As soon as darkness fell on 25 February the troops of the 2nd Canadian Division who were to launch the BLOCKBUSTER assault began taking their positions in the muddy fields south-west of Calcar. The expectant enemy, knowing this was the only suitable forming-up area, kept it under fairly heavy shelling. The soft, wet ground hampered the supporting armour, but thanks to careful rehearsal and good infantry-tank liaison the movement was completed without major complication, and well ahead of schedule five infantry battalions were ranged along a 3000-yard front west of the Goch-Calcar road. On the extreme left, in the area of Heselerfeld, captured at such cost by the Canadian Scottish on the 17th, was Le Régiment de Maisonneuve of Brigadier Megill’s 5th Brigade, with The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada on its right. Forming the division’s right flank were the battalions of the 6th Brigade (Brigadier Keefler)–from north to south, The South Saskatchewan Regiment, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada.
In the early hours of the 26th German paratroopers, supported by an estimated six tanks, made a sudden attack against the right of the 2nd Division’s front, which the 4th Brigade was holding as a base through which the main offensive would be launched. It was a critical moment, for this ground was needed as the start line for the 6th Brigade’s assault. But “D” Company of The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, though heavily pressed, drove off the attackers with the aid of well-directed artillery fire and the support of a troop of the Fort Garry Horse which came up in time to knock out a Panther. Quiet fell again along the front just fifteen minutes before the artillery programme for “BLOCKBUSTER” was to open.
At 3:45 a.m. the guns burst into action to clear the path for the assaulting forces. At half-past four the 6th Brigade’s three battalions, all armour-borne, crossed the start-line, following a barrage which moved at tank pace. On the right the Cameron Highlanders and a squadron of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers advanced in three columns, the tanks leading, followed by the infantry in Kangaroos of the 1st Canadian Carrier Regiment. On the brigade left The South Saskatchewan Regiment, also in Kangaroos, and ‘supported by a second Sherbrooke squadron, attacked in two columns. In the centre two squadrons of the Fort Garry Horse began ferrying forward Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, who were supported by the remaining Sherbrooke squadron. Searchlights playing on the low clouds provided artificial moonlight, while streams of Bofors tracer fired overhead on to the objectives kept the columns moving in the right direction.
The 6th Brigade’s nearest objective was the Fusiliers’, immediately east of the Calcar-Üdem road. Although ten of the carrying tanks bogged down and one hit a mine, Lt.-Col. Dextraze’s battalion had taken its ground by 5:10 a.m. On the left The South Saskatchewan Regiment were transported safely through considerable machine-gun fire to their assigned positions on high ground near the Cleve-Xanten railway. The Camerons’ objective lay on the Calcar ridge two miles east of the start-line, but soon after the attacking force crossed the line soft going and mines along the Calcar-Üdem road compelled it to swing north and advance along the axis used by Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal. It was now seven o’clock. The barrage had been lost and the Cameron columns encountered heavy fire as they moved on. The Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. E. P. Thompson, was killed by a sniper. The capture and consolidation of the battalion’s objectives, vital to the success of the brigade and indeed the whole corps operation, was due in great part to the gallantry of the commander of “A” Company, Major D. M. Rodgers, which won him the D.S.O. Single-handed he cleared two houses of enemy snipers who were blocking his company’s advance, and taking over battalion headquarters he personally disposed of a third houseful of Germans whose fire was sweeping the headquarters area. Visiting each company in turn he ensured that all unit objectives were taken and held against counter-attack. By midday on the 26th the 6th Brigade’s task in Phase One of “BLOCKBUSTER” had been successfully completed. It was an example of what detailed planning, a high standard of training and excellent morale can accomplish. At a cost of only 140 casualties (including those of the supporting armour) the brigade had taken between 400 and 500 prisoners and accounted for many enemy killed.
Meanwhile the 5th Brigade on the division’s left had made slower progress. Its task was to clear a fringe of woods a mile south-west of Calcar and secure the 6th Brigade’s flank by capturing commanding positions astride the road to Goch. Le Régiment de Maisonneuve was able to occupy three of its company objectives before the battle began, but efforts to reach the most easterly one, a wooded area beside the junction of the Goch and Cleve roads, were halted by heavy fire. The only armour at first assigned to the brigade, one squadron of the 1st Hussars, was needed to support the Black Watch, which had the important role of maintaining contact with the 6th Brigade on the right. The trouble spot was contained by the Maisonneuves’ “D” Company until mid-morning, when two troops of tanks became available. Thus supported and making effective use of Wasp flame-throwers, the battalion overcame the stubborn resistance of the Germans, some of whom fought to the death in their slit-trenches rather than surrender.
Early that morning as they advanced on foot the Black Watch had found their right-hand objectives swept by the fast barrage laid down for the 6th Brigade’s armour-born battalions. The slow barrage farther north assisted them to gain the nearer of their company positions on the left, but the 6th Brigade’s axis of advance made it impossible to advance this supporting fire to “B” Company’s objective, a built-up road junction one mile south of Calcar. The C.O., Lt. Col. B. R. Ritchie, therefore concentrated for the moment on his nearer objectives, for it was apparent that the enemy still had troops in the western part of the Black Watch area. But by ten o’clock “B” Company, backed by the remaining Hussar tanks (half the squadron having bogged down before reaching the start line) had captured the crossroads, taking 50 prisoners.
On the 3rd Division’s front The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada were having a difficult time. The mile or so of open slope up which the battalion had to advance was dotted with several farmsteads whose buildings were fiercely defended by German paratroopers. At first the sodden ground ruled out direct tank support, and at 4:40 a.m. Lt.-Col. S. M. Lett sent his two assaulting companies across the start line alone. Hard fighting developed on the left, where “D” Company found the hamlet of Mooshof strongly held. The enemy had converted three farm buildings into strongpoints, and from these the leading platoon was twice driven back by sustained fire. A German counterattack was beaten off in bitter, confused fighting at a cost of many casualties, including the platoon officer.
