Chapter 15: The Battle of the Scheldt, September–November 1944, Part I: Planning, and Operations North of Antwerp
(See Map 8 and Sketches 28, 31 and 32)
The story of the opening of the Scheldt is long and unpleasant. It begins in mid-September when the task was allotted to General Crerar. It ends, so far as First Canadian Army was concerned, only on 8 November when organized resistance ceased on Walcheren Island. There was much difficult, nasty and costly fighting in the interim.
The stage has already been set, but we should recapitulate briefly. Antwerp was the greatest port in North-West Europe, capable of bringing in some 40,000 tons of cargo per day, and vital to the maintenance of the Allied armies. It was captured by General Dempsey’s Second Army on 4 September, but both banks of the Scheldt below it remained in German hands. The Germans immediately adopted the policy of holding the mouth of the Scheldt and a bridgehead south of it to enable them to withdraw their all-but-encircled Fifteenth Army and deny us the use of the great harbour. On the Ghent Canal we came up against the forward line of this bridgehead on 8 September (above, page 326). The opposition encountered here was a foretaste of what lay ahead.
At this critical moment, we have seen, Field-Marshal Montgomery gave first priority to opening the Channel ports; and on the 9th, after receiving his instructions, General Crerar issued a directive noting that the destruction of the enemy north and east of the Ghent Canal was of secondary importance and that important forces were not to be committed to offensive action here. At the same time the responsibilities of the First Canadian Army were enlarged by taking over Ghent and the south shore of the Scheldt to a few miles below Antwerp from the Second British Army (above, page 330). However, on 12 September, after Montgomery had had further discussions with General Eisenhower, policy changed; and Crerar, while still required to capture Boulogne as soon as possible, was now told that it was vital to open Antwerp and asked when he could “tackle this problem” (above, page 331). From this moment Headquarters First Canadian Army was busy with planning for the Battle of the Scheldt.
The Task is Assigned
On 13 September the Army Group Commander, while engaged in getting the Arnhem operation under way on the Second Army front, wrote again to Crerar.1 The letter has already been referred to in connection with the Channel Ports task:
3. The things that are now very important are:–
a. Capture of Boulogne and Dunkirk and Calais.
b. The setting in motion of operations designed to enable us to use the port of Antwerp.
4. Of these two things, (b) is probably the most important. We have captured a port which resembles Liverpool in size, but we cannot use it; if we could use it, all our maintenance troubles would disappear. I am very anxious that (a) and (b) should both go on simultaneously if you can possibly arrange it, as time is of the utmost importance. I wonder whether you could possibly use one Corps HQ to control the operations from Boulogne to Dunkirk, and the other Corps HQ to control the operations for the opening of Antwerp. Perhaps you would let me know what you think about this.
5. For the operations concerned with Antwerp, you will need a great deal of air support. I have ordered that bombing to destroy the forts on Walcheren Island is to begin at once. On the day concerned we can lay on for you the whole weight of the heavy bomber effort from England, both Bomber Command and Eighth Air Force. I would like you to take over the city of Antwerp itself from Dempsey as soon as possible; you will want that place and certain ground east of it, so that you can develop operations to push the enemy northwards from the city. You may also possibly want to develop operations westwards along the neck of the peninsula towards Walcheren.
7. I have arranged that Airborne Forces (Para Troops) will be available for you to assist in the capture of Walcheren Island.
8. The really important thing is speed in setting in motion what we have to do. I hope very much that you will be able to tackle both your tasks simultaneously, i.e. the Pas de Calais Ports and the Antwerp business.
Crerar referred this problem to his plans section, and the same day he gave Montgomery a preliminary reply on the basis of their suggestions.2
At this moment, of First Canadian Army’s two corps, the 1st British Corps had just captured Le Havre, and it had been decided that its two divisions were now to be “grounded”, and to refit, nearby, far from the main front, until the administrative situation improved.3 The 2nd Canadian Corps, with the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Armoured Divisions, was stretched along a front extending from Boulogne almost to Antwerp, besieging or containing the Channel Ports and maintaining pressure with a view to clearing the large enemy pocket remaining south of the West Scheldt. This latter task had been assigned to the two armoured divisions, with the Poles on the right.4 In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Crerar and his staff, in the light of Montgomery’s emphasis on speed, at once asked for more resources. The Army Commander estimated that it would take “ten days or two weeks” for General Simonds’ corps to finish its allotted tasks and clear the coast up to the Scheldt; as for the 1st British Corps, it would take “at least ten days” to move it up to the Antwerp area, even with extra transport from Army Group resources and a clear route through Brussels. He wrote:–5
I therefore come to the tentative conclusion, that, to meet the problem you have set, either 12 Brit Corps [in the Antwerp area] should come under my temporary command, or, alternatively, that HQ I Brit Corps (less an Adm HQ to look after 49 and 51 (H)
Divs, Corps Troops, etc.—for time being held in Le Havre–Dieppe area) should take over 53 Div from 12 Corps, with Antwerp. The development of operations along the axis Breda–Tilburg, would then become a Cdn Army responsibility, and the inter-Army boundaries would need to be adjusted accordingly. ...
The capture of Walcheren and Beveland islands look like very tough propositions, to me—at this stage—and to require a lot of “doing”. I certainly will want to secure the mainland end of the peninsula leading from Zuid Beveland before launching a final assault, but my studies have not yet proceeded sufficiently to indicate how I would propose to conduct that operation as a whole. In any event, I feel certain that maximum heavy bomber effort on these islands should be carried out whenever Bomber Command is not required by me for specific support of attacks on Boulogne, Dunkirk and Calais.
In reply to this, Montgomery signalled to Crerar (still on 13 September):–6
Bring up HQ 1st Corps and 49th Div to Antwerp area earliest possible. Ground 51st Div completely by dumping all loads from all vehicles and using all its transport to lift 49th Div to Antwerp where it will relieve 53 Div. 12 Corps and 53rd Div are both involved in Second Army plan [MARKET-GARDEN] and cannot go to you. ...
An hour and a half later Montgomery signalled again:–7
Early use of Antwerp so urgent that I am prepared to give up operations against Calais and Dunkirk and be content with Boulogne. If we do this will it enable you to speed up the Antwerp business. Discuss this with me tomorrow when you come here for conference at 1600 hrs [4:00 p.m.].
The discussion at this afternoon conference on the 14th is presumably reflected in the directive issued by the Field Marshal on the same date.8 We have noted (above, page 313) that this prescribed formally the great Second Army operation directed on Arnhem which was launched on 17 September. With respect to First Canadian Army it went into considerable detail. The directive began with an account of the “general situation”:–
1. Now that Havre has been captured, we are in a better position to be able to proceed with operations designed to lead to the capture of the Ruhr.
2. We have captured the port of Antwerp, but cannot make use of it as the enemy controls the mouth of the Scheldt; operations to put this matter right will be a first priority for Canadian Army.
4. Together with 12 Army Group, we will now begin operations designed to isolate and surround the Ruhr; we will occupy that area as we may desire., Our real objective, therefore, is the Ruhr. But on the way to it we want the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, since the capture of the Ruhr is merely the first step on the northern route of advance into Germany.
The instructions for General Crerar began with paragraphs requiring him to capture Boulogne and Calais (above, page 336). Montgomery then proceeded:–
10. The whole energies of the Army will be directed towards operations designed to enable full use to be made of the port of Antwerp., Airborne troops are available to co-operate., Air operations against the island of Walcheren have already commenced and these include:
a. the isolation of the island by taking out road and rail bridges.
b. attacks on coast defence guns.
c. attacks on other artillery, including flak.
11. HQ I Corps, and 49 Div. will be brought up from the Havre area as early as possible, to the Antwerp area.
51 Div. will be grounded completely in the Havre peninsula, and its transport used to
enable the above move to take place; the division will remain grounded as long as its transport is required by Canadian Army for maintenance or movement purposes.
12. Canadian Army will take over the Antwerp area from Second Army beginning on 17 September. The boundary between the two armies on completion of this relief will be as decided by Canadian Army; Second Army to conform.
13. Having completed the operation for the opening of Antwerp, vide para. 10, Canadian Army will operate northwards on the general axis Breda–Utrecht–Amsterdam. Inter-Army boundary, all inclusive Canadian Army:
Task: to destroy all enemy to the west of the Army boundary, and open up the port of Rotterdam.
Subsequently, Canadian Army will be brought up on the left (or northern flank) of Second Army, and will be directed on Bremen and Hamburg.
First Canadian Army was relieved of the task of capturing Dunkirk. This had the effect of freeing the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division to move to the Scheldt area at once; but since Boulogne and Calais were still to be taken the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division would not be available for the Scheldt battle for a considerable time.
On 15 September General Crerar issued his own directive to his corps commanders,9 allotting the Scheldt operation to the 2nd Canadian Corps. He wrote:–
7. 2 Cdn Corps will, forthwith, assume responsibility for developing operations to enable full use to be made of the port of Antwerp. As a first step, 2 Cdn Inf Div will take over the city of Antwerp from 53 Inf Div of 12 Corps, relief to be completed by 18 Sep. Detailed arrangements, including temporary inter-Corps and inter-Army boundaries and temporary retention by 2 Cdn Corps of one Armed Regt of 12 Corps, will be made by Corps Comds and notified to this HQ. The eventual forward boundary between Second Brit and First Cdn Armies will be, all incl First Cdn Army, Herenthals–Turnhout–Tilburg–Hertogenbosch–Utrecht, but the extension of Cdn Army responsibilities to the East of Antwerp, and to this boundary, will be gradual and timed to suit the developing situation. Moves of other formations 2 Cdn Corps from their present localities to other areas will be referred initially to this HQ before action is taken, owing to the important effect on the Army maintenance problem of any particular, or considerable, formation movement at this time.
8. For the operations to secure the West Scheldt, and the use of the port of Antwerp, 2 Cdn Corps will have at its disposal maximum air support, including Bomber Command, and the Paratroops of 17 US Airborne Div. Details to be arranged through this HQ.
For the 1st British Corps two alternative roles were envisaged at this time. As we have seen (above, page 345), Crerar took the view that if Calais could be captured quickly, this should be done by General Simonds’ corps; but if a deliberate attack was necessary, this responsibility should be handed over to General Crocker. If Calais surrendered easily, then the 1st British Corps would take over the Canadian Army’s right front and secure Simonds’ right flank against interference while he set about the task of opening Antwerp.
The instructions relating to Dunkirk ran:–
6. No deliberate assault on Dunkirk will be attempted. This port will however, be closely contained (4 SS Bde is being transferred to 2 Cdn Corps for this purpose) and the garrison will be influenced to surrender, by frequent bombardment, from the air and the ground, and by propaganda leaflets.
As noted in the previous chapter, on 19 September General Crerar altered his plan to the extent of leaving the deliberate attack on Calais to the 3rd Canadian Division under the 2nd Canadian Corps and ordering the 1st British Corps to take over the Antwerp sector from the 12th British Corps at once.10 Although the reasons for the change do not seem to have been recorded, it seems likely that it stemmed from the difficulties Montgomery was encountering in MARKET-GARDEN and was an attempt to enable the 12th Corps to operate more effectively to relieve pressure on the 30th Corps corridor leading to Arnhem. The 1st Corps’ headquarters opened south-east of Antwerp on 23 September and took over the front in the Turnhout area east of the city with the 49th Division. The 2nd Canadian Division had begun to move into Antwerp itself on 16 September, relieving the 53rd British Division. It remained for the moment under the 2nd Canadian Corps, whose responsibilities, already large, were thus still further extended.11
Fighting on the Scheldt Outworks
While the discussions and movements just described were proceeding, the troops in the 2nd Corps’ northern sector were fighting what may be called the preliminary skirmishes of the Scheldt battle. Some of these skirmishes were fierce and bloody actions, pre-figuring the nature of the main operation.
