The Approaches to Antwerp
Legend has it that during the era of Roman transcendence in Europe, a regional lord by the name of Druon Antigon intercepted all ships plying the sixty miles of the Schelde estuary from the North Sea to the inland port of Antwerp. If the sailors refused or could not meet his demands for tribute, he cut off their right hands.
Whether true or not, the legend illustrates a fact that for centuries has influenced the use and growth of one of Europe's greatest ports. Whoever controls the banks of the Schelde estuary controls Antwerp. Plagued by Dutch jealousies that found expression in forts built along the Schelde, Antwerp did not begin until 1863 the modern growth that by the eve of World War II had transformed it into a metropolis of some 273,000 inhabitants.
Even before the landings in Normandy, the Allies had eyed Antwerp covetously. While noting that seizure of Le Havre would solve some of the problems of supplying Allied armies on the Continent, the pre-D-Day planners had predicted that "until after the development of Antwerp, the availability of port capacity will still limit the forces which can be maintained."1 By the time the Allies had broken their confinement in Normandy to run footloose across northern France, the desire for Antwerp had grown so urgent that it had strongly influenced General Eisenhower in his decision to put the weight of the tottering logistical structure temporarily behind the thrust in the north.2
The decision paid dividends with capture of the city, its wharves and docks intact, by British armor on 4 September. (See Map 2.) Yet then it became apparent that the Germans intended to hold both banks of the Schelde along the sixty-mile course to the sea, to usurp the role of Druon Antigon. Antwerp was a jewel that could not be worn for want of a setting.
Had Field Marshal Montgomery immediately turned the Second British Army to clearing the banks of the estuary, the seaward approaches to the port well might have been opened speedily. But like the other Allies in those days of glittering triumphs, the British had their eyes focused to the east. Looking anxiously toward the possibility of having to fight a way across the Maas and the Rhine, the 21 Army Group commander wanted to force these barriers before the Germans could rally to defend them. "I considered it worth while," Montgomery wrote after the war, "to employ all our resources [to get across the Rhine], at the expense of any other undertaking."3
Having captured Antwerp itself, General Dempsey's Second Army had made only a token attempt at opening the seaward approaches, an effort the Germans quickly discouraged with a series of small-scale counterattacks. Thereupon, one of the British corps resumed the chase northeastward toward Germany while another deployed about Antwerp in order to protect the left flank of the advancing corps. The Second Army's third corps had been left far behind, grounded in order to provide transport to move and supply the other two.4
Leaving Antwerp behind, the Second Army thus had embarked on a second part of its assigned mission, to "breach the sector of the Siegfried Line covering the Ruhr and then seize the Ruhr."5 The task of clearing the banks of the Schelde eventually would fall to Lt. Gen. Henry D. G. Crerar's First Canadian Army, which was advancing along the Second Army's left flank under orders to clear the Channel ports.
Fanning out to the northeast, the Second Army had begun to encounter stiffening resistance along the line of the Albert Canal, not far from the Dutch-Belgian border. Nevertheless, by nightfall on 8 September, the British had two bridgeheads across the Albert and were driving toward the next barrier, the Meuse-Escaut Canal. It was on 11 September that the Guards Armoured Division seized the bridge over the Meuse-Escaut at De Groote Barrier south of Eindhoven. Two days later other contingents of the Second Army crossed the canal fifteen miles to the west near Herenthals. Here, with supply lines twanging, preparations necessary before the Second Army could participate in Operation MARKET-GARDEN made a pause imperative.6
In the meantime, the First Canadian Army had been investing the Channel ports, ridding the Pas de Calais of its launching sites for the deadly V-1 and V-2 bombs, and sweeping clear the left flank of the Second Army in the direction of Bruges and Ghent. On 1 September, the Canadians had seized Dieppe. On 9 September, they took Ostend and, on 12 September, Bruges, only to find that northeast of the two cities the Germans were preparing to defend the south bank of the Schelde estuary. The First Canadian Army's 1st British Corps7 overcame all resistance at Le Havre on 12 September, but the port was so badly damaged that it was to handle no Allied tonnage until 9 October. Although Boulogne was the next port scheduled to be taken, the attack had to await special assault equipment used at Le Havre. Boulogne did not fall until 22 September. Of the two remaining ports, Dunkerque was masked, while Calais, attacked after seizure of Boulogne, fell on 1 October.8
Although capture of the Channel ports was expected to improve the Allied logis-
tical picture somewhat, none other than Le Havre could approach the tonnage potentiality of Antwerp. Le Havre itself was too far behind the front by the time of capture to affect the supply situation appreciably. Even with possession of the Channel ports, the importance of Antwerp to Allied plans could not be minimized.
While fighting to open the Channel ports, the Canadians had neither the strength nor supplies to do much about Antwerp. On 13 September one Canadian division had sought a bridgehead over two parallel canals northeast of Bruges (the Leopold Canal and the Canal de la Dérivation de la Lys) that marked the line which the Germans intended to hold on the Schelde's south bank, but German reaction was so violent and Canadian losses so heavy that the bridgehead had to be withdrawn the next day.
