Liberation of the Netherlands and Capitulation of Germany
The Winter by the Maas, November 8th, 1944 – February 7th, 1945
After the Battle of the Scheldt the First Canadian Army prepared to winter. For three months, between November 8th, 1944, and February 8th, 1945, Canadians were not involved in any large-scale operation. Rest was more than welcome. The 3rd Infantry Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade had been fighting since early June, other units since July.
Those five months of action had a major impact on all First Army battalions. Men were killed in action or evacuated after being wounded; others suffering from battle exhaustion collapsed under the constant stress of ever-present death, facing mortars, shells and bullets every day. Others were made prisoners by the enemy, to be interrogated then transferred to a stalag in German territory.
In Northwest Europe, as in Italy, Canadian units were under strength, with no trained men to fill the voids left by heavy casualties. By October 1944, this had become a critical issue and Canadian Defence Minister Colonel J. Layton Ralston inspected Canadian troops overseas to take the measure of the problem. Convinced of the necessity of supplying the Army with fresh troops, Ralston tried to garner the support of the Canadian government for compulsory overseas military service. Fearing this would lead to an even larger crisis with the Canadian population, Prime Minister King refused to backtrack on his promise that Canadians would never be sent to serve overseas against their will. Ralston resigned and General Andy McNaughton replaced him as Defence Minister. He entertained the hope that territorial defence draftees would agree to be sent to the front; this solution did not work out and the problem remained unsolved.
On the other hand, after five months of campaign, Canadian soldiers were now experienced warriors, but the wintering by the Maas, near Nijmegen in the Netherlands was no party. They had to defend a bridgehead that would be used as a starting point for crossing the Rhine. They also had to keep the Germans on their toes. They were not far, on the other side of the Maas. While US and British armies launched an attack further south, the Canadians had to give the enemy the impression that an assault was imminent to force it to leave troops in that area. Donning white uniforms as camouflage in a snowy landscape, Canadian soldiers patrolled in an “active and aggressive” way, making good of every opportunity to gain some ground or make a prisoner.
An unexpected development was to postpone the planned assault by several weeks. Between December 16th and 26th, 1944, Hitler tried to dislodge US troops from the Ardennes in order to recapture Antwerp. The Americans were able to stop the German advance but the operation resulted in a delay of several weeks to the Rhine offensive.
The Battle of the Rhineland, February 8th – March 11th, 1945
For Operation Veritable, the First Canadian Army had to leave the Nijmegen area and move towards the southeast to take over the Rhineland, a narrow strip of land between the Maas and Rhine rivers. The Dutch-German border followed the Maas in that sector. For the first time, fighting was to take place on German soil and a fierce opposition was expected. Three defence lines protected the area: the first one was a series of outposts, then the Siegfried Line that ran through the Reichswald Forest, and finally the series of fortifications through the Hochwald Forest. To slow down the Allies’ progress, the Germans destroyed dykes and flooded the area. February’s milder weather and thaw softened the muddy ground, hindering the advance of armoured vehicles and artillery.
Under command of General Crerar and the First Canadian Army were the divisions of II Canadian Corps, as well as nine British divisions, some Belgian, Dutch, Polish and US units. It was the largest military force under Canadian command ever.
The operation was launched on February 8th with aerial bombings and powerful artillery offensive. Fighting under the First Canadian Army, XXX British Corps marched towards the Reichswald Forest. On its left flank, the 3rd Canadian Division, nicknamed “the Water Rats”, had to clear the flooded region north of the Nijmegen-Calcar road. For that purpose, the Canadian infantry used Buffalo amphibious vehicles, but could not count on any artillery or tank support.
“Breaches in the dykes blown by the enemy caused extensive flooding during the night. A road built by RCE to D coy area was washed out and the coy HQ surrounded by water. Some of our outpost positions had to be abandoned as the water continued to rise at the rate of 2 to 3 inches per hour during the day.”
– Highland Light Infantry of Canada War Diary, 6 February 1945
The Germans, for their part, could rely on excellent defence installations – antitank ditches, networks of trenches, fortified positions – as well as an apparently inexhaustible supply of weapons and ammunition. They were now fighting for their homeland and that thought increased their determination. In addition, it rained most of the time; the humidity and the cold created uncomfortable combat conditions. In spite of all this, the operation was off to a good start with the advanced positions falling on the first day and the Siegfried Line broken as early as February 10th.
