Slightly to the east of First Canadian Army, Operation MARKET GARDEN had launched on 17 September 1944. Of the four targeted bridge objectives, three were secured and the Allies had advanced to the outskirts of the city of Arnhem. While the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem was not won, the operation had pushed a 100-kilometre salient into German territory and the Second British Army was well established to guard Canadians right flank once the Scheldt battle got underway. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division and 1st Polish Division controlled the south bank of the Scheldt as far west of Antwerp as the Braakman Inlet.
Initial attempts by the 4th Division to establishing a bridgehead over the Leopold Canal were beaten off. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions were still tied up clearing the channel ports, but realizing the failure of Operation MARKET GARDEN, General Montgomery soon re-assigned their priority to clearing both sides of the Scheldt Estuary.
After a period of consolidating and securing the approaches west of Antwerp, the battle would begin in earnest of 2 October 1944. The II Canadian Corps deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division right and the 2nd Infantry left. For now, the 4th Armoured Division would remain on the south bank of the Scheldt.
This is the second of five parts telling the story of the gallantry and sacrifice of the Royal Canadian Engineers during the Battle of the Scheldt.
General Crerar broke the task into four main operations:
- Clear the Beveland Approaches: Secure crossings over the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal, clear the area north of Antwerp and secure access to the South Beveland isthmus;
- Operation SWITCHBACK: Clear the Breskens Pocket north of the Leopold Canal and south of the West Scheldt;
- Operation VITALITY: Capture South Beveland north of the West Scheldt; and
- Operation INFATUATE: Capture Walcheren Island. As part of the Atlantic Wall, Walcheren Island was considered to be the strongest concentration of defences the Germans built.
The Battles in Brief
Clearing the Beveland Approaches
The battle began on 2 October when the 2nd Infantry Division struck north to cross the Antwerp – Turnout Canal to clear the approaches to the Beveland Peninsula. For reasons lost in history, this stage of the Battle of the Scheldt, precursors to Operations VITALITY and INFATUATE, received no operational name. The Division made good progress to the isthmus itself where enemy paratroopers barred the way but casualties were heavy as Canadian troops attacked over ten miles of open flooded ground.
After two weeks of slogging, the town of Woensdrecht at the entrance to the Beveland Isthmus was in Canadian hands. While the 2nd Division turned right into South Beveland, the 4th Armoured Division continued north past to guard their flank. The operation was a success and South Beveland and Walcheren were cut off from resupply and counter-attack. A week later, the start line for Operation VITALITY, the crossing into South Beveland, was in Canadian hands.
Montgomery was now ready to focus all of the 21st Army Group on opening the Scheldt. The British Second Army attacked westwards to clear the Netherlands south of the Maas and seal off the Scheldt region, while the 1st Canadian Army concentrated on the area north of the Beveland isthmus. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division was moved north of the Scheldt and continued north, driving hard for Bergen-op-Zoom.
Operation SWITCHBACK - Clearing the Breskens Pocket 6 October - 2 November
Concurrent to clearing the Beveland approaches, Operation SWITCHBACK, assigned to the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, was launched on 6 October. Their opponents were the 10,000 men, machine guns, mortars and artillery of the German 64th Division whose task it was to defend the Breskens Pocket until the end. Land approaches to the pocket had been cut off earlier by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division along the length of the Leopold Canal and the area to the east up to Antwerp had been cleared of enemy by the 1st Polish Division. This allowed a two-pronged attack with the 7th Brigade crossing the Leopold Canal on 6 October and the 9th Brigade launching an amphibious assault out of Terneuzen on 9 October, attacking from the rear. The 8th Brigade would follow from Terneuzen.
The 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade faced a hard and costly fight. Their goal was to secure a bridgehead and draw forces away from the eastern parts of the pocket to allow the 9th and 8th Brigades to conduct their amphibious assault from the east three days later on 9 October. Fighting was fierce with the Germans launching counter-attack after counter-attack, but despite fierce resistance and severe casualties, the 3rd Division captured Breskens on 21 October, captured the German Division Commander on 2 November and accepted the German surrender on 3 November 1944. The Breskens Pocket was cleared and referring to the 8th Army ‘Desert Rats’, Montgomery affectionately dubbed the 3rd Canadian Division the ‘Water Rats’. Over 800 Canadian soldiers were killed in that month. Most are buried in the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery in Maldegem, Belgium.
Operation VITALITY - Clearing South Beveland Island 24 - 31 October 1944
With the Beveland approaches cleared, the First Canadian Army was ready to launch Operation VITALITY on 24 October 1944. By this time, Montgomery had overcome the disappointment of MARKET GARDEN’s failure and realized the opening of the Scheldt estuary had become his top priority. To protect the Canadian Army from counterattack from the east, the British Second Army was ordered to attack westward to clear the Netherlands south of the Maas River.
As a first step, with the 4th Canadian Armoured Division guarding its flank and rear against a counter-attack, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division turned west to start the advance into South Beveland. The route was about 15 kilometres long starting with crossing the Kreekrakdam connecting South Beveland to the mainland at the east end and the main German defences along the Beveland Canal in the west. The route was heavily mined, muddy and strongly defended by the German 70th Infantry Division. The going was tough and the approaches were impassible to tanks. The 6th Brigade attacked in assault boats. In the final act, the RCE bridged the canal on the main road and the German defence crumbled.
Meanwhile, on the West bank of the Scheldt in the area between the Breskens Pocket and Antwerp, the 52nd (Lowland) Scottish Division with II Canadian Corps Troops Engineers were preparing to launch an amphibious attack on the south side of South Beveland Island. The attack was launched in the early morning hours of 26 October outflanking the German defences on the Beveland Canal. Once the canal was cleared, the 2nd and 52nd Divisions made good progress and the island was cleared by 31 October. The third phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was now complete.
Operation INFATUATE - Anglo-Canadian Clearance of Walcheren Island
The final stage, Operation INFATUATE was the attack on the heavily fortified island of Walcheren at the mouth of the West Scheldt. Just prior to the battle, General Crerar was evaluated due to illness. Under the direction of Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, Royal Air Force Bomber Command bombed and breached the island's dykes, flooding the central part of the island and forcing the Germans onto the high ground.
Walcheren was linked to South Beveland by a 1200-metre causeway carrying a highway and a rail line. It was mined and had a large crater at the west end. Fighting for the Causeway began on 31 October and the 5th Brigade fought hard for three days before being relieved by British troops who were still stuck at the crater. On the night of 3 November, a Scottish battalion followed two Sappers across the mudflats to the south and after a hard fight, secured the causeway allowing the British 52nd Division to continue the advance. Meanwhile, on 1 November, a British infantry brigade and a Commando brigade, both under command First Canadian Army, conducted successful landings on the island. Fighting on the island ended on 8 November.
With the approaches to Antwerp free, the Battle of the Scheldt over. Nearly 1000 Canadian soldiers lost their lives securing South Beveland and Walcheren. Most are buried in the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery in Holland.
The Battle of the Scheldt lasted five weeks and is considered by some historians to have been waged on the most difficult battlefield of the Second World War. At the end of the five-week offensive, the victorious First Canadian Army had taken 41,043 prisoners but suffered nearly 13,000 casualties over half of whom were Canadians.
On 28 November, after the Royal Navy cleared the Scheldt of mines and obstacles, the first Allied cargo ships entered the port of Antwerp, led by the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui.
Article compiled by LCol Don Chipman (Ret'd) from official histories, war diaries and open sources.