Operation Infatuate (ii)

This was the British capture of the Dutch port of Vlissingen (Flushing) at the southern tip of Walcheren island by Lieutenant Colonel W. P. B. Dawson’s No. 4 Commando and Brigadier J. F. S. McLaren’s 155th Brigade (1/8 November 1944).

The operation was preceded by the crossing from Breskens, recently captured by Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division in ‘Switchback’, in the course of ‘Infatuate I’ on 1/6 November 1944) and of the rest of Walcheren island by Brigadier B. W. Leicester’s 4th Special Service Brigade (Nos 41, 47 and 48 [Royal Marine] Commandos) supported by Lieutenant Colonel P. Laycock’s No. 11 (Inter-Allied) Commando in ‘Infatuate II’ of 1/8 November 1944.

The two interlinked operations were part of the Allied four-phase operation to open the Scheldt river for the movement of shipping to and from the recently liberated port city Antwerp specifically for the supply of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group, and in general for the support of the Allied armies advancing toward the ‘Siegfried-Linie’ and otherwise dependent on supplies transported from Normandy, now far to the rear of the front line.

The defence of the island was the responsibility of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Daser’s 70th Division of General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army, entrusted by Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ with the retention of the Scheldt estuary to prevent any Allied use of Antwerp.

By the time of the Allied offensive into Walcheren, the island had been cut off by the advances of Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division and Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division (under the temporary commander of Brigadier R. H. Keefler) of the Canadian 1st Army (temporarily under the command of Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds), which had taken South Beveland and North Beveland respectively in ‘Vitality’.

Located on the extreme left wing of the Allied armies, General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army had driven rapidly along the north coast of France toward Belgium. September had started with the 2nd Division welcomed as the liberator of Dieppe in ‘Fusilade’. The division left units to guard this and other liberated English Channel ports, but not Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk where the Germans were still holding out, and pushed into Belgium, reaching Ostend, Bruges and Ghent by the middle of the month. By 1 October the port cities of Boulogne and Calais had all been taken by the Allies in ‘Wellhit’ and ‘Undergo’ respectively, and the Canadians also captured the launching sites for V-2 missiles and so ended the rocket attacks on targets in southern England.

Meanwhile Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army had advanced in the southern Netherlands. On 17 September three British and American airborne divisions, as well as a brigade of Polish parachute troops, attempted to land behind the German lines at Nijmegen, Eindhoven and Arnhem in the parallel ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ airborne and land operations designed to take the major bridge over the Nederrijn river at Arnhem and so open the way in the northern Netherlands and the north German plain. The operations failed, and with them all hope of an end to the war before the end of 1944. The capture of a major port now became a matter of the utmost urgency as the forthcoming winter weather might threaten the Allied lines of communication, which stretched back to Normandy.

The 2nd Army had already seized Antwerp, on 4 September, with its port installations virtually intact. As Europe’s second largest port, with 28 miles (45 km) of docks, Antwerp was the ideal facility for the arrival of supplies for the nourishment of the continuing Allied war effort. However, German forces still controlled the Scheldt river estuary connecting Antwerp with the North Sea and, so long as the Germans controlled the sea approaches and the long winding estuary, Allied shipping could not make use of the port. All the territory surrounding the Scheldt river estuary had therefore to be liberated as a matter of urgency.

On 12 September the 1st Army, now under Simonds’s command as Crerar had returned to England as a result of severe illness, was allocated the task of clearing the Scheldt river estuary of German forces. The 1st Army was at this time centred on Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps and Simonds’s Canadian II Corps, the latter including Major General Harry W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division, Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division, Major General E. H. Barker’s British 49th Division and Hakewill-Smith’s 52nd Division. The plan for opening the Scheldt estuary involved four main operations, and one of its most intractable problems was the daunting geography of the region. The first operation was to clear the area north of Antwerp and secure access to the South Beveland peninsula constituting the northern side of the Scheldt river estuary above Walcheren island. The second was to clear the ‘Breskens pocket’ to the north of the Léopold Canal in ‘Switchback’. The third was the capture of South Beveland in ‘Vitality’. And the fourth and last was the capture of Walcheren island in ‘Infatuate’ (ii). Walcheren island dominated the approaches to the Scheldt estuary, and had been turned into a potent German fortress.

