The 'Battle of the Scheldt' was a series of operations by the Canadian 1st Army, with Polish and British units attached, to clear German forces and thereby open the shipping route to Antwerp in Belgium so that its port could be used to supply the Allies in the North-West European theatre (2 October/8 November 1944).
Under acting command of Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds in the absence of General H. D. G. Crerar, the Canadian 1st Army fought this battle in the northern part of Belgium and the south-western part of the Netherlands.
The well-established German defenders fought an effective series of delaying action, during which they flooded land areas around the Scheldt river estuary, considerably slowing the Allied advance. After five weeks of difficult fighting, the Canadian 1st Army, at a cost of 12,873 Allied casualties, finally cleared the Scheldt river estuary after numerous amphibious assaults, obstacle crossings and costly assaults over open ground. Even so, after the German defenders were no longer a threat, it took another three weeks to de-mine the harbours, and the first convoy carrying Allied supplies was able to unload in Antwerp only on 29 November 1944.
Following their break-out after success in the 'Battle of Normandy', the Allies began a series of rapid advances across north-eastern France and into the Low Countries, far from their initial lines of communication along the northern coast of France. By the autumn of 1944, captured ports such as Cherbourg were far away from the front line, stretching Allied supply lines and causing great logistical problems.
Antwerp is a deep-water inland port close to Germany, and is connected to the North Sea via the Scheldt river, which allows the passage of ocean-going ships. Following the German destruction of Rotterdam in 1940, Antwerp was the largest surviving port in north-western Europe, and the obvious choice to support the imminent Allied invasion of Germany. This fact had been recognised as early as December 1941, when the British and US military readers made their first plans for a European offensive.
The White Brigade of the Belgian resistance seized the port of Antwerp before the Germans could destroy it as they had planned. On 4 September, Antwerp was taken by Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s British 11th Armoured Division with its harbour 90% intact. The Germans had heavily fortified Walcheren island at the mouth of the Western Scheldt river, however, establishing nicely emplaced artillery impervious to air attack and controlling access to the river. This made it impossible for Allied minesweepers to clear the river and thereby open the port at Antwerp. As part of the so-called 'Atlantic Wall', Walcheren island was described as the 'strongest concentration of defences the Nazis had ever constructed'.
On 5 September, the naval commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay advised the commander of 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, to make the opening of the Scheldt river his main priority, stating that as long as the mouth of the river remained in German hands, the port of Antwerp was useless. On this same day, as a result of 'Ultra; intelligence, Montgomery was made aware of Adolf Hitler’s intention to hold the Scheldt river at all costs. However, Montgomery was focused on preparations for the interlinked but ill-fated 'Market' and 'Garden' operations later in the month. Among the Allies' senior leaders, only Ramsay saw the opening of Antwerp as crucial to the sustenance of the advance into Germany.
Montgomery had an additional incentive, of his own marking, not to prioritise the seizure and opening of Antwerp, namely his apparent desire for the 21st Army Group to spearhead the invasion of Germany and capture Berlin. On 9 September, Montgomery wrote to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that 'one good Pas de Calais port' would be sufficient to meet the logistical needs of the 21st Army Group, although not the US armies in France. Three days earlier, on 6 September, Montgomery had ordered General H. D. G. Crerar to prioritise the capture of just such a port, Boulogne, by his Canadian 1st Army in 'Wellhit'. Montgomery’s views obliged General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander-in-chief in Europe, to support a plan for the 21st Army Group to invade Germany, whereas the use of Antwerp would allow all of the armies to be supplied for such an invasion.
As a result, little was done about the seizure and opening of Antwerp during September. On 12/13 September, Montgomery ordered the Canadian 1st Army to clear the Scheldt river estuary after taking Boulogne, Calais in 'Undergo' and Dunkirk in 'Siege'. Crerar responded that this was impossible as his Canadian 1st Army lacked sufficient manpower. Montgomery refused Crerar’s request to have Lieutenant General Sir Neil Ritchie’s British XII Corps assigned to help clear the Scheldt river estuary as this formation was needed for the exploitation of the expected success of 'Market' and 'Garden'. If Montgomery had secured the Scheldt river estuary as Ramsay had advised, Antwerp would have been opened to Allied shipping far earlier than it was, and the escape of General Gustav-Adolf von Zanagen’s 15th Army, a key element of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B', from France might have been prevented. Instead, the 15th Army was able to deploy defensively and prepare for the expected Allied advance in the coastal regions of the Low Countries.
The island of Walcheren was held by a mix of naval and army troops under the command of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Daser, commander of the 70th Division. The garrison consisted of the 202nd Marineartillerieabteilung, the 810th Marineflakabteilung, the 89th Festungsinfanterieregiment and the 70th Division.
Additionally, as part of the 'Fortitude' deception plan to support 'Neptum=ne' (iii) and 'Overlord', the Allies had tricked the Germans into the belief that the Allies planned that their major cross-Channel assault would be directed at the Pas-de-Calais region of France instead of Normandy. As such, the Germans had reinforced the 15th Army in the Pas-de-Calais, providing a critical mass of troops and matériel close to the mouth of the Scheldt river.
Hitler ordered planning for what became 'Wacht am Rhein' in the Ardennes during September 1944, the objective of which was to recapture Antwerp, and within the context of this undertaking Hitler ordered the 15th Army to hold the mouth of the Scheldt river at all costs, calling the island Fortress 'Walcheren'.
The Germans on Walcheren were on the extreme right of the Germans' front in North-West Europe, and were deprived of supplies as their army concentrated its strength on the planned Ardennes offensive and the replacement of losses elsewhere. However, the flat polder ground of the Dutch countryside favoured the defensive and this, it was felt, compensated for the 15th Army's limited strength. Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber 'West', told von Zangen that 'Enemy supplies, and therefore, his ability to fight, is limited by the stubborn defence of the harbour, as intelligence reports prove. The attempt of the enemy to occupy the Western Scheldt in order to obtain the free use of the harbour of Antwerp must be resisted to the utmost.' In his orders to his men, von Zangen declared that 'Therefore, I order all commanders as well as the National Socialist indoctrination officers to instruct the troops in the clearest and most factual manner in the following points: Next to HAMBURG, ANTWERP is the largest port in Europe. Even in the First World War, Churchill, in person, traveled to ANTWERP in order to organise the defence of the harbour because he appreciated it as of vital importance to the struggle on the continent. At that time, Churchill’s plan was completely shattered; the same must happen again. After overrunning the SCHELDT fortifications, the English would finally be in a position to land great masses of matériel in a large and completely protected harbour. With this matériel they might deliver a death blow at the NORTH GERMAN plain and at BERLIN before the onset of winter…The enemy knows that he must assault the European fortress as speedily as possible before its inner lines of resistance are fully built up and occupied by new divisions. For this, he needs the ANTWERP harbour. And for this reason, we must hold the SCHELDT fortifications to the end. The German people are watching us. In this hour, the fortifications along the SCHELDT occupy a role which is decisive for the future of our people. Each additional day will be vital that you deny the port of ANTWERP to the enemy and the resources he has at his disposal.'
