Operation Infatuate or the battle of Walcheran (1-8 November 1944) was the last stage of the campaign to clear the Scheldt Estuary and with it allow work to begin on clearing the approaches to Antwerp.
The port of Antwerp had fallen to the Allies on 4 September 1944, towards the end of the ‘Great Swan’ across France, which saw the British advance from the Seine to the Dutch border without facing any serious German resistance. However although the port of Antwerp was captured intact, Montgomery failed to make clearing the approaches to the port up the Scheldt Estuary a high priority, instead focusing on clearing the Channel Ports and Operation Market Garden.
It soon became clear that the Allies needed access to Antwerp to solve their desperate supply problems, which saw most supplies being driven all the way across France from Normandy. Unfortunately the bulk of the German XV Army had successfully withdrawn from the Pas-de-Calais, and some 86,000 men had been transported across the Scheldt Estuary to Walcheran Island, and from down east along the South Beveland peninsula onto the mainland. The Germans held onto a pocket south of the Scheldt – the Breskens Pocket, and defended South Beveland and Walcheran to the north.
Before Walcheran could be attacked, the Allies neared to clear the Breskens Pocket and South Beveland. Operation Switchback, the attack on the Breskens Pocket, began on 6 October with an attack across the Leopold Canal in the south and an amphibious assault around the German defences in the east. This was the longest of the three battles to clear the Scheldt, and the last Germans south of the river didn’t surrender until 3 November. North of Antwerp the Canadians pushed the Germans away from the eastern end of the South Beveland peninsula, then attacked west up the peninsula on 16 October (Operation Vitality). Once again the land attack was supported by an amphibious assault, and the Germans had been pushed back to the causeway linking the peninsula to Walcheran by 1 November.
Walcheran Island is very low lying, with many inland areas lying below the high tide mark. The island was protected by a line of sea walls and dikes, and many of the heavier guns were built into these walls. However the Germans also had many more gun emplacements in the lower lying interior. Not all of the interior was below the high tide level – most of the towns and villages were built on areas that were permanently dry before the sea defences were built. The defences included an impressive array of guns, including 150mm and large coastal defence guns, and a large number of anti-aircraft guns. The Germans had around 10,000 men on the island, mainly from Generalleutnant Wilhelm Daser’s 70th Infantry Division. This was a static defensive division, known as the ‘White Bread Division’ because of the high number of troops with stomach complaints, but it did contain a number of experienced troops. The coastal guns were manned by naval troops, commanded by Seekommandant Kapitain zur See Frank Aschman. In the 1940s Walcheran was still a true island, with a channel separating it from South Beveland to the east. This was crossed by a causeway that carried a road and railway. Since then the southern end of this channel has become the port of East Flushing, while the northern end has been drained and turned into farmland. Modern maps are thus very misleading when examining this battle.
Planning for an attack on Walcheran began in mid September. After some arguments the Allies decided to carry out an amphibious assault on the island, supported by bombing operations to open up the dikes and flood the interior. Planning for the amphibious assault began on 21 September at the insistence of General Simonds, who was then in charge of the Canadian army.
On 2 October American aircraft droped leaflets over the island, to warn the civilian population of the upcoming bombing. This was followed on 3 October by an attack by 259 RAF bombers on the dike at the western tip of the island. This first attack flooded some of the island, but not as much as expected, so the aircraft returned several times over the next few days to complete the job. The dyke either side of Flushing was attacked on 7 October with limited success. On 11 October the dykes at Flushing and Veere (on the north-eastern coast) were breeched. After that the bombers turned their attention to the gun batteries, with 2nd Tactical Air Force flying some 650 sorties against the island. However most of the defences remained intact.
The Allies launched two amphibious assaults on Walcheran on 1 November 1944. The attacking forces were built around General Bernard ‘Jumbo’ Leicester’s 4th Special Service Brigade, which contained four Commando units - Nos.41, 47 and 48 (RM) Commandos and No.4 Commando. They would be supported by troops from No.10 (Inter-Allied Commando) and the 52nd Lowland and 2nd Canadian Divisions.
One attack was mounted from Breskens, on the south bank, and was aimed at Flushing, on the southern shore of the island. This attack was to be led by No.4 Commando and No.1 and 8 (French) Troops from No.10 (Inter-Allied Commando). The 155th Infantry Brigade from the 52nd Lowland Division would support this attack (the division had already fought its way north through the Breskens pocket to take Breskens).
The second came from Ostend, and was to land near Westkapelle at the western tip. This attack was to be made by the three Royal Marine Commandos supported by No.4 (Belgian) and No.5 (Norwegian) Troops from the No.10 (Inter-Allied Commando). This second force was supported by a naval force that included the battleship HMS Warspite. The plan was for No.41 (RM) Commando to take Westkapelle, then advance north (clockwise around the coast), while Nos.47 and 48 would advance south (anti-clockwise around the coast), attacking the coastal forts while heading for Flushing.
The attack on Westkapelle was codenamed Operation Infatuate II, the attack on Flushing Infatuate I.
