For Remembrance Day this year, I write about something I promised myself I'd write about since last year. Really, I picked it because it involved the Canadians in Europe and allegedly it was going to involve a rather large tank battle. Like all of these stories, getting a chance to look into it opens up far deeper, far more satisfying reasons for learning about them. This particular tale occurs at the tail end of the war in Europe. The Allies had gotten through Italy, France, The Netherlands and Belgium. They were finally entering Germany...
The First Canadian Army, fresh from liberating The Netherlands, continued moving east towards Germany. They had a new mission in crossing the German Rhineland, link up with the British army, and capturing bridges over the Rhine that would take them into the heart of the German Fatherland. As everyone suspected, it would not be easy.
The war for Germany was a very different war now. It was defensive. It was about protecting the fatherland, their families, and their homes. Many knew they were cornered and would die in the coming battles; just as many accepted that if they were to die, they would take a few lives along to the grave with them.
And they would; it was their country, and they knew it like the backs of their hands... the Rhineland's defenses would be a massive effort to defeat.
The Canadians were tasked with capturing the Hochwald Forest, which was the ground just ahead of the farmland and the city of Xanten, where they could use a bridge over the Rhine. On February 8th in the initial advance towards the Hochwald Forest, over a thousand Canadian Sherman tanks (maneuverable, rugged and quick to manufacture) found themselves ambushed and caught off guard by German Panther tanks (larger, stronger, and heavier than the Sherman) and anti-tank weapons hiding just about everywhere.
If that wasn't enough, the Canadians also had to battle the weather. Spring had come early that year, and the melting snow had left the rivers swelling and rushing, even destroying dams in the process. Even worse, though, was that now they were moving their weapons of war through the mud that bogged it all down and at times even ground the advance to a complete halt.
Over the course of 18 days, Allied units would suffer 8000 killed or wounded, the loss of hundreds of tanks, and all for only 25 kilometers of progress. The Canadians called in Lt. General Simmons to assist the effort; Simmons in turn came up with "Operation Blockbuster". The plan was to speedily (and under the cover of night) take two sections of high ground (near the towns of Calcar and Udem) just ahead of the Hochwald Forest, and then send the bulk of the armoured units straight down the center path, through a clearing in the forest called the Hochwald Gap. From there, they would push straight to Xanten and eventually on to finish the war.
On February 26th, phase one of Operation Blockbuster began. With the darkness of night around them, Canadian Shermans rushed their way to the northernmost Calcar. They spent the night with minefields under them and artillery above them. They would approach one lone barn in a field, see the doors of the barn open, and then stare down the barrel of a German 88 anti-tank gun. They would hide behind another barn and watch as German tanks simply blew the barn away. That night, 19 Canadian tanks went up the ridge; by the time Calcar was taken (and more tanks had arrived) during the day of the next morning, only 6 of those initial 19 tanks remained.
With Calcar taken, phase two of Operation Blockbuster could begin. Phase two was twofold: the main force of Canadian armour would head straight forward and through the clearing that ran through the middle of the forest: the Hochwald Gap. Another unit of infantry and armour would take the town on the southern ridge, Udem.
Udem would prove to be an even deadlier trap than Calcar. The town had been prepared with vast ditches leading up to it. The only way for Canadian tanks to approach the town without worrying about falling into the ditches would be to take the lone, narrow "road" between the ditches. Once the tanks were on the path single-file and surrounded by ditches, the Germans attacked. They destroyed the lead tank and they destroyed the last tank; the other tanks in turn found themselves trapped between the burning husks that were once their allies. Some tank crews at Udem would in turn be captured after escaping their durable little "Tommy-cooker".
The next day, Febraury 28th, the Germans counterattacked the Canadian tanks entering the Hochwald Gap. There were ambushes, gun emplacements and armour all prepared for anything coming through the gap. The Canadians, meanwhile, had the simple (perhaps too simple) plan of simply pressing on through the gap in the forest, moving forward. The guns and tanks hiding in the forests around the gap had themselves a veritable killing field that day (and that week).
The Canadians did have one advantage in the fighting in the Hochwald Gap: air superiority. Once the weather cleared somewhat, sorties by Typhoon fighter-bombers loaded with rockets made mincemeat of the German tanks essentially around the amp. The typhoons were the most effective means of combattng the German defenses, and soon what tanks remained for Germany would be burning husks after the Allies crossed the Rhine.
The staunch, indefatigable defenses by German forces would delay the capture of the Hochwald Gap for 5 days. They knew they would not be able to keep the Canadians out indefinitely, but they could most definitely make them pay for every advance. Then, on that last day on March 4th, there was suddenly silence; the Germans had pulled out of the forest and were making their final stand in Xanten.
Allied airmen bombed Xanten nonstop for seveeral days and nights. The Germans inside the city were constantly running down to the cellars at all hours. Dead horses littered the area around and in the city. By the end of the bombing campaign, only about 15% of the city still stood amongst the rubble of the remaining city.
On March 7th, 8 days after the start of Operation Blockbuster, Canadian Sherman tanks entered Xanten; by March 10th, they had captured Xanten and had linked up with the British army. The Battle for the Hochwald Gap was finally over. The Canadians and British had "opened the gates to Berlin" at long last. The war in Europe would go on to end only 2 months after this battle...
40,000 German soldiers were killed or wounded during the Battle for the Rhine, and their armoured divisions were down to skin and bones. The Canadians were not without their losses either: over the course of just 30 days in the Rhineland, Canadian troops suffered 5,300 killed or wounded; to put that into perspective, those numbers are even worse than the casualty count at D-Day. For the soldiers, there was less a feeling of elation as they were a feeling of "thank god it's over." Still, they knew the war still had to be finished off - Hochwald was not the end...
This was the bloodiest battle for the Canadians in the history of the entire war. And yet here we are, most of us (if not all of us) brand new to this battle. The Battle for the Hochwald Gap is another forgotten battle in a sea of forgotten battles.
Let us remember them, and never let them be forgotten again.
Top: Tanks stuck in the mud during the battle.
Bottom: German prisoners digging graves for the dead Canadians.
It's nearing 4am as I finish off this year's Remembrance Day posts. It's my own fault, again, as I had in fact finished research for this final post much earlier in the night. But, I had guests visiting late in the night and deemed it prudent to entertain them first before finishing the actual writing of the post.
As I mentioned in my other blog, I am quite exhausted right now as I type this. It's late, I've had along week, and I'm pretty sure there are a few typos and maybe even a couple sentences that make completely no sense as I started drifting to sleep at my keyboard. A part of me wanted to just go to bed, tell myself I would wake up early and finish it off then.
But that wouldn't be right. Since starting these way back in the days of myOtaku, I've made it an unspoken promise that when the time came in November, I would do this. I would tell the stories. I would do everything I could to remind people why we need to remember.
Once again, I can only hope I have done that for the souls of the men and women lost to wars past and present - lives lost in the hope that one day future lives will not have to be lost for the same reasons.
Something to think about today when the clock hits 11:00.