Allied military vehicles negotiate a rubble-filled street in Calcar, Germany, on Feb. 28, 1945.
When Operation Veritable began on Feb. 8, 1945, Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar predicted that if weather conditions were poor a series of set-piece operations would be required to reach Xanten, Germany, located roughly 30 miles north of Dusseldorf. The battle might, he thought, last three weeks.
Two weeks later 1st Canadian Army had breeched the Siegfried Line and fought its way beyond Cleve but was well short of its original objectives. This partial victory had cost the Anglo-Canadian Army 490 officers and 8,023 other ranks, killed, wounded and missing. Most of the casualties–379 officers and 6,325 other ranks–were in Lt.-Gen. Sir Brian Horrocks’ 30 British Corps. However, the Canadian share–111 officers and 1,683 other ranks–was proportionately high considering that only three Canadian brigades had been committed to major operations.
Operation Veritable had imposed an enormous strain upon the morale of units and of individuals. Approximately 950 British and 350 Canadian soldiers were evacuated due to battle exhaustion during February. At least 1/3 of those had either been wounded before or had been previously treated for battle exhaustion. The next most common characteristics were short service (less than a week in action) and exceptionally long service. One Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. Travis Dancey, commenting on the “frequent appearance of the war-weary” described a typical case in these terms: “He had led a section for several months, had been blown up eight times, but had always carried on with his duties. Recently he had lost his confidence, was unable to make decisions, had become unduly cautious and felt that he was a bad influence on his section.”
British Army psychiatrists, who had been returning a much greater number of exhaustion cases to duty than their Canadian counterparts, also found they were dealing with soldiers who had been “psychiatric or surgical casualties before,” or “young, immature boys experiencing their first severe action.” It was not possible to return significant numbers of either group to combat, adding to the problem of finding replacements for the infantry companies.
This horrendous casualty toll had occurred primarily because the flooding of the Roer River had prevented the complimentary American attack, Operation Grenade. The enemy’s 1st Paratroop Army had thrown its reserves against the northern front, turning the Reichswald and the Siegfried Line into a killing ground which also devastated the remaining German forces in the west. 1st Cdn. Army processed 11,778 prisoners through its prisoner-of-war cages in the two-week period, and intelligence estimates placed the German dead at around 12,000. Veritable had not gone as planned, but the enemy’s capacity to defend the Rhineland and the Rhine had been seriously weakened.
On the morning of Feb. 23, when the United States 9th Army began its successful crossing of the still-flooded Roer, the fate of the German forces west of the Rhine was sealed; they could either retreat, surrender or die; they could not muster the strength to hold off the 10-division American attack, no matter how fiercely the isolated units fought. By Feb. 26, signs of a German rout were evident to all. With the Americans 40 miles away from the Rhine, advancing three to four miles a day, it was only a matter of time. Throughout this period 1st Cdn. Army was steadfastly ahead with plans for a new operation, code-named Blockbuster, which called for a series of assaults on fortified positions in
unfavourable terrain which the Germans would surely be forced to abandon once the American offensive pressed towards them.
Presumably Field Marshal General Bernard Montgomery and Crerar believed the American pressure from the south would require the Germans to weaken their defences in front of 1st Cdn. Army, paving the way for a successful breakthrough in the north. So we must ask why Operation Blockbuster was allowed to develop into another confused battle of attrition with casualties close to 4,000 men, 2,600 of them Canadian.
Crerar told his corps commanders that if “determined enemy resistance” continued despite the American advance, Blockbuster would be limited to “securing the high ground east of the Calcar-Udem road.” But neither Lt.-Gen. Guy Simonds nor Horrocks seemed to have paid much attention to this directive. They outlined plans for a series of battles designed to break through the Schlieffen Position, the last major defensive barrier west of the River Rhine and continue south to Xanten. Once these operations were under way no one had the courage or foresight to stop them.
