This was a Canadian offensive by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps of Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army in the area to the west of Antwerp in Belgium to seal off Walcheren island and all the German forces on it, and thus prepare the way for ‘Infatuate’ (23 October/2 November 1944).
On 23 October Major General C. Foulkes’s 2nd Division began the final clearance of the Woensdrecht area in preparation for operations against South Beveland and Walcheren: two brigades attacked to the north in the direction of Korteven and the country between it and the sea. The Germans fought hard to retain connection with the Beveland isthmus and the Canadian progress was accordingly slow.
But with Major General H. W. Foster’s 4th Armoured Division already in possession of Esschen, the German troops of General Otto Sponheimer’s LXVII Corps of Generaloberst Kurt Student’s 1st Fallschirmarmee within Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ in the Korteven area were in danger of encirclement, and Sponheimer had requested and received authorisation to start a general withdrawal.
On 24 October the Canadian progress accelerated in the face of lessening opposition, Korteven and the country between it and the coast being cleared and the 2nd Division turning to attack the isthmus leading to South Beveland. The isthmus, recovered from the sea in earlier centuries by draining and the building of dykes, stretched for some 11 miles (18 km) from the mainland to the point where a ship canal crossed it to give shipping from the Rhine direct access to Antwerp. The isthmus was of further importance to the economy of the neighbouring Netherlands as it carried a railway line to the port of Vlissingen (Flushing), its last stage on an artificial causeway between South Beveland and Walcheren. Where the Beveland isthmus left the mainland it was only 1 mile (1.6 km) wide: for most of its length it was only 2 to 3 miles (3.2 to 4.8 km) wide, but where it was crossed by the canal it broadened out to almost 5 miles (8 km).
Clearly if the isthmus were strongly defended it would be a difficult position to take. It was therefore planned that while it was attacked from the mainland, there should also be a waterborne assault on South Beveland from the Terneuzen area to the south of the Scheldt. This would serve to turn the canal line and would facilitate the clearance of the rest of South Beveland.
The German defence left in Walcheren and South Beveland comprised Generalleutnant Wilhelm Daser’s 70th Division comprising for the most part men transferred from other fronts with gastric problems; a miscellany of naval and Flak units; and a fortress regiment of three battalions plus a few small infantry detachments. The defences were almost everywhere protected by water, and the west coast of Walcheren was formidably protected by a chain of strong concrete coastal batteries.
On 24 October one brigade of the 2nd Division began its attack on the isthmus at 04.30 after a bombardment by seven artillery regiments. It was a misty, rain-swept morning, so air support was impossible until the afternoon. The leading infantry cleared the German defenders just ahead of the start line without difficulty, but then two columns of armoured cars, tanks and infantry in armoured trucks, aiming at a quick seizure of the canal ahead, quickly found themselves in difficulty. Finding traction very problematical on their route along the narrow dykes, they were halted by craters and road blocks, and so became easy targets for the anti-tank guns covering the isthmus.
As vehicle losses mounted it became clear that the advance along the isthmus was a task for infantry rather than armour, but also that mines, wire and water were likely to make the task slow and costly. The brigade’s infantry units advanced by themselves through the night, and by the early hours of the 25 October had progressed 3 miles (4.8 km) and captured Rilland, which Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers had attacked without major success during the previous evening. Short but acute fighting continued as the Canadians advanced, and by dark they had reached a point less than 5 miles (8 km) from the canal.
A second brigade was then ordered to pass through the first brigade at first light on 26 October, and as it did so news was received that the leading elements of Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division, another of the II Corps’ formations, had crossed the Scheldt and were landing on South Beveland to the west of the canal that was checking the Canadian advance. The leading troops of the 52nd Division (two battalions of Brigadier C. N. Barclay’s 156th Brigade) had departed, earlier that morning, from Terneuzen and smaller harbours 8 miles (13 km) farther to the east, in Buffalo tracked amphibian vehicles of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s British 79th Armoured Division, with the naval liaison officer at Canadian headquarters as navigator. After a journey of 8 miles (13 km) or more, the leading troops began to land, almost to the planned minute, on the two selected beaches on the shore of South Beveland.
The follow-up was to be transported in 176 Buffalo, 25 Landing Craft Assault and 27 Terrapin machines under the control of Brigadier G. L. Watkinson’s 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers of the 79th Armoured Division: it would be accompanied by a squadron of DD (duplex drive) amphibious tanks proceeding under their own power. In addition to the infantry of two brigades, engineer and medical units would be carried and some artillery. After establishing a bridgehead, the troops were to push to the north-west as quickly as possible to prevent German interference with the forthcoming crossing from Breskens to Flushing as part of the combined assault on Walcheren.