On 12 September General Simonds issued a directive to his divisional commanders.12 This required the 1st Polish Armoured Division to clear the area up to the West Scheldt between the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal and the Dutch-Belgian border north-west of Antwerp, and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division to perform the same task in the area west of the canal, making its main thrust on the axis Moerbrugge–Maldegem–Breskens. Could these orders have been fully and speedily carried out as written, a good part of the Battle of the Scheldt would have been won. As it turned out, they could not; for in the 4th Division’s sector they involved coming to grips with one of the Germans’ main positions covering the Antwerp sea approaches.
General Foster’s division, having advanced from its hard-won bridgehead over the Ghent Canal at Moerbrugge (above, page 326), now confronted another formidable obstacle. For more than a dozen miles inland from the sea, the Leopold Canal and the Canal de Derivation de la Lys run side by side, separated only by a narrow dyke. On 13 September the area south of the canals was reported clear, and it was decided to seize a bridgehead opposite the village of Moerkerke. The divisional commander’s intention was thus reported:–13
At zero hr 2200B [10:00 p.m.] tonight Alq R will force a crossing of the canal Derivation de la Lys and the canal Leopold in the area Moerkerke. ... This bridgehead will be exploited as far as possible to enable bridging to be carried out. ... 4 Cdn Armd Div will then fan out in both directions to clear the North bank of the canal Leopold pushing on as fast as possible to Fort Frederik Hendrik. ...
A reconnaissance in Moerkerke is reported to have been hampered by snipers and poor visibility; but the disability was accepted, possibly because the opposition
to be expected was underestimated.14 In fact, the enemy was strongly posted along the canal line and intended to hold it.
At this moment the Leopold, from the point where it crossed the Bruges–Sluis Canal to the main Knocke road, east of Moerkerke, was held by the 245th German Infantry Division, under Lieut.-General Erwin Sander. This formation is stated to have been reduced to approximately 5000 men and to have lost much equipment, including most of its anti-tank artillery. It nevertheless retained considerable fighting power and, as events were to prove, reserves were available. Sander’s left (eastern) flank was protected by the 64th Infantry Division, which was soon to assume responsibility for the entire “pocket” south of the Scheldt.15
The Canadian plan was simple. The objectives were all in, or near, the hamlet of Molentje, on the northern bank of the Leopold. The four rifle companies of The Algonquin Regiment, each built up to a strength of 90 men, were to cross the canals in assault boats, supplemented by civilian craft, with the help of a ferrying party provided by The Lincoln and Welland Regiment. Special ladders with grappling hooks were provided to assist the troops in scaling the steep banks, and the entire divisional artillery, together with every mortar and machine-gun in the 10th Infantry Brigade, would support the operation.16
When the assault boats were launched (according to the Algonquin diary, about 11:30 p.m.) the enemy reacted with small arms, mortars and shellfire. All companies managed to cross the canals and dig in on the far bank, although there was trouble in the centre, where a 20-mm. gun held us up until it was silenced by grenades. However, due to the difficulties of the original reconnaissance, there was some confusion over landmarks, with the result that the bridgehead was much smaller than originally planned. During the rest of the night the infantry repelled all attempts to dislodge them, while the engineers began the task of bridging.17
This early success was deceptive. Evidently fully alive to the grave threat which our bridgehead represented to his control of Antwerp and the Fifteenth Army’s escape route through Breskens, the enemy took effective counter-measures. When news of the attack reached General Freiherr von und zu Gilsa, commanding the 89th German Corps, he immediately saw Sander, “giving him the strictest instructions that the bridgehead must at all costs be eliminated” and promising him the Corps reserve to help him.18
During the early hours of the 14th the opposition to our narrow bridgehead stiffened. The enemy’s infantry infiltrated the Algonquins’ lines; his mortars and artillery maintained a heavy fire not only on the forward troops but also on the bridge construction and the regimental headquarters. The latter was shelled accurately and repeatedly at successive locations; later the battalion heard that a German sympathizer, complete with wireless set, had acted as observer for the enemy’s gunners.19 By dawn, one of the Algonquin companies had had 75 per cent casualties. Many of the assault boats had been destroyed and shellfire compelled the engineers, after persistent efforts, to suspend work on the bridge. Worst of all, ammunition was running low in the bridgehead; and one attempt after another to ferry new supplies across the canals was frustrated by the storm of fire.20
The quality of the battalion’s junior leadership during this trying period was
exemplified by Corporal Ernest Freve of D Company. In the van of the crossing, his section reached its objective under very heavy fire. As the night wore on the position became untenable and, together with the remainder of the company, the section retired to avoid being cut off. Even as they dug in at the new position a shell landed in their midst and the corporal was mortally wounded. Nevertheless, his main concern continued to be the welfare of his men. He shouted, “Never mind me, dig in and get under cover”; and “he sang and encouraged his men until he died.”21 He had already been recommended for the Military Medal for bravery at the Ghent Canal four days before, and in due course it was awarded.
The final phase of the operation may be described in the words of the 10th Infantry Brigade diary:–
At approximately 1000 hrs [10:00 a.m.], a strong enemy counter-attack developed, estimated strength at least one fresh infantry battalion, and the situation on the North bank became quite acute. At 1100 hrs the order was given for Algonquin Regiment to withdraw which was carried out under cover of very heavy artillery and mortar programme. The remaining troops were out of the bridgehead at approx 1400 hrs [2:00 p.m.].
The withdrawal was ordered by the divisional commander.22 The artillery who covered it had given prompt and efficient support to the infantry throughout the action; over a period of 24 hours, the gunners fired 11,000 rounds.23 Some survivors in the bridgehead escaped only by swimming the canals. The Algonquins’ total casualties on the 14th were 148: three officers and 32 other ranks killed, three officers and 50 other ranks wounded and 60 other ranks (of whom 12 were wounded) taken prisoner. Our troops were sure that the enemy had had even heavier losses, but the German documents available for this period give no figures.24
This struggle on the canals has been described in some detail because of the significance of this particular sector at this moment. We can now see, more clearly than at the time, the meaning of the enemy’s evident determination to hold the line of the Leopold at all costs. Had the result at Moerkerke been favourable, the subsequent battle might have taken a quite different course. As it was, no further immediate attempt was made to assault across the canals. By the evening of the 14th the Corps Commander had laid down a new policy: “we will now maintain contact, and exert some pressure without sacrificing our forces in driving out an enemy who may be retreating”.25 In accordance with this plan, on the 15th the 4th Division, finding that the Germans were retiring from the area east of the Canal de Derivation beyond the point where it separated from the Leopold Canal, bridged the Derivation north-west of Eecloo and pressed on to clear the area south of the Leopold here; it met considerable opposition south-west of Terneuzen, where the Germans were presumably covering the final phase of the evacuation of the Fifteenth Army across the Scheldt from that port.26
The pattern of operations in the immediate future was outlined in the directive issued by General Crerar to his corps commanders on 19 September (above, page 345). After capturing Boulogne and Calais, he wrote,27
2 Cdn Corps will thrust northwards to Roosendaal–Bergen op Zoom, in order to establish a firm base on the mainland, to the east of Zuid Beveland, and from which a landward thrust along the island, from the east, can be developed.
After they had been relieved by the 3rd Infantry Division south of the Scheldt, the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Armoured Divisions were to assist in General Simonds’ northern drive. The 1st British Corps was ordered to take over the right (eastern) flank of First Canadian Army by the 24th. It was to “keep its main strength on its left, in order to assist the speedy northward thrust of 2 Cdn Corps”; on the right it would link up with the 12th British Corps of Second British Army. When these dispositions had been made the Canadian Army sector would extend from the Channel coast to a boundary, nearly 20 miles east of Antwerp, running through Herenthals, Turnhout and Tilburg.
Polish Operations South of the Scheldt
While the Army Commander was issuing orders for this regrouping, the 1st Polish Armoured Division was clearing the 712th German Infantry Division out of the remainder of the pocket formed by the Scheldt and the Ghent–Terneuzen Canal. The terrain was very unsuitable for armour. The area south of the Scheldt, a large portion of which lay below sea level, was a maze of canals and rivers. Although existing roads were in good condition, they had been built on narrow embankments, bordered by trees, providing admirable defiles for defensive fire. The enemy’s inundations and cleverly camouflaged defences, covering open spaces between obstacles, set a formidable task for the Polish troops.28
During 12-14 September General Maczek’s men had cleared the suburbs of Ghent (above, page 327) and pushed north-east in the face of increasing resistance.29 On the 15th the Poles concentrated at the village of St. Paul, a few miles north of St. Nicolas on the main Ghent–Antwerp lateral road, and prepared to force the Hulst Canal in the direction of Terneuzen. The latter was a port of some importance on the Scheldt, the northern terminus of the Ghent–Temeuzen Canal. Crossing the Dutch frontier, the 10th Dragoon Regiment captured a small bridgehead over the Hulst Canal, between Axel and Hulst, on the 16th. However, the Germans counter-attacked furiously with armoured support early on the 17th, and wiped out the bridgehead with heavy loss to the Poles. Next day, nevertheless, the Poles attacked again. Their 3rd Infantry Brigade established a strong position across the canal near Kijkuit. By dawn of the 19th their sappers had completed a bridge. The brigade then expanded its bridgehead rapidly and occupied the neighbouring town of Axel, only five miles from Terneuzen.30
The Poles were now poised for the final advance. On the morning of the 20th they reached the estuary at several points and sank or captured many craft that had been used by the Germans to evacuate their forces across it. Later in the day Terneuzen fell to the 3rd Brigade. By the 22nd the division had systematically mopped up all remaining resistance. Polish casualties during the period 10-22 September were reported as 75 killed, 191 wounded and 63 missing; German prisoners captured by the division totalled 1173.31
The situation now was that the enemy had been cleared from the south bank of the West Scheldt, but only as far as the inlet just west of Terneuzen called the
Braakman—and always miscalled at this time Savojaards Plaat.* From there to Zeebrugge the enemy remained in possession, grimly awaiting our attack behind the Leopold Canal, which, except for a mile or so at the head of the Braakman, covered the whole of his bridgehead like a moat. Holding this pocket south of the Scheldt, and the heavily-fortified island of Walcheren north of it, he was still in full control of the approaches to Antwerp; and it was apparent that evicting him was going to be a bloody business.
The 2nd Division in the Antwerp Sector
As First Canadian Army regrouped for the approaching Battle of the Scheldt, the 4th Special Service Brigade, as we have seen, assumed responsibility for containing Dunkirk and, beginning on 16 September, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division moved to the Antwerp area, where it relieved the 53rd (Welsh) Division.
