Introduction: A Simple Plan
It all depended on 360 Canadian infantrymen. But that seemed natural to these men of the Algonquin Regiment. For this regiment, hailing from North Bay, Ontario, proudly wore on their regimental badge the motto NE-KAH-NE-TAH, an Algonquin Indian phrase pronouncing: “We lead, others follow.” If they succeeded, 4th Canadian Armoured Division would follow them across the two canals like a runaway storm, flooding over the intervening Belgian and Dutch lowlands clear to the southern bank of the Scheldt estuary’s western arm.
The plan looked simple, even tidy, on paper. Divisional commander Major General Harry Foster’s operational order of September 13, 1944 set it out in crisp, terse language: “At zero hr  tonight Alg[onquin] R[egiment] will force a crossing of the canal Dérivation de la Lys and the canal Leopold in the area of Moerkerke… This bridgehead will be exploited as far as possible to enable bridging to be carried out… 4 Cdn Armd Div will then fan out in both directions to clear the north bank of the canal Leopold pushing on as fast as possible to Fort Frederik Hendrik.” This fortress ruin seemed easily within the division’s grasp, little more than fifteen miles north of the village of Moerkerke. A few hundred yards southeast of the fort lay Breskens, a small port town through which the Germans were frantically ferrying men and equipment across the estuary’s three-mile-wide mouth to the port of Vlissingen on Walcheren Island.
With Bresken in Canadian hands, Fifteenth German Army would be denied this last-ditch avenue of escape. Nearly 100,000 troops still on the southern shore would be trapped—their only choice to surrender or to be destroyed piecemeal at First Canadian Army’s leisure. The loss of such a great number of men would deal Germany a catastrophic blow certain to shorten the war. Additionally, the first major step in opening the Scheldt estuary to enable ships to reach the giant port of Antwerp, already in Allied hands, would be complete. With its miles of undamaged docks available to offload desperately needed supplies, a final nail would be driven into Hitler’s coffin.
Nobody expected the Algonquin attack to come off as smoothly as Foster’s order implied, but the prevailing belief emanating from First Canadian Army’s headquarters was that “a sudden surprise crossing would keep the enemy on the move.” Strung out along the twelve-mile stretch where the two canals ran tightly parallel to each other were reportedly no more than five thousand men—all that remained of the badly mauled 245th Infantry Division. Caught off guard, they should have no opportunity to launch an effective counterattack. “There were,” army intelligence officers stated, “no indications of the enemy being in strength on the opposite side of the canals.” If the attack was put in quickly, boldly, and with minimal advance reconnaissance in order to prevent tipping the Germans off, success should be assured. Dissenting voices, such as that of 4th Division’s Captain Ernie Sirluck, who suspected that the Germans lurked behind the canal in far greater strength, were dismissed as alarmist and further proof that reports by division and brigade intelligence officers were seldom credible.
Studying the intelligence appreciation handed down to the Algonquins on the morning of September 13, Major George L. Cassidy assumed “the enemy was thoroughly disorganized, had scarcely any equipment, and was taking refuge behind the canal in a sort of desperation. In any case, it was felt he would show little or no fight if attacked in force. With these soothing words in our ears, we were told that we had been elected to make the initial crossing… It was also made known that reinforcements would arrive in the afternoon. Some of these were the result of another ‘comb-out’ of specialist people, such as carpenters, shoemakers, etc. Each company was to be built up to a strength of ninety all ranks, and, upon the arrival of the assault boats, each company would carry out a short training period on the erection and carrying of these.”
The thirty-five-year-old officer, who commanded ‘A’ Company, and prior to the war had eked out a living as a teacher in Cobalt, Ontario, was more worried that the promised reinforcements would have long forgotten whatever infantry combat training they had received. Providing enough replacements to keep First Canadian Army’s fighting battalions fully manned was proving a chronic problem. As it was, the 90 men promised to each company fell well below the mandated strength of 126 officers and men.
But there was no time to brood. Cassidy had to rush to join Algonquin commander Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bradburn and the rest of the battalion’s officers for a hasty reconnaissance of Moerkerke. Everyone crowded into five jeeps for the short trip from their current base in the village of Sijsele. The three-mile stretch of road having been swept earlier by the scout platoon, there was no need for caution. At least, not until everyone was piling out of the jeeps in the village square and a sniper round cracked overhead, causing a disorderly scramble for cover. Any time one of the Canadians ventured into the open, a shot rang out.