In this emergency Sergeant Aubrey Cosens took command of the other survivors of his platoon, only four in number. Through the thick of the enemy fire which was sweeping the area from all sides he ran twenty-five yards across an open space to a tank of the 1st Hussars which had now come up in support. Seating himself in front of the turret he calmly directed the gunner’s fire against the German positions, and then broke up a second counter-attack by plunging the tank into the midst of the startled paratroopers. Next, taking the offensive, he reorganized his little group and, still crouched on top of the Sherman, ordered the driver to ram the first of the three buildings. While his men gave covering fire he went inside, killed several of the defenders and captured the rest. When he entered the second house he found that the occupants had not awaited his coming. Covered by the tank’s fire he then crossed the road alone to clear the third strongpoint-a two-story building held by several Germans. “We followed him from building to building gathering the prisoners”, one of his comrades later reported. Having thus broken the hard core of resistance in Mooshof, Cosens gave orders for consolidating the position, and set off to report to his company commander. On the way he was killed by a sniper’s bullet. This very gallant non-commissioned officer had himself killed at least twenty of the enemy and captured as many more, and had gained an objective vital to the success of the 8th Brigade’s operations. The Victoria Cross posthumously awarded to him was the first to come to the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. From Mooshof the two reserve companies of the Queen’s Own fought grimly forward towards the battalion’s final objectives about Steeg and Wemmershof, north of Keppeln. Intervening strongpoints were reduced with the aid of Wasps. By the time they reached their final goals the armour of the 4th Division had passed through the two villages, but the stubborn enemy had still to be driven from the cellars. By five o’clock all was secure, and Phase One of “BLOCKBUSTER” was over. The day’s fighting had cost the battalion 37 killed and 64 wounded.
The 8th Brigade’s assault on Keppeln–the 3rd Division’s role in the second phase–had begun at 8:45 that morning when The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment and Le Régiment de la Chaudière attacked south-eastward on either side of the Cleve-Üdem road. The advance was across flat country devoid of cover, but no armour was available to carry the infantry. Indeed, so extensive were the demands on the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade that though the Chaudières on the right had the support of the 1st Hussars’ “B” Squadron, on the left the North Shore would be without tanks until the squadron with the Queen’s Own Rifles could be released. The North Shore Regiment, led by Lt.-Col. J. W. H. Rowley, had to advance about 1500 yards to reach Keppeln, but before the leading companies had covered half this distance heavy mortar and machine-gun fire forced them to dig in. While our artillery held the enemy in check, the infantry awaited the arrival of the armour from the Queen’s Own on their left. Meanwhile on the brigade’s southern flank the Chaudière C.O., Lt.-Col. G. O. Taschereau, had sent two companies forward, working closely with their tanks, against a series of strongpoints about Hollen, a smaller hamlet half a mile west of Keppeln on the Üdem road. By ten o’clock they had captured intermediate objectives on the right, but progress on the left was held up by flanking fire from in front of the North Shore Regiment. An attempt by “B” Company to exploit the success on the right ended in a costly lesson to the attackers. At the sight of what appeared to be a white flag in a German position the company relaxed its vigilance, whereupon three Panther tanks suddenly appeared and machine-gunned the unbalanced troops, inflicting many casualties and forcing a withdrawal. By mid-afternoon a successful renewal of the North Shore Regiment’s effort had eased the situation on the left, where a quick Chaudière thrust now secured Hollen. Eighty-four prisoners were taken, together with three anti-tank guns and a store of ammunition. A well-coordinated tank-infantry attack, backed by heavy artillery concentrations, carried the Chaudières to their remaining objectives, which fell without long resistance. The day’s fighting impressed the battalion as being “as hard as any it had met to date”. In fulfilling their role on the 3rd Division’s right flank the Chaudières had captured 224 prisoners, most of them from the 6th Parachute Division’s reconnaissance regiment. Their own casualties were 16 killed and 46 wounded.
The North Shore Regiment’s renewed attack on Keppeln had been made possible by the arrival of the 13 surviving tanks of the 1st Hussars’ “C” Squadron. In a hastily summoned “O” Group, Lt.-Col. Rowley set out a revised plan for an “armour-cum-infantry” attack. It worked admirably. The tanks picked up a platoon of “A” Company and at 2:12 p.m. dashed off towards Keppeln, followed by “B” and “C” Companies on foot and the battalion’s Wasps and carriers, ready to engage any anti-tank weapons which disclosed themselves. Enemy tanks on the outskirts of the village knocked out three Shermans, but were in turn set on fire by the Wasps. In the face of heavy machine-gun fire the infantry platoon dismounted and made its way into Keppeln, soon to be joined by the rest of “A” Company, and by “D”, brought up from reserve. The tanks moved in, and by five o’clock all objectives had been taken. An important factor in the success had been the accuracy of the supporting artillery fire. The North Shores had suffered 81 casualties, 28 of them fatal; in supporting the two infantry battalions the Hussar squadron had lost nine tanks to enemy action, besides four bogged down. The 3rd Division’s part in the second phase of the Corps operation was now completed, and the 9th Brigade was ready to pass through Brigadier Roberts’ battalions in Phase Three–the capture of Üdem. At the 47th Panzer Corps Headquarters that evening von Lüttwitz credited the 116th Panzer Division with having prevented a break-through towards Üdem, and completed arrangements for that formation’s relief on the 28th by the 180th Infantry Division from the 86th Corps to the south.
While the 8th Brigade was engaged in the struggle for Keppeln, the 4th Armoured Division’s battle group had successfully carried out its task of securing the northern half of the Calcar-Üdem ridge. About mid-morning, even before the 2nd Division had taken all its objectives, “TIGER” Group, commanded by Brigadier R. W. Moncel, had begun its attack south-eastward along the 6th Brigade’s right flank. It was composed of the armoured brigade’s three armoured regiments and motor battalion, plus two battalions from the 10th Infantry Brigade, and was divided into five forces. The plan was to press home the attack on either flank with an armoured regiment (less one squadron) accompanied by two infantry companies borne in Crusader or Ram armoured gun tractors.* The force on the left was supplied by the British Columbia Regiment and The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, that on the right by the Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In rear of each of these forces another, consisting of the balance of the infantry battalion and the remaining tank squadron, would mop up; while a fifth force, comprising the Governor General’s Foot Guards and The Lake Superior Regiment (Motor), brought up the rear in readiness for action in the succeeding phase. Each of the two leading groups included a troop of Flail tanks to deal with mines, while the other three were each supported by a troop of Crocodile flame-throwers and a troop of self-propelled anti-tank guns.
As with all armoured movement that day the tanks found the going heavy and slow, and in the first two hours the leading squadrons covered little more than 500 yards. On both axes of advance the enemy was fighting back with vigour and his Panzerfaust or bazooka men accounted for several Canadian tanks. Gradually however the armour overran the German positions, and the marching troops gathered in large batches of prisoners. By four o’clock the leading groups were firm on their objectives in the Todtenhügel area north-east of Keppeln and the infantry were beginning to reorganize as battalions.41 With 350 prisoners in the 4th Division’s cage and signs of lessening enemy resistance it remained for “TIGER” Group to capture the high ground north-east of Üdem. This operation, coupled with the 9th Infantry Brigade’s assault on Üdem, constituted the third phase of the Corps offensive. It was the task for which “Smith” Force (named for Lt.-Col. E. M. Smith, commander of the Governor General’s Foot Guards) had been held in reserve. The objectives included the Pauls-Berg and the Katzen-Berg, the highest points of the Calcar-Üdem ridge.
