You Command: Canadian Infantry Attack, 1944 | HistoryNet MENU

You Command: Canadian Infantry Attack, 1944

By Andrew H. Hershey
7/19/2017 • HistoryNet

As a Canadian brigade commander, YOU must lead an assault against German defenders near Antwerp.

Logistics, rightly termed the “sinews of war,” is the lifeblood of modern armies. Keeping the troops fed and clothed, their guns supplied with am- munition, and the tanks and vehicles filled with gas is a vital key to victory.  The saying “amateurs study tactics, but professionals study logistics” is a military truism that commanders ignore at their peril.

In early October 1944, the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II’s European Theater, U.S. General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, confronted a serious logistical challenge as he led his American, British and Canadian armies against Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s German forces. After invading German-occupied France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Ike’s armies broke out of the Normandy beachhead, pushed German forces out of France and were closing on Germany’s western border. Yet the surging Allied armies remained tied to long, tenuous supply lines reaching back across France to the Normandy invasion beaches.

Although the Allies captured the French port of Cherbourg in June, the Germans’ sabotage of port facilities prevented its full use. Moreover, German garrisons were still holding out in other major French ports, keeping them out of Allied hands. To maintain the logistical flow necessary to propel the Allied drive into Germany and then on to final victory – tens of thousands of tons of food, ammunition and gasoline each day – the Allies desperately needed a large deepwater port.

On September 4, 1944, British forces liberated Antwerp, Belgium, home to one of the largest deepwater ports in Europe. Yet Antwerp was located on the Scheldt River, over 50 miles from the North Sea, and the Scheldt Estuary and surrounding area remained under German control. Before the vital port of Antwerp could become the solution to Eisenhower’s logistical problems, control of the estuary had to be wrenched from enemy hands.

Armchair General® takes you back to October 5, 1944, in the Scheldt Estuary region of southern Holland and northern Belgium, where you will play the role of Brigadier John Godfrey “Jock” Spragge, commander of 7th Infantry Brigade, 3d Canadian Division. (See Scheldt Estuary map, p.55.) Your mission is to attack across the Leopold Canal, defeat German defenders, and capture and establish bridgeheads north of the canal. Any hope of opening Antwerp’s deepwater port for Allied use depends on seizing control of the estuary. If your mission is a success, the bridgeheads will provide a foothold for launching subsequent attacks to clear the enemy from the region. Failure, on the other hand, will be a serious setback to the supply-starved Allied armies.

SCHELDT ESTUARY

The Scheldt Estuary, the region extending along both banks of the Scheldt River and including the large islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, is composed of “polders,” reclaimed areas of low-lying land once covered by water. Over the centuries, these areas have been sectioned off and surrounded by a series of man-made dikes and embankments, kept dry by pumping stations that remove rainwater and rising groundwater.

The Germans, to strengthen their defenses and impede Allied movement, have opened several strategic dikes surrounding many of the polders and have shut off the pumping stations, leaving much of the region flooded. This has left these areas all but impassable except to amphibious vehicles and has confined regular vehicle traffic to raised embankments – which the Germans have zeroed in on with artillery, mortars and anti-tank guns.

The 90,000 soldiers of German 15th Army defend the Scheldt Estuary and adjacent areas in southern Holland and northern Belgium. Although the Allies realized the importance of clearing German defenders from the estuary when they liberated Antwerp September 4, efforts to seize it were delayed when priority of troops and scarce resources was given to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s ultimately unsuccessful Operation Market Garden (September 17-25). This delay gave the Germans time to improve their Scheldt defenses, lay tens of thousands of mines and booby traps, and complete the flooding of low-lying polders.

At the end of September, Canadian 1st Army, part of Montgomery’s 21 Army Group, was given responsibility for attacking and clearing German defenders from the estuary. Initial attacks against stiff resistance in late September-early October produced small, hard-won gains and revealed that a major effort is now necessary to establish vital bridgeheads across the Leopold Canal if the estuary is to be cleared and the port of Antwerp is to be opened to Allied shipping.

