Race to Antwerp

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. In the battle’s aftermath, the German army was on the run and occasionally mounted small rearguard operations, but offered no serious resistance.

“Lieutenant L.W. Spurr directing the fire of the 25-pounder guns of the 4th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery (R.C.A.), near Antwerp, Belgium, 30 September 1944.” Photo: Ken Bell. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 1967-052 NPC.

The Canadian army, meanwhile, was advancing farther and faster than at any point in the war. 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. But Antwerp 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 Antwerp, 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.

“Lance-Bombardier R.G. Laidman and Gunner D. Rodgers of the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery (R.C.A.), near Antwerp, Belgium, 30 September 1944.” Photo: Ken Bell. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, 1967-052 NPC.

Le Havre was the first to fall. The I British Corps, operating under Canadian command, quickly captured the port. 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. 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. The Canadian 7th and 8th Brigades attack began by targeting Calais’ western defences on 25 September. By dusk on 30 September,  Calais was also under Canadian control.

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.

For more information on the Race to Antwerp, click here.