Operation Suitcase

This was a Canadian offensive by Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army in the area to the north of Antwerp on the Belgian coast with the object of assisting in the isolation of the German forces holding Walcheren island (20/22 October 1944).

While the clearance of the southern shore of the Scheldt river, providing access the great port of Antwerp that was so vital to Allied logistical planning, was being achieved by the ‘Switchback’ reduction of the Breskens pocket, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery changed the orders to his Allied 21st Army Group on 16 October. Included in these changes were instructions for the Canadian 1st Army to concentrate on its immediate task of opening the Scheldt river estuary to Allied shipping, while Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army turned to the west to clear the German-held area lying to the south of the Maas river. The revised orders necessitated a major regrouping of the 21st Army Group’s formations, and on completion found the British 2nd Army with Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s British VIII Corps holding the eastern flank of the Eindhoven-Nijmegen ‘corridor’, Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XXX Corps holding the Nijmegen bridgehead over the Waal river, and Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s British XII Corps on the western flank of the ‘corridor’ with the task of eliminating the Germans from area of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Tilburg, and also the area to the south of the lower reaches of the Maas river in the area as far west as Breda.

This left the Canadian 1st Army with the task of destroying the German forces in the area between Breda and the south coast of the North Sea, and from South Beveland and Walcheren, the islands on the northern side of the Scheldt river estuary whose capture would give the Allies complete control of this river and provide unfettered maritime access to the acutely needed port facilities of Antwerp.

To deny the 21st Army Group, General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ could muster seven infantry divisions in the area to the south of the lower reaches of the Maas river, three of them in General Hans-Wolfgang Reinhard’s LXXXVIII Corps facing the British, and the other four in General Otto Sponheimer’s LXVII Corps opposite the Canadian forces. An eighth infantry division was on its way to the area from the northern part of the Netherlands, and the two front-line corps had also several units of assault and heavy anti-tank guns in close reserve. Other formations held South Beveland and Walcheren islands.

No longer required to shield the flank of the British 2nd Army, Lieutenant General E. L. M. Burns’s Canadian I Corps moved west into the coastal area and began the ‘Suitcase’ offensive to the north on 20 October, with Major General E. H. Barker’s British 49th Division on the right and the Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division on the left. The 49th Division reached Wuestwezel, taking about 500 prisoners during the day, while the Canadian 4th Armoured Division moved in the direction of Esschen but encountered stronger resistance than the British had met, and on the next day was sharply counterattacked from the directions of Breda and Bergen-op-Zoom. The German counterattack was beaten back only after determined fighting in which the Canadians destroyed several German assault guns and took another 500 prisoners. After Esschen had been bombed by Supermarine Spitfire fighter-bombers of Air Vice Marshal L. O. Brown’s No. 84 Group of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s British 2nd Tactical Air Force, the Canadians captured the town on 22 October and defeated an immediate German counterattack.

The Canadian 4th Armoured Division then wheeled to the west in the direction of Bergen-op-Zoom, its next objective. On this same day the 49th Division moved in the direction of Breda and was strongly attacked by Generalleutnant Erwin Sander’s 245th Division, which had been relieved by the division arrived from the northern Netherlands and instructed to retake Wuestwezel with the support of the LXVII Corps’ artillery. The German division’s effort was defeated with heavy losses, and the formation was then ordered to concentrate its effort on blocking the approaches to Breda.

Meanwhile the British 2nd Army had begun its attack to the west from the flank of the ‘corridor’. Tilburg and ‘s-Hertogenbosch were still held by the Germans when the XII Corps started its advance, which eventually took both towns and drove all German troops from the area to the south of the Maas river. Meanwhile the Canadian I Corps cleared the coastal area. But Montgomery had allocated absolute priority to the Canadian capture of Antwerp and the Scheldt river estuary. On 23 October Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division began the final clearance of the Woensdrecht area in preparation for the Canadian operations against South Beveland and Walcheren islands. The division used two of its infantry brigades, which attacked in a northerly direction toward Korteven and the country between this town and the sea. The Germans fought hard to retain their land connection with the Beveland isthmus, and thus the progress of the Canadian forces was inevitably slow. But with the Canadian 4th Armoured Division already in Esschen, the formations of the LXVII Corps in the area of Korteven were in danger of encirclement and Sponheimer had already been authorised to start a general withdrawal.

On 24 October the Canadian progress accelerated as the German defence was thinned, Korteven and the country between it and the sea were cleared, and the Canadian 2nd Division turned to attack the South Beveland isthmus in ‘Vitality’.