The battle to clear the Scheldt estuary and allow full use of the port of Antwerp in Belgium has long been recognized as one of the most important chapters in Canadian military history. Antwerp, the second largest port in Europe, was captured by the Allies on Sept. 5, 1944, when 11th British Armoured Division arrived to find the city virtually abandoned by the Germans and under the control of the Belgian resistance.
Antwerp was, however, 50 miles from the North Sea and as Admiral Bertram Ramsay, the naval commander-in-chief, pointed out, occupying the port was of no value until the coastal batteries at the mouth of the estuary were captured.
Montgomery, preoccupied with plans to use the 1st Airborne Army to support his “single thrust” across the River Rhine, decided that the Scheldt estuary could wait. On Sept. 6, he told Canadian General Harry Crerar: “I want Boulogne.” With one good port on the English Channel and with additional transport from grounded divisions and increased airlift, Montgomery believed he could sustain his drive into Germany. Many historians, including Nigel Hamilton, Montgomery’s biographer, insist this was the Field Marshal’s greatest mistake for it allowed Germany’s 15th Army to escape across the Scheldt and join the forces defending Germany. Historians have also pointed out that this mistake allowed the enemy time to build up the Scheldt defences.
As usual, hindsight plays a large role in this analysis. Those who argued that Montgomery should have ordered his corps to advance beyond Antwerp to seal off the Beveland Peninsula—the exit route for 15th Army—have failed to explain how this would have helped open the port of Antwerp. If the 82,000 men who escaped had been trapped and then used to reinforce the 20,000 German troops left behind to defend Walcheren Island and the south shore of the estuary, known to Canadians as the Breskens Pocket, the approaches to Antwerp might have remained in German hands until the end of the war.
Montgomery believed that Operation Market Garden might bring about victory in 1944 and so in his mind the risks were worth taking. Market Garden, which was launched on Sept. 17, was designed to outflank the German defensive line known as the West Wall, by establishing a bridgehead across the lower Rhine at the Dutch town of Arnhem.
Priority for Arnhem and the Channel Ports meant that the resources to begin operations to clear the Scheldt would not be available until 3rd Canadian Div. completed the capture of Boulogne and Calais in France. In the meantime, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, who assumed command of 1st Cdn. Army while Crerar was in hospital, did all he could to prepare the way. Simonds planned to use 3rd Cdn. Div. to capture the Breskens Pocket. While that operation was under way, 2nd Cdn. Infantry Div. would move north from Antwerp and fight its way to Walcheren Island.
The assault on the island was to be the responsibility of the 4th Special Service Brigade, made up of 41 and 47 Royal Marine commandos and a large Royal Navy task force supported by Her Majesty’s Ship Warspite and the RN monitors Erebus and Roberts.
Much of Walcheren was below sea level and the islanders depended upon massive coastal dikes to keep out the North Sea. Simonds decided that an amphibious landing at the base of a 60-foot-high dike was not a good idea and asked Bomber Command to blast a breech in the seawall to flood the island, isolate the enemy and create a landing area for the commandos. Bomber Command and the Dutch government in exile were reluctant, but Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted Simonds reasoning and decided it was a necessity.
On Oct. 2, the civilian population was warned by radio and by leaflets dropped from aircraft. The next day, eight waves of Lancaster bombers attacked the dike at Westkapelle with great effect. A large gap was blown in the dike and the hole was quickly widened by wave action. No aircraft were lost. Four days later a second major gap was created in the dike near the town of Flushing on the south side of the island. That action spread sea water over 80 per cent of the island.
Before any attack on Walcheren could be mounted, the Canadians needed to capture the Breskens Pocket. The coastal batteries on the south side of the Scheldt estuary could fire on the approaches to Walcheren and the RN adamantly refused to double the risk confronting its ships and landing craft.
Simonds knew that the German 64th Inf. Div. had placed its three regiments along the Leopold Canal and had created elaborate defences in the sectors not flooded. A frontal attack was bound to yield slow results and incur high casualties and so Simonds planned to use a regiment of tracked amphibious vehicles known as Buffaloes. Each Buffalo could carry 30 men and enter and leave the water through mud flats and most dike slopes.
