Operation Enterprise. The Allied Crossing of the River Elbe 1945 – The End and the Beginning.
A Paper given to the British Commission for Military History July 2007 by Dr D M Henderson.
I would like to offer you some thoughts on Operation Enterprise, the Allied assault crossing of the River Elbe in the heart of Germany, which began 29th April 1945.
This is a very unusual and important story which took place only 6 days before the end of the war. Essentially this battle may have been forgotten, but it in fact marked the end of one war, by a twist of fate it underscored the chaos that is war, and it can claim to set the scene for the war that followed – the Cold War.
For those who fought in it Operation Enterprise was very real and very dangerous and it is here that we have to pause for a moment and proceed with care. I was not there but some of those of you who are here today well have been. So, at the outset, I would say that if you were there I am more than happy to be corrected by those with first hand experience.
Operation Enterprise is also of particular interest for me in that it featured the 15th (Scottish) Division and this paper is a small reflection of the esteem and admiration that I have for that which my countrymen achieved here on the banks of the Elbe on a bleak spring morning in April 1945.
I have been greatly assisted in my researches by having been given, by pure chance, two files. These papers were compiled by Captain Victor Sadgrove who served with the 15th Scottish Division as Press and Protocol Officer and they have proved to be a goldmine. Here as presented to me in a dirty duffle bag is a unique personal insight into the workings and dynamics of a wartime Division.
The context in which Operation Enterprise is set is very unique. At this stage in the war the British and Americans are operating from vastly over extended lines of communication. Much of the ammunition and equipment used here has come through Mulberry B the temporary harbour on the D-Day beaches in Normandy, the remainder through the Scheldt Estuary in Holland which was only captured in November 1944 and even now is not yet fully operational.
I have included in my papers a diagram of the organisation of an Infantry Division of the period and also diagrams showing resupply and evacuation in a Divisional area. These are the diagrams that I as an Officer Cadet learnt by heart little realising their enormous significance in practice on a Battlefield such as the Elbe Crossing.
At the Elbe the Allies face a determined and dangerous enemy. As we shall see many of them are children, but they were no less dangerous for all that. In addition in this area, with the battle raging around them, are hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees largely fleeing the Russian advance, and in amongst the refugees are hiding a few of those who have perpetrated some of the worst war crimes of the 20th century.
The damage to the infrastructure where the battle takes place is considerable and this is not easy terrain to fight in. Between the weather and the RAF little survives to support the advancing armies or the fleeing refugees. There are extensive minefields which are a hazard to both friend and foe. Command essentially having broken down, even the Germans no longer had records of where the mines have been laid.
The whole operation is therefore not only going to be a feat of arms but it is also a huge logistical challenge in which Movement Control, my particular military employment, is going to play a key part.
And finally there is a terrible inevitability about all of this. It is clear that the war was coming to an end. The talk is of, “what are you going to do after the war”, and as a result there is a strong, very human, often unspoken, but very real feeling, that nobody wants to be the one to get killed.
In mid April Eisenhower orders 21st Army Group to advance to the Baltic and accordingly Montgomery begins the preparations, with 8th Corps in the lead and with the 15th Scottish Division of 8th Corps spearheading the assault crossing. The operation is codenamed Enterprise. But the aim of Enterprise is not only to defeat the Germans its primary objective is to drive an Anglo-American wedge to the Baltic Coast between the advancing Soviets and the Danish border and to prevent the Russians from getting into Denmark.
If we look at the map we can see the general situation on the 18th of April 1945. American and British forces have reached the west bank of the Elbe, but it is still more than 60 miles to the Baltic Coast. The Soviets have crossed the River Oder in the east and are advancing rapidly to encircle Berlin. The Canadians are still fighting in northern Holland much of which is flooded and where there is still considerable and stubborn German resistance right up to the time that the capitulation comes into effect on the 5th of May. Emden on the German North Sea coast with its huge submarine pens continues to hold out, as does Bremen and Hamburg.
With only 10 days to prepare for a major operation involving an Army Group comprising 8th Corps and 10th Corps, with the 18th US Airborne Corps under command, the planners are presented with an extremely difficult river assault.
With the start line in the area of Artlenburg the objective is to cross the Elbe and establish a bridgehead 15 miles wide and 8 miles deep.
