It’s been 75 years since the 135,000-strong First Canadian Army defeated the German 15th Army in the Battle of the Scheldt.
Beginning Oct. 2, 1944, and continuing until Nov. 8, the Battle of the Scheldt was a series of significant skirmishes and military operations that were part of the overall battle for the Liberation of the Netherlands. It was a significant campaign for the First Canadian Army—which had British and Polish units attached to it.
The objective of the operation was to open up the waterway into Antwerp (a town already liberated by the Allies) so the port could be used to bring in supplies for the fight in north-west Europe. Antwerp was almost 100 kilometres inland and both banks of the Scheldt river were controlled by German troops—as was the South Beveland peninsula and Walcheren Island at the river’s mouth.
Fierce fighting on the Scheldt’s south shore began Oct. 6 and by Nov. 3, the First Canadian Army finally secured the area. By Nov. 6, they captured the major town of Middleburg (on Walcheren Island) and by Nov. 8, the fighting had ended.
The battle resulted in more than 6,300 Canadian soldiers either killed or wounded and more than 6,500 Allied troops killed or wounded. The Germans lost upwards of 10,000 soldiers and the Allies captured more than 41,000 German POWs. The battle was one of the bloodiest Canadians suffered in World War II.
The Battle of the Scheldt was also significant as it revealed that a massive emotional toll was being wrought upon Canadian troops. Soldiers were suffering from battle exhaustion and it caused major problems for Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, the commander of the First Canadian Army.
A report for October 1944 said 90 per cent of the cases of battle exhaustion could be attributed to personnel who had been in action for three months or more.
“Men suffering from battle exhaustion would go catatonic and curl up in fetal position, but the report found that after a week of rest, most men would recover enough to speak and move about,” according to Terry Copp and Robert Vogel, in their book Maple Leaf Route: Scheldt.
Men of the 3rd Canadian Division had been fighting nearly non-stop since D-Day.
The report cited “futility” as the main reason behind the large number of cases of battle exhaustion. The report claimed soldiers said they had “nothing to look forward to, no rest, no leave, no enjoyment, no normal life and no escape.”
The government policy of the time was to only send men overseas who volunteered to go. That meant there were great shortages of men in infantry units and therefore there weren’t enough replacement soldiers to allow troops to take leave.
This was in contrast to U.S. and British forces who had enough men to allow soldiers some rest and relaxation.
The Canadian policy of the time caused massive stress on its soldiers and probably caused more soldiers to die in battle than would have otherwise, probably contributed to more cases of PTSD, and probably elevated the suicide rate of post-World War II Canadian combat veterans.
The Battle of the Scheldt was not without controversy. British Admirals Bertram Ramsay and Andrew Cunningham warned both General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, not to proceed with Operation Market Garden and instead to proceed with the Battle of the Scheldt first, but “Monty” refused. Instead, he delayed the Scheldt for Market Garden. (Market Garden was a failure.) The delay allowed the Nazis time to reinforce their defenses in the Scheldt and caused the Allies to suffer far greater casualties than they otherwise would have suffered.
U.S. historian Charles B. MacDonald said the Allied decision to delay the Battle of the Scheldt was “One of the greatest tactical mistakes of the war.”