Operation Constellation (ii)

This was the British capture of Venray in the German-occupied Netherlands by Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army in Filed Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group within the context of ‘Aintree’ (ii) (13/18 October 1944).

The failure of ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ to take Arnhem over the Nederrijn river had left the Allies with the task of clearing the series of salients still held by the German forces in this area. One of these, known as the Maas salient, proved difficult to clear as a result of the determined German defence of Generaloberst Kurt Student’s 1st Fallschirmarmee of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’. Here the formations of General Eugen Meindl’s II Fallschirmkorps and General Hans von Obstfelder’s LXXXVI Corps fully exploited the defensive aspects of the terrain and the advantages offered to the defence by very poor weather to incommode the Allies quite seriously, especially in the Venlo sector which was currently the responsibility of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group.

Situated between the British and US areas of responsibility, this region had become a joint problem as early as mid-September when the Americans had driven to the north-east via Aachen and the British had turned to the north in the direction of Eindhoven, the divergence of these two thrusts creating a gap which, until it had been eliminated, would remained a threat to the exposed flanks of both Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army and Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army. As events were to prove, neither the British nor the Americans nor British paid sufficient attention to the gap, which was therefore a German salient, until the Germans once again revealed their capacity to exploit Allied oversights and weaknesses.

The liberation of Antwerp on 4 September 1944 meant that, with just a single exception, the front of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group was both economical and operationally secure. The exception was not small, however, and until its retention by the Germans had been overcome, the British could not launch their much-delayed offensive into the Ruhr industrial region of north-western Germany. The problem area was that to the west of the Maas river between the remnants of the salient which the Allies had created with ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ and the boundary of the 21st Army Group with Major General Charles H. Corlett’s US XIX Corps of the US 1st Army some 11 miles (18 km) to the north of Maastricht.

On 22 September Hodges postponed the attack of the XIX Corps on the ‘Westwall’ as the 1st Army went over to the defensive, and on the same day there still remained some hope that ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ might succeed. This was the moment that there came the event which made the gaping gap on the XIX Corps’ left flank not only a threat and an annoyance to the 1st Army, but also the 1st Army’s responsibility. This was a result of the conference of 22 September at Versailles when General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander in Europe, and his senior commanders had noted the great size of the 21st Army Group’s tasks and decided that the British needed support. To strengthen the 21st Army Group and thereby facilitate Montgomery’s proposed thrust against the Ruhr, the commanders agreed to adjust the boundary between the two army groups north from the old boundary 11miles (18 km) to the north of Maastricht. Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group (and specifically the 1st First Army and its XIX Corps) was this to become responsible for the major portion of the region to the west of the Maas which had been lying inactive in the British zone. This would free at least two British divisions to be shifted to the salient created by ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’, which was to be starting point for the planned Ruhr offensive. Becoming effective on 25 September, the revised boundary extended to the north-east from Harselt through the Belgian town of Bree and the Dutch towns of Weert, Deurne, and Venray to the Maas at Maashees, all of which now fell into the US area of responsibility. The nice details of the boundary were to be settled by direct negotiation between Montgomery and Hodges, while any extension of it into the area beyond Maashees was to be decided later in the light of the progress of continued operations.

The task of the 1st Army in the Ruhr offensive became, for the moment, the clearance of the region to the west of the Maas river while preparing, as far as its logistic situation allowed, the renewal of its push toward Köln. To provide forces needed for the new US area of responsibility, Bradley instructed Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army to release Major General Lindsay McD. Silvester’s US 7th Armored Division to the 1st Army, to which he also allocated Major General Charles H. Gerhardt’s US 29th Division now freed from the campaign recently concluded to take Brest in north-western France. Montgomery, Bradley and Hodges agreed on 24 September that these two divisions should be sufficient to clear the area in question, after which one of the formations might hold the western bank of the Maas river while the other joined the main strength of the 1st Army in the drive on Köln. Because Montgomery intended that a British corps in a later stage of the Ruhr offensive would drive to the south-east between the Maas and the Rhine rivers, the commanders foresaw no necessity for extending the new boundary to the east of the Maas beyond Maashees.

Despite the expectation that his 1st Army would not have to go beyond the Maas river in the new sector, Hodges was not happy with the arrangement as, in the absence of any firm guarantee that the new boundary would not be extended, he could foresee a dispersion of his army’s strength in the area to the east of the river. Furthermore, he had been counting on the 29th Division to protect his own exposed flank, most of which lay to the east of the Maas, but this would now clearly be delayed.

