Visitors who make the journey to the Canadian military cemetery at Groesbeek in the Netherlands seldom go on to explore the battlefields of the Rhineland. But those who do are invariably struck by the neat farmhouses, rolling fields and magnificent state forests that mark this prosperous agricultural region of Germany.
Cleve, the town that was virtually destroyed by bombing on the eve of Operation Veritable, is a thriving modern city. Xanten, the last of the towns captured by the Canadians in March 1945, welcomes visitors to its Roman amphitheatre and archaeological sites. The war is a distant memory but in 2003 an exhibition of Canadian army photographs of the Xanten area during the war is on display thanks to the efforts of a young German historian, Ralph Trost.
Presenting the war to a new generation is always a sensitive matter. What should young German citizens or, for that matter, their Canadian counterparts learn about the events of March 1945? Photographs, personal accounts and statistics portray the horrors of war and remind us of why we work so hard to avoid conflicts. However, these are man-made events–not natural disasters–so we also need to explain why they occur.
The battle for Xanten was one small episode in a series of operations designed to bring the Allies to the banks of the Rhine River in preparation for the final assault on Hitler’s Reich. We now know that the final victory was weeks rather than months away but neither the soldiers nor their commanders could imagine that the enemy forces who were fighting with such intensity were on the verge of collapse. The reality is that throughout the first months of 1945 the Allies feared the war in Europe might last until the end of the year, and they had good reason to believe that.
The powerful enemy offensive in the Ardennes region of France and Belgium had taken everyone by surprise and while we know in retrospect that it had been decisively defeated by Dec. 30, 1944, this was far from evident to the men fighting in the bitter cold or to their leaders. On New Year’s Eve, Hitler’s second surprise offensive, Operation Nordwind, was launched at the southern flank of the Allied line. This attack was designed to recapture Strasbourg and parts of the French region of Alsace lost to the 6th United States Army Group but also to divert resources from General George S. Patton’s counterattack.
Ultra intelligence warned General Dwight D. Eisenhower of what was coming in time to allow the American and French divisions to dig in and prevent a repetition of the Ardennes, but Operation Nordwind seemed to prove the enemy still had the strength to seize the initiative.
On New Year’s Day, the Luftwaffe launched a series of major raids against ground targets, particularly airfields. Known as the “hangover raids” in reference to the celebrations of the previous night, more than 300 Allied aircraft were destroyed, most of them on the ground.
Much later it was learned that the German air force lost close to 200 planes and pilots, most of them shot down by their own anti-aircraft weapons. Flak batteries had not been informed of the action and assumed that low-flying aircraft could only be British or American. It was, therefore, German not Allied losses that jeopardized future operations, but in January who could know this was the last gasp of the Luftwaffe? Instead, Allied intelligence focused on the threat presented by the enemy’s development of jet fighters.
No one was more concerned about the direction of the war than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He had just returned from Greece–a country that was on the verge of civil war–and was determined to intervene and prevent a takeover by the communist resistence movement. However, he faced strong opposition from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and even protests from Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
Churchill was increasingly focusing on the state of postwar Europe and the future of the British Empire. In January he authorized the call-up of 250,000 men to add to the strength of the army. He urged Bomber Command and the 8th Air Force to plan a series of massive air raids on Berlin and other large cities in eastern Germany in the hope of breaking enemy morale and forcing an early surrender. The senior British and American air force officers agreed such raids should be carried out in addition to continuing attacks on oil and transportation targets. The cities of Chemnitz, Dresden and Leipzig were selected to share Berlin’s fate.
Churchill also intervened in the strategic direction of the land war, urging Stalin to launch a winter offensive on the eastern front as soon as possible. Stalin replied that his armies would attack by mid-January “regardless of weather conditions.” The first stage of that Soviet offensive began on Jan. 12.
This was the strategic background to the events in February and March 1945 and those who visit the Xanten exhibit should have the opportunity to understand why the last months of the war brought such devastation to Germany and heavy casualties to the Allied forces.
