The Campaign in North-West Europe:
The Battle of the Scheldt and the Winter on the Maas,
September 1944-February 1945
The Plan for Opening the Scheldt
The great port of Antwerp is some fifty miles from the sea as the crow flies. For a dozen miles below the city the River Scheldt is narrow; then, as it passes from Belgian into Dutch territory and turns west towards the sea, it widens. On the north side of this broad estuary is the long, low peninsula of South Beveland, once an island but now joined to the mainland by an isthmus carrying a road and a railway. Beyond South Beveland and joined to it by a narrow causeway lies the island of Walcheren, which completely commands the mouth of the river. The south side of the estuary is mainland. The whole countryside is almost as flat as a billiardtable. Much of it is reclaimed ("polder") land protected from the sea by dykes, and the roads in general are raised above the damp fields on causeways. The Germans had done much fortifying, and Walcheren especially was one of the strongest areas in the world.
The situation in the last week of September 1944 was that we held the city of Antwerp, though the enemy was still very, close to it on the north; and the Scheldt's south bank was in our hands as far as the inlet known as the Braakman (invariably but inaccurately called at the time "Savojaards Plaat").1 Westward from here to the mouth of the Scheldt, almost round to Zeebrugge, the enemy was still in possession. He was covered against attack from the south and west by artificial water-lines. Two canals, the Leopold Canal and the Canal de Dérivation de la Lys, run side by side here for a dozen miles from the sea, making a very effective moat for the Germans' position; the former, swinging back almost to the southern point of the Braakman, completed the protection of their pocket, the land front of which was about 25 miles long. On 13 September the 4th Armoured Division, now commanded by Major-General H. W. Foster, had sought to advance across the canals. The Algonquin Regiment established a bridgehead north-east of Bruges, but met the fiercest resistance imaginable and after suffering very heavy losses had to withdraw next day. The 1st British Corps had been brought
up from the Le Havre area and with it the First Canadian Army had taken over the Antwerp sector, freeing General Dempsey's hands for the Arnhem battle. The 2nd Canadian Division began to move in here on 16 September and came under General Crocker's command. The Polish Armoured Division, which had cleared the south bank of the Scheldt to the Braakman, was also moved over to the right flank, and at the end of September the 4th Canadian Armoured Division was patrolling the whole front south of the river while preparations for the clearing operation went on behind it. For some time past active planning had been in progress at Headquarters First Canadian Army in consultation with the naval and air forces, and a basic plan was ready by 23 September. General Crerar, however, was not able to see this operation through. Illness compelled him to return to the United Kingdom for treatment on the 27. Throughout the Scheldt operations Lieutenant-General Simonds acted as G.O.C.-in-C. First Canadian Army, and Major-General Foulkes as G.O.C. 2 Canadian Corps. General Foulkes' place at the 2 Division was taken by Brigadier R. H. Keefler.
The plan for freeing the estuary envisaged four main tasks. The first was to clear the area north of Antwerp and close the eastern end of the South Beveland isthmus; this was to be done by the 2nd Canadian Division. The second was to clear the pocket behind the Leopold Canal; this was the business of the 3rd Canadian Division and was known as Operation SWITCHBACK. Thirdly, when SWITCHBACK had been completed, the 2nd Division would attack along the isthmus to take South Beveland (Operation VARSITY). The fourth and last phase would be the capture of Walcheren Island (Operation INFATUATE). It had been proposed to use airborne forces against South Beveland and Walcheren, but General Brereton, commanding the First Allied Airborne Army, argued that the terrain was unsuitable for an "airborne task" and the Supreme Commander supported him.
Closing the South Beveland Isthmus
The 2nd Division's advance to the isthmus leading to South Beveland proved to be no easy matter. In the beginning, it is true, things went well. On 22 September the Division had secured a bridgehead over the Albert Canal immediately east of Antwerp. The next formidable obstacle to the north was the Antwerp--Turnhout Canal; and bridgeheads over it were likewise acquired, after sharp fighting, by the joint efforts of the 2nd and 49th Divisions. By the beginning of October the 2nd Division was firmly established on a line running from Merxem in the northern outskirts of Antwerp north-easterly along the north bank of the canal. From this base it now jumped off in the direction of the isthmus, reverting about the same time from the 1st British to the 2nd Canadian
Corps. German resistance was not particularly fierce (one prisoner quoted a battalion commander as saying, recalling the retreat from Normandy, "You can't turn a hare into a porcupine") and good progress was made until 8 October, by which time Brigadier W. J. Megill's 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade were very close to the isthmus. Now the opposition abruptly stiffened; the enemy had thrown in four battalions of his redoubtable paratroopers to bar our way.
