HC Deb 15 November 1944 vol 404 cc1942-6
27. Sir Ralph Glyn

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty, in view of the public interest in the result of the attack an Walcheren Island by British Marines and the reports of losses sustained in carrying this operation to a most successful conclusion, he will take the earliest opportunity of informing the House of the facts.

Mr. Alexander

With your permission Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on this subject at the end of Questions.


Mr. Alexander

The operations to clear the Scheldt undertaken by the Canadian Army were planned to culminate in an attack on Walcheren Island, the most heavily defended area of the approaches to Antwerp. The attacks were to be made simultaneously across the South Beveland causeway across the Scheldt from Breskens to Flushing and a landing at Westkapelle mounted from Ostend. By breaching the dyke in three places heavy bombers of the R.A.F. previously flooded a large area of the island thus preventing the mutual support of sections of the garrison and enabling our assault troops to make full use of amphibious vehicles. The assault at Flushing was to be made by one Commando landing from L.C. (Assault) and that at Westkapelle by three Commandos with supporting engineer troops, largely mounted in amphibious vehicles carried in L.C. (Tank).

In view of the vital need to clear the Scheldt as early as possible, General Simmonds commanding 1st Canadian Army decided to put in the Breskens- Flushing attack on the 1st November, by which time our troops would be on South Beveland causeway, whether or not the Westkapelle attack, which would be very dependent on weather, could go in. Weather prospects for the latter were unfavourable for air support on 31st October, but sea conditions were not too bad. In view of the unreliability of meteorological forecasts at this time of year and of the great advantages to be gained from assaulting from three directions simultaneously, Admiral Ramsay and General Simmonds decided to sail the Westkapelle Force from Ostend and to leave the final decision whether to assault or not to the two Force Commanders, Captain A. F. Pugsley, Royal Navy, and Brigadier B. W. Leicester, Royal Marines. Conditions next morning were generally more favourable than expected, but all aircraft were reported grounded owing to fog. With full knowledge that the assault troops would, initially, lack close air support, and that the bombardment squadron composed of His Majesty's Ships "Warspite," "Erebus" and "Roberts" would have no air spotting, they decided to go on with the attack in view of the paramount advantages to be gained by simultaneous assaults.

The Commando was landed as planned at Flushing before day light without casualties and was soon established on the water front. Some 3½ hours later in daylight, the time of assault being dependent on tidal conditions, the West-kapelle Force approached the coast and when close inshore was heavily engaged by the coast defences, all known batterie[...] going into action against them. The gun support squadron composed of converted landing craft of various types manned by bluejackets and marines, under command of Commander K. A. Sellar, Royal Navy, stood close inshore and engaged these batteries at point blank range whilst tank landing craft carrying the Royal Marine Commandos beached in succession and discharged their vehicles. This process was slow as they could only beach two at a time in the gap in the Dyke previously breached by the R.A.F. By their determination and gallantry the landing craft support squadron drew most of the enemy's fire and the Marine Commandos were landed successfully without heavy casualties. Once ashore, however, Commandos came up against tough opposition at nearly all the enemy batteries and strong posts, which they cleared in succession with utmost resolution. As the weather improved during the forenoon close air support was afforded by the R.A.F. in increasing degree and air spotting became available to the bombarding squadron during the afternoon.

The gallantry and determination of landing craft crews, and of the Royal Marine Commandos, was equalled by that of the Naval beach party which bad to work under gun and mortar fire throughout D-Day, and for a large proportion of D-plus one, during which enemy fire could still be brought to bear on the gap in the Dyke. Difficulties were experienced in landing stores for the force, because of this, and later the weather worsened and prevented supply by sea. Stores were dropped by air on D-plus four, and these and rations captured from the enemy enabled the Commandos to complete the clearance of the western half of the island. A British infantry brigade was landed to reinforce the Commando put ashore at Flushing and had heavy fighting before the town was finally cleared. Craft engaged in ferrying this brigade from Breskens to Flushing frequently came under heavy fire and crews showed a determination no less praiseworthy than that of the Westkapelle Force.

The great success of these operations, which had, perforce, to be undertaken under difficult and somewhat unfavourable conditions, against a desperate enemy, was not achieved without relatively heavy casualties to craft and personnel. Of the total of 25 support craft engaged, nine were sunk and eight damaged, and of their crews 172 officers and men were killed and 200 wounded. Of 47 other major landing craft engaged, four were sunk and others damaged. The casualties in these craft and in the attack on Flushing were 21 officers and men killed and missing, 81 Mounded. The Royal Marine Commandos suffered 37 officers and men killed, 77 missing, 201 wounded.

Sir R. Glyn

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his statement, may I ask him whether he does not appreciate that the more responsible Ministers inform the House of very gallant actions of this kind, instead of leaving it entirely to the Press, the better will be the appreciation of this House?

Mr. Alexander

The Minister of Defence informs the House from time to time of the general operational position. With regard to information, in the case of these operations it is arranged, in order that there may be the earliest and best publicity, that the Commanders-in-Chief of the Forces concerned issue their communiqués on the spot, and keep contact with the numerous Press correspondents who are with the Forces.

Sir R. Glyn

Was it not always the custom for Ministers responsible to inform this House of these operations?

Mr. Bellenger

Was the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has just read a despatch hum the commander of the naval operations? Can we have other despatches of a similar nature, referring to other gallant actions carried out by our Forces?

Mr. Alexander

I think that point hardly arises from the Question that was put to me.

Mr. Bellenger

Is it a despatch?

Mr. Alexander

The hon. Member can be quite sure that the House would never be given a statement of this kind which was not based, practically entirely, on information received from the Commander-in-Chief.

Mr. W. J. Brown

In view of the earlier and painful experience of the casualties which resulted from the assault on Dieppe being made without close aircraft support, is the Minister satisfied that this, operation was well conceived in point of time? Further, is he aware that there is considerable feeling in the country about the size of the casualties?

Hon. Members


Mr. Alexander

I can only say that I have received no complaint and that, in view of the tactical and strategical considerations which I mentioned at the opening of the statement, and the great success achieved towards clearing this very important port, I am quite satisfied that the officers commanding took the right step.

Admiral Sir William James

Is it not a fact that at the Dieppe operations there was the finest scale of air support ever given, and that that was not the cause of the set-back?

Mr. Alexander indicated assent.