The action concisely described here, commenced on the 5th of October when the Essex Scottish Regiment of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division crossed the Dutch border at Putte, north of Antwerp. The advance of the division was delayed by a number of small scale scraps, but generally the advance went according to expectations. The German 346th Infantry Division was not strong enough to hold the Canadian advance. After crossing the border into Holland, the division, under command of 1st British Corps at the time, reverted back to 2nd Canadian Corps. In order to save supplies, the advance of 1st British Corps was stopped temporarily. Montgomery still believed he could get to the Ruhr before winter and that the 2nd Canadian Corps could handle the Scheldt single handed. How wrong his assumptions would prove to be, as the events unfolded shortly after.
Montgomery stalled a complete Corps for some time, as the German command was in a state of crisis. The slow, steady advance on their western flank made the Germans realize that they were again, losing control of their situation. They were well aware, that if the connection to South-Beveland was lost, the hold on the complete Scheldt area would be under threat. As a result, the Antwerp docks would be captured by the allies and would open the critically important supply lines. As a reaction to the 2nd Canadian Infantry Divisions advance across the border, the ‘fire brigade’ of the German army in the west, was sent to rescue their beleaguered colleagues. Battle Group ‘Chill’ or 85th Infantry division was hurriedly sent westwards. The battle group, led by General Kurt Chill, consisted of remnants of the 84th, 85th and 89th Infantry Divisions. More importantly however, the 1st Hermann Goering Training and Reserve Regiment and the infamous 6th Parachute Regiment, under command of Colonel von der Heydte, were also sent to join the battle. The fact that this battle group was in the middle of an apparently successful attack in the Den Bosch area, did not matter to the German command staff. Any means of transport available was to be used to bring the troops to the area under personal threat, if they failed to do so. Consequently, buses of the Dutch public transportation service, were seized and used as troop carrying vehicles. Based on stories of civilians coming from the Bergen op Zoom area, the Canadian Intelligence Corps reported on October 7th, the arrival of a few thousand troops in the woods just south of Bergen op Zoom and suspected then, that the Germans were on their way!
Meanwhile, the advancing 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade (The Royal Regiment of Canada, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and The Essex Scottish Regiment), the German resistance slowly increased by each kilometer they gained. The German troops defending the area were ordered to tenaciously defend the area to buy time for the paratroopers to arrive. Ossendrecht was taken on the 6th of October by the Royal Regiment and was used as the base for further advances north by the 5th brigade (The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders of Canada), Le Regiment de Maisonneuve and The Calgary Highlanders).
The 5th Brigade was to take over the vanguard from the 4th Brigade and advance to Korteven on the 7th of October. Korteven was, or is, a group of houses just a few kilometers beyond Woensdrecht, on the main road north to Bergen op Zoom. It was in fact an insignificant piece of real estate, but since it was unattainable for the weeks to come, it became a symbolic name for the Canadians. Concurrently, with the operations of the 5th Brigade, the 6th Brigade (Les Fusilier Mont-Royal, The Queen’s Own Highlanders of Canada, The South Saskatchewan Regiment) was to secure the right flank of the division. The north-western advance of the Canadians, resulted in a long exposed flank, since the 1st British Corps remained in their old position. The area consisted of a line running from the Dutch / Belgian border at Putte to Maria Ter Heide.
The long, open right flank of the division was to be secured by an action of a separate battle group ‘Saint Force’. It consisted of the Fusilier Mont-Royal, the 8th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Canadian Hussars) and the 10th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Fort Gary Horse). The concept was to outflank the Germans, by a sweep north-eastward. Due to thick fog, the ‘armoured thrust’ did not materialize and only the Fusilier de Mont-Royal made some local progress. Unfortunately, the advance was not exploited, as the Germans had nothing to stop an armoured column. Notwithstanding, on the 9th of October, elements of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division were sent from the Leopold Canal, to fill the dangerous gap in the 2nd divisions rear defences.
The advance of the 5th brigade, towards Hoogerheide, made slow progress on the 7th. The Maisonneuves, on the right and Calgary Highlanders on the left, had to fight their way north, to Hoogerheide. Further advances stalled, as the Germans resisted fiercely. In the early morning of the 8th of October, the Black Watch were ordered to take over the attack, for the final assault on Korteven. This was the moment however, that battle group Chill was fully committed to the battle. The Black Watch were caught up, in a violent fight and were forced to withdraw to the start line. Fierce house to house fighting followed. A strong German counter attack unfolded and the defending battalions were forced to make some local withdrawals.
