Operation 2nd Battle of Arnhem

The '2nd Battle of Arnhem' lay at the heart of 'Anger' (sometimes known as 'Quick Anger') and was fought between British and Canadian forces on the one hand and German forces on the other to take and hold the Dutch city of Arnhem, which the British had taken but failed to hold in the '1st Battle of Arnhem' in 'Garden' (12/16 April 1945).

The battle was part of the Canadian 1st Army’s liberation of the Netherlands and was led by the British 49th Division, supported by armour of the Canadian 5th Armoured Division, air attacks by the Royal Air Force and boats of the Royal Navy.

The Western Allies had first tried to liberate Arnhem in September 1944 during the interlinked 'Market' and 'Garden'. Poor planning, the unexpected presence of German armoured units and a delayed advance by ground forces meant that Major General R. E. Urquhart’s British 1st Airborne Division was defeated and a new front stabilised to the south of the city. Fresh planning to take Arnhem began in the new year of 1945 as General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army sought ways to link its units advancing into the Netherlands. However it was not until April that the liberation of the city became a distinct possibility. After Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps had secured the eastern bank of the IJssel river and advanced to the north, Lieutenant General C. Foulkes’s Canadian I Corps prepared to assault Arnhem.

The undertaking started on 12 April 1945 and proceeded to plan, as the three infantry brigades of Major General S. B. Rawlins’s 49th Division leapfrogged each other through the city. Within four days Arnhem was totally under Allied control, allowing the Canadians to advance farther into the Netherlands. Less than two weeks after the battle a general truce brought major combat operations in the country to an end, and on 5 May the German commander-in-chief in the Netherlands surrendered to the Canadian army. Three days later Germany surrendered unconditionally, bringing the war in Europe to a close.

In September 1944 the Allies had launched 'Market' and 'Garden' as an effort to advance around the northern end of the 'Siegfried-Linie' and open a route to the Ruhr industrial region. The British 1st Airborne Division landed at Arnhem and fought for nine days in the city and surrounding towns and countryside, but the advance of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army failed to reach and relieve the division, which was nearly annihilated. After withdrawing to the south of the Nederrijn river, the front line stabilised on 'the Island' (the polder between Nijmegen and Arnhem) over the winter.

The residents of Arnhem and Oosterbeek, more than 450 of whom had been killed in the '1st Battle of Arnhem', were evicted from their homes by the Germans, who then systematically looted them of anything of value to aid refugees in Germany. The shattered settlements were then turned into strong defensive positions to resist future Allied advances. The Arnhem road bridge, which the British had fought so hard to take and hold, was bombed by the Allies in October 1944 to deny its use to the Germans. Arnhem itself was extensively shelled by the Allies over the winter, and was even hit by short-falling German V-2 ballistic missiles. In retaliation for a Dutch railway workers' strike supposed to aid the Allies' September advance, the Germans banned all inland freight movement: this prevented food grown in the north from reaching the south and west of the country, and caused thousands of deaths among the Dutch population in the 'Hongerwinter'.

In February 1945 the Allies launched 'Veritable' and 'Grenade', striking to the east from land captured during 'Market' and 'Garden' directly into Germany. This paved the way for 'Plunder' and 'Varsity', crossing the Rhine river upstream from Arnhem. Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group then advanced rapidly into north-western Germany. While the British 2nd Army advanced to the west, Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army was given the task of liberating the Netherlands.

The Canadian 1st Army had been instructed to plan advances across the Nederrijn river when it first assumed responsibility for the Nijmegen salient in November, but any plans had been delayed by the winter and the subsequent reallocation of resources for 'Veritable'. After the latter, however, Crerar saw advantages to seizing Arnhem and opening a route to Emmerich during the coming crossing of the Rhine river. The first draft of this 'Anger' plan to take the city was created in February as a subsidiary of 'Plunder', but Foulkes, commander of the recently arrived Canadian I Corps, thought it safer to wait until the Rhine river had been crossed before launching any operation against Arnhem, and 'Anger' was shelved.

