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Mark  Zuehlke

Mark Zuehlke

October 2007

Mark Zuehlke is an award-winning author who is passionate about documenting lesser known battles in Canada's military history. Here, he talks to Douglas & McIntyre about his newest contribution, Terrible Victory.

Terrible Victory is your sixth book on Canadians in World War II. Why did you choose to focus on the Scheldt Estuary Campaign?

I am drawn to the Canadian campaigns that have received little past attention. After finishing Holding Juno my attention turned to the Scheldt Estuary Campaign when I realized it was the most horrific campaign Canadians were involved in during World War II and yet no definitive account of that experience existed. Here was a natural gap in our historical record that needed filling, so away I went.

Tell me about your research. What was the most exciting material that you unearthed while researching Terrible Victory?

Early on I had posted on my website the fact I was researching a book on the Scheldt Campaign. This led to two extremely important contacts. First, Dutch historian Johan van Doorn came forward with much material he had unearthed on the part his hometown of Woensdrecht had played in the battle. When I went to Holland, Johan accompanied me for almost two weeks as we toured the entire battlefield in great detail. Second, Cecil Law—a south Saskatchewan veteran—came forward and wrote out a number of thorough and very personal recollections of his experiences as a young lieutenant facing his first major combat experience. Had it not been for the website it is unlikely I would have made contact with either Johan or Cecil.

How had the Scheldt campaign been handled previously?

The only Canadian book that focused exclusively on the campaign before was Denis and Shelagh Withaker’s Tug of War, but as Denis was a veteran of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the book placed greatest weight on that regiment’s experiences and less on the other Canadian regiments and divisions. Beyond this book the campaign generally showed up only as a chapter or two in histories of World War II.

The Scheldt campaign was about seven weeks long and the entire First Canadian Army eventually became engaged in it. Was it difficult to capture all that in a single book?

Very much so. I think the length and complexity of the campaign was the reason that no definitive work had been previously produced. In most cases during World War II campaigns followed a fairly linear development whereby the attacker was advancing together in the same direction. In clearing the Scheldt Estuary, however, the Canadians were forced to fight asymmetrically whereby the 3rd Division of the First Canadian Army was engaged on the southern bank of the estuary in an advance westward toward the sea; the 2nd Division was advancing from Antwerp in a northerly direction and then hooking westward across the South Beveland Peninsula and Walcheren Island to clear the northern bank; and finally the 4th Division was driving northeastward to gain control of the immediate mainland terrain.

First Canadian Army fought all these actions simultaneously and this was one of the realities that made the campaign such a challenge in terms of command and control. And also it was impossible for one division to reinforce the other or to take over the fighting as a division became exhausted and badly reduced by casualties. In effect, each division was forced to win its battle alone and for that reason I felt the campaign had to be told chronologically, shifting from one division and regiment to another so that the overall story unfolded as it had in reality.

Let’s talk a little about the campaign itself. You say it was the hardest Canadians fought. In what terms?

First, it was the most costly in casualties suffered. About 15,000 First Canadian Army troops were killed, wounded or missing at its end and at least half of these were Canadians with the rest being mostly British or Polish soldiers. Secondly, it was also a battle fought in the most hellish conditions imaginable. Much of the ground was Dutch and Belgian polders, basically land reclaimed from the sea that was as flat and open as a billiard table. Heavy fall rains, and deliberate flooding caused by the Germans blowing the dykes that held back the sea, reduced it to a muddy mire beyond anything that soldiers had experienced in the trenches of World War I. Movement was often confined to the tops of the dykes, which left the troops silhouetted and exposed to German defensive fire. Tanks could barely operate at all, so the fighting was often carried out by infantry lacking any direct armoured support. Time and again it was necessary to carry out amphibious attacks across wide canals or rivers where the Germans were dug in on the opposite bank. As one veteran put it, these conditions made the Scheldt Estuary campaign “hell on earth.”

And some say it was a “hell on earth” that was unnecessary. Any truth to that?

All too much. Antwerp fell to the British on September 4th and at the time the Germans were in disarray and had literally no troops or defensive positions established to defend the Scheldt Estuary. If the British had pushed on and cleared these approaches then the ground could have been won at little cost. But General Bernard Montgomery had his attention fixed on launching Operation Market Garden, which he hoped would carry the Allies across the Rhine and bring a hurried end to the war. So he never ordered the estuary to be secured, which was essential to opening Antwerp to Allied ship movement. By the time the Canadians began trying to clear this ground nine days later the Germans had recovered and poured thousands of troops into the area with orders to fight to the end to keep the estuary from being opened.

Why was the Scheldt Estuary so important to the Allies?

At the time Antwerp was the largest port in Europe and its capture was vital to enabling the Allies to supply the armies that were beginning to fight their way into Germany. Although Antwerp fell on September 4th, its possession was without value until the banks of the Scheldt Estuary were in Allied hands because all the shipping had to travel its length of about sixty miles from the North Sea to the port facilities. This was why First Canadian Army had to fight the campaign and why it had to win as quickly as possible without regard to casualties.

