This phase spans from the end of the Operation Overlord (August 25, 1944) incorporating the German's winter counter offensive through the Ardennes (commonly know as the Battle of the Bulge) up to the Allies preparing to cross the river Rhine in the early months of 1945. This roughly corresponds to the official U.S. European Theater of Operations Rhineland and Ardennes-Alsace campaigns.
By the middle of September 1944 the three Western Allies Army groups, the British 21st Army Group (Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery) in the north, the United States 12th Army Group (General Omar Bradley) and to the south the Franco-American Southern Group of Armies (Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers) that had liberated southern France after landing on the French Mediterranean coast — formed a broad front under the overall under the Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower and his headquarters SHAEF.
While Generals Montgomery, Bradley and Patton all favoured relatively direct thrusts into Germany (with Montgomery and Bradley each offering to be the spearhead of such an assault), Eisenhower disagreed. Instead he favoured a "broad-front" strategy which would allow the Allies to regroup and shift their forces as needed, and to protect vital supply operations in the rear.
The rapid advance through France had caused a considerable logistical strain, made worse by the lack of any major port other than the relatively distant Cherbourg in western France and although Antwerp was seen as the key to solving the Allied logistics problems, until the Scheldt estuary was clear of German forces, its port was not open to Allied shipping. As the campaign progressed, all the belligerents, Allied as well as German, felt the effects of the lack of suitable replacements for front-line troops.
There were two major defensive obstacles to the Allies. The first was the natural barriers made by the rivers of Eastern France. The second was the Siegfried Line itself, which fell under the command, along with all Wehrmacht forces in the west, of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt.
Much war materiel still had to be brought ashore across the invasion beaches and through the one remaining Mulberry harbour. Although small harbours, such as Isigny, Port-en-Bessin and Courcelles, were being used, the major forward ports such as Calais, Boulogne, Dunkirk and Le Havre either remained in German hands as "fortresses" or had been systematically destroyed. The availability of Cherbourg had been valuable until the breakout, but then transport to carry supplies to the rapidly advancing armies became the limiting factor.
Although fuel was successfully pumped from Britain to Normandy via the Pluto pipeline, this still had to reach the fronts. The railways had been largely destroyed by Allied attacks and would take much effort to repair, so fleets of trucks were needed. However, 1,500 British trucks were found to have critical engine faults and were unusable, so the Allies were dependent upon US Army supply companies (the Red Ball Express), and that capacity was inadequate for the circumstances.
The Dragoon Force advancing from southern France were supplied adequately from Toulon and Marseille because they had captured intact ports and the local railway system was less damaged. This source supplied about 25% of the Allied needs.
The US supply organization - Communications Zone (COMZ) - is perceived to have failed to expedite solutions and to have been far too bureaucratic, employing 11,000 staff. COMZ and its commander, General John C. H. Lee were roundly criticised by American field generals. Failures to supply forward units led to unofficial arrangements, with pressed units "diverting" supplies intended for elsewhere. Eisenhower felt he could not exert authority since COMZ was directly answerable to Washington and not to SHAEF, but Eisenhower has been criticised for not exerting more pressure and influence than he did.
The mere occupation of Antwerp was not enough, as the lands surrounding the Scheldt would have to be liberated first to open the port of Antwerp. This was essential, since at this point the main allied supply lines still ran back to Normandy, presenting serious logistical problems. The solution was to get Antwerp into effective action quickly. The problem here was that, although this major port had been captured almost intact, its sea access was blocked by German occupation of the Scheldt islands.
The delay in securing this area was seen as a major failure of Eisenhower's Broad Front strategy, in failing to allow Montgomery's 21st Army Group to advance, the German 15th Army was able to occupy and then dig in, whereas an immediate attack in September would probably have cleared the Scheldt without difficulty. The consequence was that Eisenhower was obliged to limit his army group commanders to one major advance at a time. As a result, German resistance was allowed to organise and deploy reserves. The Canadian First Army was given the task of clearing the Scheldt (see below).
British manpower resources were limited after 5 years of war and through worldwide commitments. Replacements were no longer adequate to cover losses and formations were disbanded to maintain the strength of others. The Canadians were also short of manpower. Due to the reluctance of some French-Canadians to serve in an "Anglo-Saxon" war, service abroad was voluntary and this limited Canadian numbers.
American losses now called on replacements from the United States. Often these were inexperienced and unused to the harsh conditions of the latter part of the campaign. There were also complaints about the poor quality of troops released into the infantry from less-stressed arms of the U.S. Army. At one point, after the Battle of the Bulge had highlighted the shortage of infantrymen, the U.S. Army relaxed its embargo on the use of black troops in combat formations. Black volunteers performed well and prompted a permament change in military policy.
