Battle of Ortona in Italy is regarded as the most famous example
of Canadian urban warfare, but in April 1945, a much larger
battle was fought in the streets of Groningen, in the northern
part of The Netherlands. While the battle in Ortona proper, in
December 1943, saw only two Canadian battalions committed, all
nine rifle battalions of the Second Canadian Division would
become embroiled in the fighting in Groningen.
battle has been well researched by Mister Ralph Dykstra; the
thesis for his Master of Arts degree was condensed into an
article entitled The Liberation of Groningen - An Urban
Battlefield and condensed into a well-illustrated article in
Volume 5, Number 3 of THE ARMY DOCTRINE AND TRAINING BULLETIN.
Some of the material in that article, as well as some of the
illustrations, have been used as the basis of the research for
this page. Also of use was the battalion's War Diary,
Battalion of Heroes by Dr. David Bercuson, and The
Brigade by Dr. Terry Copp.
The Final Phase of the War in Northwest Europe
River Rhine was considered the last major physical barrier
between the Allied armies and the heart of Germany itself.
During the battles on the near side of the Rhine, the Canadian
Army suffered heavily, losing over 5,000 officers and men
clearing the approaches to the River. The Calgary Highlanders
suffered over 40 men killed and many times that wounded during
the fighting in February and March 1945.
The Canadian Situation in April 1945
With the arrival in NW
Europe of the two Canadian divisions and one armoured brigade
that had fought in Italy, the Canadian Army was finally fighting
under a unified command when they crossed the Rhine in late
March. The Canadians would leave German soil quickly after the
Rhine crossing and again find themselves fighting to liberate
Dutch territory. By April all five Canadian divisions were
well north of the Rhine. To the Second Canadian Division fell
the task of liberating Groningen, with the Third Division on
their left flank moving towards the province of Friesland, with
both the 4th and 5th Canadian Armoured Divisions on their right.
The city of Groningen
was the capital of Groningen province, and is described as an
"old Hansiatic, medieval university town." In 1940 the
population had been 124,000 but in 1945 was well over 150,000
due to an influx of refugees from the southern Netherlands
provinces where the Allies had been fighting since September
1944 and the unsuccessful bid to cross the Rhine at Arnhem.
city of Groningen had an inner city built in the late medieval
period with narrow streets often limited to one-way traffic, and
lined with apartments and buildings set close and solidly
constructed of brick, ranging from three to five stories in
height, arranged in a 15th-16th Century street pattern. This
inner city was completely enclosed by a wide canal, and 12
bridges (three per side) were the only access to the inner city
during peacetime; by April 1945 many of these bridges had been
destroyed, or simply raised by the Germans to render them
city as a whole had several canals entering from the south and
the west, which would also be obstacles to movement to soldiers
approaching from those directions - as the Canadians had to do
in April 1945. In all, the city covered an area running about
4.5 kilometres from west to east, and 3 kilometres from north to
south. This built-up area included the suburbs constructed in
more recent times around the inner ring canal.
The southern approaches to the city were dominated
by a large railway station (pictured at right).
The eastern boundary of the city contained a
municipal hospital and an electrical power station.
The northeastern portion of the city contained a
natural gas power station.
Two large municipal parks dominated the western and
southern approaches to the city, and there were several
tall water towers, factories and church spires which could
be used as enemy observation posts.
The German Situation in April 1945
The city of
Groningen marked the edge of a large belt of anti-aircraft
guns running from Emden in Germany to Groningen itself,
within which some 21 batteries of anti-aircraft guns were
emplaced. Two of these batteries were located at the
eastern edge of Groningen. The vast and complex defensive
system built by the Germans in this area was part of the
WESTWALL barrier that Hitler himself had ordered built in
To the north of Groningen, the island of Borkum was
turned into a fortress with 12 fully manned anti-aircraft
and naval gun batteries ranging in size from 8.8 cm to 28
cm. The defensive network to the west was also
considerable, and thousands of German troops were moving
steadily towards Delfzijl, in a bid to cross the Ems
Estuary to their homeland.