ALONG THE LEOPOLD CANAL

The main line of German defenses on the Scheldt River’s south bank lies along the Leopold Canal that connects Zeebrugge, Belgium, with Terneuzen, Holland. Attacking across the 50-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep canal requires amphibious vehicles and engineer bridging equipment to propel an infantry assault and to get follow-on forces onto the opposite bank to hold and enlarge the seized bridgeheads.

The most promising portion along the canal for a successful assault is a 2.5-mile section of dry ground between the villages of Biezen, Oosthoek and Moershoofde. This sector is bounded by the Aardenburg road in the west and the Holland-Belgium border in the east. North of this narrow strip of dry ground is a large area of flooded polder with only a few isolated pieces of high ground rising above the water.

This sector is defended by the 1,500 soldiers of German 1038th Grenadier Regiment, one of three regiments in 64th Infantry Division. The 1038th’s men are armed with K98 bolt-action Mauser rifles, MP40 submachine guns and MG42 machine guns. Fire support is provided by 81 mm mortars, 105 mm and 150 mm artillery howitzers, and PaK40 75 mm anti-tank guns. Trenches and pillbox defensive positions have been prepared along the canal’s northern bank, with mortars, artillery and anti-tank guns positioned to fire along likely avenues of approach. Additionally, the regiment could receive further support from 64th Division assets, including the division’s mobile reserve of 12 Sturmgeschütz III 75 mm armored assault guns.

Successfully attacking across the canal to seize the bridgeheads in the face of terrain obstacles and German defenses will be difficult. Holding on to the captured ground, however, may prove even harder.

CANADIAN 7TH INFANTRY BRIGADE

Your 7th Infantry Brigade was formed in 1940 and entered combat on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when it invaded Juno Beach, one of the five Allied invasion beaches. Canadian casualties were heavy – nearly as many as the Americans suffered on bloody Omaha Beach. The brigade fought through the difficult Normandy campaign and then took part in the Allied pursuit across France that summer. The attack across the Leopold Canal, scheduled to begin 5:30 a.m. tomorrow, October 6, promises to be your brigade’s toughest fighting since the Normandy invasion.

The 7th Infantry Brigade’s principal maneuver elements are three rifle battalions: 1st Battalion, Royal Winnipeg Rifles; 1st Battalion, Regina Rifle Regiment; and 1st Battalion, Canadian Scottish Regiment. Each battalion consists of four companies composed of nine 10-man sections (squads). The infantrymen are armed with No.4 MkI bolt-action Enfield rifles, Bren light machine guns and hand grenades. Each company includes a support platoon with 51 mm and 81 mm mortars, while additional fire support is provided by Vickers heavy machine guns, six-pounder (57 mm) anti-tank guns, and 300 light, medium and heavy artillery guns of 3d Canadian Division.

Since this will be an amphibious attack across the canal, 3d Canadian Division has assigned your brigade a Royal Canadian engineer company with bridging equipment (kapok footbridges) and assault boats. Division has also assigned to your task force three companies of “Wasp” Bren Universal Carriers. These 27 vehicles are specialized models of the tracked three-ton vehicles that normally mount Bren light machine guns, but the machine guns have been replaced with flamethrowers capable of shooting streams of burning napalm 75 feet.

With the attack only 24 hours away, you have gathered your staff and battalion commanders in your command post to brief them on three different courses of action you are considering for this mission. But before presenting the different options, you explain that none of the plans will include a pre-attack artillery barrage, lest you give away the element of surprise. However, the 300 guns of your rather substantial artillery support will be on immediate call to fire missions once the leading assault troops are across the canal. Also, each plan includes flamethrowers firing from the south bank of the Leopold Canal to douse the enemy positions with flaming napalm as the assault troops make their crossing. This should clear German defenders from the immediate vicinity of each crossing point to allow your men to get a foothold on the opposite bank.

Course of Action One: FLANKING ATTACK

“Gentlemen,” you begin, “the first plan I am considering is to launch a two-battalion flanking attack across the canal at Moershoofde. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles battalion will lead the assault in the engineer company’s boats and will seize a bridgehead on the north bank while the engineers erect a footbridge. The battalion from the Canadian Scottish Regiment will then cross the footbridge and, supported by the Winnipegs, attack west out of the bridgehead to capture Oosthoek and Biezen. Meanwhile, the battalion from the Regina Regiment, positioned on the south side of the canal directly across from Biezen, will engage Biezen’s defenders with all its weapons to support our flanking attack. Once the entire north bank of the canal is in our possession, the Regina battalion will cross the canal and be prepared to continue the attack, on order, up the Aardenburg road.”

