THE SCHELDT GATEWAY TO ANTWERP.
Clearing the mines from the Scheldt Estuary and river and eradicating the German occupiers from its banks was, after D-day, the most vital operation of World War Two. The Battle of the Scheldt, today a forgotten battle, claimed many more lives than D-Day.
D-Day casualties have been typically estimated at 10,000, including 2,500 dead, although this has recently been revised to 4,413 dead. Battle of the Scheldt casualties were 12,873, including 7,700 dead, half of them were Canadians.
The Battle of the Scheldt was a chaotic affair. It was not a single battle, but many battles with the Germans first defending every water barrier, waterway, canal and ditch and then every cross road, dyke, house, and village, and finally every strong point and gun emplacement.
The Germans resisted fiercely believing they were fighting for their homeland and their families. They had been told that if the Scheldt Fortifications were over-run and Antwerp could be used by shipping, the English (Allies) would deliver a death-blow to Germany. They were also informed that deserters would be punished and “Upon examination of the circumstances his family will be shot.”
German fortifications and strong points fought fiercely, often independently of other units, to the very end and all capitulated at different times.
16 October 1944, Eisenhower orders to Montgomery were, “The free use of the port of Antwerp is vital to the allied cause and we must be able to use the port soon. Operations destined to open the port will therefore be given complete priority over all other offensive operations."
Clearing the mines from the Scheldt was the most vital, complex, and dangerous minesweeping operation of World War Two.
All charts of the Scheldt were out of date, it was notorious for its dangerous currents, its considerable tidal range and its shifting mud and sand banks. To this, add sunken ships, German laid obstructions, boobytraps, mines of every conceivable type in huge numbers and enemy artillery on its banks.
THE MINESWEEPERS START CLEARING THE SCHELDT.
The Minesweepers chosen to clear the Scheldt were organized into two groups, “Force A” from Wildfire III, Queenborough and “Force B” from Harwich.
Force "B", the smaller of the two groups, was to clear the sea approaches to the Scheldt.
Force "A" was to clear the Scheldt from its mouth to Antwerp. The Minesweepers from Force “A” from Wildfire III, Queenborough were under the command of Captain Hopper, Captain of Minesweeping, Sheerness. HMS St Tudno (previously based at Queenborough as Base ship) was to be Headquarters vessel with Motor Launch 221 as tender.
4 November 1944. (The official date of the beginning of the sweep.) Very early in the morning (00.30) Force “A” left the Downs (near Deal in Kent) and under cover of darkness sailed into the Scheldt. The LCP (L) Minesweepers(Landing Craft Personnel, Large) had been delayed and the minesweepers continued without them risking the danger of snag lines. Snag lines, designed to catch minesweepers were attached to Contact Mines and floated close to the surface of the sea. LCP, with their flat bottoms, could pass relatively safely over them.
The straight between Breskens and Flushing were barely two and a half miles wide and as the minesweepers passed through they came under fire from batteries and mobile artillery around Flushing. As they sailed through the narrows, British troops were still crossing the Scheldt to Flushing in landing craft.
Force “A”, with the enemy still occupying the north shore, swept the Scheldt up to Terneuzen where they anchored having swept 74 mines.
Two Motor Launches from Sheerness swept with Oropesa sweeps (for moored or contact mines) all the way to Antwerp. They were the first Allied ships to arrive there since 1940. Antwerp was found to be in disarray owing to the large number of V1 and V2 rockets fired on it from occupied Holland. Most “V” weapons missed the dock area but landed in Antwerp, one hitting a packed cinama.
Later the two motor launches were joined by the rest of the Motor Launches from 19th Flotilla. (Force “A” Wildfire III, Queenborough)
Motor Minesweeper MMS 1083 had been fitted with a new device, known as the “washing machine”, to explode acoustic mines. In a very short time she exploded 11 mines. Her sister minesweepers were keeping a wary eye on her. The new device could explode mines a considerable distance away, and the exact distance was not yet known! More worrying was that the explosion of one acustic mine could set off others.
