Key point: While the failure to open Antwerp for port operations promptly was one of the biggest mistakes from the Allies’ top command to division level—if not the biggest in the war in northwestern Europe—it still begs the question: could the Allies have won the war earlier if Antwerp had been available at the end of September rather than at the end of November?
Before World War II, the Belgian port city of Antwerp was one of the world’s great ports, ranking with those of Hamburg, Rotterdam, and New York. Antwerp is located some 55 miles up the Scheldt (Schelde) Estuary from the North Sea. Five hundred yards wide at its location on the estuary, the port’s minimum depth along its quays is 27 feet, deep enough to handle the largest ships in the world—especially when it comes to maneuvering such vessels into place along the quays.
The port’s capacity is prodigious; in 1944 alone there were nearly 26 miles of quays that were serviced by 600 hydraulic and electric cranes, in addition to numerous floating cranes, loading bridges, and floating grain elevators. Extensive storage accommodations around the port and excellent road and rail clearance facilities were available. And on September 4, 1944, although in German hands, the port’s facilities were virtually undamaged and fully functioning.
For the Allies, after their breakout from Normandy, it was vitally important that Antwerp be captured and placed in operation as soon as possible. If the war in northwestern Europe was to be concluded expeditiously, the port would play a key role in supplying both British and American army groups.
Distance from the Normandy beaches alone made the seizure critical. To supply Allied forces advancing from Normandy, trucks had to travel 400 miles over roads. Most importantly, the Antwerp port was only 65 miles from the principal Allied army logistic depots at Liege, Belgium.
The distance was even shorter to service the U.S. Third Army depots at Nancy, France, from Antwerp (250 miles) than it was to do so from Cherbourg (400 miles), the latter having to use the “Red Ball Express” system on the overtaxed motor road network. (See WWII Quarterly,Summer 2010.)
In terms of logistical support, the use of Antwerp meant that 54 divisions could be supplied, as compared to only 21 using Cherbourg—while the ports along the English Channel coast were of only limited capacity.
The result was that the effort to support an Allied division by way of Antwerp was calculated to be only a third of that required to sustain one by way of Cherbourg. It is no wonder then that in a communication to British Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated unequivocally, “Of course we need Antwerp.” But there were problems.
On August 27, 1944, when the Germans were in full retreat from the Normandy battlefield, soon to be Field Marshal Montgomery ordered his XXX Corps to advance to the south bank of the Scheldt Estuary in Belgium. He did not specify that the corps was to stop there, but he made it known the key objective was the capture of Antwerp. The mission was given to British XXX Corps commander Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks, who in turn gave it to Maj. Gen. George Philip Bradley “Pip” Roberts, commanding the British 11th Armoured Division.
After a tough beginning around the Norman city of Caen, where its combat with German armor had tended to make the division’s tankers overly cautious, the 11th Armoured soon began to overcome any lethargy it had accrued in those battles. Reminiscent of its dynamic training during the first 18 months of its formation under its first commanding general, Maj. Gen. Sir Percy Hobart, the division quickly moved into an overdrive mode, advancing northeastward through France into Belgium.
By September 1 the division had bounded forward 40 miles from the French city of Amiens. By 11:30 am on September 2, the 11th had rolled into Lens in northern France and, after having pushed four miles farther on, the Second British Army ordered the division to “stand fast” for the rest of the day to resupply its elements. Then, on September 3, in Operation Sabot, the division struck out for Antwerp.
In the early afternoon of September 4, after a sprint of 100 miles, elements of the 11th British Armoured Division’s 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 R Tanks) reached the outskirts of Antwerp. It found the way into the city blocked at its main bridge by mines and machine-gun positions.
Reacting swiftly under the cover of a smoke screen, the tankers circumvented the obstacle and an armored battalion, and along with a company of the Rifle Brigade infantry, sped into Antwerp with one of its tank squadrons reaching the port’s vast harbor. There the British found that the entire dock area was in an undamaged condition and quickly took possession of it.
The swiftness of the division’s advance had surprised the German commander, Generalmajor Graf Christoph Stolberg-zu-Stolberg, who, on being captured, confessed he had not expected the sudden British arrival and thus had been unable to demolish the port’s facilities.
Stolberg’s failure was enhanced by the actions of a Belgian reserve lieutenant—apparently his military affiliation was unknown to the Germans—employed in his civilian capacity in the port administration office. He was able to work out a scheme that would effectively neutralize the German demolition plans if Stolberg had ordered an attempt to execute them. Seizing the surprisingly undamaged port was a tremendous victory—or so it seemed.
But the 11th Armoured Division stopped in place in Antwerp and rested after its arduous advance. In its great leap forward, the division did not try either that day or the next to seize the bridges over the Albert Canal, which were key to any further advance.
On September 6, the 4th Battalion, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (4 KSLI), crossed the canal, but by then the Germans had blown the bridges. An enemy counterattack by infantry and five tanks isolated the 4 KSLI in a factory complex, and the British infantry, incapable of ferrying some antitank guns across the canal, was forced to withdraw; a temporary stalemate ensued.
The report that Antwerp had fallen on September 4 to the Allies caused great consternation in Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. The Germans clearly recognized the importance of Antwerp in that it would solve the obvious logistic challenges the Allies were facing in their rapid advance north into Belgium and farther into Germany.
At the time, Field Marshal Walther Model, commanding Army Group B, believed that the fast-advancing British armor would further exploit the port’s capture by moving along the Scheldt’s northern bank, clean it up, and take over the entire South Beveland peninsula and Walcheren Island on the North Sea.
Also compounding the critical German situation at the beginning of the first week in September, only a few replacement and rear-area units defended the line along the whole Albert Canal from Antwerp in Belgium to Maastricht in Holland. It seemed that unless the Allies were blocked along that line the “door to northwestern Germany stood open.”
Hitler’s reaction to the news that Antwerp had been captured virtually intact was immediate. The Germans well knew that Antwerp’s port capacity, if delivered to the Allies in its untouched condition, would be a major victory for them. While the local German commander, with few resources available, launched a counterattack to defeat the attempted British lodgment over the canal on September 6, Hitler also moved quickly.
Into the seam between the German Fifteenth Army withdrawing along the French and Belgian coast and that of Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies retiring generally northeast, Hitler ordered the newly organized First Parachute Army, commanded by Generaloberst Kurt Student, to move to the Netherlands and defend the canal lines running through Antwerp.
Generaloberst Gustav von Zangen was also recalled from Italy to take over the German Fifteenth Army; he received orders to defend the south bank of the Scheldt. In addition he saw that troops were moved into the fortified English Channel port cities of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne. At the same time, Zangen initiated the transport of as many men as possible to the Scheldt’s north banks so they could take up new positions elsewhere in front of the advancing Allies.
With the assistance of the German Navy, he succeeded in moving most of the army along with some 500 artillery pieces over the estuary to the north bank of the Scheldt, an important accomplishment that was soon to benefit the Germans, whose front elsewhere seemed to be collapsing.