On February 16th, the 7th Brigade met with unexpected opposition near the Moyland Wood, towards Calcar. The infantrymen encountered machine-gun, mortar and shell fire. After a few days of violent combat and high casualties for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and the Canadian Scottish, the 7th Brigade organized a systematic assault to clear the forest of the remaining enemy. On February 21st, the wood was captured but the six days of fighting cost the division 485 men, killed, wounded or captured.
A Coy and C Coy are encountering considerable opposition for enemy is in the Moyland Wood. Seem to be large numbers of enemy there despite fact that posts of enemy had been previously cleared by British units…
– Regina Rifle Regiment, War Diary, 16-18 February 1945
In the mean time, the 4th Brigade was involved in bloody action along the Goch-Calcar road: the tanks and Kangaroo troop carriers were halted by the mud in which they got bogged down and by fire from hidden 88-mm guns along the road. On the 19th and 20th, violent attacks and counter-attacks followed one another. Driven back, the 4th Brigade managed to regain some ground but it had lost some 400 men, including several captured by the enemy.
Dear Mother and Dad,
Just a note to let you know I’m well and a Prisoner of War in Germany. Please don’t worry about my condition or health-you know me, and I’m the same as ever. Your prayers have been with me, I know, and through my experiences I have been conscious of them and of you. I was captured late in the afternoon of Feb. 19. It was rather a rough time and I ended up on the wrong side of the line when the attack was over and things were more settled. I can receive all mail sent to me and the address is on the outside of this sheet. Hope war is over before I hear from you.
Your army son-Bob
– Lt/Cpl Robert Sanderson, POW at Stalag XI B, to his parents, 10 March 1945, from Letters from a Soldier : The Wartime Experience of a Canadian Infantryman, 1993
After the slow advance of the last few days, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds believed a concentrated attack could capture Xanten and the Hochwald. This was operation Blockbuster and it started on February 25th. II Canadian Corps made good progression and seized Keppeln, Üdem and the Calcar Ridge. The struggle for the Hochwald Forest, bitterly disputed to the First German Army, lasted from February 27th to March 3rd. The Canadians captured Xanten, east of the Hochwald Forest, on March 10th.
“On one occasion after a tank had fired three rounds of rapid HE through the window of a building, a German soldier stuck his head out of a window and thumbed his nose at the oncoming infantry. Resistance was fanatical and a very small number of prisoners were taken…”
– Algonquin Regiment, War Diary, 7-10 March 1945
Meanwhile, the Ninth US Army moved from the south towards Wesel. To avoid getting trapped between the two Allied armies, the Germans retreated in good order to the opposite bank of the Rhine. On March 11th, the 21st Army Group occupied the Rhine’s left bank: the Battle for the Rhineland was over.
The purpose of this note is to express to you personally my admiration for the way you conducted the attack, by your Army, beginning February 8 and, ending when the enemy had evacuated his last bridgehead at Wesel. Probably no assault in this war has been conducted under more appalling conditions of terrain than was that one. It speaks volumes for your skill and determination and the valour of your soldiers, that you carried it through to a successful conclusion.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower to H.D.G. Crerar, March 26th, 1943
Crossing the Rhine, March 23rd, 1945
On the evening of March 23rd, Marshal Montgomery gave the signal to operation Plunder, the crossing of the Rhine near Wesel and Rees. A set-piece attack, with prior aerial and artillery bombings. In flat-bottom landing crafts and amphibious vehicles, four British and US divisions, together with a commando brigade crossed the 500 metres to the river’s opposite bank. The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade took part in the operation, crossing the river north of Rees and later capturing Millingen.
The British and Canadian troops which fought in the Rhineland suffered tremendous losses from the German artillery. This is why Montgomery decided that it should be silenced by a large-scale airborne operation, codenamed Varsity. While the infantry was crossing the Rhine, 1,589 aircraft flew over the area in successive waves. In full daylight and despite intense counter-attacks, the parachute battalions were dropped behind the German lines and got to work as soon as they touched the ground. Some 1,337 gliders then landed in the drop zone with vehicles and equipment for the airborne troops. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was involved in that operation and landed in a wooded area along the Wesel-Emmerich road. It was immediately met with heavy machine-gun and sniper fire; this did not halt the Canadian paratroopers who reached and cleaned up their targets.
