A third attack (Operation HORSE) ordered by the commander of I British Corps, Lieutenant General Crocker, saw 47 Commando Royal Marines attack on the night of 13-14 Jan 1945; this assault also faltered under high officer casualties and expenditure of ammunition. "To abandon the fight after three failures would be to concede superiority to the enemy, an example to the shaken Polish Division which could not be afforded. Crocker ordered the 4th Canadian Armoured Division to destroy the German position."3 Two other reasons were also given for the order; the post allowed the Germans to observe Allied movements, direct fire, and mount patrols into Allied positions south of the Maas, and it was also felt that a determined attack at Kapelsche Veer would draw attention away from the main offensive to be launched by 21st Army Group in Feb, in the Rhineland.4
The terrain surrounding Kapelsche Veer ("veer" translates as "harbour", and refers to a small ferry harbour) was a barren stretch of ground lying low and flat where the Maas branched into two channels; the wide Bergsche Maas to the north and Oude Maasje to the south. The island was five miles long and only one mile across at its widest point, tapering to 1000 yards wide at the eastern end. Dykes roughly twenty feet high and thirty feet wide protected the island's south side from the strong current; the dykes angled up at 45 degrees.
The 29th Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment) (SAR) had made contact with the enemy there in mid-Dec, before the sector was turned over to the Polish Armoured Division. Reports from SAR recce patrols that the Germans had established a post on the island were not believed.
The fourth assault on the outpost on Kapelsche Veer would be Operation ELEPHANT ("the size of the code-names escalating, it appears, in direct proportion to the size of the operations.")5 The operation involved two infantry battalions, a tank regiment, considerable artillery support, and comprised what the official historian described as "five icy days of thoroughly nasty fighting - the phrase of the 10th Brigade's historian is 'sheer misery'..."6
The operation would certainly be well supported; with 300 guns firing in support ranging from the SAR's 75mm guns on their Sherman Tanks to 5.5-inch Guns of the medium artillery regiments, it was to be the heaviest concentration of artillery ever allotted solely to the 10th Infantry Brigade for a single action. The operation would also rely on the element of surprise, despite three previous attacks signalling Allied intentions to take the island. The surprise would come from forgoing an initial barrage and attacking in daylight through a smoke screen. Flamethrowers were to be heavily used, including six Wasps (Universal Carriers armed with flame projectors) and 24 Lifebuoy units. Two companies would attack from the east and one company from the west, moving simultaneously to their objective - the harbour. Fifteen canoes would also be used to land infantry paddling from the eastern tip of the island to land astride the harbour, also making use of a smoke screen for cover, and preventing German reinforcement from the north bank.7
In the meantime, "A" Company pressed to within 30 yards of GRAPES before being repulsed by heavy fire. The Lifebuoy operators were especially vulnerable and the combination of 60 pounds of dead weight on their backs combined with the use of metal-cleated boots in the snow and ice resulted in all the flamethrower operators being killed. By 0945, "A" Company was stopped cold, and the survivors dug in on the dyke a few hundred yards from the objective. A heavy counter-attack drove them back further into "C" Company coming up behind them. "C" Company lost all its officers, and by 1130 the right-hand attack was all over. The remnants of "A" and "C" Companies were withdrawn from the island.
The left hand attack went well initially; "B" Company of the Lincoln and Wellands crossed to the island in Buffaloes and moved along the dyke under good smoke cover towards RASPBERRY until stopped by heavy fire. By noon the left hand attack was also over.
The South Albertas had provided indirect fire from one troop but played no further part in the morning's fighting. Brigadier Jefferson, commander of the 10th Brigade, ordered renewed attacks with the Lincoln and Welland continuing the advance on the left and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada taking over the attack on the right. Tanks of the South Albertas were ordered forward to support both attacks. While the "Dream" was considered suitable for tanks, getting tanks to support the left hand attack would require rafting them over, and 9 Field Squadron, RCE, was ordered to assemble materials to build a Class 40 raft on the bank of a subsidiary canal.
