The Official History of the Canadian Army noted:
The operations on the Scheldt were slow to develop. While the first attacks on the canals to the south had taken place midway through September, 21st Army Group found itself with several competing priorities. The two main targets of the Army Group were the Ruhr and Antwerp. Operation MARKET-GARDEN, and the drive to cross the Rhine at Arnhem, occupied many resources. The 1st Canadian Army, moreover, found much of its resources occupied with the Channel Ports during this period, and German unwillingness to yield meant that forces had to be left to the rear of the army as they advanced into Belgium. At the start of October the 2nd Canadian Corps was tasked as follows:
In the event, the first two operations actually ran simultaneously, and Operation SWITCHBACK, the clearing of the Breskens Pocket, occurred while the fighting for Zuid Beveland (South Beveland) happened.
The German 64th Infantry Division was established south of the Scheldt Estuary, their positions designated Scheldt Fortress South.
Their front was covered by deep water barriers except for a gap near the Isabella Polder at the south-west angle of the Braakman Inlet. There, the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division had made several attempts to breach the German line, beginning on 22 September 1944 when an entire platoon of The Algonquin Regiment had been lost. A full-scale attack on 5 October by the Algonquins was driven off by heavy fire. These attacks were intended to divert German attention from the Leopold Canal crossing though the Canadian official historian notes that German records do not reveal if that was actually the case.
The 3rd Canadian Division, moving almost immediately from its assault on Calais 90 miles away, moved into the assault on the Leopold Canal, their plan to combine the water crossing of the canal with a waterborne attack from Terneuzen, ground that had earlier been cleared by the Polish Armoured Division. The 7th Brigade was to cross the Leopold with an additional battalion of the 8th Brigade under command, while the 9th crossed the Braakman Inlet in amphibious vehicles two days later.
The Leopold Canal
On the morning of 6 October 1944, two companies of the Canadian Scottish successfully crossed the Leopold Canal near Oosthoek without coming under enemy fire. North of Moerhuizen, the Regina Rifles put a company across (in fact, the Headquarters Defence Company of 1st Canadian Army (Royal Montreal Regiment) which had exchanged duties temporarily with "B" Company of the Regina Rifles to earn battle experience) before the Germans were able to react. The other company of the Reginas delayed its crossing and the Germans laid down such heavy fire that a crossing was made impossible. The three remaining Regina Rifles companies had to shift to the west.
With two separate and narrow bridgeheads on the north bank, enemy reaction was violent and counter-attacks immediate. The two bridgeheads could not be linked, and desperately hung on in the face of violent mortar, machine gun and small arms fire. Kapok bridges were thrown across the canal in the evening and The Royal Winnipeg Rifles passed across the front of the Canadian Scottish on the night of 6-7 October. The bridgehead was secure, but deadlocked, and the troops remained in waterlogged slit trenches for several days under heavy shellfire, some from coastal batteries as far north as Cadzand.
Early on 9 October, the Winnipeg Rifles sealed the gap between the two bridgeheads, and by early morning of 12 October the brigade had pushed to the left to narrow and deepen the bridgehead, covering bridging operations on the main road running north to Aardenburg, the natural axis of advance. One company of Canadian Scottish had pushed astride the main road and on the 13th gained a foothold in Eede. By evening, engineers of the 4th (Armoured) Division had completed bridges near Strooibrug and on the 14th, tanks of the British Columbia Regiment entered the bridgehead. The 9th Brigade was by then pressuring the rear of the pocket, and the 7th Brigade's ordeal was over, at a cost of 533 casualties among the three infantry battalions.
Assault Across the Braakman
The fierce resistance at the Leopold Canal changed the expected course of Operation SWITCHBACK. The 7th Brigade's effort, originally considered to be the main drive, became de-emphasized in favour of the 9th Brigades attack from Terneuzen. using Terrapin amphibious trucks and armoured Landing Vehicles, Tracked (LVTs, also known as "Buffaloes") from the 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers of the 79th Armoured Division, the 9th Brigade married up near Ghent then swam up the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal to Terneuzen, then across the mouth of the Braakman Inlet to land east of Hoofdplaat at the rear of the German pocket.
