(22-) Active patrolling across the Meuse was definitely a major part of the 1-CPB’s duties, however, in accordance with instructions given to British 2-A by the Commander in Chief. A very thorough watch will be kept on the enemy on the east bank of the Meuse and every opportunity will be taken to harry and alarm him by means of patrols, raids, etc, and to establish bridgeheads where, and when, suitable (21-AG Operational Directive Jan 21, 1945).
On Jan 29, Lt J.L. Davies with two other ranks crossed the river on a recon patrol which lasted 36 hours, observing the enemy without interference and returning without casualties. Patrols sent across the Meuse on Feb 3, met no enemy opposition but the next night one encountered an enemy section so strong that the patrol commander dared not interfere. On Feb 7, a fighting patrol of 30 other ranks commanded by Lt A.J.C. Estling crossed to the east bank and entered the village of Einde, opposite Able Co’s location, but encountered no enemy opposition whatsoever. On Feb 10, Lt D.J. Proulx led another recon patrol across the Meuse for 36 hours, carrying a #38 wireless set for communication purposes. Two nights later the enemy retaliated by sending a patrol of their own against Baker Co, wounding one man but retiring to their own side before morning. On Feb 13, one enemy patrol consisting of 6 men was seen crossing towards Able Co. They were immediately covered by LMGs which later opened fire and caused the boat to capsize. The enemy heard screaming in the water were believed to have been wounded. Able Co, promptly dispatched a patrol of its own across the river but it met stiff opposition and was forced to retire, returning to make another attempt also without success. That night a considerable number of flares were reported and machine-gun fire was quite heavy. The next day the Meuse was observed to be rising very rapidly, and active patrolling by both sides ceased.
(23-) As the floodwaters rose the enemy fire noticeably decreased and the front held by the 1-CPB became extremely quiet. Fighting was heavy to the north, however, where the 1st Canadian Army cleared the Reichswald Forest by Feb 13, and the next day reached the Rhine River near Emmerich.
When the Roer floods had passed their peak, Operation Grenade was launched from the south on Feb 23. The US 9-A in its sweep northward found Roermond abandoned by the Germans on Mar 1, and pushed on to Venlo, making two days later, contact with the 1st Canadian Army. The success of the combined Veritable – Grenades Operations removed all opposition west of the Rhine and inflicted crippling losses on the enemy.
(24-) The 1-CPB once again had shared in a major engagement, fulfilling a very useful function in helping to hold a vital part of the front line in the center until the Allies could deliver smashing blows from the left and right. As soon as the former had broken through and while the latter was held poised, relief for the unit was forthcoming. Rumors of a possible return to England began on Feb 15, when all personnel of the Battalion was asked for sizes of dress shirts and boots. The next day they heard that American forces would relieve the unit, whose future employment was a matter of considerable conjecture. On Feb 18, the American advance party arrived at 1000 and the Canadian advance party departed two hours later. The next day the main body of US troops arrived at 1300 to take up positions, the 1-CPB leaving at once to embus at Roggel for a staging camp at Zeveneecken, Belgium. Personnel of the rifle companies sailed from Ostende on Feb 21, while Battalion HQ and HQ Co flew from Nivelles the following day. By Feb 23, they were together again in their old quarters at Carter Barracks, Bulford.
(25-) Thus ended the second period of active service on Europe’s battlefields by the 1-CPB. To three months of fighting in Normandy the unit had added to its credit almost two additional months of campaigning at the front in Belgium and in the Netherlands, and now was spoiling to make another parachute descent like that of D-day.
Allied Plans for Crossing the Rhine
(26-) Once the Germans had been defeated west of the Rhine, the Allies were in a strong position to assault the river and seize the vital Ruhr industrial region. The plan of campaign for crossing the Rhine and establishing a strong force on the far bank was, thanks to the success of the operations west of the river, basically the same as that envisaged in our long-term planning in January, and even before D-day.
Its fundamental features were the launching of a main attack to the north of the Ruhr, supported by a strong secondary thrust from bridgeheads in the Frankfurt area, directed initially on Kassel to complete the envelopment of the Ruhr. Subsequently, offensives would strike out from the bridgeheads to any remaining organized forces and complete their destruction. Since an attack could not be made on the Ruhr frontally, it was necessary to by-pass it and, although the south had several assaulting sites, the most suitable terrain for mobile operations lay to the north.
