Battle of the Scheldt

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Battle of the Scheldt
Part of World War II
Acrossthescheldt.jpg
Buffalo amphibious vehicles taking Canadians
across the Scheldt in Zeeland, 1944.
Date October 2-November 8, 1944
Location Northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands
51°25′N 4°10′E / 51.417°N 4.167°E / 51.417; 4.167Coordinates: 51°25′N 4°10′E / 51.417°N 4.167°E / 51.417; 4.167
Result Allied victory;
Antwerp opens to Allied shipping
Belligerents
 Canada
 United Kingdom
 Belgium
 Netherlands
 Norway
 Poland
 Germany
Commanders and leaders
Canada Harry Crerar
Canada Guy Simonds
United Kingdom Bertram Ramsay
Nazi Germany Gustav-Adolf von Zangen
Units involved
Canadian 1st Army German 15th Army
Strength
60,000 90,000
Casualties and losses
Canadian: 6,367
Total: 12,873
Roughly 10-12,000
41,043 captured

The Battle of the Scheldt was a series of military operations by the Canadian 1st Army, led by Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds. The battle took place in northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands during World War II from October 2 to November 8, 1944.1

By September 1944, it had become urgent for the Allies to clear both banks of the Scheldt estuary in order to open the port of Antwerp to Allied shipping, thus easing logistical burdens in their supply lines stretching hundreds of miles from Normandy eastward to the Siegfried Line.2 Since the Allied forces had landed in Normandy (France) on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the British 2nd Army had pushed forward into the Low Countries and captured Brussels and Antwerp, the latter with its ports still intact. But the advance halted with the British in possession of Antwerp, while the Germans still controlled the Scheldt Estuary.

Nothing was done about the blocked port of Antwerp during September because most of the strained Allied resources were allocated to Operation Market Garden,citation needed a bold plan for a single thrust into Germany that began on September 17. In the meantime, German forces in the Scheldt were able to deploy defensively and prepare for the expected advance.

In early October, after operation Market Garden had failed with heavy losses, Allied forces led by the Canadian 1st Army set out to bring the port of Antwerp under control. But the well-established German defenders staged an effective delaying action, during which the Germans flooded the Scheldt Estuary, slowing the Allied advance. Complicated by the waterlogged terrain, the Battle of the Scheldt proved to be a challenging campaign in which the losses suffered by the Canadians exacerbated another conscription crisis.citation needed

After five weeks of difficult fighting, the Canadian 1st Army — bolstered by attached troops from several other countries (the vast majority from the United Kingdom) — was successful in clearing the Scheldt after numerous amphibious assaults, obstacle crossings, and costly assaults over open ground. Both land and water were mined, and the Germans defended their line of retreat with artillery and snipers.citation needed

The Allies finally cleared the port areas on November 8 at a cost of 12,873 Allied casualties (killed, wounded, or missing), half of them Canadians.3

Once the German defenders were no longer a threat, it was a further three weeks before the first ship carrying Allied supplies was able to unload in Antwerp (on November 29, 1944) due to the necessity of de-mining the harbours.

Opening the Scheldt

On September 12, 1944, the Canadian 1st Army — under temporary command of Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds — was given the task of clearing the Scheldt. Under command at that time was Canadian II Corps, with the Polish 1st Armoured Division, British 49th and 52nd Divisions attached, as well as British I Corps.

The plan for opening the Scheldt estuary involved four main operations conducted over daunting geography.

  • The first task was to clear the area north of Antwerp and secure access to South Beveland.
  • Second was to clear the Breskens pocket north of the Leopold Canal ("Operation Switchback").
  • Third, dubbed "Operation Vitality", was the capture of South Beveland.
  • The final phase would be the capture of Walcheren Island ("Operation Infatuate"), which had been fortified into a powerful German stronghold. As part of the Atlantic Wall, Walcheren Island was considered to be the "strongest concentration of defences the Nazis had ever constructed."4
Column of Alligator amphibious vehicles passing Terrapin amphibious vehicles on the Scheldt river, October 1944.

On September 21, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division moved north roughly along the line of the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal, given the task of clearing an area on the south shore of the Scheldt around the Dutch town of Breskens called the "Breskens pocket". The Polish 1st Armoured Division headed for the Dutch-Belgian border further east and the crucial area north of Antwerp.

The Canadian 4th Armoured advanced from a hard-won bridgehead over the Ghent Canal at Moerbrugge to find themselves the first Allied troops facing the formidable obstacle of the double line of the Leopold and Schipdonk Canals. An attack was mounted in the vicinity of Moerkerke, crossing the canals and establishing a bridgehead before counter-attacks forced a withdrawal with heavy casualties.

