Chapter Twenty-One: Large-Scale Street Fighting
Increasingly, it was impossible for First Canadian Army to predict the intensity of opposition its divisions would meet from the Germans. On April 13, when 2nd Canadian Infantry Division gained the outskirts of Groningen, expectation had been that the city’s liberation would be easily won. In the late afternoon, 4th Brigade’s headquarters staff had confidently predicted that the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (Rileys) and supporting Fort Garry Horse squadron were “going to victory march right into the city.”
When opposition stiffened in the modern suburbs surrounding the medieval city centre, Brigadier Fred Cabeldu continued to believe the Rileys were facing a thin defensive crust that would collapse before nightfall. Resistance, however, had only thickened, and as Canadian casualties mounted they became “fighting mad” that the Germans were insisting on drawing them into a stupid and futile battle for a city of little strategic value.
Groningen formed the southern boundary of an extensive belt of anti-aircraft (flak) guns extending northeastward through the Dutch port of Delfzijl to cross the Eems Inlet to the German harbour of Emden opposite. A North Sea island, Borkum, which guarded entrance into the Eems, had been transformed into a fortress bristling with a dozen flak towers and an array of naval batteries. The bulk of the defensive ring’s flak towers were concentrated alongside the Eems, only two such batteries being close to Groningen. Their loss would little improve survival odds for the Allied bombers remorselessly pounding Germany’s industrial cities.
The city was the centre of northern Holland’s extensive rail, water, and road transportation system, but this was of little value to the Germans now that they had lost their grip on the region. Through the years of occupation, the Germans had diligently fortified the city with an extensive network of trenches, anti-tank ditches, bunkers, and weapon pits that covered the canals ringing the city and their bridges. But on April 5 they had also sent home its major garrisoning force, the 480th Infantry Division, leaving behind a grab bag of units that still numbered between 7,000 and 7,500 men. Most were army regulars, Luftwaffe ground personnel, and naval marines. But also included were SS units, both German and Dutch, and some Hitlerjügend volunteers, German railroad workers, and members of the German Security Service (SD). This last group had its northern Netherlands headquarters in Groningen. Morale was decidedly low, but the SD, SS, and Hitlerjügend forces were, as always, fanatically motivated despite the inevitability of defeat. The SS were able to stiffen other units by threatening to kill any caught trying to surrender. Lacking tanks, they were equipped with many 20-millimetre anti-aircraft guns, MG-42 machine guns, Panzerfausts, and Schmeissers.
The Germans in the city were clearly superior in their possession of automatic and shoulder-launched weapons, whereas the Canadians relied on their greater number of heavy weapons-tanks, Wasps, artillery, and other armoured support. In the narrow city streets, however, fighting would be limited to ranges of a hundred feet or less, distances better suited to hand-held weaponry than to heavy weapons.
Bypassing Groningen was not an option. That would require leaving behind Canadian forces to contain the Germans there, and II Canadian Corps needed these men for its imminent move to Germany to fulfill its first priority of guarding the left flank of Twenty-First Army Group’s advance towards the Elbe River. There was also the fact that 150,000 civilians would then be left at the mercy of the Germans and their Dutch collaborators.
Drawn into an unexpected battle, the Rileys only realized in the early morning hours of April 14 that their attempts to win bridges over the inner canal ringing the city’s core would be met by a foe with no intention of withdrawing. The most remarkable news, however, that Lieutenant Colonel H.C. Arrell gave Cabeldu was that both the main bridge and another smaller one to its right still stood. The battalion’s ‘B’ Company had made two successive failed attempts to win the smaller bridge before admitting it was outgunned.
Cabeldu decided to feed the Royal Regiment of Canada in to seize the smaller bridge. “Gentlemen, when we have secured Groningen, we effectively will have severed Holland from Germany,” Lieutenant Colonel Richard Lendrum told his officers in a briefing that 4th Canadian Field Regiment FOO Captain George Blackburn heard through a haze of exhaustion. Before Lendrum finished, he nodded off. Waking thirty minutes before the attack, he saw the Royal’s company commanders all sprawled about on the floor of the farmhouse in a similar stupor.
