Operation Switchback

This was the Canadian reduction of the Breskens pocket, the south-western element of what was known to the Germans as the Festung ‘Scheldt’ designed to deny the Allies the use of the great port of Antwerp, by Major General D. C. Spry’s 3rd Division (6 October/3 November 1944).

'Switchback' was the second main operation of the four-phase Battle of the Scheldt together with the clearance of the approaches to the Beveland isthmus, the capture of South and North Beveland islands in ‘Vitality’, and the capture of Walcheren island in ‘Infatuate’ (ii).

The Battle of the Scheldt was fought by Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army, under the temporary command of Lieutenant G. G. Simonds as Crerar was ill, between 2 October and 8 November 1944.

By September 1944 the length of the Allied lines of communication, extending some hundreds of miles from French ports, had made it a matter of considerable urgency for their German defenders to be cleared from both shores of the Scheldt river estuary so that ships could operate to and from the great port of Antwerp, which was already in Allied hands but unusable for lack of the required security of its seaward approaches, and thus ease the logistic problems which were seriously affecting the conduct of Allied land operations.

Since its break-out from the ‘Overlord’ lodgement in Normandy, Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army had advanced to the north-east into Belgium and the Netherlands, and captured Brussels and Antwerp, the latter with its port facilities largely intact. But the advance halted with the British in possession of Antwerp and the Germans still in command of the all-important Scheldt river estuary. It was not possible to attempt an opening of the estuary during September as most of the already overextended Allied resources were allocated to ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ in the Arnhem area to the north-east, and this offered the Germans an opportunity to strengthen their defences on both the northern and southern sides of the estuary.

Early in October, Allied forces spearheaded by the Canadian 1st Army tried to open Antwerp to Allied shipping, but the German forces, now well established, were well placed to fight effective and protracted delaying actions to prevent this. In terrain whose natural military difficulties were compounded by waterlogging, the Battle of the Scheldt proved to be a challenging campaign. After five weeks the Canadian 1st Army, supplemented by formations attached to it by other countries, succeeded in clearing the Scheldt area after numerous amphibious assaults, obstacle crossings, and costly assaults over open ground. Both land and water were mined, and the Germans defended their line of retreat with artillery and snipers.

In a campaign that pitted some 60,000 Allied against about 90,000 German troops, the Allies finally cleared approaches to the port areas of Antwerp on 8 November at a cost of 12,873 casualties (6,367 of them Canadian) to the German losses of between 10,000 and 12,000 men excluding 41,043 captured. Even so, it was another three weeks before the first ship carrying Allied supplies was able to unload in Antwerp on 29 November as the port and nearly waters had to be cleared of mines.

It was on 12 September that the Canadian 1st Army was given the task of clearing the Scheldt area. Under command at that time was Simonds’s Canadian II Corps under the temporary command of Major General C. Foulkes, with Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division, Major General E. H. Barker’s (from 30 November Major General G. H. A. MacMillan’s) British 49th Division and Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s 52nd Division attached, as well as Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps.

The plan for the opening of the Scheldt river estuary involved four main operations in very difficult conditions. Of these tasks the first was the clearance of the area to the north of Antwerp and the securing of access to South Beveland; the second the clearance of the Breskens pocket in the area to the north of the Léopold Canal in ‘Switchback’; the third the capture of South Beveland and then North Beveland in ‘Vitality’; and the fourth the seizure of Walcheren island in ‘Infatuate’ (ii). Lying just to the west of North and South Beveland, Walcheren had been fortified into a powerful stronghold as part of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, and was considered by the Germans to be the strongest concentration of defences they had ever built.

On 21 September, Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division moved to the north approximately along the line of the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal within its allocated task of clearing the ‘Breskens pocket’ area on the southern shore of the Scheldt river estuary around the Dutch town of Breskens. Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division advanced toward the Dutch/Belgian border farther to the east and also into the crucial area to the north of Antwerp, which was held by General Otto Sponheimer’s LXVII Corps of General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army within Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’. This German corps was aligned with Generalleutnant Josef Reichert’s 711th Division in the north-west, Generalleutnant Erich Diestel’s 346th Division in the centre and Generalleutnant Karl Sievers’s 719th Division in the south-east.

Foster’s 4th Armoured Division advanced from a hard-won bridgehead over the Ghent Canal at Moerbrugge to find itself the first Allied formation to come up against the formidable obstacle of the double line of the Léopold and Schipdonk Canals. The division made an attack near Moerkerke, managing to cross the canals and establish a bridgehead before being pushed back by German counterattacks. On the northern part of the 1st Army’s front, Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division met with more success to the east as it advanced to the north-east from Ghent. In country poorly suited to armoured operations, and in the face of stiffening German resistance, the division nonetheless managed to drive through to the coast by 20 September, occupying Terneuzen and clearing the southern bank of the Scheldt river eastward in the direction of Antwerp.

