February – March 1945
The Rhineland Campaign
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.