Operation Blockbuster

'Blockbuster' was the Canadian drive to the Rhine river at Xanten by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps of General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army as the final phase of the 'Veritable' offensive of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group (8 February/10 March 1945).

Otherwise known as the 'Battle of the Reichswald' within the 'Battle of the Rhineland', this was a double offensive by the 1st Army to clear the western bank of the Rhine river before the main crossing of this great river barrier was undertaken in 'Plunder', and as such was in essence the first phase the Allied campaign in the Rhineland. The operation began on 8 February 1945 after being delayed from 12 January, and lasted until the last German troops were evacuated across the Rhine river on 10 March.

Early in 1945, after a long winter stalemate in which 'Wacht am Rhein' was defeated, the Allied armies in North-West Europe resumed active operations. The exertions of the 1st Army in the 'Battle of the Scheldt' had resulted in the port of Antwerp being opened late in 1944, and a build-up of Allied forces on the Western Front, as southern France was cleared and the Allies advanced to the German frontier, established the situation in which the final stages of the Western Allies' war on Germany could be concluded during the late winter of 1944/45 and spring of 1945.

The 'Battle of the Rhineland' was the first of three major strategic phases envisaged by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces on the Western Front. This first phase was the destruction of the German forces to the west of the Rhine river and the closing to that river, so paving the way for the second phase, which would be the seizure of bridgeheads over the Rhine from which to develop operations into Germany, and then the third phase, which would be the destruction of the last remaining German forces to the immediate east of the Rhine river and the advance into the heart of the Reich.

The first task was therefore to reach the Rhine river, which was the last major natural barrier between Allied forces and Germany. From their winter positions in the Nijmegen salient, the 1st Army, reinforced by elements of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army, began an advance to the south-east, clearing all land to the west of the river. 'Veritable' was a costly advance through flooded terrain and the defensive lines of General Alfred Schlemm’s 1st Fallschirmarmee of Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe 'H'.

This initial undertaking was followed by 'Blockbuster', which succeeded in driving through almost to the banks of the Rhine river, and then by 'Blockbuster II', which cleared the town of Xanten to end the fighting in the Rhineland. The 'Grenade' supporting operation by Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army, also part of the 21st Army Group, was planned in concert with the 'Blockbuster' operations to advance from the Roer river to the south, but was delayed for two weeks by German flooding of the Roer river valley.

The Rhineland battle was conceived as the necessary preliminary to the 'Plunder' set-piece crossing of the Rhine river by the 21st Army Group. While this operation did proceed late in March 1945, US forces managed to cross the river in other locations farther to the south and with less preparation, including the capture of an intact bridge at Remagen on 7 March by Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army of General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group, and a crossing by the 12th Army Group’s other major formation, Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army on the day before the British 'Plunder', itself supported by the 'Varsity' major airborne drop on the eastern side of the Rhine.

The Rhineland terrain in which the 'Blockbuster' operations were fought was marked by clear north-east/south-west boundaries approximately parallel with each other: that on the east was the Rhine river, and that on the west the Mass (French Meuse and Dutch Maas) river. Extending to the south-east from Nijmegen on the Waal river, this tongue of German territory measured some 32 miles (50 km) in length, and between 12.5 miles (20 km) in width in the north-west to 18.5 miles (30 km) in width in the south-east. The first one-third of the tongue, from the Allied point of view, was flooded and the other two-thirds were thick mud as a result of the heavy winter rains. Much of the ground was marked by thick forest, there were no noticeably high or low features, and as a result engagement ranges were short.

The defences were well prepared, as the Germans had been accorded some four months to improve their positions, which included some of the pre-war 'Siegfried-Linie' obstacles as well as strongpoints and 'hedgehog' positions for all-round defence. These factors combined to create a battle which was extremely complex and difficult for higher headquarters to assess on an hour-by-hour basis. The result was that the battle was controlled very directly by the two corps commanders involved, namely Simonds of the II Corps and Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks of the British XXX Corps.

The initial 'Veritable' attack on 8 February 1945 was launched by three British divisions of the XXX Corps and Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division on the flooded left flank over the Waal Flats. The ancient city of Cleve was bombed flat, and the probably the heaviest artillery bombardment of the entire war was fired. The Materborn gap was clearly the key to the advance: this comprised 3,000 yards (2740 m) of open ground between Cleve and the Reichswald to the south. Cleve was taken on 12 February and the Reichswald had been cleared by the following day. Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s British 11th Armoured Division pressed forward through Üdem to reach the Hochwald after three days of costly fighting. The 3rd Division, making effective use of amphibious vehicles, had a slightly easier time and many of the German defenders opted to withdraw as the British advance threatened to cut them off.

As the British advance slowed, Major General A. B. Matthews’s Canadian 2nd Division moved up, and both Canadian divisions now had as their objective the road linking Goch and Calcar, which had been designated as the start line for 'Blockbuster' proper. This start line was secured only at considerable cost. The Germans made extensive use of their now-standard tactic of giving ground under pressure but then immediately launching counterattacks to recover the lost ground before, in this instance, the Canadians could consolidate their successes. This meant that infantry companies already weakened in the initial assault were often cut off and attacked from two or more directions, and one drastic solution was to call down artillery fire on their own positions.

