Operation Mallard (iii)

This was a British offensive by Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army in the Venlo sector of the Maas river front in the German-occupied Netherlands and western Germany (14/25 November 1944).

On 28 October General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, issued a directive for the Allied armies’ continued prosecution of the war on the Western Front against the Germans, and modified this slightly on 2 November to read ‘The general plan subject always to prior capture of the approaches to Antwerp, is as follows: (a) Making the main effort in the north, decisively to defeat the enemy west of the Rhine and secure bridgeheads over the river; then to seize the Ruhr and subsequently advance deep into Germany. (b) To conduct operations so as to destroy the enemy in the Saar, to secure crossings over the Rhine, and to be prepared to advance from the Saar later in accordance with the situation then prevailing. All of these operations are to be timed so as best to support the main effort to which they are subsidiary. (c) On the right, i.e. the south, flank making full use of maintenance available from the Mediterranean, to act aggressively with the initial object of overwhelming the enemy west of the Rhine and subsequently of advancing into Germany.’

Eisenhower further explained his general plan in a directive which mandated operations which could be broken down into three overlapping phases. The first was the campaign to the west of the Rhine river, taking advantage of any opportunity to seize bridgeheads. In this phase Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group, in the area to the north of the Ardennes, was to advance to the Rhine river from 10 November and to seize bridgeheads over this great waterway in the area to the south of Köln, and at the same time Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group, after completing its operations to open the vital Belgian port of Antwerp, was to take the offensive in the area to the west of the Meuse river and also advance to the Rhine river. The second phase covered operations leading to the capture of bridgeheads over the Rhine river and the deployment of Allied forces on the eastern bank on this river.

During these first two phases Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 1st Army and Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army of the US 12th Army Group, in the area to the south of the Ardennes, were to occupy the Saar region and secure crossings over the Rhine river with operations timed to aid the main effort in the north.

The third phase covered the advance from the Rhine river into Germany proper, but was not outlined in the directive.

Montgomery’s directive to the 21st Army Group, setting out his forces’ operations as sketched by Eisenhower, was issued on 2 November. The operations to open Antwerp and expel the Germans in the area to the north of the Lower Maas (Meuse) river in the south-western part of the Netherlands would be completed, and the 2nd Army would push back the Germans east of the Maas river in the area of Venlo. The implementation of Montgomery’s plan needed a regrouping of the 21st Army Group with Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army assuming responsibility for the front between the coast of the North Sea and the Reichswald, and the 2nd Army operating on the rest of the army group’s front. The movement of large formations would inevitably require some time but nonetheless, even before the completion of the regrouping, the 2nd Army was to embark on the task of clearing the German forces from the western bank of the Maas river on 12 November and extend its right flank to the south as far as Geilenkirchen, taking over some of the 12th Army Group’s front.

During the regrouping, the US divisions loaned to the 21st Army Group for ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ at Arnhem, the safeguarding of the right flank and the capture of ground to the north of Antwerp, would be returned to the command of US Army higher formations. The US formations in question were the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, 7th Armored Division and 104th Division.

On 6 November Montgomery went to England for a four-day leave, and on the day before his return Crerar arrived after recovering from illness, and resumed command of the Canadian 1st Army, Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds reverting to his command of the Canadian II Corps. During the next few days the Canadian 1st Army assumed control of the Nijmegen front while the 2nd Army shifted right to complete the clearance of the remaining German possession of land west of the Maas river. This was the area in which the Germans had made a counterattack on 27 October.

As early as 9 October Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, had come to appreciate that the greatest danger to the Germans on the Western Front lay in the sector round Aachen, and decided that an armoured reserve was needed behind this sector. von Rundstedt therefore ordered the headquarters of General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee to move from the Nancy sector in the south during 14 October and assume control of the front from Aachen to the north as far as the Reichswald. At the same time the headquarters of General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps and Generalmajor Hans-Joachim Deckert’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision also moved to the north from that sector into the reserve of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ in the Venlo area. Here these formations were joined by Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzerdivision from the Arnhem sector. Both of these divisions were almost at full strength.

It was this force which launched the surprise attack on Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VII Corps of the 2nd Army at Meijel early on 27 October and pushed back the forward elements of Major General Lindsay McD. Silvester’s US 7th Armored Division before this formation counterattacked and met a fresh German attack. By 29 October the Germans had penetrated some 6 miles (10 km) into the Allied lines.

By that evening, and unbeknownst to the Germans, Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division, with Brigadier G. L. Verney’s 6th Guards Tank Brigade under command, had moved from Tilburg, concentrated behind the US formation, and on the next day attacked the Germans, who were pushing forward their advance in the search for improved defensive positions. Hard fighting followed, and during the night the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision was pulled back. However, the combination of mines and soft, even muddy, ground aided Generalmajor Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzerdivision in slowing the VIII Corps’ advance, and on 8 November Meijel was still in German hands even though the 9th Panzerdivision had been pulled back into reserve. This was the day on which the 7th Armored Division returned to the 12th Army Group, but by then most of Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division and Major General T. G. Rennie’s 51st Division had been moved to the Maas river front after completing their tasks in driving the German forces back over the lower Maas. After completing the move to its new area of responsibility, the 2nd Army renewed its attack on the remaining German bridgehead to the west of the Maas river in the Venlo sector in ‘Mallard’ (iii).

