A general outline of the Allied advance through Germany
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This story is the lead (general outline) to all the events that have taken place in the second part of the liberation of Western Europe. The maps used in this article are generated by the database of Back to Normandy. With the maps and all the icons plotted on the map, the reader can read all the details of the events, as far as they are recorded on this website.
By the end of 1944, the strong German attack commanded by Von Rundstedt in the Ardennes had been halted. While the salient which it formed was being reduced, and German pockets in the neighborhood of Roermond and at Kapelscheveer, near Breda, were being destroyed, planning went on steadily for the invasion of Germany.
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Situation between 15-31 December 1944
Situation between 15-31 January 1945
By the end of January the Ardennes salient was no more than a bulge, and in Holland, there were no German troops left west and south of the Maas. The triangle between the river Maas and the Roer north of Duren had also been cleared. The object of the Battle of the Rhineland was to master the region between the Maas and the Rhine from Düsseldorf to Nijmegen and then to establish a bridgehead north of the Ruhr. The Ninth United States Army was to be under Field Marshal Montgomery's command and was to operate on the right of his front; given success, it would presently form a line on the Rhine between Dusseldorf and Wesel. The First Canadian Army, on the left of the front, was to strike south-eastwards from the neighborhood of Nijmegen, as far as the general line Geldern-Xanten. The British Second Army was to hold a firm front on the Maas, between the other two armies, and to assist the Canadian advance at every opportunity; its staff also had to prepare plans and orders for the crossing of the Rhine.
The First Canadian Army, under General H. D. G. Crerar, comprised ten divisions, of which six were United Kingdom formations. Its total strength was close on half a million men. The first phase of the attack was to be carried through by the 30th Corps, under Lieutenant-General B. G. Horrocks, who had under him for the purpose seven divisions plus three armored brigades, special assault units, and additional artillery. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions were incorporated in this force. The task of the 30th Corps was to clear the Reichswald Forest, through which ran the northern part of the main defenses of the Siegfried Line and make good a line from Gennep south of the Forest to Cleve. After this first phase, the Canadian 2nd Corps under General G. G. Simonds was to come in on the north end of the battle, and operations on a two-corps front were to continue up to a line running through Weeze, Udem, and Calcar up to the Rhine opposite Emmerich. The third phase of the scheme called upon the two corps to overcome the strong German defensive line in the Hochwald and to advance to the general line Geldern-Xanten. The whole attack was timed to begin on 8th February 1945.8 February 1945
Despite the difficulties of concealing preparations o so large a scale as this great move required, the Germans were unable to see what was intended. Their staff did not expect more than a diversionary attack from Nijmegen towards the Reichswald; their conviction was that the main thrust would come eastwards from the neighbourhood of Venlo. This led to some confusion in the initial resistance in the forward positions, and this confusion was increased by intensive preliminary Allied air attacks on railway bridges and ferries which would have to be used by the Germans in order to bring reinforcements and supplies to the front.
The Battle of the Rhineland
In the night of 7th/8th February, Allied heavy bombers made the final raids on communication centers just behind the Reichswald. These shocks were followed in the early morning by a heavy artillery barrage. Then the advance began along a six-mile front between the road from Nijmegen to Cleve and the River Maas. It was headed by the 2nd Canadian, 15th (Scottish), 53rd (Welsh) and 51st (Highland) Divisions. The 3rd Canadian Division to the north of the Nijmegen-Cleve road did not set forth till rather later, then it had the task of expelling the defenders from the flooded area between that road and the Waal, as the mainstream of the Rhine is there called; the dikes there had been breached according to old theory by the Germans. The heaviest resistance at this stage of the battle was encountered on the right, by the 51st Division. In front of the 15th and 53rd Divisions, extensive minefields opposed the attack, but the principal obstacle was mud. The 2nd Canadian Division completed its task without loss of time, despite casualties in the minefields and in some sharp engagements. By the end of the first day's fighting, five German battalions had been decimated, the positions in advance of the Siegfried Line proper had been overcome, and the German frontier had been crossed along the length of the front.
