The Rhine Crossing: Army, Part 47

July 1, 2003 by Terry Copp

The covered body of a soldier lies near a sign pointing toward two German towns in March, 1945.

The decision to destroy the German army west of the Rhine and then cross the river in a major operation north of the Ruhr River had been made in December 1944 before the Ardennes offensive. The Rhine crossing, code-named Operation Plunder, was to be the major Allied effort to end the war by striking in a “single thrust” for Berlin. At the Malta Conference in early February 1945 the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, revised this conception of the invasion of Germany with a plan that allowed for a second major Rhine crossing south of the Ruhr.

The British leaders, especially Field Marshal K.G. Alanbrooke who was in close contact with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, protested that there was insufficient strength for two major operations. Since the British, especially Montgomery, were also still pressing for a single ground commander, it is possible to sympathize with the growing impatience of American battlefield commanders who could not understand why so much deference was paid to British views when they were able to supply less than one-quarter of the troops involved in the battle.

The Americans believed Montgomery had set up the northern crossing to give the glory of taking Berlin to the British Army. This skeptical view of Montgomery’s motives was greatly reinforced when it was learned that he wanted to use U.S. divisions for the crossing, but under the command of British 2nd Army. Lieutenant-General Bill Simpson, the commander of 9th U.S. Army, and his corps commanders were flabbergasted by this proposal and even Montgomery realized he had gone too far. Instead, one U.S. corps of two divisions, operating under 9th U.S. Army’s control, was to assault the river on D-Day. Despite this concession, 2nd Army was still to have control of the bridgehead until it was judged secure.

On March 7, while the battle for the Wesel Pocket raged, troops of the 1st U.S. Army seized the Rhine bridge at Remagen and quickly established a substantial bridgehead on the east bank of the river. Since Montgomery did not plan to cross the Rhine until late March, the success of 1st U.S. Army presented the Allied command with a major dilemma. Both the army commander, Gen. Courtney Hodges, and his superior, Omar Bradley, were reasonably confident that a breakout from Remagen could be staged whenever permission was granted. Eisenhower, perhaps fearing an even more serious row with the British, ignored intelligence estimates of German weakness and ordered Hodges to limit the bridgehead and use it as a device to draw German reserves away from the north.

1st U.S. Army was certainly successful in this role because by March 23–the day of Operation Plunder–the Germans had moved most of their reserves opposite the Remagen bridgehead and had even attempted a counterattack. The next day, with the northern Rhine crossing safely launched, 1st U.S. Army was unleashed. In a matter of a few hours it had brushed aside the German defenders and was racing forward into Germany with three armoured divisions in the lead. General George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army also crossed the Rhine before March 24, but this was a deliberate demonstration of Patton’s contempt for Montgomery’s elaborate preparations. The Americans announced that the Rhine could be crossed at any point without the aid of preliminary bombardment–never mind with airborne divisions–and they released the news that they had done so “at a time calculated to take some of the lustre from the news of Montgomery’s crossing.” All of this, no doubt, sounds somewhat childish, but the image of feuding generals should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Hodges was right and that Eisenhower’s decision to force his American armies to pause for two weeks so that Montgomery could complete preparations for a complex set-piece attack was a stiff price to pay for maintaining unity in coalition warfare. It was a price that he would not be willing to pay again in dealing with the British commanders.

Montgomery’s plan for the Rhine called for a series of widely separated assault crossings of the river. First into battle was 51 Highland Division, which had been strengthened by the addition of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade. The Buffaloes once again proved their value and, with 150 available, Major-General Tom Rennie was able to lift four assault battalions and a bridgehead was quickly established. There were few casualties, but Rennie, who always worked well forward, was fatally wounded. 15 Scottish Div. and 1 Commando Bde. were equally successful in the British sector and 9th U.S. Army reported that its assault divisions, the 30th and 29th, got across with “minor casualties of 16 or 17 men killed per division.”

