This was the US southern half of the Allied pincer movement, with the Anglo-Canadian ‘Veritable’ as its northern counterpart, to advance Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group to the line of the Rhine river in western Germany (23/28 February 1945).
After the Allied defeat of the ‘Nordwind’ (iii) operation to break into the Saverne gap to the north of Strasbourg and retake this major French city, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in North-West Europe, ordered the elimination of the German salient round Colmar farther to the south and just to the north of the Franco-Swiss frontier. Général d’Armée de Lattre de Tassigny’s French 1st Army, which had failed in its first attempt to achieve this objective at a time early in December 1944, was strongly reinforced by US divisions for this second attempt. Between 20 January and 9 February this pocket was pinched off from the river in heavy fighting. Adolf Hitler again delayed authorising the evacuation of the pocket, and General Friedrich Wiese’s 19th Army therefore suffered unnecessarily heavy losses.
With the two major German bridgeheads on the western side of the Rhine river, round Colmar in the south and in the Roermond area in the north, now eliminated as factors in Allied considerations, the Allies could prepare to close up to the Rhine along the river’s entire length between Switzerland and the North Sea.
This Rhineland campaign was schemed as a three-phase undertaking. Entrusted to the 21st Army Group, the first phase would comprise a pair of offensives, which were designed to converge at Mörs, in form of ‘Veritable’ on a axis to the south-east from its Nijmegen bridgehead by General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army against the northern half General Alfred Schlemm’s 1st Fallschirmarmee of Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’, and ‘Grenade’ on an axis to the north-east by Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army against the southern half of the 1st Fallschirmarmee and the northern half of General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’.
As this pair of linked operations was progressing, the formations of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group were to seize the Roer dams and so cover the southern flank of the 21st Army Group.
The second phase of the grand offensive would be the ‘Lumberjack’ advances to the Rhine by Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army and Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army. The third phase would comprise ‘Undertone’ advance on a north-east axis to the Rhine by Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army of General Jacob L. Devers’s Allied 6th Army Group with the French 1st Army on its right.
When all of these operations had been completed, the 21st Army Group would launch ‘Plunder’ as the Allies’ primary assault crossing of the Rhine to envelop the Ruhr industrial region from the north. As first conceived, ‘Plunder’ would have followed by a drive, to the north of the Ruhr, in the direction of Berlin, but as it appeared that the Soviet forces might reach Berlin first, the objective of this northern drive was tentatively veered slightly farther north with Hamburg as its objective.
‘Veritable’ faced a strong German defence organised in some depth. Its first element was the Reichswald, the second comprised Kleve and Goch, which had been converted into major strongpoints, and the third extended from Geldern to the north in the direction of Rees. The Germans had flooded the low ground along the rivers.
Montgomery planned to launch ‘Veritable’ and ‘Grenade’ on 8 and 9 February respectively. On the night of 7 February, heavy bombers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command pounded Kleve, Goch and other targets in that area. From 05.00 on 8 February British artillery laid down a 5.5-hour artillery bombardment before, at 10.30, Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XXX Corps, reinforced by special assault tank regiments, advanced. Though clogged by a sudden thaw and rising flood waters, the attack reached Kleve on the afternoon of 9 February. There it found that Bomber Command had used HE bombs against the town, rather than incendiaries as requested, and a wilderness of craters and debris halted all ground progress.
Meanwhile the 1st Army’s component of ‘Lumberjack’ had been battering toward the Roer river dams since 2 February, for farther downstream the 9th Army could not risk an assault across the Roer river, which was to be the first requirement of the implementation of 'Grenade', so long as the Germans held the dams and thus retained the capability to flood the Roer river valley. After bitter fighting, Major General C. Ralph Huebner’s V Corps gained control of the dams late on 10 February, only then discovering that the Germans had wrecked the discharge valves during the previous evening, causing the flooding which would prevent the US 9th Army from all movement for two weeks.
