On Nov. 2, 2001 a large delegation of Canadians as well as many Dutch citizens gathered at the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery for the long-delayed funerals of Charles Joseph Beaudry and George Robert Barritt. Both men, privates in the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, had been reported “missing, presumed dead” in January 1945 during the battle for Kapelsche Veer. Their bodies and that of Private Victor Howey, uncovered the year before, had been found by Dutch engineers clearing mines and other explosives from a long, flat, diked island in the River Maas (Side By Side They Rest, January/ February).
The remains of a large number of German soldiers had also been discovered, but in Canada attention was understandably focused on the young men who had volunteered to serve their country in the campaign to liberate Europe. News coverage of the event included commentary on the battle for Kapelsche Veer and fortunately journalists were able to rely on a recently published account of the action written by Donald Graves and published as part of his book, Fighting For Canada: Seven Battles, 17581945. Graves, and the journalists who described the battle, raised questions about the decision to attack the island as well as the plans for the operation.
Canadians, long used to hearing more about defeat than victory, were now told about a successful action which may not have been worth the costs.
Canadians first heard the name Kapelsche Veer in February 1945 when newspapers carried stories describing the five-day battle to clear the enemy from its last bridgehead south of the Maas. During the previous months the news had been about Hitler’s Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Allied counter-attacks that forced the enemy back to his start-line. Newspapers had also provided accounts of German offensives as well as reports on British operations, but it seemed—to ever sensitive Canadians—as if their army was on the sidelines.
The frontline soldiers saw it somewhat differently. It was true that during their “winter on the Maas” battalions were regularly rotated out of the line and action was largely limited to patrols, but in the damp cold of a Dutch winter the prospect of endless patrols was enough to demoralize even the bravest.
Conflict between senior commanders and the men who have to implement their orders is common in all armies and the Canadians were no exception. Such tension was particularly evident in 4th Canadian Armoured Division where Major-General Chris Vokes, who described himself as a “great rough red hairy bastard,” had taken command in December 1944. Vokes, a veteran of the Italian campaign, was determined to impress his personality and ideas on the division, telling his officers that he was “heartily sick of” hearing about their exploits at “Buggeroff-Zoom, Sphitzen-on-the Floor and other places.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Stewart of the Argylls was so incensed with Vokes’ attitude and the constant demands for patrols that he wrote to Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, stating he had no confidence in his divisional commander. On Jan. 25, the day before the battle for Kapelsche Veer began, Stewart, who had criticized the whole concept of the operation, was ordered to report to the neuropsychiatric wing of No. 10 Canadian General Hospital to be examined for battle exhaustion. Among the symptoms Stewart was alleged to have was “undue concern for his men.” In my view, Stewart did not have battle exhaustion because he did not display any of the major symptoms.
The human costs of the prolonged winter war were considerable when measured in men’s lives. During November 1944 the Canadians in Northwest Europe suffered 277 fatal casualties. December brought 229 more and in the first 25 days of January, before the battle for Kapelsche Veer began, 164 of our young men died while defending a static front on the western flank of the Allied armies.
The 63 fatal casualties suffered in the last week of January were a dreadful price to pay for a windswept island in the River Maas, but so was the loss of every soldier involved in the war Hitler and his Nazi supporters had inflicted upon the world.
The winter war and the battle for Kapelsche Veer were forgotten, except by those who fought there, until Geoffrey Hayes wrote a new history of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment in 1986. Hayes had first learned about the events from his uncle, Major Jim Swayze, who commanded the battalion in January 1945. Interviews with other surviving Lincs revealed that men still talked about Kapelsche Veer as a “dividing point” in the regiment’s history. There was a clear perception, Hayes wrote, that something important happened there and many veterans used the words “before” or “after” Kapelsche Veer in telling their story. The Lincoln and Welland veterans believed that their worst enemy at Kapelsche Veer was not the tenacious German paratroopers or the weather but their own senior officers who committed them to a battle that could only be won at a price no combat soldier thought worth paying.
Is this a fair assessment of Kapelsche Veer and of the senior commanders? Lieutenant-General Sir John Crocker’s 1st British Corps was responsible for a 60-mile front along the River Maas which he was to defend with two armoured divisions and the armoured cars of the Manitoba Dragoons. Intelligence reports suggested the need to prepare for airborne landings behind the lines as well as attacks across the Maas. The German bridgehead at Kapelsche Veer, which had been fortified in late December in preparation for a major attack, was too obvious a threat to be ignored and Crocker decided to do something about it.
The Poles tried to seize the island on the last day of 1944, but were forced to withdraw due to heavy fire from the north bank of the river. A week later a Polish infantry battalion actually captured the small harbour but could not overcome the resistance of enemy paratroops dug-in along the dike.
Crocker continued to insist that the bridgehead at Kapelsche Veer must be eliminated. On Jan. 13, the 47 Royal Marine Commando unit launched a third assault on the island attacking both flanks. This attempt, using lightly armed elite troops in a night attack, failed when the enemy, confident that their troops were safe underground, brought extremely heavy mortar fire down on their own positions causing heavy casualties among the Royal Marines.
Crocker now had two choices, he could abandon further attempts to capture the position and simply mask the island or he could order a much more elaborate attack. He chose the second option and issued new orders. “The enemy,” he stated, “must be eliminated and the task will be undertaken by 4th Cdn. Armd Div.”