The plan in outline was to cross the Rhine on a front of two Armies between Rees and Rheinberg with the US 9-A on the right and the UK 2-A on the left. They were to capture the communications center of Wesel and then to expand their initial lodgement area on the east bank southward to a distance sufficient to secure the roads through Wesel from enemy ground action, northward to enable the river to be bridged at Emmerich, and eastward and northeastward to secure a firm bridgehead of adequate size from which further offensive operations could be developed.
In the first stage of the operations the principal task of the UK 2-A was to capture Wesel, while the US 9-A was to secure the right flank. The First Canadian Army, which had no active part in the assault, was made responsible for the absolute security of the Nijmegen bridgehead and of the entire northern flank from Emmerich to the sea. The second stage of operations involved the extension of the bridgehead eastwards and northwards.
(28-)To assist the advance of UK 2-A, the 1-AAA (First Allied Airborne Army) was to drop the US XVIII Corps (A/B), comprising the US 17th Airborne Division and the UK 6th Airborne Division, approximately five miles north and northwest of Wesel to seize the key terrain in that area.
The tasks of the US XVIII Corps (Airborne) were to disrupt the hostile defenses north of Wesel, to deepen the bridgehead, and to facilitate the crossing of the river by the UK 2-A and its link-up with the US 9-A. It Was then to prepare for further offensive action to the east on orders from the UK 2-A (Montgomery).
This airborne crossing of the Rhine to be made in conjunction with Operation Plunder, I was given the code-name Operation Varsity. Gen Milles Dempsey, who as Commander of UK 2-A was responsible for planning and executing the main thrust, met the airborne chiefs on Feb 20, to present his desired scheme for airborne support. He said he considered it absolutely essential to have airborne assistance in crossing the Rhine. The airborne mission was to be twofold: (1) seize the commanding ground from which artillery fire controlled the whole area and (2), block possible arrival of enemy reinforcements from east of Wesel (Brereton).
Parachute descents hitherto had always heralded the main attack, but to provide an additional element of surprise Gen Dempsey persuaded the Commander-in-Chief to adopt a novel tactical variation in timing. It was decided to drop the airborne troops east of the Rhine after (sic) the assault across the river had taken place. There were two main reasons for this decision: daylight was desirable for the employment of airborne troops and, secondly, it would be impossible to make full use of our artillery for the ground assault if airborne troops were dropped in the target area before we had crossed the river. In deciding the landing and dropping zones for the airborne forces, the principles employed were that they should drop within range of artillery sited on the west bank of the Rhine, in order to obtain immediate artillery support, and that the link-up with the ground troops should be effected on the first day of the operation. (Montgomery)
(29-) The tasks assigned to the Allied Air Forces were three in number and all were achieved with a high degree of success. Primarily, on Feb 21, 1945, both the Allied Strategic and Tactical Air Forces commenced their intensive campaign not only to isolate the immediate battle area but to cut off northwest Germany from effective ground and air reinforcements. As the target date for the assault approached, their attacks upon communications in the battle area were intensified to an even greater degree. In addition, during the 72 hours preceding the assault, a number of attacks were made upon enemy barracks and camps in the vicinity of the planned bridgehead. Apart from the casualties inflicted in such attacks, it cannot be doubted that they produced a serious moral effect on the enemy, who, after enduring three days of unremitting hell from the air was in no condition to meet the frontal attack when it was launched. In all, during the 4 days, Feb 21-24, the American and British Air Forces, based in Britain, western Europe and Italy, flew over 42.000 sorties against Germany. (Eisenhower)
Operation Varsity – March 1945 – General Area
Secondly, allied photographic reconnaissance aircraft provided the armies with extremely full and accurate intelligence information regarding flak areas, ground defenses and terrain suitability for dropping and landing zones. Lastly, the Allied Air Forces were responsible for the safe delivery of the men of the XVIII Corps (Airborne) to the battlefield. The chief threat of interference lay in jet aircraft (ME-262) in which the enemy had a superiority of production. This was neutralized by heavy bombing of jet airfields to destroy the planes on the ground, to crater the extra-long runways they required, and to blow up hoarded supplies of fuel. In addition, on the actual day of the assault two major diversionary raids over Berlin and certain oil and rail targets kept enemy fighters occupied elsewhere. On that day the Allied Air Forces flew some 8000 aircraft and 1300 glider sorties while sighting fewer than 100 enemy planes in the air. The culmination of all these efforts in the air is described by Gen Eisenhower in these words: As a result of the protection by fighter aircrafts coupled with the measures taken against enemy airfields, not one transport was molested by hostile aircraft. Some losses were sustained from fire over the target, but the total of 46 planes destroyed (3.98 % of those employed) was remarkably low considering tho fact that, to ensure accuracy of dropping and landing, no evasive action was taken.
