Operation Forrard One

This was the British advance to Bremen in northern Germany by Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group after the successful outcome of ‘Plunder’ (29 March/26 April 1945).

In the face of weakening opposition by General Günther Blumentritt’s (from 10 April Generaloberst Kurt Student’s) 1st Fallschirmarmee of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’, the 2nd Army proceeded via Münster and Osnabrück to take Bremen on 26 April. Montgomery’s definitive objective was another port city, Lübeck on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea via another but still greater port city, namely Hamburg on the estuary of the Elbe river in the south-eastern corner of the North Sea, the capture of these two port cities thus cutting off the German forces occupying Denmark and Norway. For this purpose Montgomery had the 2nd Army and, to the north of this, General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army, in all comprising five corps of 16 divisions (six of them armoured).

The former faced the remnants of the 1st Fallschirmarmee and the latter General Günther Blumentritt’s 25th Army. This debilitated force was under the command of Busch who, as the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Nordwest’, had assumed responsibility for the German defence of the Netherlands, the north-western part of Germany, Denmark and Norway. The Germans were weak in numbers and matériel, but this fact was offset, to a degree at least, by the fact that tracts of bog and the otherwise marshy nature of the ground kept the British and armour to the main roads.

Having captured Münster, the key to Westphalia, Dempsey’s 2nd Army, pushed forward Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s XXX Corps in the direction of Bremen, Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s XII Corps toward Hamburg, and Lieutenant General E. H. Barker’s VIII Corps toward Lübeck. On the right the VIII Corps was momentarily delayed by a small but determined counterattack by Generalleutnant Martin Unrein’s Panzerdivision ‘Clausewitz’, which was directed toward the junction of the 21st Army Group and General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group. Even so, the VIII Corps reached the Elbe river opposite Lauenburg on 19 April.

At this point Montgomery, anxious to move with all possible speed, requested support from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces, and was given Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US XVIII Airborne Corps (Major General Bryant E. Moore’s 8th Division, Major General Lunsford E. Oliver’s 5th Armored Division, Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck’s 7th Armoured Division, Major General James M. Gavin’s 82nd Airborne Division and Major General E. L. Bols’s British 6th Airborne Division).

On 29/30 April the British and Americans forced the Elbe river. On 2 May Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division, the spearhead of the VIII Corps, occupied Lübeck and the 6th Airborne Division entered Wismar, 28 miles (45 km) farther to the east, six hours ahead of the Soviet forces advancing from the east.

Meanwhile the XII Corps had been compelled to face a final challenge on 6 April while crossing the Aller river, a tributary on the right bank of the Weser river. After this it took advantage of the bridgehead won over the Elbe river by the VIII Corps and closed on Hamburg.

The Battle of Hamburg was one of the last battles of World War II, and pitted the remnants of the 1st Fallschirmarmee against the much larger and better equipped British VIII Corps for the control of Hamburg between 18 April and 3 May 1945. The British were met with fierce resistance inside the city as Hamburg was the last significant remaining pocket of resistance in the north. Once the British had captured the city, they continued their advance north-east and sealed off the remnants of the 1st Fallschirmarmee and the Oberbefehlshaber 'Nordwest' command in the Jutland peninsula.

Inevitably, of course, the scene is set for the Battle of Hamburg by the course of the Allied surge into the north German plain. After the Allies had crossed the Rhine river and plunged into the heartland of Germany, the German armies in the west began to fall apart. Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B' was the last effective German defence in the west but this formation of three armies was encircled in the Ruhr industrial region and captured by Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army and Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army, thus ending effective German resistance in the west. After the defeat of Heeresgruppe 'B', the Germans were able to organise resistance only in a few cities, and were not able to communicate effectively with each other. The Allied armies started a general advance across Germany, with the Americans pushing through in the centre with the British and Canadians operating on their northern flank and the French on their southern flank.

The main British thrust came from Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army, whose objective was to advance across northern Germany and push on to Berlin. The British met little resistance compared to that faced by the US forces farther to the south, and advanced at a steady and fast pace. The 1st Fallschirmarmee and the newly formed Heeresgruppe 'Nordwest' were the last German forces in the north. As the British continued their advance, the German high command in Berlin, which was under siege by the Soviet formations of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front from the north and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan D. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front from the south, refused to send reinforcements.