Beginning on 16 September the First Canadian Army assumed responsibility for Antwerp and its environs. Nevertheless, the supply demands of Operation MARKET-GARDEN and the battles for Boulogne and Calais continued to deny a large-scale offensive to open Antwerp. A lengthy stretch of the Schelde's south bank west and northwest of the city was clear as far west as a large inlet known as the Braakman, but it was from the Braakman to the sea that the Germans intended to hold the south bank. North of Antwerp the enemy remained perilously close to the city. During the night of 20 September contingents of the First Canadian Army began operations against the Albert and Antwerp-Turnhout Canals near the city to alleviate this situation somewhat. In the bridgehead finally established, the Canadians held temporarily to prepare for a contemplated advance northwest to seal off the isthmus of South Beveland and thereby cut off the Germans holding this isthmus and the adjoining island of Walcheren.9
Because other responsibilities and the strained logistical situation would for some time deny unrestricted use of the First Canadian Army to open Antwerp, Allied plans for clearing the Schelde became inextricably tied up through September and well into October with Field Marshal Montgomery's determination to get a bridgehead beyond the Rhine. Though recognizing that use of Antwerp was "essential to sustain a powerful thrust deep into Germany,"10 General Eisenhower had agreed at the conference with his commanders in Brussels on 10 September to defer the Antwerp operation while awaiting the outcome of Operation MARKET-GARDEN.11 "The attractive possibility of quickly turning the German north flank led me to approve the temporary delay in freeing the vital port of Antwerp . . .," the Supreme Commander wrote later.12
Even after blessing MARKET-GARDEN, General Eisenhower continued to emphasize the importance of the Belgian port. "I consider the use of Antwerp so important to future operations," he wrote Field Marshal Montgomery on 13 September, "that we are prepared to go a long way in making the attack a success."13 On the same day the Supreme Com-
mander issued a new directive in which he reiterated both his desire to have the Ruhr and his "previously expressed conviction that the early winning of deepwater ports and improved maintenance facilities in our rear are prerequisites to a final all-out assault on Germany proper." He continued, "Our port position today is such that any stretch of a week or ten days of bad Channel weather—a condition that grows increasingly probable with the receding summer—would paralyze our activities and make the maintenance of our forces even in defensive roles exceedingly difficult."14
For all the emphasis on the need for Antwerp, the Supreme Commander issued no dictum calling for a complete halt of the drive on the Ruhr in order to ensure opening the port. "The general plan . . .," he wrote, "is to push our forces forward to the Rhine, securing bridgeheads over the river, seize the Ruhr and concentrate our forces in preparation for a final non-stop drive into Germany." The 21 Army Group, which with the First U.S. Army was responsible for seizing the Ruhr, was "while this is going on . . ." to secure either Antwerp or Rotterdam as a port and forward base.15
In response to this directive, Montgomery quickly assured the Supreme Commander that he was "arranging to develop as early as possible operations designed to enable the port of Antwerp to be used." He explained that he was moving a British infantry division and headquarters of the First Canadian Army to Antwerp immediately.16 On the same day the Field Marshal issued a new directive to his army group. While stating that "Our real objective . . . is the Ruhr," he said that "on the way" the Allies wanted Antwerp, plus Rotterdam. Clearance of the Schelde estuary to open Antwerp was to be "first priority" for the First Canadian Army.17
This matter of opening Antwerp became involved also with the continuing debate between General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery over the strategy of one thrust in the north as opposed to the Supreme Commander's "broad front" policy. The temporary accord that had come on this issue upon approval of MARKET-GARDEN at Brussels on 10 September had been short-lived. Five days later, on 15 September, General Eisenhower himself reopened the wound, perhaps with a view to healing it once and for all through a process of bloodletting. Looking beyond both Arnhem and Antwerp, he named Berlin as the ultimate Allied goal and said he desired to move on the German capital "by the most direct and expeditious route, with combined U.S.-British forces supported by other available forces moving through key centres and occupying strategic areas on the flanks, all in one co-ordinated, concerted operation." Writing this to his army group commanders, he virtually invited
resumption of the strategy debate by asking them to give their reactions.18
Field Marshal Montgomery seized the opportunity to expound his view of one thrust in the north by the 21 Army Group plus the First US Army. A cardinal principle of his theory was that men and supplies should be concentrated on the single operation, not frittered away in complementary drives.19 General Bradley, for his part, returned to the pre-D-Day view that drives be made both north and south of the Ruhr. After seizure of the Ruhr, one main spearhead should be directed toward Berlin while the other armies supported it with simultaneous thrusts.20
In announcing his decision, General Eisenhower firmly rejected the idea of "one single knifelike drive toward Berlin" but denied he was considering an advance into Germany with all armies moving abreast. Instead, he intended, while placing his greatest support behind Montgomery and the First US Army, that the Third Army advance in a supporting position to prevent concentration of German forces against the main drive and its flanks. At this time the Supreme Commander most concisely stated what has become known as his "broad front" policy:
What I do believe is that we must marshal our strength up along the western borders of Germany, to the Rhine if possible, insure adequate maintenance by getting Antwerp to working at full blast at the earliest possible moment and then carry out the drive you [Montgomery] suggest.21
This exchange of views, plus Field Marshal Montgomery's insistence on putting everything behind the drive in the north to the exclusion of the forces in the south, led General Eisenhower to conclude that he and his chief British subordinate were not talking about the same thing. Not one but two drives were under consideration: one for getting the Ruhr, one after getting the Ruhr. At a conference with his army group commanders and supply chiefs at Versailles on 22 September, he tried to clarify the matter.22 He asked his commanders to make a clear distinction between the final drive on Berlin and present operations, which aimed at breaching the West Wall and seizing the Ruhr. For the second drive, he said, he required "general acceptance of the fact that the possession of an additional major deepwater port on our north flank was an indispensable prerequisite for the final drive deep into Germany. The envelopment of the Ruhr from the north by 21st Army Group, supported by 1st Army," he continued, "is the main effort of the present phase of operations." In addition, the 21 Army Group was to open Antwerp as a matter of urgency.23
As the meeting progressed on 22 September, General Eisenhower approved a plan whereby the 21 Army Group might utilize the gains of MARKET-GARDEN and the support of the First US Army to
envelop the Ruhr from the north. First Army support involved assuming responsibility for clearing the great gap which had developed west of the Maas River between the British right flank and the left flank of the XIX US Corps, and, so far as current resources might permit, continuing a thrust toward Cologne and Bonn.24 This plan General Eisenhower sanctioned despite a report from the 21 Army Group Chief of Staff, General de Guingand, that an attack on Walcheren Island, the most formidable German position guarding the mouth of the Schelde, could not be mounted before 7 October "at the earliest" and despite an estimate by the Allied naval commander, Admiral Sir Bertram H. Ramsey, that somewhere between one and three weeks would be required to remove the mines from the entrance to Antwerp. The port might not be usable until about 1 November.25
