The Battle for the Walcheren and South-Beveland
The action concisely described in this paper, commenced after the fierce fighting at Woensdrecht ended, with the withdrawal of the 6thFallschirmjaeger Regiment from this heavily contested town. On the 22nd the Germans were ordered to retreat from their position, as the 4th Canadian Division was pushing the enemy back eastwards from Bergen op Zoom in operation Suitcase. The German 67thArmeeKorps did not have enough troops to stop the armoured columns and in order to avoid encirclement, a strategic withdrawal was their only option. Other days of this tour are specifically dedicated to these battles.
Vitality I and II
On the 25th of October 1944, the Royal Regiment of Canada, reinforced with armour of the 10th Armoured Regiment (Fort Gary Horse) and the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Hussars), pursued its advance westwards, towards Walcheren Island. The progress was hindered by many mines and the unsuitability of the land for armoured warfare. A single anti-tank gun was able to stop the advance and the P.B.I. (poor bloody infantry) had to slog forward, to dig the tenacious German defenders out of their muddy slit trenches. After a slow advance, the South-Beveland canal was crossed and the main town on the island Goes was liberated without much resistance, on the 29th.
Meanwhile, on the 26th, the 156th Brigade of the Scottish 52nd (Lowland) division made an amphibious landing on the south coast by crossing the West-Scheldt from Terneuzen (Operation Vitality II). A few days later, fighting a small scale, rear guard action with a rapidly retreating enemy the Sloedam was reached by both divisions.
The German 70th Infantry division had based one infantry regiment on the South-Beveland isthmus, with the objective to slow the advance towards the west. After the Sloedam would have been reached by the Canadians and Scottish troops, this regiment was to join the defences on Walcheren. The German troops, ordered to hold on to the last man, were concentrated on Walcheren Island. Here, beside the Wehrmacht troops of negligible fighting quality, the defence was reinforced with many naval artillery troops. These elite naval troops would be the spine of the enemy defence. Their role was to man the dozen coastal artillery batteries along the North Sea coast. These naval batteries used to be part of the infamous Atlantic Wall and were heavily fortified with concrete, trenches, barbed wire, dug outs and anti-aircraft guns.
In preparation for the attack, and under orders of General Guy Simonds, the dikes of Walcheren were breached with bombs at four strategic points. Contrary to the advice of his engineering specialists that this could not be done and the island could not be sunk in order to facilitate the defeat of the German defence, General Simonds prevailed. The specialists were proven to be wrong, but whether the flooding was worth the effect is still a matter of debate among historians. On the 3rd of October, the first dike at Westkapelle was blown away and the sea entered the polders. The town of Westkapelle was utterly destroyed and the number of civilian casualties was appalling. In the following days, three more dikes at the north and south corner of the island were breached in a similar fashion, however with less cost to civilian lives.
The Sloedam or ‘Causeway’, used by most Canadian historians, was the only land connection between South-Beveland and Walcheren in those days. It consisted of a dike surrounded by tidal mud flats. Both the railway and the main road were on this bare dike of approximately 40 meters wide and 1.200 meters’ length. It was a relatively easy task for the defenders to bring out withering fire on the dike that would stall any attacker from advancing. For good measure the defenders had blown a huge crater in the dam approximately 100 meters from the western end. This prevented any vehicles from managing a crossing.
Since the 5th brigade saw no alternative, it was decided to cross the Causeway with a direct assault. The attack across the ‘Sloedam’ was led on the 31st by the Canadian Black Watch. The action was doomed to cause many casualties for no territorial gain. The second attempt by the Calgary Highlanders met the same fate. Only after a heavy artillery barrage, the Calgaries were able to establish themselves on Walcheren, if only by a toehold, by a further attempt.