In the drive toward Bremen, the XXX Corps was delayed by a great deal of destruction, and met with altogether fiercer resistance. What was left of Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann’s 7th Fallschirmjägerdivision made a counterattack in front of Lingen, and Oberst Graf von Bassewitz’s 2nd Marine-Division showed the same aggressive spirit in defence, and it needed a pincer movement by three divisions to bring about the fall of Bremen on 26 April.

The Germans had managed to check the British in Bremen for one week, and then the surviving troops retreated into the Jutland peninsula. The last remaining defence was the city of Hamburg, and here the Germans sought to make a final stand. After taking Soltau, Major General L. O. Lyne’s 7th Armoured Division of the VIII Corps was poised to assault the city.

The British advance towards Hamburg was spearheaded by the 7th Armoured Division, attacking Harburg and advancing to the south-western bank of the Elbe river across from Hamburg, with Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division assaulting the town of Uelzen to the south of the city. Elements of the XII Corps attacked Hamburg itself from the north-west. On its advance to Harburg, the 7th Armoured Division captured Welle and Tostedt on 18 April, and moved into Hollenstedt on the following day. By this time, the Germans had increased their defences in Harburg as the British moved closer. On 20 April, the division captured Daerstorf, 8 miles (13 km) to the west of the city. Forward observation officers of the Royal Horse Artillery reached the Elbe river and began to direct fire upon troops and trains across the river. On the same day, Brigadier J. M. K. Spurling’s 131st Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division took Vahrendorf just 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of Harburg.

The division halted the advance for five days just short of Hamburg, and during this time established a perimeter and prepared for its assault on the city. However on 26 April a Waffen-SS regiment, supported by Hitlerjugend, sailors and policemen, counterattacked at Vahrendorf with the support of 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role guns and 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzers, and reached the town centre before being driven back once British tanks arrived. The battle continued until the next day, when the Germans retreated back to Harburg, leaving 60 dead and losing 70 men as prisoners.

On 28 April the British began their assault on the city. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 9th Durham Light Infantry and 1st Rifle Brigade captured Jesteburg and Hittfeld. Here the German defenders blew parts of the Autobahn and slowed the British advance. On entering Harburg, the British encountered fierce resistance and had to clear the area on a house-to-house basis as the Germans would not surrender.

By this time the troops of the 1st Fallschirmarmee were a mix of SS, paratroopers, Volkssturm and army troops, supported by sailors, police, firemen and Hitlerjugend. As the British advance through the city continued, the resistance grew fiercer as the Germans fought desperately to re-cross the Autobahn back into Hamburg. Later on the same day, the first British troops crossed the Elbe into Hamburg itself. Here they were numbers of 88-mm (3.465-in) guns, but these became ineffectual as the battle progressed. Some German units, including a tank destroyer battalion, a Hungarian SS unit and many Panzerfaust units, were still in the woods to the south of Harburg as the British had bypassed the area and were now starting to clear it. Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division, supported by the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, assaulted the woods and captured all 2,000 of the remaining German troops.

As the battle continued, the German defences started to disintegrate. On 30 April, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin and Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, Hitler’s named successor and commanding the forces in the north, ordered Generalmajor Alwin Wolz, comander of the 3rd Flakdivision and the city;s combat commander, to discuss the surrender of the city to the British. Together with a small delegation, Wolz reached the British on 2 May and formally surrendered Hamburg on the following day. On this day the 7th Armoured Division entered the city, which the British found to be totally devastated.

Hamburg was the last remaining German defence against the British in the north. After the battle, the surviving men of the 1st Fallschirmarmee and Oberbefehlshaber 'Nordwest' command fell back to the north into the Jutland peninsula. Most of them retreated to Kiel, where they met soldiers of Generaloberst Kurt Student’s Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel' under the acting command of General Kurt von Tippelskirch and retreating to the west from the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The 7th Armoured Division advanced unopposed to Lübeck, where news of the German surrender came on 4 May.

Two days after the fall of Hamburg, Lyne’s 7th Armoured Division captured intact a bridge over the Kiel Canal at Eckernforde.