The bitterest kind of fighting followed. No written record can do justice to the situation which confronted our troops in this area. Securely dug in on the further slopes of the dykes about the village of Woensdrecht and the embankment that carries the railway across the isthmus, the paratroopers waited coolly for successive Canadian attacks across the open, flooded fields before them. The 5th Brigade suffered very heavily; one battalion, the Canadian Black Watch, lost all its rifle company commanders in a single day (13 October). But our infantry persisted. On 10 October we got a footing upon the embankment on the isthmus west of Woensdrecht, but the bottle was not yet corked. The enemy continued to counter-attack most violently, and while he gained little ground he prevented us from improving our positions. On the morning of the 16th the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry finally captured Woensdrecht and held it against further furious counter-attacks. Although the situation was now better in hand, the 2nd Division required assistance to enable it to obtain that secure control of the area without which it could not start across the isthmus towards South Beveland.
On 16 October Field-Marshal Montgomery issued new instructions to his Army Commanders. These directed a regrouping designed to bring larger forces to bear on the great task of freeing the Scheldt. The directive ran in part as follows:
The free use of the port of Antwerp is vital to the Allied cause, and we must be able to use the port soon.
Operations designed to open the port will therefore be given complete priority over all other offensive operations in 21 Army Group, without any qualification whatsoever.
The immediate task of opening up the approaches to the port of Antwerp is already being undertaken by Canadian Army and good progress has been made.
The whole of the available offensive power of Second Army will now be brought to bear also.
I must impress on Army Commanders that the early use of Antwerp is absolutely vital. The operations now ordered by me must be begun at the earliest possible moment; they must be pressed with the greatest energy and determination; and we must accept heavy casualties to get quick success.
Briefly, the effect of this directive was that Dempsey was to take over the right sector of the line then held by Simonds, and, closing down all other offensive operations, launch a westward drive designed to clear
THE NIJMEGEN BRIDGE
From a painting by Capt. D. A. Colville
the Germans out of the area south of the Maas from 's Hertogenbosch westwards. The Canadian Army, its line thus shortened, was to push its right forward to clear the country north of the Beveland isthmus.
These orders soon took effect. By the time Dempsey's offensive got under way on 22 October, the 1st British Corps, still forming the Canadian Army's right wing, had already made good progress. General Crocker had been given the 4th Canadian Armoured Division to help him, and retained the Polish Armoured Division and the 49th Division. In addition, the 104th United States Division (the first American formation to serve under First Canadian Army) came under his command on 23 October. On the 22nd the Canadian armour captured Esschen, about eight miles north-east of Woensdrecht. This advance shook loose the Germans in the latter area. On the 23rd it was finally reported that the isthmus was completely sealed, and next day the 2nd Division began the advance against South Beveland.
Clearing the Breskens Pocket
While the bitter struggle went on at the entrance to the Beveland peninsula there had been equally fierce fighting along the Scheldt's southern shore. Here the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, abandoning the role of siege warfare which it had sustained so successfully along the Pas de Calais, turned to the dirty and onerous business of "polder" fighting.
The scheme for the reduction of the enemy's positions behind the Leopold Canal centring on his coastal defences about the little port of Breskens was as follows. A frontal attack was to be delivered by the 7th Brigade (now commanded by Brigadier J. G. Spragge) across the canal just east of the point where it separated from the Canal de Dérivation de la Lys. The 8th Brigade-would then pass through the 7th and assist in exploitation. Thereafter, Brigadier J. M. Rockingham's 9th Brigade would make an amphibious assault against the rear of the enemy pocket, crossing the Braakman ("Savojaards Plaat") from the vicinity of Terneuzen and landing north of Biervliet.
The Leopold Canal is not broad, but the high tree-lined dykes containing it made it a dangerous obstacle, and the enemy was known to be well dug in on the further side. It was decided that the best expedient for clearing-the way for the assault was the use of massed flamethrowers. In the early morning of 6 October, accordingly, 27 "Wasps", which had been brought up during the night, opened their searing bombardment against the far bank; and immediately two battalions of the 7th Brigade flung assault boats into the canal and paddled across. The flame (a weapon especially feared by the enemy) had momentarily demoralized the defenders, and the Canadian Scottish and the Regina
Rifles both established footholds on the north side of the canal. But the Germans recovered quickly. Particularly heavy machine-gun fire came down from the left, and a most bloody struggle set in. The enemy counter-attacked fiercely, and mortar and small arms fire was incessant. On 7 October the Royal Winnipeg Rifles crossed the canal to assist, but the two original battalion bridgeheads were not linked up until early on the 9th. Even now, "in places the bridgehead was little deeper than the northern canal bank". The pocket south of the Scheldt was held by one of the best German formations the Canadians had met, Major-General Eberding's 64th Infantry Division. Only after the 9th Brigade's waterborne thrust had had its due effect could the Leopold Canal bridgehead be properly developed and Bailey bridges thrown across the canal.
