Operation Veritable

This was the British and Canadian northern part of the Allied pincer movement, whose southern part was the US ‘Grenade’, to clear the German forces from the area between the Maas and Rhine rivers, to the east of the Dutch/German border in the the Rhineland (8/21 February 1945).

The progress of the Western Allies against the Germans in the first part of 1945 had been delayed by the need to crush the German salient and then pocket around Colmar, and also to deal with the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ offensive in the Ardennes. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander-in-chief in the European theatre, now instructed General Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander-in-chief of the Allied 21st Army Group, that once Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army and Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group had advanced from Prüm to Bonn in ‘Lumberjack’ and thus reached the Rhine river, to the north of these US formations the 21st Army Group, with Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army under command, would undertake the narrow-front ‘Veritable’ offensive on a south-easterly axis. The object of ‘Veritable’ was to take the Reichswald region and thereby open access to Germany from the Netherlands along the corridor between the Maas and Rhine rivers, and to reach the western bank of the Rhine river between Emmerich and Düsseldorf in preparation for ‘Plunder’, the 21st Army Group’s assault crossing of the Rhine river. The ultimate object of ‘Veritable’ proper was to reach Mörs and there link with the US 9th Army at the end of its essentially simultaneous ‘Grenade’ offensive on a north-easterly axis from the region of Geilenkirchen to the Rhine river in the area of Düsseldorf.

Montgomery hoped that he would receive the support of 16 US divisions in five corps (13 divisions in four corps of the 9th Army and three divisions in one corps to be allocated to Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army), but signally failed to allow for the fact that Bradley would be unable to release so many divisions while his 12th Army Group was undertaking the offensive from Prüm to Bonn as also ordained in Eisenhower’s 31 December directive.

Otherwise known as the Battle of the Reichswald, ‘Veritable’ was undertaken by the 21st Army Group, comprising for this undertaking General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army and Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XXX Corps. The combination of ‘Veritable’ (and the following ‘Blockbuster’) and ‘Grenade’ was a major element of Eisenhower’s broad-front strategy to occupy the entire western bank of the Rhine river before this was crossed. Originally schemed as ‘Valediction’, ‘Veritable’ was initially planned for implementation early in January 1945 when the ground was still frozen and thus more advantageous to the Allies, who wished to fight a war of manoeuvre making maximum use of their more abundant armoured and mechanised forces. The Allies expected that the northern end of the ‘Siegfried-Linie’ was more weakly defended than others of its sectors, and that this would facilitate an outflanking movement round the northern end of the German fixed defences to open the way to an early assault on the Ruhr industrial region.

Though the success of the operation would offer major strategic and operational advantages, the Canadians and British appreciated that the undertaking faced complications. Firstly, the heavily forested terrain in the tight confines of the area between Mass and Rhine rivers reduced the Anglo-Canadian advantages in manpower and armour, and this factor was exacerbated by the softness of the going over ground which had thawed after the winter, and also by the deliberate flooding of the adjacent Rhine river flood plain. Secondly, ‘Veritable’ was the northern arm of a pincer movement, as noted above, and the ‘Grenade’ southern arm, by Simpson’s US 9th Army, had perforce been postponed for two weeks after the Germans released the waters from the Roer river dams and the local river levels rose: there could be no significant military effort across the Roer river until the water had subsided.

In overall terms, ‘Veritable’ started on schedule with the XXX Corps advancing to the south-west through the forest and the Canadian 3rd Division, in amphibious vehicles on its left flank, clearing German positions on the flooded Rhine river plain. The Anglo-Canadian advance proceeded more slowly than had been expected, and at somewhat greater cost. The primary reasons for this were that the delay imposed on the start of ‘Grenade’ had made it possible for German forces to be concentrated against the Anglo-Canadian advance, and that the local German commander, General Alfred Schlemm of the 1st Fallschirmarmee within Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’, in contravention to the assessments of his superiors, had strengthened the ‘Siegfried-Linie’ defences and had available to him fresh elite troops.

Despite the severity of the fighting, the Anglo-Canadian advance continued until on 22 February, once clear of the Reichswald and with Kleve and Goch taken, the offensive was renewed under as ‘Blockbuster’ to link with ‘Grenade’ near Geldern on 4 March. Fighting continued as the Germans sought to retain a bridgehead on the western bank of the Rhine river at Wesel and evacuate as many men and as much equipment as they could. Finally, on 10 March, the German withdrawal ended as their rearguards destroyed the last bridges.

