Mark Zuehlke is an expert at narrating the history of life on the battlefield for the Canadian army during World War II. In Terrible Victory, he provides a soldiers-eye-view account of Canada's bloody liberation of western Holland. Readers are there as soldiers fight in the muddy quagmire, enduring a battle that lasted three weeks and in which 6,000 soldiers perished. Terrible Victory is a powerful story of courage, survival, and skill. ...
Mark Zuehlke is an expert at narrating the history of life on the battlefield for the Canadian army during World War II. In Terrible Victory, he provides a soldiers-eye-view account of Canada's bloody liberation of western Holland. Readers are there as soldiers fight in the muddy quagmire, enduring a battle that lasted three weeks and in which 6,000 soldiers perished. Terrible Victory is a powerful story of courage, survival, and skill.
Mark Zuehlke has been hailed by the highly respected Canadian historian Jack Granatstein as Canada's leading popular historian. Terrible Victory is the latest in Mark's bestselling series on Canada's major army campaigns and battles of World War II, which include Ortona, The Liri Valley, The Gothic Line, Juno Beach, and Holding Juno. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed For Honour's Sake: The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace; The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939; and co-author of The Canadian Military Atlas: Four Centuries of Conflict from New France to Kosovo. Terrible Victory is his 19th published book. When not writing history, he often turns to fiction and is the author of the award-winning Elias McCann mystery series. He lives in Victoria.
It all depended on 360 Canadian infantrymen. But that seemed natural to these men of the Algonquin Regiment. For this regiment, hailing from North Bay, Ontario, proudly wore on their regimental badge the motto ne-kah-ne-tah, an Algonquin Indian phrase pronouncing: “We lead, others follow.” If they succeeded, 4th Canadian Armoured Division would follow them across the two canals like a runaway storm, flooding over the intervening Belgian and Dutch lowlands clear to the southern bank of the Scheldt estuary’s western arm.
The plan looked simple, even tidy, on paper. Divisional commander Major General Harry Foster’s operational order of September 13, 1944 set it out in crisp, terse language: “At zero hr  tonight Alg[onquin] R[egiment] will force a crossing of the canal Dérivation de la Lys and the canal Leopold in the area of Moerkerke This bridgehead will be exploited as far as possible to enable bridging to be carried out 4 Cdn Armd Div will then fan out in both directions to clear the north bank of the canal Leopold pushing on as fast as possible to Fort Frederik Hendrik.”1 This fortress ruin seemed easily within the division’s grasp, little more than fifteen miles north of the village of Moerkerke. A few hundred yards southeast of the fort lay Breskens, a small port town through which the Germans were frantically ferrying men and equipment across the estuary’s three-mile-wide mouth to the port of Vlissingen on Walcheren Island.
With Breskens in Canadian hands, Fifteenth German Army would be denied this last-ditch avenue of escape. Nearly 100,000 troops still on the southern shore would be trapped—their only choice to surrender or to be destroyed piecemeal at First Canadian Army’s leisure. The loss of such a great number of men would deal Germany a catastrophic blow certain to shorten the war. Additionally, the first major step in opening the Scheldt estuary to enable ships to reach the giant port of Antwerp, already in Allied hands, would be complete. With its miles of undamaged docks available to load desperately needed supplies, a final nail would be driven into Hitler’s coffin.
Nobody expected the Algonquin attack to come off as smoothly as Foster’s order implied, but the prevailing belief emanating from First Canadian Army’s headquarters was that “a sudden surprise crossing would keep the enemy on the move.” Strung out along the twelve-mile stretch where the two canals ran tightly parallel to each other were reportedly no more than five thousand men—all that remained of the badly mauled 245th Infantry Division. Caught off guard, they should have no opportunity to launch an effective counterattack. “There were,” army intelligence officers stated, “no indications of the enemy being in strength on the opposite side of the canals.”2 If the attack was put in quickly, boldly, and with minimal advance reconnaissance in order to prevent tipping the Germans of, success should be assured. Dissenting voices, such as that of 4th Division’s Captain Ernie Sirluck, who suspected that the Germans lurked behind the canal in far greater strength, were dismissed as alarmist and further proof that reports by division and brigade intelligence officers were seldom credible.3
Studying the intelligence appreciation handed down to the Algonquins on the morning of September 13, Major George L. Cassidy assumed “the enemy was thoroughly disorganized, had scarcely any equipment, and was taking refuge behind the canal in a sort of desperation. In any case, it was felt he would show little or no fight if attacked in force. With these soothing words in our ears, we were told that we had been elected to make the initial crossing It was also made known that reinforcements would arrive in the afternoon. Some of these were the result of another ‘comb-out’ of specialist people, such as carpenters, shoemakers, etc. Each company was to be built up to a strength of ninety all ranks, and, upon the arrival of the assault boats, each company would carry out a short training period on the erection and carrying of these.”4
The thirty-five-year-old officer, who commanded ‘A’ Company, and prior to the war had eked out a living as a teacher in Cobalt, Ontario, was more worried that the promised reinforcements would have long forgotten whatever infantry combat training they had received. Providing enough replacements to keep First Canadian Army’s fighting battalions fully manned was proving a chronic problem. As it was, the 90 men promised to each company fell well below the mandated strength of 126 officers and men.
