The 'Battle of Walcheren Causeway' within the 'Vitality' operation was fought between Allied (Canadian and British) and German forces as the first of several engagements on and around Walcheren island during the 'Battle of the Scheldt' (31 October/2 November 1944).
The battle was also the second major engagement fought over a terrain feature known as the Sloedam during World War II.
After the Allied armies' break-out from Normandy in the closing stages of 'Overlord', beginning on 13 August 1944, the German forces held on stubbornly to the English Channel ports on the coasts of north-eastern France and Belgium. This forced the Allies to bring all supplies for their rapidly advancing armies from the 'Mulberry' artificial harbour they had constructed off the beaches of Normandy, and from Cherbourg. Because of its port capacity, Antwerp became the immediate objective of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group. However, while Antwerp fell to Montgomery’s forces on 4 September, no supplies could be landed there until the German forces holding the lower reaches of the Scheldt river, between Antwerp and the North Sea, had been removed.
A feature known as the Sloe Channel separated the island of Walcheren from the South Beveland isthmus. A narrow causeway connected the two, known to the Dutch as the Sloedam and to the English-speaking forces as the Walcheren Causeway. The causeway carried a railway line from the mainland onto the island and to the port of Vlissingen (Flushing in English), and a paved road also ran the length of the causeway, which was about 130 ft (40 m) wide and 1,050 yards (960 m) long. On each side of this causeway, which lay only a few feet above sea level, a combination of marsh, mud flats and deep water hindered movement between Walcheren and South Beveland.
As the Allies had to secure a port with the capacity offered by Antwerp before they could realistically contemplate the invasion of Germany itself, the 'Battle of the Scheldt' was of crucial; importance and involved bitter fighting. By 31 October, the land surrounding the Scheldt river estuary had been cleared of the Germans except for Walcheren island, from which coastal artillery batteries commanded the approaches to the waterway. These guns prevented the Allies from making use of the port facilities of Antwerp to alleviate their logistical concerns.
The island’s dikes had been breached by the attacks of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command: these breaches were at Westkapelle on 3 October, with severe loss of civilian life; on 7 October at two places, to the west and east of Vlissingen; and on 11 October at Veere. These breaches allowed the ingress of water which flooded the central part of the island, forcing the German defenders onto the high ground around the island’s perimeter and in the towns.
Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division had marched to the west down the South Beveland isthmus and by 31 October had cleared all German opposition from South Beveland, to which Walcheren was connected by the causeway, 1,750 yards (1600 m) long.
Plans to employ assault boats to cross the Sloe Channel were thwarted by muddy conditions making the area unsuitable for the deployment of water craft. The Calgary Highlanders had been selected for this amphibious operation, as the battalion had received storm boat training in the UK in anticipation of an opposed water crossing of the Seine river, an event which the invasion planners had predicted would be necessary some 90 days after the 'Neptune' (iii) landings in Normandy. In the event, the ground was too boggy for the use of the boats, and the Highlanders were used as conventional infantry in a land 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, the existence of a deep crater on the causeway was discovered: this crater had been blown by German engineers as an anti-tank obstacle. It was later used by the Canadians as a company command post during the battle as it developed. B Company of The Calgary Highlanders were ordered forward just before midnight and were similarly stopped halfway down the causeway. A new fire plan was then created and Major Bruce McKenzie’s D Company inched forward under intense artillery fire, reaching and securing the causeway’s western end at dawn on 1 November.
German counterattacks were heavy and prolonged, and included the use of flame weapons. At one point, all the officers in one company of the Calgary Highlander had been killed or were wounded, and the brigade major, George Hees, took command of a company.
Two platoons of Le Régiment de Maisonneuve took over the bridgehead on Walcheren island on 2 November, but were then forced back onto the causeway. A battalion of Glasgow Highlanders was ordered to pass through, but was also unable to expand the bridgehead on the island.
Landings by commandos of Brigadier B. W. Leicester’s British 4th Special Service Brigade eventually sealed the fate of the German defenders on Walcheren island, attacking from seaward at Vlissingen and Westkapelle. The battle for the causeway itself had been a costly, and ultimately unnecessary, diversion.
The Canadian 2nd Division went into reserve in the first week of November, moving into the Nijmegen salient for the winter. The Calgary Highlanders had suffered 64 casualties in the three days of fighting at Walcheren Causeway. Le Régiment de Maisonneuve had lost one man killed and 10 wounded. The Black Watch had suffered 85 casualties in the period from 14 October to 1 November, the bulk of them on the causeway.