Two Stuart Tanks of the SAR crossed the "Dream" but found little traction on the dyketop and not enough room to turn around. The Argylls, now on the eastern end of the island, were under mortar fire from across the Maas. The pair of Stuarts spent the next two days providing fire support with their 37mm guns and machine guns, as well as using their armour to safely transport wounded soldiers and bring up ammunition and supplies to forward positions. At the west end of the island, the engineers found constructing the raft to be a very complicated and time-consuming process, exacerbated by the need to work in the water which was partially frozen. A German patrol and a sudden snow-storm on the night of 26-27 Jan also delayed the construction. Tank support for the Lincoln and Wellands would have to wait.
Attacks from both east and west on Kapelsche Veer on 27 Jan were beaten off by German automatic weapons fire and heavy mortar fire from across the Maas. The narrow dyke tops restricted movement to single platoons at a time; moving off the dykes was not possible due to the soft ground and snow. Artillery and tactical air support were seen to be useless in silencing the German positions which were well entrenched. All the Canadian Wasp flamethrower carriers had been bogged down and the devastation wrought on the Lifebuoy operators the day before left no volunteers to carry the weapons into action. The only option left was tanks.
The L&W attacking from the left got to within 300 yards of RASPBERRY but found German soldiers infiltrating along the north side of the dyke to get behind them and threaten to cut them off. The Argylls managed to get within 1000 yards of GRAPES with supporting fire from the machine guns of the two SAR Stuarts.
The German mortar fire was met with indirect fire from SAR Shermans and 25-pounder shells from the 15th Field Regiment, and the harbour itseld was attacked by a squadron of Spitfire aircraft during the day in addition to shelling. The Canadian artillery frustrated attempts to reinforce the garrison at Kapelsche Veer, but was not able to stop elements of the pioneer and anti-tank platoons of the 17th Parachute Regiment from crossing the Maas.
As work on the raft progressed during the day, at the eastern end of the island two Shermans successfully crossed the "Dream" (officially a Class 18 bridge, the two Shermans were a full 17 tons heavier than the bridge should have been able to bear, not counting the extra tracks welded to the tanks which increased the weight by several more tons) at 1500. The Shermans assisted the Argylls' Pioneer Platoon in removing mines from the dyke in preparation for a renewed infantry attack. At about the same time, the raft on the western end of the island was finished, and three Shermans were floated over to support the L&W.
The attacks were renewed at 0900 on 28 Jan, now with tank support. Rising temperatures turned ice into mud, and the second tank of the three on the left bogged down, blocking the passage of the tank behind it. The lead Sherman carried on towards RASPBERRY with the infantry, but was forced to stop when the infantry went to ground under heavy fire with heavy officer casualties.
The four tanks moving towards GRAPES made better progress, but the infantry were driven to ground by heavy automatic fire and mortars. The tanks fired at likely enemy positions until low on ammunition, then backed up to where the infantry was sheltering to resupply and move forward again.
Heavy mortar fire continued to punish the Canadians on both flanks, despite the heavy Canadian artillery fire that continued to rain down north of the Maas. The attacks faltered until 1400. A Wasp managed to move onto the dyke top, and after a miscommunication refused to stop among the leading infantry of the Argylls and made for GRAPES at speed. With the tanks providing cover fire, the Wasp bogged just short of GRAPES, managing a couple of shots from its flame gun.
One Sherman managed to find a spot on the dyke from where it could depress its weapons onto the north bank of the island, where it managed to inflict heavy casualties to a 25-man platoon of Parachute Regiment 17 that was stationed there, killing 17 and wounding 5 more. This feat by Trooper Albert Broadbent, commanding the ad hoc troop of four tanks, allowed the Argylls to close the range to GRAPES and finally seize the building.
The L&W on the left also seized RASPBERRY with the support of the single Sherman there during mid-afternoon; German infiltration from positions in the dyke so confused the infantry, however, that they withdrew at 1600 to regroup leaving the sole tank by itself. The Sherman stayed in position, firing in support of the Argylls whom the commander could make out to the east, but eventually he was forced to reverse down the dyke to get more ammunition. The commander, Lieutenant Ken Little, was killed by a German sniper as he directed his driver from the open turret hatch. As his crew brought his body back to the other tanks, it bogged down also, blocking the dyke completely.
