Chapter XIII
The Campaign in North-West Europe: The Channel Ports,
September 1944

The Pursuit Through France and Belgium

The Allied victory in Lower Normandy had left the German armies in North-West Europe in desperate straits. Broken and disorganized, they streamed back across France; the resistance offered to our pursuing columns, though often fierce, was local and temporary; and Field-Marshal Model's plans for stabilizing the situation, first on the Seine and then on the Somme, collapsed before they could be elaborated.

Nevertheless, the enemy's situation had changed for the better in one respect at least. Stress of circumstances had forced him to take as the basis of his operations a far sounder strategic conception than that on which he had worked in Normandy. In the bridgehead campaign Hitler had enforced a thoroughly unrealistic strategy. Not only had the Germans failed to concentrate all available forces against the bridgehead while it was weak, but after it was clear that it could not be liquidated Hitler had still refused to give up ground, although by doing so he could have drawn off his armies in good order and'looked forward to fighting a long campaign with them in more favourable circumstances further east. He chose instead to fight between the Seine and the Loire; and by so doing he suffered a shattering defeat and. the loss of a great part of his best armies. Now, however, the enemy adopted, for the moment at any rate, a more effective system. The continuance of our advance depended upon supply, and it could not go on indefinitely if we were forced to maintain our armies from the Caen area. Every mile added to our communications increased the strain on our transport facilities; we must shorten those lines of supply, by possessing ourselves of ports further east, closer to our new front. The Germans now resolved to deny us such ports just as long as possible. And to meet the crisis Hitler called back from retirement the ablest of his generals. On 6 September Field-Marshal von Rundstedt again became Commander-in-Chief West.

"Administration", then, dominated the next phase. Lord Wavell once remarked that he knew of only one really satisfactory exposition of the virtues necessary for a general; it was that of Socrates, which, putting first things first, began, "The general must know how to get his men their rations and every other kind of stores needed for war." It showed, in other words, an understanding of administration, "the real


crux of generalship". The great essential for us, early in September 1944, was to maintain the momentum of our campaign, to keep the front moving and destroy the enemy before he could recover himself; but we could not do this without "rations and every other kind of stores", and this meant ports.

The days immediately after the crossing of the Seine saw the Allies advancing with giant strides. The next natural barrier was the Somme; but on the last day of August General Dempsey's Second Army reached and crossed that historic river at Amiens, picking up on the way General Eberbach, newly appointed to command the shattered Seventh Army. One of the most spectacular advances in the history of warfare followed. By 3 September the British were in Brussels; a supreme effort that day carried them forward full 60 miles; and on the 4th they entered Antwerp, and found its miles of docks virtually intact. Further east the Americans were motoring forward in much the same manner. One thrust carried them too into Belgium on 2 September, and another took them across the Moselle five days later.

Many a veteran will tell his children and grandchildren the story of how the liberated people of France and Belgium received our troops during the great pursuit. In every village and hamlet men, women and children turned out en masse to welcome those who had broken the chains of the oppressor. The cobble-stones which, through four long years, had echoed to the tramp of the German jackboot now rang with the noisy rattle of our carriers; but the shrill and cheerful greetings of the citizens rose above the din. Flags were everywhere, and flowers by thousands showered down upon our columns as they rolled through. Mile after mile, day after day, the story was the same, and there cannot have been many men in our army who were not moved by the demonstration. There is little enough glory in modern war; but it is a very glorious (and at the same time a rather humbling) experience to march in the ranks of an army of liberation.

For the 2nd Canadian Division the climax came at Dieppe, where this Division had assaulted the beaches in the great raid of 1942. It had seemed likely that the enemy would fight for this port, and we had accordingly made arrangements to deliver against it a shattering attack, in which very heavy bombardment by air and sea would be the prelude to the land assault. But Operation FUSILADE never took place. When the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Canadian Hussars) reached Dieppe on the morning of 1 September it found the enemy gone.1 The


only obstacle to the passage of its armoured cars and carriers through the streets was, it recorded, "the dense crowds of Dieppe citizens, who were shouting, crying, throwing flowers (and other articles too numerous to mention) and generally climbing all over our vehicles in the mad joy of liberation". The Division "stood down" for a few days at Dieppe. It was thus enabled to honour the graves of its dead of 1942 and to arrange a ceremonial march through the town, in addition to enjoying a much-needed period of rest and reorganization.2

