The words Luctor et Emergo, which translate into I struggle and I emerge, were emblazoned on the crest of Zeeland long before World War II began. Much of Zeeland, the southernmost province of the Netherlands, is below sea level and the land must be protected by dikes and elaborate drainage schemes. The phrase “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland” may not be true of the whole country, but it certainly applies in Zeeland.
When the Germans occupied Holland and began construction of the Atlantic Wall they concentrated their efforts in Zeeland and particularly on Walcheren Island. By 1943, 11 major gun batteries dotted the island. Designed to resist an assault landing, the batteries controlled the approaches to the Scheldt Estuary and to Antwerp, Belgium, and protected radar stations, anti-aircraft gun emplacements and various strongpoints. Many of the large-calibre guns could traverse 360 degrees as 3rd Division would discover while fighting to liberate the Breskens Pocket.
Today, land reclamation has made Walcheren Island part of the South Beveland peninsula, but in 1944 it was joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway just wide enough for a railway line and a road. The island itself resembled a saucer with a rim of massive 60-foot dikes to hold back the sea. Walcheren appeared to be such a formidable obstacle that Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, the acting commander of 1st Canadian Army, proposed to “break the dikes and flood all parts of the island below high water level.”
This–together with constant bombing of the surviving gun batteries–would, he believed, destroy the morale of the garrison and permit limited airborne and seaborne forces “to mop up and take the surrender.”
The final decision was General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s and after discussions with Churchill and the Netherlands’ government-in-exile, the supreme Allied commander gave the OK. Leaflets were dropped urging the population to evacuate the island and on Oct. 3, 1944, Bomber Command blew a huge hole in the dike at Westkappele. Two other breaches were made and salt water surged in to cover most of Walcheren.
While the flooding isolated the German garrisons, it left the gun positions on the dikes intact. Airborne commanders wanted nothing to do with operations in such terrain so 1st Cdn. Army began to plan an amphibious assault with its own limited resources. Fortunately, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Eisenhower’s naval chief, intervened insisting on a properly coordinated joint plan involving Royal Marine commandos, a Royal Navy amphibious landing force, plus His Majesty’s Ship Warspite and two monitor ships to provide fire support.
Ramsay believed that operations to open the port of Antwerp should have top priority and he sharply criticized Montgomery for failing to “give the Canadians sufficient support.” Montgomery, who still believed that his armies could reach the Ruhr area without Antwerp, refused to return the divisions he had borrowed from Simonds. Instead, he agreed to allow 52nd Lowland Division, the British Army’s only remaining reserve formation, to be used for Operation Infatuate, the capture of Walcheren. He also accepted Eisenhower’s offer of an American formation, the 104th Timberwolf Div. to strengthen 1st Cdn. Army.
Neither division could arrive in time to clear the land approaches to Walcheren so 2nd Div., still engaged at Woensdrecht, was committed to operations in Beveland. The amphibious assault, dependent on tidal conditions, was scheduled for Nov. 1. This left 2nd Div. just eight days to break the German hold on Woensdrecht and advance to Walcheren.
On Oct. 22, the acting corps commander arrived at 2nd Div. headquarters to meet with brigade and battalion commanders. For security reasons General Charles Foulkes could not explain the reasoning behind the new orders, insisting that “a large scale appreciation had been made and all risks…were understood.” There was to be no waiting for 4th Div. to outflank the enemy, the advance into the South Beveland peninsula must begin “before the last hour on 23rd October.”
Fifth Brigade was again given the task of capturing the railway dike which controlled access to Beveland. The Calgary Highlanders, under their new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ross Ellis, fought a difficult battle for the objectives which were not secured until the 24th when pressure from 4th Div. forced an enemy withdrawal.
While 5th Bde. fought its way north, the rest of the division launched Operation Vitality I. In the early hours of a rainy, “pitch-bleak” morning, two mixed columns of armour–from the 10th Armoured Regiment and 8th Reconnaissance Regt.–and infantry from the Essex Scottish–in armoured vehicles–set out for the Beveland Canal. Progress was slow and the armoured thrust ended when three reconnaissance cars and three tanks were knocked out. The next day, a conventional infantry attack with the artillery pouring fire on two crossroads brought complete success.
That night, Operation Vitality II, an amphibious assault across the Scheldt, carried out by a brigade of the 52nd Lowland Scottish Div., forced the enemy to abandon its new defensive line at the Beveland Canal before conducting a hasty retreat to Walcheren. The Scots, their advance slowed by mud, mines and the natural caution of green troops, failed to prevent the exodus.
The Canadians found their new partners more than a little strange. An officer of the Royal Regt. of Canada left an account of his first meeting with the Scots which has become a classic Canadian military anecdote: “In the early hours of the 29th, I was out with a unit of carriers, maintaining a standing patrol on the left flank of the battalion. In order to complete our patrol we utilized some Dutch bicycles to patrol down a dike to the bank of the West Scheldt. All our men were desperately tired and in a filthy, wet, muddy condition. On our way we were terribly surprised to find a party of what were obviously Allied troops landing in a small boat. Then forth from the boat onto the shore stepped what seemed to me to be the finest soldier I had ever seen in my life, a fine figure of a Scottish gentleman, carrying the shepherd’s crook, affected by some senior Scottish officers in place of a cane or swagger stick. He had a small pack neatly adjusted on his back. I had absolutely no idea where mine was and couldn’t care less. His gas cape was neatly rolled. I had mine stuck in my breast pocket. He was a colonel and I was a captain. His boots were neatly polished and I was wearing turned-down rubber boots. I did manage to salute, although I think it must have been haphazard. He politely enquired if we were Canadians. Although who else could have looked as we did? I assured him we were. He asked if I could direct him to battalion headquarters. I did better than that. I escorted him to battalion headquarters. I was taking no chances on losing such a beautiful specimen to the German army.”