On 21 September Brigadier R. W. Moncel’s Canadian 4th Armoured Brigade moved to the north roughly along the line of the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal with the task of clearing an area on the southern shore of the Scheldt river estuary around the southern Dutch town of Breskens. The Polish 1st Armoured Division headed for the Dutch-Belgian border farther to the east and the crucial area north of Antwerp. The Canadian 4th Armoured Division had advanced from a hard-won bridgehead over the Ghent Canal at Moerbrugge to find itself the first Allied formation facing the formidable obstacle of the double line constituted by the Léopold Canal and the Dérivation de la Lys Canal. An attack was mounted in the vicinity of Moerkerke: the canals were crossed and a bridgehead was established, but fierce counterattacks by the Germans forced the Canadian division to withdraw with heavy casualties. Farther to the east, the Polish 1st Armoured Division enjoyed greater success as it moved up from Ghent on a north-easterly axis. In country unsuitable for armour, and against stiffening resistance, the division nonetheless managed to advance to the coast by 20 September, allowing it to occupy Terneuzen and clear the southern bank of the Scheldt river eastward to Antwerp.

Though largely successful in themselves, these operations also clarified the situation facing the 1st Army. Any further ground captured from the Germans in the area of the Scheldt river estuary would be made only at heavy cost. It was also evident that the Germans intended to hold the Breskens pocket, extending all the way along the coast from Zeebrugge to the Braakman Inlet and inland to the Léopold Canal, with considerable strength and determination.

On 2 October the 2nd Division began its advance to the north from Antwerp to reach and then advance into South Beveland. Despite stiff opposition on 6 October, the objective of the first phase seemed within grasp when the town of Woensdrecht was less than 3.1 miles (5 km) distant. The Germans were nonetheless determined to hold Woensdrecht, which controlled direct access to South Beveland and Walcheren island. Heavy casualties characterised the Canadian attack over open, flooded land, and driving rain, booby traps and land mines made advance very difficult: ‘Black Friday’, 13 October, saw the virtual destruction of a battalion of the Black Watch of Canada in Brigadier W. J. Megill’s Canadian 5th Brigade. On 16 October the final attack on Woensdrecht was launched, with the support of an immense artillery barrage. As the Allied artillery brought down a heavy concentration of fire within yards of their own troops, the Germans fell back. Woensdrecht was secured and South Beveland and Walcheren were cut off from the mainland. The Canadians had achieved their first objective, but suffered heavy casualties.

At this point, the challenge and opportunity was clear to all, and Montgomery issued a directive that made the opening of the Scheldt river estuary his army group’s greatest priority. To the east, the 2nd Army attacked to the west in order to clear the part of the Netherlands lying to the south of the Maas river, and this helped to secure the Scheldt estuary region from any German attempt to counterattack from outside the region.

Meanwhile, Simonds concentrated on the area to the north of South Beveland. The 4th Armoured Division, which had been engaged along the Léopold Canal, moved to the north of the Scheldt and drove hard for the town of Bergen-op-Zoom. By 24 October, all German access to South Beveland had been closed.

The second main operation of the Battle of the Scheldt opened with fierce fighting along the southern shore of the river’s estuary in the ‘Breskens pocket’. Here, the 3rd Division met fierce German resistance as its men fought to get over the Léopold Canal. An earlier failed attempt by the 4th Armoured Division at Moerbrugge had demonstrated the challenge the Canadians faced. In addition to the formidable German defences on both the Léopold Canal and the Dérivation de la Lys Canal, much of the approach area was flooded. Furthermore, the flooded terrain concealed the Germans for the attacking infantry, which emphasised the overwhelming need for aerial reconnaissance of the German positions. As a result, there were few areas where a determined assault had much hope of success.

It was decided that the best place for an assault would be immediately to the east of the point at which the two canals divided. This was a narrow strip of dry ground beyond the Léopold Canal: a long triangle with its base on the road linking Maldegem and Aardenburg and its apex near the village of Moershoofd, some 3.1 miles (5 km) to the east. This strip of land was only a few hundred yards wide, even at its base, and its northern boundary coincided with the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. This 'island' was the location for a two-pronged assault. Brigadier J. G. Spragge’s Canadian 7th Brigade of the 3rd Division made initial assault across the Léopold Canal, while Brigadier J. M. Rockingham’s Canadian 9th Brigade mounted an amphibious attack from the northern or coastal side of the pocket.

