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Clearing Moyland Wood: Army, Part 43

Private Eddie Gagne of Le Regiment de Maisonneuve sips tea outside a castle at Moyland, Germany, in February 1945

Operation Veritable, which began on Feb. 8, 1945, was supposed to be the northern area of a vast pincer movement intended to destroy enemy forces west of the River Rhine. When flooding prevented the American 9th Army from carrying out Operation Grenade, its part in the encirclement, German General Alfred Schlemm, commanding First Parachute Army, was free to use his reserve, 47 Panzer Corps, to counterattack the Anglo-Canadian forces. By Feb. 13, Veritable had come to a stuttering halt. After five days of brutal combat, which veteran soldiers described as worse than Normandy, a pause to rest and re-organize was essential.

American army engineers estimated that a crossing of the River Roer, which was now a thousand-metre-wide raging torrent, would have to be postponed for at least a week. This presented some very difficult choices to the field marshal, General Bernard Montgomery. If he renewed the attack, infantry casualties, already above the 2,000 mark, were bound to increase threatening the future viability of 2nd British Army but if he waited for the Americans the enemy would have time to create new defences and bring up further reinforcements. Before making his decision, Montgomery was presented with an alternate plan of breathtaking audacity.

Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, commanding 2nd Cdn. Corps, and Major-Gen. G.H.A. MacMillan, general officer commanding 49th (West Riding) Division, had devised a scheme to cross the Rhine at Arnhem forcing the enemy to divert resources and weaken resistance west of the Rhine.

Operation Wallstreet was more than a clever idea. MacMillan’s Yorkshire division was comprised of the forgotten soldiers of 21 Army Group. The 49th had fought with distinction in Normandy but one of its battalions broke under extreme pressure and had to be disbanded. This event sullied the reputation of the whole division and on July 23 it was transferred to 1st Cdn. Army where it was used to defend the coastal flank. After taking part in the capture of Le Havre in France it was deployed north of Antwerp, Belgium, joining 4th Cdn. Armoured Div. in the advance to the River Maas. From November 1944 to February 1945, the 49th was once again committed to a static defensive role along the Maas with no prospect of offensive action.

MacMillan and his senior officers were puzzled and annoyed by Montgomery’s attitude towards their division and they developed detailed plans for Operation Wallstreet, hoping for permission to carry it out and prove the critics wrong. MacMillan found an ally in Simonds who ordered his corps engineers to study the plan to determine if the Rhine could be bridged at Arnhem allowing supplies and 2nd Cdn. Corps to
cross into a bridgehead. Convinced the operation could succeed, Simonds prepared an outline plan for an immediate crossing and when this was rejected a revised plan proposed Feb. 24 as a new D-Day.

Montgomery was not impressed, he rejected the idea and ordered Simonds to bring his corps into line on the Rhine flank of 30 British Corps to join in a renewed frontal assault beginning on Feb. 16. This set-piece attack involved four British and two Canadian infantry divisions advancing on a 16-kilometre front. Montgomery’s decision to continue a frontal assault, which was bound to turn into another attritional battle, must have been due to a belief that the Germans could be trapped or destroyed west of the Rhine once the Americans got going. A bridgehead at Arnhem, of all places, seemed far too risky.

Simonds had little time to consider the new role his corps was to carry out as the takeover of some 2,000 metres of front was scheduled for Feb. 15. The next day 7th Cdn. Infantry Brigade, supported by squadrons of the Scots Guards, attacked through positions held by 15th Scottish Div. in an attempt to reach the Goch-Calcar road. On the right, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, mounted in Kangaroos of the 1st Cdn. Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment, rode right onto their objective at Louisendorf, Germany, capturing 240 prisoners. They dug in under heavy fire holding a start line for a further advance by 4th Cdn. Inf. Bde.

The Regina Rifles and the Canadian Scottish Regt. drew the task of clearing the eastern half of Moyland Wood, a mixed forest cloaking a low, hilly escarpment. The Reginas forming up place was marked by the yet unburied bodies of Scottish soldiers who had fought their way through the western end of the woods, adding to the sombre mood of men hesitant to enter a dark forest right out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. With elements of two enemy infantry battalions backed up by mortars and artillery defending the woods there was good reason to hesitate. However, the position overlooked the corps’ main axis of advance and had to be taken.

