Pipers play a lament at the burial of 55 members of the Black Watch following the fighting in October.
On Oct. 2, 1944, General Guy Simonds, who had temporarily replaced an ailing Gen. Harry Crerar, issued his first directive as the acting commander of First Canadian Army. The task of clearing the approaches to the already liberated city of Antwerp in Belgium, the banks of the Scheldt Estuary, was assigned to 2nd and 3rd Cdn. infantry divisions. Third Division was to attack Scheldt Fortress South which the Canadians called the Breskens Pocket. Second Div. was to “clear the area north of Antwerp and close the eastern end of the Zuid-Beveland Isthmus.
Once these tasks were complete, both divisions would develop operations to clear Beveland and capture Walcheren Island to the northwest.
Simonds assumed that 2nd and 3rd divisions could complete their tasks in one or two weeks, and he focused his attention on Operation Infatuate, the capture of Walcheren Island. He persuaded Bomber Command to flood Walcheren by bombing the dikes and he won approval for two Royal Marine Commando assaults on the island. However, the commandos would have to wait until the Canadians captured the Breskens Pocket and cleared the land approaches to the island.
Today the area north of Antwerp is criss-crossed by highways linking the city with new suburbs and towns that were small villages 57 years ago. It’s still possible to follow the old road north from Antwerp to Bergen-op-Zoom in southwest Holland, but some imagination is required to see the countryside as it was in 1944. The area east of the highway was then thickly set with woods. On the left, towards the Scheldt Estuary, the Germans had flooded as many of the fields or polders as they could, confining movement to the raised roads.
As 2nd Div. began to advance north through this strange landscape, the corps’ intelligence summary insisted that the enemy had “given up any plan he might have had to stand on the approach to Walcheren.” Unfortunately, Allied intelligence officers had failed to grasp German intentions. In fact, German General Gustav von Zangen, commanding 15th Army, issued an order declaring that “the defence of the approaches to Antwerp represents a task which is decisive for the further conduct of the war.” He ordered his army reserve–Battle Group Chill–which included 6 Parachute Regiment and several battalions of self-propelled guns, to bar access to Walcheren by holding positions at the village of Woensdrecht, located at the eastern end of the narrow Zuid-Beveland Isthmus connecting the mainland to South Beveland.
German Lieutenant-General Erich Diestel described the arrival of the reinforcements when he was interviewed in 1945. “On Oct. 2, the Canadians attacked north from Merxem and in three days had driven the division’s right flank back to Putte, a distance of some seven kilometres…. There was no regular line to hold at this time, but rather a series of tactical points…. About Oct. 7, in almost melodramatic fashion, aid came in the form of the 15th Army Battle School and the Von der Heydte Parachute Regt. of about 2,500 fanatical and eager young parachutists.”
The Canadians did not learn of von Zangen’s decision until the German reinforcements arrived, but the acting divisional commander, Brigadier R.H. Keefler, was well aware the division was running a great risk by moving north with an unprotected right flank. He decided to commit 6th Brigade and most of the one under-strength armoured regiment–the Fort Garry Horse–to that sector. This meant only two brigades–with one squadron of tanks–were available to push north to the villages Ossendrecht, Huijbergen, Hoogerheide and Woensdrecht.
On the morning of Oct. 7, the Calgary Highlanders took over the lead. The Régiment de Maisonneuve had been ordered to parallel the Calgary advance, securing the village of Huijbergen. There were few identifiable targets for the artillery and the whole attack broke down 1,500 yards short of the objective. The Maisonneuves attempted to renew their advance the next morning, but they confronted a strongly defended anti-tank ditch. Lieutenant Charles Forbes, who had a well-earned reputation for daring, led his platoon in a flanking movement, but the unit was quickly driven to ground. Forbes charged the position by himself, firing his sten gun and yelling at his men to follow. He personally “rushed two posts, killed two crew members and captured five more.”
Dutch civilians and air reconnaissance had provided fairly detailed information on the arrival of German reinforcements and both divisions and corps intelligence accepted an estimate of between 2,000 and 3,000 troops. Keefler reacted by ordering the division to go over to the defensive and prepare for a major attack that the army intelligence section, probably on the basis of Ultra decrypts, correctly predicted for the night of Oct. 8.