So an unnecessary campaign became desperately important to the Allies?

Correct. And the fact that First Canadian Army triumphed in the face of such fanatical resistance and in such difficult conditions is one of the most little known stories of World War II.

Of course it’s often the case, is it not, that Canada’s contributions and sacrifices throughout World War II receive scant attention outside the country or even inside it for that matter?

Sadly, this is all too often the case. You can read many World War II histories written by American or British writers and seldom be aware that Canadians served in the Italian campaign or that First Canadian Army played a major role in the North-West Europe campaign. And as a result many Canadians are equally unaware of our historical record in World War II. This is one of the major reasons that I have continued to research and write about the experience of Canadians in the major battles they fought during the course of the war. I felt that it was essential that these stories be available to Canadians in a highly readable form so that the sacrifices of the generation that marched to war between 1939 and 1945 not be lost and forgotten.

Reviewers and readers alike regularly comment on how your books bring the combat experience of Canadian soldiers in World War II to life in graphic detail. How do you do that?

It results from carrying out methodical and far reaching research that includes interviewing veterans and consulting their letters and memoirs, digging up the many reports and after-action accounts that soldiers prepared following combat incidents, and developing a clear understanding of the overarching issues that affected the particular campaign. Once I have all that material in hand I am able to meld it all together giving it a “you are there” feel by recreating conversations between individuals, walking through moments of combat literally alongside an individual soldier so that the reader can experience his thoughts and fears and be there when he ducks right to avoid incoming machinegun fire or is hit by shrapnel from an exploding grenade. I want Canadians who read my books to come away with as close a sense of what the soldiers in the war experienced as possible.

Do you know if there are many living veterans of Scheldt Estuary Campaign? Do you know what regions in Canada they’re living in?

Each day the number of veterans of World War II dwindles and this is, of course, true of veterans of the Scheldt. But in every region of Canada I was able to locate a few Scheldt veterans. This is not surprising as First Canadian Army consisted of regiments drawn from every province, excluding Newfoundland which was not part of the Dominion at that time.

So what’s next?

I’m working now on a book about Canada’s role in the invasion of Sicily in July and August of 1943. A sort of prequel to the Italian trilogy, you might say. After that I return to Normandy to follow First Canadian Army through the campaign there of July and August 1944. There are a lot of stories about Canada’s role in World War II still to explore and bring to life.

DM Marketing, Oct 29, 2007
Read more about Mark Zuehlke >>
Mark  Zuehlke

Mark Zuehlke

October 2007

Mark Zuehlke is an award-winning author who is passionate about documenting lesser known battles in Canada's military history. Here, he talks to Douglas & McIntyre about his newest contribution, Terrible Victory.

Terrible Victory is your sixth book on Canadians in World War II. Why did you choose to focus on the Scheldt Estuary Campaign?

I am drawn to the Canadian campaigns that have received little past attention. After finishing Holding Juno my attention turned to the Scheldt Estuary Campaign when I realized it was the most horrific campaign Canadians were involved in during World War II and yet no definitive account of that experience existed. Here was a natural gap in our historical record that needed filling, so away I went.

Tell me about your research. What was the most exciting material that you unearthed while researching Terrible Victory?

Early on I had posted on my website the fact I was researching a book on the Scheldt Campaign. This led to two extremely important contacts. First, Dutch historian Johan van Doorn came forward with much material he had unearthed on the part his hometown of Woensdrecht had played in the battle. When I went to Holland, Johan accompanied me for almost two weeks as we toured the entire battlefield in great detail. Second, Cecil Law—a south Saskatchewan veteran—came forward and wrote out a number of thorough and very personal recollections of his experiences as a young lieutenant facing his first major combat experience. Had it not been for the website it is unlikely I would have made contact with either Johan or Cecil.

How had the Scheldt campaign been handled previously?

The only Canadian book that focused exclusively on the campaign before was Denis and Shelagh Withaker’s Tug of War, but as Denis was a veteran of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the book placed greatest weight on that regiment’s experiences and less on the other Canadian regiments and divisions. Beyond this book the campaign generally showed up only as a chapter or two in histories of World War II.

The Scheldt campaign was about seven weeks long and the entire First Canadian Army eventually became engaged in it. Was it difficult to capture all that in a single book?

Very much so. I think the length and complexity of the campaign was the reason that no definitive work had been previously produced. In most cases during World War II campaigns followed a fairly linear development whereby the attacker was advancing together in the same direction. In clearing the Scheldt Estuary, however, the Canadians were forced to fight asymmetrically whereby the 3rd Division of the First Canadian Army was engaged on the southern bank of the estuary in an advance westward toward the sea; the 2nd Division was advancing from Antwerp in a northerly direction and then hooking westward across the South Beveland Peninsula and Walcheren Island to clear the northern bank; and finally the 4th Division was driving northeastward to gain control of the immediate mainland terrain.