These decisions of 22 September were made at a time when hope still remained for the unqualified success of MARKET-GARDEN. Once the possibility of holding a bridgehead over the Neder Rijn at Arnhem and of outflanking the West Wall was gone, Field Marshal Montgomery had to turn to another plan for getting the Ruhr. While agreeing that the opening of Antwerp was "absolutely essential" to any deep advance into Germany, he proposed that he turn his attention for the moment to an existing opportunity to destroy the enemy forces barring the way to the Ruhr. He suggested that while the First Canadian Army cleared the approaches to Antwerp, the Second British Army operate from Nijmegen against the northwest corner of the Ruhr in conjunction with a drive by the First US Army toward Cologne. In effect, this was a return—after a deviation imposed by Operation MARKET-GARDEN—to Montgomery's long advocated plan for capturing the Ruhr by a double envelopment.26
When General Eisenhower, at "first hasty glance," approved this plan,27 Field Marshal Montgomery issued the necessary directive. For the Antwerp phase, he emphasized that "The Canadian Army will at once develop operations designed to enable us to have the free use of the port of Antwerp. The early completion of these operations is vital. . . ."28
Without augmentation of the First Canadian Army's ground strength and logistical support, this actually was little more than lip service to the Antwerp cause. Dutifully, the Canadians launched an operation on 2 October designed to push northwest from Antwerp to seal off the isthmus of South Beveland, thereby setting the stage for a subsequent drive to open the Schelde. At the same time they were expected to make another drive northward along the left flank of the MARKET-GARDEN salient to reach the south bank of the Maas River, in order to release British forces for the drive on the Ruhr. A few days later they set out to clear the south bank of the estuary judging from the fighting that developed the Canadians would need a long time to do the entire complex job of opening Antwerp plus clearing the MARKET-GARDEN left flank. Likewise, a prelim-
inary step necessary before the Second British Army could attack toward the Ruhr, that of eliminating the Germans from the British right and U.S. left flanks west of the Maas, failed when US forces encountered unyielding resistance.29
Faced with four major tasks—opening Antwerp, maintaining the MARKET-GARDEN salient, conducting the Ruhr offensive, and committing British forces in the great gap west of the Maas—Montgomery reported to General Eisenhower at the end of the first week in October that his forces were insufficient. Much of the problem, he intimated, might be solved by a change in the existing command situation between the 21 Army Group and the First US Army. This was a return to a long-standing tenet of the Field Marshal's that for purposes of co-ordination of the main thrust in the north, the First Army should be under British command.30
While admitting that the 21 Army Group's commitments were too heavy for its resources, General Eisenhower refused to agree that the problem had anything to do with command. He proposed either that US forces relieve the British of some responsibility by pushing the 12th Army Group boundary northward or that General Bradley transfer two US divisions to the British. He agreed that plans for a co-ordinated Ruhr offensive be postponed until more US divisions could reach the front. Six of these, he noted, were marking time in staging areas on the Continent because of lack of transportation and supplies to maintain them up front.31
Of the two proposals for strengthening the 21 Army Group, Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the second. General Bradley thereupon transferred a US armored division (the 7th) to British command to help clear the great gap between British and US forces west of the Maas. He also alerted the 104th Infantry Division to move from a Normandy staging area to the vicinity of Brussels on 15 October to await any call for assistance in the Antwerp fight.32
Once the Ruhr offensive was postponed and two US divisions became available, the way was clear for Montgomery to strengthen the First Canadian Army for the opening of Antwerp, or at least to remove the necessity for the Canadians to clear the left flank of the MARKET-GARDEN salient. But the British commander still thought the Canadians could handle both jobs. On 9 October in a directive he said: "The use of Antwerp is vital to the Allies in order that we can develop our full potential. Therefore the operations to open the port must have priority in regard to troops, ammunition, and so on." Yet once again, in the matter of an increase in troops, he offered no genuine assistance. Still looking ahead to the Ruhr offensive, Montgomery forewent strengthening the First Canadian Army substantially by chaining
the Second British Army to two tasks he deemed prerequisite to a Ruhr offensive: (1) making "absolutely certain" the Nijmegen bridgehead was "firm and secure," and (2) clearing the Germans from the region west of the Maas.33
On the same day that Field Marshal Montgomery issued this directive, General Eisenhower received a report from the Royal Navy that stirred him to action. The report apparently climaxed an apprehension that had been growing in the Supreme Commander's mind for several days, a concern that the 21 Army Group could not open the Schelde estuary while at the same time pursuing its other objectives. Unless supplied immediately with adequate ammunition stocks, the report of the Royal Navy indicated, the First Canadian Army would be unable to move to open Antwerp until November.
General Eisenhower promptly placed all stress on clearing the banks of the Schelde. He warned Field Marshal Montgomery that unless Antwerp were opened by the middle of November, Allied operations would come to a standstill. He declared that "of all our operations on our entire front from Switzerland to the Channel, I consider Antwerp of first importance, and I believe that the operations designed to clear up the entrance require your personal attention."34
Apparently stung by the implication that he was not pushing the attack for Antwerp, the 21 Army Group commander promptly denied the Navy's "wild statements." The attack, he said, was already under way and going well. In passing, he reminded the Supreme Commander that the Versailles conference of 22 September had listed the attack on the Ruhr as the main effort of the current phase of operations, and that General Eisenhower only the day before had declared that the first mission of both army groups was gaining the Rhine north of Bonn.35
In reply, General Eisenhower explicitly spelled out the priority of Antwerp. "Let me assure you," he declared in a message of 10 October, "that nothing I may ever say or write with regard to future plans in our advance eastward is meant to indicate any lessening of the need for Antwerp, which I have always held as vital, and which has grown more pressing as we enter the bad weather period."36 Three days later, after Field Marshal Montgomery again had suggested changes in the command arrangement so that he might have greater flexibility in his operations, General Eisenhower acted to remove any doubts on both Antwerp and command. He declared that the question was not one of command but of taking Antwerp. He did not know the exact state of the Field Marshal's forces, he said, but he knew they were rich in supplies as compared with US and French units. Because of logistical shortages, the need to put Antwerp quickly in workable condition was pressing. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and General Marshall, British and US Army chiefs, had emphasized on a recent visit to SHAEF that they shared this view. Despite the desire to open Antwerp, General Eisenhower said, he had approved MARKET-GARDEN. All recent experience, however, had pointed to the
great need for opening of the Schelde estuary, and he was willing, "as always," to give additional US troops and supplies to make that possible.
