30 a.m. when the 5th Armoured Brigade Group lunged forward to take the high ground north of Arnhem. On the right, the 9th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Dragoons) advanced against the village of Terlet. “The route passed through densely wooded sandhills, making observation and mutual support extremely difficult and often impossible. Movement off roads around road-blocks was accomplished only by the sheer weight of the tanks forcing their way through the trees.”61 On the left the 5th Armoured Regiment (8th Princess Louise’s (New Brunswick) Hussars) was directed on Deelen. Anti-tank fire cost the Hussars two tanks and the Dragoons one; but the speed of the advance caught the enemy off balance and both objectives were rapidly taken. At Deelen the headquarters staff of the 858th Grenadier Regiment was overrun, the commander conceding that he had been “taken completely by surprise when attacked by tanks and found his dispositions all wrong”. Hoffmeister ordered the 11th Infantry Brigade to clear remnants of opposition from woods by-passed by the tanks; it completed this task during the evening.62

The second phase of CLEANSER, the capture of Otterloo and the high ground to the west, began immediately. At noon on the 15th the 2nd Armoured Regiment (Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians)) passed through the 8th Hussars, headed for Otterloo. Hampered by close country, but meeting only light opposition, the Strathconas reached a point 1500 yards east of the place by last light. During the night the supporting artillery brought harassing fire down on Otterloo. Meanwhile, on the left of the divisional front, the Hussars occupied high ground south-west of the village.63

On the following morning Strathcona’s pushed through Otterloo. The next objective was Barneveld, some nine miles to the north-west. The Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. J. M. McAvity, ordered his leading squadron to “motor up the road at good speed”. The first opposition was at a road junction less than a mile east of Barneveld. There two Shermans were lost before Strathcona’s and a company of The Westminster Regiment (Motor) bypassed the town, reaching the road to Voorthuizen. Probing north on this road, the tanks met heavier resistance from an enemy evidently alarmed for the safety of his escape route, the highway from Apeldoorn to Amersfoort. At the end of the day Strathcona’s were still about a mile short of Voorthuizen. On the 5th Division’s left flank, the Princess Louise’s and the 11th Infantry Brigade, assisted by a squadron of the 3rd Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The Governor General’s Horse Guards), were now north-east of Lunteren.64

Page 578

Meanwhile on the right flank the British Columbia Dragoons, who had helped to clear Otterloo, drove directly for Voorthuizen. Everyone realized that speed was essential to cut off the retreat of the garrison opposing the 1st Division in Apeldoorn. The Dragoons made steady progress north-east of Barneveld, meeting little active opposition from the enemy, but impeded by swampy ground. Like Strathcona’s, they encountered a harder crust of resistance as they approached the Apeldoorn-Amersfoort highway. On the evening of the 16th, they attacked Voorthuizen. Darkness and “deep water-filled ditches and low marshy ground” hampered clearing operations; but the Dragoons were able to cut the vital road, thus completing the third phase of Operation CLEANSER. During the early hours of the 17th elements of the 6th Parachute Division, from the German northern flank, tried to escape westward through Voorthuizen. They were beaten back with heavy casualties, our tanks being ably assisted by a “Badger”* flame-thrower of the headquarters squadron of the 5th Armoured Brigade.65

By the night of 16-17 April time had assumed even greater importance in the minds of both Canadian and German commanders in the western Netherlands. As we have seen, General Foulkes had to give up the 5th Division on the 18th. It was therefore vital to complete CLEANSER without delay. On the other hand, the Germans were impelled by the necessity of getting their forces from the Apeldoorn sector back to the temporary security of the Grebbe Line. This anxiety, together with our extended line of communication from Arnhem to Voorthuizel, produced early on the morning of the 17th the so-called “Battle of Otterloo”. The German withdrawal, left too late, degenerated into a disorganized retreat along three principal axes: west through Voorthuizen (the movement blocked by the British Columbia Dragoons), north-west towards Nijkerk, Putten and Harderwijk (whence some sailed across the Ijsselmeer to Amsterdam), and south-west towards Otterloo. This last group, estimated to be between 600 and 900 strong, was composed of remnants of a great variety of units, all under the commander of the 952nd Volksgrenadier Regiment.66 Hoping to escape through Otterloo, it was quite unaware that Headquarters 5th Armoured Division was then in the village.

