The Battle for the Breskens Pocket
This operation commenced on 6th October 1944, with the objective to clear the south bank of the river Scheldt. The action was originally intended to last for four days. However due to unexpected stubborn resistance by the German 64th Infantry Division, it lasted 4 weeks instead.
The assorted attack on the southwestern bank of the Scheldt, dubbed the ‘Breskens pocket’ in military circles, was preceded on September 13th, by an abortive attempt to cross the Leopold Canal at Moerkerke by the Algonquin Regiment of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. The aggressive German reaction to the assault was a prelude for the looming battle.
It took a few weeks’ time to regroup the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, due to the commitment to clear the channel ports Boulogne and Calais. The division could only be deployed after a hasty move north by the beginning of October.
The plan for Switchback envisioned crossing the Leopold Canal, at the only piece of dry ground north of the Canal, near the Dutch town of Ede. The 7th Infantry Brigade (Royal Winnipeg Rifles, 1st Battalion Canadian Scottish and Regina Rifle Regiment) would lead the canal crossing after the ‘Wasps’ (an armoured vehicle armed with a flame thrower) of the 3rd and 4th division had flamed out the German trenches. After the establishment of the bridgehead, the 7th brigade was to advance to Knokke, while the 8th Brigade would have to fight their way into the pocket on the northern edge of Breskens. Meanwhile, the 9th brigade (North Nova Scotia Highlanders, Stormond, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders and the Highland Light Infantry of Canada) would make an amphibious assault to the northeastern corner of the Breskens pocket. American made Buffalo’s (L.C.T.: ‘Landing Craft Tracked’), that had been used with great success in the Pacific theatre, were ready to ferry the troops across the Braakman inlet. The British made Terrapins were a wheeled version of the LCT and were deployed to supply the beachhead. These amphibious vehicles were manned and tended by men of the 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers, slated to the 79th British Armoured Division.
The 7th Brigade struggled in their bridgehead, that lasted for days, on the the southern part of the dike, just north of the Canal. Casualties mounted as hand grenades were lavishly lobbed over the crest of the dike by friend and foe, during the pitch dark nights.
On October 10th, the 9th Brigade made a successful attempt to establish a bridgehead near Hoofdplaat, in the north-eastern corner of the pocket. As the German 64th division had committed most of its force to stall the Canadian attack in the south, the resistance was relatively weak after the initial landing. General Dan Spry of the 3rd division decided to change his plans and committed the 8th brigade (Queen’s Own Rifles, Regiment de la Chaudière, North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment and the division’s 7th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment (17th Hussars)) in the bridgehead across the Braakman inlet.
While the 8th and 9th brigades made a slow but steady advance towards the Hoofdplaat and Breskens in the west and Isabella Sluis in the south, the exhausted men of the 7th brigade were relieved by British troops of the Scottish 52nd Lowland division. The Germans had meanwhile retreated on the 20th October 1944 to a more confined defence perimeter, running from the north in Breskens to Oostburg and Sluis in the south. German General Eberding hoped that the shorter front line would better accommodate his fast shrinking fighting force. The front re-alignment was to no avail since the 8th and 9th brigades kept on advancing, though cautiously, westwards. Meanwhile the land connection into the Breskens pocket at Isabella Sluis was put to good use and the artillery guns and supply columns were pouring into the pocket. The 17th Hussars took the most southward section of the front, while the 8th brigade advanced through the centre, westwards to Oostburg and Sluis. The 9th brigade followed a northern route to advance in the direction of the small fishing village of Breskens.
After the Glengarries, supported by flame throwing Churchill tanks of B-squadron of 141 Regiment RAC, took the bombed out town of Breskens, the 9th brigade was relieved by the 7th brigade. The German resistance meanwhile crumbled after the Torontonians of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada took Oostburg with support of specialized armour of the 79th British Armoured division. The Scottish troops in the south, who had taken Ede and Aardenburg without a fight, were relieved by men of the 3rd Anti-tank Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery. Since no alternative infantry forces were available, the artillery chaps gave it a go. The gunners did a splendid job and are to be commemorated for the fine performance. The Scots of the 52nd Division were actually pulled back behind the line and concentrated for the assault on Walcheren and South-Beveland. This episode will however be covered in another part of the tour.
The advance was limited by the cautious and methodical tactics of the Canadian senior military leadership. The Germans had basically retreated hastily to the Belgian sea resort Knokke, as they were unable to patch up a defence, since their troops were either killed or taken prisoner. As a last resort, truck drivers, administrators and cooks were holding the line. In effect, only rear guards were harassing the Canadian advance. Still these incidental skirmishes could be quite lethal. On the 30th of October, the 9th brigade was put in the line again to have the honour to deliver the final blow to the remnants of the German 64th Infantry Division. In the evening of the November the 2nd General Knut Eberding, who summoned his men to fight to the end and threatened deserters that their relatives would be imprisoned at home, surrendered to the North Novas just north of Knokke. The leather suitcase of this proud example of German military aristocracy was neatly packed and ready to go.
Peculiarities of the fighting in the Breskens pocket
The country(Holland) that you are about to visit is, and was, regarded as totally unsuitable to wage war. The eminent British Historian R W Thompson, has described it as the worst terrain any soldier has ever had to fight on. The area represents typical reclaimed land from the sea. Hollander’s refer to it as ‘polder’ country. Most of it was reclaimed from the sea in the 16th and 17th century. Basically it consists of squared off pieces of absolutely flat farmland bordered by canals and 5 to 8-metre-high dikes. Typical shape of a polder is like a saucer, with a length of one to ten kilometers and a width of 500 meters to a few kilometers. You will find this type of land throughout the region of the Scheldt: in the west of Brabant near Steenbergen, South Beveland and Walcheren.
