The Battle of the Scheldt
October to November 1944
“The dirtiest job the Canadian army had was to open up the Scheldt because the Allies desperately needed the port of Antwerp. Antwerp is in Belgium, but most of the Scheldt was in Holland. So the 3rd Division was given the job of clearing the west side and we [2nd Canadian Infantry Division] were given the job of clearing the east side, which was the Beveland Peninsula and the Island of Walcheren. And that was the dirtiest job that we ever had [Battle of the Scheldt].”Interview with Bill Davis, Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada
In the fall of 1944, over 40,000 Canadian soldiers arrived in a boggy region on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands to carry out a strategically critical mission: secure Antwerp’s sprawling port so it could process the shipment of arms and supplies destined for the Allied forces pushing north out of Normandy heading towards Germany. Bill Davis correctly called it the “dirtiest job” of the Canadian army, but the Battle of the Scheldt was also the most important campaign won by the Canadians in the Second World War.
As discussed in the module “Race to Antwerp,” the Allies had scored a major victory with the capture of the port, intact, on 4 September. The problem was that Antwerp lay at the end of an 80-kilometre long river estuary. The Germans regretted losing Antwerp, but they knew the port was useless to the Allies so long as Axis forces controlled the banks of the estuary. The river was full of mines and the German troops stationed along both banks would stop all Allied vessels from sailing to Antwerp.
The campaign to open the port of Antwerp took place on three fronts: the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s advance north from Antwerp towards Walcheren Island; the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division’s attack on the Breskens Pocket (known as Operation Switchback); and, last, Operation Infatuate, a British amphibious landing on Walcheren Island.
While British and American armies advanced towards the heart of Germany in the “main” fight following the D-Day invasion, the Scheldt campaign was often forgotten or overlooked by Allied commanders at the time — and by historians since. The combat was nasty; the conditions, harsh; the casualties, very high. However, the men found many reasons to keep going. For some, it was “King and country” while others were motivated by a sense of the brotherhood or simply a desire to return home.
Davis offered this explanation of his motivation:
“You may find this hard to believe but it wasn’t the fighting that bothered you. You would give your right arm to have a decent night’s sleep in a nice warm, dry place. That became the objective. The Germans were in the way of keeping you from having that. It wasn’t the fighting really that bothered most people. It was the conditions. It was a terrible, terrible fall and winter in Holland, the worst … in 50 years.”
General Gustav von Zangen, commander of the German 15th Army, assigned two divisions to hold the area and deny Antwerp to the Allies. In mid-September, Field Marshal Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, commander of 21st Army Group, ordered First Canadian Army to open Antwerp. Only two full divisions – 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry – along with elements of 4th Canadian Armoured Division were available.
Montgomery later admitted he didn’t realize how difficult it would be to open Antwerp: “I must admit a bad mistake on my part,” he said after the war in his memoirs. “I underestimated the difficulties of opening up the approaches to Antwerp so that we could get free use of that port. I reckoned that the Canadian Army could do it while we were going for the Ruhr. I was wrong.”
Walcheren was a heavily defended island that guarded the North Sea approach to the Scheldt Estuary. This region was also an obvious place for an invasion, and therefore heavily defended. With Allied bombers flying over the estuary on their way to attack targets in Germany, the banks were lined with bunkers, large coastal gun batteries, and extremely strong anti-aircraft defences. In fact, the seaward-facing defences at Walcheren were stronger than anything the British, Canadians, or Americans had faced in Normandy on D-Day. Simonds knew that much of the island lay below sea level and was protected by dykes. He used RAF bombers to blow holes in those dykes to swamp the German defences.
On 2 October, before the attack, Allied planes dropped leaflets to warn the Dutch civilians. The next day, and again on October 7 and 11, Lancasters and Mosquitos carried out very accurate attacks at Westkapelle, Vlissingen, and Veere. The attacks successfully flooded most of Walcheren. The slow advance of the water meant few civilians drowned, but the flooding made travel very difficult. And, there were long-term effects. It would take years to replace the livestock killed and for the fields to regain their fertility after exposure to saltwater. The bombings, of the dykes and the German defensive positions, would take a much greater toll on the local population. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, approved the attacks and later remarked in his memoirs, “These breaches, permitting the sea to flood critical sections of the defences, were of great usefulness in an operation that throughout presented unusual difficulties.”
For First Canadian Army, Simonds planned three advances to capture the Scheldt Estuary. One prong was led by 2nd Canadian Infantry Division attacking north of Antwerp. They first had break through the German defences leading to Beveland Isthmus. This entailed hard fighting in villages like Woensdrecht and Hoogerheide. Casualties were high and progress was slow, with the worst day being Friday the 13th of October when the Black Watch from Montreal attacked a strongly-held German position. No progress was made and the Black Watch suffered 145 casualties, including 56 dead, while the Germans took 27 more as prisoners. It took the 2nd Division until almost the end of October to reach the Walcheren Causeway. The Canadians attacked across the causeway a number of times but they were stopped by the Germans suffering high casualties in the process.
