The Belgian town of Moerbrugge was liberated by the Canadian 1st Army on September 10th 1944, after a vicious two-day long battle. The action was fought by elements of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division to establish a small bridgehead across the Ghent Canal, which was then held precariously for over 30 hours by infantry of the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade, alone and without artillery support. Finally, when artillery ammunition became available, a Bailey bridge was built, and the tanks of the South Alberta Regiment were able to relieve them. The tale of Moerbrugge’s liberation is a brief and bloody one and is quite unusual of the actions fought at the time because it did not benefit from the airpower that the allied armies were habitually able to wield against the Germans so often at the time. When I wrote this piece in 1999-2000; I attempted to analyse the battle impartially and in the context of events taking place at the time, having drawn strictly on Canadian secondary sources covering the period September 1st 1944 to September 12th 1944. Coverage from the German side is lacking in this article, and until both sides are covered in equal measure we will never have the complete picture.
Following the destruction of the German forces in Normandy, and before the beginning of the rapid advance into Belgium that ensued, a feeling of great optimism infected all levels of the 21st Army Group. The 1st Canadian Army was tasked with reducing the Channel Ports and with striking quickly into northern Belgium with the initial objective of reaching the Dutch border as rapidly as possible. On the 4th of September 1944 the 2nd Canadian Corps under General Guy Simonds was given the objective of the southern reaches of the Scheldt river. The next day the British 11th Armoured Division was liberating Antwerp, and Simonds was no doubt confident that his corps too would be capable of a rapid advance into the Low Countries. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division, with the 1st Polish Armoured Division, made up the spearhead of the 2nd Canadian Corps. The first stage of the advance (on September 5th 1944) saw the Polish 1st Armoured Division liberate St Omer, and the Canadian 4th Armoured Division charge forward from St Omer on the northern flank of the Polish advance. That same day the British 7th Armoured Division was entering Ghent (though many in Simonds’ corps thought in terms of Ghent as their own objective!). The advances seen in early September defied belief to many, and the rapidity of the advance caused considerable confusion as well as supply difficulties for the seemingly unstoppable Allied armies. This was the “Great Swan” where an end to the war in 1944 seemed possible as long as the advance could continue, a mere few weeks before the dream ended definitively with the failure of Operation Market Garden.
On September 5th, following their departure from St Omer, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division split into 2 balanced brigade-based battle Groups. These were based on the existing infantry and armoured brigade structures within the division but in order to evenly divide the armoured and infantry components there was some exchanging of units. The organization of the two battle groups found itself as follows: the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade Group, known as Moncelforce (commanded by Brigadier Moncel, the commander of the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade) was composed of the Governor General’s Footguards, and the British Columbia Regiment as the armoured element and the Lake Superior Regiment, and Algonquin Regiment as the infantry element. The 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group was commanded between the 5th and 9th of September 1944 by Lieutenant-Colonel David Stewart and afterwards by Brigadier Jefferson, who had previously taken ill and had been unable to command thebrigade. It was composed of the following major units: the Canadian Grenadier Guards (CGG), and the South Alberta Regiment (SAR), the divisional armoured reconnaissance regiment; with the Lincoln and Welland Regiment (L&WR) and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (ASHC) providing the infantry. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division’s support units; artillery, signals, logistics and engineers, were divided amongst the 2 battle groups. In the case of the battlegroup artillery, the 15th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, was a towed 25-pounder regiment. Each brigade battle group thus deployed 2 armoured regiments and 2 infantry battalions for the advance.
Because of Jefferson’s illness and absence of other officers on higher commands, the 2 infantry units in the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group were commanded by their second-in-commands. Lieutenant Colonel Stewart himself was normally in command of the ASHC, and only resumed command of that regiment on the 9th of September. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division Headquarters had tasked Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart and Brigadier Moncel with reaching the area between Eecloo and the Dutch border with all possible speed. The 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade battlegroup was known as Stewartforce. The Polish 1st Armoured Division and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division’s 10th Infantry Brigade Group reached the line of the Ghent canal at approximately the same time (September 8th 1944). It is worthy of note that both attempted a crossing, the Poles at Aeltre, the Canadians at Oostkamp. This story deals with the battle that ensued at Moerbrugge when Stewartforce forced their way across. The Polish crossing failed despite 2 days of tough fighting because the resistance from the Germans was simply too strong. The Canadians took a bridgehead, held it against daunting odds, and expanded it in subsequent battles. This, then, is their story.
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.