Cromwell tank with Challenger tank behind of 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division, outside Hamburg Dammtor station, 5 May 1945.
The Führer would have been proud of the Hitler Youth Hannover Cadet school and their highly skilled instructors, who now made a last ditch stand which gave Britain’s two finest armoured divisions very bloody noses. The first barrier was the Dortmund-Ems Canal, which ran south-east from Rheine. The second was a most formidable natural hilly defensive line of dense woods, the Teutoburger Wald, an escarpment 25 miles long and a mile wide on a south-east vector some 10 miles south-west of Osnabrück.
The town of Ibbenbüren at the north-west end of the Teutoburger Wald was one of the objectives of the 7th Armoured. Originally the enemy had two companies in the area but they were continually reinforced until by 2 April there were seven! The DLI historian wrote:
Many of them were instructors, first class soldiers, even better shots, worked in small and scattered parties difficult to pin down for artillery targets. Many tank commanders and platoon sergeants were picked off by snipers. Tanks had to demolish a building and then bury the defenders. One German warrant officer badly wounded, was buried up to his neck in debris; on being dug out was asked when he thought the war was going to end. ‘When we win’ came the defiant reply.
The 3rd Monmouthshire Battalion with the 11th Armoured suffered very heavy casualties. Corporal E.T. Chapman won a VC, but the losses were so heavy that the gallant Mons who had 1,100 casualties in ten months of fighting, including 267 killed, were withdrawn from the line and took no further part in the campaign. The 1st Herefords lost sixty casualties around Birgte, including twenty killed on 1 April. Tony Crankshaw, ‘D’ Squadron 11th Hussars, wrote: ‘The cadets and their instructors had all the latest weapons at their disposal on their own training ground, the ridge gave perfect observation and the wood gave them concealment. They were the biggest lot of thugs that ever stepped and try as we could, they would not rug up till killed where they stood.’
On 3 April 22nd Armoured Brigade moved into reserve south of Rheine, as the 52nd Division followed up. And 131st Infantry Brigade now in the Riesenbeck area, 8 miles east of Rheine, prepared to move through the existing 11th Armoured bridgehead at Birgte and then advance three miles north-east to capture Ibbenbüren. This road centre lay in a valley on the far side of the Teutoberger Wald.
The plan was for 2nd Devons to attack and clear the wooded ridge from the left flank opposite the Birgte bridgehead while 9th DLI and the Skins pushed through and along the main road to Ibbenbüren. So backed by a heavy RHA barrage and mortar fire the Devons passed through 1st Herefords at the Birgte bridgehead to help rescue a company of 3rd Monmouthshires cut off on the hill, and recapture several British unmanned A/Tank guns in front of the bridgehead. Lieutenant Coates led a sortie to man them and give supporting fire to the Mons. A joint effort with 11th Armoured Division followed, and within 1½ hours they had captured 200 prisoners, killed 50 Germans and liberated 150 Mons who had been surrounded, without a single Devon casualty. Major-General ‘Lou’ Lyne called it ‘a brilliant performance’, and Robert Davey, a platoon commander said: ‘When the company went in we followed our own creeping barrage and when we got to the heights we had to winkle out the cadets who were well dug-in. They had been badly shelled but they were really tough.’
But for the Durhams and the Skins it was a different matter. Sergeant Bob Price recalled:
Ibbenbüren remains in my mind as the most horrible experience a tank troop leader could undergo while supporting infantry. It was so frustrating for us and so demoralising for the PBI. As far as military tactics go, it emphasised that you could so easily be seen and heard when on the move. My troop was sent forward to assist ‘A’ Sqn who were losing tank commanders rapidly. My squadron leader Major John Ward-Harrison finished his orders to us with the words ‘For God’s sake be careful. Do what you can.’ I did account for five snipers whom I spotted through the thick swirling smoke. We may have killed or injured others since we fired at every possible point where they might be located. We used both our main gun and the Besa machine guns … The infantry casualties mounted. Our troop fired smoke and sprayed the area. We loaded all the casualties on to the tanks and withdrew feeling we had achieved very little.
At last light on the 3rd it was a stalemate. The Devons were relieved by 7/9th Royal Scots of 155th Brigade (52nd Division). And the next day, the 4th, the Skins were held up by bogs and farmhouse defences. ‘C’ Squadron arrived to help a DLI company attack factory buildings outside Ibbenbüren but fighting went on all day, and troop leaders Fitzgerald and Elkins were shot by snipers. 1/5th Queens and 8th Hussars put in a flank attack north-east of Ibbenbüren, and ‘B’ Company lost ten casualties including their IO, Lieutenant Trewby, killed by a shell. The fanatical resistance went on with deadly enemy sniping and the elderly cadets (often aged over forty) remained in the blazing ruins before they themselves were burnt in the holocaust. The Durhams took thirty prisoners and killed many more but the terrible Wagnerian battles continued as the flames lit up the night sky – Götterdämmerung indeed.
John Pilborough of the Skins wrote: ‘While we waited for the relieving force to come up., we made a big meal and watched the 7.2 artillery shelling the power-house in Ibbenbüren.’ Very heavy guns were needed to finish off the Hanoverian cadet force.
On 4 April both armoured divisions were ordered to disengage and to bypass the opposition. It took another two days for 52nd and 53rd Infantry Divisions to subdue the heroic middle-aged cadets who had seen off the 7th and 11th Armoured Divisions.