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Battle of the Scheldt (1944)

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The Battle of the Scheldt in World War II was a series of military operations led by the First Canadian Army, with Canadian, Polish and British units attached, to open up the shipping route to Antwerp so that its port could be used to supply the Allies in north-west Europe. Under acting command of the First Canadian's Lt. Gen. Guy Simonds, the battle took place in northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands from October 2 to November 8, 1944.

The well-established Wehrmacht defenders staged an effective delaying action, during which the Germans flooded land areas in the Scheldt estuary, slowing the Allied advance. After five weeks of difficult fighting, the Canadian First Army, at a cost of 12,873 Allied casualties (half of them Canadian), was successful in clearing the Scheldt after numerous amphibious assaults, obstacle crossings, and costly assaults over open ground.

Once the German defenders were no longer a threat, it was a further three weeks – November 29, 1944 – before the first convoy carrying Allied supplies was able to unload in Antwerp due to the necessity of de-mining the harbours.

The Battle of the Scheldt has been described by historians as unnecessarily difficult, as it could have been cleared earlier and more easily had the Allies given it a higher priority than Operation Market Garden. American historian Charles B. MacDonald called the failure to immediately take the Scheldt one of the greatest tactical mistakes of the war." Because of the flawed strategic choices made by the Allies in early September 1944, the battle became one of the longest and bloodiest that the Canadian army faced over the course of the Second World War.

The French Channel ports were "resolutely defended" like "fortresses" and Antwerp was the only viable alternative. However, Field Marshal Montgomery ignored Admiral Cunningham, who said that Antwerp would be "as much use as Timbuctoo" unless the approaches were cleared, and Admiral Ramsay, who warned SHAEF and Montgomery that the Germans could block the Scheldt estuary with ease.

The Antwerp city and port fell in early September and were secured by XXX Corps under the command of Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks. Montgomery halted XXX Corps for resupply short of the wide Albert Canal to the north of the city, which consequently remained in enemy hands. Horrocks regretted this after the war, believing that his corps might have advanced another 100 miles (160 km) with the fuel available. Unknown to the Allies, at that time XXX Corps was opposed by only a single German division.

The pause allowed the Germans to regroup around the Scheldt River, and by the time the Allies resumed their advance, General Kurt Student's 1st Parachute Army had arrived and set up strong defensive positions along the opposite side of the Albert Canal and Scheldt river. The task of breaking the strengthened German line, which stretched from Antwerp to the North Sea along the Scheldt River, would fall to the First Canadian Army in the month-long, costly Battle of the Scheldt. The Canadians "sustained 12,873 casualties in an operation which could have been achieved at little cost if tackled immediately after the capture of Antwerp. .... This delay was a grave blow to the Allied build-up before winter approached."

The British historian Antony Beevor was of opinion that Montgomery, not Horrocks was to blame for not clearing the approaches, as Montgomery "was not interested in the estuary and thought that the Canadians could clear it later". Allied commanders were looking ahead to "leaping the virtually one bound." Despite Eisenhower wanting the capture of one major port with its dock facilities intact, Montgomery insisted that the First Canadian Army should clear the German garrisons in Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk first, although these ports had all suffered demolitions and would not be navigable for some time. Boulogne (Operation Wellhit) and Calais (Operation Undergo) were captured on 22 and 29 September 1944; but Dunkirk was not captured until the end of the war on 9 May 1945 (see Siege of Dunkirk). When the Canadians eventually stopped their assaults on the northern French ports and started on the Scheldt approaches on 2 October, they found that German resistance was far stronger than they had imagined, as the remnants of the Fifteenth Army had had time to escape and reinforce the island of Walcheren and the South Beveland peninsula.

Winston Churchill claimed in a telegram to Jan Smuts on October 9 that "As regards Arnhem, I think you have got the position a little out of focus. The battle was a decided victory, but the leading division, asking, quite rightly, for more, was given a chop. I have not been afflicted with any feeling of disappointment over this and am glad our commanders are capable of running this kind of risk." He said that the risks "... were justified by the great prize so nearly in our grasp" but acknowledged that "[c]learing the Scheldt Estuary and opening the port of Antwerp had been delayed for the sake of the Arnhem thrust. Thereafter it was given first priority."