Unable to determine the sniper’s position, Bradburn decided that only the company commanders would join him on the reconnaissance, while the platoon commanders were directed to an inn that was open for business despite the sniper. Noting that the platoon lieutenants settled into the challenging duty of drinking Belgian beer “with visible reluctance,” Cassidy and the other company commanders followed Bradburn into a three-storey building where a corporal from the scout platoon had set up a telescope that, because of intervening groves and lines of trees, provided a limited view of the canals.
None of the men liked what he saw. The crossing was to be made immediately to the east of a blown bridge, with each company forcing its way over at different points. Gaining the south bank of the Canal de Dérivation de la Lys (known to the Flemish as Afleidingskanaal van de Leie) without being detected should be relatively easy under cover of darkness. Roads lined by trees and farmhouses extended out of the centre of Moerkerke all the way to each jumping-off point. But the canals constituted a damnable obstacle. Each was ninety feet wide, and separating them was a flat-topped dyke of the same width. The Leopold had been dug in 1842 to drain the low-lying ground to the northeast, whereas the Dérivation was constructed a few years later to drain a wide swath of marshy, sandy country to the north of Ghent. About seven miles east of Moerkerke, the canals parted ways to enter their respective drainage grounds.
It was going to be necessary to drag the boats over one dyke to gain the Dérivation and then hoist them up and across the intervening dyke in order to cross the Leopold. Most likely, they would be under fire the whole way. If the Germans were thicker on the ground than promised, the regiment would be slaughtered, but there was neither the time nor sufficient ground cover to permit a small patrol to try and determine what opposition was in place. “So, with some misgivings, the party returned to Sysseele [known by the Flemish as Sijsele].”
At 1700 hours, Bradburn convened a final Orders Group and presented the full plan of attack to his officers. The operation had been tightly scripted by 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade’s headquarters staff, with division giving it final approval. Cassidy’s ‘A’ Company would cross on the far left quite close to the blown bridge. Crossing to the right would be first ‘B’ Company, then ‘C’ Company, and lastly ‘D’ Company, with a seventy-five yard separation between each. The boats were to be delivered to the square by Moerkerke’s church and carried from there to the launching points. Bradburn cheered his officers up considerably when he set out the fire support they could expect. The entire divisional artillery would provide covering fire, along with the brigade’s mortars and the medium machine guns of the New Brunswick Rangers. Forty collapsible wood and canvas assault boats, fourteen reconnaissance boats, and a few civilian craft would carry them over. Special ladders to which grappling hooks were attached would aid the men in climbing the steep dykes. So that the Algonquins could concentrate on the attack, eighty men from the Lincoln and Welland Battalion—the Lincs—would act as paddlers and help manhandle the boats over the dykes.
Once across the canals, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies would clear the hamlet of Molentje, which consisted of about fifteen farmhouses straddling the road just north of the blown bridge, while ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies advanced four hundred yards across open fields to secure a road that extended east out of Molentje, parallel to the Leopold Canal. Intelligence reported that ‘A’ Company would not need to guard its left flank, as the ground to the west was flooded. Once the Algonquins established a firm bridgehead, engineering units would throw up a bridge on the site of the destroyed one. When the bridge was serviceable, 10 CIB, amply supported by armour, would push out towards the towns of Sluis and Aardenburg as the first stage of the advance to Breskens. The attack would go in at 2200 hours.
Thinking the plan over, Cassidy decided it “had obvious advantages. It was simple and control would not be difficult. The crossing place was not a too-obvious one, yet it had suitable off-loading points for boats and bridging, and the route to the crossing points was fairly sheltered… there were few questions.”
Worrisomely, though, the reinforcements arrived late. “It was barely possible to take down their names, assign them to companies, give them the briefest of briefings, and show them what an assault boat looked like, and then it was time to move off.” The Algonquins marched quickly to Moerkerke, where the boats were found next to the ruins of the church and the Lincs’ eighty-man ferrying party under command of Lieutenant R.F. Dickie joined them. Each company was met by a member of the scout platoon, who would guide it to the designated launch point.
