Operation Elephant (ii)

This was a Canadian attack by Brigadier J. C. Jefferson’s 10th Brigade of Major General C. Vokes’s 4th Armoured Division within General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army against the German bridgehead at Kapelsche Veer on the Maas river in the Netherlands (26/31 January 1945).

In their planning of ‘Wacht am Rhein’, the Germans had sought to secure a breakthough along the section of the front held by Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army, and Generaloberst Kurt Student’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’, opposite the 1st Army, planned to capitalise on this eventuality with its own offensive, as ordered by Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, as soon as the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ formations of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ had reached the Meuse (Maas in Dutch) river somewhere between Dinant and Liége.

The Maas river would prove to be a difficult obstacle to cross, but one of the more likely crossing points was at Kapelsche Veer, an island with a small German outpost on the river some 11.25 miles (18 km) to the north of Tilburg, the current headquarters of the 1st Army. On 21 December the garrison on the island was increased to one infantry company, with an advanced observation post linked to medium artillery, self-propelled gun and mortar units to the north of the Maas.

The Allies had not initially thought to occupy the island, believing that it could be dominated by artillery fire. By the end of December, with ‘Wacht am Rhein’ failing, the prospects for any German offensive against the 1st Army were becoming steadily less appealing. However, the German outpost at Kapelsche Veer was viewed by the 1st Army as troublesome in light of the comparative weakness of Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division, which was holding that sector of the front. An attack on 30 December by the division’s infantry units made little progress, and for the loss of 46 Canadians took only a few prisoners of Generalleutnant Hermann Plocher’s 6th Fallschirmjägerdivision. In ‘Mouse’, one week later, the Poles managed to take the area of the ferry harbour, but a German counterattack then pushed the Poles back with 120 casualties. Then in ‘Horse’, ordered by Lieutenant General Sir John Crocker’s British I Corps, No. 47 (Royal Marine) Commando attacked the same objective during the night of 13/14 January: this assault too failed with considerable officer casualties.

Crocker then instructed the Canadian 4th Armoured Division to destroy the German position as a means of starting the reconstruction of local morale, to deny the Germans a prime location for the observation of Allied movements, the control of artillery fire and the mounting of patrols into the Allied positions south of the Maas river, and finally to divert German attention from the main offensive to be launched by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group in the Rhineland during February.

The terrain surrounding Kapelsche Veer is a flat stretch of barren low-lying ground where the Maas branches into two channels, namely the wider Bergsche Maas in the north and narrower Oude Maasje in the south. The island is 5 miles (8 km) long and a mere 1 mile (1.6 km) across at its widest point, tapering to 1,000 yards (915 m) at the eastern end. With faces angled at some 45°, dikes some 20 ft (6 m) high and 30 ft (9.1 m) wide protected the island’s southern side from the river’s strong current.

It was here that the Canadian 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment) had made contact with the Germans during the middle of December before the sector was allocated to the Polish 1st Armoured Division, and reported that the Germans had established a position on the island, though this report was not believed.

The fourth assault on the Kapelsche Veer position was now schemed as ‘Elephant’ (ii), and involved two infantry battalions, one tank regiment and considerable artillery support. This last included 300 guns ranging in calibre from the 75-mm (2.95-in) weapons of the Canadian 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment’s M4 Sherman medium tanks to the 5.5-in (140-mm) guns of the medium artillery regiments. Despite the fact that the three previous attacks had indicated the Allies’ desire to take the island, the element of tactical surprise was to be obtained by foregoing an initial artillery bombardment and attacking in daylight through a smoke screen. Other elements of the attack plan were the use of flamethrowers (six Wasp conversions of Universal Carriers with flame projectors and 24 Lifebuoy man-pack units). Two companies would attack from the east and one company from the west, moving simultaneously toward the objective, which was the harbour. Some 15 canoes would also be used to land infantry paddling from the eastern tip of the island to land on each side of the harbour mouth, also with the benefit of a smoke screen, to prevent the arrival of German reinforcements from the northern bank. To aid the passage of armour onto the island, a bridge dubbed the ‘Mad Whore’s Dream’ had been raised by engineers, working at night with equipment silently rafted into position, on the eastern end of the island, only 500 yards (460 m) from the Germans.

The Germans had meanwhile reinforced their garrison at Kapelsche Veer, and this now totalled some 150 men of Oberst Martin Vetter’s 17th Fallschirmjägerregiment. Student had instructed Plocher to hold the island at all costs, and the Germans had built elaborate defences including underground positions in the dikes and well-sited machine gun positions able to cover all the approaches to the harbour.

