ARTICLE: The Battle of Moerbrugge – September 10th and 11th: The Canadian Triumph and the Anti-Climax:

 
 
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indexSeptember 10th and 11th: The Canadian Triumph and the Anti-Climax:

 The Bailey bridge was completed by the 8th Field Squadron, RCE, by 0600hrs on the 10th of September. A Squadron SAR crossed an hour later. (14). This was naturally a huge relief to those infantrymen who had been in combat without relief for over 30 hours, and 150 Germans were taken prisoner. Supported by A Company, ASHC, A Squadron SAR charged up the Kerkstraat to the Legeweg intersection, where A Company dug in for the next 24 hours. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada were now too depleted for further offensive action, and plans now called for the Lincoln and Welland Regiment to support the South Alberta Regiment’s expansion of the bridgehead. While the SAR’s A Squadron and the L&WR were to take the offensive towards Lekkerhoek, B Squadron crossed into

Moerbrugge, in order to consolidate the ASHC’s positions in the town. C Squadron initially remained in reserve in Oostcamp. At the time of A Squadron’s deployment into Moerbrugge, it was under strength with only 3 troops available. B Squadron and C Squadron were, as events show, to take a far livelier role in the battles of the next 36 hours than the plans made on the morning of September l0th envisioned. Almost as soon as A Squadron began to form up for the advance towards Lekkerhoek, B Squadron began patrolling northwards  towards Bruges. The Germans were waiting and a Sherman was knocked out no sooner than the tanks were a mile outside of Moerbrugge. By the end of the day 3 other Shermans from B Squadron would lay abandoned, burnt out and smoking along the canal bank north of Moerbrugge, all victims of the German Panzerfaust teams and antitank gunners.

A Squadron’s plans rapidly went awry despite the resolution of the tank crews and the bravery of the L&WR infantrymen. In the middle of the morning the 3 troops of the SAR’s A Squadron and their infantry escort were heavily shelled by the Germans as they assembled inside Moerbrugge for the advance on Lekkerhoek. Since it is apparent that the German 6th Division had no armor attached, German tactics were to use the weaponry at hand to separate the Canadian tanks from their attendant infantry. Thus for the remainder of the battle, the Germans used every means possible (machine guns, 20mm Flak, mortars, and artillery) to shoot up the infantry, leaving the tanks open to panzerfaust attacks from the German infantry. The Germans also employed a number of 7.5cm PAK guns against the Canadian armour, weapons that were easily concealed in the hedgerows and behind the dykes that bordered the roads and fields. In the main, the Shermans were forced to remain on the roads due to the boggy soil in the fields, especially on the 10th of September.(15).

A Squadron, with 10 Shermans, shook itself free of Moerbrugge with an L&WR escort following the nasty barrage provided by the Germans. They lost 2 Shermans almost immediately on the Lekkerhoek road, both to Panzerfaust teams. A third tank was forced to leave the advance, its commander slumped dead in the turret to a sniper’s bullet. Since A4 Troop had entered Moerbrugge that morning with only 2 operational tanks, it was now reduced to 1, which, going up on a mine almost immediately afterwards, left the troop unable to further participate in the battle. A Squadron had been advancing towards Lekkerhoek for a mere half-hour and had been reduced to 6 operational tanks. A few hundred meters further up the road, yet another A Squadron Sherman was hit, the first panzerfaust forcing the evacuation of the tank, the second hit blowing the turret off. With 4 or 5 Shermans left, A Squadron and the L&WR escort concentrated behind some farm buildings, and drove off a German infantry counterattack with heavy small arms fire and thirty minutes of HE fire from the tanks. Having dealt with the counterattack, the 4 surviving A Squadron tanks escorted the L&WR into Lekkerhoek, remaining there with them until they were soundly dug in, and withdrew that evening to Veldkappel to leaguer.

The Canadian Grenadier Guards (CGG) entered the fray on the l0th of September as well, though their advance was directed to the south-east. At 1500hrs, the CGG deployed into Oostcamp, No 3 Squadron crossing the new bailey bridge into Moerbrugge. No 1 Troop (No. 3 Squadron) cleared the southern arm of the Legeweg to the Veldhoek fork, about 4km south-east of Moerbrugge. Initially, No.2 Troop stayed on the west (Oostcamp) side of the canal moving in rough parallel with No. l Troop and firing HE in support of their advance down the Legeweg. They went as far as the ferry crossing on the Oostkamp side. At 1900hrs they followed the rest of No 3 Squadron across into Moerbrugge. As night fell and the SAR’s C Squadron deployed into Moerbrugge, the CGG’s No 1Squadron moved to protect Oostcamp’s northern approaches in their stead. At the day’s end the CGG RHQ installed itself on the western bank of the canal, a little to the south of Oostcamp. (16)

The SAR’s A Squadron was joined at last light by the relatively intact C Squadron, who were to continue the advance with the Lincoln and Welland Regiment at dawn. It is possible that the A Squadron tank that left the advance just outside of Moerbrugge in the earlier part of the day rejoined A Squadron at this time. The total strength of the 2 combined Squadrons could not have been higher than 21 Shermans and certainly may have been lower. The SAR’s C Squadron departed from Veldkappel at first light, stopped in Lekkerhoek to collect the infantry and resumed the advance. A halftrack ambulance was attached to the Squadron,  to retrieve casualties that were by now expected.

