CDG 57 – Canadian Infantry Attack, 1944
The July 2013 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “Canadian Infantry Attack, 1944.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Brigadier John Godfrey “Jock” Spragge, commander of 7th Infantry Brigade, 3d Canadian Division. In October 1944, Spragge’s brigade received the mission to attack across the Leopold Canal near the Holland-Belgium border, defeat German defenders and establish bridgeheads north of the canal. The attack was part of Operation Switchback, one of the Canadian-led efforts to clear German forces from the Scheldt River Estuary, the 50-mile-long region on both sides of the Scheldt River spanning from the river’s mouth on the North Sea coast to the deepwater port of Antwerp, Belgium.
Clearing the estuary was vital to the continued logistical support of Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s American, British and Canadian armies. Although the previous summer Allied forces had swept across France all the way to the German border, supplying such a massive effort required tens of thousands of tons of food, ammunition and fuel each day. Ike’s armies desperately needed a deepwater port to ensure the flow of supplies necessary to support their impending war-winning drive into the heart of Germany.
Antwerp was host of one of Europe’s finest deepwater ports. Although units of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21 Army Group had liberated Antwerp September 4, 1944, the Germans maintained control of the Scheldt Estuary, preventing the Allies’ use of the port. Thus, before the port could become the solution to Eisenhower’s logistical problems, control of the estuary had to be wrenched from enemy hands.
The objective of Operation Switchback, a key initial step in the long and arduous process of capturing the estuary, was to clear German forces from the Scheldt River’s south bank (approximately the area bounded by the river on the north and the Leopold Canal on the east and south). The attackers’ task was made more difficult by the flat, open ground that gave German defenders excellent long-range fields of fire and the low-lying region’s waterlogged terrain (including large areas of deliberately flooded “polders”) that restricted vehicle movement to dikes and raised embankments.
Spragge’s 7th Infantry Brigade was tasked with leading off 3d Canadian Division’s effort by seizing a bridgehead that would breach the Germans’ Leopold Canal defenses and provide a foothold for launching subsequent attacks. Spragge decided to initiate a two-pronged attack, with Canadian Scottish Regiment (followed by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles) assaulting between Oosthoek and Moershoofde in the center of the sector while the Regina Rifles struck Biezen on the left (CDG COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DUAL ATTACK). In order to maintain the element of surprise, there was no preceding artillery barrage.
At 5:30 a.m. on October 6, 1944, the assault kicked off with the brigade’s 27 “Wasp” flamethrowing Bren Universal Carriers aligned along the canal blasting sheets of fire at German positions on the opposite bank. Next, the dual attack began with the leading troops crossing the canal in assault boats and on engineer-built kapok bridges.
Although the flamethrowing “Wasps” initially drove German defenders from forward positions, the enemy rallied to restrict the Regina Rifles to a tiny toehold. Canadian Scottish Regiment, however, later reinforced by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, seized a substantial bridgehead and engaged in heavy combat to expand it. On October 9, after three days of grinding combat, the two bridgeheads were finally linked. By the time the expanded bridgehead was declared secured October 13, the Canadian brigade had suffered 111 killed in action and 422 wounded or captured.
In addition to producing a secure bridgehead on the canal’s north bank to support subsequent clearing operations, the brigade also helped other 3d Canadian Division units achieve their objectives in the effort to clear the Scheldt Estuary by drawing in German reserves. After several more weeks of hard fighting, the estuary eventually was cleared November 8. Twenty days later, after German naval mines had been swept from the waters, the first Allied shipping reached the port of Antwerp.
Because so much of the operation’s fighting took place in water-soaked terrain, Field Marshal Montgomery gave 3d Canadian Division the nickname “Water Rats” – an honor echoing the famed “Desert Rats” nickname earned by 7th British Armored Division in North Africa.
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DUAL ATTACK, or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of a World War II water obstacle assault crossing. (See “After Action Report.”) By attacking at two locations, the Canadians forced the Germans to face multiple assault crossings and thereby spread their defenses. Weighting the attack in the center sector with two regiments increased the Canadians’ chances of seizing a substantial bridgehead – even if the weaker, single regiment attack on the left was unsuccessful, it still would serve to draw off German defenders from the center assault crossing.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: FLANKING ATTACK had several tactical disadvantages. First, by having the brigade attack at only one point, it risked committing the regiments piecemeal. Second, even if the attackers seized a small bridgehead, the flooded area restricted subsequent maneuvering. Finally, the plan allowed the defenders to concentrate their firepower and troop strength on a single threatened point.
Although COURSE OF ACTION TWO: TRIPLE ATTACK forced the Germans to spread their defenses across the sector, it correspondingly diluted the attackers’ strength – potentially producing three weak attacks, each lacking the strength to capture a bridgehead. Moreover, the plan did not provide a substantial (regiment-sized) reserve that Spragge could employ to reinforce any of the attacks that looked promising.
AFTER ACTION REPORT
Key Points for A WWII Water Obstacle Assault Crossing
- PLAN the attack in detail; include all participants (infantry, engineers, fire support, etc.).
- TRAIN all participants to work together; conduct intense, realistic rehearsals.
- PRE-POSITION all necessary bridging equipment, assault boats and supplies.
- SUPPRESS enemy artillery and strongpoints with overwhelming fire support.
- ASSAULT with maximum strength at multiple locations to spread enemy defenses.
- EXPAND each beachhead and link up separate ones as rapidly as possible.
- SUPPORT with reinforcing reserve troops and resupply to quickly consolidate gains.