As the men shouldered the boats and headed in darkness towards the canals, artillery and mortar rounds thundered down on both shores. A stiff breeze caused the smoke from the explosions to drift like a dense fog around the Canadians, so it was hard to find their way. Following his guide, who was having trouble locating the route, Cassidy led his men “between some stone garden walls, through an alleyway so narrow that the erected boats had to be carried sideways on the men’s heads. Arms and paddles kept slipping out and crashing on the pavement, and there were a good many spluttering curses flying about.”
It took thirty minutes for the companies to grope by circuitous routes over a distance that, as a crow flew, was barely more than five hundred yards. By the time the men started heaving the boats up the bank of the first dyke, the artillery program had run its course and the guns ceased firing. As the boats were being launched, German infantry on the opposite shore opened fire with machine guns, rifles, and mortars. But the Algonquins and Lincs—eighteen men to a boat—dug their paddles hard into the icy water and drove into the deadly hail.
‘A’ Company was lucky, the fire on its front relatively light. In minutes, it gained the middle dyke. The riflemen leading the scramble up its bank overran several Germans stunned by the artillery fire. Dragging the boats over the dyke, the platoons piled back into them and quickly paddled across the Leopold. Only as they landed did Cassidy realize that just two of the Lincs who were to ferry the boats back had actually joined his party. The rest had either been diverted unintentionally to the other companies or had got lost. As the boats were too large and heavy for two men to manhandle back over the centre dyke, Cassidy decided they would have to stay where they were until it was possible to delegate men to return them. A quick reorganization in the lee of the dyke revealed that only one man in the company had been wounded in the crossing. ‘A’ Company’s attack was going according to script.
Not so for ‘B’ Company. The boats carrying Lieutenant Thomas Clair Dutcher’s platoon paddled straight into the line of a 20-millimetre gun’s fire that “raised complete havoc.” Many of the men, including the twenty-five-year-old officer from Elmvale, Ontario, were wounded. Those left unscathed were unable to reorganize for the next crossing because of the gun’s persistent fire. Dutcher’s wounds proved fatal; he died on September 17.
The same gun blasted away at ‘B’ Company’s two remaining platoons, but they managed to cross the first canal and launch into the Leopold. Crossfire from MG 42 light machine guns punched holes in the boats and kicked up waterspouts all around them as the men paddled frantically for the other shore. Overhead, flares popped and illuminated the scene for the German gunners. Tracers flashed past. When the boats touched the dyke, Captain A.R. Herbert’s platoon took cover in its lee and crept close to the 20-millimetre gun position. Then Herbert and several other men knocked it out with well-thrown grenades. Gun silenced, Major J.S. McLeod was able to reorganize his company. Grimly, he determined that an entire platoon’s worth of men had already been either killed or wounded in less than thirty minutes.
Well to the right of ‘B’ Company, Major A.K. Stirling’s ‘C’ Company crossed fairly easily despite encountering some heavy small-arms fire. But the men landed at a point where the canal was densely lined by tall alders that blocked Stirling’s field of view. He was also blinded by the lingering smoke from the artillery bombardment. Gazing about, Stirling saw through the haze a line of trees to his left that extended inland. He mistook these for ones that had been identified earlier as useful markers to guide his company to its assigned position. Cursing the fact that his radio had stopped working, Stirling led his men to the trees and beyond. He would have liked to establish contact with the other company commanders to confirm his position relative to theirs.
‘D’ Company, meanwhile, had launched directly in front of a second 20-millimetre gun. To escape the deadly fire, Major W.A. Johnston ordered his men to paddle well to the right of their assigned landing point. After landing, the company marched about five hundred yards inland and then hooked to the left to gain a position astride the road parallelling the canals, near to where the operational plan called for them to dig in. Scouts soon made contact with ‘C’ Company, which was found to be far off its intended course and almost to the immediate rear of Johnston’s men. Stirling and Johnston met for a quick conference and decided that ‘C’ Company, still close to the canal, should anchor itself in the line of trees and secure the battalion’s right flank from the beachhead up to the road. Once they were in position, Johnston would move through the forward elements of ‘C’ Company at the road and take up the position that had been Stirling’s original objective.
As ‘C’ Company moved towards the tree line, a flare arced out of it and starkly illuminated the infantrymen. In the distance, several mortars thumped and seconds later the rounds exploded in their midst. Some men fell wounded, but the rest charged recklessly into the trees and overran the Germans who had fired the flares. Equipped with a radio, they had been directing the mortar fire.