From September, Ramsay was deeply involved in planning the assault on Walcheren island. He appointed Captain A. F. Pugsley of the Royal Navy, who landed the Canadian 7th Brigade of the Canadian in 'Neptune' (iii), to the Canadian 1st Army headquarters to start preparations.
Having earlier ordered the English Channel ports to be cleared first, Montgomery now came to the decision that the importance of Antwerp was such that the seizure of Dunkirk should be delayed. The Canadian 1st Army, under Simonds’s temporary command, was therefore supplemented by Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps, Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division and Simonds’s own Canadian II Corps, together with General brigady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division, Major General E. H. Barker (from 30 November Major General G. H. A. MacMillan’s British 49th Division and Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division as attachments. Additionally Major General T. G. Rennie’s British 51st Division was to give up its transport to enable the movement of forces into their battle positions. Montgomery promised the support of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command in attacking the German fortifications, and that of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle’s US 8th Army Air Force 'on the day concerned'.
The plan to clear and open the the Scheldt river estuary involved four main operations to be implemented across very difficult terrain. First was the clearance of the area to the north of Antwerp and the securing of access to the South Beveland peninsula. Second was 'Switchback'. which was the clearance of the Breskens pocket to the north of the Leopold Canal and to the south of the Western Scheldt river. Third was 'Vitality' for the capture of the South Beveland peninsula to the north of the Scheldt river and the east of Walcheren island. And fourth was 'Infatuate' for the capture of Walcheren island.
The first attacks were made on 13 September. After an attempt by Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division to storm the Leopold Canal on its own had ended in bloody repulse, Simonds ordered a halt to operations in the Scheldt area until the French channel ports had been taken, reporting that the clearance of the Scheldt river operation required more than one division. The halt allowed the 15th Army ample time to dig in to its new home by the banks of the Scheldt river.
'Switchback' began on 21 September when the Canadian 4th Armoured Division moved to the north roughly along the line of the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal to clear the 'Breskens Pocket' area on the southern shore of the Scheldt river around the Dutch town of Breskens. The Polish 1st Armoured Division simultaneously pushed for the Dutch-Belgian border farther to the east and the crucial area to the north of Antwerp. The Canadian 4th Armoured Division advanced from a hard-won bridgehead over the Ghent-Brugge Canal at Moerbrugge to find itself the first Allied formation facing the formidable obstacle of the double line of the Leopold and Schipdonk Canals. An attack was mounted in the vicinity of Moerkerke, crossing the canals and establishing a bridgehead before counterattacks forced a withdrawal with heavy casualties. The Polish 1st Armoured Division enjoyed greater success to the east as it advanced to the north-east from Ghent. In country unsuitable for armour, and against stiffening resistance, the division had advanced to the coast by 20 September, occupying Terneuzen and clearing the southern bank of the Scheldt east toward Antwerp.
It became apparent to Simonds that any further gains in the Scheldt would come at heavy cost, as the Breskens Pocket, extending from Zeebrugge to the Braakman Inlet and inland to the Leopold Canal, was strongly held.
In October, Montgomery detached the British 51st Division, Polish 1st Armoured Division, British 49th Division and Brigadier J. F. Bingham’s Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade from the Canadian 1st Army so they could aid Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army in the 'Pheasant' offensive to liberate North Brabant and expand the Arnhem salient. Simonds saw the Scheldt river campaign as a test of his ability and a challenge for the Canadians to overcome, and felt he could clear the Scheldt river estuary with only three divisions of the Canadian II Corps despite having to take on the entire 15th Army, which held strongly fortified positions in terrain which favoured the defence. Simonds never registered complaints about his lack of adequate manpower, ammunition and air support.
On 2 October, the Canadian 2nd Division began its advance to the north from Antwerp. Stiff fighting followed on 6 October at Woensdrecht, the target of the first phase. The Germans, reinforced by Generalleutnant Kurt Chill’s Kampfgruppe 'Chill' of Chill’s own 85th Division, which was replacing Generalleutnant Erich Diestel’s (from 16 October Generalmajor Walter Steinmuller’s) retreating 346th Division, fully appreciated the importance of holding the area, which controlled direct access to South Beveland and Walcheren island. The Canadian suffered heavy losses as they attacked over terrain that was pen and flooded. Wind-swept rain, booby traps and mines made advance very difficult. Attacking on 7 October in heavy mist, the Calgary Highlanders came under heavy fire from German positions. As described in its war diary, 'the battle thickened…the Germans forces…hit back with a pugnacity which had not been encountered in the enemy for a long time'. The Régiment de Maisoneuve was halted 1,000 yards (915 m) short of their target, and on the following day the Black Watch of Canada was stopped in its attempt. On 9 October, the Germans counterattacked and drove the Canadians back, but the war diary of the 85th Division reported that the division was 'making very slow progress' in face of tenacious Canadian resistance.
SHAEF headquarters, Ramsay, who was more concerned than their own generals about the problems facing the Canadians, complained to Eisenhower that the Canadians were having to ration ammunition as Montgomery had made the retention of the Arnhem salient his main priority. After Ramsay had raised the matter with Eisenhower, the latter informed Montgomery on or about 9 October that 'the supreme importance of Antwerp. It is reported to me this morning by the Navy that the Canadian Army will not repeat not be able to attack until 1 November unless immediately supplied with ammunition.' Montgomery replied that 'Request you will ask Ramsay from me by what authority he makes wild statements to you concerning my operations about which he can know nothing repeat nothing…there is no repeat no shortage of ammunition…The operations are receiving my personal attention.'
Model, the commander of Heeresdgruppe 'B', ordered that 'The corridor to Walcheren will be kept open at any price; if necessary, it will be regained by forces ruthlessly detached from other sectors.' A tough commander and ruthless Nazi fanatic known for his devotion to Hitler, was called 'the Führer’s fireman' because he was given the most difficult tasks by Hitler. Model sent Generalmajor Gerhard Franz’s 256th Volksgrenadierdivision and a few companies of assault guns to allow the release of the Kampfgruppe 'Chill', a 'fire brigade' unit comprising the " consisting of Major Dr Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte’s (later Oberst Fritz Hencke’s) 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment and assault gun companies. On 10 October, the Royal Regiment of Canada launched a surprise attack against the German lines at Woensdrecht, but for the next days was engaged in heavy fighting against counterattacks by the Kampfgruppe 'Chill'. Foulkes, the commander of the Canadian 2nd Division, sent the Black Watch of Canada to support the Royal Regiment. The German forces at Woensdrecht greatly outnumbered the Canadians and, had he known this fact, Model might have launched a counter-offensive. Instead he employed attrition tactics by making piecemeal counterattacks. During this time, the war diaries of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry noted 'many snipers in the houses and hedges' had been encountered while the weather was 'cold and wet with high winds. Floods rising again.'