The area was chosen being some forty five miles south of Hamburg. At this point the Elbe is at least 300 yards wide. It has a current of 1 ½ knots swollen by the beginning of the spring thaw. The south bank, from which the attack will be launched, is flat, marshy and open and it is entirely overlooked by the North bank. The North bank has steep cliffs, rolling countryside and plenty of woodland cover.
The enemy in the immediate area of the assault crossing is believed to comprise eight or nine battalions, mixed but determined with about 100 guns, mainly flack guns. If the Elbe is to be crossed it will be technically more difficult than the Rhine crossing of the previous month.
On the 18th and 19th of April, with a sense of considerable urgency, serious planning begins. Montgomery has two choices. The first option is to maintain the momentum of the advance and “rush” the Elbe in an audacious river crossing before the defenders had time to consolidate. The second option is to wait and mount a set piece attack.
Never one to take risks and with the experience and confidence of thorough preparation that had stood him in good stead since El Alamein, and with the added political pressure that there could be no mistakes at this pivotal point in the war, Montgomery chooses the set piece attack.
The 15th Scottish Division picked from 8th Corps to lead this last set piece attack of the war is a formidable and experienced force. They were a Division originally formed in the First World War from Kitchener’s “second hundred thousand” volunteers. They fought with great distinction on the Western Front throughout the First World War. Their great battle was the Battle of Loos in 1915, only three months after they had first gone into the line, when in two days they sustained 6,435 casualties. In 1919 in common with other Kitchener New Army Divisions the 15th Scottish was disbanded.
They were reformed as a duplicate Territorial Army Division in 1938, mobilised in 1939 and committed in the dark days of 1940 to home defence. Thereafter their story was one of intensive training, charismatic commanders, excellent staff work and a first class fighting record.
They landed on the beaches in Normandy on D + 7. They fought through France at Odon, Caumont and the Seine; at the Gheel Bridgehead in Belgium; at Best, Tilburg, Meijel, Blerwick and on the Maas in Holland and then on through the Rhineland and the Reichwald Forest to Goch, the Rhine Crossing and Celle.
They were the only Division to take the lead in the three great European river crossings of the Second World War – the Seine, the Rhine and the Elbe.
Their Divisional device was the Lion Rampant, the badge of Scotland, set inside the letter O, the 15th letter of the alphabet. Since 1939 they had been commanded by a number of extremely distinguished soldiers including Oliver Lees, Philip Christison, D C Bullen-Smith and Gordon MacMillan. As they faced battle on the Elbe they were led by the charismatic Major General C M Barber DSO.
Colin Muir Barber of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, was born in 1897. He served during the First Word War in France and Flanders winning the Military Cross. Between the wars he served in India and he graduated with distinction from the Staff College at Quetta, in what is modern day Pakistan. Standing at 6 foot nine inches Barber was reputed to be the tallest officer in the British Army. He was of course affectionately known by all ranks of the Division as “Tiny” Barber.
Under Divisional Command was a Commando Brigade to assist with the complex river assault. The remaining nine Scottish Infantry Battalions were made up of Jocks with a smattering of Geordies, Liverpudlians and lads from the Midlands. Their average age was twenty one. They were immensely proud of their Division which included the great names of historic Lowland and Highland Regiments – the Royal Scots, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), the Glasgow Highlanders, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Highland Light Infantry and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Names that have disappeared from the Army List. The Machine Gun Battalion was drawn from the Middlesex Regiment.
Both the teeth and the supporting arms were all highly efficient and organised and the Divisional Staff work was of the highest order. This was a top class Division, and they were not ashamed to say so.
In the main this paper will concentrate on the work of the Royal Engineers in their role as Bank Controllers and in whose hands lay the key to this operation. There were four Engineer tasks: to organise the assembly areas; to control the traffic on the south bank; to actually effect the river crossing and to control the traffic on the north bank.
The river crossing itself was an immensely complex operation. The Royal Engineers were required to blow the flood banks of the river, which were in places 10m high; they had to build tank crossing places with approaches entries and exits. They had to construct an amphibious vehicle crossing and two stormboat ferries. In addition a Class 9 Raft Ferry had to be constructed in four hours, a Class 9 Bridge in fifteen hours, a Class 40 Raft Ferry in four hours and a Class 40 Bailey Pontoon Bridge in forty hours. Added to this was the preparation of a Class 40 access road, River Boom protection, mine clearance and the construction of the exits on the North Bank. To sustain the attack 2000 fighting vehicles had to cross in less than 24hours to ensure that two Brigades could be brought to action.
