The Role of the RCE in Operation SWITCHBACK

Oct 06

By the last week in September, the II Canadian Corps had moved into the Antwerp area in preparation for the Battle of the Scheldt. The 2nd Infantry Division had begun the task of clearing the Beveland approaches north of the city on 2 October and the 3rd Infantry Division, with support of the 4th Armoured Division, was preparing to assault the Leopold Canal and clear the Breskens Pocket. The battle was to have lasted four days - it lasted four weeks. 

This is the second in a series describing the role of the Royal Canadian Engineers during the Battle of the Scheldt. Operation INFATUATE lasted from 6 October until 8 November 1944.

The Leopold Canal

The first phase in Operation SWITCHBACK was the assault over the 100-foot wide Leopold Canal by the 7th Brigade: Canadian Scottish Regiment right, Regina Rifles left, on 6 October 1944. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles would follow on to strengthen the bridgehead.  Two days later in the second phase, the 9th Brigade would launch an amphibious attack across the Braakman Inlet on the rear of the German defences out of Terneuzen to the northeast of the Breskens Pocket. In the initial plan, the 8th Brigade would break out of the Leopold Canal bridgehead and drive towards Knokke on the coast. When it became clear that the defence on the Leopold would not crumble as originally thought, the 8th Brigade followed the 9th from Terneuzen starting on 11 October.  The Leopold Canal crossing site was near the convergence of the Leopold and Dérivation Canals just north of the town of Maldegem in Belgium. 

Bailey bridge across the Leopold Canal with an RCE-built artillery observation tower in the background
Bailey bridge across the
Leopold Canal with an artillery
observation tower in the background

Sapper work in preparation for the assault began on 28 September when the 30th Field Company started building a number of 70-foot towers to allow artillery observers to see across the polders. The towers were built in situ and laid out on the ground to be pulled into place by D-7 bulldozers on the night of 5 October.  


Division engineer companies (6th, 16th and 18th Field Companies) used the Dérivation Canal as a training ground to perfect bridging, rafting and storm boat skills.  Also on 5 October, the 8th Field Squadron improvised a 90-foot class 12 floating-barge bridge over the Dérivation Canal.

WASP Flamethrowers bathe German positions on the Leopold Canal 6 October 1944
WASP Flamethrowers bathe German
positions on the Leopold Canal 6 Oct 44

H-hour was set for 05:30 on 6 October when 27 Wasp (Ronson) flamethrowers from the 3rd and 4th Divisions fired across the Canal and set the far bank ablaze. By 05:40, the 16th Field Company had a kapok footbridge in place at the Canadian Scottish crossing site. The Regina Rifles site was more challenging. The enemy recovered from the initial flame attack and the sappers were driven back. On the left, efforts to put in a bridge to support the assault of the Regina Rifles enemy fire held up completion until nightfall. In one of the attempts to get the second bridge across, the sappers launched seven bays before intense mortar, machine gun and sniper fire drove them back behind the dike. Sapper Robert Fisher, one of the original members of the company and still one of the younger members, was killed. Over the day, eight other sappers were wounded, including Sapper Warren Townsend who later died of wounds.  

These two kapok bridges, and the assault boats earlier used by the infantry, carried supplies, ammunition and wounded through the day and night. A class 9 close-support also put in place by the 16th Field Company raft was ready for use by midnight. During the following day, both kapok bridges suffered much damage from shelling but they were kept in good repair. The dangerous work on these bridges brought Corporal G. R. Wilson and Lance-Corporal C. O. Overby each a Military Medal. In both crossings, the infantry also used assault boats under engineer supervision with support from the North Shore Regiment. 

Crossing the Braakman Inlet

Also on 6 October, near Terneuzen, preparations for the 9th Brigade amphibious crossing scheduled for 8 October of the Braakman Inlet began.