The Germans however, were not easy to convince to leave their fortress and the Calgaries were thrown back to the big crater shortly after. While the Calgaries held the start line, the Regiment de Maisonneuve managed to get two platoons on Walcheren, again preceded by a big artillery barrage. Meanwhile the Glasgow Highlanders of the 52nd division (157th Infantry Brigade) had come into the play on the 2nd of November. They were ordered to relieve the French Canadians on Walcheren. Reluctantly the Scottish commander threw his inexperienced troops into the carnage. The Scotsmen were able to reach the French-Canadians, but the combined force met the same fate as its predecessors experienced before. A small group of survivors ended up in the big crater. Against all odds, the Glasgow Highlanders made another attack which finally forced the German defenders to yield ground. A small bridgehead, though still under enemy fire, was established.
Meanwhile to the south, the stubborn Scottish were devising a more intelligent plan to conquer the Sloe mud flats. They thought that the idea of the direct assault over the Causeway, was too similar to the resentful, wasteful tactics of the First World War. After consultation with local residents from South-Beveland and after a successful nightly reconnaissance by two brave sappers, they managed to cross the mud flats during the night of the 3rd of November. The surprise attack of the 6th (Lanarkshire) Battalion of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) was initially unopposed, but after a vigorous fight, they reached the end of the Causeway, from the south.
Infatuate I and II
The crescendo to the Battle for the Scheldt was initiated by concentrating the 4th Special Service Brigade and the Scottish 52nd Lowland Division near Ostend and de Haan in Belgium to train in the dunes, that were quite similar to the terrain in Walcheren. The operation to conquer Walcheren consisted of two separate actions, Infatuate I and Infatuate II.
Infatuate I was designed for the 155th Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division to land in Flushing, preceded by the commandos of No 4. Commando. At 04:40 hours on the 1st of November a dozen LCA’s (Landing Craft Assault) carrying commandos with blackened faces left Breskens harbour. The windmill in Flushing assisted as an effective guide and the commandos landed without too much opposition. The Germans, however, had a rough awakening and started to shell the beach. Also the approach for the little LCA’s to the landing area was covered effectively by the many entrenched guns at the Flushing seafront. The 4th Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers made several aborted attempts before they could reach Flushing. Meanwhile the commandos, supported by local resistance fighters, started clearing out the city. Despite the tenacious defence, the Germans were slowly pushed back to the Hotel Brittania. This hotel, once a fashionable resort for the wealthy, functioned now as the lair of the defenders. The 7th/9th Battalion The Royal Scots had the honour to burn the last defenders out of their entrenched position. General Reinhard, the German commander of Flushing, fell as a prized reward, into their hands.
Operation Infatuate II was an operation comparable to the Normandy landings, however smaller in size. The objective was to clear the coastal area of Walcheren that was above sea level to destroy the naval artillery batteries. If this menace was successfully silenced, the navy could immediately start clearing mines in the West Scheldt.
The assault was to take place north and south of the breached dike in Westkapelle. No. 41 Royal Marines Commando and No. 10 Inter Allied Commando had the task to advance north towards Domburg and Vrouwenpolder. No. 48 and No. 47 Royal Marines Commando had orders to advance south to the breached dike just north of Flushing to contact the Scotsmen. The Commandos were supported by B-Squadron Lothian and Border Horse Yeomanry of the 79thArmoured Division, manning Sherman flail tanks to clear mine fields. Engineering support was provided by the Assault Engineers of the same division, manning Buffalo’s and converted Churchill tanks for bunker busting, so called A.V.R.E.’s (Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers). Only one Canadian unit was involved being No. 17 Light Field Ambulance of the Royal Canadian Medical Corps. These men set up their tents on the beach to take care of the wounded, both friendly and foe. The day following the landings, a gale came up from the sea and made life on the beach for the wounded quite miserable. Evacuation of the wounded was suspended due to the weather and the situation became quite desperate for a few days.
The assault on the coast of Westkapelle was a complex, combined operations action, heavily supported by the navy. Unfortunately the Royal Air Force was not able to silence the German guns before the attack. During the amphibious assault on November 1st, the weather was not suitable for flying. This also reduced the effect of the firing of the battleship ‘Warspite’ and monitors ‘Erebus’ and ‘Roberts’, since no flying artillery observation was available. During the landing the gunships of the ‘Support squadron Eastern flank’ received a serious pounding from the German naval batteries. By offering themselves as a target, the Germans wasted their ammunition until the stocks where exhausted. Many brave sailors lost their lives in the merciless waves. Consequently, the defenders did not bother the landing crafts carrying the Royal Marines to shore with relatively few casualties. After the chaos of the landing, the Marines fanned out along the dunes, to silence the big concrete bunkers covering north and south of the gap. Some of the fortified gun positions, as W11 in Dishoek, only gave in after a tough scrap, while other defenders lost all guts as soon as the commandos showed up. On the 4th of November, the last fortified battery north of Domburg gave up.
