This was the Allied crossing of the Elbe river and advance to the south coast of the Baltic Sea between Lübeck and Wismar (29 April/7 May 1945).
The operation was undertaken by Lieutenant General E. H. Barker’s British VIII Corps and Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US XVIII Airborne Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army within Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group (29 April/7 May 1945).
The VIII Corps crossed the Elbe below Lauenburg, where the river is between 265 and 335 yards (240 and 305 m) wide, on 29 April in the face of the limited opposition generated by the miscellany of about 6,000 low-grade troops supported by more than 100 pieces of artillery.
At 02.00, on completion of strong artillery bombardment, one brigade of Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division and a commando brigade assaulted across the river in Buffalo tracked carriers and assault boats supported by DD amphibious tanks. Two brigades followed, rafts were built, ferries were established and the Royal Engineers began building bridges, the first being opened that night. Close support had been given throughout these operations by the tactical air forces, and 14 German aircraft were destroyed when weather conditions enabled the Luftwaffe to break cloud and attack during short periods.
The German opposition was not great, and the British forces took more than 1,350 prisoners during the day, and then a similar number as the corps enlarged its bridgehead on 30 April. Major General E. L. Bols’s 6th Airborne Division started to cross the river on the afternoon of 30 April, and was followed in the evening by Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division, was tasked with breaking out to the Baltic. By the fall of night on 1 May the armoured division’s leading troops, meeting some opposition, were 15 miles (24 km) to the south-west of Lübeck.
On 30 April the Luftwaffe tried to destroy the British bridges and ferries, but the fighters of Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s No. 83 Group of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force fought them off each time they appeared, and in the process claimed the destruction of 32 German aircraft for the loss of only three of their own number. In providing continuous cover of the armies throughout the crossing of the Elbe and following days, No. 83 Group had some of its severest fighting, and in this period the Gloster Meteor turbojet-powered fighter saw its first operational service against German air opposition.
In a last-gasp effort, the Luftwaffe tried to stop the Allies and in the six days of the operation lost 128 aircraft shot down by the fighters of No. 83 Group, who lost just 29 of their own number.
Meanwhile on 30 April and to the right of the VIII Corps, the XVIII Airborne Corps had crossed 8 miles (13 km) farther up the Elbe, building two bridges by 1 May, and secured a bridgehead in which Major General James M. Gavin’s 82nd Airborne Division and Major General Bryant E. Moore’s 8th Division were assembling, and where they were joined by the 6th Airborne Division.
On 2 May German opposition collapsed on the whole front and the 11th Armoured Division occupied Lübeck, where it encountered only limited sniper resistance, while Major General R. A. Hull’s 5th Division closed in the area behind it. The VIII Corps took 15,784 prisoners in Lübeck alone.
On the British corps’ right the XVIII Airborne Corps quickly secured the line between Domitz and Wismar via Ludwigslust and Schwerin, Wismar itself falling to the 6th Airborne Division, whose leading element was the Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion riding on the tanks of The Royal Scots Greys.
During the evening of this day the Soviet III Tank Corps made contact with the 6th Airborne Division at Wismar: this was the first contact between the British forces advancing from the west and the Soviet forces advancing from the east.
The 11th Armoured Division moved to the Baltic coast at Travemünde on the following day.
The greater number of prisoners were taken by the XVIII Airborne Corps, in the form of some 100,000 on 2 May and another 150,000 or so on the following day, when General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 3rd Panzerarmee and General Kurt von Tippelskirch’s 21st Army, both of Generaloberst Kurt Student’s Heeresgruppe ‘Weichsel’, surrendered. The Allied forces sustained fewer than 1,000 casualties.