Battle for Antwerp and Scheldt Estuary, 4 September-8 November 1944

The battle for Antwerp and the Scheldt Estuary (4 September-8 November 1944) saw the Allies capture the great port of Antwerp intact on 4 September, but fail to give clearing the approaches a high enough priority, eventually forcing them fight three difficult battles starting in early October. Only once the Breskens Pocket, South Beveland and Walcheran Island had been cleared could work finally begin on clearing the approaches to Antwerp, and the port was finally opened just before the start of Hitler’s final gamble, the battle of the Bulge.

After the breakout from Normandy, the Allies advanced at great speed across northern France and into Belgium. The German Fifteenth Army was forced into a chaotic retreat, and was unable to stop the Allies from liberating Brussels on 3 September, or Antwerp on 4 September. The Allied advance was so fast that the Germans were unable to sabotage the vital port of Antwerp, which was captured by 11th Armoured Division with invaluable help from the Belgian Resistance. The Allies urgently needed access to the port to solve their supply problems, which saw almost all of the supplies needed to keep the offensive running having to come by road from Normandy. Antwerp was a huge port, capable of taking ships of up to 19,000 tons, and up to 1,000 ships of varying sizes, with 10 square miles of docks, 20 miles of water frontage, 600 cranes and all of the related infrastructure. In comparison, Le Havre, the main cargo port on the Channel coast, eventually discharged 14,000 tons of supplies per day.

At this point Montgomery made his biggest mistake of the war. If he had ordered a strong attack to the west, along the banks of the Scheldt Estuary, which connected Antwerp to the sea, the Germans would have been unable to put up much of a fight. Instead Montgomery wanted to attack north-east, in an attempt to ‘bounce’ across the Rhine, in the belief that German resistance had effectively collapsed, and a strong thrust into the industrial north of German could end the war in 1944. He was unable to convince Eisenhower to mount the large scale attack he really wanted, but did get permission to attack towards Arnhem. As is well known, the resulting Operation Market Garden ended as a narrow failure. At the end of the battle the Allies did have a foothold on the Rhine at Arnhem, but on the wrong bank.

The Allies had also underestimated the German ability to recover from the disastrous end to the Normandy campaign, both in Germany itself and in Belgium. While the Allies were focusing on Arnhem, the German Fifteenth Army was recovering its strength, forming the mass of stragglers of August into a formidable defensive force. The Germans were given enough time to build strong defences in the Scheldt Estuary, and fill the river with mines. A key element in the German success was that the Allied troops that liberated Brussels and Antwerp had actually got quite a long way ahead of the rest of the Allied armies – the official British position map of 5 September shows that the front line was very disjointed at this point – the troops at Antwerp were only connected to the rest of the Allied army by a narrow corridor, with a pinch point at Tournai. To their left the Germans still held the coast all the way back to Boulogne (including Calais, Dunkirk and Ostend), and to their right held the area almost back to Tournai. Just how much further the leading troops could have gone without running out of steam, or perhaps even suffering an embarrassing defeat, isn’t at all clear.

As the Fifteenth Army retreated, garrisons were left behind in a series of ports – the 11 September situation map shows them still holding Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk, but most of the rest of the coastal area had been evacuated. Their main lines started at Bruges, and ran east towards Antwerp, passing just to the north of the port. General von Zangen, recently appointed commander of the army, carried out an masterful retreat. The retreating troops were ordered to move to Breskens and Terneuzen, German held ports on the south bank of the West Scheldt estuary (west of Antwerp). From there they were ferried north to Walcheren and South Beveland, then east to the mainland north of Antwerp. By 23 September, when the retreat ended, Zangen had been able to rescue 86,000 men, 616 guns and thousands of trucks and horses.  

Once it became clear that Market Garden had failed, it became clear that the most urgent task facing Montgomery’s 21st Army Group was to clear the Scheldt Estuary, to open up Antwerp and gain a new supply base. Eisenhower made gave it absolute priority on 22 September, giving it the best access to supplies. The job was then given to the Canadian First Army. The rest of his 21st Army Group had to pause all offensive operations until the Scheldt was cleared. Ever since it had been formed the Canadian army had been commanded by General Crerer, but in late September he was forced back to England by poor health, and was replaced by General Simonds, until then commander of the Canadian 2nd Corps. Simonds had already been heavily involved in the planning for the upcoming campaign, so was well suited to the role.

