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THE BATTLE FOR "het Molentje"

"Het Molentje" is a quarter of Moerkerke, situated on the northside of the Leopold- and Schipdonkcanal.  In this peaceful hamlet, the bloodiest battle in Moerkerke's history took place and this happened not so long ago.  In September 1944, to be precise...

The plan.  Since the landing in Normandy, the allied troops advanced very rapidly in the direction of Germany.  A large part of Belgium had been liberated in the meanwhile.  On 13 September 1944, Canadian infanterists would cross the Leopold- and Schipdonkcanal in the area around "Het Molentje" and securing this area.  In the night of 13 to 14 September, engineers would construct a steel bridge over the canals.  This would enable the allied tanks to penetrate the enemy lines and rapidly reach the port of Breskens and free the left banks of the Schelde estuary.  This operation was necessary for the allied forces to enable them to use the port of Antwerp for the supply of material and stocks.  With German soldiers still on the banks of the North Sea and the Schelde, this was impossible till that time.  The mission was to be rounded off in just a few days.

The order.  Straight from Adolf Hitler's headquarters came the order to stand ground at all cost alongside the Leopoldcanal that was to be strengthened.  This order was carried out scrupulously.  Reinforcements were brought in, 20mm canons, antitank weapons and grenade launchers were put in position, sharpshooters' holes and machinegun nests were dug out.  The Wehrmacht had made all the necessary arrangements to receive the rapidly approaching Canadian liberators...

Prelude.  In the morning of 10 September the bridges over the canals are blown up by the Germans, shortly after which the sleuces are opened and slowly the meadows inundate.  To avoid that the church of Moerkerke could be used by the allies as an observation post, on 12 September (at 14h30) the tower is shot down by German Flak artillery, placed on the other side of the canals.  9 grenades suffice.  Shortly after that, the Canadian arrival is announced by the shaking noise of armored vehicles coming from the direction of Vivenkapelle.  Allied tanks shoot the mill of "Schuts" on fire, thinking that the Germans use the mill as an outpost.  Tanks roll into the center of the village.  Moerkerke is liberated. 

The battle.  The day is Wednesday 13 September.  The first shots fall.  Grenades are being fired from heavy field artillery batteries along the two sides.  The Canadian ones are around Sijsele; the German ones on the North Sea coast.  The evening falls and assaultboats are being put in the water; a total of 440 Canadian infanteriy soldiers cross the canals.  360 of them have to secure the bridgehead.  In the meanwhile, at a few hundred meters from the canals, the bridge lies ready to be assembled.  The tanks are ready to go and are stationed just outside the village.  The middle dike is relatively easily captured.  Once the infanterists cross the second canal, things start to go wrong.  The liberators encounter an unexpected strong German defence.  Errors in orientation and the falling out of the radiocontact isolate small groups of Canadian soldiers.  At the same time, Germans close in on the Canadians.  All ends up in terrifying house-to-house, even man-to-man fights.  Civilians, which are not evacuated, undergo the killing, hiding in the basements of their houses.  The Canadians try to hold the bridgehead during 17 long hours.  Persistent German artillery and machinegun fire make it impossible to even attempt the assembly of the bridge.  The liberators are running out of amunition, fights continue with knives, bayonets and captured weapons...   The Canadians find themselves in a hopeless situation and have to retreat.  The Germans successfully executed their order.  Liberators never succeeded in liberating the rest of Belgium via this place.


After the battle.  The Canadians tried it again a bit further to the east: between Strobrugge (on the road Maldegem-Aardenburg) and Moershoofde.  This was the beginning of what was called operation "Switchback".  The attack began on 6 October and only from 19 October their position was secured so that the advance to Breskens could finally be continued.  Around 19 October, the zone around "Het Molentje" cleared and the German lines were pulled back to the "Damse Vaart", where German soldiers in the evening of 22 October blew up the church tower of Oostkerke with 2500 kg of dynamite.  The region north of the Leopoldcanal remained occupied for another 6 weeks after the battle of "Het Molentje".  Only on 3 November, the liberation was a fact.

On "Het Molentje" a modest monument has been placed in memory of the tragic events that took place here in the night of 13 to 14 September 1944, when a lot of soldiers (German and Canadian), but also civilians were killed.  May this never happen again...  A street in Moerkerke has been named to the Canadian regiment that fought here: the Algonquinstraat.  

Related subjects: Canadamuseum and Canadian War Cemetary in Adegem (see Adegem)

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Hendrik De Leyn - www.damme-online.com