First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign: September 13-November 6, 1944
By Mark Zuehlke
Douglas & McIntyre,
545 pages, $37.95
Mark Zuehlke is among Canada's leading historians, and his previous works on the Italian campaign of 1943 and the Normandy invasion of 1944 have proved quite popular. In Terrible Victory, Zuehlke turns his attention to the actions of First Canadian Army after the Normandy campaign.
After the successes in Normandy in the summer of 1944, the Allied Forces prepared for the liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands and the repelling of the German forces back into Germany. As summer turned into fall, it appeared that the German army was beginning to weaken, perhaps even to a point where the invasion of Germany, and ultimately victory, might be achieved before Christmas. As U.S., British and Canadian troops moved across Europe, it was inevitable that food, ammunition and fuel would be required in ever-increasing amounts. At the same time, the momentum of the Allied Forces coming out of the Normandy region needed to be maintained.
In order for the plan to succeed, adequate ports needed to be liberated and secured. Ports along the English Channel, such as Dieppe and Le Havre, were either too small for the quantity of goods needed or had been rendered largely ineffective by departing German forces. The Belgian port of Antwerp was the ideal and logical choice, due to its size and its capacity for larger convoy ships. But in order to take Antwerp, the surrounding region, known as the Scheldt Estuary, had to be secured.
The Scheldt Estuary was strongly protected by the German army, which also appreciated the importance of Antwerp. Many artillery pieces protected the approaches from naval and aerial attack, and many of the soldiers defending this region were prepared to fight to the last man and to the last shell cartridge.
General Dwight Eisenhower, the top Allied commander, made it clear to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery that he wanted Antwerp under Allied control, a critical factor for reducing delay times for supplies reaching the advancing forces. Montgomery, whose span of control included First Canadian Army, felt that pressing toward the Ruhr Valley was of greater importance. Yet Montgomery's own experiences in North Africa in 1942 should have helped illuminate Eisenhower's aims for him. After all, overstretched supply lines had wreaked havoc on British and German armoured forces during battles in North Africa in 1942.
Montgomery chose to dispatch First Canadian Army to the region, purely as a secondary action, while British and American forces pushed on for Germany. It was not until the middle of October, 1944, that Montgomery (pressured not only by Eisenhower but also the Royal Navy and others) chose to make the Scheldt a key objective. Ultimately, planning to take it would require a joint effort with U.S. and British air forces, particularly once the decision was made to breach the region's perimeter dykes in order to flood the region and force the Germans out.
A weakened First Canadian Army ended up attacking a German force that was not quite as weak as it was initially perceived to be. As the Canadians moved through this region, they faced numerous challenges due to losses suffered in Normandy. Reinforcements brought into the units had little or no training as infantry; in fact, in many cases, non-combat personnel such as cooks and clerks were being used to fill voids in regiments, their basic-training skills long forgotten.
Canadian efforts would be deadly, bloody and exhaustive. With support from British forces and additional units from other nations, victory would finally be achieved - at a terrible price of nearly 13,000 officers and men killed, wounded or missing. Approximately half of these were Canadians.
Terrible Victory does not focus strictly on the hostilities between those in command, although the personality conflicts between key planners such as Eisenhower and Montgomery, and Montgomery and First Canadian Army Commander Harry Crerar, are brought to life for the reader.
Instead, Zuehlke examines the battle from the point of view of the Canadian and German sides, utilizing memoirs, regimental histories and personal papers of those who fought in the battle. He also explores the war diaries for each regiment, those key documents (written after the battle by an officer of a unit) that offer the closest thing to a blow-by-blow account of battles.
It is from many of these war diary entries that Zuehlke is able to create a tale of the platoons, squadrons, companies and batteries, and ultimately tell the story of the men fighting this prolonged battle. In doing so, he has captured the successes and sacrifices of the soldiers on the ground, the leaders and the planners of this incredibly difficult mission.
Zuehlke is very effective in creating images of the efforts of the officers and soldiers of the many units that participated in this campaign. As with so many battles of the First and Second World Wars, every part of Canada was represented in the units that fought in this campaign, and Zuehlke covers them with as much detail and clarity as possible without overwhelming the reader. The text is further enhanced by several maps and 16 pages of photographs, including many by renowned military photographer Ken Bell.
Major Michael Boire, a professor at the Royal Military College, comments in the preface that the story of the Scheldt Estuary has "little glory ... and [is]damned complicated and hard to tell." Zuehlke tells the story well, and his work is a welcome addition to Second World War literature on the subject.
Lieutenant Steven Dieter is an associate air force historian.