An intercepted wireless message had warned General Hoffmeister of the possibility of attack and he therefore retained The Irish Regiment of Canada to cover the road from Hoenderlo.67 Also in the area, and participating in the subsequent melee, were the tanks of divisional headquarters,† the 17th Field Regiment RCA and the 2nd/11th Battery of the 3rd Medium Regiment RA Shortly after midnight a German patrol “suddenly came racing into Otterloo, yelling like a gang of fanatics and firing their automatic weapons madly”.68 This incursion quickly developed into an assault supported by artillery and mortars. Although the Irish

* The “Badger” consisted of a “Wasp” flame-thrower, Mark II, fitted to a “Ram” personnel carrier. This was a Canadian development, intended to provide better cross-country performance and manoeuvrability with more protection than the carrier-mounted “Wasp” possessed. “Badgers” used by the 5th Armoured Brigade were equipped with turrets and tops.

† Until early in 1943 Canadian armoured divisions had each possessed a “headquarters squadron”. At that time the squadrons lost their independent existence and were merged into divisional headquarters. The term “headquarters squadron” was still used in the war establishment to denote all personnel of the headquarters except the staff and service officers; and the headquarters still possessed one troop of tanks (in addition to command tanks).

Page 579

and the gunners of the 17th bore the main brunt, all headquarters personnel were soon involved. The guns fired over open sights (the mediums demolishing a nearby church-tower in their efforts to shorten the range) as the enemy infiltrated into our positions. However, at daybreak the headquarters tanks and the Irish counter-attacked, driving the invaders back, and “Wasps” completed the enemy’s demoralization. By mid-morning the situation was under control. The Germans had suffered possibly 300 casualties, with between 75 and 100 killed. Our own losses were much lower. The Irish and the 17th Field Regiment had 22 and 25 casualties respectively; in addition, the artillery had three guns knocked out and several vehicles destroyed.69

While this fierce little skirmish was taking place at Otterloo The Cape Breton Highlanders occupied Barneveld unopposed. Thus by the morning of the 17th the 5th Division was ready for the final phase of CLEANSER—a two-pronged drive to the Ijsselmeer through Nijkerk and Putten. Again the armour led the way. The Strathconas, supported by C Company of the Westminsters, advanced along the road leading northwest from Barneveld to Nijkerk. Near its intersection with the Apeldoorn-Amersfoort highway they ran into opposition. German infantry with anti-tank weapons knocked out three tanks before being driven back. North of the intersection Strathcona’s met more difficulty-dug-in infantry covering roadblocks. While trying to find a way round they were ordered to disengage and support the second armoured thrust, which appeared to be making better progress towards Putten.70 The 8th Hussars, however, had had a hard battle for the approaches to this place. By-passing Voorthuizen, then being cleared by the British Columbia Dragoons and a Westminster company, they drove north on the afternoon of the 17th. They, too, soon found themselves on difficult terrain under sustained German fire. Anti-tank guns, self-propelled guns and the Panzerfaust took toll during the day and the evening. The Hussars laagered for the night less than a mile south of Putten. The day’s operations had cost the regiment 14 tanks (of which two were recovered); personnel casualties amounted to one man killed and 17 wounded.71

This phase of operations was now almost over. While Hoffmeister’s armour fought towards the Ijsselmeer, Foster’s infantry moved steadily westward from Apeldoorn. German and Dutch SS rearguards delayed their advance along the main road to Amersfoort; but the 3rd Brigade made contact with the 5th Division at Barneveld on the 17th. Fighting hard on the approaches to Nijkerk and Putten, the Germans had succeeded for a time in holding open a corridor along the Ijsselmeer’s southern shore, enabling much of the 6th Parachute Division to escape westward.72 On the morning of the 18th this opposition ended. The 8th Hussars, assisted by the Westminsters and the Dutch Resistance, quickly penetrated to the centre of Putten, while their reconnaissance troop reached the Ijsselmeer at 10:35 a.m. Meanwhile, Strathcona’s struck out for the port of Harderwijk, which they occupied with the help of the British Columbia Dragoons, The Perth Regiment and the Dutch Resistance during the afternoon. The Dragoons recorded, “some range practice was carried out against small boats carrying enemy out to sea”. In four days of very active operations Brigadier Cumberland’s three armoured regiments

Page 580

had performed their task with only 76 casualties; of these 40 fell upon Strathcona’s.73

