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Posted on Aug 25, 2004 in War College

The Battle of the Scheldt

By Danny Bouchard

Eisenhower and Montgomery never gave it top priority until it was almost too late. The Scheldt was one of the most important and bloody campaigns Canadian soldiers ever fought in. This was a chapter of WWII that had, by and large, been forgotten, with the exception of the Dutch people who were liberated, and the Canadian soldiers who fought in it.

Dutch people attending the burial of fifty-five members of the Canadian A Company, The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment).

In August 1944, the Canadian Army had been fighting steadily for two months, pushing inland. General Montgomery commands the British, American and Canadian forces attempting to encircle the German 15th Army at Falaise. The enclosure succeeded, with the British and Canadians closing from the North and the US (Patton) from the South, but not before a substantial amount of German soldiers escaped. They Axis soldiers fled to the north, attempting to reach German lines. Allied commanders (Montgomery) thought the destruction of the 15th Army would permit an end of the war by Christmas.

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On August 25th 1944, Paris was liberated. British and US armies advancing into German held territory attracted most of the press. The Canadians were assigned a less glamorous task; that of attacking and liberating French minor ports along the northern coast. The Canadian Army was under the command of General Crerar. They encountered very serious German resistance, as the area that the Canadians were attempting to liberate had been heavily defended; this was the location Hitler assumed the Allied landings of D-Day were to have taken place in.

The Canadians suffered heavy casualties during these port clearings. Supplies were still a problem for the Allies, as they were being brought up from an artificial port in Normandy. It was crucial that the Canadians capture a port closer to the Allied lines, but every port had been rendered useless by the retreating Germans. Seeing this, Montgomery sets his sights on the Belgium port of Antwerp, one of the largest ports in western Europe. On 30 August 1944, Montgomery ordered Gen. Horrocks of XXX Corps to mount an attack and take Antwerp. Horrocks was on the Seine River at this time.

On 2 September 1944, Horrock’s XXX Corps crossed into Belgium with minor German resistance encountered. Brussels was liberated on 3 September 1944 by XXX Corps. Because of this, the Belgian resistance in Antwerp (35km north of Brussels) mobilized and started taking action against the fleeing Germans. On 4 September 1944, XXX Corps reaches Antwerp, and with the help of the Belgian resistance the city was secured and the port facilities were captured intact. The advance was halted at Antwerp.

By not advancing past this city and liberating Holland, this in a sense rendered the port of Antwerp useless. The Scheldt estuary, which connects the North sea with Antwerp, was 80km long and in Dutch territory. The Germans held both sides of the estuary. This was a blunder made by Montgomery, and Canadian soldiers would now have to pay the price. Montgomery (now Field Marshall), failed to order Horrock’s XXX Corps to seize the Scheldt. Montgomery was still obsessed with the idea of a narrow thrust deep into Germany, which would carry him all the way to Berlin.

For some weeks, Montgomery attempted to convince Allied High Command of his plan. However, there wasn’t enough supplies to properly support the Allied armies. The plan was codenamed Comet. Eisenhower was slow to react, however, as this plan would place US forces under the command of Montgomery.

Meanwhile, Canadian Lt. Gen. Guy Simmonds were alarmed by the build-up of German strength on both sides of the Scheldt estuary. The soldiers who had escaped the Falaise pocket (15th Army) had now set up on one of the Scheldt estuary banks. Montgomery took no action in reference to the German organization in the Scheldt. The British troops were to remain in Antwerp, and the orders for the Canadians: Continue the port clearing operations. It was not necessary to assault all the ports as they were all very well defended. It would have been better to seal them off and isolate them instead.

Simmonds believed this assignment was a waste of resources. He came up with a plan to move the Canadians north along the coast towards the Dutch town of Breskens, then head east towards Antwerp and clear out the Scheldt estuary. Simmonds plan never made it to Montgomery, as Simmonds superior officer, Gen. Crerar, didn’t get along with Montgomery and a rift now existed between the two. Because of this, Crerar decided that it was not a good time to challenge Montgomery’s orders.

Allied indecision allowed Hitler some time. He ordered measures to solidify German positions in the Scheldt. Comet had been revised and was now called Market-Garden. British units in Antwerp were to be used for operation Market-Garden so Canadian units replaced them in Antwerp. On 17 September 1944, Market-Garden was launched, but it ultimately met with failure. By now, a port was a main priority for the Allies. Eisenhower saw this, but Montgomery still wanted a push into Germany. Around the 26th of September 1944, Eisenhower told Montgomery to forget about this thrust into Germany, and his first priority was to clear the harbor of Antwerp. Montgomery conceded and assigned the task to the First Canadian Army.

Guy Simmonds assumes command as Crerar was evacuated to England. The battle of the Scheldt would be the largest infantry battle under Canadian command of WWII. British and Polish units would join the attack. It was a battle that could have been easily won, but to Allied indecisiveness. It was a delay that gave Hitler all the time he needed to turn the Scheldt into a fortress. At the end of September 1944, the Canadian Army was ready for its advance into the Scheldt, and Lt. Gen. Simmonds’ plan was approved. Firstly, RAF bombers must bomb and destroy dikes on Walcheren Island. On 3 October 1944, the RAF dropped more than 1,000 tons of HE bombs on the WestKapelle dike, breaching the Walcheren island perimeter at three places. The sea rushed in and virtually flooded the island. Now the land battle was set to begin.

The 3rd Canadian Division would attack the Breskens pocket which was on the south side of the estuary. The 2nd Canadian Division would attack up the Beveland peninsula, and the 4th Armored Division would be protecting the flank of the 2nd. The terrain was quite difficult, it was all mud and muck. Troops could not move cross-country, they were confined to the roads. The first attacks, codenamed Switchback, were designed to clear the south bank of the river (Breskens pocket). Canadian troops crossed the Leopold Canal, and 3rd Division, 7th and 8th Brigade assaulted the pocket towards Schoondijk. The North Nova Scotia Regt. launched an amphibious assault from the sea and landed behind the German lines.

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2 Comments

  1. My father was Merchant Navy (Steward) and was on the second merchant vessel (Empire Asquith) behind Fort Cataraqui. The convoy was under attack from V1 rockets, U-Boats and mines. It should be pointed out that the people of Antwerp – the Flemish, were also grateful to the relief of Antwerp by the Canadian forces as well as British commandos (never mentioned, the Royal Navy and last but not least the forgotten service ‘The Merchant Navy’

  2. My old ship HMS Aristocrat a paddle ship having been in Normandy DDay, was involved with the battle on the Scheldt and was one of the first ships into Antwerp.
    I’m always disappointed that she never gets a mention in any account of history.
    I remember it well. If the book called a ‘Paddler goes to war’ is read you will find it there.

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