Major Fred Tilston earned the Victoria Cross for leading an attack on March 1, 1945.
Blockbuster, one of the largest and most costly operations carried out by 1st Canadian Army during World War II, has always provoked bitter comments from veterans who served at the sharp end. Lieutenant-Colonel Denis Whitaker’s battalion, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, fought a difficult battle in the heart of Germany’s Hochwald Forest but as a historian he saved his hardest criticism for those who ordered 4th Cdn. Armoured Division into the death trap at the Hochwald Gap.
Veterans of the regiments that fought there are unanimous in their condemnation of Major-General Chris Vokes and the “higher ups” who insisted on pressing a hopeless attack and then criticized combat soldiers for failing to overcome a determined enemy.
If we are to move beyond recriminations to an understanding of the events we need to remind ourselves that decisions were made on the basis of what was known at the time not on hindsight. For example, when the commander of 2nd Cdn. Corps–Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds–made the decision to order 4th Cdn. Armd. Div. to move through the Hochwald Gap he did so because he believed that the first three phases of Operation Blockbuster had been a success. C.P. Stacey, the Canadian Army’s official historian, later agreed with that assessment. He noted that as 4th Div. concentrated to begin the final phase, “all across the battlefront piece after piece of the intricate puzzle fell into place as each formation, having completed its allotted task…moved on to a fresh assignment while a relieving force came up to take over the newly won ground.”
Simonds and Stacey were surely right. The complex assault on the Calcar Ridge and the capture of Udem demonstrated both Simonds’ skills as a general and the Canadian Army’s ability to perform effectively in battle. So what went wrong in the final phase?
By 1944, the Americans, British and Canadians had developed a battle doctrine that suited their equipment, training and personnel. Objectives could always be taken and almost always held if the operation was built around an extensive, carefully prepared artillery program. The infantry, assisted if possible by tanks, would be “shot on” to the objective and protected from initial counterattacks. The position would be consolidated and new, and equally systematic bites could then be taken out of the enemy’s defence until his position was untenable.
Unfortunately, many Allied generals found this method too slow, too simple, and too lacking in opportunities to demonstrate their skills as commanders. Often they were persuaded, or persuaded themselves, that German resistance was all but broken and so they ordered adventurous offensive operations. However, the nature of the war had changed drastically since the early stages and such attacks usually failed. Such failure was then attributed to the “lack of aggressiveness of the Allied infantry” or the “caution of the armoured units” instead of a failure of command.
Shortly before Blockbuster, Vokes had lectured his division on the “tactics and thrust” he wanted them to employ and he was determined to organize a breakthrough: “This will be an all-out effort,” he told them. “Strip to the absolute minimum of wheeled vehicles within units. The troops must be impressed with the vital necessity to get on and destroy the enemy. Subordinate commanders must act on their own initiative. Do not sit on the objective if you can press on. Be prepared to go on hungry but make every effort to see adequate food is available. Tanks should try to carry extra to feed infantry. Every vehicle should contain rations and spare petrol. Tanks must be topped up in the Forming Up Place. Do not waste ammunition.
“The Boche is in a bad way as compared to ourselves and is fighting in sheer desperation. He gives up easily when cut off. This is our opportunity–we must make the best of it.”
If Vokes allowed his optimism to get the better of his judgment, what about Guy Simonds, the cool, rational corps commander? What did he know on the night of Feb. 26, 1945? Under Operation Blockbuster, 11th British Armd. Div. was assigned to 2nd Cdn. Corps. Its job was to provide flank support for 4th Cdn. Div. However, Maj.-Gen. “Pip” Roberts reported that his tanks had bogged down in the mud and were sitting ducks for enemy anti-tank guns.
On the other side of the gap, 5th Cdn. Brigade was supposed to move through the Hochwald Forest and outflank enemy defences. However, it could not begin the advance until the next morning. But if 4th Div. was to advance across open country, which was overlooked by higher ground in the gap, it could only be done at night. So the options were to delay everything for 24 hours or go ahead in the hope that speed and surprise would win the day. Simonds decided not to intervene and the operation went ahead.
