RCE Role in Clearing the Beveland Approaches

Oct 02
By the last week in September, the First Canadian Army had moved into the Antwerp area in preparation for the Battle of the Scheldt. The 2nd Infantry Division began the task of clearing the Beveland approaches north of the city on the second of October. Shortly afterwards, on the sixth, the 3rd Infantry Division, with support from the 4th Armoured Division, would assault across the Leopold Canal and begin clearing the Breskens Pocket. 
This is the first in a series of four articles describing the role of the Royal Canadian Engineers during the Battle of the Scheldt. It took two divisions over three weeks to clear the approaches and secure the start line for the next phase of the battle, Operation Vitality.

At the time General Montgomery ordered the First Canadian Army to clear the Scheldt and open the approaches to Antwerp, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions were still busy clearing the Channel ports.  The new assignment meant that task would have to be adjusted.  It was decided that once Calais and Boulogne were secured, Dunkirk would simply be cut-off and picketed until the Garrison surrendered.

Once Calais and Boulogne were taken, the sappers had a brief rest, mostly in the area of Antwerp itself.  The 2nd Division moved east and slightly north of the city in preparation for operations to clear the north bank of the Scheldt while the 3rd Infantry Division concentrated west of the city in preparation to clear the south bank of the Scheldt, which came to be known as the Breskens Pocket. 4th Armoured Division had been in that area since mid-September and along with the 1st Polish Division, continued to contain the Breskens Pocket behind the Leopold Canal. 

Things started on 2 October when the 2nd Division struck north out of Antwerp to secure the approaches to South Beveland.  The land was flooded with only the roads above water, and they were all accurately registered with defensive fires. 

The 11th Field Company immediately began building a Class 40 bridge over the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal near the village of Locktenburg at the cost of three killed and several wounded as they worked through the heavily mined area. Their work was continually disrupted by fire but the first vehicles were across by 0900 hours on the morning of 3 October.  The 6th Brigade crossed and met their objective the following day.

On their left, another bridge, a 100-foot Class 40 was built across the canal by the 11th Field Company in the 4th Brigade area under similar circumstances. No men were killed but there were more than a few wounded by artillery and sniper fire.  The bridge opened at noon on the 3rd and allowed the infantry to move five more kilometres into German territory fighting stiff resistance all the way to their objective on the Dutch border.  Two men from the 7th Field Company were killed by a mine while supporting the infantry advance. One was Sgt C.V. Hebner, MM, a veteran of both Dieppe and Normandy.  Another bridge was built on the 6th of October, but just as the Canadian were confident the approaches to the Operation SWITCHBACK start line would be secure, the Germans launched a counter-attack. This forced the battle on to soft ground which made further an engineering nightmare.

By this time, the town of Woensdrecht less than five kilometres away and the objective of the first phase seemed within grasp. The Germans, however, were determined to hold the town as it controlled direct access to South Beveland and Walcheren Islands and guarded the north bank of the Scheldt. At this point, the challenges and opportunities were clear to all, and Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery, overall commander of the First Canadian Army and the Second British Army, issued a directive that made the opening of the Scheldt estuary the top priority. To the east, the British Second Army attacked westward to clear the Netherlands south of the Maas River to help secure the Scheldt region from an outside counter-attack.

The 4th Armoured Division was brought into the fight on 15 October. The 2nd Canadian Division had been clearing the approaches to the Beveland Peninsula since 2 October and their progress had ground to a halt. There was little more the sappers could do as progress was slow and costly. The infantry was doing all the work.

Operation VITALITY, the clearing of South Beveland Island was scheduled for 24 October, but could not start until the start line was secured.  Without having the right flank secured, further operations were risky. Thus, the 4th Division’s task was to protect the eastern and northern flanks from counter-attack.  The 8th and 9th Field Squadrons were initially put to work with the 2nd Divisional Engineers on continuing to improve routes forward, building and replacing bridges, clearing roadways and diversions, and lifting mines and booby traps. They started with an 80-foot Double Single over the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal near Lockenburg. The 6th Field Park Squadron was busy gathering large quantities of materials, much of it 'liberated' without requisitions from local building yards.  On 19 October, the Division divided itself into two battle groups and started their move northwards.  Flail tanks and AVREs from 81 Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers came under command of the 9th Field Squadron. 

