Canadian Forces Initiate Operation Switchback

The second main operation of the Battle of the Scheldt opened with fierce fighting to reduce the Breskens pocket.

Here, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division encountered tenacious German resistance as it fought to cross the Leopold Canal.

An earlier failed attempt by the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division at Moerbrugge had demonstrated the challenge they faced. In addition to the formidable German defences on both the Leopold Canal and the Dérivation de la Lys Canal, much of the approach area was flooded.

It was decided that the best place for an assault would be immediately east of where the two canals divided: a narrow strip of dry ground only a few hundred metres wide at its base beyond the Leopold Canal (described as a long triangle with its base on the Maldegem-Aardenburg road and its apex near the village of Moershoofd some five kilometres east).

A two-pronged assault commenced. The 3rd Canadian Division's 7th Brigade made the initial assault across the Leopold Canal, while the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade mounted an amphibious attack from the northern or coastal side of the pocket. The assault began on October 6, supported by extensive artillery and Canadian-built Wasp Universal Carriers, which were equipped with flamethrowers. The Wasps launched their barrage of flame across the Leopold Canal, allowing the 7th Brigade troops to scramble up over the steep banks and launch their assault boats. Two precarious, separate footholds were established, but the enemy recovered from the shock of the flamethrowers and counter-attacked, though they were unable to move the Canadians from their extremely vulnerable bridgeheads. By October 9, the gap between the bridgeheads was closed, and by early morning on October 12, a position had been gained across the Aardenburg road.

The 9th Canadian Brigade conducted an amphibious operation with the aid of Terrapin (the first such use of this vehicle in Europe) and Buffalo amphibious vehicles, crewed by the British 5th Assault Regiment from the Royal Engineers. The brigade planned to cross the mouth of the Braakman Inlet in amphibious vehicles and to land in the vicinity of Hoofdplaat, a tiny hamlet in the rear or coastal side of the pocket, thus exerting pressure from two directions at once. In spite of difficulties in maneuvering vehicles through the canals and the resulting 24-hour delay, the Germans were taken by surprise and a bridgehead was established. Once again, the Germans recovered quickly and counter-attacked with ferocity; however, they were slowly forced back. The 10th Canadian Brigade, from the 4th Armoured Division, crossed the Leopold Canal and advanced at Isabella Polder. Then the 3rd Division's 8th Canadian Brigade was called to move southwards from the coastal side of the pocket. This opened up a land-based supply route into the pocket.

The 3rd Division fought additional actions to clear German troops from the towns of Breskens, Oostburg, Zuidzande and Cadzand, as well as the coastal fortress Fort Frederik Hendrik. Operation "Switchback" ended on November 3 when the First Canadian Army liberated the Belgian towns of Knokke and Zeebrugge, officially closing the Breskens Pocket and eliminating all German forces south of the Scheldt.

The plan for opening the estuary involved four main operations. The first was to clear the area north Antwerp and close the South Beveland Isthmus. The second was to clear the Breskens "Pocket" behind the Leopold Canal (operation "Switchback"). The third, operation "Vitality", was the reduction of the Beveland Peninsula. The final phase would be the capture of Walcheren Island.