Operation Switchback called for 9th Bde. to assault the Breskens Pocket through the back door. The Buffaloes would enter the water at Terneuzen, which had been captured by the Polish, and then land the brigade on the lightly defended northeast coast near the Dutch town of Hoofdplaat. But for this to work, the enemy’s attention had to remain focused on the Leopold Canal. So, another brigade was ordered to carry out a frontal attack near the main Breskens road, more or less where the enemy expected it.
Simonds, acting corps commander Gen. Charles Foulkes and the divisional commander Major-General Dan Spry knew that 7th Bde. was selected for the Leopold crossing and that it would have a rough 48 hours because the Germans were bound to counterattack. But, if it could hold out and draw enemy reserves, the landings on the northeast coast would meet little resistance and quickly relieve the pressure on 7th Bde.
Switchback was a very risky operation. To succeed it would require surprise, extraordinary courage and maximum fire support from the artillery and air force. Overcast skies in a rainy October were bound to limit the tactical air force. This meant that the gunners had to be especially creative.
Brigadier Stanley Todd, artillery commander of the 3rd Cdn. Div., devised a brilliantly conceived plan to support the infantry. Two medium artillery groups would be available. One would fire north from positions near Bruges, Belgium, and the other would fire west from Terneuzen. The field artillery from 3rd and 4th divisions were also placed to support both brigades. All the guns were under Todd’s control. The usual counterbattery—defensive fire and harassing fire tasks—were laid on, but in addition to that Todd refined an on-call system he had used at Boulogne and Calais of linear and pinpoint concentrations known as stonks and concs. For 7th Bde.’s assault over the Leopold Canal, Todd and his staff selected no less than 46 targets. The largest, code-named Colorado, brought down eight minutes of fire on positions around a single village.
At a brigade orders group, Todd explained that the artillery tasks would be completely under the control of the infantry. “It is quite in order for example to call for Colorado Twice which would result in the enemy positions being fired on for 16 minutes.” The infantry were to have neutralizing fire when they wanted it and as often as they needed it.
The air plan for Switchback employed the full resources of 84 Group, Second Tactical Air Force. The group’s story is largely untold. In contrast to 83 Group, which was made up of Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force squadrons in equal numbers, 84 Group included British, Polish, Norwegian, French and Czech fighter wings. Canadian historians generally ignore 84 Group because there were no RCAF squadrons while British historians show little interest in an organization that supported 1st Cdn. Army.
Canadian historian Michael Bechthold, who has studied 84 Group’s operations in the Scheldt, calculates that 1,653 sorties were flown in support of Operation Switchback despite weather that forced cancellation of air support on 12 out of 27 days. Even when flying was possible, the low clouds restricted operations and pilots had to be especially careful to identify their targets correctly. Operational research reports on the air force role in the battle indicate that while few enemy targets were destroyed, the mere presence of aircraft caused the German artillery and infantry to stop firing and take cover. And as always, air attacks lowered the enemy’s morale while raising the spirits of the Canadian foot soldier.
While conducting battlefield tours of the Scheldt, I always start analysis of the events while standing on top of a large pillbox that dominates the northern bank of the canal. It is also possible to walk the triangle of land, fringed by trees, which in 1944 was the only area not flooded. To cross a 60-foot canal under fire only to end up in a narrow confined area ringed by an enemy that outnumbers you, and has had a month to prepare his defences, is not an inviting prospect especially when air photo interpreters had identified scores of enemy positions along the canal.
Staff at 3rd Div. headquarters prepared a plan that would involve Wasp flamethrowers in support of the attack. Experiments demonstrated that when the reverse slope of the dike was used to angle the Wasp, the flame could reach the other side of the canal. Spry decided to use this method instead of an artillery barrage in the hope of achieving both suppression and tactical surprise. He also approved the use of a sound effects troop that was to simulate the noise of bridge building and troop movement at a potential crossing point well to the east of the real objective. Those who witnessed the trials of the flamethrowers were impressed and there was some hope that the shock effect would stun the enemy during the early stages of the attack.