Clearing the Scheldt, 2 October-8 November 1944

The new offensive began on 2 October, and would take over a month. It ended with a costly amphibious assault on Walcheran Island (1-8 November 1944), which had been preceded by a heavy bombing raid designed to break the dykes that kept the island dry, flood it’s low lying interior and restrict the German response.

The Germans had two main defensive positions along the Western Scheldt estuary. To the south was the Breskens Pocket, an area around the town of Breskens, bordered to the north by the river. To the north was an area that was already notorious in British military history – Walcheran Island and the peninsula of South Beveland, where one of the largest British armies of the Napoleonic Wars had become stranded before being almost destroyed by ‘Walcheran Fever’. They were bordered on the north by the Eastern Scheldt, which had once been the main estuary of the river, but which had been replaced by the Western Scheldt over time and totally cut off from the river in the Nineteenth Century.

The Scheldt Estuary was already a defended area well before the events of 1944. The mouth of the river was defended by around 67 big naval guns, with many build into the flood defences that protected the low lying coast. Much of the area could easily be flooded by their defenders, making progress much trickier.

The attack on these positions fell into three separate battles, with the first two overlapping. The attack on the Breskens Pocket (Operation Switchback) lasted from 6 October-3 November 1944. Clearing South Beveland took from 16 October-1 November 1944. Finally the attack on Walcheran, Operation Infatuate, lasted from 1-8 November 1944.

Operation Switchback – the Breskens Pocket

The Breskens Pocket ran from Zeebrugge in the west to Terneuzen in the east. The Germans held the line of the Leopold Canal, which ran south-east from Zeebrugge alongside the Canal de la Derivation de la Lys, then separated from that canal around Maldegem and Eede and ran east/ north-east towards Terneuzen. The Canadians planned a two-pronged attack, with one force attacking across the Leopold Canal just east of the point where the canals split, and the second using amphibious vehicles to attack west along the coast, getting round the back of the German defences. The attack across the canal began on 6 October, and was supported by Churchill Crocodiles that were used to blast the German defences on the reverse slope of the canal dike. Two of the three infantry attacks successfully crossed the canal and established bridgeheads, but after that progress was very slow. The two bridgeheads weren’t linked until 9 October, and a bailey bridge wasn’t in place until 11 October.

The amphibious attack was delayed until early on 9 October after it proved more difficult than planned to move the Buffaloes and Terrapins to their starting point. However it did catch the Germans by surprise, and the second bridgehead expanded more quickly than the first. The Canadians decided to move their reserve brigade into this bridgehead, then push south to join up with the canal bridgehead and west towards Breskens at the same time. The two main bridgeheads joined up on 19 October, and the Germans withdrew to a new defensive line that ran south from Breskens to Schoondjike, then west to Sluis. However this line only held for a few days, before Breskens was liberated on 21-22 October. As well as breaking the German line, this also cut their last supply route. The Canadians were then able to push west, advancing too quickly for the Germans to react. General Eberding, the commander in the pocket, was captured in a pillbox on a golf course on 1 November. The last few German soldiers surrendered around Zeebrugge on 3 November, and the southern bank of the Scheldt was clear.

Operation Vitality - South Beveland

The South Beveland peninsula is now the eastern part of a continuous peninsula that sits between the West Scheldt (the main approach to Antwerp) and the East Scheldt (a former estuary that is now cut off from the main flow of the river). Land access was via a narrow causeway across flooded areas in the east. In 1944 South Beveland ended at a channel that separated it from Walcheran Island in the west, while the eastern approach along the Isthmus was much wetter and narrower than it is now. The peninsula was split in two by the Beveland Canal, a major shipping canal. Once again two attacks were planned – one along the Isthmus from the east, and an amphibious attack that would land further west, on the main part of South Beveland. The amphibious assault was to take place at the same time as the land forces attacked across the canal.

