Operation Leek (ii)

This was a British offensive by Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s XXX Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army from the eastern Netherlands to cross the Niers river and take the German town of Weeze (24 February 1945).

By this time Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group had reached the second phase of ‘Veritable’, and Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds was now organising his Canadian II Corps of General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army for ‘Blockbuster’. This was designed to take the high ground between Kalkar and Üdem and, beyond this, the natural defensive position of the Hochwald-Balbergerwald, which had been strengthened by the last belt of prepared defences between the Maas and Rhine rivers. For ‘Blockbuster’ the II Corps had Major General A. B. Matthews’s Canadian 2nd Division, Major General D. C. Spry’s 3rd Canadian Division and Major General C. Vokes’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division, and Major General G. I. Thomas’s British 43rd Division and Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s British 11th Armoured Division of the XXX Corps. The latter, with Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division, Major General T. G. Rennie’s 51st Division, Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s 52nd Division and Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division, together with Major General A. Galloway’s 3rd Division and Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Divisions in reserve, would be responsible for the southern half of the front.

The British formations were to advance east to shield the Canadian formations’ right flank, and to the south to clear the area alongside the Maas river, thereby facilitating the ‘Grenade’ undertaking of Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army to advance north-eastward to the Rhine river above Wesel.

On 22 February the XXX Corps’ attack had continued, the 15th Division starting from a point near the railway line linking Goch and Üdem, to the east of the Niers river, followed on 24 February by the 53rd Division along the road linking Goch and Weeze. Both divisions soon encountered heavy opposition from elements of General Alfred Schlemm’s 1st Fallschirmarmee of Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’: the former by Generalmajor Horst Niemack’s Panzer-Lehr-Division; and the latter by Panzergrenadier units, Generalleutnant Hermann Plocher’s 6th Fallschirmjägerdivision of General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps and Generalmajor Walter Wadehn’s 8th Fallschirmjägerdivision of Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl’s II Fallschirmkorps.

The British advance was further hampered by mines, mud and an anti-tank ditch, but at a cost of some heavy fighting and 900 casualties, the XXX Corps advanced its front to a point within 2 miles (3.2 km) of Weeze and taken another 800 prisoners. The 15th Division was then relieved by the British 3rd Division and pulled back into reserve.

By 22 February the flood in the Roer river valley, caused by the German opening of the relevant dams, had fallen sufficiently for the 9th Army to start ‘Grenade’ early on 23 February. After a 45-minute 9th Army artillery bombardment of the German positions from a location to the north of Roermond to a location to the south of Düren by more than 1,000 pieces of artillery, supported by others of Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army and Dempsey’s British 2nd Army on the flanks, the four assault divisions of the 9th Army’s two leading corps started to cross the Roer river in assault boats at 03.30 on 23 February.

Faced with fast-flowing water as well as the German defences, the US assault divisions had a difficult day. Bridging operations started almost immediately, however, and with only moderate opposition except for harassing fire on the crossing sites and mines on the eastern bank, the crossing had been secured by nightfall. The US forces held bridgeheads up to 4 miles (6.4 km) deep, these including the road and rail centres of Jülich and Baal. Some 28 infantry battalions had crossed the river and seven 40-ton bridges were in use.

The third US corps, on the left, had destroyed several German pockets to the west of the river and, at just 1,074 men, the 9th Army’s casualties were fewer than had been anticipated. The four infantry and Volksgrenadier divisions which were identified as expected had yielded 1,100 prisoners.

To cover the 9th Army’s southern flank, two divisions of the 1st Army crossed the river simultaneously to each side of Düren with much the same difficulties and progress. Throughout the day Lieutenant Hoyt S. Vandenberg’s US 9th Army Air Force provided very effective support, flying more than 900 sorties to attack German strongpoints, movement, communication centres and marshalling yards, and also to provide air cover over the crossing points. On the following day, with additional light bridges brought into service, the build-up continued actively and progress was made right along the front.

While the 1st Army on the southern flank fought its way into Düren, the 9th Army’s right-hand corps cleared the Hambacherwald, another in the centre developed a substantial salient towards Erkelenz, and the third was ordered to cross the Roer. During the day Montgomery visited the 9th Army and urged on Simpson the importance of taking full advantage of continuing good weather and the Germans’ lack of immediate reserves, and added that every legitimate risk should be taken to further the advance.

During the night which followed, small groups of German aircraft made repeated attacks on the crossing places and managed to hit two of the bridges. On the next night some 220 German aircraft attacked roads and towns in the the Roer river valley, 18 of the aircraft being shot down by US anti-aircraft guns.

