By the late summer of 1944, the Allies desperately needed a substantial harbour for troop supplies in order to continue their advance. The liberation of coastal Zeeland, at the Netherlands’ southwestern edge, became vitally important.
The Allies had won the Belgian port of Antwerp, with its docks intact, in early September 1944, but it was of little use while the Nazis still controlled the huge estuary of the River Scheldt in the Netherlands. Taking Zeeland, where the key German defences of the estuary lay, was a strategic necessity.
Despite the importance of the Scheldt estuary, the Allies focused their advance further east, as Operation Market Garden was rolled out – Montgomery’s ambitious plan to strike at Germany via an airborne attack deep within the Netherlands . As a result, the front line around Antwerp remained almost unchanged for a month. It was finally impressed on Montgomery (by Eisenhower and Admiral Ramsay among others) just how vital control of the Scheldt was, and the difficult task of clearing the German defences fell to the First Canadian Army, commanded – in the absence of General Crerar through illness – by Lieutenant General Guy Simonds.
On the Scheldt’s southern shore, meanwhile, to the northwest of Antwerp, the 3rd Canadian Division was encountering similarly dogged opposition from the German 64th Infantry Division. On 6 October 1944, the Canadians had launched their attack – codenamed Switchback – with the aim of establishing two bridgeheads on the opposite bank of the Leopold canal and clearing the so-called Breskens Pocket on the other side. Resistance was stiff, and on 9 October an amphibious assault was made at the small village of Hoofdplaat to help relieve pressure. The town of Breskens finally fell on 21 October, and on 2 November the commanding German general, Knut Eberding, was captured. The next day the remaining German forces laid down their weapons.
The 2nd Canadian Division – having captured Woensdrecht – moved up the Beveland peninsula on 24 October. Here they engaged the German 70th Infantry Division, many of whom were weakened by chronic stomach disorders. The first mission of the Canadian division was to cross the Kreekrakdam, which connected South Beveland to the mainland. The difficult terrain resulted in the failure of an initial armoured assault, and it became clear that the infantry would have to capture the dam.
The infantry encountered little resistance before they reached the main German defensive line on the South Beveland canal. Believing a frontal attack would be costly, the Canadian forces were to outflank the German line with the help of the newly arrived Scottish 52nd Lowland Division. On 26 October, the Scots launched a successful amphibious assault across the Scheldt, forcing the German troops to withdraw to their next line of defence on the Sloedam, the 1.5km causeway linking South Beveland to Walcheren.
All that remained for the Allies to do was to take heavily fortified Walcheren Island. To limit German defensive options, RAF bombers breached the dykes on 3 October 1944, flooding most of the island.
The Allies had two ways of attacking Walcheren – by sea or land, although the only overland connection to the island was the Sloedam, which had been fortified at both ends. The causeway was attacked on 31 October by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, but proved difficult to overcome. To support the stalled offensive, on the night of 2 and 3 November, Scottish soldiers of the 6th Battalion Cameronians crossed the waters 2km south of the causeway in a surprise attack, codenamed Mallard. The successful operation forced a German withdrawal, enabling the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division to gain ground. The causeway finally fell to the Allies on 3 November.
On 1 November, another amphibious landing had taken place at Vlissingen (Flushing), on the southwest of Walcheren. British, French and Dutch commandos were supported by heavy bombardment of the German coastal defences, and within a few hours had captured the centre of Vlissingen – although German resistance continued in the north of the city. A second landing at Westkapelle, northwest of Vlissingen, went less smoothly. Four of the heaviest German batteries were still in operation and engaged a group of 25 British gunboats that had supported the landings. After two hours only five of the Allied boats were operational, but the landing craft survived and the commando forces reached the shore, where they silenced the German guns. Middelburg, the island’s main town and the capital of Zeeland, was captured on 6 November. The Scheldt estuary had been cleared of German forces, but it took another three weeks to clear the area of mines and for the first Allied shipping to reach Antwerp.
The Battle of the Schledt had lasted just over a month, and had cost the Allies dearly. The First Canadian Army suffered nearly 13,000 casualties, around half of which were Canadian nationals.
Located on Walcheren, about 9km east of Middleburg, this ever-expanding museum is dedicated to the story of Zeeland in World War II, with a special focus on the Battle of the Scheldt. The Dutch regard the Scheldt as a “forgotten” battle and compare its significance to the Normandy landings – the only other occasion that the Allies breached the Atlantic Wall. In 2017, a 3-hectare Liberation Park opened on-site, with some fascinating outdoor exhibits including bunkers, a Sherman tank, an original Bailey bridge and a church built from Nissen huts – the replica of an emergency church built at nearby Ellewoutsdijk when the original was hit by a bomb. The museum also draws attention to the Zeeland Battalion, a group of volunteers who, after the liberation of Zeeland, fought alongside the Allied forces to free the rest of the country.
On the west coast of Walcheren at Westkapelle, the Polderhuis Museum covers the history and culture of the area with a special emphasis on the wartime years. Along the dunes around Westkapelle are several monuments relating to the Battle of the Scheldt, including two at the Erika dune where 172 Allied troops lost their lives on 1 November 1944.
Just off the N665 road, heading east from Arnemuiden, is a turning for the Sloedam Memorial, a group of stone monuments that commemorates two wartime operations. The first was a rearguard action by a French Infantry Division after the Dutch surrender in May 1940; the second was the battle for the causeway, Operation Mallard, fought by Scottish and Canadian troops in November 1944.
On the morning of 23 January 1945, German commandos came ashore at Sint Philipsland in an attempted counterattack against the Allied forces. After blowing up a water tower they headed for the town of Anna Jacobapolder but were successfully repelled. In the defence of the town three Poles, two Englishmen and the Dutch section commander, Piet Avontuur, lost their lives. A stone monument with a carved Phoenix commemorates those killed in the attack.
The war memorial in Renesse comprises a stone sculpture of a woman dressed in local costume holding the body of a lifeless man. It commemorates ten captured resistance fighters who, after trying to escape to North Beveland, were hanged by the Germans on 10 December 1944 at the entrance to Moermond Castle. A black stone plaque standing nearby remembers the civilians and soldiers of the area who were killed during World War II and in hostilities that took place in the Dutch East Indies (1945–1962).
On 14 May 1940, four days into the German invasion of the Netherlands, the Luftwaffe subjected Rotterdam to a major bombardment. A residential area was hit, and the city’s historic centre was largely destroyed. This small museum, located close to the Coolhaven metro stop, relates the devastation and rebirth of Rotterdam, the Netherlands' second-largest city and major port. A film outlines the story of the bombing, while fascinating objects from the period are displayed. Note that individuals can only visit at weekends, as the weekdays are reserved for groups.
At Plein 1940, a twenty-minute walk eastwards from the museum, is the famous Osip Zadkine sculpture-memorial. The Destroyed City, depicting a bronze man with a hole in his chest, symbolizes a postwar Rotterdam that had lost its historic heart. The piece was donated to the city in 1953.
Scheveningen, a seaside resort close to The Hague, is where the Gestapo confined and interrogated political prisoners and resistance fighters in a section of the town’s prison. It was given the ironic nickname, the “Oranjehotel” (Orange hotel). Around 25,000 people passed through its gates, of whom 215 were executed. The remainder were sent on to concentration or labour camps. One of the death cells, Cell 601, has been preserved in its original state with messages from prisoners scratched on the walls, a poignant memorial to those who were incarcerated here. The executions are commemorated at the site where they took place, on the dunes at nearby Waalsdorpervlakte.
Top image: Beach at Vlissingen © Olha Rohulya/Shutterstock