During CLEANSER the 5th Armoured Division captured 34 German officers and 1755 other ranks. The division was glad to acknowledge the valuable cooperation of the Dutch Resistance, whose members “on more than one occasion, risked their lives by going into enemy-occupied territory with our patrols”.74 Its task in the western Netherlands finished, the 5th Division handed its sector over to the 1st Division on 19 April and prepared to assume new responsibilities in the north-east.75

Operations on the Left Flank, 15–19 April

We may now glance briefly at developments on the 1st Corps’ left flank during the period of the 1st and 5th Divisions’ operations north of Arnhem. On 14 April, as already mentioned, the Corps Commander ordered the 49th (West Riding) Division to open the main route from Arnhem to Zutphen, after which the division was to advance westward through Wageningen and Ede and clear the north bank of the Neder Rijn. Meanwhile, the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade continued to hold the whole of the now enlarged “island” from the junction of the Ijssel and the Neder Rijn to the vicinity of Tiel. Thence westward the Netherlands District (below, page 585) held the line.

After a pause in Arnhem for reorganization, which permitted the 5th Division to pass through on its northern drive, the West Riding Division set about its next task on the 16th. The 56th Infantry Brigade cleared Velp and a cement factory on the eastern outskirts of Arnhem, and the 146th Brigade, assisted by the Ontario Regiment, advanced towards Dieren and a junction with the 1st Division. General Rawlins could now direct the 56th and 147th Brigades westward towards Wageningen and Ede respectively.76 The movement began at 6:00 p.m. on the 16th, the 147th Brigade reaching a point midway between Arnhem and the Ede the same evening. The 14th Armoured Regiment (The Calgary Regiment) supported the brigade, losing one tank to the German rearguard. In general, however, the enemy could organize only “isolated strongpoints of resistance”. At dawn on the 17th the advance continued. As it approached Ede it encountered a more tenacious defence from German snipers; but after a sharp artillery bombardment the Calgaries’ tanks punched holes in the brick buildings and Wasps followed to sweep the interiors with flame. Shortly after noon Ede was in our hands.77

The 56th Brigade moved westward on two axes, against Wageningen and nearby Bennekom, early on the 17th. Rapid progress was made along the right bank of the Neder Rijn against light opposition. In some places the advance was hindered by mines and other obstacles; but the British troops frequently found diversions which the enemy had not had time to mine or block. By the end of the day the brigade had captured both Wageningen and Bennekom.78

At this point, with the 49th Division on the approaches to the Grebbe Line, the new strategy curtailed operations in this sector. On the evening of the 17th General Rawlins learned that, for the time being, the 1st Corps would advance

Page 581

no farther “owing to political reasons-it was hoped to prevent the enemy from flooding the whole countryside West of Utrecht which had taken over 300 years to reclaim”.79 Civilian reports indicated that the Germans had in fact made an initial effort to flood the country by destroying sluices near Wijk-bij-Duurstede on the Neder Rijn and had failed. Headquarters 1st Corps ordered the West Riding Division to consolidate its existing positions and reorganize its front on a line through Lunteren, Ede, Bennekom and Wageningen.80

During the next two days (18–19 April) the 49th Division settled down to active patrolling, with battle-groups disposing of mobile pockets of enemy. Its units probed westward towards Veenendaal with the object of completely dominating the area east of the Grebbe Line.81 The southern portion of this line was defended by the 34th SS Division (Nederland). This was a low-category formation recruited from Dutch collaborationists and brought partially up to strength by enrolling men anxious to avoid starvation or deportation to Germany.82 Meanwhile, on the “island”, Brigadier Murphy’s front conformed to the British advance; Belgian infantry, supported by B Squadron of The Calgary Regiment, seized Opheusden on the 18th. The enemy then retired behind a canal linking the Neder Rijn with the Waal at Ochten; and efforts to improve our position further soon showed that “no mere infiltration would cause his next line to crumble”. Here aggressive action was suspended on the 19th, as it had already been elsewhere on the 1st Corps’ left flank, and the troops marked time, pending decisions by higher powers on the future of operations in the western Netherlands.83

The Problem of Dutch Relief

The situation in the western Netherlands in April 1945, as we have already noted, presented a difficult problem in the reconciliation of military and political objects. Viewed in terms of the campaign as a whole, the German forces cut off in this area were not particularly important. What mattered most was to destroy the main German armies and end the war. All lands held by Hitler’s forces, including “Fortress Holland”, would thereby be liberated at once. But the fact that the Dutch people inside the fortress were in actual danger of starvation put a different face on the matter. It was vital to relieve them at the earliest practicable moment, and their government in London lost no opportunity of keeping this fact before its allies. And yet the problem was not merely a question of whether military resources could be spared from the main campaign for the liberation of the area between Den Helder and Schouwen. Liberation by force would involve fierce fighting, and this in turn would bring ruin to many Dutch towns and cities, and, as we have seen, might result in the Germans opening the dykes and ruining the low-lying countryside between Utrecht and the sea.