A third attack was to be made by the main part of the 52nd Lowland Division and the 2nd Canadian Division. Their task was to advance west along the north bank of the river, attacking Walcheran from the east. It had been hoped that they would be able to advance in a fairly wide front, on either side of the causeway linking the island to the mainland, but the mudflats soon proved to be impassable, leaving them only the causeway from South Beveland.
The landings were to be carried using Weasel and Buffalo tracked amphibious vehicles (two types of LVT). The western attack was also supported by HMS Warspite and two 15in monitors, while air support was provided by the Typhoons of No.85 Group, RAF.
The attack on Flushing went well. No.4 Commando was quickly able to secure a bridgehead in the town, landing at the Orange Mole on the Flushing Sea Front. This allowed the 155th Infantry Brigade to move to the island by the end of the day. Most of the first day’s objectives had been secured by 1600 hours on 1 November.
Despite the inundation and the heavy naval bombardment, many of the German gun emplacements around Westkapelle survived. In addition poor weather over the UK reduced the amount of air support that was available. As a result the German coastal guns were able to open fire on the amphibious forces as they approached the island at 0945, and only seven of the twenty-seven close support craft were still intact at the end of the battle (with nine sunk and eleven badly damaged).
Despite this gunfire, No.41 (RM) Commando landed on time, as did their supporting tanks. Westkappelle had been cleared by 11.15, and the commandos then advanced north along the coastal dyke. During the day they cleared a number of German defensive positions and captured Domburg, almost half way along the north-western coast of the island, by 1815.
The first troops from No.48 (RM) Commando landed at 1010, to the south of No.41’s position, and advanced south towards Zoutelande, two miles to the south-east. However they ran into very heavy resistance at German Coastal battery W13, which was between Westkappelle and Zoutelande. The Germans held out for most of the day, and it required a full scale assault with intensive artillery support to take the strongpoint. W13 was captured by the end of the day, but at the cost of seven killed and eighty wounded.
In the east the Calgaries managed to get a company across the causeway, but were then driven back around 300 yards.
During 2 November No.41 (RM) Commando and the two troops from No.10 (IA) Commando advanced to the north-east of Domburg. However they were then ordered to stop, and most of No.41 was ordered to move south to support No.47 (RM) Commando at Battery W11. Two troops from No.41 and the two from No.10 were left behind to hold the northern front.
No.48 (RM) Commando captured Zoutelande after the Germans decided to pull back to regroup. No.47 (RM) Commando then took over, but ran into stiff resistance at Coastal Battery W11, about half way between Zouteland and Flushing. This position contained four intact 150mm guns, which were able to fire on the landing beaches for most of the day. The battery was taken late in the day, but No.47 had suffered heavy casualties, losing five troop leaders and sixty other ranks killed or wounded. The Commando was forced to pull back a short distance from the main part of the battery, but was still able to defeat a German counterattack.
In the south No.4 Command and troops from the 4th and 5th Battalions KOSB (part of the 155th Infantry Brigade) cleared the rest of Flushing.
To the east the Canadians managed to establish a bridgehead across the causeway early in the day, but were forced back in the night.
This day saw No.47 (RM) Commando finally secure Battery W11. The commandoes then pushed on to the south-east, where they met up with part of No.4 Commando near Flushing.
Most of No.41 (RM) Commando was ferried across the gap in the dyke at Westkappelle and moved to Zoutelande, only to discover that it was no longer needed. As a result of this move the majority of the Royal Marine commandoes were now concentrated around Zoutelande.
In the east an alternative route onto the island was discovered, south of the causeway, and used to establish a new bridgehead. This time the Germans were unable to dislodge the Scots from the Lowland Division.
On 4 November No.41 (RM) Commando moved back to Domburg, but their attack was delayed until 5 November
On 5 November No.41 (RM) Commando attacked north-east from Domburg. Their target was Anti-Aircraft Position W18, which was taken.
In the east the Lowlanders advanced from their bridgehead and med up with the Royal Scots around Middleburg.
On 6 November Middleburg, in the centre of the island, surrendered to troops from the 155th Infantry Brigade, which had advanced north along a canal that runs across the centre of the island. Their advance had been aided by Buffalo LVTs, which helped then cross the many flooded areas. A large number of prisoners were taken, including General Daser and 2,000 of his men, who had been surprised by the rapid advance.
On 8 November position W19, at the northern tip of the island fell to an early morning assault, and a large number of prisoners were taken. On the same day No.41 (RM) Commando captured the last gun battery in German hands and No.4 Commando cleared the Overduin Woods, just to the south and then advanced east towards Vrouuenpolder, on the north-eastern coast of the island, facing towards North Beveland (this was a separate island at the time, although is now connected to Walcheren by a causeway).
At 0815 a German delegation reached the HQ of No.4 Commando to negotiation the surrender of the last German troops on the island. A cease-fire was soon agreed, ending the battle.
Infatuate had been a difficult operation, fought in muddy terrain, on a very limited battlefield. No.4 Commando Brigade suffered 103 dead, 325 wounded and 68 missing during the eight day long battle, but at the end of it the last guns blocking the Scheldt Estuary had been taken. Minesweepers were able to get to work in the river, and by the end of November the Port of Antwerp was open to shipping.