Moerbrugge: Prelude to Battle.
On September 5th 1944, the 1st Polish Armoured Division occupied St Omer. The refreshed 4th Canadian Armoured Division resumed its advance on September 6th in two battle groups, Moncelforce and Stewartforce, named after their commanding officers (1). Lieutenant Colonel Stewart was acting in place of Brigadier Jefferson, who was seriously ill. The armoured spearhead of Stewartforce was the 4th Canadian Armoured Division’s divisional, armoured reconnaissance regiment, the South Alberta Regiment. The two Brigade groups were travelling on separate axes as they advanced towards Ghent. It is ironic that the presence of more armour on the 10th of September would have perhaps justified the sacrifices made by the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group in the battle of Moerbrugge, which was a victory that was to prove impossible to exploit from the viewpoint of the infantry units present.
With orders to advance to Ghent, the ASHC left Buigny I’Abbé in the van of Stewart’s battle group on September 6th. They were preceded only in the brigade column by the SAR’s C Squadron. The ASHC entered St Omer at 1700hr, followed closely by the rest of the column, though not without wrong turns and traffic jams. The ASHC and the rest of Stewart’s command proceeded in column of march on September 7th to Oost Cappel, over the Belgian border. The ASHC were then detailed to force a crossing of the Canal de I’Aa at Loo, which they did without meeting opposition. (2). It is worthy of note that the bloodless crossing of the Canal de I’Aa bred a certain over confidence into General Harry Foster’s staff at divisional HQ, for the nonchalant dispositions initially made for the crossing of the Ghent Canal certainly offer this as a possibility in the authors opinion. (3). The advance was resumed on September 8th at 0800 hrs, and the brigade column approached Bruges at 1300hrs. Strong enemy forces were reported in Bruges, supported by antitank guns; thus it was decided at 4th Canadian Armoured Division Headquarters to effect a crossing of the Ghent Canal at Oostcamp, 3 miles farther south.(4). It does well to describe the Oostcamp-Moerbrugge area for those readers not familiar with conditions in this area of Belgium, for terrain was of significant influence on the conduct of operations during the battle.
Moerbrugge and Oostcamp were in 1944 close to being a single town separated by the Ghent Canal and linked together by the Oostcamp bridge. Although far from being a metropolis, Moerbrugge was built up to a greater degree than any allied wartime maps showed. The Stationstraat in Oostcamp and the Kerkstraat in Moerbrugge can be seen as differently named extensions of the same road for the purposes of this study, the side of the canal upon which each was situated being the only difference. Oostcamp and Moerbrugge were (and likely still are) “twin” towns. In all sources consulted, Moerbrugge itself is described as a T-shaped town, its’ limits delineated by the intersection between the Kerkstraat (running east-west) and the Legeweg (the road to Bruges, running roughly north-south), where the town church was situated. The heavy cultivation of the fields to the north and south of the Kerkstraat made it difficult for the liberators to exploit their victory on the 10th and 11th of September. A final point that should be mentioned (because it is not completely obvious in the sources) is that the areas upon which roads were built were slightly raised, due to the fact that the land in the area is otherwise quite flat and flooding was always a possibility. Hedgerows, centuries old, surrounded the neat Belgian farmsteads and divided each into carefu1ly cultivated fields.
The Argylls and the South Alberta Regiment were well ahead of Stewart’s column at the time of the entry into Oostcamp. We know from Rogers’ ”The History of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment” that part of the order of march for the Stewartforce battle group on September 7-8th was as follows: a troop of C Sqn SAR, followed by the ASHC and the remainder of the SAR, followed by the Carrier Platoon of the L&WR, followed by the CGG Reece Troop (in Stuarts), followed by 2 troops of No2 Squadron CGG Shermans, then D Company L&WR., then the remainder of No 2 Squadron, CGG, in Shermans (less 2 Troops), then came the Brigade Orders Group, followed by C Company, B Company and A Company (in that order) of the L&WR, then followed in turn by the Canadian Grenadier Guards less No2 squadron, with the tail of the column being formed by the L&WR support Company and the echelon troops of the infantry and armoured regiments. We can assume the column artillery was at the tail of the column. As an interesting aside, the L&WR vehicles included a Priest Kangaroo that the battalion’s Pioneer Platoon had not returned to ordnance after Operation Totalize (and which they managed to retain until the end of the war). We can assume that the order of the column had changed little at the time Oostcamp was liberated.(5.)
Number 2 Troop, C Squadron, South Alberta Regiment entered into Oostcamp at 1200hrs with 4 Shermans, followed closely by the ASHC in lorries. Number 2 Troop commander, Lieutenant Jack Roberts, was warned by the leader of the local resistance (Baron Thierry Peers de Niewburgh) that the Oostcamp bridge had been rigged for demolition by the retreating Germans. As the state of the bridge was not investigated immediately, we can deduce that Roberts’ men were either caught up in the welcome they were receiving from Oostcamp’s inhabitants or were awaiting the arrival of reinforcements before advancing to the canal bank. What is very clear however, was that the actual approach to the bridge did not take place until the early afternoon. As Number 2 Troop and forward platoons of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada approached the bridge, it was blown up by German engineers from the Moerbrugge side. Immediately the German artillery lay a withering fire down upon the ASHC and the SAR Shermans, and the infantry were driven to cover. (6).
The infantry and the 2nd troop of C Squadron were quickly joined by the remainder of C Squadron and the ASHC. In due course the SAR’s A and B Squadrons arrived in Oostcamp. The fact that a crossing was not attempted until I700hrs may indicate that it took several hours for Stewart’s battle group to sort out and position units still in transit at the time of Roberts’ troop’s arrival in the town. While planning took place, elements of Stewart’s column halted at the roadside at Dalaere, a kilometer or so from Oostcamp. (7). The decision to attack Moerbrugge across the canal with the ASHC was taken at 4th Canadian Armoured Division HQ, the acting commander of the regiment (Major Stockloser) seemingly having been in complete accord with the expectation at HQ that there would be little opposition. (8).
AUTHOR: Merlin Robinson
To be continued…
More about the author
I am a Canadian amateur military historian, with an interest in covering the period 1914-present day period. I most often like to write using primary documents as source material and am currently working on 2 serious studies, concerning the 1st Canadian Corps in the Battle of the Gothic Line and the Centurion Tank in Korea. I hope in future to write about several other campaigns from the Second World War. I did my degree in history at Toronto’s York University specialising in Japanese and Polish history during the 1920-1945 period. I have been fascinated all my life by history spanning many different periods, but usually military in nature. My greatest area of interest is in British and Commonwealth armed forces during the two world wars and during the Cold war, all arms of service but I am most interested in armoured warfare. I am 40 years old, happily married with 5 children and live in the Toronto area. My interests outside of military history are EPL Football, scale modelling and physical fitness.
Thanks to Tomasz Basarabowicz – editor and author of over a hundred articles and several books on Allied and so called “minor powers’ ” AFV’s such as Finland, Hungary, the Balkans etc. Operational in submtting Mr. Robinson’s articles.