Eisenhower had decided that the best route into Germany was across the relatively flat lands of northern Europe, taking the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heart. A first requirement of this strategy was that Allied forces had close on the Rhine river along its whole length. Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had established a front along the Maas river late in 1944 and had also considered the viability of a number of offensive operations to enlarge and defend the Nijmegen bridgehead and its important bridges captured during ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ to take Arnhem. One such proposal was ‘Valediction’, itself a development of the earlier ‘Wyvern’ plan, posited an assault to the south-east from Nijmegen between the Maas and Rhine rivers, but Montgomery had opted against this, but at a conference of Allied senior officers at Maastricht on 7 December 1944 to assess the ways in which pressure could be maintained on the Germans during the winter months, the idea of ‘Valediction’ was revived and allocated to the Canadian 1st Army, reinforced for this undertaking by the British XXX Corps. The launch date was set provisionally as 1 January 1945, and it was at this point that ‘Valediction’ became ‘Veritable’. Then the start of ‘Veritable’ was delayed by the need to divert forces to the south against the German ‘Wacht am Rhein’ offensive through the Ardennes, and thus the planned advantage to the Allies of frozen and therefore hard ground was lost.

The 21st Army Group currently comprised Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army, Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army and Simpson’s US 9th Army. For ‘Veritable’, the reinforced British XXX Corps (partnered in the Canadian 1st Army by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps) was to advance through the Reichswald and its adjacent flood plains to the road linking Kleve and Goch.

By this stage of the North-West European campaign, the Canadian 1st Army had been somewhat degraded by the severity of its tasks in clearing the approaches to the vital port city of Antwerp during the previous autumn. In numerical terms it was the smallest of the Allied armies in northern Europe and, despite its name, contained significant British units as part of its structure including, for ‘Veritable’, the British XXX Corps. At the start of the operation, the army’s deployment was, from left to right across the Allied front, Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division, Major General A. B. Matthews’s Canadian 2nd Division, Major General C. M. Barber’s British 15th Division, Major General R. K. Ross’s (from 16 February Brigadier M. Elrington’s) British 53rd Division, and Major General T. G. Rennie’s British 51st Division. Other divisions added as the operation progressed were Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division (part of the XXX Corps’ reserve at the start of the operation), Major General A. H. S. Adair’s British Guards Armoured Division (also part of the XXX Corps’ reserve at the start of the operation), and Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s British 11th Armoured Division (transferred across the Maas river from the British 2nd Army as the operation progressed).

The German high command had come to the conclusion that any Allied advance through the Reichswald would be too difficult, and therefore expected that the assault in this part of the front would be delivered farther to the south by the British 2nd Army from the area of Venlo on the left flank of the US 9th Army. The Germans therefore deployed their reserves accordingly but Schlemm disagreed strongly with his superiors’ assessment of the situation and the Allies’ intentions, for he felt, correctly as events were to prove, that the Reichswald was the more likely route. He therefore ensured that the area was well fortified and quietly moved some of his reserves to be nearer this line of attack.

The 1st Fallschirmarmee had four corps under its command in the form of Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl’s II Fallschirmkorps, General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps, General Erich Abraham’s LXIII Corps, and General Erich Straube’s LXXXVI Corps. The approaches to the Reichswald were held by some 10,000 men of Generalmajor Heinz Fiebig’s 84th Division, dug in along a 7-mile (11.25-km) front to the west of Grave and Nijmegen, and supported by Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann’s 7th Fallschirmjägerdivision, with Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Eberhardt Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision of General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps farther back in mobile reserve.

An inexperienced and poorly equipped formation which had been re-formed after its destruction at Falaise in Normandy during August 1944, the 84th Division was augmented by the well-equipped 2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment, which was deployed between the western tip of the Reichswald and the Maas river. The 1062nd Grenadierregiment and 1051st Grenadierregiment covered the edge of the Reichswald facing the Allies, and the 1052nd Grenadierregiment defended the Rhine river flood plain on the German right.