D-Day was to be “as soon as practicable” but “speed was less important” than careful preparations. Crocker also suggested that some new element be introduced into the plan “so that surprise can still be achieved.” All of the resources of 1st Cdn. Army, including air support and the specialized armour of 79th Armd. Div., was available to the division.
These orders left little room for debate and there is no contemporary evidence that anyone tried to argue against a new attack. The plan for Operation Elephant called for a smokescreen to limit the impact of observed fire from the north bank of the river and assumed that a 60-man “canoe commando” could use the smoke to cover their approach to the harbour on the north side of the island. Smokescreens were notoriously difficult to fine-tune for tactical purposes and the decision to base the operation on the success of this device was very risky. Asking men in vulnerable canoes to paddle down a river within easy reach of an enemy on both banks was simply reckless. The attack was to “be made from three directions simultaneously” with no mortar or artillery support and no smoke, other than for deception, until H-Hour. Hindsight is not required to criticize the plan.
By 1945 the Canadians along with their allies knew from experience how to fight and defeat their enemy. The method sometimes described as “bite and hold” involved carefully planned fire and movement with the artillery providing the main means of neutralizing the enemy while the infantry and, if possible, armour moved forward by bounds, consolidating at each phase. This was slow, unspectacular work and some generals, anxious to demonstrate their skill at manoeuvre warfare, preferred to short circuit the process with complex plans like the one Vokes outlined for Operation Elephant. Such plans failed to account for the “friction of war” or for the rule that if something can go wrong it will go wrong.
The emphasis on achieving surprise prevented the Lincs from carrying out a recce of the area until the day before the attack and the companies only moved to their forming up places on the evening of Jan. 25. Outfitted in white snowsuits, the men waited in the cold for morning. H-Hour was 7:25 a.m. and the four groups were on the move and ready to cross their start-lines on time. On the right flank both companies got onto the island but were delayed when their Wasp flamethrowers bogged down while trying to climb the dike. The first attempt to rush the main defenses failed because of well-positioned machine-gun and mortar fire from the north bank of the river.
Neither the smoke shells fired by the artillery nor the smoke generated by 803 Pioneer Smoke Company effectively screened the island. The failure of the smokescreen also jeopardized the “canoe commandos” who were forced into the centre of the river by ice conditions close to the bank. With two kilometres still to go and losses from enemy machine-guns mounting, Captain R.F. Dickie ordered his men to abandon their quixotic venture and join the companies on shore.
The enemy was not content with a defensive success and so shortly before 10 a.m. it launched the first of several counter-attacks. There was no choice for the Lincs except to withdraw and by 11:30 a.m. the survivors were evacuated from the eastern end of the island leaving Major Ed Brady’s B Company, which was well to the west, as the only Canadians on Kapelsche Veer. It was now up to Vokes and Brigadier J.C. Jefferson to decide upon a new course of action. They chose to reinforce the bridgehead on the island with tanks from the South Alberta Regt. and order the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada to attempt a new approach working up gradually from the east. By 10 p.m. an Argyll company, “supported by two South Alberta Regt. tanks,” were dug-in on the island, relying on the rum-ration to get them through a cold, windy night.
The next day the Lincs and Argylls worked their way forward closing the arms of the pincers on the enemy strongpoint. The intricate system of underground tunnels and gun positions cut into the sides of the dikes continued to frustrate the Canadians but the lessons of the first disastrous day were not forgotten and no unnecessary risks were taken. The tanks of the South Alberta Regt. provided invaluable support in closing with the enemy. The Argylls’ war diary, written by then Lieutenant Claude Bissell, later a distinguished scholar and President of the University of Toronto, records the action of one tank “which moved right onto Raspberry—the code name for the objective—despite the fact that the tank commander did not expect to be able to get the tank out again.”
Throughout the final three days, the battle for Kapelsche Veer became a contest of wills. If Crocker’s decision to attack the island is to be questioned then what of the 6th Parachute Division’s determination to hold a position of little strategic or operational value? The German attempts to continuously reinforce their garrison and to mount counter-attacks simply made no sense. Allied artillery, using air bursts, inflicted enormous casualties on the enemy especially during efforts to cross the river. As late as the evening of Jan. 30, artillery fire smashed several crossings and inflicted many casualties. This proved to be the enemy’s last gasp and on the night of Jan. 30-31 the paratroopers who were still alive abandoned the island.
Crocker ordered a “post-mortem” on the operation so that “any lessons discovered in the actions could be communicated to others faced with a similar problem.” Both Jefferson and Vokes reported that a more careful approach “consolidating as one goes is a definite lesson” and advocated “attacks with limited objectives…repeated until the assault position was reached,” the doctrine which had been taught at battle schools since early 1943.
There is one other lesson that those who comment on the battle might wish to consider. Historians often assume that when things go wrong some alternate course of action would naturally have worked better. There is a good case to be made for a different operational plan for Kapelsche Veer, but can we be certain the idea of seizing the island was mistaken? What if the enemy had used Kapelsche Veer to launch an attack on the understrengthed Polish Division? On Jan.18 an entire battalion of the 7th Parachute Regt. crossed the far more formidable obstacle of the Rhine near Arnhem and captured the village of Zetten. By the time 49th West Riding Div., supported by Canadian tanks, had retaken the town they had suffered 220 casualties. Indeed, command decisions are rarely simple in war.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on May 1st, 2002.