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

With millions of men under arms, and the incidence of gastric cases high, it was inevitable that ultimately there would be a veritable little army of stomach sufferers on the borderline of employability. For various medical and administrative reasons these men were gradually separated from other categories and bonded together in ‘Stomach’ companies and battalions. In step with the progressive deterioration of the manpower situation their leisured life comes soon to an end; at first they were used for light tasks, later for heavier tasks and finally for combat duty.

Despite the disabilities of the troops in Daser’s command they were not spared the rigours of full combat. In early September the fusiliers were ordered into Belgium, in the sector around Ghent, and in a single day they lost some 300 casualties.

On 9 September, Daser reported to von Zangen at Headquarters Fifteenth Army, which was at this time in Middelburg on Walcheren. Daser was yet to move into these headquarters and von Zangen was yet to move back across to Breskens. Indeed, it was at this meeting that von Zangen told Daser that he would have to transfer command to Walcheren Island. General von Zangen explained to Daser that 712 Infantry Division would be responsible for South Beveland while 64 Infantry Division would be defending the mainland behind the line of the Leopold Canal, the Breskens Pocket, while 70 Infantry Division would take on the responsibility of defending Walcheren itself.

As our Intelligence soon became aware, these three divisions were to be controlled by 89 Corps under General von Gilsa. Although the enemy’s arrangements for defending the approaches to Antwerp were completed before the port had fallen, Daser corroborates the other evidence that the sudden capture of the city came as a complete surprise. The forces opposing our farther advance to the north had to be strengthened, and by the time that 70 Infantry Division returned to Walcheren, about 19 Sep, the original plan had been considerably modified. This meant that 712 Infantry Division having made its escape from Breskens to Flushing, had to be rushed out into Brabant, leaving the devoted 70 Infantry Division to defend both Walcheren and the two Bevelands.

After a fortnight of bitter fighting on the mainland around Wettern and Laerne, Daser’s ‘stomach’ troops were down by 700 men. In his interview, Daser related how, shortly after they landed on the mainland (prior to going back to Walcheren), he lost 1018 Infantry Regiment from his command as it was attached to 346 Infantry Division, ‘then holding a sector from Lille to Merxem, and was never seen by Daser again’. He was left with the uncomfortable realisation that he would be called upon to make a last-ditch stand on the island with what troops he had left.

During his interview, Daser was asked what he thought of the term ‘Fortress Island’, as it applied to Walcheren Island as a whole. His conception of fortress was a very limited area with sufficient supplies, ammunition, weapons, cement and so forth for enduring a lengthy siege. He thought that it initially referred to the port of Flushing on Walcheren because it had a moat and the anti-tank wall gave the town the resemblance of a proper fortress. However, von Zangen had designated the entire island as a fortress. He also referred to the area south of Scheldt in the same terms, which meant for Daser that the term no longer had any tactical meaning. Instead, it merely defined the area the Germans were going to use to make their final stand and fight to the last man and the end of their ammunition. Daser, therefore, had to fortify Walcheren in this way. ‘There was sufficient ammunition to last for eight weeks, and food for six weeks, after the Isthmus had been sealed off. Daser estimated that his troops might be able to hold out for about four weeks against a direct attack.’

It took the Allies a week to fight their way up the South Beveland isthmus to the causeway connecting the isthmus with Walcheren Island. On the sixth day after the Allied amphibious assault on the island itself, Daser surrendered the island and all his men. By that time, the vast majority of the island had been flooded by the RAF breeching the dykes that run around the coast of the island, essentially ringing it, keeping the interior of the island dry.

For late in the afternoon of 01 October the German Air Force strongpoint northeast of Domburg was bombed from the air and lost two major pieces of sea-searching and coast-watching radar equipment (one ‘Mammut’ and one ‘Wurzburg Riese’). A much more serious development occurred on 03 October, when O.B. West recorded that two waves of Allied aircraft had carried out heavy bombing attacks on Walcheren and South Beveland and had succeeded in breeching the dyke on the south coast of Walcheren. There was now danger of flooding.

