21st Army Group
|21st Army Group|
21st Army Group Shoulder Flash
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The 21st Army Group was a World War II British headquarters formation, in command of two field armies and other supporting units, consisting primarily of the British Second Army and the First Canadian Army. Established in London during July 1943, under the command of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), it was assigned to Operation Overlord, the Western Allied invasion of Europe, and was an important Allied force in the European Theatre. The 21st Army Group operated in Northern France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany from June 1944 until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, after which it was redesignated the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).
Commanded by General (later Field Marshal) Sir Bernard Montgomery, 21st Army Group initially controlled all ground forces in Operation Overlord (the United States First Army and British Second Army). When sufficient American forces had landed, their own 12th Army Group was activated, under General Omar Bradley, and the 21st Army Group was left with the British Second Army and the newly activated First Canadian Army which, despite its title, contained many British and Polish troops.
Normandy was a battle of attrition for the British and Canadian troops, drawing in most of the available German reinforcements, especially armoured divisions, around Caen at the eastern end of the lodgement. The Germans lacked the ability to prevent the American breakout at the western end of the Normandy beachhead in early August 1944. Following the German attack towards Mortain, the American breakout and an advance by the 21st Army Group the German armed forces in Normandy were nearly enveloped in the Falaise pocket, and subsequently routed retreating towards the Low Countries.
Advance into the Netherlands
After the successful landings in the south of France by the U.S. 6th Army Group, the 21st Army Group formed the left flank of the three Allied army groups arrayed against German forces in the West. It was therefore responsible for securing the ports upon which Allied supply depended, and also with overrunning German V-1 and V-2 launching sites along the coasts of western France and Belgium.
By 29 August, the Germans had largely withdrawn across the Seine River without their heavy equipment. The campaign through Northern France and Belgium was largely a pursuit, with the ports - formally designated "Fortress Towns" by the Germans - offering only limited opposition to the First Canadian Army. The advance was so rapid, 250 miles in four days, that Antwerp, Belgium was captured undefended on 4 September 1944 and the port facilities were cleared of the German defenders in the following days.
On 1 September 1944, the 21st Army Group was relieved of operational control of the American armies, and those armies formed the 12th Army Group.
By mid-September, elements of 21st Army Group had reached the Dutch border, but were halted due to lack of supplies, and by flooding caused by the widespread German demolition of Dutch dikes. German control of some of the channel ports and the approaches to Antwerp, and previous Allied bombing of the French and Belgian railways, resulted in a long supply line from Normandy served mainly by trucks.
Operation Market Garden
After the break-out from Normandy, there were high hopes that the war could be ended in 1944. In order to do so, the last great natural defensive barrier of Germany in the west, the Rhine River had to be crossed. Operation Market Garden was orchestrated to attempt just this. It was staged in the Netherlands with the airborne troops of the American 82nd and 101st and one British 1st airborne divisions and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade (attached to the 1st Airborne Division) being dropped to capture bridges over the lower Rhine before they were blown by the Germans. The airborne formations were then to be relieved by armoured forces of the Guards Armoured Division advancing rapidly northwards through Eindhoven and Nijmegen to Arnhem, opening the north German plains, and the industrial Ruhr Valley, to the Allies.
However, the British armoured forces had only one main highway to operate on, and crucial information about the German forces in the operational area was either missing or ignored. The scratch forces remaining after the retreat from France were much stronger than expected, thus giving the armoured units of the XXX Corps a much tougher fight than had been anticipated, slowing the advance. The American divisions and the Polish parachute brigade that had fought south of the Rhine were relieved but the 1st British Airborne Division in Arnhem had fought heroically but was practically destroyed during the battle.
Battle of the Scheldt
Since the approaches to the port of Antwerp had not been cleared when the city was captured it had allowed the German army time to reorganise and dig in along the approaches making the port completely unusable. Thus an operation was needed to clear the approaches and thereby ease the supply problem. The island of Walcheren was strongly held by German forces and commanded the estuary of the Scheldt which flows through Antwerp. Operations by II Canadian Corps cleared the approaches to Antwerp both north and south of the water during the Battle of the Scheldt. Walcheren itself was captured in late 1944 by the last major amphibious assault in Europe in the Second World War. A combination of British and Canadian forces and Royal Marines undertook the operation.
