ARTICLE: The Battle of Moerbrugge – Part 3

 
 
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Moerbrugge: “A Crossing of Opportunity”:

As we have seen, the German resistance in Moerbrugge was thought by 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional HQ to have been weak on September 8th, and the ASHC was detailed to affect a crossing with all possible speed. In order to confuse the enemy into thinking that a crossing was to be attempted closer to Bruges itself, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada’s A Company, the Scout Platoon and B Squadron of the South Alberta Regiment deployed a little to the north of Oostcamp. They installed themselves close to the canal bank and opened fire across the Ghent Canal. The CGG was leaguered in reserve in Zuidwege at this time (5 km east from Bruges), awaiting orders. (9).

Infantrymen of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada cooking a meal and warming themselves

No assault boats were available to the forces earmarked for the crossing. At 1530hrs on September 8th 1944, B, C and D Companies of the ASHC moved into Oostcamp to prepare their crossing. Since the actual crossing did not begin until 1700hrs, it is very likely that the interval was spent searching for craft in which to cross the canal. It was unfortunate that no 25 pounder ammunition was available to the portion of the artillery assigned to Stewart’s battle group (the 15th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, which had expended all its ammunition on the advance and could not get supplies quickly enough because of the sudden length of the supply line from Normandy). The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada were to be “shot in” by their own mortar platoon and the guns of the SAR Shermans.

Finally 2 civilian punts were procured, allowing 4 and 7 men to cross at a time. At 1700hrs D Company began to cross. 111e Germans quickly realized the location of the “real” crossing and proceeded to lay a withering fire upon the canal banks and the two punts going back and forth across the canal. (10). The diversionary force to the immediate north of Oostcamp was simultaneously treated to the same reception, and would continue to be for the duration of their stay in the diversionary position.

The ASHC’s C and D Companies took significant casualties during the crossing; which, with the limited boating equipment, took 7 hours. The canal itself was 50 feet wide and was very deep, offering those undertaking to cross it very little scope for evasive action under heavy enemy fire. C Company landed on the northern side of the demolished bridge site, and stuck to the northern side of the Kerkstraat, having lost 20% of their effectives during the crossing. D Company took comparable losses, including 2 men drowned as one of the punts foundered. D Company occupied what houses they could on the south side of the Kerkstraat. Even as C Company was crossing D Company was being heavily counter-attacked by German infantry with plenty of artillery support. It seems that many of the losses taken by the unfortunate members of C and D Companies of the ASHC were inflicted by 20mm Flak guns sited along the Legeweg, a few hundred yards east of the canal bank. (11).

It must have been obvious, once the crossing had begun, that enemy resistance was heavier than had been envisioned. The L&WR were placed on alert and pulled from reserve in order to rapidly reinforce the canal crossing. The enemy’s unexpected strength was demonstrated especially by the volume of artillery fire rained down upon the crossing site, the diversionary force and on Oostcamp generally. With 151h Field Regiment RCA without ammunition, it was only possible to support the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada in Moerbrugge with the mortars of their own mortar platoon and the 75mm guns of the SAR Shermans. The mortar platoon’s contribution to the fire support of C and D Companies was compromised almost at once by the engagement of the mortar sites by 20mm Flak. The Oostcamp side of the canal was heavily shelled, and this drove other mortar crews to cover. (12).

Whilst the 75mm fire of the SAR squadron was of help to the attacking infantry, it was no substitute for the lack of field artillery and the tanks were incapable of engaging in counter battery fire. The SAR Squadron withdrew during the night to leaguer positions, but came back to the canal bank at first light, for it was quite impossible for the Shermans to support the ASHC with direct fire across the canal in the dark. By midnight on the 8th, the initial crossing was complete, and the situation was clearly so bad that it was evident that C and D Companies of the ASHC would be overwhelmed without immediate reinforcement. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada’s War Diary identified the opposition in Moerbrugge as troops of  the 64th  Infanterie Division, whereas other sources mention elements of the 245th  and 711th Infanterie Divisions. (13). It is certain that the Germans were employing a mixture of troops in the area in battlegroups. These units would have been incomplete even had all three been in the area in ad hoc formations (with the exception of the 64th Infantry Division, which was fresh from Germany, but even in that case the Germans could ill afford to deploy more than a small part of an entire division to protect the Ghent Canal line). Despite the fragmentary nature of these Wehrrnacht formations, they were far stronger in men and artillery than the elements of Stewart’s force that deployed across the canal from September 8th-10th 1944. What is more, they were fighting to hold the Ghent Canal as delaying position in order to prevent the encirclement of the German troops in the mouth of the Scheldt. It is possible that the survival of the bridgehead owed much to the fact that Moerbrugge was the junction point between two German formations. The German artillery was present in force, with plenty of ammunition. They indeed would prevent the Royal Canadian Engineers’s S Field Squadron from bridging the canal for over 30 hours. Stewart’s HQ ordered the reinforcement of the bridgehead immediately after the initial 2 companies got across. Major Stockloser (who was the acting commander of the ASHC in Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart’s absence) ordered B Company to cross during the night, and they established themselves in the fields south of the Kerkstraat, in rough contact with D Company.