First Canadian Army fought all these actions simultaneously and this was one of the realities that made the campaign such a challenge in terms of command and control. And also it was impossible for one division to reinforce the other or to take over the fighting as a division became exhausted and badly reduced by casualties. In effect, each division was forced to win its battle alone and for that reason I felt the campaign had to be told chronologically, shifting from one division and regiment to another so that the overall story unfolded as it had in reality.

Let’s talk a little about the campaign itself. You say it was the hardest Canadians fought. In what terms?

First, it was the most costly in casualties suffered. About 15,000 First Canadian Army troops were killed, wounded or missing at its end and at least half of these were Canadians with the rest being mostly British or Polish soldiers. Secondly, it was also a battle fought in the most hellish conditions imaginable. Much of the ground was Dutch and Belgian polders, basically land reclaimed from the sea that was as flat and open as a billiard table. Heavy fall rains, and deliberate flooding caused by the Germans blowing the dykes that held back the sea, reduced it to a muddy mire beyond anything that soldiers had experienced in the trenches of World War I. Movement was often confined to the tops of the dykes, which left the troops silhouetted and exposed to German defensive fire. Tanks could barely operate at all, so the fighting was often carried out by infantry lacking any direct armoured support. Time and again it was necessary to carry out amphibious attacks across wide canals or rivers where the Germans were dug in on the opposite bank. As one veteran put it, these conditions made the Scheldt Estuary campaign “hell on earth.”

And some say it was a “hell on earth” that was unnecessary. Any truth to that?

All too much. Antwerp fell to the British on September 4th and at the time the Germans were in disarray and had literally no troops or defensive positions established to defend the Scheldt Estuary. If the British had pushed on and cleared these approaches then the ground could have been won at little cost. But General Bernard Montgomery had his attention fixed on launching Operation Market Garden, which he hoped would carry the Allies across the Rhine and bring a hurried end to the war. So he never ordered the estuary to be secured, which was essential to opening Antwerp to Allied ship movement. By the time the Canadians began trying to clear this ground nine days later the Germans had recovered and poured thousands of troops into the area with orders to fight to the end to keep the estuary from being opened.

Why was the Scheldt Estuary so important to the Allies?

At the time Antwerp was the largest port in Europe and its capture was vital to enabling the Allies to supply the armies that were beginning to fight their way into Germany. Although Antwerp fell on September 4th, its possession was without value until the banks of the Scheldt Estuary were in Allied hands because all the shipping had to travel its length of about sixty miles from the North Sea to the port facilities. This was why First Canadian Army had to fight the campaign and why it had to win as quickly as possible without regard to casualties.

So an unnecessary campaign became desperately important to the Allies?

Correct. And the fact that First Canadian Army triumphed in the face of such fanatical resistance and in such difficult conditions is one of the most little known stories of World War II.

Of course it’s often the case, is it not, that Canada’s contributions and sacrifices throughout World War II receive scant attention outside the country or even inside it for that matter?

Sadly, this is all too often the case. You can read many World War II histories written by American or British writers and seldom be aware that Canadians served in the Italian campaign or that First Canadian Army played a major role in the North-West Europe campaign. And as a result many Canadians are equally unaware of our historical record in World War II. This is one of the major reasons that I have continued to research and write about the experience of Canadians in the major battles they fought during the course of the war. I felt that it was essential that these stories be available to Canadians in a highly readable form so that the sacrifices of the generation that marched to war between 1939 and 1945 not be lost and forgotten.

Reviewers and readers alike regularly comment on how your books bring the combat experience of Canadian soldiers in World War II to life in graphic detail. How do you do that?

It results from carrying out methodical and far reaching research that includes interviewing veterans and consulting their letters and memoirs, digging up the many reports and after-action accounts that soldiers prepared following combat incidents, and developing a clear understanding of the overarching issues that affected the particular campaign. Once I have all that material in hand I am able to meld it all together giving it a “you are there” feel by recreating conversations between individuals, walking through moments of combat literally alongside an individual soldier so that the reader can experience his thoughts and fears and be there when he ducks right to avoid incoming machinegun fire or is hit by shrapnel from an exploding grenade. I want Canadians who read my books to come away with as close a sense of what the soldiers in the war experienced as possible.

Do you know if there are many living veterans of Scheldt Estuary Campaign? Do you know what regions in Canada they’re living in?

Each day the number of veterans of World War II dwindles and this is, of course, true of veterans of the Scheldt. But in every region of Canada I was able to locate a few Scheldt veterans. This is not surprising as First Canadian Army consisted of regiments drawn from every province, excluding Newfoundland which was not part of the Dominion at that time.

So what’s next?

I’m working now on a book about Canada’s role in the invasion of Sicily in July and August of 1943. A sort of prequel to the Italian trilogy, you might say. After that I return to Normandy to follow First Canadian Army through the campaign there of July and August 1944. There are a lot of stories about Canada’s role in World War II still to explore and bring to life.

DM Marketing, Oct 29, 2007
Read more about Mark Zuehlke >>