The German perspective of the coming Allied operations to clear the Scheldt Estuary. I

One of the questions, is why did the Germans put up such a difficult, hard defence when at this late stage in the war most of the German generals probably knew the war could not be won by Germany. So why keep fighting? The cost to the Allies and the Germans in terms of men and materiel was very high. This is probably something we shall never really know for sure. What we do know is that Hitler ordered the Germans to fight to the last man. We know that von Rundstedt issued this same directive to his troops in the Scheldt. This order was passed down the line, from the high-ranking officer to the private soldier.

However, in many cases the Germans would not fight to the last man, but surrender to the advancing Allies. In other cases, fanatical German officers forced their men to keep fighting or face being shot if they tried to surrender. Many believed that their families back in Germany would be killed if they didn’t keep on fighting.

The Germans knew they would be fighting a defensive battle. Also, they must have realised there was no way that they were going to win that battle. All they could do was stave off the inevitable collapse and surrender for as long as possible.

Prior to, and immediately after, the fall of Antwerp to the Allies on 4 September, Montgomery’s attention was on Operation Market Garden, the ill-fated airborne assault on Arnhem. Approved by Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, Operation Market Garden was a compromise for Montgomery. As we have already seen, Montgomery wanted a massive force of forty divisions punching a narrow front across the northern part of Germany all the way to Berlin. He believed that the Germans had nothing that could stop such a massive force. To achieve this plan, US General George S. Patton, commanding the US 3rd Army, would have to stop where he was and the 1st Army, commanded by General Hodges, would have to come under the command of 21st Army Group, or Montgomery. However, Eisenhower wanted an advance across a much broader front and so the two men clashed. Days went by as they argued. Finally, Eisenhower approved Montgomery’s plan for the assault on Arnhem but he would not sanction diverting much-needed supplies, ammunition and fuel away from Patton who was continuing to drive across France.

History has recorded that Operation Market Garden, which took place from 17–25 September 1944, was a failure. Yet, for two weeks after this debacle Montgomery continued to order attacks on Arnhem ‘in futile attempts to rescue the situation’, giving precious supplies to the British 2nd Army while the Canadian 1st Army had to make do.

On 9 October the situation exploded when British naval officers told Eisenhower that the Canadians had an acute shortage of ammunition and would not be able to move until 1 November. In a flash of anger, Eisenhower cabled Montgomery and demanded that he put his personal attention onto immediate operations to clear the Scheldt and get the port facilities at Antwerp up and running. According to Rawling, this cable from Eisenhower enraged Montgomery, who suspected the report about shortages of ammunition had come from the British Naval Commander-in-Chief at SHAEF, Admiral Ramsay. Monty’s reply to Eisenhower stated in no uncertain terms that there was no shortage of ammunition and that the Canadians were, in fact, advancing.

While the British were desperately trying to save the debacle of Operation Market Garden, and the bickering between Montgomery and Eisenhower continued, the Germans, specifically General Gustav von Zangen commanding the Fifteenth Army, took advantage of the breathing space and began reorganising and withdrawing. ‘At the moment, however, the nearly sixty miles wide area between Antwerp and Maastricht lay almost undefended within Allied grasp. Moving up forces to the Albert Canal between the two cities might make it possible to stem or delay the enemy’s advance.’

The Germans had positioned powerful, strong garrisons in the Channel ports they still held, Le Havre, Dieppe, Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. To guard the approaches to the south bank of the West Scheldt, von Zangen set up a strong defensive line along the Leopold Canal that would be known by the Allies as the ‘Breskens Pocket’.

On the morning of 4 September Army Group B (German) gave orders to rush the bulk of the formation to Antwerp. At that time substantial elements of 347 Infantry Division were already returning from the northern outskirts of Brussels to Antwerp by rail. They were supposed to detrain at Antwerp and take part in defence under 719 Infantry Division, but the trains rolled on to Capelles (7 miles north of Antwerp). Army Group B had been anxious to defend the city. At 0915hrs it even demanded the use of every type of civilian vehicle to rush all available naval and air force fighters to the defence of Antwerp. But the British had moved very fast, the slow moving coastal divisions had been pulled out too late, and all chance of holding Antwerp had been lost.

In the Woensdrecht area, von Zangen established another powerful defensive force to stop the Allies from entering South Beveland via its isthmus. The rest of his forces were moved across the Scheldt to Walcheren Island.

70 Infantry Division was placed directly under Fifteenth Army and set in motion from Walcheren to the area of Ghent to form a blocking line and screen off towards Antwerp. 67 and 86 Corps were withdrawing as planned. The advance party of Fifteenth Army Headquarters reached Walcheren and by the next day Army Headquarters would be complete at Middelburg. At 1800hrs Field Marshal von Rundstedt arrived at the Headquarters O.B. West, at Arenberg (near Coblenz), and resumed his former command as O.B. West and O.B. Army Group D. The opponent had used the day to close up and regroup his forces.