Moyland Wood is little changed and today’s visitor to the battlefield can follow the routes taken by the Reginas and Canscots in the first attempt to clear the area. It takes some imagination to picture the noise of shells crashing into the trees, the sound of concealed machine-guns and the gut-wrenching fear gripping the riflemen as they worked their way forward. The carefully camouflaged enemy soldiers allowed one Regina company to move deep into the woods before closing in behind them. One Regina platoon was overrun, the others dug-in under mortar and machine-gun fire. The Canscots, trying to clear the eastern end of the woods, were quickly pinned down by heavy fire.

A new attack was planned for Feb.18 with three Regina companies attacking from the south with the support of Wasps, carrier-mounted flame-throwers. The Reginas forced the enemy to withdraw beyond the crest of the western end of the ridge but could go no further. Lieutenant Warren Keating commanded the lead platoon and led his men in the defence of the crest against repeated counterattacks. He was awarded the Military Cross. The next day a Canscot attack, designed to secure the hamlet of Rosenboon at the eastern end of the woods, was beaten back by companies of a fresh parachute battalion brought in to relieve the exhausted defenders.

When Brigadier Jack Spragge reported that the enemy was too strongly entrenched to be dislodged by his two tired infantry battalions, Simonds removed the veteran commander placing the Regina commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Gregory, in temporary command. As often happens in such situations, Simonds allowed Gregory the time and resources Spragge had lacked. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles left their slit trenches near Louisendorf and moved into position south of Moyland Wood. Brig. E.R. Suttie, who had replaced Brig. Stanley Todd in command of the divisional artillery, prepared an elaborate fire plan involving medium and field artillery plus mortars, anti-tank guns, machine-guns and the tanks of the Fort Garry Horse. Gregory and Lt.-Col. Lockie Fulton, the aggressive young commander of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles or Little Black Devils, devised a plan to clear the eastern end of the wood combining Wasps with tank support and air attacks. Each of the two lead companies kept three Wasps forward with three in reserve ready to leap frog forward when fuel for the flame was exhausted. This continuous support boosted the morale of the assaulting troops while breaking the will of the enemy.

The Royal Winnipeg Rifles displayed outstanding skill as well as courage in the day-long battle that cost the battalion more than 100 casualties, 26 of them fatal. Major L.H. Denison, who led D Company in the final stages, received the Distinguished Service Order for his inspired leadership. Lieutenant George Aldous, temporarily blinded from grenade fragments, returned to his platoon after first aid treatment and led it in defeating repeated enemy counterattacks. He received the Military Cross.

Total casualties to the brigade, including battle exhaustion, exceeded 500 men and the westerners had to be pulled out of action. When it came time to sum up the lessons learned, emphasis was placed on the method of employing the flame-throwers, close contact between infantry and tanks and the 100 sorties flown by 84 Group of 2nd Tactical Air Force. No one mentioned the most important lesson–the enemy was fighting with a new intensity in defence of the Fatherland. German reports on the battle admitted great losses but insisted the decision to withdraw was made to straighten-out a “projecting front line” and “obtain reserves,” the usual rationalization offered by German officers defeated in battle.

While 7th Bde. fought to clear Moyland Wood, 4th Cdn. Inf. Bde. launched a set-piece attack to secure the Goch-Calcar road. The brigade, commanded by Brig. F.N. Cabeldu who had landed in Normandy as commanding officer of the Canadian Scottish, was well trained, well led and fully up to strength. The plan called for an advance of some 2,000 yards behind a rolling barrage. More than 500 guns, field, medium and heavy were employed and the lead companies were mounted in Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers that were to advance at “armoured pace” 50 yards a minute. Squadrons of the Fort Garry Horse supported the advance to ensure close support on the objective.