Simonds’ plans for Blockbuster were typical of operations carried out by 2nd Cdn. Corps: They were innovative and complex making little allowance for error or the inevitable friction of war. The initial phase called for three infantry brigades to seize the high ground while 4th Armoured Division formed up ready to advance to the Hochwald Forest. The division, now commanded by Major-General Chris Vokes, was reorganized to allow Tiger Group, under Brigadier Robert Moncel, to lead off. Tiger Group was made up of three armoured and two infantry regiments subdivided into four mixed infantry-armour battle groups. Each was given specific tasks and timings which seemed unnecessarily complicated to those who had to carry them out.
During the night of Feb. 25, the infantry, plagued by icy rain, moved into position for the assault. The barrage began at 3:45 a.m. Forty-five minutes later, 6th Brigade, mounted in armoured personnel carriers known as Kangaroos and supported by squadrons of the Fort Garry Horse and Sherbrooke Fusiliers, moved out in three straight columns. Overhead tracer fire and other navigation devices, including searchlights, horizontal and vertical, inevitably recalled Operation Totalize, Simonds’ night operation of Aug. 8, 1944.
Brigadier R.H. Keefler’s 6th Brigade had been preparing for an attack on the Calcar Ridge since Feb. 18. This meant that there had been ample time to permit “units and supporting arms to carry out mutual planning on a most intimate basis. Sand tables were constructed and personnel down to section leaders were briefed carefully and kept in the picture from day to day.” Keefler was able to hold a final run through with all commanders on Feb. 22 and the following morning Montgomery arrived to give his blessing.
The Sherbrooke Fusiliers provided a squadron to support each of Keefler’s infantry battalions and by the night of Feb. 26–some 16 hours after the startline was crossed–the brigade had taken all of its objectives and was well dug-in. When the inevitable German counterattack developed, it came “exactly where it was expected” and the enemy was quickly crushed. This was bite and hold at its best. 5th Bde. was equally successful, though with only one squadron of tanks available Brig. W.J. Megill found that the enemy could not be overcome without a pause for reorganization and the development of a new artillery fire plan.
Third Div. was to capture the villages of Keppeln and Udem as well as the hamlets and farmhouses which dotted the countryside around them. The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada led off 8th Bde.’s attack, moving forward through rising, open fields as soon as the barrage lifted. The QORs had been allotted a squadron of 1st Hussar tanks and a troop from 52 Battery (self-propelled 17- pounder guns) of the 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, RCA, but the artillery program for their sector was severely limited. The QORs were, according to the Blockbuster master plan, simply securing the lower slope of the ridge, conforming to the movements of 2nd Div. This meant the barrage would move on to the crest relatively quickly.
Lieutenant-Colonel S.M. Lett did not underestimate the problems facing the regiment. He had found that “reconnoitring the final objectives, and the intermediate enemy strongpoints…was almost impossible on account of the flat open country which was completely under enemy observation.” He ordered his two lead companies to make one adjustment in the divisional plan; they were not to cross the startline at the scheduled hour in the hope that they would be able to observe and avoid the inevitable counter barrage which the Germans would direct behind the moving Allied barrage. As Lett told 3rd Div.’s historical officer: “Enemy artillery is not very flexible. His defensive fire is brought down very accurately. However, once the limitation of this area is determined it can be circumvented with comparative safety.”
The ‘late’ start of the QORs allowed them to get to their first objectives without delay, but D Company found that the hamlet called Mooshof was difficult to secure and even harder to hold on to. It was here where Sergeant Aubrey Cosens won the Victoria Cross for actions described in the following citation: “On the night of 25/26 February 1945, the 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, launched an attack on the hamlet of Mooshof to capture ground which was considered essential for the successful development of future operations.
“Sergeant Cosen’s platoon, with two tanks in support, attacked enemy strongpoints in three farm buildings, but were twice beaten back by fanatical enemy resistance and then fiercely counterattacked, during which time the platoon suffered heavy casualties and the platoon commander was killed.
“Sergeant Cosens at once assumed command of the only other four survivors of his platoon, who he placed in a position to give him covering fire, while he himself ran across open ground under heavy mortar and shell fire to the one remaining tank, where, regardless of danger, he took up an exposed place in front of the turret and directed its fire.
