THE “BATTLES” OF PORT ANTWERP
Planning for the clearing of the Scheldt Estuary (code-named Operation INFATUATE) was begun by mid-September with Admiral Ramsay working closely with the designated land commander, the highly respected lieutenant general Guy Simonds, head of the II Canadian Corps (Crerar had been placed on sick leave). Ramsay appointed Captain Anthony Pugsley as the commander of Force T. In this role, he would plan and then lead the naval assault on Walcheren, the strategically important Dutch island on the northern side of the Scheldt Estuary.
As September drew to a close, the Allied supply was in an exceedingly precarious position. On October 5 a high-level meeting was held at SHAEF in Versailles. Those attending included Eisenhower, Bradley, Brooke, Montgomery, Ramsay, Tedder, and Leigh-Mallory. Ramsay recorded in his diary,
Very interesting exposition of situation on Army Group fronts. Monty made the startling announcement that we could take the Ruhr without Antwerp. This afforded me the cue I needed to lambast him for not having made the capture of Antwerp the immediate objective at highest priority & I let fly with all my guns at the faulty strategy which we had allowed…. I got approving looks from Tedder and Bedell Smith, and both of them together with C.I.G.S. [Brooke] told me after the meeting that I’d spoken their thoughts and that it was high time someone expressed them.
Brooke’s diary confirms that he was not pleased with what he had heard at Versailles. He noted that one fact stood out clearly: “Antwerp should be captured with the least possible delay. I feel that Monty’s strategy for once is at fault. Instead of carrying out the advance on Arnhem he ought to have made certain of Antwerp in the first place. Ramsay brought this out well in discussion and criticized Monty freely.” We can only speculate that if Brooke had not been at the Quebec Conference, he might have strongly pushed Montgomery over opening Antwerp while preparing later for MARKET GARDEN offensive.
On October 8 an obviously pleased Ramsay noted, “I understand that the 21st Army Group plan of campaign has now been modified to give greater priority to the 1st Canadian Army at expense of 2nd Army so as to concentrate on capture of entrances to Antwerp.” He was to be disappointed. Montgomery did issue fresh orders on October 9, but he placed clearing the Scheldt as only the third priority for his army group.
On October 8, a major English Channel storm had struck again at the Mulberry harbor and even damaged the harbor at Cherbourg. Eisenhower enraged at Montgomery’s stubborn denial of logistical realities and sent a clear message, but it was still not quite a direct order on October 10 regarding opening the port:
I must repeat that we are now squared up against the situation which has been anticipated for months and our intake into the Continent will not repeat not support our battle. Unless we have Antwerp producing by the middle of November our entire operations will come to a standstill. I must emphasize that, of all our operations on our entire front from Switzerland to the Channel, I consider Antwerp of first importance.
General Frederick Morgan (the former head of COSSAC, who was then on the SHAEF staff) reflected how “it became increasingly difficult to explain to our American Commander what, on the face of it, was little short of refusal to comply with orders on the part of his British subordinate.”
However remember the advice Montgomery gave to Patton in 1943 during the Sicily campaign on how to handle a disagreeable order from their supreme commander: “Let me give you some advice. If you get an order from Army Group that you don’t like, just ignore it. That’s what I do.”
Eisenhower told Smith to pursue Montgomery and get to the bottom of his intransigence. Smith telephoned Montgomery and demanded a firm date when the Scheldt would be opened. Montgomery would not be bullied. He stuck to his one-man script. The Ruhr, not Antwerp, remained the principal objective. The Americans needed Antwerp, not his Twenty-First Army Group.
Apoplectic with rage, Smith called Morgan to his office and handed the receiver to Morgan. Morgan then listened as Montgomery repeated the same arguments. Finally, during a brief pause, Morgan told Monty that unless he immediately began the Antwerp operation that the Twenty-First Army Group would receive no more supplies.
This further incensed Montgomery who sent an imperious memo to Smith demanding a complete overhaul of the SHAEF command structure. Monty was in the midst of an effort to gain control of the European campaign. This memo asserted, “All our troubles can be traced to the fact that there is no one commander in charge of the land battle…. SHAEF is not an operational headquarters and never can be…. The present organization for command…is not satisfactory.”
On October 8, Montgomery met with General George C. Marshall who was then in France. Montgomery arrogantly voiced his opinion that since Eisenhower had taken command of the land battle, Allied operations had become “ragged and disjointed…we had got ourselves into a real mess.” Marshall recorded that in reaction he nearly lost his temper: “[I]t was very hard for me to restrain myself because I didn’t think there was any logic in what he said, but overwhelming egotism.”