The 9th Brigade operation, originally scheduled for 8 October, was postponed for a day by damage to locks of the canal up which the amphibious vehicles ("Buffaloes") had to swim from Ghent to Terneuzen. The Buffaloes were manned by the 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers and a unit of the 79th Armoured Division. The leading battalions, the Highland Light Infantry of Canada and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, set out on their five-mile voyage shortly after midnight and touched down soon after two o'clock. The foe was completely surprised and there was little opposition until dawn; but counter-attacks then set in, heavy shells began to arrive from the directions of Breskens and Flushing, and the bridgehead was enlarged only by hard fighting. "The enemy fought tenaciously, launching one counter-attack after another with great determination. These were not the garrison troops of Boulogne or Cape Gris Nez, but soldiers of a highly trained field division. The enemy dashed along the ditches, bouncing out here and there over the culverts, greatcoats flapping, and wearing full equipment." Nevertheless, these energetic Germans were steadily pushed back, and the situation was much more satisfactory than in the other bridgehead along the Leopold Canal. Accordingly, advantage was taken of the flexibility of the original plan, and the 8th Brigade was put in behind the 9th instead of behind the 7th.
In the meantime the 4th Canadian Armoured Division's 10th Infantry Brigade had taken a hand. The Algonquin Regiment fought its way into the enemy pocket through the narrow land gap between the east end of the Leopold Canal and the head of the Braakman Inlet, and subsequently the Argyll and Sutherlands crossed the canal itself east of the original bridgehead. The aim was now to link up the 8th and 9th Brigades with the 10th. This was effected on 14 October when the Queen's Own Rifles from the north made contact with the Algonquins.
The east side had been carved off the pocket and a land route opened around the end of the Leopold Canal which did away with the need for continued ferry service across the Braakman from Terneuzen.
Furthermore, thanks to the reduction of pressure resulting from the amphibious operation, the Leopold bridgehead now began to expand and on 14 October a few tanks got across the canal. The 52nd (Lowland) Division had come under the 2nd Canadian Corps and on 18 October one of its brigades, temporarily under General Spry's orders, began to relieve the 7th Brigade north of the Leopold. The next day the Lowlanders made contact with the Canadians coming from the northeast. After nearly a fortnight's effort, the pocket had been reduced to little more than half of its original extent. But the vital coast defences at Breskens and west of it were still in German hands, and what remained of the 64th Division was still fighting hard.
The liquidation of the rest of the pocket now proceeded. Breskens fell on 22 October after heavy artillery and air bombardment; but Fort Frederik Hendrik, an ancient moated stronghold just to the west, which the Germans had strengthened with concrete, held out for three days more. Oostburg, intended by Eberding as a pivot position on which to hinge a gradual retirement, was seized on the 26th, and the enemy was forced back into his last refuge, the waterlogged area around the sea end of the Leopold Canal. Here, near Knocke-sur-Mer, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders captured Eberding on 1 November, and on 3 November all resistance ended. The hardhitting 64th Division had been entirely destroyed. Since the first crossing of the Leopold Canal we had taken 12,707 prisoners in the pocket. The enemy had been cleared from the last corner of Belgium, the first occupied nation of western Europe to be completely liberated; and the south shore of the Scheldt was free.
SWITCHBACK had been no ordinary operation. The enemy had been uncommonly skilful and determined, and the terrain uncommonly difficult and nasty. Flooded fields and dyke roads had precluded any considerable use of tanks; but artillery and air support were heavy and invaluable. All arms and services had fought and worked like Trojans. Not least important was the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, which maintained supply in spite of driving conditions described with restraint as "perhaps the poorest we have ever faced". On one occasion, it was reported, an N.C.O. in charge of a convoy reconnoitred ahead of his trucks in a rowboat! But the credit for the victory lay, above all, with the infantry soldier, whose dogged determination had carried him onward through mud, water and fire to dislodge the stubborn foe.