Battle of the Bulge
After the capture of Walcheren came the last great German offensive of the war. In a repeat of their 1940 attack, German formations smashed through weak Allied lines in the Ardennes in Belgium.
The Battle of the Bulge presented a command problem to General Eisenhower. It had sliced through US lines, leaving some American formations north and south of the new German salient. However, the headquarters of U.S. 12th Army Group lay to the south, and so Eisenhower decided to place American forces north of the "Bulge" salient under 21st Army Group. They, with the US Third Army under General George S. Patton, reduced the salient.
After the battle, control of the First US Army which had been placed under Field Marshal Montgomery's temporary command was returned to Bradley's 12th Army Group. The US Ninth Army remained under Montgomery longer, before being returned to American command in Germany.
Battle for the Roer Triangle
Prior to the Rhineland Campaign the enemy had to be cleared from the Roer Triangle during Operation Blackcock. This large methodical mopping up operation took place between 14 and 27 January 1945. It was not planned to make any deep thrust into the enemy defences or capture large numbers of prisoners. It proceeded from stage to stage almost entirely as planned and was completed with minimal casualties.
Allied forces closed up to the Rhine by March 1945. 21st Army Group at this time comprised the British Second Army under General Miles C Dempsey, the First Canadian Army under General Harry Crerar and the US Ninth Army, under General William Simpson.
The First Canadian Army had executed Operation Veritable in difficult conditions from Nijmegen eastwards through the Reichswald Forest then southwards. This was to have been the northern part of a pincer movement with the US Ninth Army moving northwards towards Düsseldorf and Krefeld (Operation Grenade), to clear the west bank of the Rhine north of Cologne. However the Americans were delayed by two weeks when the Germans destroyed the Roer dams and flooded the American route of advance. As a result the Canadians engaged and mauled the German reserves intended to defend the Cologne Plain.
In Operation Plunder, starting on 13 March 1945, the British Second Army and the US Ninth Army crossed the Rhine at various places north of the Ruhr and German resistance in the west quickly crumbled. The First Canadian Army wheeled left and liberated the northern part of the Netherlands and adjoining areas of Germany, the British Second Army occupied much of north-west Germany and the US Ninth Army formed the northern arm of the envelopment of German forces in the Ruhr Pocket and on 4 April reverted to Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group.
On 4 May 1945, Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of the German forces in the Netherlands, in north west Germany and Denmark.
British Army of the Rhine
After the German surrender, 21st Army Group was converted into the headquarters for the British zone of occupation in Germany. It was renamed the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) on 25 August 1945 and eventually formed the nucleus of the British forces stationed in Germany throughout the Cold War.
Order of Battle
The main constituent formations of 21st Army Group were the First Canadian Army and the British Second Army. In practice, neither of the two armies were homogeneously British or Canadian. Also included were Polish units, from Normandy onwards and small Dutch, Belgian, and Czech units; units of the US Army were attached from time to time. Lines of communications units were predominantly British.
Attached U.S. units
American army units were placed under British command at various times. For political and personal rivalry reasons, these were never more than temporary. These arrangements occurred when
- the First Allied Airborne Army, including two U.S. airborne divisions (the 101st and 82nd), was deployed during Operation Market Garden and subsequent holding actions;
- as reinforcement to the First Canadian Army during the Battle of the Scheldt (104th Infantry Division)
- as a result of the disruption to the command chains during the Battle of the Bulge (the U.S. First and Ninth Armies);
- as reinforcement for the drive to the Rhine (Operations Veritable and Grenade) (US Ninth Army) and the subsequent Rhine crossings (Operations Plunder and Varsity) (US Ninth Army and U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps;
- to allow an efficient command structure during the Geilenkirchen salient (US 84th Infantry Division).
- June 1943 – December 1943 General Bernard Paget
- January 1944 – August 1945 General Bernard Montgomery
- "The Liberation of Belgium". THE GERMAN 15TH ARMY AT THE ATLANTIKWALL. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
- "Second World War Military Situation Maps 1944-1945". Retrieved 26 May 2013.
- Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives
- Montgomery and "colossal cracks": the 21st Army Group in northwest Europe By Stephen Hart, p.8
- Defeat in the West; Milton Shulman, first published 1947
- The Struggle for Europe; Chester Wilmot
- canadiansoldiers.com page, including uniform insignia images