Accounts of the attack on Dresden usually condemn the bombing and the firestorm that devoured the city because the war was almost over. Yet the raid occurred on Feb. 13, on the eve of the struggle for Moyland Wood, four long weeks before the capture of Xanten and the withdrawal of the last German soldiers to the east bank of the Rhine.
The continued bombing of the Ruhr and Rhineland cities was yet another price the German people paid for Hitler’s decision to continue the struggle. Bombing and massive artillery barrages were a basic component of the Allied method of waging war. Shells and bombs were intended to save the lives of Allied soldiers and no responsible commander would hesitate if bombing might force a surrender or reduce enemy resilience.
The set-piece attack on Xanten, which began early on the morning of March 8, was the last phase of an operation sometimes designated Blockbuster 2. It commenced when the enemy withdrew to hastily constructed defensive positions known as the Wesel Pocket. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, hoping to trap the remaining elements of the 1st Parachute Army on the west bank, wanted the U.S. 9th Army to turn north along the Rhine and capture the Wesel bridges.
Montgomery made the decision because of “the hard and bitter fighting” in Germany’s Hochwald area and the enemy’s concentration of resources opposite the British and Canadians but he insisted new converging attacks from the north were also needed to support the American thrust.
For the Canadians this meant three separate assaults, one by each division. Third Division was ordered to clear the southern part of the state forest known as the Balberger Wald and then seize the town of Sonsbeck. They did so with their usual efficiency but at a cost of 279 additional casualties. Fourth Armoured Div. formed three battle groups to fight its way forward to Veen. The last five days of the Rhineland battle cost the division 443 casualties so the order to move into reserve issued on March 10 came none too soon. Blockbuster was 4th Division’s most costly battle of the war; by March 10 its combat elements had lost 60 per cent of its manpower.
Second Div. was still bogged down in the northern part of the Hochwald, suffering close to 100 casualties a day from artillery and mortar fire bursting in trees when Major-General Bruce Matthews was told that his division was to attack Xanten as soon as it cleared the forest. Matthews, who had a lot of experience behind him, knew there was little point in protesting the order. Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds softened the blow by placing a brigade of 43rd Wessex Div. under Matthews’ command. The British division had been part of 2nd Cdn. Corps throughout Operation Blockbuster but its role was limited to protecting the Rhine flank. Many Canadian soldiers believed that their division got more than its share of tough assignments and so the decision to commit a British brigade to the battle for Xanten was good news.
Matthews made sure there was sufficient artillery available and provided each brigade with armoured support plus two squadrons of Crocodile flame-throwing tanks. Smoke was used to mask the advance from enemy observers on the east bank of the Rhine and aircraft from 84 Group began attacking prearranged targets. First Cdn. Radar Battery moved its equipment into position to direct fire on enemy mortars.
All of this careful preparation was not enough to prevent the battle from deteriorating into a costly slugging match. The enemy, denied observation, saturated the approaches to Xanten with artillery fire. There was no shortage of shells for this desperate stand on German soil but the most serious obstacle confronting the British and Canadians was the continued willingness of the German generals to lead a pointless battle and the German soldiers to fight it.
The purpose of the defence of the Rhineland was to prevent the Allies from reaching the Ruhr, Germany’s primary industrial zone. The Rhine and its canals were crucial to the transport of Ruhr coal, steel and heavy weaponry. Protecting the water route made sense if the war was to continue but when the U.S. Army gained the Rhine on March 4 there was no longer any point to defending a bridgehead on the west bank. To make matters worse for the Germans, U.S. 1st Army reached the river three days later and seized an intact railway bridge at Remagen.
Despite this, General Alfred Schlemm’s orders were to hold the Wesel Pocket as long as possible and then destroy the remaining Rhine bridges in his sector. Special units were established to ensure that any dereliction of duty was punishable by death. Orders to fight to the end or face reprisals against their families had not prevented German soldiers from surrendering in other hopeless situations but the Wesel bridgehead was crawling with security troops and this may account for the determination of the defenders.