BYMS 2076 of Flotilla 157 got its first mine at 1220. This was followed five minutes later by two more mines being swept by BYMS 2230 and 2141.
At 1725 they swept three more in quick succession. One by the 157th Flotilla and two, their first, by 159th Flotilla. The Motor Mine Sweeper detonated a further 31 mines before 16.50.
5 November 1944. The weather was bad on the 4th and 5th November 1944. Nevertheless, intensive minesweeping continued in the straight between Breskens and Flushing. Minesweepers were also dispatched up river to Antwerp, arriving at dusk.
Supply and repair facilities for the Minesweepers were organized at Terneuzen by Captain Hopper’s staff.
Engineman, Harold F, KEEN, RNPS, LT/KX 149138, wounded on the 2 November from the shell which hit his ship BYMS 2035 while clearing the Scheldt Estuary of mines, died of his wounds.
6 November 1944. Minesweeping continued, but winds rose to gale force.
7 November 1944. All minesweeping was discontinued due to bad weather.
8 November 1944. Minesweeping resumed with 23 mines being swept.
ML 916, (Fairmile “B” Class Motor Launch) and her sister ship ML 906 were laying a smoke screen when ML 916 detonated a mine and sunk off Walsoorden, on the south bank of the Scheldt, the Netherlands.
The whole ship was blown into the air and disintegrated. There were only two survivors. Nineteen men were killed. Six badly charred bodies were recovered the rest are listed as MPK, Missing Presumed Killed.
9 November 1944. Again, bad weather stopped sweeping but in the sheltered waters near Antwerp 13 mines were swept by Commander Stammwitz RN who was in command of the Belgium minesweepers.
Also on the 9th November sweeping of the waterfront itself began at Antwerp. This was done by shore-sweeping from a lorry on a goods train, in conjunction was a minesweeping launch. In crucial areas, such as around lock-gates a fingertip search was conducted by divers.
16 November 1944. BYMS 2040 and 2057 are credited with mine number 206. Signalman Robert Kay claims the mines were so numerous they were “like peas”. When the 2040 dropped her otter board into the sea it detonated one of the mines which resulted in a gaping hole in her port quarter. She had to return the England for repairs.
10 to 18 November 1944. Minesweeping continued. Two hundred and sixteen mines swept to date.
19 November 1944. Minesweeping continued but no mines found.
20 November 1944. No mines found.
21 November 1944. There were no mines found and the Scheldt was declared open to shipping.
22 November to 23 November 1944. Nine mines were swept and detonated. The Scheldt was closed again. At that time sweeping an area 15 times was thought to be the maximum required to detonate all mines with delay mechanisms.
Sweeping the channels of the Scheldt continued and they were swept 20 times.
26 November 1944. The Scheldt was again declared clear of mines. On the same day three coasters arrive safely at Antwerp. Minesweeping continued.
On the same day a mine explodes violently and unexpectedly very close to three British Yard Mine Sweepers. There was a sharp explosion and a two hundred foot plume of water rose into the sky. Three minesweepers, BYMS 2048, BYMS 2051 and BYMS 2231 were all slightly damaged.
27 November 1944. The 234th mines was swept.
28 November 1944. Led by the Canadian ship the Fort Castaraqui, the first convoy arrived at Antwerp. Of the 242 berths at Antwerp, 219 were working, as were all of the 600 cranes and all bridges required to work the docks had been repaired.
29th November to 3 December 1944. Twenty-eight more mines were swept.
In all 229 Ground Mines (Magnetic and Acustic) and 38 Contact Mines were swept in the Scheldt Estuary, River and the Port of Antwerp.
7 December 1944. A Liberty ship, the Samsip was severely damaged by a mine in the Scheldt and scuttled by the Royal Navy.
