The 5th Canadian Armoured Division–Major-General Bert Hoffmeister’s Mighty Maroon Machine–began operations in the Netherlands on March 21, 1945 when the Westminster Regiment (Motor) took over a sector of the Nijmegen front from the 12th Manitoba Dragoons. Holland, with “electric light, running water and radios in the forward area,” was a new experience for the veterans of the Italian Campaign but cold rain and mud in a flat, flooded landscape was all too familiar to those who had wintered in the Valli di Commachio.
On March 31 the division took over the western part of the “island”, south of Arnhem, allowing 49th British Div. to concentrate for Operation Destroyer, the destruction of the last enemy pocket south of the river. The Ontario Regt., which began its war in Sicily supporting British troops, and the Royal Canadian Artillery’s new 1st Rocket Battery were attached to the Yorkshire division for the operation. Fifth Div. employed three tank-infantry battlegroups to clear its sector but met little opposition. The Perth Regt., which liberated Driel, the headquarters of the Polish Parachute Brigade during Operation Market Garden, reported enemy counterattacks but dealt with them without difficulty.
After that the stage was set for operations intended to liberate western Holland, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Operation Anger, involving 49th British and 5th Cdn. divisions was to begin once 1st Div. was safely across the Ijssel and on its way to Apeldoorn. Before Operation Anger began the decision to negotiate a truce with the enemy and allow relief supplies to reach the people of western Holland was made so once Arnhem was secure, 5th Div. started west towards the Grebbe line where military action was to cease.
Since its arrival in Holland, Hoffmeister’s 5th Armd. Div. had been offered little opportunity to use its armoured brigade group. The relatively easy conquest of Arnhem had, however, presented the corps commander with an irresistible opportunity to use the 5th Armd. Bde. to cut off the retreat of the Germans still fighting on the Apeldoorn canal line. The British Columbia Dragoons led the way through Arnhem with the 8th New Brunswick Hussars, the Westminster Regt. (Motor) and the Lord Strathcona’s Horse close behind. Enemy blocking positions were shot up or bypassed and Otterlo was reached by late afternoon.
Brigadier I.H. Cumberland, who led the 5th Armd. Bde., was not about to pause. The Strathconas were told to take Otterlo then push northwest to capture Barneveld. If Barneveld was defended they were to bypass it and strike north to cut the Apeldoorn-Amesfort road, the main east-west route of the retreating German forces. The other two armoured regiments were to conform to this thrust, the British Columbia Dragoons to the north and the 8th Hussars to the south. Otterlo was cleared readily enough, but beyond the town’s western limits were numerous pockets of infantry, some with Panzerfaust or bazooka men who had to be dealt with by Westminster motorized infantry.
The enemy held Barneveld in strength and the Strathconas lost three tanks on the edge of town. Bypassing was accomplished quickly, but 2,000 yards beyond the north edge of town a well-organized anti-tank gun position, guarded by machine-gun posts, barred the way. The decision was made to stop and organize a proper attack at first light on April 17.
The night of the 16-17 is remembered as the battle of Otterlo. The ferocious attack on the town, which included Hoffmeister’s advanced headquarters, was part of a determined attempt by elements of three German divisions to reach the “safety” of western Holland.
The 11th Infantry Bde. had spent two days following the rapidly moving armoured brigade and had seen little action so when the Irish Regt., the Governor General’s Horse Guards and elements of the divisional and corps artillery moved into Otterlo they knew they were well behind the leading troops. The Irish Regt. took up positions on the western perimeter of the village and the tanks of the GGHG found convenient harbours in various corners of the village. Suddenly Otterlo was transformed into a battlefield as hundreds of German soldiers loosely organized into battlegroups stormed through the village throwing grenades and firing at every shadow. One group bumped into the 17th Field Regt. RCA and got a warm reception from the enraged gunners. The regimental sergeant major shot two men with his Sten gun and after it jammed, he used his bare hands.
