CHAPTER THREE

Planning Operation Infatuate

Bombing the Island

All levels of command agreed that Walcheren was a formidable position and, after an attack by airborne troops had been ruled out First Canadian Army looked to Bomber Command to soften up the German garrison. Previous experience has shown that prolonged bombing ‘would not constitute an effective and economical employment of our bomber effort’; at this stage in the war there were far more tempting targets across Germany. The plan was to strike the island with every available plane during the forty-eight hours prior to D-Day

Meanwhile, the Army wanted to know if it would be possible to breach the dikes. Large parts of Walcheren Island were below high water level and by creating gaps in the dikes sea water would flood substantial parts of the island. The chance to paralyse the German command and control was a tempting proposition. While many of the inshore bunkers would be uninhabitable, the batteries on the coastal dunes would be cut off from supplies.

Despite the military advantages, breaching the dikes created a moral problem. Heavy bombing would inevitably lead to civilian casualties, the flooding would bring misery for the local population, causing extensive damage to property. The inrush of salt water would lead to contamination of the fertile land, possibly depriving the local population of a livelihood for years to come.

Despite the drawbacks, Allied command was firmly fixed on the overall war objectives and on 29 September Bomber Command agreed to attack the dike south of Westkapelle, at the thinnest part of the sea wall. The date was set for 3 October, the next spring tide. Although the Dutch government knew that Walcheren was a target, the true nature of the raid was never revealed on the grounds that they would object strongly. The deception would lead to a greater loss of life.

As the RAF prepared to strike, attempts were made to warn the local population. On 2 October hundreds of warning leaflets were scattered across the island, while messages were broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Bomber formations often passed over Walcheren but on this occasion it was imperative that the people knew they were in the target zone. The following morning 247 bombers from No 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group RAF and No 1, 3 and 5 (Bomber) Groups RAF crossed the North Sea heading for Westkapelle. Bomber command had never attempted an operation such as this before, and was not entirely convinced that it was possible to cut the dike. It was after all over seventy metres wide at the base, tapering to twenty metres at the apex. Just before 1:00pm, the first wave of thirty bombers began releasing their cargo, composed of 1,000lb and 4,000lb bombs. Anti-aircraft fire was non-existent and by the time the final wave passed over the village, sea water was starting to spread across the island. The breach was initially estimated at thirty-five metres wide, but the inrush of water, quickly doubled the size of the gap.

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Lancasters of RAF Bomber Command on a daylight bombing mission in 1944. Right: The results of the bombing on Westkapelle – the dike walls were breached allowing the sea to rush in. The town was devastated by fire and water.

Civilian casualties in Westkapelle had been heavy. Over 150 lost their lives, a terrible blow to the small community. Several families had gathered in the basement of the local windmill, De Roos Molen (Rose Mill) owned by the Theune family. A stray bomb damaged the mill, trapping forty-seven men, women and children inside. Although many survived the blast, the encroaching sea water flooded the shelter, drowning all but three of the occupants.

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Seawater quickly spread across the island following the first bombing raid. IWM C4676

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Aerial reconnaissance noted that at high tide, sea water covered large parts of the island, flooding many houses to a depth of a metre. Twice a day the people of Walcheren had to watch helplessly as their homes slowly filled with salt water and stinking mud.

Now that all parties knew it was possible to cut the dike, 21 Army Group requested more raids to complete the ‘sinking’ of the island. On 7 October, raids either side of Flushing created two breaches, effectively flooding the southern half of the island. Over 350 tonnes of bombs, delivered by fifty-eight Lancasters and Mosquitos, tore a hole in the dike west of the town. Meanwhile, sixty-four bombers cut the sea wall east of the town docks. Four days later No 5 (Bomber) Group completed the flooding, cutting the dike on the north side of the island, near Veere.

Over the following weeks, over 5,000 tonnes of high explosive rained down on the coastal batteries. Although there was no doubt that it needed a ‘lucky hit’ to immobilise a gun, they could not be allowed to hamper minesweeping operations unmolested.

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Bomber command tried in vain to destroy Walcheren’s coastal batteries. IWM CL1482

As planning proceeded, there were concerns that the Westkapelle coastal batteries could decimate the landing. If the bulk of the landing force could pass through the gap, they could disembark in the dead ground behind the dike. Widening the gap could mean the difference between success and failure. A request to Bomber Command resulted in 106 Squadron (Lancasters) delivering over one hundred 1,000lb bombs on 17 October. The raid accomplished its objective, nearly doubling the size of the gap. Over the next two weeks the tides carved a smooth channel wide enough for landing craft to pass through.