When the 4th Infantry Brigade moved into Antwerp the enemy was still holding the northern outskirts of the port, and the main harbour locks were covered by German artillery fire. The tactical situation as recorded by the divisional headquarters had unusual complications:–32
Merxem, a suburb of Antwerp, lies north of the Albert Canal and is in enemy hands, yet, civilians pass to and from Merxem via the tram line to the canal where they alight, cross the canal on foot and resume their journey in a tram operating on the other side of the canal. This is a field security problem. ...
By retaining possession of certain locks the enemy was able to flood extensive areas in the vicinity of the port. There were frequent skirmishes between patrols and the nearby villages of Wilmarsdonck and Oorderen changed hands several, times. On the evening of 20 September the Germans launched a counter-attack in some force with the evident intention of blowing a railway bridge west of Merxem. Only after a sharp fight, in which the Essex Scottish were assisted by The Royal Regiment of Canada, was the situation restored.33 The brigade maintained aggressive patrols in this sector, with valuable cooperation from the Belgian White Brigade, throughout the remainder of the month.
On 18 September the 5th Infantry Brigade occupied positions immediately east of Antwerp along the Albert Canal.† This great waterway, an integral part of Belgium’s pre-war defences, links the port of Antwerp with the industrial centre of Liège over a distance of 80 miles. On the night of 20-21. September the Canadian Black Watch sent a strong patrol across it to establish a bridgehead. Their effort failed; but, on the following night, The Calgary Highlanders managed to secure a lodgement on the other side in the face of vigorous counter-attacks.34 The opposition came from the 743rd Grenadier Regiment of the 719th German Infantry
* The name “Savojaards Plaat” properly applied only to the shoal in the mouth of the inlet. See the letter in The Times (London), 24 October 1944, from Dr. G. J. Renier, who also begged English readers to pronounce the name of the Scheldt in the Dutch fashion (“Skelt”) and abandon the German pronunciation “Shelt”.
† For some distance east of Antwerp this canal runs beside the Meuse–Escaut Junction Canal, the old waterway between Antwerp and Liège.
Division, and the 5th Brigade’s diarist noted, “this was the first time our troops had met the enemy using bayonets”. The enemy’s records show that a fog at this time reduced his artillery to “firing according to pre-arranged fire-plan”. His defences lacked depth and, when Le Régiment de Maisonneuve crossed the canal and fanned out to the north, he was soon forced back over the next big obstacle, the Antwerp–Turnhout Canal.35
Holding the line of the Antwerp–Turnhout Canal for the Germans was the responsibility, under the Fifteenth Army, of General Otto Sponheimer’s 67th Corps. By holding this sector north of Antwerp the enemy had achieved the purpose of holding open an escape route for the formations of the Fifteenth Army; now the same route served to maintain the divisions committed to the defence of the estuary. From about 23 September the 67th Corps was holding a sector extending from the Beveland isthmus to Turnhout with the 711th and 719th Divisions on the western and eastern flanks, respectively, and the 346th in the centre.* The 346th, holding the canal in the vicinity of Lochtenberg, had been reinforced by remnants from other divisions and some artillery and according to its commander’s later recollection mustered about 8000 men.36
The first Canadian attempt to force the Antwerp–Turnhout Canal was made on 24 September by the 6th Infantry Brigade. The divisional commander (General Foulkes), rightly fearing that the enemy was consolidating his strength north of the canal, had emphasized the need for speedy action. A sector opposite the village of Lochtenberg was chosen for the assault. Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and The South Saskatchewan Regiment, each allotted six assault boats, were to attack on the right and left, respectively, with The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada in reserve. Each assaulting battalion would be supported by a regiment of field artillery and heavy mortars. The bridgehead once established, a squadron of the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment and the Camerons would cross the canal and drive north-west, along the main divisional axis, to Camp de Brasschaet.37
At 7:00 a.m. on a chilly morning the Fusiliers crossed the canal without difficulty and reached the crossroads in Lochtenberg, where they were held up by heavy machine-gun fire. On the left, however, the South Saskatchewans’ initial attempts to cross the canal were frustrated by snipers and machine-guns. Although our artillery gave continuous support, the German positions could not be eliminated. Finally a new plan was made. The South Saskatchewans were now to cross farther east, closer to the Fusiliers, aided by a smoke screen.
Shortly after 1:00 p.m. the mortars laid an effective screen along the north bank of the canal and the artillery brought down fire which caused “terrific damage to buildings in enemy territory and effectively silenced the majority of the enemy weapons”.38 Within an hour the South Saskatchewans were across the canal, pressing on into Lochtenberg. Meanwhile, however, the Germans had infiltrated the Fusiliers’ positions and at 5:00 p.m. these were attacked and overrun by half tracked vehicles, which caused heavy casualties. The bridgehead was too small,
* The 711th and 346th had themselves escaped across the Scheldt and along the South Beveland isthmus.
the bridge site was under small arms fire, and it was impossible to get anti-tank guns forward to assist the infantry. Consequently, the Fusiliers were driven back across the canal and at 7:00 p.m. the South Saskatchewans were ordered to withdraw. The operation had cost the brigade 113 casualties, of which nearly twothirds were suffered by Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal.39
The 6th Brigade made another attempt in the same sector on 28 September. During the previous two days rocket-firing Typhoons and Spitfires had harassed the enemy’s positions and “the common expression among the troops was ‘thank God they are on our side’”.40 The engineers had estimated that a small bridge, capable of carrying anti-tank guns, could be put across the canal in 45 minutes if the sappers’ work was not hindered by small arms fire. Accordingly, the South Saskatchewans attacked across the canal, aided by considerable resources of artillery and mortars. Again, however, the enemy was ready; his mortars and machineguns prevented construction of the bridge, and the attack was abandoned in order to avoid further casualties.41
As already described (above, page 361) on 23 September the 1st British Corps took over a sector of the front east of Antwerp, on the right of the 2nd Canadian Division, with the 49th British Infantry Division. The 49th immediately began pushing north through Herenthals and found that the enemy had withdrawn behind the Antwerp–Turnhout Canal. On the 24th the British troops crossed the canal and successfully bridged it some six miles west of Turnhout. During the next few days the bridgehead was gradually extended in the face of stiff opposition.42
On 22 September General Simonds had suggested to the Army Commander that it was difficult for a corps headquarters to control four divisions operating on diverse tasks from Boulogne to east of Antwerp. On the 26th the 2nd Canadian Corps’ front was reduced by placing the 2nd Canadian Division temporarily under the 1st British Corps.43 On the 28th the 1st Polish Armoured Division, having moved to the area south-east of Antwerp, also passed under General Crocker’s command. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division had for the moment the task of patrolling the Leopold Canal, containing the enemy in what was coming to be known as the Breskens Pocket.44
The 2nd Canadian Division having failed to establish itself across the AntwerpTurnhout Canal in the Lochtenberg area, the decision was taken to pass it through the bridgehead already established by the 49th Division. On 28 September the 5th Brigade went into action here, extending the bridgehead westward. That night The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada took St. Léonard. But even with the assistance of one battalion (the Camerons) of the 6th Brigade north of the canal, and the others south of it, the affair went slowly, and Brecht, less than two miles west of St. Léonard, did not fall until 1 October.* The 4th Brigade continued to hold Antwerp, constantly patrolling to maintain pressure on the
* It is appropriate to mention here the death of Capt. J. L. Engler, Historical Officer 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, who was killed on 1 October north of the canal, where he had gone to observe operations. He had made a valuable contribution to this history.
enemy.45 As for the Polish Armoured Division, on 28 September General Crocker ordered it to break out of the bridgehead to the north-east and seize crossings over the Wilhelmina Canal north of Tilburg. It too met heavy resistance but made progress, taking Merxplas on 30 September. Thereafter its advance was slowed.46
Thus at the end of September the Germans had been forced back somewhat on the right sector of the 1st British Corps front, but they were still in the northern suburbs of Antwerp. Their 67th Corps was now deployed with the 719th Division resisting the Poles on its left, the 711th in the centre about Brecht and the 346th (officially regarded as a battle group) on the right north of Antwerp, with the remnants of the 344th under command. Sponheimer had in reserve, it appears, part of the 70th Division, the 280th Assault Gun Brigade and the 559th Heavy Anti-Tank Battalion. In the Breskens Pocket the 64th Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General Knut Eberding, stood ready. Walcheren was held by the greater part of the 70th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieut.-General Wilhelm Daser.47 (The 70th was known as the “Stomach” or “White Bread” division; it was composed of men with stomach ulcers, who were collected in one formation so they could be given a special diet. It nevertheless fought hard, though not so hard as the 64th.) Formally, Eberding certainly, and Daser probably, were subordinated to Sponheimer from 26 September until 14 October, on which date they came directly under Fifteenth Army;48 but in practice they must have been very much on their own.
Back at Calais the German garrison was at its last gasp (above, page 351) and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division would soon be freed for another arduous task on the Scheldt. Dunkirk was still being merely contained, and was to be contained until the end of hostilities. On the night of the 26th-27th the 4th Special Service Brigade, being required for the assault on Walcheren then in prospect, was replaced here by the 154th Infantry Brigade of the 51st Division. Simultaneously the 2nd Canadian Corps was relieved of responsibility for Dunkirk, the containing force coming directly under Headquarters First Canadian Army.49 On 3-6 October there was a truce at Dunkirk, during which 17,500 civilians were evacuated from the city.50
It may be noted here that on 9 October the 154th Brigade handed over the task at Dunkirk to the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group, commanded by Major-General A. Liska. This change added one more nationality to General Crerar’s international team in First Canadian Army—two nationalities, indeed, for the Dunkirk containing force included a French infantry battalion as well as units of the French Forces of the Interior.51 The Czechs, carrying out their mission with spirit—they celebrated their country’s Independence Day, 28 October, with a limited attack which netted over 300 prisoners52—remained under First Canadian Army until 27 November, when they passed under direct command of the 21st Army Group.53 They stayed at Dunkirk until the end of the campaign, when General Liska received the garrison’s surrender.54 One Canadian unit, the 2nd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment RCA, took part in the containment operation until 6 February 1945.55
Planning the Scheldt Battle
Enough has been said already to obviate any long discussion here of the terrain over which the Battle of the Scheldt was fought. It has been made quite evident that opening Antwerp involved clearing the Germans from the Breskens Pocket and from Walcheren. The Pocket was entirely low-lying land, much of it reclaimed from the sea and none of it more than a few feet above sea level; on a map where heights are shown by contours at 10-metre intervals, there are no contours whatever within the Pocket. Quite apart from the Leopold Canal along its front, the German position was protected by large areas of inundation on both its eastern and western flanks; and all the approaches, and the Pocket itself, were intersected by ditches and canals. The roads were almost all built on dykes, and the fields were saturated. Off the roads, movement even by infantry was difficult; movement by vehicles was impossible.
As for Walcheren, much of it was actually below sea level, the only areas of somewhat higher ground being on the northern, western and south-eastern rims of the island. Any attack from the sea would have to overcome a formidable array of coastal batteries along the western beaches; while the sole land approach to Walcheren was a narrow causeway connecting the island with the peninsula of South Beveland, which is itself connected to the mainland north of Antwerp by an isthmus. At the eastern end of this isthmus is the village of Woensdrecht, whose position was rendered the more important by the fact that it stands slightly higher than the surrounding country. South Beveland itself was intersected from north to south by a wide canal near its eastern end. It is evident that, even to an assailant possessing complete control of the sea and the air, an attack upon these areas was a formidable proposition.