The German counter-attacks failed and von der Heydte’s regiment suffered heavy casualties, estimated at 480 men, in addition to more than 50 prisoners. Much has been made over the years of the professionalism of the German officer corps and the fighting power of the German infantry, yet the battle for Hoogerheide demonstrated major deficiencies in German strategy and tactics that were not uncommon in Northwest Europe. Von der Heydte had launched a frontal attack against forces that had gone over to the defensive. He persisted in pressing forward despite heavy losses. To attack in this manner, when reconnaissance would have shown the weakness of the Canadian right flank, suggests overconfidence and doctrinal rigidity. The texture of the battle also indicates that both on their defensive positions and in tactical counter-attacks, 2nd Div. was more than a match for the enemy.
In his postwar memoirs, von der Heydte recalled: “I decided to make a counter-attack with limited aims, which brought us to the outskirts of the villages of Woensdrecht and Hoogerheide. The Canadians–I say that as a German–fought brilliantly. To the rank of brigadier, the officers stood side by side with their men on the front lines.”
By the evening of Oct. 11, the Germans came to their senses and dug-in on the Woensdrecht ridge, and the high dike that carried the railway through Beveland to Walcheren Island. For the Canadians, it was not an inviting prospect to attack these positions with six under-strength infantry battalions, a squadron of tanks and artillery regiments that had to ration ammunition. However, Field Marshal Montgomery, under pressure to open the approaches to the port of Antwerp, insisted the advance continue.
He assured Simonds that reinforcements, the 52nd Lowland Div. and the 104th U.S. Infantry Div., would be available in eight to 10 days, but for the moment only 4th Cdn. Div.’s armoured recce regiment–the South Albertas–was available to help protect the vulnerable left flank. This left Keefler with few choices and the events of the next several days were probably determined by the unexpected success of the Royal Regiment of Canada which managed to get two companies across the flooded polders where they staged an improvised and unsuccessful attack on the railway embankment. The Royals then beat off six successive counter-attacks, while maintaining a firm base from which a larger set-piece attack could be staged.
This operation, code-named Angus, called for 5th Brigade to employ one battalion to seize the railway embankment with the other two battalions passing through to seal off the route to Walcheren Island. The first phase of the assault would have to be undertaken by the Black Watch. The Maisonneuves were still more than 200 riflemen short and the Calgaries had borne the brunt of the fighting at Hoogerheide. The Black Watch had done well since Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Ritchie had taken charge in September and each company was led by an experienced commander. The attack was built around an elaborate scheme to shoot the battalion onto the dike, one company at a time. One medium and two field regiments, as well as the heavy mortars and machine-guns of the Toronto Scottish Regt., would provide the basic fire support. The Fort Garry Horse supplied a troop of tanks and the Spitfires and Typhoons of 84 Royal Air Force Group would participate, weather permitting.
Ritchie examined the ground from an artillery spotter plane on the afternoon of Oct.12 and at 7:30 p.m. called his final Orders Group. Operation Angus would begin at 6:15 a.m. on Friday the 13th.
For the Black Watch, Oct. 13 was Black Friday, the second single-day disaster in the history of the Royal Highland Regt. of Canada. It was not so much the total casualties–145–but the ratio of dead-to-wounded that marked the day’s fighting. Fifty-six Black Watch soldiers were killed or died of wounds. Twenty-seven were taken prisoner. What had happened?
The plan called for C Company, under Captain N.G. Buch, to make the first bound to the dike junction. The fire plan attempted to neutralize the enemy by targeting positions back to the village Korteven and drenching the embankment with high explosives. Korteven is situated roughly five miles south of Bergen-op-Zoom.
According to the divisional artillery commander, much of this was lost when C Company, “held up by small-arms fire from dug-in positions,” was 30 minutes late on the start-line and lost much of the benefit of the initial artillery program. At 6:45 a.m. the company passed through the Royal Regt.’s positions but after less than 300 yards, perhaps halfway to the objective, the advance faltered in the face of accurate small-arms fire. B Company, under Major D.H. Chapman, had moved forward in preparation for the second bound and were heavily mortared while waiting to go in. By 7:30 a.m. both Buch and Chapman had been wounded and other casualties plus stragglers were filtering back. The Black Watch had tried to use the mortars and artillery to suppress the enemy fire, but owing to the nature of the country it was extremely difficult to indicate a target with any degree of precision.