Buffalo LTV Crossing Braakman Inlet
Buffalo LVT carrying troops of the
9th Brigade over
Braakman Inlet 9 October 1944

The operation would use Terrapins and Buffaloes, manned by the 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers. On 6 October, the 29th Field Company started building ramps near Terneuzen, so that the tracked amphibians could mount the banks they had arrived through a series of canals and locks), and build a causeway and road from the waterway to the harbour where they would enter the waters of the Scheldt. After some difficulties getting the vehicles to the entry points, the crossing started on 9 October. Among the first troops to touch down were parties from the 18th Field Company tasked with preparing exits. There was initially little enemy resistance, but artillery started to fall in the afternoon.  The Platoon officer and two sappers were wounded.  The 9th Brigade quickly pressed on and the 8th Brigade started crossing on 11 October and joined them.

On 10 October, the 16th Field Company handed over their bridges and rafts on the Leopold Canal to the 6th Field Company and started moving to the Terneuzen area to build two Class 40 rafts to carry tanks supporting the 8th and 9th Brigades.  The Terneuzen crossings put considerable pressure on the Germans defending the Leopold Canal, and by 12 October, the 7th Brigade’s two bridgeheads were consolidated. The 16th Field Company started the first raft late on 13 October when the equipment arrived on site. It was ready by 2300 hours that night but shifting tides and strong winds delayed its crossing until the following morning when the second raft was completed. They managed to get a few trips across between rising and falling tides. Although there was no direct contact with the enemy, there was shelling. However, at the same time, the tactical situation had improved and a land route was opened into the Breskens Pocket making the rafts redundant. During the operation on 14 October, Sapper Clifford Cousens was wounded and later died.  On 15 October, the company handed the task of dismantling the rafts to corps engineers and returned to the 7th Brigade area.

Breakout from the Leopold Bridgehead

Leopold Canal Bridgehead 6 - 13 October 1944
Leopold Canal Bridgehead
6 - 13 October 1944

By 12 October, the Canadian Scottish had forced their way out of the bridgehead and were in control of the Maldegem-Aardenburg road.  Using the improvised floating bridge built earlier by the 8th Field Squadron, a 120-foot Class 40 Bailey Bridge was put across both the Leopold and Dérivation Canals the following day by the 8th and 9th Field Companies with assistance for the 31st Field Company. Major M. H. C. W. Allan of the 8th Field Squadron had done the reconnaissance for both bridges and remained on the forward site until both bridges were opened to traffic was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Almost as soon as the bridges opened, the two squadrons packed up and re-deployed east of the 2nd Division area to support the 4th Division’s move to the east of Antwerp towards the Beveland Peninsula.

The 3rd Division continued fighting, now with a brigade of the recently arrived and untested 52nd (Lowland) Division under command from 15 October to relieve some of the troops in the bridgehead. As the rest of the Scottish Division arrived, engineers from II Corps Troops Engineers: the 29th, 30th and 31st Field Companies with the 8th Field Park Company, were assigned to provide support for upcoming operations in South Beveland (Op VITALITY). 3rd Canadian Division Engineers continued forward focused on route maintenance, building diversions and building bridges through the flooded polder lands.

Final Stages

Hickman Bridge in Belgium
Hickman Bridge built by the
6th Field Company 31 October 1944

The last stage began on 30 October when both the 8th and 9th Brigades got troops over the Uitwaterings Canal. Beginning at 0530 hours on the last day of October the 6th Field Company bridged the Canal near Retranchement. Lieutenant J. H. Alexander won the Military Cross for his efforts during the operation; to allow an early start, he had crossed the Canal and carried out the necessary detailed reconnaissance before a bridgehead had been established. The bridge opened at 1500 hours. The engineers lost one man seriously wounded by a Schu. Mine (buried in the floor of a roadside slit trench) and, later in the day, Sergeant J. L. Hickman, the bridge commander was killed, and five were wounded, when the enemy shelled the bridge site. In recognition of the high regard in which John Hickman was held, the bridge was named the Hickman Bridge.  A memorial now marks its original location.

Operation SWITCHBACK ended on 3 November 1944 with the final collapse of the Breskens Pocket and the liberation of Knokke and Zeebrugge. All land south of the Scheldt Estuary was in Allied hands.


Next: The Role of the RCE in Operation VITALITY


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