Despite the appearance of elements of Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision from the Köln area, and of Generalmajor Wolf Ewert’s 338th Division diverted while on its way to Kalkar from the Colmar front some 250 miles (400 km) to the south, the pace of the ground advances increased. By the evening of 26 February all three of the 9th Army’s corps had crossed the Roer river, at least in part, and had some armour with them. By that time they had taken 6,000 prisoners at a cost to themselves of 3,368 casualties. The 1st Army on their right flank continued to make corresponding progress and, with its right flank thus protected, the 9th Army began developing its main thrust for the Rhine river opposite Düsseldorf.

The Canadians began their ‘Blockbuster’ offensive on 26 February with a bombardment by 600 pieces of artillery. The 43rd Division was on the extreme northern flank; then came the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions attacking the Kalkar-Üdem ridge, which was the outpost zone of the Hochwald-Balbergerwald position, with the Canadian 4th Armoured Division close behind for the breakthrough, and the British 11th Armoured Division on the Canadians’ southern flank. The XXX Corps’ 3rd and 53rd Divisions attacked on the line linking Weeze and Kevelaer.

There was no sign of any weakening of the German defence, and in fact on this day Adolf Hitler declared that there must be no withdrawals whenever the crisis might come, and only one day before the start of ‘Blockbuster’ Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, had reported that he foresaw no acute danger of an Allied breakthrough between the Maas and Rhine rivers. von Rundstedt was more anxious about the threat posed by Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army to Trier, 80 miles (130 km) farther to the south.

Heavy cloud severely curtailed the use of tactical air power, but after the artillery bombardment the units of the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions advanced in the ‘artificial moonlight’ of searchlights playing on the underside of the low cloud, while 40-mm Bofors guns fired tracer rounds whose overhead lines helped the ground forces maintain their advance in the right direction. So shaken were the German defences that only in a few places did the advance encounter an effective resistance. By evening the Germans had managed to rally their defence, and in the following 24 hours the Canadians suffered 1,100 casualties and the loss of some 100 tanks destroyed or disabled.

For the next few days the advance was slow as the Canadians advanced mile by mile as the so-called ‘Schlieffen-Stellung’ on the Hochwald-Balbergerwald was the Germans’ last effective defence line west of the Rhine river. The 11th Armoured Division was engaged, and after a night a night of hard fighting its leading group reached the railway south of Üdem on 27 February after taking 350 prisoners, four self-propelled guns and two tanks. The division’s attacks developed across the higher ground north of Kervenheim, and then down its reverse slopes, facing the ‘Schlieffen-Stellung’ defences and overlooked by tree-covered hills. After very stiff fighting off the south-west corner of the Balberger, the division had come within 1 mile (1.6 km) of Sonsbeck by 3 March.

Meanwhile the British 3rd Division had taken Kervenheim on 1 March and then made for Winnekendonk, which it took on 3 March. After clearing Üdem, the Canadian 3rd Division advanced to the east. Supported by regiments of Brigadier G. W. Robinson’s 2nd Armoured Brigade, the division put two brigades into the Balberger woods, and while some groups slowly cleared the front to the east others veered to the south and came down on Sonsbeck. The Canadian 4th Armoured Division, in the centre of the Canadian II Corps’ front, was to strike east toward Xanten abreast the embanked railway line which the engineers were to adapt as the corps’ main supply road. Shortly before daylight on 27 February the division’s spearhead had started down the reverse slopes of the Kalkar ridge for its first objective, a rounded 200-ft (90-m) hill that filled the western end of the Hochwald gap. A slender foothold was all that could be secured on the first day against some fresh Fallschirmjäger reinforcement units and very heavy concentrations of fire from a large share of the 700 mortars and 1,000 guns now estimated to be opposing the Canadian 1st Army.

The Germans gave ground only slowly, and it was not until the night of 3/4 March that there were signs of the start of a German withdrawal. By then the Canadian 2nd Division, meeting similar opposition, had cleared a major portion of the Hochwald to the north of the railway and had joined the Canadian 4th Armoured Division in the fight to open the gap. As it did so the 43rd Division took over the ground gained by the Canadians’ left and secured Kalkar. While the division moved in the direction of Marienbaum, its reconnaissance regiment and sappers, operating mostly by night, mopped up German detachments between the Rhine and the road linking Kalkar and Xanten.

As the Canadian II Corps gained more ground east of the Kalkar-Üdem line, the XXX Corps found that resistance was slowly fading on the less constricted Maas river flank. Leaving Brigadier D. M. Roberts’s newly joined 1st Commando Brigade to attack up the Maas river valley, the 52nd Division swung to the east, and this freed the 51st Division to prepare for the Rhine river crossing. By 3 March, as the 1st Commando Brigade reached Well, the 52nd Division was making good progress through the wooded country to the south-west of Weeze. On the division’s left the 53rd Division had taken Weeze and then advanced along the main road through Kevelaer to link with the 9th Army. In the afternoon of 3 March the 52nd Division and 53rd Division each met US reconnaissance units beyond Kevelaer, and by the morning of the following day there remained no effective German resistance to the west of Geldern.