In their advance up the west route, 8th Field Squadron had probably one of the most difficult tasks of the war. They started out with a very unusual experience when a party from 3 Troop swept about a mile of road up from Cappelen preparatory to the advance. The next day, 20 October when the push began, they learned that almost all the houses flanking this road had been occupied by Germans who must have watched them all the way. Lt Ditchburn led with a section of 2 Troop, followed closely behind by the remainder of the Troop under Lt McAdam. The first obstacle was a crater over 30’ in diameter and completely blocking the road. This was followed closely by eight abatis averaging 200’ in length, and 20 trees in each, between the railway crossing and CALMPTHOUT. There were booby traps on every third tree, some shells, some Tellermines, but all wired from branch to branch. On this same stretch, three craters, two anti-tank ditches and two mine and wire roadblocks were cleared. They were fired on by an enemy 20mm gun which bored several holes in one of their half-tracks. Shortly after tackling one of two fallen trees the bulldozer struck a mine and badly damaged the blade, which however protected the men from the blast.

Between Calmpthout and Esschen it was even worse, block after block of trees, a canal crossing and three anti-tank ditches, all with cleverly concealed booby-traps. At the railway crossing north of Calmpthout, Lt Ditchburn lost two mine detectors by small arms fire while checking ahead of the tanks. One sapper was wounded at the same time. The railway crossing itself was a nest of mines. In an area 20’ by 30’ five ‘R’ mines, six 105mm shells, one 50 kg bomb and two Schu mines were removed. Even then when the railway gates were opened the whole issue blew up killing L/Cpl MacDonald, Sprs McCaw and Trithart and wounding Cpls Stewart and Durand. From the size of the resulting crater, a 50 kg bomb booby-trapped with a tilt igniter was suspected. The next 150 yards was a solid abatis thickly booby-trapped. Two German snipers hiding nearby were wounded when a charge went off. Cpl Buchanan went forward to recce the north end of the block and stepped on a Schumine losing a foot. Lt Ward and Spr Fulham rushed to his aid and Lt Ward stepped on another, losing a leg. The blast caught Spr Fulham in the face. Spr Hanke carried out Cpl Buchanan and the rest of the party removed Lt Ward and Spr Fulham. Spr Johnston stepped on another shortly after and lost a leg. He died later. The tree block was cleared and a huge wet crater filled by dozing two houses into it. AVREs from 81 Assault Squadron filled a gap over the Roosendale Canal with fascines and a large unexploded bomb (UXB) was dragged behind a winch truck out of the road and into a field. 8 Fd Sqn sappers finally reached ESSCHEN from the west on 23 October after one of the most harrowing experiences of their career. Two vehicles then blew up on mines causing another three sapper casualties and bringing the total beyond those incurred in the preceding two months.

During this time, the 9th Field Squadron, although more fortunate, were also having their troubles. Starting at the road junction north of Maria ter Heide, 2 Troop led up the left fork and 3 Troop cleared the right for about a mile, then followed 2 Troop. At the road junction, 3 Troop removed many ‘S’ and Tellermines, and a 50 kg bomb booby-trapped to a house gate, then commenced clearing side roads where they removed dozens of mines and bombs and several burnt-out vehicles. 2 Troop cleared to Kruistraat encountering several ‘S’ mines in the verges and an ‘R’ mine.  AVREs were called on to fill a blown-out culvert with fascines. At Kruistraat, 3 Troop took over and cleared to Achterbroek leaving 2 Troop with lateral roads. 2 Troop lost two sappers killed and four wounded from ‘S’ mines while opening a lateral route. The enemy had a continuous belt of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines running west from Kruistraat. Dozens of ‘R’ mines were removed. 

On 21 October, the 4th Division was in striking distance of the town of Esschen. In its simplicity and daring, the plan was out of a training playbook. First, the infantry would advance through the fog and mist and occupy the town in darkness. The 9th Field Squadron would throw up a bridge over the Roosendale Canal, and at first light, the tanks would move up and finish the fight. All went exactly as planned. The first armoured vehicle across was a Flail tank. The sappers bagged four PoWs and the town was in Canadian hands by noon. 

Next: Role of the RCE in Operation SWITCHBACK


Article compiled by LCol Don Chipman (Ret'd) from official histories, war diaries and open sources.