In February 1945, there was little left for most of the Wehrmacht to go home to. The Soviets were an unstoppable juggernaut rumbling out of the East and overrunning desperate outnumbered Nazis. The Allies had opened a second front in Occupied France and were squeezing the Nazis out of Western Europe. The Nazi’s lost their western ports, thusly they suffered an attenuated supply line, factories that were cramped desperate underground organizations and most of the countryside was in a state of perpetual anomie. Few know that the heroes who opened the gate into Germany were really Canadian and British forces who were the first to cross the Rhine at Xanten. The Nazis of course stole the Rhineland because Hitler felt it had been once German land, and now a replevin made possible by the Treaty of Versailles. As I have stated before, the Wehrmacht could hurt you as badly in retreat as they could on the offensive. They were well organized, highly disciplined, blooded and ideologically motivated to bring down as many invaders as they could. This was the irony. After having invaded a dozen or more countries and inflicting millions of casualties, they now saw themselves as victims, defending the homeland.
The Battle of Hochwald Gap was almost as big as Normandy, but with three times the number of casualties. The Canadians assembled a force of 90,000 infantry, 1300 artillery guns and over 1000 tanks, most attached to the Canadian 2nd Division. They faced a force of about 10,000, with a handful of Panzer Mk. Vs, less than 100 Panzer Mk. VIs and a handful of PAK 28 anti tank guns. The Battle itself a was masterpiece of defensive combat by Germans who intimately knew their own territory and set up one tank trap after another. Outnumbered hopelessly, the German fought about as well one could expect.
The Canadians, under the Command of Guy Simmonds, had M4 Shermans armed with a short-barreled 75mm gun and just 2 inches of armor. One in five of the Canadian tanks were Fireflies, basically an M4 Sherman with a British 17 pounder, capable of stopping a Panzer. The short-barreled 75 mm could do little against the Tigers or the Panthers firing against their front plating armor. That said, they had ten times the number of tanks, and like Stalin said “Quantity is a quality all itself”.
The plan was to move from the Dutch/German border to the Xanten the last town on the western side of the Rhine. Hochwald was a heavily wooded redoubt with a wide road running through the middle; to get there the Canadian commander decided to take nearby Calcar and Uden. Those elevated vantage points would allow the Canadians to punch through the Hochwald Gap and force the Germans back to Xanten. The British were pushing through German defenses to hook up with the Canadians. The operation that Simmonds put together, Operations Blockbuster, was an attempt to take the heights around Xanten and Uden at night. Unfortunately there were three major things-that-go-wrong.
One was the weather. The rains began in the spring and the ground on the open Rhineland became an impassable, oatmeal-like morass. The second problem was a series of small dams that the Germans destroyed to flood the farmlands. The third problem was the Germans had prepared the battlefield and dug deep tank traps, mine fields and left only thin roads for The Canadian armor to move through. All those roads were zeroes in by static antitank guns, many hidden in the tree lines surrounding the battlefields.
On February 26th, the Canadians began the offensive with a 700 artillery tube salute that went on for hours. In World War II artillery fire was mostly a rough guess. They simply did not have the targeting and acquisition systems that armies are so used to. The barrage did little to help the Canadians who were mostly bogged down and pushing slowly through kill zones. In the first two and half weeks, the Germans sent 8000 Canadians to their demise or to field hospitals. The superior guns of the Panthers, Tigers and even the 5-inch 200-yard Panzer Faust decimated Canadian Shermans as they punched through the forests.
The best the Canadian could hope to do was outnumber and overwhelm the 63-ton Panzers, or perhaps score a shot through their underbellies or through the softer plating armor on the sides and backs of the turrets. There was a weakness in between the turret and chassis of the Tiger tanks and once that was breached with an armor piercing or HEAT round the fight was over.
Canadian armor was caught in lines on carefully crafted roads. The Germans took out the front tank and then the rear tank and calmly took out the tanks trapped in the middle. Or, perched on camouflaged redoubts, Tiger tanks and anti-tank guns made short work of Shermans caught in Tank traps.
It didn’t all go badly for the Canadians. Although the battle raged for days, the weather eventually cleared and Typhoon fighters used their rockets and 20mm guns to grind down German armor. By the time the Canadians had captured the heights around the Hochwald Gap and pushed through the woods, the Germans hightailed it. The door was open and entire Allied army corps poured into the country. There were some 5300 casualties suffered by the Canadians.
One of the largest tank battles ever fought is hardly ever mentioned in history texts, and the heroes are rarely given the notice they are due. Less than two months after the battle Hitler killed himself and Germany capitulated.