11 December 1944. Motor Mine Sweeper MMS 257 was sunk by a mine with two of her crew lost.
16 December 1944. Barely two weeks after Antwerp was opened to shipping the German counteroffensive which came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge commenced. During those two weeks, one hundred and forty-seven ships had discharged their vital cargos of war supplies at Antwerp, close to the battle front.
Taking the Allies by surprise, the German army raced for Antwerp and its vital supply dumps. Had Antwerp not been open to replenish the dwindling supplies of the Allied armies, the German offensive may well have been successful in capturing Antwerp, isolating the Allied armies and cutting them off from their supplies.
18 December 1944. The Liberty ship Steel Traveller detonated a mine and sank in the Scheldt. She broke in two and sank with the loss of two of her crew.
26 December 1944. Three British Yard Minesweepers, BYMS 2213, 2141 and 2221, from Flotilla 157th (Force “A” from Wildfire III, Queenborough) were carrying out a night sweep when BYMS 2221 reported sighting a periscope on her port side. At the same time BYMS 2213 reported a periscope on her starboard.
U-boats were rare in the shallow waters off the Dutch coast and it was expected the periscopes were from midget, one man, “Biber” (German for Beaver) submarines. Biber’s were armed with two torpedoes, while the BYMS’s did not carry depth charges. BYMS 2141 and 2221 gave chase to the submarine on their port side with BYMS 2213 doing the same to starboard.
As the Biber attempted to avoid the minesweepers, BYMS 2141 rammed it but only managed a glancing blow. BYMS 2221 also managed to ram the Biber but with little effect. Both minesweepers then fired on the Biber with their Oerlikon guns and small arms.
The Biber having been hit a number of times came to a halt on the surface. To be sure of its catch, BYMS 2141 ensnared the Biber in its “LL” magnetic mine sweeping cable. Using the cable winch, they pulled the Biber in to its stern. An attempt was made to tow the Biber, but the tow wire snapped and the Biber sank.
To starboard, BYMS 2213 chased her Biber. As BYMS 2213 made her ramming run, the hatch opened and its only crew member got out and began waving his arms.
BYMS 2213 hit the Biber and it rolled under her bow to reappear at her stern and sink. The survivor was rescued from the sea and taken prisoner.
German records show that these two Biber’s were amongst other which had left Dutch ports at 0200 in the early morning of 26 December 1944 with orders to attack shipping off Flushing in the Scheldt.
29 December 1944. The Motor Torpedo Boat MTB 782 detonated a mine and sank off the Scheldt with the loss of three of her crew.
23 January 1945. Twenty Ju88 German aircraft dropped mines by parachute in the Scheldt. Minesweepers which were on hand for just such an eventuality detonated 36 of them in the following five days.
By the time the Allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945, 30,000 tons of vital war supplies were passing through Antwerp daily.
LETTER TO THE MEN OF THE MINESWEEPERS FROM ADMIRAL OF THE FLEET SIR JOHN TOVEY
Clearing the Scheldt was in fact one of the most difficult and dangerous minesweeping operations of the war and it was only due to the high efficiency and unremitting energy and zeal of the minesweepers working under the inspired leadership of Captain H. G. Hopper Royal Navy that the clearance was effected in twenty-two working days, six days inside estimate.
Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John Tovey
WORLD WAR TWO, 1944. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe sent a signal to Field Marshal Montgomery.
“Unless we have Antwerp producing (unloading ships) by the middle of November our entire operations will come to a standstill. I must emphasise that, of all our operations on the entire front from Switzerland to the channel, I consider Antwerp of first importance."
GERMAN MINEFIELDS AT THE SCHELDT.
GERMAN ARTILLERY ON WALCHEREN ISLAND. (Numbers, W7 etc. are RAF bombing numbers. Numbers in brackets (9/202) are German numbers.)
There were nearly 40 batteries on Walcheren but the ones causing a major problem to the landings at Westkapelle were batteries number W15 (point blank range) W13 (close range) W11 (longer range) and W17 which could fire in any direction.
Of the batteries on Walcheren Island, W11 W13 W15 and W17 were categorised as batteries affecting minesweeping.
