On the northern flank of the Allied front in north west Europe the British XXX Corps and the 1st Canadian Army now launched a massive assault on the German lines. Operation Veritable pushed south east to join up with the US Ninth Army and force the Germans up against the Rhine. The month long battle was intended to coincide with Operation Grenade, the US Ninth Army pushing north west in a pincer movement. However after the Germans flooded the ground in front of the Americans, preventing any attack in the south, Operation Veritable went ahead anyway.
The British and Canadians found themselves constricted by the terrain of the Reichswald Forest and progress was slower than expected over the wet, muddy battlefield.
Lieutenant-General Horrocks who commanded XXX Corps, writing after the war, describes how the attack was launched:
By the evening of 7th February our concentration was complete, and the woods and outskirts of Nijmegen were thick with troops, guns, vehicles, workshops, tanks—all the paraphernalia of modern war. It would have been almost impossible to drop a pea into the area without hitting something. This was probably the last of the old-type set piece attacks because, in face of the threat of tactical atomic missiles, no concentration like this can ever take place again.
Though the difficult and complicated concentration had been achieved secretly, our prospects of a swift success had dwindled since the original plan had been made. The thaw had been a great blow, because in front of us in that low-lying valley the going was certain to be bad. Luckily for my peace of mind I did not realise then just how bad.
The second handicap concerned the attack of the American 9th Army. The Germans had wisely blown the dams, and the Roer river had become so flooded that no passage over it would be possible until the flood waters had subsided. How long this would take was anybody’s guess.
The flood would enable the Germans to concentrate every available reserve against us. We were faced with a battle of extermination, slogging our way forward through the mud. Not a pleasing prospect at all.
With these thoughts in mind I climbed into my command post for the battle in the early hours of 8th February. It was a cold, grey, miserable dawn with low clouds and rain, heralding several days of stormy weather. My command post was a small platform half-way up a tree, and from here I had a wonderful view over most of the battlefield. The noise was appalling, and the sight awe-inspiring.
All across the front shells were exploding. We had arranged for a barrage, a curtain of fire, to move forward at a rate of 300 yards every twelve minutes, or 100 yards every four minutes, in front of the troops. To mark the end of the four-minute period when the guns would increase their range by 300 yards they all fired a round of yellow smoke.
So it was possible to follow roughly the progress of the attack, and down in the valley, behind this wall of shells, I could see small scattered groups of men and tanks all moving slowly forward. I was also able by wireless to keep in accurate touch with what was happening.
This was the biggest operation I had ever handled in war. Thirty Corps was 200,000 strong that day, and we were attacking with five divisions in line supported by 1400 guns. It soon became clear that the enemy was completely bemused as a result of our colossal bombardment; their resistance was slight.
The main trouble was mines —and mud, particularly mud. I am certain that this must be the chief memory of everyone who fought in the Reichswald battle. Mud and still more mud. It was so bad that after the first hour every tank going across country was bogged down, and the infantry had to struggle forward on their own. The chief enemy resistance came from the cellars in the villages.
It has been said that no two attacks are ever alike, and that was exemplified in this battle. Every night as soon as it was dusk, the 3rd Canadian Division set out on what were almost maritime operations, each one designed to capture one or more of the villages which, owing to the flooding, looked like small islands jutting out of the sea. Artillery would fire on the village while the Canadians in their buffaloes (amphibious vehicles) sailed off across the intervening lake and carried out their assault.
On their right was an entirely different type of operation carried out by the 44th Brigade of the 15th Scottish. Their task was to breach the northern extension of the Siegfried Line, consisting of anti—tank ditches, mine-fields, concrete emplacements and barbed- wire entanglements.
Not one single man was on his feet. The ofiicers controlling the artillery fire were in tanks. The leading wave of the assault consisted of tanks with flails in front beating and exploding the mines to clear passages through the mine-fields. Then came tanks carrying bridges and fascines on their backs to form bridges over the anti—tank ditch. The next echelon was flame- throwing tanks to deal with the concrete pill—boxes, and finally infantry in cut-down tanks, i.e., with the top taken off, called kangaroos.
These proved a great boon in the closing stages of the war. They were, I believe, a Canadian invention emanating from the brain of one of their most famous corps commanders, General Simonds. I once saw a whole brigade of the 51st Highland Division in these vehicles being heavily shelled by the Germans. I thought their casualties were bound to be high, but they had only two men wounded.
That night the Germans breached the banks of the Rhine upstream, and the floods started to rise, spreading over our one road. Nevertheless the advance was going well, and I was delighted to hear that the 15th Scottish were moving into the outskirts of Cleve.