The officers of the Governor General’s Horse Guards were at an ‘O’ group in the church when the attack began and were forced to stay there until the fighting had died down. The regiment’s troop sergeants and other NCOs had no trouble organizing the defence of their positions or the mopping up that followed, leading some to question whether they needed officers at all. The next day the Grebbe line was reached and it looked as if 5th Div.’s war was over.
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had other ideas. He told Canadian General H.D.G. Crerar that he needed 2nd Cdn. Div. to help protect the left flank of the British corps preparing to attack Bremen. Second Div. was to move east as soon as Groningen was liberated and it was up to Crerar to find the resources to capture the fortified zone protecting the Ems River estuary and the ports of Delfzijl and Emden. The Canadian commanders must have been reminded of the situation in the fall of 1944 when Montgomery had pressed for immediate action in clearing the approaches to Antwerp, Belgium, while “borrowing” divisions to support his operations in the Arnhem salient.
Before examining the battles for Delfzijl and Emden we need to understand the broad strategic picture in mid-April 1945. The United States 9th Army reached the Elbe on April 11 and secured a bridgehead across the river the next day. General W.H. Simpson was confident his troops could reach Berlin quickly, it was just 70 miles away, but the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was adamant, no lives were to be lost in pursuit of an objective that would have to be handed over to the Soviets.
That night President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, plunging America and the West into heartfelt mourning. Newspapers and radio stations focused on stories about Roosevelt, his successor Harry Truman, the shocking evidence of Nazi death camps–especially Bergen-Belsen –and speculation about an immediate collapse of German resistance.
The war, it appeared, was all but over. On April 16 the Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force suspended the strategic air offensive and prepared to use their heavy bombers to bring relief supplies to Holland. In Berlin, Hitler, confined to his underground bunker, celebrated his last birthday on April 20 and two days later announced his determination to stay despite the advance of Soviet troops who had all but surrounded the city. Other Nazi leaders, including Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goring, attempted to arrange a separate surrender in the west while what was left of the German army held off the Russians but these approaches were flatly rejected.
In mid-April Eisenhower believed that two important military operations remained to be carried out. In the south, Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army must continue its advance to reach the Danube so that the Allies would have a postwar role in Austria. In the north, Eisenhower was anxious to see a rapid advance to the Baltic to prevent Soviet forces from entering Denmark. Ike offered to provide Montgomery with a force from his SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) reserve to carry out this task but Montgomery’s attention was focused elsewhere.
Montgomery, with full support of the British chiefs of staff, was determined to capture the German north seaports of Emden, Wilhelmshaven, Bremen and Hamburg. Denmark would have to wait. The background of this decision has never been fully explored but its consequences for 30th British Corps, assigned to assault Bremen, and 2nd Cdn. Corps, tasked with the capture of Emden, in the last days of the war were enormous. Operations against Bremen began on April 18 and the battle quickly turned into a bitter contest of wills. German resistance was skilful and resolute and casualties to both sides were heavy. Medium and heavy bombers reduced the city to rubble and for the final assault two heavy and four medium regiments supported the field artillery of four divisions. The city finally fell on April 25.
The battle of Bremen was well under way when Crerar handed over temporary command of 1st Cdn. Army to Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds. Crerar felt he was needed in London to deal with repatriation issues and since the only operations under way involved 2nd. Cdn. Corps, Simonds acted as both army and corps commander, meeting with his divisional commanders to allocate tasks. Major-General R.H. Keefler, now commanding 3rd Div., was told “to prepare for an infantry brigade assault across the River Leda” to capture Leer and then advance to Emden. Hoffmeister’s 5th Armd. Div. was to clear Delfzijl and the guns of the Ems fortress located in Holland.
Third Div., known since the Rhineland as the Water Rats, assumed that Buffaloes, tracked amphibious vehicles, would be available to make the river crossing. However, Simonds was told that the vehicles were needed at the Elbe. He was also informed that neither Bomber Command nor the medium bombers of Second Tactical Air Force were available. Simonds and his staff were upset at what they saw as the unco-operative attitude of Second Tactical Air Force which insisted that the flak defences of the fortress area and the islands in the mouth of the Ems estuary would exact too heavy a toll on the medium bombers.
