Operation Battle of Moerbrugge

The 'Battle of Moerbrugge' was a three-day battle between Canadian and German troops during the liberation of Belgium (8/10 September 1944).

Early in September 1944, the Canadian 10th Brigade, under the temporary command of Lieutenant Colonel D. Stewart, of Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division was ordered to cross the Ghent Canal about 3.1 miles (5 km) to the south of Bruges at the small village of Oostkamp. Directly across the canal from Oostkamp is Moerbrugge, another small village. The canal is about 22 yards (20 m) wide and very deep. Opposition was not expected, so only one battalion was selected for the crossing: this was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (Princess Louise’s).

Two batteries of the Royal Canadian Artillery’s 15th Field Regiment were placed in support but, as a result of the Allied forces' rapid advance, the Allied supply lines were hundreds of miles long, and therefore not much ammunition was available for the guns. As a result, no preparatory fire was planned, and fire was thus to be provided only as required.

The 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment) was to place its tanks on the south-western side of the canal to each side of the crossing point, and to hold the flanks of the crossing with the fire of their tanks along with the Vickers machine guns of the 10th Independent Machine Gun Company (The New Brunswick Rangers). The 3-in (76.2-mm) mortars of the Argylls and the 4.2-in (106.7-mm) mortars of the New Brunswick Rangers were in support, but these unit were as short of ammunition as the artillery.

Finally, A Company of the Argylls, the Argyll scout platoon and one squadron of the the South Alberta Regiment were moved into a position to the north of the crossing along the canal to provide a diversion and to test German defences in that area.

At that time Stewart, the Argylls' commanding officer, was away from his unit in temporary command of the brigade, and the regiment was thus left under the command of its deputy commanding officer, Major B. Stockloser. Stockloser ordered B, C and D Companies to cross the canal but had not arranged for assault boats, stating that the operation would be 'a crossing of opportunity'.

At 15.30 on 8 September 1944, the three assault companies moved to Oostkamp, and the 'opportunity' came about in the form of two civilian boats which were discovered by the officer in command of D Company. These boats would eventually ferry the men of all three companies across the canal, though some boats sank during the crossing and heavily laden soldiers were drowned. At 17.30, D Company started to cross and soon the Germans of Generalmajor Knut Eberding’s 64th Division, an element of General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army within Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B', responded with its mortars and 88-mm (3.465-in) guns. The Canadian casualties started to mount even before the companies had reached the far side of the canal. in two hours, C Company declined in strength from 63 men to just 46. By 00.00, however, all three companies were across and holding a narrow bridgehead.

D Company was driven back to the canal by German counterattacks. C Company was cut off from B and D Companies by German infiltration. As the day ended, the Argylls had lost five men killed and 26 wounded.

On 9 September The Lincoln and Welland Regiment crossed the canal and took position on the Argylls' right flank. The situation remained serious throughout the day, during which several German counterattacks were launched against the Canadian bridgehead. C Company found itself in an especially difficult position cut off from the other companies. In addition, the company’s radio equipments failed, leaving the Canadian infantrymen out of contact with all support. However, the company hung on and repulsed all counterattacks.

Two Canadian soldiers held their position in an upstairs window and returned fire with their Bren light machine gun despite German machine gun and 20-mm cannon fire directed at them, some of which passed through the window opening but did not hit them. As ammunition ran low, the infantrymen loaded their remaining rifle ammunition into Bren magazines and kept feeding them to the Bren gunners. At one point, the Bren gun inflicted between 15 and 20 casualties on the attacking Germans in the matter of a few minutes. Three heavy counterattacks on C Company were driven off with the Germans suffering extremely heavy losses. However, one Argyll platoon was overrun by the weight of German numbers and the platoon commander was killed.

Because of the incessant German shelling and mortaring of the crossing site, the Canadian engineers found it impossible to construct a Bailey bridge, so supplies and ammunition had to be ferried across the canal in boats. Slowly, more artillery ammunition was finding its way to the Canadian guns, and this permitted an increase in supporting fire. The South Alberta Regiment and New Brunswick Rangers continued to hold the flanks of the assault force.

At 14.00, A Company and the scout platoon were recalled from their diversionary task and moved to a supporting position on the 'friendly' side of the crossing. It was feared that the bridgehead might collapse and the six Argylls' and Lincoln and Welland’s companies in Moerbrugge might have to be evacuated.

At 15.00, Stewart returned to the unit and assumed control of the crossing with the Lincoln and Welland under command. He immediately set about reorganising the positions on the bridgehead.

At 19.00, the Germans blanketed both sides of the crossing with a deluge of mortar fire as a prelude to their final counterattack. However, their counterattack was beaten back. As a result of the fire, the engineers had to halt bridge construction yet again. However, by 00.00, Canadian counter-battery fire finally suppressed the German shelling of the bridge site. By this time the Argylls had lost seven men killed, 22 wounded and 12 captured during the day.

By the morning of 10 September, the engineers had finally completed the bridge. South Alberta Regiment tanks then moved across and established contact with the isolated C Company. About 150 German prisoners were sent back over the new bridge.

It is estimated that some 700 Germans were killed, wounded or taken prisoner during the Moerbrugge battle. Some 20 20-mm Flak cannon were captured, together with six 81-mm (3.19-in) mortars. German shelling and mortaring continued sporadically all through the day, but ownership of the crossing site was no longer an issue. One Argyll died and two were wounded on 10 September.