Lion Force, made up of the Algonquins and South Albertas, began the advance at 7:20 p.m. However, blocked roads and wet muddy fields delayed everyone and the start line was not reached until 5 a.m. One SAR squadron, with the Algonquin carrier platoon, was sent off to carry out a “right hook” towards the railway embankment as a diversion to protect Lion Force. The balance of the small armour-infantry battlegroup moved up the slope at walking pace shielded by the darkness until the forward enemy lines were reached. By dawn, all that could be done was to dig-in and survive. The enemy, recognizing the gap was an obvious route of advance, had deployed three parachute battalions plus anti-tank guns to defend the area.
Lion Force could not possibly prevail against such odds and so what was Vokes to do? The options were clear: Withdraw what was left of Lion Force, regroup and mount a new co-ordinated attack or press on? Vokes decided to press on, ordering the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada to push through the Algonquins into the gap.
Lt.-Col. F.E. Wigle, who was appointed to replace the popular Lt.-Col. Dave Stewart as the battalion’s commanding officer, shared Vokes’ optimism. He “did not anticipate a difficult fight” because the enemy had taken “a sound drubbing on the first day” and was surely withdrawing to the Rhine. Wigle soon learned he was wrong. The Argylls came under the heaviest fire experienced during the war and could do little except dig in behind the Algonquins. Vokes drew a different conclusion sending his third infantry battalion, the Lincoln and Welland Regt., into the inferno.
The Lincs were supposed to capture the railway crossing and clear the Tuschen Wald, but were stopped well short of their objective by a barrage of unbelievable intensity. Lt.-Col. Rowan Coleman recalled that day in a 1984 interview: “I spent the whole morning there, where I could see what was happening. The Argylls had been pushed back and had withdrawn and this shell fire was coming down. I didn’t move and I told the wireless operator that I was out to lunch if anybody called. I wasn’t going to take any calls. This poor guy. He had a terrible time all morning answering calls and telling them that I wasn’t available. They were coming from higher and higher authority…. He was only a few yards away from me. He said, ‘Sir, I just have to tell you this.’ He said, ‘Super Colossal Sunray wants to talk to you.’ So I said I guess I better answer that one…. It was Guy Simonds himself on the blower. I recognized the unmistakable English accent…. I remember being mildly amused and outraged at his breaking security. He said, ‘Rowan…is there anything you can do down there?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t think so sir.’ It was a stalemate for the time being. We were under murderous fire…. He said: ‘You must do something to relieve the pressure down there.'”
Coleman, whose experience included a stint with 8th Army in the desert and a year in Italy, was not going to allow his battalion to be destroyed. As it was, the Lincs took 49 casualties in a futile attempt to attack the enemy at its strongest point.
If 10th Bde. could not get forward it is not obvious why anyone thought the armoured brigade could, but orders were issued to send the Grenadier Guards and the British Columbia Regt. into the gap shortly before midnight. The War Diarist at 4th Armd. Bde. noted “the enemy guns took such a heavy toll that movement became impossible.”
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On the left or Rhine flank, Maj.-Gen. Bruce Matthews was attempting to implement his orders to send 2nd Div. through the forest. But 5th Bde. had run into strong resistance and he was required to send 6th Bde. to the gap to relieve the shattered infantry battalions of the armoured division so 4th Bde. was all that was available to try and break through the northern end of the Schlieffen line.
The Essex Scottish led this assault and during the course of its battle Major F.A. Tilston earned the Victoria Cross. The citation provides a detailed description of conditions on that desperate day that required so much of Tilston and his comrades: “At 0715 hours on 1st March, 1945, the attack was launched, but due to the softness of the ground it was found impossible to support that attack by tanks as had been planned.
“Across approximately 500 yards of flat open country, in face of intense enemy fire, Major Tilston personally led his company in the attack, keeping dangerously close to our own bursting shells in order to get the maximum cover from the barrage. Though wounded in the head he continued to lead his men forward, through a belt of wire 10 feet in depth, to the enemy trenches shouting orders and encouragement and using his Sten gun with great effect. When the platoon on the left came under heavy fire from an enemy machine-gun post he dashed forward personally and silenced it with a grenade; he was first to reach the enemy position and took the first prisoner….