8.8cm Anti-Aircraft gun, manned by German Air
The Enemy in
number of enemy troops defending Groningen has never been properly
identified, but is estimated based on recent research to have
consisted of over 7000 men, perhaps as high as 7500. As was common in
the German military, in the absence of a unified formation such as a
Regiment (or brigade, in Canadian terms), a mixed force of all
available personnel was pressed into service. Members of all the
traditional armed services were present - the Heer (Army),
Luftwaffe (Air Force), and Kriegsmarine (Navy) all
had soldiers among the garrison in Groningen. Significantly, there
were also members of the SS, both ethnic Germans and Dutch
nationals. Finally, many of the defenders actually belonged to
non-military or para-military organizations such as the
Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), German railway personnel, and
members of the SD (or Sicherheitsdienst) - the
German Security Service, whose headquarters for all the northern Dutch
provinces was located in Groningen.
municipal parks were defended, and the high points mentioned
above (spires, factories, water towers) were found to often
contain weapons emplacements. The enemy could boast no armour,
but heavy weapons included single, twin and quadruple mounted
20-mm FlaK (anti-aircraft) guns which could be used
devastatingly against troops on the ground.
enemy also fielded large numbers of the excellent MG42 general
purpose machine gun, and large numbers of the Panzerfaust
- a rocket propelled anti-tank grenade that could also be used
to great effect against troops behind hard cover (such as is
found in an urban setting) or even troops in the open using a
fragmentation attachment to the warhead.
network of roads and smaller passages in the city, along with
the many water barriers, obviously favoured the defence. The
Germans in the area had also been in position long enough to
gain familiarity with the ground, and also improve the defences.
The low lying areas to the east were inundated and beginning in
September 1944 the Germans had forced all Dutch males aged 16 to
60 to build trenches, anti-tank ditches and weapons pits along
the canal banks. Bunkers were also constructed to cover the
However, on 5 April 1945 - unbeknownst to Canadian intelligence
- the German 480th Infantry Division left the area by train -
presumably for Germany - and left behind the motley garrison
described above, which was far too small to take proper
advantage of the impressive belt of defensive works in place
of Groningen was thus an objective for several reasons
4.5 million Dutch civilians in the west had been cut off from all food
supplies since September 1944 and the battles at Arnhem. Many Dutch
civilians were nearing the point of starvation. The northern
provinces were the bread basket of the west and clearing the Germans
from the area would facilitate the relief of the starving millions -
primarily by opening the port of Delfzijl to allow for relief convoys
to bring supplies to the city. There were also German U-Boats still
operating from the Ems Channel, and closing their access to the sea
was also of great importance.
150,000 civilians were still living in German occupation in the city
Militarily, the area could not simply be "masked" as the port
facilities in France had been. The entire area was a heavily
fortified German garrison that would need to be reduced piece by
piece. The existence of Dutch SS troops in the city made
forcing a surrender unlikely even in the event that the city could be
commander of the 2nd Canadian Division had decided that, due to the
presence of so many civilians, no aerial or artillery bombardments of
the city would be permitted. The nature of the terrain also precluded
effective use of indirect weapons. The German garrison would thus have
to be engaged at close quarters by infantry on the ground.
The Canadian Plan
25-pounders of the three field regiments comprising the
divisional artillery (4th, 5th and 6th Field Regiments, Royal
Canadian Artillery) were used primarily on targets on the
eastern edge of the city, to prevent German troops from
retreating to Delfzijl and continuing their escape to Germany
proper. The guns themselves were set up at Eelde, about 10
kilometres from the city.