This fact left Heeresgruppe ‘H’ free to concentrate its efforts against the British and Canadian attack in 'Veritable'. German airborne units often fought literally to the last man, steady rain and flooding left most of the battlefield under water, amphibious vehicles became essential for the resupply of troops and the evacuation of the wounded, and attacks had to be made with great difficulty through waist-high water. However, even the addition of the German troops’ superb defensive fighting to the appalling weather and terrain conditions failed to halt the British and Canadian advance. By 23 February, the British and Canadians had pushed through the Reichswald and past Koch, in the process breaching the first two German positions, and were now regrouping in preparation for their assault on the third German positions.
During the two-week period in which the Roer river valley was flooded, Hitler refused to entertain the recommendation of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber 'West', that the Germans forces should be withdrawn to the east across the Rhine. Hitler argued that any such withdrawal would serve only to delay the inevitable fight, and ordered von Runstedt to fight where his forces stood.
Farther to the south, the 9th Army had taken advantage of the pause imposed on its by the flooding of the Roer river valley to perfect its preparations for the ‘Grenade’ crossing of the Roer river.
At 02.45 on 23 February, Simpson launched 'Grenade' and secured total tactical and operational surprise by employing only a short preparatory bombardment (more than 1,000 pieces of the 9th Army supported by others of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army and Lieutenant General Wiliam H. Simpson’s US 9th Army on the 1st Army’s northern and southern flanks) before ordering his men to move forward between Roermond in the north and Düren in the south despite the fact that the flood waters had not yet completely dissipated. Involving Major General John B. Anderson’s XVI Corps, Major General Alvan C. Gillem’s XIII Corps and Major General Raymond S. McLain’s XIX Corps in line from north to south, the assault was spearheaded by four infantry divisions of the XIII and XIX Corps, which lowered their assault boats into the Roer river at 03.30 and started to cross to the east.
Struggling as much against the river as against the Germans, the assault divisions had a difficult day, though aided by fighter-bomber support from the break of day, and started on bridging operations almost immediately. In the face of only moderate opposition except for German harassing fire on the crossing sites and mines on the far shore, the success of the crossing was assured by the time night fell. Bridgeheads up to 4 miles (6.4 km) deep had been established and held, these bridgeheads including the road and rail centres of Jülich and Baal. Some 28 infantry battalions were across the river and nearly seven 40-ton bridges were in use. The XVI Corps, on the left, had destroyed several German pockets which had survived to the west of the river, and at 1,074 the 9th Army’s casualties were somewhat fewer than had been anticipated. The four infantry and Volksgrenadier divisions which had been positively identified, as intelligence had suggested, had yielded 1,100 prisoners.
To cover the 9th Army’s southern flank, two divisions of the US 1st Army crossed the river simultaneously to the north and south of Düren with much the same difficulties and progress.
Throughout the day the tactical warplanes of Lieutenant General Hoyt S. Vandenberg’s US 9th Army Air Force provided effective support, its fighter-bomber and medium bombers flying more than 900 sorties to attack German strongpoints, movements, communication centres and marshalling yards, and also to provide overhead cover for the crossing places.
On the following day, with additional light bridges now available, the US build-up continued actively, and progress was made right along the front. While the VII Corps of the 1st Army on the southern flank fought its way into Düren, the 9th Army’s right-hand formation, the XIX Corps, cleared the Hambach forest, the XIII Corps in the centre developed a substantial salient toward Erkelenz, and the XVI Corps on the left was ordered to cross the Roer river.
During the day Montgomery visited Simpson to stress the importance of taking full advantage of continuing good weather and the Germans' lack of immediate reserves, and urged that every sensible risk should be taken to speed and deepen the advance.
During the night of 24/25 February German aircraft, operating only in small numbers, made repeated attacks on the crossing sites and managed to hit two of the bridges. On the following night there were 220 German aircraft over the Roer river valley to attack roads and towns. These attackers paid a heavy price, for 18 of their number were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire.
