Clearing the Channel Coast

Clearing the Channel Coast
Part of Siegfried Line Campaign

The Channel
DateSeptember–November 1944
LocationFrance and Belgium
Result Allied victory
 United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Canada Harry Crerar Nazi Germany Gustav-Adolf von Zangen

Clearing the Channel Coast was a World War II task undertaken by the First Canadian Army in August 1944, following the Allied Operation Overlord and the break-out and pursuit from Normandy.

The Canadian advance took them from Normandy to the Scheldt in Belgium. En route, they were to capture the Channel ports needed to supply the Allied armies and clear the Germans from the Channel litoral and launch sites for the V-1 missiles. Most of the advance met with little more than sporadic resistance as the German 15th Army, wary of being outflanked and isolated by the rapidly advancing British Second Army, executed an orderly retreat north-eastwards towards the Scheldt.

Resistance did occur in most of the Channel ports, designated on 4 September as "fortresses" by Adolf Hitler. Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais were subjected to full-scale assaults, as a result. A further assault was called off at Dunkirk, freeing resources for the Battle of the Scheldt when the First Canadian Army cleared the mouth of the Scheldt and the opening of the port of Antwerp. Dieppe and Ostend were taken without opposition.


The German armies had strongly resisted the allied break-out from Normandy but, when it did occur, they had insufficient reserves of manpower and equipment to resist and no defence lines had been prepared in France. The Germans were chased out of much of northern France.[1] Fighting in the Falaise pocket ended by 22 August 1944 and the First Canadian Army was freed to move north-eastwards up the coast. The I British Corps had started to advance eastwards from the River Dives along the coast on 16 September, as soon as German resistance faltered. Reconnaissance had been ordered on 19 August and the authorization for a full advance and pursuit by the Canadians was issued on 23 August. It is a measure of the German disintegration that the 1st Polish Armoured Division was in Ypres on 6 September and Canadian units were at Dunkirk on 7 September, just fifteen days after Falaise, despite their losses in the Normandy battles.

There was significant resistance in the Canadian sector. Adolf Hitler had ordered that most of the Channel ports be established as "fortresses" and prepared for extended sieges. Since the Allies needed the port facilities to supply their advance, they could not be sealed off and left in the rear. The Germans had established artillery positions capable of shelling Dover, threatening allied shipping and there were launch sites for the V-1 flying bombs bombarding London.


Allied armies

The composition of the First Canadian Army varied to meet changing demands but in general terms it was composed of the II Canadian Corps and the I British Corps. Within these formations, at various times, were Czech, Polish, French, Dutch and Belgian units. After Normandy, the Polish and Czech formations were augmented by countrymen who had been conscripted into the German Army and changed sides.

The First Canadian Army had fought several battles in Normandy, resulting in depleted commanders and manpower at all levels. This was particularly serious in the infantry rifle companies. The I British Corps (commanded by Lieutenant-General John Crocker), attached to the First Canadian Army, had the 7th Armoured Division and the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division, 51st (Highland) Division and the British 6th Airborne Division. The infantry divisions had not performed satisfactorily in Normandy and had been relegated to defensive positions on the eastern flank of the bridgehead. The 6th Airborne Division had landed in Operation Tonga on D-Day and despite its lack of heavy weapons, remained defending the area. It had suffered many casualties and Major-General Richard Gale, had been ordered to harry the German retreat yet conserve its manpower for the rebuilding that was due. The 6th Airborne Division was reinforced by the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade and the Royal Netherlands Brigade (Prinses Irene), which were to gain "operational experience in quieter sections of the line in the hope that ultimately they would return to their own countries and form nuclei around which larger national forces might be organized".[2]

The I British Corps advanced along the Channel coast, with the II Canadian Corps on the right.


Most German divisions had been destroyed or shattered in the Falaise Pocket but divisions deployed east of the Allied bridgehead were largely intact. German troops within the "fortress cities" were generally second-rate and included some Austrian and other nationalities, that were not trusted enough to carry arms.

Advance to the Seine

The First Canadian Army advance to the Seine was dubbed Operation Paddle. It had been hoped by the Allied commanders that a defeat comparable with the Falaise Pocket could be inflicted on the Germans, by trapping them against the Seine and the sea. To this end, the US Third Army advanced northwards to Elbeuf, across the Second Army line of advance, to cut off the route towards Paris and was a partial success. Although much of its remaining transport and the bulk of its armour was lost west of the Seine, the Germans held up the Canadians, protecting improvised river crossings and significant quantities of men and materiel were saved.[3]