W7 (9/202) Situated immediately west of Flushing. Four 15 cm (5.9 inch) guns.
W11 (8/202) Situated in the dunes between Flushing and Zoutelande (near Dishoek) four 15 cm guns. W11 had radar.
W13 (7/202) Situated in the dunes between Zoutelande and Westkapelle. Four 15 cm guns plus two 7.5cm guns and three 20mm flak guns. W13 had Wuzburg radar.
W15. (6/202) Situated immediately north of Westkapelle. Four 9.4 cm (3.7 inch), two 3 inch guns. (British guns, captured at Dunkirk in 1940)
W13 and W15 destroyed ten assault craft and were a direct cause of 400 to 500 casualties.
W17. (5/202). Situated immediately west of Domburg, Four 22 cm (8.7 inch) guns and one 5 cm gun. It had an open casement and could fire in all directions.
W19 (4/202) Situated on the north of the island in the dunes near Oostberg. Five 3.7 inch guns. (British guns, captured at Dunkirk in 1940) Radar station in Dunes close by.
On the seaward facing coast of Walcheren Island there were a further twelve smaller close defence batteries and gun positions. Four more were clustered around Flushing. There were also seven anti-aircraft batteries concealed in the dunes. There were four more batteries in concrete for defence in depth on the south West of the island.
Field artillery of the German 70th Infantry Division (The “white bread” or “stomach” division, Men who required special diets for stomach ulcers etc.) was also available where required.
A flotilla of explosive motorboats were held by the Germans in readiness at Flushing.
Bloodied and exhausted, when 4 Commandos, who only days before and stormed the breach in the dyke on Walcheren Island arrived at the Flushing gap, it was with some satisfaction they looked down to see the minesweepers at work in the Scheldt.
Admiral Ramsey echoing Eisenhower’s words to Montgomery had said
“Antwerp must be opened before we can advance on Germany. The battle of the Scheldt is the most important battle of the war.”
(The Scheldt Estuary and river, Holland. Blue lines are lines of mines; red areas are minefields.)
German minefield “A”.Between 16 May 1944 and 13 June 1944, 1,703 mines were laid in the mouth of the Scheldt and the seaward approaches. These were Contact and Ground mines, mainly magnetic mines.
German Minefield “B”. Between the 4th September 1944 and 11th October 1944, 593 mines were laid in the Deuerloo Channel between Flushing and Antwerp.
German Minefield “C”. Towards the end of October 1944, 60 mines were laid to block the approach to Flushing. Mines were also scattered to protect the approach to Breskens, Terneuzen, Lillo Fort (Antwerp) and in the Antwerp Docks.
German Minefield “D”. Mines were also laid off the and north-west coast of Walcheren Island.
The German minefields guarding the Scheldt were protected by the Guns on Walcheren Island and those on the Dutch and Belgium coast.
The Germans employed every means the human mind could contrive to make the clearing of the Scheldt minefields as difficult as possible.
Mines were placed close to obstructions and wrecks where the minesweepers could not sweep without their sweeps becoming entangled. Divers were used to immobilize these.
In the mouth of the Scheldt contact mines were tethered by chains to heavy objects and anchors which the light weight MMS’s (Motor Mine Sweeper) and BYMS’s (British Yard Mine Sweepers) could not dislodge. For this job, the larger Fleet Minesweepers were brought in.
Many of the mines were fitted with delay mechanisms making it necessary to sweep every area fifteen times. (It was later found they needed to be swept twenty times) These delay mechanisms included magnet mines with acustic or pressure triggers which would not activate until a certain number of ships had passed over them. E.g. a minesweeper could sweep over the mine ten times only to have it detonate when the eleventh ship passed over it.
It addition to Contact mines (tethered mines) there were various Ground mines, (mines which lay on the sea bed.) amongst these were Magnetic mines, Acustic mines and the new Pressure mines to which a means of sweeping had not yet been devised. Pressure mines or Oyster mines as they came to be known were suspected to be in the Scheldt. They were activated by the water pressure made by moving ships and were virtually unsweepable.
