The Calgary Highlanders at the Walcheren Causeway:
David J. Bercuson
Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War
As the Battle of the Scheldt Estuary neared its climax in late October, 1944 the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division drove westward across the length of Zuid Beveland. This peninsula, connected to the mainland of Holland by a narrow isthmus, formed much of the north bank of the Scheldt Estuary, the waterway from the North Sea to the all-important port of Antwerp. The British Army had liberated Antwerp and its important docks early in September, 1944, but had allowed the Germans to fortify both banks of the Scheldt, bring up reinforcements, and mine the waterway. Until the shores of the Scheldt were cleared of the enemy, the mines could not be swept. Until the mines were swept, the waterway and the port of Antwerp could not be used by the Allies. Since the Allied armies were still trucking supplies hundreds of kilometres from the beaches of Normandy to the fighting fronts, an acute supply crisis had arisen. There were shortages of everything from food to gasoline. Antwerp was the key to resolving that crisis and the Scheldt was the key to Antwerp.1
British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, in command of 21st Army Group, had given the job of securing the Scheldt Estuary to the lst Canadian Army. Now that battle was about to climax with a three-pronged assault to capture the island of Walcheren, just to the west of Zuid Beveland, where the last German bastion remained by the end of October. One of the infantry battalions of the 5th Brigade was the Calgary Highlanders, a militia regiment that had been mobilized in September, 1939 and that was largely made up of men and boys from southern Alberta and western Canada (the other two battalions were from Montreal - the Black Watch and the Regiment de Maisonneuve).
On the south bank of the Scheldt Estuary the port of Breskens had been liberated 21 October as troops of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division pushed the German garrison there westward towards Zeebrugge. The final shots on the south bank would not be fired until 2 November when the German guns at Cadzand were put out of action, but possession of Breskens meant that the last phase of the operation - the assault on Walcheren - could proceed once all of Zuid Beveland was secure.
To help the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division complete the occupation of Zuid Beveland, the British 52nd (Lowland) Division had started to cross over to Zuid Beveland from the south bank of the Estuary on the evening of 23 October. They then advanced towards the western tip of the peninsula where they would meet the Canadians. On the Canadian front, the 4th Brigade had cleared the final German positions to the immediate east of the narrow causeway connecting Walcheren to Zuid Beveland in the early hours of 31 October.2 The next phase of the attack plan originally drawn up by Canadian Lt. -Gen. G. G. "Guy" Simonds, temporarily in command of lst Canadian Army, called for seaborne assaults on 1 November at Westkapelle by the British 4th Special Service Brigade and at Flushing by the British No.4 Commando and the 155th Infantry Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division. At the same time, there would be an attack over the Walcheren causeway.
The causeway attack was to be essentially diversionary in nature. It was timed to coincide with the British commando landings and maintain pressure on the Germans so that they would not reinforce their positions at Flushing and Westkapelle. There is some indication that Lt.-Gen.Charles Foulkes (the acting commander of the 2nd Canadian Corps, of which 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was a part) did not decide until the last moment whether the causeway attack was to be done by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division - which had been in constant action since the third week of September - or the 52nd (Lowland) Division, which had not yet seen combat.3
In late 1944 the Walcheren causeway was about one kilometre long, 40 metres wide, and 20 metres from its base to its top. It connected the eastern tip of Walcheren to Zuid Beveland over marshy salt flats of deep mud, long grasses, and runnels of water. Sometimes the flats were covered with sea water to a depth of up to five metres, but not at the end of October 1944. Atop the causeway was a rail line, a two lane blacktop road, and two bicycle paths that had once been lined with trees. There was also a set of railway tracks on the north side of the causeway. The trackbed was about 1.5 metres higher than the road and bicycle paths. The two sides of the causeway were lined with boulders secured in place by wooden stakes, designed to withstand the tides.
On 31 October, 1944 the causeway had been much changed by war. The trees had been almost totally shattered by shellfire. The Germans had built concrete bunkers at both ends of the causeway and in the sides of the Walcheren dykes that ran to the north and south of it. Atop those dykes they had dug firing trenches. On the causeway itself, they had prepared brick-lined slit trenches and on both slopes of the causeway, about 300 metres from the Walcheren end, they had poured concrete slabs in which they had embedded perpendicular lengths of rail cut at sharp angles and enmeshed in barbed wire. A large crater had been blown in the causeway about 300 metres from the Zuid Beveland end. Some of the Highlanders would later recall the crater as having virtually cut the causeway in two.4 One report radioed to 5th Brigade HQ by engineers in the midst of the causeway battle on 1 November estimated that it would take five uninterrupted hours of work with earthmovers to fill it.5 In addition, the Germans had built a large roadblock from bits of torn-up rail at the Walcheren end of the causeway, and had sited one 88mm anti-tank gun to fire down its length. They had also positioned at least two other 88s, as well as heavy mortars and machine guns, northwest and southwest of the western end of the causeway. Some members of the Highlander intelligence section were certain that one of the 88s was actually embedded in the dyke itself.6 German artillery for miles around was also sighted in on it. The defences were manned by troops of the 70th Infantry Division, a "stomach" unit made of men with ulcers and other stomach disorders, and the tough veterans of the 64th Infantry Division who had had battle experience on the Russian front.7 It is no exaggeration to say that the causeway was a killing ground.
In his excellent account of the battle to clear the Scheldt Estuary, J.L. Moulton claims that Brigadier H. Keefler, the acting 2nd Canadian Infantry Division GOC [General Officer Commanding], "told the 4th and 5th Brigades that whichever first reached the eastern end of the causeway ... would stop there, leaving to the other the uninviting task of crossing."8
1. The Best secondary source on the battle of the Scheldt Estuary is W.D. Whitaker and Shelagh Whitaker, Tug of War: The Canadian Victory that Opened Antwerp [Toronto, 1984].
2. National Archives of Canada [NAC], War Diary of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 31/10/44.
3. NAC, War Diary of the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade (WD, CIB), 30/10/44. The diary states "news suddenly arrived that the show was off and we would NOT do the op - 52 Br Div are to clear WALCHEREN IS."
4. William J. Wright, "Adventures of a Canadian Soldier Through a Europe at War with the Calgary Highlanders" [Privately produced, 1992]. In the possession of the author.
5. WD, 5 CIB, Message Log 1/11/44/
6. Ed Ford to Bercuson 27 November, 1993 quoting a letter from Vosko to Mannix, 7 May, 1993, in possession of the author.
7. George Blake, Mountain and Flood [Glasgow, 1950], p. 91.
8. J.L. Moulton, Battle for Antwerp [ New York, 1978] p. 137.