The Fort Garry Horse
was tasked to support the division, and provided 50 Sherman
tanks, as well as a small number of Stuart light tanks.
battle was joined when the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, riding
on the tanks of the Fort Garry Horse, approached the city from
the south. Easily breaching the under-manned defensive works,
the battalion was halted by resistance from a fortified
municipal park and a sugar beet factory, as well as other houses
lining the street. The next morning, the Royal Regiment of
Canada assisted them in clearing a bridge and approaching their
objective - the inner ring canal. It took all day to reach that
position, after which the RHLI were withdrawn, having suffered
11 dead and many more wounded.
At this point, the Canadians realized the enemy was very determined
and a stronger, and different approach, was going to be needed to take the
city. The Black Watch and Calgary Highlanders of the 5th Brigade were
ordered to attack from the northwest while the Maisonneuves were tasked to
capture the sugar beet factory.
The 4th Brigade
were ordered to seize a canal crossing while the 6th Brigade passed through
to secured the Great Square in the centre of town.
Calgary Highlanders' Plan
Prior to the
attack, the Intelligence Officer telephoned from Hoogkerk to a drug store in
Groningen that lay in the path of the Calgary Highlanders' planned assault.
According to Farran's history, he was "told by a puzzled voice on the
other end that while most of the local inhabitants were hiding in cellars
waiting for the fighting to end, a strong force of Germans and Dutch Nazis
were still holding the city."
Officer - Major W.D. "Dalt" Heyland, in acting command of the battalion -
planned to advance in two stages, with "D" Company moving on the north side
of the main canal leading from Hoogkerk, then securing a bridge that crossed
a lateral canal. The second stage would see the rest of the battalion
moving through "D" Company, crossing the open ground in front of Groningen,
and carrying on into the city. "C" Company would then secure a canal
crossing in the city itself for the Black Watch who would pass through. The
Brigade plan then called for the Maisonneuves to move to the right and
secure two railway bridges along the southern axis of advance while the
Black Watch fanned out to the east.
Thursday, 14 April 1945
war diary described the weather as "cloudy and cold."
The battalion crossed the
Brigade Start Point, moving in the following order
Captain "Nobby" Clarke
mounted on Support Company's vehicles
Captain Sandy Pearson
Major "Dalt" Heyland
Captain Mark Tennant
Captain Bill Lyster
The unit arrived
at a new concentration area (map reference 215074 on sheet 2805).
Officer, with the Intelligence Officer and the artillery representative
Major K. Degin, attended a Brigade Orders Group.
A Battalion "O"
Group was held, and the battalion was given its orders to seize the town of
Hoogkerk and a bridge, in order to attack Groningen from the west.
company, accompanied by a troop of tanks (a troop generally contained four
or five tanks) advanced on the village from the south, followed closely by
the other companies. Tactical HQ "moved in bounds" to map reference
185125. The town was reported clear in short order - there had been no
resistance, and Tactical HQ was moved to the Town Hall offices (map
was then directed to attack Groningen, with "D" Company in the lead. A
patrol was sent to reconnoiter the south side of the canal, under Sergeant
Potts. The patrol brought back two German prisoners, and had accounted for
"at least 6 dead and wounded" Germans. While Hoogkerk had been a "walk-up",
it was clear now that Groningen would not be.
Tennant led "D" Company against Groningen. Nearing a crossroads, they came
under fire from a multi-barrelled 20mm anti-aircraft gun. Major Heyland
rushed forward to help co-ordinate mortar and artillery fire on the enemy
position. Enemy small arms fire was considerable, but no casualties were
suffered by the Calgary Highlanders as they moved on their objectives within
Groningen; this task was complete by 1800. Some twenty German prisoners
were taken. During the "D" Company attack, the rest of the battalion found
time to feed the remaining companies.
In the face of
heavy small arms fire, "A" and "B" Companies attacked further into the city,
reaching their objectives by 2030 hrs. They found themselves about five
blocks from a cluster of university buildings on the west side of the ring
canal, and were ordered to stand fast for the night. "C" Company worked
north to the railway bridge, finding the drawbridge locked in a raised
position by the Germans.
were now on their objectives and sending patrols forward. Tactical HQ could
be moved into the city (map reference 193141) and the total number of
prisoners was recorded in the battalion war diary as 25.