By 0415 hours, everyone was awake and the attack got underway with ‘C’ and ‘D’ attempting to clear the approaches to the canal and the bridge. Major Jack Stother’s ‘C’ Company was to seize what appeared on the maps and aerial photos as a cluster of warehouses. ‘D’ Company would then pass through to secure the section of canal bordered on the southern bank by the city’s large railway yards and station. Once this section of the canal was secured, Major J.K. Shortreed’s ‘B’ Company would make the crossing. Blackburn was to accompany Shortreed’s men.
The attack rapidly unravelled when Stother’s company discovered that the warehouses were actually rows of apartment blocks bristling with snipers and machine guns. Several 20-millimetre guns sent volleys of shells screaming down the streets, forcing the men to hug the walls and hide behind corners. Both companies set to clearing each apartment building in turn, a slow process that took until dawn to complete. The clearing was complicated by the presence of civilian snipers, who were later determined to have been Dutch SS and other collaborators who knew that when Groningen fell they would be “in a serious predicament.”
From the apartment complex, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies moved against the railway station. Shortreed’s men advanced in single file up a street bordered by the canal on one side and a row of buildings the other. Small-arms fire started coming from “a row of shaggy bushes stretching across the far end of the street and marking the boundary of railyards containing several tracks, separated by raised passenger-platforms, which…constitute[d] a formidable obstacle course on the final dash from the hedgerow to the main station platform.” Heavy fire bowling up the street towards them forced the Royals to crawl along the angled concrete berm at the edge of the canal.
Across the street, Blackburn ducked into a deeply recessed doorway and pushed his back against the door. As he did so, it opened. Whirling around, Blackburn confronted a Dutch youth who handed him “steaming coffee in a delicate cup, complete with saucer.” Blackburn sipped his coffee while the troops across the road shouted abuse. “Leave it to the bloody artillery, they always get the best of everything,” one man yelled. The boy asked what they were saying and Blackburn replied that they wanted coffee as well, even as he saluted them with a raised middle finger while taking another delicate sip. The lad disappeared, returning a few minutes later with two more cups, complete with saucers, and ducked across the bullet-swept street. Kneeling on one knee, he waited calmly for a couple of men to empty the cups, retrieved them, and then trotted through the fire back into the house.
Once the Royals pushed past the brush boundary into the rail yard, opposition became desultory, confined primarily to snipers. Many of the Germans began surrendering, but other pockets-especially those manned by SS and SD personnel-fought to the death.
At 0930 hours, Major General Bruce Matthews met Brigadier Cabeldu in a hotel on the city outskirts. They agreed that Groningen was defended in depth and would require more than a single brigade to subdue. Cabeldu’s brigade was to complete clearing the southern suburbs through to the canal, and 5th Brigade would come up on the south to widen the front advancing on the canal ringing the city centre. By day’s end, Matthews wanted Cabeldu to have secured the southern edge of the canal to create a jumping-off point for 6th Brigade to cross it. At the same time, 5th Brigade would also force its way into the city centre from the west.
Even completing the more limited task proved a costly challenge. Dozens of snipers fired from rooftops, while machine-gun crews shot out of loopholes cut in the exposed upper walls of building basements. The Rileys’ ‘A’ Company suffered so many casualties closing on the main bridge that Major W.L. Coleman realized it would be shredded before it got there unless he obtained some support. He pleaded for Wasps to burn a path through the buildings, but was rebuffed because Matthews had ordered that artillery, flame, and other destructive heavy weapons be limited to prevent excessive damage to a friendly city.
One of Coleman’s platoons managed to wrest a building from a large force of men but was so badly shot up that Lance Corporal Wilf King-one of the few men still standing-knew they would never withstand a counterattack. There were not enough bandages for all the wounded, and King realized some would die unless they were evacuated immediately. Dashing into the street, King sprinted to Coleman’s headquarters with bullets ricocheting off the building walls around him. Coleman gathered a relief party and King led it to the platoon’s position, an act that earned a Military Medal.
To the left of ‘A’ Company, ‘C’ Company was harassed by one sniper, who “controlled the crossroads, firing from approximately 400 [yards] with deadly accurate fire.” The anti-tank platoon’s Captain J.D. Bell brought up a 6-pound gun, “but because of the sniper’s agile movement was unable to score direct hits and stop the fire.” Deciding he needed more punch, Bell had the platoon’s 17-pounder hauled up. Several rounds punched into the building the sniper was using, and he stopped shooting.