BYMS and MMS being of shallow draft could usually expect to pass over moored contact mines at high tide. But often mines were laid with snag lines floating close to the surface designed to catch minesweepers.
At the Port of Antwerp, the Dock area was first swept, not by minesweepers but by lorries dragging Orlope sweeps along the dock side. A sketch from the Illustrated London News shows a Minesweeping Lorry on a flat wagon of a train. PPU (Portable Pulsing Units) were used from the shore to detonate magnetic mines.
Much of the many, many miles of Antwerp docks were subjected to a “fingertip” search by divers.
The followed description of a “fingertip” search by divers is from research by Rodney Pell, owner and restorer of the historic vessel the Sheemaun.
A sinker would be lowered from a Motor Launch to mark the centre of the search area. A diver, the old fashion type, wearing lead boots, rubbers suit and brass helmet would descend to the sinker. He would take hold of a thirty yard long, nonmagnetic, aluminium chain and walk outwards until it became taught. The diver would then take one step inwards, so that the slack in the chain was in contact with the sea bed, and walk in a circle. If the chain caught on an obstruction, the diver would walk in along the chain and identify the object by touch. Most times it would be a rock or junk on the seabed. Now and again it was a mine and a marker float would be attached.
If the mine was in a non-critical place, the diver was recovered and the launch would back off trailing its “LL” sweep. An electric current would pulsate along the twin cables, followed by a huge explosion and a two hundred foot high column of water would erupt into the sky. The motor launch would first be hit by the shock wave and then would ride on the crest of wave like a surfer.
Mines close to critical points such as lock gates were defused by skilled divers who worked in freezing water, pitch blackness and mud. Perhaps the most unenviable job in the Royal Navy!
The Scheldt, leading into Antwerp, must be cleared of mines and the port opened up.
VESSELS OF MINESWEEPER FORCE “A” from Wildfire III Queenborough. Under the Command of Captain Hopper.
HMS St Tudno, Headquarters Ship.
30 BYMS’s: 3 Flotillas of BYMS, (British Yard Mine Sweeper, built in America). Flotilla 157th, 159th, and 165th equipped with Orpesa sweeps for sweeping moored contact mines and also with magnetic sweeps.
36 MMS’s: 5 flotillas of MMS (Motor Mine Sweepers, built in Britain) which included four Dutch MMS’s. Flotilla’s 102nd , 110th , 139th , 140th equipped with magnetic sweeps and 131st flotilla equipped with magnetic sweeps for fresh water.
16 Motor Launches, 2 flotillas the 15th and 19th equipped with Orpesa sweeps.
7 Trawlers for stores, fueling and survey.
3 Flotillas of MFV’s (Motor Fishing Vessels) probably from Ostend, equipped with magnetic sweeps.
1 MFV for LL sweep maintenance.
One flotilla of LCP(L) (Landing Craft Personnel , Large) Flotilla 704th equipped with snag-lines. These were largely ineffectual because of the choppy water.
VESSELS OF MINESWEEPER FORCE “B” from Harwich, under the command of Captain T. W. Marsh RN, Captain of Minesweeping, Harwich.
Minesweeping Force “B” arrived from Ostend where they had been sweeping.
160th Flotilla of BYMS to sweep the approach channels into the Scheldt.
2 Motor Launches of the 19th Flotilla from Sheerness to sweep the fresh water between Valsoorden and Antwerp.
5 MMS’s Belgian manned from Ostend also to the fresh water between Valsoorden and Antwerp.
British Yard Mine Sweepers, from Wildfire III, Queenborough, sweeping the Scheldt.
With the Allies coming to a standstill due to over stretched supply lines, opening the Port of Antwerp was of critical importance. The scale and complexity of the minesweeping operation in the Scheldt Estuary and river was
awe-inspiring, but the Minesweepers, from Wildfire III, Queenborough, proved worthy of the task.
