As the year 1945 began, the Allied armies in Northwest Europe prepared for the final offensive to end the war. In the north, Field Marshal Montgomery made his plans for the main thrust to first clear the west bank of the Rhine River. In early February, the First Canadian Army, would attack south from the area of Nijmegen while the US Ninth Army would attack northwards across the Roer River, the two forces converging on Wesel to crush the German forces between them. The Allied armies would then cross the Rhine and drive hard upon Berlin.
The offensive began on February 8 with a massive artillery barrage by a thousand guns. The XXX British Corps had the difficult task of breaking through the first of three strong defensive belts. Nature turned against the attackers, however, as an early thaw set in along with rain, turning ground from the hard frozen surface needed to make a quick advance, into deep mud. The losses were far greater and the advance slower than expected as the German First Parachute Army stubbornly held onto its positions in the thick woods known as the Reichswald. On February 15, the II Canadian Corps came into the battle and struggled forward to capture the northern anchor of the main German position.
By February 22, the Germans realized that their forward positions could no longer be held and pulled back to the third and last defensive line in the Rhineland. To prevent the First Canadian Army from closing quickly on this line, he left strong forces in the outlying villages with orders to hold to the last. Here, on the plateau before the Calcar-Udem ridge, some of the best enemy forces manned strongpoints created around isolated farmhouses whose thick stone walls made them natural fortifications.
The attack to break this final position began in the early morning of February 26, with the 3rd Canadian Division ordered to capture the German's southern anchor at Udem. The 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade, with the 1st Hussars (6th Canadian Armoured Regiment) in support, was allotted the task of capturing the heavily defended village of Keppeln which covered Udem. According to the Brigade plan, the attack would begin before dawn with the capture of Mooshof and the high ground north of Keppeln by the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada. Next, the Régiment de la Chaudière was to capture Hollen on the right. When these attacks were successfully under way, the North Shore Regiment was to pass through the corridor and take Keppeln supported by the units on the high ground to either flank.
photo of Keppeln. The buildings on the left are Bomshof.
Those on the lower right are Hollen. To the right of the photo (east),
the land rises to the Udem ridge.
"C" Squadron of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment, commanded by Major J.W. Powell MC, was in support of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada. Major Powell's actions in this battle are described in the citation for the gallantry award he received.
H hour for their attack was 0430 hours, 26 February 1945. In order to ensure complete co-operation between the tanks and infantry, Major Powell moved his squadron into position the evening of the 25th of February. After discussing the plan of attack with the Commanding Officer, Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, he returned to his Squadron where he passed on the details to his troop leaders. Instead of resting during the night, he walked from tank to tank, talking to all ranks, infecting them with his determination to make the attack a success.
At 0430 hours, tanks and infantry moved forward in the dark. However, the attack did not progress as quickly as anticipated due to heavy enemy small arms, machine-gun and mortar fire. The tanks found it extremely difficult to manoeuvre due to the darkness, boggy ground, mine fields and Panzerfausts. During this time, Major Powell, moving with the forward elements, directed his Squadron ahead and, although his Squadron was suffering casualties, gave effective support.
By first light, it appeared that the attack would bog down due to the infantry being pinned to the ground by very heavy enemy fire. Realizing that the situation was becoming critical, Major Powell dismounted from his tanks and, disregarding the hail of murderous fire, contacted the infantry. Wherever and whenever the attack was held up, this officer directed his tanks in support and, although progress was slow, momentum was maintained."
Infantry casualties were so heavy that some of the companies had to be reorganized - for example, A Company on a two-platoon basis. The survivors resumed their attack at midday and the final objective on this front, the village of Steeg, was captured.
John Wilson Powell, 1st Hussars, was awarded the DSO
for his actions at Mooshof and Keppeln, Germany
Meanwhile, with dawn, the other two battalions of the 8th Brigade opened their attacks to the south. As with the QOR, they too had to advance over a thousand yards of flat farmland, devoid of cover, before coming to grips with the units of the German 6th Parachute Division who were waiting in fortified buildings. With daylight, the enemy could clearly see the Canadians and were ready to open fire when the attackers were most vulnerable.
Regardless of the lack of initial success at this point, at 0900 hours, the North Shore Regiment began its advance toward the hamlet of Keppeln. Unlike the other regiments of the brigade, however, they had no tank support because all available armour had been assigned to other attacking units. The well-concealed enemy defenders held their fire until the Canadians were only 150 yards away. At this time, with the enemy still holding out in Steeg and Hollen, the North Shore men were exposed on both flanks. The Canadians attacked three times but, facing an estimated ten German armoured vehicles in Keppeln as well as heavy machine-gun and artillery fire, could not reach the village and were pinned down about 800 yards from the outskirts.
At 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade Headquarters, Brigadier J.A. Roberts realized that the brigade was facing more difficult resistance than anticipated and the attack on Keppeln was in danger of failing. All battalions were struggling to gain ground and no reserves were available. The North Shores had to have armoured support to overcome the dug-in tanks and could only hang on in their exposed position until help arrived.
