This battle is very special to me because I live in one of the villages that was heavily fought for, even today one can find evidence of the fighting. Twenty years ago I walked the entire route of the battle many times, and chatted to local people about the battles, sadly most of these towns folk have passed away, but the notes I took remain. There is another reason why I have a personal interest in the battle, my county´s regiment passed through this very area, the 5th Battalion Duke of Cornwalls Light Infantry.
Battle for the Reichswald Forest
The Allied propaganda from 1945 would have us believe that the German morale was low and that the Germans were just waiting to surrender, well not so in the Reichswald area. Most of the German units were Parachute Regiments and although contained many inexperienced recruits, they were fresh and ready for action.
The German commander of the First Parachute Army, General Schlemm, was a veteran of the Russian Front. Schlemm´s first action was to flood the Maas and Rhine rivers, forcing the Allies to assault on a narrow 6 mile front. Not only did the British have to fight through a forest, but also two fortified defence lines and several fortified towns, before they could breakout onto open ground. The weather was bad for the entire campaign, rain and mud.
The British had about 500 tanks with a further 500 in reserve, the Germans had only 50 Panzers and 36 Assault Guns, but as the British could not deploy their tanks until clear of the forrest, they were not an initial problem. The defenders had large supplies of Panzerfaust which proved deadly in the forrest tracks and paths that the tanks were forced to use. The British commanders still believed however that the campaign would be a walk-over.
On the night before the battle (6th Feb.45), the RAF bombed Kleve and the local area, but due to the bad weather and the fact that the Luftwaffe came out in force, not all of the targets were hit.
The British troops moved into the Reichswald and soon found themselves out of contact with their Headquarters, radio equipment was almost useless deep in the forest. The Germans did not depend so much on radios because they had time to lay telephone cables before the battle, indeed I have found some of these cables walking through the forrest.
It turned into small unit actions with NCOs deciding the issues. Artillery from both sides were hitting their own men, hot metal and tree splinters raining down on everyone. "who is that soldier to my front?" could he be one of ours? "When did I last eat, would this rain never stop?" Many soldiers on both sides went a little mad in the confines of the forest.
9th February 1945 the British forces ran into a German counter-attack. But with the use of the bayonet, the Scottish advanced once more. Several times it was only possible to advance after individual German paratroopers were burnt out with flame-throwers. On the forth day the British had reached the second defence line about halfway into the forest.
The Welsh Division had already taken their heaviest losses of the whole war, with one third of the Division out of action. The 43rd Wessex Division, which included many West Country Regiments, of which the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry was one, had incurred 10,000 casualties. At about this time Germans counter-attacked with a reserve force of Tiger tanks. The Canadians had taken Kleve, but the 53rd Welsh Division ran head on into the 15th Panzer Grenadier Divsion.
Due to the mud the Churchill tanks could not leave the road, and were sitting ducks for the German PAK guns, and the British infantry suffered because of the lack of tank support. The Germans put in an attack to recapture Gennep, but it came to nothing and the paratoops were unable to advance against the deadly Allied firepower. Still, the Germans were putting up adefence out of all proportion to their numbers.
In Asperberg for example, 8 young German Paras charged British troops firing MG42 machine guns from the hip, and took many British soldiers with them before they all died.
18th February 1945 British forces had reached Pfalzdorf after 12 days of fighting. The original plan had been for an advance of one full day. But at least they had now reached open ground. There was still a small forest ahead of them, but for the moment they were out of the dark and morale destroying Reichswald. The next nuts to crack were the towns of Goch and Weeze.
Goch and Weeze
Colonel Matussek, the German commandant in Goch, declared the town a fortress, and although the structures contained no heavy weapons, they were well sited against infantry attacks. Formidable anti-tank ditches were built, which made Goch an important cog in the westwall (Siegfried Line).
On the morning of 18th February 1945, the 43rd Wessex Divisional artillery opened fire from Pfalzdorf. Taking advantage of the bombardment, engineers placed several bridges over the Goch anti-tank ditch. the German Grenadiers mounted a determined counter-attack, one small group of Grenadiers charged through a full company of Scots, firing assult rifles and throwing grenades.
