By September 1944, the Allied forces had finally broken out of Normandy, liberated Paris and were making their way towards the Rhine and Germany. On 4th September, British 11th Armoured Division had captured the key port of Antwerp in northern Belgium. The port, which was captured in full working order, was essential in relieving the current supply crisis and getting supplies quickly to the Allies across Europe.
While taking Antwerp was highly significant, it was connected to the Atlantic by the 30 mile long, German controlled, heavily defended and mined, (west) Scheldt Estuary. It was crucial that the estuary was cleared in order for any Allied supply ship to reach the port. The peninsula that made up the Scheldt Estuary consisted of three ‘islands’. South Beveland, North Beveland and the heavily fortified Walcheren Island, which formed part of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ defences. The land, made of up of canals, dykes, low-lying fields and areas of land recently flooded by the Germans, would prove a highly difficult landscape to fight in for both Allied and German soldiers.
The plan to clear the estuary had been placed on hold with the allies instead waiting for the success of General Montgomery’s ‘Operation Market Garden’ between 17th and 25th September. However, the operation failed or, at least according to Montgomery, was '90% successful'. The failure of the operation would prove disastrous for soldiers who would soon make an assault on the estuary as German forces, knowing it’s importance, retreated around 86,000 men, 6,000 vehicles and 600 guns to the Scheldt Estuary, following 'Market Garden'.
The task of the assault on the Scheldt was given to the First Canadian Army, under the command of Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, who had temporarily replaced General Henry Crerar.
First Canadian Army
2nd Canadian Infantry Division 3rd Canadian Infantry Division
4th Canadian Brigade 7th Canadian Brigade
5th Canadian Brigade 8th Canadian Brigade
6th Canadian Brigade 9th Canadian Brigade
4th Canadian Armoured Division British 52nd (Lowland) Division
4th Canadian Armoured Brigade 1st Polish Armoured Division
10th Canadian Brigade British Commandos
The difficulties that the Canadian forces would face in clearing the estuary were highly underestimated by the Allies and they would begin their assault with limited supplies (most of which had been focused on Market Garden) and it would only be around 16th October that serious focus by Montgomery was given to the capture of the Scheldt, following increased pressure from Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower and Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief Admiral Bertram Ramsay.
The plan of attack on the Scheldt consisted of four phases. First, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Div and 4th Canadian Armoured would move north from Antwerp to capture the towns of Woensdrecht and Bergen Op Zoom at the neck of the South Beveland Peninsula. This area was held by men of the German 346th, 711th and 719th Infantry divisions of the 15th Army.
The second phase involved the 3rd Canadian Infantry and 1st Polish Armoured clearing the South Bank of the Scheldt, known as the ‘Breskens Pocket’, held by 12,000 troops of the German 64th Infantry Division. The final two phases required the Canadian troops to advance up South Beveland, followed by a air, land and amphibious attack from both sides of the estuary, on Walcheren Island. The island was held by men of German 90th Division, many of whom had been previously considered medically unfit for service. The Calgary Highlanders war diary notes that intelligence reports found German forces on the island were,
'made up of low-grade Wehrmacht, ulcerated ex-garrison, general duty men.' (Calgary Highlanders war diary, Ref: RG 24-C-3 Vol: 15020)
Despite the reported stated of German soldiers, they were well aware of the importance of defending the estuary to the last and would put up ferocious resistance in order to prevent the Allies from making use of the the captured port.
Advance from Antwerp
On 2nd October, 2nd Canadian Infantry Div., followed by 4th Armoured, began their advance from Antwerp towards Woensdrecht and South Beveland. The first six days of the advance were successful with the Canadians managing to overcome German road blocks and attacks from assault guns. On 7th October, the Calgary Highlanders managed to capture the town of Hoogerheide after facing ‘stiff fighting’ and German mobile assault guns. The Canadians continued their push towards South Beveland but it was essential that they captured the town of Woensdrecht and its railway station. It was here, on Friday 13th October, that would become known as ‘Black Friday’, a fierce counter-attack by the Germans would result in the loss of 156 Canadians and many wounded and captured. On 16th October, the Royal Hamilton L. I and 10th Armoured Regiment renewed attacks on Woensdrecht. with heavy bombardment on German positions by the 4th Field Regiment R.C.A. One Canadian war diary noted the ‘slaughter was terrific’ but the Canadian forces were under constant pressure from the Germans. The Royal Hamilton L. I war Diary noted,
‘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 appear to suffer very heavy casualties from our Arty fire which was used unsparingly.’ (Royal Hamilton L.I war diary, Library and Archives Canada)
Between the 16th and 17th October there were 161 Canadian casualties, 21 of which were fatal. The town was finally controlled by the Canadians on 23rd October, allowing them to continue their advance towards South Beveland.