Simonds had planned to commit the Canadian 4th Armoured Division to aid the Canadian 3rd Division in the clearance of the 'Breskens Pocket', but problems faced by the Canadian 2nd Division forced Simonds to start detaching units from the Canadian 4th Armoured Division on a piecemeal basis. On 9 October, the South Alberta Regiment was ordered to 'protect the right flank of 2 Division and prevent infiltration between 2 Div and 1 Polish Armd. Div'. On thev following day, Simonds ordered Foster, commander of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, 'to send 4 Cnd Armd Bde to the Antwerp area at the rate of one get a day, beginning 11 Oct'.
On 13 October, a day that would come to be known as 'Black Friday', the Black Watch of Canada of Brigadier J. W. Megill’s Canadian 5th Brigade was virtually destroyed in an unsuccessful attack. The Black Watch attacked German positions, already known to be well defended, while the rest of the Canadian 2nd Division was not engaged, suggesting that neither Foulkes nor Simonds had taken seriously the problem of fighting by the Scheldt river. The Black Watch, whose officers came from Montreal’s Scottish elite, claimed to be the most exclusive regiment in the Canadian army but, despite this reputation, was considered to be a 'jinxed' regiment which had received more than its fair share of misfortune. One officer of the Black Watch reported that the men sent to replace the Black Watch men killed and wounded in France 'had little or no infantry training, and exhibited poor morale' and that the men of C Company had 'all been killed or taken prisoner' on 'Black Friday'. The Black Watch had already taken very heavy losses at the Battle of Verrières Ridge in July 1944 and its heavy losses on 'Black Friday' almost finished the regiment. The Calgary Highlanders followed in a more successful action, and its carrier platoon succeeded in taking the railway station at Korteven, to the north of Woensdrecht 1.25 miles (2 km) to the north-east of Woensdrecht. Fighting at Hoogerheide, 1.25 miles (2 km) to the south-east of Woensdrecht, also followed. On 16 October, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Denis Whitaker, attacked Woensdrecht at night, taking much of the village. However, it was unable to pass beyond the ridge to the west of Woensdrecht. By 16 October, Woensdrecht had been secured, cutting the land link to South Beveland and Walcheren island. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry suffered losses on 16 October equal to those of the Black Watch on 'Black Friday'. The Canadians had thus achieved their first objective, but in he process had suffered heavy casualties.
On 14 October Montgomery issued Notes on Command that were highly critical of Eisenhower’s leadership and asked that he once again be made Allied land forces commander, as he had been for the early part of 'Overlord'. On the next day, Eisenhower replied that the issue was not the command arrangement, but rather the ability and willingness of Montgomery to obey orders, saying he had ordered him to clear the Scheldt river and warned that unless he was able to obey orders, he would be dismissed. Stung but chastened by Eisenhower’s message, Montgomery promised that 'You will hear no more from me on the subject of command…Antwerp top priority in all operations of 21 Army Group.' On 16 October, Montgomery issued a directive along that line. To the east, the British 2nd Army attacked westward to clear that part of the Netherlands to the south of the Maas river in 'Pheasant', securing the Scheldt river region from counterattacks.
As part of his newly focused efforts to assist Simonds, Montgomery assigned the British 52nd Division to the Canadian 1st Army. Though recruited in the lowlands of Scotland, the 52nd Division was a mountain formation, requiring men with unusual strength and stamina in order to fight in the mountains, making it into something of an elite division within the British army. Simonds greatly appreciated having this division under his command and told Hakewill-Smith that his 52nd Division was to play the decisive role in the seizure of Walcheren island. As such, Simonds ordered Hakewill-Smith to start preparing an amphibious operation as Simonds planned to land the 52nd Division on Walcheren at the same time as the Canadians attacked the island.
Meanwhile, Simonds concentrated forces at the neck of the South Beveland peninsula. On 17 October, Forster announced that the Canadian 4th Armoured Division would attack on 20 October to take the area known as the Wouwsche Plantage. The offensive began early in the morning of 20 October and was led by the Argyll and Lake Superior Regiments. On 22 October, the Lincoln and Welland Regiment and the Algonquin Regiment took Esschen in a surprise attack. On 23 October, the 85th Division counterattacked spearheaded byy some self-propelled guns. The Sherman medium tanks of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Lake Superior Regiment were decimated by the German self-propelled guns, and the next days were characterised by what the 85th Division's war diary called 'extremely violent fighting'. The war diary of the Canadian Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders spoke of 'nightmarish fighting' at Wouwsche Plantage. The fighting at Wouwsche Plantage was considered so important that Montgomery arrived at the headquarters of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division to press Forster for speed, but Forster protested that the nature of flat polder country made speed impossible. One company of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment lost 50% of its men in a single day’s fighting, while an advance company of the Algonquin Regiment was cut off and surrounded by German forces and had to fight desperately to break out. The Canadians now advanced towards Bergen-op-Zoom and would take part in 'Pheasant' in an effort to take the town. The advance would force von Rundstedt to redeploy the elite 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, which until then had been blocking the Canadian 2nd Division on the Beveland isthmus to the defence of Bergen-op-Zoom.
By 24 October, the Allied lines had been pushed out farther from the neck of the peninsula, ensuring German counterattacks would not cut off the Canadian 2nd Division, by then moving to the west along the peninsula toward Walcheren island.
The second main operation was 'Switchback', which began with fierce fighting to reduce the 'Breskens Pocket'. Here, Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division encountered tenacious German resistance as it fought to cross the Leopold Canal. An unsuccessful earlier attempt by the Canadian 4th Armoured Division at Moerbrugge had demonstrated the very considerable challenge the Canadian 3rd Division faced. In addition to the formidable German defences on both the Leopold Canal and the Schipdonk Canal, much of the approach area was flooded.
The 'Breskens Pocket' was held by the 64th Division commanded by Generalmajor Knut Eberding, an infantryman with extensive experience on the Eastern Front and who was regarded as an expert in defensive warfare. When the 15th Army had retreated from the Pas-de-Calais region of north-eastern France across the Low Countries in September 1944, a large quantity of artillery and ammunition had entered the 'Breskens Pocket': this quantity included 100 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon, which the Germans deployed as a sort of 'super-heavy machine gun' and were much feared by the Canadian infantry. The 20-mm cannon could shred a man to pieces within seconds.As well as the 20-mm cannon, the 64th Division had 23 examples of the 88-mm (3.465-in) Flak gun, known for its power to destroy an Allied tank with a single direct hit, together with 455 light machine guns and 97 mortars.