Col.Matussek sent every available weapon and soldier to the threatened area. But the attack was only intended to confuse the Germans, because the real attack came from two Scottish divisions attacking from Asperden.
Col. Matussek realizing his mistake, sent troops to the south-west of Goch, but the move was too late, the Scots were well established. The Scots captured the monastry hospital on the west side of the town square, which the Germans had been using as a headquarters. They captured the entire HQ staff including Col.Matussek, who had been badly wounded.
Heavy fighting continued in Goch until the early hours of 22nd February. The road to Weeze was blocked by small groups of defenders, who occupied farm buildings on ground which was flat, and with alround visibility.Nevertheless, the British troops had to push on, Montgomery was anxious to rendezvous with the Americans in Geldern, who were pushing up from the south.
Unless the Allies linked up soon, the Germans would have time to harden their defences at Xanten and delay a crossing of the Rhine. So regardless of losses the advance went on.
24th February at 5:30 am the 6th Royal Welsh Fusiliers went over to the assault towards Weeze. The attack was met by stubborn resistance at Hohendorf, the German defenders being the 115.Gren.Regt. Hohendorf was bypassed to maintain the momentum, but the attack was halted at Höst. After three attempts to take Höst with heavy losses, the job was taken over by the 1st Highland Light Infantry supported by Crocodile tanks ( which are flame-thrower tanks).
The houses were burnt to the ground and the escaping grenadiers were cut down in the street. After 90 minutes the Scots were through the blazing village and on their way to Rottum, which fell at 9 pm.
Before dawn an attack went in from the north of Weeze, The British units were only 400 yards from the town itself, but this was just to draw off German defenders from the real attack which came in from the west flank, the whole of Weeze west of the railway track was captured in this move. (They actually fought on the ground where my house now stands).
On the morning of the 25th February the anti-tank ditch to the north of Weeze fell into British hands, and with it the north of the town. The Germans defending the south and east.
The Germans threw in a counter-attack which was supported by Panzers, but it ground to a halt. By the evening Weeze was almost surrounded, and that night the Scots sent in a patrol to probe the defences only to find the whole town quiet and empty. The German defenders, Grenadiers and Paratroops, had gone taking the civilians with them. But for the British units there was no time to pause because the next town was only 6 miles away, Kevelaer.
The Jungvolk and Hitler Jugend were in Kevelaer just before the start of the Reichswald offensive. They came to build defensive walls and ditches. Posters were published proclaiming "For one week the male population of the district have laboured with spades and picks to protect our homeland...I call on the men and women to help in our defence". signed by the Kreisleiter. The west bank of the river Niers became a "Red zone". Women and children, the old and the sick, were evacuated to Winnekendonk.
Reichskommissar Schlessmann ordered men aged between 16 and 60 to remain in Kevelaer and help with the towns defence as members of the Volkssturm. There was no real fighting for Kevelaer, although on close inspection I did find some evidence of sniper activity, some marks on buildings from small arms fire.
The RAF bombed Kevelaer, but there was only light damage and only 12 people were killed in the raid, four streets being hit. The British troops entered the town during the night of 2nd/3rd March 1945. Herr Heinz van Lipzig says he saw British troops for the first time on the morning of 3rd March, enter the town centre. The same day on which soldiers of the 53rd Welsh Division joined up with Americans of the 35th US Infantry Division, on the northern outskirts of Geldern.
It was just as well that the British did not have to fight for the town, because they were short of replacements. Many wounded soldiers were returned to their units, and rear area troops were combed for frontline replacements. The 2nd Scots Guards Battalion, for example, contained the equivalent of two companies of men transferred from Royal Air Force ground crews!
Enter the Americans - Operation Grenade
The Americans moved up from the south, linking up with the British north of Geldern. The American operation was called "Operation Grenade". It should have been launched at about the same time as the British push through the Reichswald, but due to flooding of the Maas river, the American advance was posponed until the weather conditions improved and the river could be crossed.
