February to March 1945
They came from very different backgrounds.
One was an only child from Northern Ontario who worked for the railway before enlisted. A second went to high school in Toronto before moving to Kirkland Lake to work in the mines. The third went to an all-boys private school and, after graduating from the University of Toronto, began a career in pharmaceutical sales. All three joined the army and their paths would subsequently cross during the ferocious Canadian battle in German Rhineland. By the end, one would be dead, one would lose both legs and an eye, and the third received a hero’s welcome home as well as a parade down Toronto’s Bay Street. Forever linking all three soldiers is the Victoria Cross, Canada’s highest decoration for valour in the face of the enemy, which each man received for his actions in the Rhineland.
The intensity of the fighting in the Rhineland can be glimpsed through the lens of those Victoria Crosses. No other Canadian battle since the First World War would be so recognized. Only two VCs were awarded to Canadians at Dieppe in August 1942, as well as one in Normandy, three during the entire Italian campaign, and none in the Scheldt or the liberation of the Netherlands.
Let’s learn something about the Rhineland fighting through the experiences of Sergeant Aubrey Cosens, Major Fred Tilston, and Corporal Fred Topham.
After opening the port of Antwerp with the successful conclusion of the Scheldt Campaign, the Canadian army entered a very welcome period of relative inactivity for the next three months. The war was entering its final phase, but the fighting was far from over and the Germans had yet to surrender. In fact, Hitler was about to go on the attack. On 16 December, the German army in the west launched a massive surprise attack. The Ardennes Offensive or the Battle of the Bulge initially made a deep advance into the Allied front line.
There was no panic amongst the American troops as they were quickly pushed back. It took a month, but Eisenhower managed to contain the German threat, which was to be Hitler’s last gasp in western Europe. The Nazis’ goal was to capture Antwerp and split the Anglo-Canadian armies in the north from the American armies to the south. The German army would then force the Allies to sign an agreeable peace treaty, not the unconditional surrender the Allies demanded, so Hitler could focus on what he perceived to be his more dangerous enemy, the Soviet Union. The Red Army threatened Germany from the east. But, as it turned out, Hitler had wasted the last of his precious reserves in a hopeless attempt to win the war in the west.
We know today that the war would end just three months later, on 8 May 1945. The commanders and men on the front lines also sensed that the end was near, but they could not know if that meant a spring, summer, or even another Christmas spent under fire. All they could do was keep fighting, try to be smart and not expose themselves or their men needlessly. However, there would still much fighting – and dying – by the Canadians in those remaining few months.
The Ardennes battle delayed the Allied winter offensive, but not for long. Operation Veritable, or the Battle of the Reichswald, launched on 8 February. Montgomery wanted an attritional battle to destroy the German army west of the Rhine River. This style of warfare attempts to create victory by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and materiel. This was a good strategy for the Allies who had vast economies to draw on while the Germans were short of nearly everything by this point in the war. This meant hard fighting ahead for the Anglo-Canadian forces. To destroy the German army the Allies needed to keep attacking; there could be no rest. For the invasion of Germany in February 1945, General Harry Crerar’s First Canadian Army was the largest formation ever under the control of a single Canadian commander – nearly half a million Canadian and British soldiers. This powerful force was required as Hitler’s forces now fought to defend their home territory. Previously, the Germans had been struggling to hold conquered territory in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Now they were defending their own homes and families. Not surprisingly, they fought much harder and did not give up ground as easily.
The first phase of the battle was led by the British divisions under Canadian command. The 2nd Canadian Corps soon joined the fight. The battlefield they faced was cold, wet, and muddy and it seemed their enemy possessed an almost unlimited amount of artillery ammunition. The second phase, known as Operation Blockbuster, saw the First Canadian Army take over the primary fight. Infantry, artillery, and tanks worked closely together to accomplish their task. Le Régiment de la Chaudière, a French-speaking unit from Eastern Quebec, had a particularly tough fight. The Germans:
“had fought on like grim death but we had got the better of them. All the regiment were proud of this day because we had carried it successfully. To the veterans of D-Day there was no doubt that this had been the toughest action yet. The sad note was the number of casualties, the highest for any one battle – 15 killed, 3 officers wounded and 52 ORs (other ranks) wounded or evacuated.”After action report – 26 Feb 1945 Le Régiment de la Chaudière, February 1945 War Diary
The first Canadian VC was awarded on this same day. Cosens, the young railway worker from Northern Ontario, had enlisted as a teenager and was just 23 when his regiment, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, attacked the village of Mooshof near the startline for Operation Blockbuster. Cosens took command of his platoon when only four soldiers remained. At great risk, he crossed open ground to reach a tank and directed its fire to stop a German counterattack. He then singlehandedly cleared a series of farmhouses where he killed or captured a large number of enemy soldiers. Cosens could have been shot numerous times as he fought his way through those farmhouses. But his luck ran out and he was killed by a sniper after the battle had been won as he was making his way back to headquarters.
