Operation Pheasant (ii)

This was a British and Canadian operation in the German-occupied Netherlands to liberate central and western Brabant (20 October/8 November 1944).

Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army, under the temporary command of Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds, attacked from Belgium and Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army attacked from the east, both under the command of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group.

On 16 October Montgomery had reoriented the 2nd Army so that this formation’s full weight would be available for the Anglo-Canadian effort to open Antwerp as the Allied forces’ main supply port though a ‘strong thrust westward on the axis from ‘s-Hertogenbosch to Breda, with the army’s right moving along the Maas river and its left passing some 10 miles (16 km) south of Tilburg’. The regrouping of the 2nd Army’s dispositions now placed Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s XII Corps on the left flank of the corridor linking Eindhoven and Nijmegen and facing to the west: on the corps’ right were Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division and Major General G. L. Verney’s 7th Armoured Division, together with Brigadier R. M. P. Carver’s 4th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier H. B. Scott’s 33rd Armoured Brigade, and on the corps’ left were Major General T. G. Rennie’s 51st Division and Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division, together with Brigadier W. D. C. Greenacre’s 6th Guards Tank Brigade. The corps was also supported by specialised armour of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division and the 3rd Army Group of the Royal Artillery.

When the XII Corps’ advance started on 22 October, adverse weather initially prevented flying and thus the provision of tactical air support, but later in the same day the weather conditions improved and demands for immediate air support were met by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force, which delivered strong and effective attacks on German troops and headquarters.

The opposition was found by General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’, and this army had under command General Werner Freiherr von und zu Gilsa’s LXXXIX Corps, General Otto Sponheimer’s LXVII Corps and General Hans-Wolfgang Reinhard’s LXXXVIII Corps.

The 15th Army put up a strong resistance to the efforts of the 7th Armoured Division, especially at Middlerode, but the 53rd Division managed to reaches the edge of ‘s-Hertogenbosch early on 24 October. By this time the 51st Division, on the 53rd Division’s left, had become involved in the offensive from its start line near Veghel and, in ‘Colin’ had taken Schijndel and moved just to the south of west to reach Boxtel, where the Germans had blown the bridge over the Dommel river and were holding the location in considerable strength. Farther to the south, the 15th Division was advancing on Tilburg.

A powerful force of medium bombers, as well as Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers, of the 2nd Tactical Air Force meanwhile attacked the bridges over the Maas river at Hedel and Moerdijk, and also the headquarters of the 15th Army at Dordrecht.

The 15th Army had already been forced to commit its last reserves, and on 25 October Model and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, appreciated the growing threat of the British offensive and agreed that a spoiling attack against the British forces’ eastern flank should be launched from the direction of Venlo two days later. This German intention was not, of course, known to the 2nd Army, whose VIII Corps, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor, had improved the positions held by its divisions on the British eastern flank.

On the XII Corps’ front, it took the 53rd Division two days of house-to-house fighting to clear the Germans from ‘s-Hertogenbosch and to bridge the network of waterways, including the Dommel river and the Afwaterings and Willems Canals, which intersected the town and made the elimination of the German defence that much more difficult and therefore costly. The 53rd Division drove back a small German counterattack on the western outskirts of ‘s-Hertogenbosch on 27 October, and on this day the German resistance in the city ended as the garrison commander surrendered.

By then the 7th Armoured Division had driven in a light screen of German infantry and pushed forward some 10 miles (16 km) to take Udenhout between ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Tilburg. Just to the south-east of Udenhout a column of the 15th Division and the 6th Guards Tank Brigade had captured Oisterwijk after a vigorous action, and the main body of the 15th Division launched its weight in a converging attack on Tilburg, which was taken on 27 October as the Germans pulled back. The British completed their clearance on the town on the following day, after which the 15th Division and later the 6th Guards Tank Brigade were ordered to move with speed to move eastern flank and so rejoin the VIII Corps, on which the German spoiling attack had descended.

It was on a date as early as 9 October that von Rundstedt had come to appreciate that the greatest danger the Germans faced on the Western Front, at least in the short term, lay in the area of Aachen. The Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ therefore came to the decision that there should be an armoured reserve behind this sector and therefore ordered General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee to depart the area of Nancy in the eastern part of central France on 14 October and move to the north and assume control over the sector of the front between Aachen in the south and the Reichswald in the north. At the same time General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps and Generalmajor Ernst-Günther Baade’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision also moved to the north from that sector, held by General Hermann Balck’s Heeresgruppe ‘G’, into Heeresgruppe ‘B’ reserve in the Venlo area, where Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzerdivision arrived from the Arnhem area to strengthen this reserve. Both the German armoured formations, the 9th Panzerdivision and the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, were at almost full strength.

It was this force which launched the German attack on the VIII Corps at Meijel early on 27 October and drove in the outposts of Major General Lindsay McD. Silvester’s (from 2 November Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck’s) US 7th Armored Division. The division counterattacked but met a fresh German attack and by 29 October the German had effected a penetration of some 6 miles (9.6 km). But by the evening of this day, and unknown to the Germans, the 15th Division with the 6th Guards Tank Brigade had moved from Tilburg and concentrated behind the US division, and during the following day counterattacked the Germans, who were advancing again to secure better positions for a protracted defence. There was hard fighting, and on the night of 31 October/1 November the Germans pulled back the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision. The prevalence of mud, and the presence of mines, made it possible for the 9th Panzerdivision to delay the VIII Corps’ advance. On 8 November Meijel was still in German hands, even though the 9th Panzerdivision had been pulled back into reserve.

On this day the 7th Armored Division returned to the command of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group, but by then most of the 53rd Division and 51st Division had been moved to the Maas river front on completion of their tasks in driving the Germans back over the lower Maas.