The stage was now set for the assault. Two huge raids, comprising over 500 aircraft, showered the island with nearly 3,000 tonnes of explosives on the 28th and 29th. However, a request to Bomber Command, asking for a last minute raid on the coastal defences protecting Flushing, was denied. Pinpoint bombing in darkness was impossible and it was likely that the town would be devastated by such a strike. The assault on Flushing would have to depend on the artillery of 2nd Canadian Corps massing on the southern shore of the estuary for support.

Operation DETACHED

Before First Canadian Army could begin to prepare an invasion plan, it needed accurate information to locate a suitable landing area. Some details had been gathered from refugees and aerial photographs, but following the lessons learnt in Normandy, steps were being taken to study the beaches at first hand. This dangerous task fell on the shoulders of special men. Landing parties, known by the somewhat derogatory code word of ‘Tarbrush’, would silently approach the beaches under the cover of darkness and, if possible, land. Once ashore, they could assess the state of the beach defences as well as the suitability of the shoreline.

The plan was to establish two beachheads on the same day, one in the region of Flushing with the second near Westkapelle. With the help of local information, ‘Keepforce’, under the command of Captain Raymond Keep, managed to assess the shoreline of Flushing. After a detailed study of the shoreline, a small disused harbour, known as the Ooster of Dockhaven, was chosen for the landing. Although it could only accommodate two landing craft at a time, the beach provided adequate shelter from the town’s defences.

The landing at Westkapelle posed a completely different set of problems. The plan was to sail a large part of the landing force through the gap in the dike, in the hope of avoiding the coastal batteries in the area. However, the planners needed an accurate assessment of the area before they could confidently plan the operation.

The first attempt was made on the night of 15 October, but as Lieutenant-Commander J Whitby’s MTB drifted towards Westkapelle alert sentries opened fire and he had to escape at full power. Two night later the ‘Tarbrush’ party transferred to their Dory (a small powered launch able to land on the beach), and managed to drift up to the beach before they were seen. Yet again Keep’s men managed to extricate themselves under heavy fire. A third attempt to study the beach on the night of the 27th was rather more successful. This time Whitby’s men went unnoticed and they managed to make notes on the layout of the beach obstacles as the Dory drifted silently along the coastline.

From the information gleaned, the planners could make a decision on zero hour; and the options were extremely limited. The landing could not take place around low tide due to off shore sandbanks. Meanwhile, ‘Tarbrush’ had noted that inrush of water through the gap at high tide could capsize the commandos’ amphibious vehicles. The landing would have to take place at half tide and the engineers needed time to clear the beach obstacles before they were covered by the incoming tide. Brigadier Bernard Leicester estimated his men would need five hours of daylight to establish a beachhead The combination of factors only left one small window of opportunity any delay and the rising tide would jeopardise the landing.

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Rows of obstacles lined the beaches of Walcheren.

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A ‘Hedgehog’

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A German casemate equipped with a captured Soviet field gun.

The Germans had spent four years preparing the beaches against an invasion and once ashore, the commandos faced a formidable array of defences. Concrete blocks had been dragged out along the beach below the high water mark and contact mines, capable of ripping through the skin of a landing craft, were set on top of each block. A line of ‘Hedgehogs’, steel obstacles capable of snagging a passing craft, had been set just below the high water mark. Rows of sturdy stakes ran parallel to the surf and some had been booby-trapped with shells drilled into the top. Belts of coiled barbed wire protected the top of the dike and there were extra perimeter fences protecting the defensive positions. The seaward dunes had also been mined with a mixture of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. The final obstacle, a triple row of steel rails cast into a concrete beam, had to be crossed before the commandos could leave the beach.

Brigadier Leicester’s men faced new perils as they tried to make headway inland. Aerial photographs pinpointed comprehensive defensive positions in the vicinity of the gap. Eight pillboxes protected the inland side of the dikes and extensive entrenchments had been carved into the bomb craters either side of the gap in the dike.

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Brigadier Leicester.

A few days before the assault Brigadier Leicester was told that the promised armoured support was to be withdrawn, on the grounds that the island was flooded most of the time. Leicester was furious; the suggestion would leave his men dependent on their own heavy weapons once they crossed the dike. Eventually sense prevailed after a series of objections from Leicester, the commandos’ precious armoured support was reinstated.

As October grew to a close, the assault force began to assemble and while 155 Brigade gathered around Breskens, 4 Special Service Brigade trained on the dunes near Ostend. In turn, the men trained with landing craft and learnt how to cooperate with armour. They also had to come to terms with the new amphibious vehicles, the Buffalo and the Weasel. They would prove to be the only reliable form of transport on the flooded island.