After 'Plunder', Simonds’s Canadian II Corps struck to the west and seized Emmerich, approaching the IJssel river from the east. Crerar saw a renewed opportunity to take Arnhem and open a route between the city and Zutphen to the north, and accordingly ordered his two corps commanders to co-ordinate their advances. However, Crerar was wary of trying to seize Arnhem before the IJssel river had been bridged farther to the north.

In March the British 49th Division, which had been on the Nijmegen 'island' since November 1944, came under command of the Canadian I Corps. On 2 April the division, supported by Canadian units, led 'Destroyer' to clear 'the Island', carefully timing the initial attack to coincide with the Canadian II Corps' clearance of the eastern bank of the IJssel river. On 3 April elements of the Canadian I Corps crossed the Nederrijn river to the east of the IJssel river, and met units of the Canadian II Corps in the town of Westervoort opposite Arnhem. The rest of 'the Island' was cleared within another day and the Allies now held the southern bank of the Nederrijn river in preparation for the assault on Arnhem.

The original 'Anger' plan of February had called for a crossing of the Nederrijn river near Oosterbeek immediately after the river had been reached if the situation allowed it ('Quick Anger'). Alternatively, if the German defences were deemed too strong, a better prepared crossing downstream at Renkum could be made ('Anger'). However, Crerar had ruled that operations could not be made against Arnhem until the Canadian II Corps had crossed the IJssel river and advanced on Apeldoorn, so 'Anger' could not yet proceed. Additionally, reconnaissance patrols on 3 and 4 April determined that the presence of German observation posts and positions on the Westerbouwing heights overlooking the river would make a crossing of the Nederrijn river especially dangerous. Attempts were made to create smokescreens obscuring the southern bank of the Nederrijn river from the watching Germans: this was a technique that had proved successful in the build-up to 'Plunder'. The screen stretched from the town of Randwijk, 10 miles (16 km) to the west of Arnhem, along the southern bank of the river, to Huissen south of Arnhem, but strong winds and a lack of appropriate generators reduced its effectiveness. Additionally the ground on 'the Island' was deteriorating and on 7 April, after considering various alternatives, Foulkes decided Arnhem must be attacked from the east, across the IJssel river.

The attack was necessarily delayed whilst the 49th Division moved to Westervoort and Canadian II Corps prepared to cross the IJssel farther to the north. The move caused serious logistical problems as the roads around 'the Island' and Westervoort became jammed with traffic, and this delay caused concern that the Germans would thereby be gifted with the time required to prepare for the assault, but in the event it appeared they had neither the troops or equipment to improve their situation.

The attack was planned as a three-phase undertaking: the initial assault would be carried out by Brigadier R. H. Senior’s British 56th Brigade, which would cross the IJssel river at night in Buffalo IV amphibious tracked vehicles of The Ontario Regiment before clearing the eastern and southern districts of the city; in the second phase, Brigadier D. S. Gordon’s British 146th Brigade would move forward and attack the high ground to the north of Arnhem; and in the third phase, Brigadier H. Wood’s British 147th Brigade would advance through the 56th Brigade’s positions and secure the high ground and northern bank of the Nederrijn river to the west of the city. With the heights around Arnhem secure, Major General B. M. Hoffmeister’s Canadian 5th Armoured Division would advance through the city and the CanadianI Corps would resume its advance to the west. The British took several Canadian units under command along with Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tanks of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s British 79th Armoured Division. Most of Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 1st Division and the Canadian 5th Armoured Division were placed in support, and a composite group known as 'Murphyforce' provided a diversion to the south of the Nederrijn river.