The Taking of South Beveland and Walcheren
We must now return to the north side of the Scheldt and the 2nd Canadian Division. By 23 October, we have seen, this formation was in a position to attack along the isthmus towards. South Beveland; while progress south of the river had been such as to remove the possibility of
interference by enemy guns from that shore. The plan was for the 2nd Division to thrust along the isthmus and obtain bridgeheads over the formidable Beveland Canal, which cuts across the peninsula from north to south. This advance was to be coordinated with an amphibious assault delivered west of the canal from the south side of the Scheldt.
The 4th Infantry Brigade began the advance along the isthmus on 24 October. The main road and the one secondary one had been badly broken up, and the ground off the roads was flooded. Nevertheless, an advance of two-and-a half miles was made this day, and by the 27th the Division had reached the banks of the Beveland Canal. That night the assault boats went into the water and the 6th Brigade2 established bridgeheads at two points. At a third, very heavy enemy shelling prevented a crossing. The engineers immediately set about bridging the 300-foot canal. Already British troops of the 52nd Division had made their waterborne assault in Buffaloes across the Scheldt from Terneuzen, landing west of the canal on the morning of the 26th and making their lodgement good. This diversion weakened the enemy's resistance to the Canadian advance from the canal and on the 29th British and Canadians linked up. The technique of SWITCHBACK had been repeated, and with like success. The rest of the peninsula was now cleared very rapidly; by the morning of 31 October South Beveland was ours, save for a tiny enemy bridgehead at the east end of the causeway leading to Walcheren. The 8th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment had in the meantime passed a squadron across on Dutch barges to the neighbouring island of North Beveland, where it conducted a "private war" and picked up nearly 500 prisoners.
With the south shore already virtually clear, there remained one great obstacle to our use of the port of Antwerp: the island of Walcheren. Its name was ill-omened, for it had been the scene of a famous British military reverse during the wars against Napoleon. And even isolated as it now was, it seemed likely to be a very hard nut to crack. Its defences, we have said, were extremely strong, and the only land approach was the straight and narrow causeway from South Beveland. This was singularly uninviting. Over half a mile long and less than a hundred yards wide; a brick-paved road, very badly cratered, three or four feet above the surrounding tidal flats; a single-line railway track two or three feet higher; the inevitable Dutch bicycle-path; and a row of telegraph poles--that was the causeway. To make matters worse, it was found that there was not enough water over the flats, even at high tide, to permit of an assault in storm boats; yet the flats were too saturated for movement on foot, and there were too many runnels to
allow tracked amphibious "Weasels" to operate.
The position of the Germans on Walcheren, however, was already considerably the worse for the activities of the R.A.F. The island, it may be explained, is shaped like an enormous saucer; almost the whole of the interior is below sea-level, the only higher ground being around the edges. Through the centuries the industrious Dutch have filled the gaps in this higher ground, constructing massive dykes. At the island's western point the Westkapelle Dyke, 330 feet wide at its base, excluded the waters of the North Sea. During September General Simonds had formed the opinion that this and other dykes could be breached by bombing. Some of the experts were dubious, but Simonds argued that there was little to lose and much to gain by trying, and on 3 October the experiment was made by the R.A.F. Bomber Command at Westkapelle. That evening the sea was observed to be flowing in through a 75-yard gap. Further attacks followed, at the same and other points. Ultimately the Westkapelle gap was 380 yards wide, and the island had returned to its natural state, with the whole central region covered with salt water. What a blow this was to the inhabitants can be imagined. What mattered at the moment, however, was the blow dealt the enemy. Some of his defences were flooded, and though the most formidable batteries were on higher ground they were isolated by the waters and the Germans' movements generally were most seriously hampered. We, on the other hand, were offered the prospect of free use of our invaluable amphibious vehicles, and it was at least partly due to them that operations on Walcheren moved more rapidly than those south of the Scheldt, where there had been a great deal of miserably wet ground but little water deep enough to permit the use of amphibians.
Walcheren was to be attacked from three directions: across the causeway from the east; across the Scheldt from the south; and in the west by a force landed from the sea. The two latter attacks were to go in on 1 November; the causeway attack was to be delivered as soon as the causeway was reached.
During 31 October the Royal Regiment of Canada liquidated the little German pocket at the causeway's eastern end, and the Canadian Black Watch then attacked along the causeway itself. There was heavy opposition and particularly deadly mortar fire, but early in the afternoon it was reported that the Black Watch were only 75 yards from the west end. That night the Calgary Highlanders passed through and after much trouble established a shallow bridgehead. But in the face of continued resolute opposition they could not enlarge it; and that evening a sudden violent counter-attack threw them out of it and back some distance along the causeway. On 2 November Le Régiment de Maisonneuve took over and reestablished the bridgehead, but enemy resistance continued to be bitter, heavy shelling supplementing machine-gun and mortar fire.
