Battle of the Scheldt
The Battle of the Scheldt was fought in October 1944 between Allied forces from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Poland, and the German forces occupying territory in northern Belgium and the southwestern portion of The Netherlands during the North-West Europe campaign.
After the failure to clear many of the Channel Ports in September 1944, the need for port facilities north of Normandy grew acute; Allied supply lines were moving farther and farther away from Normandy, where most of their supplies were landing in Europe, resulting in very long supply runs by truck to the Allied armies. Antwerp had fallen with intact port facilities in September, however, the waterway leading to Antwerp, the Scheldt Estuary, was lined with German forces, and in particular heavy coastal batteries on Walcheren Island prevented any Allied supply ships from approaching the Scheldt in order to land supplies in Antwerp.
First Canadian Army was given the task, as the left-most of the Allied armies on the continent, of clearing the Scheldt Estuary.
The fighting in the Battle of Normandy had caused extreme casualties among all the Allied armies between 6 June 1944 and the end of August. Fighting for the Channel Ports was less intense, but still costly, and as the Canadian Army headed into the Belgium, the need for reinforcements, particularly infantry reinforcements, began to reach crisis proportions.
The British Second Army had advanced into The Netherlands, and in a highly ambitious operation beginning on 17 September 1944, Operation MARKET-GARDEN established bridgeheads over several rivers including the Maas and Waal, and attempted to gain a bridgehead over the Rhine – the last major water barrier separating German territory from western Europe. The fighting at Arnhem, on the Rhine, resulted in the destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division and exceedingly heavy losses when relief forces from British XXX Corps failed to reach them before heavy counter-attacks by SS armoured units threatened to annihilate them. Had MARKET-GARDEN been successful, it was conceivable that strong pushes into German territory before the end of 1944 might have resulted in a German capitulation. By 1 October 1944 it was apparent, however, that campaigning would probably extend into 1945, and so emphasis returned to clearing a major port. Antwerp had the second largest port facilities in Europe and over 45 kilometres of docks.
German defences in the Scheldt region came under the command of LXVII Korps. The Germans had managed to solidify their defences after the panic of September 1944; had British forces thrust north from Antwerp immediately after its capture, they would have found the Scheldt poorly defended. Instead, Infanterie Division 70 had the opportunity to improve its defences on Walcheren Island.
To the south of the Scheldt, German forces belonged to Infanterie Division 64 under the command of Generalmajor Kurt Eberding. This formation was ordered to defend the south bank of the Scheldt Estuary from Zeebrugge to Terneuzen. This area would later be known as the Breskens Pocket. The division consisted of soldiers with experience from the Eastern Front, and had been raised during the summer of 1944, too late to serve in the fighting in Normandy. The division was nearly at full establishment, with 11,000 soldiers of all ranks. Hitler designated their area of responsibility Scheldt Fortress South; the 64th Division collected weapons from other units of the 15th Army as they retreated through them, eventually fielding 500 machine guns and mortars, 200 anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns of various calibres (including 23 of 8.8cm type), and 70 field guns, with access to the five batteries of coastal artillery on both sides of the Scheldt Estuary.
Up until the liberation of Ossendrecht during the intial move north from Antwerp, the Canadians faced Infanterie Division 346, a low grade unit, as well as elements of Infanterie Division 85 and Kampfgruppe Chill.
Also on South Beveland were naval personnel of the 202nd Marine Artillery Battalion. During the battle, some remnants of Infanterie Division 64 managed to escape north to South Beveland as the Breskens Pocket was reduced.
During the Scheldt fighting, the 2nd Canadian Division found themselves opposed by several different German formations under the auspices of the German LXVII Corps.
346 Infanterie Division
Up until the liberation of Ossendrecht, the Division faced the 346th Infantry Division, a low grade unit.
Assault Gun Brigade 280 also loaned support to the 346th Infantry Division; equipped with PzIV/70 in addition to StuG III and StuG IV vehicles, fighting with Parachute Regiment 6. The Brigade reorganized several times, ending up as two Kampfgruppen (Battle Groups) under Oberst Rossbach and Oberleutnant Lange, falling back to Haarle on 23 October 1944. On Nov 1, the battle groups received 5 new SturmHaubitzes (Assault Howitzers) to replace the lost StuG III and IV’s. But, after fierce fighting in conjunction with the 346th Infantry Division, these German units were withdrawn.
As the 346th Infantry Division moved away from the Canadian front, the Canadians found themselves opposed by elements of the 85th Infantry Division, placed under the command of Generalleutnant Kurt Chill and consequently referred to as Battle Group Chill.