It was then decided to use smoke to mask the area. At 9 a.m. the embankment was smoked and some sections of C Company made it to the objective, but as the men tried to dig in, grenades were lobbed over the dike at them. Most of these men were subsequently taken prisoner, many with shrapnel wounds.
Although two attacks had failed, Operation Angus continued. Even before the results of the second attack were known, divisional headquarters had issued warning orders for the preparation of a third assault which would be led by Wasp flame-throwers. This attack could not take place before mid-afternoon and so all that could be done in the meantime was to request air support from 84 Group.
Ritchie called his Orders Group for 3 p.m., but the battalion was not in good shape. C Company consisted of 25 men, while B Company was down to 41, including company headquarters. Ritchie committed his remaining resources to the task of capturing and consolidating a junction in the dike code-named Angus 1. A and D companies were to move in behind the flame-throwers that would target the embankment while a squadron of 17-pounder anti-tank guns and a troop of tanks were to engage enemy observation posts. The flame-throwers moved quickly when the artillery barrage began and were able to complete their tasks, losing just one carrier in the mud.
D Company lost its commanding officer in the advance, but Lieutenant Beau Lewis took command and the rest of the company “pancaked” on the objective. A Company, which had drawn the more exposed right flank, suffered the heaviest casualties of the day. Lieutenant Alan Mills, who led one of the platoons, described the attack in a letter to his father, written from a hospital in England: “We formed up behind a dike and advanced over open ground. When we got practically to our objective–600 yards away–the machine-guns and mortars became too hot and we began to drop right and left. Somehow a few managed to get to the objective. Those of us who were hit lay out in an open field with no cover…. The battalion seems to have horrible shows periodically and this was one of them. A couple of non-commissioned officers who lived through May-sur-Orne (in France) told me that this was just as bad as that.”
Lewis and his men could be said to have captured Angus 1, but they were quite unable to carry out the order to consolidate. As darkness fell all Jeeps and carriers in the battalion were mobilized to get the wounded out. The Black Watch diary reports that “many acts of heroism were performed in the dark which will never come to light. No words can pay sufficiently high tribute to those of our men who went out in the dark searching through flooded fields to ensure that all possible” steps had been taken to offer medical attention.
Shortly after midnight, Brigadier W.J. Megill ordered the battalion to withdraw: Operation Angus was over.
The Black Watch was not the only unit to suffer from Montgomery’s hesitation in assigning priority to opening up the port of Antwerp. Despite a series of aggressive counter-attacks on the South Saskatchewan Regt. and evidence of further defensive preparations, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry was ordered to assault Woensdrecht on Oct. 16. To launch another single-battalion attack into the centre of enemy resistance did not seem like a very good idea, but if anyone could take and hold Woensdrecht it was the RHLI.
Lieutenant-Colonel Denis Whitaker, who had won a Distinguished Service Order at Dieppe and who had been wounded in Normandy, had returned to command a battalion that had established an enviable record of success. Whitaker, whose death in May 2001 was widely mourned, was an outstanding and conscientious leader. He was also blessed with seasoned company commanders and veteran non-commissioned officers. Whitaker surveyed the battlefield from the air and sent patrols forward to probe the defences. He insisted upon attacking at night with the support of three field and two medium regiments. A sandbox model of the village and the ridge were used to brief each company and ensure that the men knew exactly what was expected of them.
The attack was completely successful in the sense that the village was captured and positions established on the ridge. But with daylight the inevitable enemy counter-attacks started and a battle of attrition ensued. The fighting raged for five days and cost the RHLI 21 killed and 146 wounded. German resistance was finally broken when Montgomery’s long delayed reinforcements arrived. On Oct. 23, 1944–after two weeks of intense combat–2nd Div. began the advance west to Walcheren Island.