The background to this dilemma is a long and melancholy story. When the Germans first occupied the Netherlands they made some conciliatory gestures to the population; but these soon gave way to repressive measures as they failed to obtain the whole-hearted cooperation of the people. Early in 1941 the Reichskommissar, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, already knew that he could not count on a

Page 582

submissive Dutch attitude. In London the Dutch Government, inspired by Queen Wilhelmina, fanned the spirit of revolt. As D Day approached, German fears of Allied landings led to a further hardening of policy which, however, completely failed to break the people’s spirit. In September 1944, in conjunction with the Allied airborne operation directed upon Arnhem, the Dutch Resistance successfully called a general railway strike throughout the country.84

The problems of possible food shortage and disease in the Netherlands had not been overlooked by Allied planners. They were considered in connection with Civil Affairs questions generally, and in May 1944 the Combined Chiefs of Staff laid down broad policies covering distribution of relief supplies in liberated countries. In August Headquarters 21st Army Group took over the task of planning to relieve distress in all sections of Holland coming under Field-Marshal Montgomery’s control. It was recognized that the main problem would exist in the western Netherlands, where nearly 40 per cent of the Dutch population was concentrated in large cities, notably Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.85 The situation began to become serious in the autumn of 1944. In retaliation for the railway strike, Seyss-Inquart imposed an embargo on food supplies for urban areas from eastern agricultural districts. Food stocks in the densely populated areas of the western Netherlands had already been reduced, by German order, and there were insufficient reserves to carry the country through the winter. The railway strike also contributed to a shortage of coal.86 These developments occurred at a time when the Allies were making a supreme effort to reach and cross the Rhine, and win the war before the end of the year. There was hope therefore that German resistance would soon cease and the relief of Dutch distress would’ be a relatively simple problem thereafter. These hopes were disappointed.

The Dutch authorities in London observed with growing concern the worsening conditions in their country. On 8 October the Queen of the Netherlands appealed to President Roosevelt for assistance. On 26 October he replied that the US and British military authorities had made provision for the introduction of food and medical supplies into Holland “after liberation”. These would be provided to the fullest extent which the military and logistical situations would allow.87 As the weeks passed Dutch pressure for a political solution to the growing crisis increased.

SHAEF had in fact prepared a relief plan in mid-October. This divided the Netherlands into three main areas: A, the portion south of the Waal; B, the area west of the Ijssel, and C, the remainder, east of the Ijssel. Area B was subdivided into “B-1” and “B-2”, east and west, respectively, of a line running from Hilversum through Utrecht to Tiel. As we have already seen, the “B-2” area constituted the chief problem. It was calculated that imports of over 2000 tons of food would be required daily to feed the 3,600,000 people in this area. To meet the expected emergency, SHAEF planned the creation of a large stockpile of food in a forward area, accumulation of a week’s supply of coal at Antwerp, provision of vehicles from the United Kingdom and other measures. Headquarters 21st Army Group was instructed to establish a special staff to make detailed plans. The Army Group suggested that planning could best be done in London, and at General Eisenhower’s request the War Office set up a committee accordingly. At

Page 583

this time the assumption was that liberation would have to precede any active relief measures.88

By late autumn the possibility of transporting emergency supplies to the Netherlands by air as well as by sea was being studied. Of the many difficulties surrounding the whole question, the chief was uncertainty regarding German intentions; the enemy might continue to defend the western Netherlands, might carry out a complete evacuation or might leave static garrisons at certain points.89 In mid-December it was considered that at least three or four weeks would be required to sweep mines out of channels along the Dutch coast; until this was done supplies could not be shipped directly from the United Kingdom to the Netherlands. However, in the interval, relief supplies could be brought forward by road or barge, and the 21st Army Group was establishing a stockpile of 30,000 tons at Oss. The Army Group now assumed responsibility for the planning and execution of relief.90

