Operation Heather

'Heather' was a British undertaking by Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s XXX Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army to clear and protect the road linking Üdem and Weeze and also to capture Kervenheim in western Germany (17/26 February 1945).

At this time the XXX Corps comprised Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division, Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division, Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 51st Division and Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division. The last three of these were currently converging on Goch, which was a pivotal point in the defences of General Alfred Schlemm’s 1st Fallschirmarmee within Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe 'H' in this region of the Rhineland, which was well held with the aid of strongpoints, trench lines and anti-tank ditches.

The Niers river flows through Goch, and about 1 mile (1.6 km) away an escarpment overlooks it from the north. Avoiding the forest of Kleve, and then skirting Pfalzdorf which was about to fall to the 53rd Division, the 43rd Division moved toward this escarpment to the north-east of Goch with the 15th Division preparing to follow it. In heavy fighting by each of its brigades in turn, the 43rd Division broke through Generalleutnant Eberhardt Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision of General Erich Straube’s LXXXVI Corps and, in a determined night attack, quickly covered some 4 to 5 miles (6.4 to 8 km) to secure the escarpment on 17 February and also to cut the road linking Goch and Calcar.

After dark the divisional engineers opened seven crossings over the outer anti-tank ditch at the foot of the escarpment and during the morning of the following day the 15th Division’s leading brigade took up the attack. Greatly helped by the specialised armoured fighting vehicles of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division supplied from army level, the 15th Division forced the inner anti-tank ditch and by 24.00 was fighting in the environs of Goch, as were units of the 53rd Division to their right and a brigade of the 51st Division on the far side of the Niers river.

On 19 February the garrison commander surrendered but confused fighting among the rubble-strewn streets continued for another 48 hours. Early on 19 February Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl’s II Fallschirmkorps, with General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps on its right and Straube’s LXXXVI Corps on its left, had taken over the front on each side of Goch with Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann’s 7th Fallschirmjägerdivision and what remained of Oberst Heinz Fiebig’s 84th Division, but this reinforcement was too late to affect the outcome, and by the evening of 21 February Goch was free of German troops.

While this key position was being captured, the XXX Corps had also been gaining ground to the flanks. On arrival alongside the Maas river, Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s 52nd Division lost no time in taking Afferden and the adjacent woodland, but when it sought to strike to the east in the direction of Weeze it found the old, shellproof frontier fortress of Kasteel Blijenbeek and the road beyond to Groote Horst fanatically defended by paratroops, with a considerable anti-tank ditch which delayed progress for some time.

In the country to the left of the 52nd Division, Brigadier G. F. Johnson’s 32nd Guards Brigade had been operating as the link between it and the main body of the 51st Division while the latter moved through Asperden toward Goch. The 32nd Guards Brigade quickly took Hommersum and Hassum, but when it veered to the south it found the ground too boggy for tanks to accompany it, and on meeting very strong opposition it was withdrawn. At the same time, troops of the 15th Division who were not engaged with Goch had swung away to the left over the road linking Goch and Calcar with the object of clearing the woods of German paratroopers to the east of the Niers river and around Buchholt. Farther to the left again the 43rd Division was also across the road and, with the tanks of Brigadier G. E. Prior-Palmer’s 8th Armoured Brigade, had taken Halvenboom to protect the flank of Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s neighbouring Canadian II Corps.

On 22 February the XXX Corps' attack continued, the 15th Division starting from near the rail line between Goch and Üdem east of the Niers river, followed on 24 February by the 53rd Division on the direct road from Goch to Weeze. Both divisions soon ran into heavy opposition: the 15th Division from Generalmajor Horst Diemack’s Panzer-Lehr-Division, and the 53rd Division from Panzergrenadier units as well as Generalleutnant Hermann Plocher’s 6th Fallschirmjägerdivision and Generalmajor Walter Wadehn’s 8th Fallschirmjägerdivision.

Mines, mud and an anti-tank ditch added to the difficulties of the advance, but at a cost of some heavy fighting and 900 casualties the XXX Corps advanced to a line 2 miles (3.2 km) short of Weeze and took 800 prisoners. The 15th Division was then relieved by Major General A. Galloway’s 3rd Division and withdrawn to reserve.