The river crossing would be assisted by landing craft of the Royal Navy, including the 509th LCA Flotilla and the 660th, 661st and 662nd LCM Flotillas, a total of 45 craft. The Royal Army Service Corps would run DUKW amphibious trucks across the river during the operation. The Canadian I Corps' Royal Canadian Engineers would build four Bailey pontoon ferries as soon as locations on the German bank had been captured (two across the IJssel river and two across the Nederrijn river).The Canadian Royal Engineers would also deploy a prefabricated Bailey bridge as soon as the situation made this possible: the bridge was built in advance farther upstream at Doornenburg and floated nearer to the IJssel river just before the attack, and as soon as the situation allowed it this bridge would be floated into position between Westervoort and Arnhem, hopefully allowing armour to cross the river much more rapidly than the Germans would expect. Canadian pioneers would lay a heavy artillery smokescreen over Arnhem during the attack and in the build-up to the battle maintained the smokescreen along the Nederrijn river in the hope it would deceive the Germans as to the true direction of the crossing.

The German forces in the Netherlands, under the command of Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Niederlande', had recently been redesignated as the Festung 'Holland', although this name change had little effect on the units on the ground. The rout of the German forces in the previous year, the formation of extemporised Kampfgruppen (battle groups) and the cannibalisation of some units to bolster other groupings combined to make it difficult for Allied intelligence to determine German strength in the area to the north of the Rhine river, and it was to remain difficult to ascertain it for several years after the war. About 10,000 men of General Philipp Kleffel’s XXX Corps of the 25th Army were believed to be in the area of Arnhem and Apeldoorn. It was believed that there were as many 1,000 men of Generalmajor Gerhard Linders’s 346th Division, the 858th Grenadierregiment and a miscellany of other units occupying the Arnhem area, including a divisional battle school, paratroopers and men of the Dutch SS. As well as the natural defence provided by the rivers and the high ground to the north and west of the city, Arnhem itself had been turned into a strong defensive position after the battle the previous year. On the very day of the opening assault on Arnhem, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler issued a decree that all cities should be defended regardless of cost, failure to do so being punishable by death.

On 11 April, the Canadian II Corps launched 'Cannonshot', which was the crossing of the IJssel river farther to the north at Deventer, before striking to the west in the direction of Apeldoorn. During the morning of 12 April, Foulkes was informed that the operation was well under way, whereupon he ordered the 49th Division to start its attack that evening. The whole day was spent in a bombardment of the Germans in Arnhem using artillery and ground-attack aircraft. The RAF provided 119 sorties by single-engined fighter-bombers (36 by Supermarine Spitfire and 83 by rocket-firing Hawker Typhoon warplanes) to soften the German positions, and the attack was preceded by one of the heaviest artillery barrages ever fired by the Canadian I Corps: one field gun battery of eight guns fired 640 rounds in 10 minutes at the average rate of eight rounds per gun per minute, and engineer troops fired 30,000 smoke shells over the course of the battle. A diversionary barrage from the area to the south of the Nederrijn river provoked a strong German response, this suggesting that they had probably prepared for an attack from the south rather than the east.

The initial assault did not proceed entirely to plan. The crossing was scheduled to begin at 10.40 but was delayed by the late arrival of several assault craft. Additionally several explosive charges on the eastern bank of the river, laid to clear a path through land mines and the 'bund', failed to detonate. The 2/Gloucestershire Regiment then discovered that several Buffalo vehicles assigned to it were inoperative, so the companies were forced to cross separately and not in a single assault as intended. Despite this, the battalion’s four companies began crossing separately, their way illuminated by 'Monty’s moonlight' (searchlights reflecting their light off the clouds) and 40-mm Bofors guns firing coloured tracers in the direction of attack. Under the cover of heavy machine guns and mortars, the first company reached the western bank of the IJssel river at 23.15, and began to take their objectives in the face of light opposition along the river bank, in the process sustaining 32 casualties. After a slight delay, the 2/Gloucestershire Regiment secured the landing area for the prefabricated Bailey bridge, and at 12.50 the Royal Canadian Engineers began floating the components of the bridge into position. The second assault wave, comprising the 2/South Wales Borderers, crossed the river under heavy artillery fire. Their assault craft drifted downstream in the crossing, but once ashore they advanced rapidly into the city. Their advance stalled, however, and the 1/7th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, originally scheduled to cross in the third phase, was sent across the river to support the battalion. By o7.00, the 2/Essex Regiment was across the river, and by 8.45 the Royal Canadian Engineers had completed a pontoon ferry to begin moving tanks of the Ontario Regiment across the waterway.

