Operation Turnscrew (ii)

This was the British crossing of the Rhine river in the area of Rees within ‘Plunder’ (23/27 March 1945).

It was during the night of 23/24 March Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group launched its ‘Plunder’ assault across the Rhine river under the covering fire of some 3,500 pieces of field, medium and heavy artillery, against formations of General Alfred Schlemm’s 1st Fallschirmarmee within Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’. The first division to attack was Major General T. G. Rennie’s 51st Division of Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s XXX Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army, and its assault was delivered in the Rees sector.

At 21.00 on 23 March the four assault battalions of its two leading brigades, loaded in about 150 Buffalo amphibious tracked carriers, advanced in columns through the flood water on the river’s western bank, moved down into the water at their appointed places, and swam across the river to make a good landfall on the eastern bank. However, this bank was muddy, and this slowed the amphibians in their task of getting clear of the water, and also prevented the Sherman DD amphibious tanks from landing at full strength. Little opposition was met at first, however, and by first light part of Rees had been occupied by Brigadier J. R. Sinclair’s 153rd Brigade, and Brigadier J. A. Oliver’s 154th Brigade had entered the village of Speldrop about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north-west.

But then Generalmajor Walter Wadehn’s 8th Fallschirmjägerdivision started to offer a determined resistance, and held its position in Rees as well as launching a counterattack which cut off the British troops in Speldrop. After daylight a stronger British attack with tanks was delivered in an effort to regain Speldrop, but met with no success. An element of this British force bypassed this village in the west and advanced to the north. Rennie was killed in the bridgehead in the course of the morning, and Horrocks crossed the Rhine river during the afternoon to ensure that operations proceeded satisfactorily. During the morning of the following day, Major General G. H. A. MacMillan of the 49th Division took command of the 51st Division.

By 24.00 on 24 March the British had secured most of Speldrop and relieved the troops trapped there, The rest of the 51st Division continued the advance but was checked in the outskirts of Bienen during the evening, and Brigadier A. J. H. Cassels’s 152nd Brigade got half-way toward Haldern in stiff fighting against Generalleutnant Eberhardt Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision of General Erich Straube’s LXXXVI Corps within the 1st Fallschirmarmee.

Delay in the capture of Rees combined with German artillery fire to interfere with British operations to throw bridges across the Rhine river, but ferries were working effectively during the day and work began on the construction of the bridges.

On 25 March the 51st Division finally cleared Rees and made progress to the north, albeit only slowly in the face of a determined German defence. The British division now had the whole of Brigadier J. M Rockingham’s Canadian 9th Brigade of Major General R. H. Keefler’s Canadian 3rd Division attacking on its left, and captured Bienen early on 26 March after an all-night fight. It was not until this time that the British division’s first bridges were finished.

During the night of 26/27 March Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division came into action and went on to capture Mechelen early on 28 March. By this time most of the Canadian 3rd Division was across and advancing westward to take Emmerich, and the 51st Division had secured Isselburg. The division had had a tough fight and sustained 859 casualties in this four-day operation.