Operation Battle of Groningen

The 'Battle of Groningen' was the fight for the Dutch city of Groningen between Major General A. B. Matthews’s Canadian 2nd Division, supported by Dutch resistance elements, and a mix of German troops and both Belgian and Dutch men of the Waffen-SS under the command of Generalleutnant Karl Böttcher (13/16 April 1945).

The battle took place during the penultimate month of World War II in Europe as General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army, on the left wing of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group sought to liberate the last parts of the Netherlands still in German hands and advance into north-western Germany. The battle pitted some 14,000 men of the Canadian 2nd Division, which did not commit its entire strength at any one time, against a mixed strength of about 7,500 men comprising elements of the 408th Division, SS-Oberführer Martin Kohlroser’s 34th SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadierdivision 'Landstorm Nederland', and assorted Sicherheitsdienst units, Luftwaffe ground units, Kriegsmarine marine units, Hitlerjugend elements and the 1st Sturmbrigade Italienische SS-Freiwilligen Legion. These were components of General Philipp Kleffel’s 25th Army within Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Oberbefehlshaber 'Nordwest' command, and there were also substantial numbers of Luftwaffe personnel manning Flak guns in the area. In Groningen was the headquarters for the Sicherheitsdienst in the northern Netherlands. In overall terms, the German command structure was poor and the defenders had never trained or exercised together.

The Canadian 2nd Division, consisting of three brigades (nine infantry battalions), one machine gun battalion, one reconnaissance battalion and three combat engineer companies, comprised for the most part combat-experienced men together with a proportion of partially trained reinforcements. Tanks of the 10th Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse) and the 9th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Dragoons) were committed in support.

The German forces in Groningen were under orders to keep the Canadians from reaching and advancing into Germany, while e the Dutch Waffen-SS troopers had reason to fear for their lives if forced to surrender. German troops also needed to control the city to cover the withdrawal of forces from Friesland to Germany and to protect the Ems river entrance into Germany, important because German surface vessels and U-boats still used the port of Emden as a base.

Wary of advancing into the western Netherlands and incurring heavy casualties among its forces as well as to the area’s densely packed civilian population at this late stage of the war, for the fighting in Langstraat and Betuwe had showed that conditions generally favoured the defence, the Canadian 1st Army had instead advanced to the north-east, supporting the flank of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army as the two major formations approached and entered Germany proper.

In the Groningen area, the German forces were deployed primarily in the mediaeval city centre, shielded in part by a canal, but some troops were deployed in the southern suburbs. A German pocket in the power station surrendered after the fall of the inner city, which the Canadians reached on 14 April.

The western approaches to the old city were not available to the Canadians as the bridges over the canal had been destroyed. The Herebrug bridge in the south of the old city was not destroyed, however, but it took a day to defeat the Germans, armed with large numbers of machine guns, in the buildings to the north of a 'circus' on the northern side of the bridge. The Canadians managed to enter the north of the city centre, the Nieuwe Stad, after two hours of fighting in the Noorderplantsoen park, where the city walls had been up to the 19th century.

The fight in the central market square, the Grote markt, was the fiercest part of the battle. There were several German machine guns in the buildings lying to the north of the square, and these buildings had to be destroyed by tanks. The Nieuwe Stad was taken, but the Canadians could not reach the Oude Stad from the north in the face of determined and effective German resistance. The Canadians used their armour effectively in co-operation with their infantry, but artillery support was forbidden for fear of causing civilian casualties.

The German commander surrendered on 16 April after he had arrived at the conclusion that continued resistance would be pointless.

The death toll included approximately 130 Germans, 43 Canadians and 100 Dutch civilians. Some 270 of Groningen’s buildings had been damaged or destroyed in the fighting. More than 5,200 Germans, including 95 officers, surrendered and the 2,000 or so remaining Germans retreated to the north-east. The Canadian 2nd Division met the Germans once again in undertakings such as the Battle of Grüppenbühren near Delmenhorst.

Groningen was one of the Canadians forces' largest urban battles of the war. While the Battle of Ortona became more celebrated after reports referred to it as 'Little Stalingrad', Groningen involved five times as many Canadian soldiers in direct combat.