Minesweepers shelled as they attempt to enter the Scheldt.
1 November 1944. When it was reported that the gun batteries at Knocke on the Belgium Coast had been taken by the Canadians, Admiral Ramsey ordered Force “A” to proceed to Breskens. The report was incorrect. The Canadians had not yet taken the gun batteries.
2 November 1944. Force “B” under Captain T. W. Marsh RN, Captain of Minesweepers, Harwich, departed Ostend to begin clearing the seaward channel (QZS 581) towards the Scheldt to opened up a passage for Force “A” from Wildfire III, Queenborough to pass through.
As Force “B” neared the coast on the Dutch/Belgium border they came under fire from the Knocke Batteries which forced the operation to be abandoned with only five mines being cleared. Motor Launches (from Sheerness) made smoke to cover Force “B” as it withdrew.
Force “A” minesweepers from Wildfire III, having earlier departed from Sheerness also came under heavy fire from shore gun Batteries at Knocke. Four of the eight BYMS in 165 Flotilla being hit by shell fire.
BYMS 2035 was singled out by the German shore batteries with many near misses and a shell smashing right through her engine room, destroying the port engine and damaged the degaussing gear. Coxswain Jim Thompson picked up and nursed the seriously injured Harold Keens, only 20 years old. He opened his shirt to find a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest. Also in the engine room was Ken Grant. A piece of shrapnel went through the peak of his cap, but other than that he was unharmed. Sadly, Engineman Harold Keen would later die of his wounds. BYMS 2035 was towed out of the minefield and back to England for repairs.
BYMS 2252 was also hit by a shell with Signalman, Arthur G, MARTIN, RNPS, LT/JX 175541, being killed.
BYMS 2041 sustained a direct hit to her mess deck but was able to continue sweeping.
An acoustic mine exploded ten yards away from BYMS 2051 disabling her. She was towed to safety by BYMS 2076.
Meanwhile the 157th BYMS Flotilla ( Force “A” from Wildfire III, Queenborough) was shelled from shore when they reached Cadzand on the Dutch border.
Despite the shelling several of the BYMS successfully swept into the entrance of the Scheldt, sweeping 70 mines on the first day before the operation was aborted.
3 November 1944. Force “B” was able to continue sweeping. The main batteries at Knocke had been taken by the Canadians, but the minesweepers still came under fire from guns in isolated pockets of German resistance.
The Minesweepers come under heavy fire from batteries around Flushing. At that time, Flushing was under attack by the Allies, but Guns W7 and W11 and mobile artillery were still in the hands of the enemy. The German Gun emplacements at Fort Frederic Henrik and Nieuwesluis on the South bank of the Scheldt had by then been taken by the Canadians.
SWEEPING THE SCHELDT.
Battle of the Scheldt.
GERMAN GUN EMPLACEMENTS ON WALCHEREN ISLAND AND THE BRESKENS POCKET
guarding the Scheldt and its minefields.
The guns on Walcheren and in the Breskens Pocket were part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, a system of coastal defences and fortifications, which stretched from Spain to the top of Norway. In France alone almost a million French workers were drafted as forced labour to build it as defence against an anticipated Allied invasion. The area closest to England were the heaviest fortified.
GERMAN ARTILLERY IN THE BRESKENS POCKET (Dutch/Belgium coast, south of the Scheldt)
Between Breskens and Knock-sur-Mer there were six naval batteries imbedded in concrete plus one railway mounted battery.
Heyst. One battery of four 9.4 cm guns.
Knocke. One battery of four 28 cm guns. Plus, one battery of three 20.3 railway guns.
Cadzand. One Battery of four 15 cm guns.
Nieuwesluis. One battery of four 12 cm guns.
Fort Frederik Henrik. Two batteries, one of four 7.62 cm guns and one of four 10.5 guns.
Also in the Bresden Pocket (south side of the Scheldt) were 11,000 German troops, 500 machine guns and mortars and over 200 artillery pieces including the formidable 88s.