The Rileys were increasingly fed up with losing men while trying to minimize damage. Seeing a large number of Germans milling around a water tower serving as an observation post, Lieutenant Colonel Arrell ordered the position engaged by the Toronto Scottish Regiment’s 4.2-inch mortars and the battalion’s anti-tank guns. A suspected army barracks nearby was also “shot up.”
By noon, the Rileys had rendered their area “somewhat more habitable,” and German prisoners were “pouring in.” The past twenty-four hours had yielded 225 prisoners and “there were many more to come now that things are softening up.” To the right, the Royals had won the railway station and yards, and the Essex Scottish started passing through at 1235 hours. The Royals reported that the main highway bridge over the canal was still intact and enemy troops were streaming over it to escape into the city centre.
Hoping to keep the Germans from destroying the bridge but also to cut off its use as an escape route, the Toronto Scottish’s No. 7 Platoon hauled its heavy machine guns up onto the roof of the railway station. From this elevated vantage, the crews were able to bring both the large bridge and the smaller one to the east within their arc of fire, “denying the bridges to the enemy.” The machine-gun crews killed thirty-three escaping Germans and wounded many more. Return fire from a 20-millimetre gun forced them to move cautiously and slightly wounded two men.
As the Essex Scottish moved through the Royals, the battalions were reminded that “it was against orders to use artillery and tank fire in the culturally sensitive Old Town.” The Canadians were to use only infantry weapons and what support the carrier and anti-tank platoons could offer. Major Doug McIntyre’s ‘A’ Company and the carrier platoon led the way. Dogged by persistent sniper fire, McIntyre’s men closed up to the canal at 1640 hours. Before them was a swath of open ground and then the waterway. To the left, the main bridge still stood. Nobody expected this situation to last for long, so despite their task being only to secure a jumping-off point on the south bank for 6 CIB’s use, ‘A’ Company’s No. 8 Platoon decided to dash across. Meeting “murderous fire,” most of the men went to ground short of the bridge. Lance Corporal Max Wright and Private William “Bud” Tasker, however, ran right over with bullets whipping all around them. Both men were “mowed down before they could find cover” on the other side. These deaths defeated “the daring attempt,” but the platoon did learn that “the bridge was not prepared for demolition and was capable of carrying vehicles.”
Essex commander Lieutenant Colonel John Pangman decided a “quick plan to storm the bridge with troops mounted in Kangaroos.” Brigade sent three of these armoured personnel carriers, but their drivers “became lost and instead of stopping at the [rendezvous] with [the] Essex made the turning and crossed the [bridge], where they immediately came under heavy [Panzerfaust] fire. Two…got back. The other disappeared up the street and was not seen again.”
With the two remaining Kangaroos under wing, the Essex Scottish teed up the assault. ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies established firing positions on either side of the highway. Removing its Bren guns from the vehicles, the carrier section positioned them in windows of a building overlooking the bridge. The Toronto Scottish crews were still providing covering fire from the railway station. A Fort Garry Horse ‘B’ Squadron troop had also arrived and would fire selectively to avoid smashing historic buildings. Major McIntyre’s ‘A’ Company crowded into the Kangaroos, which “sped across the bridge and the open spaces there and took up firm positions in houses dominating” the span. After a short, hard fight, the Essex controlled the buildings. McIntyre’s leadership, both during the fight to gain a foothold in front of the bridge and winning the bridgehead on the other side, was recognized with a Distinguished Service Order. The Essex Scottish concluded 4 CIB’s operation for April 14 feeling “proud of the springboard we supplied to 6 [CIB].”
As the Essex had been winning the objective, 5th Brigade had worked its way in from the west. Brigadier Bill Megill had initially advanced the Calgary Highlanders towards the village of Hoogkerk on the city’s outskirts. Once this job was complete, Le Régiment de Maisonneuve was to come up on the southern flank to seize a variety of road and rail crossings, a rail bridge over an east-west running canal, and a large sugar-beet factory. If Hoogkerk proved “soft enough,” the Calgaries would continue into Groningen. The Black Watch formed the reserve, and Megill intended to deploy it to support whichever of his lead battalions met the most success.
