The battle of Groningen in April 1945 had been one of the last acts of the liberation of The Netherlands. At the same time as the First Canadian Army prepared to move east into Germany again, 325,000 Germans were surrendering to the south, in the Ruhr Pocket, while the Red Army to the east was flinging itself across the Oder – the last barrier between the Soviets and Berlin.
21st Army Group next turned both its Armies onto enemy soil with the goal of capturing key ports in northern Germany and liberating Denmark. While British 2nd Army moved on Bremen and Hamburg, First Canadian Army would move alongside to protect its flank.
The Battle Honour for Oldenburg was granted to several regiments for many individual unit actions.
The 5th Canadian Brigade made the move into Germany on 19 April 1945, concentrating 40 kilometres southwest of Bremen. The entire Division would move in bounds, protecting the right flank of 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division, itself advancing on the flank of the British XXX Corps moving on Bremen. The 5th Brigade moved on 22 April, with The Calgary Highlanders in the lead. “C” and “D” Companies led the advance mounted on tanks of the Fort Garry Horse. Only three casualties were suffered in the days’ advance when a carrier driven by Private Leonard W. Pepper was ambushed. Captain Bill Lyster was severely wounded, almost losing his arm and being evacuated to England.
The 5th Brigade once again led the division’s advance on 26 April. The Brigade was ordered to attack towards Oldenburg, with the Black Watch and Le Regiment de Maisonneuve leading and The Calgary Highlanders in reserve. While the Germans had shown no inclination to stand and fight in recent days, the garrison at Gruppenbühren – the town sitting astride the brigade’s objective – was a different story.
Although Captain Sandy Pearson would describe this battle as “sort of a useless endeavour as we knew the end was near”, the action nonetheless produced three awards for gallantry.
War Diary – 26 April 1945
The War Diary painted the battle in very stark terms: after crossing the Brigade Start Point at 0800 hrs, they reached a concentration area at 0900, and were told that the earliest possible commitment for the unit would be 1100 hours. Several changes of plan followed, and at 1345 hours Tactical Headquarters moved to a new location.
“A” Company was detailed to put an attack in with a main road junction as their objective. Heavy enemy shelling and mortaring delayed the attack, as did the fact that Le Regiment de Maisonneuve had not been able to achieve their objective. The Maisonneuves were consequently using a large portion of the available artillery ammunition being fired in support of the Brigade.
“A” Company finally launched their attack at 1800 hrs, over open ground, with Major “Knobby” Clarke leading his company personally onto their objective. As described below, he did not stop there. “B” Company crossed the same open ground subsequently, and “D” and “C” moved north to the main road. “D” Company stopped 500 yards short of their objective in order to concentrate more artillery fire on it.
By 2350 hrs all companies were settled in for the night, and a patrol was sent to check on a forest opposite their position, but the scouts returned at 0200 and reported the woods clear of enemy soldiers, and that there were fires burning.
Major Francis Herbert “Knobby” Clarke, DSO
A recommendation written for a Military Cross for Major Francis H. “Knobby” Clarke paints a vivid picture of how the action went for his company:
On the 26 April 1945 The Calgary Highlanders were directed to take GRUPPEN-BUHREN by passing through an area between the other two units of the Brigade. At the time of the operation the other units were both still clearing their own immediate areas and due to this fact the objective of the unit was over 1200 yards of mostly open country and not a particularly good start line.
Major Clarke had the leading company and moved it to the edge of a small wood this side of an extremely flat and open country. Sizing up the open country he quickly realized that his plan would have to entail the wise use of smoke. At this time the area of his FUP (Forming Up Point) was subject to heavy enemy shelling, consistent 20 MM arty fire and the area was being swept by small arms fire. Major Clarke decided that to get his company across this treacherous area he would have to carefully use smoke and leap-frog his platoons so that he would not mess his own supporting fire. His plan included a programme of smoke from artillery, 4.2 and 3 inch mortars and to be successful it would require his own personal supervision due to the casualties which included one platoon commander and two NCOs wounded. His plan was laid and carried out so successfully that his leading platoon arrived on its objective and so completely surprised the enemy and caused so much disorganization in their midst that Major Clarke realized that the quicker he got in the remainder of his company the more complete would be the rout of the enemy, so by his own personal supervision and encouragement he achieved this. In this particular area one 88MM gun, 3 – 20MM guns and several MMGs (Medium Machine Gun – generally refers to an MG34 or MG42 on a tripod mount) were captured. The crews were either killed or taken prisoner.
Major Clarke, on looking over the objective on which he was sitting quickly appreciated that by exploiting further he could render the whole of the defences in this area useless. He immediately asked permission from the Commanding Officer and when granted, carried out the exploitation so successfully that the remainder of the Battalion was quickly got on its objective, capturing a large number of prisoners with very little loss of life on the unit’s part.
