Antwerp was to prove a vital port to the Allies as they pushed towards Germany after the success of D-Day in 1944. To start with, Antwerp was not considered to be overly important as Montgomery wanted to push to the Ruhr as soon as was possible. His belief that an attack on Arnhem would bring a swift end to the war did not succeed – and it was only after the failure of Operation Market Garden that Montgomery realised the importance of Antwerp in solving the increasing supply difficulties that the Allies had as their supply lines became more and more extended as they approached Germany.
As early as September 8th, 1944, Winston Churchill had written to his chiefs-of-staff about the importance of the Walcheren area and the port of Antwerp. September was also the month that the British started to suffer from supply problems – what was referred to as a “supply famine”. Ironically, it was the sheer success of the Allies that had brought about this problem. The Germans had put up stiff resistance around Normandy – but it had also led to the loss of the German VII Army. Once the break out from Normandy occurred, the Allies sped forward far faster than they had planned for. Paris was freed 55 days ahead of schedule and by mid-September, the Americans were approaching Aachen, which they had expected to do by mid-May 1945. Such an advance put a huge strain on the supplies that were still primarily coming in via Cherbourg. Some supplies were flown in, but only if they could be carried by plane – and this greatly limited what was carried. The American ‘Red Ball Express’ (heavy lorries converted to carry stores) started in late August. But the Germans still held out at Calais, Boulogne, Dunkirk and Le Harve, ports that could have been used
The capture of Antwerp would have solved all supply problems. The port could handle 1,000 ships at a time weighing up to 19,000 tons each. Antwerp had 10 square miles of docks, 20 miles of water front, and 600 cranes. Senior Allied commanders counted on Antwerp handing 40,000 tons of supplies a day – when it was captured. Antwerp was about 80 miles from the open sea on the River Scheldt. Between the port and the sea were the islands of Walcheren and North Beveland and South Beveland that was attached to mainland Holland by a small isthmus – all held by the Germans who could do a great deal to disrupt the flow of shipping into the port.
On September 3rd, Montgomery ordered General Dempsey, head of the British 2nd Army, to occupy Antwerp. The 11th Armoured Division did just this on September 4th. There was some resistance but, with the help of the Belgium Resistance, this was crushed with some ease. However, holding Antwerp was not enough. The Allies needed to control the West and East Scheldt – areas of sea to the north-west of Antwerp.
Ironically, this was the exact same area that the Germans had chosen to use to evacuate their men from the Pays de Calais. 100,000 German soldiers embarked at Breskens in Holland and crossed to Flushing in the Walcheren. From here they were meant to return to Germany to help defend against the expected Allied onslaught. However, Hitler had ordered that the Walcheren was to become a fortress to stop the Allies advance. The 64th Division was ordered to stay there to fight the Allies.
On September 14th, General Crerar of the Canadian 1st Army was ordered by Montgomery to attack the area occupied by the Germans north of Antwerp. In this he was assisted by the Polish 1st Armoured Division. The attack was anything but easy. On a number of occasions both the Canadian and Poles were pushed back by fierce German resistance. The geography of the region did not suit armour (low lying and flooded flat land bisected by canals) and the Canadians had their infantry units tied up at Boulogne and Calais. Wherever the Canadians and Poles advanced, they came up against stiff German opposition.
Towards the end of September, the Allies attempted a different approach. Rather than attack the Germans along the line of the Leopold Canal in mainland Belgium and Holland and move north, the Allies advanced north out of Antwerp towards Roosendaal and Breda in Holland. By doing this, they would cut off the Germans in the two Bevelands and Walcheren. The Germans would then have the choice of either fighting to the end or surrendering.
The new attack started on October 2nd. It made progress but came up against fierce German resistance wherever it went. Such resistance ensured that for the time being, the Allies did not capture Woensdrecht which would have cut off the Germans in the isthmus. However, in the same time frame, Calais fell to the Allies on October 1st, thus releasing many Canadian troops. This allowed the Canadians to re-launch their attack in the area around the Leopold Canal in mainland Belgium/Holland. Even so, they met with strong German resistance, despite being equipped with British ‘Wasp’ flame throwing Bren-gun carriers. On October 9th, Montgomery gave the opening of the Scheldt “complete priority without any qualification whatsoever”. On October 20th, a concerted effort was made by the Allies to attack the Germans on all fronts in the region. The terrain still presented many problems to the Allies. Buffalo amphibious vehicles were used to good effect in the area – they transported men and equipment.
The Germans were not only attacked on the ground, Bomber Command targeted them from the air – using their air superiority to bomb Walcheren and flood the island by destroying the dykes there. On October 3rd, 247 Lancaster bombers and Mosquitoes of Bomber Command attacked Walcheren. In total, between 8000 and 9000 tons of bombs were dropped on Walcheren and the dykes were destroyed. The attack needed the support of the Dutch government as the whole economy of the island was destroyed by the intruding salt water. After the German surrender, the people on Walcheren said that the salt water was preferable to the German occupation.
An attack by commandos ensured the end of German control of Walcheren. However, the Scheldt had to be swept for mines and it was not until November 26th that the first light boats could freely sail up the Scheldt to Antwerp. On November 28th, the first large boats used the port. By December 14th, 19,000 tons of supplies were being unloaded at Antwerp each day.
The campaign to free up Antwerp cost the Allies dear. They had lost 703 officers and 12,170 other ranks killed, wounded or lost in action, presumed dead. Over half of these casualties were Canadian men. However, the capture of Antwerp and the ability to use its port facilities was vital for the Allies as they drove on to Germany.