The following day invading operations were kept up with success, against opposition which was moderate except again on the right. During the night of 9th-10th February, there was fierce fighting in and around Cleve, involving now the 43rd Division. The Germans were rapidly bringing up reinforcements, and traffic difficulties on roads that were deep in water or mud increasingly hindered the Allied advance. Farther south the Germans had destroyed part of one of the Roer dams, causing that river to overflow its banks along the whole U.S. Ninth Army front, and thus inevitably postponing the advance of that Army which had been planned for 10th February. By the 13th, however, the Reichswald Forest was completely in the hands of the First Canadian Army.
On 12th February the Commander-in-Chief allotted to the First Canadian Army two more divisions, the 11th Armoured, and 52nd (Lowland) Divisions, and on the 22nd a third, the 3rd British Infantry Division, which relieved the 15th. This last went into Army reserve, and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division was brought from the 1st Corps into the Rhineland battle. The 2nd Canadian Corps took over the left sector of the front on 15th February. By the 20th, the strongly held town of Goch was taken and good progress had been made on other sectors now there remained the attack on the final defence line in the Hochwald. This devolved upon the 2nd Canadian Corps now composed of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions the 4th Canadian Armoured Division the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and the 11th Armoured and 43rd (Wessex) Divisions. On 26th February their attack began. The Germans were prepared to offer more than ordinary resistance and a violent struggle took place on the Udem-Calcar ridge in front of the main Hochwald positions. The contest for the gap between the Hochwald and the neighboring Balberger Wald was naturally no gentler and it was not until the evening of 4th March that this forest region was in Allied possession. By that time the 53rd Division on the right had reached Geldem and had there made contact with the U.S. 35th Division of the Ninth Army.
The U.S. Ninth Army after the delay imposed upon it by the floods of the Roer had started its advance on 23rd February. The delay had enabled the Germans to throw in more weight against the Canadian First Army but it was now compensated for by the speed of the American advance which trapped the severely mauled German forces west of the Rhine between the two Allied armies. By 27th February the Ninth Army had broken through the main German defences on 1st Marth Mönchen Gladbach was taken and on the 2nd the bank of the Rhine was reached in two places and the town of Krefeld was occupied. The German armies west of the Rhine were threatened with encirclement and had no alternative to withdrawal beyond that mighty river.
The fighting in the Battle of the Rhineland had been as grim and studied as any hitherto known in Europe the German leaders had been determined to make a stand west of the river and to defend the industries of the Ruhr to the last moment the price was paid for it by their troops in killed and wounded estimated at nearly 40 000 and in prisoners numbering about 53 000 on the First Canadian and Ninth U.S. Army fronts.
The losses of the Commonwealth divisions which won the day were heavy enough the First Canadian Army from 8th February to 10th March suffered over 15 600 casualties. The men who died are buried for the most part in the Reichswald Forest and Rheinberg war cemeteries in Germany beside an even greater number of airmen who were killed on raids and in the Canadian cemetery at Groesbeek in Holland near Nijmegen those who made the same sacrifice and who have no known grave are commemorated on the Groesbeek Memorial.
The Crossing of the Rhine
To see the situations a day by day look here: March 1945 (positions of the units)
Or the situation overview by day by day (positions by date)
During this remarkable campaign, farther south, American armies had been closing upon the Rhine. On 7th March the First U.S.Army had the good fortune to take intact the railway bridge over the river at Remagen; the bridgehead which they formed drew away a considerable number of surviving German formations and so aided other sectors. Still farther south the Third and Seventh U.S. Armies made steady progress in March, and by the third week of the month, the Allied armies stood on the Rhine throughout its long course.
It was important that the Geman withdrawal behind the Rhine should be followed up as soon as possible, and that a bridgehead should be gained from which operations to cut off the industrial Ruhr and to enable an advance across northern Germany could be developed. The Rhineland battle was not completed until 10th March; the date selected for the next major Allied operation was the 24th. The main attack across the Rhine was ordered on the front of the 21st Amy Group; the crossings were to be made between Rheinberg and Rees (covering the important communications centre of Wesel on the far bank), just north of the Ruhr industrial region. The U.S. Ninth Army was to be given the south sector, and on the north, under General M. C. Dempsey, the attack was to be made by the British Second Army, which had been working out its method while the Canadian First Army fought the Battle of the Rhineland. In addition to the 8th, 12th and 30th Corps! the Second Army included for the opening of the operation the 2nd Canadian Corps and the 18th U.S. Airborne Corps, which comprised the 6th British and 17th U.S.Airbome Divisions.
