Key point: A true turning point in the war against the Nazis.
January 1945—with World War II in its sixth year—found the Allied armies going on the offensive after the Battle of the Bulge, but they were still west of the Rhine and six weeks behind schedule in their advance toward Germany.
Closing to the Rhine was not easy. Although U.S. and French units of Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers’ Sixth Army Group had reached the western bank around Strasbourg in late 1944, the river proved too difficult to cross. Even if an assault could have been mounted, the Allied forces would have been too far away from the heart of Germany to pose any meaningful threat. The key to eventual victory lay in the central and northern Rhineland, but three factors delayed an advance: the failure of Operation Market Garden, the British-American airborne invasion of Holland, the onset of an extremely wet autumn and harsh winter, and the unexpectedly rapid recovery of the German Army in the wake of recent Allied advances.
A coordinated Allied campaign proved difficult to achieve. General Omar N. Bradley’s U.S. 12th Army Group was licking its wounds after the almost disastrous Ardennes counteroffensive, and it was clear to Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, that the Americans would not be ready to undertake a major offensive for some time. Despite its vast reserve of manpower, unlike the critically depleted British Army, the U.S. Army had become seriously deficient of infantry replacements. Monty made the first move.
Meanwhile, on January 12, the Soviet Army launched a long-awaited, massive offensive from Warsaw toward the River Oder—and Berlin. This was just in time, thought Montgomery and General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander. By the end of the month, the Russians were only 50 miles from the German capital. While the Americans were recovering, it devolved on the 21st Army Group, still supported by Lt. Gen. William H. “Texas Bill” Simpson’s U.S. Ninth Army, to take over the battle as soon as winter loosened its grip.
Monty and Ike agreed that the next stage should be to break through the Germans’ formidable Siegfried Line and close up to the left bank of the Rhine. The main objective was the historic city of Wesel, on the opposite side of the great river in flat country just north of the Ruhr Valley. It was here that Montgomery had originally sought to seize a bridgehead in September 1944, and common sense still favored it. Accordingly, two well-knit, almost copybook offensives were planned for February 8, 1945: Operation Veritable on the left flank and Operation Grenade on the right, adjacent to the boundary with Bradley’s 12th Army Group.
Monty announced that the 21st Army Group’s task was to “destroy all enemy in the area west of the Rhine from the present forward positions south of Nijmegen (Holland) as far south as the general line Julich-Dusseldorf, as a preliminary to crossing the Rhine and engaging the enemy in mobile war to the north of the Ruhr.” Three armies would be involved in the offensives: the Canadian First, the British Second, and the U.S. Ninth.
Commanding the Canadian force was the distinguished, 57-year-old General Henry D.G. “Harry” Crerar, a World War I artillery veteran and a man of cool judgment and cold nerves. The “ration strength” of his First Army exceeded 470,000 men, and no Canadian had ever led such a large force. The British Second Army was led by the skilled, unassuming Lt. Gen. Sir Miles “Bimbo” Dempsey, a 48-year-old World War I veteran of the Western Front and Iraq who later acquitted himself well in the Dunkirk evacuation, the Western Desert, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. Tall, bald, Texas-born General Simpson, commanding 300,000 men of the U.S. Ninth Army, had served in the Philippine Insurrection, the 1916 Mexico punitive expedition, and on the Western Front in 1918. Eisenhower said of the 56-year-old officer, “If Simpson ever made a mistake as an Army commander, it never came to my attention.”
With 11 divisions and nine independent brigades, the Canadian Army would clear the way in February 1945 up to the town of Xanten; the Ninth Army, with 10 divisions in three corps, would cross the Roer River and move northward to Dusseldorf (Operation Grenade), and the four divisions of the Second Army would attack in the center.
Although he was in customary high spirits about the operation, Montgomery knew that it would be no cakewalk. “I visited the Veritable area today,” he warned Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, on February 6. “The ground is very wet, and roads and tracks are breaking up, and these factors are likely to make progress somewhat slow after the operation is launched.” Besides expected opposition from at least 10 well-entrenched Wehrmacht divisions, the Allied troops would have to face minefields, flooded rivers and terrain, a lack of roads, appalling weather, and tough going in the gloomy, tangled Reichswald and Hochwald forests.