Complex as this may sound this was in fact a well rehearsed drill which had been tested on many occasions in the advance across Europe. In this case back from the river two access roads were identified. Although little more than country lanes, one was identified as a Class 40 Road for heavier vehicles, while the other was a Class 9 Road.
The key areas were then recced, identified and marked. Each road had a bridge marshalling area, a tank loading area, a Crossing Control, a vehicle waiting area and a Marshalling area under Bank Control at Divisional Headquarters. Behind that were the Brigade concentration areas. Overall they set up a Control Area two miles wide and six miles deep.
This is an original map drawn for me by Captain Begbie, Royal Engineers of his log plan for the Elbe Crossing with the locations and timings. He himself was based at Bank Control, Div HQ.
The decision to assault having been made on the 19th of April we move on to look at the Battle. Phase one was the inevitable preparations. D - Day was set for the 29th of April and there was therefore just nine days to prepare for a Divisional Night Assault on a two brigade front.
On D – 8 No daylight movement was permitted on the south bank and close observation was established on the river.
There was then a series of detailed briefings cascading down from Division to individual soldier. Thereafter recce parties moved forward staying in hides from dawn to dusk. There was intense study of the air photographs, oblique and vertical, and a huge amount of physical work put in both by day and night.
The Divisional History records:
It was so peaceful by the riverside and so perfect was the weather that it was hard to associate the idyllic scene with war. The enemy were far from aggressive. The ferrymen still plied their trade, ferrying passengers to our bank – and charging them 20 pfennig. Soldiers came down to wash their mess tins in full view of our Ops…..German Staff cars sped to and fro in carefree abandon – until they got shot up for their pains. The climax was reached when an Officer of the Commando Brigade sent a German prisoner across to tell the garrison…..that he himself would cross next day to negotiate their surrender and got a reply that he would be received. The next day the officer set out in a storm boat complete with white flag, but, alas for the dignity of the occasion, the engine conked out in mid stream. Thereupon a German rescue party towed him in. He interviewed a series of German Commanders in ascending magnitude, but all pled lack of authority to negotiate. After that, breathing threatenings and slaughter, the officer returned to his own bank, bringing with him a very clear picture of the German defences and the lie of the land on the other side.
The guns were now put in place the targets selected and the ammunition prepared.
The bridging equipment was also brought forward. It is well to remember that one Class 40 Bridge alone required 343 vehicles all of which had to be loaded, unloaded, fuelled and driven. It is estimated that the Engineer tasks alone in this operation required over 1,000 vehicles.
The transport and fighting vehicles themselves also had to be prepared. It is well to remember the miracles of improvisation achieved by these mechanics on vehicles that had already been driven across Europe virtually continuously for eleven months, in appalling conditions.
The men were paid. Everything was in place. There would be no rehearsals.
On D – 2 they did what every self respecting Scottish Division going into battle should do – they had a great party. The Massed Pipes and Drums of the Division beat retreat playing the Bonawe Highlanders, The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein, the Mist Covered Mountains, Australian Ladies, the Piper of Drummond and the Piobaireachd of Donald Dubh.
By Saturday 28th April, D – 1, everything was ready. At dusk the Right Hand and left hand Brigades began to move serials forward into their respective Marshalling Areas using well practiced convoy movement techniques masterminded by nothing more than squared paper and a sharp pencil. We were using exactly the same techniques in the early 1990s.
The men had a last hot meal and tried to rest. At 23.00hrs the lead Battalions boarded the vehicles and waited. The movement Controllers went forward to establish the crossing Controls, the Waiting areas and the Marshalling areas. The Engineers prepared the charges on the flood banks. The Royal Scots and the Royal Scots Fusiliers would lead on the left with two Commando Battalions on the right. There was sporadic shelling.
At 23.59hrs the counter battery bombardment opened up, the Engineers blew the flood banks under cover of the noise and the bulldozers began to clear the way for the infantry vehicles.
D – Day, Sunday 29th April 1945.