By late afternoon, GRAPES and RASPBERRY were both in Canadian hands but the Germans were still present in a large number of tunnels. After dark, a counter-attack had both buildings back in German hands before midnight, forcing the Canadians back several hundred yards both east and west. The day's gains had been completely wiped out.
During the night of 28-29 Jan, the Canadians carried out reliefs in place. The direct fire support position, which had been code named ANNE, saw a changeover from "A" Squadron of the SAR to "C" Squadron. The tank crews on the island itself changed over also, as well as the infantry companies and artillery Forward Obervation Officers. At first light, German mortar fire that had been only sporadic during the night increased in intensity, and Canadian artillery responded in kind. By the end of the battle, the 15th Field Regiment had fired 14,000 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition, twice the original expected allotment, and they were only one of several field and medium regiments, as well as 4.2-inch mortars and the tanks of the SAR as well as the British Columbia Regiment, all of which provided fire support to ELEPHANT.
Renewed attacks on the two buildings at 0700 were met yet again by automatic and mortar fire. The effects of shelling and thawing left little snow on the island, and the tanks were hampered by the mud. All three Shermans on the left were by now bogged well and good, and on the right one Stuart was stuck in so badly that no other vehicle could move past it, though luckily the other three tanks were not trapped behind it. Engineers went forward with a bulldozer after attempts to move the tank by pushing it and even using High Explosive shells failed. It would take 18 hours to build a diversion around it.
In the meantime, at 1245, the attack on the right progressed forward, and two tanks supporting the Argylls as they took GRAPES one more time. Heavy German fire prevented movement west to RASPBERRY. On the left, the L&W were stopped cold and without tank support, though a German prisoner reported that only 70 paratroopers were left in the garrison, including 20 wounded men. By last light, German control of the island had been reduced to a few hundred yards surrounding RASPBERRY and the west side of the harbour. By now the Germans were also under direct fire from a pair of Crusader anti-aircraft tanks in addition to heavy artillery concentrations and tank fire from the island itself.
During the night, the diversion around the Stuart was completed on the right, and on the left another Sherman floated across to the island. One of the previously bogged Shermans also unstuck itself after an effort of several hours, and decided to go forward to assist mine-clearing by the L&W. The tank only made it a few feet before bogging again. German boats were seen on the river, though it was not clear if they were withdrawing or reinforcing. Canadian foot patrols were also made from GRAPES to RASPBERRY.
First light saw the two Shermans at GRAPES opening fire on what was left of RASPBERRY just 100 yards away down the dyke, and found that their Brownings had seen so much use during the battle that the barrels had been worn smooth. New guns had to be brought over, delaying further operations, and the Argylls did not move forward until 1115. They were quickly driven to ground by automatic weapons fire, and once on the ground were mortared from north of the Maas. Another attempt at 1500 to cross the 100 yards to RASPBERRY was also beaten back, and at 1530 the Germans respected a Red Cross flag that appeared as the Canadians went forward to pick up their wounded. A third attempt was supported by two more Shermans that had crossed the "Dream" and over the diversion past the Stuart. With four tanks in support firing 75mm HE and .30 calibre machine guns, the Germans were forced to call down smoke from their mortars to obscure the tank crews' vision - but too late, for the Argylls had taken RASPBERRY and searched desperately for an opening into the German tunnel complex. Unable to find it, they used demolition charges on every hole they found under the rubble, and turned to driving west the last few hundred yards to link up with the L&W.
The L&W, for their part, were unable to assist, with their three bogged Shermans blocking the fourth one in. The tanks supported the Argylls as best they could. The Argylls tried to advance past RASPBERRY but were driven back. One of the Shermans on the east side of the island tried to move forward of the infantry at 1800 just as light began to fail, and was stopped by a Panzerfaust; two of the crew were cut down by small arms as they bailed out.