By 15 January 1945 the mounting crisis was such that Queen Wilhelmina, on the advice of her Ministers, addressed identical notes to King George VI, President Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill. The Queen declared, “Conditions... have at present become so desperate, that it is abundantly clear that, if a major catastrophe, the like of which has not been seen in Western Europe since the Middle Ages, is to be avoided in Holland, something drastic has to be done now, that is to say before and not after the liberation of the rest of the country.”91

For months, efforts had been in progress to bring relief to occupied Holland through the Swedish and the International Red Cross. Although neither the Allies nor the Germans made any serious objection, much time elapsed before the plan produced actual results. At the end of January two small Swedish ships landed 3200 tons of supplies at Delfzijl; but it took nearly a fortnight for these shipments to reach Amsterdam. Another vessel, operated by the International Red Cross, eventually delivered additional supplies early in March. The Germans brought in 2600 tons of rye from Oldenburg province.92 But these measures fell far short of requirements. At the end of March a Red Cross delegate, who had supervised the distribution of these supplies, reported:93

The physical situation of the western provinces having reduced the inhabitants almost to a primitive state, they are obliged, in the struggle for existence, to engage in the black market, in usury and even in theft; men even eat flower bulbs. The bombed houses are pillaged and looted of all combustible material. The trees in the gardens are cut and carried away by night. Horses killed in bombardments are immediately cut up by passers-by. The bread wagons in the cities can only circulate at 4:00 o’clock in the morning because if they go about in broad daylight crowds threaten to attack and plunder them.

Through the previous three months the daily caloric content of a Dutch workingman’s rations had scarcely exceeded 500. In the larger cities the death-rate was nearly double that for equivalent periods in 1944.94

Nevertheless, from the strictly operational point of view, there were strong arguments against immediate Allied military intervention to succour the stricken population. At the end of February the Germans began to undermine the dyke of the Wieringermeer, one of the newest polders reclaimed from the Ijsselmeer;95 there seemed good reason to believe that they would ruthlessly flood large sections

Page 584

of the Netherlands if it suited their policy. The field commanders were painfully aware of this. On 14 March the Combined Chiefs of Staff, conscious of the desperate situation in Western Holland, instructed General Eisenhower to prepare an appreciation and plan for an operation “to liberate Holland as soon as practicable after your Rhine crossing has been secured”, introducing food supplies “simultaneously with the arrival of the liberation forces”.96 Eisenhower and his advisers evidently did not greatly like this scheme. On 27 March the Supreme Commander, having consulted the 21st Army Group, informed the Combined Chiefs of Staff,

With the exception of the higher land East of Utrecht between the Rhine, the Ijssel and the Zuider Zee and excluding the sand dunes along the sea coast, the whole area is already flooded or liable to extensive flooding. Anticipate that the enemy will carry out demolitions and will breach dykes. This will call for a heavy engineer effort and will make it impossible for our Forces to deploy off the road. In addition, most large towns in Holland are prepared for all-round defence.

He emphasized that operations west of Utrecht “would inevitably involve very heavy casualties among Dutch civil population through bombing and shelling of towns and villages, as well as from starvation and flooding”, and concluded that the quickest means of liberating and restoring the western Netherlands “may well be the rapid completion of our main operations”. He considered it “militarily inadvisable to undertake operations west of Utrecht” as long as the Germans maintained cohesive resistance there, and added, “Suggest you should make quite clear to the Royal Netherlands Government the great cost of Dutch lives and property that any other course would necessitate.”97 This was also Montgomery’s view.98 The Combined Chiefs of Staff refrained from giving the Supreme Commander any directive in the matter,99 and as we have seen the decision made in the theatre, ‘which reached First Canadian Army through Montgomery on 12 April (above, page 572) was to stand fast before the Grebbe Line, a dozen miles east of Utrecht.

