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- 22 July 2005
The Battle for Kapelsche Veer
It was in the final week of January, 1945, fifty-five years ago that the battle for Kapelsche Veer had been fought, a battle that more than a few high-placed officers felt shouldn't have been fought. In this narrative though, we'll not go into the reasons why they felt it was unnecessary, we'll only give the reader a brief outline as to what our Canadian infantry had to go up against when they went into the attack against a resolute and well-emplaced foe. Between the cold and an enemy that fought like tigers, you could rightly say it was the kind of battle that would try men's souls.
An uneasy quiet had descended on the Canadian sector of the Western front in Holland. It was as though the bloodied and battered adversaries had paused to catch their breath and gather strength for the next round of violence. It was a time to re-supply, a time to recover from the stresses and strains of the past month's vicious and continuous fighting, it was a time to catch up on lost sleep and postponed letter-writing.
Kapelsche Veer was a small, almost insignificant harbour on the north side of a segment of low-lying land between the main course of the River Mass and a much narrower tributary known as ‘Old Little Maas'. Along the northern rim of this bleak countryside ran a five foot high dyke, while 300 yards to the south running parallel to it was the 15 foot high ‘Winter' dyke. Holding this piece of island-like real-estate was the the German 6th Parachute Division, the same troops that had given the Canadian 41h Armoured Division such a hard time on the Leopold Canal. Since a good part of the manpower of this Division was now made up of recent inductees into the German army, General Student, then commanding Army Group 'H' deemed it would be wise to get them into this bridgehead to gain battle experience against troops he knew would give them a good initiation into the grim art of war. He also wanted to create in the mind of the Allied Commanders a fear that there was a distinct possibility that an attempt would be made to sever their over-extended lines of communication, an over-extension that stretched all the way from the Normandy beaches to the Scheldt.
The Poles had taken a couple of shots at wiping-out this threat on New Year's Eve and shortly thereafter but were savagely rebuffed. Then the Royal Marine Commandos had a 'go' at it, but were no more successful. What then to do but to hand the job to the Canadians?
Kapelsche Veer had been converted into a formidable fortress of extensive zig-zag trenches reminiscent of the trenches of WW I, with a profusion of individual one and two-man weapon pits in the fields beyond this complex defence system. In the dykes nearby were bunkers almost impervious to shells of even the heaviest calibre. All in all, Kapelsche Veer presented an unpromising undertaking for this first battle of the new year for the men of the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade and their supporting South Alberta Regiment tank crews designated to take on the job of excising this festering s ore in their side.
Although the end of the war must have seemed clearly in sight to the battle-weary Canadian infantry slogging their way through the muddy fields, they knew, with almost fatalistic resignation, that there was a lot of dirty work yet to be done, and a lot of bleeding and dying too. And they also knew the infantry, as always, would suffer most. Experience told them that the individual German soldier, even when things looked hopeless to them, had amazing resilience and could be expected to fight on to the bitter end. He was never a pushover. And so it was that in the third week of January 1945, both Germans and Canadians took a breather from pummelling each other, to get themselves ready for the next brutal round of battle.
The plan, in essence, was for the Lincoln and Welland Regiment to cross the ‘Old Little Maas', advance across this so-called island to the southern dyke where the lead companies would turn right and advance under the cover of a smoke-screen to the objective, some 500 yards away. Another specially-trained group of about 60 men were to take to canoes (15 in all), and paddle their way down the Maas to come in behind the Germans on the east and west side of the harbour. A good plan, but easier said than done.
On the morning of January 26 in freezing conditions, the Lincs & Wincs set out across the frost-covered fields reaching the dyke unopposed, where they turned eastwards and made their way under the cover of a heavy smoke-screen. Everything had gone fairly easy up to this point. But then things began to unravel. The two lead companies came under heavy fire from automatic weapons. The killing had begun. The special Commando-style group attacking by way of the Maas, ran into trouble right from the start when the smoke failed to hide them from enemy eyes. They paddled their way into a blizzard of small-arms fire from machine-guns and rifles. Three canoes were shot up and capsized, their occupants dumped into the freezing water to drown. Seeing their chances of further progress along the Maas nullified, the remaining 12 canoes turned in to shore where the men debarked to join the lead companies in their push to the objective.
Only one company was able to reach its objective, but shortly thereafter it had to pullback due to the inability of the other three companies to make head-way to reinforce them against an anticipated enemy counterattack. From this point on, the Lincolns, and very shortly the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who had to be brought into the attack found themselves embroiled in a "knock 'em down, kick him in the jewels" hand to hand battle.
While the Lines were suffering a steady drain of casualties, both from the battle itself and frostbite, the Argylls were inserted into the affair as darkness fell. Coming in from the west along the dyke, it didn't take the Highlanders long to find out just how tough this new breed of enemy soldiers were. It was as rugged a battle as any they had fought since Normandy, with the Germans showing no signs whatsoever of giving up their bridgehead strongpoint.
Since detailed description of what transpired here within the tight confines of the Kapelsche Veer battlefield would require many more pages than any brief account can cover, let’s just say that, although the battle ended in victory for 10th Brigade, it was an empty victory. Or as the more literary type would would say, a pyrrhic victory, a victory in which the winning side paid far too heavy in the lives of men they could ill-afford to lose at a time when the reinforcement stream was fast thinning-out. The Argylls got off lightly, suffering only 15 dead and 35 wounded, while the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, in carrying the brunt of the fighting incurred the heavier casualties. They had 50 dead, 119 wounded, while 24 others sustained frostbite, broken bones, and other injuries.
It might be said here in testimony to the battle qualities of the individual Canadian soldiers, that even with the Germans enjoying the advantage of superb cover, whereas our boys had to advance across billiard-table flat country almost devoid of cover, they still inflicted a heavier toll on the defenders. An examination of the battlefield revealed 154 Germans slumped in death in the trenches, in their dugouts, in the outlying posts and in and around the house used as their command post. A further 50 of them who were wounded, the Germans managed to ferry across the swift-flowing Maas to their own lines, while 24 of the smock-garbed enemy ended up in the POW cage.
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