Operation Cleanser

This was a Canadian offensive by Major General B. M. Hoffmeister’s 5th Armoured Division of Lieutenant General C. Foulkes’s I Corps of General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army to the IJsselmeer in the Netherlands after ‘Quick Anger’ (15/18 April 1945).

While Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds II Corps of the same army was clearing the northern Netherlands, the I Corps was entrusted with the task of clearing the forces of General Philipp Kleffel’s 25th Army, part of Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’, from that part of the Netherlands to the south of the IJsselmeer. At the beginning of April 1945 the bridgehead over the Waal river at Nijmegen was expanded to the Nederrijn river between the point at which it separated from the Waal to some eight miles (13 km) downstream of Arnhem.

At this time the I Corps comprised the 5th Armoured Division, Major General H. W. Foster’s 1st Division and Major General S. B. Rawlins’s British 49th Division. Elements of the 49th Division then crossed the river eastward to the Zevenaar area in preparation to take Arnhem from the east as the Germans appeared to be prepared for an attack from the south. Farther to the north the 1st Division concentrated to the south of Deventer to attack across the IJssel river and take Apeldoorn; on 11 April the Canadian formation crossed the river, some 350 ft (105 m) wide at this point, in LVT-2 Buffalo amphibious vehicles of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s British 79th Armoured Division, and met only light resistance. Rafts and a bridge had been constructed by the break of day on the following morning and, with the support of armour that was now able to cross, the division advanced on Apeldoorn, where it encountered strong resistance. After fighter-bombers and rocket-firing Hawker Typhoon attack aircraft had attacked and artillery had bombarded the Arnhem defences, on 12 April the 49th Division assaulted across the IJssel in Buffalo vehicles and assault boats, as well as small landing craft manned by Royal Navy personnel. The division encountered little opposition, and rafts and a bridge were quickly built, allowing Canadian tanks to cross in support of the infantry. Resistance in Arnhem was not strong, though determined in places, and by 14 April the Germans had been driven out of Arnhem.

While the 1st Division was pressing towards Apeldoorn, the 5th Armoured Division was preparing a fast-moving thrust to the north in the direction of the IJsselmeer, the task for which Foulkes had given instructions to Hoffmeister. By this time Canadian intelligence had a clear appreciation of the German strength and dispositions in the area between Arnhem and the IJsselmeer, which was held by General Felix Schwalbe’s LXXXVIII Corps of the 25th Army. Generalmajor Gerhard Linder’s 346th Division was being slowly driven out of the Arnhem area, though its flanks were still anchored to the IJssel river in the east and the Nederrijn river in the west. So short were they of infantry that the Germans were being forced to use gunners as infantry on the neighbouring front of Generalmajor Alfred Philippi’s 361st Volksgrenadierdivision opposing the 1st Division. The right flank of the 346th Division was protected by SS-Oberführer Martin Kohlroser’s 34th SS Freiwilligen-Grenadierdivision 'Landstorm Nederland' which, however, held a long front.

As Hoffmeister looked to the north-west from his temporary headquarters at Didam, the only German troops facing his formation were a unit of the 858th Grenadierregiment and an engineer battalion (both holding the left flank of the 346th Division) and a construction battalion. The Germans had no effective armoured support other than small number of self-propelled guns, but the Canadians knew that they faced large numbers of mines of all types and strongpoints to slow their advance toward the defences of the so-called 'Grebbe-Linie'.

At 12.00 on 14 April Hoffmeister issued his orders. The most direct route to his objective followed the road from Arnhem through Otterloo and Barneveld to Nijkerk, and Hoffmeister planned to advance along this axis, seizing the high ground to the north of Arnhem, crossing the main road from Apeldoorn to Amersfoort (in the process severing the Apeldoorn garrison’s escape route) and exploiting in a north-westerly direction to the coast. The leading role in this scheme fell to Brigadier I. H. Cumberland’s 5th Armoured Brigade Group bolstered by the 8th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery (itself strengthened by one battery of the 3rd Medium Regiment Royal Artillery) and specialised units of the 79th Armoured Division. This leading brigade group would be supported by the remainder of the divisional artillery and the 3rd Medium Regiment Royal Artillery, and the divisional engineers. Although this was to be primarily an armoured thrust, the infantry of Brigadier I. S. Johnston’s 11th Brigade was to be ready to take over, if needed, at any stage. The move was to begin at dawn on 15 April.

The armour began to cross the IJssel river during the afternoon of 14 April, completing its move into an assembly area on the northern outskirts of Arnhem early on 15 April. The Canadian convoys could move only slowly as a result of the constricted roads, and the movement was only accomplished by giving the Canadians priority of movement across the bridges at Arnhem.