Dieppe, however, meant more than the paying-off of an old Canadian score. It was a useful port, and therefore an important asset to the Allies. Why the Germans chose to relinquish it without a fight remains something of a mystery. They had even failed to demolish the harbour facilities in a really thorough manner; and in consequence our Engineers had the port ready to receive ships as early as 6 September. Yet Dieppe was only a harbour of secondary importance, capable of supplying roughly one-quarter of the needs of the 21st Army Group; the rest had to be met from the depots in the original maintenance area around Bayeux--and after the fall of Antwerp the British line of communication back to Bayeux was over 300 miles long. To maintain supplies over such a line required far more lorries, obviously, than over a normal distance--far more than the Allied armies had available. The immediate solution, in the British zone, was to "ground" the 8th Corps--that is, to halt it where it stood and to use the greater part of its transport to supply the other British corps which were carrying on the pursuit. But the disadvantages of this are obvious, and the only real answer to the problem was the seizure of more ports within reach of the front. One small port--Le Tréport--the 3rd Canadian Division (now commanded by Major-General D.C. Spry) had taken on the same day on which the 2nd entered Dieppe; another and larger one, Ostend, fell to us on 9 September, but had been seriously damaged and was not open to traffic until 26 September. In every other port of any importance north of the Seine sat a German garrison; the sole exception was inland Antwerp, the greatest of all--but though we had Antwerp itself the enemy held both banks of the River Scheldt between it and the sea, and no Allied ship could enter until the Scheldt was free. To open these harbours was the next task. "A speedy and victorious conclusion to the war", wrote General Crerar to his Corps Commanders on 9 September, "now depends, fundamentally, upon the capture by First Canadian Army of the Channel ports. . ."


Clearing the Channel Coast: Le Havre and the Flying-Bomb Sites

Le Havre was to be dealt with by Sir John Crocker's 1st British Corps, now composed of the 49th (West Riding) and 51st (Highland) Divisions. Strongly fortified and garrisoned by some 12,000 men, it could be taken only by a deliberate "set-piece" attack. From 5 September onward the defences were repeatedly bombarded by the R.A.F. Bomber Command and the 15-inch guns of the battleship Warspite and the monitor Erebus. On the afternoon of the 10th the ground attack began. The infantry divisions were supported by a fine assortment of the special assault vehicles of the 79th Armoured Division, including "Flail" tanks to beat paths through minefields, "Crocodile" flame-throwing tanks, engineer assault vehicles to blast open concrete strongpoints with their "petards", and last but not least a Canadian squadron of "Kangaroos"--the name given to the armoured personnel carrier, first used in Operation TOTALIZE and now recognized as a most valuable adjunct to the infantry attack. By the evening of 12 September Operation ASTONIA was over; Le Havre was ours, and with it more than 11,000 prisoners. British casualties numbered fewer than 500. The port had been badly demolished and tonnage did not begin moving through it until 9 October. In any case, Supreme Headquarters allotted it for the maintenance of the American armies. This decision the British did not much regret, as it was already so far behind their front.3

General Crerar's Army was now dispersed along a front of more than 200 miles, as the armoured formations of the 2nd Canadian Corps, leaving the infantry divisions to contain the by-passed ports, swept on in pursuit. During the first days of September the 1st Polish and 4th Canadian Armoured Divisions had crossed the Somme with the aid of the indefatigable Engineers and leaped forward into Belgium. About Bruges heavy German resistance was again encountered. The armour had collided here with the defences of the river approaches to Antwerp, on which the enemy intended to fight his hardest. Simultaneously, the 2nd Division had resumed its place in the advance and was now probing the outer defences of Dunkirk. This town was held by the enemy, as were Calais and Boulogne, both of which were invested by the 3rd Canadian Division.

