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Crossing of the Rhine Legacy of Liberation

By March 1945, Allied forces had pushed the Germans back to the river Rhine, the last great natural barrier separating the Allies from Germany’s industrial heartland. A daring attempt to secure a Rhine crossing at Arnhem in the Netherlands in September 1944 had ended in disaster but during the winter months that followed, the Allies continued to advance.

British troops crossing the Rhine at Wesel, 24 March 1945 © IWM

In December the German Wehrmacht launched a surprise counter-offensive through the heavily wooded country of the Ardennes. This last roll of the dice in the west momentarily threw the Allies into disarray but failed to deal a decisive blow or halt the Allied advance towards the Rhine. The losses suffered by the Germans left them with no option but to remain on the defensive from here on but Hitler’s order, that there was to be no retreat, meant that many German units would continue to fight fanatically in the defence of their homeland.

In February and March 1945, the Allied forces cleared the area between the Maas and Rhine rivers, during what became known to Commonwealth forces as the Battle of the Reichswald. Commonwealth forces were forced to fight a bitter battle with tenacious German defenders as they fought their way through the vast woodland and flooded plains of the Rhine Valley.

British Infantry advance through the Reichswald, Feb 1945 © IWM

Private James Stokes

During the fighting on 1 March 1945, Private James Stokes, 2nd Bn. King's Shropshire Light Infantry, on several occasions single handedly rushed German positions killing or capturing the defenders despite being wounded no less than eight times. In his final attempt Private Stokes was killed. For his magnificent courage and devotion to duty the 30-year-old was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was later buried in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Plot 62. Row E. Grave 14.

Major Ronald Edmond Balfour

With the Reichswald cleared, Commonwealth forces had to battle their way across the flooded plains to the left bank of the Rhine and the medieval town of Kleve. Major Ronald Edmond Balfour, a 41-year-old medieval historian and a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, attached to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (of Monuments Men fame) was killed by shellfire on 10 March while rescuing artefacts of artistic and cultural significance from the town. He was later buried in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Plot 46. Row F. Grave 7.

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of 21st Army Group, which consisted of British, Canadian, American, Polish, Dutch, Belgian, and Czech units, planned a meticulous operation to cross the Rhine. Opposed river crossings are one of the most dangerous and difficult military operations, and with U.S. troops already across the Rhine to the south, having unexpectedly captured the bridge at Remagen, Montgomery was going to leave nothing to chance.

British troops advance through ruins of Kleve, Feb 1945 © IWM

In the weeks before the assault, some 250,000 tons of supplies were stockpiled, veteran formations were brought in for the assault and their troops thoroughly trained. Artillery of prodigious proportions, some 5,500 Commonwealth and American guns, were amassed while engineers prepared bridging material. Amphibious tanks and assault vehicles were assembled, and landing craft brought from the coast. The Allied Air forces targeted German defenders and communication routes, sealing off the battlefield from reinforcement.

On 23 March at 17:00 the Allied artillery began their bombardment of the German positions on the far side of the Rhine. Leading the attack were men of the 51st Highland Division. At 21:00, the assaulting highlanders, riding in Buffalo amphibious vehicles, entered the water opposite Rees, under cover of a smoke screen and supported by D.D. amphibious tanks. Initial resistance was light, the defenders paralysed by the shock and ferocity of the Allied bombardment, and by first light the Highlanders had entered the town.

Men of 51st Highland Division Cross the Rhine, Rees 24 March 1945 © IWM

Marine Leonard George Rider

An hour after the Highlanders began their assault, the elite 1st Commando Brigade began crossing downstream of the city of Wesel, the centre of the Allied attack. Not long after, RAF bombers arrived, dropping 1,100 tons of explosives and destroying the city to such an extent that the maps issued to the attacking commandos proved of little use in the confused tangle of blasted ruins. The commandos fought their way around the city and attacked the surviving German defenders from the rear. During the battle Marine Leonard George Rider of No. 46 Royal Marine Commando, a docker from Barking, East London, was killed alongside his comrade Marine Sam Durose. They were later laid to rest in the same grave in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Plot 62. Row A. Joint Grave 8-9.

At 02:00 on 24 March, the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division crossed from Xanten, landing between Wesel and Rees, while the U.S. divisions began their attack to the south of Wesel. The Scots met with mixed opposition. In places, weak German units were quickly overrun, but the defenders belonging to the 7th Parachute Division proved more formidable and as the sky began to lighten, first objectives were still being fought for.

Men of 15th (Scottish) Division crossing the Rhine, 24 March 1945 © IWM

Major-General Tom Rennie

At dawn, the 51st Highlanders (reinforced by the Canadian 9th Brigade) captured the cathedral in Rees following a fierce battle. As morning wore on, along the line the situation was mixed. Some units had advanced swiftly capturing ground and prisoners with relative ease, while others were still held up on their first objectives by fanatical German troops or were being heavily counter attacked. The 51st Division's commander, Major-General Tom Rennie, a veteran of the Battle of France in June 1940, during which he had been captured by the Germans but managed to escape, and of the Western Desert, Sicily and Normandy campaigns, crossed the river to check on his men and assess the situation. As he dismounted from his Jeep a German mortar round landed nearby killing the 45-year-old General. He was later laid to rest in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Plot 61. Row D. Grave 1.