Just after dawn, Lieutenant-Colonel White, Commanding Officer of the 1st Hussars, met with Brigadier Roberts who proposed sending armoured support to help the North Shores. Lt-Col White indicated that sending tanks down a bare forward slope of 1500 yards, with enemy armour waiting for them in covered positions, would likely fail. Roberts agreed but, as no better alternative seemed possible, they would have to take this risk.
Accordingly, White immediately ordered Major J.W. Powell to extricate his "C" Squadron from supporting the Queen's Own Rifles. They were to replenish their ammunition and petrol and proceed to join up with the North Shores. Upon arrival at the infantry regiment's headquarters, Powell worked out a bold plan with the North Shore's commanding Officer, Lt-Col John Rowley. Under cover of an artillery barrage, the tanks would rush the village carrying infantry PIAT crews, to engage the enemy armour.
John William Rowley, CO,
the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment,
was awarded the DSO for his actions at Keppeln, Germany.
Such a charge was extremely hazardous as the Germans were bringing heavy fire of all types to bear whenever any sign of an attack appeared. Advancing against such a position with infantry riding on tanks was not an accepted tactic. In fact, it may have reminded some of the men of the disastrous charge by the 1st Hussars, carrying men of the Queen's Own Rifles, at Le Mesnil-Patry on 11 June 1944 which resulted in 148 Canadian casualties.
Major Powell's citation continued to describe the difficult decision that was made:
From information obtained, it was known that there were ten self-propelled guns in the village and four tanks in the outskirts. Major Powell decided that the only possible chance of success lay in mounting infantry on his remaining tanks and charging at full speed across the ground.
It was a suicidal task, but not once did Major Powell hesitate. In fact, when questioned by his Commanding Officer as to the possible success of this plan, he stated, "I don't think it's on, sir, but we'll do our best and will at least cause a diversion to enable the infantry to get forward." Several other of the tank crews remarked that they had "had it," but Major Powell's cheerfulness and determination was so noticeable, that all ranks were prepared to follow him to an almost certain death.
At approximately 1320 hours, they crossed the start line with Major Powell immediately behind the leading troop. They charged at full speed with all guns blazing. At the time, it looked as if this attack might also be a failure as tank after tank bogged down, blew up on mines, or was hit by enemy SP (self-propelled gun) fire. An extremely heavy mortar barrage was brought down by the Germans but, without faltering, the remaining tanks with the infantry charged on.
For the North Shore infantry who rode into Keppeln in that wild charge, the experience must have been daunting. The commander of the platoon selected, Lieutenant Harry Nutter, later wrote:
To say I was scared to death does not describe my condition at all. . . . We went tearing across the start line . . . the enemy immediately laid down a curtain of shell and mortar fire which we went through at all the speed the tanks could muster. . . . A German tank dug in behind the church began picking off the first tanks and I could see my men jumping off as the tanks were hit.
Major Powell's citation, describes the battle that followed in Keppeln.
Four tanks managed to reach the outskirts of the village where the infantry dismounted. One tank managed to enter the town and sweep through it. Major Powell's tank bogged down in a shell hole and became useless. One of the remaining tanks was destroyed, and the fourth bogged down. Major Powell refused to evacuate his tank, although it was a sitting target for the enemy armoured fighting vehicles and Panther tanks. He continued to direct and control the battle by wireless, insisting that the attack be pressed home.
At this time, the Regimental Headquarters troop was sent to reinforce the depleted squadron which now consisted of one mechanically fit tank. Major Powell saw their approach and realized that they too would be destroyed by hidden enemy tanks. He climbed out of his own tank and, although enemy infantry completely surrounded him, crossed the open ground to warn them off. Unfortunately, he was not able to attract their attention and all but one of this troop was destroyed.
Refusing to return to safety, Major Powell returned to his own tank where he continued to give all the support he possibly could, and fought off many enemy infantry who tried to close and destroy him. Fifteen dead Germans, subsequently found beside his tank, bear witness to this officer's great courage and drive.
Three hours later, a recovery tank arrived and managed to pull out the bogged-down tank. Major Powell immediately proceeded into the village to support the hard-pressed infantry, seeking out and destroying the enemy wherever they could be found. As dusk drew down, enemy dead littered the streets. Four enemy armoured fighting vehicles had been destroyed just outside, and three enemy armoured fighting vehicles so badly damaged that they were not able to proceed more than six hundred yards before being abandoned by their crews.
As Keppeln was of such vital importance to the enemy defence in this area, an immediate counter-attack was expected. As two more tanks had been recovered, Major Powell now had at his disposal four of his original squadron of nineteen. Without thought of retiring, despite a shortage of ammunition, he immediately took up a defensive position although subjected to terrific enemy mortar and artillery fire. He visited the infantry positions from time to time throughout the night, enquiring of their needs and inspiring them with his confidence and unwavering determination. For forty-eight hours, this officer had no rest, but not once in the long vigil of the night did he slacken or waver in his untiring effort to instill determination to hold the village at all costs. His utter disregard of the shelling and mortaring throughout the night was an inspiration to all.