At 00.50hrs the full bombardment opened up. The Divisional History records:
The bombardment was awe inspiriting - but not so much for its incessant noise, which after a time almost ceased to be noticeable, as for its strangely theatrical effects. There barely four hundred yards away, a bleak cliff was being pulverised before the onlookers’ eyes. Over it played in fantastic pattern a myriad stabs and flashes of orange flame that took shape and died the same instant like forked lightening. Here and there distant and separate shell bursts made antic play among the trees tossing up balls of fire like roman candles, while overhead the Bofors tracer passed in diagonal streams, reflected crimson in the water. Presently the one small house on the far shore took fire and glowed like a Chinese lantern till it burst into flames. So elemental was the force of this bombardment that those who watched it could not but ask themselves uneasily what their reactions would have been, had they been subjected to a like test.
The amphibious vehicles roared into life and set off up the road. The follow up Battalions set off on foot.
The vehicles swung up to the river, lurched over the demolished flood bank and at 02.00hrs precisely they splashed into the water and set off for the other side with the heavy Brownings blazing away on their turrets.
The storm boats set off and simultaneously the barrage lifted from the cliffs. There was considerable long range shelling and some mortar fire from the enemy as the first Bridge serial of 70 vehicles arrived at the Bridge Marshalling Area. At this point the leading Battalions were securing a foothold on the far bank.
At 03.30hrs the KOSB and the Argylls followed the lead Battalions. As three Companies of the Argylls were assembling in a quarry just above their crossing point chance would have it that long range enemy artillery found the mouth of the quarry and in minutes the Argylls lost 9 killed and over 40 wounded.
By 05.00hrs the rear brigades were steadily flowing through. At 09.30hrs the priority support vehicles were beginning to cross and many bedraggled prisoners were coming back. The recce parties moved forward to organise the routes on the north shore.
Meanwhile the Engineers were hard at work under fire. The Divisional History:
….enemy shells were passing overhead in an almost continuous stream to burst around the Class 40 Bridging Site below. Down there things were very unpleasant and the Engineers were loosing men and equipment apace, yet their work never faltered. About 13.00hrs the Luftwaffe arrived to add to the trials of the Sappers. Approaching under cloud cover, about a dozen enemy jet aircraft suddenly appeared, flying so low that they passed beneath the onlookers on the cliff. They attacked with bombs and canon, killing eight and wounding twenty two of the Engineers who were busy on the Class 9 Bridge, and doing a lot of damage to the immediate bridge approaches. Several more times before nightfall the Luftwaffe returned to the attack on the bridge sites, each time leaving a trail of killed or wounded. The behaviour of the Sappers in the face of these attacks won the intense admiration of all beholders.
All afternoon vicious fights on the far bank continued – digging, passing through, moving forward.
By 22.00hrs on D Day:
• The Class 40 rafts were working
• The Class 9 Ferry was working
• The Class 9 Bridge was open
• The Class 40 Bridge was on schedule for noon the following day
• The booms were in place.
• 35 tanks were already across
• and the rain was falling in torrents
Late on D + 1 there were clear signs that the enemy resistance was crumbling. The surrender of a V1 rocket fuel and poisoned gas depot which threatened to blow up the whole countryside for miles around was successfully negotiated. However the enemy was by no means finished, shelling continued and to the Engineer’s alarm German frogmen were discovered in the water close to the river booms.
By D + 2, the 1st May, the Division had pushed on to the edge of Hamburg and full follow through across the bridgehead was in progress. There were sharp fights particularly with German Naval Cadets, little more than children, who fought like men possessed.
There were fields of Germans, dead, wounded, disoriented, demoralised. There were hundreds of thousands of terrified, exhausted refugees fleeing the Russians. There were fields of Russian prisoners and slave workers. Looters were everywhere.
In the midst of it all and as a result of a logistical triumph, the Division retained an extraordinary normality – the post got through, the rations arrived and life continued.
Then, there were the Russians.
On 2nd May news arrived that Hitler was dead. On 3rd May Hamburg surrendered and seven men met in a birchwood on Luneburg Heath under an improvised Union Jack to negotiate surrender as the Division moved off to Lubeck and Kiel on the Baltic. Through a master stroke of determination, force, individual skill and outstanding organisation they had succeeded in their objective of denying Denmark to the Russians.