When General von Zangen was taken prisoner in late 1944 he was interviewed by Major General D.C. Spry DSO, who commanded the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division. Von Zangen provided his perspective of the month of September 1944 during his interrogation. It was von Zangen who commanded the German forces on the southern shore of the Scheldt. This covered the area north of Antwerp up to the Leopold Canal and onto the port towns of Breskens and Terneuzen to Woensdrecht and beyond. He was in charge of the withdrawal of German forces behind the Leopold Canal that lead to the evacuation from Breskens across the Scheldt to Flushing on Walcheren Island. Therefore, his account is especially important in providing an overall look at the plight of the Germans during this crucial time. He thought the Allies had made a great strategic mistake when they failed to push northwards out of Antwerp immediately after they had captured the city. Indeed, von Zangen believed that if the Allies had taken the opportunity and covered the relatively short distance north, between Antwerp and up to the entrance to the Beveland isthmus, much of the German Fifteenth Army would have been trapped. He stated in his interview with Major General Spry that during the evacuation from Breskens to Flushing he and his staff were constantly worried that the Allies would, indeed, push north. ‘89 Corps at first regarded the operation as a forlorn hope and for once we do not read the usual protestations that everything would have gone well but for the interference of the High Command’.

In the area north of Antwerp there was only one weak and untried German infantry division defending the area.

Although von Zangen realized that the Allies were relatively weak in Antwerp, he felt that a greater effort should have been made to advance north. By the Allies not covering this distance of about fifteen miles, he was able to bring out 62,000 men and 580 guns. This force was thus able to take up positions south of the Maas and play an important part in frustrating the object of the Allied airborne landings at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem.

In his interview, von Zangen stated that the sudden fall of Antwerp had placed the Germans in a very awkward position because they had very few available troops in this region. Because of the scarcity of information on Allied progress, individual German officers had to act on their own initiative. One such officer was Lieutenant General Chill, commanding 85 Infantry Division. When he realised the Allies were approaching Brussels, on 2 September he positioned his division along the lines of the Escaut and Albert Canals through Henenthals to Hasselt. When Antwerp fell to the Allies on 4 September, Chill’s troops, reinforced with German police, security troops and stragglers, held this thin line behind the canals. The following day, the German High Command, realising how precarious their line east of Antwerp was, ordered General Reinhardt, commanding 88 Corps, to move into the sector held by Chill. In addition, 719 Infantry Division was sent from Holland to bolster Reinhardt’s force. After slowly making its way southwards, 719 managed to take up positions north and east of Antwerp. Reinhardt was able to hold the canals with this inexperienced and weak force while the Fifteenth Army made its escape to Walcheren Island. As the divisions made their appearance on the mainland they reassembled and then thickened the line being held by Reinhardt. During this period 88 Corps was under General Kurt Student’s First Parachute Army.

With all hope gone for a breakout, and with pressure from the South increasing steadily, Fifteenth Army’s situation had become precarious. Enemy spearheads were at Poperinghe, Ypres, Cruyshautem and Deynze. There was heavy fighting at Bevers and Eyne, German forces at Ghent had been thrown back to the northern outskirts of the city. Battle Group 226 Infantry Division had reached Dunkirk, 5 Sec Regiment Boulogne. Further east First Parachute Army had assumed command in the Antwerp Hasselt sector.

Initially, von Zangen crossed to Walcheren Island with his troops during the evacuation but he soon returned to Breskens where he remained until he was captured.

When von Zangen left Walcheren he left two lastditch garrisons holding north and south of the Scheldt. He thereby deprived the Allies of the use of the port facilities in Antwerp until these garrisons were eliminated. Although Walcheren had been designated as a fortress long before the fall of Antwerp, von Zangen received his orders to hold south of the Scheldt only about 12 September. He therefore ordered 64 Infantry Division to defend to the last in the Breskens area, while 70 Infantry Division held Walcheren Island. In von Zangen’s opinion the object of these fortress troops was two-fold. First, to deny port facilities and second, to hold down as many Allied troops as possible. Von Zangen claims he did not have any definite idea as to how long Walcheren would hold, but he did believe that it would last at least three to four weeks after a serious attack against it was begun.

During his interview with Major General Spry von Zangen talked about the effect that Operation Market Garden had on the disposition of his forces and the difficulties he faced.

The air landings had placed the Army Group in a most precarious position, particularly so in the Eindhoven area, where First Parachute Army was under attack from north and south. The severity of this crisis, however, did not diminish Hitler’s interest in the defence of the Scheldt estuary. Again he demanded that the entrance to the river be kept in German hands at all events.

According to the author of The Campaign In North West Europe, Information From German Sources, Part 3, the German Naval Special Staff Knuth reported on 24 September that 86,100 men, 616 guns, 6,200 horses, 6,200 vehicles and 6,500 bicycles had been ferried from Terneuzen and Breskens across the Scheldt. The report does not say exactly where this materiel was sent but one can assume that it was dispersed throughout South Beveland, North Beveland and Walcheren Island, as well as some of the smaller islands further up the Dutch coast beyond the Waal River. Those German defences left behind took up positions from Antwerp to the area north west of Hertogenbosch. The 67 Infantry Corps was responsible for the area from Antwerp to Turnhout, while 88 Infantry Corps took over the rest of the Army area. The 67 Infantry Corps had under command 711, 346 and 29 Infantry Divisions, while 88 Infantry Corps was composed of 245, 59, 89 and 712 Infantry Divisions.