General Simpsons US Ninth Army crossed the river Roer south of Roermond at 3:30 am on 23rd February 1945. 12 hours later he had 16 battalions on the east bank, together with 7 heavy bridges, and a number of light assault bridges. American losses were light on the first day, and 700 prisoners had been taken.
The US 8th Armoured Division reached Wankum on the 2nd March, and on the following day fought a battle at Wachtendonk. Meanwhile the 35th Infantry Division advanced from Venlo northwards, and fought for Straelen, Lüllingen, Veert and Neukerk.
After heavy fighting in Sevelen, the US 35th Infantry Division faced an ambush in Hartefeld before entering Geldern and linking up with the British coming down from Kevelaer. The American Ninth Army controlled the west bank of the Rhine from Rheinberg to Düsseldorf, and had been in action for 17 days and had lost 7,300 men in operation Grenade.
Uedem and Xanten- Canadians advance to the Rhine
It was now the turn of the Canadians, they had already fought heavy battles for Kleve and had been mauled by the 15th Panzer Division, but the offensive was not allowed to halt. The Canadians took German MG postions at the point of the bayonet and fought hard against the 7.Fallschirmjäger Regiment. It took the best part of a week to clear Uedem, and then the Canadians had reached the forests of Hochwald and Balbergerwald.
The forests are split in the middle by a gap of 200 metres through which ran a road and a railway line. The modern road is much wider now and the railway line has been removed, but you can still walk along the trackbed from Uedem to Xanten, and it was along this track that I found shell splinters and a Canadian gasmask.
The Canadians threw in the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions and the 4th Armoured Division. The attack started on the 28th February with the armour rushing the gap along the railway line. It was a death ride with terrible losses to both sides, as the armour ran head on into the 116.Panzer Division! General Crerar now sent some of his forces south in a flanking attack through Sonsbeck, which was reached on 2nd March 1945.
Much heavy fighting lay ahead because the German paratroops were resolved to make a firm stand on the west bank of the Rhine, and in Sonsbeck the paras fought to the last man in the ruins and cellars. One German soldier, staying at a farm, picked up his Panzerfaust and told the owner of the farm "The enemy are near and I must do all I can to stop them". He left the farm with his greatcoat under his arm, and on the next day the farmer´s wife found his body in a ditch close to a knocked out Sherman tank.
On 2nd March 1945 the German troops pulled out of the front line in the forests and were replaced by Volkssturm soldiers. Four days later the forests had fallen. Xanten was held by fanatical members of the 17th Paratroop Regiment, and Xanten held out for two more days untill 8th March - General Schlemm, the German paratroop Commander, had organized his defence well, about 100 Allied tanks had been knocked out. In one battle a company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada was reduced to only 15 men!
The Scots 52nd Division advanced along the Wesel road, taking the village of Alpen. The remnants of a German Fallschirmjäger company was sheltering in a cellar from an artillery bombardment, when their house became surrounded by Scotsmen. The German commander ordered a breakout and seconds later he had been shot in the head.
One Jäger using a panzerfaust, was able to shoot his way out, but for the rest the war was over. The Americans by this time had taken Rheinberg, but it cost them 39 tanks out of a force of 54 used in the attack.
The Americans reach the Rhine
General Schlemm realized that he could no longer hold the west bank of the Rhine, and ordered his troops to withdrawal. He was also determined that no bridges in his sector would fall into Allied hands. One US column racing towards the Oberkassel Bridge had it blown up in their faces at the last second.
The US 84th Infantry Division cut the demolition charges on the Adolf Hitler Bridge at Uerdingen, but German engineers laid new cables in the night and blew the bridge under the Americans noses! Schlemm was able to get all his paratroops over the river, including most of his heavy equipment. The last Fallschirmjäger crossed the Rhine at Bruedrich using boats on the 10th March 1945.
British losses, including Canadians, totalled 15,500. The Americans, though only in action for 17 days, numbered 7,300 men. The Allies had inflicted 90,000 casualties on the Germans, although this number may have included prisoners taken. So ended "Operation Veritable", a dirty slogging match, in the mud of the Rhineland.
SS-General Heinz Harmel with Bill Medland in Linnich (Geilenkirchen) 1995