Patton and Montgomery led offensives over the Rhine River, giving the Allies three vital bridgeheads, MURRAY CAMPBELL writes
The smokescreen and the tremendous roar of airplanes in the sky were the surest indications that Monty was ready to make a move.
For 48 hours, a thick pall of artificial fog along the west bank of the northern Rhine River was all that any observant German soldier on the other bank could make out. This cover, combined with a dawn-to-dusk lashing by 8,000 Allied warplanes, led the Germans to assume that Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group was planning an attack on the last great natural defence between themselves and Berlin.
In fact, German radio reported on the night of March 23, 1945, that Montgomery had launched an offensive along a 100-kilometre line from Arnhem in the Netherlands to the German industrial centre of Dusseldorf.
The smokescreen behind which preparations for battle were being made was something of a metaphor for a censorship screen that had been imposed all along the British front in the closing days of the Second World War. A front-page picture of the smokescreen in The Globe and Mail on March 23 noted imprecisely that "a cloud with steel lining" was being laid "on a German frontier town." All that correspondents with the troops were allowed to write was that the buildup was the largest since the D-Day invasion of Normandy the previous June.
Indeed, more than 1.2 million British, Canadian and U.S. soldiers were under Montgomery's command. He also had more than 5,000 artillery pieces and anti-tank guns and the British 2nd Army alone had amassed 120,000 tonnes of ammunition.
It was the U.S. 3rd Army, under General George Patton, that first crossed the Rhine in great numbers, however. Reports said the Americans crossed the river in boats near Mainz on March 22, catching German troops flat-footed.
The next day, the British 2nd Army, with 1st Canadian Army units, crossed the Rhine farther north, near the town of Wesel, which had been reduced to rubble by days of intense bombing. Subsequently, 21,000 Allied airborne troops dropped down further inland and captured six bridges along the Issel River, while sustaining heavy losses.
The first soldier across the river -- crossing in just 3½ minutes -- was Lieutenant Hugh Campbell of Trenton, Ont., who was on loan to the British Army.
Globe correspondent Ralph Allen noted that the Canadians had renewed their violent feud with the German soldiers they had faced weeks earlier in the Hochwald Forest.
The Canadians fighting were all D-Day veterans and were, as Mr. Allen wrote, up to the task of inching "laboriously for elbow room inside a stiffening ring of German trench positions and mobile guns.
"The going wasn't easy anywhere," he wrote in a March 25 dispatch. "The enemy paratroopers, who had given up the river's banks virtually without a struggle, reacted strongly when Montgomery's forces drove ahead for control of the roads."
A Canadian commander put it more succinctly. The Germans, he said, were "fighting like madmen."
Montgomery's crossing had been meticulously prepared with every unit playing a well-defined role. The Highland Light Infantry, from what is now Cambridge, Ont., were ferried over the river before dawn. The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders from Eastern Ontario entered the fray that evening. Later, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders passed through their ranks to take a vital village. The North Shore Regiment from New Brunswick was also involved.