Operations - Westkapelle - 3rd October 1944
Walcheren with the flooding clearly visible and the breach in the sea wall bottom right - IWM
One of the more interesting operations undertaken by 576 Squadron was the daylight attack on the sea wall at Westkapelle, Walcheren on the 3 October 1944
Leading elements of the British 11th Armoured Division entered the Belgian port of Antwerp on the 4th September 1944 after a frantic 250 miles advance through Northern France and Belgium. The important Antwerp docks were captured virtually intact and this port was crucial in the plan to resupply the Allied Armies for the coming advance further into German held territory. The Germans were, however, still holding on to the South and North of the Scheldt estuary including Dutch island Walcharen.
The German defences on the island were formidable and amongst the strongest on the European coast. They included 18 major gun batteries, mostly of 105mm and 150mm weapons, but also some 220mm guns. These were supplemented by 88mm, 50mm and 47mm anti tank guns and numerous minefields skilfully laid along the coast, beaches and inland by the German engineers. The German garrison numbered 10,000 and was well equipped. Anti aircraft defences were highly organised with 5 radar stations and numerous heavy and medium flak weapons. Finally 85 small German warships, including 15 E Boats and 10 R Boats, were based at the main island port of Flushing.
The capture of the island was likely to prove a difficult and costly undertaking but the Allies needed to open up Antwerp quickly. Field-Marshall Montgomery demanded that an all-out effort be made to dislodge all German troops in the around the Scheldt estuary including Walcheren.
Much of Walcheren was below sea level having been reclaimed from the sea by the industrious Dutch over many hundreds of years. The opening phase of the Allied plan was to breach the islands sea walls in various places and flood many of the German defences along the coast and inland prior to landings by troops. The first site chosen to be attacked was at Westkapelle where the sea wall was 200 feet wide.
RAF Bomber Command was given this task but it was appreciated how difficult this was because the wall was constructed of sand. The plan was to bomb in 2 phases the first aircraft dropping 1000lb and 4000lb HE bombs with 617 Squadron in the second phase to drop 12,000lb Tallboy bombs if the first was unsuccessful.
This unusual plan was also controversial and would have long term effects for the local Dutch people. The breach in the sea walls and consequent inundation of salt water would ruin much of the island’s excellent farm land which had taken hundreds of years to reclaim and also put the lives of the local inhabitants at considerable risk. It appears now that the Dutch government in exile was not given full details of the extent of the plan although they were informed and gave permission for a raid on Westkapelle. Leaflets were dropped on the island on the 2nd October 44 warning the local people that an attack was imminent and they should take shelter.
The operation took place on the 3rd October and Bomber Command detailed 252 aircraft for this task led by 7 Oboe equipped Mosquitos and a number of Pathfinder Lancasters. The main attack was to be in 8 waves of approximately 30 aircraft each. 617 Squadron made up the final wave and were only to attack if the main force failed to make a breach in the sea wall.
At Elsham Wolds 103 Squadron and 576 Squadron each provided 13 aircraft and crews for the operation. The bomb load of each Lancaster comprised of 1 x 4,000lb HC bomb, 8 x 1000lb GP bombs and 1 x 500lb GP bomb.
The 576 Sqn crews detailed for the attack were as follows :-
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - ED888 - F/O JB Bell
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - LM122 - F/O HL Hing
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - ME735 - F/O WA Stewart
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - NF975 - F/O KA Moore
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - LM651 - F/O DC Smith RAAF
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - LM594 - F/O CF Phripp RCAF
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - LM294 - F/O KF Mills RAAF
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - ME671 - F/O WH Hepburn
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - JB410 - F/O RA Boggiano
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - PD635 - F/O RM Crowther
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - NF976 - F/O GH Hardman RAAF
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - PD312 - F/O HR McClelland RAAF
03/10/1944 - Westkapelle - PD271 - F/O GC Clewley
Above F/O Phripp and crew
Cloud at base was 10/10. The first crew to take off was that of S/L F V P Van Rolleghem of 103 Squadron at 1250.
Cloud in the target area was 6/10. The Pathfinders dropped red Target Indicators with great accuracy and on arrival the sea wall was clearly identified by the approaching bombers. The Master Bomber ordered the aircraft to approach from the South where the cloud cover was least to obtain a clear run in to the target. Bombing took place at about 1415 from around 5000ft. The bombers were able to attack with good results and a breach in the sea wall was made. Later bombers were instructed to bomb the breach which was widened further. The 617 Sq aircraft with their massive 12,000lb bombs were not required to attack and recalled to base.
Both 103 and 576 Squadron Operational Record Books state that there was scattered heavy flak but this did not interfere with the bombing. No fighter opposition was encountered. All 103 Squadron and 576 Squadron aircraft returned to base with F/O R G Farris first to down at 1540.
During the day Bomber Command also flew 6 Radio Counter Measures sorties and 5 Resistance operations.
No aircraft were lost during the days operations.
The attack blew a 35 yard gap in the wall which was widened by the in rushing sea to at least 75 yards by 1500.
Reconnaissance showed the flooding spread inland towards the centre of Walcheren and at high tide an area of 16 square miles was underwater. Sadly, in spite of the warnings, 125 islanders were killed at Westkappelle and 47 at Theune.
The success of the operation led to further attacks on the sea wall east and west of Flushing on the 7th October and also North of Veere on the 11th October. Neither 103 Squadron or 576 Squadron took part in these raids but both Squadrons were involved in an attack on German gun positions at Fort Frederick Hendrik on the South bank of the Scheldt estuary on the 11th and 12th October and also gun positions at Domburg on Walcheren on the 29th October.
On the ground the 2nd Canadian Corps fought a fierce battle to cross the Leopold canal and capture the Breskens pocket on the South bank of the Scheldt estuary by mid October and Canadian and British units of the 1st Army sealed off the South Breveland peninsula. By the end of the month the isthmus had been taken by the 2nd Canadian and 52nd (Lowland) Divisions.
On the 1st November British marine commandos landed at Westkappelle and Flushing with support from naval units and artillery but the British based bomber squadrons were unable to take part because of bad weather in England. The landings at Flushing went very well but those at Westkappelle were fiercely opposed by the defenders safe in their reinforced concrete bunkers. After 8 days of hard fighting the last Germans surrendered and the island was finally liberated on the 8th November 1944.
Minesweeping operations to clear the Scheldt estuary were quickly in hand and by the 28th November the first convoy docked at Antwerp and unloaded much needed supplies for the Allied armies. The reopening of Antwerp to shipping was vital, considerably reducing the length of supply lines and greatly aiding further Allied advances into Europe.
Written by David Fell. Much of the information for this item came from an article by John Reed in After the Battle magazine edition 36. Phripp Photo from David Briggs. Top photo IWM