Liberating Belgium

Canadian Troops Fighting Across Europe

After driving enemy forces from Normandy, the Allies began their drive to liberate occupied Europe and drive into the German heartland. The left flank of the Allied Armies along the English Channel and through the lowlands would be held by the Canadian First Army commanded by General Harry Crerar. His force would included several Canadian divisions, a British Corps, a Polish Division plus Dutch and Belgian irregulars. They crossed the Seine on August 25, 1944 and headed north.

By September 6th, they had liberated Ypres and Passchendaele in Flanders. That evening, the Last Post was played by the buglers of the Ypres Fire Brigade at the Menin Gate for the first time since occupation had started in 1940. Within a few days, the Escaut canal had been crossed, but German opposition had begun to stiffen. Meanwhile, other Canadian forces assaulted the French ports of the Pais-de-Calais -- clearing Dieppe, site of the ill-fated expedition of 1942, and isolating Dunkirk, site of the great evacuation of 1940. In most cases, German garrisons in these port cities resisted to the maximum. Major operations were needed to capture them and major engineering efforts needed to bring them into operation. The Canadian 3rd Division would spend September clearing the ports of Boulogne and Calais, as well as capturing the V-1 sites which had been bedeviling London. Ostend across the Belgian border fell on September 9th and would be in limited service on the 28th.

Liberating Ghent

On September 17th, the Allies, using their airborne divisions with strategic daring, launched Operation Market Garden, an attempt to drive quickly into Germany and shorten the war. When the last of three river crossings at Arnhem failed, the operation collapsed. With prospects for a quick victory gone, the Allies desperately needed a large major port to support a prolonged drive.

The Scheldt

Attention focused on Antwerp which had been captured by the British 2nd Army on September 4th with its docs intact. The port, however, is 50 miles from the North Sea, separated by a complex system of islands, marshes and channel known as the Scheldt estuary. Allied commanders had made a major mistake by not challenging immediately the Germans whose forces holding the estuary and effectively blockading the port. With General Crerar, the job of capturing the Estuary was given to General Guy Simonds successor to Canadian commander Harry Crerar who had become ill. In late September a number of small operations focusing on the estuary demonstrated that the enemy had a series of unified defenses protecting the pocket and that they intended to hold until the last.

What would ensue were weeks of the heaviest kind fighting with river crossings and amphibious landings with the enemy flooding all low-lying areas. By the end, the First Canadian Army would suffer 7,000 more killed in action. The fighting would evolve over four overlapping phases. The first half of October was required to clear the area north of Antwerp allowing the First Army to focus on the Scheldt area.

The Scheldt Estuary Today from Space

In the second phase, known as Operation Switchback, the area behind the Leopold Canal was cleared by the 4th Division which was then re deployed and cleared the South Beveland Isthmus. Montgomery, then reorganized his troops for a final assault on the Estuary.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the 52nd British (Lowland) Division would collaborate in an elaborate operation combining bridging by engineers, an amphibious landing by the British unit and boat launched assault by the Canadians. The objective of all this effort was to break the German line on the Beveland Canal. Operation Lightening was a success, but one enemy bastion remained.

Walcheren Island connected by a causeway to South Beveland effectively blocked the shipping channel to Antwerp. In this operation RAF bombing operations were needed to supplement waterborne assaults on the causeway. After a fierce struggle, the island's main city was captured on the 6th and all opposition ceased by the 8th. Mines had to be cleared from the channel, but the first Allied convoy to Antwerp arrived November 28th. In the coming, the port would play a critical, but unanticipated, role as American tanks would arrive in Antwerp and be driven directly into the Battle of the Bulge to help stop the enemy's last grasp at victory.

Credits: The Canadian Veterans Affairs website was very helpful in preparing this article; America's Military Heritage by Dupuy and Dupuy has a helpful overview on the post-D-Day operations of the Allied Armies.

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