In the meantime the British Air Ministry, in consultation with SHAEF, prepared a plan to bring supplies into the Netherlands by air. It calculated that the Allied strategic bomber forces, assisted by No. 38 Group RAF, could without difficulty deliver 2200 tons daily. The plan was necessarily based on the assumption that no opposition would be encountered. By 15 April this plan was ready to go into operation at short notice.100

Two factors now operated to bring a solution to an intolerable situation: the Allied leaders’ realization that further delay would be disastrous and the willingness of German authority, in the obnoxious person of Seyss-Inquart, to negotiate. On 10 April Mr. Churchill wrote to Mr. Roosevelt on the subject of Dutch relief. “I fear”, he said, “we may soon be in the presence of a tragedy.” Churchill suggested proposing to the Germans, through the Swiss government, an arrangement whereby supplies from Sweden could be increased and further supplies, “by sea or direct from areas under military control of the Allies”, could be sent into the Netherlands.101 While this proposal was under discussion the reichskommissar revealed a disposition to discuss relief measures. There are different versions, not necessarily inconsistent, of how the contact was made. According to one, Dr. H. M. Hirschfeld, a senior Dutch civil servant at The Hague, discussed the matter with Seyss-Inquart; the latter confirmed this at his trial, giving the date as

Page 585

Map 13: The Western 
Netherlands, 1st Canadian Corps Operations, 2–25 April 1945

Map 13: The Western Netherlands, 1st Canadian Corps Operations, 2–25 April 1945

2 April.102 On the other hand, information reaching First Canadian Army at the time was to the effect that the contact was through a representative of the Dutch Forces of the Interior.103

It was reported to First Canadian Army that Seyss-Inquart had stated that “he had been ordered to hold out under all circumstances, and to carry out the necessary demolitions and inundations for that purpose”. However, he was prepared to facilitate the importation of Allied supplies of food and coal into the western Netherlands if his opponents would halt their forces east of the Grebbe Line. In effect a stalemate would descend on this front. The Germans would not surrender and would continue to occupy the provinces of North and South Holland and Utrecht, but fighting would end and the people of those provinces would be fed. According to the report, Seyss-Inquart said that he would surrender when resistance ceased in Germany.104 But in subsequent conferences with Allied officers he refused to discuss surrender at all.105

The suggestions from Seyss-Inquart were the subject of a communication from Mr. Churchill to Washington and were discussed at the meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco. The American Chiefs of Staff doubted that the Germans would carry out further retaliatory measures against the Dutch; moreover, with the difficult Russian ally in mind, they were reluctant to give any appearance of compromising the “unconditional surrender” formula by treating with Seyss-Inquart. On the other hand, General Eisenhower was now convinced that “for sheer humanitarian reasons something must be done at once”. The Seyss-Inquart formula offered the possibility of relieving the Dutch without interfering with operations. The Supreme Commander recommended on 23 April that, subject to Russian concurrence, direct negotiations be opened with the reichskommissar. He also requested “as free a hand as possible” because of the urgency of the problem.106 The Allied authorities approved his recommendation, and as we shall see in the next chapter the first meeting between Allied and German representatives took place on 28 April.

While these discussions were proceeding at higher levels, British and Canadian staffs were planning concrete steps to deal with the problem. Headquarters West Holland District had been established for this purpose to carry out the 21st Army Group’s responsibilities and in February, under the new designation of Headquarters Netherlands District,* this organization, commanded by Major-General A. Galloway, became responsible for bringing in and distributing relief supplies in the “B-2” area. Originally, Netherlands District depended upon First Canadian Army merely for administrative services north of the Maas; but on 13 April it came directly under General Crerar’s operational command, while retaining direct access to Montgomery’s staff on all matters pertaining to Dutch relief. It was responsible for defence of the islands at the mouth of the Scheldt, and had the 4th Commando Brigade and the 116th Royal Marine Infantry Brigade under

* Not to be confused with the Netherlands Military Administration (which administered liberated areas of the Netherlands under instructions from the Dutch Government in London), or the SHAEF Mission to the Netherlands (which was the channel of communication between the 21st Army Group and the Dutch Government).

Page 586

it for the purpose. Other troops, including the 33rd Armoured Brigade and Dutch and Belgian units, prolonged the line to the vicinity of Tiel. The District was under the 1st Canadian Corps from midnight 23-24 April.107

Awaiting the moment when action could begin, Headquarters Netherlands District made detailed plans for supplying essential relief to the “B-2” area. These covered four contingencies of supply: by river crossings from the south; by sea, through the ports of Scheveningen and Ijmuiden; by air; and by road from the east. They were identified, respectively, as “Plackets” A, B, C and D, and detailed arrangements were made for each contingency. “Placket D” was to be carried out by a task force moving into the “B-2” area immediately behind the liberating troops. Particular attention was devoted to the problems of organizing the movement and distribution of supplies, building up reserves and opening ports.108