The Maisonneuves handed over their foothold the same day to the 52nd Division, and after being continuously engaged since leaving Dieppe the 2nd Canadian Division was withdrawn to rest. Since 29 September, when it crossed the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal, the Division had captured over 5200 Germans and killed great numbers more. Its own casualties--207 officers and 3443 other ranks--testified sufficiently to the fierceness of the fighting it had seen.
The two waterborne attacks on Walcheren, though directed, like the rest of the operations, by First Canadian Army, were carried out by British forces. After R.A.F. bombing No. 4 Commando crossed the Scheldt from Breskens, covered by artillery fire and by the salvoes of an experimental Canadian rocket unit, and landed at the port of Flushing before daylight on 1 November in the face of only moderate opposition. It was followed by a brigade of the Lowland Division. By nightfall much of the town was in our.hands. The operation here was substantially aided by our counter-battery fire from across the river; General Daser, the commander of the 70th German Division which defended Walcheren, said later (perhaps with some exaggeration) that every coast-defence gun on the south side of the island had been put out of action by this fire or by flooding or bombing.
The Westkapelle landing was a different matter. The batteries here were not so vulnerable to our guns on the Breskens shore; and the scale of the heavy bomber attacks delivered against them had evidently been insufficient to "neutralize" the positions. It was clear to General Simonds before the assault that it was likely to be costly, but the overmastering importance of opening Antwerp at the earliest possible moment (so clearly stated in Field-Marshal Montgomery's directive of 16 October) led him to order it to proceed. The naval and military commanders afloat were authorized to cancel the operation at the last moment if conditions were too unfavourable; but they resolved to deliver the attack in spite of the fact that the weather made close air support, or air observation for the bombarding squadron, impossible at the outset. The peril was enhanced by the fact that the state of the tide made it necessary to assault in daylight.
The commanders' decisions were justified by the success of the operation. The cost, however, was heavy. Every known enemy battery in the assault area came into action as the flotillas approached. The brunt was borne by the converted landing craft of the gun support squadron, which stood close inshore and valiantly engaged these batteries point-blank. Of 25 support craft engaged, nine were sunk and eight damaged, and there were 372 casualties among the crews. But the Commandos got ashore, aided by a timely and skilful attack by R.A.F. Typhoons; and as they began to advance along the dykes the fall of
Walcheren became only a question of time.
On the eastern side of the island the Lowland Division had had no better luck than the Canadians in expanding the causeway bridgehead. They accordingly attempted an assault across the flats south of the causeway on the night of 2-3 November. A battalion of Cameronians struggled over and secured a foothold which was steadily enlarged thereafter and linked up with the causeway bridgehead on the 4th. On 6 November Middelburg, the island capital, fell and General Daser surrendered. On 8 November the 52nd Division reported that all organized resistance on W alcheren had ceased at noon. The last Germans on the island were rounded up next day. The Navy had already begun the heavy task of clearing the Scheldt of mines.
On 28 November an historic ceremony took place at Antwerp, when the first Allied convoy came up the Scheldt and entered the port. Curiously enough, no one had thought of inviting an official representative of the Canadian Army, but the convoy's leading ship was the Canadian-built "Fort Cataraqui". One of the world's great harbours was now available to serve as an advanced base for the Allied armies in the forthcoming campaign. On 1 December, 10,000 tons of stores were discharged through it. In the view of the Supreme Commander, this was the greatest climax of the operations of the First Canadian Army. "The end of Naziism was in clear view", he said in Ottawa on 10 January 1946, "when the first ship moved unmolested up the Scheldt".
From 1 October through 8 November a total of 41,043 prisoners had been taken on the Army front. The Army's own casualties of all nationalities for the same period were reported as 703 officers and 12,170 other ranks, killed, wounded and missing. Of these, 355 officers and 6012 other ranks were Canadians.3 Such was the cost of opening Antwerp. On 3 November Field-Marshal Montgomery wrote to General Simonds:
Now that the operations designed to give us the free use of the port of Antwerp are nearly completed, I want to express to you personally and to all commanders and troops in the Canadian Army, my admiration for the way in which you have all carried out the very difficult task given to you.
