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Allies make ground

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The headlines were becoming consistently cheerful, if that's not too tasteless a remark to make about a conflict in which thousands of people were dying every day. It was becoming increasingly obvious that, after more than five years, the Second World War was nearing an end.
The month-old Allied offensive that broke out of the Netherlands into Germany along a 300-kilometre front was picking up steam in the last week of February, 1945. The troops, including the 1st Canadian Army under General H..D..G. Crerar, had crashed into the enemy's industrial heartland along the Rhine and Ruhr Rivers. "Rhine Defences Crumbling," a Globe and Mail story exclaimed on Feb. 28. That was followed in the ensuing days by "Hun Quitting West of Rhine" and "Siegfried Defences in Chaos."
To the war-literate readers of the day (particularly if they knew that "Hun" was then a popular synonym for German), the message was clear: Troops from Canada, Britain and the United States would soon capture the factories that produced the weaponry for the awesome Nazi war machine.
The belief that the war was in its last days was so strong that Allied leaders were talking about — and planning for — the time when Hitler was gone and the world was once again at peace. Prime minister Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons on Feb. 27 that the great powers were ready for the collapse of the Third Reich. He pledged that when that happened, drastic steps would be taken "to render offensive action by Germany utterly impossible for generations to come."
Two days later, president Franklin Roosevelt said the United States had to use its power to secure peace and security for the future. "We shall have to take the responsibility for world collaboration or we shall have to bear the responsibility of another world conflict," he said from a wheelchair in the White House. (A Canadian Press dispatch described Roosevelt as "apparently in excellent health and spirits," but he died 12 days later.) There was also a good deal of activity surrounding the scheduled April 25 world security conference in San Francisco that would lead to the founding of the United Nations. In anticipation, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Costa Rica were declaring war on Germany before a March 1 deadline that excluded non-combatants from the meeting. Canada's prime minister, Mackenzie King, was planning to lead a delegation to San Francisco.
Looking ahead as well, a senior King minister, C..D. Howe, was predicting that war production would be cut by 35 per cent when hostilities in Europe ended and that surplus plants would be sold to U.S. interests. The Howe announcement coincided with others that pointed to a future in which not all economic activity would be targeted to the war effort. The Ontario government announced on March 2 that it would build a new highway between Toronto and Barrie to relieve congestion on Yonge Street. And the Toronto Transit Commission announced plans for $51-million subway lines along Yonge and Queen streets.
But as well as things were going, soldiers were still having to fight for every foot of territory. Canadian forces looking to cross the Rhine at the small German town of Xanten had to deal with enemy soldiers "fighting like madmen," according to CP's legendary war correspondent, Ross Munro. The Canadians (and British troops fighting under Gen. Crerar's command) had just fought their way out of the dank Hochwald Forest.
German soldiers, who had pulled back to the eastern bank of the Rhine, shelled the arriving Canadians with 88-mm artillery guns. Munro said the Canadians, glad to have the bitter five-day Hochwald battle behind them, could make out Xanten's cathedral through the smokescreen that drifted like fog over the rolling, wooded countryside. "Our infantry regarded it as the last lap of the struggle before they storm across the Rhine and put new energy into the advance," Munro wrote on March 5.
Meanwhile, tanks from the U.S. 1st Army had entered Cologne, Germany's fourth-largest city, and enemy troops were fleeing at such a rate that field dispatches reckoned there were only a thousand soldiers left to defend it. In retreat, the Germans blew up the massive Hohenzollern rail and road bridge into Cologne along with most other bridges between Bonn and the Netherlands. By doing so, the Germans sealed the fate of more than 50,000 of their troops on the western bank of the Rhine. By this point in the war, an estimated 550,000 German soldiers were trapped far behind Allied lines on both sides of Europe.
Five of them were caught by Lance-Corporal L..D. Cameron of Prince Albert, Sask., near Udem, Germany. Detailed to prepare a prisoner-of-war compound just behind the front lines, he was surprised when five German soldiers (one carrying an automatic weapon) crawled from a wrecked house to surrender and stood meekly while he built the cage around them.
The soldiers clearly were disregarding the advice of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who urged his countrymen in a Feb. 28 speech to die rather than capitulate to the Allies. Noting that the war had taken a "woeful turn" in recent weeks, he vowed greater areas of Britain would be shelled by V-weapons. "The war is by no means ended yet," Goebbels said.
U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces, begged to disagree. He was urging German officers to surrender for the sake of the enlisted men in their units. "The end is merely a question of time," he said in a radio broadcast. "It is in Germany's interest to put an end to this useless bloodshed. The decision is up to the German officer."
But the Nazi effort hadn't entirely run out of steam despite the massive setbacks it had suffered. On March 4, German bombers raided England for the first time since the previous June. The planes dropped high-explosive and incendiary bombs on towns and villages in the northern part of the country and also flew low over roads to spray them with machine-gun fire.
The Allies got an indication that the enemy was still prepared to fight when they received news that a new type of U-boat submarine capable of firing the V-series rockets had sunk while on trial in Norway. Resistance fighters in Norway said the Germans had been planning on using the vessel to attack U.S. coastal towns.
Even as the prospect of Allied victory neared, however, Canadians were being warned that the rationing with which they had lived for years wouldn't disappear immediately. In particular, meat supplies were predicted to remain tight because of the need to ship products to newly liberated Belgium and the Netherlands.
But if Canadians were growing weary of the war's toll, they weren't showing it. On March 2, the government launched its eighth Victory Bond drive amid indications that it would surpass its objective of $1.5-billion. Each of the seven earlier drives since the first war bond was issued in January, 1940, raised more than the one before it. By the winter of 1945, Canada had raised an astonishing $8.1-billion or about $810 from each of its 10 million citizens.
Please e-mail the Dominion Institute at 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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