Despite the optimistic military situation, fundamental disagreements over grand strategy had remained. The Combined Chiefs of Staff met at Malta at the end of January 1945 to prepare for the eventual meeting of the U.S. and British leaders with Soviet leaders at Yalta. There was once again disagreement as to how to proceed across the Rhine, whether to stay the course with the "broad front" strategy employed on the continent, or permit a "single-thrust." (Another item discussed at Malta had been the need to reinforce the western front at the expense of the forces in Italy, a discussion leading to the redeployment of 1st Canadian Corps from Italy.) The Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, General Eisenhower, presented a tentative plan in which two bridgeheads were seized across the Rhine, one north of the Ruhr near Emmerich-Wesel and the other near Mainz-Karlsruhe.
Eisenhower was confident that the Rhine crossings in the north could be seized with minimum delay and expressed a desire that such operations commence without forces drawing up to the river along its length.
At the Yalta Conference (4-10 February 1945), President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Marshal Stalin and their advisers discussed ways and means of increasing coordination between the three major allies. The Americans and British presented the plan for crossing the Rhine, and the Soviets agreed to try and take action if possible to assist operations in the west, even though these operations would likely occur between the periods earmarked for the Soviet winter and summer offensives.
The task of crossing the Rhine was given to the British 2nd Army. Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey’s headquarters had studied the problem even before Operation VERITABLE, the clearing of the Rhineland by 1st Canadian and U.S. 9th Armies west of the river, had begun. This detailed study was code-named Operation PLUNDER.Rheinberg, Xanten, Rees and Emmerich were examined as possible crossing sites. Emmerich was considered especially risky owing to the high ground to the north-west which afforded observation and firing positions at Hoch Elten as well as the wide flood plains and poor approaches to the river. Emmerich and the Hoch Elten high ground would nonetheless need to be taken, if not by amphibious attack, than from an attack from the landward side. The PLUNDER plans included alternate deployments, of either two British corps, attacking with one division each, or a single corps attacking on a two-division front. The target date for PLUNDER was not set until mid-February, as 31 March 1945. Emphasis was placed on taking Wesel, a communications centre, and Emmerich, an industrial site, early in the operation. Responsibility for Rheinberg was given to the U.S. 9th Army, with the British 2nd Army controlling crossings at Xanten and Rees. The proposed assault at Emmerich was to be carried out as a raid by 1st Canadian Army simultaneous to the main Rhine crossing, as a diversion, “only...if opposition is judged to be light and if equipment for it can be made available without prejudice to the main crossings further south.” The Canadians were asked to explore the feasibility of crossing the lower reaches of the Lower Rhine, to assist in clearing a path to Emmerich.
In early March, the target date was advanced to 24 March, and on 9 March army commanders were briefed by Field Marshal Montgomery, Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group, who outlined PLUNDER. The assault was to go across between Rheinberg and Rees with the 9th Army on the right and the 2nd to their left. Wesel would be taken first, and the lodgement expanded north, so the river could be bridged at Emmerich. The 1st Canadian Army would join the bridgehead in the second phase, permitting 21st Army Goup to develop operations in any direction ordered by Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).
To that end, the 1st Canadian Army received only limited tasks for the first phase of PLUNDER, namely holding the line of the Rhine and the Meuse from Emmerich west to the sea, and ensuring security of the bridgehead over the Waal at Nijmegen. Security at Antwerp, the vital port for which the Battle of the Scheldt had been fought to open the seaways into, was also considered of vital importance.
In the second phase, the Canadians were ordered to attack the German defences along the Ijssel River from the rear (east), take Deventer and Zutphen, cross the Ijssel and capture Apeldoorn and the intervening high ground before Arnhem, bridge the Lower Rhine at Arnhem and open communications and supply routes on a path Nijmegen-Arnhem towards the north-east to support further operations. The 2nd Canadian Corps was tasked with the first of these tasks, with 1st Canadian Corps ordered to secure a bridgehead over the Lower Rhine and the capture of Arnhem.
The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade was to be the first Canadian formation across the river, and came under control of the 51st (Highland) Division prior to the assault crossing. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division came under operational control of the 30th British Corps and the 2nd Canadian Corps passed under operational control of the 2nd British Army on 20 March 1945.
