The Battle of the Scheldt

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. The Battle of the Scheldt was the most important campaign won by the Canadians in the Second World War.

“Buffalo amphibious vehicles carrying troops across the Scheldt River to Hooftplaat.” October 13, 1944. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 1967-052 NPC.
“A column of Alligators passing Terrepin amphibious vehicles on the Scheldt River near Terneuzen, October 13th,1944.” Courtesy of Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-114754.

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.

First, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division attacking north of Antwerp had to 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. It took the 2nd Division until almost the end of October to reach the Walcheren Causeway.

“Wounded being unloaded from Terrapin, Scheldt pocket embarkation point, West of Terneuzen. 13 Oct. 1944 / Netherlands.” Photo: Donald Grant. Courtesy of Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada, PA-136822. 
“Operation Switchback: operations to clear the Scheldt, 6 Oct. – 2 Nov. 44.” Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 5084053.

The second prong of the Battle of the Scheldt 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. 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.

What followed was bitter, personal fighting that 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. 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.

“How the Royal Navy Cleared Scheldt.” October 1944. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 1984-260 NPC.

The final part of the Battle of the Scheldt 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. Despite heavy 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.

“Scheldt Crossing” (painting) by Captain Orville Norman Fisher. Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum, 19710261-6360.

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 odds were stacked against the Canadians, but the troops got the job done.

To learn more about the Battle of the Scheldt, click here.