The two houses had been taken, but for now, the two groups of Canadians were stopped short of each other.
During the night, one of the Shermans on the left managed to become unstuck, and the tank moved to the knocked out tank to prevent it from being used by the Germans as a bunker. The Sherman remained in position without infantry support all night, firing on Germans attempting to enter the knocked out tank. No other activity took place until first light on the 31st. Fresh tank crews replaced those in the vehicles and covered the Argylls, who managed this time to move the few hundred yards to link up with the L&W at 0800. It had been easy; the Germans had finally evacuated the garrison during the night. A handful of prisoners were all that was left, in addition to the odd mortar bomb lobbed from across the Maas.
The German withdrawal had probably been precipitated not by a change of heart by Student. On the 29th, he had passed command of Army Group "H" to General Johannes Blaskowitz. The commander at Kapelsche Veer, who had complained that Student would not give authority to withdraw, evidently obtained that permission from Blaskowitz.8
The appointment of Major General Chis Vokes to command the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division proved controversial, as did his decision to undertake the operation. While Vokes was obligated to carry out the orders of his superior, Lieutenant General Crocker, it has been suggested that "If Vokes was...unsure about the prospect of success, he should have perhaps tried harder to call off the operation. His reluctance to do so, despite his qualms about the assault, may have been due to the fact that Operation ELEPHANT would be the first time he commanded 4th Division in battle and as the new boy he did not want to make waves." In fact, the idea for the canoe landing had been his, and after the war he claimed that his request to have canoes included in the operation "was a ploy to get the operation cancelled."9
Additionally, Graves points out in the SAR history that unit commanders of the SAR, L&W and Argylls were all absent during the planning of ELEPHANT. Lieutenant Colonel Wotherspoon of the SAR was in the rear at divisional battle school while his second-in-command led the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cromb of the L&W had been granted home leave after five years of overseas service, and Vokes had relieved Lieutenant Colonel Dave Stewart of the Argylls when he protested the costly program of patrols. "When it comes to protesting orders or getting them changed, new or acting commanders don't have the influence that veterans do." The acting commanders of the units involved felt obliged to follow their orders without protest.10
The historian of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment felt that
Historian Terry Copp, however, made the following observations:
The final enemy casualty toll was reported by Stacey as 145 Germans killed, 64 wounded, and 34 captured. The outpost had been established in part to provide battle inoculation for German replacements; the Canadian official historian noted wryly "The tough young paratroopers had received in the end a rather more severe lesson in the art of war than (General Kurt) Student had intended."13 The actual German losses, according to Graves, were revised to 64 killed and wounded, and 34 taken prisoner. The commander of Parachute Division 6 put his division's losses from mid-Dec to the end of Jan as about 300-400 serious casualties, with 100 more frost-bite cases.
Canadian casualties were 133, as follows:
Previous assaults by the Poles and Royal Marines had cost 231 casualties, and so total Allied casualties in efforts to take the island added up to 364 killed and wounded men.14
After the battle at Kapelsche Veer, no further offensive operations were mounted by Canadian formations in the Nijmegen Salient, as planning had already long since been focused on the upcoming Operation VERITABLE and the fighting in the Battle of the Rhineland which commenced just 8 days after the Germans pulled back over the Maas.
The following units were awarded the Battle Honour "Kapelsche Veer":
4th Canadian Division
10th Canadian Infantry Brigade
The most detailed account of the battle by far is in South Albertas: A Canadian Regiment at War by Donald Graves, which includes many photographs. Official histories of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment also have detailed accounts and a number of sketches, some reproduced in Graves' book. The book Brave Yesterdays is also probably a good source of information, and although the webmaster has access to a local copy, has not viewed it in some time.
There are a number of websites dealing with the battle; their accuracy of reporting is varied and most tend to report inaccurate casualty figures; a common error is reporting the total casualties for the Parachute Division 6 for Dec-Jan as being inflicted during the five days of fighting at Kapelsche Veer.