The 2nd Canadian Division began its bid to secure South Beveland on the 2nd of October 1944.
The Calgary Highlanders remained in the Eindhoven area, with the rest of the Fifth Brigade, in reserve until 3 October. They relieved the South Saskatchewan Regiment at Lochtenberg on the 3rd. That afternoon, Brigadier Megill ordered the Highlanders to probe German defences at Fort de Schooten, a moated fort located on the Turnhout Canal, about 2 miles southwest of Lochtenberg. “A” Company was selected to scout the fort; moving off at night, without the assault boats expected from brigade headquarters. Captain Mark Tennant located an old punt, and the men of the scout platoon chewed gum to fill holes in its sides. “A” Company crossed the moat to find the fort had been abandoned by the Germans.
In the meantime, the battalion enjoyed a bath parade, received 66 reinforcements, and caught up on sleep. The Highlanders had a regimental superstition that said the arrival of the bath units (called “Chinese Hussars” by the troops) was an indication of a large scale attack to be made.
The battalion moved on the 5th, to Kappellen, in the vicinty of Brasschaet, 4 miles west. The brigade was ordered to advance along the line Hoogerheide-Korteven-Huijbergen, outflanking a series of German roadblocks on the way. The advance began on 6 October; as battalion headquarters bade farewell to “the voluptuous wife of the caretaker in the manor in which battalion headquarters had been billetted”.
The convoy carrying the Calgary Highlanders advanced through lines of cheering civilians, and stopped for the night at Drijhock, held up by a blown bridge.
The next morning, 7 October, after a “good night’s rest,” the battalion advanced on Hoogerheide. “C” and “B” Companies advanced across the Dutch border, followed by “A” and “D”; four paratroop battalions in the Hoogerheide-Woensdrecht area were preparing to defend the entrance to South Beveland.
Signaller Frank Holm remembered the advance:
“After overnighting north of Brasschaat the Calgary Highlanders were up before dawn (on 7 October), on the march in single file at five-yard intervals headed northwest on the road to Bergen op Zoom in Holland.
“As we passed through Putte, a small village right on the border, the people were up to see us as we passed through. I was impressed to see that each house flew a big black, gold and red Belgian flag about six feet long on a flagstaff that jutted out from the front of the house. Abruptly the colours of the flags changed. They were now the red, white and blue striped flags of the Netherlands. As dawn was breaking we could look back and see exactly where the border was by the colour of the flags. We were now in Holland. The area we were passing through had already been liberated. Everything was quiet.”
As late as 0900 on the 7th, resistance to the advance was light, with a few prisoners being taken, but by 1000 resistance stiffened. The two lead companies followed a creeping barrage, and by 1100 were engaging enemy positions with direct fire, while calling for additional artillery gunfire. During the afternoon, fighting intensified, and prisoners were found to be young and fit – not the aged and the crippled that were rumoured to be in the area.
As the Highlanders approached Hoogerheide itself, many casualties were suffered, and though 62 prisoners were taken, the Germans showed no sign of relenting. Pockets of Germans refused to surrender, and that night every company was hit by counter-attacks. Brigade headquarters also ordered the Highlanders to extend their front, to cover objectives originally assigned to Le Regiment de Maisonneuve, who had been delayed on the Highlanders’ right.
On 8 October, the Highlanders stood firm under intense enemy fire, and by early evening two counterattacks had been beaten off by “C” and “D” Companies. In the town itself, “A” Company and a company of the Black Watch maintained a hold on their positions and managed to take 31 prisoners, as well as a German truck and anti-tank gun.
During the early hours of 9 October, “A” and “D” Companies were both infiltrated by enemy fighting patrols. “A” Company was still fighting at dawn, and then subjected to a fierce counter-attack at 0600 hrs. “B” Company was heavily shelled, and pressure was increased on all the company positions, with heavy mortar fire falling throughout the day.
“B” Company seized an enemy occupied wood with tank support from the 10th Canadian Armoured Regiment, and a German concrete pillbox only 75 yards from battalion headquarters was finally reduced by Lieutenant Sandy Pearson and 19 men, who attacked the emplacement with flame-throwing carriers and tanks. Pearson physically grabbed German weapons as they protruded through the firing slits.
In the afternoon of the 9th, “A” Company was attacked from 3 sides; Major Del Kearns, the Officer Commanding, was wounded while at battalion headquarters. “D” Company was also under heavy attack and could not prevent “A” Company being surrounded. With all the company OCs at battalion headquarters, night fell and “A” Company, under Lieutenant Munro, finally battled back to “D” Company’s lines, reporting that artillery fire had caused heavy casualties on the German paratroops.
At dawn of the 10th, “B” and “D” Companies renewed the attack; “D” ran into heavy opposition while “B” not only reached its objectives, but passed them and was ordered to retire. At long last, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry were ordered to relieve the Calgary Highlanders, who moved to a rest area a few miles south.
Official estimates indicated that the Calgary Highlanders inflicted some 580 German casualties during the Hoogerheide battle. Lieutenant Colonel MacLaughlan returned to “A” Echelon for a rest, and Major Ross Ellis took over the battalion temporarily.
On the 11th, burial parties attended to the 30 men who had been killed. The regimental history by David Bercuson tells us that the Calgary Highlanders “battled continuously for some seventy-two hours, had held against a much stronger attacker, and had saved the brigade front, and possibly the divisional front, from collapsing.” The Highlanders inflicted those 580 enemy casualties at the cost of 30 dead and 70 wounded.
Bercuson further tells us that while the Germans did not have any armoured forces capable of driving the Allies back towards Antwerp, the loss of Hoogerheide would have meant a delay in the clearing of the Scheldt area, and the consequent delay in getting supplies through Antwerp, that might even have affected the ability of the Allies to deal with the Ardennes Offensive in December. In short, Hoogerheide was a key battle in the overall Allied strategic picture.
The Highlanders remained in the rear until the 14th of October. Reinforcements were brought into the unit and the battalion collectively cleaned itself up and rested. As they recovered, savage battles were carried on at the neck of the South Beveland peninsula.