Shortly before six o’clock, as dusk was falling, the Foot Guards’ No. 3 Squadron moved off towards the Pauls-Berg, Smith’s first objective. “C” Company of the Lake Superior Regiment abandoned their half-tracks to ride on the armoured regiment’s Shermans. The hill was taken without difficulty, but almost immediately a strong counter-attack developed. In the darkness the fighting was close and confused-a German despatch rider is reported to have stopped at No. 3 Squadron’s command tank to ask directions! This and a subsequent attack were beaten off, and the position was secure by 10:30 p.m. In the next two hours the remaining armoured squadrons, each carrying an infantry company, seized the Katzen-Berg and an unnamed hill midway between the main objectives. The capture of this part of the Üdem ridge by “Smith” Force–described by the Lake Superior diarist as “an armoured classic”–had been well planned and was executed on schedule. Casualties had been light–19 for each of the two participating units. Indeed the entire operation by “TIGER” Group had been carried out with remarkably few losses. The heaviest had fallen on the Argyll and Sutherland, with 53 killed and wounded; the Lincoln and Welland had lost 34. By daybreak on the 27th the important plateau was in Canadian hands from the outskirts of Calcar to east of Üdem, and the thrust to the Hochwald could now go forward.
The Fighting for Üdem- While the 4th Armoured Division was extending our hold southward along the ridge, it had been the 3rd Division’s task to capture Üdem and so pave the way for the 11th Armoured Division’s advance eastward. From the Keppeln area, won by the 8th Brigade’s hard fight during the day, Brigadier Rockingham planned that his 9th Brigade would attack southward with two battalions–The Highland Light Infantry of Canada on the left and The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders on the right. When these were firm in the north end of Üdem, The North Nova Scotia Highlanders would pass through to complete clearing the town. Each battalion had been allotted a squadron of the Fort Garry Horse, but so extensive were the 2nd Armoured Brigade’s commitments farther north that when the time came to launch the assault no tanks were available.
At 9:00 p.m. the attack went in after thirty minutes of artillery preparation. The S.D. and G. Highlanders, moving down the main road from Cleve, had to clear Bomshof on their start line, but thereafter made good progress; on the left the Highland Light Infantry, advancing from Keppeln, lost several carriers on mines. The night was illumined by the searchlights and the glare from burning farmhouses. Both battalions crossed Üdem’s encircling anti-tank ditch without much difficulty, but as they entered the town’s northern outskirts about midnight the 7th Parachute Regiment’s opposition stiffened and tough fighting ensued. By 4:00 a.m. resistance had dwindled to occasional sniping, and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders pushed through into the centre of the town. Through the early hours of the 27th snipers continued to give trouble, and Brigadier Rockingham ordered the Highland Light Infantry to clean these up before the North Novas went on to their final objectives. At daybreak one of their companies was on the move through the south-eastern fringe of the town, and by 9:30 it reported securing positions along the Goch-Xanten railway. About mid-morning the Fort Garry tanks came to the aid of another company, which had been pinned down in the south-west corner of Üdem. The end of the afternoon saw all battalions consolidated on the brigade objectives. The 3rd Division’s situation report that night estimated that the brigade had taken 500 prisoners, most of them from the 116th Panzer Division.
The occupation of Üdem opened the way for the 11th Armoured Division to take on the German positions at the southern tip of the long ridge. During the night of 26-27 February a battle group of the 4th British Armoured Brigade had reached the railway at Stein, a village 2000 yards south-west of Üdem. The brigade’s objective was the Gochfortzberg feature a mile north-east of Kervenheim, but progress was halted by German tanks and anti-tank guns, which were still extremely active in the area south of the railway. General Roberts therefore ordered the 159th Infantry Brigade to pass through the 9th Canadian Brigade and take the height. As the British brigade moved forward, the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade followed up and occupied positions south of the tracks astride the road from Üdem to Kervenheim.50
The Battle for the Hochwald- Thus far the “BLOCKBUSTER” offensive had lived up to the planners’ intention that it should be carried out as a continuous operation, the difficulties of darkness being overcome by the use of “movement light”. All across the battlefront piece after piece of the intricate puzzle fell into place as each formation, having completed its allotted task in a particular phase, moved on to a fresh assignment while a relieving force came up to take over the newly-won ground.
Around midnight of the 26th-27th units of the 4th Infantry Brigade had assumed control of the Todtenhügel area, freeing Brigadier Moncel’s “TIGER” Group to reorganize for further operations. On the far left the 129th Brigade of the 43rd (Wessex) Division had relieved the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade south of Calcar and was probing eastward in its role of protecting the Corps flank. During the afternoon of the 27th the 5th Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment (Duke of Edinburgh’s) entered Calcar unopposed, to find all bridges destroyed, while farther south the 214th Brigade took over the ground gained by the 6th Canadian Brigade on the previous day. In contrast to these unspectacular tasks the 43rd Reconnaissance Regiment (The Gloucestershire Regiment) had made excellent progress in sweeping the river flats between the Cleve-Xanten railway and the Rhine. On the evening of 26 February one squadron had crossed the Kalflach Canal opposite Huisberden to occupy Wissel without meeting opposition. Two more villages, Grieth and Hönnepel, were taken on the 27th as the enemy fell back eastward from Calcar. During the next three days the reconnaissance regiment, working in its proper role for a change, patrolled forward vigorously north of the railway towards Marienbaum.
In the centre of the 2nd Canadian Corps front the force earmarked for the initial assault on the Schlieffen Position had been concentrating during the early hours of the 27th. The move forward through the darkness had been accompanied by much floundering on the ruined roads and in the muddy fields, but by half past four the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment) was formed up in a sunken road outside Kirsel, a hamlet 2000 yards north-east of Üdem. Huddled beside the tanks which had brought them forward were the assaulting companies of The Algonquin Regiment–although one company and part of another were missing, apparently because the tanks carrying them had bogged down. The two units, placed under the Algonquins’ C.O., Lt.-Col. R. A. Bradburn, formed the spearhead of “LION” Group, whose commander, Brigadier J. C. Jefferson (10th Canadian Infantry Brigade), was soon to be reinforced by the return of two of his infantry battalions from “TIGER”. A mile to the north, in the Todtenhügel area, units of the 5th Brigade were sorting themselves out for their advance on the left flank.