Among the other divisions and lesser units controlled by the headquarters of these four corps were the generally ineffective Sicherungsbataillon ‘Münster’, which was a small unit of elderly men used to guard static installations, and the 276th Sicherungsbataillon (M), whose personnel had the types of chronic digestive ailments making them unsuitable for more active roles. The 655th schwere Panzerjägerabteilung had some 36 self-propelled assault guns, and was the only German armour immediately available in the Reichswald. Generalmajor Bernhard Klosterkemper’s 180th Division held the eastern bank of the Maas river against the British 2nd Army. Erdmann’s 7th Fallschirmjägerdivision had elements in reserve at Geldern, as a result of Schlemm’s belief that there would be an Allied attack through the Reichswald. von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps was the armoured reserve of Heeresgruppe ‘H’, and was concentrated around Dülken, to the south-east of Venlo. After the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ fighting in the Ardennes, its two divisions (Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzerdivision and Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision) were each at slightly more than 50% strength and had no more than 90 tanks between them. Also available were Generalmajor Gerhard Linder’s 346th Division and, some six hours’ march distant, Generalmajor Horst Niemack’s Panzer-Lehr-Division.

The Allied advance started from Groesbeek, which had been taken during ‘Garden’, and was directed to the east in the direction of Kleve and Goch, and thence to the south-east along the Rhine river to Xanten and the junction with the US advance in ‘Grenade’. The battle was therefore fought in the area between the Maas and Rhine rivers, initially through the Reichswald, which is a forested area close to the Dutch/German border, and then across rolling agricultural country. The flood plain of the Rhine river, 2 to 3 miles (3.2 to 4.8 km) wide and currently flooded after a wet winter, was the northern boundary of the area and the flood plain of the Maas river was the southern boundary. The Reichswald ridge is a glacial remnant which, when wet, turns readily to mud, and at the time of ‘Veritable’ the ground had thawed and was largely unsuitable for wheeled or tracked vehicles, these conditions which led to a significant number of mechanical breakdowns in armoured fighting vehicles.

Axes of advance through the forest were a problem for the Allies, both during their initial advance through the forest and later during supply and reinforcement undertakings after the front line had been pushed into Germany. The only main roads passed to the north of the forest, linking Nijmegen and Kleve, and to its south, linking Mook and Goch, and there was no west/east metalled route passing through it. There were three north/south routes: two radiating from Hekkens as one to Kranenburg between 1.25 and 3.1 miles (2 to 5 km) behind the German front and one to Kleve; and one from Kleve to Goch along the eastern edge of the Reichswald. The lack of suitable roads was exacerbated by the soft ground conditions and the deliberate flooding of the flood plains, which necessitated the use of amphibious vehicles. Moreover, the few good roads were rapidly damaged and broken up by the constant heavy traffic which they had to support during the assaults.

The Germans had built three defence lines. The first extended from Wyler to the Maas river along the western edge of the Reichswald, and was held by the 84th Division and the 1st Fallschirmjägerregiment: this was merely a trip-wire line intended only to delay an assault and alert the main forces. The second line, located behind the forest, linked Rees, Kleve and Goch, and the third ran from Rees through the Uedemer Hochwald to Geldern.

Preparations for the operation was rendered more difficult by the poor condition of the few routes into the concentration area, the latter’s small size, the need to maintain surprise and, therefore, the need to conceal the movements of men and matériel A new rail bridge was constructed to extend rail access to Nijmegen, a bridge was built across the Maas river at Mook, and roads were repaired and maintained. Severe restrictions were imposed on air and daytime land movements, and troop concentrations and storage dumps were camouflaged.

‘Veritable’ was planned as a three-stage operation: firstly the clearance of the Reichswald and the securing of the line linking Gennep, Asperden and Kleve; secondly the breaching of the German second defence system to the east and south-east of the Reichswald, the capture of Weeze, Üdem, Kalkar and Emmerich, and the securing of the communications between them; and thirdly the breakthrough of the Hochwald layback defence lines and the advance to secure the line linking Geldern and Xanten.

