The Little Black Devils in the Woods, 75 years ago today

Rifleman F.C.S. Lloyd of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles standing beside the regiment’s sign, “The Little Black Devils in the Woods,” in the dark forest of the Klever Reichswald, 19 March 1945.

Library and Archives Canada 3203104

One of the Kaiser’s old Imperial forests in North Rhine-Westphalia between the Rhine and Meuse at the intersection of the German and Dutch border, Klever Reichswald was four miles wide and seven deep, all of it infested in early 1945 by German anti-tank ditches, barbwire, mortar pits, and trenches.

The lines were held by the dug-in 47th Panzer Corps, bolstered by the tough paratroopers of the 6th and 7th Fallschirmjäger Divisions. As a reserve, General der Fallschirmtruppe Alfred Schlemm, Kurt Student’s successor, also had two divisions of so-called “stomach and ear” troops at his disposal, men who had been given earlier military deferments for a variety of ailments ranging from colitis to partial deafness.

In a fierce four-week campaign across February and March 1945, the wood was systematically cleared in Operation Veritable by some 400,000 Allied troops, spearheaded by the First Canadian Army with the U.S. Ninth Army in support. In the end, the Germans lost 45,000 killed, wounded and captured, about half of their force, against 15,000 Allied casualties.

As for the “Little Black Devils”, they were formed in 1883 and picked up their nickname fighting against the Metis two years later, as the latter thought their dark green uniforms were, in fact, black. Among the first Allied troops to land on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, they fought their way across the Rhine and remained in Germany until 1946. Today they are based at Minto Armoury in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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