The Battle of the Scheldt was one of the longest and fiercest battles fought during WWII on Dutch soil. It involved a series of military operations that took place in northern Belgium and the province of Zeeland during the fall of 1944.
The battle is considered by some historians to have been waged on the most difficult battlefield of the Second World War.
The province of Zeeland is located in the south-west of the Netherlands. It consists of several islands and peninsulas and two main seaports, Terneuzen and Vlissingen. Zeeland’s capital is Middelburg, which is in the middle on the island of Walcheren.
The island lies on the North Sea, between the Eastern Scheldt in the north and the Western Scheldt in the south. Since Roman times, the island was a point of departure for ships going to and from Britain.
Nazi Germany’s Atlantic Wall
Because of Scheldt’s strategic importance, the Germans were entrenched on both banks of the Schelde estuary in bunkers with heavy guns partly buried into the terrain to make them impermeable to aerial attacks.
They had moved around 86,000 men, 600 guns and 6,000 vehicles to the island of Walcheren. The heavily fortified area around the Schelde estuary was to fend off the anticipated Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe from Britain, after the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944.
Walcheren was part of the Atlantic Wall, the strongest concentration of defenses the Nazis had ever constructed. The Wall was an extensive system of coastal defenses and fortifications built between 1942 and 1944, along the entire shores of continental Europe and Scandinavia. Many of the concrete bunkers on the coast and around the towns and cities along the way still stand today.
Four phases of the Allied operation
The first phase of the operation was to liberate the seaport of Antwerp in Belgium and to clear supply routes into the Netherlands. After the liberation of Antwerp on September 4, the First Canadian Army Allied forces were assigned to open supply lines into the Netherlands in order to advance the Allied front.
This required liberating Zuid (South) Beveland, a former island and now a peninsula north of Antwerp, and the island of Walcheren in the northwest. Both Zuid Beveland and Walcheren are in the province of Zeeland and located between the Western Scheldt and Eastern Scheldt of the river’s mouth into the North Sea.
Under the command of General Henry Duncan Graham (Harry) Crerar, the First Canadian Army was mainly composed of Canadians, but at various times the Army also included Polish, British, American, Belgian, Norwegian, French and Dutch soldiers.
The First Canadian Army was the largest army that had ever been under the control of a Canadian general. The strength of this army ranged from approximately 105,000 to 175,000 Canadian soldiers to anywhere from 200,000 to over 450,000 troops, when it included soldiers of other nations, mostly from the United Kingdom.
On October 2, the Canadian Army’s 2nd Division began its advance heading north from Antwerp. They had to clear the occupying German forces from the Eastern Scheldt estuary to open up the shipping lanes leading from the North Sea to the port of Antwerp. The Scheldt river was heavily mined, so it was impossible for Allied minesweepers to clear the waterway with the heavily defended east and west banks of the estuary.
The second phase of the operation took place in the west by the coast of the North Sea. Called “Operation Switchback”, the Army’s 3rd Canadian Division attacked the enemy from the south as it advanced north along the coast toward the town of Breskens.
The area between the Belgian border and Breskens was called the “Breskens pocket.” The crossing of the Leopold Canal on the Belgian border toward the town and the estuary was difficult. The ground was soaking wet and trenches filled up with water right after they were dug.
For three weeks, the 3rd Division fought the German troops on flooded fields and soaked, marshy, muddy grounds. “Operation Switchback” ended on November 3, when the Canadian Army broke the resistance and liberated the Belgian town of Knokke and the port of Zeebrugge beside the North Sea. This action officially removed the German forces in the “Breskens pocket.”
As they kept advancing north toward the estuary, the Canadian troops launched an attack on historic Fort Frederick Hendriks, near Breskens. The Canadians deployed tank fire and flame throwers to dislodge the enemy.
The Germans built bunkers in the old fort for defense from such an attack, but their coastal and anti-aircraft guns were aimed at the Western Scheldt waterway. Even though they turned their guns toward the attackers, the Fort, built by Napoleon in 1809, fell after three days of heavy fighting on October 22.
Now, on the opposite side of the inlet was the port of Vlissingen on Walcheren. It was time to assemble all the available forces in the area for the amphibian onslaught on the city.
The third phase, dubbed “Operation Vitality”, was to capture Zuid-Beveland. Fierce fighting was encountered from the Germans on October 6 near the village of Woensdrecht and the town of Hoogerheide just north of the Belgian border.
The area was strategically important to the German occupier because it was near shipping lanes, ports and a military airfield. With recent reinforcements, it was critical for the Nazis to control direct access to Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren Island to thwart the Allies.