While Montgomery focused on the 'Market' and 'Garden' operations in September 1944, Eberding used the three weeks of quiet he was thus afforded to have his men dig in. He later expressed amazement that the Allied air forces had hardly ever bombed the 'Breskens Pocket' during September, allowing his men to build defensive works with barely an effort to stop them. The flat, swampy polder country made the 'Breskens Pocket' into an 'island', as much of the ground was impassable and there were only a few 'land bridges' connecting the area to the mainland. The Germans had blown up dikes to flood much of the ground so that the Canadians could advance only along the raised country roads. Eberding reported that the polder country was 'a maze of ditches, canalised rivers and commercial canals, often above the level of the surrounding countryside…which made military manoeuvre almost impossible except on the narrow roads built on top of the dikes. Each of these roadways were carefully registered for both artillery and mortar fire.'
It was decided that the best place for an assault would be immediately to the east of the point at which the two canals divided: a narrow strip of dry ground, only a few hundred metres wide at its base, beyond the Leopold Canal, which was described as a long triangle with its base on the Maldegem-Aardenburg road and its apex near the village of Moershoofd some 3.1 miles (5 km) to the east. Despite the fact that 'Ultra' intelligence had revealed that the 64th Division was digging in for a hard fight and that Eberding had ordered a fight to the death, Canadian military intelligence seriously underestimated the size and capability of the German forces. The Canadians expected Eberding to retreat to Walcheren island once the Canadian 3rd Division started to advance. However, Simonds appreciated the problems imposed by the polder country and the German concentration of their forces at the few 'land bridges'. Simonds therefore planned to use Buffalo tracked amphibious vehicles to move across the flooded countryside to outflank the German forces, and planned to strike both at the Leopold canal and at the rear of the 'Breskens Pocket' via an amphibious landing at the Braakman inlet.
Thus there developed a two-pronged assault. The Canadian 3rd Division’s 7th Brigade, under the command of Brigadier J. G. Spragge, made the initial assault across the Leopold Canal, while Brigadier J. M. Rockingham’s 9th Brigade mounted the amphibious attack from the coastal side of the pocket. The 7th Brigade was known as the Western Brigade in the Canadian army as its three regiments were all from the western areas of Canada: the Canadian Scottish Regiment came from Victoria area, the Regina Rifles from the Regina area and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles from the Winnipeg area, while the 9th Brigade was known as the Highland Brigade as its three regiments were all Highland regiments of which two came from Ontario and the other from Nova Scotia. The North Shore Regiment made a diversionary attack across the Leopold Canal, while the Regina Rifles and the Canadian Scottish Regiment made the main assault. The Royal Montreal Regiment, which had not yet seen any action, was pressing to get into the fight, and as such, the B Company of the Regina Rifles agreed to step aside so one company of the Royal Montreal Regiment could take its place.
The 9th Brigade was unable to land at the time expected, however, as it was unfamiliar with amphibious vehicles. The assault began on 6 October, supported by extensive artillery fire and Canadian-built Wasp 'Universal Carriers' fitted with flamethrowers. The 7th Brigade was supposed to be on their own for 40 hours, but instead faced 68 hours of Geran use of of everything available in the effort to stop the Canadians from crossing the Leopold Canal.
Simonds had planned to take the German forces by surprise by avoiding a preliminary bombardment and instead having the Wasps incinerate the German defenders with a 'barrage of flame'. The Wasps launched their barrage of flames across the Leopold Canal, allowing the 7th Brigade troops to scramble up and over the steep banks and launch their assault boats. However, the Germans had dug in well and many escaped the fire of the flamethrowers. One company of the Royal Montreal Regiment was almost destroyed on the edge of the Leopold Canal. The Germans brought down heavy machine gun and mortar fire and only a few of the Montrealers made managed to cross the canal. The Regina Rifles' A Company did not attempt to cross the canal because the volume of machine gun fire convinced the experienced Canadian infantrymen that it was too dangerous to attempt a crossing of the canal in daylight. The Royal Montreal Regiment company held their precious 'bridgehead' for several hours before being joined by the Regina Rifles three hours later when their D Company crossed the canal. They were joined by C and A companies during the evening. By that time, most of the men of the Royal Montreal Regiment’s B Company, who had been anxious to get into action, were dead. By contrast, the 'barrage of flame' worked as expected for the Canadian Scottish Regiment, which was able to cross the Leopold Canal without much opposition and had erected a kapok footbridge within the first hour of crossing.
Thus the Canadians had won two precarious footholds, but the Germans recovered from the shock of the flamethrowers and counterattacked, though they were unable to remove the Canadians from their vulnerable bridgeheads. Spragge became worried that the Regina Rifles might be destroyed by the Germans' ferocious defence, leading him to order his reserve, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, to cross over the Canadian Scottish Regiment’s bridgehead and link with the Regina Rifles. The polder land, which limited axes of advance, proved to be a major difficulty as the Germans concentrated their fire along the few raised roads. At the same time, the Regina Rifles were subjected to heavy counterattacks and were barely hanging on. The Canadian losses were so heavy that the men of one armoured squadron of the 17th Hussars Regiment were given rifles and sent to fight as infantrymen. The war diary of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles reported that 'Heavy casualties were suffered by both sides and the ground was littered with both German and Royal Winnipeg Rifle dead.' The war diary of the Canadian Scottish Regiment noted that 'The grim fighting was such that Piats and Bazookas were used to blow down walls of houses where resistance was worst. These anti-tank weapons are quite handy little house-breakers!' By 9 October, the gap between the bridgeheads had been closed, and by a time early in the morning of 12 October a position had been gained across the Aardenburg road.
The period between 10 and 12 October was characterised by an intense struggle as the men of the 7th Brigade with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles took, lost and then retook a group of houses known as Graaf Jan, and the Regina Rifles found themselves pinned by a group of well-sited pillboxes that seemed to be impervious to artillery fire. The Germans had ample artillery, together with an immense quantity of ammunition, and brought down heavy fire on any Canadian advance. Making the fighting even more difficult was the heavy rain that started the day after the crossing of the Leopold Canal, with a post-operation report on 'Switchback' stating that 'In places the bridgehead was little bigger than the northern canal bank. Even protection was slight: slit trenches rapidly filled with water and had to be dug out many times a day.' The Canadians could not advance beyond their bridgehead on the Leopold Canal, but Eberding, not content with stopping the Canadians, decided to destroy the 7th Brigade by launching a series of counterattacks that cost the 64th Division dearly as the Canadian gunners were killing German infantrymen as proficiently as the German gunners were killing Canadians. Simonds’s plan failed when the 9th Brigade did not land at the same time as the 7th Brigade crossed the Leopold Canal and the 64th Division wholly checked the 7th Brigade’s advance. Ultimately, only Eberding’s determination to wipe out the 7th Brigade allowed Simonds’s plan to work. In terms of numbers lost as a percentage of those engaged, the battle of the Leopold Canal was one of the bloodiest battles for Canada in World War II, with 533 men killed and another 70 men collapsing from battle exhaustion. The men who broke down under battle curled up in a foetal position and refused to move, speak, eat or drink. On 14 October, Eberding, a man deeply committed to the Nazi ideology, ordered that Germans who retreated without orders were to be regarded as deserters and summarily executed, and that '…where the names of deserters are ascertained their names will be made known to the civilian population at home and their next of kin will be looked upon as enemies of the German people'.