Montgomery won final approval for the great dual assault on the Rhine on February 1, and the preparations were hastily finalized under tight security. Strict blackout regulations were enforced, and a cover story was concocted to convince the enemy that the offensive would be in a northerly direction to liberate Holland, rather than an eastern thrust into Germany. Daytime gatherings of troops were forbidden unless under cover; large concentrations of vehicles, weapons, and ammunition were camouflaged or concealed in farmyards, barns, and haystacks, and rubber dummies of tanks and artillery pieces were positioned along an imaginary battle line where they might attract the attention of enemy patrols. Logistical feats were accomplished speedily as thousands of men, vehicles, and equipment were transported to the forward assembly lines.
The British and Canadian soldiers worked around the clock. Sappers built and improved 100 miles of road using 20,000 tons of stones, 20,000 logs, and 30,000 pickets, and 446 freight trains hauled 250,000 tons of equipment and supplies to the railheads. It was estimated that the ammunition alone—all types, stacked side by side and five feet high—would line the road for 30 miles. Engineers constructed five bridges across the River Maas, using 1,880 tons of equipment. The biggest was a 1,280-foot-long British-designed Bailey bridge. Outside Nijmegen, an airfield was laid in five days for British and Canadian rocket-firing Hawker Typhoons, which would support the offensive.
Meanwhile, a formidable array of armor and specialized vehicles was assembled. It included Churchill, Cromwell, Centaur, Comet, Valentine, and Sherman heavy and medium tanks; Bren gun carriers, jeeps, half-tracks, and armored cars; amphibious Weasel, Buffalo, and DUKW cargo and personnel carriers; and 11 regiments of “Hobart’s Funnies,” Churchills and Shermans fitted with antimine flails, flamethrowers, and bridging equipment. Invented by Maj. Gen. Sir Percy Hobart, these had proved invaluable in the Normandy invasion and the clearing of the flooded Scheldt Estuary by Crerar’s army.
Under the command of the Canadian First Army, the Veritable offensive was to be spearheaded by the seasoned British XXX Corps led by 49-year-old Lt. Gen. Sir Brian G. Horrocks. He returned from leave in England to plunge into preparations for the largest operation he had ever undertaken. A much-wounded veteran of Ypres, Siberia, El Alamein, Tunisia, Normandy, and Belgium, the tall, lithe Horrocks—nicknamed “Jorrocks” by his mentor, Montgomery—was a charismatic officer who led from the front and was regarded as one of the finest corps commanders of the war.
Horrocks regarded Monty’s overall plan for the offensive as “simplicity itself.” The XXX Corps was to attack in a southerly direction from the Nijmegen area with its right on the River Maas and its left on the Rhine. “Forty-eight hours later,” said Horrocks, “our old friends, General Simpson’s U.S. Ninth Army, were to cross the River Roer and advance north to meet us. The German forces would thus be caught in a vise and be faced with the alternatives, either to fight it out west of the Rhine or to withdraw over the Rhine and then be prepared to launch counterattacks when we ourselves subsequently attempted to cross…. In theory, this looked like a comparatively simple operation, but all battles have their problems, and in this case the initial assault would have to smash through a bottleneck well suited to defense and consisting in part of the famous Siegfried Line.”
Horrocks decided to use the maximum force possible and open Operation Veritable with five divisions, from right to left, in line: the 51st Highland, 53rd Welsh, 15th Scottish, and the 2nd and 3rd Canadian, followed by the 43rd Wessex and Maj. Gen. Sir Alan Adair’s proud Guards Armored Division. On the morning of February 4, Horrocks briefed his commanders in the packed cinema in the southern Dutch town of Tilburg. Clad in brown corduroy trousers and a battlefield jacket, the unpretentious general drew a warm response as he crisply outlined the offensive, radiated confidence, and moved from group to group with a friendly and humorous word. Like Montgomery, he made a practice of keeping all ranks informed about operations.