PLUNDER was to be a meticulous set-piece, consistent with the other major operations conducted by 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe. Allied aircraft had been conducting a program of interdiction raids to isolate the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland, from the rest of Germany for a long period before the amphibious landing. Heavy attacks against communication and transportation centres were continued in the first three weeks of March, and immediately before PLUNDER commenced, airfields, anti-aircraft sites and gun positions were heavily targeted by air forces. The British 2nd Army estimated some 3,411 guns of all types participated in the opening bombardment (including anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns and rocket projectors) and included divisional artilleries from Guards Armoured, 11th Armoured, 3rd British, 3rd Canadian, 43rd (Wessex) and 51st (Highland) Divisions, as well as three AGRAs (Army Group Royal Artillery). The fire plan included counter-battery preparation, counter-mortar tasks, preliminary bombardment (to which the guns of 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division also contributed), harassing fire and smokescreen during the crossing itself. A diversionary fire plan was executed by 2nd Canadian Corps guns not otherwise allocated.
German resources had been severely depleted during the Rhineland fighting, and reserves of personnel and equipment had been exhausted. There had been time in the opening weeks of March, however, between the end of the fighting in the Rhineland and the onset of PLUNDER to organize defences east of the river.
The east bank of the Rhine from Emmerich to Krefeld was the responsibility of the 1st Parachute Army. Opposite 21st Army Group between Emmerich and a point opposite Xanten was the 2nd Parachute Corps, with the 86th Corps to its left covering Wesel. The 47th Panzer Corps was in Army Group "H" reserve to the northeast of Wesel, headquartered at Silvolde, with the 15th Panzergrenadier Division and 116th Panzer Division under command. Neither formation was up to full strength. Reinforcements were "untrained", ammunition was "desperately short" and "troops and commanders alike lacked confidence." The entire corps may have numbered just over 12,000 men, less than the full authorized strength of a single parachute division. Moreover, the 47th Panzer Corps, by one estimation quoted in the Canadian Army's official history, mustered only 35 tanks between its two constituent divisions. The corps commander estimated 80 field and medium guns in his artillery arsenal and 12 self-propelled guns, though 60 8.8cm dual-purpose anti-aircraft guns were available.
Morale was low, not aided by an early refusal by Hitler personally to permit the construction of defences on the east bank of the river. When defences were finally permitted, they consisted only of a narrow band of rifle and machine-gun trenches near the water's edge at probable crossing sites, and defence in depth was not achieved. German commanders also disagreed on where these probably crossing sites would be.
The Crossing of the Rhine: The Assault
The 21st Army Group's Rhine Crossing was to be the main Allied effort, but in actual matter of fact, despite best German efforts, PLUNDER was not the first crossing. Through a series of accidents, the 1st U.S. Army managed to secure an intact bridge at Remagen, near Bonn, on March 7th when attempts to demolish it failed. Farther south, the 3d U.S. Army made a quiet crossing a day in advance of PLUNDER, sneaking assault troops over under cover of darkness. The Remagen bridgehead continued to serve as a diversion, drawing German reserves away from the main crossing site at Wesel-Rees.
The British assault began at 21:00hrs on 23 March following heavy aerial and artillery bombardment marked by massive ammunition expenditure. Enemy artillery activity was sporadic and retaliatory fire from the feared Hoch Elten high feature was "practically negligible" and described as "light harassing fire." The river, 500 yards wide and with a swift current, was crossed in darkness by a variety of vehicles. Duplex Drive (DD) tanks, of the kind that had proved so useful on the Normandy invasion beaches, were utilized, as was a carefully orchestrated "Bank Group" organization to keep crossings moving by priority and congestion to a minimum. Naval Force "U" of the Royal Navy, organized into three squadrons, each of a flotilla of LCM and a flotilla of LCVP, participated, the landing craft being transported overland via Antwerp and Nijmegen. Initially planned for use as ferries, other vehicles were used with such success they were used for patrolling and erecting bridges instead, the LCMs also later being used in the capture of Arnhem.
The assault phase went quickly, and just six minutes after the 51st (Highland) Division launched its assault to the west of Rees, the leading wave was ashore east of the Rhine. Opposition only stiffened when British troops approached Speldrop, a mile and a half inland. Rees was outflanked and the 30th Corps rapidly expanded its bridgehead, having lost 3 supporting tanks of The Staffordshire Yeomanry (Queen's Own Royal Regiment) sunk in the Rhine.