The Canadian 9th Brigade conducted an amphibious operation with the aid of Terrapin wheeled amphibious transport vehicles in the first use of these machines in Europe and Buffalo amphibious vehicles, crewed by the British 5th Assault Regiment of the Royal Engineers. The brigade planned to cross the mouth of the Braakman Inlet in these vehicles and to land in the vicinity of Hoofdplaat, a hamlet in the rear or coastal side of the pocket, thus allowing the Canadian to exert pressure from two directions at once. An after-action report described the scene on the Terneuzen Canal: 'As darkness fell only tail lights showed. The locks at Sas Van Gent proved difficult to negotiate, for the Buffaloes were not easily steered when moving slowly. Their aeroplane engines created a sound so like the roar of aircraft that over Flushing the anti-aircraft guns fired sporadically…Because of the damage to the locks near the ferry [at Neuzen] it was necessary to cut ramps in the bank and by-pass the obstacle. Not only was this a slow progress, but many craft were damaged. The decision was therefore taken to postpone the operation for 24 hours.' The delay allowed Ramsay to offer the services of Lieutenant-Commander R.D. Franks of the Royal Navy to serve as a pilot, guiding the Buffaloes expertly down the Scheldt river without being noticed by the Germans. Franks reported that 'It was nearly ideal night, calm and quiet with a half moon behind a light cloud, but a bit of haze which restricted visibility to a mile at most. We were quite invisible from the north shore of the Scheldt, where all was quiet…Our touchdown was planned to be on either side of a groyne…we were able to identify it and then lie off flicking our lamps to guide the LVT’s in. They deployed and thundered past us…I could see through my binoculars the infantry disembark on dry land and move off.'
Despite of difficulties in manoeuvring vehicles through the canals and the resulting 24-hour delay, the Germans were taken by surprise and a bridgehead was established. The North Nova Scotia Highland Regiment landed with no resistance and woke nine sleeping Germans in their dug-out, taking them prisoner. The Highland Light Infantry regiment’s major problem at the landing site was mud rather than the Germans. After the initial landing, the Cameron Highlanders and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders were landed under the supervision of Franks. Once again, however, the Germans recovered quickly and counterattacked with ferocity but were slowly driven back. Upon hearing of the landing at the Braakman Inlet, Model reacted promptly, telling Hitler that 'Today, the enemy launched a decision-seeking attack on the Breskens bridgehead.' Living up to his reputation, Model ordered Eberding immediately to destroy the Highland Brigade.
Starting at dawn on 10 October, the Highland Brigade was counterattacked, and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highland Regiment spent two days fighting for the village of Hoofdplaat with a loss of 17 men killed and 44 wounded. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders took three days to take the village of Driewegen, the regimental war diary reporting that 'The artillery is kept busy and this dyke to dyke fighting is very different to what we have been doing. It appears the enemy are a much better type than we have been running into lately.' The Canadian army was known for the quality of its artillery, which took a heavy toll of the German counterattacks by day, with the war diary of 15th Field Regiment for 12 October reading 'Today we were the busiest we have been since Cormelles and Falaise pocket days.' The nightly German attacks enjoyed more success, the Highland Light Infantry losing and then retaking the village of Biervliet during a confusing night battle. The commander of the Canadian 3rd Division, Spry changed the original plan to commit Brigadier J. A. Roberts’s 8th Brigade in support of Spragge’s 7th Brigade, and instead sent the 8th Brigade to link with the 4th Division and then come to the support of Rockingham’s 9th Brigade.
Brigadier J. C. Jefferson’s 10th Brigade of the 4th Armoured Division crossed the Leopold Canal and advanced toward Isabella Polder. Then the 3rd Division’s 8th Brigade was tasked to move to the south from the coastal side of the pocket, and this opened an overland supply route into the pocket. Eberding used his reserves in his counterattacks and reported to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that some units of the 64th Division had been reduced to one third. Between 10 and 15 October, the 64th Division undertook a fighting retreat to a new pocket designed to shorten the German line, since so many of the German units were now under-strength. The Canadian Scottish Regiment found the village of Eede empty and abandoned, entered the village and promptly came under a heavy artillery bombardment.The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, leading the 8th Brigade’s advance, found the village of IJzendijke well defended on 15 October, but abandoned on the following day. The Highland Light Infantry and the Stormont, Dundee and Glengarry Highlanders broke through the main German line but, unaware of this, Spry ordered a withdrawal in order to concentrate greater forces.
German officers explained away their retreat by claiming they were being overwhelmed by tanks, but in fact there were only four, belonging to the British Columbia Regiment, operating to the north of the Leopold Canal. The presumed tanks were actually the M10 self-propelled anti-tank guns of the Canadian 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, which provided fire support for the Canadian infantry. Joining the Canadians on 20 October was Brigadier J. D. Russell’s 157th Brigade of the British 52nd Division, which allowed Spry to group the three brigades of the 3rd Division for the final push.
From the summer of 1944 the Canadian army had experienced a major shortage of infantry as a result of the policies of the Canadian prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie-King. In order to defeat Maurice Duplessis, the Union Nationale premier of Quebec, who called a snap election in 1939 to seek a mandate to oppose the war, Mackenzie-King had promised that only volunteers would be sent to fight overseas and that there would be no conscription for overseas service. With only so many Canadians willing to volunteer, especially as infantry, the Canadian army ran seriously short of infantry, as their losses were not offset by replacements. In planning the final push, Spry favoured a cautious, methodical approach that placed the emphasis on firepower designed to save the lives of as many of his men as possible.
The 3rd Division fought additional actions to clear the Germans from the towns of Breskens, Oostburg, Zuidzande and Cadzand, as well as the Fort Frederik Hendrik coastal fortress. When advancing, the Canadians proceeded very slowly and used massive firepower, in the form of air attacks and artillery bombardments, when faced with opposition. The shortage of infantry replacements meant that Canadian officers were loath to engage in anything that might lead to heavy losses. On 24 October, Montgomery arrived at the headquarters of the 3rd Division. Despite the fact that he had opted to fight the 'Battle of Arnhem' instead of clearing the Scheldt river in September 1944, which had given the Germans the opportunity to entrench themselves, Montgomery criticised the 3rd ivision for its slow advance, saying that the 'Breskens Pocket' should have been cleared weeks ago and calling the Canadian officers cowards for their unwillingness to take heavy losses. As a 'punishment', the British 157th Brigade was withdrawn and the 3rd Division was ordered to advance with 'all speed'.
