The Roer (16 - 27 January 1945)

By the end of 1944, rivers and creeks were being used as natural barriers for the front in Dutch Limburg, the most southern province of the Netherlands. Though South Limburg had been liberated by the Americans in September, parts of the province were still occupied forming a small triangular bulge in the front lines. Formed by the towns of Roermond and Sittard in the Netherlands as well as Heinsberg in Germany, this pocket of resistance between the Roer and Maas rivers was known as the Roer Triangle. Operation BLACKCOCK was the renewed Allied effort to clear the area. The operation intended to have the 12th British Corps force the German 15th Army out of the Roer Triangle and back across the Roer and Wurm rivers, effectively moving the front line further into Germany. 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment of the Canadian Armoured Corps was the only Canadian unit to participate in this operation.

The operation was to be conducted by three British divisions: the 7th Armoured Division, the 52nd (Lowland) Division, and the 43rd (Wessex) Division. Primarily defending the ground were two infantry divisions of the German 12th SS Corps. Since the German Army’s position was strongest on the right near the Siegfried Line (an extensive German defensive position stretching over 630 kms), the British decided that the attack would begin on the left with the 7th Armoured Division advancing through Susteren and Linne towards Roermond, clearing villages as they went. Following this would be an attack in the centre by the 52nd Division. After breaking through the defensive line near Hongen they would open the road all the way to Heinsberg. Lastly, on the right the 43rd Division would clear the area south-east of Dremmen passing through the newly formed break in the German defensive line. The operation required tremendous planning and preparation while the cold weather meant that snow suits were provided for the troops and vehicles and tanks were painted white as camouflage.

After being delayed due to thick fog, Operation BLACKCOCK began on 16 January at 7:30 am, when 131 Infantry Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division started their advance. Hampered by fog, snow, and mud as well as the need to cross several creeks and streams, the Allies gradually cleared the area with the Canadians of 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment carrying men from the Devonshire Regiment in their armoured vehicles known as ‘Kangaroos.’ After fighting off a strong counter-attack in Susteren and taking many German prisoners, the 7th Armoured Division cleared the town by the evening of 17 January. The division then continued towards the village of Sint Joost. On 20 January, infantry and ARMOURED units launched their first attack, but fierce resistance by the German 176th Infantry Division and the 24th Fallschirmjäger Regiment Hübner meant that three more attacks were required before the village was finally taken on 21 January. While the Germans retreated to the village of Montfort, Sint Joost lay virtually destroyed. The British continued their advance towards Montfort, which had undergone heavy bombardment since 19 January. Among the bombing raids were those conducted on 21 and 22 January by 143 Wing of the Royal Canadian Air Force. By the time the British liberated Montfort on 24 January and the nearby village of Linne the following day, many Dutch civilians lost their homes and their lives

Meanwhile, the 52nd Infantry Division advanced towards the German defensive position at the village of Hongen where heavy fighting ensued. After clearing Hongen, the 52nd Infantry Division continued on to the villages of Waldfeucht and Bocket, encountering heavy opposition as they crept towards Heinsberg. Slowed by the intensity of the shelling as well as the ice and snow, the division undertook a pincer attack on the mostly-destroyed town and moved towards the centre carefully, clearing out the many hidden German snipers as they went. Despite more shelling and a few counter-attacks, the 52nd Infantry Division was able to clear the town by 24 January and to maintain a hold on their positions despite the casualties incurred in doing so. The 43rd Infantry Division then used the break in the Germans’ defensive line to advance through Hongen towards the villages of Waldenrath and Lindern though continuing poor weather, cratered roads, soggy fields, and stiff opposition slowed their advance to a crawl. Nevertheless, within a few days the British were able to completely clear the area south-east of Dremmen and secure the Heinsberg salient.

By 27 January, the 7th Armoured Division reached Sint Odiliënberg effectively capturing the bridge that would allow the Allies to cross the Roer River and reach Roermond. Operation BLACKCOCK was largely a success with the German divisions cleared out of everywhere except for the town of Roermond and the area directly to its south. British battle casualties were high, particularly for the 52nd Infantry Division who had fought to break though the strong defensive position at Hongen. Many men had also been evacuated due to sickness from the extreme cold and poor weather. While the Allies suffered over 1,150 casualties, the Germans are believed to have suffered over 2,100 casualties.

With the successful completion of Operation BLACKCOCK, the First Canadian Army began preparing for Operation VERITABLE about 60 kms north of the Roer Triangle. Beginning on 8 February 1945, the Canadians passed through the Reichswald forest and the flooded Rhine Plain as the northern part of an Allied pincer movement while the US Ninth Army began Operation GRENADE on 23 February as the southern part of the pincer movement, successfully crossing the Roer River just south of Heinsberg. By 1 March 1945, Roermond was taken by the Americans. By the end of March 1945, the Allied invasion of Germany had begun.

There was only one Canadian soldier killed during Operation BLACKCOCK who had no known grave. Based on a report submitted by an external researcher and with the support of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Canadian Armed Forces’s Casualty Identification Review Board confirmed the identification of the previously unknown grave as belonging to the following soldier:

  • Trooper Johnston, Henry George 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment, CAC, CASF
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