On 19 September the Plans, Section at Headquarters First Canadian Army produced an elaborate appreciation of the problem of capturing Walcheren and South Beveland.56 It was based on the assumption that the whole of the south shore of the West Scheldt from Antwerp to the sea had been cleared. This paper discarded at the outset the possibility of capturing Walcheren by a combined operation directed against its western beaches, “because this could only be done after considerable time spent on combined training and preparation”. It also assumed that Walcheren would be too difficult to capture without securing beforehand the peninsula of South Beveland. To this in turn a necessary preliminary was the seizure of an area from which operations could be directed from the mainland along South Beveland from the east. The various combinations of courses open to us were considered in detail, and the appreciation concluded that if airborne forces were available the best plan would be to establish a firm base on the mainland, thrust along South Beveland from the east as far as the Beveland Canal, and then drop one parachute brigade beyond the canal to disorganize the enemy and secure the small harbour of Hoedekenskerke, through which the attack could be built up with waterborne forces. After winning control of South Beveland, this course involved a second airborne operation, again with one parachute brigade, designed to secure a bridgehead on Walcheren covering
the causeway from South Beveland. We would then build up through this bridgehead by using the causeway or ferrying craft or both. If airborne forces were not available, then the planners recommended, on balance, driving along South Beveland from the mainland with the assistance of waterborne operations to loosen the enemy’s resistance. When South Beveland had been cleared, the next stage would be a frontal attack over the causeway to Walcheren “assisted by an assault crossing of the water-gap South of the causeway”. The bridgehead thus gained would be enlarged by passing troops over the causeway and by the use of landing craft and amphibians.
The Army planners considered airborne forces “a most important adjunct to this operation” and urged that strong representations should be made to have them available. They also recommended that air attacks by Bomber Command and by the 2nd Tactical Air Force against the German batteries and defences should begin as soon as possible and “continue until the ground forces are able to complete the capture of the islands”. All available artillery, apart from the guns of the division having the task of capturing South Beveland and Walcheren, should be brought up to the south shore of the West Scheldt as soon as it was cleared to commence neutralizing the enemy’s batteries north of the river.
On 21 September Lieut.-General Simonds produced his own appreciation of the problem of opening the Scheldt.57 It took the form of a commentary upon the Army planners’ appreciation, with which he took issue on a number of points. It was now probable, he wrote, that the assumption that we should hold the whole south bank of the Scheldt before the operation would prove unsound, and in fact clearing the pocket south of the river might be a major enterprise. Ground saturation, permitting movement only on dyked roads, was likely to pose a serious problem here and elsewhere. In the light of this, General Simonds wrote:–
I consider that the project of an assault across water cannot be ruled out if Walcheren Island must be taken. It may be the only way of taking it. Though, it would be a last resort and a most uninviting task, I consider it would be quite wrong to make no preparations for it, and to be faced at some later time with the necessity of having to improvise at very short notice. I am strongly of the opinion that the necessary military and naval forces should now be earmarked, married up and trained against the contingency that they might be required.
Simonds proceeded to urge that steps be taken to flood Walcheren. This, he remarked, would not increase the difficulties in the way of using airborne troops; thoroughly saturated ground was impassable to infantry, and therefore was “equivalent to flooding from the point of view of landing airborne infantry upon it”. The Corps Commander went on:–
6. I consider that the technique for the capture of Walcheren Island should be as follows:
a. Bombing operations should be undertaken to break the dykes and completely flood all parts of the island below high water level.
b. Those parts of the island which remain above water should then be systematically attacked by heavy air bombardment, day and night, to destroy defences and wear out the garrison by attrition. RDF* stations should have an early priority as “point” targets.
c. Whenever possible, heavy bombers proceeding to or from targets in Western Germany by day or night should be routed over Walcheren so that the garrison
* Radio direction finding (radar).
can never tell whether the approach of large numbers of aircraft indicates attack or not. This combined with heavy bombing attacks will drive the enemy to cover on approach of large aircraft formations and will help to “cover” an eventual airborne landing.
d. When it is considered that the morale of the garrison has sufficiently deteriorated, waterborne patrols may be sent to determine the situation.
e. If found to be ripe, airborne, followed by waterborne, troops should be landed immediately following a bomber raid (when defenders have been driven to ground) and mop up and take the surrender.
On the operation at large, General Simonds put forward the following suggestions “for consideration as the basis for future planning”:
a. 2 Cdn Inf Div to push Northward to cut off Suid Beveland and exploit the land approach along Suid Beveland as far as practicable.
b. 4 Cdn Armd Div to continue its operations to clear the area North of the Leopold Canal up to the West Scheldt until 3 Cdn Inf Div is available to relieve it. This is a highly unsuitable task for an armoured division but I have nothing else available within the present constitution and tasks of 2nd Cdn Corps.
c. As soon as 3 Cdn Inf Div can be released from Boulogne–Calais area, this division less one infantry brigade will relieve 4 Cdn Armd Div and complete the clearing of the area North of Leopold Canal if this has not been completed by that time.
d. One infantry brigade of 3 Cdn Inf Div to be earmarked with necessary Naval counterpart to train at Ostend for seaborne operations against Walcheren.
e. Airborne forces earmarked for this operation, to study and train for landings on those parts of Walcheren Island which cannot be “sunk” by flooding.
i. To break dykes and flood Walcheren Island.
ii. Destroy defences and break morale of defenders of “unsinkable” portions of the island, be instituted forthwith.
On the same day on which this paper was written General Crerar held a conference with the Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief (Admiral Ramsay) and Field Marshal Montgomery’s Chief of Staff (Major-General F. W. de Guingand).58 The Army Commander at this time saw the operation as entailing a land advance westwards into South Beveland, probably coordinated with a waterborne assault on the peninsula to take Hoedekenskerke. A detailed plan, he said, could not be made until the left bank of the West Scheldt was wholly in our hands, the area Bergen op Zoom-Roosendaal, had been secured as a firm base for the westward thrust, and it was known whether or not airborne troops would be available. He said that the enterprise might involve a minor combined operation designed to land infantry only on the south-west coast of Walcheren; “from a purely military point of view, he considered it to be highly desirable, if possible, to flood Walcheren”; and he favoured “sustained and heavy bomber attacks” to deal with the Walcheren defences “on the basis of complete destruction”.
Admiral Ramsay discussed a possible assault landing on Walcheren and said that the necessary landing craft were available. The best fire support would probably be that provided by artillery from the south bank of the West Scheldt, but two 15-inch gun monitors and HMS Warspite could be used if required. Captain Pugsley (whose group had landed the 7th Infantry Brigade on D Day) was to be the Naval Force Commander to work with the 2nd Canadian Corps; and it was agreed that Pugsley should now begin to study the possible assault landing, as
well as other naval aspects of the operations. General de Guingand said that he thought he could arrange for First Canadian Army to deal with Bomber Command, through Headquarters No. 84 Group, on the bombing programme for Walcheren; and he undertook to obtain “the views of higher authority” on the flooding of the island.
On 23 September the Army Commander held a large conference to discuss the plan generally. In addition to staff officers from Headquarters First Canadian Army, there were representatives from the 21st Army Group, the First Allied Airborne Army and the 2nd Canadian Corps, as well as from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.59
General Crerar mentioned, as “some possibilities that appear favourable”, the employment of airborne forces and the prospects of a land advance along the isthmus into South Beveland, a waterborne operation across the West Scheldt to South Beveland, and a seaborne landing on Walcheren. He indicated that although the Supreme Commander had decided against the employment of airborne forces, there was still a possibility that they might be available. He emphasized the importance of very heavy bomber support starting as soon as possible; and he said that the possibility of flooding Walcheren by bombing the dykes should be examined. Action on this possibility would be governed by the decision as to whether such an operation was feasible; it would also require the sanction of higher authority. General Crerar outlined the regrouping within First Canadian Army already described, mentioning that after the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division had completed its task at Calais it would relieve the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and complete clearing the mainland between the Leopold Canal and the West Scheldt. The 4th Division would then move to the area east of Antwerp. The 4th Special Service Brigade when relieved at Dunkirk was to commence training and preparation for a seaborne landing.
General Simonds presented his views in much the same form in which they are summarized above, emphasizing the desirability of flooding Walcheren and of heavy bombing on pre-arranged targets commencing as soon as possible. He said the 2nd Canadian Division would have the task of sealing off South Beveland; the Polish Armoured Division would be directed on Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal. Air Vice-Marshal R. D. Oxland, who attended on behalf of Bomber Command, said that he could not say whether dykes could be breached by bombing. He was informed about discussions on targets and priorities on Walcheren that had taken place with the 21st Army Group and 2nd Tactical Air Force, and before he returned to England was given a list of targets. At this stage the highest priority was given to targets connected with the proposed flooding operation; the next to anti-aircraft batteries; the next to batteries affecting the deployment of naval bombardment ships; the next to batteries capable of firing on to the south bank of the West Scheldt; and the next to other batteries.60
The operation was taking shape; but uncertainties still remained, notably the questions of whether airborne troops would finally be available and of the bombing of the Walcheren dykes. Before these were finally resolved, illness obliged General Crerar to relinquish temporarily the command of the Army. He had suffered for
some time from persistent dysentery which did not respond to the usual medical treatment. On 25 September, following tests at No. 16 Canadian General Hospital at St. Omer, he was advised that it would be necessary for him to return to the United Kingdom for further diagnosis, tests and treatment. The next day he flew to Field-Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters and nominated Lieut.-General Simonds to act as commander of the First Canadian Army in his absence. The Field Marshal concurred in the nomination and Crerar handed over the Army to Simonds and left for England on the morning of 27 September. He spent the next month at No. 11 Canadian General Hospital at Taplow.61
During the Scheldt operations, accordingly, General Simonds commanded First Canadian Army. Major-General Foulkes took his place at Headquarters 2nd Canadian Corps, and in General Foulkes’ absence Brigadier R. H. Keefler commanded the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.
Special Problems of Planning
At this point, it is desirable to deal in greater detail with three special matters which we have noted as particularly important in the development of the plan for the Battle of the Scheldt: the decision not to use airborne troops; the question of the flooding of Walcheren; and the bombing of the defences.
The question of airborne troops, as we have seen, had been raised by Field Marshal Montgomery at an early stage, but the First Allied Airborne Army had shown itself doubtful about the project from the beginning. On 17 September Brig.-Gen. Stuart Cutler of the Airborne Army visited General Crerar’s headquarters and discussed the question.62 He said that his Army Headquarters had rejected the Walcheren suggestion in the first instance because they were under the impression that it was to be entirely an airborne operation. The fact that it was to assist a ground operation rendered it more attractive and they were now prepared to re-open the question.* General Cutler said that General Bradley was asking for airborne forces to use when his army group reached the Rhine; this might affect availability for INFATUATE. If priority was given to the Canadian operation, two parachute regiments (i.e. brigades) of the 17th US Airborne Division would be available. This division had not been in action. After 1 October, the 6th British Airborne Division would again be ready for operations and would probably be better trained than the 17th. General Crerar explained the nature of the projects being considered for the use of airborne troops on South Beveland and Walcheren (above, page 369).
