The Battle for Hochwald Gap
Now the topic of a very entertaining, narrated and expertly animated episode of the US docuseries, The Greatest Tank Battles and featuring as a level in the popular war game Company of Heroes, this long since forgotten yet militarily decisive battle has been revived in recent years by the entertainment industry.
Yet for those involved, the battle itself was far from entertaining.
Fought in the last months of the Second World War, it saw over 15 thousand allied casualties with just over five thousand of those being Canadian.
This may seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the total numbers of killed and wounded soldiers on all sides between 1939 -1945, but its significance lies in part in the fact that the Battle for Hochwald Gap was the last major battle fought on the Western Front by the Germans.
Fought largely on farmland it also led to the near total destruction of two historic towns dating from the early medieval period, Uedem and Xanten. It also caused the destruction of a considerable area of ancient woodland.
So what actually happened at the Battle for the Hochwald Gap?
It began with the conception of Operation Veritable which formed the northern section of a planned pincer movement, a military manoeuvre with a long history in warfare where forces attack both flanks of an enemy force simultaneously.
The British and Canadian troops would form the northern part of the pincer with the US troops working in the south as part of Operation Grenade.
The plan was to clear the Germans from the Reichswald, a heavily forested area between two rivers, the Maas and the Rhine, driving them back over the Rhine, taking the allied fight well into German territory and potentially opening the gates for a full-scale invasion of Berlin.
A new Allied offensive on the Reichswald had been in the planning for quite some time but delays due to other battles being fought elsewhere.
This gave German forces (severely depleted in both man power and weaponry) the opportunity to expertly fortify the area, laying minefields, digging tank ditches, and allowing for the careful positioning of anti-tank guns.
However, the Allied forces had amassed a fighting force of 90,000 troops, 1300 artillery weapons and 1000 tanks giving them the advantage of numbers if not position.
Operation Grenade at the south of the pincer movement had been delayed by the Germans interfering with dams on the river Roer which caused extensive flooding, leaving Operation Veritable and the British and Canadians to commence their attack as planned, alone.
Under the leadership of Canadian General, Harry Crerar, the advance began on February 8th. However, Canadian and British forces quickly found themselves severely hampered in their efforts by the frost thawing early that year.
This, combined with unseasonably heavy rainfall caused the landscape to become little more than a mud bath, slowing progress and reducing the effectiveness of the allies’ superior numbers considerably. Exploding mines, the movement of heavy artillery vehicles over already saturated ground and frequent shelling only made matters worse.
23rd of February
A change of approach was deemed necessary and Operation Blockbuster commenced under the leadership of another Canadian corps commander, Lt General Guy Simonds and British Commander Lt General Sir Brian Horrocks.
On the 23rd of February, the US forces still 40 miles away, had finally been able to press on with their original plan. It is possible that those in charge, Crerar and Field Marshal General Montgomery believed that the US advance would draw the attention of the bulk of the German forces away from the progress of the 1st Canadian Army in the North.
General Carar issued a directive that if this did not happen, if the German Army continued to put up significant resistance despite the advance of the American forces, that Operation Blockbuster should only seek to secure the Calcar Uedem road.
Meanwhile, the Canadian and British forces under Simonds and Horrocks, who would mount the attack, had hatched their own battle plan; to divide their forces in order to first take the fortified Calcar Ridge, then the high ground on the other side of the valley at the town of Uedem.
4th Armoured Division would then be ready to advance towards Hochwald Forest, launching a full-scale offensive to destroy what was left of the German defensive position and press forward on to the settlement of Xanten, the last town on the Western side of the River Rhine.
To do this, they first had to get across an area of farmland that would become known as The Hochwald Gap. The plan was meticulous, risky and left little margin for error.
The night time offensive to take the Calcar Ridge began on the 26th February by infantry troops supported by 80 tanks of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade. The Canadians were operating speedy short barrel Sherman tanks with every 4 being supported by a single Sherman Firefly with a long barrel cannon.
However, the superiority of their numbers and weapons was undermined by the clever placement of mines and the weather. The constant rainfall and subsequent deep mud made progress painfully slow.
Imagine if you will, traversing farmland, knee deep in sticky, freezing mud, tanks sliding sideways instead of forwards, all the while the rain is pouring down from above and there is the ever-present threat of mines exploding from beneath you.
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Despite the first three tanks falling foul of German mines, the order from above was to press on to the top of the ridge where they were met with a ferocious amount of German firepower.
Ironically, the German soldiers, despite being outgunned and outnumbered were not to be underestimated. Fighting more fiercely than ever, the war had now come to their homeland, the tables had turned and for the first time they were the ones being invaded.
The Canadian casualties certainly reflect this ferocity. Of the 19 tanks and crews that set off to take the ridge in that first offensive, only 6 remained.
