CHAPTER EIGHT

Clearing Flushing

3 November, was a day of consolidation and preparation for Brigadier McLaren. He was determined to secure his perimeter before sending troops into the outlying areas of the town. A Company of the 7/9th Royal Scots finally cleared the spit of land, code named ‘Falmouth’, east of the landing beach where Germans had held out for two days. B and D Companies of the 5th KOSBs continued to clear the De Schelde Aircraft factory throughout the day, hunting out a few determined fanatics. Many times the Scots called for the Germans to surrender but more often than not, they were compelled to take each pillbox or foxhole by force. Accurate machine-gun and mortar fire directed from the oil refinery, codenamed ‘Haymarket’ across the canal, continued to harass the Scots but they were powerless to react with own weapons. An artillery shoot carried out by guns across the estuary targeted the area in the afternoon and a Typhoon strike on ‘Haymarket’ and ‘Strand’, boosted the Scots’ morale. They watched in awe while the planes swooped in low to unleash their rockets, before pulling up at the last moment in a steep climb.

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Flushing Docks, captured by the 5th KOSBs on 4 November.

Although the day had been relatively quiet, Brigadier McLaren had been studying how to clear the final German held area, Flushing Docks. The only access was across lock gates on the Middelburg Canal and McLaren knew that they were set for demolition. If the 5th KOSBs could rush the gates under cover of darkness, the lead sections might be able to overpower the German engineers before they could set off the charges. It was a risk that McLaren was prepared to take.

At 2:30am on 4 November, B Company dashed across the lock gates under cover of smoke, surprising the Germans on the far side. Major David Haig’s men had managed to capture the gates intact, leaving the way open into Flushing Docks. Heading north Haig’s men secured a line along the railway embankment under heavy fire, bypassing ‘Haymarket’ and ‘Strand’. Having secured his north flank Lieutenant-Colonel Turner, ordered D Company across the canal at 3:45am. After overpowering isolated pockets of resistance in ‘Haymarket’ and ‘Strand’, Major David MacDonald’s men headed for Flushing railway station, codenamed ‘Picadilly’. After clearing two pillboxes north of the station, D Company rounded the end of the next dock basin, codenamed ‘Cornhill’, meeting stiff opposition.

C Company was following in close support, and the lead platoon headed south into ‘Waterloo’. Lieutenant George Carmichael’s men immediately came under fire from a troublesome pillbox on the dockside and for a time the advance came to a halt. Unable to outflank the position, Carmichael called up the platoon PIAT team and a couple rounds from Private John Finlay’s weapon soon drove the Germans into the open. A few bursts from Company Sergeant Major Andrew Lees’ Bren gun made sure they did not get far. With the way forward clear, C Company continued south through ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Knightsbridge’ and at 8:10am Lieutenant Carmichael reported that all of the dockyards east of the Middelburg Canal were clear. For a second time Lieutenant-Colonel Turner had reason to be proud of his men; for the loss of over twenty casualties, his men had taken over one hundred prisoners and completed the liberation of Flushing.

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The 5th KOSBs rounded up dozens of prisoners in Flushing dockyards IWM BU1245

The Middelburg Canal

Despite a full morning’s work, the day was far from over for B Company. Brigadier McLaren wanted the 5th KOSBs to follow up their success by probing north along the canal towards Middelburg. The approach along the canal was an ordeal in itself; at high tide floodwater came right up to the canal banks, restricting the Scots front to a few metres. Major Haig’s men tentatively made their way along the canal and although progress was painfully slow, the slender column advanced without incident.

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The Middelburg Canal, surrounded by floodwaters.

At 4:00 pm the head of the column was only a mile and half from Middelburg when disaster struck. The leading patrol detonated a mine, injuring the battalion intelligence officer, Lieutenant Peter Grant, and a corporal. The blast alerted the enemy dug into the opposite embankment, and moments later B Company came under fire. With nightfall approaching, Lieutenant-Colonel Turner ordered his men to pull back from the exposed position. There was little more he could do; both banks of the canal would have to be cleared simultaneously if the advance was to continue.

The 4th KOSBs took over the Middelburg canal overnight and the plan was for Lieutenant-Colonel Melvill to renew the advance at first light. While D Company, under Major George Harcourt Rae, probed along the west bank of the canal, Major Colin Hogg led B Company along the towpath on the opposite bank. Orders from above reminded Melvill’s men to encourage Germans to give themselves up, if the opportunity presented itself: ‘Appreciate that enemy is ripe for surrender – close lookout to be kept for white flags, which should be strictly respected.’

As the two companies made their way north through the 5th Battalion’s positions, they were pleased to see two artillery shoots and a Typhoon rocket strike on suspected strong points. At 9:15 am, B Company sprang the German trap, coming under heavy fire from several directions. Snipers targeted the lead men, while machine-gun fire from the opposite bank of the canal raked the column. As Major Hogg’s men went to ground, accurate mortar fire added to their misery. The battalion diary describes B Company’s dilemma:

Little chance of cover - axis of advance narrow footpath with bad flooding on the right; railway on the left probably mined; embankment on other side of railway definitely occupied.

Although his company had only sustained four casualties, Hogg realised his position was hopeless and withdrew his men to safer positions.

D Company advanced up the west bank of the canal to assist their comrades and as the head of the column drew level with B Company, three Germans surrendered. Lieutenant Lars Gjendemsö interrogated the men on the spot and quickly established the reason why their comrades would fight on:

There was a pillbox on the embankment, midway between B Company and the canal bend. This was manned by about thirty strong and commanded by a Major whose order had been ‘No Surrender’.

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The approach along the Middelburg Canal was fraught with danger, note 52nd Division’s insignia on the flag. H Houterman

The ‘Mad Major’ was determined to hold out to the last.

D Company faced further problems when they stumbled on a minefield, killing one of their men. The engineers were faced with Teller mines and Schü-mines rigged with booby-trap devices; from now on, D Company’s advance would be reduced to a snail’s pace. As the KOSBs crept forward, an air strike by Typhoons failed to target the slit trenches and foxholes. Major Hogg withdrew to a house on the canal bank and from the upstairs windows he could see the German positions; two bunkers, surrounded by a ‘warren of foxholes’. It would take substantial reserves to crack the strong point. With B Company effectively pinned down and D Company probing the minefield, the 4th KOSBs were at a standstill.

At the operations meeting that night, Lieutenant-Colonel Melville proposed to take the ‘Mad Major’s’ bunker by surprise. B Company would send a night patrol along the narrow path to engage the strong point with PIAT rockets. There were strong objections to the suggestion and later that night the plan was cancelled; B Company would sit tight. It appeared that Brigade had plans to reach Middelburg from another direction.

Throughout the following day D Company edged slowly forward, accepting the surrender of forty-eight prisoners. B Company also collected a handful of Germans eager to give themselves up on the east bank. Meanwhile, their fanatical leader continued to fire on the Scots at every opportunity; the ‘Mad Major’ intended to fight on to the end.

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