CHAPTER TEN

The Final Battle

Around noon on 4 November 41 Royal Marine Commando arrived in Domburg, after their fruitless trek south. Although they had just spent two days on the march, B Troop was sent forward to assist 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando. They would attack W18, an anti-aircraft position with a commanding position on the dunes, while the Belgian Troop advanced through the woods inland. After several hours waiting for confirmation of air support, the advance began at 3:00, after three Typhoons ‘put in a brief and rather useless appearance, late’. Even so, Captain Georges Danloy’s men pushed forward through the woods, hampered by snipers and mines. A number of men were wounded including Adjutant Comte Guy d’Oultremont. After advancing 800 metres and taking over one hundred prisoners, the Belgians were ordered to halt. 41 Commando’s troop had run into difficulties on the approach to W18. Enfilade fire from the woods surrounding Westhove Castle (a chateau-style building) had forced Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer to withdraw from the exposed dunes. 10 Commando would have to clear the area before his men could reach the battery.

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Domburg and the area cleared by 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando.

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10 Commando in the woods east of Domburg. Zeeland Library

While some of the men spent another miserable night on the dunes, others were rather more fortunate. 41 Commando took over the inauspiciously named ‘Badhotel’ (Bath Hotel), a German officer’s billet, and made full use of the abandoned facilities.

The Norwegian Troop took over responsibility for 10 Commando’s front overnight and prepared to renew the advance. However, appalling weather conditions meant that they would have to continue without the benefits of air support. Throughout the day patrols fought a frustrating game of hide and seek with German snipers while the engineers probed for mines and booby-traps.

During the afternoon Palmer was prepared to renew the attack on W18 and at 3:00 his men began moving cautiously along the dunes, supported by two of Major Pollock’s tanks. Small arms fire and mortar fire targeted the commandos as they crept forward, and while A Troop cleared the landward side of the dunes, Y Troop, approached the battery position. A Nebelwerfer rocket launcher was quickly silenced when a lucky shot from one of the tanks destroyed its ammunition dump. As Y Troop negotiated the minefield protecting W18, one tank struck a mine, and the other withdrew to safety. Captain Peter Haydon’s men would have to attack alone. Bunker after bunker surrendered as the commandos worked their way forward through the complex. Although casualties were light, Captain Peter Haydon DSO and his batman Marine Byron Moses, had been fatally wounded leading the attack. As the light began to fade the last pocket of resistance surrendered and 300 men were on their way to captivity.

While 41 Commando and 10 Commando continued to probe forward on 6 November, the two commanding officers were increasingly concerned by the shortage of supplies. Although stocks of German foodstuffs sustained the men, they were unable to fight without ammunition. The engineers had worked hard to clear the flooded coast road, but minefields eventually forced them to find another route. It would be some time before they opened a route to Domburg.

Brigadier Leicester visited 41 Commando’s headquarters during the afternoon, anxious to renew the advance. However, Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer convinced him of the need to build up supplies. While the commandos waited they watched as Typhoons strafed targets along the coast. The three remaining tanks spent the afternoon searching for targets around the Black Hut position:

a number of pillboxes and OP’s [Observation Posts] in the dunes to the north were shot up and further rounds put into the Black Hut area and the large concrete emplacement. A wooden screen had been put across the slit but this was soon destroyed and both AP and HE delay [anti-personnel and high explosive shells] put through the slit at 2,000 yards.

Meanwhile, the Belgian Troop renewed the advance south of Black Hut, yet another bunker complex on the dunes. A Section immediately encountered a minefield and came under machine-gun fire as they tried to find a way round. Lieutenant Adolphe Meny was killed immediately, leaving Lieutenant Boris Artemieff to take the lead. Running forward, Artemieff was hit twice in the shoulder but still managed to silence one nest with his Tommy gun. Captain Danloy ordered Lieutenant Pierre Roman to outflank the strong point pinning down A Section. Distracted by the threat to their flank, the Germans failed to stop the HQ section’s charge. Faced with the bayonet, four machine-gun posts surrendered, clearing the main German line of resistance. Eight Belgian Commandos were awarded the Croix de Guerre for their part in the action.