As the Lincoln and Welland companies crossed in turn, they too occupied the southern flank of the Kerkstraat, which left the ASHC’s C Company alone on the northern side of the road, in relative isolation and without direct communication with the other units. As the L&WR companies made contact with the men of D and B Companies of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada on the morning of the 9th, they were strongly counterattacked by the Germans. It was the direct fire of the South Alberta Regiment’s Shermans with their 75mm guns and the 20mm Oerlikon fire from the Crusaders AA MkIIIs in the AA troop that helped break up this German attack. Firing from the canal dyke on the Oostkamp side, the SAR Antiaircraft Troop broke up German troop concentrations with heavy automatic fire. This was a very sound improvisation, for the automatic 20mm fire was devastating in a ground role, and the South Alberta Regiment had retained their Crusaders though many other armoured regiments in the 21st Army group had already disbanded their AA troops due to the absence of the Luftwaffe.

The Canadian infantry’s objective at this point was the Legeweg-Kerkstraat intersection, for not only would taking it outflank the German Flak guns situated on the Legeweg (permitting bridging) but also due to the fact that it was a communication artery into Bruges and Ghent. Command of the Legeweg would possibly have permitted some freedom of action to 4″ CAD: a possible coup de main by Moncel’s force in one of 2 directions, with the obvious advantage that would accrue from either taking Bruges (to the north) in the rear or by simply accelerating the advance on Eecloo (to the east). What had happened to C and D Companies prior to the reinforcement was as follows: having been first across the canal, D Company ASHC managed to take a few houses on the southern side of the Kerkstraat. From these houses D Company had covered the crossing of C Company as best as they could, though they could not prevent the heavy losses C Company suffered. German reaction was severe, including an immediate counterattack before C Company had a chance to land. The two companies did their best to penetrate into Moerbrugge, and indeed got as far as the Kerkstraat-Legeweg intersection, though communication between the two companies became increasingly difficult. Attempts by the RCE to bridge the canal on the night of 8-9th of September were unsuccessful due to the withering fire that was directed upon the bridging site and the approaches to the canal bank. C Company advanced as far as the Moerbrugge churchyard, but the infantrymen were unable to hold the position, and D Company gradually was driven back towards the crossing point. C Company in turn was forced to recoil towards the canal. At some point in the withdrawal from the intersection, the Germans managed to infiltrate infantry units between the two ASHC companies, and without artillery ammunition, 15th Field Regiment RCA was unable to intervene. ASHC HQ deployed B Company across the canal in time to link up with the embattled members of D Company, and the bridgehead held, even though C Company was to all intents isolated. Alone on the north side of the Kerkstraat and unable to profit from the arrival of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment companies, the Argylls were counterattacked throughout the night and morning of the 9th of September. The fact that they resisted battalion-sized assaults is testimony to the leadership within the platoons and the grit and resolution they showed their foe. Again on the morning of the 9th, bridging proved impossible, and the depleted ranks of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada simply had to hold on as best as they could.

Moerbrugge, The Crisis:

As the morning of the 9th of September wore on, bitter street fighting continued in Moerbrugge. At 1400hrs the ASHC’s A Company and Scout Platoon withdrew from the diversionary position north of Oostcamp into the town itself. They re-deployed into the bridging area in an effort to provide covering fire for the Royal Canadian Engineers troops attempting to bridge the canal. They were followed by B Squadron, South Alberta Regiment, who fired smoke and high, explosive across the canal into Moerbrugge. Throughout the early part of the day these tanks were responsible for the bulk of the fire support the besieged companies in Moerbrugge received.

At 1500hrs Lt Col David Stewart of the ASHC returned from 10lh Infantry Brigade HQ to command the battalion. Major Stockloser, who had commanded the ASHC during Stewart’s absence, was sent back to command the rear echelon. Stockloser’s plan had been to re-deploy the ASHC’s A Company across the canal immediately but Stewart decided that it was best to await developments and review the situation at nightfall. Stewart’s choice was proven right by the fact that it now took about 7 hours for a company of infantry to cross the canal because only 1 punt was now seaworthy, the punt was being used as a supply ferry; and (though he would not have known it) a massive German counterattack was brewing.

