Battle of the Scheldt
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The Battle of the Scheldt was a series of military operations by the Canadian First Army - consisting of Canadian, British and Polish formations - to open up the port of Antwerp so that it could be used to supply the Allies in north-west Europe. Led by Guy Simonds, the battle took place in northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands during World War II from October 2 to November 8, 1944.
The well-established Wehrmacht defenders staged an effective delaying action, during which the Germans flooded the Scheldt Estuary, slowing the Allied advance. After five weeks of difficult fighting, the Canadian First Army at a cost of 12,873 Allied casualties (half of them Canadian) were successful in clearing the Scheldt after numerous amphibious assaults, obstacle crossings, and costly assaults over open ground. Both land and water were mined, and the Germans defended their line of retreat with artillery and snipers.
Once the German defenders were no longer a threat, it was a further three weeks before the first convoy carrying Allied supplies was able to unload in Antwerp (on November 29, 1944) due to the necessity of de-mining the harbours.
By September 1944, it had become urgent for the Allies to clear both banks of the Scheldt estuary in order to open the port of Antwerp to Allied shipping, thus easing logistical burdens in their supply lines stretching hundreds of miles from Normandy eastward to the Siegfried Line.
Since the Allied forces had landed in Normandy (France) on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the British Second Army had pushed forward into the Low Countries and captured Brussels (3–4 September) and Antwerp, the latter with its ports still intact. But the advance halted with the British in possession of Antwerp, while the Germans still controlled the Scheldt Estuary.
Little was done about the blocked port of Antwerp during September because most of the strained Allied resources were allocated to Operation Market Garden, a bold plan for a single thrust into Holland that began on September 17. In the meantime, German forces in the Scheldt were able to deploy defensively and prepare for the expected advance. The first attacks occurred on September 13.
In early October, after operation Market Garden had failed with heavy losses, Allied forces led by the Canadian First Army set out to bring the port of Antwerp under control.
On September 12 and 13, 1944, the Canadian First Army — under temporary command of Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds — was given the task of clearing the Scheldt once it had completed the clearing of the Channel ports particularly Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. Montgomery then decided that the importance of Antwerp was such that the actual capture of Dunkirk could be delayed. Under command at that time was Canadian II Corps, with the Polish 1st Armoured Division, 49th and 52nd Divisions attached, and the British I Corps. Montgomery promised the support of RAF Bomber Command in attacking the German fortifications and that of the USAAF 8th Air Force "On the day concerned". The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was to give up its transport to enable the movement of forces into position for the battle. Abandoning the capture of Dunkirk freed the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. The plan for opening the Scheldt estuary involved four main operations conducted over daunting geography.
- The first task was to clear the area north of Antwerp and secure access to South Beveland.
- Second was to clear the Breskens pocket north of the Leopold Canal ("Operation Switchback").
- Third, dubbed "Operation Vitality", was the capture of South Beveland.
- The final phase would be the capture of Walcheren Island ("Operation Infatuate"), which had been fortified into a powerful German stronghold. As part of the Atlantic Wall, Walcheren Island was considered to be the "strongest concentration of defences the Nazis had ever constructed."
On September 21, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division moved north roughly along the line of the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal, given the task of clearing an area on the south shore of the Scheldt around the Dutch town of Breskens called the "Breskens pocket". The Polish 1st Armoured Division headed for the Dutch-Belgian border further east and the crucial area north of Antwerp.
The Canadian 4th Armoured advanced from a hard-won bridgehead over the Ghent Canal at Moerbrugge to find themselves the first Allied troops facing the formidable obstacle of the double line of the Leopold and Schipdonk Canals. An attack was mounted in the vicinity of Moerkerke, crossing the canals and establishing a bridgehead before counter-attacks forced a withdrawal with heavy casualties.
The 1st Polish Armoured Division enjoyed greater success to the east as it advanced northeast from Ghent. In country unsuitable for armour, and against stiffening resistance, the Division advanced to the coast by September 20, occupying Terneuzen and clearing the south bank of the Scheldt east toward Antwerp.
It became apparent to Simonds that any further gains in the Scheldt would come at heavy cost, as the Breskens pocket, extending from Zeebrugge to the Braakman Inlet and inland to the Leopold Canal, was strongly held by the enemy.
On October 2, the Canadian 2nd Division began its advance north from Antwerp. Stiff fighting at Woensdrecht ensued on October 6, the objective of the first phase. The Germans—reinforced by Battle Group Chill—saw the priority in holding there, controlling direct access to South Beveland and Walcheren Island.