(30-) Use of airborne troops, air support, artillery and amphibious equipment on the maximum scale was considered to be essential to ensure a successful passage of the main forces of infantry and armor across the river. By seizing unexpected opportunities, however, the US 12-AG accomplished two prior Rhine crossings in the south without formal preparations and with negligible losses. Seizure of the railway bridge at Remagen on Mar 7, was a factor of great significance in upsetting the enemy’s defensive scheme and in forwarding the plans of the Allies for encircling the Ruhr. A surprise night crossing south of the Rhine just as the Allies were about to launch their carefully-prepared power drive in the north impressed upon both sides the fact that a bridgehead there would inevitably result in the collapse of Germany’s powers of resistance.
(31-) Intelligence reports revealed that the UK 21-AG was faced on the east bank by the German 1.Fallschirmjäger-Armee (Airborne Army), with the 2.Fallschirmjäger-Korps in the north, the 86.Korps in the centre, and the 63.Korps in the south.
In Army reserve the 47.Panzer-Korps lay up behind the Paratroopers in the north, thereby indicating the area of greatest enemy apprehension. (The Concluding Phase: the advance into north-west Germany and the Final Liberation of the Netherlands, Mar 23, 1945, – May 5, 1945)
(32-) The land assault by the UK 21-AG was timed to begin at 2100, Mar 23 (D-1), the initial parachute drop at 1000, Mar 24 (P hour). Almost 3000 guns were massed along the Rhine to support the ground and air onslaught. The offensive was heralded, at 2000, on Mar 23, with a great artillery barrage of an hour’s duration, directed against the east bank of the Rhine and extending through the zone where the airborne forces were to be dropped and landed on the next day. (Eisenhower).
The airborne operation necessitated an elaborate counter-flak fire plan synchronized with close air cooperation. Its complications were greatly increased by the decision to time the air assault some 12 hours after the ground attack. It was arranged that artillery would deal with enemy AAA guns within range and that the RAF should undertake the neutralization of guns beyond this area which could engage the troop carriers and gliders. Very detailed arrangements were necessary for the control of artillery fire during the passage of the airborne fleets. (Montgomery).
Prior to the P-hour field, medium, heavy, and super-heavy artillery firing over the heads of the attacking ground forces laid down a devastating barrage extending through the landing zones and dropping zones. Its schedule was as follows: P-2 hours to P-1 hour – Targets, Counter-battery, and softening bombardment. P-30 mins to P-15 mins – Targets, AAA Guns bombardment. P-15 mins to P-00 – Targets, Counter-battery, and softening bombardment.
(33) In order to conceal the ground build-up, FM Montgomery screened his activity by the extensive use of smoke on a fifty-mile front (American Observers’ Report).
No comparable cloak could hide from the enemy the fact that a large-scale air operation was intended, however, as military men could easily interpret the pattern of Allied air attacks and various other factors together with information obtained through Intelligence channels.
Allied airborne landings on a large scale to establish bridgeheads east of the Rhine River must be expected. The point is that until the actual descent began the Germans did not know just where and when the battle would be joined. Captured documents reveal the fact that the German High Command expected the Airborne landing farther north at Emmerich and had concentrated considerable flak in this area.
Operation Varsity, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
(34-) Upon the XVIII Corps (Airborne) being designated as task force for Operation Varsity, orders had been issued for the US 17-A/B to concentrate in France and the British 6-AB in England. Soon after arriving the personnel of the 1-CPB was informed by the Commanding Officer of the reason for the unit returning to the UK. Training for the forthcoming operation did not begin, however, until after all ranks returned from seven days’ leave ending Mar 7, 1945. The Battalion was then up to full strength in Officers and other ranks with the exception of a deficiency of 14 sergeants covered off by 8 surpluses of junior NCOs. Maj P.R. Griffin resumed command of Able Co from Capt J.A. Clancy; other senior regimental officers remained unchanged. Apart from the paymaster, the officers ranged in age from 22 to 30 years; the CO was 30, the youngest company commander 26, the padre and MO were 29 and 27 respectively and were qualified paratroopers.
