South Beveland October 14 – 31 1944
While the Calgary Highlanders rested between the 10th and 14th, other units of the 2nd Division continued the struggle to open the way onto the South Beveland Peninsula. The Black Watch and Royal Regiment of Canada battled through soggy ground and enemy counter attacks to the west of Hoogerheide and Woensdrecht.
On the 13th of October, known ever since to the Black Watch as “Black Friday”, the battalion tried several times to cut the rail line to the northwest of Woensdrecht. Their objectives are noted as Angus 1 and Angus 2 on the photo at right. Fifty-six men were killed that day, sixty two wounded and twenty-seven captured. One company of 90 men was reduced to just four unwounded men.
A Calgary Highlanders officer, Captain Ron Kerfoot, remembered that “Later, after we had taken the area, I walked down the dyke and their dead were so thick that you could not walk over them, you had to walk to one side.”
Woensdrecht itself was not taken until the 16th of October, and the Germans continued to counter-attack for five days after that. On the 14th of October, the Calgary Highlanders moved into positions occupied by the Royal Regiment of Canada. The relief was made in situ, or as the regimental history put it “under the noses of the enemy.” The relief went without incident, and the Highlanders now occupied partially flooded polderland southeast of the railway emabankment that the Black Watch had struggled to capture.
The Germans still held the ground to the north and northeast, with well placed and dug-in weapons. The Highlanders were to patrol this area to determine enemy strength along the rail line, and south of it.
The Highlanders endured sporadic shelling and mortaring for the next few days; the Second Division could not move until other forces moved north from Bergen op Zoom. Time was taken to train new replacements, many now coming from non-infantry units. On 21 October, the Highlanders were relieved in place by the Black Watch of Canada and moved back near Ossendrecht.
On 23 October, the Highlanders moved forward again, to attack the railway embankment once more. The terrain was waterlogged; where it wasn’t actually underwater, it was soggy. The Highlander’s objective was a strip of land about 3500 yards wide by 1000 yards long, bounded on the north by a dyke and on the south by the railway embankment itself. On the map, the ground resembled a coffin, and the Highlanders have referred to this action as “the coffin show” ever since.
At 1500 hrs on the 23rd, into fog and drizzle and under the supporting fire of artillery, mortars, and machine guns, “A” Company moved forward on the left, “D” Company on the right, and “C” Company in the middle. The objective was to cut once and for all the rail and road link between Walcheren Island, the furthest enemy bastion to seaward, and Bergen op Zoom.
“A” Company made good progress until they crossed the railway embankment, then ran into heavy machinegun fire. “D” Company hit strong opposition almost as soon as they crossed the start line. “C” Company was also stopped short of the railway embankment.
Artillery fire was called down to “C” Company’s front, and two platoons of the Black Watch went forward to reinforce “A” Company. The reserve, “B” Company and the carrier platoon, moved up also to help “C” Company. By nightfall only “A” Company had reached their objective. Eighteen men had been killed and 51 wounded.
The Germans stayed close to the battalion front that night, but only occasional MG fire along fixed lines met the Highlanders. A small amount of enemy movement occurred, but no counter-attacks were mounted. The Black Watch managed to bring food and ammunition forward to the Highlanders, and evacuated their wounded and prisoners.
On the 24th, as the 4th and 6th Brigades swung west onto the peninsula itself, the Calgary Highlanders were ordered to continue the push north, clear the embankment, and then take the railway station to the east, a mile and a half north of Woensdrecht. Afterwards, the Highlanders were to establish an east-west line 500 yards to the north of the station.
The carrier platoon reached the station at 1220 hrs, and “B” Company arrived on foot an hour later, but the overall objective was not achieved. The Highlanders uncovered many bodies left from the Black Watch assault of 13 October; they had been unrecoverable until then.
Another quiet night passed, and though the Germans opposite the Highlanders were cut off from the north, east and south, they continued to resist from pillboxes and entrenchments. On the 25th of October, seven Highlanders died and 25 were wounded. On 26 October, six more men were killed and six wounded. On the 27th, during an attack on a small hill resulting in the capture of Lindonk, two more men were wounded. All told, the fighting around the embankment cost 140 casualties, including 31 dead. But the objective had finally been achieved. Brigadier Keefler, acting General Officer Commanding, proclaimed on the 26th that the battalion “had done a damn fine job for the Division.”
The battalion withdrew to the tactical headquarters on the northern edge of Woensdrecht and rested until 28 October. Troop Carrying Vehicles ferried the troops to the west, onto South Beveland. It was at this point that Lieutenant Colonel MacLachlan left the battalion, and Major Ross Ellis took command.
The battalion marched in the wake of several fights along the peninsula, and by the 31st, arrived at the western edge of the peninsula. Opposite the Slooe Channel lay Walcheren Island; by now the last holdout along the Scheldt Estuary, whose guns still commanded the approach to Antwerp. While these guns lay in German hands, the great port could not be used. The Highlanders were about to embark on their most storied battle of the Second World War.