Meanwhile, the Royal Regiment of Canada won an important victory on the left flank. They were able to follow a dyke leading out of Ossendrecht; penetrated the muddy polder country and fixed a firm base near the Kreekrakdam, which connects South-Beveland to the mainland. Despite German counter attacks, they held their ground. Due to the heavy German resistance, they were however, unable to further exploit their success. Consequently, the connecting dike, carrying the railroad, remained in enemy hands. The Germans were forced to move a battalion of paratroopers to the area under personal threat safety. From the west, elements of the 70th Infantry division tried to reestablish the contact. Repeated German attacks where dispersed with well-aimed artillery fire and after a few days of fierce fighting, both sides decided to stay put.
At the same moment in Hoogerheide, October 10th 1944, the Calgary Highlanders battled fiercely with the elite paratroopers of von der Heydte. The battle raged back and forth in Hoogerheide. Streets, houses and even separate apartment floors changed occupants by the hour and the causalities mounted steadily. The village, once a prosperous farm community, slowly turned into an eerie collection of ruins. The Fort Gary Horse tanks, supported the infantry however they could. Tenaciously the Canadians kept on advancing and finally, after hours of fighting and many casualties, the strategic crossroad, connecting Woensdrecht, Hoogerheide and the main route to Antwerp – Bergen op Zoom, was consolidated. The second objective of that day, a crossroad further down the road to Bergen op Zoom was unattainable. The Calgaries were exhausted and no replacement troops were available. The battle slowly evolved towards a stalemate, as the contestants were unable to move, due to utter exhaustion.
Through General Simonds’ direct involvement, the exposed right flank of the 2nd division, was finally covered by reinforcements of the 4th Canadian Armoured division. It was the South Alberta’s and C-Company of the Algonquin Regiment that were ordered to join the 2nd Infantry Division. This made the full force of the Fort Garry Horse available as well as the 4th Infantry Brigade. Since the Royal Regiment was still committed in the polders, west of Woensdrecht, the South Saskatchewan Regiment was ‘loaned’ from the 6th Infantry Brigade. The battered 5th Infantry Brigade got 48 hours of rest before the attack would resume.
The next plan to overcome the German defences, was a simultaneous attack from the Royal Regiment’s position in the polder and from the position in Hoogerheide, following the main route to Bergen. It would be Friday October 13th for the advance to commence. However, before the newly planned attack was to begin, heavy fighting lies ahead.
The South Saskatchewan Regiment held the eastern flank of the Canadian lines, just in front of Huijbergen. On October the 12th, the Germans strongly counter attacked their position. Confused fighting developed in the wooded terrain. The Germans managed to encircle the major part of A-Company of the South Sasks. With massive artillery support and assistance of the Essex Scottish, the Germans were thrown back on the 14th of October. A second German attack on this flank was repelled soon after, which required a dozen tanks of the Fort Garry Horse. This would be the last concerted offensive attempt of the Germans in this sector of the front.
Friday 13th of October saw the start of operation ‘Angus’. The plan was that the Black Watch would advance to the dike holding the railway from the Royal Regiments position in the polder, west of Woensdrecht. Concurrently, the Hamiltons were to re-attempt their advance to Woensdrecht.
This day would become the most disastrous day for the Canadian army in world war II. The attack of the Hamiltons was cancelled, after strong opposition by Colonel Whitaker, who thought his battalion was unfit for a major attack, However, the Black Watch crossed the start line at 0630 hrs. Within five minutes, the attack over open polder country proved to be an utter failure. The poor soldiers fell like pins at a bowling alley due to the relentless German machine gun fire from a well concealed position behind the dike. Despite the heavy losses, the brave Montrealers kept going and despite the extremely heavy losses, some men were able to reach the dike. While the bare field was covered with wounded and dying soldiers, those few that had survived, managed to get through to the dike where they were captured or killed, with hand grenades rolled down from the top of the dike. To end to this tragedy, the artillery finally covered the field in smoke, to enable the evacuation of the wounded. Despite this failed attempt, a second attempt was made after the German lines, behind the dike were shot up by the Royal Air Force. The attack went in, with additional support of Wasp’s, Fort Gary Horse tanks and anti-tank guns of the 2nd anti-tank Regiment RCA. Once again, they were repelled by the Germans. Saturday October 14th, at 0100 hrs. the Black Watch withdrew, leaving 58 fatal casualties and 125 wounded. Soon after, the name ‘Black Friday’ was used for this sad day in the history of Canada.
After a short period of rest, the 2nd division began the offensive again on October 16th. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry got orders to occupy the height of Woensdrecht. To support the attack, a massive amount of artillery was gathered behind the lines. In preparation for the attack, Typhoons shot up the German lines. Early in the morning of October 16, a huge artillery barrage, started to creep forward in the direction of Woensdrecht. The Hamiltons hung a few yards behind the falling shells and were able to dig in on the high land that is home to the village of Woensdrecht. The Germans reacted furiously with strong counter attacks. At one point, Whitaker had to send some of his fleeing men back into the battle, at the point of his pistol. After a call for artillery fire on his own positions (in which 300 artillery guns participated), heavy casualties were inflicted by the attacking Germans and the situation was somewhat stabilized. The thinly held lines of the Hamiltons, were reinforced with Essex Scottish men and despite German infiltrations and local attacks, they held the line.