The Kampfgruppe consisted of
a) Remnants of Grenadier (Infantry) Regiment 1054 and Grenadier Regiment 1055
b) Field Replacement Battalion 185
c) The 1st Battalion of Parachute Regiment 2
d) The 1st and 3rd Battalions of Parachute Regiment 6
e) Training and Replacement Regiment “Hermann Goering”
f) Artillery Regiment 185
In actual fact, by October, Kampfgruppe Chill was gradually replaced in the line with regular divisions. Von der Heydte (as reported in Whitaker’s book Tug of War) used the name of the battle group as a deception. The name was vague enough to camouflage the size and location of his parachute regiment. It was von der Heydte’s paratroops that the Calgary Highlanders fought so bitterly with in Hoogerheide. These units were also reinforced at times by remnants of Army Assault Gun Brigade 244 and Army Assault Artillery Brigade 667.
The Calgary Highlanders’ War Diary contains the following entry on 15 October 1944 which describes the type of soldiers they were facing:
There is one definite trait in the type of Hun we are encountering here. He fights ferociously to the end while he has ammunition, weapons and sufficient men. He has a code which allows stretcher bearers and RAP personnel an immunity which had been denied by the SS troops. Patrols have reported that he is very sensitive at night and quite bold. One P.W., ex-paratrooper, brought in through Maj. Robinson’s area, surrendered without a fight after he claimed his company had been almost completely wiped out by arty. fire. He had hidden in a fox-hole for 3 days and finally had been driven out by the pangs of hunger to let down DER FUEHRER.
The force von der Heydte commanded at Hoogerheide included over 4000 men, 2600 of those actual combat troops.
70th Infanterie Division
Walcheren Island itself was garrisoned by the German 70th Division under Generalleutnant Daser. The 70th was referred to as a “White Bread” or Mogen (Stomach) Division since it was made up of men on a special diet for medical reasons. Some were recovering from stomach wounds, others had digestive problems such as ulcers and could not tolerate German flour (heavier and darker than Canadians would be used to). The Germans grouped these men together and in August 1944 the 70th Division was assigned guard duty in Zeeland.
The 70th Infantry Division initially held both Walcheren Island and South Beveland but were forced to consolidate on Walcheren itself in late October. Sixty year old Generalmajor Wilhelm Daser was the Division commander. It was composed of Grenadier Regiment 1018 (from Security Battalion 1203 & 1205), Grenadier Regiment 1019 (from Security Battalion. 1211 & 1212), Grenadier Regiment 1020 (from Security Battalion. 1213 & 1214), Divisional Füsilier Battalion 70, and Artillery Regiment 170.
The 1019th Grenadier Regiment under Oberst Reinhardt was stationed in Flushing and surrendered on 3 November 1944.
Also in the area were naval personnel of the 202nd Marine Artillery Battalion, as well as remnants of the 64th Infantry Division that had escaped from the Breskens pocket to the south. The 64th had originally been ordered to defend the south bank of the Scheldt Estuary from Zeebrugge to Terneuzen and took heavy losses as the Third Canadian Division battled to clear the area.
The 70th Infantry Division surrendered on the 5th of November after British landings on Walcheren Island.
Opening the Scheldt
Orders for clearing the Scheldt had been given before MARKET-GARDEN, on 12 September 1944. First Canadian Army, with II Canadian Corps under command, also had available the Polish 1st Armoured Division, British 49th (West Riding) Division and eventually the British 52nd (Lowland) Division.
The Battle of the Scheldt consisted of four phases
clearing the area north of Antwerp and the neck of the South Beveland peninsula
clearing the so-called Breskens Pocket, north of the Leopold Canal and south of the Scheldt Estuary (these actions were fought concurrently with the actions by the 2nd Division, primarily by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division)
clearing the area north of the Scheldt Estuary, known as South Beveland
clearing Walcheren Island, and its coastal batteries
On 2 October 1944 the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division moved north from Antwerp to clear the neck of the South Beveland peninsula. German troops from Kampfgruppe Chill were strongly entrenched in Woensdrecht and Hoogerheide. Several days of bloody fighting beginning on 6 October 1944 failed to dislodge the Germans; terrain was open or flooded and heavily mined. On 13 October 1944, the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada was virtually destroyed launching an attack on a feature known as “the coffin” due to the shape it described on a map.
A final attack on Woensdrecht was launched on 16 October 1944 which finally pushed the Germans out of the neck of the Peninsula. Orders from 21 Army Group made opening the Scheldt a priority, and the 2nd British Army also attacked west from their positions to assist in clearing Dutch territory south of the Maas River, helping secure the Scheldt region from German intervention. The 8th Reconnaissance Regiment also liberated North Beveland.