*The Military Cross was not awarded, and instead, a Distinguished Service Order was gazetted on 10 November 1945
Lance Corporal Floyd Orin Rourke, DCM
The following is the citation from Floyd Rourke’s Distinguished Conduct Medal citation: Rourke survived the war and served again in the Korean War. The DCM was a very rare award in the Calgary Highlanders, as it was throughout the Army, but even more so for someone as low in rank as Lance Corporal Rourke. The award was gazetted on 22 September 1945 after the recommendation was sent from 5 Canadian Infantry Brigade on 10 May 1945.
On 26 April 1945, the Calgary Highlanders were ordered to capture Gruppen-Bühren, Germany. “A” Company was detailed to secure the first objective to serve as a firm base for the battalion attack.
To reach this objective, “A” Company had to cross 1200 yards of open, flat ground completely devoid of cover and to assist them a smoke programme was laid on. Unfortunately, due to a sudden change in wind, the smoke cleared and the company, now exposed, was subjected to most intense 20-mm, light machine gun and small arms fire which killed the Platoon Commander of Number 9 Platoon, the leading platoon, and caused many other casualties.
Lance-Corporal Rourke, realizing that he was now the senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the platoon immediately took over command of the platoon and skilfully led the men over the remaining 700 yards of open ground, through the barbed wire entanglements and enemy crawl trenches and into the final and successful assault of the objective.
Once on the objective, Lance-Corporal Rourke quickly reorganized his platoon and made a further bound to attack an 88-mm gun which was knocked out and the crew captured. A group of enemy now appeared on the platoon’s left flank and Lance-Corporal Rourke immediately moved his men over and engaged them, capturing a further twelve prisoners.
This Junior Non-Commissioned Officer, by his initiative, good judgment and complete disregard for his personal safety, not only was directly responsible for the capture of the enemy gun and sixteen prisoners but also caused by his bravery and splendid leadership the collapse of enemy resistance in the area which resulted in the complete success of the company attack.
Private Reginald Bruce Packer
Private Packer’s Military Medal was also gazetted 22 September 1945 after being passed on by 5th Canadian Brigade Headquarters on 8 May 1945.
On 26 April 1945, The Calgary Highlanders were attacking Gruppen-Buhren in Germany. “A” Company was assigned the task of securing the first objective to serve as a firm base for the battalion.
To reach this objective the company had to cross 1200 yards of open country requiring a smoke screen to cover the flanks.
Private Packer was stretcher bearer moving just in the rear of the leading platoon. As the smoke cleared, the enemy fire became deadly accurate causing many casualties. Private Packer, with complete disregard for his personal safety calmly and most courageously carried on with his work. While men were being deliberately sniped on all sides of him, he proceeded from one casualty to another administering aid.
Packer was soon the only outstanding target for the enemy fire but he never gave up until all the serious casualties were evacuated despite the fact that another stretcher bearer was hit beside him.
The devotion to duty and brave conduct displayed by this soldier were of the highest order and served as an inspiration to the whole company.
The Calgary Highlanders lost 6 men killed and several more wounded during the attack on Gruppenbühren. The youngest fatality was 21 years old, while the oldest was 26. Platoon Sergeant John Stirling had been wounded once before and was killed at the age of 22. All six men are buried in the Holten Canadian War Cemetery in The Netherlands where 1,355 Canadians were interred. In total, 12 Calgary Highlanders are buried there.
Photos from 2001-2002 (found at http://www.rethorn.de/) show a little bit of the countryside today. At right, a farmer’s field; below, two views of the local wind farm, at sunrise, and at sunset.
27 April 1945
Artillery (as well as Vickers machine guns from the Toronto Scottish Regiment) continued to engage the enemy during the early morning. At first light a fighting patrol from “C” Company under Lieutenant Rosentrator located four 20-mm guns; they returned with five German prisoners.
“D” and “C” Companies, stopped short the previous night, had fire plans drawn up so they could attack and exploit their objectives at 0930 hrs and 1000 hrs respectively. By 1200, “D” was in position and “C” was held up by German-occupied houses until 1700. Opposition was mainly machinegun and 20mm fire, with a single gun reported in the War Diary to be an 88mm causing considerable concern until engaged and silenced by Canadian artillery.
Two members of the Scout Platoon, Private Gould and Private Walton, patrolled north of the “D” Company positions during the afternoon. The War Diary described their exploit:
After a short time (lying behind a hedge), they were surprised to see eleven enemy coming down the side road from the West. The Germans were much more surprised when suddenly confronted by two savage looking individuals in camouflage jackets. Though completely armed, they surrendered as one, and were dismayed to learn later that they were not in our lines as they thought when captured.
Further patrols at about 2300 hrs that evening went out to reconnoitre a possible further objective for “D” Company. Enemy contact was made by both patrols (one each from “C” and “A” Companies), and “D” Company was ordered not to attack until the Black Watch had a chance to establish themselves on the left, to protect the Calgary Highlanders’ flank. The patrols netted 27 prisoners, however.