Walcheren island lies to the north of the Scheldt Estuary guarding the approaches to the port of Antwerp. In October 1944 Antwerp had been liberated but remained unusable as Germans continued to occupy Walcheren. During opening moves in the operation to capture it the RAF had bombed the dykes surrounding the island, causing the greater part of it to flood.
The port of Flushing had been captured in a surprise attack on the 1st November. Now attempts were made to advance on the principal town, Middelburg, and overcome the main German resistance.
The British advance was now greatly assisted by the use of amphibious craft – Alligators, Buffalos and Weasels. Joe Brown was an intelligence officer with the Royal Scots involved in the initial advance:
On the evening of November 4, our newly-appointed C.O. (he was previously Second-in-Command of the Battalion), was ordered by the Brigade Commander to stand-by to lead a white-flag party to negotiate the surrender of the German garrison in Middelburg.
The next morning I went with him to join the Brigadier to observe 4 KOSB advancing up both banks of the canal towards Middelburg, the capital of Walcheren. Although the approaches to Middelburg were being shelled, the advance was extremely difficult with a large number of concrete positions to be overcome.
The Brigadier thought the possibility of heavy casualties could be avoided and decided to send a patrol consisting of the Brigade Liaison Officer with myself and the Reconnaissance Officer of “A” Squadron 11th Royal Tank Regiment (which provided the Buffaloes: amphibious tracked vehicles) to reconnoitre a route to the west towards the main road leading in to the north of Middelburg and determine whether it was possible for a battalion transported in Buffaloes to get into a position to attack Middelburg from the north.
We set off in a Buffalo at about 1445 hours, and it became quickly evident that the difficulties that would face the patrol were the heavy level of flood water surrounding the approaches to Middelburg as well as the extensive minefields and numerous anti-landing devices.
These devices consisted of wooden stakes with explosive charges placed above the flood-level and were interconnected by wires and named by the Dutch Resistance as ‘Rommel asparagus’ after Field-Marshal Rommel who had ordered them to be erected. Initially the progress was slow but we reached Kouderkerke, some four kilometres south-west of Middelburg, without encountering enemy resistance.
After taking time to explore the approaches to the north of Middelburg, the failing light made us decide to return and report to the Brigade Commander that it would be possible in daylight for an infantry force in Buffalos to follow our route and with careful navigation through the various hazards to reach the outskirts of Middelburg and be in a position to attack.
On the way back we ran into difficulties at about 1750 hours when the Buffalo, manoeuvring to avoid ‘Rommel asparagus’, got one of its tracks jammed on a concrete bridge that was totally submerged and unseen under the grubby flood water. A motor-cycle was jettisoned along with other heavy ‘non-essentials’ but this did not help to dislodge and re-float the Buffalo and we remained stuck on the bridge.
The Dutch Resistance had contacted our patrol when it first entered Kouderkirke and now they came to our assistance, rowing out to rescue both the Brigade L.O. and myself. We explained to the Resistance that we needed to get back to Flushing as quickly as possible and although they readily agreed to guide us, they advised we would have to wait for first light to avoid the heavy tidal surge of flood water returning to the sea through the breached sea wall as the nearest crossing point back to Flushing was very close to the gap.
We sheltered in different houses and I shall always remember the kind and warm welcome extended to me. After receiving hospitality I was shown to a bedroom at the top of the house and experienced a few hours rest in the luxury of white sheets!
Two Resistance men called for us in the last hours of the night’s darkness and we set off to begin our wade through the flood water on what proved to be a most hazardous journey.
They had made the crossing before and knew how to attempt it, directing our efforts in handling and positioning large lengths of wood which enabled us to reach an area of submerged ground that the four of us could just about manage to stand and at that stage we were half-way across the gap.
We stood there for a moment to draw breath, clutching one another to keep balance as the tidal waters swept past us; if we had slipped we would surely have been swept into the Scheldt Estuary! With anxiety we viewed the distance still to be crossed but under the leadership and skill of our two friends of the Dutch Resistance and deft use of those valuable logs – we made it!
The men had not yet contacted the Germans but the reconnaissance had proved invaluable in opening up a route by which they could attack the next day. The German commanders in Middelburg were taken by surprise by their swift advance and the British were able to persuade them to surrender. It was only then that the Germans learned how small the attacking force actually was:
Our force of eleven Buffaloes moved into the main square of Middelburg and orders given to the German officers to bring their men into the square and pile their armaments. We had taken 2,000 prisoners with a force of 140 men and as the Germans began to realise this there was signs of unrest. However, this was kept subdued during the hours of darkness by a vigilant ‘A’ Company 7th/9th RS and having positioned well-sited machine-guns of the 7th Manchester Regiment in the four corners of the square.
Just a small part of the Second World War Memoirs of JOE BROWN, which has interesting sections explaining in some detail the work of both Signals and Intelligence officers, as well as his general memoirs of the war. The Daily Mail carried an amusing account of the capture of Middelburg on 7th November, which was reproduced in War Illustrated.
At the time it was common for the British to equate Holland with the Netherlands, as per the original captions to these images, but see comments below.