General Eisenhower added that the operation could involve no question of command, "Since everything that can be brought in to help, no matter of what nationality, belongs to you." Then he dealt at length with the subject of command. If, after receiving these views, Field Marshal Montgomery still classed them as "unsatisfactory," an issue would exist which would have to be settled by "higher authority."37
Even before this message reached the 21 Army Group commander, he apparently had concluded that the First US Army could not reach the Rhine and thus that no reason existed for British forces to move alone toward the Ruhr. With the assertion that the Antwerp operations were to assume "complete priority . . ., without any qualification whatsoever," he had already dispatched "the whole of the available offensive power" of the Second British Army to help the Canadians speed the opening of the port.38
After receiving General Eisenhower's letter, the Field Marshal assured him that "you will hear no more on the subject of command from me." He added:
I have given you my views and you have given your answer. I and all of us will weigh in one hundred percent to do what you want and we will pull it through with out a doubt. I have given Antwerp top priority in all operations in 21 Army Group and all energies and efforts will now be devoted towards opening up the place. Your very devoted and loyal subordinate.39
Much of the difficulty in clearing the approaches to Antwerp rested with terrain. This is the North Sea littoral, canal country, much of it below sea level and much of it at this time already inundated at the personal order of Hitler in hope of augmenting German defenses.40 (Map 2) The Schelde actually is two huge mouths, known as the East Schelde and the West Schelde, the latter being of primary concern as the channel to Antwerp. On the West Schelde's south bank the enemy had withdrawn into a bastion lying west of the Braakman and extending along the south bank to a point opposite Zeebrugge on the Channel coast. This was to become known, after a minor port within the sector, as the Breskens Pocket. To protect this pocket on the landward side, the Germans had constructed their defensive line behind an almost continuous moat formed by the Braakman inlet and two canals, the Leopold and the Canal de la Dérivation de la Lys. The West Schelde's north bank is formed by South Beveland, a peninsula joined to the mainland by an isthmus carrying a road and a railway, and, farther to the west, by Walcheren Island. About ten miles wide and joined to South Beveland only by a narrow causeway, this island was heavily fortified. So formidable did the Allies consider the
defenses that, in the early stages of planning to open Antwerp, General Eisenhower had allotted the First Allied Airborne Army to taking Walcheren, though this was later canceled.41
Whoever set out to clear the banks of the West Schelde also had to face the fact that the enemy here was a strong, concentrated force. Here was a main part of the Fifteenth Army—once Hitler's "anti-invasion army," which had waited futilely for invasion along the Pas de Calais while the weaker Seventh Army had absorbed the actual blow in Normandy. Although some divisions and weapons had been detached for use in Normandy, much of the Fifteenth Army had continued to guard the coast against a feared second, and perhaps larger, Allied landing. By the time the Germans had hearkened to the steadily growing danger of Allied spearheads racing across northern France and Belgium, it was too late. The swift British armored thrust which captured Brussels and Antwerp during the first days of September had trapped the Fifteenth Army against the coast. When counterattacks failed to break the British cordon, the only way out for the Germans lay to the north across the waters of the Schelde.42
GENERAL VON ZANGEN
Having left contingents to hold the Channel ports, the Fifteenth Army commander, General von Zangen, had been withdrawing toward the south bank of the Schelde with the bulk of his forces when word had come from Hitler himself that Walcheren Island was to be held as a "fortress," after the manner of the Channel ports, and that a "permanent" bridgehead was to be maintained on the Schelde's south bank.43 As finally formulated, the German plan called for General von Zangen to assume command of all of the southwestern part of the Netherlands in a sector adjacent to
General Student's First Parachute Army. Leaving an infantry division (the 64th) to defend the south bank of the Schelde, Zangen was to install another infantry division (the 70th) on Walcheren Island and a third (the 245th) on the peninsula of South Beveland. Because these positions were officially labeled "fortresses," the divisions operated through no corps headquarters but were directly subordinate to the Fifteenth Army. On the mainland, the LXVII Corps under General der Infanterie Otto Sponheimer was to be responsible for a sector north of Antwerp along the west flank of the First Parachute Army. General Sponheimer was to control three divisions, including the 719th Infantry Division, which was in sad shape after having constituted the west wing of the First Parachute Army along the Albert Canal. Another division was to act as a Fifteenth Army reserve, while another, the 59th Infantry Division (General Poppe), was to move to Tilburg as Army Group B reserve. As events developed, both the 59th Division and the 245th Division from South Beveland were to be shifted against the MARKET-GARDEN salient.44
By 17 September most of these arrangements had been either initiated or completed. In the meantime, General von Zangen had been conducting a withdrawal from the south bank of the Schelde to Walcheren Island. In the light of Allied air superiority, this withdrawal was one of the more noteworthy German accomplishments during this stage of the war. As early as four days after British armor had trapped the Fifteenth Army by seizing Antwerp, nearly ten thousand Germans already had been ferried across the West Schelde from Breskens. By 11 September Allied air attacks had damaged Breskens so severely that daily shipping capacity had been cut by 40 percent and transport across the three-mile width of the estuary was impossible during daylight except under the foulest weather conditions. Nevertheless, by 22 September, German evacuation was complete. In two and a half weeks, the Germans had staged a little Dunkerque to the tune of more than 86,000 men, more than 600 artillery pieces, better than 6,000 vehicles, over 6,000 horses, and a wealth of miscellaneous matériel. For all the bombs and cannon of Allied aircraft, the Germans had saved a small army.45
Completion of the Fifteenth Army's withdrawal across the West Schelde left the Breskens Pocket on the south bank a responsibility of the commander of the 64th Infantry Division, Generalmajor Kurt Eberding. Possessing an infantry combat strength of roughly 2,350 men, General Eberding also had some 8,650 support and miscellaneous troops. The troops were well supplied with machine guns, mortars, and artillery.46
On the West Schelde's north bank, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Daser's 70th Infantry Division had an infantry combat strength of nearly 7,500, plus some 300 engineers. These were organized into three regiments, two on the island and one on South Beveland, the latter after the 245th Division was shifted eastward against the MARKET-GARDEN salient.