Shortly before 10:00, the thunderous Allied artillery bombardment went silent only to be replaced by the drone of aeroengines as 1,500 aircraft and 1,300 gliders of Operation Varsity, the coded name for the Allied airborne landings across the Rhine, approached the battlefield. Some 17,000 British and American paratroopers landed behind enemy lines to capture key objectives, including several crossings over the River Issel, and disrupt enemy artillery and communications. Lessons had been learned from Arnhem and the airborne forces landed close enough that by early afternoon they began to link up with the advancing ground forces. Despite this the airborne forces suffered heavy casualties as they battled first to take, and then hold, their objectives from enemy counterattack.

Glider troops & War Correspondent for Daily Telegraph resting at rendezvous point, 24 March 1945 © IWM

Private John William Riddell

Amongst them was Private John William Riddell, 8th Bn., The Parachute Regiment, A.A.C. from Nuneaton, Warwickshire. A bricklayer in civilian life John initially joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1942, but later volunteered for the Parachute Regiment and saw action in Normandy. He was killed during the fighting near Hamminkein. He was 22 years old and was later laid to rest in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Plot 32. Row B. Grave 8.

By nightfall, all organised resistance west of the Issel was over and German counterattacks had been thrown off. The isolated bridgeheads were beginning to link up with the forces to either side and with the airborne forces ahead of them. By midnight the first light bridge was constructed over the Rhine by the Royal Engineers.

Royal Engineers laying last planks on Class 40 Bridge across the Rhine, 25 March 1945 © IWM

On the morning of 25 March, having fought off further counterattacks during the night, the Allies began to expand their bridgeheads as further Allied formations, including armoured divisions, began to cross. Despite pockets of determined German resistance, by 27 March the Allied bridgehead over the Rhine was 35 miles wide and extended to an average depth of 20 miles. German resistance had virtually collapsed as three Allied armies fanned out across the north German plain – the Canadians turning north into the Netherlands, the British advancing northeast toward the German coast, and the Americans east into the Ruhr valley.

British 7th Armoured Division advance through Brunen, 29 March 1945 © IWM

The German army in the west was shattered, and while the fighting was far from over, there followed a period of near continual Allied advance into Germany until the war in Europe came to an end in May 1945. The Crossing of the Rhine had cost 21st Army Group nearly 4,000 Commonwealth and 2,800 American servicemen killed, missing and wounded, while more than 16,000 German soldiers had been taken prisoner.

Reichswald Forest War Cemetery © CWGC

Today, many of the Commonwealth servicemen who died during the battle lay in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, where some 7,600 servicemen of the Second World War are buried, 175 of whom remain unidentified. The cemetery was created after the war when burials were brought in from all over western Germany and is the largest CWGC cemetery in Germany. Many of the graves are grouped together by branch of service, with the army, air forces and airborne servicemen laying side by side with their comrades.

Serjeant Egon Vogel

SERVED AS ERNEST ROBERT VILLIERS

Egon Vogel was born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany on 7 September 1918. At some point Egon came to Britain, likely in the late 1930’s following the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party’s anti-Jewish policies. Egon moved to London where he lived at 100 Sutton Court Road, Chiswick with a Mr Leonard Hurrell, a Metropolitan police officer, and his wife Margarita. He worked for a Mr T. G. Jones of Wood Lane, Shepherds Bush as a ‘trainee plater’ presumably of metalwork.

3 Troop No 10 Inter-Allied Commando, 1943, Egon circled.

At the beginning of the war only a few ‘enemy aliens’ were interred by the British government, and Egon was initially deemed not to be a threat. However, in the panic which gripped Britain following the fall of France in 1940, Egon was in interred in June. In July he was transported to Australia onboard SS Dunera along with 2,500 other internees, mostly German or Italian ‘enemy aliens’, many of them Jewish. Their treatment onboard ship by their British guards was deplorable, many being abused, beaten and their possessions stolen or cast overboard. After two months at sea they reached Australia. The British government would later pay compensation to the Dunera internees in recognition of their maltreatment. Egon was released and allowed to return to Britain in December 1941.

Despite everything he had endured, Egon joined the British Army and was selected for service with the Commandos. He joined No.3 Troop of No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, sometimes referred to as ‘X Troop’. The men of ‘X troop’ were recruited mainly from ‘enemy aliens’ mostly German, Austrian and eastern European Jews, and were selected for their language skills. In addition to the usual rigorous commando training, the men of ‘X troops’ were given additional training in intelligence work as they were to act as interpreters and interrogators to be attached to other units. The ‘X troop’ recruits assumed English ‘Nommes de Guerre’, literally a ‘name of war’, and listed British friends as their next of kin to disguise their origins in case they were captured by the Nazis. And so, the German Jew Egon Vogel became the British Christian Ernest Robert Villiers and possibly listed Mr & Mrs Hurrell as his next of kin.

Egon was promoted to serjeant and served during Operation Overlord in 1944 where he was wounded on 23 June at Sallenelles. Egon recovered and took part in Operation Plunder, where he was attached to 46 Royal Marine Commando. On the night of 23 April, he crossed the Rhine downstream from Wesel. It is believed that Egon was wounded during an incident which killed two other marines, Marines Leonard Rider and Sam Durose, while trying to outflank Wesel. Egon was evacuated for medical treatment but died the following day. He was 25 years old. He was later buried in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Plot 62. Row B. Grave 2. close by to Marines Rider and Durose who are buried in, Plot 62. Row A. Joint Grave 8-9.

Egon’s headstone bears the inscription: IN PROUD, LOVING MEMORY OF OUR DEAR SON ERNEST. NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN BY THE HURRELLS - his headstone openly and proudly displaying the symbol of his faith; a star of David.

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum, John William Riddell's family and Colin Anson & Commando Veteran Archives.