'Veritable' cost the British nearly 7,000 casualties and the Canadians nearly 2,000 (approximately proportional to their respective commitments), while the Germans lost about 12,000 killed, the same number taken prisoner, and perhaps another 20,000 wounded.

For 'Blockbuster' Major General C. Vokes’s 4th Armoured Division replaced the 3rd Division, and at this time, farther south, the US 9th Army was also advancing to the Rhine in 'Grenade', delayed to 23 February by the German destruction of two key dams on the Roer river, the resultant heavy flooding making the area impassable. The 9th Army now found, as it moved to the north-west in the direction of the British and Canadians, that many of the German formations which would otherwise have sought to impede its progress had been shifted to the north to oppose 'Veritable'.

The Germans were desperate to hold territory to the west of the Rhine river for as long as possible as at least 17 divisions were streaming through this area to reach the Rhine river bridges at Wesel, now only 9.33 miles (15 km) from the Canadians and 12.5 miles (20 km) from the Americans.

The Canadians of the 2nd Division and 4th Armoured Division were advancing roughly abreast into three more forest areas, namely the Hochwald, Tüschenwald and Bambergerwald, running along a low ridge and with positions improved by the Germans for the previous two weeks. The 2nd Division went straight into the Hochwald while the 4th Armoured Division aimed for a narrow gap in the woods. Two attacks were delivered, and it became abundantly clear that an armoured division could not simply blast its through: the Germans had a wide variety of effective anti-tank weapons for short-range use, the tanks had trouble negotiating the mud, and the Canadians lacked the infantry strength which was needed to clear a path for the tanks. The battle for the Hochwald gap lasted from 27 February to 3 March, and during this period the Canadian advance was measured in hundreds of yards only per day.

The 3rd Division then returned to the line and the 2nd Division sent an infantry brigade to assist the 4th Armoured Division in opening the gap. The other two brigades of the 2nd Division kept pressure on the Germans elsewhere along the front line. There still remained the area behind the Hochwald between the Canadians and the Rhine river, and Simonds therefore planned 'Blockbuster II' to take Xanten and the high ground overlooking the Alter Rhine.

'Blockbuster II' was entrusted to the 2nd Division reinforced by one brigade of Major General G. I. Thomas’s British 43rd Division. The overall task of the operation was to complete the Allied destruction of the 'Wesel pocket' into which the last German forces west of the Rhine had retreated. Simonds planned a set-piece attack with Brigadier J. O. E. Vandeleur’s British 129th Brigade and Brigadier F. N. Cabeldu’s Canadian 4th Brigade taking Xanten and so opening the way for Brigadier J.C. Jefferson’s (from 27 February Brigadier W. J. Megill’s) Canadian 5th Brigade to push through onto the high ground after the town had taken. Support included a smokescreen to mask observation from across the Rhine river, tank support in the form of The Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment and Crocodile flamethrowing tanks of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s British 79th Armoured Division, and the artillery of two whole divisions as well as corps artillery.

The British 129th Brigade was to use the road and railway from Calcar as its axis, and was to seize the main part of Xanten and the neighbouring villages of Lüttingen and Beek. To the right of the British, the 4th Brigade was to capture the western part of Xanten, establishing a start line for the Canadian 5th Brigade, which was to seize the high ground to the south and east of the town.

On the other side of the front, the 1st Fallschirmarmee had received conflicting orders during the first days of March. As a result of reports of the growing Allied presence near the western bank of the Rhine, Schlemm had been instructed to hold the Rhine in order to keep the supply of coal moving to the naval facilities on the North Sea. Schlemm realised the danger of US forces attacking from the south into his rear, and by the first week of March had relocated his army headquarters twice, initially from Xanten, which had been heavily bombed, to a village near Rheinberg, and then eastern bank of the Rhine near Wesel. He designated the 'Wesel pocket' as a new defensive position, bounded by a U-shaped eastward bend in the Rhine river. This line started at Xanten, curved along the Boenninghardt ridge (the last stretch of high ground before the river), and circled back to Rheinberg opposite the US forces. Two bridges and a ferry at Wesel were the only means left to Schlemm for keeping communications and movement across the river.

The 1st Fallschirmarmee's primary formation in the area of Xanten and Sonsbeck was General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps with Generalleutnant Hermann Plocher’s 6th Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Bernhard Klosterkemper’s 180th Division.

The attack of the British 129th Brigade started in darkness and driving rain, behind a massive artillery bombardment. The 4/Somerset Light Infantry attacked on the left behind Sherman Crab flail mineclearing and Crocodile flamethrowing tanks with the objective of crossing a wide anti-tank ditch on the Calcar road before sunrise, with the flamethrowing tanks covering the movement. Once the ditch had been crossed, a prefabricated Bailey bridge was to be be thrown across to allow supporting tanks to cross.

Heavy machine gun fire stopped the attack, however, and the Crocodile vehicles were unable to suppress the German guns. The artillery barrage lifted as scheduled, leaving the infantry forced to go ahead alone. There was no alternative but for each section of the leading company, small groups of riflemen, to work forward to the ditch and cross it covered by the fire of their light machine guns. This they proceeded to do, then attacked and destroyed each of the German machine gun teams in turn.

