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Berlin's last defence

Patton and Montgomery led offensives over the Rhine River, giving the Allies three vital bridgeheads, MURRAY CAMPBELL writes

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The smokescreen and the tremendous roar of airplanes in the sky were the surest indications that Monty was ready to make a move.For 48 hours, a thick pall of artificial fog along the west bank of the northern Rhine River was all that any observant German soldier on the other bank could make out. This cover, combined with a dawn-to-dusk lashing by 8,000 Allied warplanes, led the Germans to assume that Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group was planning an attack on the last great natural defence between themselves and Berlin.

In fact, German radio reported on the night of March 23, 1945, that Montgomery had launched an offensive along a 100-kilometre line from Arnhem in the Netherlands to the German industrial centre of Dusseldorf.

The smokescreen behind which preparations for battle were being made was something of a metaphor for a censorship screen that had been imposed all along the British front in the closing days of the Second World War. A front-page picture of the smokescreen in The Globe and Mail on March 23 noted imprecisely that "a cloud with steel lining" was being laid "on a German frontier town." All that correspondents with the troops were allowed to write was that the buildup was the largest since the D-Day invasion of Normandy the previous June.

Indeed, more than 1.2 million British, Canadian and U.S. soldiers were under Montgomery's command. He also had more than 5,000 artillery pieces and anti-tank guns and the British 2nd Army alone had amassed 120,000 tonnes of ammunition.

It was the U.S. 3rd Army, under General George Patton, that first crossed the Rhine in great numbers, however. Reports said the Americans crossed the river in boats near Mainz on March 22, catching German troops flat-footed.

The next day, the British 2nd Army, with 1st Canadian Army units, crossed the Rhine farther north, near the town of Wesel, which had been reduced to rubble by days of intense bombing. Subsequently, 21,000 Allied airborne troops dropped down further inland and captured six bridges along the Issel River, while sustaining heavy losses.

The first soldier across the river -- crossing in just 3½ minutes -- was Lieutenant Hugh Campbell of Trenton, Ont., who was on loan to the British Army.

Globe correspondent Ralph Allen noted that the Canadians had renewed their violent feud with the German soldiers they had faced weeks earlier in the Hochwald Forest.

The Canadians fighting were all D-Day veterans and were, as Mr. Allen wrote, up to the task of inching "laboriously for elbow room inside a stiffening ring of German trench positions and mobile guns.

"The going wasn't easy anywhere," he wrote in a March 25 dispatch. "The enemy paratroopers, who had given up the river's banks virtually without a struggle, reacted strongly when Montgomery's forces drove ahead for control of the roads."

A Canadian commander put it more succinctly. The Germans, he said, were "fighting like madmen."

Montgomery's crossing had been meticulously prepared with every unit playing a well-defined role. The Highland Light Infantry, from what is now Cambridge, Ont., were ferried over the river before dawn. The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders from Eastern Ontario entered the fray that evening. Later, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders passed through their ranks to take a vital village. The North Shore Regiment from New Brunswick was also involved.

The Canadians were driving northward to clear the northeastern part of the Netherlands. The assault was made easier because of the work of the RCAF City of Toronto reconnaissance squadron. Pilots, flying in unarmed, super-speed Spitfires at high altitudes, had photo-mapped 1,486 square metres of Germany with the aim of identifying every new gun battery. Flight Lieutenant Ernie Griffin of Guelph, Ont., using a stereoscope camera, provided pictures that allowed analysts to estimate the height of the riverbank at bridging points.

The crossings by Montgomery and Patton now gave the Allies three bridgeheads on the east bank of the Rhine. Within days, U.S. troops on the southern flank of the front had advanced 140 kilometres past the river, prompting the leader of an airborne army unit to say there was nothing to halt the drive to Berlin about 400 kilometres away.

The drama was enough to attract Winston Churchill, with nearly disastrous consequences. After lunch with U.S. troops on March 25, the British prime minister reminisced about his visit to the Rhine in the First World War and said he would very much like to cross it. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, shook his head but soon had to leave. In his absence, Churchill pressed his case again and crossed the river in a U.S. landing craft.

As he peered through binoculars at the shattered ruins of Wesel, a German artillery shell landed just 50 metres away. The group around him said he seemed more perturbed about lighting his cigar in the wind than he was about the shellfire falling around him.

"He finally lit that big cigar and walked away as if nothing had happened," U.S. Army Lieutenant Ellsworth Kerrigan said.

The crossing of the Rhine en masse was just one indication that the Nazi regime was crumbling. On the eastern front, Soviet Red Army troops were preparing for the last campaign -- the attack on Berlin -- in a long march that had taken them from Moscow to about 50 kilometres from the German capital. Allied bombers were being diverted from targets over western Germany to aid the Soviets.

As well, Allied troops in Italy were readying themselves for a new offensive aimed at trapping German troops in the Po Valley. The plans were spurred by fears that Hitler had marshalled as many as 200,000 troops in mountainous southeastern Germany for a last stand.

The imminent end of the war meant that more attention was being paid to how Hitler and his subordinates would be treated. Lord Wright, chair of the newly created United Nations war-crimes commission, told his fellow peers on March 20 that the Nazi leaders would be treated like "murderers, assassins, thieves, butchers and the like." That wasn't good enough for the Archbishop of York, who declared they should be shot upon capture.

Canadians continued to be sent home from the battlefields on hospital ships. On March 21, 746 wounded and ill soldiers arrived in Halifax on board the Letitia, a former luxury passenger ship.

The men came from every corner of Canada. Private Roman Pacula of Windsor had been wounded in Belgium. Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Gauvreau of Montreal was disabled by a land mine in the Netherlands. Private L. A. Turner of West Summerland, B.C., was finally home after being cut down by a mortar bomb 10 days after D-Day. Driver Fabian Generoux of Gravenhurst, Ont., had lost his right leg in Italy.

For these men, the war was already over.

Please e-mail 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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