The Northern Front.

The 1st Polish Armoured Division enjoyed greater success to the east as it advanced northeast from Ghent. In country unsuitable for armour, and against stiffening resistance, the Division advanced to the coast by September 20, occupying Terneuzen and clearing the south bank of the Scheldt east toward Antwerp.

It became apparent to Simonds that any further gains in the Scheldt would come at heavy cost, as the Breskens pocket, extending from Zeebrugge to the Braakman Inlet and inland to the Leopold Canal, was strongly held by the enemy.

Fighting north from Antwerp

On October 2, the Canadian 2nd Division began its advance north from Antwerp. Stiff fighting at Woensdrecht ensued on October 6, the objective of the first phase. The Germans—reinforced by Battle Group Chill—saw the priority in holding there, controlling direct access to South Beveland and Walcheren Island.

There were heavy casualties as the Canadians attacked over open, flooded land. Driving rain, booby traps and land mines made advance very difficult. On October 13, what would come to be known as "Black Friday", the Canadian 5th Infantry Brigade's Black Watch was virtually wiped out in an unsuccessful attack. The Calgary Highlanders were to follow up with a more successful action, and their Carrier Platoon succeeded in taking the rail station at Korteven. Heavy fighting at Hoogerheide also ensued, but by October 16, Woensdrecht was secured, cutting the land link to South Beveland and Walcheren. The Canadians had achieved their first objective, but suffered heavy casualties.

Member of Canadian Provost Corps talking to members of the Belgian Resistance, Bruges, September 1944.

At this point, recognizing the opportunity, Field-Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery issued a directive that made the opening of the Scheldt estuary the top priority of 21st Army Group. To the east, the British 2nd Army attacked westward to clear the Netherlands south of the Maas River, securing the Scheldt region from counter-attacks.

Meanwhile, Simonds concentrated forces at the neck of the South Beveland peninsula. The 4th Canadian Armoured moved north from the Leopold Canal and took Bergen-op-Zoom. By October 24, Allied lines were pushed out further from the neck of the peninsula, ensuring German counterattacks would not cut off the 2nd Canadian Division, by then moving west along it towards Walcheren Island.

Operation Switchback

The second main operation opened with fierce fighting to reduce the Breskens pocket. Here, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division encountered tenacious German resistance as it fought to cross the Leopold Canal.5

An earlier failed attempt by the Canadian 4th Armoured Division at Moerbrugge had demonstrated the challenge they faced. In addition to the formidable German defences on both the Leopold Canal and the Schipdonk Canal, much of the approach area was flooded.

It was decided that the best place for an assault would be immediately east of where the two canals divided: a narrow strip of dry ground only a few hundred metres wide at its base beyond the Leopold Canal (described as a long triangle with its base on the Maldegem-Aardenburg road and its apex near the village of Moershoofd some 5 km (3.1 mi) east).

Members of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division demonstrating the use of flame throwers across a canal, Maldegem, October 1944.

A two-pronged assault commenced. The Canadian 3rd Division′s 7th Brigade made the initial assault across the Leopold Canal, while the 9th Brigade mounted an amphibious attack from the northern or coastal side of the pocket. The assault began on October 6, supported by extensive artillery and Canadian-built Wasp Universal Carriers, which were equipped with flamethrowers. The Wasps launched their barrage of flame across the Leopold Canal, allowing the 7th Brigade troops to scramble up over the steep banks and launch their assault boats. Two precarious, separate footholds were established, but the enemy recovered from the shock of the flamethrowers and counter-attacked, though they were unable to move the Canadians from their extremely vulnerable bridgeheads. By October 9, the gap between the bridgeheads was closed, and by early morning on October 12, a position had been gained across the Aardenburg road.

Corporal Kormendy, a scout from the Calgary Highlanders Scout and Sniper Platoon, in a shot from a series of staged photos by Army photographer Ken Bell, taken near Kapellen, October 1944. PAC Photo

The Canadian 9th Brigade conducted an amphibious operation with the aid of Terrapin (the first such use of this vehicle in Europe) and Buffalo amphibious vehicles, crewed by the British 5th Assault Regiment from the Royal Engineers. The brigade planned to cross the mouth of the Braakman Inlet in amphibious vehicles and to land in the vicinity of Hoofdplaat, a tiny hamlet in the rear or coastal side of the pocket, thus exerting pressure from two directions at once. In spite of difficulties in maneuvering vehicles through the canals, and the resulting 24-hour delay, the Germans were taken by surprise and a bridgehead was established. Once again, the Germans recovered quickly and counter-attacked with ferocity; however, they were slowly forced back. The Canadian 10th Brigade—from the 4th Armoured Division—crossed the Leopold Canal and advanced at Isabella Polder. Then the 3rd Division′s 8th Brigade was called to move south from the coastal side of the pocket. This opened up a land-based supply route into the pocket.

