This operation, concisely described in this material, commenced on the 20th of October, with the objective to outflank the 6th Parachute Regiment south of Bergen op Zoom. The operation was conducted by the British 1st Corps., with the 49th British Infantry Division (West Riding); the 1st Polish Armoured Division; the 104th United States Army Infantry Division (Timberwolves) and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, under command. This short paper will be confined to the action of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division.
From October 16th onwards, the battle of the Scheldt finally got priority from Montgomery. The 4th Canadian Division was placed under command of the 1st British Corps and went into the fray between the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the 49th British (West Riding) Infantry Division. Further to the east the American 104th Timberwolf division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division saw action under the same command. In fact, the 1st British Corps, under command of the 1st Canadian Army, swung north-westwards to support the battle of the Scheldt. Due to the new priority the British 2nd Army, located east along the Dutch-German border, changed the centre line westwards for operation ‘Pheasant’. This will give rise however to a totally different battle field tour and is beyond the scope of this reader.
Before the action north of Antwerp commenced, the bulk of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division was in a static role holding the south bank of the Leopold canal. Since the advance in the Breskens-pocket was developing positively, the division was available to be transferred on the 17th of October to an area north of Antwerp. The 29th Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (South Alberta Regiment) with C-company of the Algonquin Regiment under command, were already deployed in the area on the 9th of October, to reinforce the over-stretched and vulnerable eastern flank of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Shortly after, the 21st Canadian Armoured Regiment (Governor General’s Foot Guards) was added to this small holding force.
Operation ‘Suitcase’ commenced on the 20th of October and the Belgian town of Essen was taken two days later by the Algonquin Regiment. The advance was hindered by mines and road blocks. Enemy contact had been scarce so far. This changed dramatically after crossing the Dutch border. Wouwse Plantage proved to be a tough nut to crack. The 21st Canadian Armoured Regiment (Governor Generals Foot Guards) supported by elements of the Lake Superior Regiment got a terrible beating on October 23rd while advancing over open territory towards the wooded area of Wouwse Plantage. A dozen derelict Sherman tanks were left behind as scrap iron in these open meadows. A few days later, after Wouwse Plantage was taken, a company of the Algonquins got surrounded in Centrum and were extricated after an exciting night. The enemy consisted mainly of troops of the 1st ‘Hermann Goering’ Reinforcement and Training Regiment. These men where fanatic supporters of the NAZI regime and lived up to their beliefs.
After the German defense was cleared out of the woods of Wouwse Plantage, the 4th Canadian Division split into two battle groups. The 10th Brigade (South Alberta Regiment, Lincoln and Welland Regiment, Algonquin Regiment, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 10th Independent Machine Gun Company (New Brunswick Rangers)) made a dash towards Bergen op Zoom, after by-passing Huijbergen. It was here that Colonel Wotherspoon said to Colonel Cromb (the C.O. of respectively the South Alberta Regiment and the Lincoln & Welland Regiment) the famous one-liner; ‘Bill, let’s get the damned place’. Enemy resistance on the sand track leading towards Bergen op Zoom was ferocious. The road went through the middle of forest and the Germans used hit and run tactics. So many tanks and scout cars were lost that the road was dubbed ‘hulk alley’.
Despite the fierce resistance, Bergen op Zoom fell without a shot on the 27th. Meanwhile the 4th Armoured Brigade battle group (21st Canadian Armoured Regiment (Governor General’s Foot Guards); 22nd Canadian Armoured Regiment (Canadian Grenadier Guards); 28th Canadian Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Regiment) and the Lake Superior Regiment) had cut the main east-west motorway to Breda to the east of Bergen op Zoom. The tanks advanced to Moerstraten, which is small farming community, in a remote area between Roosendaal and Steenbergen. The advance brought the men and their heavy steel tanks through a quagmire of slimy mud and marshes. The Foot Guards made a left hook in the night of the 29th of October, to cut off the retreating Germans by reaching the main road from Bergen op Zoom to Steenbergen. The attempt to trap the enemy failed, since the paratroopers had already fallen back to Steenbergen, which would prove to be the last big battle for the green patched 4th division. The city of Tholen, on the island with the same name, was visited by a few Canadians but all Germans that had not evacuated the city, were already contained by the local resistance. The island was left to the resistance. After four years of oppression the local resistance fighters enthusiastically hunted the island for stranded Germans and even fought it out with the enemy, who was trying to destroy the ferry on the northern part of the island.