Some German commanders later were to criticize commitment of the 70th Division in a strategic spot like Walcheren, for the division represented a collection of men suffering from ailments of the digestive tract. Because of a special diet required, the division was nicknamed the White Bread Division.47 As if to compensate for physical shortcomings of the troops, the 70th Division controlled an unusual wealth of artillery, some 177 pieces, including 67 fixed naval guns.48
Two other German divisions were to figure prominently in the fighting about Antwerp. These were the 346th and 711th Infantry Divisions of General Sponheimer's LXVII Corps on the mainland north of Antwerp. Of the two, the 346th (Generalleutnant Erich Diestel)49 was the stronger with an infantry combat strength of somewhat better than 2,400 men, augmented by an artillery force of thirty-eight 105-mm. howitzers. The 711th Division (Generalleutnant Josef Reichert) was considerably weaker, a "static" division which had been badly mauled during July and August. In mid-September, the 711th had only three battalions of German infantry and another composed primarily of Armenians and remnants of an Ost battalion. The division had but nine artillery pieces of various calibers. Less prominent roles would be played by the 719th Infantry Division on the LXVII Corps left wing and by contingents of the LXXXVIII Corps, the latter after the left wing of the Second British Army got into the fight.
On the Allied side, the decisive phase of the Antwerp operation opened on 2 October, two weeks before Field Marshal Montgomery blessed it with unequivocal priority. Because the First Canadian Army commander, General Crerar, was absent on sick leave, his temporary replacement, Lt. Gen. G. G. Simonds, was in charge. General Simonds employed a plan previously formulated under General Crerar's direction and involving four main tasks: (1) to clear the region north of Antwerp and seal off the isthmus to South Beveland; (2) coincidentally, to reduce the Breskens Pocket south of the Schelde; then (3) to seize South Beveland; and finally (4) to reduce Walcheren Island. All these tasks were to be accomplished by the 2d Canadian Corps. When Field Marshal Montgomery assigned the additional task of clearing the region south of the Maas River between the Schelde and the MARKET-GARDEN salient, General Simonds gave the job to the 1st British Corps. With the new emphasis on Antwerp that came in mid-October, the 12 Corps of the Second British Army assumed part of the latter responsibility.50
From a bridgehead across the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal northeast of Antwerp, the 2d Canadian Division opened the decisive phase of the battle of the Schelde on 2 October. Against the enemy's 346th Division, the Canadians attacked northwest to seal the isthmus to South Beveland. For the first few days the Canadian infantry made steady progress, but as the drive neared Woensdrecht the
stalemate settling over the MARKET-GARDEN salient permitted the Germans to send reinforcements. At Woensdrecht they committed both Colonel von der Heydte's 6th Parachute Regiment and a part of Kampfgruppe Chill.51 Not until 16 October, two weeks after the start of the attack, did Woensdrecht fall.
In the meantime, on 6 October, the 2d Canadian Corps opened the drive on the Breskens Pocket with the 3d Canadian Division, moving behind massed flame throwers, forcing two crossings of the Leopold Canal. Here General Eberding's 64th Division lay in wait. For three days the situation in the Canadian bridgeheads was perilous. On 9 October contingents of the 3d Canadian Division staged an amphibious end run from Terneuzen, but not until 14 October, after a few tanks got across the canal, did substantial progress begin. By mid-October, after nearly a fortnight's fighting, about half the Breskens Pocket remained in German hands.
This was the situation when on 16 October Field Marshal Montgomery accorded unqualified support to the battle of the Schelde. The net effect was that the 12 Corps of the Second British Army took over the eastern part of the Canadian line to launch a drive from the MARKET-GARDEN salient near s' Hertogenbosch to sweep the south bank of the Maas River. Their line thus shortened, the Canadians were to push their right wing forward to the Maas in that part of the zone remaining to them between Woensdrecht and the British.
The bitter fight to eliminate the Breskens Pocket continued. On 21 October Breskens finally fell. By the end of the month the Canadians had pushed General Eberding's remaining troops into a water-logged pocket near Zeebrugge and on 2 November captured the German general. All resistance in the Breskens Pocket ended the next day. After almost a month of the most costly kind of fighting, the south bank of the West Schelde was clear.
In fulfillment of Field Marshal Montgomery's directive of 16 October, a corps of the Second British Army on 22 October opened an offensive with four divisions to sweep the south bank of the Maas. At the same time, the 1st British Corps on the right wing of the First Canadian Army began to push northward toward the Maas. Its right flank thus protected, the 2d Canadian Corps was to accelerate operations to seize South Beveland and Walcheren, thereby to clear the West Schelde's north bank.52
Making labored but steady progress, the Second Army's drive resulted in capture of two main objectives, 's Hertogenbosch and Tilburg, two and six days, respectively, after the offensive opened. By the end of October Second Army patrols linked south of the Maas with the right flank of the First Canadian Army's 1st British Corps. By 5 November the Second Army had cleared its entire zone. Unfortunately, inclement weather during much of this period had enabled thousands of Germans to escape almost unhindered to the north bank of the Maas.
Commanded by Lt. Gen. Sir John T. Crocker, the First Canadian Army's 1st British Corps had been far from idle, even during the month between mid-September
and mid-October when this corps alone had faced the giant task of clearing the entire region between South Beveland and the MARKET-GARDEN corridor. Before the end of September General Crocker's troops had pushed north to occupy Turnhout and had established a sizable bridgehead beyond the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal. By the time the Second Army took over part of the zone and attacked on 22 October, the 1st British Corps had pushed north to the Dutch-Belgian border. As the Second Army joined the offensive, General Crocker's corps consisted of one British infantry division and two armored divisions, one Polish, one Canadian. On 23 October, the day after the big drive commenced, the corps assumed even more of an international complexion as the 104th U.S. Infantry Division began moving into the line to help in the drive northward to the Maas.
Commanded by Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen, who already had gained renown as commander of the 1st Division in North Africa and Sicily, the 104th (Timberwolf) Division which entered the line on 23 October had never experienced combat. Almost two months before, the 104th had sailed for Europe but had spent most of the interval in a Normandy staging area because the logistical situation precluded maintenance of additional units up front. The division became one of two—one British (the 49th Infantry), one American—with which Field Marshal Montgomery bolstered the First Canadian Army for the battle of the Schelde.53
Men of the Timberwolf Division assumed responsibility for a sector near the Dutch-Belgian frontier astride a main highway leading northeast from Antwerp to Breda, some twenty miles south of the Maas River and six miles southwest of a German strongpoint in the village of Zundert. Here, at the town of Wuestwezel, the troops scarcely had time to erase their awe of combat or to become familiar with their surroundings-flat, pine-studded, water-soaked terrain-before General Crocker ordered that they join the corps offensive northward. The initial division objective was Zundert.