The Calgaries started out at 1300 hours with Major Francis H. “Nobby” Clarke’s ‘A’ Company supported by a troop of Fort Garry Horse tanks. Swinging around Groningen’s outskirts from the south, Clarke led the battalion in a two-mile “walk up” to enter Hoogkerk unopposed. Lieutenant Colonel Ross Ellis had fallen ill on April 4 and been confined to bed, so Major Dalt Heyland was acting commander and facing his first battalion-sized operation. Establishing a tactical headquarters in the town hall, Heyland decided to advance Captain Mark Tennant’s ‘D’ Company across the open ground between Hoogkerk and the city’s outskirts. ‘C’ Company would then hook northwestward to capture a railway bridge crossing the main ring canal.
While Heyland was arranging things, the battalion’s intelligence officer used the town clerk’s phone to call a pharmacy that local maps indicated would be passed during the attack. A “puzzled voice on the other end [said] that while most of the local inhabitants were hiding in cellars waiting for the fighting to end, a strong force of Germans and Dutch Nazis were still holding the city.” This, plus the scouts returning from a patrol to the canal with two prisoners and a report that they had killed or wounded six other Germans, confirmed expectations that the Calgaries faced another stiff fight.
At 1630 hours, Tennant led his men forward. As they reached a crossroads close to the canal, a six-barrelled 20-millimetre gun opened fire and pinned ‘D’ Company down. Ellis had been a commander who led from the front. Similarly inclined, Heyland and artillery officer Major K. Degin rushed forward. While Heyland directed the mortar platoon’s fire, Degin called in artillery. The combined barrage destroyed the German gun. Heyland stayed up with Tennant as the company pushed into the city, and by 1800 hours its objective was reached. The company had captured twenty prisoners and suffered not a single casualty. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies had passed through and, despite heavy small-arms fire, reached their objectives at 2030 hours. About five city blocks away stood Groningen’s university-their priority for the morning.
‘C’ Company, meanwhile, had been pushed to the railway bridge, finding it intact but raised. Discovering a row of interconnected barges that extended across the canal, the company skipped across them and then wound back through streets leading to the bridge. Coming to a large barbed-wire barrier, the men started removing it, only to have the structure collapse with a large crash. Everyone held their breath, waiting for the Germans to open fire. When nothing happened, they carried on to a building that overlooked the bridge and canal. From inside, they were well positioned to cover an expected advance by the Black Watch.
Advancing to the south, the Maisonneuves had faced so many tasks that each company operated quite independently. At noon, Lieutenant Colonel Julien Bibeau had sent ‘D’ Company to capture a crossroads west of the city, ‘A’ company a road and railway junction also west of Groningen, ‘C’ Company the sugar-beet factory, and ‘B’ Company a railway bridge crossing an east-west-running canal on the outskirts. ‘B’ Company had a rough time pushing through a string of sniper and machine-gun positions but succeeded in capturing the bridge intact, along with two 20-millimetre guns. ‘A’ and ‘D’ Companies had earlier reported they were tight on their objectives.
‘C’ Company had gained the road opposite the beet factory without serious casualties, but as Private Arthur Doiron led the dash over, a 20-millimetre round tore his head off. Realizing the gruesomeness of the twenty-three-year-old’s death could cause the rest of the company to falter, Captain Jean R. Beauchemin charged across without looking back. His men followed, and slowly cleared the sprawling factory. Beyond was the railway bridge, and Beauchemin could see ‘B’ Company still closing in on it. As he led his men out to assist in the bridge’s capture, they came under fire from a pillbox guarding a roadblock. The Germans inside were impervious to gunfire and refused demands to surrender. Finally, the company’s PIAT operator fired a lucky shot that passed through a firing slit. Only the officer inside survived the explosion. He signalled his intention to surrender, but as he emerged a gun fired from near the bridge, and the officer fell dying. Spotting five Germans wiring explosive charges to the bridge, Beauchemin’s men shot them down. Moments later, ‘B’ Company surged across the bridge and secured it.
‘B’ Company had suffered the most casualties, among them Private Roland Hains of Trois-Rivières. He had joined the regiment at Laren on April 7, recording in his diary being assigned to No. 11 Platoon. The next day his company commander, Major G. Brosseau, was wounded. Then, on April 11, Hains had the satisfying duty of guarding a large group of German prisoners. On April 14, he recorded fighting near the sugar-beet factory and then, with sadness, that he was wounded and would be evacuated after just a week with the regiment. It was a common outcome for inexperienced reinforcements.