The advance west up the Isthmus began on 24 October. Progress was slow but steady and by 26 October the Canadians had reached Krabbendijke, only six miles east of the canal. The 6th Infantry Brigade then took over, ready to attack across the canal. However the slow rate of progress and very difficult terrain convinced the Canadians to bring the amphibious assault forward, and on the night of 26-27 October troops from the 52nd Lowland Division crossed from Terneuzen to the southern shore of the main part of South Beveland, well to the west of the canal. This beachhead was quickly expanded. On 27-28 October the Canadians were able to get across the canal, and the two forces soon met up. On 30 October the Canadians reached the eastern end of the causeway leading to Walcheran, and on 31 October cleared the Germans away from the eastern end.

Operation Infatuate – Walcheran Island (1-8 November 1944)

This just left Operation Infatuate, the attack on Walcheran Island. In 1944 this was still a separate island, and most of it was very low lying. Most of the interior was below sea level and was protected by a ring of dykes. The eastern end was slightly higher. The Germans had built very strong gun batteries into the dyke, some firing out into the Channel and some into the Scheldt. General Simonds was able to convince Montgomery and Eisenhower to authorise a series of heavy bombing attacks to breach the dykes and flood the interior. The aim was to prevent the Germans moving troops across the interior, isolate their gun batteries and if possible destroy as many as possible. This would be followed by three attacks – two amphibious assaults and an attack up the causeway from South Beveland.

The bombing attacks began on 7 October, and over the next ten days or so a series of breeches were created and the interior flooded as planned. The three attacks then began on 1 November 1944. Operation Infatuate I was the amphibious assault on Flushing, on the south coast of the island. Operation Infatuate II was the amphibious assault on Westkappelle, on the west coast. Although the fighting was often difficult, the attack unfolded almost to plan. Most of Flushing was captured on 1 November, and the rest was cleared on 2nd November. 41 (RM) Commando and 48 (RM) Commando landed on either side of the gap in the dyke at Westkappelle, and advanced to the north and south. The attack along the causeway went less well, but on 3 November an alternative route across the channel was discovered about a mile and a half further south. Most of the battle was a series of attacks on individual German strong points as the Allies advanced around the edge of the island. The last major strongpoint, W19 at the northern tip of the island fell on 8 November. On 9 November the last Germans surrendered.

Aftermath

During the battle the Allies took 41,000 prisoners. The Canadian 1st Army lost 703 officers and 12,170 men killed, wounded and missing during the campaign, half of them Canadian.

On 4 November, after the German naval guns had been silenced a fleet of over 100 Royal Navy minesweepers in ten flotillas entered the Scheldt to begin the dangerous job of clearing the German minefields. Over the next 22 days a total of 267 mines were cleared, and the river was declared safe for shipping. On 26 November the first light coasters reached the port and on 28 November 1944 the Canadian-built Libertyship Fort Cataraqui became the first Allied heavy cargo ship to enter the port of Antwerp. By the end of December an average of 22,300 tons of supplies per day were being landed (in comparison the surviving Mulberry harbour could handle 6,750 tons per day).

The decision not to focus on opening Antwerp as quickly as possible was one of the Allies few major mistakes during the campaign in north-western Europe, and even Montgomery later admitted that he had got it wrong (a very rare occurance!), writing that ‘I must admit a bad mistake on my part – I underestimated the difficulties of opening up the approaches to Antwerp so that we could get free use of the port. I reckoned that the Canadian Army could do this while we were going to the Ruhr. I was wrong.’

This delay gave Hitler the time he needed to prepare for his last major offensive in the west, the Ardennes Offensive or Battle of the Bulge, which began on 16 December, just over two weeks after Antwerp was opened to the Allies.

Attack on the Scheldt - The Struggle for Antwerp 1944, Graham A. Thomas. Looks at the hard fought battles to clear the approaches to the port of Antwerp along the lower stretches of the Scheldt, an area that was almost entirely suited to the defender, with much of it flooded and only a handful of narrow approaches along well defended causeways. Despite these problems, the Allies, led by the First Canadian Army, cleared the Scheldt in just over a month (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 February 2021), Battle for Antwerp and Scheldt Estuary, 4 September-8 November 1944, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_antwerp_scheldt.html

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