SHAEF HQ, Versailles, France March 10, 1945

On this date in 1945 three sets of battles fought during the final stages of the Euro­pean war ended in Allied vic­tories and marked the begin­ning of the Allied inva­sion of Nazi Germany. The Battle of the Reichs­wald (German, Imperial Forest), known also as Oper­a­tion Ver­i­ta­ble, was con­ducted by Gen. Sir Harry Crerar’s First Cana­dian Army assisted by the British XXX Corps under Lt. Gen. Sir Brian Horrocks; these troops—470,000 strong—formed the northern arm of a pincer move­ment into the enemy’s Rhine­land. The southern arm of the pincer move­ment was called Oper­a­tion Grenade and was an offen­sive by the U.S. Ninth Army, com­manded by Lt. Gen. William Hood Simp­son. Both the British-Cana­dian forces and the U.S. Ninth Army operated under Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.

Defended by 11,000 enemy soldiers, the forested Reichs­wald assault area was a narrow four-to-five-mile gap between two rivers, the Maas and the giant Rhine, and was the natural advance from the Dutch-German border to the Ruhr region, the indus­trial heart of Germany (see map below). It also was the right flank of the German West­wall (Sieg­fried Line) forti­fi­ca­tions that ran from the Reichs­wald to the border with Swit­zerland. To the south Simp­son’s Ninth Army would strike across the Roer River and become the anvil for the British and Cana­dians blasting out of the Reichs­wald, which they even­tually did on Febru­ary 22 under a new name, Oper­a­tion Block­buster. In support of the Reichs­wald assault were some 1,050 artil­lery pieces of various caliber, a half-million artil­lery shells, a dozen 32‑barrel rocket launchers, 80 4.2‑in mortars, 60 Sher­man tanks equipped with 75mm cannons, and Achilles tank destroyers whose main arma­ment was a 17‑pounder, 3‑in gun mounted in an open turret. Over­head flew sorties of heavy, medium, and fighter bombers of British and U.S. air forces, leaving the nearby towns of Cleves and Goch piles of rubble.

No east-west hard-surface route passed through the Reichs­wald, crimping the pas­sage of British-Cana­dian fighting men and armor to the Ruhr objec­tive. Besides, the flooded Rhine and Maas flood plains neces­si­tated the use of Buffalo amphib­ious vehicles and breaching three enemy defen­sive systems. Despite the nega­tive imped­i­ments to moving in the Rhine­land, the Battle of the Reichs­wald (Oper­a­tion Ver­i­ta­ble) began on Febru­ary 8, 1945, powered by 200,000 infan­try­men, 500 tanks, including Chur­chill Croco­dile flame­throwers and Sher­man Flails that beat the ground in front of them with whirling chains to set off mines, and 500 spe­cial­ized vehic­les such as Buffalos. On Days 2 and 3 the Germans released water from the Roer and Urft dams. The Roer River rose five feet, forcing Oper­a­tion Grenade’s U.S. Ninth Army (the southern pincer arm and hence the anvil) to stay in place on the west bank and take no military action for 2 weeks.

The British-Canadian northern pincer arm was stymied also by the appear­ance of German rein­force­ments that sorely lacked armor—armor destroyed in the Battle of the Bulge weeks before. Once the Reichs­wald had been pene­trated on Febru­ary 22, Oper­a­tion Block­buster swung into action in con­cert with Oper­a­tion Gre­nade when Amer­i­can forces were able to cross the still tur­bu­lent Roer the next day. The com­bined armies attacked German divi­sions under Field Marshal Gerd von Rund­stedt that remained on the west bank of the Rhine in accor­dance with Adolf Hitler’s orders to hold the line. Fighting con­tinued as the Germans sought to retain a bridge­head on the west bank of the Rhine at Wesel and evac­u­ate as many men and as much equip­ment as pos­sible. Finally, on March 10, 1945, the German with­drawal ended and the last Rhine bridges were destroyed. In the bitter slugging match, the Allies managed to cap­ture 230,000 enemy prisoners, second only in number to the 317,000 mostly unarmed German soldiers who were ensnared in the Ruhr Pocket between April 1 and April 18, 1945.

Allies’ Rhineland Campaign Opens with Battle of the Reichswald (Operation Veritable), Febru­ary 8–22, 1945

Rhineland Campaign, February 8 to March 10, 1945

Above: Operations Veritable (Battle of the Reichswald) and Block­buster (top third of map) and Oper­a­tion Grenade (second third of map) took place in West-Central Germany and Belgium. The joint British-Cana­dian and U.S. Rhine­land Cam­paign, whose objec­tives were to break through Germany’s defen­sive West­wall (Sieg­fried Line) and seize the Ruhr region—the indus­trial heart of Nazi Germany—lasted just over a month, from February 8 to March 10, 1945, and was ago­niz­ingly slow. Casual­ties were heavy on both sides (Allied: 15,634 vs. German: ~44,239) as the effort to reach the Ruhr bogged down in the face of tough German resis­tance, appalling weather, water-covered roads, and deep mud.

Rhineland Campaign: British infantry in Cleves,February 16, 1945Rhineland Campaign: British tanks in Goch, February 21, 1945

Left: During preparations for kicking off the Battle of the Reichs­wald (Oper­a­tion Veri­table), the British Royal Air Force launched heavy raids against Rhine­land cities and towns in the anti­ci­pated path of the British-Cana­dian advance toward the Ruhr. Cleves (Kleve), which appears near the top of the map (above), was the home of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne, and was hit by RAF bombers on Febru­ary 7–8 with devas­tating results. Over 90 per­cent of its buildings were severely damaged in the air raids. This was followed by two 2‑1/2 hour, ear-splitting artil­lery barrages that con­tin­u­ously shook the ground forward of the field guns, leaving soldiers unable to hear each other. “Piles of smashed fur­ni­ture, clothing, chil­dren’s books and toys, old photo­graphs and bottled fruit, were spilled in hope­less con­fusion from the sagging crazy skele­tons of houses,” said one report. The photo above shows British infantry­men, maybe from the 43rd Wessex or 15th Scottish Divi­sions, part of XXX Corps, advancing in cold mist on a rain-sodden road through Cleves south toward Goch, February 16, 1945.
Right: A Valentine Mk XI Royal Artillery OP (Observation Post) tank (left) and a Chur­chill tank (right) in Goch, Febru­ary 21, 1945. Goch was a major link in the Germans’ West­wall (Sieg­fried Line) and was planned as Oper­a­tion Veri­table’s final objec­tive. The town was well forti­fied with many pill­boxes on the flooded River Niers to the east of Goch on one side and an anti­tank ditch covering the other three sides. Most of the town was in ruins from previous heavy bom­bard­ment and its streets deeply cratered or choked with rubble; how­ever, many empty cellars and the gardens behind the ruined buildings were con­verted into mortar bat­teries and sniper nests. On Febru­ary 19 Goch came under deter­mined attack by the British 51st High­land Divi­sion, but by the third day the badly shaken defenders had been routed, adding more than 240 men to the 12,000 Germans taken prisoner so far, to say nothing of the many thou­sands of dead and wounded. At Veri­table’s conclu­sion, the British-Cana­dian offen­sive, reborn Oper­a­tion Block­buster, linked up with the U.S. Ninth Army (Oper­a­tion Grenade) heading for a Rhine crossing in the last stand-up fight between the Western Allies and the Germans, the Battle of the Ruhr Pocket (April 1–18, 1945).

First Canadian Army Attacks German Town of Cleves, February 1945. Silent archive film