“After a further enemy counterattack had been repulsed Sergeant Cosens ordered the tank to attack the farm buildings, while the four survivors of his platoon followed in close support. After the tank had rammed the first building, he entered it alone, killing several of the defenders and taking the rest prisoner.
“Single-handed he then entered the second and third buildings and personally killed or captured all the occupants, although under intense machine-gun and small arms fire. Just after the successful reduction of these important enemy strongpoints, Sergeant Cosens was shot through the head by an enemy sniper and died almost instantly.
“The outstanding gallantry, initiative and determined leadership of a brave NCO, who himself killed at least twenty of the enemy and took an equal number of prisoners, resulted in the capture of a position which was vital to the success of future operations of the brigade.”
The Queen’s Own captured more than 300 prisoners “practically all of them paratroopers” in a series of determined tank-infantry assaults. Lett was effusive in praise of the 1st Hussars, noting that “the excellent work of the tanks in supporting the infantry was the deciding feature in ousting the enemy from his well dug-in positions.”
Tank-infantry co-operation was also the key to success for the North Shores and Chaudières. The North Shore Regt.’s advance on the village of Keppeln was held back until the QORs on the left and the Régiment de la Chaudière on the right had cleared the flanks. The delay was also planned because there was not enough armour available to support three battalions and the North Shores were to depend on the timely arrival of the squadron from the QORs.
This all meant that the Chaudières with B Squadron, 1st Hussars, two troops of 52nd Battery, plus a company of medium machine-guns and 4.2-inch mortars from the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, had to strike out on their own towards the Sportzplatz to the south of Keppeln. The advance went well on the right but heavy fire from Keppeln pinned down the left flank. The Chaudières tried to exploit their initial success and pass a reserve company forward to the final objective where a white flag was seen; misunderstanding this for a sign of surrender, the company relaxed. Three Panther tanks appeared and machine-gunned the company who were somewhat off balance; heavy casualties resulted.
Major F.J. L’Esperance, second in command of the regiment, told the historical officer that: “The fighting encountered by the battalion this day was as hard as any it had met to date. It accomplished much. A total of 224 prisoners were taken, in addition one company of the Paratroop Recce. Regt., believing themselves to be cut off, surrendered to 5th Guards Bde., on the right of Le Régiment de la Chaudière. The casualties for the day were 15 ORs (other ranks) killed and three officers and 52 ORs wounded.”
The North Shores’ set-piece attack on Keppeln also succeeded. Initially the battalion was forced to the ground by intense mortar and machine-gun fire but the 1st Hussars rode to the rescue.
Lt.-Col F.E. White described what happened when brigade ordered his C Sqdn. to leave the QORs and come to the assistance of the North Shores: “C Sqdn. went directly to North Shore Regt. from QOR of Canada taking only time to refuel and load up with ammunition. The situation there was as follows. Two companies were dug in part way to Keppeln with their supporting carriers. Two reserve companies were on the startline awaiting orders to advance. About 10 enemy tanks had been seen going into Keppeln by the infantry. Between the startline and Keppeln was an open space of from 1,500 to 2,000 yards. It was decided that the tanks with PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank) crews on their backs would make a quick dash for Keppeln. It was hoped that by speed a sufficient number of tanks and infantry would get into the town to effect its capture. A preparatory artillery concentration was put down on Keppeln; this caused six of the 10 tanks to withdraw. They did this, unknown to us, and repositioned themselves as we later discovered.
The casualties incurred in reaching Keppeln were the heaviest in the operation. Personnel casualties were about 30 per cent. Throughout the regiment, tank casualties for the day were 33; 14 were knocked out by gunfire, five on mines, and 14 were mired. On the credit side the regiment claimed to have knocked out four enemy tanks; the infantry claimed we got six in the capture of Keppeln alone. This cannot be determined as 4 Cdn. Armd. Div. was in the area and there had been an artillery concentration.
After the first tanks had reached the village, Lt.-Col. J.H. Rowley ordered his reserve companies forward to clear the town. The battalion lost 28 killed and 62 wounded in the day’s action. By late evening 8th Bde. was dug in. It had been one of the most difficult days the brigade had ever experienced and Blockbuster had just begun.