The situation remained very unstable during the following days. On October 21st the remaining Hamiltons were relieved by the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. This battalion had not yet been committed to the battle. It had served on the exposed right flank of the division. The 6th Infantry Brigade was transferred from the eastern flank, to the center of the battle. Since operation ‘Suitcase’ had commenced, these units became available for the attack.
The 6th Brigade would advance north from Hoogerheide on October 23rd, concurrent with the Calgaries attack, from the western position in the polder, which was taken on the 13th of October by the Royal Regiment. Despite lavish support of artillery and tanks of the Fort Gary Horse, the attack was again held back by the German paratroopers. The Calgaries however, were able to reach the Woensdrecht train station, by overcoming the German defensive position that caused the casualties of the Black Watch on ‘Black Friday’.
The following day, the 6th Brigade, prepared for another day of stiff fighting, found the German lines unoccupied. The paratroopers had retreated to Bergen op Zoom. The 4th Armoured Division (Operation ‘Suitcase), advanced on the right flank of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, with incredible results. After the enemy defences were finally overcome, the 4th Infantry Brigade immediately fanned out west to clear the South Beveland peninsula. Operation ‘Vitality’ had begun.
In took the Calgaries until the 26th, to dislodge a German rear guard troop form ‘Lindonk’, during which time the Calgaries suffered many casualties. ‘Lindonk’ is situated on a rise just west of Korteven. From this position, the Germans were able to snipe at the traffic going to South Beveland. Since it was correctly anticipated that these paratroopers would disengage in due time, the Calgaries were stopped, to prevent further casualties. On the 27th, as anticipated, the ‘bird had flown’. The Germans had withdrawn. The costly battle for Woensdrecht had finally ended.
Peculiarities of the fighting in Woensdrecht
The fighting around Woensdrecht was considered by some soldiers, as the worst battle of the war. In the battle of the Scheldt, the Germans showed once again, that they had retained their great tactical skill and fighting spirit. Local people who survived the carnage, remembered that the fight went back and forth and that even a single bedroom at the upper storey of a ruined house, could change occupants several times a day. Consequently, the dead were left where they had fallen.
Just before the fighting started, most of the locals fled north to Bergen op Zoom. A smaller portion fled south, towards the liberated Ossendrecht. After members of the 6th parachute regiment executed two civilians, for alleged espionage, the few remaining people hid even deeper in their cellars, or fled. The crossing of the front line however, was a dangerous challenge and many civilians died on the battle field.
Some farmers living south of Woensdrecht were lucky to find shelter in the ovens of the brick factory, which proved to be a shell proof solution. Most shelters consisted of a dug out slit, in the back garden. Often hay would serve as an adsorbent, to cope with the ground water. A roof would be constructed of logs and filled with fascines. These fascines were abundant, as people used them to burn their furnaces. This way, some cover was provided, even though a direct hit on the structure would still be lethal for the occupants. In most cases, a number of families, some up to twelve members, would occupy these underground shelters. In some shelters, people had to sleep while seated, as the room could not accommodate all the occupants. Hygienic conditions soon became appalling. There were obviously no services available and due to the dense artillery fire, even a short stay outside the shelter was lethal. Some food could be obtained from killed farm animals, that were abundantly available.
To add to the misery of the local folks, the very few remaining villagers from Woensdrecht were forced to evacuate after the battle had ended. The civil affairs officers thought the risk of epidemic diseases, caused by the many decaying corpses dispersed throughout the area, was too great. Another important reason for full evacuation, was the enormous amount of unexploded ordnance which made the area very dangerous. Only after months of debris clearing, were the poor villager allowed to return. Many families from Woensdrecht never returned to their destroyed houses. The experience of their liberation was too traumatic.
Woensdrecht was, and is, home to a well-known military airbase. During the war, German fighter planes were based here. Many locals worked on the base for a living and, generally, the relationship with the Germans was quite good. The base was strategically located, since the allied bombers would pass the area for their daily attacks on Germany. Woensdrecht hosted several squadrons of fighters and night fighters as part of the defence of the German skies. As an early warning system, a big radar station was built on top of a hill, just west of Korteven. Today, only the outline of a small bunker of this formerly major airbase, remains. After the liberation, the base was put to good use by the allies, to contest the German V1 offensive on Antwerp. The base was closed in February 1945. The anti-aircraft guns positioned north of Antwerp, required unobstructed air space to bring down these deadly, pilotless V1 bombs. The Germans fired 8.000 of these bombs on Antwerp in addition to the thousands they fired on London. The anti-aircraft defence of Antwerp, named Antwerp-X, consisting of over 20.000 men, were able to limit the number of hits on the vital harbour area, to as few as 211.