It was now about 2300, and a relative calm descended over the battlefield. Everyone was worn out from dragging the heavy boats across the centre dyke. Nerves were on edge. In Molentje, Cassidy’s ‘A’ Company was clearing the buildings on the west side of the main road. In the darkness, ensuring that every stairwell, room, and cellar held no enemy was difficult. Where the road intersected the one parallelling the canal, Cassidy called a halt. He placed one platoon in buildings covering the road, another in a group of buildings to the northwest that provided good observation out to the left flank, and the third platoon extended along the left flank of the hamlet back to the canal. His headquarters was set up in a large grain mill. Cassidy now discovered that the supposedly flooded area to the west was dry, providing a perfect avenue of approach. Cassidy told everyone to keep a sharp eye turned that direction. So far, his company seemed blessed with only one early casualty.
To ‘A’ Company’s right, McLeod’s men were progressing more slowly in clearing buildings, due to their earlier losses. Hoping to get an assessment of ‘B’ Company’s advance, Cassidy crossed into its sector and joined McLeod in the street. The two men were just beginning to speak when a Schmeisser machine pistol to the left of the road let out a long burst that sent them dodging for cover. By the time the German handling the gun was driven off, the two majors decided it would be unwise for the weakened company to attempt a renewed advance. Instead, it was to tuck in to the right of ‘A’ Company and then extend feelers out to establish a link with ‘C’ Company. The officers didn’t know that ‘C’ Company was not in its assigned position or that ‘D’ Company was on the rightward edge of that area. A serious gap in the Canadian line had opened. As well, the entire position was now only about 250 yards wide instead of 450, as originally planned.
Around midnight, the calm was shattered as the Germans opened up with heavy artillery and mortar fire that rained down throughout the bridgehead. Clearly, the Germans had recovered from their initial surprise. It was equally obvious that they knew precisely what the Canadians intended, and any attempt to approach the old bridge site was met by accurate shelling. Despite this, the engineers of 9th Canadian Field Squadron, with elements of 8th Canadian Field Squadron in support, were able to mark the building line for the bridge with white tape, and a bulldozer began grading approaches on the southern bank while under fire. Cassidy considered that the setbacks suffered so far were relatively minor. With the morning, the operation should enable 4th Canadian Armoured Division to bridge the canals and begin the breakout to Breskens.
News that the Canadians had forced a crossing of the canals greatly alarmed the Germans. The Algonquins had barely clambered out of their assault boats when General der Infanterie Werner Freiherr von und zu Gilsa, commander of LXXXIX Corps, was alerted to their presence. Summoning his driver, the officer hurried to Lapscheure to meet Generalleutnant Erwin Sander, who commanded 245th Infantry Division, responsible for defending the canals. On September 4, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) in Berlin had emphasized the importance of preventing any breach of the Leopold Canal when it formally designated the Breskens area as “Scheldt Fortress South” and ordered its defenders to “hold out to the last.”
The Belgian village of Lapscheure was less than three miles northeast of Moerkerke, so as the two men conferred, the sounds of fighting could be plainly heard. Fifty-five years of age, von Gilsa had entered the army immediately after his nineteenth birthday, served through the Great War, and risen steadily up the command chain since 1939. He was no alarmist, but it was plain that German control of the approaches to Antwerp and Fifteenth Army’s escape route at Breskens could be lost unless immediate countermeasures were taken. Von Gilsa gave Sander “the strictest instructions that the bridgehead must at all costs be eliminated.” If necessary, the corps reserve would be thrown into the battle.
Sander was already aggressively unleashing his infantry and artillery against the Algonquins. Patrols carried out by the 936th Grenadier Regiment soon discovered the gap between the two Algonquin companies to the east and those inside Molentje. Using the cover of darkness, the Germans crept up close to ‘C’ Company’s perimeter and hit it hard all along the line. Soon they succeeded in infiltrating between the two forward platoons and the one holding a base position at the canal. With Stirling’s already weakened company strung out among the trees in a line that stretched about 180 yards from the canal inland, the men were unable to hunt down and eliminate the infiltrators. When some closed to within twenty feet of the slit trenches that housed Stirling’s headquarters section near the bank, only rapid fire thrown out by Privates George Arthur Wright and A.G. McGuffin manning a Bren gun prevented the position being overrun.
