Geography dictates the battlefield

Fred Rogger spent time this past summer touring battlefields and cemeteries of the Second World War

Bailey bridge over the Leopold canal

This is the second in a trio of articles Fred Rogger wrote about his battlefields and cemeteries tour in the Netherlands. He was exploring the Canadian experience there in the Second World War.

I had never been to the Netherlands before this WW2 study tour and the country`s geography has left a lasting impression on me because of its impact on the battlefields we studied.  Aptly named one of the low countries, the Netherlands is arguably the flattest country on earth and literally mean “low lands.”

Thanks, Captain Obvious, you’re thinking, because isn’t it, well, obvious that for every battle fought, army leaders must take into account the topography where the fighting occurs?  Yes, yes indeed, but in the Netherlands this is intensified by the very fact of its exceptionally unusual level landscape, half of which has been reclaimed from the sea.

Think about fighting a battle on ground so flat you cannot see over the next hedgerow, let alone gain an advantage by taking a high point and seeing your enemy’s position.  There is no high ground. Several of the battles for the Scheldt estuary, for example, were fought on land that was arguably below sea level, on level fields called polders that are bordered by dykes and crisscrossed by slightly raised roads. They become lethal and complicated when considering that both the Germans and Canadians intentionally flooded the battlefields.  Now ponder slogging through a couple feet of water and mud with a 70-pound pack on your back while your enemy if strafing, mortaring and bombing the ground around you. This is the battle of the Breskens Pocket in microcosm, ditches and canals, below sea level fields, soaked from the incessant rains of October 1944, trying to cross under heavy fire the Leopold Canal and other minor waterways. Up and over a raised ditch, across a narrow road, down the other side; repeat until you reach the Scheldt.  And consider this: conditions listed above in unending 2 degree drizzle against a ferocious enemy with nothing to lose. It was six weeks of seemingly unending hell but victory finally came in early November when Breskens was taken by the Canadians. Not surprisingly, the casualty rate was enormous.

It was short-lived relief because from Breskens looking across to Walcheren Island and peninsula, one would think the reinforced German fortress, the strongest on the Atlantic built to protect the entrance to Antwerp, would be impenetrable, but it wasn’t because the brilliant Canadian general Guy Simonds said it wasn’t.  With scant reinforcements and supplies, and the heavy assets needed for Operation Market Garden, Simonds devised a plan based on the geography of Walcheren.  This island peninsula attached by a sliver of an isthmus only existed as physical land because the Dutch had created a massive dyke system to take it back from the sea.  It is a testament to both the ingenuity of human beings and their utter fragility at the same time. We see this when General Simonds decides to blow up the dykes at Westkapelle and flood Walcheren as a strategy to defeat the German fortress by handicapping German mobility and swamping their many large artillery positions. Use of the “buffalo” amphibious armoured personnel carriers helped Canadians maneuver through the flooded polders.  The island went from land to sea in hours and the battlefield changed once again, as the Canadian “water rats” used soaked fields to their advantage. At the same time as Walcheren was flooded and attacked, the ridge at Woensdrecht, the only “high” ground on the Scheldt coast, is overrun by Canadian forces making their way to the thin slip of a causeway connecting Walcheren to the mainland. Here, more conventional weapons like tanks were used because the ground allowed it.

Armies learning on the go, adapting and improvising tactics, dealing creatively on a shoestring budget with the immediate realities of the topography in front of them, that’s the battle for the Netherlands in a nutshell. And it’s one the Canadians were able to crack time and again on their way to victory and liberation for the devastated Dutch. The Canadians were the Little Army That Could and Did!

– submitted by Fred Rogger