BLACK FRIDAY: NOT IN VAIN
Irene van Kemenade
The Battle of the Schelde was a large military operation in northern Belgium and south-west Netherlands. The operation was started by the Canadian 1st Army Division (including Polish and British units) on 1 October 1944 and continued until 8 November of that year. The most important aim was to liberate the River Schelde so that the allied supply ships could access Antwerp harbour. The harbour itself fell into allied hands on 4 September and was virtually undamaged. But it was unusable for as long as the Germans had control of the Schelde. When on the initiative of the British Field Marshall Montgomery, attention was shifted to Operation Market Garden, it gave Hitler’s generals time to fortify the Zeeland islands and the banks of the Schelde estuary.
After the failure of Market Garden at the end of September, the liberation of the south-west Netherlands took on the highest priority. Access routes to Zeeland and the mouth of the Schelde were of crucial importance, both for the Germans and the Allies. The Brabant village of Woensdrecht formed the entrance to Zeeland and suffered badly during Operation Black Angus.
The Black Watch of Canada, with soldier John Dubetz among its ranks was commissioned on 13 October 1944 to capture the dike along the railway track from Bergen op Zoom to Vlissingen. John took charge of the battle scene but could not come up with a strategy. The open field that his battalion would have to cross was strewn with mines and booby traps. He could see the German troops waiting on the other side of the field. They had entrenched themselves alongside the railway line and in the woods higher up near Lindonk. The inaccessibility of the open terrain and the route beside the dike meant the Canadians were easy prey, and the attack ended in a great drama. Dubetz, who was in the first ranks was soon shot in the arm. “I said to myself, get away from here, John. I stood up, my injured arm weighed a ton. I staggered back”. Encouraged by the soldiers in his regiment (“Come on! Get away there”) John survived the rain of bullets. He was one of 38 wounded. At the end of a day in which no ground was gained, allied casualties amounted to 58. Just one person was wounded on the German side. This day is known in Canadian history as Black Friday. The battle reduced Woensdrecht to rubble. No house remained intact. The village was finally liberated on 23 October 1944.
After five weeks of difficult struggles, exhausting battles and numerous victims, the Battle of the Schelde was won by the Canadian 1st Army Division. After clearing more than 250 mines, Antwerp harbour was finally opened for allied shipping three weeks later. Although the Battle of the Schelde is not particularly well known, it was essential for supplying the allied forces so that the battle in Western Europe could continue and a contribution could be made towards the final victory over Nazi Germany. The many sacrifices that the Black Watch of Canada made, among others, were not in vain.
Soldiers walk through the Antwerpsestraatweg in Hoogerheide – it rains for three weeks continuously.