Canadian army engineers construct a Bailey bridge across the Rhine River near Emmerich in April 1945.
This instalment of Canadian Military History In Perspective was written in June 2003 just after I received an advance copy of my new book, Fields of Fire: The Canadians in Normandy. Regular readers of this series will not be surprised to learn that the book pays tribute to the achievements of the Canadian army and establishes a new balance sheet in which success greatly outweighs failure. The destruction of two German armies in Normandy in just 76 days was one of the greatest victories in the campaign to liberate Europe and the Canadians played a role that was all out of proportion to their numbers.
The same argument can be made for the battle of the Rhineland and for many aspects of the fighting east of the Rhine River in 1945. After 9th Infantry Brigade’s struggle to subdue the enemy at Speldrop and Bienen, 7th Inf. Bde., now commanded by Brigadier T.G. Gibson, was ordered to expand the bridgehead to the north, including the town of Emmerich. Eighth Inf. Bde. would then pass through, seizing the high ground at Hoch Elten. All three brigades were part of 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.
Hoch Elten overlooked the river where Canadian engineers were constructing Blackfriars Bridge, the longest Bailey bridge of the war, measuring 1,814 feet in length.
The Royal Canadian Engineers reported that “work started on 26 March and was complete at noon on 28 March. The construction was done by 29, 30 and 31 Field companies RCE…. The sappers and (British) pioneers toiled by night as well as day using artificial moonlight…when fog set in the searchlight was moved to the bridge and its beam aimed directly along the structure.”
Blackfriars Bridge was built by Canadian engineers but it was to be used to support Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s main thrust to the east. The Canadian advance into Holland required the RCE to build three new bridges, but first there was the matter of Emmerich, a large town, defended by battle groups from Hitler’s 6th Parachute and 346th Inf. divisions supported by tanks and self-propelled assault guns. The Sherman tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, Royal Canadian Artillery anti-tank guns and a squadron of British tanks armed with flamethrowers–the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry–were placed under Gibson’s command. As always, the machine-guns and heavy mortars of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa were in support, but it was up to the infantry to close with and root out the enemy defending the ruins that were once a town of 16,000 people.
On March 28, Gibson sent the Canadian Scottish Regiment down the main road while the Regina Rifle Regt. advanced along the river.
Historian Reg Roy, who wrote the history of the Cdn. Scottish Regt., described the situation confronting the battalion: “Between the Rhine and the trunk railroad…is a fair-size open field which slopes…up towards the oil refineries, slaughterhouses and other industrial plants in the Emmerich suburbs…only a rubble pile of wrecked buildings remained.”
Reports from Dutch civilians suggested the enemy was withdrawing and the lead company decided to cross the Landwehr canal in the city centre on an improvised footbridge, without waiting for the engineers to bridge the obstacle. The Canadian Scottish–also known as the Canscots–knew their job and fanned out working their way up the slope. Machine-gun fire forced them to the ground and Major H.F. Bailey sent one of his platoons right, flanking along the railway line. The platoon was soon pinned down and it became clear that the enemy, far from withdrawing, held the town in strength. Well directed German artillery fire prevented the engineers from bridging the canal so the Canadian armour had to stay well back. Lieutenant-Colonel L.S. Henderson decided to expand the battalion bridgehead and borrow D Company of the Reginas to help out. After a night “marked by alternate periods of stealthy approaches and sharp, savage firefights” the industrial area was secure and the canal bridged.
The extent of German resistence forced 7th Bde. to pause and allow the armour time to marry-up with the infantry. The Reginas launched the second phase of the attack with the Sherbrookes and tanks with flamethrowers in close support. The battalion broke into the southern sector of Emmerich, but progress was slow. Lieutenant Walter Keith, who commanded the Reginas’ 16 Platoon recalls the frustration of a 3rd Anti-Tank Regt. officer who was unable to bring his 17-pounder guns into action because the enemy had blocked the streets with “rubble-filled railway cars.”