The second prong of Simonds’ plan was Operation Switchback. Its objective was the Breskens Pocket which lay along the south shore of the Scheldt Estuary. The pocket was a virtual island surrounded by water on all sides – the North Sea, Scheldt Estuary, Braakman Inlet, and Leopold Canal. There was only a small, waterlogged land bridge in the southeast corner. It was a strong defensive position for the Germans. Switchback started in the southwest corner of the pocket on 6 October with a preliminary attack launched across the Leopold Canal. This was followed three days later by the main attack, an amphibious landing launched across the Braakman outlet and Scheldt Estuary. This placed the Canadians behind the main German defences. The Canadian Scottish Regiment were one of the first units to cross the canal. “Wasp flamethrowers,” which could shoot a burst of fire the length of a football field, were essential to their success. This weapon only killed a few Germans, but many more fled or surrendered because of the terror the flamethrowers provoked.
The war diary of the Canadian Scottish Regiment described what happened in the canal crossing:
“What developed into one of the bloodiest and dirtiest battles in the history of the CANADIAN SCOTTISH began with streams of angry wrath thrown across the canal from our flame-throwing WASPS. These elements greatly aided the assaulting troops of “D” Coy by burning out the enemy in some of their cross-canal positions. As will later be shown not all of the enemy were so treated but, at any rate, those who were left were terror-stricken. It was a grim business.”War Diary Canadian Scottish Regiment, 6 Oct 1944
What followed was bitter, personal fighting of an intensity that rivalled anything in the Great War. The 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, including the Can Scots, saw 533 men killed or wounded in just six days of fighting. In addition, a further 200 men were evacuated for battle exhaustion.
Simonds’ skill as a commander was essential as the Germans held all the advantages in this battle. Common military tactics assume the attacker must outnumber the defender by at least a three to one margin to ensure success. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division never achieved this scale of advantage, and indeed were often outnumbered by the German defenders. As well, the fighting took place in “polder country,” a region of low-lying fields reclaimed from the sea, each surrounded by a high dyke typically topped by a road or path. As a result, the fields were wet and muddy, and difficult to traverse. Consequently, most movement was restricted to the dykes, which meant the Canadian soldiers were highly visible targets for the Germans, who had a wealth of heavy weapons and machine guns and an almost unlimited supply of ammunition.
The war diary of the Canadian Scottish Regiment gives us a glimpse at what the soldiers had to endure:
“Living conditions at the front are NOT cosy. 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 level but also contain several inches of THICK water. Matches and cigarettes are wet and unusable…. So, the soldier shakes his head, cleans his rifle, swears a good deal and dreams of what he’ll do when he gets LEAVE (if).”War Diary, Canadian Scottish Regiment, 9 October 1944.
The attack across the Leopold gained a small footing in German territory but it achieved its purpose of distracting the Germans, who were completely surprised when the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade landed from their Buffalo amphibious craft early on the morning of 9 October. At that point, the end seemed clear for the Germans, but the fighting nonetheless continued for another three weeks. The German commander and his remaining 8,000 troops only surrendered on 2 November.
The final part of Simonds’ plan was an amphibious landing on Walcheren. The island lay at the mouth of the Scheldt Estuary and controlled all access to the river leading to Antwerp. Operation Infatuate, as this attack was called, had strong support from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. It was led by British Commandos at Westkapelle and the British 52nd Division at Vlissingen, two Dutch villages on the south coast of the island. The attackers, including supporting Royal Navy ships, suffered very heavy casualties. Despite those losses, all the landings were successful and within a week the fighting on Walcheren ended. The first Allied transport ships finally docked at Antwerp on 28 November. It had taken ten flotillas of minesweepers — nine British and one Dutch — fully three weeks to clear the estuary of German mines.
The Canadian operations to open Antwerp had taken much longer than expected. But given the resources they had available it is remarkable the campaign didn’t take much longer. The human cost was very high. Overall, First Canadian Army, an international force composed of Canadian, British, Polish, and American units, suffered 13,000 casualties, including more than 6,300 Canadians.
Today, one can visit the Canadian War Cemeteries at Adegem and Bergen op Zoom where the majority of the men killed in these battles are buried. Not many Canadians know about their accomplishments and that’s unfortunate. The Battle of the Scheldt was the most important campaign fought by the Canadians in the Second World War. The port of Antwerp was essential to supply the resources needed for all future Allied operations. The port needed to be opened quickly and the Germans held all the advantages; they were well-supplied, well-motivated, and strongly entrenched. The Canadians had to make do with the troops they had available which were truly insufficient for the task. And, the weather was cold and rainy which created muddy fields limiting movement and preventing air support on many days. The odds were stacked against the Canadians, but the troops under Simonds’ command got the job done.