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Canada's Finest Hour: The Battle of Scheldt Estuary

Canada's Finest Hour: The Battle of Scheldt Estuary

Remember their sacrifice.

On September 4, 1944, tanks of the British 11th Armored Division lumbered into the outskirts of Antwerp, Belgium. This was the crowning moment of the division’s spectacular six-day drive ordered by British XXX Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Sir Brian Horrocks, on August 30. Horrocks’ directive was intended to capitalize on that day’s crossing of the Seine River in hot pursuit of a thoroughly disorganized German army, decimated and on the run as a result of its defeat in the Normandy campaign of the past eight weeks.

At noon on the 4th, the “Black Bulls” of the 11th pushed into the city proper under orders from Horrocks to “go straight for the docks and prevent the Germans from destroying the port installations.” The need to capture Antwerp and the Dutch port city of Rotterdam had been recognized early in the Allied planning of the invasion of Western Europe. Now the first seemed likely to fall.

With a capacity to receive 40,000 tons of matérial a day, Antwerp was the largest port in Western Europe and was far closer to the armies advancing into Germany than Cherbourg, Le Havre, or the English Channel ports. But there was one major problem—it was 60 miles from the sea. No ship could enter it until its approaches were cleared. Capture of the harbor alone would not guarantee its use by the Allies. The Germans had to be prevented from destroying the port facilities and mining and blocking the estuary of the River Scheldt that flowed from the Channel past Antwerp. Nazi coastal batteries lining that waterway had to be eliminated before safe approaches to the river routes could be established.

By nightfall of the 4th, the British tankers had secured most of Antwerp’s vital dockyard but then stopped their advance, forfeiting the real opportunity of clearing the entire Antwerp area—including the Scheldt Estuary—and capturing the German Fifteenth Army defending the region while their adversary was disorganized and on the run.

After a dash of 230 miles from the Seine to Antwerp the men of the 11th Armored were exhausted and at the end of their supply line. On the 6th the Black Bulls made a halfhearted attempt to create a crossing over the Albert Canal north of Antwerp but were thwarted by determined German resistance under Lt. Gen. Kurt Chill, who had cobbled together a defense force from the remnants of the German 84th, 85th, and 89th Infantry Divisions and several understrength parachute battalions, a total of 3,000 men to defend the canal’s crossing points. Two days later the 11th Armored was ordered 40 miles to the east.

Fixed on reaching the German frontier by the fastest possible means, the Allied army commanders and Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force chief General Dwight G. Eisenhower entirely overlooked the strategic and tactical opportunity that had developed in western Belgium. Eisenhower believed that the “best opportunity for defeating the enemy in the West is to strike at the Ruhr and Saar” the industrial heart of Germany, and that their capture would cripple the country’s ability to continue the war. Further, Eisenhower felt that the forces currently opposing the Western powers were weak and disorganized and that the Wehrmacht was on the verge of collapse in the West, hence his broad front strategy of pressing the enemy along the entire line from the English Channel to Switzerland and racing for the Rhine River. With this mind-set, Eisenhower gave no attention to securing the Scheldt Estuary or closing the trap on the Fifteenth Army, which was fleeing the area. This shortsighted strategic focus set the stage for the brutal and prolonged battle the Canadian First Army would have to wage around Antwerp in the coming weeks.

If the Anglo-American high command failed initially to see the strategic importance of the Scheldt Estuary, the same could not be said of its opponents. The sudden appearance of the 11th Armored Division in Antwerp on September 4 sent a shudder of panic throughout the German chain of command. Field Marshal Walter Model, leader of the German forces in the West, ordered the southern elements of the Fifteenth Army to make a fighting withdrawal to the coastal fortresses of Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, and Ostend, while the rest of Fifteenth Army made a last ditch effort to secure an escape path eastward to Breda. The herculean efforts of General Chill and his men and the indifference of the Allied high command toward taking the area around Antwerp allowed the German Fifteenth and newly formed First Parachute Armies to organize a shaky defensive line from Antwerp to the Maas River by mid-September.