Hodges apparently took these concerns with him on 26 September when he conferred with Montgomery and Dempsey, for he secured an arrangement he deemed satisfactory. Instead of the use of both the 7th Armored and 29th Divisions, a plan was approved whereby only the US armour was to be employed, as well as Colonel William S. Biddle’s US 113th Cavalry Group and, provided by the British, Lieutenant Colonel Jean Baptiste Piron’s Belgian 1st Brigade. So far as the inter-army boundary was concerned, the British had agreed on a line running from Maashees to the south-east, south and south-west along the Maas river back to the old boundary 11 miles (18 km) to the north of Maastricht, thereby giving Hodges the assurance he wanted against having to conduct operations in the area to the east of the river. The result was that the 1st Army was assigned a giant, thumb-shaped corridor about 16 miles (26 km) wide and extending almost 40 miles (64 km) into the British zone to the west of the Maas.

It must have been considered that the primary objective in creating the corridor, namely to aid the British in the Ruhr offensive, could have been achieved in a simpler fashion by attaching US forces to British command, and leaving the boundary in its old position 11 miles (18 km) to the north of Maastricht, but logistic considerations militated against the adoption of this solution.

The area for which the 1st Army now inherited the responsibility is characterised by the extensive lowlands of De Peel, otherwise the Peel Marshes, a very large fenland area in the upper western part of the region. Covering some 60 sq miles (155 km²) between the Maas river and Eindhoven, the marshes contained only a limited road net, and represented a military obstacle of swamp and numerous ditches and canals. By 25 September, as the 1st Army took over, the corridor was clear as far to the north as the Nederweert-Wessem Canal, which extends diagonally across the corridor between Nederweert, at the south-western edge of the Peel Marshes, and a point on the Maas river near Wessem, 9 miles (14.5 km) to the north of the original army group boundary.

In early planning, when it was expected that two US divisions would be employed in this corridor, Corlett had intended to clear the base of the corridor to a point as far to the north as the Peel Marshes with these two divisions, then to dispatch a highly mobile force along a narrow neck of comparatively high ground between the marshes and the Maas river to link with the British at the northern end of the corridor. After discussions with the British commanders on 26 September, Hodges radically altered the plan. Hodges now ordered that the 7th Armored Division pass around the British area and make the main attack to the south along the narrow neck of land between the marshes and the Maas river. Coincidentally, the Belgian 1st Brigade and the US 113th Cavalry Group were to launch a secondary thrust from the south. The 29th Division thus would be available immediately to hold the XIX Corps’ northern flank to the east of the Maas, thereby freeing Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 2nd Armored Division and Major General Leland S. Hobbs’s 30th Division to break through the ‘Westwall’ defences to the north of Aachen and participate in the drive on Köln.

So optimistic was Hodges that a combination of the XIX Corps’ ‘Westwall’ offensive and a renewal of the attack by Major General J. Lawton Collins’s VII Corps would produce a breakthrough toward the Rhine that he seriously considered the possibility that the 7th Armored Division’s operation to the west of the Maas river might be unnecessary. Not to be caught off balance by this eventuality, Hodges ordered that the 7th Armored Division be prepared for an assault crossing of the Maas river and a drive to the east or south-east to complement any breakthrough by the main strength of the XIX Corps.

Corlett issued final orders for the Peel Marshes offensive on 28 September. The 7th Armored Division was to pass through the British zone to positions to the north of the Peel Marshes and then attack to the south-east and south through Overloon and Venray to clear the western bank of the Maas river. Because the British had not occupied the entirety of their zone within the new boundary, the first 5 miles (8 km) of the 7th Armored Division’s attack axis lay within the British zone. The Belgian 1st Brigade was to attack to the north-east across the Nederweert-Wessem Canal early on 29 September, eventually to link with the 7th Armored Division. The Belgians were to deny crossings of the Maas river in the vicinity of Roermond, 6 miles (10 km) to the north-east of Wessem, and were to regulate their advance with that of the US 113th Cavalry Group, which was to attack to the north in the direction of Roermond from the vicinity of Sittard along the eastern bank of the Maas river. This move by the cavalry (in fact mechanised infantry) would tend to soften the angle of a gap which would still remain on the XIX Corps’ left flank to the east of the Maas river even after the total completion of the Peel Marshes offensive.