The 3rd Division fought additional actions to clear German troops from the towns of Breskens, Oostburg, Zuidzande and Cadzand, as well as the coastal fortress Fort Frederik Hendrik. Operation "Switchback" ended on November 3, when the Canadian 1st Army liberated the Belgian towns of Knokke and Zeebrugge, officially closing the Breskens Pocket and eliminating all German forces south of the Scheldt.

Operation Vitality

The third major operation opened on October 24, when the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division began its advance down the South Beveland peninsula. The Canadians hoped to advance rapidly, bypassing opposition and seizing bridgeheads over the Beveland Canal, but they too were slowed by mines, mud and strong enemy defences.

An amphibious attack was made across the West Scheldt by the British 52nd (Lowland) Division to get in behind the German′s Beveland Canal defensive positions. Thus this formidable defence was outflanked, and the Canadian 6th Infantry Brigade began a frontal attack in assault boats. The engineers were able to bridge the canal on the main road.

With the canal line gone, the German defence crumbled and South Beveland was cleared. The third phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was now complete.

Operation Infatuate: Capture of Walcheren Island

Map of troops at Walcheren Island
Soldiers of the Royal Regiment of Canada rest in Blankenberge, September 1944

As the fourth phase of the battle opened, only the island of Walcheren at the mouth of the West Scheldt remained in German hands. The island's defences were extremely strong: heavy coastal batteries on the western and southern coasts defended both the island and the Scheldt estuary, and the coastline had been strongly fortified against amphibious assaults. Furthermore, a landward-facing defensive perimeter had been built around the town of Vlissingen (in English, Flushing) to further defend its port facilities should an Allied landing on Walcheren succeed. The only land approach was the Sloedam—a long, narrow causeway from South Beveland, little more than a raised two-lane road. To make matters more difficult, the flats that surrounded this causeway were too saturated with sea water for movement on foot, but had too little water for an assault in storm boats.

To hamper German defence, the island′s dykes were breached by attacks from RAF Bomber Command: on October 3 at Westkapelle, with severe loss of civilian life (180 civilians dead); on October 7 at two places, west and east of Vlissingen; and on October 11 at Veere. This flooded the central part of the island, forcing the German defenders onto the high ground around the outside and in the towns, but it also allowed the use of amphibious vehicles.

The island was attacked from three directions: across the causeway from the east, across the Scheldt from the south, and by sea from the west.

The Canadian 2nd Infantry Division attacked the causeway on October 31. An initial attack by the Black Watch was rebuffed; The Calgary Highlanders then sent a company over which was also stopped halfway across the causeway. A second attack by the Highlanders on the morning of November 1 managed to gain a precarious foothold; a day of fighting followed, and then the Highlanders were relieved by Le Regiment de Maisonneuve who struggled to maintain the bridgehead. The "Maisies" withdrew onto the Causeway on November 2, to be relieved by a battalion of the Glasgow Highlanders of the British 52nd (Lowland) Division. In conjunction with the waterborne attacks, the 52nd continued the advance.6

The amphibious landings were conducted in two parts on November 1. Operation Infatuate I consisted mainly of infantry of the British 155th Infantry Brigade (4th and 5th battalions King's Own Scottish Borderers, 7/9th battalion The Royal Scots) and No. 4 Commando, who were ferried across from Breskens in small landing craft to an assault beach in the south-eastern area of Vlissingen, codenamed "Uncle" Beach. During the next few days, they engaged in heavy street fighting against the German defenders.

Royal Marines wade ashore near Vlissingen to complete the occupation of Walcheren, November 1, 1944

Operation Infatuate II was the amphibious landing at Westkapelle, also conducted on the morning of November 1. After a heavy naval bombardment by the Royal Navy, troops of 4th Special Service Brigade (Nos. 41, 47, and 48 Royal Marine Commando and No. 10 Inter Allied Commando, consisting mainly of Belgian and Norwegian troops) supported by specialized armoured vehicles (amphibious transports, mine-clearing tanks, bulldozers, etc.) of the 79th Armoured Division were landed on both sides of the gap in the sea dyke, using large landing craft as well as amphibious vehicles to bring men and tanks ashore. Heavy fighting ensued here as well before the ruins of the town were captured. Part of the troops moved south-east toward Vlissingen, while the main force went north-east to clear the northern half of Walcheren and link up with the Canadian troops who had established a bridgehead on the eastern part of the island. Fierce resistance was again offered by some of the German troops defending this area, so that fighting continued until November 7.