On the evening of October 31st, the Algonquin Regiment made an attack from Moerstraten towards Welberg, with the intention to clear the way for the armour. The action became an unexpected fiasco. Two company headquarters were overrun by counter attacking Germans supported by self-propelled guns. The other entrance into Steenbergen, being a small bridgehead across a canal on the main road from Bergen op Zoom held by the Lake Superior Regiment, was evacuated, since the men ran out of ammunition and food while a German armoured counter thrust was imminent.
The exhausted 4th Armoured Brigade was taken out of action and the P.B.I. of the 10th Infantry Brigade were to perform the job. After a thorough artillery preparation, the Algonquins and the Lincoln and Wellands crossed the start line at 1900 hrs. on the evening of November the 2nd. While the Lincs were pinned down immediately after the start line, the Algonquins on the right flank were able to penetrate the German main defense line. The next morning, after a tough battle, the Germans yielded and fled. Four tank destroyers of the 5th Anti-tank Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery were lost against the same number of German Sturmgeschütze. In the first hours of Saturday November 4, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders reported themselves on the deserted town square of Steenbergen.
Quickly the infantry tried to stay in contact with the fast retreating enemy. They made contact with the Brits of the 49th Division south of Dinteloord. This farm community was hit hard by the war. A Typhoon air strike had hit the town centre and a fierce fire had destroyed a big part of the town. Over 40 civilians died, leaving a sad population behind that was aware that there were no Germans in town during the air strike.
The final show of operation Suitcase, was ‘almost comic’, according to Colonel Stacey, the official historian of the Canadian army. The Lake Superior Regiment and the British Columbia Regiment fanned out to the St. Phillips land peninsula finding it unoccupied. So far so good, but after reaching the canal separating the island from Schouwen-Duiveland, the guns were pointed at a couple of German naval vessels in Zijpe harbour. They were able to sink three ships and the patrol that was sent over in a rowing boat was able to secure the ships log of one of these vessels. The bell of this ship is still a prized trophy in the officer’s mess of the British Columbia Regiment in Vancouver.
Peculiarities of the fighting in West-Brabant
The area of West-Brabant features a landscape similar to the polders of Zeeland, combined with ancient sand dunes of prehistoric times. The area behind the sand dunes used to be rich in peat which, was harvested in the early middle ages by the Belgians to heat their houses and to obtain kitchen salt from the ash. This changed the landscape dramatically. Many areas lost their soil and had to be planted with trees to hold the sand together and prevent mass erosion. This landscape is most visible around Wouwse Plantage and Bergen op Zoom.
These medieval pine forests, form nicely squared patches in between the more fertile patches of land that were farmed since the beginning of time. A deep anti-tank ditch north of Wouwse Plantage and an elaborate trench network formed a well prepared defense. The Germans were indeed skilled in reading the country and making the optimum use of the natural features. As the Germans were well aware of the outflanking maneuver of the 4th division, the defense of Wouwse Plantage was extremely ferocious. The defense works were constructed many months before, which confirms the ability of this foe to anticipate the battle, well before it commenced.
Operation ‘Suitcase’ was not an exclusively Canadian operation. The supporting force of the British 79th division, that was attached to the 4th division for the occasion, consisted of flame throwing Churchill tanks of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and Sherman flail tanks of the XXII Dragoons, both of which gave a good account of themselves, in these battles. Two Churchill tanks of the Fife and Forfars were destroyed in hulk alley; one hit by a Panzerfaust and the other, a Churchill, ran over a buried bomb, while attempting a rescue of the first tank. The heavy armoured vehicle was blown to pieces by the force of the blast. The two men driving the tank were killed in the incident.