While the smoke was still curling out of the German coastal gun barrels, Royal Navy mine sweepers were already visible from the Flushing esplanade, clearing the choppy sea of mines. On November the 6th, a final small action took place to convince the last German defenders to give up the fight. While the 5th KSOB were advancing slowly towards Middelburg from the south, the Glasgow Highlanders from the east and with the Typhoons relentlessly pounding the remaining Germans, a company of the 7th/9th The Royal Scots supported by men of the machine gun regiment (the 7thManchesters), carried by Buffaloes, sailed to Middelburg. This city is the capital of Walcheren and in those days, the temporary home of General Daser and his 2.000 remaining troops. After hearing the clinging sound of the Buffalo tracks on the cobbled street of Middelburg, the General eagerly surrendered. The sounds of the British Armour and a bottle of champagne, paid for by the War Office, was all that was required to seal his surrender.
Peculiarities of the fighting in South-Beveland and Walcheren
The landscape of South-Beveland and Walcheren are very similar to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. Virtually the whole area is reclaimed land from the sea, and the infamous polder country is all around. Before the fighting, Walcheren was surrendered to the sea by breaching the dikes. Interestingly, the Germans tried to confine the flooding by ordering the construction of an emergency dike in the polders, in a circle around Westkapelle. The Walcheren civilians were again forced to work for the enemy, under threat of imprisonment or death, as they had to do the month before when extensive anti-invasion measures were constructed. Few showed up for this new task however and due to the chaotic situation, the Germans could not exert their power and abandoned the project in the end. When it came to their own home, the Walcheren people showed a distinct and better labour morale. Around most of the threatened villages, handmade dikes emerged after a few good nights of shoveling. In the end these efforts were all in vain, as the sea would dissolve and breach these little dikes after frequent exposure to the elements, during high tide.
The sea did not really flush into the island as one might envisage. As the polders of Zeeland were ‘made’ in the middle ages, after prolonged sedimentation of marine clay, they only submerge at high tide, some even only at spring-tide. In 1944 when the sea came in, the water would slowly creep a little bit further though the polders. After retreat back to open sea, the deposited debris and animal corpses would indicate the high water mark. The roads became submerged and were only visible by the dead trees and scrubs lining the verges. Most village centre’s stayed dry, as these townships were already occupied in medieval times and were built on barely visible ridges of slightly higher ground. These ridges were generally old sandbanks, made up of sand and covered with a layer of clay.
During the winter the population was evacuated to South-Beveland although a few people stayed back in the towns. The deeply religious Walcheren farmers, were however, very reluctant to move, despite the unbearable living situation. Their connection to the land and to their property was so strong that some of them chose to live for months in the upper story of their barn, together with the cattle. In order to travel over the island, a ferry scheme was organized using amphibious military vehicles like DUKW’s and LVT’s. The bow wave of these vehicles resulted in a macabre sound of clinging doors and windows, accentuating the desolation of the area. Only in February 1946, was the last breach in the dike closed, after extremely hard labour and overcoming seemingly unsolvable material shortages and dangerous submerged mine fields. The water was finally conquered and the people could finally return home to start removing the mud, mussels and sea weed from their derelict homes. Most of them had to start from scratch. The first crop from the once fertile farmland, yielded more than anticipated and after an unexpected, short period of two years, the damaging effect of the salt had disappeared.