The assault began on 6 October, supported by extensive artillery fire and Canadian-built Wasp carrier vehicles equipped with flamethrowers. The Wasps launched their barrage of flame across the Léopold Canal, allowing the men of the 7th Brigade to scramble up over the steep banks and launch their assault boats across the canal. Two precarious, separate footholds were established, but conditions for the Canadian troops were horrendous as the Germans recovered from the shock of the flamethrower attack and counterattacked. However, the Canadian troops clung with grim determination to their extremely vulnerable bridgeheads. By 9 October, the bridgeheads had been consolidated into a single bridgehead, and by a time early in the morning of 12 October a position had been gained across the Aardenburg road.

The Canadian 9th Brigade conducted an amphibious operation with the aid of Terrapin and Buffalo amphibious vehicles, British-crewed by Lieutenant Colonel R. H. Walker’s 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, of Brigadier G. L. Watkinson’s 1st Assault Brigade, Royal Engineers, of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s British 79th Armoured Division. The brigade planned to cross the mouth of the Braakman Inlet in amphibious vehicles and to land in the vicinity of Hoofdplaat, a tiny hamlet in the rear or coastal side of the pocket, thus exerting pressure on the German defence from two directions at once.

In spite of British and Canadian difficulties in manoeuvring vehicles through the canals, which resulted in a 24-hour delay, the Germans were taken by surprise and a bridgehead was established. Once again, the Germans recovered quickly and counterattacked with ferocity, but they were slowly forced back. Brigadier J. C. Jefferson’s Canadian 10th Brigade of the 4th Armoured Division crossed the Léopold Canal and advanced at Isabella Polder. Then Brigadier A. J. Roberts’s Canadian 8th Brigade of the 3rd Division was called to move to the south from the coastal side of the pocket. This opened an overland supply route into the pocket. Despite these successes, the Canadian 3rd Division still had to fight to liberate the towns of Breskens, Oostburg, Zuidzande and Cadzand, as well as take the coastal fortress Fort Frederik Hendrik. With the Breskens pocket finally cleared, ‘Switchback’ ended on 3 November, when the 1st Army liberated the Belgian towns of Knokke and Zeebrugge.

The third major operation of the Battle of the Scheldt started on 24 October when the 2nd Division began to seize its bridgeheads against South Beveland. The Canadians hoped to advance rapidly, bypassing opposition and seizing objectives over the Beveland Canal, but they too were slowed by mines, mud and strong German defences. An amphibious attack was made across the West Scheldt river by the 52nd Division to get in behind the Germans’ Beveland Canal defensive positions, and with this formidable defence outflanked, Keefler’s Canadian 6th Brigade began a frontal attack in assault boats. The engineers were able to bridge the canal on the main road. With the canal line gone, the German defence crumbled and South Beveland was cleared. The third phase of the Battle of the Scheldt was now complete.

As the fourth phase of the Battle of the Scheldt opened, only the island of Walcheren at the mouth of the West Scheldt remained in German hands. The island’s defences were extremely strong: batteries of heavy coastal artillery on the west and south coasts both defended the island and interdicted the Scheldt river estuary, and the coast line had been strongly fortified against amphibious assaults. Furthermore, a landward-facing defensive perimeter had been built around the town of Vlissingen as a further defence of its port facilities should an Allied landing on Walcheren succeed. The only land approach was the Sloedam, a long, narrow causeway from South Beveland, little more than a raised two-lane road. To make matters more difficult, the flats that surrounded this causeway were too saturated with sea water for movement on foot, but had too little water for an assault boat attack.

To hamper the German defence, the island’s dykes were breached by attacks from the air by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command: on 3 October at Westkapelle with severe loss of civilian life; on 7 October at two places, to the west and east of Vlissingen; and on 11 October at Veere. This flooded the central part of the island, forcing the German defenders onto the higher ground around the outside and in the towns, and also allowed the Allies to make use of amphibious vehicles. The island was attacked from three directions: across the causeway from the east, across the Scheldt river from the south, and by sea from the west.