After Wouwse Plantage fell, the paratroopers and Hermann Goering troops withdrew, leaving rear guards to slow down the Canadian advance. The next available natural defense was a little stream, dug hundreds years ago to transport peat to Bergen op Zoom. This canal lies about 5 meters below the ground and forms a formidable tank defense. In Bergen op Zoom the Lincs crossed the same canal on foot since the original bridge was blown. In the factory, at the far side, a platoon of Lincs and Paratroopers, fought it out at point blank range for the rest of the night. The 8th Field Squadron constructed a Bailey after the retreat of the Germans at the same spot. It was named Lincoln and Welland Bridge.
As the Foot Guards were threatening to come behind the German lines after their left hook in Moerstraten, the Paratroopers fell back on the last prepared defense at Steenbergen. This proved also a hard nut to crack. All routes into town were blocked by concrete tank walls. These road blocks were connected by barbed wire fences and mine fields. Dug out gun emplacements finished the fortress of Steenbergen.
The defense of Steenbergen was about 600 strong, but they were able to hold the whole division at bay for five days. The paratroopers in Steenbergen were allegedly equipped with the newly issued assault rifles. This increased their fire power to such an extent that the defense was extremely effective. The skillful deployment of the few Self Propelled guns they possessed was an asset. Somehow, the German commander was able to read the intentions of the Canadian attackers and these Sturmgeschuetze always showed up at the thick of the fight.
Again, it was the 6. Fallschirmjaeger Regiment and the Hermann Goering troops, who formed the backbone of the defense. These Hermann Goering Troops, commanded by Colonel Dreyer, were disliked by both friend and foe. The paratroopers of the 6th Regiment looked down upon them as being second class ‘would-be’ paratroopers. The civil population was quite afraid of these looters that were mostly drunk, all the time. Their degree of civilization was indeed quite low. In Welberg, a suburb of Steenbergen, they brutally killed an innocent chaplain that was hiding in a cellar with other civilians. He had spoken to some of the Algonquins, who had retreated after a German counter attack. Shortly after the counter strike was finished, German jack boots kicked in the door of the cellar and with arrogant shouting of orders, to leave the room immediately hit the scared civilians in the cellar. The chaplain, Harry Cock, was picked out of the terrified group of people that was meanwhile lined up against the wall. He was beaten and stabbed with a bayonet in his stomach, only for exchanging a few words with a Canadian soldier. The Herman Goering troops left him dying in the street, after which the frightened village people picked his body and brought it to the hospital in town. Welberg, with a population of only 1.000 inhabitants, lost almost 30 of its civilians. This was an especially bitter experience for the people of Welberg, as the whole action was only a rear guard action without gaining any significant advantage for the already beaten Germans.
St. Phillipsland, the final destination for the 4th division, was partly inundated by the Germans. The dike leading to the peninsula was undermined by the retreating enemy. Local resistance fighters were able to spot the Germans, digging in the dike and scared them off, before the only connection to the small communities of Anna Jacoba Polder and St. Phillipsland was lost. Another civilian from the island, sabotaged the sluice gates that the Germans had opened, thus preventing further flooding. Thanks to his courage and initiative, most of the island was kept. As a result the Lake Sups could advance to the coast without a mishap.
The Canadian casualties were collected in Bergen op Zoom in a square called ‘Plein 13’ at the outskirts of town. To prevent diseases and the stench of death, the corpses were treated with lime. Many people left flowers on the little heaps of earth that marked the graves of the fallen. The sympathy was so overwhelming, that Bergen op Zoom offered to provide an official burial ground for these brave men. The request was granted and since 1945 the Canadian and British casualties of the Battle of the Scheldt are buried at the Bergen op Zoom Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery.
Moerstraten has the honour, to feature the first memorial to the fallen. In august 1945, accompanied by men of the 4th division that lived the battle, a lovely stone construction was revealed on the edge of the little forest. It is still there today, well kept by the locals. Welberg has the honour to host the latest war memorial. In 2002, a big church bell was placed in the polder. Twice a year, the bell is rung to help the townspeople remember what the Canadians did in 1944.