Despite the appearance of elements of Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision from the area of Köln, and of Generalmajor Wolf Ewert’s 338th Division, which had been diverted while on its way toward Kalkar from the Colmar front some 250 miles (400 km) distant, the pace of the US ground advance increased. By the evening of 26 February all three of the 9th Army’s corps were across the Roer river, at least in part, and had some armour with them. The US formations had then taken 6,000 prisoners at a cost to themselves of 3,368 casualties. On the right, the 1st Army continued to make corresponding progress and, with its right flank thus protected, the 9th Army began to develop its main thrust to reach the Rhine river opposite Düsseldorf.
In 'Grenade' proper, the XVI Corps had advanced to the south of Venlo and Geldern, which were in the British area of responsibility, to reach Rheinberg and the Rhine river just to its east; the XIII Corps had driven through Viersen to reach Krefeld, Uerdingen, Rhinehausen and Moers to reach the Rhine river opposite Duisburg; and the XIX Corps had swept forward on the northern flank of the US 1st Army to reach Neuss and the line of the Rhine river opposite Düsseldorf and Oberkassel.
Even the arrival of the reinforcements from the area of Köln and then the subsequent switching of the Panzer-Lehr-Division, under the temporary command of Oberst Horst Niemack, together with a number of Panzergrenadier units from the Canadian front, availed the Germans to to appreciable extent in their effort to hold the 9th Army for long once its breakthrough got under way on 28 February, which was also the first good flying day for some time and allowed the 9th Army Air Force to provide a mass of close support sorties. On 1 March the 9th Army made its most spectacular advance, and by the evening of this day the XIX Corps on the army’s right was in Neuss, almost opposite Düsseldorf, with a single division in control of München-Gladbach, the largest German city captured so far; the XIII Corps in the centre was well past the city on the west and wheeling toward Kempen and the Rhine river; and the XVI Corps on the left had one motorised task force in Roermond, and another in Venlo, where engineers of the adjacent British 2nd Army at once started to bridge the Maas river in the inter-army boundary.
The 9th Army’s battle was almost won, but the formation had to maintain its impetus if the maximum losses were to be inflicted on the retreating German forces and one of the eight Rhine river bridges in the army’s sector was to be seized intact. On 1 March, as reports of progress flooded in, Eisenhower was at Simpson’s headquarters and showed much interest in the 9th Army’s attempt to take a Rhine river bridge before the Germans could destroy them all. However, the US columns were unable to prevent the first four bridges from being destroyed as their tanks arrived. Four were still standing along the river to the north of Duisburg, and the US forces were not able to to preventing the Germans from completing an orderly withdrawal across the Rhine river in this sector.
At this point Simpson suggested to Montgomery that, should the 9th Army fail to 'jump' a bridge, it should make a deliberate crossing a few miles downstream of Düsseldorf. Simpson was confident that such a crossing could be undertaken successfully, but Montgomery thought it wiser to assault the Rhine river on a broad front with a fully prepared and co-ordinated plan. The 9th Army pushed ahead as far as Orsoy by 5 March, but before then the Germans had blown the last four bridges.
Montgomery had visited the 9th Army’s forward areas on 28 February, the day before Eisenhower was there, and noted how impressed he was by the army’s progress and high morale.
In Schlemm, commander of the 1st Fallschirmarmee, the Allies were faced by an opponent with significant experience in fighting rearguard actions in the USSR and Italy before, in November 1944, being promoted to his present command on the Western Front. But in addition to his wealth of practical command experience under adverse military conditions, in the Rhineland campaign Schlemm had both the terrain and the weather on his side. The terrain elicited from Eisenhower the comment that 'Probably no assault in this war has been conducted under more appalling conditions of terrain than was that one', and weather so unfit for air operations that it was only on 28 February that Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s British 2nd Tactical Air Force could make a significant contribution with 1,117 tactical sorties, could give support on any large scale.
It was on 3 March that US and Anglo-Canadian troops met at Geldern, marking the culmination of ‘Veritable’ and ‘Grenade’.
As the 9th Army’s threat had first developed, Schlemm had been under instruction to hold a bridgehead to the west of the Rhine river, regardless of cost, in order that the barges carrying Ruhr coal could still use the river down to Wesel and then turn eastwards up the Lippe river for the Dortmund-Ems Canal and northern Germany.