The Algonquin objective was a rounded hill which filled the western end of the gap between the Hochwald and the Balberger Wald. This was Point 73, though it was seldom so called at the time.* The plan was that when two companies had breached the defences along the edge of the forest, others would be leapfrogged through to secure the important crest. Each company would be supported by a troop of tanks from the South Albertas’ “B” Squadron. At the same time, in order to ensure the presence of armoured support in the gap should “B” Squadron fail to negotiate the muddy valley west of the Hochwald, “A” Squadron of the South Albertas, accompanied by the Algonquin carrier platoon, was to carry out a right hook, crossing the railway south-east of Üdem and striking eastward along the road to Üdemerbruch, a small village close to the Algonquins’ initial objective. This venture, which would take the small force well into enemy territory, did not greatly appeal to the people involved; the diarist of the South Alberta Regiment recorded, “This attack will be made in spite of our protestations–it is a Bde order.” “LION” Group would have the support of a substantial artillery programme. After an initial two-hour bombardment by three field and five medium regiments, the 25-pounders would engage the enemy’s western defence lines while the medium guns blasted the area of the gap.
Because of the known strength of the enemy’s defences, particularly in antitank guns, it was imperative to cross the open valley in darkness, maintaining direction with the aid of Bofors tracer and red marker shells fired on to the objective. But the non-arrival of the missing Algonquin sub-units delayed the start, and at five o’clock enemy shells began falling on the Kirsel area. Accordingly at 5:15, with daylight less than an hour away, Bradburn gave the order to advance. At first things went well. The Germans manning the outpost area were completely surprised, and as the two leading Algonquin companies supported by the South Alberta tanks moved down the eastern slope from the Üdem ridge they met little resistance from the occupants of farmhouses and slit trenches. By the time it was full daylight both companies had crossed anti-tank ditch, minefield, and knee-high wire (which the artillery had gapped in several places) and had driven the enemy from his forward line of trenches. As they consolidated on these objectives–“A” Company immediately north of the railway and about 500 yards in front of the gap, with “B” on the left–“C” Company, which had been garnering a steady stream of prisoners behind the assaulting companies, passed between them to seize the final line of entrenchments and extend the battalion’s right flank to the railway line.
The Algonquin Regiment had breached the last German prepared positions before the Rhine, but the enemy was beginning to react strongly. Counter-attacks were beaten off with the help of “B” Squadron’s tanks and solid defensive artillery fire which came down in response to the Algonquin call. The enemy was quick to recognize the need for eliminating this isolated Canadian spearhead; as yet the 2nd infantry Division’s flanking attack to the north had not progressed far enough to affect the situation, and to the south the 3rd Division was still held up in Üdem. From south, east and north, German guns and mortars concentrated their fire upon the approaches to the gap, and even from north of the Rhine heavy-calibre pieces contributed to the weight of explosive falling upon the Canadian positions. Well dug in, the Algonquin companies hung on grimly, suffering casualties whose evacuation across the shell-swept valley became increasingly difficult as the day wore on.
On the right the diversionary thrust had met disaster. It was six o’clock when the small column of tanks and carriers headed southward from Kirsel, and what was to have been a night attack was “swamped in daylight”. After skirting Üdem the force missed its way in the network of roads and ditches and reached the railway by the main road to Kervenheim, some distance west of its intended crossing. This area had not yet been cleared by the 9th Brigade, and south of the tracks the high ground forming the tip of the Üdem ridge, still uncaptured by the 11th Armoured Division, provided German anti-tank guns with excellent positions. As the leading Canadian tanks filed over the level crossing and through a narrow cutting beyond they ran into a deadly ambush. Three were instantly knocked out by 88-mm. fire. The remaining eight were trapped and had no room to turn. Soon these and all but one of the thirteen Algonquin carriers had fallen victims to anti-tank guns or Panzerfaust bombs delivered at close range by emboldened German infantrymen. Survivors of the crews gathered together as many of the wounded as they could and made their way back to the Kirsel area. The dêbâcle had been witnessed by troops of The North Nova Scotia Highlanders as they emerged from the southern outskirts of Odem,63 and as news of it reached the headquarters of “LION” Group every effort was made to bring aid to the Algonquins, whose right flank was now wide open.
On the left the 5th Brigade’s thrust across the valley had started before daylight, and by ten o’clock The Calgary Highlanders, followed by Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, had mastered the German defences and reached Schmachdarm, a cluster of houses on the forest edge, 3000 yards north of the railway. Both battalions experienced the same heavy shelling and mortaring that was hitting the Algonquins, and a plan for the Black Watch to pass through and push south-eastward towards the gap had to be postponed until the next morning.64
With the battalions that had been employed with “TIGER” Group back under his command, Brigadier Jefferson ordered the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to advance through the Algonquins and secure the eastern end of the disputed passage between the woods. As they closed up to the forest during the late afternoon of the 27th, however, the Argylls were stopped by the shelling and mortaring, and forced to dig in 500 yards west of the gap. A more massive effort was needed, and at a conference that evening General Vokes issued his orders for restoring the momentum of the offensive. First of all, the 10th Infantry Brigade must capture the near half of the Hochwald gap and clear the northwestern corner of the Balberger Wald (called the Tüschen Wald), at the same time securing the way from south of Üdem into the forest, in order that divisional engineers might develop this much-needed maintenance route. Through the area thus won, the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade would then pass a battle-group (consisting of the Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Lake Superior Regiment) to seize a small wooded area traversed by the railway a mile east of the gap.
The 10th Brigade’s new effort was to start at 2:00 a.m. on the 28th. After heavy artillery concentrations on the woods on both sides the Argylls would again try to reach objectives on the lateral road which crossed the gap about 1500 yards m its western end. The Lincoln and Welland Regiment would then go through to capture the railway and clear the Tüschen Wald. The South Alberta Regiment’s “C” Squadron, which having been held back on the Üdem ridge the previous day was in relatively good condition, would support the operation.
During the night the Argyll and Sutherland C.O., Lt.-Col. F. E. Wiggle, reorganized his weakened companies and briefed them for the coming battle. Shortly before three o’clock the battalion advanced uphill into the gap behind a heavy artillery barrage fired into the darkness. By first light the leading companies had fought over Point 73 and on down the eastern slope to the lateral road, taking 70 prisoners. There they hung on, repelling repeated efforts by German infantry and armour to dislodge them. The opponents included a fresh battalion of the 24th Parachute Regiment which von Lüttwitz, whose headquarters had “looked forward to this day with great anxiety”, had brought in from the 8th Parachute Division to fight alongside the tanks of the 116th Panzer Division. Wigle’s “B” Company, on the left, took the brunt of the enemy’s pressure, and by nightfall had been reduced to 15 men, besides some wounded who could not be evacuated. Throughout the day “C” Squadron of the South Alberta Regiment, reinforced by “B” in the afternoon, gave valiant support, assisting the forward infantry with fire and helping further by bringing up ammunition and supplies and evacuating wounded. Terming the enemy shelling “the most concentrated that this Regt had ever sat under”, their diarist elaborated: “That includes the Falaise show.”
