Operation Battle of Friesoythe

The 'Battle of Friesoythe' was the seizure and destruction of the town of Friesoythe in Lower Saxony by Canadian troops, and is generally known as the 'Razing of Friesoythe' (13/14 April 1945).

The episode took place during the Western Allies' invasion of Germany towards the end of World War II when Major General C. Vokes’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division attacked the German-held town of Friesoythe, and one of its battalions, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (Princess Louise’s), captured it. During the fighting, the battalion’s commander was killed by a German soldier, but it was incorrectly rumoured that he had been killed by a civilian. Under this mistaken belief, Vokes ordered that the town be razed in retaliation, and it was substantially destroyed. Some 20 German civilians died in Friesoythe and the surrounding area during the two days of fighting and its aftermath.

The rubble of the town was used to fill craters in local roads to make them passable for the division’s tanks and heavy vehicles. A few days earlier, the division had destroyed the centre of Sögel in another reprisal and also used the rubble to make the roads passable.

By September 1944, the eastward advance of the Western Allies from their 'Neptune' (iii) and 'Dragoon' landings in northern and southern France had reached Germany’s western border, and by the end of October had taken Aachen, the first major German city to fall to them. During the next six months the Western Allies overran much of western Germany. In November the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force publicly stated that the forces of the Western Allies would adhere strictly to international law in respect of the treatment of civilians. However, SHAEF’s manual Combating the Guerrilla stated that there were circumstances where commanders could take 'stern measures' against civilians as a rapid response to guerrilla attacks, although this was in breach of the Hague Conventions.

The frequency and nature of retaliatory actions differed between national contingents within the Western Allies. Following SHAEF’s policy, US Army forces destroyed German buildings on several occasions, sometimes entire villages, and took other measures against German civilians. French troops took a similar, if more rigorous, approach to that of the US forces. British commanders disapproved of retaliations against civilians, and British troops carried out few reprisals.

General Sir Henry Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army served in the predominately British 21st Army Group of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, and retaliated against German civilians more frequently than did the British. Commander of Canadian 4th Armoured Division, Vokes believed that the destruction of property was the most appropriate way of responding to resistance by German civilians, and it was this formation which carried out actions against German property more often than any other Canadian formation.

There was frustration throughout Allied ranks at the Germans' continued resistance in a clearly hopeless cause, anger at the casualties they inflicted when the war was widely, and correctly, perceived to be almost over, and a general feeling that severe, even ruthless, treatment of German soldiers and civilians was justified.

In the middle of March 1945 the Western Allies prepared to cross the Rhine river in 'Plunder', and the Canadian official history describes the circumstances as buoyant as it was recognised that the end of World War II in Europe was close. Early in April the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, as part of Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps, moved out of the eastern Netherlands in the wake of the success of 'Plunder', and on 4 April, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, part of Brigadier J. C. Jefferson’s Canadian 10th Brigade, one of the division’s two brigades, made an assault crossing of the Ems river and captured the town of Meppen, suffering only one casualty. German prisoners included several 17-year-old youths with less than eight weeks of military experience. The division advanced another 16 miles (25 km) to Sögel, which the 1/The Lake Superior Regiment (Motor) captured on 9 April. The following day the Canadians repulsed several German counterattacks before the town was declared cleared. Some German civilians joined the fighting and were believed to have killed several Canadian soldiers. Believing the civilians needed to be taught a lesson, Vokes ordered the destruction of the town centre, a task accomplished with explosives. Vokes was aware that these actions violated the Hague Conventions and took care not to issue written instructions.

The Canadian advance continued across the Westphalian plain, and reached the outskirts of Friesoythe, a strategic crossroads, on 13 April. As it was early spring, the sodden nature of the ground made it impossible for heavy vehicles to operate off the main roads, and this made Friesoythe, 20 miles (32 km) to the west of Oldenburg, on the Soeste river, a potential bottleneck. If the Germans were to hold it, the main Canadian strength would be unable to continue its advance. Most of the little town’s population of 4,000 had departed into the local countryside on 11/12 April, but several hundred paratroopers of the from Bataillon 'Raabe' of Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann’s 7th Fallschirmjägerdivision of Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl’s II Fallschirmkorps within Generaloberst Kurt Student’s 1st Fallschirmarmee, together with anti-tank guns, defended the town. The paratroopers repelled an attack by the Lake Superior Regiment, which lost several men killed or wounded; the German casualties are not known.

Vokes ordered the resumption of the attack by the 1/The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Wigle. The Argylls conducted a flanking night march and launched an assault at dawn on 14 April. The attack met only scattered resistance from a disorganised garrison, and the Argylls had secured the town by 10.30. During the confused fighting, a group of about 50 German soldiers caught Wigle’s tactical headquarters by surprise at around 08.30, and in the resulting firefight Wigle and several other Canadian soldiers were killed. A rumour circulated that a local civilian had shot Wigle.

Vokes was furious when he heard of Wigle’s death and ordered the head of his operations staff, Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie Robinson, to get any civilians out of their homes and then raze the little town. Robinson complied, but only after he had convinced Vokes not to put this order in writing or issue a proclamation to the local civilians.

The Argylls had spontaneously begun to burn Friesoythe in reprisal for the death of their commander, who was very popular. After Vokes had issued his order, the town was systematically set on fire with flamethrowers mounted on Wasp Carriers. In the side streets, soldiers threw petrol containers into buildings and ignited them with phosphorus grenades. The attack continued for over eight hours and Friesoythe was almost totally destroyed.

During the fighting around and within Friesoythe, and during its aftermath, 10 civilians from the town and another 10 from the surrounding villages were killed. According to one German assessment, some 85 to 90% of the town was destroyed during the reprisal.

The Argylls' war diary made no mention of the battalion’s activity during the afternoon, noting merely that 'many fires were raging'. There is no record, at divisional, corps or army level, of the deliberate destruction.

On 16 April The Lincoln and Welland Regiment attacked Garrel, 10 miles (16 km) to the south-east of Friesoythe. The mayor surrendered the town, but the first tank to enter was destroyed by a Panzerfaust: the battalion commander, Wigle’s brother-in-law, ordered that 'every building which did not show a white flag be fired'. Before it could be carried out, the order was countermanded and the village was spared. A Canadian force was also authorised to burn down the village of Mittelsten following an 'unnamed transgression', but was talked out of this action by a Canadian engineer unit as Mittelsten’s civilians were running an army sawmill.