The German situation in the sector of the 1st British Corps where the 104th Division was to operate obviously had become almost remediless. The day the Allied offensive began, the Commander in Chief West, Rundstedt, had admitted as much, though somewhat obliquely, in an appeal to the German high command. "On the occasion of my visit to Fifteenth Army," Rundstedt reported, "I was able personally to witness the exhaustion of the divisions fighting in the penetration area. For continuation of the operations there—which will decide the use of Antwerp harbor—immediate arrival of sufficient replacements is of decisive importance . . . ."54 Four days later, in authorizing a withdrawal in front of the 1st British Corps, Rundstedt warned that this move was not to be interpreted "by
any stretch of the imagination" as foreshadowing a general withdrawal. That, he said, "is, and will be out of the question."55
No amount of forceful language actually could conceal that this authorized withdrawal was, in fact, a first step in a general withdrawal behind the water barriers to the north. Two days later, Rundstedt noted in a report to the high command that the Fifteenth Army would fight forward of the Maas, "to the last. Nonetheless," he added, "it is my duty to report that, if the heavy enemy pressure continues, we must expect the gradual but total destruction of Fifteenth Army—unless its mission is changed."56 When this report reached Hitler, the Fuehrer displayed—for him—a remarkably sympathetic acceptance of the facts. Though Hitler reiterated that the Fifteenth Army must hold well south of the Maas, he as much as sanctioned further withdrawals by adding, "If new and serious penetrations should result from continued enemy attacks, threatening to destroy elements of the army, Fifteenth Army will at least maintain large bridgeheads south of the Maas . . . ."57
Though unaware of these German conversations, General Crocker's intelligence staff nevertheless had divined that the Germans had no choice but to delay in successive positions. The last in the sector of the 1st British Corps no doubt would be based upon the little Mark River, which runs generally from east to west about five miles south of the Maas. This was, in fact, the tack which the Fifteenth Army commander, General von Zangen, followed in interpreting Hitler's orders as sanction for withdrawing to bridgeheads south of the Maas.58
On a lower level the 104th Division, in assuming positions along the Antwerp-Breda highway, had occupied a line virtually astride the boundary between the enemy's 346th and 711th Divisions. The first of the delaying positions the 104th Division expected to encounter was southwest of Zundert almost exactly along the Dutch-Belgian border, a position manned by an estimated seven understrength infantry battalions.
Advancing due north with three regiments abreast, General Allen's Timberwolves received their baptism of fire on 25 October. By nightfall they had pushed back stubborn German patrols and outposts almost to the frontier. Continuing to advance in the darkness, the men made the first in a long procession of night attacks that were eventually to give the 104th Division something of a name in that department. The second day they forced the main delaying groups southwest of Zundert to withdraw and by daylight on 27 October were set to assault the village.
While two regiments maintained pressure west of the Antwerp-Breda highway, the 413th Infantry (Col. Welcome P. Waltz) moved close behind an artillery preparation to storm the objective. Supported by attached British Churchill tanks, the regiment seized Zundert before the end of the day. No longer did men of the 104th wonder at the swish of a shell
whether it was coming in or going out. They knew what it meant to kill men and to have their own killed. If a machine gun went "br-r-r-r-r-p," it was German; if it went "put-put-put," it was one of their own. The green division was fast becoming experienced.
The next day, 28 October, the 104th Division occupied Rijsbergen, about halfway from Zundert to Breda. That night the 415th Infantry (Col. John H. Cochran) launched the second night attack in the division's short combat history to break another delaying position covering the Roosendaal-Breda highway that ran diagonally across the division's front about seven miles north of Zundert. General Allen now was prepared to direct his troops either on Breda or to the north and northwest against the Mark River.
Even as Colonel Cochran's 415th Infantry was reaching the Roosendaal-Breda road, General Allen was receiving his orders. Along with the three other divisions of the corps, which had been advancing generally northward on either flank of the Americans, the 104th Division was to be reoriented to the northwest to force crossings of the Mark. Responsibility for Breda was to fall to the 1st Polish Armored Division on the 104th Division's right.
By 30 October, sixth day of the offensive, General Allen had concentrated his division along the Roosendaal-Breda highway. As the day opened, Colonel Cochran's 415th Infantry spearheaded a drive toward the Mark River in quest of a crossing near the village of Standdaarbuiten. The 44th Infantry (Col. Anthony J. Touart) subsequently was to cross and pursue the attack to seize Klundert, almost within sight of the south bank of the Maas.
As the 415th Infantry neared a bridge over the Mark at Standdaarbuiten, any doubt that this was to be the enemy's main position rapidly dissolved. Machine gun, mortar, and artillery fire showered across from the north bank. Even so, a sneak attack by one battalion almost succeeded in seizing the bridge intact; only at the last moment did the Germans blow it.
Neither the 49th British Infantry Division on the 104th's left flank nor the 1st Polish Armored Division on the right had yet reached the Mark. Perhaps counting on the surprise a quick thrust might achieve, the corps commander, General Crocker, told General Allen not to wait for the other divisions but to force a crossing of the river alone before daylight the next day. The 415th Infantry's 1st Battalion, commanded by Maj. Fred E. Needham, drew the assignment.
Crossing northeast of Standdaarbuiten just before dawn on 31 October, men of the leading company clung to the sides of their assault boats to avoid grazing machine gun fire that swept the crossing site. Once on the north bank, they stormed across an open meadow to gain protection along a dike from which they might cover the crossing of subsequent waves. By 0900 the entire battalion had made it and pushed more than a thousand yards beyond the river. But here the Germans forced a halt. The men could advance no farther, and German fire on the exposed crossing site denied reinforcement. Enemy shelling severely limited use of the battalion's 81-mm. mortars and frustrated all efforts to keep telephones working. A heavy mist not only precluded any use of air support but also restricted the effectiveness of counterbattery artillery fires.
MEN OF THE 104TH DIVISION dig foxholes near Standdaarbuiten.
