The Race to Antwerp

September 1944

By late August 1944, it looked like the Allies had won the war and the Germans would soon be defeated. The closing of the Falaise Gap on 22 August sealed the Allied victory in Normandy. Yet the Battle of Normandy was not a complete victory, as small elements of the German army slipped through the cordon, but it was one of the greatest victories of the Second World War. In the battle’s aftermath, the German army was on the run. The German forces occasionally mounted small rearguard operations, but offered no serious resistance. The Canadian army, meanwhile, was advancing farther and faster than at any point in the war. Many soldiers thought the fighting would be over soon and dreamed of Christmas in Canada.

The next big objective for the Allies was the capture of Antwerp, the largest port in Europe. The Belgian city was essential for Allied logistics – food, ammunition, fuel, and other supplies – so the push into Germany could continue. Field Marshal Bernard (“Monty”) Montgomery, the senior British/Canadian commander, planned a major airborne operation in mid-September to ensure that the rapid advance would continue. While this advance took place, Montgomery ordered the Canadians troops to capture the Channel Ports. The Canadians were nicknamed the “Cinderella Army” (after the fairytale character who is always mistreated by her evil stepsisters and never gets to go to the ball) for being assigned an essential, though secondary, task.

The Canadian troops felt euphoric when the hard-fought battles in Normandy gave way to the rapid pursuit of a seemingly defeated German army. After landing on D-Day, Canadian soldiers experienced 76 days of some of the toughest fighting they had ever endured. Places like Courseulles-sur-Mer, Le Mesnil-Patry, Verrières, Falaise, and St. Lambert-sur-Dives will forever be linked with the courage and sacrifice of Canadian infantrymen. But, soon the race was on.

“We closed our HQ at this point and pushed on to the northeast. The troops were still being transported by any and every means available: and were enjoying it. Only the advance reconnaissance units met any opposition to hasty progress. This was probably the best day we have had to date for “Rolling up the Rocket Coast.” The cheers and happy tears of the civilians en route spurred us on and made us forget that we had no stops for meals. We progressed north and carried past NEUFCHATEL. Then continued through LONDINIERES. Here was a great reception for the CANADIANS but we had no time to enjoy it. We had reached [map reference] 499708 on the road between [the towns of] LONDINIERES and EU. Here we paused for a breather to allow the traffic conditions to right themselves. Then carried on. The next large town was EU (4879). This we passed through too and wished that we could stay! Finally, the battalion stopped its long tour and settled down for the night. Everyone was dead tired and slept immediately even though we had had no fighting.”

War Diary, Canadian Scottish Regiment, 1 September 1944

Of course, the run through northern France and Belgium was too good to be true. The Germans were thoroughly defeated in Normandy, but they were not finished. In those heady days of late August and early September, the troops thought they might soon make it to Berlin. The war diary of the 7th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment captures the mood of the time:

“Lieutenant-Colonel T.C. Lewis went on a personal reconnaissance with Lieutenant Cassault and found a bridge at Brimeux … that had apparently not been used for years as there were no roads leading to it and probably was overlooked by the Germans.

The Regiment was quick to take advantage of this and the chase continued. “C” Squadron caught up with a [German] soft skinned convoy, destroyed 12 vehicles, captured considerable stores and equipment and took a large number of prisoners. “A” Squadron ran into a strong force of enemy at Samer. These were quickly shot-up and dispersed by Major Bowen’s quick appreciation and bold action. He immediately drove all available fire power into the town square and shot-up all German personnel and equipment, thus clearing up in a few minutes what might have taken a day or two.”

War Diary, 7th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment, 17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars

Grand advances were being made by all the Allied divisions and the race to Antwerp made great progress. Paris was liberated by Free French and US forces on 25 August. The Allies reached Brussels a week later, on 3 September, and captured the city without a fight. The next day, the 11th British Armoured Division captured Antwerp, a major coup . The city boasted the largest dockyard in Western Europe and the facility was still in tact when the Allies took control. The Belgian White Brigade, led by Eugene Colson, fought with the British and ensured the Germans did not destroy the port as they had done in Cherbourg, Le Havre, and a dozen other liberated ports. Antwerp would be essential to the Allies’ supply future operations, but it sat at the end of an 80-kilometre-long river estuary which meandered through territory controlled by the Germans. The port would be useless to the Allies until the river banks were also liberated – a job assigned to the Canadian army.

Before securing the estuary, the Canadians first had to capture the Channel Ports. Each of these towns – Le Havre, Dieppe, Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk – contained small ports which were essential to supply the Allied advance before the Allies took Antwerp. The towns had all been well-defended by the Germans in recognition of their strategic importance to an Allied invasion force. As part of Hitler’s so-called Atlantic Wall, each of those ports featured strong seaward defences to stop an invasion fleet, as well as equally formidable landward defences to prevent a cross country attack.