The Lincoln and Welland Regiment’s attack was timed for 12:30 p.m., but on the way to the start-line two companies were caught by mortar, artillery and rocket fire which, bursting in treetops, inflicted heavy casualties (the unit had 49 this day) and disrupted the advance. Virtually no contemporary German records are available for this phase; but it seems evident that the enemy had concentrated an unusually large force of artillery to help him hold the Schlieffen Position.* (Field-Marshal Montgomery has written, “the volume of fire from enemy weapons was the heaviest which had been met so far by British troops in the campaign”.) It was impossible to reorganize under the continued vicious shelling, and the Lincoln and Welland attack was abandoned. During the day an Algonquin company crossed the railway tracks and cleared Üdemerbruch. In the circumstances, the 4th Armoured Brigade’s battle-group, though committed, did not get beyond the 10th Brigade’s forward positions, and a plan to put in Brigadier Moncel’s other armoured regiments was cancelled because of boggy approach routes and the heavy shelling of the forming-up places west of the forest. As plans were made for relief by the 6th Infantry Brigade the word went to the sorely-tried units in the gap to hang on.
While the situation in the gap remained unpromising, the picture was somewhat brighter on the Corps’ flanks. In the 2nd Division’s sector General Matthews had directed the 4th Brigade against the northern part of the Hochwald, to the left of the 5th Brigade. The Royal Regiment of Canada spent most of two days clearing an area on the eastern slope of the Calcar ridge opposite Todtenhügel. The job was finished by nightfall on the 28th, and at 9:00 p.m. the Essex Scottish passed through to assault the German positions at the edge of the forest. On General Simonds’ other flank the 11th Armoured Division was moving. Units of the 159th Brigade supported by tanks of the 4th (British) Armoured Brigade successfully stormed the troublesome Gochfortzberg ridge on the afternoon of the 27th, and then struggled through boggy and treacherous terrain to reach the outlying Schlieffen defences.
For the first time since “BLOCKBUSTER” started, there had been appreciable help from the air. Bad weather on 26 and 27 February had deprived the troops on the ground of close air support, but on the 28th conditions improved sufficiently for No. 84 Group to fly 602 sorties, of which 258 were in prearranged and 31 in immediate support. Sonsbeck was bombed and the village of Winnekendonk almost obliterated. Nearer the battle line attacks were made on gun and mortar positions, troop concentration areas and factory buildings.
This reduction in the perimeter permitted the evacuation across the Rhine of the headquarters staff of the 86th Corps under General Straube to organize defences on the east bank. To fill its place the 2nd Parachute Corps took over the 190th Division on 28 February and extended its responsibility southward to Kempen.83
Although the American threat forced Schlemm to strengthen his left at the expense of the forces facing First Canadian Army, he maintained a determined resistance on the Hochwald front. Here he put in what were probably his best reserve units: two strong independent parachute battalions,* one of which was the Parachute Army Assault Battalion. With this reinforcement and the great force of artillery they had concentrated, the Germans succeeded in holding us at the Hochwald barrier for three days more.
On 1 March the main Canadian effort was the infantry’s, for until the enemy had been driven out of the woods and particularly from the commanding ground south of the railway there seemed little chance of our armour breaking through to the east. Changeable weather made air support spasmodic; No. 84 Group flew 246 sorties, including 100 against pre-planned targets and 20 in “immediate” support. The 6th Brigade relieved the 10th’s exhausted battalions in the area of the gap and before nightfall had established contact with patrols of the 5th Brigade working down through the forest from Schmachdarm. The 2nd Division’s heaviest action of the day took place on the left, where the 4th Infantry Brigade forced its way into the northern part of the forest.
The assault by the Essex Scottish went in at 7:45 a.m. supported by artillery and a troop of tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. The German positions at the edge of the woods were strong, and their paratroop defenders, reinforced, it seems probable, from the Calcar garrison, met the attack with savage determination. The fighting was fiercest on the left, where the Essex “C” Company, led by Major A. Tilston, had to cross 500 yards of open ground and ten feet of barbed wire to reach the foremost trenches. That they succeeded in their task was largely due to the inspired leadership of their commander. Although wounded in the head during the advance, Major Tilston was the first into the enemy trenches, silencing with a grenade a machine-gun post that was holding up one of his platoons. As he pressed on with his main force to the second line of defences he was again severely wounded in the thigh but remained in command. In vicious hand-to-hand fighting the Essex cleared the trenches; but before there was time to consolidate the Germans launched a counter-attack heavily supported by mortars and machine guns. Through this hail of fire Tilston calmly moved in the open among his depleted forces (now one-quarter of their original strength), organizing his defences platoon by platoon. Six times he crossed bullet-swept ground to the flanking Essex company to carry grenades and ammunition to his hard-pressed men. Though hit a third time lie refused medical aid until, lying in a shell-hole, he had ordered his one remaining officer to take over and had briefed him concerning the plan of defence and the absolute necessity of holding the position. Nightfall found the Essex Scottish clinging firmly to their hard-won gains. The day’s fighting had cost the battalion 31 killed and 77 wounded. But it had secured a solid base for the 4th Brigade’s operations to clear the northern forest. Major Tilston’s gallantry cost him both legs, but brought him the Victoria Cross.
South of the gap, where the 3rd Canadian Division was striving to help the 11th Armoured Division forward, an attempt by the 8th Brigade to clear the Tüschen Wald and the Balberger Wald accomplished little on 1 March. An evening attack southward by Le Régiment de la Chaudière was thrown back by an overwhelming concentration of fire. However, a renewed effort by the Chaudières next morning with tank support from the 1st Hussars reached the eastern edge of the wood, and at 2:30 p.m. the North Shore Regiment and the Queen’s Own Rifles passed through to begin clearing the larger Balberger Wald. The 3rd Division had been assigned the task of widening the “present bottleneck approach to Xanten”, but it was not easy.
The early morning of the 2nd saw the entire Corps front flare up, with all five divisions surging forward. In the 2nd Division’s sector the 4th Brigade’s attack continued with renewed fury as the R.H.L.I. took over from the battered Essex Scottish and pushed 500 yards north-eastward along the road through the Hochwald towards Marienbaum. Farther south in the vital gap one of the bitterest of the battle’s many bitter struggles was being waged. In a determined endeavour to break through to the east Brigadier Moncel* was given The Algonquin Regiment to employ with his motor battalion and his armour. His plan, a bold one, assumed that the enemy’s resistance was at the breaking point, and that a determined effort, even though not in great strength, would turn the balance in our favour and open the path to the Rhine. From the foremost positions in the gap along the lateral road three companies of the Lake Superiors, carried in Kangaroos, and supported by a squadron of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, were to drive forward 1000 yards to capture a group of farm buildings beside the road which ran down the east side of the forest from Marienbaum to Sonsbeck. Through these positions tanks of the Governor General’s Foot Guards would carry an Algonquin company another 1000 yards eastward to seize a bridgehead over the Hohe Ley, a small stream which skirted the near edge of the woods (“Weston”) which had been the 4th Armoured Brigade’s objective on 28 February (see above, page 505).