All contact with Lieutenant Geoffrey John Hunter’s platoon—holding the middle of the line—was lost. Lieutenant K.E. Butler, whose platoon was farthest inland, was wounded and only with difficulty carried safely back to the canal. As the first predawn light began to touch the horizon, Stirling realized his company had been shredded—with casualties upwards of 75 per cent.
The Germans were equally focused on destroying the battalion’s headquarters and the engineers vainly trying to bridge the canals. Shortly after the attack had gone in, Moerkerke became subject to heavy, continuous shelling. Moerkerke was a typical Flemish village, a scatter of red brick houses—some with adjoining pastures and large gardens—and shops loosely clustered around a square where a large church, whose belfry had soared to a height of more than one hundred feet, stood. The tower no longer existed. At about 1430 hours on September 13, knowing the tower would provide the advancing Canadians with a dominating observation post, the Germans had set up an 88-millimetre gun on the edge of Molentje. Nine shells had been fired, each scoring a direct hit, and the tower had collapsed onto the church itself. Tons of bricks and supporting beams penetrated the roof to cause extensive damage within. Now the village itself was being slowly battered to pieces.
At first, the barrage seemed randomly directed, but by 0100 hours the Algonquins realized that the fire was zeroing in on their headquarters in some buildings deliberately selected for their unassuming size and position. The Regimental Aid Post, which had so far taken in only a few casualties, took a direct hit. Roman Catholic Padre Tom Mooney died instantly. Protestant Padre W. Valentine, Medical Officer Captain W.F. Mackenzie, and several attendants were wounded. Walking wounded and uninjured alike hastily evacuated the seriously injured from the RAP into the shelter of battalion headquarters. But when this building suffered a series of direct hits, Lieutenant Colonel Bradburn ordered a general evacuation to another building. No sooner had everyone started setting up the new headquarters than it “became the centre of a well-aimed barrage,” prompting another move. The German artillery’s uncanny and precise targeting of the battalion command centre through successive moves seriously disrupted attempts to support operations in the bridgehead.
In the bridgehead, the situation was increasingly confused. From 0300 to dawn, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies occupied a quiet place in the middle of a storm. Shells bound for Moerkerke screamed overhead, while constant gunfire to the east told Major Cassidy that the other two companies were hotly engaged. But he was unable to establish radio contact with the embattled companies, and reports coming from a battalion command on the run were scanty. Still, Cassidy and ‘B’ Company’s McLeod remained optimistic that daylight would clear the situation up and enable the Algonquins to drive the enemy off.
Instead, dawn revealed that Germans had used the darkness and mist to press in all around the Algonquins. Suddenly, “every man on the bridgehead [was] fighting for his life,” Cassidy later wrote. Snipers cropped up in houses throughout Molentje and had to be cleared out one by one. No sooner were some houses swept clean than new snipers infiltrated into them. Lieutenant Dan McDonald found himself pinned down in a chicken coop with an egg two inches from his nose, pondering whether to eat it there or take it along when he had a chance to escape.
Germans had managed to cross back onto the central dyke and were firing into the Algonquin’s rear. The persistent morning mist made it difficult to locate the Germans, who filtered about like ghosts within its grey cloak. From the top storey of the grain mill that housed ‘A’ Company’s headquarters section, Private T. Hansen spotted five enemy soldiers setting up in a concrete dugout on the southern bank of the Dérivation de la Lys. Over open sights at a range of almost five hundred yards, Hansen killed each of the men with his Lee Enfield. Cassidy was disquieted to realize “that even the ‘home’ side of the canal was not clear.”
Scanning the small Canadian perimeter with binoculars, Cassidy “could see Algonquins in slits, then Germans, then more Algonquins, but it was not possible to identify which company they belonged to.” A runner from ‘D’ Company reported that it was in dire straits.
This was no overstatement. The most forward sections of the lead platoon had been forced to retreat under fire to avoid being cut off. Tying in with the rest of the platoon farther back, the men had just begun frantically digging new slits when a shell landed in their midst and mortally wounded their section commander, Corporal Ernest Freve. “Never mind me, dig in and get under cover,” he shouted to prevent his men trying to carry him to safety. Lying in the open, Freve called encouragement to his men until he died.
