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The Great Mistake
The Battle for Antwerp and the Beveland Peninsula, September 1944
By Peter Beale
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Peter Beale
All rights reserved.
What was the Great Mistake?
On 4 September 1944, units of 11 British Armoured Division entered Antwerp after a whirlwind advance through northern France and Belgium. With considerable help from the local Belgian Resistance, they captured the essential installations that controlled the operations of the docks, and occupied the dock area and the city up to the Albert Canal. But in spite of pleas from the Resistance, the British advanced no further for two days.
Had they immediately crossed the Albert Canal before the bridges across it were blown, their tanks could have moved north against light opposition and reached the Woensdrecht isthmus within hours. Such action would have sealed the isthmus, trapped 15 German Army to the west of the isthmus, and made the task of clearing the banks of the Scheldt estuary relatively easy and quick before the retreating Germans could rally and regroup.
The failure to cross the Albert Canal and advance north was called 'The Great Mistake' by Cornelius Ryan. What were the reasons for the mistake, and are there lessons we can learn from it? This part of the campaign had as its starting point the crossing of the lower reaches of the River Seine. The force under the command of 21 Army Group when they closed to the Seine was very mobile, consisting as it did of five armoured divisions, five independent armoured brigades and eight infantry divisions (see Appendix 2).
CROSSING THE RIVER SEINE
After the closing of the Falaise–Argentan pocket and the annihilation of much of the German forces in it, Allied forces advanced to the River Seine. The original plan for Operation Overlord envisaged that the Germans would have established defences along the river, and it would need set-piece attacks to cross it. But the German collapse allowed the Allies to close up rapidly to the river and make assault crossings on the run.
The crossings by 21 Army Group took place in the last days of August. The British 2nd Army crossed at two places: 43 Division of XXX Corps on 26 August at Vernon; and 15 Division of XII Corps at St Pierre de Vouvray, where a firm position was established on the east bank on 29 August.
The 1st Canadian Army consisted of II Canadian Corps and I British Corps. The Canadian Corps crossed between Pont de l'Arche and Elbeuf on 26 and 27 August, and entered Rouen on 30 August. Downstream from Rouen, 51 Division of I Corps pushed patrols across the river on 30 August, and further downstream again 49 Division, accompanied by the Royal Netherlands Brigade, got elements over the river on the same day.
XXX CORPS CROSSING AT VERNON
The crossing furthest upstream and nearest to Paris was that made by 43 Division of XXX Corps at Vernon. The leading brigade started their crossing at 1900 hr on 25 August. Although the Germans had no prepared positions on the northern bank, they still put up determined resistance. It was not until 28 August that the division was able to construct a class 9 bridge, followed by a class 40 to allow passage of tanks across the river. On 28 August, 11 Armoured Division, accompanied by 8 Armoured Brigade, moved over the bridge, and the next day they began their advance north-eastward on two parallel axes.
On the first day, 29 August, the pace of the advance was restricted by bad weather, demolitions and pockets of enemy resistance. On 30 August, the Guards Armoured Division took over the right-hand axis, and that evening the Corps Commander, Gen Horrocks, ordered a night advance to seize bridges over the River Somme at or near Amiens. This was achieved early on 31 August.
The advance continued at great speed, and by 2 September the Guards Armoured had captured Douai and Tournai and 11 Armoured had by-passed Lille. Orders were now issued directing the Guards on Brussels and the 11th on Antwerp. In the early hours of 3 September the Guards crossed the Belgian border, and before nightfall the whole division was in Brussels with units fanning out round the city to control the main approaches. On the next day, 4 September, elements of the division entered Louvain.
On the left axis, 11 Armoured fought through opposition on 3 September to reach a position to the east of Alost by nightfall. The next day they advanced on Antwerp, capturing the city and the docks. They were thus firmly established in Antwerp, with very effective support from the Belgian White Brigade, on 4 September.
XII CORPS CROSSING AT ST PIERRE DU VOUVRAY
The advance from the XII Corps bridgehead began on 30 August, with 4 Armoured Brigade leading and 53 Division close behind. The armour moved 25 miles during the day, reaching Gournay by nightfall. The next day, 31 August, 7 Armoured Division passed through the leading troops, and by the end of the day was within 20 miles of the River Somme. On 1 September, 7 Armoured drove on and, in spite of opposition, secured a bridge over the river between Amiens and Abbeville. Opposition became stronger during the next two days, and on 4 September the division bypassed Lille to the east so that it could advance more rapidly. It was thus able to reach Oudenarde and then Ghent on 5 September.
II CANADIAN CORPS CROSSINGS, ELBEUF–PONT DE L'ARCHE
On 30 August, 3 Canadian Division cleared the line of the River Seine into Rouen. Patrols pushed into the city and beyond, and on the next day 9 Canadian Brigade moved through the city in a triumphal procession and then on to the coast. They reached and captured the coastal town of Le Treport on 1 September.
On the same day, 2 Canadian Division captured Dieppe, the scene of the tragic raid on 19 August 1942 in which the raiding force, most of them Canadian, lost 3,600 out of 6,000 men. On the next day, the division stayed in Dieppe, partly to absorb 1,000 reinforcements and partly to prepare for a memorial ceremony on 3 September.