To their right, the 12th British Corps established itself near Wesel when the 1st Commando Brigade crossed at 22:00hrs, then paused as 201 aircraft of Bomber Command dropped close to 1,100 tons of bombs on the town at 22:30. The Commandos were nonetheless obligated to fight for Wesel in order to clear it of German defenders. The 15th (Scottish) Division faced spottier opposition in its own attack between Wesel and Rees early on the 24th. To the south, American troops of the 9th Army crossed the Rhine in good order as well.
Operation VARSITY, in support of the water crossings, began at about 10:00hrs on the 24th, utilizing 1,589 paratroop aircraft and 1,337 gliders. Enemy aircraft were virtually non-existent but light anti-aircraft guns were plentifuly, particularly in the British glider landing zones at Hamminkeln. Two airborne divisions - the U.S. 17th Airborne and the British 6th Airborne - were dropped, the former seeing its first combat action, the latter being a veteran formation that had landed on "D-Day" in Normandy, and included among its units the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. The Canadians landed with the 3rd Parachute Brigade north of Diersfordt Wood, widely spread due to fast moving transport aircraft attempting to evade heavy anti-aircraft fire. Enemy fire was also intense once on the ground, from machine guns and small arms, but objectives at the north end of the Schneppenburg feature assigned to them were cleared by 11:30hrs, and prisoners were so plentiful they constituted a problem, outnumbering the Canadians. Casualties included 23 killed, including the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.A. Nicklin, found hanging from a tree in his parachute harness, 40 wounded and two captured. Corporal F.G. Topham, a battalion medical orderly, was nominated for, and later received, the Victoria Cross for his actions in rescuing wounded men under fire despite being wounded himself.
At 04:25hrs, the first Canadians began crossing the Rhine. All four rifle companies of The Highland Light Infantry of Canada made the trip across the water in LVTs ("Buffaloes") of the 79th Armoured Division, under "sporadic shelling." The battalion was attached to the 154th Infantry Brigade of the 51st Highland Division. The unit went straight into an assembly area northwest of Rees. The brigade had met heavy resistance at Speldrop, and the divisional commander, Major-General Rennie, had been killed in the brigade area that morning. The HLI was ordered to secure Speldrop. Elements of the British Black Watch were cut off and surrounded in Speldrop when the HLI's attack went in during the late afternoon, advancing through the outskirts of Speldrop into stubborn resistance from German paratroopers. Despite being forced to attack over open ground, heavy supporting fires from six field regiments, two medium regiments and a pair of 7.2-inch batteries assisted the HLI forward. Fortified houses within Speldrop could only be taken by the use of Wasp flamethrower carriers and artillery concentrations, and fighting there continued into the morning of 25 April. The trapped Black Watch men were relieved at a cost of 10 HLI dead and 13 wounded.
As the first Canadians across fought through Speldrop, the remainder of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade crossed to the east side of the Rhine, which relieved the 154th. Brigadier John M. Rockingham, with the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment reinforcing his brigade, fought the 9th Brigade forward to try and open an exit out of the pocket which formed from the Alter Rhein to the northwest of the town of Rees. Operations centred on the villages of Grietherbusch, Bienen and Millingen. The brigade temporarily found itself under the command of the 43rd (Wessex) Division which now also entered the bridgehead, part of the 30th Corps commander's plan to develop the attack on a three-division front with 51st, 43rd and 3rd Canadian from right to left.
The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders found themselves on the left of the entire Allied enterprise, and captured Grietherbusch with little problem. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders faced stronger enemy resistance at Bienen on 25 April, in fact, the area of heaviest resistance in the entire British bridgehead, by chance the location where reserves of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division had been deployed to secure the Alter Rhein exit and road junction at Bienen. Despite heavy fire support from artillery and The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa's machine guns, the North Novas were pinned down by automatic weapons fire and mortars. Renewed attacks with tanks and Wasp carriers managed to gain partial entry into the town, but with a loss of 114 casualties, including 43 killed. The HLI had to move in to clear the northern end of Bienen with assistance from a troop of self-propelled 17-pounder guns from the 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, RCA, and fighting lasted into the morning of 26 April when the last armed German was cleared from Bienen.
