Operation Vitality

This was a Canadian and British two-part operation by Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division (under the temporary command of Brigadier R. H. Keefler) and Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division to reduce the ‘island’ (actually peninsula) of South Beveland (24/29 October 1944).

This was the third part of the four-part undertaking, with ‘Switchback’, ‘Infatuate’ and ‘Infatuate II’, by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps of Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army to facilitate the opening of the great port at Antwerp by eliminating the German garrisons round the estuary of the Scheldt river in order to make it possible for Allied minesweepers to clear the channel into the port, whose facilities were vitally needed to supply the offensive toward northern Germany.

‘Vitality’ on the northern side of the estuary was undertaken at the same time as the ‘Switchback’ clearance of the Breskens pocket on the southern side, leaving only the two-part ‘Infatuate’ clearance of Walcheren island to complete the whole undertaking.

On 27 September Crerar had been invalided to England, so the 1st Army was commanded temporarily by Simonds, with Foulkes assuming command of the II Corps in Simonds’s place. On 2 October the 2nd Division was in Antwerp, and as the way directly to the north through Generaloberst Kurt Student’s 1st Fallschirmarmee was cleared by Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division, Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division, Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US 104th Division and Major General G. H. A. MacMillan’s British 49th Division at the beginning of the Battle of the Scheldt, Keefler began to shift his division toward Woensdrecht at the landward end of the causeway linking South Beveland and the mainland. The advance to the north and north-west by the Canadian formation involved a push through Generalleutnant Karl Sievers’s 719th Division at Putte on 5 October and an attempt to complete a 13-mile (21-km) advance to the north-west so as to seal off the South Beveland peninsula near its western end at Woensdrecht.

On the division’s right Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps was already committed to a strong, wide-front thrust in the general direction of Tilburg and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

The country immediately to the north of Antwerp comprised low-lying fields and market gardens interspersed with small villages, and in this area the Canadian advance met occasionally fierce resistance but nonetheless progressed with some speed. On 5 October the Canadian 2nd Division entered the Netherlands, where the villages of Ossendrecht and Santvliet fell on the following day. With Woensdrecht a mere 3 miles (4.8 km) distant, the Canadians were almost within sight of their first objective. The threat was not lost on the Germans, who fully appreciated the essential importance of holding the area, which controlled direct access to South Beveland and Walcheren island.

Commanding the 15th Army, General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen had available to him a force capable of dealing with the Canadian threat. This was Generalleutnant Kurt Chill’s Kampfgruppe ‘Chill’ (the remnants of three infantry divisions, the 1st Fallschirm-Panzer-Ersatz- und Ausbildungs-Regiment ‘Hermann Göring’ and, most importantly in combat capability, the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment).

When the Canadian 2nd Division resumed its advance on 7 October, therefore, its soon found itself brought to a swift and abrupt halt. In front of the village of Woensdrecht lies the village of Hoogerheide, and it was against this that the Canadian 2nd Division committed the Black Watch of Canada, with orders to take the village and drive forward toward Korteven, just 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north on the road to Bergen-op-Zoom. Severe fighting flared up around Hoogerheide, and the Black Watch of Canada found itself checked and then driven back to its start line.

Dutch civilians reported large numbers of armoured vehicles and guns near Korteven, and during that night the Germans sent in a major counterattack, with another on the following day, and some of the Canadians had to be withdrawn. It was now clear that the paratroopers of the Kampfgruppe ‘Chill’ were prepared to fight to the bitter end to hold Woensdrecht and the vital isthmus. With their right resting on a flooded area and their left providing both concealment and good going for their reserves and armour, the Germans were in a very strong defensive position. A Canadian attempt to turn their open flank on 8 October failed, partially as a result of fog, and the Canadians now faced stalemate.

On 10 October a bold drive by the Royal Regiment of Canada across the wet reclaimed land to the south and west of Woensdrecht reached the near side of the embankment carrying the railway across the isthmus at its narrowest point, almost but not quite closing it. In the face of a fierce counterattack the Royal Regiment of Canada refused to yield any of the ground it had taken.

On 13 October the Black Watch of Canada, committed once more by Brigadier W. J. Megill’s Canadian 5th Brigade an effort to break the stalemate, did no better. Faced by heavy mortar, air-burst artillery and small arms fire, the battalion ended the day back where it had started and had lost 145 men. The Canadian 2nd Division’s final effort to break the deadlock came on 16 October when, at 03.30, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, covered by a heavy barrage and supported by tanks, finally fought its way into Woensdrecht and onto the low ridge above it, thereby cutting off North and South Beveland from the rest of the German-held Netherlands.

Despite this, though, the Germans still barred the way into South Beveland and, ominously for the prospects of further progress onto South Beveland, the floods at the eastern end of the island were rising. An uneasy ands temporary calm now descended on the ruins of Woensdrecht.

Recognising the opportunity now available to his formation, General Sir Bernard Montgomery issued a directive which established the opening of the Scheldt estuary the major priority of his 21st Army Group. To the east, Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army attacked westward to clear that part of the Netherlands lying to the south of the Maas river, securing the Scheldt region from counterattack. Meanwhile Simonds concentrated forces at the neck of the South Beveland peninsula. Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division moved to the north from the Léopold Canal and took Bergen-op-Zoom.

