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Operation Infatuate - Walcheren

The island of Walcheren is roughly rectangular in shape, about ten miles long by eight miles broad. The village of Westkapelle lies at the westerly corner, the port of Flushing at the southerly one. The island is low-lying, most of it being below mean sea level. Only the coastal strip of dunes on the northeast and southwest sides, and the eastern most section of the island, are higher than the sea.

The island was heavily fortified. There were coast-defence guns up to 8.7 inch, including a dozen 5.9s. Counter battery fire, aerial bombardment and flooding took care of many of these weapons, particularly in the Flushing area. In the period October 3-17th the heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force made four heavy attacks on the sea dyke of Walcheren, breaching them and allowing the sea to pour in. The island was now like an immersed saucer with only the rim showing.

The first waterborne attack in "Infatuate", the assault on Walcheren, went in against Flushing before daylight on November 1st, when a commando of the 4th Special Service Brigade crossed the West Scheldt from Breskens following a bombing attack by the R.A.F.. Three hundred guns, including those of two Canadian Army Groups Royal Artillery, hammered German defences in the town from across the West Scheldt. The commando was soon ashore and in possession of a bridgehead. The 155th Infantry Brigade now sent a battalion across to assist  in clearing Flushing. Next morning the rest of the Brigade crossed over and one battalion advanced toward Middleburg. On the 3rd the headquarters  of the Flushing garrison was captured, after as advance through deep flood-waters; and by nightfall the city was clear.

The climax of the Walcheren operation came at Westkapelle. Soon after first light on November 1st a seaborne attack was delivered at that point. The assault force, consisting of the 4th Special Service Brigade under command of the 2nd Canadian Corps, a naval bombarding force and a support squadron, approached the island from the west. When the support squadron, made up of twenty-seven landing craft armed with guns, rockets and smoke-projectors, deployed five miles from shore it was immediately engaged by every German battery within range and began to suffer heavy losses. Four hours later nine craft had been lost and eleven were more or less badly damaged by gunfire. There were 372 causalities among the crews. Their gallantry and their sacrifice had purchased victory. British tactical investigators later came to the conclusion that the landing would have failed but for two facts: the German batteries fired at the craft that were firing at them, not at the personnel carriers; and one of the 5.9 inch batteries ran out of ammunition at a critical moment.

It had been planned that close air support would be given by fighter bombers and rocket-firing Typhoons immediately before and after H-Hour. Bad flying weather however prevented the fighter bombers form taking off. It also interfered with air spotting for naval bombardment ships, the aircraft being fogbound in England. Fortunately, the Typhoons were able to come into action against the enemy defences just as the first landing craft touched down on each side of the gap in the dyke. One Commando landed, seized the town and nearby battery and advanced north-eastwards. Another Commando, landing south of the gap, went on to the southeast along the dunes. During the next two days good progress was made in both directions.

The last landing on Walcheren was made on the eastern south side of the causeway, where the 156th Brigade sent a battalion across on the night of November 2-3rd. using assault boats and wading in the salt marshes, this unit established a secure bridgehead by nightfall. Next day another battalion followed and the troops at the west end of the causeway began to advance. On November 6th Middleburg fell to troops advancing from Flushing and the German general surrendered. By the 7th only the northern coast remained to be cleared. On the morning of the 8th German resistance on Walcheren came to an end.

Both naval and army authorities blamed the heavy losses in the Westkapelle assault on the limited scale of bomber effort employed against the German batteries. It is true that many Allied air officers were reluctant to divert forces to those targets from the offensive against German communications and oil; but a considerable number of attacks were actually made on Walcheren. It was particularly unfortunate that bad weather compelled the air force to cancel the attacks which had been planned for October 31st. (D minus 1)

The effort of the flooding - which of course meant much misery for the population of Walcheren - merits a word. Most of the German Coastal batteries were on the high ground and were not directly affected (though many of the anti-aircraft positions were put out of action); but they were isolated by the waters, their communications were seriously interfered with and the German defence generally was greatly harassed. The attackers on the other hand were offered the advantage of being able to use amphibious vehicles, and thanks in part to these the operations on Walcheren went faster than those south of the Scheldt.

During the operations of the First Canadian Army from October 1st to November 8th 41, 043 German prisoners were taken, and the enemy suffered correspondingly heavy losses in killed and wounded. Our own casualties, including British and Allied, were reported by General Simonds as 703 officers and 12,170 other ranks killed, wounded and 6012 other ranks were Canadians.

With the clearing of Walcheren the Germans no longer commanded the sea approach to Antwerp. However, the West Scheldt was thickly sown with mines which the navy had to clear. Not until November 28th did the first Allied convoy arrive in the port. But with cargo ships unloading at Antwerp a firm logistical foundation at last existed for the final advance into Germany. 

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