On the way North the Division halted. The Divisional History records:
.On 6th May, a spring day in a lovely countryside, thanksgiving services were held throughout the Division at which were read a message of congratulation from HM The King and an address by the Divisional Commander. The work of the Division had been well and truly done. Yet there were no feelings of triumph or exultation – only thankfulness. All thought turned to the long and painful journey that had led to victory, and to the many that had fallen on the way.
Post Script and Operation COMMA
This story should end there but in fact there is an interesting post script. On VE Day, 8th May, the Division was ordered into Kiel. Here they faced new difficulties described in masterly understatement as:
The days that followed produced problems that would have been beyond solution by the Directing Staff of any earthly Staff College.
Some of these problems, which were after all taking place after VE Day, are on the face of it quite difficult to believe. The 15th Scottish Divisional History suggests that at a place called Forst Segeburg the Division encountered a group of German SS in a wood who refused to surrender. They could think of only one solution. The area was surrounded, a number of German prisoners were armed and told to go and clear out the SS. This with reluctance they duly did. It was alleged to be an all German affair and one of the last actions of the War.
It was only when Captain Sadgrove’s files came to light that my doubts were dispelled.
The arrival of the Division in a virtually destroyed Kiel was little better. Turning their hands to new work the 15th Scottish rounded up thousands of German soldiers, sailors and airmen who were roaming the streets in lawless mobs. They brought some sort of order to the thousands of refugees arriving in the area. On the third day a convoy of ships brought in 150,000 refugees from the Russian zone most of whom were dying. They were packed so tightly in the ships that the Jocks had to fight to get the hatch covers off.
That same afternoon a formation of German heavy bombers flew overhead. All who saw them held their breath as nobody knew what was going to happen. To the intense relief of all who witnessed it the bombers landed and surrendered as desperate refugees seeking deliverance from the Russians.
On 10th May ten German destroyers arrived to surrender. Each ship carried over 200 soldiers besides their own crews. They were all marched off the dock in the darkness to the POW cage by the few men who could be spared from the Recce regiment and a party of Cameronians, with rifles slung, uttering dark Glaswegian oaths. Many of these prisoners were hardened Nazis, and amongst them, unbeknown to their captors, were a number of German Naval Officers who had ordered the shooting of their own crewmen when the sailors had wanted to comply with the order to surrender on 7th May.
Shortly after the Division moved to the lakeside at Schwerin with Divisional HQ located in Schloss Schwerin. There was a great deal of coming a going with the Russians, a lot of celebrations, toasts and formalities and two high powered Soviet Generals arrived, Major General Lashenko and Lt General Polyanoff.
The subsequent meetings which Barber had with the Russians as Schloss Schwerin were cordial enough on the surface but the Russians were there for one thing and one thing only. The British begin to notice the arrival of political commissars. Demands are made by the Soviets to hand over not only German war criminals but Poles, Czechs, slave workers and displaced people of many nationalities. When these people are asked they do not go willingly. The chain of command however instructs that they be handed over and a number of British Veterans to this day remember the pleadings of these people as they were led away. Many of them were never heard of again.
So finally, our story ends with Operation Comma when the 15th Scottish Division had the unenviable task of handing over an area of Germany from the Elbe to Lubek to the Soviets under the terms of the Yalta Agreement. Three sullen, shabby Russian Divisions arrived and the Jocks handed over large swathes of country for which they had fought so hard at the Elbe crossing.
Neither the Jocks nor the population received any more than a few hours warning. In the words of the Divisional History, “the exhausted refugees, the slave workers, the former concentration camp inmates, the German servicemen, the surviving population and the British soldiers behaved with exemplary obedience and stoicism”.
Thus these were the men (from left to right)
Drum Major Groves
Pipe Major Massie
Major General” Tiny” Barber
Lt General Polyanoff
Pipe Major Mackay
Major General Lashenko
and Pipe Major Turnbull
who were part of a logistical miracle and were present to witness an event at the cusp of history. They were there at the end of one era and at the very start of another.
Such then are the real logistical challenges of a major battle upon which history can so easily turn. The Elbe Crossing by the 15th Scottish Division exemplifies the triumph of a well oiled machine at its very best, efficient, organised and inspired.
Dr Diana M Henderson