OTTAWA — The first time Tony Pearson came under fire was shortly after he arrived near the front lines in late September 1944. The 19-year-old from Saskatchewan had only days earlier been given a rifle and told to join the South Saskatchewan Regiment as an infantryman after training to be a tank driver.
Now he and his comrades were being bombed by Nazi artillery in Belgium.
“There were mortars and artillery, and the things were bouncing all over the place,” Pearson recalled 75 years later from his home in Nanaimo, B.C.
“Being a novice there, you wanted to have a look and see what was happening around you. And the voices would come from all over the place: ‘Get down, get down, get your head down. Don’t worry about what’s going on up there, get down.’”
Pearson has other stories about the dangers and horrors he saw during what would come to be known as the Battle of the Scheldt. There was the time he saw German railway guns kill a group of engineers as they were trying to build a Bailey bridge. And a tense river crossing in canvas boats, where an accident could have seen any number of his unit drowned.
None of which takes into account the terrible rain, mud and cold that Pearson and his comrades were forced to endure during the month-long battle that ended 75 years ago this week and which many people have never heard of, despite the Canadian military having largely planned it and 6,367 Canadians having been killed, wounded or captured during its short duration.
The Battle of the Scheldt is one that should never have happened, said author and historian Mark Zuehlke, whose book, “Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign,” was published in 2014.
The battle focuses on the area around the port city of Antwerp, Belgium. Following D-Day, the Allies in September 1944 were pressing the Nazis back east from France and the surrounding region toward Germany. However, their supply lines were becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as food, ammunition and equipment was still coming from the beaches of Normandy.
“It’s a huge logistical nightmare,” Zuehlke said. “With Antwerp opening, you suddenly have the ability for all the shipping to come in and unload right there and you’re only a short distance away from the actual battlefront.”
British forces captured Antwerp in early September, but Allied ships couldn’t reach the port until the river connecting Antwerp to the North Sea was cleared of mines — an impossible task as long as the Nazis held parts of the surrounding area, including the heavily fortified Walcheren Island at the mouth of the river.
Yet rather than clear the area right away while it was still lightly defended, Zuehlke said, British general Bernard Montgomery focused on Operation Market Garden, a massive — and ultimately disastrous — airborne attack on the Netherlands involving thousands of paratroopers aimed at opening the way into northern Germany to end the war quickly.
“When the British got into Antwerp, the Germans didn’t actually have the strength to hold the Scheldt Estuary at that point,” he said. “By the time we get there, they’re holding in strength.”
The First Canadian Army, which despite its name included a sizeable British and Polish contingent, threw itself against the Nazis. Much of the fighting was waged in fields where generations of Belgians and Dutch had built dikes and raised roads to keep back the sea. The Canadians and their allies also struggled under a constant deluge of rain and dipping temperatures.
“It very much evokes memories of Passchendaele,” said Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook. “That sea of mud and morass and the polder fighting through the farmers’ fields that have been reclaimed from the sea. The low-lying fields, but then these high polders or roads in effect that really divide up the battlefield into a massive checkerboard.”
Why were the Canadians given the task of opening up Antwerp? Cook said he believes it was because Montgomery, who commanded all British and Canadian forces in Europe at the time, did not want them for Market Garden because he saw them as too slow and cautious following the earlier battle at the Falaise Pocket and the taking of the French port cities of Boulogne and Calais.
The battle was as fierce as it was difficult for the First Canadian Army, which Cook contends was not given enough resources for the task. On Oct. 13, 1944, now known as Black Friday, the Black Watch regiment of Montreal was decimated as it attacked a raised railway bed across flat beet fields, losing 145 men and all its commanders.
The Canadians and their allies would eventually succeed in wresting the area from the Germans, with the battle officially declared over on Nov. 8, 1944. Cook is among those who believe the Battle of the Scheldt is as important as D-Day in terms of Canada’s contribution to the war effort, even if it is known much less.
“It’s an operation that is planned and executed by the Canadian command structure,” said Zuehlke. “And it really was a testimony to the grit and determination and fighting ability of the Canadian Army soldiers.”
Yet it also exacerbated tensions back home. After suffering heavily in Normandy and now at the Scheldt as well as during the fighting in Italy, the Canadian military did not have enough new recruits to replace soldiers lost in the field. After visiting Canada’s tired and bloodied troops in Europe, then-defence minister James Ralston pressed the government to send conscripts overseas.
What followed was a crisis that, while nowhere near as divisive as the conscription crisis during the First World War, nonetheless caused divisions within the country, particularly between French and English Canada. The government would send nearly 13,000 conscripts overseas in early 1945, though most would not reach the front lines.
“It’s not as divisive as conscription in the First World War, but it still left a darker legacy in French Canada,” Cook said.