The attack went in much as planned. Some of the tanks and Kangaroos bogged down and at least six tanks were knocked out by anti-tank guns firing from the Calcar ridge. However, the infantry suffered few casualties before it debussed close to the planned objectives. Both the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, RHLI, and Essex companies were able to fight their way forward to the road. Behind them the reserve companies arrived on foot and took up their designated stations. The defences in this area were, in comparison to the main positions on the high ground and in the Hochwald Forest, improvised but they were proof against the physical power of the Allied artillery. Because the Canadians got forward shortly after the barrage lifted, almost 100 German soldiers, most of them mentally dazed by the hurricane of high explosives, surrendered in the first hours. The remainder, however, fought on with considerable determination.

The German Army’s doctrine of the immediate counterattack resulted in a small-scale counterthrust by elements of 116 Panzer Div., but Schlemm, the Army commander, decided more was required. Earlier that day the town of Goch had been entered by troops of 30 Corps and Schlemm must have been tempted by the common sense solution of a withdrawal to the Calcar ridge or even the Hochwald line. He knew that the flood waters of the Roer were retreating and that the Americans could not be delayed much longer. Nevertheless, he decided to commit his only real reserve, Panzer Lehr Div. to an attack on 4th Bde.

Two powerful battlegroups, one from Panzer Lehr and the other from 116 Panzer Div., launched repeated attacks, “growing in fury with the passage of time.” Lt.-Col. Denis Whitaker, who won his second DSO in this action, put his own counterattack force into action and restored the situation on the RHLI front, but the Essex position was overrun and not recovered until the next day by the reserve battalion, the Royal Regt. of Canada.

Canadian casualties in this two-day action were heavy, but the enemy lost even more men as well as precious tanks and self-propelled guns. The 18th Cdn. Anti-Tank Battery alone accounted for seven Panthers. One German officer described the situation in his diary for Feb. 21: “None of us believe in victory anymore. We do not talk about it anymore. We all feel indifferent we have our orders and we have to follow them…. The new front will be the Rhine.”

The German army’s insistence upon immediate counterattacks once again proved disastrous and the next day, Feb. 21, the Germans abandoned Moyland Wood and the Goch-Calcar road. Panzer Lehr, considerably weakened, was rushed south to meet the long-delayed American attack, Operation Grenade. Gen. Bill Simpson’s 9th U.S. Army had waited impatiently while the battle of the Rhineland was waged by British and Canadian troops. With 10 divisions, seven infantry and three armoured, 9th Army had over 300,000 men under command. Intelligence reports indicated that after Panzer Lehr was committed to stemming Veritable, there were less than 30,000 German troops of widely varying quality between 9th Army and the Rhine. Simpson and his Corps commanders were understandably anxious to get such a promising operation under way.

U.S. Army engineers had been measuring the rate of flow of the Roer with great care and they estimated that the reservoirs behind the blown dams would be empty by Feb. 24. Simpson decided to try a night attack early on the 23rd while the river was still in flood, in the hope of catching the defenders off guard. There was to be no air bombardment from “heavies” and no preliminary artillery barrage. More than 2,000 guns, the largest American artillery concentration to that point of the war–one gun per 10 yards of front–would commence firing 45 minutes before H-hour, the hour at which the operation was scheduled to begin. Engineers, protected by selected infantry patrols, crossed the Roer before H-hour and when the artillery barrage lifted, 30th U.S. Inf. Div. had a footbridge in place.

This success story was not, however, typical of this very dangerous assault crossing. Most divisions had a difficult time getting their units across the fast-moving river and, as the day progressed, the footbridges were swept away. But the river crossing was described as the worst part of the first week of Operation Grenade, and once established on the east bank of the Roer, the operation went smoothly. After 24 hours, 9th Army had 28 battalions across the river with seven bridges in operation. The cost was 93 men killed, 913 wounded and 61 missing. Most of these casualties were combat engineers involved in the river assault and bridge building.

The American hammer was well and truly aimed for the anvil of the British-Canadian forces to the north. But the anvil, as we shall see, refused to wait until the American hammer had delivered the crushing blow. Instead, a frontal attack on the main German defensive position was ordered and 2nd Cdn. Corps found itself fighting Operation Blockbuster, one of its most costly operations of the war.


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