A smoke barrage provided the first tangible evidence that ‘Elephant’ (ii) had started at 07.15 on 26 January. The attack from the east got under way at 07.25, with C Company supported by four Wasp flamethrower vehicles crossing the bridge, and linking with A Company which had crossed by Buffalo amphibious tractors 1.5 miles (2.4 km) farther to the east. The Wasp vehicles were too heavy to mount the dike, so the infantry had to advance on their own toward their objective, which was a pair of houses in the harbour area designated as ‘Grapes’ and ‘Raspberry’. The canoe party also set off from the island near the ‘Mad Whore’s Dream’, though the presence of 1 in (2.5 cm) of ice on the river required the men to haul the boats out over the ice to reach the water. Soaked and cold, the party was forced out into the stream by the ice along each bank. Here the smoke cover was less dense and also dissipating as a result of a shift in the wind, and the canoe party came under fire from the northern bank as it paddled toward the harbour, several of the canoes being sunk. The men from the remaining canoes disembarked on the island about halfway to their objective, but by this time the original party of 60 men had dwindled to just 15. German machine guns firing on fixed lines through the smoke met the Canadians on the top of the dike, and attempts to return fire were impossible as the weapons had frozen solid after their soaking in the canoes.

Meanwhile A Company reached a point only 30 yards (27.5 m) from ‘Grapes’ before being repulsed by heavy fire. The Lifebuoy operators were especially vulnerable, and the combination of 60 lb (27 kg) of dead weight on their backs and metal-cleated boots in the snow and ice resulted in the deaths of all the flamethrower operators.

By 09.45 A Company had been halted, and the survivors dug in as best they could on the dike a few hundred yards from their objective. A strong German counterattack drove them back farther into C Company, which was coming up behind A Company. C Company lost all its officers, and by 11.30 the attack from the east had failed. The remnants of A and C Companies were then withdrawn from the island.

The attack from the west initially proceeded well. B Company of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment crossed to the island in Buffalo vehicles and moved along the dike under good smoke cover toward ‘Raspberry’ until stopped by heavy fire, and by 12.00 the attack from the west had also failed. The 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment had provided indirect fire from one troop but played no further part in the morning’s fighting. Jefferson now ordered renewed attacks with the Lincoln and Welland Regiment continuing the advance from the west and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada taking over for the attack from the east. Tanks of the 29th ARR were ordered forward to support both attacks.

While the ‘Mad Whore’s Dream’ was considered suitable for tanks, the movement of tanks to support the attack from the west would require that the vehicles be rafted over, and the 9th Field Squadron, Royal Canadian Engineers, was ordered to assemble materials to construct, on the bank of a subsidiary canal, a raft capable of carrying a 40-ton load. Two M5 Stuart light tanks of the 29th ARR crossed the ‘Mad Whore’s Dream’ but then found little traction on the top of the dike and lacked the space to turn round. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, now on the eastern end of the island, were under mortar fire from across the Maas. The two Stuart tanks spent the next two days providing fire support with their 37-mm guns and machine guns, as well as using their armour for the safe transport of wounded soldiers and also to bring ammunition and supplies to forward positions.

At the western end of the island, the engineers found the task of constructing the raft to be a very difficult, the more so as the water was partially frozen. The arrival of a German patrol and a sudden snow-storm on the night of 26/27 January further delayed the work, and tank support for the Lincoln and Welland Regiment had therefore to wait.

Attacks from both east and west on the Kapelsche Veer during 27 January were defeated by German automatic weapons fire and by heavy mortar fire from across the Maas. The narrow dike tops restricted movement to single platoons at a time, and movement off the dikes was impossible as a result of the snow and the ground beneath it. Artillery and tactical air support were not seen as being of value against German positions buried deep in the ground. All the Canadian Wasp flamethrower vehicles had been bogged down, and the deaths of the Lifebuoy operators the day before left no volunteers to carry the weapons into action. The only option now left to the Canadians was armour. Attacking from the west, the Lincoln and Welland Regiment got to within 300 yards (275 m) of ‘Raspberry’ but found Germans infiltrating along the northern side of the dike to get behind them and so cut them off. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada managed to get within 1,000 yards (915 m) of ‘Grapes’ with the help of supporting fire from the machine guns of the two Stuart light tanks. The German mortar fire was met with indirect fire from the 75-mm (2.95-in) guns of the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment’s Sherman tanks and 25-pdr shells from the Canadian 15th Field Regiment, and the harbour was shelled and also attacked by a squadron of Supermarine Spitfire fighter-bombers during the day.