With the painful lessons of earlier armoured attempts in mind, every effort was made to advance in darkness. But the sodden ground, in many places now a mere quagmire, delayed the arrival of the Kangaroos, so that instead of 2:00 a.m. as planned it was after 4:30 and dawn was near when the attacking force drove down the slope out of the gap. The Lake Superior companies were by no means at full strength-the largest had only 44 all ranks. The unit had been fighting steadily since the opening of “BLOCKBUSTER”, but because of their previous experience with the personnel-carriers, the tired troops were being sent back into action without rest.
The impetus of the assault carried “A” and “B” Companies through heavy shelling to their first objective, some battered houses in a shallow gully midway between the two lateral roads. Here they came under vigorous anti-tank and machine-gun fire from all sides. Tanks went up in smoke as they were hit by 88-mm. shot from self-propelled guns and Tiger tanks south of the railway. “C” Company fought its way through to the regiment’s final objective on the further road, where it was immediately pinned down among the ruins of farm buildings. It was growing light when two platoons of the Algonquins’ “D” Company reached this position, and five of the eight tanks on which they started had been knocked out. All efforts to get forward to the Hohe Ley stream failed, and they were fain to dig in some 300 yards in front of the Lake Superiors and within plain sight of their objective. The deadly anti-tank fire forced the Canadian tanks to withdraw from their exposed position shortly before 8:00 a.m. Left without armoured support the Algonquins became the target of counter-attacks by infantry and tanks. In the fog of battle erroneous reports came back that “D” Company had reached the wood “Weston”, and spurred by frequent urgings from Brigade Headquarters the remaining Algonquin companies strove desperately to get forward in relief.95 On the right “A” Company was disorganized by heavy small arms fire coming from buildings south of the track; “C” was similarly held up at the north shoulder of the gap. In the late afternoon a survivor from “D” brought back word that the forward platoons had been encircled by German tanks and overrun. The Lake Superior Regiment’s “C” Company suffered a like fate; only eight men got back to the smouldering rubble-heaps held by “A” Company. They brought with them a story of magnificent courage in the face of odds. When their commander and all the company officers had become casualties, Sergeant C. H. Byce (who had won the Military Medal at the Maas in January) took charge. Single-handed he knocked out a tank with a PIAT, and with a companion cleared an enemy-held house with grenades. As more German tanks closed in, making “C” Company’s positions untenable, he extricated the survivors and got them back to relative safety. Finally he took up a sniper’s position and was reported to have killed seven Germans and wounded eleven more as they attempted to come over the railway embankment. Byce’s gallantry won him the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Once again an attempt to break through to the east had failed. Early on 3 March the two battle-worn units turned over custody of the devastated gap to the 5th Infantry Brigade. Since the morning of the 2nd the Algonquins had had 87 casualties, including 32 men taken prisoner; the Lake Superior Regiment had lost 53, including 16 captured. The credit for stopping the Canadian attack seems to belong to the 24th Parachute Regiment and the Parachute Army Assault Battalion, supported by tanks and artillery of the 116th Panzer Division.98
Recking little of Allied progress on their southern flank, the Germans in the Hochwald area continued to fight fiercely. A plan by the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade to leapfrog its units along the north side of the gap had achieved little. During the morning of 2 March, while the Algonquins and Lake Superiors were waging their bitter battle in the open, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada moved through Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal but were stopped 500 yards short of their objectives at the south-eastern edge of the forest. As a result neither The South Saskatchewan Regiment nor the Fusiliers were able to follow through to the north as planned. Not until the morning of the 3rd, after the 5th Brigade had taken over the gap, could Brigadier Keefler’s units get forward. Keeping well within the cover of the woods, by nightfall they had cleared the eastern part of the Hochwald to a point 2000 yards north of the railway.99 This progress was matched on the 2nd Division’s left, where by the end of the day the 4th Infantry Brigade was in firm control of all the forest lying west of the Marienbaum road.
In the 3rd Division’s sector it took the 8th Brigade two more days to complete clearing the Balberger Wald after Le Régiment de la Chaudière had secured the Tüschen Wald on 2 March. As they probed southward and then eastward through the woods, the Queen’s Own Rifles and the North Shore Regiment encountered persistent resistance by small enemy bands; often a machine-gun position was manned by only two well-trained soldiers. Every advance was counter-attacked, and more than once companies found their positions infiltrated in the darkness. Thickly-sown Schü-mines beset the path of the infantry, and the 1st Hussars, held up by numerous anti-tank mines, could only give supporting fire through the trees from stationary positions. There were no large-scale engagements, but by the time the brigade reached the eastern edge of the woods on the afternoon of the 4th it had suffered more than 100 casualties.
On the 3rd Division’s right the first three days of March saw the 11th Armoured Division closing up to Sonsbeck. There was stiff fighting on the 2nd when its left column, having advanced on the 3rd Canadian Division’s axis, breached the main Schlieffen defences at the south-west corner of the Balberger Wald, while farther south the crossing of the Kervenheim-Sonsbeck road over these defences was secured. A frontal attack on Sonsbeck promised to be costly, for the western approaches were pitted with numerous craters and well guarded by strongpoints. Accordingly the armoured division now marked time while the 3rd Canadian Division moved against the long Hammerbruch spur which extended south-eastward from the Balberger Wald behind Sonsbeck.
Eastward from the Hochwald- On the Hochwald front the first break in the German resistance came on the night of 3-4 March. Towards noon on the 3rd the 47th Panzer Corps received orders to pull the 116th Panzer Division back to Alpen, midway between Veen and Rheinberg. At midnight the 180th Infantry Division took over the sector thus vacated; on its right the 6th Parachute Division withdrew to a line about three kilometres east of the Hochwald. In the south-west corner of the shrinking bridgehead the 2nd Parachute Corps ordered the 190th Division back to the Alpen area, leaving the 7th Parachute Division, and what remained of the 8th, to face the increasing pressure from British and American forces. Although the enemy continued to maintain heavy mortar and artillery fire, these adjustments enabled the 2nd Canadian Division to complete the occupation of the Hochwald on 4 March. The 5th Brigade, attacking out of the gap early that morning, found the enemy gone. Everywhere abandoned equipment and German dead told of the intensity of the past battle.
The 43rd Division was to push south-eastward astride the Calcar-Xanten road, while the 2nd Canadian Division regrouped for a converging attack towards Xanten from the west. As for the 3rd Canadian Division, with the clearing of the Balberger Wald completed the 9th Brigade would capture the Hammerbruch spur, while on its right the 7th Brigade opened a route southward through Sonsbeck. The 4th Armoured Division was to be prepared to advance through the 3rd Division towards Veen.