On November 6, the island′s capital (Middelburg) fell after a calculated gamble on the Allies′ part when the German commander was invited to consider surrendering only to an armoured force. Since Middelburg was impossible to reach with tanks, a force of amphibious Landing Vehicle Tracked ("Buffaloes") were driven into Middelburg, forcing an end to all German resistance on November 8.

Meanwhile, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division had pushed eastward past Bergen-op-Zoom to Sint Philipsland where it sank several German vessels in Zijpe harbor.

With the approaches to Antwerp clear, the fourth phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was complete. The Scheldt was then swept of naval mines and, on November 28—after much repair of harbour facilities——the first convoy entered the port, led by the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui.

Controversy

Today, the battle of the Scheldt is seenwho? as an unnecessarily brutal one, as the river could have been cleared earlier and more easily had the Allies not seen it as a lesser priority to Operation Market Garden. U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower's decisions have been widely criticized as they pertain to the lack of importance he placed on the opening of the Scheldt. In reality, however, he placed great significance on the opening of Antwerp, and it was Montgomery who pressed the matter in reaching for the Rhine.citation needed It should be noted that in early September 1944 victory in the war looked to be very close, which in hindsight proved unduly optimistic, and it was this that resulted in gambling to get a Rhine crossing in September in 1944, largely at the expense of opening up Antwerp. American historian Charles B. MacDonald called (in 1969) the failure to immediately take the Scheldt "One of the greatest tactical mistakes of the war."7 Because of the flawed strategic choices made by Montgomery and Eisenhower in early September the battle became one of the longest and bloodiest that the Canadian army faced over the course of the Second World War.

MacDonald's opinion contrasts with that of Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Britain during Operation Market Garden. In a telegram written on October 9, 1944, Churchill said that, "As regards Arnhem I think you have got the position a little out of focus. The battle was a decided victory. I have not been afflicted with any feeling of disappointment over this and am glad our commanders are capable of running this kind of risk."8

Battle components

From October 23-November 5, 1944, the U.S. 104th Infantry Division experienced its first battle while attached to the British I Corps. The division succeeded in pushing through the central portion of North Brabant (51°33′08″N 4°39′10″E / 51.552313°N 4.65271°E / 51.552313; 4.652719) against resistance from German snipers and artillery.

Importance of the campaign

At the end of the five-week offensive, the Canadian 1st Army had taken 41,043 German prisoners. After the first ship arrived on November 28, convoys started bringing a steady stream of supplies to the continent, which began to reenergize the stalled Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine. Germany recognized the importance of the Allies having a deep water port, so in an attempt to destroy it, or at least disrupt the flow of supplies, the German military fired more V-2 ballistic missiles at Antwerp than any other city. In fact, nearly half of the V-2s launched during the war were fired at Antwerp. The port of Antwerp was so strategically vital that, during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the primary German objectives was to retake the city and its port.

References

  1. ^ Veterans Affairs Canada. The Battle of the Scheldt. Retrieved on: August 30, 2008.
  2. ^ MacDonald, Charles B. (1990) [1963]. "Chapter IX:The Approaches of Antwerp". The Siegfried Line Campaign. United States Army Center of Military History. CMH pub 7-7-1. Retrieved February 5, 2007. 
  3. ^ Montgomery also bestowed the nickname "Water Rats" on the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, a play on the Desert Rats title the 7th Armoured Division had earned in the Western Desert. General Harry Crerar reportedly hated the term, though it was meant as a tribute to their success in amphibious operations in Normandy and the Scheldt. (Granatstein, Jack. The Generals: Canadian Senior Commanders in the Second World War.)
  4. ^ Williams, Jeffery (1988). The Long Left Flank. London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 0-85052-880-1. 
  5. ^ In the Shadow of Arnhem - Ken Tout - 2003
  6. ^ Copp, Terry. The Brigade: The 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade in the Second World War
  7. ^ Charles B. MacDonald, The Mighty Endeavor; American Armed Forces in the European Theater in World War II,) (New York, 1969)
  8. ^ Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, v6, p200.
  9. ^ "Google maps hybrid view of North Brabant". http://maps.google.com/. 2007. Retrieved February 5, 2007. 

Further reading

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