Despite the fact that the Canadians could not afford heavy losses, the 3rd Division now began a period of 'intense combat' to clear out the 'Breskens Pocket'. The Régiment de la Chaudière attacked the town of Oostburg on 24 October, losing an entire company, but since it had been ordered to take Oostburg at 'any price', the Régiment de la Chaudière dug in to hold its ground while the Queen’s Own Rifles came to its support. On 25 October, the Queen’s Own Rifles took Oostburg after what its war diary called 'a wild bayonet charge' amid 'fairly heavy' casualties. Despite the tenacity of the German opposition, inspired at least in part by Eberding’s policy of executing soldiers who retreated without orders, the Canadians pushed the Germans back steadily. In the last days of the battle, German morale declined and the number of 'deserter' executions increased as many German soldiers sought to surrender rather than die in what was clearly a lost battle. The Régiment de la Chaudière, which could ill-afford the losses, seized a bridgehead on the Afleidingskanaal van de Lije, over which the engineers built a bridge.
On 1 November, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders stormed a pillbox and captured Eberding who, despite his own orders to fight to the death, surrendered without firing a shot. After being taken prisoner, Eberding met Spry and accused him of not being aggressive enough in taking advantage of 'opportunities', saying any German general would have moved far more swiftly. Spry responded that having lost about 700 men killed in two 'aggressive' operations within five days, he preferred a methodical advance that preserved the lives of his men. Eberding replied that this showed Canadian 'weakness', noting that German generals were concerned only with winning and never let concern with casualties interfere with the pursuit of victory.
'Switchback' ended on 3 November when the Canadian 1st Army liberated the Belgian towns of coastal towns of Knokke and Zeebrugge, officially 'closing' the 'Breskens Pocket' and eliminating all German forces to the south of the Scheldt river.
During the afternoon of 22 October Foulkes, as acting commander of the Canadian II Corps told the Canadian 2nd Division that the start of 'Vitality', the operation to take the South Beveland peninsula, had been pushed forward by two days by the 'express orders from Field Marshal Montgomery who had placed this operation at first priority for the British and Canadian forces in this area'. Major Ross Ellis of The Calgary Highlanders told Foulkes that the men were tired after the hard fighting earlier in October, only to be informed that the operation would nonetheless proceed as ordered. The morale in the 2nd Division was poor, with only the Royal Regiment of Canada, the Essex Scottish Regiment, the Cameron Highland Regiment and the Calgary Highlanders each able to assemble anything close to four infantry companies. The attack was to be led by Brigadier J. G. Gauvreau’s 6th Brigade, comprising the Cameron Highlanders, the battered South Saskatchewan Regiment and the still further battered Fusiliers Mont-Royal which, despite being very under-strength, were assigned to lead the attack on the centre.This third major operation began on 24 October, when the 2nd Division began its advance along the South Beveland peninsula. The Canadians hoped to advance rapidly, bypassing opposition and seizing bridgeheads over the Kanaal door Zuid-Beveland, but they too were slowed by mines, mud and strength of the German defences.
The war diary of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal reports simply that the regiment had sustained 'heavy casualties', the Cameron Highlanders reported 'stiff opposition' from the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, while the South Saskatchewan Regiment reported that 'The county over which we had come was not the kind you dream about to make an attack in as it was partly wooded, partly open, and it had many buildings, ditches, etc.' Later in the same day the 6th Brigade was joined by Megill’s 5th Brigade, with the Calgary Highlanders leading the assault and reporting the 'remnants' of two platoons that had advanced beyond the dike to be joined by the Black Watch when night fell. The Royal Regiment had seized its start-line during the night and early in the morning was joined by the Essex Scottish Regiment and the Fort Garry Horse Regiment to make a slow advance supported by heavy artillery fire. On 25 October, the Essex Scottish Regiment reported that 120 Germans had surrendered and that the 'tough shell of defences at the narrowest point of the peninsula was broken'. On 26 October Daser, the 70th Division's commander, reported to von Rundstedt that the situation was untenable, and that retreat was unavoidable.
An amphibious attack was made across the Western Scheldt river by Hakewill-Smith’s British 52nd Division to penetrate behind the Germans' South Beveland defensive positions. Brigadier C. N. Barclay’s 156th Brigade described the Dutch countryside as ver difficult, but also noted that the morale of the Germans was poor, stating that it had expected the Germans to fight harder and that most of the brigade’s casualties came from mines and booby-traps. With the formidable German defence outflanked, the Canadian 6th Brigade launched a frontal attack in assault boats. The engineers were able to bridge the canal on the main road. The, with the canal line gone, the German defence crumbled and South Beveland was cleared. The third phase of the 'Battle of the Scheldt' was now complete. Daser ordered his men to retreat and make a stand in the Festung 'Walcheren'.
As the fourth phase of the 'Battle of the Scheldt' began, only Walcheren island at the mouth of the Scheldt river remained in German hands. The island’s defences were extremely strong: heavy coastal batteries on the western and southern coasts defended both the island and the West Scheldt river estuary, and the coast had been strongly fortified against amphibious assault. Furthermore, a landward-facing defensive perimeter had been built around the town of Vlissingen to defend its port facilities should an Allied landing on Walcheren succeed. The only land approach was the Sloedam, a long, narrow causeway from South Beveland, and this was little more than a raised two-lane road. To complicate matters, the flats that surrounded this causeway were too saturated with sea water for movement on foot, but had too little water for an assault in storm boats.
To hamper the German defence, Walcheren island’s dikes had been breached by warplanes of RAF Bomber Command. As a result of the high risk to the local population, the bombings were sanctioned at the highest level and preceded by leaflet drops to warn the island’s Dutch inhabitants. The first bombing took place on 3 October at Westkapelle, on the island’s western shore. The Westkapelle dike received the attentions of 240 heavy bombers, resulting in a large gap that allowed sea water to enter. This flooded the island’s central portion, allowing the Allies to use amphibious vehicles and forcing the German defenders onto the high ground surrounding the island and in the towns. The bombing at Westkapelle was costly, for 180 civilian deaths resulted from the bombardment and the resulting flooding. Attacks on other dikes had to ensure that the flooding could not be contained. On 7 October, dikes in the south were bombed, in the areas to the west and east of Vlissingen. Finally, on 11 October, the north-eastern dike at Veere became a target. Bombing of the island’s defences was hampered by bad weather and requirements for attacks on Germany.
The island was then attacked from three directions: across the Sloedam causeway from the east, across the Scheldt river from the south, and by sea from the west.