At first Schlemm had aimed to hold a line from Krefeld through Geldern to the area of Marienbaum but, with the 9th Army sweeping to the north down the Rhine river from Neuss and the Canadian 1st Army emerging from the Hochwald on a south-westerly axis, Schlemm’s aim was now to shrink his bridgehead without allowing Allied troops to reach the Wesel escape route before his own troops. Schlemm was unwilling to allow his isolated army to be trapped, though Hitler had warned that should a Rhine river bridge be lost he would pay for it with his life, and not one fit man or a single piece of fighting equipment was to be evacuated across the river without the express authorisation of the German leader.
As contacts between Horrocks’s British XXX Corps of the Canadian 1st Army and the 9th Army continued, Horrocks wheeled his advance sharply to the north-east and Major General R. K. Ross’s British 53rd Division was given as its right-hand boundary the road linking Geldern and Wesel; on this formation’s left, Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division was to pass through Major General A. Galloway’s British 3rd Division for Kapellen and the hills around Bonninghardt. By the evening of 6 March, as the 9th Army reached Rheinberg, the 53rd Division was in the large forest to the south of Alpen. After stiff fighting at Kapellen and in the woods to the east, the Guards Armoured Division took Bonninghardt and its commanding ground.
To the north the Anglo-Canadian progress had been somewhat slower. Sonsbeck had fallen to Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division and Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s British 11th Armoured Division was pinched out and passed into army reserve; but on the rest of the front of Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps all approaches to Schlemm’s last lateral communications in front of Wesel were most stubbornly defended. Veen, a small village lying to the east of Sonsbeck, and Xanten at the north-western corner of the German bridgehead, became the main objectives of Simonds’s corps. Attacks on both places began on 6 March, but in the face of extremely stubborn resistance required greater weight and were therefore reorganised. It was not until 9 March, and after heavy casualties, that Major General C. Vokes’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division had cleared Veen, and Major General A. B. Matthews’s Canadian 2nd Division and Major General G. I. Thomas’s British 43rd Division had combined to eliminate the Xanten bridgehead in 'Blockbuster'.
By that time the Guards Armoured Division of the XXX Corps had broken Schlemm’s lateral communications near Menzelen after a very stiff battle, and Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division had cleared Alpen with severe losses. A few miles to the south, the US forces had moved forward to Ossenburg and began rapidly to turn every house into a strongpoint.
This effectively marked the end of the parallel 'Grenade' and 'Veritable' undertakings.
In the Rhineland campaign, the German divisions on the western side of the Rhine river had suffered huge losses, including that of 290,000 men taken prisoner. In 'Grenade', the 9th Army had taken 29,739 prisoners, and estimated that it had inflicted another 16,000 casualties on the Germans; the 9th Army’s own losses had been about 7,300 men killed, wounded and missing. In conjunction with 'Veritable' and 'Blockbuster', the combined Allied effort had inflicted about 90,000 casualties on the German army
Montgomery now began the concentration of his forces for ‘Plunder’. Simpson proposed an immediate assault crossing in the area between Düsseldorf and Duisburg, which he knew to be unfortified and lightly defended, but Montgomery refused on the grounds that a successful crossing would merely lead the 9th Army into the industrial jungle of the Ruhr.
Bradley, meanwhile, had carried out his task of protecting the right flank of the 9th Army. Attacking on 23 February with Lieutenant General J. Lawton Collins’s VII Corps, Major General John Millikin’s III Corps and Huebner’s V Corps in line from north to south, the 1st Army made considerable gains, against General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee, in the direction of the Rhine at Bonn. Still farther to the south, between 8 and 23 February the 3rd Army (assigned the temporary mission of ‘active defence’ until the launch of ‘Lumberjack’) had broken though the ‘Westwall’ in the area held by General Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army of Heeresgruppe ‘B’.
By 5 March the 12th Army Group was poised to close up to the Rhine from the Mosel river northward, and the advance swept through confused German resistance. On 7 March, leading units of the US 9th Armored Division discovered the Rhine bridge at Remagen still standing and seized it by a daring rush. This unexpected fortune changed the entire balance of the Allied offensive.