The Canadian artillery frustrated all German efforts to reinforce the garrison at Kapelsche Veer, but was not able to stop elements of the pioneer and anti-tank platoons of the 17th Fallschirmjägerregiment from crossing the Maas. As work on the raft progressed during the day, at the eastern end of the island two Sherman tanks successfully crossed the ‘Mad Whore’s Dream’, despite the fact that they were notionally far too heavy for this structure, at 15.00. The Sherman tanks aided the pioneer platoon of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada in clearance of mines from the dike in preparation for a renewed infantry attack.

At about the same time, the raft on the western end of the island was finished, and three Sherman tanks were floated over to support the Lincoln and Welland Regiment. The Canadian returned to the fray at 09.00 on 28 January, now with tank support. A rise in the temperature was now turning the ice into mud, however, and the second of the three tanks supporting the western attack bogged down, blocking the passage of the tank behind it. The leading Sherman continued with the infantry toward ‘Raspberry’, but was compelled to halt when the infantry went to ground under heavy fire. The four tanks moving toward ‘Grapes’ in the eastern attack made better progress, but here too the infantry were driven to ground by heavy automatic weapons and mortar fire. The tanks fired at likely enemy positions until they were low on ammunition, then backed up to where the infantry was sheltering to resupply and move forward again.

The Canadian forces to the east and west of the German position were constantly assailed by heavy mortar fire despite the best efforts of the Canadian artillery, which deluged the land to the north of the Maas river with heavy fire. The Canadian attacks therefore faltered until 14.00.

The Wasp managed to reach the top of the dike and, as a result of poor communications, did not halt among the leading infantry of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and made for ‘Grapes’ at speed. With the tanks providing cover fire, the Wasp bogged just short of ‘Grapes’, but managed to get off a couple of bursts from its flame gun. One Sherman managed to find a location on the dike from which it could depress its weapons on the northern bank of the island, where it managed to inflict heavy losses on a 25-man platoon of the 17th Fallschirmjägerregiment, which lost 17 men killed and five wounded.

This opened the way for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada to close in and finally take ‘Grapes’. The Lincoln and Welland Regiment also achieved a measure of success, taking ‘Raspberry’ with the support of the single Sherman in the middle of the afternoon. But German infiltration from positions in the dike so confused the situation, however, that the Canadian infantrymen withdrew at 16.00 to regroup, leaving the sole tank by itself. The Sherman stayed in position, firing in support of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada just visible to the east, but eventually the Sherman had to reverse down the dike to get more ammunition. The tank’s commander was killed by a German sniper as he directed his driver from the open turret hatch, and as his crew brought his body back to the other tanks, this Sherman too bogged down, completely blocking the dike.

By a time late in the afternoon, ‘Grapes’ and ‘Raspberry’ were in Canadian hands, but there were still numbers of German soldiers in a large number of tunnels. These German launched a counterattack after dark, and before midnight both the building were once again in German hands, forcing the Canadians to fall back several hundred yards to both the east and west, and wiping out the day’s gains. During the night of 28/29 January, the Canadians managed to effect the relief of their forces. The direct-fire support position, which had been designated ‘Anne’, saw a changeover from A Squadron of the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment to C Squadron of the same regiment. The tank crews, the infantry companies and the artillery forward observation officers on the island were also replaced.

The German mortar fire had been sporadic during the night, but during the morning increased in intensity, and the Canadian artillery responded in kind: by the battle’s end, the Canadian 15th Field Regiment had fired 14,000 rounds of 25-pdr ammunition, twice the original expected allotment, and was only one of several field and medium regiments, as well as 4.2-in (107-mm) mortars, the tanks of the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment and the British Columbia Regiment, which all provided fire support for ‘Elephant’ (ii).

Renewed Canadian attacks on ‘Grapes’ and ‘Raspberry’ at 07.00 were met yet again by the fire of automatic weapons and mortars. The combination of shell detonations and rising temperature had by now left little snow on the island, and the tanks were hampered by the mud. All three Sherman medium tanks on the west were by now completely bogged, and on the right one Stuart light tank was stuck in so badly that no other vehicle could move past it, though luckily the other three tanks were not trapped behind it. Engineers went forward with a bulldozer after attempts to move the tank by pushing it and even using HE shells failed, but it took 18 hours to build a diversion around it.