The 2nd Division attacked the causeway on 31 October and, after a grim struggle, established a precarious foothold. An initial attack by the Black Watch of Canada was rebuffed; the Calgary Highlanders then sent over a company which was also stopped halfway down the causeway. A second attack by the Calgary Highlanders during the morning of 1 November managed to gain a foothold. In the day of fighting which followed, the Calgary Highlanders were relieved by Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, which struggled to maintain the bridgehead before withdrawing onto the causeway on 2 November and being relieved by a battalion of the Glasgow Highlanders of the 52nd Division. In conjunction with the waterborne attacks, the British division continued the advance.

The two ‘Infatuate’ (ii) operations involved some 3,080 Canadians and British marine commandos, while the defence totalled about 5,000 German troops. The amphibious landings were conducted in two parts on 1 November.

‘Infatuate I’ comprised mainly men of the 155th Brigade (4 and 5/King’s Own Scottish Borderers and 7/9th Royal Scots) and No. 4 Commando, who were ferried from Breskens in small landing craft to the ‘Uncle’ assault beach in the south-eastern area of Vlissingen. During the next few days these forces engaged in heavy street fighting against the German defenders.

‘Infatuate II’ was the amphibious landing at Westkapelle. After a heavy bombardment by British warships, men of the 4th Special Service Brigade (Nos. 41, 47 and 48 [Royal Marine] Commandos and No. 10 Inter-Allied Commando consisting mainly of Belgian and Norwegian troops) supported by specialised armoured vehicles (amphibious transports, mine-clearing tanks, bulldozers, etc.) of the 79th Armoured Division were landed on both sides of the gap in the sea dyke, using large landing craft as well as amphibious vehicles to bring men and tanks ashore. Heavy fighting ensued here as well before the ruins of the town were captured. Part of the force then moved to the south-east in the direction of Vlissingen, while the main force advanced to the north-east in order to clear the northern half of Walcheren and link with the Canadian troops who had established a bridgehead on the eastern part of the island. Fierce resistance was again offered by some of the German troops defending this area, and the fighting continued to 7 November.

One day before this, the island’s principal town, Middelburg, fell after a calculated Allied gamble: the German commander was reported to be considering a surrender, but only to an armoured force. Middelburg was impossible to reach with tanks, so Buffalo amphibian vehicles were driven into Middelburg in an attempt to force a surrender. The ploy worked, and by 8 November all German resistance had ended.

The ‘Infatuate’ (ii) operations had cost the British and Canadians 489 men killed, 925 wounded and 59 missing, while the Germans lost 1,200 men killed and wounded as well as some 2,900 taken prisoner.

The 4th Armoured Division had meanwhile driven east past Bergen-op-Zoom to St Philipsland, where it sank several German vessels in Zijpe harbour. With the approaches to the port of Antwerp finally free of the German presence, the fourth phase of the Battle of the Scheldt had been completed.

The Scheldt river estuary was then cleared of mines, and on 28 November the first convoy entered the port of Antwerp, led by a Canadian-built freighter, Fort Cataraqui.

The flooded, muddy terrain and the tenacity with which the Germans held their well-fortified defences had made the Battle of the Scheldt especially gruelling and bloody for the Canadians. Indeed, the battle is considered by some to have been waged on the most difficult battlefield of World War II. At the end of the five-week offensive, the 1st Army had taken 41,043 prisoners, but suffered 12,873 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing), of whom 6,367 were Canadians.

After the first ship arrived, convoys started to bring in a steady stream of supplies to the continent. The Germans fully appreciated the significance of the Allies’ possession of a large deep-water port close to the front. So they attempted to destroy it, or at least to disrupt the flow of supplies through it, with a sustained bombardment by V-2 missiles, and more of these pioneering ballistic weapons were fired at Antwerp than at any other city: in fact, almost half of the V-2 missiles launched in the war were aimed at Antwerp. The port of Antwerp was so vital in strategic terms, moreover, that during ‘Wacht am Rhein’ one of the primary German objectives was the capture of the city and its port.