As of 1 March, the Canadians had advanced some five kilometres and prepared to attack the Hochwald Gap, an open railway corridor through a heavily forested area. They would be led by the tanks of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. Casualties were heavy as the Germans received steady reinforcements and refused to give up any territory. That day, Major Fred Tilston, a pharmaceutical salesman from Toronto, led “C” Company of the Essex Scottish into battle near Udem. The supporting tanks were unable to follow him as the ground was too soft. He was wounded twice as he led his men to capture a series of enemy positions. Tilston then organized the survivors to defeat a series of German counterattacks. He moved through the heavy German fire again and again to ensure his men had sufficient supplies of ammunition and grenades. Tilston was seriously wounded a third time but still refused medical attention so he could direct his troops. He was the second Canadian to earn the VC in the Rhineland, but his injuries were so severe that he subsequently lost both his legs and one eye.
The nasty fighting in the Hochwald continued until the morning of 2 March when suddenly the enemy disappeared. The Germans had pulled back across the Rhine River as a result of American progress to the south. They had no choice for otherwise they would have been surrounded and completely destroyed.
The final phase in the Battle of the Rhineland was Operations Plunder and Varsity, an assault crossing of the Rhine River combined with a major drop of airborne and parachute troops on the far side. The Canadians were front and centre in both operations. On 23 March, Operation Plunder was launched, with units of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division following British regiments across the Rhine. The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade faced tough fighting once across the river. Varsity, the last major Anglo-American airborne offensive of the war, took place on 24 March. The initial drops by the 17th US Airborne Division and the 6th British Airborne Division (including the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion) were initially unopposed, but the German anti-aircraft defences soon found their range and the Allies sustained heavy casualties during the follow-on drops.
The role of the Canadian paratroopers was to clear an area known as the Diersfordt Woods. The regiment suffered 43 casualties including the death of their popular commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Nicklin, a Grey Cup champion and CFL all-star who made his first combat jump on D-Day.
The final Canadian VC of the campaign was awarded to Corporal Fred Topham, a medical orderly in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. On 24 March, Topham parachuted into Germany with his regiment as part of Operation Varsity. He immediate set to work treating the many wounded soldiers. At about 11 a.m., he heard a cry for help from a soldier wounded in an open field. Two medical orderlies went to help him and were shot dead. In spite of the evident danger, Topham rushed to help. Though he was shot through the nose, Topham brought the man to safety. The enemy continued to shoot at Topham but he saved two more men from a burning carrier that could explode at any time. Topham was the lone Canadian VC recipient to survive his battle relatively unscathed.
Within a few days, the Germans began retreating and the battle was officially over by the end of March. The fighting had been hard and costly. Overall, First Canadian Army endured 15,634 killed, wounded, or missing during the Rhineland operations. The casualty count included 5,304 Canadians during just February and March. Of these, 1,617 are buried in the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands. (General Harry Crerar, the commander of First Canadian Army, refused to allow any of his Canadian soldiers to be buried in Germany.) By comparison, the Canadians suffered 18,700 casualties, including more than 5,000 dead, in Normandy over three months. And just over a month of fighting in the Scheldt, near Antwerp, cost the 1st Canadian Army 12,873 casualties, roughly half Canadian and half British under Canadian command. This included some 848 Canadians who will forever rest at the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery in the northwest corner of Belgium near the Dutch border and another 968 men found at the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery.
While we only profile the actions of Cosens, Tilston, and Topham, along with Charles Byce, found elsewhere on this site, these are representative of many extraordinary acts of bravery and selflessness which became all too common during this terrible fighting in the German Rhineland. The campaign ended with the Allies crossing the Rhine River and breaking the back of the last major German defensive line. The British and American armies, joined by the Soviet Red Army from the east, would continue to carry the fight ever deeper into Germany. For the Canadians, the next chapter was the liberation of the Netherlands. The end of the war was less than six weeks away, but nobody knew that at the time.