The Role of the RCE in Operation INFATUATE

Date 
Nov 01

This is the fourth in a series describing the role of the Royal Canadian Engineers during Operation INFATUATE which lasted from 1 until 8 November 1944.

The combined actions of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and 52nd (Lowland) Division had marched west down the South Beveland isthmus and cleared all German opposition from South Beveland by 31 October. There remained one final step in the campaign before Antwerp’s harbour could be opened– Walcheren Island. 

The Battle of the Causeway

Situated at the north-western end of the Scheldt Estuary, just west of South Beveland across the Sloe Channel, Walcheren Island is connected to South Beveland by a narrow causeway, 40 metres wide and 1600 metres long. The island was defended by the German 70th Division guarding the most powerful German coastal artillery positions on the Atlantic Wall stretching from Southern France to Norway.

Walcheren Island 31 October 1944
Walcheren Island 31 October 1944

Bomber Command and the 2 Tactical Air Force attacked targets on Walcheren throughout September. The heavy anti-aircraft fire reduced the effectiveness of bombing and with the coastal batteries and the defending forces not overly effected, it an Allied amphibious assault would be extremely difficult and costly. The solution came from Lieutenant-General Guy Simmons who forwarded the idea to flood Walcheren by attacking the dykes. Flooding would cause great disadvantage to the enemy by disorganising communications, reinforcement and inundate some of their defences.

Simmons plan met with considerable concern many of the staff, including Brigadier Walsh, the highest-ranking RCE officer at II Corps HQ. Many were reluctant to take such an approach as the collateral damage to the civilian population would be catastrophic. Nonetheless, Simmons persisted and between 2 and 17 October, RAF bombers breached the dykes in four locations and flooded four-fifths of the island.  This played havoc with Walcheren agriculture, as valuable land was permanently spoiled by salination. The direct loss of human life due to drowning had been minor, but most of the livestock drowned. Of 19,000 dwellings 3,700 were destroyed; 7,700 had severe damage and 3,600 minor damage. However, to the advantage of Simmons, German morale in many units, was negatively affected and supply to the guns and the defending division made difficult.

As the Allies got closer to being able to take Walcheren, the bombers came again between 28 and 30 October.  Dropping more than 4000 tons of bombs, 11 of the 28 coastal artillery batteries were put out of action. The Royal Regiment of Canada attacked the eastern defences in darkness on 31 October in an attempt to 'bounce' the Causeway. At the 0640 hours, they erroneously (or purposefully?) reported: “enemy in the middle surrounded”. This confused the German defenders at the South Beveland end of the Causeway and they came out of their fortified positions and surrendered.  The rest of the battle would not be so easy as the Causeway was more heavily defended and presented a challenge not seen so far.

The planned attack on the Causeway opened in the afternoon of  31 October, when the Black Watch of the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade advanced over the Causeway. There was no cover and no way for armour to move across the flooded and soggy ground.  The whole of the Causeway was covered with overlapping arcs of fire. Another attempt was made that night but again was driven back with heavy casualties. The third assault on 1 November by the Calgary Highlanders won a small bridgehead on Walcheren that was held until the attackers were once again driven back to South Beveland. 

The following day, a fourth Canadian attack led by le Régiment de Maisonneuve re-established the bridgehead on Walcheren and later that same day, the 52nd Division relieved the exhausted Canadian infantrymen. The Canadians withdrew and more British troops poured into the Causeway bridgehead. On 3 November, other Lowland units daringly crossed the Sloe channel in boats to outflank the German defences. Within 24 hours the division had established a sizable bridgehead across the island’s unflooded eastern fringes. The fight for Walcheren, as far as the Canadian Army was concerned, was over.

RCE Role in the Battle of the Causeway

Before the amphibious assaults on Walcheren, the 30th Field Company had taken their observation towers from the far side of the Leopold Canal and move them forward into the Breskens pocket to cover the assault on Flushing. This work stooped on 31 October to start preparing for rafting tasks when a number of Class 9 rafts were built to carry vehicles and supplies across the seven-mile stretch of open water between Terneuzen on the south bank to Flushing on the north bank of the Scheldt. 

The 4th Canadian Brigade led the first assault on the Causeway. Earlier engineer reconnaissance ruled out an attack across the mudflats and the attacking troops had to go right down the causeway through the murderous enemy fire with no place to hide except in bomb craters and a few German slit trenches dug along the Causeway.  Two-thirds across was a huge carter blown as an antitank obstacle and there was a massive anti-tank roadblock at the far end of the Causeway. The secondary road on the south side of the Causeway was mined, further narrowing the attack frontage. Machine guns on fixed lines of fire, well-placed anti-tank weapons and registered artillery targets on the Causeway and its approaches made crossing the Causeway this a formidable task. The 7th Field Company stood by at the Causeway entrance to provide support.

Canadian Dressing Station on Walcheren Dyke
Canadian Dressing Station on
Walcheren Dyke

The first attack went in on the afternoon of 31 October. An officer from the 7th Field Company went forward with the infantry. Despite heavy anti-tank fire forcing their armoured support to withdraw after losing most of their vehicles, the Black Watch got to within 25 metres of the western end of the Causeway. They valiantly tried to continue, but their heavy casualties and continuing German fire made any further gains impossible. They were withdrawn just before nightfall.

A second attempt to seize the route undertaken by the Calgary Highlanders was launched that night but had no artillery support until 06:15 the following morning.  The Calgaries were then able to move fairly quickly across the Causeway and by noon this third attack had established a small bridgehead on the far side of the roadblock with heavy losses. An armoured D-7 dozer from the 7th Field Company made a valiant attempt to file the crater but after five quick but poorly aimed shots from an 88-mm cannon, the dozer withdrew before they scored a hit. The Germans counter-attacked at 5:30 that evening and all gains were lost. The war diary of the chief division engineers’ (CRE in the parlance of the times) war diary reported:

“Field Engineer watches tide to determine rise and spread. RHC [The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada] attack failed. 7 Fd unable to get forward. CH [Calgary Highlanders] attacked across causeway. Storm boats not required, attack failed.”

Canadian built Fort Cataraqui unloading in Antwerp
Canadian built Liberty ship
Fort Cataraqui
unloads oil on an Antwerp dock

The brigade made a fourth attack the following morning on 2 November. The Régiment de Maisonneuve was able to regain the Calgary’s bridgehead and held it long enough for units of the 52nd (Lowland) division to relieve them and take over the fight. The 7th Field Company remained on Walcheren to support the Scots 157th Brigade while the rest of the 2nd Division retired to the Antwerp area for rest. They dismantled the mined roadblock and the "corduroyed the crater" on the causeway on 3 November. They withdrew the following day to join the rest of the division in its rest area near Antwerp. The 31st Field Company stay on South Beveland supporting other British units. The final capture of Walcheren was accomplished by British formations (under First Canadian Army), who landed at Flushing and Westkapelle on 1 November.

The 30th Field Company had built rafts to support the amphibious assaults and starting on 2 November made a few disastrous attempts to take vehicles and supplies across the choppy Scheldt to Flushing. but in the end, rafting was called off and they turned their efforts into maintaining ramps in and out of the water for Buffalo LVTs going back and forth to Walcheren. On 8 November 1944, the Germans surrendered and the Battle of the Scheldt was over.

 

Next: Sapper Gallantry in the Scheldt

 

This article was prepared by LCol Don Chipman (Ret'd) from official histories, war diaries and open sources.