Preliminary Bombardments

Great emphasis had been placed on suppressing the coastal batteries during the landing at Westkapelle. Although many inland sites had been made uninhabitable by the flooding, there were still five active batteries on the coastline. W17, armed with four 220mm guns, and W19, complete with four 105mm pieces covered the northern coast of the island. Meanwhile, the four 150mm guns of W15 overlooked the north side of the gap. W13, situated half way between Westkapelle and Zoutelande, could fire along the coast with its battery of four 150mm guns. W11, further along the coast at Dishoek, could also shell the landing beaches.

The plan was to engage the batteries from a variety of sources. The fire plan would open at H-70, beginning with an artillery barrage by 9th Army Group Royal Artillery and 2nd Canadian Group Royal Artillery. The two Army Groups were based on the south side of the estuary, several miles from their targets. More than ninety heavy and super-heavy guns would target the batteries. Three warships would accompany the task force to target the coastal batteries. (A bombing schedule was also prepared but poor weather would prevent Bomber Command from taking part.)

At H-50 fighter-bombers of 84 Group RAF would strafe the weapon pits and trenches either side of the gap with their rockets and bombs. Meanwhile, Boston aircraft would fly overhead craft laying smoke screens to shield the landing craft.

THE LANDING PLANS

INFATUATE I – The Landing at Flushing

Major-General Edmund Hakewill Smith, commanding officer of 52nd (Lowland) Division, had overall responsibility for the assault on the island. Although 155 Brigade, under Brigadier James McLaren, was given the task of clearing Flushing, No 4 Commando (men specially trained for amphibious assaults) had been attached to the Brigade to lead the assault. ‘Keepforce’s’ men at 5:45am would lead the way in, marking the approach and clearing a path off the beach. The first wave of 4 Commando would land soon after, securing the immediate area around the beach. The troops that followed would head into the heart of the town as quickly as possible, and it was hoped that Lieutenant-Colonel Christian Melville’s men would be able to establish a perimeter by dawn. Two French Troops from 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando had been added to 4 Commando for the attack. The squadron of LCAs, under Lieutenant-Commander Stuart Vernon RNVR, would return to Breskens harbour to begin ferrying the three battalions of 155 Brigade across the estuary. 4th King’s Own Scottish Borderers would land first, followed by the 5th King’s Own Scottish Borderers and 7/9th Royal Scots.

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Major-General Hakewill-Smith

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Brigadier-General McLaren

INFATUATE II - The Landing at Westkapelle

Special troops were required to carry out the landing at Westkapelle and Simmonds was offered the services of Brigadier Bernard ‘Jumbo’ Leicester’s 4th Special Service Brigade. The commandos were veterans of many amphibious assaults, spear-heading the British landings in Normandy. This, however, was going to be one of their toughest tests so far and one, which all who survived, would never forget.

Brigadier Leicester was pleased to discover that Captain Anthony Pugsley DSO RN would be leading the naval side of the operation. The two officers had successfully worked together on Normandy only a few months before. The task force, code named ‘T Force’, included 130 ships of all shapes and sizes; ranging from a battleship armed with fifteen-inch guns down to small motor launches.

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Captain Pugsley and Commander Sellar.

Captain Marcel Kelsey RN led the Bombardment Squadron, comprising three capital ships: the battleship HMS Warspite and the Monitors HMS Roberts and HMS Erebus. With the aid of spotter aircraft, Warspite would bombard the batteries either side of Domburg to the north during the landings, while Roberts shelled targets south of the landing beaches. Meanwhile, Erebus would shell Westkapelle Battery, to the north of the village.

Ostend docks began to fill with a variety of vessels as D-Day drew close. As well as the landing craft designated to carry 4 Special Service Brigade, there were the support craft designed to provide direct fire support during the final ‘run-in’ to the beach. Landing craft were large and cumbersome, with a maximum speed of only a few knots. Hard lessons learnt in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Normandy had shown that air support and naval support was inadequate and at times unsafe. Observers noticed that shore gunners instinctively targeted any craft firing on them and naval planners had designed a variety of craft to exploit this human trait. The Support Squadron ‘Eastern Flank’ led by Captain Kenneth ‘Monkey’ Sellar DSC, RN would provide close support during the final approach to the beach.

The larger support craft were converted LCT (Landing Craft Tank) Mark IV, a craft originally designed to carry up to twelve vehicles. By welding the loading ramp shut and adding decking, the craft became a floating platform for a variety of weapons. However, with a maximum speed of ten knots and measuring seventy metres long, the support craft were ideal targets.