The operation began as a frontal infantry assault, with armoured support, against prepared positions across terrain which favoured the defence. In order to reduce the advantages of the defence, ‘Veritable’ began with heavy bombing attacks on the German lines of communication into the assault area, so isolating the battlefield, and the German defences were then softened up by a massive bombardment by 1,000 pieces if artillery, this effort being supported by the attacks of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s British 2nd Tactical Air Force. These bombardments were among the heaviest of the war in their concentration, but were comparatively short, but it was hoped that the bombardments would nonetheless destroy the German defences throughout the Reichswald, and also degrade the defenders’ morale and thus their readiness to fight. Air raids were also undertaken to isolate the battle area from further reinforcement.

‘Veritable’ started at 10.30 on 8 February, and on the following day the Germans released water from the largest Roer river dam, sending water surging down the valley, and irreparably jammed the sluices to ensure that there would be a steady flow for many days. On the next day the Germans added to the flooding by opening the sluices further upstream on the Roer and Urft rivers. The water level rose at 2 ft (0.6 m) per hour and the valley downstream to the Maas river remained flooded for about two weeks.

The formations under the command of the XXX Corps had some 200,000 men and 35,000 vehicles for one of the most difficult battles of the North-West European campaign, and advanced in heavy fighting along the narrow neck of land between the Maas and Waal rivers to the east of Nijmegen, but the US 9th Army was unable to move until the waters subsided during the third week of the ‘Veritable’ and ‘Grenade’ operations. During the two weeks of flooding, Adolf Hitler refused Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, the authority to pull any of his formations to the east behind the Rhine river, arguing that this would serve only to delay the inevitable fight. von Rundstedt was therefore ordered to fight where his forces stood, and the imposed US standstill made it possible for German strength to be concentrated farther to the north against the Anglo-Canadian assault.

The XXX Corps made rapid initial progress across most of its front, but after the first day, the arrival of German reserves served to slow the Allied advance. Two natural impediments to the Allied advance, the flooding and the dense forest, failed to disrupt it. The Canadian 3rd Division used Buffalo amphibious tracked vehicles to move through the flooded areas, whose water rendered the German field defences and minefields ineffective and isolated their units on ‘islands’ where they could be destroyed individually. The XXX Corps had rehearsed forest warfare tactics and its formations were able to bring forward useful quantities of armour, despite a high rate of damage resulting from the natural conditions and the age of the tanks. The German defences had not anticipated such tactics, so these tanks, including Churchill Crocodile flamethrowers, had great shock value.

The XXX Corps advanced steadily if slowly, and by the end of 8 February the 84th Division was close to breaking after losing considerable ground and 1,300 prisoners. By 13 February the Canadian 1st Army had pushed past the Reichswald (where German resistance continued until 16 February, costing the British and Canadians heavy losses) to take Kleve just before Erdmann’s 7th Fallschirmjägerdivision arrived to occupy this ideally located defensive position as the advance guard of the XLVII Panzerkorps, which von Rundstedt had located too far to the south in the belief that the US effort in ‘Grenade’ would offer greater problems than the Anglo-Canadian effort in ‘Veritable’. On 13 February the 43rd Division drove past Kleve in the direction of Üdem and Goch, where some of the war’s bloodiest fighting was recorded. Reinforced from across the Maas by the 43rd Division and Roberts’s British 11th Armoured Division, the XXX Corps and Canadian II Corps continued to push to the south against strengthening German resistance as Linder’s 346th Division and Niemack’s Panzer-Lehr-Division were committed. ‘Veritable’ proper ended on 21 February with the capture of Goch, leaving ‘Blockbuster’, the next phase of the assault toward the Rhine, to follow on 26 February.

Once they had passed through the Reichswald, the Allied forces paused to regroup before continuing their advance towards the forested ridge of the Hochwald and Xanten to the east of it, and their junction with the US 9th Army in ‘Blockbuster’ which, as planned, was to begin on 22 February when the British 15th Division would attack the wooded area to the north-east of Weeze, followed two days later by the British 53rd Division’s advance to the south from Goch in order to take Weeze and continue to the south-west. Finally, on 26 February, the Canadian II Corps would start its part of the operation with the task of overcoming the German defences based on the Hochwald and then exploiting to Xanten.

By the time the waters from the Roer river dams had subsided and the US 9th Army was able to cross the Roer river on 23 February in ‘Grenade’, other Allied forces were also close to the Rhine river’s western bank. Those of von Rundstedt’s divisions which had remained on the western bank of this great river barrier were cut to pieces in the Rhineland and 230,000 men were taken prisoner.