(35-) Training of personnel began with Ts.O.E.T. (Tests of Elementary Training) on all weapons, followed by field firing exercises and battle drill. Lack of time, the need for equipment elsewhere, and the necessity of keeping accidents to a minimum in the final stages prohibited divisional or brigade manœuvres. There was no opportunity to hold even a single practice descent, which meant that the majority of the men in the Battalion had not jumped since Exercise Eve in Nov 1944.
Events moved very rapidly indeed. On Mar 19, large packs had to be handed in for shipment overseas, and thereafter all personnel was confined to the barracks for the remainder of the unit’s stay in England. The next morning the Division moved off by lorry to east Anglia. HQ 3d Paratroopers Brigade, 8th Parachute Battalion, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, and a detachment of 224th Paratroopers Field Ambulance were accommodated in the Hill Hall Transit Camp, England, and Wales, and were to emplane together at the airfield of Chipping Ongar.
(36-) For the past three days the Intelligence Section had been preparing plasticine models and enlargements of maps and air photographs for use in briefing the Battalion at the camp. This commenced on Mar 21, with Lt Col Nicklin giving a general briefing to all personnel of the unit followed by a special briefing of officers. Two whole days were devoted to a detailed briefing by company and platoon commanders. For this purpose, the unit was allotted one hut to show Corps, Divisional, and Brigade plans plus two huts for the Battalion plan.
(37-) The general tasks allotted to the XVIII Corps (Airborne) in cooperation with the British 12th Corps on the round have already been described in this report (see #28). That of the British 6-A/B was to seize, clear, and hold the Schnepfenberg (Wesel) feature, and the village of Hamminkeln (Wesel) together with the designated bridges over Issel River. These three bridges, all east of Hamminkeln (Wesel), were to be prepared for demolition but not blown unless recapture by the enemy became certain.
Formations of the Division were: 3rd Paratroopers Brigade, 5th Paratroopers Brigade, 6th Air Landing Brigade, 22nd Independent Paratroopers Company, and the 6th Airborne Armored Recon (Recce) Regiment, together with units of artillery, engineers, signals, and the services. The task of the 3rd Paratroopers Brigade, scheduled to drop first and operate on the divisional left, was to clear and hold an area on the western edge of the Diersfordt Woods (Wesel) woods which contain the Schnepfenberg (Wesel) feature and to establish patrols through these Woods. The 8th Paratroopers Battalion would seize the northern while the 9th Paratroopers Battalion the southern parts of the Brigade area with the 1-CPB in the center. HQ 3rd Paratroopers Brigade would initially be established in the dropping zone to the north, then with 8th Paratroopers Battalion, but on completion of the brigade task would move into 1-CPB area.
The 1-CPB was to drop just north of the Woods in order to seize, clear, and hold an area along the western edge including slightly more than half a mile of the main road running north-south. The Battalion objective was a group of houses in the southern section of this area.
Charlie Co (1-CPB) was the first to clear the road junction and corner of the Woods in the northern sector. All Company would then pass through Charlie Co in order to clear and hold the area of the houses where Bn HQ would later be established. Baker Co (1-CPB) was to move southwest through the woods to provide flank protection to seize and hold the crossroads about which the houses were grouped, and to consolidate the southern sector. All companies would then carry out extensive local patrolling for their own protection and in order to attempt to establish contact with British and American troops.
(38-) Everything possible was done to make all ranks thoroughly acquainted with this plan. During intervals between briefings, personnel played volleyball, softball, basketball, touch football, and sundry improvised sports. Sunbathing was also a popular pastime, the weather remaining warm. On Mar 23, the Battalion had a full day beginning with the reveille at 0400. In the morning all ranks embussed and moved with full gears (war scales of equipment) to the Chipping Ongar airfield in order to fit parachutes and stow away kit bags and weapons in designated aircraft. Returning to camp at noon, the Battalion completed briefing arrangements and held church services for Romans, Catholics, and Protestants at 1800. As reveille the next morning was to be at 0200, the Brigade Commander ordered all personnel to be in bed by 2000, the hour when the artillery barrage over the Rhine began. The unit diarist recorded on the eve of the battle: wem>Morale top-notch.