Tanks of the 4th. Canadian Armoured Division

The Moerbrugge battle hinged on events on September 9th at 1900hrs, when large German infantry forces, (backed by an artillery barrage the like of which nobody had seen since Normandy) attacked the Canadian infantrymen, already perilously close to exhaustion, in Moerbrugge. The German barrage was extremely heavy and lasted for 2 hours, falling on Oostcamp and Moerbrugge alike in equal intensity. The purpose of the barrage was to prevent the reinforcement of the infantry across the canal by the forces in Oostcamp, allowing the German infantry units then in proximity to Moerbrugge to attack and overwhelm the Canadians. Curtains of artillery fire blocked off the only escape routes of the ASHC and L&WR companies, and knowing this full well, the troops redoubled their efforts to hold their positions. The barrage also made life extremely unpleasant for the troops supporting from the Oostcamp side, and inflicted casualties on the forces there. Amongst the losses sustained was a SAR halftracked ambulance and its’ driver. Although the barrage complicated observation, at an early point during the two hours in which the whirlwind of German fire rained down on the Canadians the SAR resumed their direct fire support with good effect. They were able to direct their fire on the German infantry, as did the New Brunswick Rangers, an independent medium machinegun company attached to Stewart’s force. Together they inflicted fearful casualties on the attacking waves of feldgrau-clad Germans.

On the Moerbrugge side of the Ghent Canal, the Germans attacked the Canadian positions from both north and south simultaneously. The control of the Kerkstraat seems to have been the initial German objective, the ultimate goal being the subsequent destruction of the bridgehead. The German attacks were, however, conducted in an uncharacteristically ham-fisted manner, accounts of the day describing a series of frontal infantry attacks made across the sodden fields from north and south around the Kerkstraat as the German artillery blasted the bridgehead. Despite tactical mediocrity of the infantry attacks, the Germans had a numerical advantage and were only eventually stopped after overrunning a Canadian platoon (from D Company, ASHC) and seriously weakening the others. The Canadian forces in Moerbrugge now seemed to be faced with annihilation, but although they were outnumbered and outgunned, they would not give in to the attacks: German infantry losses were very heavy. Then fate smiled on the Canadians as a series of favourable coincidences changed the course of the battle in their favour.

An Argylls’ PIAT team

Every battle has a crisis point and the German counterattack at 1900hrs was certainly Moerbrugge’s, but as the attack was launched a number of factors conspired against the Germans. The South Alberta Regiment’s B-2 Troop observed and destroyed a key German artillery observation post in Moerbrugge with direct H.E. fire at the very moment when the barrage was at its most deadly, blinding the German gunners and mortar crews at a critical time. The German artillery plan gradually lost cohesion, so much so that bridging was able to resume at 2100hrs, as the German attack was dying out. At the same time as the OP was destroyed by the SAR, an ammunition convoy arrived near Oostcamp, and the 15th Field Regiment RCA, was able to replenish its stocks and finally join the battle. The l5th Field’s forward observers were able to cross the canal immediately and begin directing a deadly rain of25 pounder shells on the German infantry as well as commence accurate counter-battery fire, which did much to stifle the German guns and mortars. It is likely that many of the German artillery pieces were withdrawn to safer hides once the counter battery fire began to take its toll.

Taking advantage of the easing of the German barrage, the South Alberta Regiment made use of every available tank in Oostkamp (including the Crusader AA Mk3s of the AA Troop) to fire in direct support of the ASHC and L&WR troops across the canal. They were joined by the NBR medium machine guns. The German attack was called off with heavy casualties. At the very moment when a German “Coup de Grace” was expected, the tide had turned, and now it was the Germans who were faced with destruction at the hands of superior Canadian firepower. As soon as signs of the German withdrawal became apparent, Stewart gave orders for A Company, ASHC to cross the Ghent Canal in the remaining punt to bolster C Company: it was now 2100 hrs. Through the night there were limited German efforts to infiltrate the Moerbrugge positions and also to shell Oostcamp, but in real terms the Germans were now well aware that a much larger crossing was imminent and inevitable. The best that the Germans could now hope for was for the bridgehead to be contained temporarily by a delaying action in order to allow German withdrawals behind the next water barrier farther east.

 

AUTHOR: Merlin Robinson

 

To be continued…

More about the author

M.P. Robinson:
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.

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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.