Captain Danloy ordered Lieutenant Roman to occupy the dunes north of the woods with a fighting patrol before the Germans recovered. The dunes were cleared easily, but Roman found his position dominated by an area of high ground. With Danloy’s permission, Roman ordered his men forward:

this small battle was an absolute classic of determination to get through at all costs and obtain one’s objective, and, after the objective had been taken, to appreciate the situation and realise that something further must be done in order to make the position tenable.

There is no doubt that Lieutenant Roman’s initiative and courage considerably speeded up the final outcome of the battle. He received the Military Cross for his actions:

[Roman] showed a complete disregard for his personal safety and by his fine qualities of leadership and courage, he set a splendid example to the men under his command.

Meanwhile, 6 November was a momentous day on the Westkapelle beach. Previous attempts to land supplies had been aborted due to poor sea conditions but for once the weather relented sufficiently to attempt a landing. Rough seas caused one LCT to broach on the beach and its cargo was lost but the two remaining craft managed to land badly needed supplies and transport. 4 Special Service Brigade’s wounded and some of the prisoners were evacuated on the return journey, after spending days on the exposed beach.

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The exposed encampment on Green Beach, Westkapelle. H Houterman

As 41 Commando had lost the majority of its transport in the initial landing, Brigadier Leicester had arranged for 4 Commando’s to be transferred from Ostend. Although eighteen Weasels landed safely on White Beach, they were left on the south side of the gap by mistake. Attempts to transfer them across the gap nearly ended in tragedy:

The high seas and swift current tossed the small amphibians about like straws, and five Weasels were swamped and lost in the crossing. LVT crews came to the rescue of the drivers, and after a violent battle with the floods all of them were brought safely ashore.

Nine eventually reached Domburg, providing a valuable service. They worked day and night to ferry stores and wounded along the coast road.

The attack on 7 November benefited from a host of supportive fire. Mortars from three commandos had been gathered together and for once the weather relented, allowing effective air support. Eighteen Typhoons targeted the German positions around Black Hut and W19 with their canons and rockets as the marines moved into position. 41 Commando managed to reach the Black Hut position supported by two Shermans and once again the German Kreigsmarine had no stomach for close-quarter fighting. While the prisoners were led away the tank crews of 1st Lothian’s inspected their handiwork:

two Nebelwerfers were found destroyed in the spot at which we had been firing and a 50mm in a big emplacement. There was a hole in the gun, the marks of two HEs on the far wall and plenty of blood on the floor. A number of other pillboxes which had been engaged were badly knocked about.

Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer allowed his men to continue the advance in the hope of reaching W19 before dark. However, A Troop found the battery protected by an anti-tank ditch and a minefield. Machine-guns and mortars targeted the commandos as they ran for cover, wounding a dozen men in a matter of minutes. Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer ordered his men back to safety and while as Captain John Lash organised the evacuation of casualties, Typhoons strafed the woods north of Overduin to cover the withdrawal.

The Norwegian Troop, now led by Lieutenant Olav Gausland, had been progressing slowly through the woods. Engineers struggled to make a road forward through the minefields for the single remaining AVRE tank and after only 300 disaster struck. A mine ripped through the floor of the tank, mortally wounding three of the crew. The Norwegians would have to continue alone. Dozens of prisoners were taken and one volunteered some interesting information during his interrogation. The officer commanding W19 had decided to evacuate his position, drawing up a defensive line through the woods to face the developing threat. It meant that the weight of supporting fire gathering in support of 41 and 10 Commando could be put to good use.

The Final Surrender

The net had begun to close on the Germans trapped around Overduin and Vrouwenpolder. 4 Commando arrived in the area overnight, taking responsibility for the inland section from 10 Commando. The marines formed up and watched as the Canadian artillery gathered on the eastern edge of the island began targeting the woods at first light. They were gratified to see their objective shelled mercilessly, with virtually no reply

At first light, 41 Commando was still trying to negotiate the minefield covering W19 on the dunes. Contrary to the prisoner’s information, men could be seen manning the earthworks surrounding the battery. Palmer was concerned that he could be held up for another day and ordered B Troop to rush the minefield while P Troop provided covering fire. The attack took the Germans completely by surprise and before long white flags appeared outside every bunker.