Lieutenant-Colonel Matt Matheson’s Regina Rifles drew the heavily defended sector near the Breskens road. To make the crossing, Matheson selected his own Able Company and a company of the Royal Montreal Regiment that had joined the battalion in September. The Royal Montreal Regt., serving as Headquarters Defence Company at 1st Cdn. Army, had lobbied hard for a chance to serve with a front-line regiment. Matheson had supervised them closely during the fighting at Calais and was impressed with their spirits and determination. On the morning of Oct. 6, 1944, they would need all of that determination and more.
At 5:25 a.m. the silence and darkness was broken by the roar of the flamethrowers that turned night into day. For a full five minutes the north bank was scorched and fires were still burning by the time the boats hit the water. The fires, and German flares, lit up the sky. This made it easier for enemy machine-gunners to pick out targets. One platoon of the Royal Montreal Regt. was destroyed when a “cone of fire” struck the boats. The other platoon crossed unscathed, scrambled up the bank and began to work its way westward towards the road. The commanding officer, Captain Robert Schwob, and a handful of men, including the artillery forward observation officer, clung to the north bank of the canal. They fought off a heavy counterattack and tried desperately to identify targets for the gunners. The balance of the Royal Montreal Regt. company was soon killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
Able Company of the Regina Rifles was on the right flank. It had run into concentrated fire that made crossing the canal impossible. Matheson ordered Dog Company to take over and deal with the pillbox. Bombs from a projector infantry anti-tank gun forced the enemy to cease fire and D Company was able to cross and secure the area. There were only 13 Royal Montreal Regt. soldiers still in action and so they were merged with the Regina company whose own strength was now little more than 20.
The assault had gone much better for the Canadian Scottish Regt. The enemy defences in the narrow end of the triangle that led nowhere were much less formidable and the crossing was made without initial opposition. The assault companies attacked the village of Moershoofd, while the engineers got a foot bridge built. Soon the Canadian Scottish companies were across, but attempts to move west towards Oosthoek and the Breskens road were stopped by heavy fire. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles tried to link up with the Reginas, but the volume of enemy fire made movement almost impossible.
The one positive feature of this dreadful ordeal was that the enemy behaved in accordance with its doctrine and continued to counterattack with local and divisional reserves. Todd’s artillery fired repeatedly and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy who remained blissfully unaware of the threat to their rear. The war diary of the Canadian Scottish Regt. offers the picture of life on the north bank of the Leopold: “Water and soil make mud. Mud sticks to everything. Boots weigh pounds more. Rifles and Brens operate sluggishly. Ammunition becomes wet. Slit trenches allow one to get below the ground, but also contain several inches of thick water. Matches and cigarettes are unusable. So almost everyone looks for a house. A good house is one which only has a few holes in the walls and not more than half the roof dismantled. These are hard to find after our arty (artillery) has lifted its range and after the enemy arty has found its range. So the soldier shakes his head, cleans his rifle, swears a good deal and dreams of what he’ll do when he gets leave….”
The war diary of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles describes that unit’s valiant struggle to reach the Reginas: “Heavy casualties were suffered by both sides and the ground was littered with both German and Royal Winnipeg dead…. Prolonged exposure to wet and cold still had to be endured in flooded slit trenches or smashed buildings as usually bold enemy snipers and machine-gunners …succeeded in infiltrating between companies…. Few of those lived to tell their story as the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were no less aggressive. Ammunition, cold rations and casualties had to be carried for more than a mile.”
The men of 7th Bde. could do little more than endure and wait for the 9th Bde. landings. Unfortunately the flotilla of Buffaloes navigating the Terneuzen canal had become stuck. Despite the best efforts of the engineers, who cut ramps in the canal bank to allow the Buffaloes to bypass the obstacle, H-hour—the hour at which an operation is scheduled to begin—had to be delayed until 2 a.m. on Oct. 9. By then it was almost too late for 7th Bde. which came out of action Oct. 12 after suffering 533 men killed and wounded and close to 200 cases of battle exhaustion. The value of their sacrifice in unlocking the defences of the Breskens Pocket is to be measured by the success of 9th Bde.’s assault which we will consider in the next article in this series.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on January 1st 2001.