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Overcoming mines and weather, Allied forces take back Walcheren

Buffalo amphibious vehicles take troops of the 1st Canadian Army across the Scheldt in the Netherlands in September 1944.
PA-136754/LAC/ DONALD I. GRANT
In September 1944, the Allies captured the port of Antwerp, Belgium, which was vital to supplying arms and materiel to the Allied forces moving from Normandy, France, to Germany.

However, Germans controlled the three islands at the mouth of the 80-kilometre Scheldt estuary in the Netherlands that lead to Antwerp. An unrelenting Hitler had seeded the river and all approaches with more than 2,000 mines and lined the riverbanks with bunkers and large gun batteries. He was determined to deny Antwerp to the Allies.

Thus followed the Battle of the Scheldt, which endured until Nov. 8, 1944.

Soldiers take a break from the action during the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944.
From the Donald Carson fonds PR2011.0001/18, Provincial Archives of Alberta
The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division began the task of clearing the Beveland Peninsula on Oct. 2.

“It was the dirtiest job we ever had,” said Bill Davis of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) in a Memory Project interview.

“It wasn’t the fighting really that bothered most people. It was the conditions. It was a terrible, terrible fall and winter in Holland.” The worst, in fact, in half a century.


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“After we fought our way out of Antwerp, we were given the job of sealing off the bottom of this peninsula and taking a town called Woensdrecht, which sat at the very neck of the peninsula,” said Davis.

On Oct. 13, the Black Watch attacked German positions near the village of Hoogerheide. First, they had to cross the polders, land reclaimed from the sea, surrounded by dikes that provided the Germans an elevated defensive positions.

The Canadians attacked at 6 a.m. “We didn’t make it 50 feet and we were cut down by heavy machine-gun fire,” reported Davis. Heavy casualties forced the aggressors to turn back. A second attack was ordered.

“We were going across a thousand yards (about 900 metres) of so-called polder land…no cover, no nothing…,” said Davis. “How the hell we ever got across, I don’t know, because the Germans were dug into a big dike at the other side.”

The company commander was shot in the head and, as the most senior soldier still on his feet, Davis dressed the wound, put the man in an ambulance and retrieved his map case and papers. By then, only about 18 of the company were still walking.

Later known as Black Friday, that day the Black Watch suffered 56 dead, more than 60 wounded and 28 captured.

The Canadians drew back and dug in until a new attack plan was made.

Then followed two more weeks of intense fighting before 2nd Division began its advance to Walcheren Island.

The beach at Walcheren Island.
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Conditions were grim and soldiers were exhausted, so much so that outside the town of Goes on the Beveland Peninsula, despite slogging through rain and snow, one man fell asleep while walking. “That’s how beat up the guys were,” recalled Davis.

But they weren’t done fighting.

Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, acting commander of 1st Canadian Army, decided to break the dikes and flood all but the highest parts of walcheren island while gun batteries were bombed. He believed the actions would break German morale.

The gun positions on the dikes, however, were unaffected. Brutal fighting forced the Germans to defend their lines and eventually retreat to Walcheren Island, the only land access across a narrow causeway 40 metres wide and 1,600 metres long. Hitler ordered that they fight to the last man.

The Black Watch was the first to move along the causeway, under intense shellfire that shot water 60 metres into the air. The Canadians drew back and dug in until a new attack plan was made. An offensive was tricky because floodwaters weren’t deep enough for assault boats and the polders had turned into mud flats that would bog down a tank.

But, on Nov. 1, a creeping barrage allowed the Calgary Highlanders to advance and place three companies on the island, a diversionary tactic as an amphibious assault began by Scottish Engineers. The Black Watch lost 17 men and had 46 wounded. Another soldier was killed and 10 more wounded as Le Régiment de Maisonneuve secured the bridgehead

Meanwhile, the Scots established a second bridgehead and outflanked the soon-to-retreat Germans.

It took weeks for minesweepers to clear the River Scheldt, which opened on Nov. 2 to Allied ships delivering much-needed supplies to their armies.

 

 

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