In the meantime, on the south of the Scheldt, Operation Switchback had been launched by the 3rd Canadian Division to clear the ‘Breskens Pocket’. In this area, the number of Germans had been highly underestimated by the Allies.
Their first major obstacle was the Leopold Canal where they came under heavy attack from German flame-throwers.
‘As the first bursts of flame shot across the water, the assault companies picked up the boats, clambered over the steep poplar lined bank and launched them. The flame did its work, temporarily demoralizing those of the enemy whom it did not kill.’ (Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume III. , p.393)
Those that crossed the canal managed to attack enemy positions and created a single bridgehead, which soon faced heavy focus and counter-attacks. The establishment of this bridgehead proved a fierce battle for the Canadians,
‘The ground was waterlogged; slit trenches rapidly filled with water, and except in the bank they could be only a foot or so in depth. With the whole area drenched with fire, which included heavy shells from coastal batteries’ ( Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume III. p.395)
Simultaneously to the west, a subsidiary amphibious assault was launched on the town of Hoofdplaat, across the Braakman inlet that linked to the Leopold Canal. Supported by RAF attacks, this assault was made using a new amphibious vehicle known as the Buffalo. These vehicles manned by the British 5th and 6th
Assault Regiments (Royal Engineers) and were carrying troops of 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade. The establishment of the bridgehead and the amphibious assault was a success and on 21st October, Allied forces began their attack on the main area of the Breskens Pocket. On the 3rd November, the Canadians finally took the pocket, including the port of Zeebrugge, and Lieutenant-General Kurt Eberding, commander of the German 64th Division and his troops surrendered. It is estimated that there were 2077 Canadian casualties in the pocket but the result of the assault meant the Canadians on the south bank could now prepare for an assault on Walcheren Island, across the estuary.
Between 24th and 31st October, while the Breskens Pocket was being cleared, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division had been commencing Operation Vitality. This tasked them with advancing along the South Beveland Peninsula, towards Walcheren Island, with the aim of cutting the Germans off. Conditions on the estuary were freezing and for much of the Canadian troops of the 2nd and 3rd Infantry divisions were fatigued and under immense mental strain, many having been in constant combat since Normandy. On South Beveland the Canadians would face men of the German 6th Parachute Regiment, many of whom were as fatigued as their enemy.
Allied aircraft had continued to bombard German position on the peninsula and in late October Allied radio interceptors had succeeded in locating the HQ of German 15th Army commander Gustav Von Zangen. The bombardment of which resulted in the killing of 74 German officers and leaving much of the remaining forces in chaos. The Canadians used this moment to attack South Beveland by heavily bombarding German positions before the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade began its night attack. Despite being under the cover of darkness there were heavy Canadian losses but by the end of the day they had succeed in breaching German defences and captured Rilland.
They now faced the major obstacle of the South Beveland Canal. General Simonds gave the task of an amphibious flanking attack on Hoedenskerke to the British 52nd (lowland) Division. The launch from Terneuzen across the estuary and would bypass the German defences on the canal and make them redundant. The landing was once again made using Buffalos, Terrapins and and amphibious Shermans. The assault was successful and a bridgehead was created at Hoedenskerke. The same day, Canadian troops attacked Germans along the canal and formed a bridgehead on the canal.