The Canadians had now occupied the Pas de Calais, and in doing so had scotched one of the nastiest of Hitler's weapons. Since 13 June the


enemy had been discharging flying bombs (V-is) from this area against London, and had caused heavy loss of life and still -heavier damage to property. This, London's second great ordeal of the war, ended on 6 September when General Spry's men chased the Germans from the launching-sites. No other achievement of the Canadian Army ever gave the Canadian soldier such solid satisfaction as this one. A few flying bombs were launched from aircraft there after, but this menace never attained serious proportions. On 8 September, however, the first V-2 rocket, fired from Holland, fell in London's outskirts, and this bombardment continued sporadically until almost the end of the war with Germany.4 Another and longer German campaign against the people of south-eastern England was drawing to a close; the heavily-fortified batteries of long-range guns near Calais, which had dropped shells in and around Dover since August 1940, now redoubled their fire as their crews saw the writing on the wall.

There was some discussion before First Canadian Army received firm orders for its operations against the ports. For a time it was intended to attack Dunkirk; but by 15 September Army Headquarters had been told that Dunkirk was merely to be masked and by-passed. Thereafter some thought was given to the possibility of doing the same with Calais. The Navy, however, argued that the guns around that place would interfere with the use of the harbour of Boulogne, and the decision was that the 3rd Division would take on Calais after it had dealt with Boulogne. General Foulkes' Division was moved up to the Antwerp area, being replaced before Dunkirk first by the 4th Special Service Brigade, then by a brigade of the Highland Division and finally by the 1st Czechoslovak Independent. Armoured Brigade Group, the latest recruit to General Crerar's international team, which included or had included English, Scottish, Polish, Belgian and Dutch formations in addition to its core of three Canadian Divisions and Canadian corps and army troops.5

The Capture of Boulogne and Calais

The attack on Boulogne (Operation WELLHIT) was held up by the necessity of waiting for the special assault equipment used at Le Havre, and subsequently by delay in completing joint planning with the R.A.F.


Armoured Division, including the now ubiquitous Canadian Kangaroos, and the artillery of two divisions (their own and the 51 Bomber Command. But the air questions were adjusted by a conference with air, commanders at Versailles on 15 September, and by the 17th all ws ready. That morning the men of the 3rd Canadian Division's 8th and 9th Brigades--veterans now, with the D Day landings and the Caen and Falaise battles to look back upon--advanced against the enemy's works. They had plenty of support: in the air, the heavies of Bomber Command and the medium bombers of the 2nd Tactical Air Force; on the ground, the assault vehicles of the 79thst) and of the 9th (British) and 2nd Canadian Army Groups Royal Artillery. In addition, the huge guns on the English coast near Dover chimed in, firing with air observation on batteries near Calais which might interfere with our attack (and scoring, be it said with respect, a direct hit on one of the German 16-inch guns at a range of about 42,000 yards).6

Boulogne was strong, for the Germans had supplemented its old forts with new concrete; high hills just outside the town afforded good defensive positions; and the enemy had plenty of artillery. Luckily, however, his defences had mainly faced seaward until a few weeks before the attack, when he hastily began to improve them on the land side; and the quality and morale of the 10,000-man garrison were not high. The complete reduction of the position took six days. The attack by 690 aircraft of Bomber Command on 17 September was extraordinarily impressive. Directed at five successive targets, it went on throughout the morning. An officer who watched the scene wrote:

The day was clear and sunny, though not wholly unclouded; beyond Boulogne we could see the Channel and, very faint on the distant horizon, the white line that marked the coast of England. The arrival of a wave of bombers was heralded in each case by two Pathfinder planes which dropped indicator flares. Within a minute or two thereafter the bombers were seen arriving, in most instances from the north-east. They did not manoeuvre, but moved straight over the target at a very considerable height, meeting very little anti-aircraft fire. As the bombs burst, they raised tremendous clouds of brown and black smoke, which at times wholly covered" the high ground about the targets. It was an awesome sight, and it was hard to believe that any enemy troops could remain alive in the target areas.

Nevertheless, the German commandant, Lt.-Gen. Heim, later testified that the bombing caused few casualties and had little effect on permanent defences; and when our infantry went forward (which they did the moment the last bomb fell on the first target, the area of the fortified height of Mont Lambert east of Boulogne) the enemy positions


immediately opened fire and clearing them was a lengthy business.