One assault by a Canadian battalion, on Friday, October 13 would be known as Black Friday. Their mission was to capture and defend the dike along the railway track leading from Bergen op Zoom to Vlissingen.
It was a fatal operation. There was intense fighting and there were heavy casualties as the Canadians attacked over open, flooded land in the driving rain. Booby traps and land mines made advance exceedingly difficult.
Black Friday’s aftermath
It was nicknamed Black Friday because the Canadian Army’s 5th Infantry Brigade’s Black Watch battalion was nearly wiped out. At the end of a day no ground was gained, 38 were wounded and 58 were killed. Just one person was wounded on the German side.
Canadian and German soldiers continued fighting in thick mud, heavy fog and pouring rain. The polders around the dikes and dams were flooded. The villages and towns were heavily fortified by German defenses. The waterlogged, muddy terrain and the tenacity of the Germans made the Battle of the Scheldt very grueling and bloody.
On October 16, when Woensdrecht and the region were captured and secured, it was the completion of phase three. The land link of the German forces between Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren was cut off. The Allies now had access to the rest of the province of Zeeland.
Called “Operation Infatuate,” the capture of Walcheren was the final phase of the Battle of the Schelde. It was a coordinated assault by bombers and ground troops. The island was fortified with a dense concentration of bunkers, heavy guns and artillery, manned by more than 10,000 German soldiers.
The island stronghold of Walcheren was attacked from the air, with British Royal Air Force aircraft targeting dikes and flooding the island. The flooding hampered German movement, but it also raised the water levels so that the Allies could have deeper water for amphibian operations.
On the early morning of November 1, Allied commando troops embarked on their amphibian landing crafts in Breskens and crossed the inlet toward Vlissingen. For an hour artillery bombardment had been raining down on the port, preceding the task force.
Assault on Uncle Beach
Under the codename “Uncle Beach”, the landing crafts approached Vlissingen. Through the morning darkness they saw the silhouette of Vlissingen’s Oranjemolen (Orange Mill) against the orange glow of fires in the city from Allied bombardments from the air. At the Oranjemolen was the beachhead. The troops set foot ashore and went on to liberate the city, after some fierce street fighting. This operation was crucial to the Allied advance in Western Europe.
Vlissingen was liberated on November 3. In addition to Vlissingen, there was also heavy fighting on Walcheren in the town of Westkapelle and near Arnemuiden. On November 6, the island’s capital, Middelburg, fell, followed rapidly by the towns of Veere and Koudekerke. The Canadian Army advanced quickly and the entire island was liberated two days later.
Nazis in retreat
The Germans retreated along the Southern bank of Holland Diep, a tributary of the Maas River. They pulled out of Willemstad on their way to the Moerdijk bridgehead where the German forces, on November 9, used the bridgehead’s railway and motorway bridges to cross Holland Diep heading north. These were the last bridges available for the withdrawal from the vital Scheldt Estuary.
By early November, after completing four phases of the operation, the First Canadian Army successfully cleared both banks of the estuary. With the enemy gone from the area, the time-consuming mine-clearing operations began. It took three weeks of painstaking work to clear 250 mines, and on November 28, the first convoy entered the port of Antwerp, led by the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui.
The Battle of the Scheldt was a major defeat for Nazi Germany. They suffered between 10,000 – 12,000 casualties and over 41,000 were taken prisoner. The Allied victory came at a high cost. At the end of the five-week offensive half of the 12,873 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing) of the First Canadian Army where Canadian.
Most of the Canadians who died in the Battle of the Scheldt are buried at two Commonwealth War Cemeteries in the region. Adegem Canadian War Cemetery is in the northwest corner of Belgium, not far from the Dutch border and it contains the graves of 848 Canadians. Most of whom lost their lives during the bitter struggle to clear the Breskens pocket on the south bank of the Scheldt.
Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery contains the graves of 968 Canadians, most of whom fell fighting to open the shipping lanes from the North Sea to Antwerp, making the port available for transporting Allied military supplies.
The Canadian forces went on to liberate most of the rest of the Netherlands in the Spring of 1945, including Amsterdam.
“De Slag om de Schelde” (The Forgotten Battle)
The Dutch film, “De Slag om de Schelde” (The Forgotten Battle) premiering in Dutch theaters after coronavirus lockdown, is one of the most expensive Dutch films to ever be produced.
The movie tells the story of this crucial event in history through the eyes of three different characters, each dealing with war and freedom in their own way. A Dutch boy fighting for the Germans cross with those of an English glider pilot and a Dutch girl who has reluctantly joined the resistance. Check out the trailer!
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Feature Image: Stiggins (Sergeant), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit/Wikimedia Commons/IWM Non Commercial Licence.