Operation Switchback, or the battle of the Breskens Pocket (6 October-3 November 1944) saw a mainly Canadian force clear the Germans off the southern bank of the Scheldt, at the start of the campaign to open up the port of Antwerp.
The Breskens Pocket was the name given to the German positions on the south bank of the Schelde estuary. Although Antwerp fell to the British on 4 September with its port facilities intact, the Germans were able evacuate enough troops across the West Scheldt estuary, to the west of the port, to mount a serious defence of the estuary.
On the southern bank of the West Scheldt the area held by the Germans stretched from Ternuezen in the east to Knokke in the west and included German coastal batteries at Breskens (towards the middle of the pocket) and Cadzand (towards the western end). It was defended by the isolated 64th Infantry Division under Major-General Eberding. The 64th was a newly formed ‘leave’ division, created by scooping up soldiers on leave from the Eastern Front, Italy and Norway, so its men were experienced, but not used to working with each other. The coastal batteries were defended by their own garrisons of fresh soldiers. German defenders flooded the Leopold Canal, forcing the Canadians into a limited number of routes, mainly along raised dike-roads, pre-prepared for defence
The attack was carried out by General Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army, although by the time it started he had been forced back to England by ill health and temporarily replaced by General Simonds. This army crossed the Somme on 3 September and carried out a series of attacks on the Channel ports, taking Le Havre, Boulogne, Cape Gris Nez and Calais, with the last falling on 30 September. The Canadian 4th Armoured Division then pushed east, crossing the Ghent Canal and capturing Bruges on 8 September. Shortly afterwards they ran into the German defensive line, which in the west ran along the double barrier of the Leopold Canal and the Canal de la Derivation de la Lys, two canals that run side by side for almost twenty miles from Zeebrugge, forming the south-western border of what became known as ‘the Island’. Large sections of the German line were also protected by flooding or inundations, which made the land impassable.
On 12 September General Simonds, commander of the Canadian 2nd Corps, gave the first orders for an attack on the pocket. The Polish 1st Armoured Division was to attack from the east, to clear the area west and south of Antwerp, reaching as far west as Ternuezen. The Canadian 4th Armoured Division was to clear the area between Terneuzen and Zeebrugge.
On the night of 13 September the Canadians made their first attempt to cross the double line of canals. Four companies from the Algonquin Regiment were able to cross in assault boats at Moerkerke (about fifteen miles up the canals from Zeebrugge), but they came under heavy fire and were soon forced to retreat.
On 14 September Crerar was given new orders as part of Montgomery’s ‘Arnhem Directive’. Opening the port of Antwerp became his first priority, although he was also still ordered to clear Boulogne and Calais.
On 15 September the Canadians were able to make more progress further east, following retreating Germans to the line of the Leopold Canal to the east of the point where it splits from the Canal de la Derivation.
On 22 September the Canadians made another attempt to cross the canal, this time at Isabella Polder, at the eastern end of the Leopold Canal (south-west of Terneuzen). This was a disaster and entire platoon of the Algonquins were lost.
On the eastern flank the Polish 12th Dragoons pushed north-east from Ghent, reaching Hulst on 17 September but were counterattacked and forced back a short distance. On 18 September the Polish Infantry Brigade got across the Branch Canal at Kijkuit, to the west of Hulst (the Zijkanaal naar Hulst) and by the end of 20 September they had reached Terneuzen. By 22 September they had cleared the south bank of the Scheldt between Terneuzen and Antwerp.
The initial plan was for a two pronged assault on the ‘Island’. The Canadian 3rd Infantry division would attack across the Leopold Canal north of Maldegem (just to the west of the centre of the pocket, just to the east of the point where the two canals separated), while a brigade sized amphibious assault would take place at the eastern end, using Buffaloes to carry the troops along the coast, crossing the Braakman inlet just to the west of Terneuzen. The eastern attack was to be the main effort
The German positions on the Leopold Canal were built into the reverse slope of the canal dike. In an attempt to overcome them, the Churchill Crocodile flame-throwers of the 141st Regiment, RAC, was allocated to the attack. Early on 6 October the flamethrowers went into action, sending jets of flame across the canal. Once they were finished, the leading companies of the attacking force crossed the river in assault boats. On the left the attack was stopped by machine gun fire, but on the right two bridgeheads were gained over the canal, then held against counterattacks. By the end of the day the Canadians held two narrow bridgeheads across the canal.
Reinforcements were ferried across on 7 October, and the two bridgeheads were linked on 9 October, but the bridgehead wasn’t fully secured until a Bailey bridge had been completed on 11 October. A heavy bridge allowing tanks to cross was completed by 13 October, by which time the Canadians had suffered 533 casualties including 111 dead. The Canadians were able to capture Eede, but the Germans continued to resist fiercely until they were forced to retreat by troops coming from the east.
In the east the amphibious attack began at 0200 on 9 October and achieved surprise. Infantry from the Canadian 9th Infantry Brigade were carried across the Braakman inlet on a mix of American Buffaloes and British Terrapins. The original plan was to attack late on 7 October, but the amphibious vehicles took longer than expected to reach their start point, so the attack was delayed for 24 hours. The landings went off without a hitch, but the attacking troops then came under fire from the guns at Flushing (across the Scheldt on Walcheran Island) and around Biervliet (west of Terneuzen) . The Buffaloes landed a second wave from around 0900, and by the end of the day the beachhead was around 2-3 miles deep. By 10 October the Canadians had captured Hoofdplaatz, half way to Breskins.
As a result of the slow progress on the Leopold Canal it was decided to turn the amphibious force south, and advance inland along the western bank of the Braakman inlet (known at the time to the Allies as the Savojaards Plaat, although this was only the name of an area at the mouth of the inlet). The target was the village of Isabella (south-west of Terneuzen), a rare area of dry ground, from where they could advance into the island. The reserve brigade, the Canadian 8th Infantry Brigade, was landed inside the eastern bridgehead on 11 October, and began to push south. Isabella fell by the end of 14 October. The Canadians were then able to push west along the northern side of the Leopold Canal.
The attack was now joined by the 52nd Lowland Infantry Division, which joined the Canadian Army and took over on the Leopold Canal front. With air support this division was able to expand the bridgehead. The two Allied bridgeheads were finally joined on 19 October.
The Germans pulled back to a new line from Breskens south to Schoondijke and then west to Sluis, but Breskens fell on 21-22 October. This finally isolated the German garrison, which had been receiving supplies from Walcheran via Breskens. The 52nd Division then prepared to take part in the attack on Walcheran Island, leaving the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division to clear out the remaining half of the Breskens pocket.
On 22 October an attack on Fort Frederick Hendrik, just to the west of Breskins, was repulsed, but the fort was captured on 25 October. The Canadians pushed west, and attempted to bypass Cadzand, but this only exposed them to a counterattack on 27 October. This was defeated, and on 1 November the Canadians captured Knokke-sur-Mer and General Eberding (captured in a pillbox on a golf course!). The advance along the coast had got behind the new German lines, and disrupted all of their attempts to form a new line.
The last German troops were now pinned between the canal and Zeebrugge, at the very western end of the island, and they surrendered by the end of 3 November.
This meant that the southern bank of the Scheldt estuary was now in Allied hands. South Beveland had also been secured by 1 November, only leaving Walcheran to be cleared.
During the battle for the Breskens pocket the Canadians had suffered 2,077 casualties, including 314 dead and 231 missing. In return they captured 12,707 prisoners. The end of the operation also meant that Belgium was entirely liberating, making it the first country occupied by the Germans to be completely cleared of the enemy.