The plan to clear the thumb-shaped corridor from the north rather than the south, and then with only one of the two available divisions, reflected an incorrect appreciation of the strength and dispositions of the German forces holding the corridor. The usually very reliable intelligence officer of the XIX Corps, Colonel Washington Platt, came to the conclusion that within the corridor there were only some 2,000 to 3,000 German troops. The reality was that the Germans occupying the corridor were at least seven to eight times more numerous than Platt’s estimate. Just as in the other sectors of Generaloberst Kurt Student’s 1st Fallschirmarmee, of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’, the Germans had increased their strength and ability greatly since Student’s assumption of command just three weeks earlier. Within the corridor itself, Student had the bulk of von Obstfelder’s LXXXVI Corps. On 18 September this corps had assumed command of Generalleutnant Berthold Stumm’s Division Nr 176 and Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann’s Fallschirmjägerdivision ‘Erdmann’. Student had formed the latter early in September on the basis of three Fallschirmjäger regiments. After an initial commitment against the ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ salient at Veghel, von Obstfelder had gone on the defensive against Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s British VIII Corps, which had driven to the north along the right flank of the ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ corridor. In the last days of September, the LXXXVI Corps was holding the eastern flank of the 1st Fallschirmarmee. The Division Nr 176 was to the east of the Maas river near Sittard, but would be drawn into the battle of the corridor by the US 113th Cavalry Group’s attack to the north in the direction of Roermond. Although the Division Nr 176, which included a high proportion of men suffering from Allergies or deemed only marginally suitable for military service, had been had hit in the US 2nd Armored Division’s drive of the middle of September toward the German border, von Obstfelder had been able to rebuild the division with an assortment of attachments. By the end of the month Stumm was able to offer a useful defence against any attack in a strength no greater than the 113th Cavalry Group could muster.

Sharing a boundary with the 176th Division near the Maas river, the Fallschirmjägerdivision ‘Erdmann’ held the widest divisional sector within the LXXXVI Corps, a front some 22 miles (35.5 km) long and extending along the Nederweert-Wessem Canal to the north-west to include about half of the Peel Marshes. Had the Americans followed their original plan of attacking to the north-east across the Nederweert-Wessem Canal with two divisions, they would have encountered in the Fallschirmjägerdivision ‘Erdmann’ a formation of creditable fighting capacity, but also a formation which was hardly capable of holding so long a front against the attack of two US divisions.

Had these been the only two German forces available, the choice of attacking along the narrow neck of land between the Peel Marshes and the Maas might have been a happy one. As it was, von Obstfelder received two additional formations just days before the US offensive was launched. The first of these newly arrived German formations was an upgraded training division of doubtful combat capability, Generalmajor Bernhard Klosterkemper’s 180th Eingreif-Division. This formation assumed responsibility for the northern half of the easily defensible Peel Marshes immediately to the north of the Fallschirmjägerdivision ‘Erdmann’. The second unit was the Kampfgruppe ‘Walther’ (centred on Major Berndt-Joachim Freiherr von Maltzahn’s 107th Panzerbrigade together with several Fallschirmjäger battalions and the SS-Kampfgruppe ‘Röstel’), the force which had first opposed the British in the bridgehead over the Meuse-Escaut Canal and then cut the corridor to Nijmegen during ‘Garden’. After failing to maintain the cut through this corridor, the Kampfgruppe ‘Walther’ had been pulled back into the LXXXVI Corps’ sector and reinforced with a strong complement of infantry from the 180th Eingreif-Division. The major component of the Kampfgruppe ‘Walther still was the 107th Panzerbrigade, which even after fighting against the ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ had some seven PzKpfw IV and 20 PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks. Although the Kampfgruppe ‘Walther’ was probably was no stronger than a reinforced US regiment in numbers, it was a force of considerable capability in constricted terrain.

Although the task of his corps was entirely defensive, von Obstfelder had been instructed to check the Allied advance as far to the west as possible. That the point of decision in this defensive might come at the exact spot the Americans had chosen for their main effort had been indicated five days before by Model, the army group commander, who told his senior commanders that it was especially important to hold the areas around Oploo and Deurne’: the former was to be the starting point for the offensive, and the latter is just a few miles to the south-west of the location which had been selected for the 7th Armored Division’s attack.

Still believing that it faced no more than 3,000 Germans, the 7th Armored Division moved early on 29 September to pass through the British zone and reach its starting point near Oploo. At the same time, both the Belgian 1st Brigade and the 113th Cavalry Group began to attack along the southern edge of the corridor toward Roermond.

Before crossing the Nederweert-Wessem Canal, the Belgian 1st Brigade had to reduce a triangular ‘bridgehead’ which the Fallschirmjägerdivision ‘Erdmann’ still held around the town of Wessem near the juncture of the canal with the Maas. This was a task too great for the comparatively small Belgian unit, which was equipped only with light weapons. Although strengthened by attachment of a US tank destroyer group, the Belgians could make little headway across flat terrain toward the canal. By 2 October the US revision of the estimates of the German strength in Wessem and beyond the canal had increased to the point at which the attack was terminated.