Millingen lay a mile to the north-east on the Emmerich-Wesel railway line, and The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment attacked it at 12:00hrs on 26 April with artillery and armour support, securing their objectives that afternoon. Lieutenant-Colonel J.W.H. Rowley, commanding the North Shore, was killed early in the attack by a shell.
The Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders attacked to the west at the same time, and the build-up in the bridgehead continued as The Canadian Scottish Regiment crossed over, also under control of the 9th Brigade. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division established a tactical headquarters on the eastern side of the river on 27 April while the 7th Brigade joined the 9th. At 17:00hrs, the division took over the left sector of the 30th Corps line. The final brigade of the division, the 8th, crossed to the east side of the water on 28 March, and at noon, 2nd Canadian Corps took the division back under command as it assumed control of a portion of the bridgehead, while still remaining itself under 2nd Army control.
The Drive North
On 28 March, Field Marshal Montgomery declared the Battle of the Rhine won, and made plans for a quick drive to the Elbe River, hoping to seize the north German plain in short order. The U.S. 9th Army almost immediately was returned to American operational control following the crossing. The Canadian mission was to echelon to the left of 2nd British Army with the overall goal at this late stage of the war of the 21st Army Group the complete defeat of German armies in Northwest Europe. Consideration was given to the problem of an assault crossing of the Ijssel river from east to west, opening a route through Arnhem-Zutphen to maintain the forces operating east of the Rhine and Ijssel rivers. While German opposition was not likely to be problematic, Allied planners noted the obstacle that Ijssel River itself posed, with width up to 600 feet and high floodbanks.
As the preparations for the drive north were made, 2nd Canadian Corps established its command post near Bienen, and the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division crossed the Rhine on 28-29 March. Operation HAYMAKER, the advance of 2nd Canadian Corps to the north, was to be led by the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, with the 3rd Canadian Division on its left flank and 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division its right, the latter formation entering the bridgehead at the end of March.
Priority turned to securing Emmerich and the Hoch Elten ridge so that a maintenance route across the river could be established at Emmerich. The 7th Brigade opened the attack on Emmerich's eastern approached on the night of 27-28 March, and the Canadian Scottish took Vrasselt, pressing on in the dark. The Regina Rifles occupied Dornick the next morning. Both units were able to reach the outskirts of Emmerich without meeting serious resistance. Units of the 6th Parachute Division and 346th Infantry Division were established in the city, however. The 7th Brigade continued its attacks inside the built-up area and the woods to the north while the 8th Brigade was ordered to pass through and attack the Hoch Elten ridge. The 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment) went forward in support of these operations along with Crocodile flamethrowers of "C" Squadron, The Fife and Forfar Yeomanry.
The Canadian Scottish, along with a company of Regina Rifles, attempted to expand a bridgehead over the Landwehr Canal on the night of 28-29 March, managing to do so in the face of heavy fighting. Engineers managed to bridge the canal in darkness, and further thrusts into the city followed. In peacetime a city of 16,000 people, Emmerich had been severely bombed such that only a single street had intact buildings remaining. The enemy used the rubble to good effect, fortifying houses. On the morning of 29 March, the Reginal Rifles attacked into southern Emmerich with tank and Crocodile support, finding the Germans again in fortified buildings and with tank support. Progress was slow as the ruins had to be carefully searched, and road blocks and rubble made it difficult for tanks to manoeuvre. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles made steady progress in the northern portion of the city, and turned back a German counter-attack early on 30 March, the same day that the Canadian Scottish took over the lead of the divisional advance and secured a large cement works west of the city. In three days, the battalions of the 7th Brigade suffered 172 casualties, 44 of them fatal.