The war diary of the Calgary Highlanders noted on 31st October,
‘our objective had originally been to the West end of South Beveland but it was learned that was would be going over to Walcheren if possible.’ (Calgary Highlanders War Diary, Ref: RG24-C-3, Vol No:15020)
This final push towards Walcheren Island meant that the Canadians now had to face the 1200yard Walcheren Causeway that link the island to South Beveland. This was undertaken by men of The Black Watch, the Calgary Highlanders and the Régiment de Maisonneuve. The causeway was,
‘As straight as a gun-barrel and offered no cover except bomb-craters and some roadside slit trenches’ (Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume III. p.403)
and would prove a costly task for the Canadians. The Black Watch who made the fist attempt at crossing the causeway
‘Met extremely heavy fire from artillery, mortars and machine-guns and suffered many casualties.’ (Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume III. p.404)
The following attempts made on the causeway were similarly met with heavy attacks from the Germans, After fierce attacks, on 2nd November men of the Regiment de Maisonneuve and a platoon of the 7th Field Company R.C.E.
cleared and captured the causeway. Soon a bridgehead had been established and the final German troops had been cleared from South Beveland. The remaining Germans were now isolated on Walcheren Island.
While the assault on the causeway was taking place, so too were preparations from a land, sea and air attack on Walcheren Island, in the final phase to clear the estuary. The key points for the assault would be Flushing (Vlissingen) on the west of the estuary and the heavily fortified Westkapelle on the western end of the island. The whole of western end formed part of the Atlantic Wall defences and here,
‘Guns ranged up to 22-cm. (8..7-inch) in the battery (W 17) just west of Domburg, but those which proved most formidable were W 15, immediately north of Westkapelle (mounting four 3.7-inch British anti-aircraft guns), W 13, on the dunes south-east of Westkapelle (four 15-cm. or 5.9-inch guns) and—less dangerous at Westkapelle because of its distance from the assault area—W 11, about two and a half miles west of Flushing (four 5.9-inch guns).’ (Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume III. p.407)
The RAF (No 84 Group) had been providing support for troops in the estuary since operations had begun in October and
‘From 17 September through 30 October, Bomber Command had flown 2219 sorties against Walcheren and dropped 10,219 tons of bombs’ (Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume III. p.411).
On 1st November, at 4.40am the attack on Flushing (Op Infatuate I) began with No. 4 Commando, shortly followed by 155th Infantry Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division, heading across the estuary, from the Breskens Pocket. Despite being aided by air strikes and an artillery barrage, they came under attack soon after landing and close house to house fighting ensued. Flushing finally be could be captured on 3rd November and 600 Germans surrendered. A bridgehead was soon established and the 155th began their advance across the dykes, capturing the island's main town of Middleburg, by amphibious assault, on 6th November.
The second phase of the assault on Walcheren (Op Infatuate II) involved the landing of 4th Special Brigade on Westkapelle. Warship Warspite and monitors Roberts and Erebus had begun bombarding German gun batteries on 31st November. The naval vessels came under fierce attack from the German gun batteries. The fortified dykes at the western end of the island were breached by the Allied aerial bombardment and the area was quickly flooded. As a result, shortly after 10am, men of No. 41 Commando reached the island in LCTs, closely followed by No. 48 Commando. By 12pm they had taken Westkapelle. Eight days after fighting on the island began, German troops began to surrender and the Scheldt estuary had been taken out of German control.
The Opening of Antwerp
The Scheldt Estuary was finally cleared of German forces on 7th November after 5 weeks of heavy fighting. The Allied underestimation of German troop numbers, lack of supplies in the initial phases of the operation and the terrain of the estuary, had cost the Allied forces 12,000 men. Once the land had been captured Royal Navy mine sweepers entered the estuary and cleared the way for ships to the port of Antwerp. On the 28th November the first supply ship arrived in the port. It was a Canadian ship named Fort Cataraqui.
On 3rd November, Field-Marshal Montgomery wrote to General Simonds,
'I want to express to you personally and to all commanders and troops in the Canadian Army, my admiration for the way in which you have all carried out the very difficult task given to you. The operations were conducted under the most appalling conditions of ground-and water-and the advantage in these respects favoured the enemy. But in spite of great difficulties you slowly and relentlessly wore down the enemy resistance, drove him back, and captured great numbers of prisoners. It has been a fine performance, and one that could have been carried out only by first class troops. The Canadian Army is composed of troops from many different nations and countries. But the way in which you have all pulled together, and operated as one fighting machine, has been an inspiration to us all. ' (Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume III, p.425)
The success of the Canadians, plus Polish and British forces, on the Scheldt Estuary highly impacted the push forward by the Allies towards Germany, preventing a further supply crisis. In December, Hitler would begin the Ardennes Offensive in order to split the Allied Forces and re-take the port of Antwerp but the port and its ability to supply the Allied front meant that the German forces were pushed back.