At the same time the 113th Cavalry Group’s attack began and continued on a piecemeal basis, largely as a result of the fact that one of the group’s squadron arrived late after performing screening duties along the XIX Corps’ south flank. By 4 October, two days after the neighbouring Belgian brigade’s effort had become bogged down, a special task force had cleared a strip of land lying between the Maas river and the Juliana Canal to a point a few miles beyond the boundary between the two army groups. The attached 744th Tank Battalion had advanced along a line running to the north-west from Sittard to the point on the Juliana Canal reached by the special task force, and other cavalry and armour elements held a small and precarious bridgehead across the Saeffeler Creek a few miles to the north-east of Sittard. Assisted by numerous small streams and drainage ditches, the Division Nr 176 resisted stoutly all along the line, particularly in the bridgehead beyond the Saeffeler, and the cavalry group had suffered heavy manpower and vehicle losses. Because the group was now exhausted, its commander, Biddle, asked for permission to end the attack, and with this there ended all hope that the main effort by the 7th Armored Division in the north might benefit from operations in the south.

Meanwhile the 7th Armored Division had reached its starting point to the south-east of Oploo on 30 September, and was prepared to launch the main drive to clear the western bank of the Maas river. Having orchestrated the rapid redeployment of his division to the north straight out of the battle line along the Mosel river near Metz, Silvester had found little opportunity to reorganise his formation and replace combat losses. These latter had been heavy in the Metz fighting, which had been the division’s major engagement, and in attempting to get the best from his units, Silvester had replaced a number of staff officers and subordinate commanders: including officers killed or wounded as well as those summarily relieved, Combat Command B now had its fourth commander in a month, and CC R its eighth commander.

The 7th Armored Division’s immediate objectives were Vortum close to the Maas river, and Overloon near the north-eastern edge of the Peel Marshes. Hoping to break the Germans’ primary defences at these points, Silvester planned then to sweep quickly to the south and bypass expected centres of resistance such as Venray and Venlo. Working on the basis of intelligence estimates of no more than 3,000 troops in the area, Silvester believed that the Germans had concentrated at these two points and at Roermond, which was to be taken by the Belgian 1st Brigade and the 113th Cavalry Group, the comparatively small forces they had been able to group for the defence of the corridor.

Attacking in the middle of the afternoon on 30 September, the 7th Armored Division moved into terrain which was low, flat, open, often marshy, and dotted with patches of trees. Moving on Vortum, the town which blocked access to the highway paralleling the Maas river on the division’s left wing, a task force of Brigadier General Robert W. Hasbrouck’s CC B almost immediately encountered a strong German line based on entrenched infantry well supported by anti-tank guns, minefields and Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket-launchers. Drainage ditches and marshy ground confined the tanks to the roads, and the roads were liberally mined, so the brunt of the attack fell to the dismounted men of the unit’s armoured infantry component. In this situation the infantry was fortunate to be able to rely on excellent artillery support. Although the 7th Armored Division had only one battalion of 4.5-in (114.3-mm) guns attached to reinforce its organic artillery, Silvester was able to call on additional support from the artillery of a British armoured division in the line farther to the north. Thus on 2 October seven British and US artillery battalions co-ordinated their fires to deliver 1,500 rounds in a sharp two-minute preparation that enabled CC B’s task force finally to enter Vortum. In the town the German resistance was sporadic, but as soon as the armour started to move to the south-east along the highway paralleling the Maas river, the German defence increased once more.

Meanwhile Silvester was making his main effort against the road centre of Overloon, to the south-west of Vortum. Colonel Dwight A. Rosebaum’s CC A attacked the village along secondary roads from the north and, after pushing back the German outposts, the armour hit the main defences early on 1 October. Here the main infantry components of the Kampfgruppe ‘Walther’ had been reinforced by the remnants of a parachute regiment which had fought with the Kampfgruppe against the salient created by ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’. With the tanks of the 107th Panzerbrigade employed mainly in the anti-tank roles from concealed positions, the Kampfgruppe was able to cover its defensive minefields with accurate fire and destroyed 14 US tanks. The American infantry nevertheless gained several hundred yards to approach the outskirts of Overloon before being checked by small arms and mortar fire supplemented by artillery and Nebelwerfer fire.

Resuming the attack at daybreak on 2 October behind a preparation fired by seven artillery battalions, the 7th Armored Division’s attempt to invest Overloon was still stalled. The first air support for the ground operation became available early in the afternoon, but failed to break the German defence. One hour before nightfall, the Germans moved forward in just the first of a seemingly endless series of counterattacks. Fortunately for the Americans, none of these counterattacks was in strength greater than two companies, and with the aid of artillery and fighter-bombers, CC A and CC B beat them off, though not without appreciable losses, especially in tanks.