The operations were conducted under the most appalling conditions of ground--and water--and the advantage in these respects favoured the enemy. But in spite of great difficulties you slowly and relentlessly wore down the enemy resistance, drove him back, and captured great numbers of prisoners.
It has been a fine performance, and one that could have been carried out
only by first class troops.
The Canadian Army is composed of troops from many different nations and countries. But the way in which you have all pulled together, and operated as one fighting machine, has been an inspiration to us all.
The Watch On the Maas
While the 2nd Canadian Corps freed the Scheldt, the 1st British Corps on its right was clearing the country up to the Maas River. On 27 October the 4th Canadian Armoured Division liberated Bergen op Zoom; on the 29th the Poles took Breda; and on 9 November resistance south of the main stream of the Maas ended. With the immediate essential objectives in the coastal area in our hands, and a broad water barrier in front of us, it was now possible to regroup, holding this leftward sector with comparatively weak forces and shifting the strength of the 21st Army Group over to the right for offensive operations into Germany. On 9 November, accordingly--the same day on which General Crerar returned to his command--the 2nd Canadian Corps took over the Nijmegen salient from the Second Army.4 The First Canadian Army front now ran from close to the German frontier south of Nijmegen round through the Dutch islands to Dunkirk--a distance of over 200 miles.
There now ensued the only static period the Army knew during the campaign in North-West Europe. For almost exactly three months Crerar's troops carried out no major operation. Attention was concentrated on holding securely the ground we had gained and, above all, on planning and preparing the great final offensive which was to be launched from that ground in due course. In this connection particular importance attached to the Nijmegen area and the "island" which we still held here north of the Waal between Nijmegen and Arnhem. The question which Allied leaders were now beginning to ask was, would the enemy fight his main battle for Germany west of the Rhine, or would he choose what they considered much the wiser course, retire over that river and force us to attack across it in the face of his unbroken armies? In either case the Nijmegen salient was vital. In the former, it offered a base between Maas and Rhine from which an attack could be launched against the enemy's flank: in the latter, it gave us a foothold beyond the main stream of the Rhine from which we could assault across the lesser branch to turn the German position.
The Germans were not blind to these facts, and they soon tried to flood us out of the "island". On 2 December they cut the dykes on the south side of the Neder Rijn at Arnhem. Extensive flooding followed, the extent of the island was considerably reduced, and a large portion of
Battle of the Scheldt, October-November 1944
the garrison was withdrawn in accordance with plans we had made for this eventuality. But we kept our foothold north of the Waal, and retained the great Nijmegen bridge; and when enemy paratroopers made a fierce attack on what remained of the island on 4 December they were "seen off" by the 49th Division with heavy losses.
On 2 November Field-Marshal Montgomery had instructed the First Canadian Army to begin planning for both possible eventualities: an offensive south-eastward from Nijmegen between the Maas and the Rhine, and an assault across the Neder Rijn. At the same time the Second Army was ordered to clear forthwith the remaining enemy pocket west of the Maas in the Venlo area. This task was completed during the first week in December. Simultaneously (the flooding of the island having ruled out the Neder Rijn attack) the Canadian Army was warned that it was now intended to mount the drive between Maas and Rhine at an early date, and on 16 December a further directive indicated that it was to go in as soon after 1 January as possible. This scheme, however, was immediately postponed, for on the very day on which the directive was issued Rundstedt launched against the First U.S. Army his famous Ardennes offensive. This, like the equally celebrated stroke at Mortain in the previous August, was a personal project of Hitler's, undertaken, as Rundstedt later explained, over his own vigorous protest. In the end the Ardennes operation was perhaps as fatal for the Germans as that at Mortain. For the moment, however, it seriously disrupted our plans, and one effect was to postpone General Crerar's operation for five weeks, since the 30th British Corps, which was slated for a leading role in it, had to be moved southward to assist in countering Rundstedt's thrust.
Apart from the Forestry Corps companies that had been working in the Ardennes Forest, only one Canadian unit (the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which was brought in by sea with the 6th Airborne Division to help meet the crisis) actually took part in the desperate battle in the Belgian snows; but Crerar watched the situation on his own front narrowly, for our Intelligence staffs had detected signs that the enemy was planning another powerful thrust to be delivered across the lower Maas. On Christmas Eve the Army Commander moved the 4th Canadian Armoured Division to the Breda area, where it could be ready to meet such an offensive; and on the following day the 2nd Division (less one brigade) came into reserve near Nijmegen.5 The attack never materialized, but we now know that the precautions were justified. ColonelGeneral Kurt Student, the experienced and formidable commander of the German Army Group "H", has described the preparations he had made: the three infantry divisions, two parachute divisions and 150 armoured
vehicles that were to attack across the Maas; the parachute battalion, led by an officer who had taken part in the rescue of Mussolini, which was to drop among our artillery positions; the minor naval units that were to assail our shipping in the Scheldt. The objective was to be Antwerp. But the great scheme depended on the progress of the Ardennes offensive, and that was shortly stopped dead.
