Sapper Bravery and Sacrifice in the Battle of the Scheldt

Oct 02

Between mid-September and 8 November 1944, the First Canadian Army fought to unlock the shipping route to the port of Antwerp and open a vital supply route to support the advance into Germany. Strong defences and the unique geography of the Scheldt Estuary this one of the most difficult battlefields of the Second World War.  The Canadians and their allies advanced over a maze of narrow roads, canals, dykes and flooded lowlands. While the ground dictated that the infantry would bear the brunt of the battle, and indeed they did, the ground also dictated that the sappers would be front and centre in every action.

While the infantry bore the weight of the suffering, Sapper loses were not insignificant. Of the over 800 Canadian soldiers who died in the Battle of the Scheldt, nearly sixty were sappers. This article describes the battle, the role of the Royal Canadian Engineers and the stories of each heroic act and of each sapper who died. This is the first of five parts telling the story of the gallantry and sacrifice of the Royal Canadian Engineers during the Battle of the Scheldt.

Part 1: The Battle of the Scheldt

First Canadian Army included the 2nd Canadian Corps (2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division), the 1st British Corps, the 1st Polish Armoured Division, and at various times, American, Belgian, and Dutch units. During the final phases of the war, it also included the 1st Canadian Corps who joined from Italy (1st Infantry Division and 5th Armoured Division). It had a strength ranging from 105,000 to 175,000 Canadians to  200,000 to over 450,000 with attached formations.
First Canadian Army

After the breakout from the Normandy Bridgehead and crossing the Seine on 30 August 1944, the First Canadian Army moved steadily up the coast of France clearing the channel ports to open supply lines for Allied forces.  As early as 4 September, elements had reached the destroyed Belgian port of Ostend. On their right, elements of the Second British Army had reached the Belgian port of Antwerp. Farther right, US formations were moving with similar speed. 

In a way, the Allies had become victims of their own success. The advance was well ahead of the planned schedule and serious supply problems were starting to emerge.  The artificial harbours in Normandy had long since been unable to keep up with the logistics demands. The few ports that were opened were unable to keep up. Antwerp was the second largest port in Europe after Hamburg and Allied planning counted on Antwerp to provide 40,000 tons of supplies a day. The capture of Antwerp and its approaches were seen to be the solution to all the supply problems.  

Montgomery with officers of the First Canadian Army. From left, Major-General Vokes, General Crerar, Field Marshal Montgomery, Lieutenant-General Horrocks, Lieutenant-General Simonds, Major-General Spry, and Major-General Matthews.
Officers of the First Canadian Army.
From left, Major-General Vokes, General 
CrerarField Marshal Montgomery, 
Lieutenant-General HorrocksLieutenant-
 Simonds, Major-General Spry,
and Major-General Matthews.

The River Scheldt runs north from the Antwerp docks for about 20 kilometres and turns right into the West Scheldt, a large estuary running west for more than 50 kilometres to the North Sea. The estuary was about six kilometres wide from bank to bank.  German forces had built strong defences on both banks and reinforced them heavily during the pause in the Allied advances due to MARKET GARDEN.  Entrances to the estuary were covered by fortifications on the south bank known as the Breskens Pocket and on Walcheren Island on the north bank.  The area known as South Beveland blocked the approaches to Walcheren and would have to be cleared. 

The Scheldt, and indeed most of the Netherlands, is totally unsuitable for mechanised operations, often described as the worst land in Europe on which to fight.  Most of it is land reclaimed from the sea. Called 'polder' land, it is made up of saucer-like plots of flat farmland bordered by canals and 5 to 8-metre-high dikes. Roads are on the tops of the dikes and are neatly lined by poplar trees. The German defenders had flooded most of the land and some parts were completely submerged. Trees had been cut and turned into mined and booby-trapped obstacles. 

Bad Planning or Bad Luck?

Here comes one of the fundamental puzzles of the war on the Western Front. From before the Normandy Invasion, Allied planners knew that to control the port facilities in Antwerp and its approaches would be vital to their efforts. However, despite the successes in Normandy and the rapid pursuit of the Germans across France and into the Low Countries, little was done during September to achieve this goal.  The rapid advance of the Allies in August and the first week of September forced the Germans to withdraw from the Scheldt in fear of being cut off and when XXX Corps arrived in Antwerp, it was opposed by only a single German division between it and the North Sea entrance to Antwerp.

Espousing his ‘narrow front’ strategy aiming at the heart of Germany, Field Marshall Montgomery was confident the war could be ended by December. He felt the reliance on Antwerp was overstated and instead focused on launching Operation MARKET GARDEN, the airborne capture of key bridges through Belgium and the Netherlands. In early September, he halted resupply to XXX British Corps just short of the Albert Canal to the north of Antwerp, ostensibly to save resources for MARKET GARDEN.  Had XXX Corps been allowed to push on, the Scheldt might have been secured much earlier and at a lesser cost.  U.S. historian Charles B. MacDonald said the Allied decision to delay the Battle of the Scheldt was “One of the greatest tactical mistakes of the war.” First Canadian Army paid the price.

21st Army Group Before MARKEY GARDEN 15 September 1944
21st Army Group Before MARKET GARDEN 15 September 1944 (The Victory Campaign)

At the same time, the task of clearing the Channel ports remained a high priority to the First Canadian Army, but a week later, after meeting with General Eisenhower and almost as a second thought, Montgomery added the task of clearing the Scheldt Estuary to First Canadian Army once they were finished along the French coast. While General Crerar assigned the planning to his staff, he informed Montgomery that it would be two weeks or so to complete the clearing of the Channel ports and refit his weakened corps. Montgomery initially accepted Crerar’s conditions, but then changed the priorities so Crerar could back off on the Channel ports task and take over the Antwerp sector to allow the Second British Army to support MARKET GARDEN scheduled for launch on 17 September.

Preparing the Ground

The 4th Canadian Armoured Division was left out of the Channel ports task and were deployed, along with the 1st Polish Armoured Divisions in an economy of force mission stretching west to east from the coast to the Antwerp suburbs. With the Canadian infantry divisions tied up at Boulogne and Calais and unable to engage in the Scheldt for some weeks, the armour was required to maintain pressure on the enemy, protect the infantry divisions from attack and prepare the ground for what would be a fierce and bloody attack by First Canadian Army to seize both banks of the Scheldt.  Although the geography of the region did not suit armour, they were aggressive and fought hard to keep the Germans in check.

On 14 September, 4th Canadian Armoured Division launched a probing attack north of Antwerp but was unable to seize a crossing.  On 21 September 1944 with the Poles on their right, they moved north toward the south shore of the Scheldt and attempted to breach the obstacle formed by the Leopold and Dérivation de la Lys Canals running parallel across their front. The canals were initially crossed and a bridgehead established, but fierce counter-attacks by the Germans forced them back with heavy casualties. Nonetheless, they held firm on the south bank of the Leopold Canal and picketed the Breskens Pocket until the two infantry divisions could be moved into position.. To their east, the 1st Polish Armoured Division advanced to the banks of the Scheldt near the town of Terneuzen and cleared the south bank of the enemy up to Antwerp. In a little more than a week, the 2nd Infantry Division was ready to strike north out of Antwerp and the 3rd Infantry Division was prepared to launch a determined and pivotal attack across the Leopold Canal. From the start, the fighting was hard, heroic and costly.


Continued: Part 2: The Plan and the Battles


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