Exhibition Operation North Sea 1944 - '45

Historical context

It is almost 75 years since Belgium was liberated by the Allied armies of Great Britain, Canada, the United States and Poland. On 6 June 1994 (D-Day), the allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy. By mid-September most of Belgium had been liberated.

  • However, during the autumn of 1944 there was another major battle near the mouth of the Scheldt.
  • The aim was to gain access to the Port of Antwerp to safeguard supplies for the Allied forces as they advanced on Berlin. The raid started from Ostend and also Belgian troops took part. The Battle of the Scheldt - the second and final landing operation that managed to break through the Atlantic Wall – is very much underexposed in the overall war story. And this is what this exhibition intends to change.

At Seafront in Zeebrugge, the Exhibition Operation North Sea 1944-’45 puts the Battle of the Scheldt in the spotlight.

Timeline

The story is told in four stages.

Eerste D-Day

First D-Day

For four long years, Western Europe was an impregnable German fortress. But in June 1944, the allied armies crossed the Channel, marking the start of their advance on Berlin.

  • D-Day is known the world over. This year, it is 75 years since the Allied armies landed on the beaches of Normandy, on 6 June 1944 to be precise. They managed to break through the famous Atlantic Wall, a 5,300 km coastal defence system of bunkers, batteries, anti-aircraft artillery, anti-tank artillery, anti-tank obstacles, barricades and mines.
  • Between June and the end of August, the fighting in Northern France was fierce but slowly but surely the Allies managed to advance. From the end of August, the German troops suddenly beat a hasty retreat.

Bevrijding

Liberation of Belgium - save for …

Early September, Canadian, British, Polish, Belgian and American troops crossed the border and managed to liberate Belgium within a few days.

  • The Belgian Coast was liberated by the Canadian army. The march was triumphal.
  • Mid-September a small part of Belgium was still in German hands: Knokke and Zeebrugge.
  • The German army had retreated around the Scheldt Estuary. The idea of the Nazi regime was to prevent that Allies would have access to the Port of Antwerp to support and supply their advance on Berlin. Field Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower couldn’t agree on a strategy. Montgomery decided to first seize the Arnhem bridgehead over the Rhine (A Bridge Too Far). That mission failed. As a result, fighting around the Scheldt came to a halt and the German troops were able to reorganise and regroup.

Tweede D-Day

And then came Second D-Day: The Battle of the Scheldt

The taking of the Scheldt Estuary and the far lesser-known Second D-Day. It was imperative that the mouth of the Scheldt be recaptured so that the Allies could use the Port of Antwerp for their advance.

In the Exhibition Operation North Sea 1944-’45 you can see and feel the story: who were the protagonists? Where were the Belgian soldiers deployed? How did it end?

  • In October 1944, the plan to clear the Scheldt Estuary of the Germans was set in motion. Through mud and water, the liberation of Zeeland Flanders turned out to be an arduous operation. Early October, the dykes of Walcheren Island were bombed, flooding most of the island in the hope of immobilising the German troops.
  • Second D-Day: On 1 November 1944, Canadian, Polish, British, French, Norwegian and Belgian troops reran D-Day all over again. Operation North Sea tells the story of that decisive step in the battle against Hitler. British troops (and their Belgian, Norwegian, Dutch, French, Polish and Canadian counterparts) set sail from Ostend in the direction of Walcheren Island. It took fierce fighting before they managed to land.
  • On 8 November 1944, the German troops surrendered.
  • Clearing the Scheldt of mines - even with 200 ships - would take until 28 November. During the battle, 5,000 soldiers, seafarers and civilians perished.

Onderwater

Underwater

To this day, dozens of wrecks of ships from the Second World War lie off the Belgian Coast and in the Scheldt.

  • Remnants of those wrecks still find their way into the fishing nets.
  • Some of these ships remain untouched mass graves.
  • Others were blown up (sometimes violently so) and levelled to clear the shipping routes.