The 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.
The 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
The 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.
The 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 inoperative.
The 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 September 1944.
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.
The Enemy in Groningen
The total 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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 main bridges.
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 around Groningen.
Why attack Groningen?
The city of Groningen was thus an objective for several reasons
a) Some 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.
b) Some 150,000 civilians were still living in German occupation in the city
c) 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 surrounded.
d) The 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
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.”
The Commanding 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
The battalion war diary described the weather as “cloudy and cold.”
The battalion crossed the Brigade Start Point, moving in the following order:
“A” Company- Captain “Nobby” Clarke, mounted on Support Company’s vehicles
“B” Company- Captain Sandy Pearson
Tactical Headquarters- Major “Dalt” Heyland
“D” Company- Captain Mark Tennant
“C” Company- Captain Bill Lyster
The unit arrived at a new concentration area (map reference 215074 on sheet 2805).
The Commanding 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.
The leading 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 reference 175143).
The battalion 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.
Captain Mark 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.
All companies 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
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.
Friday, 15 April 1945
The weather 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 night.
Again, from the war diary of the Black Watch:
On liaising 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 point.
With the 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.
Some 108 prisoners of war that had been held overnight by both “A” and “C” Companies were sent back.
“B” 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 enemy snipers.
All 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.”
Tactical 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.
Private Frank Holm of “B” Company described an incident involving the proximity of civilians to the fighting in his autobiography A Backwards Glance:
One 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!
One fatal 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.
The casualty list printed in Bercuson’s regimental history lists only four wounded men, all private soldiers, all wounded on the 15th.
The Calgary 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 above.
After the 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.
These Germans 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.
The Calgary 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.
In the 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.
Sunday 17 April 1945
Another clear 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.
Monday 18 April 1945
A “moderate 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.
The Calgary Highlanders would be leaving the Netherlands once more for Germany.
The people 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.