The Allied forces, including the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade of the First Canadian Army, landed on the beaches of Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. As the armies progressed further inland, the First Canadian Army engaged in bitter fighting at Caen and Falaise. But with hundreds of thousands of troops fighting across the front, the Allies needed large amounts of supplies, and the First Canadian Army was assigned the task of clearing the coastal areas and opening the channel ports for vital supplies.
Fighting on the left flank of the Allied forces, the First Canadian Army pushed rapidly eastward through France towards Belgium. September began with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division being welcomed to Dieppe. The 2nd Canadian Corps left a number of units to guard the heavily defended ports and pushed into Belgium, reaching Ostend, Bruges and Ghent by the middle of the month. By October 1, the port cities of Boulogne, Cap Gris Nez, Calais, and Dunkirk were all under Allied control. The 2nd Canadian Corps had also captured the launching sites of German rockets and put an end to their attacks on southern England.
Meanwhile, the Second British Army had pushed forward into southern Netherlands. On September 17, three British and American airborne divisions, as well as a brigade of Polish parachute troops, attempted to land behind enemy lines at Nijmegen, Eindhoven and Arnhem. Code-named Operation Market Garden, the mission's objective was to seize a bridge over the Rhine River at Arnhem. The operation failed, with 1,400 of a total force of 35,000 killed and more than 6,000 taken prisoner. Any hope for a speedy end to the war appeared to be dashed.
Capturing a major port became a top priority as adequate supply lines for the winter now became paramount. The Second British Army had seized the port of Antwerp with its installations virtually intact. As Europe's second-largest port, Antwerp and its 45 kilometres of docks was an ideal landing ground for supplies for the continuing war effort. In fact, the opening of the port of Antwerp was essential, since at this point the main supply lines still ran back to Normandy.
However, German occupiers still controlled the Scheldt river which connected the port of Antwerp to the North Sea. As long as the Germans held control of the sea approaches and the long winding estuary, Allied shipping to the port would be impossible. The mere occupation of Antwerp was not enough; all the lands surrounding the Scheldt would have to be liberated first.
Under the circumstances, the opening of the port of Antwerp, already occupied by Allied troops, became absolutely necessary since the main supply lines still ran back to Normandy. The task went to the First Canadian Army which came under the command of Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds replacing General Crerar who was ill.
Antwerp was 80 kilometres from the sea, connected to it by means of a broad estuary, the West Scheldt. North of the estuary lay the former island of South Beveland joined to the mainland by an isthmus. Beyond South Beveland lay the island of Walcheren, fortified into a powerful German stronghold. The south bank of the estuary, flat polder country, was below sea level and also well-suited to defence. As long as the Germans held control of the sea approaches and the long winding estuary, Allied shipping to the port would be impossible. Thus, the mere occupation of Antwerp was not enough.
The troops in the 2nd Corps, northern sector were, at this time, fighting what might be called the preliminary skirmishes of the Scheldt battle. Some of these skirmishes were fierce and bloody, pre-figuring the nature of the main operation.
On September 21 the armoured divisions were directed to move northwards roughly along the line of the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal. The 4th Armoured was given the task of clearing the area left up to Breskens, while the 1st Polish Armoured headed for the Dutch-Belgian border and the crucial area north of Antwerp. Could their orders have been fully and speedily carried out it is believed that a good part of the Battle of the Scheldt would have been won. But, it was not to be.
The 4th Armoured Division had advanced from a hard-won bridgehead over the Ghent Canal at Moerbrugge to find themselves the first Allied troops to contemplate the formidable obstacle of the double line of the Leopold and Dérivation de la Lys Canals. An attack was mounted in the vicinity of Moerkerke. The canals were crossed and a bridgehead established, but in the face of fierce counter-attacks by enemy forces they were forced to withdraw with heavy casualties. This was the baptism of fire for Canadian troops in the Breskens Pocket.
Further east, the 1st Polish Armoured Division enjoyed greater success as it moved up from Ghent heading northeast. In country unsuitable for armour, and against stiffening resistance, the Poles managed, by September 20, to smash their way to the coast, occupy Terneuzen and clear the south bank of the Scheldt from that point eastwards to Antwerp.
In spite of this success two things became clear. One was that all gains from enemy territory in this sector would henceforth be made at heavy cost. The other was that the Breskens Pocket was strongly and fiercely held by the enemy all the way round the coast from Zeebrugge to the Braakman, and on the landward side along the line of the Leopold canal.
Opening the Estuary
The plan for opening the estuary involved four main operations. The first was to clear the area north Antwerp and close the South Beveland Isthmus. The second was to clear the Breskens "Pocket" behind the Leopold Canal (operation "Switchback"). The third, operation "Vitality", was the reduction of the Beveland Peninsula. The final phase would be the capture of Walcheren Island.
Fighting North from Antwerp
On October 2 the 2nd Canadian Division began its advance north from the Antwerp area with a view to closing the exit from South Beveland and advancing along the South Beveland Isthmus. Initial progress was good, despite the fact it was made in the face of stiff opposition. By October 6, with the town of Woensdrecht less than five kilometres away, the objective of the first phase seemed within grasp.
But, once again, early successes proved deceptive and the Germans determined to hold Woensdrecht, which commanded access through the isthmus to South Beveland and Walcheren.
Casualties were heavy as the Canadians attacked over open, flooded polder land, made worse by driving rain, booby traps and mines.