The natural strength of the ground and the activity of the German artillery were the chief factors slowing our progress. By the evening of the 18th, in spite of these things, we had fought our way across the River Liane, which divides the built-up area of Boulogne in two. The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders had captured the walled and moated Citadel in a manner worthy of a Dumas romance. While a company commander (Major J. G. Stothart) was planning the attack, a French civilian approached and offered to guide him through a "secret tunnel" leading into the heart of the citadel. Stothart with one platoon promptly plunged into the tunnel and appeared in the middle of the fort, behind the astonished defenders, at about the same moment at which two engineer assault vehicles blew in the gate. "At once a host of white flags waved from the walls". The centre of the enemy's position was now clear, but individual strongpoints fought on in isolation. The last of these, on the coast north and south of the town, surrendered only on 22 September. Boulogne yielded in all over 9500 prisoners; the severity of the fighting was reflected in the attackers' casualties, which amounted to 634--chiefly caused by the enemy's persistent and accurate shellfire. He had demolished the harbour extensively, and we could not begin using it until 12 October.

While Boulogne was being reduced, Calais and the nearby batteries at Sangatte and Cape Gris Nez were masked and blockaded.7 General Spry then turned his attention to these other objectives. The general plan of the Calais operation ("Undergo") was the same as for Boulogne: an attack by two infantry brigades (the 7th and 8th) very strongly supported from the air and by armour and artillery. All the support that had been used at Boulogne was now diverted to Calais and in addition two regiments of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade were available. The operation was complicated by the fact that the city's land fronts were almost entirely covered by large flooded areas; the only high dry ground lay close along the shore and was barred by the heavy coastal defences.

The attack began on 25 September, following the now welltested pattern: a shattering bombing attack and artillery bombardment followed closely by assault by armour and infantry. The 8th Brigade went for the cross-Channel batteries in the area from Sangatte to Cape Blanc Nez, west of Calais, while the 7th assailed the town itself from the south. Progress was slow but steady. All resistance in the battery positions ended on the 26th; and the 7th Brigade reached the coast west of the town and began fighting its way in from this direction. On 27 September, after further bombing, the old forts of Lapin and Nieulay


surrendered to the Canadian Scottish and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles respectively. Further south the Regina Rifle Regiment attacked straight across the flooded area; the water obstacles, their diarist remarked, "were surmounted by the simple expedients of swimming, wading, using canvas boats and by travelling Tarzan-like across on ropes".

On the evening of the 28th Lt.-Col. Schroeder, the enemy commander, asked for a parley. General Spry met his envoys near Guines, and they made the somewhat surprising request that Calais be declared an open city. On being refused, they asked for a forty eight hour truce to evacuate the civilian inhabitants. Twenty-four hours, however, was considered enough for this purpose, and this period Spry granted. This proved to be an excellent piece of business for the attackers. The cessation of bombing and shelling was apparently so pleasant to the German troops that they had no stomach for the resumption of fighting. When the attack began again at noon on the 30th, with the Queen's Own Rifles and the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa pushing in from the east and the 7th Brigade from the west, resistance immediately began to crumble. The last enemy fighting men in Calais were mopped up on 1 October. Over 7000 prisoners had been taken at a cost of fewer than 300 casualties to our own forces.

On 29 September, moreover, the 9th Brigade had attacked and taken with relatively little trouble the batteries on Cape Gris Nez, the promontory, some twelve miles south-west of Calais, where the continent makes its closest approach to Britain. This independent position yielded some 1600 more prisoners. With them came the assurance that the shelling of south-eastern England, which had gone on for forty-nine months, was finally and utterly at an end. The occupation of the Pas de Calais had come none too soon; for as Mr. Churchill subsequently announced the enemy had been preparing there multiple artillery installations of a new type which would have done infinitely more damage than his gun batteries. "Only just in time did the Allied Armies blast the viper in his nest".

The Thrust to Arnhem

While the Canadians were reducing the Channel ports, British and American troops had been engaged in an epic struggle in southern Holland.

