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The epic WWII battle people barely know about

What was the Battle of the Scheldt and why does it hold any significance for Canadians?

Normandy. Dunkirk. The Scheldt. Do these names all sound familiar to you? If the last one didn’t ring a bell, don’t worry; most people don’t know it off the top of their head.

While the Battle of the Scheldt was one of the most hard-fought battles for Canadians, and even considered by some historians to “have been waged on the most difficult battlefield of the Second World War,” this particular battle is often overshadowed by others with more glorious stories. At the end of the day, the Battle of the Scheldt was simply about taking control of a single port in Belgium; compare that to the Battle of Normandy, where the most Canadian lives were lost during the war, or to the Battle of Dunkirk, which got turned into an Academy Award-winning movie, and it’s no wonder the Battle of the Scheldt does not flash into the forefront of one’s mind when thinking about the Canadians’ astounding war efforts.

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Movie poster for Dunkirk; image credit: Warner Bros.

The Battle of the Scheldt happened close to the end of World War II, starting on October 2, 1944 and ending on November 8th of the same year; it took place in northern Belgium and the southwestern part of the Netherlands. The First Canadian Army, along with British and Polish forces, were tasked with clearing the Scheldt estuary of German occupiers in order to secure the port of Antwerp, which was connected to the North Sea and would be crucial for the Allies to transport supplies in the winter.  If the Allies could not get control of the Scheldt, it would be impossible for them to take over Antwerp.

As mentioned previously, the land that the Canadian soldiers were fighting on was treacherous. The terrain was flat, muddy, and often flooded, meaning there was nowhere to hide from the ever-present German forces and it was hard to gain any ground. According to Canadian Battlefield Tours, “many Canadian…Veterans [considered] the Battle(s) of the Scheldt…the worst of the war for them.”

So what was it that made the Battle of the Scheldt the absolute worst? Besides the unfavourable battleground conditions, the estuary was long–360 km long to be exact–and it took numerous steps in order to fully take control of it. In order for that to happen, the plan was broken down into four parts:

  1. Clear the area north of Antwerp to the village of Woensdrecht
  2. Eliminate the Germans from the Breskens Pocket
  3. Capture South Beveland
  4. Secure Walcheren Island
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Map of the Battle of the Scheldt, courtesy of Canadian Battlefield Tours

Woensdrecht was important for the Allies to capture because it was a key access point to the South Beveland peninsula. However, the village was heavily protected by Germany. For ten days, bloody fighting between the German and Canadian forces ensued. Although the Canadians emerged victorious, it came at a terrible cost. On October 13th, their Black Watch infantry lost 145 of its members (56 killed and the remainder taken prisoner or going MIA). Among those that were killed were all four commanders. One company in particular was devastatingly reduced to 4/90 survivors.

The battle for the Breskens pocket happened simultaneously with the fight to gain control of Woensdrecht and was meant to be swift, less than a week, but instead it took a month. After losing almost 600 soldiers in a mere six days, Canadians finally found success on the night of October 9th. The 9th Brigade launched a surprise attack close to Hoofdplaat. In the following three weeks, Canadians continued to push the Germans out of the Breskens pocket until they were forced to retreat. The Juno Beach Centre notes a war diary entry written on November 3rd at 9:50 am: “Op Switchback complete,” with another comment underneath: “Thank God.”

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Map of the Breskens pocket; image source: canadiansoldiers.com

Next came Operation Vitality, the capture of South Beveland. Various mines and unsuitable conditions for armoured warfare made it difficult for the Allies to advance. Only after an amphibious attack by the British 52nd Division cleared the Beveland canal was it possible for the Canadians to liberate the lands of South Beveland, and North Beveland as well. With Operation Vitality complete, German resistance was then whittled down to one place–Walcheren Island.

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Members of the 2nd Canadian Division headed towards South Beveland; image source: Wikipedia/National Archives of Canada

Taking Walcheren Island would prove to be the most difficult step in the Battle of the Scheldt. The only way to reach the island was a thin, muddy land bridge called the Sloedam (or the Causeway as most Canadian historians prefer to call it). To make matters even worse, the Causeway was mentioned by author Allyn Vannoy as “too saturated with sea water for movement on foot or in vehicles, but were too shallow for assault boats.” Furthermore, the island itself was heavily fortified with batteries along the coasts, a defensive perimeter around port facilities, and antiaircraft fire meant to discourage the Allies from executing any air strikes. Operation Infatuate was so detailed that it was split into two parts: one to conquer the town of Flushing (a.k.a Vlissingen) where the port facilities were located and the other to destroy the batteries along Walcheren’s coast. Fortunately for the Allies, they were able to execute this operation due to changes in weather; the Allies’ were still able to execute their airstrikes, hitting floodbanks that caused the water level on the island to rise. The added depth to the water allowed troops on the ground to enter Walcheren, on assault boats, from the Causeway that once was a hindrance. Flushing became the scene of yet another bloody, yet victorious, battle for the Allies. According to the website Landmark Scout, “at the end of the war, Flushing counted only one house that had no war damage.”

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Image of Flushing in 1944; image source: Commando Veterans Archive, courtesy of Peter Cooper, who found it in his father’s collection

Operation Infatuate II took place in Westkapelle and did not find success as easily. Unlike earlier, the weather was not on their side. Strong winds prevented the Allied forces from using the Royal Air Force or flying artillery from their Warspite battleship and Erebus and Roberts monitors. All of this resulted in an easy target for the German batteries–the Support Squadron Eastern Flank, who sacrificed 370 men in order for other Allied forces to try and infiltrate the island. During this time, the Canadians’ role was to take care of the wounded, which proved to be next to impossible because the wind prevented injured soldiers from being evacuated too. The situation at Walcheren Island was becoming increasingly desperate.

With the Germans’ attention diverted because of Support Squadron Eastern Flank, a Royal Marines team, the other Allied forces made it onto shore and were able to fight their way to the capital city, Middelburg. On November 6th, the German General Daser surrendered and, two days later, the island was declared as secure for the Allies. Finally, the port of Antwerp was won over.

By the end of the five-week-long Battle of the Scheldt, the First Canadian Army had taken 41,043 German prisoners, but also suffered a whopping 12,873 casualties (this number combines all that were killed, wounded, and missing). Of the 12,873 casualties, 6,367 of them were Canadian (the rest were British or Polish). Over the course of the following three weeks, the Scheldt was cleared of 267 sea mines. Once that task was complete, the first Allied ship, a Canadian freighter named the Fort Cataraqui, arrived in Antwerp on November 28, 1944. The delay caused by the sweeping of the sea mines affected the Allies later in World War II when supplies were needed for battles in northern France and Germany. Allyn Vannoy points out that “according to one estimate, the…delay in opening Antwerp cost the Allies some 2.4 million tons of additional matérial.” Despite the setback, winning over the port made it easier for the Allies to liberate the rest of the Netherlands and it proved to be useful at the Battle of the Bulge, which was the Germans’ last major offensive campaign on the Western Front.

Ironically, the ship was the only Canadian thing in attendance of the grand opening of Antwerp; Canadians weren’t invited to celebrate the momentous occasion, despite the fact that they played a major role in the Battle of the Scheldt and significantly contributed to its success. Perhaps this lack of recognition is one of the reasons why other battles get more time in the spotlight when we look back on World War II today.

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