The 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division, previously fighting south of the Scheldt, moved past the 2nd Canadian Division, to the north, to liberate Bergen op Zoom. By 24 October 1944 German access to South Beveland had been completely cut off. The division paused in Bergen op Zoom before pushing eastwards to St. Philipsland, where it had the distinction of engaging German naval vessels in Zijpe harbour.
The movement down the South Beveland Peninsula began on 24 October 1944 when the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division advanced westward from their hard-earned gains at Woensdrecht. Mud, mines, and strong enemy resistance dashed hopes of a quick advance, and the Beveland Canal – bisecting the peninsula – proved to be a major obstacle which had to be defeated by an amphibious landing by the British 52nd (Lowland) Division. With British troops now behind the Canal, the 6th Canadian Brigade attacked the canal head on in assault boats, and engineers managed to establish a crossing on the main west-east road. Once positions on the Beveland Canal were cleared, German resistance on South Beveland collapsed and remnants of the German forces there withdrew to Walcheren Island.
The final phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was the clearing of Walcheren Island. Canadian attempts to reach the island were severely hampered by terrain. The only land approach was a 40 yard wide causeway over the Slooe Channel, known to the Dutch as the Sloedam, and to the Allied soldiers who fought there as the Walcheren Causeway. Several attempts to form a bridgehead on the Walcheren side of the Causeway between 31 October and 2 November 1944 were thrown back by German counter-attacks. It was here that The Calgary Highlanders fought one of their most well-remembered actions of the Second World War.
Defences on the Island itself were formidable, and heavy coastal batteries were located on the western and southern coasts, which were fortified against amphibious assault. A landward-facing defensive perimeter had been established at Vlissingen (Flushing), defending the port facilities there in the event of a successful Allied amphibious landing on the island.
Allied heavy bombers attacked Westkapelle on 3 October 1944 in an effort to flood portions of the island and hamper German defensive efforts. On 7 October, two areas near Vlissingen were bombed and on 11 October bombs fell on dykes at Veere. German defenders were forced onto high ground near the towns.
Three different attacks were launched on the island; the Canadians optimistically hoped to “bounce” the Causeway in a lightning move as they came from the east; British troops of the Special Service Brigade and 52nd Division planned amphibious operations from the south and west.
As the Canadians and later 52nd Division fought at the eastern end of the island at Walcheren Causeway, amphibious landings in two parts were launched The amphibious landings were conducted in two parts on 1 November. Operation INFATUATE I saw infantry of the British 155th Infantry Brigade and Number 4 Commando ferried across in small landing craft from Breskens, assaulting a beach in south-east Vlissingen. Heavy street-fighting ensued.
Operation INFATUATE II, also on 1 November, was a major amphibious landing at Westkapelle by the 4th Special Service Brigade, under heavy naval bombardment by the Royal Navy and supported by the 79th Armoured Division with its special purpose armoured engineer vehicles. This forces landing on both sides of a gap in the sea dyke and heavy fighting ensued at Westkapelle.
On 6 November 1944, Middelburg was finally liberated and all fighting on the island had ceased by 8 November, bringing the Battle of the Scheldt to a close.
On 28 November 1944, the first Allied supply convoy entered Antwerp after the Scheldt was swept for mines.
The month-long battle had been a severe test for the Canadian Army, and coupled with casualties in the Battle of Normandy and the battles for the Channel Ports, exacerbated a demand for infantry reinforcements which would lead to a full blown crisis in Canada regarding conscription.
In the course of five weeks of fighting, First Canadian Army had taken 41,043 prisoners, and suffered 12,873 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing), 6,367 of whom were Canadian nationals, the remainder from British and Polish units under command.
Antwerp remained a significant location after the Scheldt; German V-2 rockets were launched against the city to disrupt the movement of Allied supplies, and in December 1944 the Ardennes Offensive was aimed at recapturing the port.
Jeffery Williams described the fighting in the Scheldt as follows:
Flat, dyked country, much of it polderland reclaimed from the sea, borders both banks of the Scheldt. Roads and a sprinkling of houses are built on some of the dykes, villages on islands of higher ground. Small orchards and the trees lining roads and canals offer some vertical relief to the landscape but can, in themselves, be monotonous in the regularity of their planting. But dykes had been opened and water glistened on the polders, not deep enough to float an amphibious vehicle but sufficient to drown a wounded man.
There were days of bright sunshine during the Scheldt battles, usually after morning mist and fog, but these have been forgotten. The abiding memory is of grey skies, rain, fog, bone-chilling dampness, boots, battledress and blankets soaking wet, cold food, matches that wouldn’t light, the soldier’s weariness that is as much fear as lack of sleep, and everywhere, mud and water. 1