The Supreme Commander's general strategic policy was, he explains in his report, "to attack north-eastward in the greatest strength possible", striking his main blow on the 21st Army Group front. Troops of the First U.S. Army had actually entered Germany north-west of Trier on 11 September, but it was not intended to make a major effort on the American front (where supply difficulties were at their worst) for


the moment. An attack across the Lower Rhine into the North German plain appeared the most rewarding line of operation: "it seemed probable that through rapidity of exploitation both the Siegfried Line and the Rhine River might be crossed and strong bridgeheads established before the enemy could recover sufficiently to make a definite stand in the Arnhem area." Thereafter, as soon as Antwerp was usable, the invasion of Germany in strength could begin. With this programme in view, the First Allied Airborne Army was placed at General Montgomery's disposal, and three U.S. divisions were "grounded" to give additional administrative support to his operations.

The rights and wrongs of this strategy will doubtless long be debated by military students. Viscount Montgomery, in his book Normandy to the Baltic, relates that he had urged the Supreme Commander to strengthen the 21st Army Group further, and to deliver with it "one, powerful full-blooded thrust across the Rhine and into the heart of Germany, backed by the whole of the resources of the Allied Armies". He says that General Eisenhower preferred, however, a "broad front policy", closing up to the Rhine on a wide front, establishing bridgeheads if and where possible, and postponing operations further east until Antwerp was open. General Patton's posthumously-published narrative8 complains of the results of the decision to divert so much strength to the support of the 21st Army Group thrust. Had he himself been given enough gasoline and ammunition, Patton argues, his Third Army could have pushed on and crossed the Rhine in very short order. This competition between Allied generals for administrative resources of course stemmed directly from our lack of ports and the length of our lines of communication. Deciding the best use to make of his limited means, in these circumstances, was one of the Supreme Commander's hardest tasks. Viscount Montgomery's former Chief of Staff, Major-General Sir Francis de Guingand, has argued, in Operation Victory, that Eisenhower's "broad front" policy was in fact the wisest possible. Our concern here is not to contribute to this discussion but merely to record what took place.

The Second Army had entered Holland on 12 September south of Eindhoven. The plan now was to lay, in Field-Marshal Montgomery's phrase, "a carpet of airborne troops" across the succession of waterways separating General Dempsey's men from the North German plain: the largest being the Maas and the two main branches of the Rhine--the Waal and the Neder Rijn (also called the Lek). Along this carpet or corridor stretching away through Eindhoven, Grave, Nijmegen and Arnhem, the Second Army was to roll, joining up with the airborne formations, making the ground secure and establishing beyond Arnhem


a bridgehead across the Ijssel facing east. Thereafter the Field Marshal envisaged an advance by the Second Army to Hamm, and a thrust "southwards along the eastern face of the Ruhr" which in conjunction with an offensive by the First U.S. Army would encircle that great industrial area. For the attack across the rivers the 101st and 82nd U.S. Airborne Divisions were to drop in the areas about Eindhoven and Grave respectively, while the 1st British Airborne Division was destined for the more distant objective, Arnhem. The great enterprise (Operation MARKET GARDEN) was to be launched on 17 September, the earliest possible date. Speed was of the essence, for already stiffening German resistance indicated the beginnings of recovery.

The results of the operation are well known. We seized and held the crossing of the Maas at Grave, and the great road-bridge across the Waal at Nijmegen; but at Arnhem we met with a glorious failure. The enemy was stronger in the area than we had expected--particularly in armour--and moreover reinforced his troops there with great speed. Persistent bad weather favoured him and hampered our air forces. Repeated attacks on the narrow corridor from Eindhoven to Nijmegen harassed our movement to the north. The result was that effective contact was never made with the 1st Airborne Division, fighting so gallantly on the far side of the Neder Rijn. On the night of 25-26 September the survivors of the Division were withdrawn across the river, many of the assault boats that did the perilous ferrying being manned by Canadian engineers. The operation had been successful to the extent of an advance of about fifty miles; we now held a long salient, culminating in the "island" beyond the Nijmegen bridge, which was to be very useful to us in due course; but it had not achieved its great object. After Arnhem it gradually became clear that we were not to win the German war in 1944. We had to look forward to a hard winter campaign, and probably a spring campaign thereafter. In these circumstances the speedy opening of Antwerp remained a matter of the very greatest importance.


Map: The Pursuit and the Channel Ports, August-September 1944
The Pursuit and the Channel Ports, August-September 1944


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