There were heavy casualties as the Canadians attacked over open, flooded land. Driving rain, booby traps and land mines made advance very difficult. On October 13, what would come to be known as "Black Friday", the Canadian 5th Infantry Brigade's Black Watch was virtually wiped out in an unsuccessful attack. The Calgary Highlanders were to follow up with a more successful action, and their Carrier Platoon succeeded in taking the rail station at Korteven. Heavy fighting at Hoogerheide also ensued, but by October 16, Woensdrecht was secured, cutting the land link to South Beveland and Walcheren. The Canadians had achieved their first objective, but suffered heavy casualties.
At this point, recognizing the opportunity, Field-Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery issued a directive that made the opening of the Scheldt estuary the top priority of 21st Army Group. To the east, the British Second Army attacked westward to clear the Netherlands south of the Maas River, securing the Scheldt region from counter-attacks.
Meanwhile, Simonds concentrated forces at the neck of the South Beveland peninsula. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division moved north from the Leopold Canal and took Bergen op Zoom. By October 24, Allied lines were pushed out further from the neck of the peninsula, ensuring German counterattacks would not cut off the 2nd Canadian Division, by then moving west along it towards Walcheren Island.
The second main operation opened with fierce fighting to reduce the Breskens pocket. Here, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division encountered tenacious German resistance as it fought to cross the Leopold Canal.
An earlier failed attempt by the Canadian 4th Armoured Division at Moerbrugge had demonstrated the challenge they faced. In addition to the formidable German defences on both the Leopold Canal and the Schipdonk Canal, much of the approach area was flooded.
It was decided that the best place for an assault would be immediately east of where the two canals divided: a narrow strip of dry ground only a few hundred metres wide at its base beyond the Leopold Canal (described as a long triangle with its base on the Maldegem-Aardenburg road and its apex near the village of Moershoofd some 5 km (3.1 mi) east).
A two-pronged assault commenced. The Canadian 3rd Division′s 7th Brigade made the initial assault across the Leopold Canal, while the 9th Brigade mounted an amphibious attack from the northern or coastal side of the pocket. The assault began on October 6, supported by extensive artillery and Canadian-built Wasp Universal Carriers, which were equipped with flamethrowers. The Wasps launched their barrage of flame across the Leopold Canal, allowing the 7th Brigade troops to scramble up over the steep banks and launch their assault boats. Two precarious, separate footholds were established, but the enemy recovered from the shock of the flamethrowers and counter-attacked, though they were unable to move the Canadians from their extremely vulnerable bridgeheads. By October 9, the gap between the bridgeheads was closed, and by early morning on October 12, a position had been gained across the Aardenburg road.
The Canadian 9th Brigade conducted an amphibious operation with the aid of Terrapin (the first such use of this vehicle in Europe) and Buffalo amphibious vehicles, crewed by the British 5th Assault Regiment from the Royal Engineers. The brigade planned to cross the mouth of the Braakman Inlet in amphibious vehicles and to land in the vicinity of Hoofdplaat, a tiny hamlet in the rear or coastal side of the pocket, thus exerting pressure from two directions at once. In spite of difficulties in maneuvering vehicles through the canals, and the resulting 24-hour delay, the Germans were taken by surprise and a bridgehead was established. Once again, the Germans recovered quickly and counter-attacked with ferocity; however, they were slowly forced back. The Canadian 10th Brigade—from the 4th Armoured Division—crossed the Leopold Canal and advanced at Isabella Polder. Then the 3rd Division′s 8th Brigade was called to move south from the coastal side of the pocket. This opened up a land-based supply route into the pocket.
The 3rd Division fought additional actions to clear German troops from the towns of Breskens, Oostburg, Zuidzande and Cadzand, as well as the coastal fortress Fort Frederik Hendrik. Operation "Switchback" ended on November 3, when the Canadian 1st Army liberated the Belgian towns of Knokke and Zeebrugge, officially closing the Breskens Pocket and eliminating all German forces south of the Scheldt.[note 1]
The third major operation opened on October 24, when the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division began its advance down the South Beveland peninsula. The Canadians hoped to advance rapidly, bypassing opposition and seizing bridgeheads over the Beveland Canal, but they too were slowed by mines, mud and strong enemy defences.
An amphibious attack was made across the West Scheldt by the British 52nd (Lowland) Division to get in behind the German′s Beveland Canal defensive positions. Thus this formidable defence was outflanked, and the Canadian 6th Infantry Brigade began a frontal attack in assault boats. The engineers were able to bridge the canal on the main road.
With the canal line gone, the German defence crumbled and South Beveland was cleared. The third phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was now complete.