The Black Watch
war diary recorded the following for this day:
As we moved
up the main axis we could hear the explosions and see the smoke from
demolitions in the environs of the city. The CALGARY HIGHLANDERS met no
opposition in HOOGKERK and after we had pancaked in the town around 1700
hrs. they moved on towards the city. During the afternoon and evening this
unit secured about 35 prisoners from the various parts of HOOGKERK. "D"
Company received a civilian report of some enemy in their neighbourhood and
went out hunting for them with negative results. "B" Company on the other
hand had 16 prisoners come in to them of their own accord, carrying a red
cross flag at the head of their group.
15 April 1945
continued to be cloudy, cold and windy on the 15th. Bercuson's history
relates there was a slight drizzle that day which mixed with the smoke of
several burning buildings. The 4th Brigade had managed to seize a canal
crossing in the south while the 6th Brigade had pushed through mounted on
Kangaroo Armoured Personnel Carriers to reach the Great Square. The Germans
and Dutch SS held the north of the square in force, siting machine guns in
basement windows and snipers in the upper levels of office buildings and
apartments. Many of the buildings on the north side of the square had to be
demolished; the anti-tank guns of the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment proved to be of
use in the fighting in Groningen also.
"C" Company had
been able to establish a bridghead north of the canal, allowing for the
Black Watch to easily put two companies through them into the city. The "C"
Company men crossed over on several barges that were found anchored in the
canal and a small party moved aside a roadbloack and set up in a commercial
building overlooking the canal, setting up a Bren Gun and started a rotation
- two men awake for two hours, then asleep for four - for the rest of the
Again, from the war diary of
the Black Watch:
with ...the CALGARY HIGHLANDERS while passing through them, (our officers)
ascertained that that unit had managed to find a means of crossing the
canal, and they decided to take advantage of it, rather than go the long way
around. Major J.F.BAILEY and Captain. E.D. PRICE with Sergeant MAY of... the
CALGARY HIGHLANDERS crossed the canal in a rowboat to see for themselves,
and upon their return they decided to take their companies across at this
companies being fed at first light, a huddle was called and further
objectives were laid on. "C" Company was ordered to abandon their
bridgehead and withdraw south of the canal into the Calgary Highlanders'
area, to rejoin the battalion for the renewed push east.
The 5th Brigade
were ordered to continue their advance from the west. While the Black Watch
were to clear the city to the northeast and north of the ring canal, the
Calgary Highlanders were to continue to fight their way up to the ring canal
from the west, clearing that part of the city including the university
grounds and a German naval headquarters.
prisoners of war that had been held overnight by both "A" and "C" Companies
were sent back.
Company, under Sandy Pearson, started the next leg of the attack, with
the company objectives being a series of blocks of apartment houses.
The apartments were three stories tall with each apartment having
about four room. Many civilians were found in the buildings, as were
companies were on their objectives, having taken 160 more prisoners.
The war diary records that "Casualties were surprisingly light for
this type of house to house, room to room battles."
HQ moved to a new location (map reference 207141) and the remainder of
the blocks in front of them were outlined as objectives. By last
light, all companies had cleaned up their areas with "slight
opposition" and had netted in all about 400 enemy prisoners.
an unidentified Second Division Highland regiment photographed during
the fighting in Groningen. Note the number of civilians in the
Frank Holm of "B" Company described an incident involving the
proximity of civilians to the fighting in his autobiography A
of our machine gunners set up his Bren gun in a kind of bay window in
the front of the living room. He had the bipod of the Bren resting on
a small hardwood table and he was firing through the bay window at a
German vehicle down towards the end of the street...(The lady of the
house) must have been so bewildered that she wasn't really aware of
what was going on around her. Seeing this Bren gunner in the process
of ruining her little hardwood table with his wretched Bren gun, she
handed him a little cushion and asked him to put it under the legs of
the gun, which he obligingly did. Then she handed him a cup of coffee
which he graciously accepted and then continued to fire on the German
vehicle down the street. Unbelievable!