While General Crerar’s right wing folded remorselessly inward upon the diminishing bridgehead, progress on the northern flank, though encouraging, had been much less rapid. The 3rd Canadian Division’s thrust had achieved its objectives.
By the early morning of 6 March the 9th Brigade had cleared enough of the Hammerbruch feature for the Canadian Scottish to begin the 7th Brigade’s attack on Sonsbeck. At the northern outskirts the Regina Rifles went through to take the town against only moderate resistance. From Sonsbeck the Reginas patrolled forward to meet the 3rd British Division, which after seeing the Guards Armoured on their way through Kapellen, had turned northward to clean out the Winkelscher Busch. This was easily done, and that evening patrols from the two 3rd Divisions met a mile south of Sonsbeck, the junction pinching out the 11th Armoured Division into Army Reserve.
Bad flying conditions were still restricting air support. The best day was probably 2 March, when in spite of far from favourable weather No. 84 Group flew more than 300 sorties over the battle area, chasing off enemy aircraft and striking at known gun and mortar positions and at barges and ferry jetties along the Rhine. At night Mosquitoes attacked the river crossings and harassed movement in the German rear. As the German bridgehead continued to shrink our pilots found their difficulties increasing. Choice of targets west of the Rhine became very limited, and the converging Allied advance made it necessary to exercise extreme care in attacks. The enemy’s anti-aircraft guns in the bridgehead, were now in an unpleasantly high concentration. Moreover, No. 84 Group had been suffering such heavy casualties that on 1 March it was decided to reduce the number of aircraft operating in close support of the ground forces. This situation, combined with persistent bad weather, resulted in no close air support being available to our troops during the final week of “BLOCKBUSTER”.
The Capture of Xanten and Veen- The enemy’s chief remaining lateral communication in front of Wesel was the highway which crossed the bridgehead in a south-easterly direction from Xanten to Ossenberg and Rheinberg. To preserve this important route as long as possible Schlemm had to retain possession of Xanten, Veen, and Alpen. Xanten, in history a Roman town, in German legend the home of Siegfried, was a place of 5000 inhabitants at the northwest angle of the bridgehead. To capture it and Veen, a small village three and a half miles east of Sonsbeck, became the main tasks of the 2nd Canadian Corps. General Matthews’ 2nd Division was given the northern assignment in collaboration with the Wessex Division; the 4th Armoured Division was to secure Veen.
By 5 March British and Canadian troops had closed to within two miles of Xanten. The 43rd Division held Wickermanshof, on the highway from Marienbaum, and Wardt, midway between the road and the Rhine. Within the fork of the railways two farmsteads marked the 2nd Division’s forward positions. On the left, Roschhof, 2500 yards north-west of Xanten, was in the hands of the 6th Brigade; on the right the 5th Brigade, moving forward from an unopposed occupation of the “Weston” woods, had the Maisonneuves at Birkenkampfshof. Both formations were thus in position to carry out the Corps intentions for 6 March–the 6th Brigade (assisted by the 43rd Division) to capture Xanten, and the 5th Brigade the high ground south-east of the town. Late on 5 March General Matthews, appreciating that a strong infiltration forward by the 6th Brigade might keep the enemy from stabilizing his position in front of Xanten, directed the 6th Brigade to put in a battalion attack next morning. When the resulting attempt by the Camerons was forced back, General Simonds ordered a regrouping for a direct assault by the 4th and 5th Canadian Brigades and the 129th Brigade of the Wessex Division. The code name “BLOCKBUSTER II” suggested that the operation was to be a major affair. Preparations were completed on 7 March as units of the 6th Brigade took over the forward holdings between the railways. The plan called for the 4th Brigade to capture the west side of Xanten, while the 129th moved in from the north-west to seize the main part of the town and the hamlet of Beek beyond. With this accomplished the 5th Brigade would move through on the right to secure the high ground between the railway and the sickle-shaped body of water called the Alter Rhein.
The attack opened at 5:30 a.m. on the 8th with an artillery concentration by seven field and four medium regiments–“like all hell breaking loose”, reported the Essex Scottish war diary. Fifteen minutes later the assaulting battalions of the 4th Brigade moved forward in driving rain–the Essex on the left through the South Saskatchewans’ position at Röschof and The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry on the right through Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal at Birkenkampshof. In support was the Sherbrooke Fusiliers’ “B” Squadron together with an assortment of Flails and Crocodiles. Helped forward by the barrage the assaulting companies of both battalions at first made good progress. By seven o’clock the Essex Scottish had begun clearing farmhouses between the railways, though they were still west of the main road from Sonsbeck. This task went slowly until the Crocodiles came forward about mid-morning. Almost invariably their flame flushed the Germans out of their positions on the run; in one such attack a large moated house yielded 68 enemy. By midday all Essex companies were reported secure on their objectives.
As the day wore on, however, the situation on the 4th Brigade’s right became obscure, for communication with some of the R.H.L.I. companies had failed. Attacking astride the secondary road just north of the east-west railway tracks, the battalion met fierce and crafty opposition. The enemy let the two leading companies pass through his forward position, then opened fire on them from the rear. Moreover, a road crater 55 feet wide held up all vehicles. A bulldozer went to work under extremely heavy fire but it was late afternoon before even light tracked vehicles could pass. The infantry were under constant mortaring and machine-gun fire from the defenders of Xanten and were being shelled by big guns on the far side of the Rhine. Casualties mounted rapidly. The commanders of “A” and “B” Companies were killed. “D” Company was cut off and had its O.C. taken prisoner.
Shortly after midday Brigadier Cabeldu launched The Royal Regiment of Canada into the battle, hoping thereby to assist the 129th Brigade’s attack and at the same time ease the pressure on the R.H.L.I. Aided by Wasp flame-throwers, which came into the fight when the soft ground bogged the heavier Crocodiles, the Royals got their two left-hand companies into the outskirts of Xanten, where before the day ended they made contact with troops of the Wessex Division. But things were still bad on the brigade right, where Cabeldu was concerned about the failure to secure a start line for the 5th Brigade’s attack. Although “A” Company of the R.H.L.I. had reached its objective beyond the highway from Sonsbeck, darkness found “B” and “C”
Companies, which had swung south of the tracks, still pinned down west of the road. At this critical juncture, even though the 4th Brigade’s objectives were not all taken and the situation in Xanten was obscure, an additional blow against the enemy might well turn the tide in our favour. At 7:00 p.m. General Matthews ordered the 5th Brigade to attack as soon as it could get into position.