On 20 September Field-Marshal Montgomery asked the Supreme Commander
* On 11 September Lieut.-General Lewis H. Brereton, commanding the Airborne Army, listed in his diary ten possible airborne operations which had been considered. He noted, “I refused Operation INFATUATE because of intense flak on Walcheren, difficult terrain which would prevent glider landings, excessive losses likely because of drowning, non-availability of US troops, and the fact that the operation is an improper employment of airborne forces.” The final highly-generalized reason was perhaps meant to be a summary of the three first mentioned. What Brereton meant by “nonavailability of US troops” remains obscure.
for a “definite statement” as to whether the Airborne Army considered the use of airborne troops against Walcheren “suitable and recommended”; and also as to whether airborne troops were available for the purpose.63 The following day Eisenhower called General Brereton to SHAEF to discuss the question. Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory supported Brereton in objecting to the project, and the Supreme Commander accordingly signalled to Montgomery that complete inquiry revealed that the airborne operation “would not be able to accomplish its mission because of terrain factors and types of targets”. He wrote,64
... The question of losses does not arise because I had been prepared to accept a very high rate if I thought that it would contribute to the rapid conclusion of these vital operations. Again, an airborne operation would divert aircraft from the direct support of the Canadian assaulting forces.
My decision is therefore not to launch an airborne operation but to make a priority demand on Bomber Command, and Eighth Air Force for the complete saturation of the targets you select. All medium bombers will also be made available to assist.
Nevertheless, at General Eisenhower’s conference on 22 September (above, page 317) the matter was raised again by General de Guingand, and Eisenhower directed that it be again examined and an officer of First Allied Airborne Army made available to Headquarters First Canadian Army for the task.65 However, the decision was not changed. General Simonds’ remarks at a conference on 29 September reflected his disappointment: “... it appeared to be very unlikely that Airborne Forces could be employed but... there was no task which could be stated to be ‘impossible’ and... since the task... had been assigned to us it was necessary for us to evolve the method which appeared to offer the best possibilities of success”.66
As late as 21 October First Canadian Army made a last effort, signalling to First Allied Airborne Army and requesting consideration of a plan for dropping one parachute brigade at the west end of South Beveland with a target date of 29 October: “primary task to seize Eastern approach causeway and isolate Zuid Beveland from Walcheren”. A visit by an FAAA representative was suggested. The reply next day was final:67
... SHAEF signal ... dated 15 Oct rescinded previous directives placing FAAA in support of Northern Group of Armies and directed it to operate in support Central Group of Armies effective immediately. Commanding General Central Group of Armies now planning to use all available airborne troops unnecessary therefore to send representative.
The project of flooding Walcheren by bombing the dykes, which as we have seen originated with General Simonds, had to be examined from two points of view: its practical feasibility and its political desirability. In a report dated 16 September68 Intelligence at Army Headquarters suggested that it was possible that the enemy might flood Walcheren by blowing the dykes, but expressed the opinion that he would be deterred from it by moral considerations:
At this stage of the war, and for purposes so fleeting, it is unlikely that even exponents of total war would bring down on their nearest neighbours a calamity equal to an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. It is possible but improbable.
Flooding would in fact have been against the Germans’ military interests, and could only have been undertaken by them as a last-minute act of spite. It is ironical that we ourselves subsequently brought this calamity upon the Dutch. We did so, not for a fleeting purpose, but to accelerate an operation designed to shorten the war and, thereby, the ordeal of the Dutch themselves. Flooding Walcheren offered the prospect of an earlier opening of Antwerp and the saving of Allied soldiers’ lives; these were decisive weights in the balance in favour of the admittedly terrible device of letting the salt sea into the island and thereby ruining its rich farmlands and orchards for years to come.
As for the feasibility of cutting the dykes by bombing, some experts considered that it could not be done. On 24 September the Chief Engineer, First Canadian Army (Brigadier Geoffrey Walsh) laid before the Army Commander a memorandom69 which concluded that it was not practicable to flood Walcheren by breaching the Westkapelle dyke on the island’s seaward side. It argued that even if the whole island was flooded, it would not be to a sufficient depth to permit of assault craft operating; and that it would not be practicable to pass amphibious vehicles through a breach in the dyke made by bombing. The Westkapelle dyke, it pointed out, was the largest on the island and one of the oldest and solidest in Holland, between 200 and 250 feet in width with very flat slopes. It seemed to the Army engineering staff “very improbable that even the most accurate bombing could produce a clear channel”. Extraordinary luck would be necessary to achieve rapid and complete flooding by this means; and even if the island were flooded, variations in the ground level would mean that no continuous deep channels could be counted on.
This exposition convinced the Army Commander that flooding Walcheren was not “a practical proposition”, and he referred the matter back to General Simonds. The latter, however, after giving it further consideration, maintained that the attempt should be made, arguing that there was, operationally, nothing to lose and much to gain by it.70 On 26 September, accordingly, General Crerar sent a request for the bombing to Headquarters 21st Army Group, which in turn proceeded to ask Allied Expeditionary Air Force for permission for Bomber Command to deal direct with First Canadian Army in planning the attack on the dykes.71 On 29 September Simonds, now Acting Army Commander, held an inter-service conference on the question of the dykes.72 He gave these reasons for his advocacy of the plan:
a. That information showed that a good deal of the island was below sea level.
b. That if it could be flooded it would compel the enemy to concentrate his forces and thereby make it easier to attack them.
c. That many administrative difficulties of serious nature would be imposed upon the enemy.
d. That the enemy’s reserves would be largely immobilized (or perhaps destroyed).
e. That it might be possible to create an entry for amphibians at one or other of the points of breaching.
General Simonds summed up by saying that “so many military advantages to us would result if flooding could be achieved that it should be done if it is technically possible”. Under his urging the air officers present consented to try Air Commodore L. W. Dickens of Bomber Command “emphasized that it was not
possible to guarantee that the attempt to breach the dyke would be successful”. But the conference ended with a firm decision:
Bomber Command RAF will undertake a deliberate attempt to breach the dyke commencing as soon as:
i. authority is obtained from the Supreme Commander and notified to them through the normal channels.
ii. weather and technical conditions permit.”
The Navy explained that its most immediate need from the air forces was that the radar stations on the island should be put out of action; this was with a view to minimizing the batteries’ interference with minesweepers working to clear channels leading to Walcheren.
The only remaining obstacle to the bombing of the dykes was the requirement for authority from the Supreme Commander, with whom the decision whether or not to impose this burden upon our allies inevitably and properly rested. It was not long delayed. On 1 October Headquarters 21st Army Group informed First Canadian Army,73
The Supreme Commander has approved the project to flood the island of Walcheren.
Already, on 27 September, Field-Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters had requested SHAEF to drop leaflets warning the population of the Scheldt islands of the imminence of heavy air bombardment: “Leaflets should stress danger flooding and urge immediate evacuation of islands or if this is not possible of military objectives and low lying ground.”74
On the afternoon of 3 October Bomber Command made the fateful experiment. The Westkapelle dyke was attacked by 243 heavy bombers, which dropped about 1263 tons of high explosive. The result showed that our engineers at Army Headquarters had underestimated the power of the Royal Air Force. This was, in Field-Marshal Montgomery’s words, “an operation of truly magnificent accuracy”. Aerial photographs taken that evening showed that the sea was flowing in through a 75-yard gap, which was soon larger. General Simonds’ confidence had been fully justified. During the days that followed other attacks were made on dykes near Flushing and near Veere, and the Westkapelle dyke was again struck.* The result was that by the end of October, when the actual assault on Walcheren was imminent, the island “resembled a saucer filled with water”.75
It has been made clear that First Canadian Army argued from the beginning for the heaviest possible bomber effort against Walcheren. What was wanted was a series of heavy attacks continuing steadily until the seaborne assault went in (above, pages 359, 370, 372). And the Supreme Commander, in refusing the airborne operation, had promised in its place an exceptional effort by the strategic bomber forces: “complete saturation” (page 374). In the event, the actual effort made was much less than this suggested. Both the Navy and the Army were subsequently
* General Daser of the 70th German Division told interrogaters later that the Westkapelle breach was not fatal; the Germans, with the aid of Dutch civilians, set to work to build a dam from Domburg to Zoutelande to contain the flooding. But the breaks at Veere and Flushing created a hopeless situation.
to complain that the weight of bombs directed upon Walcheren was inadequate. There is substance in the complaint, but the responsibility did not rest wholly with the air forces.
Bomber Command began the attack on Walcheren with a number of small enterprises during September. On the 17th a total of 96 aircraft attacked batteries near Flushing, Biggekerke, and Westkapelle. On the following day and the 19th attacks directed against another battery at Domburg were abortive owing to weather. On the 23rd, however, the Domburg battery was successfully attacked by 49 aircraft. The weight of high explosive dropped in these attacks amounted to 616 tons.76 There were to be further attacks during October, as we shall see, in addition to those directed against the dykes; but none of them was on the scale of the great operations to which the Canadian Army had been so indebted in its operations in Normandy and against the Channel Ports.
Two factors operated to limit the bomber effort against Walcheren. One was bad weather during the period concerned. The other was the reluctance of senior officers of the Allied air forces to divert forces from the offensive against Germany, then actively under way, and their belief that attacks on concrete defences were not the most rewarding role for strategic air forces. The Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Second Quebec Conference in mid-September, acting on a British motion, had overridden Eisenhower’s recommendation that the Strategic Air Forces in Europe should remain under his command (above, page 23) and had returned them to the control of the British Chief of the Air Staff and the Commanding General, US Army Air Forces. They had, however, agreed upon a directive to the officers directly in control of those forces which stated,
The direct support of land and naval operations remains a continuing commitment upon your forces. Upon call from the supreme commanders concerned either for assistance in the battle or to take advantage of related opportunities, you will meet their requirements promptly.
Subsequently a list of targets in Germany approved by the air chiefs gave first priority to the petroleum industry with special emphasis on gasoline; second priority went jointly to transportation systems, tank production plants and depots, and motor transport production plants and depots.77
Though the new arrangement somewhat weakened Eisenhower’s status in relation to the strategic bomber forces, he was clearly still in a position to obtain their support when he considered it important. With respect to Walcheren, the role of these forces was in large degree settled by an arrangement between two of his British subordinates, though not entirely without reference to him. On 28 September Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, still commanding the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, wrote Field-Marshal Montgomery concerning First Canadian Army’s proposals for “prolonged air preparation” at Walcheren. Mentioning how the Germans were building up their strength opposite the Allied front in the west, he observed, “If we have to concentrate what would amount to the major proportion of our bomber forces on Walcheren for so long a period, the enemy would be free to concentrate his fighter effort in the forward areas, his communications and military build up would progress to a large extent unimpeded, and he would be
given an opportunity to recuperate his oil and industrial resources which we know are now so seriously depleted. It is, therefore, most important that the maximum bombing effort should be directed against Germany at the present time.” Leigh-Mallory proceeded to suggest that the preparation at Walcheren should “take the form of a limited number of attacks on specially selected objectives, to commence forthwith, followed by an intensive preparation by all bomber resources available during the 3 days prior to the assault, this to be followed by the maximum assistance to the assault itself”. He said he had discussed the matter with the Supreme Commander, who was in “general agreement” with his proposals.