By 24 October the Allies had pushed their line farther out from the neck of the peninsula, ensuring German counterattacks would not cut off the Canadian 2nd Division, by then moving west along it toward the two Beveland islands and Walcheren island in ‘Vitality I’ (Canadian land operation) and ‘Vitality II’ (British and Canadian amphibious operation) against Generalleutnant Wilhelm Daser’s 70th Division of General Otto Sponheimer’s (from 25 October Generalleutnant Friedrich-August Schack’s) LXVII Corps within von Zangen’s 15th Army, which also comprised General Felix Schwalbe’s LXXXVIII Corps and General Werner Freiherr von und zu Gilsa’s LXXXIX Corps.

While the Canadian 2nd Division and Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division were engaged in their battles at Woensdrecht and in ‘Switchback’ respectively during the first two weeks of October, Montgomery had decided, largely on the basis of the current stalemate at Woensdrecht, that the reduction of the German garrison of South Beveland was impossible until the area to the north of Woensdrecht and the shores of the East Scheldt had been cleared of the German forces. The full weight of the 21st Army Group would have to be concentrated to this end and with all speed. Issued on 16 October, Montgomery’s instructions were simple, realistic and in the event decisive. The 2nd Army would take over the eastern end of the Canadian front and launch a drive to sweep the south bank of the Maas river while the Canadian 1st Army, its front thus shortened, would use Crocker’s British I Corps to advance its right wing forward at and immediately to the east of Woensdrecht to Bergen-op Zoom and Breda with the aid of reinforcements centred on Major General Terry de la M. Allen’s US 104th Division and Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division.

On 20 October, in torrential rain, Crocker’s British I Corps advanced on a four-division front: Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division attacked on the left; next came Major General E. H. Barker’s British 49th Division with Roosendaal as its objective; on the 49th Division’s right the US 104th Division advanced on Zundert and Moerdijk; and on the corps’ right Major General S. Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division made for Breda. At the same time Montgomery committed the British 2nd Army to an offensive against Tilburg and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

On 26 October Bergen-op-Zoom fell to the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, and the 49th Division was nearing Roosendaal. Thus relieved of anxiety with regard to its eastern flank, the Canadian 2nd Division was able on 24 October to begin its advance across the isthmus into South Beveland. Fighting to the north-west along the flooded isthmus, on which the deployment and commitment of armour was impossible, the division advanced about 5 miles (8 km) through the muddy terrain and against the resistance of of a German garrison now numbering, on the isthmus alone, four infantry battalions, two fortress troop battalions and 10 artillery battalions. By 26 October Brigadier F. N. Cabeldu’s Canadian 4th Brigade had fought its way forward to Krabbendijke half way along the isthmus, and Brigadier G. Gauvreau’s Canadian 6th Brigade passed through to renew the offensive. Some 7 miles (11.25 km) farther ahead lay the flooded banks of the Beveland Canal.

The Canadians were now approaching exhaustion, and Simonds therefore called in the British 52nd Division, a formation originally trained for mountain warfare, then retasked for an unfulfilled air-landing role in the Arnhem operation, and now committed to the amphibious assault role. In ‘Vitality II’, the British 52nd Division was thus to cross the Scheldt river, land in the rear of the Beveland Canal and thereby take the Germans defence in the rear and thus facilitate the way forward for Canadian 2nd Division on the isthmus. During the early hours of 26 October a flotilla of Buffalo tracked landing craft, small naval assault craft and Duplex Drive tanks departed the small port of Terneuzen on the left bank of the Scheldt river under the command of a naval officer, Lieutenant Commander R. D. Franks, loaded with the men of Brigadier C. N. Barclay’s British 156th Brigade. Tracer shells fired from the south bank provided navigation support, and at 04.30 all the guns of the Canadian II Corps open fire on the the beaches at Hoedekenskerke. Just 20 minutes later, and a mere 5 minutes behind schedule, the leading craft touched down. There was little opposition, and as dawn arrived the men of the British 52nd Division found themselves in green fields, isolated farm houses, windmills and church towers.

During the day the British rapidly expanded their beach-head, into which Brigadier J. D. Russell’s British 157th Brigade was then ferried. Thus outflanked, Daser had no practical alternative but to abandon the line of the Beveland Canal and to evacuate the isthmus, fighting all the way for a last-ditch stand on the island.

The Canadian 2nd Division resumed its advance and on 29 October, linking with the British 52nd Division’s beach-head, pushed on to Goes, the island’s main town, to receive a great welcome from the liberated Dutch. Effective German resistance ceased on 29 October, when the island of North Beveland was also cleared and the last surviving German forces fell back to Walcheren. By the morning of 31 October the Allied forces had reached the eastern end of the causeway leading to Walcheren island, and South Beveland was clear of the Germans.

‘Vitality’ had succeeded and now paved the way for ‘Infatuate’.