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Canadian troops went through 'valley of hell'

Operation Veritable, involving the British and Canadians, was the start of the last great push

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Each Monday until May, The Globe will review the events of the week from 1945 as the Second World War wound to its close.

The great Canadian offensive on the heart of Nazi Germany began with a thunderous predawn barrage. For 11 hours, the big guns of the 1st Canadian Army, backed by 2,200 British and U.S. aircraft, softened up positions before infantry sloshed through boggy fields toward the industrial heartland of Germany.

After weeks of relative quiet on the western front, Operation Veritable, the powerful drive by British and Canadian soldiers from their base in the Netherlands, signalled the start of the last great push in the European campaign of the Second World War.

The Canadian soldiers, operating under Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army group, pushed off through what one British writer called "a valley of hell" in which houses, German vehicles and even trees were aflame from the hours of bombardment. "I counted 200 fires and then gave up," the writer told The Canadian Press on Feb. 9, 1945. "If ever an attack had fire support, this one did."

Eyewitnesses said the Allies' massed guns had reduced German towns to tatters. "If this is Germany, they can have it after we take it," said Gunner Bill Milner of Sackville, N.B., as he stood in the debris-choked village of Nutterden.

The weather was miserable. A sudden thaw that left the ground muddy was accompanied by a steady rain, with the result that tanks and other heavy vehicles were bogged down. Despite the conditions, the Canadians advanced eight kilometres in the first day of the attack, capturing more than a dozen villages in the flooded flatlands east of Nijmegen near the German border.

It was so wet that Canadian commanders said they were running a naval operation with troops advancing from island to island in the flooded lowland by amphibious vehicles called buffaloes. "As a war it was weird and slow and difficult and unorthodox," CP correspondent Douglas Amaron wrote.

Field Marshal Montgomery said he was "very pleased" with the offensive that culminated with the capture on Feb. 12 of Kleve, the German fortress town that was the home of one of Henry VIII's wives. "But, of course, all this mud doesn't help, does it?"

A Globe and Mail editorial said "pride will mingle with anxiety" with the news that Canadian troops were deeply involved in the push against the Nazis.

But, in fact, German resistance was slight. Nazi soldiers had fled the swollen waters of the Rhine River and even if they could find places to regroup and fight from, some seemed disinclined to do so. Reuters correspondent Charles Lynch witnessed 40 enemy soldiers giving up without a fight. A sergeant-major who had studied at Cambridge University before the war told him: "We had no chance."

Elsewhere, four Canadian engineers sweeping a dike for mines took 100 prisoners without firing a shot. "We took the first bunch by surprise and I guess the others made up their minds it was no use resisting," said Sapper Frank Henry of Sussex, N.B.

On the eastern front, Soviet troops seemed content with consolidating the bridgeheads they had secured some 64 kilometres from Berlin. The 1st White Russian Army under Marshal Gregory Zhukov had suffered heavy casualties storming across Poland in the previous few weeks and had outrun his supply lines. The Soviets, too, were affected by the thaw that turned the battlefield into a quagmire.

The rains had no effect, however, on the merciless Allied bombardment of German-held cities, particularly Berlin. RAF Lancasters dropped 5,400-kilogram "earthquake" bombs on German positions near Amsterdam. The Nazis threw up their new jet-engine Messerschmitt 262 to fly circles around 1,300 U.S. bombers on a Feb. 9 raid, but five of the 870-kilometres-an-hour aircraft were shot down by escorting fighter pilots.

The relentless bombing and the pinching attacks on both Germany's eastern and western borders prompted Allied leaders meeting in the Black Sea resort of Yalta to conclude that "Nazi Germany is doomed."

"The German people will only make the cost of their defeat heavier to themselves by attempting to continue a hopeless resistance," U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin said in a communiqué issued on Feb. 12 at the end of eight days of talks.

But German officials were having little of this. Hitler was still decorating soldiers -- two Elite Guardsmen received medals for heroism on the Russian front. Berlin was also publicizing the execution of three mayors for leaving their towns without evacuation orders.

Refugees arriving in Sweden described the German capital as a place of utter desolation with government buildings levelled and corpses being scooped off the street for quick burial in mass graves. "It is like the end of the world," one refugee arriving in Malmo on Feb. 8 reported.

As the prospect of victory neared, Canadians were finding out a bit more about how the war had been conducted. A Globe report on Feb. 10 disclosed that the German U-boat that had sunk HMCS Clayoquot before Christmas fired its torpedoes just 30 kilometres offshore from Halifax and that other subs had ranged even closer. At the same time, the British Air Ministry detailed the expansion of the operation that brought planes from Canada to Europe, saying that 1,336 aircraft had been ferried in 1943, compared with just 26 in 1940.

It also emerged that the aerial plan for the D-Day invasion in June of 1944 was written in longhand by a 49-year-old RAF officer to preserve its secrecy. The officer even turned the handles of the duplicating machines that produced the finished product for every Allied air crew.

Saddest of all the week's stories was a Reuters report on Feb. 7 that said advancing Red Army troops found just 870 Jews alive in the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, out of the original population of 250,000.

Please email the Dominion Institute at staff@dominion.ca if you have any letters or photos from Canadian soldiers who died in the final months of the Second World War.

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