All roads are bound to the top of the dikes that are nicely lined in an orderly Dutch fashion by poplar trees. The area is relatively, sparsely inhabited. Farms are thinly spread over the polder country, with the odd small rural villages, separated between five to ten kilometers of each other and visible from large distances by the church spires. Usually each village would have two spires, to express the fissure between the catholic and protestant community. The main economic activity in those days was farming, as it remains today.
During the military operations, the Germans flooded the country, by stopping the big pumps designed to remove the drainage and rain water every polder has. Consequently, the ground water level rose to a level equal to the surface, though few parts in the Breskens pocket were totally submerged. Most of the trees were cut and placed by forced civilian labour in the wet fields as ‘Rommel Asparagus’. These devices were invented to prevent Allied glider troops from making a safe landing. The bare tree stumps were connected by barbed wire and generally mined. These defences were part of the Atlantic Wall, similar to the concrete block houses, trenches and coastal guns that spoiled the North Sea coast. Luckily these formidable defences were generally built to defend an attack from the sea and not, as it turned out to be, an attack from behind.
The flooding in the bare land of mud, grey sky and a continuous drizzling rain and a freezing wind made it the worst kind of area for warfare. For the average soldier, each dike was followed by another and death was looming at the next broken tree stump, a dirty water logged mud hole or a smoking, ruined farm house.
This type of polder country created extremely challenging problems for the fighting troops: artillery shells for example, were highly ineffective, as the blast and shrapnel action was smothered into the thick fat mud. The artillery boys learned to shoot with high sensitive detonators in the top of the poplar trees instead. This tactic created an effective rain of shrapnel.
In addition to the mud, the dikes imposed another challenge since the back side of the dike could hardly be reached by conventional artillery and was a relative safe hiding place for the defenders. Mortars used at high inclination were of limited use, however the best way was to blast anti-tank shells in the dike over and over again until the earth was simply blown away.
A peculiar situation arose when the 8th brigade advanced south from the beach head near Hoofdplaat. The infantry was supported from the conventional rear, but also from the front! Since the guns of the 4th division were located south of the Leopold canal, the shells where shot towards the advancing troops. Many uneasy moments were experienced by the men on the ground.
Artillery was indeed an important support weapon for operation Switchback. Both the 2nd and 9th Canadian AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery), each consisting of three 4.5 inch medium and some heavy gun units and, to top it off, the 3rd super heavy regiment Royal Artillery and the artillery of the 4th Canadian Armoured division were deployed. Most of the guns were lined south of the Leopold canal and only the divisional artillery would follow the troops into the pocket. The guns were applied without any hesitation. The general tactics, next to the conventional harassing and counter battery fire, was to start the day’s advance with a barrage. Supported by flame throwing Wasps, that were confined to the top of the dikes, the advance was made in the sparse available daylight. As soon as dawn came, the men would stay put for the night, to follow the same pattern the day after.
Due to the soft and slimy mud, the aiming of the artillery guns was difficult to manage. After a few shots, the recoil would dig the gun into the ground, and recalibration was required to prevent short fall of shot. Mortars that were manned by the men nearer to the front, had the tendency to dig themselves into the soil. After a dozen shots the shovels would be required to dig up the gun deeply buried in the ground. For this reason, concrete floors of farm sheds or ruined houses were in great demand. In addition to functioning as a solid base for the guns, farms were the only dry places available in the area. Consequently, they were heavily contested. Since the enemy would obviously make use of the farms for the same reasons as the Canadians, farm buildings were destroyed by bombs and artillery, one after another. If a building was not destroyed by air or artillery, it would be heavily damaged by the intense fighting before it was ‘liberated’. This way, most of the farms, the farm tools, stocked harvest product and livestock in the Breskens pocket where destroyed. After the liberation, the shortage of food and the mines that would limit the area for farming would be acutely felt by the local farmers.
For the average infantry man, the pocket was indeed a nightmare. A slit trench in the polder country could be easily dug, however would fill up with water to the top. With the typical Dutch cold, chilly winter weather, the men in their wet woollen clothing were always cold to their bones. The only place to find proper trench cover was on the slope of the dikes. These places were however sparse.
The enemy tended to position his machine guns in the neck of two connecting dikes, making it possible to cover the complete area of two adjacent polders. The enemy had an abundance of weapons. Many weapons were left behind by the retreated 15th army, and now put to good use by the 64th division. One Luftwaffe ground unit that was reinforcing the occupation force of the pocket, was equipped with 20 mm automatic, quadruplet, anti-aircraft guns. These guns were used against human targets with devastating effect. The little explosive grenades caused heavy casualties among the attacking troops.
As the roads were predominantly on the top of the dikes, tanks would be fully exposed to the enemy and were not deployed by the Canadians. Despite the problem of limited maneuverability and the exposed position, mine clearing Sherman tanks and specialized Churchills of the 79th British Armoured Division were however deployed to assist the infantry.
The main routes into the pocket, used as supply roads, were not on top of the dikes. Due to the flooding, the cobble stoned roads were like “floating in a sea of mud”. Drivers would feel the cobble stones under their wheels sink into the soil comparable to pushing your thumb into a sponge. When the truck passed by, the stones would slowly bounce back into their old position. While the service corps had to defeat the mud in their conventional trucks, the infantry was equipped for the operation with a number of innovative amphibious vehicles. Shortly before the operation started, the ‘Weasel’, ‘DUKW’ and ‘Buffalo’ (L.C.T.: Landing Craft Tracked) were introduced.
The casualties of operation Switchback are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Adegem, Belgium.