Hallowed Ground: The Reichswald, Germany | HistoryNet MENU

Hallowed Ground: The Reichswald, Germany

By David T. Zabecki
10/31/2017 • Military History Magazine

The 1945 Battle of the Reichswald was for Anglo-Canadian forces what the earlier Battle of the Hürtgen Forest had been for American troops. The British attack through the densely wooded and tenaciously defended northern sector of the Siegfried Line (aka Westwall) only lasted from February 8 to March 11. But in those four short weeks the 200,000 British and Canadian troops committed to the attack suffered 23,000 casualties. Of the 90,000 German defenders, 38,000 were killed or wounded and 52,000 were captured. Fierce and bloody combat wasn’t the only thing the back-to-back forest battles had in common. One of the key American failures in the Hürtgen Forest, some 110 miles to the south, resulted directly in a major operational problem for the British in the Reichswald.

Formally known as the Klever Reichswald, the 13,000- acre forest is a former hunting preserve of the Holy Roman Empire. It sits between the Rhine and Maas rivers, near the Dutch-German border. The Dutch town of Nijmegen, primary objective of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division during the earlier Operation Market Garden, lies about six miles west of the forest. The German town of Kleve (known in English as Cleves, home of Anne, fourth wife of England’s King Henry VIII) sits at the northeast corner of the Reichswald, on the edge of the Rhine floodplain.

The clearing of the Reichswald was the opening phase of Operation Veritable, the advance of General Henry Crerar’s Canadian First Army to the Rhine. The plan called for the Canadians to push across the German-Dutch border, secure Kleve and then pivot south between the Rhine and the Maas. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. William Hood Simpson’s U.S. Ninth Army would launch Operation Grenade, the southern arm of the huge pincer, by crossing the Rur, advancing toward the Rhine and then turning northeast. As the two Allied field armies converged, they were to cut off and destroy German forces and secure jump-off points to cross the Rhine.

Reinforcing Crerar’s First Army, which comprised one British and two Canadian corps, was Lt. Gen. Sir Brian Horrock’s British XXX Corps. Opposing them was General of Parachute Troops Alfred Schlemm’s First Parachute Army of Army Group H. Schlemm had a heavy antitank battalion and four divisions in various states of readiness, including the 7th Parachute Division. His main reserve was General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVIII Panzer Corps, which controlled the 15th Panzergrenadier Division and the 116th Panzer Division, venerable veterans of the Bulge and the Hürtgen Forest. Lüttwitz’s forces, however, were below half-strength and fielded no more than 90 tanks. Schlemm’s primary objective was to prevent the Allies from seizing the bridgeheads over the lower Rhine.

Aerial strikes and a five-hour artillery barrage preceded the Allied attack on February 8. Commonwealth troops then advanced against the western edge of the forest, with the Canadian 3rd and 2nd, Scottish 15th, Welsh 53rd and Highland 51st divisions from north to south. The two reserve echelons comprised two infantry and two armored divisions. Contrary to the repeated American attacks in the Hürtgen Forest, which involved too few forces for the operational space, the British tried to pack too many forces into their 6-mile-wide attack sector. Only two main routes cut through the Reichswald, and an early thaw had turned the forest floor into a sea of mud. The attack quickly bunched up and bogged down. The Germans compounded the Allies’ problems by opening the floodgates on the Maas, inundating the surrounding countryside. Schlemm made good use of the delays to move up his few tanks and antitank guns.

The U.S. Ninth Army’s supporting attack stalled almost as soon as it started. On February 9 German defenders near the town of Schmidt in the Hürtgen Forest blew the floodgates of the massive Schwammenauel Dam on the Rur. Control of those dams had been the single most important objective of fighting in the Hürtgen campaign. The river immediately overflowed and flooded the Rhine plain, stalling the Ninth dead in its tracks for two weeks. As the Germans in the Reichswald fought on, they withdrew their forces to the east bank of the Rhine, destroying the last bridges on March 10.

Though now bounded by towns and industrial centers on either side of the German-Dutch border, the Reichswald itself has changed little in the 66 years since the battle. Traces of German trench lines and fighting positions remain visible throughout the forest. Near its southern edge sprawls the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, one of the largest cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [www.cwgc .org]. Most of the 7,654 gravesites contain or commemorate soldiers and airmen of the British Commonwealth. But also resting there alongside their wartime allies are 73 Poles and one American, U.S. Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Edmund F. Boyle.

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