Late on 3 October Silvester relieved CC A with Colonel John L. Ryan’s CC R even as the German counterattacks continued. In the intervals between these counterattacks, the Americans were able to move forward, but only in very small steps. The combined efforts of CC A and CC R eventually extended round the front and both sides of Overloon, but still the Germans did not concede defeat.

By 5 October there could be no doubting the fact that the 7th Armored Division had been brought to a halt. For a total advance of less than 2 miles (3.2 km), the formation had lost 29 medium tanks, six light tanks, 43 other vehicles, and an estimated 452 men. These were not notably great losses for an armoured division over the course of a six-day engagement, particularly in the type of terrain over which the engagement was fought, but for the minor advances made the losses were worrying. In advancing little more than 2 miles (3.2 km), the 7th Armored Division failed even to emerge from the British zone into the corridor it had been tasked to clear.

As early as the afternoon of 2 October, even as the first of the German counterattacks fell on the leading elements of the 7th Armored Division, Corlett had committed the main strength of his XIX Corps against the ‘Westwall’ to the north of Aachen, and this meant that there could be no reinforcement of the secondary effort to the north. On 6 October Hodges instructed Corlett to call off the 7th Armored Division’s attack.

Had the division’s task been merely to raise concerns in German intelligence circles, Silvester could have claimed at least a partial success, but this was not the case.

On 2 October, as noted above, the US forces in the Aachen sector had started their offensive designed to open the way for the XIX Corps to penetrate the ‘Westwall’ as a first step in resuming a major thrust from Aachen toward Köln, and Montgomery had also abandoned his intention of extending the ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ salient to the north in favour of an offensive to the south-east from Nijmegen against the western face of the Ruhr industrial region. A few days later Montgomery had to go a step further and forego all plans for an immediate drive on the Ruhr: this was dictated by suggestions of greater German strength near Arnhem, the need for the British to do more in the opening of the port of Antwerp, and the 7th Armored Division’s unhappy experience at Overloon. Except for operations to open Antwerp, Montgomery felt that all he could do, in the short term at least, was to set the stage for a later drive on the Ruhr by the final elimination of German resistance to the west of the Maas river.

In a conference on 8 October, Montgomery and Bradley agreed to readjust their mutual army group boundary to its former position, a change which returning the Peel Marshes area to the British. But the Americans still were to have a hand in clearing the sector as Bradley transferred to Dempsey’s command the 7th Armored Division and the Belgian 1st Brigade.

Thus Montgomery and Bradley finally resolved the problem of US units under US command having responsibility for clearing a corridor running deep into the British. However, the problems faced by the Germans in this area to the west of the Maas river were not so easily resolved.

The transferred 7th Armored Division came under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s British VIII Corps. Relieving the US armour in the Overloon sector with British units, O’Connor ordered Silvester, who still had the Belgian 1st Brigade under command, to assume responsibility for an eccentrically shaped defensive sector within and to the west and south of the Peel Marshes. The line ran from a point near Deurne to the south-east along the Deurne Canal to Meijel, a town well within the confines of the Peel Marshes, then to the south-west along the Noorder Canal to Nederweert and finally to the south-east along the Nederweert-Wessem Canal to the Maas river near Wessem. Though this front was about 30 miles (48 km) long, its defence was facilitated by the presence of obstacles such as the three canals and the limited routes of communication through the marshes. The Belgian 1st Brigade was to hold some 9 miles (14.5 km) of the line along the Nederweert-Wessem Canal and the Maas river.

Montgomery appreciated that closing to the line of the Maas river was a prerequisite to the renewal of a British thrust on the Ruhr, and therefore ordered an early offensive by the VIII Corps. Using Major General L. G. Whistler’s 3rd Division, the VIII Corps was to launch ‘Aintree’ (ii) to take Overloon and drive forward in ‘Constellation’ (ii) to Venray, the largest town the Germans held in this sector and the area’s most important road centre. At the same time the 7th Armored Division was to feign an attack to the east through the Peel Marshes from the Deurne area. Upon seizing Venray, O’Connor hoped to free Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s British 11th Armoured Division to strike along the narrow neck between the marshes and the Maas to the south-east in the direction of Venlo even as other formations (as yet unspecified) attacked to the north-east to clear the southern part of the corridor from the vicinity of Nederweert. Montgomery authorised this offensive during the first week of October before he gave complete priority to the fight to open Antwerp.