Montgomery was in a strong position to resist Leigh-Mallory’s programme if he had wished to do so. A week before, Eisenhower had given him a written promise, in view of the refusal to use airborne troops, to provide an exceptional bomber effort by both the Eighth Air Force and the RAF Bomber Command (above, page 374). But Leigh-Mallory’s arguments had force, and were particularly likely to appeal to a commander whose eye was more on the Ruhr than on the Scheldt (below, page 390). Montgomery replied:
Your letter of today’s date. I agree with you.
We should start in now at Walcheren by attacking gun positions, selected targets of other types, and generally disturb enemy morale.
I also want to flood the island so that the places to be bombed become more isolated.
Then 3 or 4 days before D day we should fairly let them have everything we have got.
I do not see how D day can be before about 15 October. Possibly later.78
Thus First Canadian Army, having already lost its fight for airborne troops, now lost its high priority on bomber support as well. The Eighth Air Force was not to be seen over Walcheren; the RAF Bomber Command’s attacks would be on a limited scale.
Another glimpse of policy at Leigh-Mallory’s headquarters appears in the record of a conversation this same day when the Senior Air Staff Officer of No. 84 Group (Air Commodore T. N. McEvoy) called on the 2nd Canadian Corps’ Chief of Staff, Brigadier Rodger, to explain “the reasons for their watch on our requests for heavy bomber support”.79
AEAF have specified that heavy bomber support should be provided only when ground troops are going to assault the bombed positions immediately afterwards. ...
This principle was certainly sound with respect to operations in the open field. It was open to question, however, in a case like that of Walcheren, where the targets were permanent defences. Concrete positions could only be dealt with by an exceptional weight of bombs; and when hit they were not susceptible of rapid repair.
The Final Plan for the Scheldt Battle
On 27 September, two days after the remnant of the 1st Airborne Division was withdrawn from Arnhem (above, page 316), Field-Marshal Montgomery issued another full-dress directive to his army commanders.80 The general portion of this document spoke of two main objectives. One was the Ruhr: “Its capture will
mean the beginning of the end for Germany.” The other was the port of Antwerp: “The opening of the port is absolutely essential before we can advance deep into Germany.” Montgomery’s intentions were thus stated:
a. To open up the port of Antwerp.
b. In conjunction with First US Army on the right, to destroy all enemy forces that are preventing us from capturing the Ruhr.”
The operations to be carried out by his two armies were detailed as follows:
First Canadian Army
12. The left wing of the Canadian Army will complete the operations that are now in progress to enable us to use the ports of Boulogne and Calais. Dunkirk will be masked, and will be dealt with later.
13. The Canadian Army will at once develop operations designed to enable us to have the free use of the port of Antwerp. The early completion of these operations is vital. See para 7 [above, on the “opening of the port”].
14. The right wing of the Army will thrust strongly northwards on the general axis Tilburg–Hertogenbosch, and so free the Second Army from its present commitment of a long left flank facing west.
This thrust should be on a comparatively narrow front and it is important it should reach Hertogenbosch as early as possible.
Second British Army
15. The line of supply running northwards through Eindhoven, and up to the Rhine at Nijmegen, must be maintained intact and free from enemy interference.
16. A firm bridgehead will be maintained over the Rhine at Nijmegen.
The object of this bridgehead will be to create a constant threat to the enemy of our Allied advance northwards over the Neder Rijn; it must therefore be an offensive, and a “threatening” bridgehead. A movement northwards from this bridgehead might well be a suitable operation should the enemy withdraw troops from the Arnhem area because of our pressure elsewhere; reconnaissances will be carried out accordingly.
17. The major task of the Army will be to operate strongly with all available strength from the general area Nijmegen–Gennep against the NW corner of the Ruhr. The right flank of the movement will be directed on Krefeld.
On the left flank, the Rhine will be crossed as and where opportunity offers, and in particular every endeavour will be made to get a bridgehead at Wesel.
These operations will be begun as early as the maintenance situation will allow.
From the point of view of First Canadian Army, the basic point emerging from this directive is that the operations to open Antwerp were still getting a relatively low priority.*81 Even the Army’s own limited resources were not being wholly concentrated upon this enterprise; for General Simonds was directed to push one of his two corps off on a divergent axis to assist the Second Army’s operations directed towards the Ruhr. His intention to use the Polish Armoured Division to help the 2nd Division by driving on Bergen op Zoom (above, page 372) had been negatived. It was to appear in due course that the effort now authorized was far from adequate to achieve the opening of the Scheldt.
* On 1 October the Allied Naval Commander ordered some tank landing craft withdrawn from the cross-Channel shuttle service to prepare for the Walcheren operation. The 21st Army Group objected, as this would interfere with operations having a higher priority. Ramsay replied that he knew of no operation with priority over INFATUATE and that the Supreme Commander’s Chief of Staff had confirmed this. On 3 October, when Ramsay visited HQ First Canadian Army, Field-Marshal Montgomery’s Chief of Staff telephoned General Crerar’s in advance; not wishing to have the admiral “become concerned as a result of the priorities being given to Second British Army ops within 21 Army Gp” he asked Brigadier Mann not to mention the matter.
With this instruction before him, Simonds issued his own directive to his corps commanders on 2 October.82 He began by noting the operations of the Second British Army directed on Krefeld and of the First US Army directed on Cologne, and observed, “These operations have a prior call on administrative resources.” At the same time, he wrote, “In conjunction with these thrusts on the Ruhr by First US and Second Brit Armies, the whole weight of the Strategic Air Forces is being thrown against Western and South Western Germany.” The exception to this was the “all out attempt” to be made by Bomber Command to cut the Walcheren dykes. He was clearly well aware of the disadvantages under which his command was labouring.
The tasks of First Canadian Army were, with one corps, to clear the Second Army’s western flank by a thrust on ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and with the other corps to clear the Scheldt Estuary. The Czech Armoured Brigade would continue to contain Dunkirk. The mission of the 1st British Corps was thus outlined:
a. thrust North Eastwards on Hertogenbosch.
b. direct 2 Cdn Inf Div to clear the area North of Antwerp and close the Eastern end of the Zuid Beveland Isthmus until this division reverts to operational command 2 Cdn Corps.
c. Subsequently develop operations successively towards Breda and Roosendaal to cover the Eastern flank and rear of 2 Cdn Inf Div directed Westwards on Zuid Beveland.”
As for the 2nd Canadian Corps, it was allotted the following tasks:
a. attack and destroy, or capture, all enemy remaining in the area of Belgium and Holland, south of the West Schelde (Operation SWITCHBACK).
b. on conclusion of Operation SWITCHBACK develop operations with 2 Cdn Inf Div to clear Zuid Beveland.*
c. capture the Island of Walcheren (Operation INFATUATE).
The complicated series of operations designed to open the port of Antwerp thus began in accordance with the general scheme recommended by General Simonds some weeks before. There were to be separate operations north and south of the West Scheldt. While the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division cleared the Breskens Pocket south of the river, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, operating in the first instance under the 1st British Corps, was to drive north from Antwerp, establish a firm base in the Woensdrecht area and thence push westward along the isthmus to occupy South Beveland. Finally, the fortress island of Walcheren would be captured by concentric attacks directed across the causeway from South Beveland, across the West Scheldt from the Breskens area, and from the sea.
It is out of the question to describe these operations in precise chronological order, for to a considerable extent they went forward simultaneously. It is therefore most convenient to deal with the business by phases, carrying each phase to its conclusion before attempting the next. If the reader will bear with us, then, we shall begin with the phase which began first, the drive north from Antwerp. We shall then describe the whole of the operation against the Breskens Pocket, thereafter returning to the 2nd Division and its advance across South Beveland against Walcheren. Finally we shall give an account of the various operations against Walcheren itself.
* This operation was later given the name VITALITY.
Fighting North from Antwerp
The Battle of the Scheldt may be said to have begun in earnest on 2 October 1944, when the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division began its advance north from the Antwerp area with a view to closing the exit from South Beveland and advancing along the South Beveland isthmus.
As we have seen (above, pages 365-8) the division, on the eve of the battle, was holding Antwerp with the 4th Brigade while the 5th, slowly enlarging the bridgehead originally gained by the 49th Division over the Antwerp–Turnhout Canal, had just captured Brecht. Now, on the morning of 2 October, the division jumped off from these positions on both flanks, the 6th Brigade advancing southwest along the canal from the 5th’s bridgehead while the 4th pushed north through Merxem. In spite of stubborn resistance progress was comparatively rapid. The South Saskatchewan Regiment occupied Lochtenberg, where it had been twice repulsed a few days before. On 3 October the 6th Brigade, pushing north-west, took the Camp de Brasschaet without loss, and next day it occupied Cappellen. Farther west the 4th Brigade advanced through Eeckeren on 4 October. On the 5th Putte fell to the Essex Scottish after stiff fighting and our troops crossed the Netherlands frontier. On the 6th Ossendrecht and Santvliet were taken, and with Woensdrecht less than three miles away the objective of the first phase of the operation seemed to be within our grasp.83 At this point, at midnight of 6-7 October, the 2nd Division passed from the 1st British to the 2nd Canadian Corps. At noon on the 7th the 51st (Highland) Division returned to First Canadian Army and was placed under General Crocker’s command, as was also the 7th British Armoured Division. With them Crocker took over the front up to the River Maas formerly held by the 12th British Corps.84
The north-easterly thrust by the 1st British Corps which Field-Marshal Montgomery had ordered (above, page 379) had made progress, but had not reached ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The Polish Armoured Division, assisted by the 49th Division, met heavy opposition in its advance on Baarle Nassau, a tiny enclave of Belgian territory within the Netherlands, which it captured on 3 October. The following day it was checked by a strong counterattack just north of the town. It took Alphen, south-west of Tilburg, on the 5th, but there for the moment it was halted.85 The Germans were fighting fiercely. On 3 October General Jodl had directed the attention of Field-Marshal von Rundstedt (who was certainly well aware of it already) to the overriding importance of preventing the enemy from opening Antwerp. The line Antwerp–Tilburg–’s-Hertogenbosch was to be defended to the last, with the left wing clinging to the River Waal.86 At this point the Fifteenth Army ordered “Battle Group Chill”—also known as the 85th Infantry Division—then under the 88th Corps in the vicinity of ‘s-Hertogenbosch on the western flank of the Nijmegen salient, to the 67th Corps’ area to check the Polish advance.87 This formation, commanded by Lieut.-General Kurt Chill, an officer of great skill and uncommon energy, was composed of remnants of the 84th, 85th and 89th Infantry Divisions, part of the Hermann Göring Replacement Training Regiment and—most important of all—the crack 6th Parachute Regiment. It was the
German “fire brigade” for this sector, always found where the emergency was greatest. Its withdrawal from the 88th Corps put a stop to a project for an attack on the Nijmegen salient, but it was considered more important to head off the danger to Tilburg. It appears however that it was local reserves that put in the counter-attack which checked the Poles on 4 October; only on the 6th was the 85th Division heavily committed here to cover Tilburg.88 Almost immediately, however, it was necessary to move it still farther west to deal with our thrust at the South Beveland isthmus.