While the Regina Rifles fought its way into the city, the Canscots staged a two-company attack to clear the area north of the railway line. With adequate time for reconnaissance and a good view of the battlefield for the artillery observer, the attack resembled an exercise. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles then captured the nearby village of Leegmeer and moved west to clear a large wood. The Winnipeg thrust threatened to cut off the forces defending Emmerich and the Germans responded with a wave of counterattacks on both prairie battalions.
The Reginas in the heart of the ruined city had to improvise street-fighting tactics using PIATs (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank), six-pounders and flamethrowers to repel the enemy. The Winnipegs dealt with several platoon-sized attacks, one of which began with the enemy “coming at them singing.” The German soldier must have known defeat was now certain, but if he was desperate he was still deadly.
By midday on March 30 most of Emmerich was in Canadian hands. Seventh Bde. was told to secure a start line for 8th Bde. and then go into reserve. The key to a secure start line was a large cement factory on the western edge of the town and the task of taking it was given to the weary Canscots. Reg Roy, who interviewed veterans of the battle, offered this description of the last attack: “Under ordinary circumstances a tank would be driven over tangled telephone wires, broken telephone poles, mounds of brick, rubble and woodwork strewn in the street, past burnt cars, over shell holes…. But Emmerich had been more than battered about. It had been blasted time and time again…. As the Canadian Scottish fought their way forward…the armour could not follow. It was a job for the bayonet and the grenade with sections and platoons covered by machine-guns leap-frogging one another…. The western outskirts of Emmerich were cleared in this fashion by nightfall on March 30.” The brigade suffered 172 casualties, including 44 killed or died of wounds in this forgotten three-day battle.
Once past Emmerich there was room to deploy two brigades and their advance was assisted by the arrival of 2nd Div. moving on a parallel course into Holland. At noon on March 31, Canadian engineers began construction of Melville Bridge, named after the chief engineer of 1st Canadian Army, Brigadier J.L. Melville. Measuring 1,373 feet in length, the Bailey bridge was opened to traffic the next morning. Two other bridges soon followed, guaranteeing adequate logistical support for Canadian operations in the Netherlands.
The Canadian victory in the Rhine bridgehead was a remarkable achievement given the strength of the German forces defending the northern flank. Two Canadian brigades fought the equivalent of three German regiments, inflicted heavy losses and forced their withdrawal. The artillery and tactical air force played a vital role in the success of both 9th and 7th brigades, but victory was primarily won by infantry using their own weapons to close with and destroy the enemy.
By early 1945 most battalions had suffered close to 1,000 casualties, more than 100 per cent of their original strength. And so by then these battles were largely fought by replacements, including conscripts recently arrived from Canada. The western regiments in 7th Bde. had lost 485 men–one third of their rifle company strength–at Moyland Wood in February. By early March, hundreds of reinforcements had joined the brigade.
Officer and non-commissioned officer casualties had been especially high and most of the original platoon and company commanders had been replaced. Senior leadership had also changed. Gibson was the third officer to command the brigade and all three battalion commanding officers had been appointed after the Battle of the Scheldt during October and November 1944. Battalion and company commanders had proved themselves in combat and been promoted, but most lieutenants and riflemen came directly from the reinforcement pool. How were those men able to fight so effectively at the Rhine?
When J.L. Ralston, the minister of National Defence, visited front-line units in Italy and Northwest Europe in the fall of 1944, he was told that “the reinforcements received now were green, inexperienced and poorly trained” causing “large numbers of unnecessary casualties…both to the rookie and to older soldiers who have the added task of trying to look after the newcomers.” The “green” reinforcements, who had been re-mustered from other branches of the army because of heavy infantry casualties, were singled out for criticism.
Apart from anecdotal evidence we have very little information on the quality of conversion training or the performance of officers and men transferred to the infantry. In November 1944, the Black Watch surveyed the replacements who arrived after the costly battles of October and reported that some had less than a month’s infantry training. But many of the officers and men who fought with success in October were themselves reinforcements who joined the Black Watch after Normandy. Combat veterans always complain that the reinforcements are poorly trained and not up to the standards of the unit. After a few weeks in action the newcomers became veterans ready to criticize the next draft of inexperienced kids.
