Antwerp, Belgium November 1, 1944

After the Allied breakout from Nor­mandy in North­western France begin­ning on August 13, 1944, German forces stub­bornly held the French and Belgian English Chan­nel ports. Thus the Western Allies were forced to bring all supplies for their rapidly east­ward advancing armies from the Mul­berry arti­fi­cial harbor they had opened off the Normandy coast in mid-June 1944 or from Cher­bourg harbor, returned to oper­a­tion late the next month. Owing to the port capa­city of Belgium’s Antwerp—the largest port in Western Europe, it could receive 40,000 tons of material a day—that German-occupied city became the imme­di­ate objec­tive of Field Marshal Ber­nard Law Mont­go­mery’s British 21st Army Group, which it liber­ated on Septem­ber 4, 1944, port intact. Unfor­tu­nately for the Allies, Antwerp’s port could not unload vital supplies until enemy forces were removed from the lower reaches of the Scheldt (Schelde) Estuary, the 55‑mile-long water­way connecting Antwerp with the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean (see map below).

By the end of October 1944, in a series of Allied mili­tary opera­tions in the lower Scheldt Estuary, only a single German division remained to occupy the estuary’s western-most island, Wal­che­ren; resis­tance every­where else had been elimi­nated. The Dutch island, desig­nated by Adolf Hitler as “For­tress Wal­che­ren,” bristled with 30 coastal and field bat­teries fitted with 75mm, 105mm, 155mm, and 220mm artillery pieces in concrete emplacements.

Starting on this date, Novem­ber 1, 1944, and for the next 7 days, Wal­che­ren was wrestled from the German enemy in a three-pronged assault by Cana­dian and British infan­try units (Opera­tion Vital­ity) and British Marine com­mandos from the 4th Special Service Brigade, who formed the amphib­ious ele­ments of the assault (Opera­tions Infat­u­ate I and II). From the South Beve­land Penin­sula, cleared of Germans on Octo­ber 31, ele­ments of the 2nd Cana­dian Corps and the British 52nd (Low­land) Infan­try Divi­sion maneu­vered under stiff and pro­longed fire across a narrow, mile-long land bridge, the Wal­che­ren Cause­way that rose a few feet above sodden mud flats. The cause­way carried a road, a rail line, and a bicycle path from South Beve­land to Wal­che­ren Island, and it was over this cause­way that retreating Germans had escaped to their Wal­che­ren strong­hold. By the following day the Cana­dian/­British fighters had secured the cause­way, but they were unable to expand their bridge­head. Sea­borne landings by com­mandos of the 4th Special Service Brigade even­tu­ally sealed the fate of the German garrison on Walcheren Island.

Marine commandos came ashore in LVTs (Landing Vehicles, Tracked, also known as Buf­fa­loes or Alli­ga­tors) from the main­land south of Wal­che­ren Island. One com­mando unit assaulted the town of West­kapelle at the western end of the island, then moved north through sand hills to Dom­burg, which was reached on Novem­ber 2. Another set of com­mandos to the south took out a radar station and several 155mm shore bat­teries in the Zoute­lande area, while a third set com­pleted the encircle­ment of the western part of the island by moving south toward Vlis­singen (English, Flushing), the island’s second largest town after Mittel­burg, the pro­vin­cial capital in the center of the island. The amphib­ious assaults were supported by British naval bom­bard­ment, fighter-bombers, and field bat­teries on the mainland four miles to the south.

After a week of fighting, a four-man German dele­ga­tion under a white flag approached Allied soldiers to open negotiations for the sur­ren­der of upwards of 10,000 German defenders on Wal­che­ren Island. The shore approaches to Antwerp’s harbor were quickly emptied of the enemy. By month’s end, after a massive mine-clearing opera­tion of the Scheldt, the first Allied supplies were being unloaded at Antwerp.

The Battle of Walcheren Island: Last Step to Opening Antwerp Harbor

Battle of the Scheldt

Above: The Battle of the Scheldt (October 2 to November 8, 1944) con­sisted of four phases, the last of which (Novem­ber 1–8, 1944) was clearing the German Army’s 70th Infan­try Divi­sion from the Dutch island of Wal­che­ren in dual sea­borne assaults (Oper­a­tion Infat­u­ate I and II) and a single land-based assault (Oper­a­tion Vitality). Light blue arrows indi­cate ele­ments of the 2nd Cana­dian Corps, spear­head of the First Cana­dian Army, which included some British and Polish units. Dark brown arrows indi­cate the British 52nd (Low­land) Divi­sion, which was given com­mand of all the mili­tary oper­a­tions on Wal­che­ren Island, and the dark blue arrows indi­cate the Royal Marines of the 4th Special Service Brigade (later renamed 4th Com­mando Brigade), which con­ducted the two amphib­ious assaults. The surrender of the German garri­son finally opened the West Scheldt Estuary and the stra­te­gic Belgian port of Antwerp (bottom right corner) to Allied shipping.

RAF bombing dykes at Westkappelle, October 3, 1944British Marine commandos at West­kapelle, November 1, 1944

Left: The bombing of Walcheren Island on October 3, 7, and 11, 1944, by British heavy bombers delib­er­ately breached the sea dykes around the island and turned its center into into a mas­sive lagoon. Besides killing many Dutch civilians, the bombing had the desired effect of making German troop move­ments diffi­cult, pre­venting enemy gun posi­tions from being resupplied, dis­rupting commun­i­ca­tions, and forcing the defenders into towns and onto the high ground that rimmed the island.

Right: DUKWs (six-wheel-drive amphibious trucks colloquially called “Ducks”) and Buf­fa­loes ply their way between a British Landing Craft, Tank (LCT) and the beach at West­kapelle, the western­most point on Wal­che­ren Island, carrying Royal Marine com­man­dos of the 4th Special Service Brigade. Dark smoke drifts high over­head while the possi­ble rem­nants of a smoke screen (middle far back­ground) linger on the beach. The com­man­dos began landing at dawn, Novem­ber 1, 1944, with the objec­tive to silence heavy enemy coastal bat­teries men­acing the western approach to the Scheldt passage to the Belgian port of Antwerp.

British Marine commandos cross Scheldt River aboard BuffaloesBritish Marine commandos wade ashore, Walcheren Island, November 1944

Left: Buffalo amphibious vehicles ferrying troops of the 4th Special Service Brigade across the Scheldt River.

Right: Men of the 4th Special Service Brigade wade ashore from landing craft near Vlis­singen (Flushing). The town was captured on Novem­ber 3, 1944, after heavy street-fighting.

Captive Germans marching, Walcheren Island, early November 1944Captive Germans corralled in Walcheren Island village, early November 1944

Above: Two views of German POWs marching through Walcheren’s sodden terrain and corralled in a Dutch village, probably Middle­burg, the provin­cial capi­tal of Zee­land in South­western Nether­lands. Between Oper­a­tions Vital­ity and Infat­u­ate (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 8, 1944) some 8,000 to 10,000 Germans of the 70th Infan­try Divi­sion, denied their escape routes, entered British capti­vity. Although the Scheldt Estuary was now cleared of the enemy, Antwerp itself remained the main target for German V‑2 rockets—1,610 rock­ets, 200 more than all that fell on England. Launched from Holland and Germany against the city, the ballis­tic missiles were intended to disrupt the move­ment of Allied supplies to the front lines. In Decem­ber 1944 the German Ardennes Offen­sive (aka Battle of the Bulge) was aimed at retaking Antwerp port.

The First Canadian Army’s Hardest Fight: The Battle of Walcheren Island