Meanwhile, by 28 October the progress of the XII Corps and Lieutenant General E. L. M. Burns’s Canadian I Corps in the coastal area had by now made von Rundstedt realise that the 15th Army’s front must be shortened, and on 26 October he ordered the defence to fall back to the general line between Roosendaal and the Afwaterings Canal via Breda and Dongen. In the morning of the next day von Rundstedt received a telephoned instruction from Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff, that Adolf Hitler had ordered any withdrawal to be conducted as slowly as possible.

Going over to the offensive once more, to continue its clearance of the Netherlands in the area to the north of Tilburg, the XII Corps found that any German withdrawal was indeed accompanied by any and all measures to delay the British for as long a time as possible. Advancing to the north-west from Udenhout toward Loon op Zand, the 7th Armoured Division soon encountered strong resistance, and although the 51st Division moved forward on the armoured formation’s right, the British nonetheless needed two days to overcome a German screen of anti-tank guns and well emplaced infantry. The capture of Dongen, farther to the west, took even longer. After these places had been cleared, however, the British progress was steadier and by the evening of 31 October the divisions of the 2nd Army had reached the 10-mile (16-km) stretch of the Maas river from a point near Keizersveer to the Afwaterings Canal’s junction with the river. To the west of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, though, the ‘island’ enclosed by the canal and the river was still in German hands.

Meanwhile the Canadian I Corps had continued to fight its way to the north in the coastal area. By the end of daylight on 27 October Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division, close to the inter-army boundary, had embarked on a flanking attack on Breda after cutting the road from Tilburg, and at the same time Brigadier J. E. Bingham’s Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade had approached to within just a few miles of Breda and Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US 104th Division, loaned to the Canadian 1st Army to facilitate the liberation of Antwerp, had captured Zundert after a hard fight. The Poles cleared the Germans from Breda on 29 October after a severe urban combat, and Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division took Bergen-op-Zoom after a three-day battle. But several days passed before the whole of the Canadian I Corps had been able to cross to the north along length of the line linking Breda and Bergen-op-Zoom via Roosendaal.

At a time early on 29 October von Rundstedt again recommended strongly that the 15th Army should be authorised to pull back to the north across the line of the Waal river, but Hitler ordered that it must stand fast in the area to the south of the Maas river, though the German leader did agree that formations and units in clear danger of destruction might fall back into large bridgeheads, which were then to be held at all costs. As the situation of the 15th Army continued to deteriorate, later in the same day von Rundstedt asked for new orders. Hitler’s response, during the evening, merely reiterated his demand for slow withdrawal and large bridgeheads, and said that a major reinforcement of the 15th Army had been ordered. More significant, in operational terms, was the order that Generaloberst Kurt Student, commanding the 1st Fallschirmarmee on the 15th Army’s left, should take command of all German forces in the north-western part of the Netherlands from 24.00 on the same day: this was the first concrete move toward satisfaction of von Rundstedt’s suggestion of a fortnight earlier that there should be three army groups on the Western Front. Student’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’ came formally into existence on 11 November.

Meanwhile the German front along the line between Bergen-op-Zoom and ‘s-Hertogenbosch via Breda had already been broken and von Rundstedt, in an effort to ensure that the 15th Army was not destroyed in the area to the south of the Maas river, authorised a withdrawal to the line of the Mark river and the Mark Canal.

On 27 October the Canadian I Corps issued new orders. The Polish 1st Armoured Division, with the Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade under command, was to drive through toward Moerdijk and its all-important bridges across the Maas river; the US 104th Division was to angle its advance toward the north-west in order to reach the Mark river near Standdaarbuiten; Major General E. H. Barker’s British 49th Division was to move to the north from Roosendaal; and the Canadian 4th Armoured Division was to push through via Steenburgen to Willemstad on the estuary of the Hollandsch Diep river to the south-west of Dordrecht.

After taking Breda the Polish 1st Armoured Division soon reached the line of the Mark river and the Mark Canal, with the US 104th Division on the river some 8 miles (13 km) farther to the west. There followed hard fighting, but neither division managed to establish a bridgehead across the Mark river before the end of October.

At the beginning of November the Germans also still held two bridgeheads on the southern side of the lower reaches of the Maas river, in the form of one small bridgehead just to the west of ‘s-Hertogenbosch facing the XII Corps, and one larger bridgehead along the line of the Mark river facing the Canadian I Corps.

The 51st Division of the XII Corps attacked across the Afwaterings Canal on 4 December with the 7th Armoured Division co-operating on its left flank. With strong support by the corps artillery and sorties by the warplanes of Air Vice Marshal L. O. Brown’s No. 84 Group of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, the operation continued throughout the night and encountered little major resistance. The British engineers quickly constructed bridges over the canal after the explosion as the Germans destroyed their bridge over the Maas river at Heusden, and by the afternoon of the next day the task of the XII Corps had been completed. The Canadian I Corps was having a more difficult time, however, and all of its formations encountered determined German resistance.

Hitler had by now ordered that if the Moerdijk bridges fell intact into Allied hands, the commander of their supposedly powerful defences would face execution.

By 5 November the pressure exerted by the Canadian I Corps, greatly aided by the firepower of No. 84 Group’s aircraft, had broken the line of the Mark river and Mark Canal, and in the following three days the Canadian I Corps closed on the Maas river, though not at a speed great enough to prevent the Germans from destroying the Moerdijk bridges. The Canadian I Corps now took over responsibility for the line of the Maas river upstream as far as Maren, to he north-east of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in succession to the XII Corps, and the Canadian II Corps took over the Nijmegen sector from the XXX Corps.