The landing was planned for early morning on 8 October, but a diversion was necessary at Terneuzen around damaged locks, and some vehicles were damaged in the process. Despite anxious moments where fear of German observation suggested a loss of surprised, a 24-hour delay imposed no actual danger, and the landing occurred early on 9 October. Two columns of 48 vehicles left the mouth of the canal at Terneuzen just after midnight, following a motorboat bearing the Royal Navy liaison officer from 1st Canadian Army headquarters. One column, with The North Nova Scotia Highlanders, headed for GREEN BEACH two miles east of Hoofdplaat, the other column with The Highland Light Infantry of Canada, landed on AMBER BEACH closer to the Braakman. Guided by coloured markers fired by artillery, the columns touched down only five minutes late, with no opposition other than a few scattered shots fired at the HLI. German coastal batteries at Flushing did not become active until dawn.
The reserve battalion, The Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders, protected by a smokescreen, was ashore by 09:30hrs in the company of mortars and machine guns of The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. The SDG advanced on Hoofdplaat while the assault battalions pressed forward, the Germans beginning to react to the landings, with shellfire from Breskens and Flushing becoming vigorous.
The stalemated advance beyond the Leopold Canal bridgehead prevented the 8th Brigade from being used as intended. The General Officer Commanding the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Major-General Dan Spry, changed his plans accordingly when the 9th Brigade made better than expected progress on their front. On 9 October the 8th Brigade was ordered to prepare to attack by land through the Isabella area to link up with the 9th, and the next day, plans changed again when The Algonquin Regiment failed to batter open a route for them at Isabella. The 8th Brigade was instead landed in the rear of the new bridgehead of the 9th Brigade, which was now over-extended with a gap between the HLI in Biervliet and the North Novas to their right.
The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment led the brigade into the bridgehead on 11 October, and on the 12th the brigade was complete and ashore, taking over the left flank in the face of heavy German shelling.
The 10th Infantry Brigade (of 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division) had been quietly holding positions on the Leopold Canal during this period. On 9-10 October, patrols from The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada south of Watervliet met fierce opposition. On 14 October, the Argylls and the Algonquins at Isabella both found the enemy withdrawing and pushed their troops forward. Patrols of the Algonquins met up with those of The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada coming south past the southwestern angle of the Braakman Inlet. A land route to the bridgehead was open and the ferry service from Terneuzen could be dispensed with.
Although enemy resistance remained fierce near Strooibrug, Eede was occupied on 16 October, and at last light on 18 October, the first troops of the British 52nd (Lowland) Division came under command of the 3rd Canadian Division, relieving the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade in the Leopold Canal bridgehead and occupying Aardenburg and Middelbourg the next day without opposition and making contact with the 7th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment. German troops were falling back to secondary defences, with a line running through Breskens-Schoondijke-Oostburg-Sluis-Leopold, the 64th Division having lost over 3,000 men captured so far to the 3rd Canadian Division.
Attack on the Second Defensive Line
The plan for the renewed attack involved firstly the 9th Brigade capturing Breskens and Schoondijke. The 7th Brigade, afforded a short rest following the Leopold Canal fighting, was to pass through and clear the entire coastal area north-east of Cadzand, while simultaneously the 8th Brigade captured Oostburg, Sluis and Cadzand, then clearing what remained of the German pocket between the Leopold Canal and the coast.
There was a desire to use the specialized AFVs of the 79th Armoured Division wherever the terrain permitted it, but an explosion involving a vehicle carrying flamethrower fuel on 20 October at Ijzendijke destroyed 10 vehicles and caused 84 casualties, hampering operations of the division.
assault began on 21 October under clear skies when The Stormont, Dundas
and Glengarry Highlanders attacked Breskens. Air support was available
in large quantities, and Typhoons flew many sorties. The small port town
fell by noon, and patrols pushed on to Fort Frederik Hendrik. The HLI
attacked Schoondijke the next day, but were unable to take it in the
face of heavy opposition, and the town was not secured until 24 October.