The relationship of Headquarters Netherlands District to Headquarters First Canadian Army was carefully defined. Responsibility for civil relief in the “B-2” area was to rest initially with the Army, passing to the District as soon as maintenance installations could be conveniently transferred. General Crerar’s staff drew up an “order of battle” for “Placket D”, and his Chief Engineer coordinated all route development; but the details of Canadian responsibility naturally fell on the 1st Corps, which was primarily concerned. Thus, General Foulkes’ headquarters established a roadhead for the forward movement of relief stores and prepared to handle all initial problems of treating and evacuating sick and wounded.109 Although the Netherlands District was under First Canadian Army, the latter had no responsibility for Plackets A, B and C. On these projected operations the District was authorized to deal directly with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Detailed arrangements had been made for the free dropping of supplies from aircraft over the “B-2” area (“Placket C”). Under “Placket D” the Netherlands District was to make available to the Army all Civil Affairs resources, including “transport, supplies and attached relief teams and their equipment for specific use in B-2 area”. At General Crerar’s headquarters the Deputy Director of Military Government (Brigadier W. B. Wedd) was responsible for liaison with the Civil Affairs staff at Headquarters Netherlands District to facilitate the latter’s eventual assumption of responsibility for relief.110

While awaiting the opportunity to implement these plans, the Canadians came to grips with problems similar to those anticipated in the “B-2” area. At Ede our tank crews had seen civilian faces “stamped with the mark of malnutrition or downright starvation”.111 Elsewhere during the 1st Corps’ advance such conditions multiplied. Many a Canadian ration was shared with these unfortunate people, especially with the young and aged. Although Apeldoorn had suffered less hardship than the bigger centres in the western Netherlands, its population had been swollen by 65,000 refugees, and large numbers required assistance when the town was liberated on 17 April. The following day a special detachment moved in and began distributing 40 tons (80,000 rations) to the inhabitants. The population remained orderly, and effective control was exercised over refugees. Relief measures were, quickly and efficiently organized.112 Reporting on the week ending on the 21st, Brigadier Wedd noted, “the main problem in all centres has been that of

Page 587

re-establishing the water supply, and this in turn depends on electric power and subsequently coal, and is being tackled as quickly as possible”.113 This experience with the immediate problems of a distressed urban area would be useful in dealing with the greater crisis in the regions farther west.

The Halt in the Western Netherlands

As we have seen, offensive operations on the 1st Corps front had virtually ceased by 19 April. On General Foulkes’ northern flank the 1st Division had relieved the 5th Division and the latter began to move out of the Corps area on the 21st. On General Foster’s front operations continued momentarily, elements of the 3rd Brigade capturing Nijkerk and strong patrols reaching the Eem on the 20th. However, on the following day, the division recorded: “No change in the line of our forward troops and things are generally quiet.” The troops settled down to the business of clearing the area east of the Eem, reaching a point little more than a mile from Amersfoort.114

On the 1st Corps’ southern flank the 49th Division found time for reorganization, pending decisions on future operations. Since, however, the Germans had destroyed some villages where our patrols’ approach had caused “premature joys of liberation” the division was ordered on 21 April to advance somewhat closer to the Grebbe Line, conforming to the front of the 1st Division. Next day its headquarters commented on current operations: “The infantry each day carried out patrols, on foot, in jeeps and in carriers, and it was found that the enemy had a habit of changing his positions very frequently although his main strong-points remained static.”115 A similar situation existed in the 1st Armoured Brigade sector, where there were spasmodic exchanges of machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire.116 General Foulkes’ headquarters moved forward to Harskamp, two miles north of Otterloo, on 22 April.117

On that day Field-Marshal Montgomery issued his last formal directive of the campaign.118 The portion relating to the 1st Canadian Corps area ran:

15. In western Holland, the [Canadian] army will not for the present operate further westward than the general. line now held east of Amersfoort.

Further instructions will be issued if it should become necessary, later on, to attack the Germans in western Holland and to liberate that area.

As it turned out, the 1st Corps had completed its final offensive operation of the war. Not a particularly formidable task by the standards of the war in Italy from which the Corps had come, it had nevertheless not been simple. Since entering the new theatre the Corps had taken 8860 prisoners.119 It was now to sit out the final fortnight of the war in front of the Grebbe Line.