But there was no time to brood. Cassidy had to rush to join Algonquin commander Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bradburn and the rest of the battalion’s officers for a hasty reconnaissance of Moerkerke. Everyone crowded into five jeeps for the short trip from their current base in the village of Sijsele. The three-mile stretch of road having been swept earlier by the scout platoon, there was no need for caution. At least, not until everyone was piling out of the jeeps in the village square and a sniper round cracked overhead, causing a disorderly scramble for cover. Any time one of the Canadians ventured into the open, a shot rang out.
Unable to determine the sniper’s position, Bradburn decided that only the company commanders would join him on the reconnaissance, while the platoon commanders were directed to an inn that was open for business despite the sniper. Noting that the platoon lieutenants settled into the challenging duty of drinking Belgian beer “with visible reluctance,” Cassidy and the other company commanders followed Bradburn into a three-storey building where a corporal from the scout platoon had set up a telescope that, because of intervening groves and lines of trees, provided a limited view of the canals.5
None of the men liked what he saw. The crossing was to be made immediately to the east of a blown bridge, with each company forcing its way over at different points. Gaining the south bank of the Canal de Dérivation de la Lys (known to the Flemish as Afleidingskanaal van de Leie) without being detected should be relatively easy under cover of darkness. Roads lined by trees and farmhouses extended out of the centre of Moerkerke all the way to each jumping-off point. But the canals constituted a damnable obstacle. Each was ninety feet wide, and separating them was a flat-topped dyke of the same width. The Leopold had been dug in 1842 to drain the low-lying ground to the northeast, whereas the Dérivation was constructed a few years later to drain a wide swath of marshy, sandy country to the north of Ghent. About seven miles east of Moerkerke, the canals parted ways to enter their respective drainage grounds.6
It was going to be necessary to drag the boats over one dyke to gain the Dérivation and then hoist them up and across the intervening dyke in order to cross the Leopold. Most likely, they would be under fire the whole way. If the Germans were thicker on the ground than promised, the regiment would be slaughtered, but there was neither the time nor sufficient ground cover to permit a small patrol to try and determine what opposition was in place. “So, with some misgivings, the party returned to Sysseele [known by the Flemish as Sijsele].”7
At 1700 hours, Bradburn convened a final Orders Group and presented the full plan of attack to his officers. The operation had been tightly scripted by 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade’s headquarters staff, with division giving it final approval. Cassidy’s ‘A’ Company would cross on the far left quite close to the blown bridge. Crossing to the right would be first ‘B’ Company, then ‘C’ Company, and lastly ‘D’ Company, with a seventy-five yard separation between each. The boats were to be delivered to the square by Moerkerke’s church and carried from there to the launching points. Bradburn cheered his officers up considerably when he set out the fire support they could expect. The entire divisional artillery would provide covering fire, along with the brigade’s mortars and the medium machine guns of the New Brunswick Rangers. Forty collapsible wood and canvas assault boats, fourteen reconnaissance boats, and a few civilian craft would carry them over. Special ladders to which grappling hooks were attached would aid the men in climbing the steep dykes. So that the Algonquins could concentrate on the attack, eighty men from the Lincoln and Welland Battalion—the Lincs—would act as paddlers and help manhandle the boats over the dykes.8
Once across the canals, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies would clear the hamlet of Molentje, which consisted of about fifteen farmhouses straddling the road just north of the blown bridge, while ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies advanced four hundred yards across open fields to secure a road that extended east out of Molentje, parallel to the Leo-pold Canal. Intelligence reported that ‘A’ Company would not need to guard its left flank, as the ground to the west was flooded. Once the Algonquins established a firm bridgehead, engineering units would throw up a bridge on the site of the destroyed one. When the bridge was serviceable, 10 cib, amply supported by armour, would push out towards the towns of Sluis and Aardenburg as the first stage of the advance to Breskens. The attack would go in at 2200 hours.
Thinking the plan over, Cassidy decided it “had obvious advantages. It was simple and control would not be difficult. The crossing place was not a too-obvious one, yet it had suitable off-loading points for boats and bridging, and the route to the crossing points was fairly sheltered there were few questions.”9
Introduction: A Simple Plan
Part One: The Fall of Dreams
1 Beginning of the End
2 The Jewel
3 The Streetcar War
4 A Very Heavy Program
5 Illusion of Victory
6 Poor Devils
7 Simonds Takes Command
Part Two: The Cinderella Days
8 Off Our Backsides
9 Close to the Danger Line
10 A Hard Fight
11 With Devastating Effect
12 Did Our Best
13 A Hell of a Way to Go
14 In the Back Door
Part Three: Tightening the Ring
15 Of First Importance
16 The Toughest Yet
17 A Godsend
18 Black Friday
19 Dominate the Situation
20 To the Last Cartridge
21 Foot-Slogging Jobs
Part Four: Fight to the Finish
22 Troops on the Ground
23 The South Beveland Race
24 Let's Take the Damned Place
25 The Damned Causeway
26 A Fine Performance
Epilogue: The Scheldt in Memory
Appendix A: Canadians in the Scheldt: September 13 - November 6, 1944
Appendix B: Canadian Infantry Battalion
Appendix C: Canadian and German Army Order of Ranks
Appendix D: The Decorations
Index of Formations, Units, and Corps