Battle of the Scheldt Estuary
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbase"Capture of the approaches to Antwerp was a difficult operation," recalled Dwight Eisenhower in his memoirs. However, it was much needed as another port for the war of supply the Allies was fighting in late 1944. After initial delay, Allied advances were now far beyond initial predictions, which was bittersweet as the supplies simply could not keep up with the rapidly advancing troops. The situation was made worst after foul weather on 19 Jun damaged harbors in the Normandy area. The capture of Antwerp on 4 Sep 1944 did not yet bring relief to the supply situation, as the approaches to Antwerp, the Scheldt Estuary, were still under German control. Commonwealth troops under the command of Lieutenant General Guy Simonds were given the task of securing the Scheldt Estuary. Under Simonds' command was the Canadian 1st Army, consisted of the British 1st Corps and Canadian 2nd Corps (with a Polish armored division and two British divisions).
ww2dbaseThe terrain this region in Holland and Belgium favored the defenders. The marshlands in the south impeded movement, the isthmus at South Beveland was easily defended, and the island of Walcheren was an island fortress. Defending this terrain was General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen's 15th German Army. The 15th German Army was beaten and chased by the Allies during the campaign for Antwerp, but a failure in strategy discontinued the chase, giving the German troops the time to further fortify the area. This strategic failure was largely attributed to Bernard Montgomery, who drew men and resources away from the Antwerp region for the failed Market Garden operation. "If I had not attempted the Arnhem operation", said Eisenhower, "possibly we could have begun the Walcheren attack some two or three weeks earlier."
ww2dbaseTo set up the operation against German forces in the region, in late Sep 1944 the 4th Canadian Armored Division moved against the Dutch town of Breskens while the 1st Polish Armored Division headed for the Dutch-Belgian border north and east of Antwerp.
ww2dbaseOn 2 Oct, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division marched north from Antwerp toward South Beveland, and met German resistance four days later. German troops took high ground atop the dykes that surrounded the estuary, and caused heavy losses among the Allied troops who fought from low and open flood lands. On 13 Oct, "Black Friday", the Canadian 5th Infantry Brigade's Black Watch Battalion faced especially tough German counterattack and was nearly wiped out completely. After ten days of fighting, on 16 October 1944 they took Woensdrecht, a town critical in the capture of the isthmus. Two weeks later, a combination of land and amphibious maneuvers attacked German positions at the isthmus. After another week of intense fighting, Canadian troops secured the eastern portion of the isthmus on 24 Oct. South Beveland was secured by the end of the month after the Operation Vitality offensive.
ww2dbaseDuring the campaign for South Beveland, Bernard Montgomery moved his British Second Army against German positions elsewhere in the Netherlands, successfully isolating the Scheldt Estuary region from outside German reinforcements or counterattacks.
ww2dbaseThe Southern Marshlands
ww2dbaseThe marshes south of the Scheldt Estuary was defended by German troops in an area the Allies named the Breskens pocket. The terrain posed the largest threat for the advancing Allied troops, where the flooded fields not only slowed the attackers, but it also provided cover for the defending German troops from both land and aerial reconnaissance. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division's 7th Brigade moved across the Leopold Canal while the 9th Brigade mounted an amphibious attack on the northern coast on 6 Oct; the two Canadian brigades secured the area near the Aardenburg road by 12 Oct. Meanwhile, the 8th and 9th Brigades asserted pressure from different directions to overwhelmed the Germans in the pocket. This operation was named Operation Switchback, and it ended on 3 Nov after securing Knokke and Zeebrugge, eliminating German threat on the south coast of the Scheldt Estuary.
ww2dbaseThe island stronghold of Walcheren was attacked from the air, with British Royal Air Force aircraft targetting dykes, flooding the island. The flooding hampered German movement, and also raised the water levels so that the Allies could have deeper water for an amphibious operation. As predicted by Eisenhower, the capture of this island "required a joint naval, air, and ground operation," and it was exemplified with this successful coordination between bombers and ground troops. On 31 Oct Canadian troops attacked across the single causeway between Walcheren and South Beveland, supported by an amphibious assault on 1 Nov from the south across the estuary. On 6 Nov, the island's capital Middelburg fell, and the island was declared secure two days later.
ww2dbaseAfter a month of fighting, the Allied victory came at a high cost of 12,873 casualties among the veterans of Falaise and Caen, half of them Canadian. Meanwhile, the victors captured 41,043 prisoners. With the hostile forces cleared from the area, time-consuming mine-clearing operations could finally begin. Antwerp opened as an Allied port on 28 Nov. "The end of Nazism was in clear view when the first ship moved unmolested up the Scheldt", said Eisenhower. This first vessel to arrive at Antwerp was appropriately the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui. The gallantry that the Canadian soldiers had shown amidst fierce fighting earned utmost respect of Montgomery. "The Canadians have proved themselves magnificent fighters. Clearing the Scheldt was a job that could have been done only by first-rate troops. Second-rate troops would have failed."
ww2dbaseBefore the estuary operation completed, German V-1 and V-2 missions started to attack the port city of Antwerp. V-2s particularly caused considerable damage to the city, interrupting communications. However, the citizens of Antwerp "sustained these attacks unflinchingly", recalled Eisenhower. Despite the serious civilian deaths, Dutch citizens assisted wholeheartedly to transform Antwerp into "the northern bulwark of [the Allies'] entire logistical system."
ww2dbaseSources: BBC, Crusade in Europe, The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum, Wikipedia.
Last Major Update: Aug 2005
Battle of the Scheldt Estuary Timeline
|27 Sep 1944||Allied troops captured Helmond and Oss in the Netherlands.|
|2 Oct 1944||2nd Canadian Infantry Division marched north from Antwerp, Belgium toward South Beveland, the Netherlands.|
|5 Oct 1944||The Germans lost 36 Linsen boats - small motorboats packed with explosives - attempting to disrupt traffic in the Scheldt estuary controlling the approach to the port of Antwerp, Belgium. On the same day, Canadian forces entered the Netherlands, capturing Kerkrade.|
|6 Oct 1944||Canadian 3rd Division assaulted the German pocket at Breskena, Belgium, south of the Scheldt Estuary. To the north, Allied troops captured Ossendrecht, the Netherlands.|
|9 Oct 1944||Canadian troops used amphibious vehicles to enter the Breskens Pocket in the Netherlands.|
|18 Oct 1944||Allied troops captured Venray, the Netherlands.|
|21 Oct 1944||Canadian troops captured Breskens, the Netherlands.|
|22 Oct 1944||The Canadian II Corps launched an attack on Fort Frederick Hendriks, close to the mouth of the Scheldt, opposite Vlissingen (Flushing), The Netherlands. The Fort fell after three days heavy fighting.|
|27 Oct 1944||Allied troops captured Den Bosch, Tilburg, and Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands.|
|29 Oct 1944||Allied troops captured Breda, the Netherlands.|
|30 Oct 1944||Allied troops captured Tholen and Goes in the Netherlands.|
|31 Oct 1944||Canadian troops reached Walcheren, the Netherlands.|
|1 Nov 1944||Commandos and Royal Marines landed on Walcheren Island in the Netherlands to aid clearing German troops from Scheldt Estuary, capturing the towns of Vlissingen and Westkapelle.|
|2 Nov 1944||Canadian 2nd Division withdrew from its Walcheren, the Netherlands bridgehead. Nearby, Allied troops captured Wissenkerke and Zoutelande.|
|6 Nov 1944||The German garrison at Middelburg, the Netherlands surrendered to the Allies.|
|8 Nov 1944||Allied troops captured Veere and Koudekerke in the Netherlands.|
|9 Nov 1944||German troops on Walcheren Island, the Netherlands surrendered. Nearby, German troops withdrew from the Moerdijk bridgehead in the Netherlands across the Meuse River.|
|28 Nov 1944||Allies began to operate the port in Antwerp, Belgium.|
|3 Dec 1944||Allied troops captured Blerick, the Netherlands.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945