During the last days of this threat on the Maas there began one of the strangest episodes of the campaign. In a heavily waterlogged area north-east of Breda a subsidiary channel of the Maas forms along the river's south shore a long island, in the midst of which is a ferry crossing and harbour called Kapelsche Veer. Student, desiring as he has since explained to give training and battle inoculation to his young paratroopers, established on this desolate spot a tiny bridgehead in our territory, which he maintained by relieving the troops in it with a new company every three or four days. The Germans dug themselves in with remarkable thoroughness, and eliminating this foothold was a long, cold and costly business, involving attacking across open and snow-covered ground in the face of a determined enemy. The Poles tried it in the last days of December and again on 7 January 1945, both times without success. The 47th Royal Marine Commando, under Polish command, attacked the place on 13 and 14 January (Operation HORSE) with no better result. Finally the 4th Canadian Armoured Division mounted a very considerable attack (Operation ELEPHANT) against the position with ample artillery support and tanks; but there were five icy days of thoroughly nasty fighting--the phrase of the 10th Brigade's historian is "sheer misery"--before it was reported on 31 January that all enemy south of the Maas had been liquidated. The brunt was borne by the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, assisted by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and South Alberta Regiment tanks. The Germans had lost 145 killed, 64 wounded and 34 prisoners. The tough young paratroopers had received in the end a rather more severe lesson in thé art of war than Student had intended.
This was the finale of the "static" period of winter warfare. The Watch on the Maas had involved few operations on such a scale. It had however meant unremitting vigilance, constant patrolling (including many incursions across the river into enemy country) and frequent raids: all under the most wretched conditions of ground and weather. Now major operations under equally difficult circumstances were impending. Rundstedt's Ardennes thrust had been broken and his armoured reserves decimated, but the Germans showed no sign of withdrawing beyond the Rhine. With the 30th Corps again becoming available, active preparations for the offensive between Mass and Rhine were resumed; and on 8 February 1945 began the series of
battles which was to produce in three months' time the total downfall of the Third Reich.
The Crisis In Infantry Reinforcements
There is no space here to tell the full story of the extraordinarily complex problem of "reinforcements" (replacements for casualties) as it presented itself in the autumn of 1944. All that can be provided is a brief general outline of the main factors that produced a fundamental change in manpower policy in November of that year.
As we have already noted, the Canadian Government was armed from 1942 onward with full powers for general conscription, but held these in reserve. The men called up for compulsory service under the National Resources Mobilization Act were used for home defence, save for those employed in the Kiska operation and in other areas considered to lie within the North American zone. On 25 October 1944, there were 59,876 N.R.M.A. men serving, plus 8244 on extended leave. It should be noted that to the end of October 1944 a total of 41,945 other men called up under the N.R.M.A. had volunteered for general service in the Army, and 5734 more had gone to the other fighting services.
The stream of voluntary enlistments was now drying up, just as in the previous war: it had reached its flood in the critical month of June 1940 when enlistments numbered 29,309,6 but the last month in which the intake passed five figures was January 1943, when it was 12,079, and in October of 1944 there were--only 4956 general service enlistments from all sources (the public, the Reserve Army and transfers from N.R.M.A.) This state of things coincided in time with the violent fighting of the summer and autumn of 1944 in both Italy and North-West Europe, when for the first time the whole field army was engaged in active operations and battle casualties were being suffered on an unprecedented scale.
To make matters worse, these casualties fell more heavily upon the infantry than upon any other arm, and much more heavily than had ever been anticipated by Allied planners. War is an uncertain business, and the events of 1944 demonstrated that no phase of it is more uncertain than the task of calculating how many casualties will have to be replaced. Canada had founded her reinforcement calculations upon forecasts made by the British War Office on the basis of the best information available toit. These forecasts proved fallacious. So far as overall totals were concerned, it is true, the estimates accepted before the beginning of the Normandy campaign turned out to be pretty sound.