On the evening of 23rd March, more than 1,300 British guns were in action, and the great battle began. At nine in the evening the 51st Division went to the attack across the Rhine on the British front, and an hour later the 1st Commando Brigade attacked Wesel, already almost laid flat by air bombing. Between midnight and two the next morning the 15th Division and the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade (which came under the orders of the 51st Division) began to cross the river: The early assaults met with light opposition and quickly attained their objectives. While these ground forces were widening the territory which bridgeheads had controlled, the airborne forces were forming up. The 17th U.S. Airborne Division came from France, and the 6th British Airborne Division from bases in England. More than 1.700 powered aircraft and 1,300 gliders were employed to land these formations behind the bridgeheads; the first parachute troops landed at ten in the morning of the 24th. Losses were relatively light in the early stages, though anti-aircraft fire gave trouble later; 55 transport aircraft and less than 4 percent. of the gliders used were destroyed and the British Division lost 347 officers and men killed and about 700 wounded. Immediately after the initial phase, 240 heavy bombers dropped 540 tons of petrol, food and ammunition-one day's supply for the airborne divisions.
This airborne operation enabled the Allied forces to expand at once their bridgehead over the Rhine. By nightfall on 24th March the U.S. Ninth Army had two entire divisions across the river and elements of two others were on their way; at Wesel the Commandos had linked up with the airborne troops; and farther north in the British sector, the 12th Corps had advanced towards Bocholt and -Borkum. By the 28th the time was ripe for further advances beyond the bridgehead. The next objective was the Elbe.
To the Elbe
Field-Marshal Montgomery‘s aim was to establish the U.S. Ninth Army on that river from Magdeburg to Wittenberge and the Second Army from Wittenberge to Hamburg. The Ninth Army was to advance north of the Ruhr to Paderborn, where it was intended that it should unite with the U.S. First Army pushing north from Remagen through Marburg. If this were done the Ruhr would be encircled and the defending forces there would be cut off from the German forces to the north and east.
The Second Army was required to concentrate all its attention on driving forward to the Elbe. The First Canadian Army, reinforced now by the arrival of the 1st Canadian Corps from Italy, was to open up a supply route through Arnhem and to advance northwards for the liberation of north-eastern Holland and the German coastal belt eastwards to the Elbe. West Holland was also that Army‘s responsibility' but the problem there became that of supplying food to the population under truce arrangements, not of fighting the enemy.
The two American Armies succeeded by 3rd April in encircling the Ruhr as the staffs had planned. The Second Army advanced from the Rhine bridgehead with the Sth Corps on the right, heading for Osnabruck and CelIe, the 12th Corps in the center, directed on Rheine, Nienburg and Luneburg, and the 30th Corps on the left, towards Enschede, Bremen, and Hamburg. Resistance on the British sector varied in power; the German armies, no doubt, were by now losing their direction, but in places, improvised battle groups delayed the British advance. The incoming soldier was also delayed by demolitions; there are numerous large waterways across the north German plains, and over five hundred bridges had to be constructed during the advance. The Sth Corps met with least resistance and was able to make speed across the Dortmund-Ems canal and on to the Weser. This river was crossed by 5th April, CelIe was taken by the 10th, and after some hard fighting for Uelzen, the Elbe was reached on the 19th. By the 24th its west bank throughout the Corps sector had changed hands. The 12th Corps went ahead at first but were delayed on the line of the Dortmund-Ems canal and in the neighborhood of Rheine. The Weser was crossed with little difficulty, but east of the river the German army again insisted on an argument. Soltau was captured on 18th April, and on the 23rd the Elbe was reached opposite Hamburg.
The 30th Corps had to deal with S.S. and parachute troops on the Dortmund-Ems canal line near Lingen, which they could not overcome until 6th April. East of the Ems, German battle quality still showed itself, even when the Corps was nearing Bremen. That city according to plan was attacked by the 3rd Division on the west bank of the Weser, and by the 43rd and 52nd Divisions on the east bank-both had crossed the river farther upstream. It was not until the 26th that resistance in the city ceased. Thereafter, the Guards Armoured Division drove on to reach the Elbe estuary below Hamburg, and the 51st Division turned north to clear the peninsula between the Weser and the Elbe and to seize Cuxhaven.