Major Needham's men nevertheless successfully held their tiny bridgehead until late afternoon when the Germans stormed the position with infantry supported by six tanks. Firing into individual foxholes, the tanks soon encircled the position. As night came General Crocker gave approval to withdraw what was left of the battalion. A patrol led by Lt. William C. Tufts managed to cross the river and break through to the battalion to facilitate withdrawal of most of the men that were left. Two days later the division discovered that sixty-five officers and men, unable to withdraw, had hidden in buildings and foxholes, subsisted on raw beets and turnips, and withstood both American shelling and German patrols without the loss of a man.
For the next day and well into 2 November, the 104th Division held along the south bank of the Mark while General Allen and the other division commanders of the 1st British Corps planned with General Crocker for a co-ordinated attack. General Crocker's final order directed assaults on the river line by the British and Americans at 2100 on 2 November while the Poles launched a separate attack farther to the east, north of Breda. Colonel Waltz's 413th Infantry was to cross west of Standdaarbuiten with one battalion closely followed by the remainder of the regiment. Colonel
Cochran's 415th Infantry was to send a battalion across at Standdaarbuiten and another just east of the village. The 414th Infantry was to feign a crossing farther east and support the others by fire.
The 104th Division G-2, Lt. Col. Mark S. Plaisted, estimated that within the division's boundaries the Germans held the north bank with the remnants of nine infantry battalions totaling 1,200 to 1,300 men. Prisoners, he said, had told of the arrival of 200 replacements three days before and of German commanders who threatened their troops with force to fight to the last.
For an hour preceding the nighttime assault, guns all along the corps front ripped into the German line north of the river. Sprinkling their volleys liberally with lethal timed bursts, artillerymen of the 104th Division concentrated much of their fire on Standdaarbuiten, believed to be a German strongpoint.
In the left of the division sector, a battalion of the 413th Infantry commanded by Lt. Col. Collins Perry made the assault. Although the men were subjected to small arms fire even as they scrambled into their assault boats, they stuck to their task. Reaching the far shore, they found that only a few yards farther they faced a canal almost as wide as the Mark. Without hesitation, the men plunged into the chill water and waded across. Wet to their armpits and plagued in the darkness by persistent mortar and small arms fire, they nevertheless pushed steadily forward. The rest of the regiment followed and set about jamming a left hook around to the north of Standdaarbuiten.
A driving force in the advance of Colonel Perry's battalion was a weapons platoon leader, 1st Lt. Cecil H. Bolton. Wounded while directing fire of his 60-mm. mortars on two German machine guns, Lieutenant Bolton nevertheless led a bazooka team against the positions. He charged the first machine gun alone to kill the crew with hand grenades. Then he led the bazooka team through intense fire toward the second gun. They killed the three Germans who manned it. Lieutenant Bolton later led the bazooka team against an enemy 88 and directed fire to knock out the gun. He subsequently received the Medal of Honor.
In the meantime, the battalion crossing at Standdaarbuiten found that the artillery preparation had taken an awesome toll of the village and the enemy positions. The men quickly swept through. A few hundred yards farther east, another battalion successfully hurdled- the river, despite machine gun and rifle fire at the crossing site, and soon linked its bridgehead to the others. Shortly after midnight the Germans counterattacked with infantry supported by four tanks, but the men of the 415th Infantry were too well established. They dispatched the Germans with small arms fire and timely artillery support.
By 0115, 3 November, only slightly more than four hours after the infantry had begun to cross the Mark, 104th Division engineers had constructed a treadway bridge near Standdaarbuiten. As they began work on a Bailey bridge, disturbingly accurate German shellfire began to fall. Before daylight enemy shelling knocked out a section of the treadway bridge. Convinced that the Germans had an observer in the vicinity, the engineers after dawn conducted a thorough search. They found a German officer and a sergeant hidden beneath the abutment of the old bridge directing fire by radio.
By noon of 3 November a cohesive German line along the Mark River obviously had ceased to exist. Hostile artillery fire decreased as the Germans apparently withdrew their big guns toward their escape route at Moerdijk. Though countless strongpoints manned by diehard defenders remained to be cleared before the south bank of the Maas would be free, the British and the Poles had made comparable progress on either flank of the Americans, so that it could be only a question of time before the campaign south of the Maas would be over. Across the bleak and forbidding marshland and across canals and dikes swept by cold winds, the pursuit continued. At last the weather began to clear and British aircraft joined the battle. The Americans found close liaison between the British planes and air support teams attached to the infantry a rewarding experience.59
On 4 November the First U.S. Army directed that, as soon as released by the First Canadian Army, the 104th Division was to move to the vicinity of Aachen. The next day, when General Crocker assigned the division an additional mission of assisting the Polish armor to take Moerdijk, General Allen decided to give the task to his division reserve, the 44th Infantry, while withdrawing the rest of the division to prepare for the move to Aachen. On 6 November this move began.
Colonel Touart's 44th Infantry maintained pressure on the holdout position at Moerdijk until late on 7 November when relieved by a British regiment. The Poles and the British cleared the last Germans from the south bank of the Maas the next day, 8 November.
The campaign in the southwestern part of the Netherlands had cost the 104th Division in its first action almost 1,400 casualties.60 The division made no estimate of enemy losses but recorded the capture of 658 prisoners. Though the fighting had been basically unspectacular, it had achieved the valuable end of establishing a firm and economical northern flank for the 21 Army Group along the south bank of the Maas.
By 24 October, only a day after the 104th Division first had moved into the line, earlier advances of General Crocker's 1st British Corps already had helped to provide a firm base near Woensdrecht for operations westward against South Beveland, while progress along the south bank of the West Schelde had removed any danger of German guns in the Breskens Pocket intervening in a fight on South Beveland. That same day the Canadians opened a drive to clear the estuary's north bank.
Despite the narrowness of the isthmus, a situation accentuated by flooded lowlands off the roads, the Canadians registered an advance of two and a half miles the first day. With the help of a British brigade that crossed the West Schelde in assault boats from the south bank on 26 October, they rapidly swept the peninsula. It was a hard fight; for the Germans had on the peninsula four battalions of infantry, two battalions of fortress troops, and ten batteries of artillery. But at last, in congruence with Hitler's expressed theory that "Defense of the Schelde Estuary is based on the heavy
batteries on Walcheren Island," the 70th Division commander, General Daser, withdrew the survivors from South Beveland for a last-ditch defense of Walcheren.61 By the end of October, South Beveland was in Allied hands.