If the Germans counted on gaining valuable time by defending Walcheren gun by gun and ditch by ditch, they must have been sorely disappointed to see the inundations on the island grow from day to day until there was not enough dry land to put up any kind of effective defence. By 23 October all areas lying open to flooding were covered with water. A map showing the extent of the inundations at that time was submitted to the Naval Operations Staff early in November.

However, for the Allies to get to the ‘Fortress Island’ they had to clear the south shore of the Scheldt, the Breskens coast, of German defenders. This would take four weeks of bitter, harsh fighting.

But while it is true that the small infantry forces on Walcheren could do little to protect the batteries, it is also true that larger forces would hardly have been able to postpone for long the elimination of artillery positions that were exposed to unhindered bombardment from the air, sea and land. The real strength and substance of the German defence of Walcheren was embodied in the various Naval Coast Artillery and Antiaircraft Batteries.

In March 1944, the Germans laid down the policy for defending Walcheren Island and South and North Beveland. At that time Field Marshal Rommel believed that the Allied invasion had to be defended on the beaches and as such ordered that all coastal divisions were to be positioned within a 5km strip of the beaches along the coast in order to concentrate their defensive power. Essentially, all troops, reserves as well, were to be situated within this defensive zone. However, for Daser such a scheme was impractical because of the nature of the islands under his command so he asked for, and received, permission to modify his defences accordingly to fit in with the particular geographical conditions in this area. The dykes, for instance, and canals that permeate the region posed unique challenges.

On the island of Walcheren, Daser placed a 5km ring of troops that circled the island as per Rommel’s instructions in March. On the western side of North Beveland island, facing east, strongpoints were built, while on South Beveland on the southern and western coasts several field positions were dug. Some towns were designated as strongpoints such as Goes, which had defensive positions of gun emplacements, bunkers and so forth to give it all-around protection. The Beveland Canal, which cuts across the isthmus and having been designated as a second line of defence, had several defensive positions dug that faced eastwards. In order to protect against a land attack by the Allies striking from Woensdrecht or Bergen Op Zoom, another set of defensive positions was built at the very edge of the Beveland isthmus.

In his interview as a prisoner of war Daser described to his Allied captors the way in which he deployed his troops:

1020 Infantry Brigade manned the Isthmus from Woensdrecht to the Beveland Canal; 2nd Battalion 89 Festungs Stamm along the southern coast of South Beveland facing the West Scheldt; 1st Battalion 1019 G.R. in the port of Flushing; 2nd Battalion 1019 G .R. along the eastern shore of Walcheren Island and defending the causeway between Walcheren and Beveland; 1st Battalion 89 Festungs Stamm along the northwest shore to Walcheren; 3rd Battalion 89 Festungs Stamm along the southwest shore of Walcheren.

Daser also provided details of the flooding that resulted from the Allied bombing campaign on Walcheren:

In the middle of October the concrete floodwall in the northwest corner of Flushing, and at the time the narrow dam one kilometer southwest of Fort Rammekens were destroyed, each with 500–600 aerial mines with time fuses. The flood surging in immediately inundated the areas in the vicinity of the gaps, later in a part of Flushing and the district as far as West and East Souburg and finally the whole area as far as the anti-tank ditch and wall.

Daser gave information about the state of the German defences on Walcheren Island prior to the Allied amphibious assault. These details, highlighted in the appendix of the The Campaign In North-West Europe, Information From German Sources, Part 3, follow:

In accordance with the principal combat mission: ‘To repel any enemy attack from the West, and in particular in combination with the neighbouring division to the South to block the Scheldt Estuary and the port of Flushing’, the west coast of Walcheren from Vrouwenpolder to Fort Rammekens (both included) was built up ‘fort-like’ as far as possible – by a number of concrete strongpoints and resistance nests that were reinforced by field works. The northwest coast of North Beveland and the southwest coast of South Beveland were provided with field works sited in the main between individual minor strongpoints.

Organized for defence by field works were: facing east: the isthmus of Bath and a line about 3km east of the west coasts of North and South Beveland, facing both ways: the Walcheren Canal north of Middelburg, and the South Beveland Canal, for all-round defence: the town of Goes.

