Battle of the Scheldt

After the Normandy landings on June 6th 1944 and the breakout of the bridgehead on August 22nd at Falaise, the 1st Canadian Army was assigned the left flank of the Allied advance. After crossing the Seine River, Canadian troops liberated the cities of Boulogne and Calais, located on the Channel coast. The easy advance in September convinced the Allied commanders that the Germans were beaten and they had high hopes the war would end in 1944. 

On September 4th the British XXX Corps, deployed east-wards of the 1st Canadian Army, liberated Antwerp. The extensive Antwerp harbour facilities were virtually intact. These harbour facilities were of high importance to defeat the German army on the Western Front, since every litre of petrol, every bullet and all things imaginable that an army needs had to be hauled from the Normandy beaches approximately 500 miles south. The long and limited supply line had become a severe restriction for the Allied advance into Germany.

The problem to exploit the logistical value of the harbour was that the entrance into Antwerp, the river West-Scheldt, was still occupied in force. Instead of acknowledging the importance of clearing the mouth of the West-Scheldt, the Allies optimistically decided to shift priority to the east and planned to dash across the Rhine at Arnhem. The Germans, on the other hand, realized the value of deferring the use of Antwerp by tenaciously holding on to their defenses on the south and north bank of the Scheldt. The Allied operation in Arnhem failed, but also gave the Germans time to refit and reinforce the Scheldt defenses. The Battle of the Scheldt started on October 6 and became one of the worst and costliest battles of WWII.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was assigned the task of advancing north from Antwerp and to drive westwards using Bergen op Zoom as a pivoting point. This move aimed to isolate the defenders in the Scheldt estuary from the main body of the German army. The Jocks of the 52nd Lowland Division were to support this westwards advance with an amphibious landing in Baarland on the south coast of the South-Beveland peninsula. This operation culminated into the famous attack over the Sloe estuary to reach Walcheren Island (the infamous Walcheren Causeway).

Preceding “Operation Market Garden”, the battle in Arnhem, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division experienced the unexpected resilience of the German troops. The crossing of the Leopold canal at Moerkerke by the Algonquin Regiment on September 13th was repelled with heavy losses.

Despite the increasing resistance of the enemy and the low priority for supplies, General Crerar was ordered to clear both the Channel ports and Scheldt area. This assignment was in fact unrealistic, taking into consideration the vast area to be managed and the limited number of troops available. The almost impossible objective for the Canadian army reflected the optimistic mindset of the Allied staff and the neglect of the importance of opening Antwerp.

It took until October 15th before priority was finally given to the Scheldt and 1st Canadian Army was reinforced with supplies and manpower. “And here I must admit a bad mistake on my part – I underestimated the difficulties of opening up the approaches to Antwerp so that we could get free use of the port.” (Montgomery’s memoirs, p297).

Meanwhile, General Guy Simonds, in the absence of Crerar who was on sick leave in England, devised a complex operation to dislodge the Germans from the area along the Scheldt River.

The plan was for the II Canadian Corps to clear both banks of the Scheldt and Walcheren Island. The area referred to the ‘Breskens pocket’ in the south was assigned to the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. Operation ‘Switchback’ foresaw an attack over the Leopold canal and an amphibious attack at the eastern entrance of the pocket near Hoofdplaat. Using the cleared Breskens Pocket as a base, the Commandos and Marines of the 4th Special Service Brigade and Scottish troops of the 52nd Lowland Infantry Division were to attack Walcheren (Operation ‘Infatuate’). In order to facilitate the assault, the dikes of Walcheren where breached with bombs and the island sunk, resulting in immense destruction of civil property.

For the Canadian soldier the Battle of the Scheldt was a period of indescribable misery. The seemingly never ending fight against the rain and mud and the resilient enemy in a bleak and desolate landscape ate away at the mental and physical strength of the men. The Polder Fighting took place on flat land and daily advances were nothing more than a few hundred meters of churned mud. The initiative lay with the Sergeant or Corporal who could muster the courage to lead the remaining men of his section towards the next dike. The landscape was ideal for the defenders who, protected by the dikes protruding over the bare landscape, could shoot at any attacker long before they where detected themselves.

Credits: Robert W. Catsburg, Netherlands.

Suggested reading:

  • Copp, Terry & Robert Vogel, Maple Leaf Route: Scheldt, 1984.
  • Blackburn, George, Guns of Victory
  • Moulton, J.L., Battle for the Scheldt 1944-’45, 1978.
  • Stacey, C.P., Official history of the Canadian army, Vol. III, The Victory Campaign, 1960.
  • Thompson, R.W., The 85 Days, 1957.
  • Whitaker, W.D., Tug of War, 1985
  • Zuehlke, M., Terrible Victory, 2007.
  • Catsburg Robert W., Five days in November, 2009
  • Catsburg Robert W., Polder Fighting, 2019

 

October 28, 1944 - Breskens Ph. LAC, Canada.

October 28, 1944 - Breskens Ph. LAC, Canada.

D-Day landings. In the center of the first landing craft a member of the Royal Winnipeg Rilfes (Canada). Ph. LAC, Canada.
Buffalo landing vehicles coming ashore in Hoofdplaat, Netherlands. Ph. LAC, Canada.