Having moved to its new position, the 2nd Army pressed forward its attack on the remaining German bridgehead to the west of the Maas river in the Venlo sector between the Reichswald in the north and Linnich on the Roer river near Geilenkirchen in the south. The 2nd Army was disposed in three major formations with Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps in the north between the Reichswald and Roermond, Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s XII Corps in the centre between Roermond and Maeseyck, and Lieutnant General B. G. Horrocks’s XXX Corps in the south between Maeseyck and Linnich. The VIII Corps comprised 11th Armoured Division, the 3rd and 15th Divisions, and the 6th Guards Tank Brigade; the XII Corps comprised the 7th Armoured Division, the 49th, 51st and 53rd Divisions, and the 4th and 33rd Armoured Brigades; and the XXX Corps comprised the Guards Armoured Division, the 43rd and US 84th Divisions, and the 8th Armoured Brigade.

The first step in 'Mallard' (iii) was made by the XII Corps in the centre with the object of clearing the formations of German forces of Generaloberst Karl Student’s (from 18 November General Alfred Schlemm’s) 1st Fallschirmarmee of Student’s Heeresgruppe 'H' from the whole area to the west of the Maas river between the Wessem Canal in the south and Venlo in the north. On its left the VIII Corps was to clear the rest of the German-held territory between Venlo and the Canadian 1st Army’s southern flank near Grave.

The XII Corps made good progress right from the start, and by the evening of 16 November had practically cleared the German forces from the area as far to the east as the Zig Canal. Crossing the canal despite a stiffening of the German resistance, the XII Corps continued to advance toward the north-east, and on 18 November took Beringe. From here the corps' progress was slowed by wet ground and tank obstacles, and on 23 November the corps came up against a heavily mined area to the west of Blerick, a suburb of Venlo on the western bank of the Maas river.

Meanwhile, on the XIII Corps' left, the VIII Corps had for a time been held up along the Deurne Canal, which the Germans initially defended strongly, but by 19 November the Germans had pulled back and the VIII Corps continued its advance, hindered less by the Germans than the large numbers of mines and booby traps they had left in their wake, and by the sodden nature of the ground. Corduroy roads had to be built in many places to ensure that supplies reached the troops in forward positions. In the soaked ground tanks were a liability rather than an asset, but the Weasel amphibious jeep came into its own as the single most valuable form of transport. By the evening of 25 November the VIII Corps had reached the Maas river along its length as far to the north as the corps' boundary with the Canadian 1st Army, the Germans retaining only a few strongpoints close to the river on its western bank. On 3 December, with strong artillery and Hawker Typhoon fighter-bomber support, the XII Corps made a well-planned attack against Blerick. Flail tanks were used to breach the German minefields, bridge-crossing AVRE tanks to bridge an anti-tank ditch and Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers to carry the attacking infantry close to their objective along lanes cleared through the defences: from that point the taking of the town proved to be a walk-over.

A well executed cover plan had misled the Germans as to the direction from which the attack would be delivered, and the British casualties were very few.

While the efforts of the XII and VIII Corps were under way, the XXX Corps had prepared to clear formations of von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee of Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B' from the area between XII Corps and the 2nd Army’s boundary with Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army between Maastrict in the west and Geilenkirchen in the east. The US XIX Corps, under the command of Major General Raymond S. McClain, attacked on 16 November in the direction of Julich and Linnich on the Roer river. Two days later the XXX Corps attacked Geilenkirchen and a string of villages on each side of the Wurm river about 3 miles (4.8 km) farther to the east.

Major General Alexander R. Bolling’s US 84th Division (under the temporary command of the XXX Corps), assisted by British flail and gun tanks, attacked on the right and had penetrated the pillbox defences of the 'Siegfried-Linie' by 12.00; Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division then attacked on its left. Large numbers of tanks, carriers and other vehicles became bogged down in the appallingly bad going when trying to progress in areas off the roads, but the initial German opposition was not determined and some 800 prisoners were taken. On the following day Geilenkirchen was taken after a stiff fight. In clearing the woods some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north of the town, infantry of Deckert’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision were met and driven back, as were some tanks of von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzerdivision in an action on the British right where British Crocodile flamethrowing tanks proved to be a valuable asset to the US troops.

Two days later a battalion of SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Heinz Harmel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision 'Frundsberg' attacked the 43rd Division, and there developed a hard fight.

By this time the weather had broken, the Maas river was in flood and the XXX Corps was being supplied by DUKW amphibious trucks as all the bridge approaches were under water. In forward areas maintenance was by Weasel amphibious jeep. For the time being the XXX Corps was not required to go farther in the waterlogged country between the Maas and Roer rivers, and the US 84th Division was returned to the US 9th Army.

Throughout the fighting Supermarine Spitfire and Typhoon fighter-bombers of Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s No. 83 Group and Air Vice Marshal E. C. Huddleston’s No. 84 Group of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force had provided invaluable close air support whenever the weather made it possible.