On 12 October the 3rd Division’s attacked Overloon and just before dark succeeded in entering the village. Renewing the attack the next day to cover advance the 3 miles (4.8 km) to Venray, the British encountered opposition as dogged as that which had earlier checked the Americans. This opposition was again centred on large minefields, marshes, woods, anti-tank guns and rocket-launchers, Nebelwerfer and artillery fire, and tanks sited specially for the anti-tank role. It was not until 17 October that the British finally occupied Venray.

Any plans O’Connor might have had for exploiting the capture of Venray had been ruled out of the question even before his troops took the town, for one day earlier, on 16 October, Montgomery had issued his directive bringing to an end all offensive operations by the 2nd Army other than those designed to aid in the opening of Antwerp. Thus the completion of the clearance of the Maas river’s western bank had to be postponed until the battle of the Scheldt river had been completed.

For the 10 days which followed the postponement of the British plans to clear the corridor to the west of the Maas river, activity throughout the sector was confined to patrol and artillery warfare, except for a small incursion by the 7th Armored Division’s CC B on 19/22 October across the Deurne Canal along a railway running to the east from Deurne. In the meantime, the US 1st Army became heavily engaged in reorganisation around Aachen in preparation for a new attempt to reach the Rhine river.

When the Allies had to be content to postpone the clearance of the corridor, the Germans saw an opportunity to strengthen their hold. Shielded by a programme of patrol clashes and artillery duels, the Germans designed and implemented a plan designed to exploit their position to the west of the Maas river. Looking for a way to assist General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army, which was fighting the Allies forces along the Scheldt river and in the south-western part of the Netherlands, Model suggested a potent armoured raid from the Peel Marshes into the eastern flank of the ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ salient. Model’s reasoning was that the raid, if made in sufficient strength, might force the British to call off their efforts in the south-western part of the Netherlands.

The forces required happened to be available. A week before Model broached his idea to Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, the headquarters of Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps had been detached from General Hermann Balck’s Heeresgruppe ‘G’, whose forces straddled the boundary between the US 12th Army Group and Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers’s US 6th Army Group. The corps had moved north to a position behind the left wing of the 1st Fallschirmarmee to rest and refit its two primary elements, Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Hans-Joachim Deckert’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, and at the same time to serve as a reserve for Heeresgruppe ‘B’.

By the latter part of October, strength of the two divisions was good by the standard of the German army late in 1944. With about 11,000 men, the 9th Panzerdivision had at least 22 PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks, 30 105- and 150-mm (4.13- and 5.91-in) howitzers, and some 178 other armoured fighting vehicles of various types including self-propelled artillery. With slightly less than 13,000 men, the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision had at least six PzKpfw IV battle tanks.

Endorsing Model’s plan, von Rundstedt ordered that the XLVII Panzerkorps attack on 27 October with the 9th Panzerdivision and elements of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, whereupon the rest of the latter division was to exploit the armoured element’s early gains. This limited offensive was to hit the thinly manned positions of the 7th Armored Division along the Deurne Canal and the Noorder Canal deep within the Peel Marshes to the west of Venlo. The target of the German thrust was the town of Meijel, near the junction of the two canals, and the limited objective envisaged was the excision of a quadrilateral bulge, 6 miles (10 km) deep, into the Allied lines. The limit of the penetration was to be Asten, to the north-west of Meijel alongside the Bois le Duc Canal.

At 06.15 on 27 October, after a week of very bad weather, the dormant sector within the Peel Marshes was saturated with explosives in a 40-minute German artillery preparation, and the attack which followed came as a complete surprise to the 7th Armored Division. The only earlier evidence of German intentions had come on 26 October, when observers spotted about 200 infantrymen marching to the west at a distance of several miles from the front, and during the night before when outposts had reported the noise of vehicles and a few tanks moving.

The first effort by von Elverfeldt’s force was a two-pronged thrust at Meijel, which was held only by a troop of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. Forced from their positions, the cavalrymen rallied and with the help of another troop of cavalry undertook a fruitless counterattack. A short distance to the north, at Heitrak on the road linking Meijel and Deurne, another German armoured thrust across the Deurne Canal broke the position of another troop of cavalrymen.

Reacting quickly, Silvester, sent reinforcements of CC R to the road linking Meijel and Deurne to prevent any further German progress, at least in the short term, toward Deurne. Another road to the north-west from Meijel out of the marshes to Asten still was open, however, and farther to the south-west, near Nederweert, another German push forced another cavalry unit to withdraw slightly. Here, however, the commitment of tank, tank destroyer and infantry reinforcements from CC A managed to stabilise the situation by the fall of night on the first day of the German offensive.