4 Canadian Armoured Division moved out of the bridgehead and reached Buchy, one-third of the way to the Somme, on 31 August. There the Corps Commander, Gen Simonds, received orders to make a night march to the Somme at Abbeville where, so Montgomery told him, there was a bridgehead over the river that had been captured by XXX Corps. Simonds decided that the advance should be made by the Polish Armoured Division and 3 Canadian Division, leaving 4 Canadian Armoured to refit and reorganise.
On arrival at the river on 1 September, they found that there was no bridgehead, and it was not until 3 September that the engineers of Polish Armoured were able to construct a class 40 bridge to take their tanks across. By the evening of 4 September, the Poles were 25 miles north of the Somme, but were held up by determined anti-tank opposition.
On 4 September, 3 Canadian Division moved over the Somme at Abbeville and advanced to the outskirts of Boulogne. The next day, part of the division moved on to Calais, with the intention that both ports should be invested and captured. 4 Canadian Armoured reached the Somme on 2 September, and concentrated astride the river, ready to move forward to assist the Poles.
CROSSINGS BY I CORPS
I British Corps consisted of 49 and 51 Infantry Divisions. 49 Division crossed the Seine between Caudebec and Vieux Port, and immediately swung left so that it could advance westward to invest and capture Le Havre, known as Operation Astonia. 51 Division was also to take part in this operation, but was first given the task of liberating St Valery. It was there on 12 June 1940 that the then commander of the division, Maj Gen Fortune, was forced to surrender with 8,000 men of his division to 7 Panzer Division and its leader Erwin Rommel.
On 1 September 1944, 51 Division avenged the disaster of 1940, and then turned westward to join 49 Division at Le Havre. Both divisions of I Corps, together with 33 and 34 Armoured Brigades, were therefore outside Le Havre on 4 September. They remained there during the preparations for the assault, which started on 10 September and was successfully completed on 12 September.
THE DAY OF THE GREAT MISTAKE, 4 SEPTEMBER 1944
The positions of the main formations of 21 Army Group on 4 September 1944 are shown below. The right flank of 21 Army Group was covered by the 1st US Army. The English Channel coast of northeast France had been reached between St Valery and the mouth of the Somme. Le Havre was still held by the Germans, as were the ports of Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, Ostend and Zeebrugge. Antwerp had been captured, but as yet the northern suburbs of the city and the road to Woensdrecht and Bergen op Zoom were in German hands. But on this vital day, 4 September, those hands were still weak.
The German 15th Army had been holding the Pas de Calais, and had maintained a strong presence there because of the fear that the Allies would mount a second invasion across the narrowest part of the Channel. The Germans continued to believe the probability, progressively winding down to a possibility, that this invasion would take place. The belief was fostered by the massive and very skilful deception of Operation Fortitude.
The 15th Army had some fifteen divisions under its command on 6 June 1944, when the Normandy landings started. It was not until the German situation in Normandy deteriorated significantly that divisions were transferred from the 15th to the 7th Army. But even at the end of August the Germans had 100,000 men or more; there were additional troops in the 'fortresses' of the Channel ports, but they had been ordered to hold out in those fortresses.
By 4 September, as Map 4 shows, that part of 15th Army west and south-west of the estuary of the Scheldt was contained between the English Channel, the 1st Canadian Army pushing east from the Somme, and the strong thrust of the British 2nd Army from the Seine, across the Somme at Amiens, reaching the Scheldt at Antwerp. This thrust cut off any possibility of the 15th Army escaping to the south and east of Antwerp.
Map 1 shows the situation closer to Antwerp. The 15th Army was falling back from the Somme towards the Leopold Canal and the towns of Breskens and Terneuzen. It still held the Walcheren–South Beveland peninsula in strength. On 4 September the area between Merxem and Woensdrecht was held lightly.
The 'Great Mistake', then, was the failure by the Allies to send whatever force could be mustered to seize a crossing over the Albert Canal at Merxem (as the Belgian White Brigade encouraged and implored them to do), and send an armoured column with all possible speed to the isthmus 2 miles west of Woensdrecht. This column would have had to be reinforced promptly to put in place a block to prevent the escape of the 15th Army. But had this been done, and then followed up once again very promptly with more troops, there could have been an opportunity to sweep up the Beveland peninsula during the very short period that existed until the resilient Germans reorganised themselves.
The Great Mistake was to lose this fleeting opportunity.