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Lieutenant Kenneth Wright.

4 Commando advanced cautiously through the woods, taking dozens of prisoners. Many freely admitting that they had no prepared line and it appeared that they had been left to fend for themselves. As Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson monitored the progress through the woods inland, his staff were alarmed to see four armed Germans walk into their headquarters area. At first they thought the men had surrendered, but it soon became clear that they had been sent to arrange a formal surrender for all troops in the area. Under escort, the four took Lieutenant Kenneth Wright, 4 Commando’s intelligence officer, to a nearby dugout. Following a brief telephone conversation with Oberstleutnant Wilhelm Veigele, 1020th Grenadier Regiment’s commanding officer, transport was sent to collect Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson. Meanwhile, a cease-fire was ordered, and impending air strikes and artillery shoots were cancelled.

At 8:45 am the people of Vrouwenpolder were surprised to see a German staff car drive into the village with a British officer in the back seat and another perched on the bonnet. At first they did not know whether to cheer or remain silent. However, the smiles on the officers’ faces soon convinced the locals that all was well. As the Dutch waved on, Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson and Lieutenant Wright arrived outside the German headquarters where Oberstleutnant Veigele waited with his staff. After formal salutes, the locals watched anxiously as the party stepped inside.

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Oberstleutnant William Veigele.

As Dawson negotiated surrender terms, outside events nearly cut short the meeting. The lead troops of 41 Commando had continued to advance along the dunes opening fire as they approached a strong point known as ‘Fujiyama’. Although Veigele was unhappy about the breach in the cease-fire, several delicate phone calls restored the truce.

After finally agreeing terms, the two commanding officers made speeches in front of thirty-five German officers and as he handed over his weapon, Veigele explained with tears in his eyes how his disorganised men could not fight on without ammunition. Outside in the street, 4 Commando had confined the Dutch to their houses while they rounded up the prisoners and to avoid potential trouble. As the young commandos reflected on all they had seen over the past week, they watched as over 900 Germans said farewell to their officers. It was a civilised end to a battle in which all men had suffered terribly. By 1:00 pm Vrouwenpolder was virtually deserted, only a few German doctors and medical orderlies remained behind to tend the wounded.

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The final surrender. H Houterman

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Prisoners in a make-shift camp wait to be evacuated.

Even though human opposition had ended, the island was still extremely dangerous. During the afternoon, Lieutenant-Colonel Moulton sent Captain Flunder and A Troop through the floods to meet 52nd Division in de Veere. As the two Buffaloes negotiated the road through Serooskerke, the second vehicle struck a huge mine. Twenty men were killed and nine injured in the explosion, (fifteen of the dead were marines of 48 Commando, its greatest loss of life since the landing).

Although the battle was over, bad weather prevented the commandos leaving Walcheren. For over a week they had to watch over their prisoners while arrangements were made to evacuate them. In the meantime stray Germans continued to give themselves up. 4 Commando’s report relates how one incident amused the men:

One such [German] knocked on the door of a troop billet one night and asked meekly if he might surrender now that the danger was all over, as he had been too frightened to come out and do so before.

Aftermath

With the island free, work could begin on clearing the Schelde estuary. For the next three weeks over a hundred minesweepers tirelessly swept the narrow channel, while navy divers worked hard to make Antwerp docks safe from explosives. Although they had been driven back from the Scheide, the Germans still tried to deny the port from the Allies. Throughout November over one hundred V2 rockets rained down on the city.

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Minesweepers clearing the approaches to Antwerp.

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Finally, on 26 November three coasters berthed in the docks, the first of many. The Canadian liberty ship, Fort Cataraqui, docked two days later having led a convoy of ships up the estuary. They brought food and supplies for the starving Dutch, for although the occupation was over, it was only the start of a long hard winter.

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The estuary was clear and the passage to Antwerp was open.

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Supplies for the civilian population as well as the fighting forces began to arrive.

The importance of 4 Special Service Brigade and 155 Infantry Brigade’s efforts were highlighted three weeks later, when Hitler launched the Ardennes Offensive. In the battle that followed, huge quantities of supplies were lost and without Antwerp to restock the losses the war could have been prolonged for months.

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