Le Havre was the first to fall. The I British Corps, operating under Canadian command, quickly captured the port. But when the British troops arrived, they found a port that had been largely destroyed by German demolitions, Royal Navy bombardment, and attacks by RAF Bomber Command. The aerial bombing was particularly devastating as over 2,000 local residents were killed in the process. Dieppe, the site of the infamous raid in 1942, was captured next, without a fight, on 1 September.

Boulogne and Calais, however, were more difficult victories.

The Allied forces launched Operation Wellhit, to capture Boulogne, on 17 September. The city was ringed with coastal batteries and the heights of Mont Lambert protected the back of the city. The German garrisons in both Boulogne and Le Havre were of a similar size. However, fewer Canadian troops were available at Boulogne – less than half what the British deployed at Le Havre. As well, the Canadians were given much less support from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. While the Canadian attack was effective and well coordinated, the smaller attacking force meant that instead of two days, it took the Canadians six days to complete the operation.

As soon as the Canadians secured Boulogne, they immediately moved north for Operation Undergo, the attack on Calais. As with other German fortresses, the quality of troops was low – older men, foreign draftees, and soldiers with medical conditions. Such defenders often surrendered as soon as they could. But in Calais, where they were well-protected by solid concrete, they effectively defended against the Canadian attack, and sometimes exacted a heavy toll. But the Canadians had better weapons. One of the most fearsome was the Crocodile flame-throwing tank. No one wanted to be burned to death, and a few bursts of flame were often sufficient to convince the Germans to lay down their weapons.

The Canadian 7th and 8th Brigades attack began by targeting Calais’ western defences on 25 September. But it took three days for the Canadians to reach the canal on the outskirts of the city. A day after they reached the canal, the German commander, General Schroeder, requested a truce to allow the civilians to evacuate. General Crerar was suspicious of the Germans’ motives, but remembering the heavy French losses at Le Havre, agreed to a 24-hour truce. Crerar renewed his attack as soon as the ceasefire expired and the Germans capitulated almost immediately. By dusk on 30 September, Calais was also under Canadian control.

Cap Gris Nez represented the final leg of this series of operations. The large German batteries on the point of land contained large guns that protected the harbours at Boulogne and Calais, and even had sufficient range to strike England, on the other side of the English Channel. The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade began their attack on 29 September, just days after two preliminary bombing raids involving over 800 aircraft. Still, the Canadians’ advance was slow. At times, they faced fierce opposition as the defenders refused to surrender. However, the fighting was over by the end of the day.

While these battles were important to the Canadian army, they weren’t central to the main Allied campaign, which was playing out elsewhere. The Canadians troops were situated closest to the Channel Ports at the end of the Normandy campaign, so the three small coastal cities were obvious destinations. But politics played a role in Canada’s post-Normandy role: the British and Americans had the largest armies and expected to take the lead in defeating Germany. Capturing the ports was essential for Allies’ strategy, but those offensives would not win the war.

However, Operation Market Garden, made famous in the movie “A Bridge Too Far,” might. Montgomery, who believed the Germans were at a breaking point, launched a major airborne operation designed to capture a series of bridges leading to Germany, including the one in Arnhem, Netherlands. Ultimately, this bridge could not be held by the British paratroopers. It was a substantial gamble, and though the overall operation failed, Monty made the right call. Launched on 17 September, the same day the Canadians began their assault on Boulogne, Operation Market Garden became the focal point of Allied operations for the next month. Canadian troops fought to secure the Channel ports simultaneously, but at times, they struggled to secure sufficient resources to carry out their mission. Though no Canadian troops took part in Market Garden, two Canadian Engineer companies, including Donald Sommerville, played a crucial role in rescuing British paratroopers trapped near Arnhem.

The ultimately successful Canadian operations to capture the Channel Ports often came down to individual heroism in the face of well-defended positions and shortages of men and weapons. Gunner Alexander Anderson, a signaller with the 14th Field Regiment, was awarded a Military Medal for “great gallantry, coolness, and disregard for his own safety” as he ensured his guns received the orders they needed to accurately and effectively support the infantry attack on Mont Lambert near Boulogne on 17 September. That same day, Lieutenant Lawrence Hanway of the Governor-General’s Foot Guard was patrolling north and east of Eecloo, Belgium. After his first two tanks were knocked out by German bazookas (a small handheld rocket launcher), he transferred to a third tank to complete his mission. He was awarded the Military Cross for his “determination and devotion to duty.”

By the end of September Operation Market Garden had failed and the Canadian army was on the Dutch border. The race to Antwerp had been won, but the real fight for the city was about to begin. For the entire month of October and into early November, the Canadians found themselves in perhaps their most important campaign of the Second World War – the fight to clear the approaches to Antwerp, a campaign which came to be known as the Battle of the Scheldt.