Canadian operations to clear Beveland were carried out swiftly and efficiently. However, with just 36 hours to go before the start of the hazardous commando landings at Westkappele and Flushing, the Scots, who were supposed to attack the island from Beveland, were not in position. Simonds needed immediate action. Fourth Bde. was told to seize enemy positions at the eastern end of the causeway while 5th Bde. prepared to capture a bridgehead on the island which would then be turned over to the Scots.
While the Calgaries rehearsed an assault crossing using storm boats, the Black Watch mounted a probing attack along the straight causeway. The enemy reacted with intense fire, including shells which “raised water 200 feet high when they fell short.” The Black Watch withdrew and dug in. Engineers, sent to reconnoitre the crossing routes, reported there was not enough water for assault boats to operate–even at high tide. The mud flats were impassable to tracked landing vehicles. If there was to be an operation designed to divert attention away from the main attack it would have to be via the causeway.
Every November the Calgary Highlanders commemorate Walcheren day, paying tribute to men who accomplished the impossible. The first Calgary attack faltered when it became clear that the enemy had moved men out onto the causeway. The battalion withdrew until 5th Field Regt. was ready with a new fire plan that employed two regiments on a frontage of just 750 yards.
The barrage was designed to sweep the causeway, lifting 50 yards every two minutes. As dawn broke on Nov. 1, the Calgaries advanced behind the barrage and got three companies into position on the island. The enemy’s reaction was exactly what Simonds had been hoping for–intense counterattacks on the Canadian bridgehead just as the commando landings got under way.
The Calgaries now began to pay the price of their success. Heavy shelling and a series of counterattacks forced the contraction of the bridgehead until Baker Company was forced back to the edge of the causeway. Able Company lost all of its officers. Ellis, who had returned from the bridgehead, walked back across the causeway with two volunteers, the spare forward observation officer, Captain Walter Newman, and the brigade major, George Hees, who had volunteered to take over the company. Hees, who is so well remembered as a politician and minister of Veterans Affairs, was wounded in this action.
Ellis, “freshly shaved, neatly dressed and apparently calm and good humoured,” checked all the forward positions and then “slowly walked back down the causeway talking to the men dug in there.” At brigade headquarters he reported that the position could be held but a new major effort was required if any further advance was needed.
The commando landings, though costly in men’s lives, were going well and the Scots were ready to take over operations the next morning. Fifth Bde. was told to organize a further attack designed to ensure that the bridgehead was secure before handing over. The task was given to Le Régiment de Maisonneuve which employed two of its three understrength companies. At 0400 hours on Nov. 2, the Maisies began their advance across the causeway but were held up when the Scottish artillery barrage began 300 yards short, pummelling the Calgary positions. The acting divisional commander, Major-General Holly Keefler, had now had enough. He ordered the Maisies to dig in where they were and let the Scottish division plan and coordinate its own operation. One company of the Maisonneuve did not receive the halt order and continued onto the island.
The Maisonneuve force consisted of about 40 men, including six volunteers from the Belgium White Bde. who had been with the battalion since September. Lieutenant Charles Forbes, heading 18 Platoon, and Lieut. D.G. Innes, a forward observation officer with 5th Field Regt., maintained contact with the men, calling down defensive fire. Rocket-firing Typhoons were also in action, but it was the efforts of individuals, such as Private J. C. Carrière, who took out a 20-mm gun with a Projector Infantry Anti-Tank, PIAT, gun, that epitomized the day’s brave and heroic deeds.
Carrière, a signaller, volunteered to stalk the gun. After crawling 400 yards along a shallow ditch, partly filled with water, “he reached a point from which he could bring fire to bear from his PIAT.” Carrière was wounded, but he managed to knock the gun out and return to his comrades.
While the Maisonneuve fought their isolated battle, the Scottish engineers found a way onto the island through the mud flats. Infantry, moving slowly in single file, began to establish a second bridgehead and within 24 hours had outflanked the enemy. This forced a rapid enemy retreat. By then, 5th Bde. was on its way to Belgium for a long overdue rest. The causeway had cost the Calgaries 17 killed and 46 wounded. The Maisonneuve, with their companies of less than 60 men, had just one fatality and 10 wounded.
The battle for the causeway was not the ill-conceived disaster that it is so often portrayed as. Simonds’ orders to mount an attack and maintain pressure on the enemy were a necessary part of the overall plan to capture Walcheren Island. The operation itself was carried out with considerable skill and relatively small losses. If the Scottish Bde. had been ready to take advantage of the successful Calgary assault on the morning of Nov. 1, a large bridgehead could have been established. The 52nd Div. would play a significant part in the battles of 1945, but in October 1944 its performance was not impressive.
Inexperience and caution meant that 2nd Div. was forced to provide the necessary diversion for the commando landings. Much had been asked of the Canadians and Montgomery belatedly recognized this. He wrote to Simonds: “I think everything you are doing is excellent, and your troops are doing wonders under the most appalling conditions of ground and weather. I doubt if any other troops would do it as well and I am very glad the Canadians are on the business. Please tell your chaps how pleased I am with their good work.”
With the battle for Walcheren over, the islanders and their liberators had to deal with the broken dikes and flooded farms. At first the authorities tried to evacuate the entire population. However, many refused to leave despite the danger of disease and the extensive minefields. The gaps in the dikes were temporarily closed with stone, rubble and brushwood and pumps were used to drain the island. Phoenix caissons from the Mulberry harbours in Normandy were brought north the next spring and used to seal the breaches. Walcheren once more emerged from the sea.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on November 1st 2001.