The Bailey bridge then proved to be 20 ft (6.1 m) too short, the measurement having been calculated from an aerial reconnaissance photograph, but a Churchill scissors bridge fortuitously sent ahead by the divisional commander spared the Somerset Light Infantry the prospect of house-to-house fighting without their armour support. Almost the whole of the historic city was destroyed as the Germans fought savagely to maintain their last foothold on the western bank of the Rhine, and the German paratroopers fought with such tenacity that when the battle came to its eventual end Vandeleur saluted the German survivors as they were marched off to captivity.

To the south of the main road and highway to Calcar, the 4th Brigade had also set off in darkness and rain. Starting from a road 2,000 yards (1830 m) to the west of the road from Sonsbeck, the Essex Scottish on the left and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry on the right advanced steadily. The Essex Scottish reached the town by noon, having paused only to clear paratroopers from farms on the outskirts of the town. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry had been stopped, however. Advancing up a secondary road, two companies bypassed a 55-ft (17-m) wide crater past well-concealed German troops lying in ambush. The Germans now brought down artillery, mortar and machine gun fire on the Canadians, killing two company commanders and capturing a third after his company had been cut off. Heavy fire also came from Die Hees, a hill-top forest to the south of Xanten. With the Essex Scottish in the town and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry held up, at 12.00 Cabeldu sent the Royal Regiment of Canada through the Essex Scottish to aid both the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and the Somerset Light Infantry on the left. Fighting in the town was almost finished by a time late in the afternoon, and the Somerset Light Infantry pushed forward to Beek.

To the north the 5/Wiltshire had advanced over open fields to Lüttingen and costly house-to-house fighting, hampered by the ability of the Germans to bring reinforcements from the east.

Matthews sensed that the critical moment of the battle had arrived for his 2nd Division. Although the situation in Xanten was not clear, the time had come to strike for the Germans' most vulnerable points, the road and rail crossings of the Winnenhalter Canal at the edge of the Alter Rhein. He ordered the 5th Brigade to attack through Xanten as soon as it could move into position. At 22.45 the 5th Brigade’s Régiment de Maisonneuve drove through Xanten in Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers, with gun tanks and flail tanks in support. Capturing 118 prisoners, the Canadians established a base on tree-covered hills to the south of Beek in the first minutes of 9 March. The Black Watch of Canada then passed through to capture a road junction 1,000 yards (915 m) farther forward.

Megill now pushed the South Saskatchewan Regiment through Xanten to occupy the near side of the Die Hees forest while the Calgary Highlanders moved east to take high ground overlooking Birten and the Winnenhalter Canal crossings. Their objectives were taken before dawn under heavy shelling but light resistance. Le Régiment de Maisonneuve moved through The Black Watch of Canada toward the canal crossings also against growing opposition, a captured paratrooper telling of a 300-man force forming in nearby woods to cut off one of the lead Canadian companies.

Le Régiment de Maisonneuve organised an attack supported by tanks and Crocodile and Wasp flamethrowers. With two troops of gun tanks isolating the woods and the flamethrower vehicles setting trees and buildings aflame, the fight was over in short order and 200 more Germans surrendered. By the evening of 9 March, the Calgary Highlanders were able to resume the advance, and crossed the canal without opposition.

The thought of 'bouncing' the Rhine river now occurred to Canadian commanders. But as an infantry, tank and pioneer force was being assembled to make a dash over the bridge at Wesel in the early morning of 10 March, the undertaking was cancelled as from the direction of Wesel the sound of two explosions confirmed that the Germans had blown the last bridges over the Rhine. Only a handful of German patrols was left on the Allied side of the river, and on 10 March the Canadians linked with Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division near Ginderich. On 11 March Fort Blücher, opposite Wesel, surrendered to US troops.

The last battles of the German bridgehead were fought by the British 52nd Division and a regiment of Major General Paul W. Baade’s US 35th Division.

The Germans completed their evacuation on the night of 10/11 March and blew the Wesel bridges as ordered. This minor triumph could not hide the fact that what had been saved in men and equipment was hardly enough to offer a serious defence of the river line.

On 11 March Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, who had so successfully slowed the Allied advance in Italy as the Oberbefehlshaber 'Süd' and commander of Heeresgruppe 'C', became the Oberbefehlshaber 'West' and thus the commander of all the German forces on the Western Front in succession to Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt.

The British and Canadian fight to drive just 20 miles (32 km) into the Rhineland and clear the remaining German units west of the river had taken one month, a time as long as that required for the 200-mile (320-km) advance that would follow it. The cost in terms of casualties was also higher: 9,284 US and 17,685 British and Canadian soldiers. The 1st Army had taken 22,000 German prisoners and killed or seriously wounded 22,000 more. Including the losses inflicted by the 9th Army, which itself had lost 7,300 men, taken 29,000 prisoners, and killed or seriously wounded 16,000 Germans during the Rhineland fighting, the Germans had lost some 90,000 men while inflicting 23,000 casualties on the Allies.