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The ‘Buffalo’ was able to transport men across land and water.

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The smaller ‘Weasel’ often struggled to cope the difficult conditions on Walcheren. H Houterman

As the Task Force approached the shore, the Support Squadron swung into action, drawing fire from the landing craft carrying the commandos. The first craft to engage the beach were the LCT (R) (Landing Craft Tank – Rockets). Six hundred rocket tubes, each one firing a projectile equal to a six-inch shell, covered the decking of the ship. A rocket strike could shower the beach with missiles; destroying soft targets and detonating mines. The crew of the LCG (M)s (Landing Craft Gun – Medium) in the taskforce had one of the most dangerous tasks. The craft would beach opposite their targets to provide a stable firing platform for the turret-mounted 17-pounder guns. Meanwhile, the LCG (Landing Craft Gun) would sail close to the shoreline to engage pillboxes with their two 4.7″ guns. LCS (L) (Landing Craft Support – Light) small vulnerable craft armed with 6-pounder guns and machine-guns, would fire at targets on the beach in the hope of drawing fire from the rest of the task force. LCF (Landing Craft Flak) were initially devised to provide cover from air attack but since the Allies achieved air superiority, the craft had been used as a close support weapon. Their two pounder pom-poms and Oerlikon cannons would add to the overall effect of the close support fire.

While Captain Sellars’ support craft fought an unequal battle with the shore batteries, the assault troops would sail ashore in N Squadron’s LCTs, led by Lieutenant-Commander Bernard Arbuthnot RN. Although the first wave of commandos would go ashore in LCI (S) (Landing Craft Infantry – Small), the rest of 4 Special Service Brigade would land in LCTs complete with their amphibious vehicles. It was hoped that the commandos’ Buffaloes, each one capable of carrying thirty men, would be able to drive ashore. Smaller vehicles, known as Weasels, would carry their supplies and heavy equipment.

Four LCTs, each carrying an armoured assault team, would beach alongside the first wave. Specialist tanks, nicknamed Tunnies’, were designed to overcome the array of beach obstacles. Sherman flail tanks, manned by the 1st Lothians, were armed with a huge drum covered in a series of ball and chains. As the tank crawled forward the drum rotated at high speed, beating a way through the minefields on the beach. Churchill AVRE tanks, provided by 87th Assault Squadron Royal Engineers, were armed with 90mm Petard guns. They could blast a way through obstacles on the beach before moving on to deal with pillboxes. ‘Bobbin Tanks’ carried rolled mats which could be laid across soft sand or mud, letting other vehicles follow on behind.

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Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers AVREs.

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Flail tank for clearing minefields.

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Facine carrier for filling holes etc..

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Petard tank for destroying strongpoints.

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Bobbin tank for putting a track across soft ground.

Once they were off the beach, the tanks faced a steep drop at the far side of the dike. Working together, tanks armed with fascines (huge bundles of wood that could be dropped into ditches or craters) and bridge tanks, could build a roadway down into the village. A number of bulldozers completed the assault teams and they would be called on to perform a variety of tasks; ranging from clearing obstacles, filling craters and levelling roads. Once the beachhead was secure, the bulldozers would create a cutting through the dunes complete with storage bays and slit trenches. Each team possessed three flails, two AVRE’s and a D7 Bulldozer.

The landing area at Westkapelle was split into three beaches – Tare Red, Tare White and Tare Green. The first wave, comprising three troops of 41 Royal Marine Commando, would land on Tare Red at H-5 and seize the top of the dike overlooking the village. Four LCT (Landing Craft Tank) carrying the armoured assault teams would disembark alongside the commandos.

At H + 5, LCTs would nose through the gap beaching behind the dike. Two troops from 41 Royal Marine Commando would land on the north side of the gap, entering Westkapelle under covering fire from their comrades on the dike. Meanwhile, the leading troops of 48 Royal Marine Commando would land on the south side of the gap and head towards the pillboxes and radar station covering the beach. A third wave of craft would land the remainder of 41 and 48 Royal Marine Commandos at H + 25. The next wave would bring 47 Royal Marine Commando ashore at H + 60. Two LCTs would bring the 4 Special Service Brigade’s tactical headquarters ashore at the same time.

Tare Green was 800 metres south of the gap and as soon as the dunes had been cleared, landing craft could start to bring vital stores ashore.

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Men of the 52 (Lowland) Infantry Division on their landing craft prior to Operation INFATUATE.

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