By MPP Toby Barrett
The First Canadian Army was instrumental in the Battle of the Scheldt, 75 years ago, which opened the crucial Port of Antwerp to Allied shipping.
The battle took place in northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands against well-established Wehrmacht defenders. On October 2, the battle began in earnest and was fought until November 8. After five weeks of difficult fighting, the First Canadian 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.
Antwerp would be crucial for the invasion of Germany, but it would be a further three weeks until November 29, 1944 before the first convoy carrying Allied supplies was able to unload at Antwerp, because of the necessity of de-mining the harbours.
When Canadians eventually stopped their assaults on the northern French ports and started on the Scheldt approaches on October 2, they found German resistance was far stronger than imagined. This, plus the flooded, muddy terrain made the battle especially grueling and bloody.
The Battle of the Scheldt has been described by historians as unnecessarily difficult—the battle became one of the longest and bloodiest the Canadian army faced over the course of the Second World War.
The First Canadian Army in northwestern Europe during the final phases of the war was a powerful force, the largest army that had ever been under the control of a Canadian general. The strength of this army ranged from approximately 105,000 to 175,000 Canadian soldiers to anywhere from 200,000 to over 450,000 when including soldiers from other nations. British, Polish, American, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were included as units.
Thus, with the approaches to Antwerp free and the country to the Maas River cleared, the Battle of the Scheldt was over. The crucial supply line, essential to fuel the Allied advance to liberate Europe, was secured. The channel was cleared of mines and, on November 28, the first convoy entered the port of Antwerp led by the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui.
The campaigns in Northwest Europe could not have succeeded without the support of Allied naval and air forces. The navies kept open the sea lanes for munitions, supplies and reinforcements, while overhead the air forces cleared the skies, and engaged in dangerous bombing missions.
Those Canadians who fought in the Battle of the Scheldt achieved and sacrificed much in their efforts to help bring peace and freedom to the people of Europe. These combatants were among the more than one million men and women who served in Canada’s Armed Forces during the Second World War.
More than 42,000 Canadians gave their lives in the war. Canada and the world recognize the sacrifices and achievements of all Canadians, like those who fought in the Battle of the Scheldt. These Canadians accomplished so much and left a lasting legacy of peace.
Most of the Canadians who died in the Battle of the Scheldt are buried at two Commonwealth War Cemeteries—Adegem Canadian War Cemetery is in the northwest corner of Belgium not far from the Dutch frontier, and Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery located in southwest Holland.
The Ontario Legislative Library, Royal Canadian Legion, and Veterans Affairs Canada were used to research this column.
Toby Barrett is MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk