"In the attack south of Cleve which was designed to drive the Germans from the west bank of the Rhine, II Canadian Corps’ plan called for the 4th Canadian Armoured and the 11th British Armoured Divisions to pass around Udem and on to the Hochwald Forest. This operation could not commence until the village of Keppeln had fallen into our hands. Keppeln was very heavily defended and was the core of the enemy’s defence. The 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade, with the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment in support, were allotted this task. The brigade plan was to have the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada capture the high ground north of Keppeln and the Régiment de la Chaudière to capture Hollen on the right. When this attack was successfully under way, the North Shore Regiment was to pass through the corridor and take Keppeln supported by the units on the high ground to either flank.
“C” Squadron of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment, commanded by Major J.W. Powell MC, was in support of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. H hour for their attack was 0430 hours, 26 February 1945. In order to ensure complete co-operation between the tanks and infantry, Major Powell moved his squadron into position the evening of the 25th of February. After discussing the plan of attack with the Commanding Officer, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, he returned to his squadron where he passed on the details to his troop leaders. Instead of resting during the night, he walked from tank to tank, talking to all ranks, infecting them with his determination to make the attack a success.
At 0430 hours, tanks and infantry moved forward in the dark. However the attack did not progress as quickly as anticipated due to heavy enemy small arms, machine-gun and mortar fire. The tanks found it extremely difficult to manoeuvre due to the darkness, boggy ground, minefield and Panzerfaust. During this time Major Powell, moving with the forward elements, directed his squadron ahead and although his squadron was suffering casualties, gave effective support.
By first light, it appeared that the attack would bog down due to the infantry being pinned to the ground by very heavy enemy fire. Realizing that the situation was becoming critical, Major Powell dismounted from his tanks and, disregarding the hail of murderous fire, contacted the infantry. Wherever and whenever the attack was held up, this officer directed his tanks in support and, although progress was slow, momentum was maintained. In many instances, his utter disregard for personal safety was an inspiration to all ranks and his grim determination to push on in the face of such fanatical resistance overcame many a crucial situation.
At 1030 hours, the North Shore Regiment commenced their attack, although the Queen’s Own Rifles had not yet reached their objective. After proceeding about five hundred yards, they were pinned to the ground and unable to proceed. At this time, the Queen’s Own Rifles were ordered to withdraw, replenish their ammunition and petrol, and prepare to support the North Shore Regiment. Powell and the commanding officer of this battalion met to formulate a plan. It was obvious that the North Shore Regiment could not proceed without tank support and it was also obvious that it was very unlikely that tanks could reach the village of Keppeln since they would be required to cross 1800 yards of open ground which was heavily mined and very boggy.
Not only did this make the tank attack extremely hazardous, but the enemy were bringing heavy fire of all types to bear whenever any sign of an attack appeared. From information obtained, it was known that there were ten self-propelled guns in the village and four tanks in the outskirts. Major Powell decided that the only possible chance of success lay in mounting infantry on his remaining tanks and charging at full speed across the ground.
It was a suicidal task, but not once did Major Powell hesitate. In fact, when questioned by his commanding officer as to the possible success of this plan, he stated, “I don’t think it’s on, sir, but we’ll do our best and will at least cause a diversion to enable the infantry to get forward.”Several other of the tank crews remarked that they had “had it,” but Major Powell’s cheerfulness and determination was so noticeable, that all ranks were prepared to follow him to an almost certain death.
At approximately 1320 hours, they crossed the start line with Major Powell immediately behind the leading troop. They charged at full speed with all guns blazing. At the time, it looked as if this attack might also be a failure as tank after tank bogged down, blew up on mines, or was hit by enemy SP (self-propelled gun) fire. An extremely heavy mortar barrage was brought down by the Germans but without faltering, the remaining tanks with the infantry charged on. All this time, Major Powell was firing and directing the attack and not once did he pause or hesitate. Four tanks managed to reach the outskirts of the village where the infantry dismounted. One tank managed to enter the town and sweep through it. Major Powell’s tank bogged down in a shell hole and became useless. One of the remaining tanks was destroyed, and the fourth bogged down. Major Powell refused to evacuate his tank, although it was a sitting target for the enemy armoured fighting vehicles and Panther tanks. He continued to direct and control the battle by wireless, insisting that the attack be pressed home.
At this time, the regimental headquarters troop was sent to reinforce the depleted squadron which consisted of one mechanically fit tank. Major Powell saw their approach and, realizing that they too would be destroyed by hidden enemy tanks, climbed out of his own and, although enemy infantry completely surrounded him, crossed the open ground to warn them off. Unfortunately, he was not able to attract their attention and all but one of his troop was destroyed. Refusing to return to safety, he returned to his own tank where he continued to give all the support he possible could, and fought off many enemy infantry who tried to close and destroy him. Fifteen dead Germans, subsequently found beside his tank, bear witness to this officer’s great courage and drive.
Three hours later, a recovery tank arrived and managed to pull out the bogged-down tank. Major Powell immediately proceeded into the village to support the hard-pressed infantry, seeking out and destroying the enemy wherever they could be found. As dusk drew down, enemy dead littered the streets. Four enemy armoured fighting vehicles had been destroyed just outside, and three enemy armoured fighting vehicles so badly damaged that they were not able to proceed more than six hundred yards before being abandoned by their crews.
As Keppeln was such vital importance to the enemy defence in this area, an immediate counter-attack was expected. As two more tanks had been recovered Major Powell now had at his disposal four of his original squadron of nineteen. Without thought of retiring, despite a shortage of ammunition, he immediately took up a defensive position although subjected to terrific enemy mortar and artillery fire. He visited the infantry positions from time to time throughout the night, enquiring of their needs and inspiring them with his confidence and unwavering determination. For forty-eight hours, this officer had no rest, but not once in the long vigil of the night did he slacken or waver in his untiring effort to instill determination to hold the village at all costs. His utter disregard of the shelling and mortaring throughout the night was an inspiration to all.
During all this time, the main divisional objective, Uedem, remained an constant threat, and yet so speedy and decisive was the taking of Keppeln that the whole corps plan was successfully effected. It allowed the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade to pass through and enter Uedem against minor resistance and, of even greater importance, it allowed immediately the 4th Canadian Armoured and 11th British Armoured Divisions to sweep past to the Hochwald Forest.
At 0800 on 27 February 1945, Major Powell was ordered to retire with his three remaining tanks. There is no doubt that without tanks, this attack would have failed and the speed and daring of the tank charge resulted directly in the successful completion of this operation. Major Powell’s utter disregard for danger and steady determination made possible the success of a seemingly hopeless task, and his encouragement to the exhausted troops set an example which can never be surpassed. There is no praise too high for the action of the very gallant officer."
Published in The London Gazette, dated 12 July, 1945.