Operation Battle of Hamburg

The 'Battle of Hamburg' was fought between British and German forces as one of the last engagements of World War II in Europe, in which the remaining troops of Generaloberst Kurt Student’s (from 28 April General Erich Straube’s) 1st Fallschirmarmee fought Lieutenant General Sir Neil Ritchie’s British XII Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army for control of Hamburg (18 April/3 May 1945).

The British forces were met with fierce resistance as they advanced toward Hamburg, for the city was the last remaining pockets of German resistance in northern Germany. Once the British had captured the city, they continued their advance to the north-east and sealed the remnants of the 1st Fallschirmarmee and Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Nordwest', whose other major constituents were General Philipp Kleffel’s 25th Army and General Günther Blumentritt’s Armeegruppe 'Blumentritt', in the Jutland peninsula.

After the Western Allies had crossed the Rhine river, the German armies in the west began to disintegrate. Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B' was the last effective German defensive formation in the west, but this grouping of three armies was encircled and captured in the Ruhr region by Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army and Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army, thus ending effective German resistance in the west. After the defeat of Heeresgruppe 'B', the Germans were able to organise any form of resistance in only a few cities, and were not able to communicate fully with each other. The Allied armies began a general advance eastward across Germany, with the Americans pushing the centre and the British the northern flank. The main British thrust came from Dempsey’s 2nd Army, whose task it was to advance across northern Germany and push forward to Berlin. The British encountered little resistance by comparison with the Americans farther to the south, and advanced at a steady and fast pace. The Heeresgruppe 'Nordwest', formed only in March 1945, was the last German major formation in the north. As the British continued their advance, the German high command in Berlin, which was under siege by the Soviet forces, refused to send reinforcements. The Germans managed to resist the British in Bremen for a week before their surviving troops retreated to the Jutland peninsula. The last remaining defence was that of the city of Hamburg and the Germans sought to make a final stand there. After capturing Soltau, Major General L. O. Lyne’s 7th Armoured Division of the VIII Corps was poised to assault the city.

The British advance towards Hamburg was thus spearheaded by the 7th Armoured Division, which attacked Harburg and advanced to the Elbe river across from Hamburg, with Major General G. H. A. M. MacMillan’s 15th Division assaulting the town of Uelzen to the south of the city. Elements of Ritchie’s XII Corps attacked Hamburg itself from the north-west. On its way to Harburg, the 7th Armoured Division captured Welle and Tostedt on 18 April, and advanced into Hollenstedt on the following day. By this time, the Germans had improved their defences in Harburg as the British moved closer. On 20 April, the 7th Armoured Division captured Daerstorf, 8 miles (13 km) to the west of the city. Forward observation officers of the Royal Horse Artillery reached the Elbe river and began to direct artillery fire onto troops and trains on the other side of the river. On the same day, Brigadier J. M. K. Spurling’s 131st Brigade took Vahrendorf, just 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of Harburg. The 7th Armoured Division halted its advance for five days just short of Hamburg, where it established a perimeter and prepared for its assault on the city. However, on 26 April, the 12th SS-Verstärkungsregiment (reinforcement regiment), supported by Hitlerjugend and an assortment of Hamburg sailors and policemen, counterattacked at Vahrendorf. The German assault was supported by 88-mm (3.465-in) guns and 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzers and reached the town centre, but was then driven back by the arrival of British armour. The battle continued until the next day, when the Germans retreated back to Harburg, leaving 60 dead and after losing 70 men taken prisoner.

On 28 April the British began their assault on the city. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 9/Durham Light Infantry and 1/Rifle Brigade captured Jesteburg and Hittfeld, where there was an Autobahn, of which the Germans destroyed parts to slow the British advance. As the British advanced toward the city, it was clear that the Germans would still not surrender. The troops of the 1st Fallschirmarmee were now a mix of a few Waffen-SS, paratroop and Volkssturm troops together with army soldiers, supported by sailors, police, firemen and Hitlerjugend. This disparate German force was supported by 88-mm (3.465-in) guns that were no longer needed for their primary role of air defence. Many German units, including one tank destroyer battalion, one Hungarian Waffen-SS unit and many Panzerfaust-armed anti-tank troops were also still located in the woods to the south of Hamburg, as the British had bypassed the area and were now mopping it up. Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division, supported by the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, assaulted the woods and captured all the remaining German troops, a total of 2,000 men.

On 28 April, the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery began shelling the Phoenix Rubber Works in Hamburg, which spurred the appearance of a German delegation baring a white flag, and on the following there came a team from the city to discuss surrender. On 1 May, a white-flagged car carrying Generalmajor Alwin Wolz, the combat commander of Hamburg, approached D Company of the 9/Durham Light Infantry. On 30 April, Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin and Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, who was commanding the forces in the north and Hitler’s declared successor, ordered Wolz to discuss the city’s surrender to the British. Along with a small German delegation, Wolz arrived at the headquarters of the 7th Armoured Division on 2 May and formally surrendered Hamburg on 3 May. During the course of that day’s afternoon, the 11th Hussars led the 7th Armoured Division into the ruined city.

Hamburg had been the last remaining German defence position of any size in the north. After the British had captured the city, the surviving troops of the 1st Fallschirmarmee, along with other elements of Heeresgruppe 'Nordwest' retreated into the Jutland peninsula. Most of them fell back to Kiel, where they met elements of soldiers of Heeresgruppe 'Weichsel', now command by Student and fleeing from the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The 7th Armoured Division advanced unopposed to Lübeck, where news of the German surrender of north-western Germany reached it on 4 May, followed by Germany’s complete surrender on 8 May.