The landings on South Beveland were effected without major opposition, but an unexpectedly large sea wall or dyke had to be blown and it took two hours to get the assault battalions completely ashore. German artillery fire began to arrive from inland and a mortar scored a direct hit on one craft, causing severe casualties to the brigade’s advanced headquarters. The dyke was an obstacle to rapid landing, but follow-up units were soon arriving, beach organisation was taking shape and a ferry service across the Scheldt was working well. As darkness fell, with 200 prisoners taken, a sizeable bridgehead had been secured, its right about 1 mile (1.6 km) south of Hoedekenskerke on the eastern shore and its left about 2 miles (3.2 km) from Ellewoutsdijk on the southern face.
Meanwhile more infantry of the 2nd Division were passing along the isthmus, and soon after daybreak on 27 October were able to see that all the canal bridges had been blown and that the Germans were holding the far bank. After a reconnaissance had been made, an assault was made on the 5-mile (8-km) length of the canal. Several of the initial efforts to cross it near the northern end were defeated by German mortar fire and one 88-mm (3.465-in) gun, and in an attempted boat-crossing at night all but one of the boats were sunk. But by scrambling over broken bridges in the centre of the canal early on 28 October, the Canadians were also to secure a small bridgehead and drive back to German counterattacks.
At the southern end more infantry reached the canal by wading waist-deep through water and, having groped their way across the lock, fell upon the surprised German defenders just before dawn and took 120 prisoners. After being crossed, the canal was soon bridged by the engineers and one Canadian infantry brigade advanced on Goes, which was taken without undue difficulty, while another advanced to the south-west, captured Gravenpolder and made contact with troops of the 52nd Division.
Nearer to the coast Barclay’s brigade was driving forward from Ellewoutsdijk and Brigadier J. D. Russell’s 157th Brigade was fully assembled in the bridgehead. There had been two consecutive days of good flying weather and Air Vice Marshal L. O. Brown’s No. 84 Group of the RAF had been able to support the advance by attacking gun and mortar positions, points of resistance, perceived headquarters areas, and troops on the move.
The eastern end of the causeway was defended by a German rearguard in prepared defences. Early on 31 October the Canadians attacked and by 10.00 had overcome the defenders, 150 of whom were taken prisoner.
The last Germans had been driven out of South Beveland, but the way into Walcheren was still not open, for the western end of the connecting causeway was even more strongly guarded than the eadtern end. The causeway leading from South Beveland to Walcheren was some 1,600 yards (1465 m) long and about 40 yards (36.5 m) wide, with mud flats on each side. It was straight and offered no cover other than bomb craters and some German road-side slit trenches. The causeway carried not only the railway line but also the main road and a bicycle track. At the western end it abutted on one of the few small areas of Walcheren which had not been flooded by Allied bombing, but there was a wide water-filled ditch for some distance along either side of the embanked causeway. From flank positions on Walcheren’s main enclosing dyke, German fire covered all movement on the causeway. Just west of its centre the causeway was interrupted by a transverse anti-tank ditch filled with water, and near the Walcheren end was a strongly constructed road block protected by guns.
There was no realistic hope that wheeled or tracked vehicles could make the crossing, and the Canadian brigade commander decided that an infantry assault was therefore necessary. Plans to use assault boats to cross the Sloe Channel had been thwarted by muddy conditions unsuitable for water craft. The Calgary Highlanders had been selected for this amphibious operation as they had received assault boat training in the UK in anticipation of an opposed water crossing of the Seine river, and were now used as conventional infantry in a landward attack directly over the causeway. C Company of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada took heavy casualties on the afternoon and evening of 31 October in an attempt to ‘bounce’ the causeway.
During their attack, it was discovered that the causeway contained a deep crater: this had been blown by German engineers as an anti-tank obstacle, and was later used by the Canadians as a company command post as the battle developed.
B Company of the Calgary Highlanders was ordered forward just before 24.00 and was similarly stopped half-way down the causeway. A new fire plan was drawn up and Major Bruce McKenzie’s D Company inched forward under intense fire, reaching and taking the causeway’s western end at dawn on 1 November. The Germans counterattacked strongly and for some time, and used flamethrowers.
Two platoons of Le Régiment de Maisonneuve took over the bridgehead on Walcheren island on 2 November, but were forced back onto the causeway. A battalion of Glasgow Highlanders was ordered to pass through, but it too was unable to expand the bridgehead on the island.
However, amphibious landings by Brigadier B. W. Leicester’s British 4th Commando Brigade eventually sealed the fate of the German defenders on Walcheren island as the commandos attacked from the sea at Flushing and Westkapelle. The battle for the causeway itself had been a costly, and ultimately unnecessary, diversion. The 2nd Division went into reserve in the first week of November, moving into the Nijmegen salient for the winter.