Lieutenant Colonel Matteson, one of your battalion commanders, says, “Brigadier, although flanking the enemy is usually a winning strategy, the terrain on the north bank limits our ability to maneuver in depth. Therefore the Germans will be able to bring considerable strength to oppose our advance toward Oosthoek and Biezen. I feel this plan puts our attack at risk of being stopped at Moershoofde.”

Lieutenant Colonel Anderson, another battalion commander, disagrees. “Matty, the narrow terrain on the north bank also restricts the movement of the enemy forces looking to oppose our westward advance. I think concentrating our forces on a single point gives us the best chance of avoiding German firepower along the canal frontage and rolling up the enemy flank with a vigorous attack.”

Course of Action Two: TRIPLE ATTACK

“The second plan I am considering,” you continue, “is for the brigade to go ‘all in’ across the widest front possible. Under this course of action, each of our three infantry battalions will strike separately to create a brigade ‘triple attack.’ From left to right, the Scots will attack Biezen, the Reginas will strike Oosthoek, and the Winnipegs will take Moershoofde. The engineer company’s assault boats and bridging assets will be split among the three infantry battalions to propel their canal crossings. Once the villages are captured, the battalions will advance east and west to link up and create a single bridgehead across the entire sector. After the bridgehead is consolidated, the battalion commanders will prepare their units to continue the brigade attack, on order, up the Aardenburg road.”

Anderson interjects, “I’m sorry, Brigadier, but I do not like spreading our forces all across the enemy front. This plan is little more than a brigade frontal attack into the teeth of German firepower – and by concentrating nowhere we are weak everywhere!”

Major Higgins, one of your brigade staff officers, disagrees. “I support this triple-attack plan for the very reason Lieutenant Colonel Anderson opposes it. By attacking at three widely spaced locations, we force the enemy to dissipate his strength in order to meet each of our assaults. This plan fragments the enemy defenses by forcing the Germans to defend along their entire front in our sector.”

Course of Action Three: DUAL ATTACK

“My final course of action,” you explain, “is to deal the Germans a powerful double blow by assaulting two points on the enemy line in a ‘dual attack.’ Under this plan, the Canadian Scottish battalion will cross the canal between Oosthoek and Moershoofde and then attack east and west to capture both villages. Simultaneously, the Regina battalion will capture Biezen. The assault boats and bridging equipment will be split between the two attacking units. Furthermore, to increase our chances of success, the Winnipeg battalion, initially in brigade reserve, will be prepared to support either attack as the tactical situation develops. Again, once the bridgehead on the north bank is secured, the commanders will prepare their battalions to continue the brigade attack, on order, up the Aardenburg road.”

“I like this plan very much,” Matteson responds. “The Scots’ attack between Oosthoek and Moershoofde strikes a potentially weak spot in the enemy defenses while the Reginas hold in place the German force in Biezen. With the Winnipegs at the ready to reinforce either of our attack forces and exploit their progress, this plan commits the combat power we need to seize the bridgehead and expand it as quickly as possible.”

Anderson seems eager to comment, so you give him the last word. “Matty,” he says, “I will grant you that this plan provides greater striking power than the triple-attack option. However, by striking at two widely separated targets on the north bank, the Scots and Reginas will remain vulnerable to German counterattacks until their two forces link up – if they can. I agree that we can seize the two bridgeheads, but I fear we may not be able to expand them into a single bridgehead capable of becoming the launching pad 3d Division requires for its follow-on attacks.”

Since preparation time is very short, you end the briefing. “Gentlemen,” you conclude, “thank you for your attention and for your candid comments. You are dismissed to go prepare your units for tomorrow morning’s mission. I will make my final decision and send the brigade attack order within the hour. Good luck.”

What is your decision, Brigadier Spragge?

 

 Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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