The Canadian 2nd Division attacked the Sloedam causeway on 31 October. Post-war controversy exists around the claim that there was a 'race' within the 2nd Division for the first regiment to take the causeway to Walcheren island, implying that the failure to take the causeway on 31 October resulted from reckless determination to win the 'race'. The 2nd Division’s 4th Brigade had advanced rapidly to the west along the causeway, which led to Keefler issue of orders to take the causeway, while the task of taking the Beveland end of the causeway had been given to the British 52nd Division. The Royal Regiment took the eastern end of the causeway in a night attack and, as there seemed a chance of taking the entire causeway, orders were sent to the 2nd Division’s 5th Brigade to launch an attack spearheaded by the 'jinxed' Black Watch, which was to advance along the causeway while the Calgary Highlanders and Le Régiment de Maisonneuve advanced by boat. An initial attack by the Black Watch was rebuffed while it was discovered that the waters in the channel were too shallow for the 2nd Division to cross,and thus left one company of the Black Watch stranded on the causeway under heavy German attack. The Calgary Highlanders then sent over one company which was also stopped halfway across the causeway. During a second attack in the course of the morning of 1 November, the Highlanders managed to gain a precarious foothold. A day of fighting followed and then the Highlanders were relieved by the Régiment de Maisonneuve, which struggled to maintain the bridgehead. The Régiment de Maisonneuve finally secured the bridgehead, only to find that it was useless for an advance as the German defences in the polder land were too well entrenched for an advance to be made.
Foulkes ordered Hakewill-Smith to launch his 52nd Division into a frontal attack on Walcheren, an order which Hakewill-Smith protested strongly. The Régiment de Maisonneuve withdrew onto the causeway on 2 November to be relieved by the 1/Glasgow Highlanders of the 52nd Division. Instead of launching a frontal attack as ordered by Foulkes, Hakewill-Smith outflanked the Germans by landing the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) at the village of Nieuwdorp, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of the causeway, and linked with the Glasgow Highlanders on the next day. In conjunction with the waterborne attacks, the 52nd Division continued its advance. The battle for the causeway had caused the 2nd Division to lose 135 men killed in what has become one of the 2nd Division’s most controversial operations, with much criticism levelled at Foulkes’s decision making. Simonds and Foulkes were both British immigrants to Canada, but the two detested one another and Simonds often spoke of his wish to sack Foulkes, believing him to be incompetent.
Because of port shortage, Captain Pugsley of the Royal Navy had to improvise heavily to provide the necessary shipping for the landings on Walcheren island. Despite the refusal of RAF Bomber Command to strike various German fortifications on Walcheren, opening the Scheldt river was regarded as so important that during a meeting of 31 October between Simonds, Foulkes and Ramsay, it was decided that the landings on Walcheren were to go ahead. On board the command ship Kingsmill, a frigate, Pugsley was given the final decision, with orders to cancel the operation if he thought it too risky. At the same time, Simonds ordered two Canadian artillery regiments to concentrate 300 guns on the mainland to provide fire support for the landings.
The two amphibious landings of 'Infatuate' were undertaken on 1 November. 'Infatuate I' consisted mainly of infantry of Brigadier J. F. S. McLaren’s British 155th Brigade (4/King’s Own Scottish Borderers, 5/King’s Own Scottish Borderers and 7th/9th Royal Scots) supplemented by No. 4 Commando, and the brigade was ferried across from Breskens in small landing craft to an assault beach in the south-eastern area of Vlissingen codenamed Uncle Beach. With the Canadian artillery opening fire, No. Commando was carried ashore in 20 Landing Craft Assault, to be followed by the two battalions of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which attacked Vlissingen. During the next few days, the British troops were engaged in heavy street fighting against the German defenders, much of Vlissingen being destroyed in the process. The Hotel Britannia was the headquarters of the 1019th Grenadierregiment holding Vlissingen and became the scene of 'spectacular fighting' described as 'worthy of an action film' when the Royal Scots engaged to take the hotel, which finally fell after three days.
'Infatuate II' was the amphibious landing at Westkapelle, also conducted on the morning of 1 November. To cross the shallow water required a daylight assault with fire support provided by the Support Squadron Eastern Flank (SSEF) commanded by Commander K.A Sellar, with additional support from the battleship Warspite and the monitors Erebus and Roberts, all carrying 15-in (381-mm) guns. Air support was limited by the weather conditions. With no air support, no aircraft to spot for the warships' guns, and the Germans fully alerted with their coastal artillery already firing at the British ships, Pugsley was faced with the difficult decision between cancelling or proceeding, and after some deliberation, sent the codeword Nelson to proceed with the landing. The radar-guided guns of the German coastal artillery took a heavy toll of the SSEF, which lost nine ships sunk and another 11 that so badly damaged that they had to be broken up for scrap as they were beyond repair. After the heavy Royal Navy bombardment, plus a support squadron of landing craft carrying guns, men of Brigadier B. W. Leicester’s British 4th Special Service Brigade (Nos 41, 47, and 48 Royal Marine Commando and No. 10 Inter Allied Commando, the last comprising mainly Belgian and Norwegian troops), supported by the specialised armoured vehicles (amphibious transports, mineclearing tanks, bulldozers, etc.) of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s British 79th Armoured Division were landed on both sides of the gap in the sea dike, using large landing craft as well as amphibious vehicles to bring men and tanks ashore. The Royal Marines took Westkapelle and Domburg on the next day. Anticipating the fall of Festing 'Walcheren' on 4 November, Ramsay ordered the minesweeping force to begin the work of removing the German mines from the Scheldt river, a task that was not completed until 28 November.
There was also heavy fighting in Domburg before the ruins of this town were captured. On 3 November, the Royal Marines had linked with the 52nd Division. Some units then moved to the south-east toward Vlissingen, while the main force advanced to the north-east to clear the northern half of Walcheren, in both cases along the high-lying dune areas, as the centre of the island was flooded, and link with the Canadians who had established a bridgehead on the eastern part of the island. Fierce resistance was again offered by some of the German troops defending this area, and the fighting continued until 7 November.
On 6 November Middelburg, the island’s main town, fell after a calculated gamble on the Allies' part when the Royal Scots attacked Middelburg with a force of Buffalo amphibian vehicles from the rear. As Middelburg was impossible to reach with tanks as a result of the flooding, a Buffalo force was driven into the town, bringing to an end to all German resistance on 8 November. Daser portrayed the Buffalo machines as tanks, giving him an excuse to surrender on the grounds that he was faced by an overwhelming force.
Meanwhile, on the mainland the Canadian 4th Armoured Division had pushed eastward past Bergen-op-Zoom to Sint Philipsland, where it sank several German vessels in Zijpe harbour.
With the approach to Antwerp clear, the fourth phase of the 'Battle of the Scheldt' had been completed. Between 20 and 28 November, Royal Navy minesweepers were brought in to clear the Scheldt river estuary of naval mines and other underwater obstacles left by the Germans. On 28 November, after the port facilities had received much-needed repairs, the first Allied convoy entered Antwerp, led by the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui.
By the end of the five-week offensive, the Canadian 1st Army had taken prisoner a total of 41,043 Germans. Complicated by the waterlogged terrain, the 'Battle of the Scheldt' had proved to be a challenging campaign in which significant losses were suffered by the Canadians.
