Although the Allies had captured Antwerp, a major port capable of supplying the armies now entering Germany, the Scheldt river estuary remained in German hands. Lying to the north of the approach to the Scheldt lies Walcheren island, which had been heavily fortified, denying the Allies the use of the port. Another amphibious assault was now required with much less time to plan and prepare than had been the case with Normandy.
No. 4 Commando were veterans of amphibious assault, including the Lofoten Islands and Dieppe before Normandy. Murdoch C. McDougall was now a well experienced young officer leading his men in the attack, accompanied by the equally seasoned Sergeant McVeigh:
Out in the river, we lay in our craft and saw the light winking towards us from the darkness below the glare of the burning town. We stopped our circling and made for the shore.
When we were still about three hundred yards offshore, some 20-millimetre cannon opened up somewhere on the left. The red streaks of tracer swooshed and cracked a few feet over the craft. We felt like Aunt Sally at the fair, with our heads sticking up above the sides of the L.C.A. as we peered at the outline of the landing-ground drawing nearer. Machine-guns joined in with the cannon-fire from the left, but they too were firing high.
An L.C.A. is more or less invisible from the shore at night, the only sign of its presence being the white of the water where the blunt bows thrust their way forward. The gunners on shore were doubt- less aiming about normal deck level, hoping to cause casualties among the naval personnel handling the craft, but as we were low in the water, the streams of fire were passing for the most part overhead.
In the last stages of the run-in the fire was fairly heavy, those on shore having by now realized that our barrage had indeed lifted, and that we were on our way in. They finally succeeded in sinking two L.C.A.s a few yards from the shore and causing some casualties amongst the crew.
Scrambling ashore on to the slimy stonework of the mole along with McVeigh, who was always glad to get out of any sort of boat, we saw the tape, followed it through the stakes and heard the cheerful voice of Lieutenant Harry Har- greaves, the Navy signaller and demolition king, calling out as we all swarmed up the dyke towards him: “Mind the light, chaps, mind the light. You can’t beat the old firm, can you?” Harry had been with No.4 before at Lofoten and Dieppe.
The time was now 06.30 hours and the beachhead was established. Speed was now essential, as the initiative lay with us. We met no opposition as we hurried along in the half-light, although it was eerie to see dim figures flitting across the streets and not to know whether they were Dutch civilians taking refuge, or Germans.
As we ran on, threading our way through the dim streets, every man was probably going over in his mind the details of the route as we had all memorized it from the aerial photographs.
[W]e were heading for our barracks on the sea-front, with McVeigh like a bristling terrier in the lead. We dashed down an alleyway, at the foot of which we found a row of little houses. Beyond these was the back of what appeared to be a garage, which was very close to the barracks. There was a hole in the back wall of this garage, which McVeigh quickly enlarged.
One by one the leading group swung into the darkness of the building itself. The other walls were wooden and flimsy, as was the door which hung ajar. The leading man reached the door and almost ran into a body of German soldiers beside the blank wall of a bunker. The Germans immediately opened fire into and through the walls of the garage. I was just coming through the hole at the back, saw the disadvantage and roared: “Back out this way.”
Then it was that old Donkin, who at forty-one was the oldest member of the Commando, ex-miner, old soldier, the father of nine children, with a tenth on the way, jumped into the doorway and stood there framed, with both feet planted firm, stocky body balanced on slightly bandy legs, and methodically started to Tommy-gun from left to right among the fifteen or so Germans visible to him by the concrete bunker.
He reached the right-hand end of his swing and was starting the return, when one man on the left, whom he had missed at the start, got in a quick shot. It took him straight through the throat, killing him at once. McVeigh, who was beside him with a rifle, made no mistake with his return shot, then doubled back through the now empty garage, through the gap in the wall, and out to us in the alleyway.
The tempo now became even quicker. The enemy knew exactly where we were, and if organized could bring fire down on us from the various vantage points amongst the buildings around us. We could not afford to lose the initiative.