The 2nd Canadian Corps meanwhile had been advancing north and north-east from their bridgehead over the Rhine in the region of Emmerich. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions drove practically straight north through eastern Holland between the IJsselmeer (former Zuider Zee) and the German border, to Groningen and to Leeuwarden respectively.
Improvised German positions caused trouble here and there, but were usually soon overrun. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division curved east from the neighborhood of Almelo in Holland, crossed the River Ems at Meppen on Sth April, then advanced steadily towards Oldenburg. Near that town the speed of the advance was checked; there was severe fighting for Friesoythe, about eighteen miles south-west of Oldenburg, and it appeared that the German intention was to defend and to go on defending Oldenburg and the naval bases of Emden and Wilhelmshaven. Meanwhile, the lst Polish Armoured Division had been brought up to operate in the gap opening between the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. At the end of April, the 3rd Canadian Division was moved from Holland to near the mouth of the Ems, and the 2nd Canadian Division reinforced the Oldenburg sector.
The 5th Canadian Armoured Division moved to Delfzijl after the lst Canadian Corps had taken Arnhem and the region east of the Grebbe. Soldiers who were there and who survive will recall bitter and weary combat towards the end of April somewhere on the general line Oldenburg-Emden.
The Last Days
On 22nd April Field-Marshal Montgomery issued orders for future operations. The 8th Corps was to cross the Elbe and, having established a secure bridgehead, was to forge ahead with all possible speed to the Baltic, to capture Lübeck. The 12th Corps was to bridge the Elbe within the 8th Corps sector and then to swing west and take Hamburg. The U.S. lSth Corps, which was under command of 21 Army Group, was to establish a bridgehead on the right of the 8th Corps.
Before these plans could be carried out, on 25th April Russian and American troops met at Torgau, on the Elbe, and Germany was cut in two.
In the early morning of 29th April, the 15th Division, with the 1st Commando Brigade under command, crossed the Elbe, with only light opposition. The following day the 6th Airborne Division, followed by the 11th Armoured Division, crossed the river.
In the next two days, rapid progress was made; on 2nd May the 11th Armoured Division entered Lubeck, and the 6th Airborne Division took Wismar on the Baltic coast, only a few hours before Russian tanks drove into the town. The leading troops of the 12th Corps had meanwhile passed through the 8th Corps' bridgehead towards Hamburg; but no battle for that city was necessary, as the German garrison commander surrendered unconditionally on 3rd May.
Little resistance from German forces could now be expected, except for isolated fanatical groups, and the British forces were ordered to halt on a line that covered Hamburg and Lubeck. Hitler was already dead, and confusion was general in Germany. After various parleys, Admiral von Friedeburg, as emissary of Admiral Doenitz, Hitler‘s successor, on 4th May signed the instrument of surrender of all German forces in Holland, north-west Germany, and Denmark. This instrument was superseded by a general instrument of surrender of all Ger1nan armed forces, signed at the headquarters of General Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, by Colonel-General Jodl in the early morning hours of 7th May. The war in Europe was ended.
Photo: AD at the War Cemetery at Ohlsdorf (Hamburg)
There are several war cemeteries on the line of the British and Canadian advance across northern Germany-Munster Heath (on the fringe of the American sector); Becklingen, near Soltau; Sage, near Oldenburg; Hanover and CelIe. There are others where British land forces never fought-at Hamburg, Cologne, Kiel, Berlin, and Dumbach south of Munich. For, long before the armies set foot in Germany, there was a Battle of Germany waged in the air. Its course is described in detail in the introduction to the register of the Runnymede Memorial, on which those men are commemorated who died while fighting it and who have no known grave. But thousands of these air1nen have graves in the war cemeteries in Germany, and beside them lie those who died while prisoners of war. Men of the Canadian Army who died in north-west Germany lie not in Germany but in the Canadian cemetery at Holten in Holland.
This article was written in 1957 in a booklet containing the war dead buried in Hamburg (Ohlsdorf)
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