The plan called for 4th Bde. to attack through to the west side of the town while the 129th Bde. of the 43rd Wessex Div. advanced down the Marienbaum-Xanten road. The Essex Scottish and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, RHLI, closely supported by the Sherbrooke Fusiliers and troops of flame-throwing Crocodiles, crossed the start line at 7 a.m. on March 8. The engineers provided smoke to deny the enemy observed fire, but the Germans had so much artillery available that they simply blasted away at an increased rate. The Essex Scottish, with 129th Bde. on their left, got on well but the RHLI found that their companies were cut off by enemy troops who had infiltrated from the open flank. The RHLI, with 34 casualties, accounted for almost half the division’s toll at Xanten.
Brigadier F.N. Cabeldu committed his reserve battalion, the Royal Regiment, to assist the RHLI by pressing the attack into Xanten. Matthews ordered 5th Bde. forward to attack through the town to the high ground overlooking the body of water known as the Alter Rhein. Brig. W.J. Megill persuaded Matthews to give him the South Saskatchewan Regt. so that the brigade could have “troops tight against Xanten Forest”, thus protecting the flank.
The Régiment de Maisonneuve led off just before midnight. Carried forward in Kangaroos with Sherbrooke tanks and Flails in close support, the Maisonneuves were quickly on their objective. The Black Watch, on foot, passed through and were in control of Birten by 4 a.m. As daylight broke over the Rhine the shrinking Wesel Pocket still seemed to be strongly defended. Second Division’s intelligence officer recorded this picture of the battle during the night March 8-9:
“The enemy’s bridgehead on this side of the Rhine is steadily diminishing although no ground has been yielded willingly. Having moved their guns and heavy equipment across during the last few days, the enemy fights on stubbornly to hold the bridgehead as long as possible using infantry remnants and light weapons, and support by artillery from the East Bank. The railway bridge at Wesel is damaged but still capable of taking light single lane traffic; otherwise ferries are employed. The German reason for continued resistence is no longer logical since the need to cover the withdrawal of other troops has passed. Perhaps the stubborn resistence may be attributed to a desire to maintain prestige and to impose delay in order to prevent any further exploitation of our advance up the Rhine. However even the most desperate defence cannot postpone collapse for long, since the units in line are obviously inadequate to the task. It is estimated that the enemy has about 6,000 combat troops in the bridgehead….”
A report issued by the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force echoed the same position: “By a flat refusal to admit defeat and by concentrating what remains of his resources on one front or the other Hitler may be able to prolong the struggle, but he cannot overcome the irrefutable fact that each day Germany’s position deteriorates in relation to the power of the Allies….To add to the misery of the army (and the nation) the Allied air forces are crippling the ability of the Reich to move. Daily, evidence accumulates of the difficulties, almost unsurmountable, with which the enemy is faced in order to restore his vital communications. A great deal of hard fighting against an obstinate enemy still confronts us. Nevertheless, the enemy is most definitely showing signs of wear and tear which no patching can redress. Hitler and his gang are in a mess.”
By the night of March 9-10, 2nd Div. had taken more than 900 prisoners, including over 200 captured by the Maisonneuves. Lieutenant-Colonel J. Bibeau had learned from a prisoner that “some 300 enemy were forming up in nearby Birten Wood.” Megill ordered an immediate assault with Crocodiles and regimental Wasp flame-throwers accompanying the armour and infantry. The woods were quickly captured.
The last battles of the bridgehead were fought by 52nd Lowland Div. and a regiment of the U.S. 35th Div. The Germans completed their evacuation on the night of March 10-11 and blew the Wesel bridges as ordered. This minor triumph could not hide the fact that what had been saved in men and equipment was hardly enough to offer a serious defence of the river line. On March 11 Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who had so successfully slowed the Allied advance in Italy, was placed in command of all German forces in the west. The task he faced on the Rhine would be a far different proposition.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on May 1, 2003.