'Cleanser' started at about 06.30 as the 5th Armoured Brigade Group drove forward to take the high ground to the north of Arnhem. On the right, the 9th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Dragoons) advanced against the village of Terlet along a route through densely wooded sandhills, which made observation and mutual support extremely difficult and often impossible. Movement off the roads round German roadblocks was effected only by the sheer weight of the tanks forcing their way through the trees.

On the left the 5th Armoured Regiment (8th Princess Louise’s [New Brunswick] Hussars) moved against Deelen. Anti-tank fire cost the Hussars and Dragoons two and one tanks respectively, but the speed of the Canadian advance caught the Germans off balance and the Canadian took both their initial objectives without delay. At Deelen the headquarters of the 858th Grenadierregiment was overrun, the German commander admitting that he had been taken completely by surprise on being attacked by tanks and found his dispositions to be wrong.

Hoffmeister ordered the 11th Brigade to clear German remnants from the woods which had been bypassed by the tanks, ands this task had been completed by the end of the evening.

The second phase of 'cleanser' was the capture of Otterloo and the high ground to the west, and began immediately. At 12.00 on 15 April the 2nd Armoured Regiment (Lord Strathcona’s Horse [Royal Canadians]) passed through the 8th Hussars and advanced toward Otterloo. Hampered by the close nature of the terrain but encountering only light opposition, the Strathconas reached a point 1,500 yards (1370 m) to the east of Otterloo by last light. During the night the Canadians' supporting artillery brought harassing fire down on Otterloo. Meanwhile, on the left of the divisional front, the Hussars occupied high ground to the south-west of the village.

On the following morning the Strathconas pushed through Otterloo in the direction of its next objective, which was Barneveld some 9 miles (14.5 km) to the north-west. Lieutenant Colonel J. M. McAvity, the commanding officer, ordered his leading squadron to push along the rover as fast as it could, and the squadron therefore met the first opposition at a road junction less than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east of Barneveld. Here two Sherman medium tanks were lost before the Strathconas and a company of the Westminster Regiment (Motor) bypassed the town, reaching the road to Voorthuizen. Probing to the north along this road, the tanks met heavier resistance from the Germans, who were now alarmed about their chances of holding their escape route to the east, namely the road linking Apeldoorn and Amersfoort. At the end of the day the Strathconas were still about 1 mile (1.6 km) short of Voorthuizen.

On the 5th Armoured Division’s left flank, the Princess Louise’s and the 11th Brigade, assisted by a squadron of the 3rd Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The Governor General’s Horse Guards), were now to the north-east of Lunteren.

On the right flank, meanwhile, the British Columbia Dragoons had helped in the clearance of Otterloo and now drove directly for Voorthuizen. All realised that speed was essential to cut off the retreat of the garrison opposing the Canadian 1st Division in Apeldoorn. The Dragoons made steady progress to the north-east of Barneveld, meeting little active opposition but much affected by the swampy nature of the terrain. Like the Strathconas, the Dragoons encountered greater resistance as they approached the road linking Apeldoorn and Amersfoort. On the evening of 16 April the Dragoons attacked Voorthuizen, and though hampered by failing light, deep ditches and swampy grounds, were able to cut the vital road, thus completing the third phase of 'Cleanser'.

Early in 17 April elements of Generalleutnant Herman Plocher’s 6th Fallschirmjägerdivision, from the German north flank, tried to escape to the west through Voorthuizen. The paratroopers were beaten back with heavy casualties, the Canadian tanks being aided a 'Badger' (Wasp Mk II flamethrower fitted to a Ram personnel carrier) of the 5th Armoured Brigade’s headquarters squadron.

By the night of 16/17 April the time factor had become still more critical to the commanders of both the Canadian and German commanders in the western Netherlands. Foulkes had to give up the 5th Armoured Division on 18 April, and it was therefore vital to complete 'Cleanser' without delay. The Germans, on the other hand, were desperate to extract their forces from the Apeldoorn sector back to the temporary security of the 'Grebbe-Linie'. These two sets of anxieties, combined with the extended Canadian line of communication from Arnhem to Voorthuizel, resulted during the morning of 17 April the so-called 'Battle of Otterloo'. The German late withdrawal fell into a disorganised retreat along three principal axes: to the west through Voorthuizen (the movement blocked by the British Columbia Dragoons), the north-west toward Nijkerk, Putten and Harderwijk (whence some sailed across the IJsselmeer to Amsterdam), and to the south-west toward Otterloo. This last group, with an estimated strength of some 600 to 900 men, comprised remnants of several units under the commander of the 952nd Volksgrenadierregiment. Hoping to escape through Otterloo, this group did not known that the headquarters of the 5th Armoured Division was then in the village.

