Why did the Buffalo and the DUKW cross the river? To clear the Port of Antwerp!

LVT-4 Buffalos carrying Canadian soldiers across the Scheldt River, Oct 1944

Why did the Buffalo and the DUKW cross the river? To clear the Port of Antwerp!

By Adam Brooker

It was September 1944 and the Allies had just successfully taken the crucial deep-water Port of Antwerp in Belgium, which they desperately needed to help shorten their supply lines into North West Europe. The local Belgian resistance had seized the Port before the local German garrison could destroy it, and the British 11th Armoured Division took the city on the 4th of September with 90% of its port facilities intact.

There was only one problem. The route into the port from the North Sea was heavily mined and it passed a series of islands along the river Scheldt, and these were strongly held by the Germans, with Walcheren Island at the inlet as part of the Atlantic Wall, described as one of the strongest concentration of defences that the Nazis had ever constructed. It had several large naval guns, hardened artillery bunkers immune to air attack, and a large garrison which was also strengthened with the remnants of the 15th German Army that had been allowed to retreat from France. Until these German forces were cleared, the Scheldt could not be de-mined and the Port opened.

Admiral Ramsay, SHAEF naval Commander, suggested to General Montgomery to take the Scheldt in early September as he saw the importance of Antwerp. Its huge Port could supply all the Allied forces in Europe and allow the US to advance into Germany as well, but this would steal Monty’s glory….

Montgomery, who was mainly concerned with his own Forces, his success in reaching Berlin first and also preparing for the ill-fated Market Garden Operation, told the 1st Canadian Army to capture the Scheldt, but only after first taking the Ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. This would only provide enough supplies for his 21st Army Group to invade Germany, and not the US Forces in France as well. The commander of the 1st Canadian Army, General Crerar, said it was impossible with the forces he had currently, and asked for Montgomery for XII Corps to help clear the Scheldt. Montgomery refused as he needed XII Corps for Market Garden. Montgomery later admitted he made a mistake and had underestimated the time and forces needed to secure the entrance to Antwerp, but was at the time gambling that Market Garden would be a success. Hitler saw this error and immediately ordered forces to be built up in the Scheldt estuary, to prevent the allies from utilizing Antwerp.

German Atlantic Wall gun emplacements from Zeebrugge to Walcheren Island

German Atlantic Wall gun emplacements from Zeebrugge to Walcheren Island

The 1st Canadian Army took these ports, except for Dunkirk which was under siege, and was significantly delayed. This allowed time for the 15th German Army to retreat from France, and prepare additional defences to hold the Scheldt estuary. In September, Hitler declared the island of Walcheren a Fortress, and to hold it at all costs. It was not until late September that the Canadians were in a position to start the assault on these positions, and now they had another problem - how to cross all the rivers, inlets and estuaries of the Scheldt? This was to be the hardest fighting they had yet faced, over horrible waterlogged conditions, and in a bitter winter.

There were two US-built vehicles that would help them, the LVT-4 Water Buffalo (British - Buffalo IV) and the DUKW (Duck) 6-wheel amphibious transport.

LVT-4 Buffalo

LVT-4 Buffalo IV – with a carrying capacity of 30 troops

The LVT-4 was an amphibious tracked vehicle made by the United States for the US Marines. It was originally designed as a transport, to help bring supplies ashore, but was eventually turned into an assault troop transport and fire support vehicle. The improved version used by the British to cross the channels, rivers and estuaries in the water-logged reclaimed land around the Scheldt had two .30cal machine guns on the sides and often a 20mm Polsten AA cannon at the front, as well as improved armour and a large door on the rear to allow the troops to disembark from the rear, instead of over the sides. It also had an increased troop capacity of 30 men.

Canadian troops embarking onto an LVT-4

Canadian troops embarking onto an LVT-4

Buffalo Transport Buffalo Transport

In game, they add a lot of firepower to the Kangaroo Rifle platoon as transports and you only need 2 vehicles to carry the Rifle platoon, with room to spare for the HQ as well. It is not as heavily armoured as the RAM, with a FA of 1, so you need to keep that in mind, but it will do the job of getting you over that water… which is what it was designed to do. It is also reasonably fast and has a decent cross check, so hopefully, you won’t be getting bogged in that sticky Dutch mud! But it will be best to disembark the troops well before you are in assault range, as if the transports are destroyed, each team inside will need to make an infantry save.