The same problem arises when we attempt to generalize about the 2,463 conscripts who reached field units in 1945. University of Alberta historian Dan Byers, who has studied most aspects of the conscript question, agrees it is difficult to assess their performance since the army did its best to “place them in the reinforcement stream as individuals mixing them throughout the army.” What we do know is they had much more extensive training than re-mustered soldiers and proved to be at least the equal of other reinforcements. Byers adds, “In the end a total of 9,667 NRMA (National Resources Mobilization Act) men reached the front as conscripts…of that number 2,463 saw duty in operational units, 69 were killed, 232 wounded and 13 taken prisoner.” Without them many battalions would have been short of men in the last phase of the war.
The evidence from the battlefield suggests the combination of experienced company commanders and non-commissioned officers working with young reinforcements was effective. When the Regina Rifles absorbed more than 100 replacements after Moyland Wood the newcomers included Lieut. Walter Keith who joined the army in 1941 and served overseas as signal corps officer. After volunteering to transfer to the infantry he attended a six-week junior leaders course and on March 7, 1945, joined the Regina “Johns” in the Rhineland. Keith’s memoir, written for Gordon Brown and Terry Copp’s book, Look To Your Front…Regina Rifles, relates how he was given command of 16 Platoon, Dog Company, commanded by Gordon Brown and the second in command, Captain Dick Roberts. Brown and Roberts were an outstanding team with experience dating back to D-Day in June 1944, and they did their best to prepare Keith and the other replacements for combat.
On March 8, 1945, his platoon numbered 32 men. Just two, including Sergeant R.S. Tomlison, had fought in Normandy. Two others had been at the Leopold Canal and two more at Moyland Wood for a total of six combat veterans. Keith soon learned that one of the six had been at it too long, but he had hid his fear and was killed-in-action at Emmerich.
The rest of the platoon had joined the Reginas about the same time as Keith so Emmerich was their first battle. “They ranged in age from 19 to 35 but most were in their early 20s,” recalled Keith. “Most (19) were from Saskatchewan…. All but one were single…. The veteran section leaders included Homer Adams, a First Nations volunteer who had won the Military Medal at the Leopold Canal, Anatole Turcotte a D-Day veteran who always refused promotion and Chris Vogt, a Saskatchewan farm boy who had distinguished himself at Moyland Wood.”
Keith recalled that he never once had to “cajole or threaten or even encourage them to do the job they were given. The section commanders unhesitatingly led their small group of riflemen where they were told to go and the section followed…. The two-inch mortar men…sited their weapon and delivered bombs where they were needed with no detailed orders from anyone and their accuracy was amazing…. They had a job to do and they did it.”
Before he joined, Keith imagined an infantry battalion would be “full of swashbuckling, macho, tough, big fighting men of the Hollywood type. Rather they were mostly fairly small, very young, very quiet and most unwarrior-like.”
Keith’s memoir describes the small world of the infantry platoon. “We knew nor cared about very little beyond the rifle section or in my case the platoon. In or out of battle we saw only the men in the platoon. (Sergeant) Tommy Tomlison and I occasionally went to company HQ (headquarters) and from time to time we were close to the rest of the company but for the most part the platoon or section was our world and the guys became really close.”
In the Rhine bridgehead these small, young, quiet soldiers and their counterparts in other Canadian and British battalions went about doing their job with enough skill and determination to overcome an enemy still capable of organized resistence. Re-mustered soldiers, conscripts, young volunteers–men who had just turned 19–plus a smattering of veterans did what they had to do: they crossed the Rhine, won the bridgehead and spearheaded the liberation of Holland. Those who gave their lives lie in the Canadian military cemeteries at Groesbeek and Holten where the people of the Netherlands do their best to keep the memory alive.