May 15, 2021. When we visited the Canadian War Cemetery in Holten in October 2019, we laid flags down at the graves of five Canadian soldiers who drowned in a tragic accident in the Battle of Leer in Germany on April 28, 1945, one of the final actions to end WW2 in Europe.
….5 North Nova Scotia Highlanders Drowned….
These 5 soldiers, all from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regiment, were:
- Joseph ‘Ambroise’ COMEAU, age 22, of Saulnierville, Nova Scotia
- Lewis Wilkieson MARSH, age 19, of Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia
- Ruel Kitchener MATHESON, age 29, of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
- Lloyd William MURRAY, age 28, of Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia
- Howard Milo NICHOLLS, age 21, of Mattawa, Ontario
This tragedy became known to us when the people at the Holten Canadian Cemetery Information Centre asked for help in finding family of these soldiers as part of their project to put a face to every name on each gravestone.
Two families immediately came forward – the Comeau family in Nova Scotia shared information about Joseph ‘Ambroise’ COMEAU, as did the nephew of Lloyd William MURRAY.
Putting faces to names made us want to know more about what happened in this event with the aptly named codename ‘Operation Duck’ (See https://codenames.info/operation/duck-iii/).
The plan? The North Nova Scotia Highlanders would cross the Leda River in assault boats and secure the northern bank of the river in preparation for the attack to capture Leer. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada would cross the Leda River, where the Ems and Leda rivers meet. The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders would go across the Ems River towards the western edge of Leer.
These three Regiments were part of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade. (See https://www.canadiansoldiers.com/history/battlehonours/northwesteurope/leer.htm)
In a translated excerpt from the recently published book ‘Holtense Canadezen’ (The Faces Of Holten) by Jan Braakman, we learned that the North Novies were not the only Regiment to have had casualties. The men from the Highland Light Infantry all crossed safely, but 19 men from the Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders didn’t.
…Why Operation Duck Was Important…
Jan Braakman’s account explained why Operation Duck was important. “…At the end of April 1945, Canadian troops stood just across the Dutch-German border in Ostfriesland (East Frisia in Germany) in front of the river Ems. The town of Leer was on the other side of the river on the route to Emden. Surrounded by inaccessible lowlands in the north and with rivers (Ems and Leda) in the west and south, Leer was a well defensible and therefore difficult to capture port city. All access bridges over the Ems and Leda were blown up by the Germans. For the Canadians there was no other option than to reach the city by water….”
River crossings can be tricky due to currents and tides, and in wartime, there is always the risk of enemy fire. “….The Ems River has an open connection with the Wadden Sea, which means that tides influence water levels and currents in the river. Tides made the currents unpredictable, and the Canadian Army didn’t have accurate information about the tides. What was clear: high tide was the best time to make the crossing. Aerial photographs showed that German troops had fortified themselves well behind the dikes that surrounded the city….”
A decision was made on how to cross the two rivers – the Leda and the Ems.. “… Only under the protection of a smoke screen and solid artillery support would it be possible to successfully complete the attack on Leer, using boats … General Simonds ordered that on April 28, 1945, before darkness fell, there had to be a solid bridgehead, from which the capture of Leer could be initiated. That meant that the attack had to be launched during the middle of the day, around three o’clock, when the water level was at its highest…”
The Highland Light Infantry crossed safely across the Leda River, but the other two regiments ran into trouble. “…The crossing was made at three different places. At the same time, artillery fire and attacks from the air put the German defence line to the test. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders would cross the Leda from the south bank and take the harbour of Leer, which abutted the city on a peninsula...”
….Panic Led To Tragedy….
Things didn’t go as planned. 3 sets of assault boats used by the North Nova Scotia Highlanders set off at 1545 hours on April 28. In ‘No Retreating Footsteps… the story of the North Novas’ by Will Bird, he explained that “…9 men were allotted to a boat at the river crossing. Two men in each were operating these boats which used outboard motors….”
In each boat were 7 North Novies and two boat operators from the Royal Canadian Engineers. “…. C Company, commanded by Major Winhold, had moved off from Driever …. with Thirteen Platoon leading, then…. Fourteen Platoon under Lt S Laskin and Fifteen under Lt McGlashen…”
Unfortunately for the men in the boat from Fifteen Platoon, one of the Engineers didn’t have nerves of steel. “…Just as the craft were launched some shelling began and the young Engineer at the motor of the boat ….. became very excited. His mate shouted at him not to turn on full power as the heavy load would sink when the motor dipped, but a shell landed quite near and the nervous man gave the motor the gun, sinking the boat at once…”
Five of the North Novies drowned. Lt McGlashen managed to save himself and another man. Men were not the only casualties. “…Fifteen Platoon had been chosen to lead the attack, but most of its weapons were lost…”
What a tragic accident! To see what an assault boat looks like, take a look at this short YouTube video, which shows troops preparing to cross the Ems:
…. to be continued…..
In Part 2 the aftermath of the accident is discussed and we’ll learn about the men who drowned.
Thank you to Jan Braakman for permission to quote from his book and use of the map showing the position of the Regiments, and to Simone Comeau and Murray Baillie for sharing photos.
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© Daria Valkenburg