The 8th Brigade's task began as the 7th Brigade completed the clearing of Emmerich. Using the cement works as the start line for their operation, they set their sights on the tall wooded ridge three miles northwest of the city. As a site overlooking potential bridging sites over the Rhine, the Hoch Elten region had been severely attacked by air and artillery. The 8th Brigade was a beneficiary of these preparations when their advance began on the night of 30-31 March, The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada and Le Régiment de la Chaudière in the lead. There was little opposition beyond that offered by the few surviving German mortars and artillery pieces. The Chaudière occuped the village of Elten to the west of the ridge the following night while the QOR and North Shore cleared the wooded area. On the inland flank of the division, the 9th Brigade cleared the woods to the north of Emmerich and 's-Heerenberg. The clearing of the high ground permitted construction of a low level Class 40 Bailey pontoon bridge at Emmerich, and work began at 12:00hrs on 31 March. Canadian and British engineers, with assistance from the Royal Navy, completed the 1,373 foot long span by the next day. MELVILLE BRIDGE was named for Brigadier J.L. Melville, former Chief Engineer of 1st Canadian Army, and opened to traffic (including tanks) at 20:00hrs. Two other bridges at Emmerich (a Class 15 and a high level Class 40 Bailey pontoon) were erected, the other Class 40 being named for Brigadier A.T. MacLean, also a former Chief Engineer. With these bridges in place, General Crerar, General Officer Commander-in-Chief of 1st Canadian Army, was now in a position to take over Canadian operations on the far bank of the Rhine River.5
On 1 April, the U.S. 9th Army met up with the 1st U.S. Army, achieving an encirclement of the Ruhr at Lippstadt. Not only was Germany's industrial heartland effectively separated from the rest of the country, but almost all of Army Group "B", including the 5th Panzer Army and 15th Army, was surrounded. Only moderate resistance met the efforts of the Americans to annihilate the forces in the pocket; by the time resistance ended on 18 April, over 317,000 prisoners were taken, and the Army Group Commander, Field Marshal Model, believing it improper for soldiers of his rank to surrender, committed suicide.
On the same day the two U.S. armies began their reduction of the Ruhr, 1 April, 1st Canadian Army Headquarters had taken control of 2nd Canadian Corps operations east of the Rhine, and the 1st British Corps, after a long association with the Canadians dating back to Normandy, returned to General Miles Dempsey's British 2nd Army.
The Army boudaries ran north from Terborg to Zelhem and General Crerar's directive to corps commanders on 2 April instructed 2nd Canadian Corps to move north with a view to forcing the Ijssel south of Deventer while the 1st Corps moved to enlarge the "island" south of the Lower Rhine and move towards Arnhem. The operations of 2nd Canadian Corps were to have priority, and in fact, had gained some momentum.
The quality of German troops was noted by one brigade war diary as decidedly substandard and enemy tactics as "almost juvenile".
West of Delden, 20 miles east of the 2nd Division's crossing points on the Twente Canal, the 4th Armoured Division created a second bridgehead, and on 2 April tanks and motorized infantry reached the canal at Lochem where they relieved British troops of the 43rd (Wessex) Division, though no suitable crossing of the canal could be located and sizeable numbers of enemy troops on the far bank inflicted losses on the Canadians. The next evening, 3 April, two companies of The Lincoln and Welland Regiment crossed the canal while a company of The Lake Superior Regiment (Motor) created a diversion with an attack on the lock gates 1,000 yards west of the main crossing. The enemy responded with scattered small arms fire and only moderate machine gun and mortar fire, and his counter-attacks were driven back with the aid of artillery. The most dire problem was in getting bridges across the canal in a timely manner, able to bear the weight of tanks and carriers of the 4th Armoured Brigade. The Lake Superiors discovered a 30-foot gap at the lock gates suitable to a bridging operation and in two hours and fifteen minutes, the 9th Field Squadron, RCE was able to bridge it and have vehicles of the brigade moving across. The operations of 3-4 April cost the Lincoln and Welland 67 casualties.
On 5 April 1945, Field Marshal Montgomery noted that the 9th U.S. Army had returned to the control of 12th Army Group at midnight 3-4 April. The British 2nd Army was therefore instructed to secure the line of the Weser river, capture Bremen, and cross the Weser, Aller and Leine on the way to the Elbe River. The tasks of 1st Canadian Army did not change, and with the east bank of the Rhine firmly in Allied hands, Zutphen, Deventer and the Ijssel now became the immediate objectives.
The following Canadian units were awarded the Battle Honour "The Rhine" for participation in these actions:
6th British Airborne Division
5th Canadian Infantry Brigade
6th Canadian Infantry Brigade
3rd Canadian Division
8th Canadian Infantry Brigade
9th Canadian Infantry Brigade
2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade