This was the Allied operation against the German forces in the Ruhr pocket of western Germany (7 March/21 April 1945).
In March 1945 Allied forces crossed the Rhine river in several places. To the south of the Ruhr, the pursuit of the disintegrating German forces by General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group led to the capture of the Ludendorff bridge across the Rhine at Remagen by the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion of Major General John W. Leonard’s 9th Armored Division within Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army. Bradley and his subordinates quickly exploited the initial crossing of 7 March and expanded the bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Rhine to the south of Bonn until the heavily damaged bridge collapsed 10 days later. To the north of the Ruhr, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group launched ‘Plunder’ and crossed the Rhine at Rees and Wesel to secure a bridgehead to the north of Duisburg. Both army groups then fanned out against the steadily weakened German forces commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, currently the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’.
On 25 and 28 March there took place two events of major significance on the 12th Army Group’s front: first was the collapse of General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army, whose task it was to contain the Americans within the Remagen bridgehead, and second, adding its effect to the 1st Army’s clean breakthrough, was the crossing of the Main river at the Aschaffenburg and Hanau bridges by Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army. This followed from a plan carefully prepared by Bradley after the launch of ‘Lumberjack’ and given its final touches following the surprise assault on Remagen.
The execution of Bradley’s plan was considerably facilitated by Model’s preconceived ideas of the Allied intentions: Model was obsessed with his right flank, fearing an attack down the eastern bank of the Rhine aimed at an assault on the Ruhr industrial complex from the north, and therefore concentrated his dwindling strength to counter this possibility, which he saw as a probability. Model remained impervious to Kesselring’s demands that Heeresgruppe ‘B’ strengthen its left flank, which Kesselring saw as more vulnerable and therefore of greater attraction to the Allies.
On 25 March the 1st Army proved Kesselring’s case by smashing General Carl Püchler’s LXXIV Corps of Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s 5th Panzerarmee in the region of Breitscheid. Hodges immediately unleashed Major General Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division, Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck’s 7th Armored Division and the 9th Armoured Division, which reached Giessen and Marburg on 28 March, 53 and 66 miles (85 and 105 km) respectively from the Rhine river at Neuwied. On the same day, in the 3rd Army, Major General Troy H. Middleton’s VIII Corps completed the mopping up of Frankfurt-am-Main and made contact with Hodges’s right in the region of Wiesbaden, thus trapping the German elements left on the eastern bank of the Rhine river between the Lahn and the Main rivers. But most strikingly, Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke’s 4th Armored Division, Major General Robert W. Grow’s 6th Armored Division and Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn’s 11th Armored Division, in formation ahead of Major General Manton S. Eddy’s XII Corps and Major General Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps, had moved from the valley of the Main river into that of the Fulda river, heading in the direction of Kassel.
Thus Hodges, whose task was to reach the eastern outlets of the Ruhr basin, found himself provided with cover, just as Bradley intended, against a counter-offensive from the Harz mountains.
On the day after the surprise breakthrough at Oppenheim, Kesselring pondered agreement with the suggestions of Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’ in the north, Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ in the centre (with little but remnants of army and Waffen-SS training formations and units, as well as larger numbers of Volkssturm formations and militia units for older men and Hitlerjugend units composed of boys as young as 12) and SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s Heeresgruppe ‘G’ in the south that the whole of the German front should be pulled back from the Rhine river. Kesselring finally decided that this would be inadvisable as the poor state of his armies would probably have resulted in a rout rather than a withdrawal. Kesselring was almost certainly right in his decision, as other events on 28 March confirmed.
By 26 March the engineers of the 21st Army Group had opened seven 40-ton bridges to traffic, and the 9th Army and Lieutenant General sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army came down both banks of the Lippe river to overwhelm General Günther Blumentritt’s 1st Fallschirmarmee of Heeresgruppe ‘H’. Two days later, on the left bank of this river, Simpson had Major General John M. Devine’s 8th Armoured Division in the region of Haltern, more than 25 miles (40 km) to the east of the Rhine river. At the same time, Dempsey pushed Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division down the Münster road, while Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XXX Corps and Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps, on a line linking Borken, Bocholt, IJsselburg and Emmerich, reached the Dutch frontier.
The 1st Fallschirmarmee was cut off, and General Erich Abraham’s LXIII Corps and General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps, totalling five divisions, were thrown back onto Heeresgruppe ‘B’. Into the breach so made, Montgomery poured his armoured formations.
Toward the end of 2 April, and now with total inevitability, the 3rd Armored Division, driving ahead of the VII Corps of the 1st Army, met at Lippstadt with the 8th Armored Division coming from Haltern. With the exception of General Otto Hitzfeld’s LXVII Corps, which had been attached to it from the 5th Panzerarmee after the US breakthrough at Breitscheid, Heeresgruppe ‘B’ was now encircled. Including the remnants of the 1st Fallschirmarmee, the 5th Panzerarmee and 15th Army (seven corps with 19 divisions including three Panzer divisions and Generalleutnant Walter Denkert’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision) were caught in a trap known to the Allies as the Ruhr pocket and designated by Adolf Hitler as a fortress area.
To reduce this pocket, Bradley created a new formation, Lieutenant General Leonard T. Gerow’s US 15th Army with five corps including two new formations in the form of Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s XXII Corps and Major General Frank W. Milburn’s XXIII Corps, in all 18 divisions from the 1st and 9th Armies. The encirclement of the Ruhr meant not only the rapid destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ but more importantly the end of all organised resistance by the German forces between Würzburg on the Main river and Minden on the Weser river. Between the inside of the wings of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ and Heeresgruppe ‘H’ there was now a breach of more than 180 miles (290 km). It was now too late for Kesselring even to revisit his concept of repositioning his forces on a line along the courses of the Weser, Werra, Main, Altmuhl and Lech rivers, traditionally one of the favoured recourses of German generals faced with an offensive from the west.
By 4 April, the encirclement was completed and the 9th Army reverted to the command of Bradley’s 12th Army Group. Within the Ruhr pocket about 430,000 German soldiers and millions of civilians were trapped in cities already severely damaged by numerous bombings. While the main operations headed farther toward central and northern Germany, US forces concentrated on the pocket, taking it section by section. On 12 April the 15th Army divided the area, and the eastern section surrendered on the following day. The two parts of the western section continued to resist until 18 and 21 April. Rather than surrender and violate his personal oath to Adolf Hitler that he would fight to the death, Model committed suicide in a forest to the south of Duisburg on 21 April. Some 325,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner in the Ruhr pocket.