Personnel of The Canadian Grenadier Guards stacking 75mm shells near the regiment’s positioned Sherman tanks

Advancing towards Oedelem, and mindful of the losses inflicted on the road-bound A Squadron the previous day, C Squadron took to the fields alongside the road (this was also due to the fear that the Germans had mined the roads during the night). This was not the answer to the German panzerjaeger tactics used to such good effect the previous day, however. The boggy fields restricted the advance (especially that of the infantry) to a snail’s pace and the hedgerows that bordered the fields provided plenty of close range cover to the German infantrymen. C2 Troop was in the lead, commanded by Lt Jack Roberts. The lead C2 Troop Sherman was hit in the turret by an armour piercing round and the crew bailed out. As the troop’s 3 surviving Sherman tanks carried on towards Oedelem, Roberts’ own Sherman was knocked out by a Panzerfaust as it crossed a hedgerow (Lt Roberts being amongst those killed). The rest of the troop was knocked out shortly thereafter, and the Germans opened up a merciless 20mm Flak barrage against the L&WR troops.

Following the annihilation of Roberts’ C2 Troop, the survivors of A Squadron (5 tanks) assumed the lead, but because they were operating with turret hatches open, they took casualties amongst crew commanders to such an extent that they were unable to maintain the lead in the advance for long. Were it to ensure a rapid escape from a burning tank, to better observe the ground ahead or to better communicate with the escorting infantry, the losses incurred by crews fighting unbuttoned were significant during this battle. Another C Squadron troop moved into the lead position and quickly lost a brand new Sherman Firefly (the SAR had only received their first Fireflies a week previously and they were highly valued after Normandy as being the only tanks in the Allied armoury to be able to take on the heavier German types). The Firefly was knocked out east of Lekkerhoek at a crossroads by a German anti-tank gun. No sooner did the crew successfully bail out than they were machine-gunned deliberately by the Germans with two fatalities. The commander managed to reach his Squadron commander and divulge the location of the Pak gun, but was cut in half by an AP round no sooner than he had done so. The same round destroyed the C Squadron half-track ambulance.

The Canadian Grenadier Guards had also had an eventful (though luckily not as tragic) day. At 0900hrs, No 3 Squadron (for the Canadian Grenadier Guards followed British armoured guards in the designation of their Squadrons by numbers, not by the letters employed in other armoured regiments), led by the Reconnaissance Troop (or Recce Troop) in their Stuarts and the Lincoln and Welland Regiment’s Scout Platoon, set out from Moerbrugge towards Veldhoek. They arrived an hour later. No 3 Squadron then turned north-east, splitting off part of its force to continue probing southeastwards towards the ferry point. No 3 Squadron made use of “preventive” artillery fire for much of the day, attempting to neutralize areas into which they advanced, most likely as a result of seeing the casualties suffered further north by the South Alberta Regiment the previous day. Despite liberal calls made on the artillery, the Canadian Grenadier Guards took losses in men and machines. The 2 leading Stuarts of the Recce Troop were knocked out as they scouted ahead of No. 3 Squadron, as they neared the Doorn crossroads. The remainder of No.3 Squadron reached the Doorn junction at 1700hrs, where they met up with B Company, of the Lake Superior Regiment. By that time No 3 Squadron had lost 4 tanks of their own and had 3 tanks severely damaged. While No 3 Squadron was advancing alone, the remainder of the CGG crossed the Ghent Canal at Moerbrugge, passed down the Kerkstraat to the Legeweg, and followed it down to a point  1 km north-west of Veldhoek. Here they turned left in order to clear No 3 Squadron’s line of advance. Enemy tank hunting parties were all around, so No. 1 Squadron and a platoon of the Lake Superior Regiment swept to the left of the CGG’s position, killing a number of Germans and taking 150 prisoners. No 2 Squadron sent a patrol southwest of Veldhoek to support No.1 Troop (of No. 3 Squadron), which was on a sweep towards the ferry point on the east bank of the Ghent Canal. No 2 Squadron was so short of infantry support that it scraped together 24 volunteers from its own non-combatant personnel (batmen, cooks, and fitters) in order to make a temporary infantry platoon. They took 2 German mortar batteries and 30 prisoners within a matter of hours.

By 0600 hrs on the 12th it was obvious that the Germans had quit Doorn. Moncel’s brigade began to converge on Oostcamp in preparation for the push towards Eecloo, and the British Columbia Regiment and Governor General’s Foot Guards moved up to relieve the CGG and SAR on the 12th.

The battle of Moerbrugge was over in the south as it was in the north. (17).

At this point, with 15 tanks and 2 half-tracks lost in 2 days fighting, with high losses in tank commanders and crews, and with precious little infantry left to support them, the SAR could advance no further. The Germans too were tired and withdrew northeastwards. They retired in an orderly manner, and would continue to frustrate Canadian designs to reach the Scheldt for long enough to allow the Germans to regroup and defend the Scheldt with a vigor that would frustrate Canadians for over a month yet to come.