No amount of heroism could enable the Algonquins to prevail this day. By mid-morning the Germans were throwing in well-organized, battalion-strength attacks. Ammunition was running short. Cassidy bitterly realized that in “our inexperience, or because we were confident of uninterrupted supply, we had brought only normal extra ammunition with us.” A dozen ammo parties were formed to ferry supplies into the bridgehead, but each was broken up by the Germans dug in on the dyke between the canals. Matters were further complicated by a lack of boats. Five of the original forty assault craft had been sunk in the attack, and many of the others were beached on the wrong side of the canals for lack of crews to paddle them back. One error after another was tipping the odds against the Algonquins.
Cassidy and the artillery forward observation officer, Captain Davies, were able to keep the Germans somewhat at bay by calling in artillery fire on suspected forming-up areas. But the situation was precarious, as the enemy pressed in from all sides. At 1030 hours, a small German artillery piece opened up on ‘A’ Company’s rear from inside a house at the foot of the blown bridge, where the engineers were supposed to have been constructing the Canadian crossing. Lieutenant N.R.F. Steenberg and Lance Corporal Vernon Everett Spiers rushed the building, but as Spiers opened a cellar door, a Schmeisser shrieked out a burst and the twenty-six-year-old from Etwell, Ontario fell dead. Steenberg withdrew, teed up another attack covered by a Bren gun, and knocked the gun out with two grenades. The action garnered him a Military Cross.
Throughout the perimeter, casualties were mounting and ammunition was nearly exhausted. When Cassidy rounded up some grenades to distribute to Lieutenant Edward Roberts’s platoon up the road, he learned that the young Ottawa-born officer had been killed by a shell and all the sergeants and senior corporals debilitated by wounds. Lance Corporal E.F. Brady had taken charge, but he had only twelve men left. Brady “was cool and efficient, completely confident of the outcome, and his only worry was to get enough ammunition to go on.” The men were searching Germans taken prisoner for ammunition, for by now they were primarily using captured weapons. Brady’s steady leadership would earn him a Military Medal.
The young soldier’s optimism was misplaced. At 1100 hours, the tempo of German attacks attained a new fury. Fifty per cent of ‘B’ Company’s men were casualties, and Major McLeod had ordered a fighting withdrawal back through Molentje to the centre of the hamlet, where he hoped to regroup. To the right, ‘C’ Company’s Major Stirling was trying to get his wounded back to the canal in the desperate hope that they might be evacuated to safety. He and Private Wright tried to move one of the boats on the canal bank to a position of cover, but were driven back by shellfire. When Wright tried again alone, he was killed.
With the Germans in among the Canadians, it was impossible for Cassidy and Davies to bring artillery fire to bear. An attempt to direct three-inch mortars onto a German position only resulted in the fire falling onto the Algonquins. Davies turned to Cassidy and said he wanted to prepare a smoke artillery plan to cover the battalion in the event it was ordered to withdraw across the canals. The German shelling was increasingly accurate, enabling the enemy to overrun all of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies’ forward positions. Those men who survived “crawled back through ditches and through houses, finally concentrating in a narrow semicircle just north of the bridge.”
At noon, the order came for the Algonquins to break out from the closing trap to the home side of the canal. Bradburn had been desperately trying to get relief to his embattled battalion, to no avail. Unable to ferry ammunition across the canals, he had requested a parachute drop, only to be told no planes were available. A hasty plan to throw the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in to reinforce the bridgehead was abandoned for lack of boats. Facing the inevitable, Major General Foster authorized the withdrawal.
No time was wasted. Within minutes of receiving the order, Davies was calling down the planned smokescreen. A barrage was laid down by artillery, mortars, and the main guns of the nearby South Alberta Regiment’s Sherman tanks. The fire was maintained until the companies all escaped piecemeal across the canals. In twos and threes, the Algonquins fought their way back to the bank of the Leopold Canal. German shelling had intensified, the enemy soldiers pressing in as they smelled victory. Providing the artillery with coordinate corrections, Davies tightened the smokescreen around the retreating men. Across the canal, the gunners were chucking out a terrific rate of fire. In the batteries of 15th Canadian Field Artillery, the order was given to “fire until ammunition expended.” Nobody could remember such instructions being given before, but they set to fulfilling the task despite muscles that cried out for a rest from hefting the 25-pound shells and powder charges. When it was over, the gunners had unleashed 11,000 rounds in a twenty-four-hour period.