COMMENTS BY MILITARY COMMANDERS AND HISTORIANS
In A Bridge Too Far, Cornelius Ryan records how 11 Armoured Division under Gen Pip Roberts reported on 4 September that the city of Antwerp had been captured with the docks intact:
The thirty-seven-year-old Roberts had brilliantly executed his orders. Unfortunately, in one of the greatest miscalculations of the European war, no one had directed him to take advantage of the situation – that is, strike north, grab bridgeheads over the Albert Canal in the northern suburbs, and then make a dash for the base of the South Beveland peninsula only 18 miles away. By holding its 2-mile-wide neck, Roberts could have bottled up German forces on the isthmus, preparatory to clearing the vital northern bank. It was a momentous oversight. The port of Antwerp, one of the war's major prizes, was secured; but its approaches, still held by the Germans, were not. This great facility, which could have shortened and fed Allied supply lines all along the front, was useless. Yet nobody, in the heady atmosphere of the moment, saw this oversight as more than a temporary condition. Indeed, there seemed no need to hurry. With the Germans reeling, the mop-up could take place at any time. The 11th Armoured, its assignment completed, held its position awaiting new orders.
The person who could have given immediate orders to move forward with all possible urgency was the XXX Corps commander, Lt Gen Brian Horrocks. In his autobiography, A Full Life, he says that the Antwerp docks seemed the obvious objective, but he subsequently realised that this was a serious mistake. His excuse was that his eyes were fixed entirely on the Rhine. It never occurred to him that the Allies would not be able to use the port until the banks on either side of the estuary had been cleared of enemy troops and the mines swept. He goes on to say:
If I had ordered Roberts, not to liberate Antwerp, but to by-pass the town on the east, cross the Albert Canal and advance only 15 miles north-west towards Woensdrecht, we should have blocked the main German escape route. The meagre force in front of him was spread out on a 50-mile front along the canal. And on 3 September we still had 100 miles of petrol per vehicle, and one further day's supply within reach.
In his History of the Second World War, Liddell Hart comments on what he calls 'an extraordinary oversight':
When the 11th Armoured Division raced into Antwerp on September 4 it had captured the docks intact, but made no effort to secure the bridges over the Albert Canal, and these were blown up by the time a crossing was attempted two days later, the division then being switched eastwards. The divisional commander, Roberts, had not thought of seizing the bridges immediately he occupied the city, and no one above had thought of giving him orders to do so. It was a multiple lapse by four commanders: from the top Montgomery, then Dempsey, Horrocks, and Roberts, four commanders who were normally alert to tactical opportunities.
Moreover, barely 20 miles north of Antwerp is the exit from the Beveland peninsula, a bottleneck only a few hundred yards wide. During the second and third weeks of September the remains of the German 15th Army were allowed to slip away northwards from the Pas de Calais. They were then ferried across the mouth of the Scheldt and escaped through the Beveland bottleneck. Three of the divisions arrived in time to strengthen the Germans' desperately thin front in Holland before Montgomery launched his drive for the Rhine at Arnhem, and helped to check it.
The German General Eugen-Felix Schwalbe was put in charge of the operation for ferrying the 15th Army units across the Scheldt. He achieved this task to his own enormous satisfaction, and presumably that of his superiors. He has this to say about the Allied inaction:
I was in constant fear that the Allies would cut off the Beveland Isthmus by an advance north of Antwerp and thereby trap such troops as were in the process of moving out. If this had happened our alternative plan was to evacuate the troops through the Dutch islands to Dordrecht and Rotterdam. But such a journey would have been slow and dangerous. It would have meant a twelve-hour voyage by sea rather than the three-quarters of an hour needed to cross from Breskens to Flushing. We could not have hoped to rescue anything but the troops themselves had it been necessary to adopt this course.
In his Defeat in the West, Milton Shulman is critical:
If there be one criticism to make of Allied tactics at this stage of the campaign, it was the failure to push on beyond Antwerp shortly after the port had been taken. From 4 to 21 September no serious effort was made to cover this stretch of 20 miles from Antwerp to the base of the Beveland isthmus, thereby depriving 15 Army of their only reasonable escape route. True, the small British armoured spearheads that reached Antwerp were tired after their headlong dash from the Seine, and the long supply haul from Normandy had affected the availability of petrol, food and ammunition for any large-scale operation. Nevertheless, with little to oppose them but the hastily assembled infantry troops in Holland, a gamble of this kind might well have paid handsome dividends. Had the Allies bottled up 15 Army in the Beveland peninsula, or even forced them to take the hazardous sea voyage to Rotterdam, there could never have been an effective German position south of the Maas River. And had this position not existed there might have been a different outcome to the airborne operation at Arnhem. The fact that no determined effort was made to seal off the escape route of 15 Army is probably a measure of the surprise with which the Allied Supreme Command received the news that Antwerp had been taken.
Excerpted from The Great Mistake by Peter Beale. Copyright © 2013 Peter Beale. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One What was the Great Mistake?,
Two German Forces, August–September 1944,
Three Topography, Weather and Civilians,
Four Allied Forces: Command Structures and Commanders,
Five The Painted Veil,
Six Perception: Politicians and Commanders,
Seven Perception at the Sharp End: Euphoria,
Eight Allied Strategies,
Nine German Strategy and its Execution,
Ten Allied Operations 4–17 September,
Eleven Retribution: Operations, September–November 1944,
Twelve The Unforgiving Minute,
Thirteen The Reasons Why,
Fourteen Envoi: Teaching Grandmother,
Appendix One German Formations in the Great Mistake,
Appendix Two Allied Orders of Battle,