But the losses of the infantry were far higher, and those of other arms, including the Armoured Corps, considerably lower, than had been expected. The result was infantry reinforcement difficulties which were common to all the Western Allies. General Marshall, the United States Chief of Staff, speaks in his report of "the miscalculation after North Africa that resulted in too many men being trained for the armored forces, the artillery and special troops, and too few by far for the infantry". As for the British Army, the War Office was obliged in August 1944 to disband one infantry division and one additional brigade to provide infantry reinforcements for other formations. Another division was similarly disbanded in October.
The proportions of Canada's own problem were beginning to be apparent in August. On the 26th of that month, just after the Falaise Gap battle, the Chief of Staff at Canadian Military Headquarters (Lieutenant-General Stuart) cabled Ottawa that there was "a shortage of about 3000 general duty infantry in our 21 battalions in 21 Army Group". He was sending forward drafts totalling about 2000 from England within the next six days, and the problem, which he characterized as one of "detailed distribution" rather than of "general supply", was being dealt with by "remustering" and re-training men of other arms as infantry and by utilizing infantry tradesmen and specialists, of whom there was a surplus, for general duty. By early autumn, however, remustering was yielding smaller proceeds, while heavy casualties were continuing, and it was now evident that there was no ground for expecting the early collapse of Germany; we had to look forward to several more months' costly fighting. On the basis of this forecast and of new "rates of wastage" deriving from actual Canadian experience, staff calculations made at C.M.H.Q. in October indicated that between Italy and North-West Europe we might expect 22,207 infantry casualties by the end of the year. We then had in sight 18,341 infantry reinforcements from all sources (available overseas, expected arrivals from Canada and recovered wounded returning to the ranks). We thus faced the apparent prospect of an empty reinforcement pool and an actual deficiency of over 3800 men in our infantry battalions at 31 December. Further remustering shortly reduced this estimated future deficiency to 2380.7
ARTILLERY IN ACTION ON THE MAAS, JANUARY 1945
From a painting by Capt. B. J. Boback
The guns are self-propelled anti-tank guns (American-pattern 3-inch M-10 "tank destroyer")
of the 5PthP Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery (4PthP Canadian Armoured Division).
They are firing on enemy positions across the Maas north of s'Hertogenbosh.
On 2 June, just before the Normandy D Day, General Stuart, believing that there was "an excellent chance of our being able to finish the war with Germany on a voluntary basis", had advised against the extension of compulsory service. In the new circumstances which had arisen, he now considered that it was necessary, in order to re-establish the reinforcement pool, to draw upon that "potential source of reinforcement for the Canadian Army Overseas", the trained N.R.M.A. troops. The Minister of National Defence, during a visit to England and the battlefronts, came to the same conclusion. On 18 October he returned to Ottawa, accompanied by Stuart. On the next and succeeding days he placed his views before the Cabinet. The Prime Minister, however, deeply convinced that "resort to conscription for service overseas would occasion the most serious controversy that could arise in Canada", was reluctant to accept Colonel Ralston's recommendation. Faced with the possibility of Ralston's resignation, Mr. King consulted General McNaughton (who had lately retired from the army with the full rank of General) and ascertained from him that he still believed in the possibility of obtaining the required recruits by voluntary means and that, in the event of Colonel Ralston's departure, he was prepared to accept the portfolio of National Defence. Confronted with this situation, Ralston tendered his resignation on 1 November and General McNaughton was sworn as Minister next day.8
One of the most violent and bitter public controversies in Canadian political history followed. In the midst of it, the new Minister's appeals for recruits from among the N.R.M.A. men and the public had relatively little effect.9 By 22 November, when Parliament met in special session, the Government had decided that the situation could be met only by the employment of N.R.M.A. men overseas. On 23 November an order-incouncil was tabled in the House of Commons authorizing the despatch of 16,000 of these men--this being the number of trained or largely trained infantrymen among them, and a little more than the number (15,000) calculated as required to fill the overseas pool. The first N.R.M.A. soldiers sailed from Halifax on 3 January 1945.10
While the government could of course have authorized the despatch of further groups of N.R.M.A. men beyond the 16,000 authorized by the
order of 23 November, this did not prove to be necessary. It may be noted here that a total of 12,908 were actually sent overseas and that N.R.M.A. men suffered 315 casualties, of which 69 were fatal. As it turned out, thanks to the quiet which obtained on the Canadian front in Holland during November, December and January, casualties were considerably fewer than the October estimate had allowed for. This and the influx of N.R.M.A. soldiers from Canada meant that the reinforcement units were full of adequately trained men when major operations began again early in February. From then until the end of hostilities in Europe three months later there was no serious difficulty in keeping our battalions in the field up to strength, and no question of disbanding Canadian formations ever arose.11
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