Operation Battle of Geel

The 'Battle of Geel', also known as the 'Battle of the Geel Bridgehead', was fought between British and German troops near Geel in Belgium as one of the largest and bloodiest battles to occur during the first phase of the Allied liberation of Belgium (8/23 September 1944).

The first phase of the fighting took place on the Albert Canal, in the area to the south of Geel, on 7 September. On the German side of the canal was Oberstleutnant Heinrich Dreyer’s Kampfgruppe 'Dreyer' of Generalleutnant Kurt Chill’s 85th Division on its way to be reinforced by two Luftwaffe field regiments.

On 8 September, Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 50th Division attacked across the canal. Brigadier F. Y. C. Knox’s 69th Brigade crossed the canal and later that same evening Brigadier D. S. Gordon’s 151st Brigade had succeeded in establishing a bridgehead. The Germans counterattacked repeatedly but by the morning of 9 September the two bridgeheads were linked, and this allowed armoured cars to cross over. By the evening of 9 September, a Bailey bridge made it possible for the Sherman tanks of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry to cross.

On 10 September, the 6/Durham Light Infantry of the 151st Brigade supported by the Sherwood Rangers then pushed into Geel. The British units took up position around the marketplace, while the town’s German defenders retreated to the area to the north of the railway station. By the middle of the afternoon the British had secured the town centre. Later on the same day, the German forces in the area, comprising elite airborne troops and the Jagdpanther tank destroyers of the 559th Panzerjägerabteilung made their presence felt with more or less continuous attacks supported by infantry. On the following da, a full attack inflicted heavy losses on the British forces in Geel, and the Germans briefly recaptured the town centre. The 151st Brigade was forced to withdraw to its initial positions on the Albert Canal. The Germans pressed their counterattack too far, however, and in return suffered heavy losses and were forced to abandon the town for a second time.

On 12 September, the badly battered 50th Division received orders to pull out and move to the recently captured 'Joe’s Bridge', to free Major General A. H. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division to spearhead the 'Garden' portion of the Allied attempt to cross the lower part of the Rhine river at Arnhem in the Netherlands. On that same day, the 50th Division was replaced by Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division. During the night of 13 September, fearing encirclement and attack from the rear, the Germans pulled back behind the Maas-Scheldt Canal in the village of Ten Aard, and units of the 15th Division then reoccupied Geel against only light resistance. With Geel in British hands, the next objective aim was to create a bridgehead over the Maas-Scheldt Canal at Ten Aard in order to give the Royal Engineers the chance to create a pontoon bridge and to ferry heavy equipment.

After eight days of heavy fighting the 15th Division secured a bridgehead that was repeatedly counterattacked by the Germans. All the German assaults were repelled, but the 15th Division could advance no farther. The bridgehead was only 985 yards (900 m) deep and 985 yards (900 m) wide, and each time the 15th Division tried to expand the bridgehead it was met by heavy German counterattacks. Fighting took place until the final German withdrawal on 23 September and Ten Aard was finally liberated.

By this time the Allied strategy had changed so that operations were being delivered in conjunction with 'Market' and 'Garden' in the Arnhem area: the Germans had to withdraw to counter the Allied threat, and at the same time the Allies had to make additional efforts in the east to divert German troops from the Arnhem area.

Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division had forced a crossing of the Jonction Canal near Lommel, where it then fought hard to expand the salient to the south of Eindhoven. This was the new starting point Lieutenant General Sir Neil Ritchie’s British XII Corps to support the 'Garden' ground offensive. The Ten Aard bridgehead became unimportant after the German withdrawal and the British troops withdrew from the bridgehead in order to prepare for other fronts farther to the east.

The exact casualties during the 'Battle of Geel' are not known. At least 130 civilians were killed, most of them by Allied and German artillery fire. The total number of deaths was probably between 1,000 and 1,100, with the number of wounded significantly greater.