Carrying 5th Brigade’s advance into the city centre fell to the Black Watch, and Lieutenant Colonel Syd Thomson ordered Captain E.D. Price’s ‘B’ Company and Major J.F. Bailey’s ‘C’ Company to lead. Deciding to cross the canal in the dark early-morning hours of April 15, the two men went forward to liaise with the Calgaries. The previous day’s warm weather had given way to a cold drizzle, which limited visibility and so favoured the attacker. Jumping into a rowboat crewed by a Calgary sergeant, they crossed the river and confirmed that the bridge site was a good place to cross. With the bridge raised and its mechanism damaged, the two noticed a long barge tied to the edge of the canal’s west bank. Freeing the lines holding one end made it an easy matter to swing the barge crosswise. This impromptu bridge left a gap to the other bank of just four feet, “which the men were able to jump with comparative ease, heavily-laden though they were.”
‘B’ Company’s objective was a railway bridge over an interior canal, which was gained unopposed and found intact. However, the swing-type bridge had been turned on its pivot away from the railroad tracks and with the controlling gears locked in place. ‘C’ Company worked more to the north. Initially daunted by the task of checking the many houses along their line of advance for Germans, Bailey divided each platoon by sections and sent each party to check an assigned row of houses. While the rest of the section stood guard, one man then rang the front doorbell and asked the civilian who answered for permission to enter. By 0410 hours, ‘C’ Company had canvassed its way through the assigned sector without encountering a single German.
Just after daylight, Thomson ordered the other two companies to cross the barge and pass through the leading companies. ‘A’ Company crossed without incident, but after the first two ‘D’ Company platoons and the headquarters section had crossed, a 20-millimetre gun opened fire from the top of a nearby water tower and drove the rest of the men back. The company was at an impasse until some Dutch bargemen sailed up at the helm of a barge that offered a much lower profile. With the higher barge blocking the German line of sight, the rest of ‘D’ Company crossed unimpeded on the lower one. A small ferry was soon impressed to carry over the battalion’s jeep, carriers, and Wasps.
The pioneer platoon rushed in its carriers to the railway bridge. Using some explosive to destroy the gear controls, the pioneers ran lines out to the bridge and hooked these to the carriers. Engines screaming, the carriers dragged the span around and restored the crossing.
By mid-morning, the Black Watch was well along in clearing the city’s northern sector. Whenever a platoon met heavy fire from a strongpoint, a section slipped through the backyard gardens, climbing over the intervening walls to take the Germans from the rear. This unorthodox tactic usually so rattled the defenders that they immediately surrendered. Those who proved more obstinate were burned out of their positions by the Wasps.
When the battalion came to a large city park, the first men stepping into it came under fire from Germans dug into bunkers and slit trenches who were well endowed with 20-millimetre guns and machine guns. A two-hour pitched battle followed “with our men using PIATs and Brens, rifles and grenades, as well as [2-inch] mortars…against the heaviest opposition so far encountered in this operation.” At 1555 hours, the company 2-inch mortars were called in and the Wasps “fired a few bursts.” The moment the mortars and flame-throwers let up, the rifle companies rushed forward as one. At first the enemy “gave ground reluctantly, but upon being convinced that we meant to oust him from his prepared defences fled or capitulated.” After advancing beyond the eastern boundary of the park, the battalion received orders to stand down, and the Maisonneuves continued the advance. Most Black Watch casualties were suffered during the park fight, but these were surprisingly light considering the intensity of the resistance. Total losses for the day numbered one man killed and seven wounded. The battalion netted 247 prisoners.
South of the Black Watch’s area, the Calgary Highlanders had fought for control of the university grounds and a nearby German naval barracks. Between their starting position and the university was a large block of apartment buildings “each with three stor[eys] and each apartment having about four rooms containing several civilians and many snipers.” Captain Sandy Pearson’s ‘B’ Company led the attack on these buildings at 1055 hours.
A routine German tactic was to position a machine gun on the corner of building or in its basement in order to fire up the length of the street. The supporting Wasps retaliated by trundling into their 120-foot range with men aboard firing Bren guns into the overlooking windows to keep snipers at bay, and then letting loose a stream of flame. Pearson found this manoeuvre “extremely effective and horrifying…as soon as you would start to use them prisoners would just pour out into the streets.”