Operation Infatuate: Capture of Walcheren Island
As the fourth phase of the battle opened, only the island of Walcheren at the mouth of the West Scheldt remained in German hands. The island's defences were extremely strong: heavy coastal batteries on the western and southern coasts defended both the island and the Scheldt estuary, and the coastline had been strongly fortified against amphibious assaults. Furthermore, a landward-facing defensive perimeter had been built around the town of Vlissingen (in English, Flushing) to further defend its port facilities should an Allied landing on Walcheren succeed. The only land approach was the Sloedam—a long, narrow causeway from South Beveland, little more than a raised two-lane road. To make matters more difficult, the flats that surrounded this causeway were too saturated with sea water for movement on foot, but had too little water for an assault in storm boats.
To hamper German defence, the island′s dykes were breached by attacks from RAF Bomber Command: on October 3 at Westkapelle, with severe loss of civilian life (180 civilians dead); on October 7 at two places, west and east of Vlissingen; and on October 11 at Veere. This flooded the central part of the island, forcing the German defenders onto the high ground around the outside and in the towns, but it also allowed the use of amphibious vehicles. The bombings - sanctioned at the highest level - were preceded by leafleting warning the local population. The Westkapelle dyke was attacked by 240 heavy bombers resulting in a large gap but the attacks on the other dykes made certain that the flooding could not be contained. Bombing against the islands actual defences had been limited by bad weather and the requirements for attacks on Germany.
The island was attacked from three directions: across the causeway from the east, across the Scheldt from the south, and by sea from the west.
The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division attacked the causeway on October 31. An initial attack by the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment of Canada) was rebuffed; The Calgary Highlanders then sent a company over which was also stopped halfway across the causeway. A second attack by the Highlanders on the morning of November 1 managed to gain a precarious foothold; a day of fighting followed, and then the Highlanders were relieved by Le Regiment de Maisonneuve who struggled to maintain the bridgehead. The "Maisies" withdrew onto the Causeway on November 2, to be relieved by the 1st Battalion, Glasgow Highlanders of the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division. In conjunction with the waterborne attacks, the 52nd continued the advance.
The amphibious landings were conducted in two parts on November 1. Operation Infatuate I consisted mainly of infantry of the 155th Infantry Brigade (4th and 5th battalions King's Own Scottish Borderers, 7th/9th battalion, Royal Scots) and No. 4 Commando, who were ferried across from Breskens in small landing craft to an assault beach in the south-eastern area of Vlissingen, codenamed "Uncle" Beach. During the next few days, they engaged in heavy street fighting against the German defenders.
Operation Infatuate II was the amphibious landing at Westkapelle, also conducted on the morning of November 1. Air support was limited due to the weather conditions. After a heavy naval bombardment by the Royal Navy (a battleship and two monitors plus a support squadron of landing craft carrying guns), troops of 4th Special Service Brigade (Nos. 41, 47, and 48 Royal Marines Commando and No. 10 Inter Allied Commando, consisting mainly of Belgian and Norwegian troops) supported by the specialized armoured vehicles (amphibious transports, mine-clearing tanks, bulldozers, etc.) of the 79th Armoured Division were landed on both sides of the gap in the sea dyke, using large landing craft as well as amphibious vehicles to bring men and tanks ashore. Heavy fighting ensued here as well before the ruins of the town were captured. Part of the troops moved south-east toward Vlissingen, while the main force went north-east to clear the northern half of Walcheren and link up with the Canadian troops who had established a bridgehead on the eastern part of the island. Fierce resistance was again offered by some of the German troops defending this area, so that fighting continued until November 7.
On November 6, the island′s capital (Middelburg) fell after a calculated gamble on the Allies′ part when the German commander was invited to consider surrendering only to an armoured force. Since Middelburg was impossible to reach with tanks, a force of amphibious Landing Vehicle Tracked ("Buffaloes") were driven into Middelburg, forcing an end to all German resistance on November 8.
With the approaches to Antwerp clear, the fourth phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was complete. The Scheldt was then swept of naval mines and, on November 28—after much repair of harbour facilities——the first convoy entered the port, led by the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui.
Importance of the campaign
At the end of the five-week offensive, the Canadian First Army had taken 41,043 German prisoners. Complicated by the waterlogged terrain, the Battle of the Scheldt proved to be a challenging campaign in which the losses suffered by the Canadians exacerbated another conscription crisis. After the first ship arrived on November 28, convoys started bringing a steady stream of supplies to the continent, which began to reenergize the stalled Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine. Germany recognized the importance of the Allies having a deep water port, so in an attempt to destroy it, or at least disrupt the flow of supplies, the German military fired more V-2 ballistic missiles at Antwerp than any other city. Nearly half of the V-2s launched during the war were fired at Antwerp. The port of Antwerp was so strategically vital that, during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the primary German objectives was to retake the city and its port.
