Operation Duck (iii)

This was a Canadian operation by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps of General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army to force the Ems and Leda rivers in northern Germany and take the port of Leer (28/30 April 1945).

While Major General B. M. Hoffmeister’s 5th Armoured Division was destroying the Delfzijl pocket, Major General R. H. Keefler’s 3rd Division and Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division were crossing the Ems and Leda rivers, so limiting the German hold on the eastern bank of the Ems estuary and penetrating deep into the wide peninsula accommodating the major ports of Emden and Wilhelmshaven. Simonds had at first planned that the Poles would reconnoitre the crossings over the Leda river at Leer and, if these were too strongly held, the assault would then be undertaken by the 3rd Division as the 1st Armoured Division headed for Varel, at the eastern base of the peninsula. This latter proved necessary. The problem was in fact settled by developments off to the east, where the bridgehead of Major General C. Vokes’s 4th Armoured Division to the north of the Kusten Canal was under heavy attack. Consequently, on the morning of 22 April the Polish division was directed along a north-easterly axis to relieve the pressure there. The tasks of forcing the Ems and the Leda and capturing Leer thus fell to the 3rd Division.

Leer was a small port for seagoing vessels at the junction of the Ems and Leda rivers, and in World War II was an important communications centre, connected by good roads with Emden and Wilhelmshaven. Although the Polish advance to the east of the Ems river had simplified the Allied approach, an assault across the wide lower reaches of the Ems river, where tides can cause a differences in width of up to 100 yards (90 m), promised to be difficult. The Leda river, though narrower than the Ems river, is itself some 200 yards (185 m) wide at Leer and is also subject to tidal variations. These rivers surrounded the port on three sides and the fourth was protected by marshy ground. All the bridges had been destroyed.

Before the attack Keefler’s intelligence staff could provide little definite information on the German strength and dispositions in Leer. It was thought, however, that they might have two battalions for the defence of the town and its immediate vicinity; reports also indicated that supporting arms were ‘not plentiful’. After the event it became clear that the defending force had consisted of a unit of untrained marine replacements and some Flak troops. The commander had placed three companies on the western outskirts of Leer to guard against attack across the Ems river, and four on the southern perimeter on the Leda river side.

‘Duck’ was a highly appropriate name for the 3rd Division’s amphibious operation to take Leer and nearby Loga. The assault was to be carried out in three phases: firstly, Brigadier J. M. Rockingham’s 9th Brigade would attack across the two rivers and establish a bridgehead; secondly, Brigadier T. G. Gibson’s 7th Brigade would pass through to capture Loga and an adjacent wood, the Julianen Park; and thirdly, the 9th Brigade would enlarge the bridgehead to the north as the base for exploitation, toward Veenhusen and Terborg, in the direction of Emden.

In the initial phase, Rockingham ordered the North Nova Scotia Highlanders to cross the Leda in assault boats, on the right of the brigade, secure the northern bank of the river and develop the main attack to capture Leer. In the centre, the Highland Light Infantry of Canada was to descend the Ems and land at Leerort, where the Ems and Leda rivers meet. On the left, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders would attack directly across the Ems river and seize the town’s western edge.

Rockingham reasoned that simultaneous attacks at three points would prevent the Germans from concentrating their defence. The timing of the assault required special consideration, not only because of tidal variations, but because Simonds had ordered that the planned bridgehead should be firm by nightfall so that that engineers could start their operations under cover of darkness. The start time was set for 15.00.

The 3rd Division was significantly augmented to meet the special demands of ‘Duck’ (iii), and therefore had under command were the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment), two batteries of the 6th Anti-Tank Regiment, and the headquarters of the II Corps Troops engineers with the 20th and 31st Field Companies. It was also planned that the operation would be supported by ‘Crocodile’ flamethrower tanks and that additional British and Canadian artillery would support the 3rd Division’s own artillery. During the early afternoon of 28 April Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers attacked targets in Leer and, 35 minutes before the assault boats were launched, the artillery opened a heavy bombardment.

On the 9th Brigade’s right flank the German positions were too close to the Canadian assembly area for the artillery to give support and a contrary wind made a normal smoke-screen impracticable. Nevertheless, the men of the North Nova Scotia employed their 2-in (51-mm) mortars, firing smoke bombs, to screen the attack, a task in which the regiment was supported by weapons of the Camerons and the 1st Battalion, The Canadian Scottish Regiment. The men of D Company, carrying the assault boats, left the cover of the dykes, dashed to the river bank, boarded the boats and was soon on the other side. The Germans were taken completely by surprise, and were discovered cowering in their trenches: three machine guns were captured, fully loaded, before they had fired a single round. The remaining part of the North Nova Scotia followed D Company and in a short time had penetrated deeply in the southern portion of Leer.

Meanwhile, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of the town, The Highland Light Infantry of Canada launched its boats on the Ems river and headed downstream to the point at Leerort. Although delayed, the regiment received such excellent support from the artillery that its landing was virtually unopposed. The HLIC then pressed forward into the centre of Leer against light opposition. On the left of the brigade the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders encountered the heaviest opposition.

As its boats crossed the Ems river, 400 yards (365 m) wide at this point, the regiment was engaged by machine gun fire from both flanks. The leading companies reached the eastern bank at 15.08, but then sustained German fire sank two boats in a second wave and 15 men were believed drowned. The regiment mopped up resistance along the adjacent dyke and proceeded methodically to clear the western part of Leer and, in the process, there was fierce street fighting. Another difficulty arose in connection with the build-up: wind, tide and engine trouble plagued the engineers’ efforts to maintain ferry service across the rivers.

‘Duck’ (iii) was halted on the night of 28/29 April to be resumed during the morning of the next day. The operation then proceeded smoothly and by 18.50 on 29 April Rockingham was able to report that his brigade had achieved all of its objectives as far as the railway running through the eastern section of Leer. The fighting of 28/29 April cost the 9th Brigade 70 casualties. The 7th Brigade completed the capture of Leer and the area immediately round it.

Late on 29 April the Regina Rifle Regiment moved east across the railway without serious, and in the morning of the next day swung south to clear the right bank of the Leda river, overcoming unexpected resistance in a German barracks. Meanwhile the Royal Winnipeg Rifles had cleared Julianen Park, and the Canadian Scottish then took Loga with little difficulty, delayed only by the rubble in the streets.

Late on 1 May the headquarters of the 3rd Division issued orders for the final phase of the division’s entire North-West European campaign. While the 7th Brigade held the Leer bridgehead, the 8th Brigade was to drive on toward Aurich, seizing crossings over the Ems-Jade Canal. The 7th Brigade would then take over and capture Aurich, while the 9th Brigade, on the left, probed toward Emden. Brigadier J. A. Roberts’s 8th Brigade and the 9th Brigades advanced steadily along their designated routes in the face of scattered resistance and extensive demolitions, but the war in Europe ended before the Canadians had reached their objectives. At this time the 8th Brigade was on the outskirts of Aurich, and Roberts was negotiating with the Germans for the surrender of the place as operations were suspended on 4 May.