The 2nd Canadian Division’s plan for this thrust was to pass the 5th Brigade through the 4th (then deployed between Ossendrecht and the Antwerp–Bergen road to the east) and push it up the main road directed on Korteven, beyond Woensdrecht, on 7 October. Simultaneously a battle group of the 6th Brigade (“Saint Force”) was to go forward to improve our position on the right.89 Unfortunately, however, a misunderstanding arose, the Essex Scottish failed to secure the start-line during the preceding night and the 6th Brigade operation made very little progress during the 7th.90 The 5th Brigade operation was conducted with two battalions “up”, The Calgary Highlanders on the left and Le Regiment de Maisonneuve on the right. The latter unit was stopped some distance southwest of Huijbergen (some three and a half miles east of Woensdrecht); the Calgaries, after stiff fighting, got into Hoogerheide, little more than a mile from Woensdrecht.91
On the morning of the 8th The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada passed through the Calgaries for the attack on Korteven. But they met extremely heavy resistance. On the 7th the Germans had pulled out part of Battle Group Chill from opposite the Poles and moved these troops to their right wing
to cover Woensdrecht. There was violent fighting in and around Hoogerheide, and the Black Watch were pushed back to their start-line.92 At the end of the day aerial reconnaissance confirmed information from Dutch civilians that a large German force with guns and tanks was concentrated in the wooded country between Korteven and Bergen op Zoom. An attack by Typhoons was called down on the area, with largely undetermined results; and the battalions of the 5th Brigade were ordered to go over to the defensive to prepare for the counter-attack which was clearly on the way.93
The German stroke duly materialized that night, and further fierce counter-attacks came in next day, forcing our troops to make some local withdrawals. The Calgary Highlanders about Hoogerheide bore the main weight of a nasty day. Prisoners taken were young paratroopers, the vanguard of Chill’s men.94 For the moment the Germans had saved Woensdrecht and the vital isthmus.
In the meantime, the delayed thrust by the 6th Brigade on the right flank, executed on 8 October by “Saint” Force, comprising Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and parts of the 10th Armoured Regiment and the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment, had also had only limited success. The idea was that the armour would make a wide sweep through the area of Wuestwezel (north-west of Brecht) in cooperation with an advance by the Fusiliers in the areas of Calmpthout and Kruisstraat to the west. Unfortunately, thick fog early on the 8th prevented the movement of armour during the morning, and the sweep by the tanks never materialized. Assisted by the armour, the Fusiliers advanced north and by the evening had captured the village of Dorp north of Calmpthout.95 This was the only gain from the operation. The 2nd Division’s right flank was still open in the area between Calmpthout and Brecht. On the 9th a detachment of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division—the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment and a company of The Algonquin Regiment—was moved in from west of Antwerp to assist the 2nd Division, coming under the 6th Brigade and relieving the South Saskatchewan Regiment at Brecht and the Cameron Highlanders of Canada in the Brasschaet area, thus allowing these units to move to strengthen the division’s centre. This eased the acting divisional commander’s anxieties for his exposed flank, some 20 miles long, which he had been covering with the help of his reconnaissance and light anti-aircraft regiments.96
It was now decided that the 5th Brigade would take over the attempt to cut the base of the South Beveland isthmus. It was to withdraw from the line about Hoogerheide, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry coming in to hold there (this being facilitated by the relief of the 6th Brigade’s units in the Brecht area by those from the 4th Division); the 5th Brigade would then be used for a concentrated blow. The relief was carried out during the afternoon and evening of 10 October.97 While it was in progress, The Royal Regiment of Canada of the 4th Brigade had an important success on the left. It forced its way forward across the wet polder land south and west of Woensdrecht to reach the near side of the embankment carrying the railway across the isthmus close to the latter’s narrowest point, between two and three miles west of Woensdrecht.98 This “seriously restricted the main enemy route to the peninsula”.99 The German version is that contact was lost here on the 11th between the troops on the mainland and the 70th Division
in South Beveland, but was restored by an evening counter-attack by elements of the 346th Infantry Division from the direction of Woensdrecht, while the 70th Division itself fought slowly eastward.100 Actually, the Royals held the positions they had taken, almost but not quite severing the isthmus; and they record that enemy counter-attacks were broken up by efficient work by our artillery. However, when the Royals themselves attacked on the afternoon of the 11th “to close the neck of the peninsula” they were beaten back with heavy loss, and a counter-attack which may be the one referred to by the Germans contributed to their discomfiture.101
The 4th Brigade now had both The South Saskatchewan Regiment (brought up from the eastern sector) and Le Régiment de Maisonneuve under command. The South Saskatchewans were committed east of Hoogerheide, where they had heavy fighting during the next few days. Attacks on 11 October by the other units of the brigade gained as little ground as that by the Royals.102 On the 12th and 13th severe local counter-attacks came in, particularly in the vicinity of the isthmus on the former date and in the South Saskatchewan area on the latter.103 On the 13th the 5th Brigade took over the offensive against the isthmus. In Operation ANGUS the Black Watch were put in through the sector held by the Royal Regiment to seize objectives along the railway embankment, the most distant being Woensdrecht Station, west of Korteven. It was a day of bloody fighting and failure. The Germans were securely dug in along and beyond the embankment. They met the first attack in the early morning with extremely heavy mortar, airburst and small arms fire. In spite of excellent support by our artillery, the two leading Black Watch companies were forced back to their start line, both company commanders having been wounded. Support by fighter aircraft was called for and received, and late in the afternoon another attempt was made backed by tanks and flamethrowers. But the enemy continued to fight savagely, many men were lost and the objectives were not reached. The commanders of the other two rifle companies both became casualties. At one in the morning Brigadier Megill ordered the battalion to withdraw. Its casualties in this episode totalled 145—56 killed or died of wounds, 62 wounded and 27 prisoners.104
Thus the enemy, battling with desperate determination, still held the commanding position at Woensdrecht and had not wholly lost his communications across the isthmus. Another effort was required. On 14 October the 2nd Division again regrouped. The 5th Brigade took over the left sector in the isthmus area, still held by the Royal Regiment (which was now relieved by The Calgary Highlanders); and the 4th Brigade moved into the right sector preparatory to an attack on Woensdrecht itself. But an enemy attack came in as The South Saskatchewan Regiment (who were remaining under the 4th Brigade) were shifting their ground to allow the Royals to come in on their right. Our own attack did not take place until 16 October.105
At 3:30 a.m. that day The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry put it in, advancing behind a heavy barrage with the assistance of tanks of the 10th Armoured Regiment. The whole divisional artillery, plus the 7th Medium Regiment RCA and the 84th and 121st Medium and 115th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiments RA,
supported the advance.106 The RHLI fought their way into the straggling village and on to the low ridge above it; and there they stayed notwithstanding all the enemy could do. Before the morning was far advanced he was counter-attacking, supported by at least one self-propelled gun. The right-hand company of the RHLI, north-east of the village, was overrun; but a company of the Essex Scottish and more tanks were brought forward and the position was held in spite of enemy infiltration and continued artillery and mortar fire. The battalion later reported, “It is close, hand to hand fighting—the enemy is not giving up here the way he has in the past.” The Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. W. D. Whitaker, considered that the turning point came when our artillery—it was the 4th Field Regiment RCA—brought down a heavy concentration on the counter-attacking Germans very close to our own positions. “The fire caught the enemy troops right out in the open whereas our own men were deep down in their slit trenches having been warned beforehand. Our troops cheered; the slaughter was terrific.” There was also very effective support by fighter-bombers. But our own losses were painfully heavy; the RHLI had 161 casualties on 16 and 17 October, 21 of them fatal.107
The Shortage of Trained Infantrymen
The difficulty of maintaining the strength of the Canadian infantry battalions with trained men has already been mentioned in connection with the fighting in the Forêt de la Londe (above, pages 284-5). The heavy casualties at Woensdrecht brought the matter to the fore again, and shortage of trained infantrymen was one of the difficulties which slowed our progress in this fighting. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry commented as follows on the fighting on 16-17 October:108
We did not have enough bodies on the ground to completely control the Woensdrecht Feature and it was possible for the enemy to infiltrate. The enemy appeared to suffer very heavy casualties from our artillery fire which was used unsparingly, but he continued to reinforce his positions. We were prevented from probing forward as the average company strength was forty-five and the casualties amongst our officers and NCOs and older men were very heavy. The bulk of the men in the battalion at the present time had not had very much infantry training, but had been remustered from other branches of the service.
At this time (17 October) two of the RHLI’s four rifle companies had only one officer each. The Canadian Black Watch on 19 October calculated that in the battalion’s rifle companies, then 379 all ranks in strength, there were 159 men with three months or more of infantry training; 46 with two months or more; 131 with one month, 29 with less than one month and 14 with none. The Second-in-Command reported to the CO, “It is unnecessary to point out to you, sir, that the previous training of a man listed as, for instance, ‘one month’, on paper, probably represents considerably less time actual training. This assumption is borne out by the fact that very few men arrive with knowledge of the PIAT, or elementary section and platoon tactics. Some reinforcements have never fired the Bren LMG or handled grenades.”109
The case of the Black Watch was, perhaps, extreme, for this unit had had unusually heavy casualties on several occasions; but it gives us a striking glimpse of the problem of infantry reinforcements as it presented itself in practical terms in the fighting battalions of First Canadian Army in the autumn of 1944. It is not irrelevant to add that the Germans were worse off. On 9 October the senior staff officer of their 245th Infantry Division, then in action in the Tilburg area, reported that 246 untrained recruits of the ages of 17 and 18 had arrived: “combat value zero”. It was proposed to put these men into barracks at Vught where they could be given some training.110
As the echoes of the desperate fighting of the 16th died away, what might almost be called calm descended upon the blood-soaked fields and broken buildings of Woensdrecht. On both sides it was the peace of exhaustion—an unquiet peace, but at least not disturbed by major operations for some days to come.111 The loss of the commanding position at Woensdrecht had impressed the Germans. The war diary of the Commander-in-Chief West for 16 October recorded,
In the area of the Scheldt Estuary a permanent recapture of the land connection with Walcheren can no longer be expected. C-in-C West, therefore, consents to the flooding of the area.
Within a few hours, we noted that flooding was extending in the eastern portion of South Beveland, east of the Beveland Canal.112 Nevertheless, the enemy remained “in very close contact” with us about Woensdrecht village, and though in general he was quiet any forward move on our part at once met fierce resistance.113 The situation for the moment was stalemated. Until we could establish a much firmer grip on the area about the eastern end of the isthmus it was useless to think of advancing into South Beveland.
Strategic Discussion and a New Priority
Here we must turn for a moment from the struggle in the polders to survey the battlefront as a whole and to note the continuing strategic discussion between General Eisenhower and Field-Marshal Montgomery and its effect upon the Canadian operations.
Early in October, in the absence of any major port working close to the front, the administrative pinch was still being painfully felt all along the Allied battleline. From the Supreme Commander’s conference at Versailles on 22 September (above, page 317), the decision had emerged that the right wing of the 12th Army Group—General Patton’s Third US Army, already famous for its offensive triumphs in August—would have to go over to the defensive. General Bradley broke this news to Patton with the statement, “It is apparent to everyone that no major offensive by American forces can be undertaken until the port of Antwerp is opened.”114 During October, in these circumstances, Patton’s army was quiescent except for local advances; it held a line running west of Metz on a front roughly from Luneville to Luxembourg. In the light of the decision to direct the main
present effort against the Ruhr, priority on the American front was given to the northern sector, where General Hodges’ First Army was struggling through the West Wall to capture Aachen.115 It is not surprising that this offensive threatening the Ruhr impressed the Germans as the greatest single danger in the west. Field-Marshal von Rundstedt expressed this opinion in an appreciation dated 9 October and marked “For submission to the Führer”.116 He concentrated large forces here accordingly,117 and Hodges did not take Aachen until 21 October. In the same appreciation of 9 October von Rundstedt noted the situation north of Antwerp as another point of special danger and observed that since the Allied strength in the Nijmegen–Arnhem area precluded any withdrawal of troops from there to deal with the threat on the Scheldt, it would be necessary to shorten the line in the Tilburg–‘s-Hertogenbosch area (that is, by a retirement). This recommendation, however, was not carried out.