Despite the evidence of minor German resistance, the airborne part of the crossing, Operation Varsity, was not cancelled and the vast armada of aircraft appeared over the Rhine at 10 a.m. on the 24th. The paratroops of 6th British Airborne and 17th U.S. Airborne made their drop without undue casualties, but by 10:30 a.m., when the gliders of the air landing brigades were coming in, the German flak gunners had recovered and a terrible toll was exacted. On the ground the airborne troops were soon engulfed in the most difficult and costly part of the operation. Casualties were horrendous; the 6th Airborne lost 1,400 out of a landed strength of 7,220 and a quarter of the glider pilots were casualties. The paratroops of 17th Airborne were widely scattered and two-thirds of the gliders were hit by flak. Out of a force of 9,650 men, 1,300 were casualties. A daring resupply mission, flown at low level by United States Army Air Force Liberators, dropped 600 tonnes of supplies to sustain the division, but at a cost of 16 bombers shot down.

The 6th British Airborne included 1st Cdn. Parachute Battalion, which was dropped on the British front between Wesel and Rees. It was part of 3rd Parachute Bde. assigned to clear Diersfordt Woods. During the course of the battle, which cost the battalion 43 casualties, a medical orderly, Corporal F.G. Topham, earned the Victoria Cross. The citation reads in part: “Corporal Topham went forward through intense fire to replace the orderlies who had been killed before his eyes. As he worked on the wounded, he was himself shot through the nose. In spite of severe bleeding and intense pain, he never faltered in his task. Having completed immediate first aid he carried the wounded men steadily and slowly back through continuous fire….”

One of the fatal casualties was the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.A. Nicklin; his brigadier, James Hill, paid this tribute to Nicklin and his men: “I thought you would not mind my writing to you directly to tell you what a very wonderful show the battalion has put up since our operations over the Rhine on March 24th last. They really put up a most tremendous performance on D-Day and as a result of their tremendous dash and enthusiasm they overcame their objectives, which were very sticky ones, with considerable ease, killing a very large number of Germans and capturing many others. Unfortunately, the price was high in that they lost their colonel, Jeff Nicklin, who was one of the best fellows that I have met, and was the ideal man to command that battalion as he fairly used to bang their heads together and they used to like it and accept it. He is and will be a tremendous loss to the battalion and of course to me. I only hope that the people back in Canada appreciate the really wonderful job of work he had done in producing his battalion at the starting line in such outstanding form.”

While the airborne troops regrouped and completed their assignments, Gen. Alfred Schlemm, who commanded Hitler’s First Parachute Army, deployed his reserves. The 47 Panzer Corps, composed of 116 Panzer Div. and 15 Panzer Grenadier Div. had taken advantage of the two-week pause in Allied operations to move north into Holland. Here, safe from Allied air forces that were reluctant to bomb Dutch villages, they rested, re-equipped and absorbed reinforcements. Their determination to defend Germany was now stronger than ever. Schlemm waited until noon on the 24th to commit his reserves. He sent 116 Panzer south to slow the American advance and committed 15 Panzer Grenadier to the defence of the northern sector. Since 51 Highland Div. was already engaged in a furious battle with two parachute divisions, expanding the bridgehead to the north and east was now bound to prove slow and costly. 9th Cdn. Bde., originally slated to lead the advance to Emmerich, joined the 154th Highland Bde. in close combat with a powerful enemy.

Historian Lee Windsor, who led our 2002 battlefield tour through the area, has closely studied the events of late March 1945 using both archival and interview sources. A PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick and a specialist on the Italian campaign, Windsor became interested in the Rhine crossing after meeting Justice D.M. Dickson who commanded D Company of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Justice Dickson related the story of the battle for Bienen and recent efforts to erect a plaque commemorating the Canadian and German soldiers who were killed-in-action in the village on March 25, 1945.

Windsor argues that whatever the situation was elsewhere on the Rhine front, at Speldrop and Bienen the Canadians faced a well-entrenched enemy that equalled or outnumbered the Canadian and Scottish troops advancing towards them. When the Highland Light Infantry of Canada was ordered to clear Speldrop, it was warned that two platoons of a highland division Black Watch battalion were still holding out in the village resisting large-scale counterattacks.