In the Breskens Pocket across the West Scheldt from Walcheren Island, German soldiers man a machine-gun position that is partially camouflaged with tree branches. The Germans put up a determined defense against Canadian troops tasked with clearing the Scheldt Estuary to open the river and the port of Antwerp to Allied supply ships.

On September 8, the 4th Canadian Infantry and 1st Polish Armored Divisions of the First Canadian Army came up against stiff German resistance along the Ghent Canal west of Antwerp. Up to that date British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group, had given priority to opening the Channel ports, placing only secondary importance on the destruction of the enemy forces northeast of the Ghent Canal. At the same time the First Canadian Army’s zone of responsibility was enlarged to include Ghent and the south shore of the Scheldt to within a few miles of Antwerp.

 

On the 10th, Eisenhower, who had obliquely been pushing for the capture of Antwerp and the opening the Scheldt, agreed to hold off on that objective until Operation Market-Garden, the Allied land and parachute strike to the Rhine through Arnhem, was completed. Two days later the pressure to clear the Scheldt and thus alleviate Allied supply problems was increased when the Combined Chiefs of Staff stressed the need to do so “before bad weather sets in.” That same day Montgomery asked General Harry Crerar, the commander of the First Canadian Army, if he could tackle the problem.

While the Allied military hierarchy slowly came to terms with the issue of opening the Scheldt Estuary to friendly shipping, the Germans had been considering the issue since the tanks of the 11th Armored Division had entered Antwerp early in September. Adolf Hitler ordered Walcheren Island on the north bank of the Scheldt, along with the land communication to it, and the south bank of the estuary along the Albert Canal to the city of Maastricht to be defended to the last bullet. To create a proper defense, Fifteenth Army continued its retreat to the east and connected with the newly created First Parachute Army, establishing a blocking position along the Albert Canal east of Antwerp. Hitler’s directive put in motion 100,000 German troops whose task was to secure western Belgium including the Scheldt River region.

 

The German response to the threat posed by the Allied capture of Antwerp made the task of the First Canadian Army resemble, on a large scale, the reduction of a medieval fortress, a comparison that could be extended to the defensive problems facing the Germans. Fortress Walcheren, as designated by Hitler, was sited to defend a waterway at a vital crossing. South of the river its outer defenses were protected by a moat, the Leopold Canal. Its central “keep” was Walcheren Island itself. The land approach was a long-defended route: the south Beveland Peninsula with a series of gates, Woensdrecht at the base of the peninsula, the Beveland Canal, and finally the 1,000-yard causeway that joined the island to the mainland.

On the “other side of the hill,” Colonel General Gustav Adolf von Zangen, chief of Fifteenth Army who was responsible for the Scheldt-Antwerp area, faced two major problems: extricating his forces from south of the Scheldt River and shoring up the defenses east of Antwerp. By September 23, he had accomplished the first task before the Canadians could stop him. He then went about solving his second problem by placing a veteran infantry division to hold the south bank of the Scheldt and another positioned on the Beveland Peninsula and Walcheren Island. Supporting his foot soldiers as well as well as covering the sea approaches, Zangen sited a number of medium 75mm and a score of powerful long-range 105mm and 155mm artillery pieces in strong concrete emplacements. Topping off the German preparations was the accumulation of enough ammunition and food to sustain the defenders during a long siege.

Since the Normandy breakout in the summer of 1944, the First Canadian Army had protected the long Anglo-American left flank as it raced through France toward Germany’s western frontier. First Canadian Army was the most international of the Allied formations. Its Canadian Army troops included a mix of tank and infantry outfits ranging in size from battalions to divisions, and its II Corps was made up of one armored and two infantry divisions. The place of its I Corps, which was fighting in Italy, had been taken by British I Corps. The 1st Polish Armored Division had become almost a permanent fixture in the army. Also included in the army’s order of battle were Belgian, Dutch, and Czechoslovakian units.