The northern limit of the ‘Fortress Area Flushing’ was a line of field works and individual bunkers connected by antitank ditches and walls.

a) Strongpoints:

On the main coastal points and in the rear area there were, accommodated in a series or group of concrete gun emplacements and bunkers, proof against shell fragments, and shell-proof against calibres up to 15 cm;

• all naval coast batteries (With the exception of the 22 cm battery east of Domburg),

• three heavy (15 cm) batteries and some of the light batteries of the Divisional artillery [while on the island],

• nearly all anti-landing guns, anti-tank guns, infantry guns and mortars at the coast,

• anti-tank weapons and heavy infantry weapons at the anti-tank ditch,

• crews of guns and heavy infantry weapons, observers, radio and telephone posts,

• Divisional command posts, the infantry and artillery regiments, the Senior Naval Officer, the naval coast artillery and flak unit, a part of the reserves, ammunition and food.

The walls of the bunkers were up to one metre thick, while the roofs were up to 2.5 metres. Some were covered with armour plates, many with revolving panzer cupolas, a great many were provided with panzer doors, all with heating and air conditioning installations and gas traps (air locks). All strong points were prepared for close and all-round defence by reinforced field works and were surrounded by wire entanglements and mine belts.

b) Resistance Nests:

Field fortification type resistance nests were established between individual strongpoints and at the other positions. The resistance nests were surrounded by ditches and provided with bunkers and machine gun positions, splinter-proofed with iron rails, wood, stones and earth.

c) Wire Obstacles:

All strongpoints and resistance nests, as well as entire batteries and individual positions for guns and heavy infantry weapons were encircled by wire 50 metres wide.

d) Off-shore Obstacles the Germans used:

At first individual pylons 20–30 cm thick, iron posts and rails were embedded, later on, only triangular jacks of 30 cm and thicker wood, rammed in and fastened together with iron clamps. Waterproof anti-tank mines, or grenades, were attached to the obstacles. As far as they were available, wire cables as broad as a finger were stretched between them. Concrete boxes loaded with mines or explosives were set up at different elevations from the ground.

e) Anti-tank Ditches and Anti-tank Wall:

Connecting up with existing water courses, a water ditch was dredged out from the coastal road from halfway between Flushing–Zoutelande via Koudekerke Klein Abeele (1.5 km south of Middelburg) towards Fort Rammeken. The ditch was 10 km long, 8–10 metres wide and 1.5– 2 metres deep. Beginning at the end of the ditch, a concrete anti-tank wall, 1.3 km long, 2.5 metres high and 1.5 metres wide was erected.

f) Mine Obstacles:

Consisted of:

• mine belts around the individual strongpoints and resistance nests,

• lines of mines forward of the main line of resistance on the northwest and southwest coast of Walcheren,

• large fields of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the rear area, principally east of Westkapelle. They were fenced in and marked with warning signs,

• dummy mine fields on fairly large stretches of ground in the rear area.

g) Anti Landing Obstacles:

On all surfaces suitable for the descent of paratroops or air-landing troops, especially on Walcheren and South Beveland, strong tree trunks were dug in and pounded in firmly at intervals of 15 metres. They were between 15 cm and 30 cm thick, were inserted 1.5 metres below ground and protruded 3 metres above ground; some were wired and equipped with anti -personnel or improvised mines. The lumber for this was taken to some extent from the roads with several rows of trees right on the spot, but to a greater extent from the wooded areas south of Bergen op Zoom and from outside of the divisional sector. They were moved in by rail, vehicle convoy and ship. In addition to this, the former airfield 2 km south of Middelburg was made unserviceable for landings by ditches and earth cast up.

The ‘fort-type’ installations (concrete constructions, anti-tank ditches and anti-tank wall) were created in accordance with a building programme of the Fortress Construction Staff at 89 Corps Headquarters under the direction and supervision of a Special Construction Staff of the Division by the Todt Organization and civilian construction firms. At the time of the invasion on 06 June 1944, the installations were 75% completed; by the time of the attack on the island group itself in October 1944 they had been completed.

All obstructions and field-type installations were built by the troops themselves. All mines were laid by engineers. The blocking and destruction of the ports and the preparatory work were the task of the Navy.

These were the German defences the Allies would have to deal with when they began operations to clear the Scheldt. The Germans knew the Allies were coming and they were ready for them.

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