In response to these two outbursts, on October 13 a letter was sent to Montgomery by Eisenhower on which Ike, Marshall, and Smith had collaborated. It contains two key statements: “I have been informed, both by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and by the Chief of Staff of the United States Army that they seriously considered giving me a flat order that until the capture of Antwerp and its approaches was fully assured, this operation should take precedence over all others.” It continues, “If you…feel that my conceptions and directives are such as to endanger the success of operations, it is our duty to refer the matter to higher authority for any action they may choose to take, however drastic.”
As Montgomery then realized that the top authorities were not in his court, he replied on October 16 that he was giving top priority to the Scheldt campaign. After Montgomery belatedly issued his unequivocal orders for Operation INFATUATE, positive results soon followed.
On October 24 a brigade of the British Fifty-Second Division under the command of Captain Pugsley arrived by landing craft on the southern shore of South Beveland, the most easterly of the two German occupied islands on the north bank of the Scheldt. After five days of fierce fighting, the German commander on the island surrendered.
The stage was now set for a campaign on the island of Walcheren, which was connected by a causeway with South Beveland. As a large part of the island lies below sea level, the Dutch had built dikes to keep the sea out. RAF Lancaster bombers were called in to bomb the dike near the town of Westkapelle, on the western side of the island. By mid-October the dike had been breached in no less than four places, which would allow the Royal Marine Commandos to propel their landing craft into the breaches and attack the Germans from the rear.
On October 30 Ramsay set up his headquarters in Ghent next to those of Canadian general Simonds. Together they coordinated their forces for the invasion of Walcheren, which began on October 31. On that day Canadian troops began fighting along the causeway from South Beveland to Walcheren. On November 1 after a heavy shelling by the veteran battleship Warspite and two smaller monitor ships, all with 15mm guns, commando units landed in the Westkapelle area. At the same time following intense air and artillery attacks, the British Fifty-Second Division and Canadian troops landed at the island’s main town, Flushing. It took these forces four days to drive out the Germans from the town and docks. On November 3 two British infantry brigades landed on Walcheren’s eastern shore to outflank German defenders that had confined the Canadians into a bridgehead on the causeway from South Beveland. Five days later, two thousand Germans from the Seventieth Division surrendered. The fighting to open the port had been bitter. The Canadians sustained thirteen thousand casualties clearing the Scheldt.
On November 4, Ramsay was able to order more than ten squadrons of Royal Navy minesweepers (more than 150 vessels) to clear the Scheldt of the mines that the Germans had laid in September. Sadly one vessel struck a mine and was lost with all hands. They completed their task, removing no fewer than 267 mines, by November 26, one week earlier than had been forecasted.
On November 28, Ramsay returned to Antwerp to witness the success of Operation INFATUATE. He took part in a ceremony welcoming the first ship of the first convoy to arrive at Antwerp in four and a half years. By mid-December Antwerp was unloading twenty-three thousand tons per day. It only reached full capacity in early 1945.
Antwerp was at last open but no fewer than sixty days after the British first captured its dock facilities. This unnecessary delay, caused by Eisenhower’s acquiescence in Montgomery’s decision to stage Operation MARKET GARDEN and Montgomery’s failure until mid-October to give INFATUATE the priority it needed, destroyed any remaining chance that the war in Western Europe could have been won in 1944.
In Raymond Callahan’s judgment, Operation MARKET GARDEN “failed spectacularly.” The same can be said of Montgomery’s astounding misjudgment in failing to immediately open up the Scheldt Estuary after the capture of Antwerp. (Though Ramsay’s Operation INFATUATE succeeded once Eisenhower forced Montgomery to commit adequate forces to this effort.) Unusually for him, Montgomery later did admit that this was an error: “I must admit a bad mistake on my part. I underestimated the difficulties of opening up the approaches to Antwerp so that we could get free use of the port. I reckoned that the Canadian Army could do it while we were going for the Ruhr. I was wrong.” These two failures added to an already long list of OVERLORD’s strategic blunders, missed opportunities, and tactical errors.
Eisenhower backed the wrong offensive. His failure to support the Bradley/Patton plan gave the Germans an opportunity to regroup their shattered forces in Western Europe. The Allied armies starved of supplies were stalled at the German border because of the unnecessary delay in opening the Port of Antwerp.
The extension of the war produced the abortive US Hurtgen Forest offensive and gave Hitler the opportunity to launch his doomed Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge). Both resulted in major Allied casualties.
OVERLORD failed to achieve its ultimate goals: invading Germany, capturing Berlin, and ending the war in Europe. In our final chapter we will review how national rivalries tested the command structure of the Allied alliance and how the divergent leadership qualities of the principal commanders and personality clashes among them jeopardized the success of the Normandy campaign.