Finally, on October 16, the attack on Woensdrecht went in supported by an immense artillery barrage. As the artillery brought down a heavy concentration of fire almost within metres of their own troops, the enemy fell back. Woensdrecht was secure and the Bevelands and Walchern were cut off from the mainland. The first objective had been achieved, but only at the expense of heavy casualties.
At this point, Field Marshall Montgomery ordered a regrouping of all forces to concentrate upon the opening of the Scheldt estuary. The Second British Army attacked westward to clear the Netherlands south of the Maas and seal off the Scheldt region, while General Simonds concentrated on the area north of the Beveland isthmus. The 4th Division which had been engaged at the Leopold Canal, was moved north of the Scheldt and drove hard for Bergen-op-Zoom. By October 24, the isthmus was sealed off and the 2nd Division began the advance against South Beveland (assisted by an amphibious landing by the 52nd British Division).
Meanwhile there was equally fierce fighting along the Scheldt's southern shore. Here the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division encountered tenacious German resistance as they fought to cross the Leopold Canal and clear the Breskens Pocket.
It has already been made clear that the terrain was difficult. Apart from the formidable obstacle of the Leopold Canal, nearly half of which was doubly secured by the Canal de Dérivation de la Lys, the greater part of the approach area was inundated with flood water and there were few points where a really determined assault could be mounted with any hope of success. In addition, the country here was so flat that there was no hope of reconnaissance of enemy positions other than by aerial photography. The best place for an assault, and it was not a good one, seemed to be immediately east of the divergence of the two canals. Here there was a narrow strip of dry ground beyond the Leopold -- a long triangle with its base on the Maldegem - Aardenburg road and its apex near the village of Moershoofd some five kilometres east. It was only a few hundred metres broad, even at its base. Its northern boundary coincided with the border between Belgium and the Netherlands.
This was to be a two-pronged assault. The 7th Infantry Brigade was assigned the initial assault across the Leopold while the 9th Brigade would mount an amphibious attack from the northern or coastal side of the Pocket.
The 7th Brigade (with a regiment from the 8th attached) began the assault on October 6, backed up by extensive artillery support and flamethrowing "Wasps". The Wasps launched their barrage of flame across the Leopold Canal allowing the 7th Brigade troops to scramble up over the steep banks and launch their assault boats across the canal. Two precarious and separated footholds were established, but conditions for the Canadians were unspeakable as the enemy recovered from the shock of the flame and counter-attacked vigorously. However, the troops clung with grim determination to their extremely vulnerable bridgeheads. By October 9, the gap between the bridgeheads was closed, and by early morning on October 12, a position had been gained astride the Aardenburg road.
The 9th Brigade's amphibious operation was conducted with the aid of "Terrapins" and "Buffaloes" -- amphibious vehicles manned by the British 5th Assault Regiment RE. The brigade was to cross the mouth of the Braakman in amphibious vehicles and to land in the neighbourhood of Hoofdplaat, a tiny hamlet in the rear or coastal side of the Pocket, thus exerting pressure on the enemy from two directions at once. In spite of difficulties in manoeuvring vehicles through the lock system and a resultant 24-hour delay, the enemy was taken by surprise and the bridgehead was soon firm. Once again the enemy recovered quickly and counter-attacked with characteristic vigour. However, they were slowly forced back. The 10th Brigade of the 4th Armoured was able to cross the Leopold Canal and advanced at Isabella Polder. Contact was made with the 8th Brigade moving southwards from the coastal side of the Pocket. This opened up a land supply route into the Pocket.
Despite these successes there was still hard fighting ahead for the Canadians before the port of Breskens, Fort Frederik Hendrik, Oostburg, Zuidzande and Cadzand were taken and the Pocket finally cleared. Operation "Switchback" was completed on November 3 with the Belgian towns of Knocke and Zeebrugge being taken.
As noted above, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division began its operations against South Beveland on October 24. It hoped to get forward rapidly, by-passing opposition and seizing operations over the Beveland Canal - but once again, mines, mud and enemy defences slowed progress.
Meanwhile an amphibious attack was made across the West Scheldt by the 52 (Lowland) Division to turn the canal line. Thus the formidable Beveland Canal was outflanked and the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade began a frontal attack in assault boats. The engineers were able then to bridge the canal on the main road. With the canal line gone, the German defence crumbled and South Beveland was cleared.
The work of the 2nd Canadian Division was not yet over. It was now allotted the task of crossing the causeway to Walcheren.
Capture of Walcheren Island
The island of Walcheren remained the one great obstacle to the use of the port of Antwerp. Its defences were extremely strong and the only land approach was the long, narrow causeway from South Beveland. To make matters worse, the flats that surrounded this causeway were too saturated for movement on foot while, at the same time, there was not enough water for an assault in storm boats.
The attack was to be made from three directions: across the causeway from the east; across the Scheldt from the south; and from the sea. To hamper German defence the island's dykes were breached by heavy RAF bombing to inundate the central area and thus permit the use of amphibians.
The Canadians attacked the causeway on October 31 and, after a grim struggle, established a precarious foothold. Then, in conjunction with the waterborne attacks, the 52nd British Division continued the advance. On November 6 Middleburg, the island's capital, fell and by November 8 all resistance ended. The channel was cleared of mines and, on November 28, the first convoy entered the port of Antwerp led by the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui.
Meanwhile, the 4th Division had pushed eastwards past Bergen-op-Zoom to St. Philipsland where, in a "naval" engagement from the land, several German vessels were sunk in Zijpe harbour.
Thus, with the approaches to Antwerp free and the country up to the Maas River cleared, the Battle of the Scheldt was over.