When Pearson’s headquarters section set up in one apartment to await the conclusion of a firefight in the street ahead, an elderly woman emerged and began brewing up ersatz coffee. Emptying the pot into her best china cups, the woman served it to the grubby-handed soldiers gathered in the kitchen. While she was serving the coffee, a Bren gunner smacked his weapon onto a small hardwood table and opened the facing bay window. He then proceeded to fire bursts at a German position. Obviously alarmed that the heavy steel bipod would ruin her table, the woman offered him a little cushion, which he obligingly placed under it. After accepting a cup of coffee and taking a sip, the soldier set the china to one side and resumed firing.
At the edge of the university grounds, the battalion’s mortars lay down a smokescreen to cover the advance by Captain Mark Tennant’s ‘D’ Company, but the cold wind blew it away while the men were still in the open. As the men started to take cover, Tennant yelled, “Get going, you sons of bitches, or I’ll gun-gut you myself.” The entire company renewed the charge. The Calgary’s padre approached Tennant after. “Very crude, but rather effective, Mark,” he said.
‘C’ Company led the assault on the naval barracks, which were surrounded by a high wall. Private John Shaw’s platoon found a gate, which could only be unlatched from inside. Stripping off his equipment and handing his rifle to another man, Shaw scaled the wall and dropped down. As he regained his footing, a naval officer with his staff milling behind approached and announced he would surrender to an officer of matching rank. Weaponless, Shaw feigned ignorance while slipping the gate open to let the rest of the platoon in. The sergeant stepped up, handed Shaw his rifle, pointed at the officer and said, “He is surrendered, and if he gives you any trouble shove your bayonet up his you know what.” It was 1728 hours, and the Calgaries had won all their assigned objectives and bagged about four hundred prisoners.
While 5th Brigade had advanced on the city from the west in the early-morning darkness of April 15, 6th Brigade had jumped off from the springboard won earlier by 4 CIB. Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal led with their advance lit “plain as day” by parachute flares. Major Elmo Thibeault’s ‘B’ Company was out front with Major George Bergeron’s ‘A’ Company in trail, and by dawn the rest of the battalion was across the canal and pushing into the old centre. At 0615 hours, the South Saskatchewan Regiment joined the operation and both battalions made “slow, but steady progress.” The FMR found “street fighting on such a large scale…quite a new task for the unit, but on the whole the job was nicely accomplished.” While the regiment’s casualties were considered moderate, Major Bergeron was among those killed.
The two battalions advanced towards the Grote Markt (Great Market) with its massive cathedral on one corner and the three-hundred-foot Martini Tower on another, but the narrow streets lined by ancient brick buildings were easily defended. The advance ground on for hours of surreal fighting, as “great crowds of civilians…thronged the streets-apparently more excited than frightened by the sound of nearby rifle and machine-gun fire.” Adding to the chaos was the fact that “hundreds of the inhabitants were drunk, or partially so, from liquor stolen from a German liquor dump. Looting from stores and depots was out of hand for hours until the civilian controls were established by Military Government officials.”
Private Charles “Chic” Goodman was a nineteen-year-old wireless signaller in the South Saskatchewan’s carrier platoon, having transferred to it from ‘B’ Company after being passed over for promotion to corporal. The carriers joined the battle soon after the rifle companies, and it seemed to Goodman that the operation was easy. Most of the Germans simply gave up after a few shots were fired their way. When the leading companies came to a long row of barges tied up to the side of a canal, a couple of riflemen would jump down into one and knock on the cabin door. Out of several barges, five or six Germans emerged with hands up, surrendering to a polite knock.
By late afternoon, the situation on the Saskatchewan front was sufficiently stable that Company Quartermaster Sergeant Mickey Faille loaded a jeep with rations and set off to deliver them to his riflemen. Losing his way in the wending streets, Faille strayed into the FMR’s boundary, only to have a German officer step in front of him and declare that he would surrender his command to someone of equal or greater rank. Telling him to stay where he was, Faille hurried back to battalion headquarters and returned with Lieutenant Colonel Vern Stott in the passenger seat. They found a large party of Germans all milling about with arms already stacked. Stott told the officer to line his 181 men into a column three abreast and then turned them over to the Fusiliers. Among the officers taken were five oberstleutnants and eight majors.
The fact that so many senior officers were among the surrendered clearly revealed that organized resistance in Groningen was disintegrating and increasingly the defence consisted of small independent units. Some were only looking for a safe opportunity to surrender, while others fought on even as their grip on the city rapidly loosened.