Lt.-Col. P.W. Strickland could count on medium artillery to neutralize known enemy positions beyond the village. He could also count on the field artillery to keep heads down while his men crossed 1,000 metres of flat open ground. However, the village itself would have to be cleared house by house. Strickland decided to use just one company in the initial attack, seizing the northwest corner of Speldrop and trying to identify the Black Watch positions. Strickland, like other experienced battalion commanders, was convinced it was better to stage attacks across open country with fewer men, reducing the casualties sustained from both friendly and enemy fire. If one company–80 officers and men–could get onto a position and establish a firm base, the rest of the battalion could advance in stages with additional covering fire. This approach worked at Speldrop even though all three platoon commanders were hit. Sergeant Cornelius Reidel inspired a fixed-bayonet charge on enemy positions in an orchard and then led his men to the objective. The rest of the company joined Reidel, who turned over a number of prisoners and three 75-mm guns.

Getting to the edge of the village was one thing, clearing it was quite another. The enemy had moved a troop of assault guns into Speldrop to support the paratroopers so Major J.C. King called for battalion six-pounders and Wasp flamethrowers rather than more infantry. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada used this close support to storm the German position and secure the northern edge of the village. King’s Distinguished Service Order and Reidel’s Military Medal were two of seven gallantry medals awarded to the HLI in the first two days of combat.

While the HLI fought to clear Speldrop, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders–the Glens–and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders–the North Novas–bypassed the village moving north towards Bienen where another highland division battalion, the 7th Argylls, was waiting for relief. The Argylls had seized a group of farm buildings 300 metres from the village but could go no further. Lt.-Col. Don Forbes took one look at the terrain and decided to be cautious. He sent Maj. Don Learment’s A Company forward to Argyll Farm to secure the start line for an attack on the village. Learment, who had led the North Nova vanguard on June 7, was captured and then escaped from his German captors, took his men single-file along the side of a dike to Argyll Farm. Unfortunately, the 15th Panzer Grenadier Div. had arrived to block the advance and when the North Novas attacked the village of Bienen, they had to fight for every house, losing 114 men, including 43 killed. The initial advance had been supported by heavy artillery fire, including a liberal use of smoke, but the companies were brought under heavy enemy fire before the barrage started and the advance took place under conditions of growing confusion. Brigadier J.M. Rockingham ordered a withdrawal and directed the battalion to “start from scratch and do the attack over again, using the two remaining companies.”

The second North Nova attack managed to secure the southern half of the village. This was not Rockingham at his best for he had seriously underestimated the extent of German strength. That night, after a 3rd Anti-tank Regiment battery of self-propelled Valentine 17-pounders had beaten off an armoured counterattack, the HLI advanced through the North Novas to complete the capture of the village. For a full account of the battle of Bienen, please see Lee A. Windsor’s article Too Close For The Guns in the spring 2003 issue of the Canadian Military History journal. For a free introductory copy, write to Terry Copp, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON, N2L 3C5, e-mail tcopp@wlu.ca or check the Web site www.canadianmilitaryhistory.com.

The battles fought by Scottish and Canadian troops in the Rhine crossing were as difficult and costly as any in the experience of the two veteran divisions. The decision to stop and organize a set-piece attack instead of bouncing the Rhine allowed Montgomery time to build up resources so that his armies could race to Berlin once the bridgehead battle was won. This reasoned though debatable command decision placed an enormous burden on the infantry and airborne battalions used to attack an enemy that had ample time to create and camouflage strong defensive positions.

Ironically, Montgomery’s plans for a rapid thrust to Berlin were frustrated when Eisenhower decided to advance through the centre of Germany to meet the Soviet armies at the Elbe River. British protests were to no avail. Berlin, already under attack from the east, was well within the Soviet zone of occupation and Eisenhower had no intention of sacrificing men for such an objective.

There were other reasons for Eisenhower’s decision, including the growing antagonism of American senior officers towards Montgomery and his methods. Bradley and Patton had long challenged the priority assigned to Montgomery’s operations and when the 9th U.S. Army commander added his voice to the protests, Eisenhower decided to reunite 9th U.S. Army with Bradley’s Army Group. Montgomery, with his British and Canadian armies, were to clear Holland and northern Germany and protect the American flank, a very different task than the one Montgomery had planned for.

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