Soon after the 2nd Canadian Division began its drive north from Antwerp, Field-Marshal Montgomery came to the conclusion that the attack towards the north-west corner of the Ruhr by the Second Army, envisaged in his directive of 27 September (above, page 379), was not practicable in existing circumstances. He told the Supreme Commander on 7 October that he found that he had to commit British forces to assist the First US Army, which had been unable to clear the area west of the Meuse; and his strength was too low for the Ruhr attack too. He also suggested again that the existing system of command was unsatisfactory; he presumably wished to have the First Army placed directly under his own command. In reply, General Eisenhower suggested two possibilities: either the US forces should extend their area to the north, thus shortening the British line, or two US divisions should be transferred to Montgomery.118 The second expedient was adopted,* and on 9 October Montgomery issued to his army commanders a new directive based upon it.119
This postulated that before the Second Army could be launched towards Krefeld, it was necessary to make certain of the security of the bridgehead at Nijmegen and to drive the enemy back to the east side of the Meuse between Gennep and Roermond. To facilitate this, the 7th US Armoured Division and the Belgian contingent were to come under the Second Army at once. The portion of the directive relating to General Simonds’ command ran as follows:
First Canadian Army
12. Will concentrate all available resources on the operations designed to give us free use of the port of Antwerp.
The opening of this port will take priority over all other offensive operations.
13. Will ensure that there is no interference by the enemy from the west with the Second Army main supply and communication route running northwards through Eindhoven and up to the Rhine at Nijmegen.
One US infantry division was being moved up from Cherbourg into the Brussels area, where it would arrive next week. It would be held for employment by First
* Since the 7th US Armoured Division’s sector of the line was taken over along with the division, the net gain was only one division.
Canadian Army as desired, in order to speed up the Antwerp operations. Moreover, the 52nd (Lowland) Division of the British Army was to begin to arrive through Ostend on 13 October. It would be available for the Scheldt task if required by the Canadian Army.
Thus the Scheldt operations had been given a considerably higher priority than before (see above, page 379). Except for the task of protecting the flank of the Nijmegen salient, Montgomery now accorded them absolute priority within the Canadian Army; and that Army was being given additional strength to carry them out.
On the same day on which this directive was issued a further exchange between Montgomery and Eisenhower began. The latter telegraphed mentioning a report just received from the Royal Navy (not from Admiral Ramsay) that First Canadian Army would be unable to move until 1 November unless promptly supplied with adequate ammunition. Eisenhower wrote, “You know best where emphasis lies within your Army Group but I must repeat that we are now squarely up against situation which has been anticipated for months and our intake into Continent will not support our battle. Unless we have Antwerp producing by middle of November entire operations will come to a standstill. I must emphasise that of all our operations on our entire front from Switzerland to the Channel, I consider Antwerp of first importance, and I believe operations designed to clear up entrance require your personal attention.” Montgomery replied that the Navy’s statements were “wild” and pointed out that First Canadian Army’s attack was already under way and going well (it had begun on 2 October north of Antwerp and on 6 October on the Leopold Canal; but, although this was not yet clear, it was not in fact going particularly well). Montgomery at the same time reminded Eisenhower that at the conference of 22 September the attack on the Ruhr had been prescribed as the main effort of the current phase of operations,* and that only the previous day the Supreme Commander had declared that the first mission of both the 21st and 12th Army Groups was to reach the Rhine north of Bonn.120
On the 10th Eisenhower came back with a very strong telegram. “In everything that we try to do or to plan”, he wrote, “our intake of supplies into the Continent looms up as the limiting factor and it is for this reason that no matter how we adjust missions and objectives for both groups in their offensive action towards the east, the possession of the approaches to Antwerp remains with us an objective of vital importance. Let me assure you that nothing I may ever say or write with respect to future plans in our advance eastward is meant to indicate any lessening of the need for Antwerp which I have always held as vital, and which has grown more pressing as we enter the bad weather period.”121
Field-Marshal Montgomery now sent to Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff another communication suggesting changes in command arrangements. The result was a long letter from Eisenhower (the full text of which is not available); an American
* This was entirely true. On the other hand, the record of the conference also says, “21st Army Group to open the port of Antwerp as a matter of urgency and to develop operations culminating in a strong attack on the Ruhr from the north.”
official historian calls it “one of his most explicit letters of the war”.* The question, he said, was not one of command but of taking Antwerp; and his views on the importance of getting the port opened were shared by General Marshall and Field-Marshal Brooke, who had emphasized it on a recent visit to SHAEF. Eisenhower said that he was willing to make additional US troops and supplies available to Montgomery to open the estuary. With respect to the question of command organization, he was not prepared to accept Montgomery’s argument in favour of the appointment of a single ground commander (the system used in Normandy). The army group commanders had adequate powers for the control of operations on the battlefield, but the Supreme Commander had the tasks of adjusting larger boundaries, assigning support by air or by ground or airborne troops and shifting the emphasis in supply arrangements. Eisenhower went on to say that for the attack on the Ruhr he felt that one commander should be responsible; but he considered that the current commitments of the 21st Army Group would leave it with such depleted forces facing eastward that it could not carry the main weight. He proposed therefore to give the task of capturing the Ruhr to the 12th Army Group with the 21st in support.122
Montgomery, as already noted (above, page 387), had begun to have grave doubts about the practicability of the Ruhr operation a week before. The day before Eisenhower wrote this letter to him, he reported to the War Office that the ammunition situation in the First US Army was so bad that he considered that army had not the slightest chance of reaching the Rhine. Now the Supreme Commander’s orders finally wiped the Ruhr project off Montgomery’s slate. He replied to Eisenhower’s letter on 16 October.123
I have received your letter of 13 October. You will hear no more on the subject of command from me. I have given you my views and you have given me your answer. That ends the matter and I and all of us up here will weigh in one hundred percent to do what you want and we will pull it through without a doubt. I have given Antwerp top priority in all operations in 21 Army Group and all energies and efforts will be now devoted towards opening up that place. Your very devoted and loyal subordinate,
On the same day Montgomery held a conference with his army commanders124 and issued a new directive125 which is printed in full in Appendix E. This gave the operations to open Antwerp “complete priority over all other offensive operations in 21 Army Group, without any qualification whatsoever”; and it provided for bringing “the whole of the available offensive power of Second Army” to bear upon them.
What it amounted to was that whereas at the beginning of the Scheldt operations the right wing of First Canadian Army had been directed north-east on an axis divergent from the Scheldt to assist the Second British Army, now the Second British Army was to be directed on a north-westerly axis. General Dempsey was to take over the right sector of the Canadian Army’s line and push westward;
* Pogue, The Supreme Command, pp. 297-8. Dr. Pogue summarizes the letter at length and quotes several passages. General Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army, was on a visit to Eisenhower’s headquarters at the time this letter was written. Lord Montgomery in his Memoirs summarizes the letter very briefly and without mentioning Antwerp or the Ruhr. In general, in this book the author has little to say about his dealings with Eisenhower concerning the Scheldt operations.
while the Canadian Army, with larger forces now available to it, was to clear the country north of the South Beveland isthmus to free the 2nd Division’s flank. Until now Montgomery had chosen, within the framework of the Supreme Commander’s instructions, to emphasize the portion relating to the Ruhr rather than the portion relating to opening Antwerp. He had now been given what ‘ amounted to a very direct order to give priority to Antwerp; and at the same time he had been deprived of the Ruhr operation.
As soon as the new orders took effect the situation north of Antwerp was transformed. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division, part of which, as we have seen, had already been brought over to the right flank of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, was now to pass under the 1st British Corps to be used as a hammer to loosen the German formations confronting the 2nd Division. On 17 October the 4th Division completed its concentration north-east of Antwerp. It came under the 1st Corps at midnight.126
General Crocker’s headquarters issued its instruction for the operation designed to “prevent the enemy interfering with 2 Cdn Inf Div during its ops to capture South Beveland”127 early on the 17th. Subsequently designated SUITCASE, it was to be carried out by four divisions, each from a different Allied country. On 20 October the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division would attack on the axis Brecht-Wuestwezel, and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division on its left directed on Esschen. The 1st Polish Armoured Division and the 104th US Infantry Division would come into action later.
At 7:30 a.m. on the wet and chilly128 morning of 20 October General Foster launched his division towards Esschen, with Bergen op Zoom as a further objective beyond. This advance would clear the flank of the 2nd Division and prepare the way for the Second Army’s attack towards the Maas which was to go in shortly afterwards and which, it was hoped, would trap the German Fifteenth Army south of the wide river. It went well. Esschen fell to the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the morning of 22 October.129 Thereafter resistance stiffened as the Germans fought to keep open an escape route for their troops around Woensdrecht, and the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade, pushing north-west from Esschen, was held up at Wouwsche Plantage and captured the place, with some assistance from the 10th Brigade, only on the morning of the 26th.130 The following day the 10th, now advancing on the 4th Division’s leftward axis, entered Bergen op Zoom after overcoming opposition from the 6th Parachute Regiment. To the east the 49th Division was approaching Roosendaal; and the 104th US Infantry Division, the first American formation to fight under the First Canadian Army,* had come in on the 49th’s right and taken Zundert. Still farther east, on the extreme right flank of the 1st Corps, the Polish Armoured Division captured historic Breda on 29 October.131
In the meantime, on 22 October, the Second Army had launched its attack directed on ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Tilburg, and steady progress was made here too. The 12th Corps entered ‘s-Hertogenbosch on the 24th and cleared Tilburg
* It was commanded by Major-General Terry Allen, who had commanded the 1st US Infantry Division when it fought beside the 1st Canadian Division in Sicily.
on the 28th. Strong resistance dissipated the hope of trapping large numbers of the enemy south of the Lower Maas, but by the end of October Raamsdonk had been taken and the area below the river was largely clear.132
Anticipating relief from embarrassment on its right by the advance of the 1st Corps under Montgomery’s new policy, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was able on 23 October to begin the final clearing of the Woensdrecht area preparatory to operations against South Beveland. The attack was made with two brigades up, the 6th being directed from east of Woensdrecht upon the high ground south of Korteven, while on the left the 5th went forward in the area of the isthmus. Both brigades met fierce opposition and they made slow progress on the 23rd; on the left The Calgary Highlanders had to dig in along the railway embankment for the night.133 But on the 24th things went much better. The enemy’s line of retreat was menaced by the 4th Division’s thrust directed on Wouwsche Plantage; his 67th Corps had sought and received permission to make a general withdrawal to avoid encirclement,134 and the Germans in front of Woensdrecht now hurriedly retired beyond Korteven, pursued by the 5th Brigade. The same day the 4th Brigade began the advance across the isthmus into South Beveland.135