At the end of the afternoon, land and airborne troops made their junction and solidified the bridgehead on the Rhine’s east bank. The Battle was over and the Allies had succeeded in crossing one of the last natural defences of the German Reich. A speedy end to the war now became a definite possibility.
As March drew to an end, Canadian units moved northwards to take Emmerich on the right bank, while General Crerar transferred the First Army’s HQ to that same side of the Rhine. On April 1st, 1945, I Canadian Corps under Major-General Charles Foulkes was placed under the First Canadian Army in replacement of I British Corps of Major-General Crocker, which had been under Crerar’s orders since the campaign of Normandy and was now passed under the Second British Army.
After the crossing of the Rhine, the First Canadian Army was given two tasks: to liberate western Netherlands and to march through northeastern Netherlands and northern Germany up to the Weser River.
The Liberation of Western Netherlands, April 2nd – 25th, 1945
In the west I Canadian Corps had been tasked with taking control of Arnhem. The objective was to open the Arnhem-Zutphen road to the convoys supplying the troops moving to the North-East. RAF Spitfire and Typhoon fighters attacked German defences in Arnhem on April 12th and in the evening artillery pounded the city. On the 14th, Arnhem was totally cleared. Apeldoorn was liberated from April 15th to 17th.
As they moved forward, I Canadian Corps troops observed increasing signs of malnutrition in the civilian population; there was indeed a major risk of famine in western Netherlands. German troops in the area were surrounded and likely to flood the region if attacked. To avoid a humanitarian crisis, I Corps halted on April 22nd and started negotiating with local German authorities for a truce that would allow food supplies to be delivered by trucks and aircraft. Starting May 3rd, thousands of tonnes of food were distributed.
The Northern Front, March 23rd – April 25th, 1945
For its part, II Canadian Corps progressed rapidly on the northern front as German resistance got weaker. In many locations, however, the enemy still put up a good fight. In Zutphen and along the Twente Canal, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was halted by the determination of the 361st Infantry Division reinforced by an airborne training battalion mostly made up of teenagers. They finally yielded on April 8th, and Zutphen was taken. Near Zutphen, Canadians soldiers came across a heartrending sight, Stalag VI C, a camp for prisoners captured on the Russian front.
Solid opposition was also encountered in Deventer on the Ijssel River; the 3rd Division took the city in a single day, April 10th, and rapidly cleared it with the support of Dutch resistance fighters. The 3rd Division moved on further north but met only disorganized and easily subdued opposition. On April 15th, it reached Leeuwarden, some 15 kilometres from the North Sea.
In the meantime, the 2nd Infantry Division was moving rapidly along the 3rd Division’s right flank. Supported by airborne detachments it reached Groningen on April 13th. Snipers on the roofs and machine-guns hidden in cellars were some of the difficulties encountered. SS soldiers in civilian clothing fired at Canadian soldiers who were told to shoot on sight. Fighting went on until April 16th.
The 1st Polish Armoured Division under Major-General Maczek joined once again II Canadian Corps on April 8th. It moved rapidly along the Dutch-German border. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division for its part followed a more southerly route, through Meppen in Germany on April 6th, finally to reach the Küsten Canal on the 14th.
The following weeks saw the easy cleaning up of the whole sector under control of II Corps. Troops were able to move on quite fast, liberating the remainder of the Dutch territory and occupying the plains of northern Germany up to the Weser. The might of the Wehrmacht was by then broken, and as the Allies closed in on Berlin, Hitler committed suicide.
At 1900 hrs we heard over the BBC that the German Army in ITALY had unconditionally surrendered and later on that BERLIN had fallen. The general feeling is that it can’t last much longer now…
– Royal Winnipeg Rifles, War Diary, 1-7 May 1945
Throughout the Dutch countryside, a cheering population greeted its Canadian liberators with shouts and kisses; the noise of machine guns was a fading memory. On the evening of May 4th, Canadian soldiers heard on BBC airwaves a long-awaited announcement: Germany had surrendered. A few hours later, orders arrived from HQ that all hostilities were to stop on May 5th at 0800.
War was over in Europe.
- Terry Copp and Robert Vogel, Maple Leaf Route: Victory, 1988
- C.P. Stacey, The Victory Campaign, Volume 3 of the Official History of The Canadian Army in the Second World War, 1960.
- W. Denis Whitaker and Shelagh Whitaker, Rhineland: The Battle to End The War, 2000