The Buffalo was first used in Operation Switchback during the clearing of the Breskens Pocket north of the Leopold canal and south of the Western Scheldt. The Canadians first tried to use Wasp Flame-thrower half-tracks to clear the opposite sides of the canal of the enemy, but the German defenders of the experienced 64th Division beat them back heavily, using the hundred 20mm cannons they had as ‘super-heavy machine guns’, shredding Canadian infantry. It was not until the Canadians used the Buffalos to land troops behind the Germans at Hoofdplaat, while also assaulting from the front, that the Germans started to be pushed back. The surprise amphibious landing in their rear was critical to the success of Operation Switchback in removing the Germans from the southern edge of the Scheldt.

Canadian WASP flame throwers fire over the Leopold Canal

Canadian WASP flame throwers fire over the Leopold Canal

The other US-made vehicle that helped the Canadians cross the Scheldt was the DUKW transport. It was a hardy 6-wheel drive amphibious modification to the US 2 ½ ton truck, with about 2000 given to the British in WW2. It was used in the Pacific and Europe, especially Italy, Normandy, and D-Day as well as the Battle of the Scheldt and the advances into the flooded Rhineland of Germany later in the war.

DUKW Section (UBX24)

It was generally not armed in British service but could mount a .50cal HMG, and was primarily used as a fast amphibious transport, as well as having excellent on-road speed. Interestingly it was the first vehicle that had controls in the cab to allow the driver to adjust the tyre pressure, which could be inflated or deflated as needed. It had a cargo capacity of 2,300 kg or 24 troops, very useful for ferrying troops and cargo across water.

DUKW Transport DUKW Transport

In game, it is essentially a softskin transport that is Amphibious, so it treats Impassable Water as difficult terrain. It will require a cross check when entering water and can only move at its Terrain Dash speed of 10”. It can carry 6 infantry teams, so again two of these can carry a whole rifle platoon, with space to spare if you want to carry your HQ as well. But be aware that unlike the Buffalo this has the Softskin rule, so if it is destroyed by enemy fire, all passengers die with no save. Be very wary of moving these up under enemy fire.

But these DUKW transports and the Buffalo are perfect for the Amphibious Battles – Linked Campaign in the back of the British Bulge Book, with 4 linked Scenarios: Objective Walcheren,Widen the Breach, Water Rats, and Rhine Crossing. Additionally, the D-Day: Beach Assault mission terrain pack is very useful for representing the river shoreline with the beach map inside. I always like the idea of linked campaigns and find them to be a blast! Adding this extra battlefield bling to your battles really makes the battlefield more immersive and can be a great hobby project for you and your gaming buddies!

A DUKW Transport brings troops onto the shore at Nijmegan, Denmark

A DUKW Transport brings troops onto the shore at Nijmegan, Denmark

After the Canadians secured most of the southern shore of the Scheldt they then started Operation Vitality, which was the taking of the South Beveland Peninsula, which would then allow them to isolate the Fortress Island of Walcheren. This started on the 22nd of October with the exhausted 2nd Canadian Division, which was already significantly weakened by the hard fighting and could only muster four full companies between the Regiments of the Division. They had hoped the fighting would be quick, but this again dragged on due to the horrible sucking mud, mines, and strong enemy defences.

After four days of hard fighting and another amphibious assault to the rear of the German position by the British 52nd Lowland Division, the Germans were again forced to retreat towards Walcheren Island and the South Beveland Peninsula was secured. Again, it was the amphibious assault with LVTs that cracked the German defences, the armoured transports allowing them to circumvent strong positions and attack from an unexpected direction. It was also noted that German morale was beginning to deteriorate, with most Allied casualties coming from booby traps and mines.

The final battle in clearing the Scheldt was Operation Infatuate, assaulting Festung Walcheren against some of the strongest defences in all of Europe, with heavy naval guns, masses of artillery and anti-tank guns, and a coastline fortified against amphibious assaults.

The plan was to assault Walcheren Island from three directions: across the Sloedam from the east, across the Scheldt in the south, and via sea to the West. The assault via sea would be the most dangerous, as it would be directly into German guns.  The movie ‘The Forgotten Battle’ shows the struggles of the Canadians in crossing the Sloedam, a long narrow causeway from South Beveland, with water on either side, that was too deep to advance over by foot, and too shallow to move assault craft along.

Royal Marines come ashore at Walcheren as part of the assault from the sea

Royal Marines come ashore at Walcheren as part of the assault from the sea

More amphibious assaults were undertaken with heavy fighting, and LVT Buffalos were used to assault the capital of Middelburg, finally forcing the Germans to surrender. These vehicles were crucial in the success of the Canadian assault on the Scheldt and without them, the fighting would have dragged on with even more casualties, and definitely extended the war.

This was one of the most unappreciated campaigns of the war, and hopefully, this inspires you to learn more about it and to paint up your own Buffalos and DUKWs!

Happy Gaming,