Operation Vitality or the battle of South Beveland (16 October-1 November 1944) saw a mainly Canadian force clear the Germans off the South Beveland peninsula, opening the way for an attack on Walcheran Island, which in turn would allow the Allies to open the port of Antwerp.
Antwerp had fallen to the Allies towards the end of the ‘Great Swan’, but German resistance had stiffened almost immediately afterwards. At the same time Montgomery had failed to make clearing the approaches to Antwerp a priority (later admitting that was a mistake), until after the failure of Operation Market Garden. Once the priorities changed, the Canadians were given the task of clearing both banks of the West Scheldt, the approaches to Antwerp from the sea.
The first target on the north bank of the Scheldt was South Beveland, a former island that was connected to the mainland by an isthmus that was well over a mile wide. Until the nineteenth century the Scheldt split into two east of the island, with the West Scheldt flowing along its southern shores and the East Scheldt along its eastern then northern shores. However in the 1860s the East Scheldt was then blocked by a railway line, which turned the island into a peninsula. A few years earlier the Beveland Canal had been built across the western end of the isthmus, splitting the island in two. Most of the isthmus was very wet, but there was one dry causeway to the north (roughly where the railway runs). A secondary road further south proved to be largely unusable. The large canal that now flows across the eastern end of the isthmus, the Scheldt-Rhine canal, was built after the end of the war. At the western end of the island another narrow causeway carried the railway onto Walcheran. Since the war the southern end of the channel between South Beveland and Walcheran has become the port of East Flushing, while the northern end has been drained and turned into farmland.
South Beveland was defended by part of a divisional battlegroup. In the area between Turnhout and the estuary were troops from the 346th, 711th and 719th Infantry Divisions.
Before the attack on South Beveland the Allies had to push west from Antwerp. It took two weeks to advance fifteen miles to the canal.
Advance to the Peninsula
The Canadian 2nd Infantry Division took over from the 53rd (Welsh) Division on 18 September. At this point the main city and docks were in Allied hands, but the Germans still held the northern suburb of Merxem, separated from the main city by the Albert Canal (running east from Antwerp). There were several clashes around Merxem. The Canadians were able to get a foothold across the Albert Canal on 21 September, but this was some way to the east of Antwerp, and more importantly to the east of the junction between the Albert and Turnhour Canals, so the Canadians still had to find away across that second waterway. Attempts to cross the Turnhout Canal on 24 and 26 September failed, but the deadlock was broken when the newly arrived 49th (West Riding) Division was able to cross the canal further east and establish a bridgehead. The Canadians moved east and crossed into the same bridgehead on 28 September, then pushed west along the north bank of the canal.
At the same time the Polish 1st Armoured Division was ordered to advance north-east from the new bridgehead, and by 30 September they were at Merxplas, and on 1 October they had crossed the Dutch border north of the town. Progress was slow after that, and by 5 October they had only reached Alphen, eight miles north of Merxplas. The Germans then counterattacked without success. In the third week of October the corps was reinforced with the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and US 104th Infantry Division. This allowed the advance to resume on 20 October, and by the end of 23 October the Canadian 4th Armoured had crossed the Dutch border near Essen (north of Antwerp and west of the Polish Armoured Division) and was pushing west to Bergen-op-Zoom, just to the north-east of the peninsula. These advances cut off the German garrison of South Beveland.
By the end of 4 October the Canadians had cleared the area around Merkem and Eekeren (the northern part of Antwerp), and their leading troops were at Putte, half way from Antwerp to the eastern end of the peninsula. However an attack on the village of Korteven, just east of the peninsula, was defeated. On 16 October the division captured Woensdrecht, just to the south of Korteven. This had taken almost two weeks to achieve, after the Canadians got close on 6 October, but it was the key to the attack west into South Beveland, as the roads onto the isthmus began in that village.
On their right the I Corps advanced to the Antwerp-Turnhout canal. The canal was soon crossed, and the Polish Armoured Division was able to cross the Dutch border north of Merksplas (just to the north-west of Turnhout) on 1 October, and by 5 October the corps had reached Alphen, a few miles north of the border. They were then able to hold off a number of counterattacks. On 23 October the Canadians attacked towards Korteven, and by 24 October the Germans on the mainland had been forced to retreat north, leaving the troops on South Beveland cut off, at least by land.
Attack on South Beveland
The Allies gave the attack two codenames. The attack west up the Isthmus was Operation Vitality 1, while the later amphibious attack west of the Beveland Canal was Operation Vitality 2.
On 24 October the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division began to advance west along the isthmus. The terrain was very difficult, with large areas flooded, and the remaining unflooded areas mined. The advancing troops often had to push on through waist-deep water. Even so by 25 October they had captured Rilland, nearly two miles along the isthmus. By the end of 26 October they had pushed on another two miles to Krabbendijke, and were only six miles to the east of the Beveland Canal. The Canadian 6th Infantry Brigade then took over, ready to attack across the canal.
Instead of the potentially costly attack across the canal, an alternative was found. On the night of 26-27 October part of the 156th Infantry Brigade from the 52nd Lowland Division and armour from the 11th Royal Tanks Regiment crossed the Scheldt from Terneuzen (only recently liberated itself) and landed near Baarland, about half way along the southern shore of the island, and well to the west of the canal. Despite some setbacks the Lowlanders were able to push west past Oudelande and expand their new bridgehead
On 27-28 October the Canadians coming up the isthmus reached the canal, and managed to get across even though the Germans had blown the existing bridges. A pontoon bridge had been completed by 1200 on 28 October, and the two wings of the Allied attack had met up. On the same day the Canadians took Bergen-op-Zoom, back on the mainland.
On 29 October the 5th Brigade captured Goes, the largest community on South Beveland, while the Canadians and Lowlanders pushed west and joined up with the troops in the amphibious beachhead.
On 30 October the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division reached the eastern end of the causeway linking South Beveland to Walcheran, but they were held off by the German defenders.
On 31 October the Canadians cleared the eastern end of the causeway, and were ready to attack Walcheren across another narrow causeway.