The tally in German losses was certainly significant, with over 700 dead, wounded and captured. If Moerbrugge was a fine and well-earned Canadian tactical victory, certainly it was also  a successful effort on the German Army’s part to delay the Allies on the Ghent Canal line. The Germans proved themselves skillful and dangerous opponents at all times during the actions described.

German losses was certainly significant, with over 700 dead, wounded and captured.

The conclusions to be drawn from the analysis of the events at Oostcamp and Moerbrugge between the 8th and 11th of September 1944 are gilded with hindsight. While these battles were of small consequence in the larger scheme of the events of September 1944, they were typical of the small actions which collectively composed the liberation of Belgium, and the author begs the tolerance of the reader in making a few points of consequence. The initial crossing was a close-run thing because the 2nd Canadian Corps and 4th Canadian Armoured divisional HQs played their hands with over-confidence. They expected weak German opposition and suspected that the Wehrmacht was on the verge of total collapse. The staff officers and commanders at 2nd Canadian Corps Headquarters were hardly the last to hope for a quick advance into the Netherlands. A mere 8 days after the Moerbrugge battle ended the greatest airborne operation of all time (Market Garden) tried and failed to jump start the stalled advance that had started at Falaise and had for some delirious weeks seemed to sweep all before it. This optimism existed at all levels ofthe 21″ Army Group, and at the time the evidence at hand seemed to support this attitude; and this author makes no moral judgement. Whatever the case, Stewart’s force was not equipped or organized to deal with a strongly opposed crossing as the supply situation in the 4th Canadian Armoured Division stood on the 8th of September 1944. As the description of the battle given above shows, the real crossing was won by the return of the Royal Canadian Artillery to the field on the evening of September 9tth 1944.

The period in which the two infantry regiments of Stewartforce held against overwhelming odds showcased the toughness of both regiments (the ASHC and the L&WR) and the spirit of commitment to infantry support that was so very much a part of the SAR’s regimental identity. This small force was too badly weakened in the first 3 days of the battle to permit any decisive exploitation on the11th of September, and without reinforcements they were forced to break off their pursuit. Moerbrugge was an all-Canadian affair, entered into almost impulsively, at the end of a long supply line. It is all but forgotten today. The author hopes that this brief synopsis of the events of that battle will generate interest in the battle and appreciation for the sacrifices made by those brave men, especially by those who gave all. (18).

 

Endnotes:

1. P.326 Stacey, C.P. The Victory Campaign. The Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa.

1960.

2. P.266 Fraser, R.L. Black Yesterdays: The Argyll’s War. Argyll Regimental Foundation, Hamilton,

Ontario, 1996.

3. P.267 ibid.

4. ibid.

5. See p.164, p.170 Rogers, H.L. The History of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment. Published by the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, St. Catherines, Ontario, 1954. Also see p. 292. Duguid, A.F. “History of the Canadian Grenadier Guards: 1760-1964″. Gazette Printing, Montreal, 1965.

6. P.193 Graves, D. South Albertas: A Canadian Regiment at War. Robin Brass Studio, Toronto, 1998.

7. See p.171 Rogers

8. See p.267 Fraser

9. See p.267 Fraser and p.194 Graves; for the CGG position at the time of the initial crossing see Duguid

p.292.

10. See p.267 Fraser.

11. P.268 ibid.

12 ibid, and also see p.292 Duguid.

13. See p.275 Fraser and p.327 Stacey.

14. See p.196·201  Graves. The following is basically a resume of his description of events on the 10th-11th of September 1944 from the perspective of the South Alberta Regiment.

15. Major Robert Patterson’s postwar account, The History of the Tenth Canadian Infantrv Brigade,

16. See p.293, Duguid.

17. p.294 ibid.

18. See p.69-70, p.72 and p.80 Copp, T. &Vogel. R. Maple Leaf Route Antwerp. Alma Publishing,

Ontario. 1984. Those interested in the activities of the 4’h Canadian Armoured Brigade group (Moncelforce) during the Moerbrugge battle may find the following infonnation useful: after leaving St Omer, Moncelforce met stiff resistance outside of Dunkirk, at Bergues. They bypassed Bergues and entered Belgium at the same time as Stewartforce but on a slightly more northerly axis. They reached the Ghent canal at approximately the same time, but invested Bruges in hopes of passing through the Moerbrugge bridgehead with all speed. The delay that resulted meant that this did not come to pass, and Bruges was entered directly following a German withdrawal on September 12th 1944, by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the 12th Manitoba Dragoons (the corps armoured car regiment). The 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade funneled through the Moerbrugge bridgehead on September 12th with Eecloo as its’ primary objective. The 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade returned to its normal war establishment and order of battle, the  CGG returned to Moncel’s formation and the SAR, the L&WR and ASHC were reinforced with replacement drafts and equipment before they too continued eastwards.

The author would like to thank Tomasz Basarabowicz for his encouragement to revisit this article.

AUTHOR: Merlin Robinson

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.