At 12.45 the attack from the east made progress, and two tanks supported the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada as they took ‘Grapes’ once again. Heavy German fire prevented movement westward toward ‘Raspberry’.

In the west, the Lincoln and Welland Regiment lacked tank support and was halted, although a German prisoner reported that the German garrison was down to 70 men including 20 wounded. By the fall of night, German control of the island had been reduced to a few hundred yards surrounding ‘Raspberry’ and the western side of the harbour. By now the Germans were also under direct fire from a pair of Crusader anti-aircraft tanks in addition to heavy artillery concentrations and tank fire from the island itself. During the night, the diversion around the Stuart light tank on the eastern approach was completed, and in the west another Sherman was floated across to the island. One of the previously bogged Sherman tanks also managed to extricate itself after an effort of several hours, and its commander decided to take the vehicle forward to assist the Lincoln and Welland Regiment’s mineclearing effort, but managed to advance only a matter of feet before bogging again. German boats were detected on the river, but it was unclear if these were withdrawing or reinforcing the paratroop garrison.

At first light on 30 January the two Sherman tanks at ‘Grapes’ opened fire on what was left of ‘Raspberry’ just 100 yards (90 m) away along the dike, and found that the barrels of their Browning machine guns had been worn smooth by the number of rounds they had fired. New guns had to be brought over, delaying further operations, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada did not move forward until 11.15, almost immediately being forced to take cover under a hail of automatic weapons fire. Once the Canadian infantry had halted, they came under mortar fire from north of the Maas river.

Another attempt at 15.00 to cross the 100 yards (90 m) to ‘Raspberry’ was also beaten back, and at 15.30 the Germans respected a Red Cross flag as the Canadians went forward to recover their wounded. A third attempt was supported by two more Sherman tanks which had crossed the ‘Mad Whore’s Dream’ and used the diversion to pass the bogged Stuart. With four tanks in support firing HE shell and medium machine gun ball, the Germans were forced to call down smoke from their mortars to obscure the tank crews’ fields of vision. but it was too late, for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada had taken ‘Raspberry’.

After looking in vain for an opening into the German tunnel complex, the Canadians used demolition charges on every hole they found under the rubble, and also advanced a few hundreds of yards farther to the west to meet the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, which was still unable to move without armoured support, now down to one Sherman which was trapped behind the three bogged Sherman vehicles. The tanks supported the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada as best they could as the Canadian Scottish regiment attempted to advance past ‘Raspberry’, but was driven back.

One of the Sherman tanks on the eastern side of the island tried to move forward of the infantry at 18.00 just as the light began to fail, and was stopped by a Panzerfaust. The two houses had been taken, but the two groups of Canadians were still unable to join forces. During the night of 30/31 January, one of the Sherman tanks on the west managed to unbog itself and then moved to the knocked-out tank to prevent its use by the Germans as a bunker. The Sherman remained in position without infantry support all night, firing on Germans attempting to enter the knocked-out tank. There was no other action until first light on 31 January. Fresh tank crews arrived, and covered the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, who managed this time to move the few hundred yards to meet the Lincoln and Welland Regiment at 08.00.

It was easy at the end, for the Germans had finally evacuated the garrison during the night. A handful of prisoners was all that was left, in addition to the odd mortar bomb sailing across the Maas river from the northern bank. The German withdrawal had probably not been precipitated by a change of heart on the part of Student, but rather by a change of command as on 29 January Student had been succeeded at the head of Heeresgruppe ‘H’ by Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz: the paratroop commander at Kapelsche Veer, who had complained that Student would not authorise a withdrawal, had evidently obtained that permission from Blaskowitz. The final German casualty list was reported in the Canadian official history as 145 killed, 64 wounded and 34 captured, but it is more likely that the German casualties were in fact 64 killed and wounded, and 34 taken prisoner. The Canadian casualties totalled 133 as 39 killed and 35 wounded in the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, 15 killed and 35 wounded in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, and four dead and 5 wounded in the 29th ARR.

Previous assaults by the Poles and the Royal Marines had cost 231 casualties, so the overall Allied casualties in taking the island totalled 364 killed and wounded. After the battle at Kapelsche Veer, no further offensive operations were mounted by Canadian formations in the Nijmegen salient as planning had already long since been focused on the forthcoming ‘Veritable’ and the Battle of the Rhineland, which began only eight days after the Germans pulled back over the Maas river.