To bolster the 7th Armored Division’s capability by shortening this formation’s long front, O’Connor sent contingents of a British armoured division to relieve CC B in the bridgehead which the Americans had won earlier beyond the Deurne Canal along a railroad that traverses the marshes. This relief was completed not long after the fall of night on 27 October. Silvester was now able to concentrate a reserve with which to counter the German threat, and ordered Hasbrouck, the commander of CC B, to counterattack during the morning of 28 October.

Early on 28 October, therefore, Silvester was able to launch two counterattacks at Meijel along the two roads leading to the town. A task force of CC R under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Richard D. Chappuis drove to the south-east along the road linking Asten and Meijel, while Hasbrouck’s CC B pushed to the south-east along the road linking Deurne and Meijel. One column of CC B was sent farther to the east along a secondary road in an effort to recapture a bridge the Germans had used in their thrust across the Deurne Canal to Heitrak.

The Americans soon discovered that during the night the reconnaissance battalion of the 9th Panzerdivision had driven some miles to the north-west from Meijel along the road toward Asten, and along the Deurne highway the Germans had consolidated their forces about Heitrak. It was at Heitrak that von Lüttwitz had committed the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision while shifting the whole of the 9th Panzerdivision to the centre and south of the penetration zone near Nederweert and toward Asten. In the face of these developments and marshy terrain which prevented off-road manoeuvre, none of the 7th Armored Division’s counterattacks made much ground.

At a time early on 29 October the Germans renewed their attack. A strong thrust drove Chappuis’s task force back almost half the distance to Asten before concentrated artillery fire brought the Germans to a halt. Two other thrusts, one aimed to the north-west from Heitrak toward Deurne and the other along the secondary road from the east, forced both columns of CC B to fall back about half the distance from Meijel to Deurne. After seeking to make a stand at the village of Liesel, CC B eventually had to abandon that position as well. The loss of Liesel was particularly disturbing, for it opened two more roads for German use. One of these led to the west in the direction of Asten, and if they launched a quick thrust on Asten, the Germans might cut off Chappuis’s CC R task force to the south-east of that village.

For the Germans, the capture of Liesel had another implication as this village was the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision’s farthest assigned objective along the road linking Meijel and Deurne, and its seizure emphasised the rapid success gained by the German spoiling attack. Equalling or perhaps even surpassing the Allies’ surprise at the German counterattack, the Germans too were greatly surprised by the speed and extent of their own gains. So impressed was Model, moreover, that he envisaged turning what had been conceived as a large-scale raid into something more ambitious. As early as 28 October, Model had asked von Rundstedt to reinforce the XLVII Panzerkorps as rapidly as possible with immediately with Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzerdivision from SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Georg Keppler’s (from 30 October SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s) I SS Panzerkorps ‘Leibstandarte’ of General Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army, and Oberst Krusche’s 388th Volksartilleriekorps of Meindl’s II Fallschirmkorps of the 1st Fallschirmarmee. The latter formation was of considerable capability inasmuch as it comprised six battalions with 87 pieces of artillery in the calibres between 75-mm (2.95-in) guns and 210-mm (8.27-in) howitzers.

The area could have been the site of a major German commitment but for a pair of related factors: firstly, the 116th Panzerdivision and 388th Volksartilleriekorps could not be readily brought into this sector; and secondly, before either could have been committed, commanders more realistic than Model reconsidered the situation. On 28 October, these more sanguine officers noted, the 7th Armored Division’s counterattacks in essence prevented the Germans from enlarging the gains they had made on the first day, and large numbers of Allied warplanes attacked the precarious German line of communications through the Peel Marshes. On 29 October, and despite the German successes at Liesel and along the Asten road, the US forces had resisted stubbornly, the Germans had lost as many as 30 armoured fighting vehicles and, as von Rundstedt’s intelligence staff noted, there were no indications that the German attack had drawn any strength from the Allied attacks on the 15th Army in the south-western part of the Netherlands.

It was clear to von Rundstedt that the German gains up to this time were at best transitory, and he therefore ordered an end to the offensive. Had he been prepared to wait just a few hours longer before reaching his conclusion, von Rundstedt might have noted an indication that the spoiling attack was in fact accomplishing its purpose and was persuading the Allied to divert strength away from the 15th Army: one British formation, namely Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division, which had been fighting on the south-western part of the Netherlands, began to relieve the 7th Armored Division’s CC B at Liesel and CC R to the south-east of Asten during the night of 29/30 October. This British movement had been ordered by Montgomery on the basis of the early identification of two fresh German divisions in the Peel Marshes. Even so, the redeployment of this division south-western part of the Netherlands represented no real degradation of the British effort in that area as the division already had completed its role in the campaign to the south of the Maas river.