The nature of the terrain and the determined resistance of the Germans had by this time persuaded Simonds that further advances in the Scheldt river area could be achieved only with heavy losses. Moreover, the Germans were holding the Breskens pocket, extending from Zeebrugge to the Braakman Inlet and inland to the Léopold Canal, in considerable strength. On 2 October, Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division, under the temporary command of Brigadier R. H. Keefler, started to advance to the north from Antwerp. Four days later there was hard fighting at Woensdrecht, which was the objective of the first phase. Reinforced by Generalleutnant Kurt Chill’s Kampfgruppe ‘Chill’ based on Chill’s own 85th Division, the Germans fully appreciated the importance of maintaining their hold on this area, which commanded the access to South Beveland and Walcheren islands.

The Canadians suffered heavy losses as they sought to make ground over terrain that was open, always waterlogged and often flooded, swept by heavy rain and liberally strewn with mines and booby traps. On 13 October the Black Watch of Canada, part of Brigadier W. J. Megill’s Canadian 5th Brigade, was all but destroyed in an unsuccessful attack. The Calgary Highlanders followed with a more successful action, and the battalion’s carrier platoon took the railway station at Korteven. There was then heavy fighting at Hoogerheide, but by 16 October the Canadians held Woensdrecht, thereby severing the land link to South Beveland and Walcheren. Thus the Canadians had achieved their first objective, but only a heavy cost.

Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding the Allied 21st Army Group, now and somewhat belatedly saw an opportunity, or rather an imperative, and ordered that the opening of the Scheldt river estuary should be his army group’s greatest priority. To the east, the 2nd Army attacked westward to clear that part of the Netherlands lying to the south of the Maas river, securing the Scheldt region from any realistic chance of German counterattack.

Meanwhile, Simonds concentrated his forces at the isthmus connecting South Beveland with the mainland. The 4th Armoured Division moved to the north from the Léopold Canal and took Bergen-op-Zoom. By 24 October the Allied line had been pushed farther from the isthmus, ensuring German counterattacks could not cut off the 2nd Division, which was by this time moving to the west along South Beveland toward Walcheren.

The second main operation of the Battle of the Scheldt to be fought was the reduction of the Breskens pocket. Here Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division met strong and determined resistance as it fought to cross the Léopold Canal. The earlier and unsuccessful attempt to achieve this, by the 4th Armoured Division at Moerbrugge, had revealed the difficulty of the task the 3rd Division faced: in addition to the formidable defences on both the Léopold and Schipdonk Canals by Generalmajor Kurt Eberding’s 64th Division of the 15th Army, much of the area which the Canadians would have to cross as they approached the Breskens pocket for ‘Switchback’ was flooded. The Canadian planners decided that the best place for an assault would be the area immediately to the east of the point at which the two canals divided: this was a narrow strip of dry ground only a few hundred yards wide at its base beyond the Léopold Canal, on the road linking Maldegem and Aardenburg, and extending some 3 miles (5 km) eastward to a point near the village of Moershoofd.

The Canadian 3rd Division opted for a two-pronged attack with Brigadier J. G. Spragge’s Canadian 7th Brigade making the first assault across the Léopold Canal, and Brigadier J. D. Rockingham’s Canadian 9th Brigade delivering an amphibious attack from the northern (coastal) side of the pocket.

‘Switchback’ started at 05.30 on 6 October with the support of powerful artillery and Wasp carriers equipped with flamethrowers. The flamethrowers of the Wasp vehicles fired across the Léopold Canal and thus facilitated the task of the 7th Brigade at Eede as its men hurled themselves up and over the steep banks to launch their assault boats. The Canadian were thus able to establish two separate though shallow footholds, but the Germans quickly recovered themselves and counterattacked, though without being able to drive the Canadians out of their precarious bridgeheads. By 9 October the Canadians had closed the gap between the two bridgeheads to create a single more tenable bridgehead, and by a time early in the morning of 12 October had pushed forward to a position across the Aardenburg road.

The 9th Brigade undertook its amphibious operation with the aid of Terrapin wheeled and Buffalo tracked amphibious vehicles, crewed by a British unit, the 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers. 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 allowing the brigades to exert pressure from two directions at once. In spite of difficulties in manoeuvring vehicles through the canals and the resulting 24-hour delay, the Germans were taken by surprise and the Canadians established a bridgehead. Yet again, though, the Germans recovered quickly and counterattacked, but were slowly driven back. Brigadier J. C. Jefferson’s Canadian 10th Brigade of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division crossed the Léopold Canal and advanced at Isabella Polder. Then Brigadier K. G. Blackader’s (from 30 October Brigadier J. A. Roberts’s) Canadian 8th Brigade was called to move to the south from the coastal side of the pocket, and this created an overland supply route for the Canadian forces in the pocket.

The German defence now began to falter as the Canadians pushed forward along two axes. The Germans abandoned Eede on 14 September, and four days later Brigadier J. D. Russell’s British 157th Brigade of Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division took over from the Canadian 7th Brigade. Breskens itself fell on 21 October. The Canadian 3rd Division fought additional actions to clear German troops from the towns of Breskens, Oostburg, Zuidzande and Cadzand, as well as Fort Frederik Hendrik on the coast.

‘Switchback’ ended on 3 November as the Canadian 1st Army liberated the Belgian towns of Knokke and Zeebrugge, thereby eliminating Breskens pocket and removing the German presence on the southern side of the Scheldt river estuary. The scene was now set for the implementation of ‘Vitality’ and ‘Infatuate’ (ii).