The worst obstacle to free use of the port of Antwerp remained: the island of Walcheren. The scene during the Napoleonic era of a disastrous British military failure, here a garrison of some 10,000 men formed around the 70th (White Bread) Division awaited the inevitable final fight.62
Almost a month earlier the Allies had launched their first blow against the 70th Division by invoking the wrath of the sea upon Walcheren Island. Because the island is shaped like a saucer and almost all the interior lies below sea level, the acting First Canadian Army commander, General Simonds, had believed that Allied bombs could breach the dikes and thereby flood most of the island. While German movement would be restricted, the Allies might use their profusion of amphibious vehicles to turn the flood to advantage. Although some experts had been dubious, on 3 October the experiment had been tried. Striking the big Westkapelle dike along the western edge of the island, bombers of the RAF Bomber Command had sent the North Sea rolling through a breach eighty yards wide. The next day the bombers had returned to widen the gap by another hundred yards. Although the Germans had tried to stem the flood with emergency dikes, gravity and the sea had flouted their efforts.63
The greater portion of the island was flooded, but the fact remained that most German defenses were on higher ground. The main reliance for seizing Walcheren rested with seaborne assaults assisted by a drive across the causeway from South Beveland. During the night of 31 October the Canadians assailed the narrow causeway to gain a tenuous foothold on Walcheren, but they could not make it stick. On 1 November British commandos sailed across the West Schelde from Breskens to establish a beachhead against only moderate resistance near the island's southern port of Flushing. By nightfall much of Flushing was under British control. The same day a seaborne force mounted at Ostend launched a frontal assault on strong, undamaged fortifications near Westkapelle. Tidal conditions having dictated a daylight assault, the British craft were easy targets for the enemy's big coastal guns. Nevertheless, aided by a timely strike by RAF Typhoons, the commandos fought their way ashore. The fall of the bastion of
Walcheren became only a question of hard fighting and time.
On the eastern side of the island, the Canadians at last had forced a bridgehead across the constricted causeway, but they could not expand it. British units took over with little more success until on the night of 2 November they moved in assault boats south of the causeway to gain another foothold on the island. Two days later troops in the two bridgeheads linked and started westward.
In the meantime, the British at Flushing and at Westkapelle had joined forces on 3 November. A systematic advance to clear all Germans from the island ensued. On 6 November the town of Middelburg fell and General Daser surrendered. On 8 November, eight days after the first attack, the British reported all organized resistance on Walcheren at an end. Meanwhile, on 2 November, North Beveland also had fallen.
The battle to clear the approaches to Antwerp was over. Only casualty figures could adequately bespeak the bitterness of a fight waged under appalling conditions of cold, rain, mud, and flood. Between 1 October and 8 November, the First Canadian Army—including Canadian, British, Polish, Czechoslovakian, French, and American troops—had incurred nearly 13,000 casualties. More than 6,000 of these were Canadians. The Germans had lost in prisoners alone more than 40,000 men.
Even as the commandos and infantry rooted the last resistance from Walcheren Island, mine sweeping began on the Schelde estuary. Some three weeks later, on 28 November, almost three months (eighty-five days) after British armor had seized Antwerp's wharves and docks intact, the first convoy of Allied ships dropped anchor in the port. Antwerp at long last was capable of producing for the Allied cause.
Allied ships were free to enter the port, yet clearing the approaches to Antwerp failed to spell an end to troubles besetting the city itself. Indeed, as indicated by the date of 14 October on a terse announcement in the intelligence report of a British division, Antwerp's troubles overlapped. Noted the report: ". . . something beastly fell in Antwerp yesterday."64
That "something beastly" was a V-bomb, one of two types of long-range projectiles which the Germans introduced during 1944. Probably as counterpropaganda to Allied use of the letter V for Victory, German propagandists named these projectiles after the German Vergeltung for vengeance.65 The first to be introduced was the V-1, a pilotless aircraft or flying bomb; the next was the V-2, a supersonic rocket. After London, Antwerp was the city most seriously affected by these weapons.66
From launching sites in the Netherlands and Germany, the Germans bombarded Antwerp with V-bombs and rockets all through the latter portion of the Siegfried Line Campaign and as late as 30 March 1945. At least 1,214 V-1's and V-2's, a conservative estimate, struck Antwerp,
while another 2,500 exploded in the environs. Casualties were high. Some 2,900 Antwerp civilians were killed and another 5,433 seriously injured. Losses among Allied military personnel were 734 killed and 1,078 seriously wounded, a total of 1,812. The most disastrous single incident resulting from V-weapon attacks either in Antwerp or elsewhere on the Continent occurred in Antwerp on 16 December when a V-2 hit the Rex Cinema during a crowded matinee. In one blow, 296 soldiers were killed and 194 seriously injured.
In terms other than casualties, damage to military facilities in Antwerp and the port was slight, though civilian property loss was enormous. Major military losses were 2 or more warehouses, temporary damage to 1 lock, and slight damage to 20 berths. Perhaps the greatest advantage accruing to the Germans from the bombardment was a drain upon Allied manpower, ordnance, and equipment occasioned by intricate and heavily manned antiaircraft defenses employed about the City.67 Although military authorities were concerned at times about unrest among dock workers and about civilian morale in general, the citizens of Antwerp rallied to the challenge much as did the people of London. In the end, Allied use of Antwerp as a port never was seriously impaired by the bombardment. At times the port handled an average of 25,000 tons of supplies per day.
The third primary target of the V-weapons was the Belgian industrial city of Liège. As the First U.S. Army turned Liège into a major supply center, the Germans as early as 14 September sited their bombs and rockets against the city. During the course of the war, Liège was hit about 1,086 times, while another thousand projectiles exploded nearby. Civilian casualties totaled 1,158, while 92 soldiers were killed and 336 wounded. The only major damage to military installations was the loss of a hospital and some 250,000 gallons of gasoline. As at Antwerp, the V-weapons, for all the terror of them, proved highly inaccurate and never interfered seriously with military operations at Liège.