Next to polder country, Walcheren features beautiful, natural sand dunes, rising up to 30 meters above sea level. It was in these high regions, that the Germans had built their entrenchments. For the Royal Marines, these dunes were to be assaulted and were distinctively less attractive, than they are now, for the average modern day tourist. The loose sand is extremely heavy and hard to negotiate and the men became totally exhausted only by moving about. Still wet from the landings, they suffered terribly in the freezing wind and torrential rains. The fine sand crept everywhere and was quite a nuisance as it easily jammed the rifles and sub-machineguns. A peculiar incident happened in these sandy dunes. After the battle of Battery W11 in Dishoek, two dead German officers were found, apparently executed by their own soldiers. The troops were likely fed up with the fighting, but were threatened not to surrender by these two fanatics. In the 1980s, a local Dutchman alleged that it was the Marines that had killed these Germans after they were taken prisoner. The story was even published in a magazine by the local historical society. This unfounded accusation caused some justifiable discomfort among the veterans.
Artillery support for Infatuate II was quite involved. The allied artillery was massed near IJzendijke in the Breskens pocket. Both 9th British and 2nd Canadian AGRA were further reinforced with heavy anti-aircraft regiments, heavy regiments and the British 3rd super heavy regiment. West-Kapelle could only be reached by the heavy guns. The reduced artillery support for this operation was compensated for, by the support that the big battle ships could provide. The huge caliber naval guns were used in a field artillery roll with modest effect. The explosive power was, as expected, overwhelming and the sound of the arriving shell made friend and foe dive for cover. The accuracy and scale however was too low to correct the fire on exact pin pointed locations, as could be done by field artillery. The 59th Newfoundland Heavy Artillery Regiment, Royal Artillery, was located for this show in Terneuzen. They were allotted targets in Flushing harbour. In World War II, Newfoundland was represented in the British land army with two artillery regiments. One served in Italy and the 59th Heavy Regiment was assigned to the 2nd British Army, in Western Europe.
The attack on Flushing saw the first operational use of an experimental rocket, called ‘land mattress’. One battery of the 112th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment (later to be known as 1st Canadian Rocket Battery), attached to 2nd Corps artillery, was reorganized to operate this new weapon. From Fort Frederick Hendrik, in Breskens, the rockets were fired against German anti-aircraft batteries, just north of Flushing. According to interviews that were conducted with prisoners of war after the battle, the psychological effect of the weapon was devastating. The gun crews of the anti-aircraft batteries fled after the first rockets hit the target. The Flushing commander, General Reinhard, was freely urinating himself, weeping uncontrollably and talking inconsistently when he was captured. Among the battle experiences he was exposed to, the effect of the rockets was thought to be a major cause of these conditions.
The German troops occupying Walcheren were basically a motley crew. In retrospect, it is difficult to understand why the German staff did not allot troops with a higher potential fighting quality than the men of the 70th division and the marines of the coastal artillery. Most of these soldiers had served for many months as occupation troops on the island and were well acquainted with the local area. The 70th Infantry Division was indeed an odd formation, consisting of men, all suffering of stomach problems. In order to efficiently feed the troops with a special diet, it was thought to be reasonable, to gather them into a unit. Consequently, the division had no offensive power and was rated as a static, low quality outfit. As a result, the men of the 70th division did not play a major role in the battle and gave up as soon as the allied soldiers came close. It was predominantly the German naval soldiers, who put up a stiff fight for the Fuehrer and the Mother country, before they were killed, maimed or decided to give up.
The Royal Scots experienced an unusual situation, after arrival in Middelburg with a small number of soldiers. The German strength in the provincial capital was about 2.000 and the Scotsmen were quite uncomfortable. The stomach patients however, showed no will to resist and calmly gathered on a big square, to be disarmed. The Norwegian interpreter attached to the Royal Scots company, confronted the German commander, General Daser, with the demand to surrender. He bluffed that, by not obeying the order, he would unleash the full power of the allied armour on the defenders. The General in true Prussian style, replied that he could only surrender to an officer, at least equal in rank. The company commander, a major, immediately promoted himself to a temporary general, by borrowing some pips from his fellow Lieutenant. For some irrational reason, the suggestion that tanks would be used against them, was sufficient reason for the German officer to surrender, while maintaining a sense of dignity. General Daser, acting as a retarded infant, surrendered his force of 2.000 against a crew of about 125 Royal Scots. His adjutant almost brought trouble, when he dashed in with the argument that the Brits were completely outnumbered. A scrounged bottle of champagne, as noted above, did the trick, to settle his nerves and out he came, with his suit case neatly packed.