During all this time, the main divisional objective, Udem, remained an constant threat, and yet so speedy and decisive was the taking of Keppeln that the whole Corps plan was successfully effected. It allowed the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade to pass through and enter Udem against minor resistance and, of even greater importance, it allowed immediately the 4th Canadian Armoured and 11th British Armoured Divisions to sweep past to the Hochwald Forest.
At 0800 on 27 February 1945, Major Powell was ordered to retire with his three remaining tanks. There is no doubt that without tanks, this attack would have failed and the speed and daring of the tank charge resulted directly in the successful completion of this operation. Major Powell's utter disregard for danger and steady determination made possible the success of a seemingly hopeless task, and his encouragement to the exhausted troops set an example which can never be surpassed. There is no praise too high for the action of the very gallant officer.
For his actions this day, General Crerar, Commander-in-Chief of the First Canadian Army, recommended that Major Powell be awarded the highest gallantry decoration, the Victoria Cross. The recommendation was not however approved by Field Marshal Montgomery and, as usual, Montgomery gave no reason for this. He did, however, award Major Powell the Distinguished Service Order.
While Major Powell was involved with the main body of tanks of the squadron, a tank commanded by Lieutenant David George Carnegie Eggo, commanding 1st Troop, had become separated and was fighting in another sector of Keppeln. His citation describes his experience throughout this period:
On 26 February 1945, at 0430 hours, "C" Squadron of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment were in support of the Queen's Own Rifles. Lieutenant David George Carnegie Eggo, a troop leader in the Squadron, was heavily engaged with his troop in the van of the attack [on Mooshof], although when the enemy brought down a heavy concentration of artillery and mortar fire, one tank was lost from his troop.
At 1030 hours, the Squadron was ordered to disengage, refill with ammunition and petrol, and assemble to assist the North Shore Regiment who had two companies pinned down by enemy fire in its attack on Keppeln. The main core of resistance came from ten known enemy tanks situated in and around the town. The Squadron attacked Keppeln immediately but, by the time Lieutenant Eggo had reached the town itself, he had lost the remainder of his troop and was out of communication with his Squadron. Although alone, he decided to enter the town from the east, but was immediately met by a hail of fire from enemy infantry, artillery, Panzerfaust and armoured fighting vehicles. So determined, however, was his advance that the enemy were forced to withdraw, leaving behind many dead and wounded. Having fought his way through the town, he returned to the North Shores and supported them in mopping up enemy strongpoints. Again, without hesitation, he attacked where resistance was the heaviest, finally taking up an anti-tank role until Keppeln was cleared.
Lieutenant Eggo's grim determination to close with and kill the enemy, without regard for his own personal safety or the odds against him, was outstanding in a brilliantly successful Squadron attack.
For his actions, Lieutenant David George Carnegie Eggo was awarded the Military Cross. Lieutenant Eggo was later wounded in action on 5 March.
A third member of the 1st Hussars was awarded a decoration for bravery this day. Sergeant Lewis John Campbell's tank had been among those in the ill-fated Headquarters Troop which ran into German anti-tank fire as they attempted to reinforce "C" Squadron.
The survivors from these crews had been under intense mortar and machine-gun fire from an enemy strongpoint three hundred yards to their left. In the lead tank which had been hit, however, the commander, Sergeant Lewis John Campbell had survived. Finding that his turret was still functioning, this NCO, with absolute disregard for his own personal safety and with the hope of drawing fire from his comrades onto himself, courageously engaged the enemy tanks and self-propelled guns with his 37-mm gun. His tank was hit again and his turret jammed. Unable to fight back, Sergeant Campbell now went to the assistance of the wounded and succeeded in carrying two back to cover.
Returning to the area just before last light, he discovered two more wounded. Unable to move them both, he climbed back into his tank and, after considerable effort, managed to repair it sufficiently to make it run. He then placed the two wounded men on the rear deck and drove them to safety. All this was accomplished under intense machine-gun, mortar and shell fire. This non-commissioned officer's actions were an unequalled example of courage, determination and devotion to duty.
For his actions at Keppeln, Sergeant Lewis John Campbell received the Military Medal.
Hybrid ICs of the 1st Hussars replenishing and refuelling
early on the morning of 26 February 1945 in preparation
for their attack on Keppeln, Germany.
The capture of Keppeln and its surrounding villages provided a secure area for the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade to launch its attack on Udem and this was successfully completed on 27 February. The way was now open for the 11th British Armoured Division to move south of the Calcar-Udem Ridge and for II Canadian Corps to begin the assault of the final German defence line, the Hochwald Layback.
The article appearing above is a condensed version of a chapter in T. Robert Fowler's recent
Valour in the Victory Campaign
The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division Gallantry Decorations
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