Operation North Sea: the Port of Antwerp is liberated

Theme Park Seafront in Zeebrugge, a centre devoted to fishing, maritime navigation and the sea, is currently hosting a brilliant exhibition on one of the most crucial episodes of the Second World War. In Operation North Sea we learn how Allied forces recaptured German positions on the approach to the port of Antwerp. The operation was vital to ensure the Allies could bring in men and equipment and march on Berlin, the final chapter in the war in Europe.

Everybody is familiar with the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, when Allied forces started to reconquer continental Europe and chase the Germans out of France and the Low Countries. Allied generals were initially surprised by the speed at which German forces pulled back, but this created a new problem: supplying Allied forces from the Normandy beaches wasn't very effective. Ports and shorter supply lines were needed.

The Allies first dislodged the Germans from France, but by the beginning of September it was the turn of the Belgian coast. Antwerp had fallen on 4 September, but the port remained unusable because the maritime approaches to Antwerp and both banks of the River Scheldt or Schelde remained firmly in German hands.

The small Belgian port of Nieuwpoort was liberated by the Allies on 6 September and fell to the Canadian Manitoba dragoons. Ostend followed on 9 September. The Germans had only managed by destroy part of this larger port before they left, but still Ostend was too small to support a major Allied advance through Germany. Though Ostend played an important role - between its liberation and June 1945 2,700 vessels docked here bringing in 800,000 men and 45,000 vehicles - the prize was the port of Antwerp. For the time being though the Germans continued to control the River Schelde.

Along the coast brisk progress was made with Allied forces receiving the support of the Belgian resistance. The resistance's local knowledge and knowledge of German defences helped the advance, but Zeebrugge and Knokke remained in a German pocket as did Zeeland Flanders and the island of Walcheren that controlled the access to the River Schelde and the Port of Antwerp.

Now valuable time was lost as the US commander, General Eisenhower, and the British Field Marshall Montgomery quibbled about the best strategy to advance the war aims. Eisenhower favoured opening up a broad front for forces moving in to conquer Berlin. This approach was far less vulnerable to German counterattacks, but Field Marshall Montgomery preferred a quick push towards the German capital over a limited front. Political expediency meant that Montgomery got his way. There was the famous raid on the Rhine bridges at Arnhem in the Netherlands. This risky operation, Operation Market Garden, ended in failure.

The focus now fell on liberating the approaches to the port of Antwerp. All through October the Allies attempted to liberate the southern banks of the River Schelde but progress was slow. Operation Vitality was launched on 24 October. Its aim was to trap German troops on the Dutch island of Walcheren. The first leg of Operation Infatuate followed on 1 November. British forces crossed the Schelde from the Dutch town of Breskens to liberate Flushing and its port. British, French, Dutch and Polish forces land on the banks of the western Schelde. During the second leg of Infatuate Walcheren is liberated. First the island is flooded and then 200 ships advance from Ostend.

Belgian commandos, one of the units of the Royal Navy, take part in this successful operation. With the two banks of the River Schelde once again in Allied hands the massive operation to clean up this waterway can start: Operation Calendar runs from 2 November till 28 November when navigation on the Schelde can once again resume. 200 minesweepers, including eight Belgian vessels, are involved in this operation to clear 300 mines and allow supply ships to gain access to the port of Antwerp via the Schelde. The restoration of navigation on the Schelde formed a crucial chapter in the final episode of the Second World War and allowed the Allies to launch their push on Berlin, guaranteed that they could readily count on men and supplies: ammunition, food for the troops, fuel and equipment could all now flow into Europe.

The operations that led to the reopening of the River Schelde are vividly brought to life at Zeebrugge with camera footage taken at the time. Pictures made by a Norwegian filmmaker, who joined the commandos liberating Walcheren, are particularly vivid. Operation North Sea shows us the clothes and uniforms worn by soldiers on both sides as well as their equipment. Don't forget to feel the weight of a rucksack used in training of Belgian commandos in Scotland.

The exhibition includes flags and other wartime memorabilia, the wheel off a Heinkel 177 Greif aircraft, the propeller off a Focke Wulf 190 A plane and the plans of HMS Roberts, one of three big warships deployed to open fire on Walcheren. The exhibition's pride must be a Pom Pom gun. It's a massive Vickers' aircraft defence gun that was used on Royal Navy ships. The one at the exhibition is the only one to survive in the continent of Europe. It was called a Chicago Piano because the gun barrels move like a piano playing Boogie Woogie. This exhibit even gave inspiration to George Lucas for a gun in Star Wars.

Operation North Sea runs at Seafront in Zeebrugge Tuesday through Sunday from 10AM to 5PM until 3 January 2021.

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