The firing had the desired result, holding the Germans sufficiently at bay to enable most of the Algonquins to escape. Generalleutnant Sander was awed by “the most incredible artillery barrage that [he] had ever seen.” The 245th Infantry Division commander expected that it foretold an attempt to reinforce the current bridgehead and was surprised to learn “the enemy had retired and used this form of cover to evacuate his troops.” Although the Germans had repulsed the crossing attempt, they paid a heavy price, with 166 men being killed outright or later succumbing to wounds. Among these was the commander of 936th Grenadier Regiment, Major Herman Drill. Hundreds of other wounded Germans flooded the hospitals in Sluis and Oostburg in the battle’s aftermath. Not all the Canadians managed to get out, despite men attempting to drag or carry the wounded while others protected them with covering fire. A number of the more badly injured had to be left. Stretcher-bearer Private Albert Joseph Coté volunteered to remain with three tourniquet cases. Soon after the other Algonquins headed off, shellfire wrecked the building where he and the wounded men sheltered. Coté was fatally wounded. When Sergeant L.J. Marshall learned that ‘A’ Company’s Sergeant James Henry Speck had been inadvertently left behind in Molentje, he turned back from the canal bank and with nineteen-year-old Private Gerald Reginald Kelly went back to get him. The two men found the house and Kelly hoisted the wounded Speck over his shoulder. They were running towards the canal when a mortar round landed just four feet away. The blast killed Kelly and Speck instantly. Injured by the explosion, Marshall managed to drag himself to the canal.
There were few boats, so the men had to hold the perimeter in ever lessening numbers as those that went before them escaped. Each trip was made through a rain of shellfire, but the heavy smokescreen concealed the withdrawal from the German infantry sufficiently to prevent them bringing their small arms to bear. The remnants of ‘C’ Company trickled in, but they had been unable to get word through to the most forward platoon. Lieutenant Hunter and his men had been cut off. The thirty-two-year-old from Fort William, Ontario and his handful of surviving men fought on until Hunter was killed. Then the few remaining men surrendered.
By this time, the withdrawal was over, ending when a final group of men reached the canal to find that the boats were all gone. Casting aside their weapons and most of their clothing, they swam across the Leopold Canal, crawled over the intervening dyke, and then swam the Dérivation de la Lys to safety. The Algonquins had suffered terribly. Casualties totalled eight officers and 145 other ranks. Three officers were dead, along with 26 other ranks. Five officers had been wounded, as had 53 other ranks, and 66 men were missing and presumed taken prisoner.
Cassidy and many of the other Algonquins straggled up the grass-covered road from the canal into Moerkerke. Some were near naked, all desperately tired. Passing the corner by the ruined church, Cassidy encountered a large sergeant from the engineering unit that had been prevented from building the bridge that might have saved their attack. The man had liberated a large box of Dutch cigars from a shell-shattered storefront and “was calmly handing one to each survivor, while the shells whistled overhead and crumped into the buildings. It was almost like receiving one’s diploma on graduation day… It was a sober, but not a depressed, group of men who were reorganized in farmyards about a mile from the canal. There was an air of regret and sadness certainly, but also a feeling of what can only be called ‘battle elation.’ The tension had been terrific; men had carried themselves along with a sort of superiority complex; and though we had been beaten, and soundly, no one felt that it was because of any individual failing, but only that we had met far superior forces.” By 1500, the Algonquins had withdrawn entirely to Sijsele and Moerkerke was once again contested ground.
High command hinted darkly that the failure could be attributed to Belgian spies betraying the Algonquin preparations. How else to account for the rapidity of the counterattacks? But the only forthcoming evidence was the discovery of a Belgian in Moerkerke possessing a hidden radio, and it was later determined that he had directed the deadly fire on the battalion command post during the morning of September 14. It was unlikely that he could have divined the Canadian intention before the attack.
Regardless, the optimistic plan set down by Major General Foster was in tatters. There would be no immediate attempt to force a crossing. In fact, II Canadian Corps commander, Lieutenant General Guy Simonds, issued an edict later that afternoon stating, “we will now maintain contact, and exert some pressure without sacrificing our forces in driving out an enemy who may be retreating.” The evident wishful thinking was that Fifteenth Army would do the work for the Allies by fleeing north of the Scheldt estuary, thus sparing First Canadian Army a grim and likely protracted campaign to evict it. This proved a pipe dream. The Algonquin failure at the canals became the opening round in what became Canada’s bloodiest test of arms in World War II—The Battle of the Scheldt.