The battle of the Scheldt has later been described by historians as unnecessarily difficult as it could have been cleared earlier and more easily had the Allies given it a higher priority than Operation Market Garden. American historian Charles B. MacDonald later called the failure to immediately take the Scheldt "One of the greatest tactical mistakes of the war." Because of the flawed strategic choices made by the Allies in early September the battle became one of the longest and bloodiest that the Canadian army faced over the course of the Second World War.
MacDonald's opinion contrasts with that of Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Britain during Operation Market Garden. In a telegram written on October 9, 1944, Churchill said that, "As regards Arnhem I think you have got the position a little out of focus. The battle was a decided victory. I have not been afflicted with any feeling of disappointment over this and am glad our commanders are capable of running this kind of risk."
From October 23-November 5, 1944, the U.S. 104th Infantry Division experienced its first battle while attached to the British I Corps. The division succeeded in pushing through the central portion of North Brabant ( ) against resistance from German snipers and artillery.
- Montgomery also bestowed the nickname "Water Rats" on the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, a play on the Desert Rats title the 7th Armoured Division had earned in the Western Desert. General Harry Crerar reportedly hated the term, though it was meant as a tribute to their success in amphibious operations in Normandy and the Scheldt. (Granatstein, Jack. The Generals: Canadian Senior Commanders in the Second World War.)
- The Battle of the Scheldt, Veterans Affairs Canada., 14 April 2014, retrieved 10 August 2014
- MacDonald, Charles B. (1990) . "Chapter IX:The Approaches of Antwerp". The Siegfried Line Campaign. United States Army Center of Military History. CMH pub 7-7-1. Retrieved February 5, 2007.
- Official History p331, 336
- Official History p358
- Williams, Jeffery (1988). The Long Left Flank. London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 0-85052-880-1.
- two kilometers northeast of Woensdrecht
- two kilometers southeast of Woensdrecht
- In the Shadow of Arnhem - Ken Tout - 2003 (Paperback 2009, ISBN 9780752451947)
- Official History p376
- Official History p377
- Copp, Terry. The Brigade: The 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade in the Second World War[page needed]
- At the end of the five-week offensive, the victorious First Canadian Army had taken 41,043 prisoners, but suffered 12,873 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing), 6,367 of whom were Canadians.
- Charles B. MacDonald, The Mighty Endeavor; American Armed Forces in the European Theater in World War II, (New York, 1969)
- Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, v6, p200.
- "Google maps hybrid view of North Brabant". maps.google.com. 2007. Retrieved February 5, 2007.
- Stacey, C.P. (1960). Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War. Volume III: The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe, 1944-1945. Ottawa: The Queens Printer.
- Copp, Terry (2006). Cinderella Army - The Canadians in North-West Europe 1944-1945. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-9522-0.
- DeWaard, Dirk Marc (1983). Luctor et Emergo: The impact of the Second World War on Zeeland (M.A. thesis). Wilfrid Laurier University.
- Moulton, James L. (1978). Battle for Antwerp. London: Ian Allen. ISBN 0711007691.
- Whitaker, Denis; Whitaker, Shelagh (1984). Tug of War: Allied Command & the Story Behind the Battle of the Scheldt. New York: Beaufort Books. ISBN 0-8253-0257-9.
- Zuelhlke, Mark (2007). Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign, September 13 - November 6, 1944. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. ISBN 1-55365-227-4.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of the Scheldt.|
- Canadians on the Scheldt Photos, battle information, video and more on the Canadian role in the battle.
- Testaments of Honor, The Scheldt Official digital collection of experiences from World War II.
- BBC, The Peoples War.
- War Amps of Canada Against All Odds, a documentary by Cliff Chadderton
- Liberation of the Netherlands at the online Canadian War Museum
- The Calgary Highlanders Includes detailed history section with maps and descriptions of key battles such as Hoogerheide, The Coffin, and the storming of Walcheren Causeway.
- Canadiansoldiers.com article on the battle, including maps and detailed information on German formations.
- Petty Officer Basil Woolf Royal Navy and his account of LCH.269 and the Battle for Walcheren[permanent dead link]
- The contribution of the Nr 2 Dutch Troop, Nr 10 Inter Allied Commando to Infatuate I and Infatuate II.
- Memoirs of Joe Brown of Peebles (Battles at Flushing and Middelburg).