an unidentified unit photographed during the fighting in Groningen; a
civilian is serving beverages and snacks.
casualty was suffered during the two days of fighting - Private Regan
Raymond Dallaire was killed on the 15th of April
and is buried in
Hoogkerk-(Kerkstraat) General Cemetery, Holland in Grave C. 8. 22.
His service number (C94415) indicates he originally served with Number Nine
Detachment of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps.
list printed in Bercuson's regimental history lists only four wounded men,
all private soldiers, all wounded on the 15th.
||Remained on duty, second
||William P. Krysko
||Y. Vander Linden
Highlanders' role in the battle for Groningen was primarily one of opening a
pathway for the rest of the 5th Brigade into the city. The entire Second
Division would eventually be engaged in the battle as shown in the map
battle, the Canadian Provost Corps announced that 95 officers and 5117 other
ranks of the enemy had been captured at Groningen. It was estimated in 1951
after extensive research that 130 Germans lost their lives during the
fighting. The approximately 2000 remaining enemy soldiers of the garrison
managed to make good their escape to Delfzijl.
may very well have contributed to the defence of Delfzijl - the 5th Canadian
(Armoured) Division fought their final battles for the port's defences on
1-2 May, taking 3000 prisoners and ensuring the last bit of the mainland of
northern Holland was finally free of enemy soldiers.
Highlanders spent three more days in Groningen.
Saturday 16 April 1945
Clear and warm
weather greeted the Highlanders after a "night of peace, if not quiet." The
battalion was ordered to put a battle group of two companies on Kangaroos (armoured
personnel carriers), tanks and universal carriers once a "suitable route out
could be found." The Carrier Platoon, however, was unable to find a route
due to blown bridges and road blocks. Contact was made with a party of
enemy troops at one bridge (map reference 176189) at 1600 hrs, and when they
returned with that info were sent out again at 2030. They returned once
more at 2130 reporting no enemy found.
meantime, plans for the 17th were being formed to include the entire
battalion, with a troop of tanks and Kangaroos to lift the entire leading
company. The plan was to set off at 0130 on the 17th. The Knights of
Columbus provided a movie and canteen service in the "C" Company area, and
at 2230 hrs the operation for the 17th was cancelled.
and "very warm" day was spent in Groningen. "C" Company was compelled to
mount guard on a German hospital where enemy wounded were being treated by
their own medical personnel; the guard was to ensure their safety from the
civilian population. The Knights of Columbus again provided a "picture
show" for the troops in the evening.
reveille was appreciated by all" according to the war diary; general
cleaning up was conducted while Support Company carried out the usual
maintenance on weapons and vehicles, and the battalion was finally ordered
out of Groningen, with the move to be conducted at 0825 hrs the next day.
Highlanders would be leaving the Netherlands once more for Germany.
of Groningen have not forgotten the efforts of the liberators. A number of
plaques at sites throughout the city commemorate the battle. In 1995, on the
50th anniversary of the fighting, six hectares of land were set aside as a
liberation park. Today, the park boasts maple trees, a large monument in the
shape of a Canadian maple leaf, and plaques bearing the names of the
regiments that fought at Groningen. In June 2010, as the last stop on a ten
day regimental battlefield pilgrimage, 80+ soldiers, musicians and friends
of the regiment were invited by the people of Groningen to assemble for a
service at a church adjacent to the park, followed by a procession,
wreath-laying and short ceremony of remembrance.
Flags fly over the monument to the Canadian
regiments in the memorial park at Groningen in June 2010.
Pipers of The Calgary Highlanders look on.