The defences at Fort Frederik Hendrik required greater preparation; the original fort was mostly gone with the exception of two lines of water defences, but the Germans had built new concrete works, and two companies of North Novas were repelled on 22 October. Another, deliberate, attack was planned for 25 October following bombardment by artillery and medium bombers. However, a German deserter the night before reported only 23 Germans remaining in the fort; he was sent back with an ultimatum and the remainder of his comrades surrendered. The 9th Brigade, its work done, was withdrawn for a rest. German intelligence was alarmed by their sudden disappearance, as hoped.
Generalmajor Kurt Eberding, commanding Infanterie Division 64, planned on using Oostburg as a pivot, swinging the left flank of the division back on a series of concentric dykes that centred on Cadzand. General Spry had foreseen this maneuver, however, and the German plans were disrupted by the speed of the 7th Brigade's advanced into the coastal area beyond Fort Frederik Hendrik. On 24 October, Groede was declared an open town following a German request; large numbers of civilians and wounded in hospital remained there after the Germans pulled out. The 7th Brigade advanced on either side of the town, hoping to outflank Cadzand along the coast and seizing the headquarters of the 64th Division there. The Canadian Scottish suffered losses on 27 October when their lead company was strongly counter-attacked and overrun. The Germans were aided by accurate fire from batteries on Walcheren Island, still in enemy hands. Cadzand was abandoned and occupied by the Canadians on 29 October.
The 8th Brigade, in the meantime, had been slowly advancing on Oostburg over saturated ground, often roadbound and delayed by numerous strongpoints. Oostburg itself fell to the Queen's Own Rifles on 26 October, and on the 29th slackening resistance indicated another general enemy withdrawal. Le Régiment de la Chaudière seized Zuidzande the same day, as the enemy pulled back over the Uitwaterings Canal, "beyond the old fortified position of Retranchement," and in the words of the official history of the Canadian Army, "was now penned in the last comer of his pocket."
Pre-eminent Canadian Army historian Terry Copp summed up the Breskens Pocket fighting by saying that the battles there by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division "must surely rank with the most difficult fought by any Allied formation in the Second World War."6
The fighting for Scheldt Fortress North - the Beveland isthmus and Walcheren Island - raged simultaneous to the fighting in the Breskens Pocket. Even before the Pocket was eliminated, British troops had come ashore on Walcheren Island. The capture of Breskens and Fort Frederik Hendrik between 21 and 25 October provided positions from which Allied artillery could be brought to bear on Walcheren before Canadian assaults on the island proper. The withdrawal of artillery for that task had unfortunately left little support for the 3rd Canadian Division during the final stages of SWITCHBACK.
An intelligence summary by 1st Canadian Army in the immediate wake of the battle, referred to the 64th Infantry Division as "the best infantry division we have met." The Germans had been well supported by numerous heavy guns of the Atlantic Wall, and the terrain had been atrocious - as the Canadian official history noted, Belgian military manuals described the local polder as "generalement impropre aux operations militaires". The 3rd Division nonetheless captured 12,707 German soldiers while many others had been killed, wounded or evacuated from the Pocket. The Canadians suffered 2,077 casualties by contemporary reckoning, including 314 killed and 231 missing, most of whom were also killed.
Infantry had borne the greatest burden in the Breskens Pocket fighting, as the ground had been unsuitable for tanks, though the Army's official history noted that on those occasions they were able to come into action, they were "most helpful." Artillery had been extremely valuable, and "linear and pinpoint concentrations, brought down on call, had been used to particular advantage." And whenever weather permitted, air support was "heavy and excellent" with 1733 fighter sorties and 508 medium and heavy bomber sorties flown in support of 3rd Canadian Infantry Division during Operation SWITCHBACK. The Army's history also specifically mentioned the work of the engineers.
The following Canadian units were awarded the Battle Honour "Breskens Pocket" for participation in these actions:
3rd Canadian Division
8th Canadian Infantry Brigade
9th Canadian Infantry Brigade
10th Canadian Infantry Brigade