Operation Switchback – A Bailey-bridge left behind in Maldegem, St Laureins, Belgium


Posted: , Last update: January 2 2016, in Historic Sites & Battlefields. No Comments

October 1944 Wasp flamethrowers of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division across the Leopoldkanaal Maldegem Belgium

“Wasp” Bren Carriers of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division with flame throwers across the Leopoldkanaal, Maldegem, Belgium in October 1944

When the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had liberated the regions south of the Leopold Channel in Belgium between 13 September until 5 October 1944 and almost stood at the border of the Netherlands, they didn’t sit down and rest.

On October 6th, while the Allies were still trying to recover from the debacle of Market Garden, the 7th Canadian Infantry Division started the construction of a Bailey-bridge between Maldegem and Sint-Laureins, to cross the Leopoldkanaal (Eng: Leopold Canal) and launch “Operation Switchback” as the second main operation of the “Battle of the Scheldt”. This operation meant closing the so called “Breskens Pocket” south of the Schelde, as part of the objective of the Battle of the Scheldt, to clear the Schelde estuary of the remaining German Forces that still controlled the shipping route to the port of Antwerp. The Allies needed the port to shorten supply lines for the Allied advance.

Festung Schelde Süd

Almost a hundred years earlier, between 1847 and 1850, the Belgian Government had ordered the construction of the 40 kilometers long Leopold canal as a means of defense against the Netherlands, after Belgium had become independent. Now the experienced German 64th Infantry Division, under the command of General-Major Knut Eberding, would make good use of it to keep the Allies from reaching the Schelde estuary.
Having been declared “Festung Schelde Süd” by Adolf Hitler on September 20th 1944, for these soldiers it meant that this was going to be a fight to the death.

Next to well organized German defenses, the Canadians also had to deal with large flooded areas. In search for a suitable landing area, the Allies had chosen a narrow piece of dry land, across the Leopold canal between Maldegem and Saint Laureins, to commence the assault.

Operation Switchback

In the early morning of October 6th, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division’s 7th Brigade attempted to cross the Leopold Canal. Even though the assault was supported by artillery barrages and Mk. IIC “Wasp” Bren Carriers equipped with flame throwers, providing cover for the soldiers embarking from the canal banks, they were met by fierce resistance of the dug in German Wehrmacht who anticipated this assault. It took six days of heavy fighting, until they eventually held a strong position at the “Aardenburgsekalseide” on the other side of the canal on October 12th 1944.

Thanks to the Bailey-bridge, the Canadian 4th Armoured Divisions’s 10th Brigade now poored into the pocket and continued with the objective. Operation Switchback ended on November 3rd 1944, when the Canadian 1st Army closed the Breskens Pocket by liberating the Belgian towns of Knokke and Zeebrugge.

Aftermath

Around 200 soldiers who had fallen during Operation Switchback, were at first buried along the road near Maldegem at an improvised war cemetery. These graves were later moved to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Adegem, where a total of 811 Canadian soldiers have their final resting place.

When the Battle for the Scheldt ended on 8 November 1944, the Allies had suffered a staggering number of more than 12,000 casualties.

Bailey-bridge-oosthoekbrug-st-laureins-leopoldkanaal-belgium

The Bailey-bridge named “Lievebrug” across the Leopoldkanaal between Maldegem and Sint Laureins, Belgium

The Bailey-bridge over the Leopold canal near Maldegem Belgium

The Bailey-bridge over the Leopold canal near Maldegem, Belgium

Detail of the Baily-bridge construction

Detail of the Baily-bridge construction

Visit the Bailey-bridge at Maldegem, Sint-Laureins

The Bailey-bridge is still here today, as a reminder of what happened and she is now called the “Lievebrug” (Eng: “Sweet bridge”). The Belgian Government has thankfully declared the bridge a protected monument. The Bailey bridge is one of the very few in Western Europe which is still in use today.

It is part of the public road “Boomstraatje” and a great place to sit down, enjoy a sandwich and a view of the canal. The Belgian Government has put up signs which give some information about the events that took place during Operation Switchback.
Just use our location marker to find it along the Leopold Canal.





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