As April 16 dawned bright and sunny-becoming hot during the afternoon-the battle for Groningen neared its end. The South Saskatchewan Regiment and Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal pushed through the morning towards the Grote Markt with the Fort Garry Horse Shermans of ‘B’ Squadron following. Despite the divisional orders to minimize damage to the old city, Brigadier Jean Allard was in no mood to shed Canadian blood to save architecture. To keep the German defenders pinned, the Toronto Scottish laid down continuous fire with its 4.2-inch mortars.
When the two regiments gained the square, they met fierce resistance from German machine-gun positions in the buildings on the northern side. Approaching from the south, infantry and tanks faced the enemy positions across the square’s wide and open expanse. One Fort Garry Sherman inched into the open and was immediately fired on from a gun positioned behind the corner of a building on the square’s northeastern corner. Unable to gain a direct angle of fire on the German position, the gunner ricocheted an armour-piercing round off the town hall’s west wall and knocked the enemy weapon out with a remarkably deft shot.
With the infantry unable to cross the square, the order was given for the tankers to pound the buildings with their main guns. Soon the enemy-mostly German or Dutch SS-were forced to withdraw, setting fire to many of the buildings as they went. The damage to this sector of the old city was heavy, but both the cathedral and Martini Tower were largely untouched.
Private Chic Goodman reached the square as the battle ended. Out in the centre a horse’s corpse sprawled. The moment the last shots were fired, bells in the cathedral and the city’s other churches started to peal and people spilled into the square. “Suddenly they’re all out there with knives and meat choppers and within minutes there was nothing left of that horse, but its hooves. That was when I realized how hungry these people all really were.”
The square was cleared about noon, and soon two German adjutants from the garrison’s headquarters approached the FMR’s lines waving a white flag. They were hustled to Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Dextraze’s headquarters. Groningen’s commander, they reported, still refused to surrender, but “his officers and men were fed up and would gladly give themselves up.” Deciding to attempt an audacious coup, Dextraze went with the German officers back to their headquarters. He took with him only his interpreter, Sergeant W.T.H. van Workum, and two privates, Gaby Morly and A. Dumaine. The garrison’s commander consented to meet Dextraze and after about ten minutes of discussion, during which the futility of the German position was made clear, agreed to march the troops remaining under his control to the FMR lines so long as no civilians were permitted to stand on the streets and jeer them. Dextraze isolated civilians from a route and then marched the German colonel and some three hundred officers and men into captivity.
Except for a few lingering pockets of SS and other die-hards unwilling to surrender, the city was taken. The southeastern sector extending from the Grote Markt to the Van Starkenborgh Canal, which marked the outer limit of the old city, was still not cleared when the fighting mostly ceased at noon. It fell to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders to check the area. Little opposition was met until ‘B’ Company closed up on a major bridge over the Van Starkenborgh Canal. The bridge’s lifting station was located on the German side and had been raised. As Captain J.H. Ross directed mortar fire, two civilians-one of them the bridge-tender-volunteered to help lower the span. To do so, however, meant crossing the canal by throwing a long ladder over to create a catwalk. A small section of Camerons and the two men raced across under heavy machine-gun fire. The section leader, Lieutenant W.C. McNeill, and one of the civilians were wounded. Once across, the small party forced its way into the lift station and the two Dutchmen managed to lower the bridge. The moment the rest of the company streamed across the bridge, the twenty-six Germans surrendered-ending the Battle of Groningen.
The battle had cost 2nd Division 209 casualties-all from the infantry battalions. About 2,400 Germans were taken prisoner. German fatalities were later determined by Dutch sources as numbering 160 killed outright and about 40 dying of wounds. Those Germans who escaped streamed northward in a bid to reach the pocket developing around Delfzijl.
Even before the battle had been joined, plans were afoot to rush 2nd Division eastward to slot in between 4th Armoured Division and the XXX British Corps for an advance on Oldenburg. This movement was quickly put into motion. Brigadier Cabeldu’s 4 CIB was among the first to leave, moving more than two hundred miles on April 18. By the afternoon of the following day, the brigade’s regiments were all in Germany and taking over a sector of frontage from British battalions. The men would never forget the heady days of liberation in Holland, but henceforth their war was one of conquest.