On the northern wing the attack by the 129th Brigade, carefully planned to cope with the known strength of the defences, had achieved success. Moving off at 5:00 a.m., while it was still dark, the 4th Somerset Light Infantry advanced behind a powerful barrage to the wide anti-tank ditch of the heavily-bombed town. The infantry fought their way across, and the timely arrival of a scissors-bridge enabled the Crocodiles to follow and help evict the stubborn paratroopers from the rubble piles. By late afternoon all was over in Xanten. British and Canadians had met, and the Somersets had pushed on to secure Beek.
The second phase of “BLOCKBUSTER II” began at 10:45 p.m. on the 8th, when Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, carried in Kangaroos and supported by Sherbrooke tanks and Flails, advanced down the main Calcar-Xanten road. They drove through the ruins of Xanten without meeting any serious opposition, and within two hours were secure on the wooded hills immediately south of Beek, having collected more than 100 prisoners. The Canadian Black Watch, following through on foot, also gained their objectives without difficulty. To secure his right flank Brigadier Megill now ordered The South Saskatchewan Regiment (temporarily under his command) to block off the north-eastern edge of the high Die Hees forest, and when this was done The Calgary Highlanders pushed on to occupy positions between the north-eastern tip of the woods and the Alter Rhein. It was now daylight, and to keep the advance moving Megill sent the Maisonneuves through the Black Watch with orders to gain crossings over the Winnenthaler Canal where it joined the south-west angle of the Alter Rhein. The move started at 9:00 a.m. on the 9th against stiffening resistance. An enemy pocket holding out in a small wood south of Birten was dealt with “in textbook style”. Two troops of Sherbrooke Fusiliers tanks led a late afternoon attack across open fields to the edge of the wood. Crocodiles and Wasps then moved in to set buildings and trees on fire. Finally came the infantry, to receive their objectives (records the 2nd Armoured Brigade) “on a silver platter”. The Maisonneuves captured upwards of 200 paratroopers, including the commander of the 17th Parachute Regiment. During their attack Sergeant Maurice Bossé won the D.C.M. by the determination with which he pushed his section of Wasp flame-throwers on in spite of having been three times wounded. On the right The Calgary Highlanders had come forward early in the day, and that night they crossed the canal unopposed.
The enemy’s tenure of the Rhine’s west bank was drawing to a close. On 6 March the German High Command had given permission for the bridgehead to be evacuated by the 10th; and it appears that by midnight on the 6th-7th three corps headquarters and the remnants of several divisions had already withdrawn across the river. From his forward command post, still on the left bank, General Schlemm was controlling the final operations with the 2nd Parachute Corps Headquarters. Under General Meindl were what was left of the 6th, 7th and 8th Parachute Divisions, the 116th Panzer Division, a battle-group of the 346th Infantry Division, and remnants of some anti-tank and flak units. Events at Xanten had shown that these forces would not readily abandon their last holdings. In that bitter action units of the 6th Parachute Division had inflicted more than 400 casualties on the 2nd Canadian Division. Hardest hit had been the 4th Brigade’s R.H.L.I. and Essex Scottish, with losses respectively of 134 and 108.
More evidence of the enemy’s determination to resist to the last came from the Veen area. Here the 4th Armoured Division made an attempt at exploitation by using small battle-groups, each consisting of an infantry company with a squadron of tanks. Organized in this manner The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment) attacked on the 6th along the road from Sonsbeck towards Veen, where the enemy was not believed to be numerous. A 70-foot crater stopped the armour a mile west of Veen, and a little farther east heavy machine-gun fire pinned down the infantry. Under cover of darkness one company pushed forward on foot and entered Veen, only to be cut off by the Germans holding the outskirts. The Argylls lost heavily; 32 were taken prisoner. Only a few survivors, guided by tracer from a South Alberta tank, succeeded in fighting their way out of the trap. The remaining companies dug in beside the road, whence they were not to get forward for two more days. Veen was in fact strongly held, in part at least by the fierce fighters of the Parachute Army Assault Battalion. Realizing the immediate need for stronger measures Brigadier Jefferson ordered an attack by two regimental groups–the Algonquins with the South Alberta tanks north of the road, and the Lincoln and Welland with the British Columbia Regiment to the south.
At four in the afternoon of the 7th each battalion sent two companies forward under smoke while the artillery blasted all objectives with high explosive. On the left the Algonquins were struck by shelling and mortaring almost at their startline, and from there on fought against the most stubborn opposition. Innocent-looking groups of farm buildings between them and Veen proved to be miniature forts, with brick walls of double thickness, in some cases reinforced by concrete. With three of its four supporting tanks knocked out “A” Company gained its first objective, a crossroads 1000 yards southwest of Veen, but was stopped there. Farther north “B” Company, having suffered 50 per cent casualties from the withering enemy fire, and “C” Company, sent forward in relief, were forced to dig in for the night with objectives untaken. On the right of the main axis the Lincoln and Welland’s frontal attack reached a point south of Veen; and a flanking company with a squadron of B.C. tanks swung out to capture a crossroads more than a mile south-east of the village. This threat to their rear, however, failed to concern Veen’s defenders. Through the whole of the 8th, while four miles to the north Xanten was undergoing its final attack, they kept the Algonquins and Lincoln pinned down by their persistent fire, their anti-tank guns dealing deadly blows at our armour, whose manoeuvre was seriously hampered by mud and mine. Finally, during the night the enemy withdrew, and by mid-morning of 9 March the 10th Infantry Brigade was firm in Veen.For two days and nights the 10th Independent Machine Gun Company (The New Brunswick Rangers) had guarded the left flank with continuous fire on the Latzen Busch, a small wood north of the Algonquin positions. They fired 135,000 rounds of Vickers, and with 2720 mortar bombs reduced the wood to what their C.O. described as “a series of holes joined together by bits of mud.”
A mile to the east fighting was still going on in the small village of Winnenthal. That morning a battle-group consisting of the Algonquins’ fourth rifle company and a squadron of the Canadian Grenadier Guards had reached Winnenthal from the south after a detour by the Bönninghardt woods. While the tanks, kept by mines from entering the village, fired in support, the infantry fought their way in. Before nightfall a company of the Lake Superior Regiment with tanks and flame-throwers arrived in time to mount a quick attack against a strong force holding a monastery on the east side of Winnenthal–with “a bazooka in each window”, according to one report. Early next morning some 200 paratroopers surrendered. This ended the 4th Armoured Division’s operations west of the Rhine. In the fighting for Veen and Winnenthal (6-10 March) the battalions of the 10th Infantry Brigade, with little time to recover from the losses of the Hochwald struggle, had again suffered heavily; Algonquin casualties numbered 141, those of the Lincoln and Welland 101, and of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 69. The “BLOCKBUSTER” casualties were the heaviest the brigade ever had.