Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Antwerp, Battle of (4 September–2 October 1944)

Western Front battle for the key Belgian port of Antwerp. Its port facilities mark Antwerp as an important strategic city in Europe. Antwerp is about 54 miles from the open sea connected by the Scheldt River, which is fairly narrow below the city and then broadens into a wide estuary. The southern bank of the estuary is formed by the European mainland. The northern side is formed by the South Beveland Peninsula and Walcheren Island, which is connected to the peninsula by a narrow causeway. The port had 600 hydraulic and electric cranes as well as numerous floating cranes, loading bridges, and floating grain elevators. Its clearance facilities included extensive marshaling yards and excellent linkage with the Belgian network of railroads and navigable waterways. It was essential for the Anglo-American forces to secure Antwerp as a supply port in order to sustain their offensive.

The British Second Army took Brussels on 3 September and then managed to cover the 60 miles to Antwerp on 4 September. The British 11th Armoured Division entered the city to find that the port was relatively intact, largely because of activities of the Belgian Resistance. Commander Major General George Philip Roberts of the 11th Armored Division ordered a pause for two days, neglecting to order his troops to secure the bridges over the Albert Canal on the northern edge of the city. Indeed, the whole XXX Corps then paused for a three-day rest to refit and refuel. Had the bridges been secured on 4 September, the way would have been open to the eastern base of the South Beveland Peninsula some 17 miles distant. This would have trapped the remaining units of Generaloberst (U.S. equiv. full general) Gustav von Zagen's Fifteenth Army of some 100,000 men in a pocket. By 6 September, however, German resistance had rallied to permit the British only a small bridgehead that was subsequently destroyed.

The German Fifteenth Army was sealed off in the Calais-Flanders region in what was known as the "Breskens pocket." On 4 September, von Zagen ordered an evacuation across the estuary, in which the troops were ferried to Walcheren. By the time the evacuation was completed on 23 September, the Germans had managed to extract some 86,000 men, 616 guns, 6,200 vehicles, and 6,000 horses. Had the Beveland Peninsula been cut off, the evacuation would have taken a different route, a 12-hour journey to reach safety, and allowed for more Allied interference.

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery did not bring the full force of his 21st Army Group to bear on clearing the surrounding countryside to allow traffic on the Scheldt River. Indeed, he did not even order the First Canadian Army to clear the Scheldt estuary until late September, even while that force was still tasked with clearing the Channel ports. Not until 16 October did Montgomery order that the Scheldt be cleared with the utmost vigor, irrespective of casualties. The port itself did not open for traffic until 26 November.

Most scholars believe Montgomery's failure at Antwerp influenced his concern that the maximum amount of force and effort be applied in the subsequent Operation market-garden. The Battle of Antwerp was a lost opportunity for the Allies to open a major port early, trap a large German force, and potentially end the war sooner.

Britton W. MacDonald


Further Reading
Levine, Alan J. From the Normandy Beaches to the Baltic Sea: The Northwest Europe Campaign, 1944–1945. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.; Weigley, Russell. Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
 

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