Operation Haymaker

This was a Canadian operation by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps of General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army toward and through Emmerich in northern Germany to secure bridging sites over the Rhine river (27/31 March 1945).

As the Canadians moved in an arc to the east along the north-western coast of Germany, their right flank would be echeloned slightly behind the left flank of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army. To cover the eastern flank of the Canadian II Corps as it advanced to the north-east from its Rhine river crossing points, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander-in-chief of the 21st Army Group considered returning Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XXX Corps to the Canadian 1st Army, but this proved unnecessary. Lieutenant General C. Foulkes’s Canadian I Corps might be required to clear the north-western part of the Netherlands still held by General Philipp Kieffel’s 25th Army of Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’, which on 6 April became Generalfeldmarschall Erst Busch’s Oberkommando ‘Nordwest’, but Crerar hoped to avoid such a diversion from the primary task of completing the defeat of the German forces in North-West Europe.

At the end of March careful consideration was also being given to the problem of an assault crossing of the IJssel river from the east to the west, a task which had been assigned to the Canadian 1st Army in an earlier directive from Montgomery, thereby opening a route through Arnhem and Zutphen to maintain the forces to the east of the Rhine and IJssel rivers. Although there was little probability of any strong German resistance along the IJssel, the river itself represented a major obstacle as it varied in width between 115 and 200 yards (105 and 185 m) and had high floodbanks. The Canadian problem was also complicated by a temporary shortage of engineering resources. A proposal of the 21st Army Group to carry out the plan with both Canadian corps operating to the east of the IJssel was considered impracticable by the Canadian 1st Army because of limitations on crossings over the Rhine river and routes to the east of the IJssel river. In fact the Canadian II Corps made the crossing of the IJssel river in the middle of April in conjunction with the operations of the Canadian I Corps to the west of the river.

Meanwhile preparations for the offensive to the north-east continued. Simonds established his command post near Bienen, where he could direct Major General R. H. Keefler’s Canadian 3rd Division during its advance on Emmerich while maintaining contact with the British XXX Corps on his right flank. Major General A. B. Matthews’s Canadian 2nd Division, which had been resting in the Reichswald area, crossed the Rhine river on 28/29 March with Brigadier J. V. Allard’s Canadian 6th Brigade in the lead. This formation was to become the spearhead of the Canadian II Corps’ ‘Haymaker’ advance to the north-east with the Canadian 3rd Division and Major General C. Vokes’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division on its left and right respectively. At the end of the month the Canadian 4th Armoured Division joined the force in the bridgehead.

Before Crerar could take control of Canadian operations to the east of the Rhine river, it was necessary to open a maintenance route across the river at Emmerich, and this itself was dependent on the progress of operations to capture the city of Emmerich and the nearby Hoch Elten ridge. This task was undertaken by the Canadian 3rd Division. On the night of 27/28 March Brigadier T. G. Gibson’s Canadian 7th Brigade began the assault on the eastern approaches to Emmerich. The Canadian Scottish quickly captured the village of Vrasselt and continued to press forward during the night, and the Regina Rifle Regiment occupied Dornick during the following morning. The units had reached the outskirts of Emmerich before they started to encounter serious opposition, in this instance from units of Generalleutnant Hermann Plocher’s 6th Fallschirmjägerdivision and Generalmajor Günter Theermann’s 346th Division of General Felkix Schwalbe’s LXXXVIII Corps. Keefler then ordered the Canadian 7th Brigade to continue its attacks to clear Emmerich and a wooded area to the north of the city while Brigadier J. A. Roberts’s Canadian 8th Brigade prepared to pass through and attack the Hoch Elten ridge. These efforts had the supported of the gun tanks of the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment) and the Crocodile flamethrower tanks of C Squadron, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry.

During the night of 28/29 March the Canadian Scottish met very serious resistance as the battalion tried to enlarge its bridgehead over the Landwehr canal. One company of the Regina Rifles provided assistance in this difficult task, and despite their stubborn defence the Germans were steadily if slowly driven back into the city, while the Canadian engineers bridged the canal during the dark hours of the night. This opened the way for strong and well co-ordinated thrusts into the heart of Emmerich’s built-up. On the morning of 29 March the Regina Rifles, supported by gun and flamethrower tanks, attacked to clear the southern part of the city, but met steadily increasing resistance as the battalion pushed forward as the Germans defences were based on fortified houses and tanks, and each house and building had to be searched before further advance could be contemplated. When the Canadians forced their way into the city centre they faced a problem which had dogged them and other Allied forces from the time of the fighting in Normandy in June 1944: the armour found it almost impossible to manoeuvre as a result of the collapsed ruins of buildings and the Germans’ construction of well-sired road blocks. While the Regina Rifles cleared the southern part of Emmerich, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles fought steadily through the city’s northern section, beating back a fierce German counterattack early on 30 March. On that day the Canadian Scottish move forward to lead the division, and took a large cement works on the city’s western outskirts as the start line for Roberts’s Canadian 8th Brigade. The Canadian 7th Brigade completed its task on the following morning. During the previous three days its infantry battalions had suffered 172 casualties, including 44 killed or died of wounds.

The Canadian 8th Brigade was now to carry forward the attack and capture the Hoch Elten ridge, the tactically significant high wooded ridge some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north-west of Emmerich. It dominated the Canadian engineers’ Rhine river bridging sites, so continued German occupation of the ridge could possibly delay the full participation of Canadian 1st Army in the battle. For this reason the Hoch Elten area had come under notably heavy air and artillery bombardment in the days before the attack. The pasting which the German defenders had endured had the effect of easing the task of the Canadian 8th Brigade when it advanced on the night of 30/31 March. The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and Le Régiment de la Chaudière led the way. The surviving German artillery and mortars fired on the Canadian axes of advance but, in general, the Canadians encountered little serious opposition. On the following night Le Régiment de la Chaudière entered the village of Elten, to the west of the ridge, while the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and the North Shore Regiment completed the occupation of the wooded area. Meanwhile, on the Canadian 3rd Division’s inland flank, Brigadier J. M. Rockingham’s Canadian 9th Brigade cleared the woods to the north of Emmerich and the nearby town of ‘s-Heerenberg.

With the Germans removed from Hoch Elten, the Canadian engineers were able to start the construction of a low-level Bailey pontoon bridge, able to carry a 40-ton tank, across the Rhine river at Emmerich. At 12.00 on 31 March the men and equipment of the Canadian II Corps Troops Engineers began work with the assistance of various elements of British and Canadian services and a squadron of landing craft provided by the naval Force ‘U’. Although the Germans were unable to interfere directly with the bridging operation, their minefields on the northern bank (the Rhine river flows due west at Emmerich) had to be cleared, and a west wind impeded the manoeuvring of floating bays into position. Nevertheless the bridge opened for traffic at 20.00 on the following day. The bridge was 1,373 ft (418.5 m) long, almost immediately an effectively uninterrupted flow of traffic crossed by day and night. There followed the construction of two more bridges at Emmerich, one for lighter vehicles and infantry, and the other for heavier traffic. The way was now clear for Crerar to take full control of Canadian operations in the region to the east of the Rhine river.