An intercepted wireless message had warned Hoffmeister that an attack was possible, and he accordingly retained The Irish Regiment of Canada to cover the road from Hoenderlo. Also in the area, and participating in the subsequent fight, were the tanks of the divisional headquarters, the Canadian 17th Field Regiment and the British 2nd/11th Battery of the 3rd Medium Regiment. Soon after midnight a German patrol raced into Otterloo, and the resulting fight quickly developed into an assault supported by artillery and mortars. Although the Irish and the gunner of the 17th Field Regiment bore the brunt of the fighting, the entire divisional headquarters was soon involved. The guns fired over open sights as the German infiltrated the Canadian positions. However, at daybreak the headquarters tanks and the Irish counterattacked, driving the Germans back, and 'Wasps' shattered the Germans' resolve. By mid-morning the situation was under control. The Germans had suffered as many as 300 casualties, including between 75 and 100 killed, while the Canadian losses were much fewer. The Irish and the 17th Field Regiment had 22 and 25 casualties respectively; in addition, the artillery had had three guns knocked out and several vehicles destroyed.

While this fierce little skirmish was taking place at Otterloo The Cape Breton Highlanders occupied Barneveld unopposed. Thus by the morning of 17 April the 5th Armoured Division was ready for the final phase of 'Cleanser', which was a two-pronged drive to the IJsselmeer through Nijkerk and Putten.

The armour once more led. The way. The Strathconas, supported by C Company of the Westminsters, advanced along the road leading to the north-west from Barneveld to Nijkerk. Near its intersection with the road linking Apeldoorn and Amersfoort, the Canadians ran into opposition. German infantry with anti-tank weapons knocked out three tanks before being driven back. To the north of the intersection the Strathconas ran into dug-in infantry covering roadblocks. While trying to find a way round, the regiment was ordered to disengage and support the second armoured thrust, which appeared to be making better progress towards Putten. The 8th Hussars, however, had had a hard battle for the approaches to this place. Bypassing Voorthuizen, then being cleared by the British Columbia Dragoons and a Westminster company, they drove to the north during the afternoon of 17 April, but also found themselves on difficult terrain under sustained German fire. Anti-tank guns, self-propelled guns and the Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket launchers all inflicted losses during the day and the evening. The Hussars halted for the night less than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of Putten. The day’s operations had cost the regiment 14 tanks, two of which were recovered, and its personnel casualties were one man killed and 17 wounded.

This phase of the Canadian operations in the Netherlands was now almost over. While Hoffmeister’s armour fought its way toward the IJsselmeer, Foster’s infantry moved steadily westward from Apeldoorn. German and Dutch SS rearguards delayed the infantry’s advance along the main road to Amersfoort, but Brigadier J. P. E. Bernatchez’s 3rd Brigade made contact with the 5th Armoured Division at Barneveld on 17 April. Fighting hard on the approaches to Nijkerk and Putten, the Germans had succeeded in holding open, at least for a time, a corridor along the IJsselmeer’s southern shore, enabling much of Schwalbe’s LXXXVIII Corps (Generalleutnant Fritz Kühlwein’s 149th Felderzatzdivision, Linder’s 346th Division, Philippi’s 361st Division and Plocher’s 6th Fallschirmjägerdivision) to escape into the western part of the Netherlands.

On the morning of 18 April this phase of the German resistance came to an end. The 8th Hussars, assisted by the Westminsters and the Dutch resistance, quickly penetrated into the centre of Putten, while their reconnaissance troop reached the IJsselmeer at 10.35. Meanwhile, the Strathconas 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.

In four days of very active operations Cumberland’s three armoured regiments had successfully completed their task with only 76 casualties; of these 40 fell upon the Strathconas. During 'Cleanser' the 5th Armoured Division captured 34 German officers and 1,755 other ranks.

Its task in the western Netherlands now completed, the 5th Armoured Division handed its sector to the 1st Division on 19 April and prepared to assume new responsibilities in the north-east.

An Allied supply route could now be opened through Arnhem, but it was ordered that the troops should advance no farther west than the Eem and Grebbe rivers. The 1st and 49th Divisions closed up to the line of these rivers, and the 5th Armoured Division moved northern part of the Netherlands. Nearly 9,000 German troops were taken prisoner in these operations by the I Corps.