The Battle of the Scheldt was a series of military operations that took place in northern Belgium and the province of Zeeland in the southwest of Holland in the Autumn of 1944. After the liberation of the port of Antwerp, Allied forces were tasked with clearing the occupying Germans from the Scheldt estuary to open the supply lines to the Allied front. Fierce fighting took place in thick mud, heavy fog and pouring rain around dykes and dams, flooded polders, and villages and towns heavily fortified by German defenses. It was another key period in the liberation of Holland, helping to end the war, but with huge losses of life.
- Pay tribute to the fallen Allied soldiers in Bergen op Zoom and in Westkapelle.
- Learn why the port of Antwerp and the Scheldt estuary in Zeeland were so important to the Allied efforts.
- Visit the towns and villages in Zeeland severely damaged by the fighting.
Antwerp and the beginning of the Battle of the Scheldt
British tanks entered the city of Antwerp on 4 September 1944. After a few short fights, by the end of the day the British controlled the city. This victory was important for the Allies who needed a large port to help supply its army – at that point about two million strong – in Western Europe and continue its advance towards Germany.
Although the Allies controlled Antwerp, the Germans had heavily fortified Walcheren island – today a part of mainland Zeeland – at the mouth of the Western Scheldt estuary, partly burying their heavy guns to make them impervious to air attacks. Due to supply problems and the Allies prioritizing Operation Market Garden, the German army had managed to retreat the bulk of their forces across the estuary, transporting around 86,000 men, 600 guns and 6,000 vehicles to the island. As the Germans controlled both banks of the river, it was impossible for Allied minesweepers to clear the heavily mined waterway, meaning supply ships couldn’t safely pass through it.
A dreadful period for the Dutch residents
The first part of the Allies’ plan for opening the Scheldt Estuary involved clearing the area north of Antwerp and securing access to the Zuid- Beveland peninsula. On 28 September 1944, the Canadian 2nd Division began its advance north from the Belgium city to capture the Dutch town of Woensdrecht. On 2 October 1944, pamphlets fell on to the island of Walcheren advising Dutch residents to flee. The next day the Allies bombed Westkapelle. As well as creating a hole in the seawall, the explosions killed 152 civilians and destroyed almost the entire city. Other attacks pierced the dykes at Veere, Vlissingen and Fort Rammekens. 80% of Walcheren was flooded, and thousands of Dutch residents had to leave their possessions behind and escape to the few areas of dry land that remained. You can discover more about Westkapelle’s role in the war, and the experiences of its residents, at the city’s Dijk- en oorlogsmuseum (Dyke and War Museum).
Black Friday in Woensdrecht
Driving rain, traps and landmines made the Canadian advance difficult, and a major assault on Woensdrecht only began on 7 October. The fighting was fierce, and the Canadian troops were relatively inexperienced compared to the German veterans defending the town. One of the bloodiest engagements of the battle to take Woensdrecht came on Friday, 13 October, when 56 Canadian Black Watch Regiment soldiers were killed while making an attack across an open field against well-prepared German positions. This day is now known as Black Friday by Canadian forces. Despite the heavy losses, and in large part thanks to artillery and air support, the Canadians secured Woensdrecht on 16 October, effectively cutting off the German forces in Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren.
Operation Switchback: Clearing the Breskens Pocket
The second part of the main operation, Operation Switchback, aimed to clear the Breskens Pocket, an area of land north of the Leopold Canal and south of the Western Scheldt. The German forces had blown up dykes to flood the ground, which was a maze of ditches and canals, making military maneuvers impossible except on the narrow roads built on top of the dykes. What’s more, the Germans had 10,000 men who were well supplied with machine guns, mortars and artillery. Despite the Germans’ robust defenses, the Canadians, with the support of amphibious vehicles and WASP flamethrower carriers, captured Breskens on 21 October. On 2 November, Canadian soldiers stormed a pillbox and captured the German commander Knut Eberding, who, despite his own orders to fight to the death for the Führer, surrendered without firing a shot. Operation Switchback ended successfully when the remaining German forces laid down their weapons the next day.
The success of Operation Switchback
While Operation Switchback was being carried out, Canadian forces also commenced Operation Vitality, which aimed to take back the Zuid-Beveland peninsula. Another battle fought on flooded terrain littered with mines and fortified German defenses, Allied forces encountered little resistance until they reached the main German defense line on the Zuid-Beveland canal. With the help of the amphibious assault vehicles of the newly arrived Scottish 52nd Lowland Division, the Allies managed to capture Zuid-Beveland with little loss of life.
The final pieces of the puzzle
At the end of October 1944, most of the area around the Scheldt estuary was clear, with only the German coastal batteries on Walcheren still preventing the Allies from using the port of Antwerp. Liberating the island – now a heavily-fortified German fortress – was the final piece of the puzzle to open the supply lines to the Port of Antwerp. To accomplish this, Operation Infatuate was launched by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division on 31 October.
Walcheren was connected to the Zuid-Beveland peninsula by the Sloedam, a 1,200-metre-long and 45-metre-wide road which was the scene of heavy fighting. Allied forces successfully carried out frontal attacks on the Sloedam, but soon after the offensive stalled. Knowing it was too dangerous to attack from the front, Scottish soldiers from the 6th battalion surprised the Germans with a night-time attack after crossing the muddy waters of the Sloe. This attack, codenamed Operation Mallard, was successful, and the flanked Germans withdrew. On 3 November, the Sloedam fell into Allied hands. Visit the War Memorial Sloedam to pay your respects at a monument erected in memory of the Canadian and Scottish forces who lost their lives during Operation Mallard.
As part of Operation Infatuate, Allied forces also attacked the island from two other directions: across the Scheldt from the south and the west by sea, landing in the Dutch city of Vlissingen. Today you can visit ‘Uncle Beach’, the area where Allied forces disembarked to take the city, to learn more about its occupation, liberation and the experiences of Zeeland’s citizens during WWII.
On 6 November, Walcheren’s capital Middelburg fell, and the German resistance ended completely just two days later. The Battle of the Scheldt, one of the longest and fiercest battles ever fought on Dutch land, was over, and the crucial supply line secured. You can relive the battle at the Liberation Museum Zeeland, which features reconstructed bunkers, roadblocks and the Ellewoutsdijk Emergency Church, which was used during the war. The Canadian War Cemetery in Bergen op Zoom is home to the graves of 1,116 soldiers, including 968 Canadians.