Throughout the 'Battle of the Scheldt', battle exhaustion was a major problem for the Canadians. The 3rd Division had landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 and had been fighting more or less continuously since that date. A psychiatric report from October 1944 stated that 90% of battle exhaustion cases were men who been in action for three months or longer. Men suffering from battle exhaustion became catatonic and curled into a foetal position, but the report found that after a week of rest, most men would recover sufficiently to speak and move about. According to the report, the principal cause of battle exhaustion 'seemed to be futility. The men claimed there was nothing to which to look forward to – no rest, no leave, no enjoyment, no normal life and no escape…The second most prominent cause…seemed to be the insecurity in battle because the condition of the battlefield did not allow for average cover. The third was the fact that they were seeing too much continual death and destruction, loss of friends, etc.' The Canadian government policy of sending overseas only volunteers had caused major shortages of men, especially in the infantry regiments. Canadian units were too under-strength to allow leave, whereas British and US and British units do so. This stretched the soldiers tremendously. A common complaint of soldiers suffering from battle exhaustion was that the army was attempting to 'get blood from a stone', with the under-strength units pushed relentlessly to keep fighting, without replacements for their losses and with no opportunity to rest.
After the battle, the Canadian II Corps was moved to the Nijmegen sector to take over from Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XXX Corps. Although Antwerp was opened to Allied shipping on 28 November, the 15th Army had denied the Allies the use of the port from 4 September to 28 November, which was longer than Hitler had hoped, justifying the German decision to hold the Scheldt river. Even before the 'Battle of the Scheldt', the Canadian army was aware that it lacked reinforcements to replace its losses, and the losses endured during the fighting helped to trigger the 'Conscription Crisis'. The Canadian defence minister, Colonel John Ralston, was forced to report to the prime minister, Mackenzie King, that the current policy of sending only volunteers overseas was not sustainable as the losses in the 'Battle of the Scheldt' exceeded by a considerable margin the number of volunteers available, and that conscripts would have to be sent overseas.
After the first ship had reached Antwerp on 28 November, convoys started to deliver a steady stream of supplies to the continent, but this actually changed very little. 'Queen' continued to flounder while by December the US forces suffered a major reverse in their Hurtgen forest offensive. The poor autumnal weather hindered not only the Canadians in the 'Battle of the Scheldt', but also the operations of the US 1st Army in the Hurtgen forest, the US 3rd in Lorraine and the US 9th Army, US 7th Army and French 1ère Armée farther to the south. On 5 November, Eisenhower calculated that for the offensives into the western borderlands of Germany to be successful, over the following month the Allies would need 6 million rounds of artlllery ammunition, 2 million mortar bombs, 400 more tanks, 1,500 Jeeps, and 150,000 replacement tyres, of which none was readily available until the Scheldt river had been cleared. By 15 December, only the US 7th Army had reached the Rhine river by taking Strasbourg, while the US 3rd Army had advanced into Germany only to to run up against one of the strongest sections of the 'West Wall'. At least part of the reason for the failure of the Allied offensives was the shortage of infantry replacements, with the Americans coming close to running out of infantry replacements while the British were forced to break up divisions to provide reinforcements. Germany recognised the danger of the Allied possession of a deep-water port and in an attempt to destroy it, or at least disrupt the flow of supplies, the Germans fired more V-2 ballistic missiles at Antwerp than at any other city: nearly half of the V-2 missiles launched during the war were aimed at Antwerp. The port of Antwerp was so strategically vital that during the 'Wacht am Rhein' effort, launched on 16 December as Germany’s last major offensive campaign on the Western Front, had as its primary object the recapture of both the city and port of Antwerp. Without the opening of Antwerp, through which flowed some 2.5 million tons of supplies between November 1944 and April 1945, the British, French and US advances into Germany in 1945 would have been impossible.
The 'Battle of the Scheldt' has been described by historians as unnecessarily difficult as the river could have been cleared at an earlier time and with greater ease had the Allies given it a higher priority than 'Market' and 'Garden': one US historian called the failure to undertake an immediate clearance of the Scheldt river 'one of the greatest tactical mistakes of the war'. As a result of the Allies' flawed strategic choices early in September 1944, the 'Battle of the Scheldt' became one of the longest and bloodiest that the Canadian army faced in World WAr II.
The ports on the French coast of the English channel were 'resolutely defended' like 'fortresses', and Antwerp was the only viable alternative. However, Montgomery ignored Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the first sea lord, who said that Antwerp would be 'as much use as Timbuctoo' unless the approaches were cleared, and also ignored Ramsay, who warned SHAEF and Montgomery that the Germans could block the Scheldt river estuary with ease.
The city and port of Antwerp fell to the Allies early in September and were secured by the British XXX Corps, but fo9r purposes of resupply Montgomery halted the XXX Corps short of the wide Albert Canal to the north of the city, which consequently remained in German hands. Horrocks regretted this after the war, believing that his corps might have advanced another 100 miles (160 km) with the fuel available: unknown to the Allies, at that time the XXX Corps was opposed by only one German division.
The pause allowed the Germans to regroup around the Scheldt river, and by the time the Allies resumed their advance, Generaloberst Kurt Student’s 1st Fallschirmarmee had arrived and established itself in strong defensive positions along the opposite side of the Albert Canal and the Scheldt river. The task of breaking the strengthened German line, which stretched from Antwerp to the North Sea along the Scheldt river, would next fall to the Canadian 1st Army in the month-long, costly 'Battle of the Scheldt'. The Allies 'sustained 12,873 casualties in an operation which could have been achieved at little cost if tackled immediately after the capture of Antwerp…This delay was a grave blow to the Allied build-up before winter approached.'
It has been suggested, with some authority, that it was Montgomery rather than Horrocks who was to blame for not clearing the approaches, as Montgomery 'was not interested in the estuary and thought that the Canadians could clear it later'. Allied commanders were looking ahead to 'leaping the Rhine…in virtually one bound.' Despite Eisenhower’s desire for the capture of one major port with its dock facilities intact, Montgomery insisted that the Canadian 1st Army should first clear the German garrisons in Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk despite the fact that these ports were smaller and had all suffered demolitions and would not be operable for some time after their capture: Boulogne fell on 'Wellhit' on 22 September and Calais in 'Undergo' on 29 September, but Dunkirk was not captured until the end of the war on 9 May 1945. When the Canadians eventually stopped their assaults on the northern French ports and started on the Scheldt river approaches on 2 October, they found that German resistance was far stronger than they had imagined as the remnants of the 15th Army had been offered the opportunity to escape and then to reinforce the island of Walcheren and the South Beveland peninsula.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed in a telegram to Field Marshal Jan Smuts, prime minister of South Africas and commander-in-chief of its forces, on 9 October that 'As regards Arnhem, I think you have got the position a little out of focus. The battle was a decided victory, but the leading division, asking, quite rightly, for more, was given a chop. I have not been afflicted with any feeling of disappointment over this and am glad our commanders are capable of running this kind of risk.' He said that the risks 'were justified by the great prize so nearly in our grasp' but acknowledged that 'clearing the Scheldt Estuary and opening the port of Antwerp had been delayed for the sake of the Arnhem thrust. Thereafter it was given first priority.'