The towns along the River Touques were evacuated by the Germans around24 August and the consequent capture of Lisieux, about 45 km (28 mi) east of Caen, opened an important route eastwards.[4] Next day, the next natural barrier, the River Risle was crossed just north of Brionne by the 11th Hussars, with other units close behind. The 6th Airlanding Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division took Honfleur on the Seine estuary but progress along the coast was slower than inland, rivers being wider and more difficult to cross. The 6th Airborne Division occupied the west bank of the Risle from Pont Audemer downstream to the Seine on 26 August completing its tasks in France; the division returned to Britain on 3 September. Clearance of the last German units west of the Seine was completed on 30 August.[5]

Crossing the Seine

I British Corps put patrols across the Seine on 31 August. The advance to the Seine had outstripped the preparations of the Royal Canadian Engineers for bridging equipment and assault boats but newly assembled assault boats carried the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division across the Seine at Elbeuf on 27 August. Ferries for wheeled and armoured vehicles were in operation in the afternoon.[6]


Main article: Operation Fusilade

Dieppe had been abandoned by the Germans before the order Hitler sent for it to be defended as a "fortress" had been received and it was captured by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division on 1 September, which had last been in the port during the Dieppe Raid in 1942. A ceremonial parade was held on 5 September and despite demolitions, the port was cleared and in use on 7 September, a delivery of oil and petrol being shipped to Brussels on 9 September.[7]

Le Havre

Main article: Operation Astonia

Le Havre was attacked by the I British Corps, supported by Hobart's Funnies, specialized armoured vehicles of the 79th Armoured Division and bombardment from land, sea and air. It was taken on 12 September after 48 hours but the port needed lengthy clearance and repair.


Main article: Operation Wellhit

Boulogne was reached on 5 September but the garrison had received the Hitler "fortress" order. The city was protected by high ground and was attacked by the 3rd Canadian Division with extensive air and artillery support from 17–22 September.

Rocket sites

On 1 September, the last V-1 was launched against London as the Canadians were moving through the launch areas.[8]

Calais and Cap Gris Nez

Main article: Operation Undergo

Calais was sealed off in early September and Wissant was quickly captured, though an early attack on Cap Gris Nez failed. The assault on Calais itself opened on 25 September and the town fell on 30 September. A second attack on the Cap Gris Nez batteries opened on 29 September and the positions secured by the afternoon of the same day. Despite the strong defences and although the city had been declared a Fortress, the garrison needed little persuasion to surrender and their reluctance to fight to the end was repeated at Cap Gris Nez.


Although Dunkirk had been reached by 7 September, it soon became clear that the garrison would fight to hold a port that was largely destroyed. It was then judged to be a better use of men and materiel to clear the Germans from the Scheldt estuary and open the port of Antwerp, which had been captured intact. A brigade sized force was left to isolate Dunkirk, which eventually surrendered on 9 May 1945, after the general German surrender. The investment was conducted by the 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade, in which Belgian Resistance members assisted with information and French Resistance members were converted to regular units.[9]


Ostend had been omitted from Hitler’s list of "fortresses" and so was evacuated, despite its strong defences. The port had been demolished. The 1st Polish Armoured Division crossed the Belgian border and captured Ypres on 6 September, reaching the Ghent-Bruges Canal on 9 September.[10]

The Scheldt

Main article: Battle of the Scheldt

A long and costly operation was required to clear the Germans from both banks of the Scheldt.


Although Dieppe came rapidly into use, it could supply only a quarter of the needs of the 21st Army Group. The capture of Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais and Ostend only eased Allied supply problems after extensive clearance of debris and mines. Ostend was restricted to personnel only but the Boulogne terminal for a Pluto oil pipeline (Dumbo) was of great benefit, becoming the "... main supplies of fuel during the winter and spring campaigns" of the Allies.[11] It has been questioned whether the capture of the defended ports was worthwhile, given the need for much effort to bring them into use and the greater potential benefit of Antwerp.[11] The opening of Antwerp in November 1944 largely solved Allied supply problems.

The capture of the French side of the Dover Straits removed the threat of the heavy artillery which had bombarded Dover for some years and endangered shipping in the Straits and the Royal Navy had emphasised the need to remove them. V-1 launch sites were overrun, reducing the threat to London.

Canadian progress had not met the expectations of the Army Group commanders and its performance has been disputed since. It has been suggested that Crerar's illness in autumn 1944 provided a convenient opportunity to replace him during the Battle of the Scheldt.


  1. Report 183, p.16
  2. Report 183, p.39
  3. Chapter XII, p.320
  4. Report 183, p.52
  5. Report 183, pp.53-55
  6. Report 183, pp.65-67
  7. Report 183, pp.133-135
  8. Chapter XIV, p.355
  9. Hyrman, Jan. "The port of Dunkirk in WWII". Naše Noviny. Retrieved 4 December 2010.
  10. Report 183, p.157
  11. 1 2 Chapter XIV, p.356


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