By the turn of the year, the war's outcome was clear. It became increasingly difficult to persuade allied troops to risk their lives when peace was in sight. No one wished to be the last man killed.
Market Garden was composed of two distinct parts. Operation Market was to be the largest airborne operation in history, dropping three and a half divisions of US, British and Polish paratroopers to capture key bridges and prevent their demolition by the Germans. Operation Garden was a follow up ground attack by the British Second Army which would then more heavily garrison the area and relieve the paratroopers for new duties. It was assumed that the German forces would still be in a rout from the previous campaign and opposition would not be very stiff for either operation.
If successful, the Allies would have a direct route into Germany and by-pass German defences farther south. Further, Montgomery would be in a good position to aid with clearing German forces from Western Scheldt. Doing so would allow Antwerp, a major port captured earlier, to be used as well as seizing territory from which the Germans launched V-1 and V-2 weapons against London, Antwerp and elsewhere.
Eisenhower approved of Market Garden, giving supply priority to the 21st Army Group and diverted the U.S. First Army to the north of the Ardennes in order to stage limited attacks to draw German defenders south, away from the target sites.
At first, it went well. The 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne took their objectives at Eindhoven, Veghel and Nijmegen. Although their landings outside Arnhem were on target, the British 1st Airborne landing zones were some distance from Arnhem bridge and only on the north side of the river. Problems arose when the British 1st Airborne lost vital equipment - jeeps and heavy anti-tank guns - when gliders crashed. There had also been a severe underestimation of German strength in the area. To make matters worse, poor weather prevented aerial reinforcements and drastically reduced resupply. German resistance to the forces driving to Arnhem was highly effective, and a copy of the Allied battle plan had been captured.
In the end, Market Garden was unsuccessful. The Arnhem bridge was not held and the British paratroops absorbed tremendous casualty rates, approximately 77 percent.
The task involved four main operations. The first was to clear the area north of Antwerp and secure access to South Beveland. The second was to clear the Breskens pocket north of the Leopold Canal ("Operation Switchback"). The third, "Operation Vitality", was the capture of South Beveland. The final phase was the capture of Walcheren Island, which had been fortified into a powerful German stronghold.
On September 21, 1944 the advance began. The Canadian 4th Armoured Division, moving northwards towards the south shore of the Scheldt around the Dutch town of Breskens were the first Allied troops to face the formidable obstacle of the double line of the Leopold and Dérivation de la Lys Canals. The canals were crossed and a bridgehead established, but fierce counter-attacks by the Germans forced them to withdraw with heavy casualties. The 1st Polish Armoured Division had greater success, moving northeast to the coast, occupying Terneuzen and clearing the south bank of the Scheldt eastwards to Antwerp. It was by then clear, however, that any further advances would be at tremendous cost.
The Canadian 2nd Infantry Division began its advance north from Antwerp On October 2. Heavy casualties ensued, including the almost total destruction of the Canadian 5th Infantry Brigade's Black Watch Battalion on October 13. However, on October 16, Woensdrecht was taken by the Canadians, following an immense artillery barrage which forced the Germans back. This cut South Beveland and Walcheren off from the mainland and achieved the objective of the first operation.
Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery, issued a directive that made the opening of the Scheldt estuary the top priority. To the east, the British Second Army attacked westwards to clear the Netherlands south of the Maas River. This helped secure the Scheldt region from an outside counter-attack.
In "Operation Switchback," the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division mounted a two pronged attack, with the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade crossing the Leopold Canal and the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade launching an amphibious assault from the coastal side of the pocket. Despite fierce resistance from the Germans, the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade crossed the Leopold and the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade moved southwards, opening a supply route into the pocket.
"Operation Vitality," the third major phase of the Battle of the Scheldt opened on October 24. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division began its bridgeheads against South Beveland, but was slowed by mines, mud and strong enemy defences. The British 52nd (Lowland) Division made an amphibious attack to get in behind the German's Beveland Canal defensive positions. Thus this formidable defence was outflanked, and the Canadian 6th Infantry Brigade began a frontal attack in assault boats. The engineers were able to bridge the canal on the main road. With the canal line gone, the German defence crumbled and South Beveland was cleared. The third phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was now complete.
The final phase, "Operation Infatuate" was the attack on the heavily fortified island of Walcheren at the mouth of the West Scheldt. The island's dykes were breached by attacks from RAF Bomber Command on October 3, 7 and 11. This flooded the central part of the island, forcing the German defenders onto the high ground and allowing the use of amphibious vehicles. Units of the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division attacked the causeway on October 31, and after a grim struggle, established a precarious foothold. They were relieved by a battalion of the British 52nd (Lowland) Division. In conjunction with the waterborne attacks, the 52nd continued the advance.