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By the morning of April 24, 5th Cdn. Armd. Div. was in position north of Groningen and Brigadier Ian Johnston’s 11th Inf. Bde., the Perth Regt., the Cape Breton Highlanders and the Irish Regt. of Canada joined by the Westminster Regt. (Motor) began to probe the German defences of Delfzijl. Across the German border, Brigadier John Rockingham’s 9th Highland Bde. prepared for the assault crossing of the Ems estuary: “Rocky”, who always led from the front, conducted a personal reconnaissance of the German defences. Air photos showed numerous slit trenches along the dikes and having to hit the ground because of small arms fire convinced him the positions were manned. Without the familiar Buffaloes which could handle mud, climb the river bank and bring the infantry ashore, the attack would have to be at high tide when the storm boats could beach at the base of the dikes.
Rockingham was given enough boats to lift six companies of about 80 men each. He decided on a complex plan that involved simultaneous attacks on Leer from three directions. The North Novas sent one company directly into the town to create a bridgehead. The Highland Light Inf., with three companies, entered the river well away from the city and under cover of smoke landed in a lightly defended sector east of the built-up area. The Stormont Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders crossed to the west, establishing a bridgehead for the tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers.
Success depended on tactical surprise and the neutralization of the enemy during the assault phase. Typhoons, field and medium artillery and a pepper pot (concentrated fire) orchestrated by the divisional machine-gun and mortar regiment, the Camerons of Ottawa, kept enemy heads down and both the North Novas and HLI were on top of the enemy while they were still under cover. The Glens were confronted with strong enemy positions that wrecked havoc during the build-up, sinking three boats for the loss of 15 men.
With three battalions advancing into Leer, Rockingham was more concerned with confusion and losses from friendly fire than the enemy who quickly surrendered as soon as their own lives were in danger. As darkness fell he ordered a halt to operations turning over the battle for Leer to 7th Bde. which used the darkness to get its battalions into position for a carefully controlled attack at first light. Only the Reginas encountered organized resistance and when this was overcome around noon on April 30 Leer was clear of the enemy. Emden was 30 miles away across flat polder country and any movement brought down shell fire from the coastal guns on both sides of the estuary. At 9:30 p.m. 7th Bde. started north using Wasp flamethrowers to supplement their personal weapons. Movement was slow and when dawn broke everything stopped. Any daylight advance would bring unacceptable casualties.
On the Delfzijl front Hoffmeister and his infantry brigade commander Johnston decided to squeeze the perimeter from two directions. The Perths and Cape Breton Highlanders from the west and the Irish Regt from the east. The Westminster Regt. (Motor) was dismounted and ordered to take the Termuten battery directly across from Emden. Initially the armoured regiments were used as supporting artillery but 11th Bde. was so thin on the ground that both the British Columbia Dragoons and the New Brunswick Hussars were required to supply troops to fight as foot soldiers. There are no reports of armoured corps personnel subsequently volunteering to transfer to the infantry.
Johnston was trying to compress a 25,000-yard perimeter “in flat country with little cover and a complicated system of ditches and canals that made cross-country movement impossible.” His solution was to advance only at night in carefully controlled bounds. The companies were to be dug-in and under cover at first light. The town of Delfzijl fell on the night of May 1 and the next day the last battery position west of the estuary surrendered. This was welcome news to 3rd Div.’s 8th Bde. which had taken over the advance to Emden. On May 4 as Brig. J.A. Roberts was negotiating the surrender of Aurich news of a ceasefire reached divisional headquarters.
Casualties in these operations were high, 72 Canadians killed at Delfzijl and about the same number, spread across the three brigades, in the Leer-Emden battles. After-action reports suggest both divisions conducted themselves with a skill and determination maintaining good unit morale to the end. There was much to be proud of and much to regret. It was not easy to understand why such intense operations were ordered in the last days of the Third Reich with the Russians in Berlin and Hitler dead at his own hands. But the army had done its duty and it was now time to celebrate a hard won victory.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on January 1, 2004.