The Royal Canadian Engineers continued assembling the Bailey bridge throughout the night, and 12 hours after the start of the operation traffic was rolling across the IJssel river. This allowed the operation’s second phase to proceed, and soon troops of the 146th Brigade and tanks of the Ontario Regiment were moving up to the 56th Brigade’s positions. There was relatively little resistance during the morning, although the South Wales Borderers had to drive back a counterattack near the Railway Junction. In the late morning the British advanced toward the large Enka factory complex in the eastern area of the city, where a battalion of the 346th Division and troops of the 46th Festungsmaschinengewehrbataillon had established a strongpoint. The Germans had moved in from Oosterbeek that morning and had thereby escaped the earlier bombardments. The 4/Lincolnshire was tasked to clear the complex, although the relatively fresh Germans were able to offer some resistance. With support from the tanks of the Ontario Regiment and the 79th Armoured Division, the battalion eventually overwhelmed the Germans in a battle which lasted most of the day. By the evening of 13 April, most of the German resistance in the city had broken and the 147th Brigade was readying itself to cross into Arnhem.

In the operation’s third phase, the 147th Brigade crossed the Nederrijn river from 'the Island' during the night, and by the morning of 14 April was ready to move through the 56th Brigade’s positions. By this time, the German defence was crumbling, but the 147th Brigade’s battalions encountered significant numbers of mines and demolitions as they advanced. D Company of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment ambushed what they believed to be a German counterattack led by three Renault tanks captured by the Germans in 1940, although it later transpired that the Germans had no idea that the British were there. Later in the day, Dutch soldiers of the 34th SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadierdivision 'Landstorm Nederland', supported by armour, counterattacked the Duke of Wellington’s positions. The Dutch were eventually beaten back after heavy fighting had destroyed their tanks, but were able to blunt a later British advance into their area. By the end of the day the Allied units had reached all of their objectives and most of Arnhem had been secured. The Canadian 5th Armoured Division began moving onto the high ground to the north of the city during that night, and here met elements of Special Air Service units who had been operating behind the German lines since a time earlier in the month. On 15 April the Duke of Wellington’s occupied the city’s zoo and upon discovering a live polar bear offered it to their brigade commander, who declined the offer. The Germans were cleared out of the precinct of Velp and the surrounding area on 15 and 16 April, bringing 'Anger' to an end.

The Allies had liberated a ruined city. After the looting of the previous year, Arnhem’s houses were little more than empty wrecks lacking furniture, household goods and even doors. Evidence of the '1st Battle of Arnhem' lay everywhere and the liberation was likened to 'entering an ancient tomb'.

The Allied advance continued immediately. The Canadian 5th Armoured Division began moving through Arnhem toward the high ground north of the city on the night of 14/15 April. In a change to the original plan to head to the west, the division was given a new mission, known as 'Cleanser', and moved to the north to secure towns between Arnhem and the IJsselmeer. A large German force counterattacked the Canadian 5th Armoured Division on the night of 16 April at Otterlo, hoping to break out to the west, but was beaten back after heavy losses in the 'Battle of Otterlo'. On 17 April, the 49th Division attacked Ede, held by the Dutch SS troops, and liberated the town in 24 hours. On 27 April a temporary truce came into effect, allowing the 'Manna' distribution of food aid to the starving Dutch civilians in areas under German control, and on 5 May Blaskowitz agreed to the unconditional surrender of all German forces in the Netherlands.

The British recorded 62 men killed and 134 wounded in the '2nd Battle of Arnhem', but it is unclear if this includes Canadian casualties. German figures are imprecise, with prisoners of war recorded as 601 in some sources and up to 1,600 in others. The German casualties are similarly unknown, although they may have been as great as 3,000.