Eventually, with the support of additional tanks the Allied forces succeed in their endeavour to secure the ridge and attention moved to the high ground on the opposite side of the valley where the medieval village of Uedem was situated.
On February 27th Allied forces again had to battle through deep mud, taking hours to travel a short distance. When a squadron eventually arrived at Uedem the ground conditions and tank ditches forced them to travel along a narrow dyke, right into a trap laid by the German defence.
Canadian forces had been coerced into a single file formation, this meant that tanks could be easily and successfully picked off by anti-tank guns one by one. One survivor described them as ‘sitting ducks’.
Those in the middle were trapped by the already destroyed tanks at the front and rear of the procession. Turning to the side meant they would upend their tank into a ditch. Evacuating was an option but would mean certain capture, preferable perhaps to certain death?
Tigers and Panthers
By February 28th, the Sherman tanks of B Squadron advanced along the valley and through a long gap which was flanked on either side by thick woodland. Ideally, tanks should be able to spread out to be effective in order to cause the defending force to also spread out, which thinned the defensive line and left weak spots.
However, the presence of the forest meant that, like A squadron, they were forced into a file formation along a single path through dense woodland rendering their numbers and weapons almost useless against an ambush from either side by effective German anti-tank weaponry. Again, they made for an easy target.
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Predictably, the Germans, armed with Tiger and Panther Tanks, anti-tank guns and portable rocket launchers (Panzerfausts) began a merciless attack on the line of Canadian forces.
One of the German commanders later expressed his disbelief at this course of action explaining that he would not have expected the Canadian forces to have put themselves in such a vulnerable position as it allowed him to construct a strong defensive line which could withstand a lengthy attack.
The Allies had little option now but to keep going and to attempt to place well aimed shots at the narrow gap between the chassis and turret of the German panzers to render them immobile, not an easy target to hit when one is under constant fire.
Relief for ground forces only came when the rain ceased, allowing for Typhoon planes to arrive and provide effective air support. Despite this support, the German defence was well dug in and though many tanks had been lost, no ground had been gained and the battle continued into the next day.
It was not until the 4th March that reinforcements arrived and the Germans fell back in the face of the sheer numbers of Allied forces. The battle seemed at an end, with only a couple of German tanks left to slow the advance of the Allied forces, the Germans had fallen back to Xanten where the final stage of Operation Blockbuster would be complete.
On March 6th the 2nd Canadian Infantry attacked Xanten but was repelled by an aggressive German defence. A new plan, Blockbuster II was drawn up allowing for a larger force to make a renewed assault. Xanten itself had already been battered by heavy shelling from above, terrifying the civilian population and causing almost total destruction to the town.
This second attempt, with reinforcements was more successful and at last, eight days after the battle began, March 7th saw Canadian tanks roll into Xanten whilst Allied forces pressed onward to take bordering towns and villages. Within two months of this decisive battle being fought, Hitler would take his own life.
Aftermath of Hochwald Gap
Casualty figures for this largely under-reported battle tend to vary but what cannot be overstated is that for the Canadians at least, this was their bloodiest campaign during World War II.
During the 30 days of battle between the commencement of Operation Veritable and the fall of Xanten and its surrounding towns and villages on March 10th, the total Allied casualties were estimated at over 15,000 with many more on the German side.
Although the battle is heralded as a success and made a significant impact on securing an end to the war, veterans who fought at Hochwald Gap have spoken openly about their disbelief at how they were forced into the worst possible position for any tank crew to be in.
Some have also expressed anger towards their commanders as wanting to bolster their own reputations at the expense of so many fighting men. What this battle does highlight however, is the tenacity of the British and Canadian forces, the extraordinary abilities of well trained, determined German soldiers and the mammoth contribution of the US in the provision of so much heavy artillery.
Why isn’t this ferocious battle more widely known? Opinions vary. Some blame the perceived ‘natural reserve’ of the British as reluctant to blow their own trumpets or maybe it’s because things didn’t quite go to plan?
Maybe a battle taking weeks as opposed to days
20 Years After the War
due to bad weather wasn’t sensational enough for the world’s media? Or perhaps it’s that those who fought there wanted to forget.
The latter is a difficult concept for those of us alive today to grasp because the best way we can honour those who fought and gave their lives in a war such as this is to remember them, to speak of the horrors they faced and report on their bravery in the face of so much violence and death. I would give the final words to a Captain Perry of the Argylls who 20 years after the war returned to the site of the battle in which he fought: “As I looked at the lovely little brook, which I had last seen as an anti-tank ditch filled with barbed wire, and the peaceful cottages and farm buildings, I could not help thinking what a sad, futile loss of life had taken place.”