Of course, re-taking Antwerp was out of the question for the Germans. Von Zangen knew his force wasn’t equal to the task and that there was very little chance of him being reinforced with any more troops.

The High Command order of 4 September had clothed the commander of Walcheren Island with the powers of a fortress commander. Instructions to such commanders were strict and simple. They were to hold out to the last. According to General von Zangen the High Command now designated Walcheren as ‘Scheldt Fortress North’, and the Breskens area north of the Leopold Canal as ‘Scheldt Fortress South’, and selected 70 Infantry Division to defend the former and 64 Infantry Division the latter. Neither Walcheren nor Breskens were fortresses in the strict sense of the word, of course, but they were called so to define and stress the concomitant obligations of the troops and commanders.

So, as September 1944 came to a close, the Germans were defensively ready for whatever the Allies could throw at them. The flat waterlogged land, with dykes and canals acting as natural defensive barriers to any assault, led the Germans to believe they had every reason to feel they were secure. However, they would soon discover what the Allies were made of. October would prove to be a disaster for the Germans.

Having looked a little at the perspective of General Gustav von Zangen, as commander of the Fifteenth Army and the man responsible for the defences on the south shore of the West Scheldt, it is worth taking a look at another German point of view. This time, that perspective comes from Lieutenant General William Daser, commander of 70 Infantry Division and in charge of the German defenders on Walcheren Island. Interrogated after the war by the Allies, what follows is his viewpoint as recounted by the author of The Campaign in North West Europe Information From German Sources, Part 3.

Lieutenant General Daser knew the islands of Walcheren, South Beveland and North Beveland quite well. His first encounter with them was as commander of 165 Reserve Infantry Division, a post he took up in the winter of 1943. The First Battalion of 89 Festungs Stamm Regiment, made up of about 1,000 men either recovering from wounds or unfit for front-line duty, augmented his garrison on the island of Walcheren. In 1944, shortly after the Normandy landings, Daser was given intelligence that another Allied landing might take place in the Antwerp area. The Normandy campaign was less than a week old when 165 Reserve Division began moving units out of their island positions to fight in France. Daser was then notified by High Command that his training division was to be given a new designation and the status of a fighting formation.

Daser’s command was a curious one. The troops who made up 70 Infantry Division largely consisted of men with digestive problems severe enough to make them liabilities in their original units. The German High Command decided to concentrate all these sick men into special Magen (Stomach) battalions where their tasks could be made lighter and their feeding better supervised. By putting all the men with stomach problems into special battalions the Germans were able to ensure the original units from where the unfit men came from remained fighting fit, while treatment of the men in the stomach battalions continued apace in order to return them to a state of full fitness. That, at least, was the theory.

The original units of fit, healthy troops under Daser’s command moved back across the Scheldt to fight in France. The invalids took their place. A dispirited General Daser soon realised that his command now consisted largely of men recovering from wounds in the stomach, or complaining of stomach ulcers or nursing stomachs that were abnormally sensitive or nervous. Daser managed to retain the original healthy staffs of his divisional and regimental headquarters, a few healthy engineers, a troop of normal artillerymen and a fit complement of company commanders. However, all of the platoon officers under his command were fellow invalids along with their men. This division was nicknamed the ‘White Bread’ division reflecting their dietary needs. Three regiments were created out of this motley division of invalids – 1018, 1019 and 1020, each of two battalions. They were supported by a fusilier battalion, their artillery regiment with three batteries of about twelve guns each along with their signalers and engineers. Outwardly, they could have been mistaken for a fighting division.

What of Daser himself? The Canadian historian provides a small glimpse of the man’s character in the report he wrote.

Daser was a well-meaning man from the Palatinate. He had shown little emotion in the earlier phases of the war and would show little on Walcheren. Quite likely, however, he received just as much or more cooperation from his tired dyspeptics than any driving Prussian could have obtained. How much longer better troops might have held out is hard to say. The main mistake of the German defence of Walcheren seems to have been faulty use of the artillery, which raises the question whether or not more competent infantry officers could and would have demanded the kind of artillery support that might have defeated the Westkapelle landings.

While Daser had a certain amount of sympathy with the High Command’s decision in creating a division like his own to provide a reasonable solution to a difficult administrative problem, he could not understand why this formation would be tasked with defending what was one of the most vital sectors in Europe – the approaches to the port of Antwerp.

He knew his division was of low fighting value, at least it appeared that way on paper, but he did not agree that even though Walcheren Island was in a part of Holland where there was an abundance of white bread, fresh vegetables, eggs and milk they should be defending the mouth of the Scheldt. Where Daser did agree with the High Command was that put into concrete defensive positions such as bunkers, pillboxes, gun emplacements and behind walls his ‘stomach’ men could probably fire a gun as well as any fit soldier.

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