“As he approached the woods he was severely wounded in the hip and fell to the ground. Shouting to his men to carry on without him and urging them to get into the wood, he struggled to his feet and rejoined them as they reached the trenches on their objective…. Despite his wounds, Major Tilston’s unyielding will to close with the enemy was a magnificent inspiration to his men as he led them in systematically clearing the trenches of the fiercely resisting enemy. In this fighting two German company headquarters were overrun and many casualties were inflicted on the fanatical defenders.
“Such had been the grimness of the fighting and so savage the enemy resistance that the company was now reduced to only 26 men, one quarter of its original strength. Before consolidation could be completed the enemy counterattacked repeatedly, supported by a hail of mortar and machine-gun fire from the open flank. Major Tilston moved in the open from platoon to platoon quickly organizing their defence and directing fire against the advancing enemy. The enemy attacks penetrated so close to the positions that grenades were thrown into the trenches held by his troops, but this officer by personal contact, unshakeable confidence and unquenchable enthusiasm, so inspired his men that they held firm against great odds.
“When the supply of ammunition became a serious problem he repeatedly crossed the bullet-swept ground to the company on his right flank to carry grenades, rifle and Bren ammunition to his troops….
“On his last trip he was wounded for a third time, this time in the leg. He was found in a shell crater beside the road. Although very seriously wounded and barely conscious, he would not submit to medical attention until he had given complete instructions as to the defence plan, had emphasized the absolute necessity of holding the position, and had ordered his one remaining officer to take over….”
The Essex had suffered more than 100 casualties, and at the end of the day all that they could do was consolidate the position Tilston and his men had won.
South of the gap, 3rd Cdn. Div. entered the battle with 8th Bde. trying to clear the Balberger Wald and the high ground north of Sonsbeck. The Chaudières began this task in the evening of March 1 when they occupied the Tuschen Wald. They met only light resistance in occupying the woods, but when the heavy shelling started they were forced to withdraw and the next day a very difficult battle had to be fought to regain it. The QORs and North Shores followed through on March 2 and contact was made with 11th Armd. Div. late that night. The next two days were spent in a cautious process of clearing the woods.
On March 2, 2nd Div. renewed its attack when the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry pressed into the forest through the Essex Scottish position. Matthews and Brigadier F.N. Cabeldu were determined to work forward in controlled bounds, and the RHLI carefully bit off 500 yards the first day, with the Royal Regt. of Canada taking a further half mile on March 3.
Back in the gap no such caution was evident. The Lake Superior Regt. with D Company of the Algonquins and armoured squadrons from the Governor-General’s Foot Guards and the Canadian Grenadier Guards were ordered to undertake Operation Churchill, another night attack with Kangaroos carrying the infantry forward.
Everyone was desperately tired and when the Kangaroos were late in arriving, the commanding officer of the Lake Superiors, Lt.-Col. R.A. Keane, asked brigade to postpone the operation “and give the lads a chance to rest.” The Kangaroos did arrive, however, and the attack began just before first light. Maj. P.A. Mayer provided this description: “A terrific hail of anti-tank fire met the attacking force as it cleared the crest of the Hochwald Gap, and within a few minutes the whole area became a veritable hell.”
Fortunately, the companies and squadrons had been greatly under strength for Operation Churchill, so total casualties for March 3 were reported as “only” 19 killed, 71 wounded and 83 missing. Before another hasty operation could be mounted, the enemy withdrew to a new defensive line and Simonds ordered a pause to reorganize. The battle for the Hochwald and the infamous gap was finally over.
The battles for the Hochwald tell us much about the state of the Canadian Army in 1945. At the sharp end, battalion, company and platoon commanders possessed the skills and determination to overcome a desperate enemy, but they were not always well served by their senior commanders who sought “the bubble reputation” in their quest for a breakthrough.