The situation was different at the western end of the Sloedam. Here the German infantry put up a stiff fight. The dam was laid, under a thick stream of all kind of handguns, mortars, howitzers and high velocity guns with good effect. Snipers were positioned on the sea dike perpendicular to the Sloedam. These proficient men caused many casualties among the attackers. The most fearsome gun was an 88 mm anti-tank gun mounted on the back of a truck. The weapon was cleverly concealed under an overpass and undetectable for the Tiffies (Typhoons). The gun crew used solid shot to ricochet over the cobbled roads of the dam. The unconventional application of this gun was extremely effective. The deafening screaming noise and the sight of the lethal blob of red light moving at the speed of sound over the road, like a stainless steel ball in a pinball machine, had a huge psychological impact.
It may seem to the layman, that the tactics of a direct assault over the Sloedam, resulting in heavy casualties, was the result of either indifference, or, incompetent commanding officers. The case however, is more elaborate. Since the engineers had advised that the Sloe canal was neither negotiable for amphibious vehicles and boats, nor for the infantry on foot, there were few alternatives at the time. Senior command was urging for the fall of Walcheren and little time was taken to investigate the case.
The Scottish however, showed more ingenuity and persistence. They devised the crossing of the Sloe canal, dubbed operation ‘Mallard’, after consultation with the local populace and a thorough reconnaissance of the area. Basically, they strongly resisted the idea of a frontal attack and were given some time, to investigate the situation. It has been rumoured, that the Lowlanders were deliberately slow to reach the Causeway. There is however, no evidence to support this accusation. When the order came to relieve the Maisonneuves on the causeway, the Scots initially rejected this idea. However, after a direct command, the Scottish commander had to yield, albeit however, with the concession that only the same number of Scotsmen would be committed as there were Canadians committed in the bridge head.
During the fighting in Flushing, the local resistance played an important role. The city was virtually deserted, but the resistance fighters had managed to organize permits to avoid evacuation. The shipyard that dominates the city had been subjected to many German military orders as the workers were considered vital, for the war effort. As most officials of the municipality were willing to co-operate, the permits were not that difficult to obtain.
As soon as the Commandos left ‘UncleBeach’, they were approached by armed civilians dressed with an orange armlet. With these local guides, the Commandos could make good use of every little back street and alley in this mediaeval town. Over a thousand inhabitants were evacuated to the Allied lines, by underground passages, unknown to the defenders.
German snipers were located in the high ship yard cranes and caused significant casualties. The hull of an unfinished ship, protruding over the old city, was also infested with snipers. The Lowlanders chose an unconventional way to deal with this nuisance. They took their mountain artillery guns that could be easily disassembled up to the second floor of a building to improve their shot. The heavy caliber guns were quite effective for counter sniping activity. In one case, the blast of the gun caused the floor of a house to collapse, after which the gun crew found themselves, choking from the dust, on the ground floor.
The landing in Baarland was supported by amphibious DD-Sherman tanks of B-Squadron of the Staffordshire Yeomanry. Recently arrived in the Scheldt area, B-squadron was the only squadron of the regiment, that had finished their DD-tank training. Before the commitment in Scheldt battle, the unit had served with the 27th Armoured Brigade and had landed in Normandy in conventional gun tanks. Unfortunately, only four tanks were able to overcome the steep hang of the dike. The rest were obliged to return to the south bank of the Scheldt. For the four tanks that were able to negotiate the dike, the polder country provided almost impossible obstacles for the armour, very quickly. All the vehicles were stuck in the deep slimy mud. The LVT’s carrying the Scottish infantry were manned by men of the 11th Royal Tank Regiment, attached to the 79th Armoured division, who were used to operating tanks with big searchlights. The northern landing area, Green beach, was abandoned, in favour of Amber beach, not long after the first touchdown. The dike slope was even worse here and even the LVT’s were unable to conquer the dike. A second convincing argument to abandon this site, was the accurate German artillery fire.