When the 15th Division arrived, O’Connor ordered Silvester to concentrate his 7th Armored Division to the south-west in the area of Nederweert and Weert. As soon as the situation at Meijel had been stabilised, the US armoured formation was to attack to the north-east from Nederweert to restore the former line along the north-western bank of the Noorder Canal while British infantry cleared the western bank of the Deurne Canal.

The arrival of the British infantry formation to block the roads to Asten and Deurne combined with the introduction of substantial British artillery reserves to halt the German advances from Meijel. The Germans maintained their offensive for one more day after Model persuaded von Rundstedt to allow the attack to continue so that a superior defensive line could be established. To strengthen the British position still further, Montgomery shifted to the sector Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division, which had been pinched out of the battle to the south of the Maas river. Though the German attack had indeed finally prompted the transfer of two British divisions and artillery reinforcement, it had not adversely affected any of the 21st Army Group’s other operations.

All three of Silvester’s combat commands were near Nederweert and Weert by the fall of night on 30 October, and the front had been stabilised at Nederweert and near Meijel. On the following day O’Connor further reduced the 7th Armored Division’s front by bringing in Brigadier R. M. P. Carver’s 4th Armoured Brigade of Major General G. L. Verney’s 7th Armoured Division to strengthen the Belgian 1st Brigade along the Nederweert-Wessem Canal and by relieving the Belgians from attachment to the US division. This left the 7th Armored Division responsible only for the Nederweert sector.

While this adjustment was in process, on 30 October Bradley visited the 7th Armored Division’s headquarters and replaced Silvester with Hasbrouck.

The Germans were also in the process of making changes. During the night of 30 October, the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision was withdrawn into Heeresgruppe ‘B’ reserve, and the 9th Panzerdivision disengaged during the first week of November. On 30 October the headquarters of General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee assumed command of the XLVII Panzerkorps, von Obstfelder’s LXXXVI Corps, and General Kurt Feldt’s Korps ‘Feldt’, the last the provisional corps which had fought Major General James M. Gavin’s US 82nd Airborne Division at Nijmegen during ‘Market’. In this manner the Germans created a new army sector between the 1st Fallschirmarmee and 7th Army. Command of the 1st Fallschirmarmee and 7th Army was unified under Student’s Armeegruppe ‘Student’, a provisional headquarters which became Heeresgruppe ‘H’ on 11 November.

On the Allied side of the front, plans for a co-ordinated British and US drive to clear the Nederweert and Meijel sector were changed on 1 November when Montgomery foresaw an end to his campaign in the south-western part of the Netherlands and decided to introduce the whole of Lieutenant General Sir Neil Ritchie’s XII Corps on the right flank of the 7th Armored Division along the Nederweert-Wessem Canal. The XII Corps then was to drive to the north-east through the thick of the German position to the west of the Maas river to reach Venlo as the first step in the British co-operation with a new US offensive to reach the Rhine river. The 7th Armored Division now was to attack alone to clear the north-western bank of the Noorder Canal. Not until the US armour approached Meijel were the British to launch their part in the attack to take the town.

Though indications were that the 7th Armored Division would be opposed by only the equivalent of a single German battalion, it was now abundantly clear that even an understrength German unit could offer a tenacious defence in terrain of the type abutting the Noorder Canal. The attack had to move along a corridor only some 2 miles (3.2 km) wide, bounded on the south-east by the Noorder Canal and on the north-west by De Groote Peel, one of the more impenetrable portions of the Peel Marshes. The 7th Armored Division’s effective medium tank strength was now as little as 65% of establishment, but the burden of combat in this type of terrain would fall on the armoured infantry.

Directing what was initially a cautious advance, Hasbrouck ordered more aggressive tactics when resistance proved light. The principal difficulties came from the marshy nature of the ground, mines, and German fire on the right flank from the eastern bank of the Noorder Canal. On 6 November, as the 7th Armored Division approached its final objective just to the south of Meijel, the British north of that village began their attack to the south. The 7th Armored Division’s commitment was now over, however, for late on 6 November Hasbrouck received orders for relief of his division and a return to the 12th Army Group. The Americans had need of the division in a projected renewal of their offensive toward the Rhine, and the division was relieved on 7 November.

With this change, the British delayed the final assault on Meijel to await the advance of the XII Corps to the north-east from the Nederweert-Wessem Canal. The Germans subsequently abandoned Meijel on 16 November as the XII Corps threatened their rear. The VIII Corps then drove to the south from Venray while the XII Corps continued to the north-east in the direction of Venlo. Not until 3 December, more than two months after the first optimistic Allied attempt to clear the Germans from their foothold to the west of the Maas river with just a single US division, did these two full corps finally remove the Germans.