The amphibious landings began on November 1 with units of the British 155th Infantry Brigade landing on a beach in the south-eastern area of Vlissingen. During the next few days they engaged in heavy street fighting against the German defenders. Also on November 1, after a heavy naval bombardment by the British Royal Navy, troops of 4th Commando Brigade, (with units for 10th Inter Allied Commando ,consisting mainly of Belgian and Norwegian troops) supported by specialised armoured vehicles of the 79th Armoured Division were landed on both sides of the gap in the sea dyke. Heavy fighting ensued. A smaller force moved south-eastward, toward Vlissingen, while the main force went north-east to clear the northern half of Walcheren to link up with the Canadian troops who had established a bridgehead on the eastern part of the island. Fierce resistance was again offered by German troops defending the area, and fighting continued until November 7. However, the fighting ended on November 8 after a force of amphibious vehicles entered Middelburg, the capital of Walcheren.
Meanwhile, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had pushed eastwards past Bergen-op-Zoom to Sint Philipsland where it sank several German vessels in Zijpe harbour. With the approaches to the port of Antwerp free, the fourth phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was completed and on November 28, the first convoy entered the port of Antwerp.
Some historians, including Stephen Ambrose, have suggested that the siege of Aachen was a mistake. The battle stalled the eastward advance by the allies and caused approximately 5,000 allied casualties. The fighting was, by all accounts, brutal street-to-street, house-to-house style urban combat and tied up the available rescources of the advancing allied armies. Ambrose has suggested that a more effective strategy would have been to have isolated the garrison at Aachen and continue the move east into the heart of Germany. This, in theory, would have eliminated the ability of the German garrison on Aachen to operate as a fighting force by cutting off their supply lines. This might have forced the Garrison to surrender or to move out of the city in an attempt to re-establish their supply lines. In the case of the latter a confrontation in a more neutral setting would probably have resulted in fewer military and civilian casualties.
Soon after, the Third Army came against Metz, part of the Maginot Line and one of the most heavily fortified cities in Western Europe. The city could not be bypassed, as several of its forts had guns directed at Moselle crossing sites and the main roads in the area. It could be also be used as a stronghold to organize a German counter-attack to the Third's rear. In the following Battle for Metz, the Third Army, while victorious, took heavy casualties.
Following Metz, the Third Army continued eastwards to the Saar River and soon began their assault on the Siegfried Line.
The value of the battle has been disputed. Recent historians argue that the outcome was not worth the foreseeable losses and, in any case, the American tactics played into German hands.
The Germans had been preparing a massive counter-attack in the West since the Allied breakout from Normandy. The plan called Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine") was to attack through the Ardennes and swing North to Antwerp, splitting the American and British armies. The attack started on December 16 in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Defending the Ardennes were troops of the U.S. First Army. After initial successes in bad weather, which gave them cover from the Allied air forces, the Germans' vanguard almost reached the Meuse River. The Germans were eventually pushed back to their starting points by January 15, 1945.
The Germans launched a second, smaller offensive (Nordwind) into Alsace on New Year's Day, 1945. Aiming to recapture Strasbourg, the Germans attacked the 6th Army Group at multiple points. Because Allied lines had become severely stretched in response to the crisis in the Ardennes, holding and throwing back the Nordwind offensive was a costly affair that lasted almost four weeks. The culmination of Allied counter-attacks restored the front line to the area of the German border and collapsed the Colmar Pocket.
The pincer movement of the First Canadian Army in Operation Veritable advancing from Nijmegen area of the Netherlands and the U.S. Ninth Army crossing the Rur (Roer) in Operation Grenade was planned to start on February 8 1945, but it was delayed by two weeks when the Germans flooded the river valley by destroying the dam gates upstream. During the two weeks that the river was flooded Hitler would not allow Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt to withdraw East behind the Rhine arguing that it would only delay the inevitable fight. Hitler ordered him to fight where his forces stood.
By the time the water had subsided and the U.S. Ninth Army was able to cross the Roer on February 23, other Allied forces were also close to the Rhine's west bank. Rundstedt's divisions which had remained on the west bank of the Rhine were cut to pieces in the battle of the Rhineland and 290,000 men were taken prisoner.
The crossing of the Rhine was achieved at four points: One was an opportunity taken by U.S. forces when the Germans failed to blow up the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen, one crossing was a hasty assault, and two crossings were planned.
After crossing the Rhine the Allies fanned out over West Germany (see Western Allied invasion of Germany).