(39-) The weather on Mar 24, 1945, turned out as predicted by the forecasters. Unlimited visibility existed over our bases in the UK, on the continent, and over the target area, although a considerable smoke haze persisted over the latter throughout the operation (US Observer Report). A message sent out by FM Montgomery shortly before 1700, Mar 23, announced to all concerned that Operation Plunder – Varsity would be mounted as planned. All airborne and troop carrier forces were alerted at once. The UK 2-A launched its assault over the Rhine at 2100 that night and the US 9-A at 0300, the following morning. While the ground troops pushed on in the early hours of Mar 24, the airborne forces were forming up.
The US 17-A/B took off from bases in France, while the UK 6-A/B was lifted from England. Escorted by aircraft of Fighter Command and of the British and American Tactical Air Forces, the two mighty air fleets converged near Brussels and made for the Rhine. Over the bridgehead area, an air umbrella was maintained by nine hundred fighters, while deeper into Germany fighter formations kept enemy aircraft away from the battle zone. A great weight of artillery fire from the west bank of the Rhine prepared the way for the airborne drop, and a few minutes before 1000, the ground troops saw the aircraft of the first parachute serial arrive. For the next three hours relays of aircraft came into the dropping and landing zone areas in an immensely thrilling and inspiring demonstration of Allied airpower; over 1700 aircraft and 1300 gliders were employed to deliver some 14000 troops in the battle areas. Our losses were comparatively light for an operation of this magnitude; under 4% of the gliders were destroyed while the total losses in transport aircraft were 55. Immediately following the glider landings, a resupply mission was flown at a very low altitude by 250 Liberators of the US 8-AAF. The latter was met by heavy flak and 14 were shot down but 85% of their supplies were accurately dropped. (Montgomery)
(40-) Tugs and gliders assigned to the UK 6-A/B were operated by pilots of the RAF 38th Group and RAF 46th Group but on the other hand, the entire British Parachute lift was carried in by 240 C-47 of the US IX Troop Carrier Command. The 1-CPB was allotted 35 C-47 of US 61st Troop Carrier Command and was scheduled to drop at 1004. This provided for an approximate Airborne Force strength of 32 officers and 565 men. Forming a part of the van of UK 6-A/B, the 1-CPB dropped third among its units, being preceded by the 8th Paratroopers Battalion, the 3rd Paratroopers Brigade, and followed by the 9th Paratroopers Battalion as well as the detachments of engineers, medicals, and the glider element. The unit war diarist has given a vivid picture of the descent and initial fighting by the Canadian paratroops on German soil.
Reveille was at 0200. Personnel had a good breakfast, en-trucked on lorries at 0445, and proceeded to the airfield arriving at 0615. Personnel put on their parachutes, emplaned, and took off at 0730. The flight from England to the DZ in Germany lasted approximately 120 minutes. The flight across was quiet and uneventful. Unit jumped at 0955 and was widely spread due to the high speed of the aircraft when crossing the DZ. Aircraft did not slow down or lift their tails. Flak was fairly heavy over the DZ and several aircraft were seen to go down in flames.
On landing, most of the Battalion encountered severe MG and sniper fire, which accounted for most of the casualties. There was very little artillery fire. Most of the casualties were on the DZ proper, which was covered by mutually supporting German positions. A good many were dropped east of the DZ because of the speed of the planes, and though the enemy fire was not so intense, snipers were fairly active. The Companies reached the rendezvous in good time, and the Battalion objectives were cleared by 1130. Positions were dug, and the men held against probing German patrols, who were either captured or killed. Charlie Co, at the north end of the perimeter, came under severe fire from 100 or 200 yards away and were constantly repelling a probing attack by numbers of German Paratroopers. In the center and south end Able and Baker Cos respectively held the wooded country. Baker Co took large numbers of prisoners which constituted quite a problem because they numbered almost the strength of the entire Battalion. It was fortunate that Krauts were killed by the hundreds otherwise it would have been impossible to corral and guard them in the early hours of the operation. In the late hours of the afternoon, enemy artillery fired, quite inaccurately in the Battalion perimeter. At 1000 recon elements of the 15th Scottish Division linked up with the Battalion, and were warmly welcomed. During the night of Mar 24-25, three were wounded by enemy shelling. Casualties for the Day were officers: 2 KIA, 1 MIA, 1 WIA, other ranks: 26 KIA, 3 MIA, 34 WIA. Among the casualties were Lt Col J.A. Nicklin, Commanding Officer, killed. Lt J.J. Brunette, killed. Capt J.A. Clancy, missing. Lt J.I. Davies, wounded.