The Allied operation in the Rhine – codenamed Veritable – was a campaign fought with grit and zeal on both sides, but ultimately resulted in liberation of The Rhineland.
As the Allies battled on at Hürtgen Forest, another unsuccessful attempt to invade Germany was being launched in the northern Netherlands. Operation Market Garden failed to capture the bridge across the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, but it did give the Allies a salient extending to Nijmegen. This was chosen by General Montgomery as the starting point for another assault, Operation Veritable, but the surprise German offensive in the Ardennes – the Battle of the Bulge – intervened. Allied resources became tied up in the Ardennes and the start of Veritable was delayed until the German troops had been driven back to the Siegfried Line, where they’d launched their initial attack, in January 1945.
The aim of Veritable was for Montgomery’s British and 21st Canadian Army Group to advance swiftly to reach the Rhine at the far north of the Allied front. The troops would then cross the river and attack the Ruhr conurbation from the north, making a concentrated thrust at Germany’s industrial centre.
Veritable was entrusted to the First Canadian Army (under General Crerar), supported by the British XXX Corps commanded by General Horrocks. Its instructions were to clear the area between the rivers Maas (Meuse) and Rhine of German forces, so that a crossing of the latter could be organized. To assist in the task, the US Ninth Army was to simultaneously implement Operation Grenade, approaching from the south to meet the British and Canadians.
As a prelude to Operation Veritable, the historic town of Kleve (Cleves) was heavily bombed. Veritable proper began on 8 February 1945 with a massive artillery barrage.
When the Allies crossed the border into Germany they entered the Reichswald, a densely wooded area 10km wide and 15km deep. German units had turned the forest into a death trap. Their commanders knew that the Rhineland was the last chance to organize an effective, spirited defence before the Allies penetrated the heart of the Reich. The natural obstacles of the forest were heavily reinforced by German troops and rigged with trenches, mortar pits, barbed wire, mines and anti-tank ditches. Two major roads provided the only means of an Allied approach, while inside the forest there were virtually no other surfaced roads. The paths leading through the woods snaked and zig-zagged – ideal for laying ambushes. The British and Canadian troops were forced to advance on a narrow front, while movement was further restricted by bad weather and the control of large areas by the German army.
As at Hürtgen Forest, the wooded terrain naturally favoured the German defenders, who could only be dislodged after close-quarters combat. Deep in the forest, infantry units fought hand-to-hand, where risk, bravery and tenacity were as important as technical skill. At times, the struggles in the Reichswald resembled the battles of attrition fought between opposing trenches in World War I.
To the south, Simpson’s US Ninth Army made good progress under Operation Grenade, until the German troops flooded the lands in its path. Simpson was forced to wait two weeks for the water levels to subside. He resumed his march on 23 February 1945, and by 2 March his troops had reached the Rhine opposite Düsseldorf.
With relentless determination, the advancing troops of Operation Veritable fought their way eastward past Kleve (Cleves) to reach the Rhine opposite Emmerich. To the south, they met the US troops of Grenade at Geldern on 3 March. As the Allies approached the river, the Germans were ordered to evacuate their forces to the other bank and destroy the bridges behind them. By mid-March the Rhineland had been cleared, although at great cost, with heavy casualties to both military and civilian populations.
Montgomery would later conclude that the Germans had made three major mistakes while defending occupied Europe: fighting the battle of France south of the Seine rather than using it as a defensive line; launching a counter-offensive in the Ardennes without air support or fuel to sustain it; and lastly, deciding to stand and fight in the Rhineland – west of the river – in order to mask the Ruhr.
The Allies were finally ready to cross the Rhine, threaten the Ruhr and take the battle into the heart of Germany.
The town of Kleve (Cleves) was repeatedly bombed as part of the invasion of Germany. On 7 October 1944, a major bombardment by the RAF using Lancaster and Halifax bombers left Kleve devastated and an estimated five hundred civilians dead. The historic centre was mostly destroyed, including Schwanenburg castle and its imposing tower, the Schwanenturm. Just four months later, on 7 February 1945 (the eve of Operation Veritable), Kleve was bombed again and the upper town was ravaged. The civilian population had largely been evacuated, leaving only military personnel, members of the Hitler Youth and firefighters behind. One hundred Ukrainian slave labourers, locked in the prison on Krohnestrasse, were killed in the raid.
The Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, designed by Philip Hepworth, is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in Germany. It holds the remains of 7654 soldiers, mostly airmen from the Royal Air Force and paratroopers; 176 burials remain unidentified. Wheelchair access is possible. The cemetery is situated in the Reichswald itself, an ancient forest on the Dutch-German border and the scene of heavy fighting in February 1945.
Top image: Reichswald Forest © Shutterstock