Water as a Weapon: the Environment and the Second World War

The use and manipulation of water as a weapon defined wartime experiences in many parts of the Netherlands during the Second World War. Caught in the crossfire between Nazi Germany and advancing Allied armies, the people of the Netherlands arguably suffered some of the worst collateral damage of the war in northwest Europe. This is particularly true of the southernmost province of the Netherlands, Zeeland, a province which at the time consisted of six small islands and one part attached to the mainland bordering Belgium. Nowhere in the province exceeded two meters in altitude. The fighting that took place in the region is better known in the English language as the Battle for the Scheldt Estuary, which lasted from October to November 1944.

When Allied armies captured the port of Antwerp on 5 September 1944, they faced a serious problem.  First Canadian Army had been severely depleted of resources and manpower. At the same time, they were given an increasingly long list of tasks to execute in northern Belgium, while resources and materiel were being prioritized for Operation Market Garden, the failed airborne mission designed to penetrate the Reich and well known following the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far.

Under Canadian leadership, Allied commanders planned operations to clear the Scheldt, an area which Hitler designated a “fortress” and which was armed and occupied by a considerable number of German troops, mostly from the eastern front, numbering some 30,000 just on the islands of Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland alone (depending on which sources one uses). In this way, the Allies needed to consider seriously how best to maximize the limited sources available to them, while inflicting maximum damages on the Germans.

By late September 1944, the Canadian Army, along with the approval of British Admiral Bertram Ramsay, argued that since the strongest defended islands of Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland were below sea level, RAF bombers could bomb the sea dykes, thereby using water to “sink” the island and flood the Germans (and Dutch civilians) out of their defensive positions. Planners also recognized that “were it not for the dunes and dykes which surround the island [of Walcheren] as rim to a saucer, raised up with arduous ingenuity by countless generations of Dutchmen in their own unending war against the sea, its cultivated fields and thriving communities, like those of the entire group, would be reduced to the banks of mud from which they were reclaimed.”

Nonetheless, without consulting Queen Wilhelmina, who was in exile in London, the Allies went ahead with the plan—after all, they had absolutely everything to lose from a military point of view if they failed to open the port of Antwerp.

Beginning on 3 October 1944, the RAF pounded the small coastal town of Westkapelle, dropping some 10,000 tons of ordnance and immediately flooding the surrounding villages. The RAF performed similar operations in three other key locations on Walcheren. By 17 October 1944, 16,810 of Walcheren’s 18,800 hectares were inundated with salt water and many civilians were killed as a result.

It’s important to note that the Germans mobilized water, as well. This is a more well known story for English-speaking audiences. If one goes by what the Canadian War Museum says about the war in the Low Countries, then Nazi forces were the only ones to blame for making Canada’s “Cinderella Army” fight in terribly flooded conditions. This picture, however, is disingenuous and tells only half of the story. The lithosphere (specifically water) was used by both belligerents and, as such, demonstrates the totality of total war. The essential difference, however, is that while the Germans had the ability to flood land as a defensive measure in a much more calculable way—simply by virtue of occupying the land—their inundations were small and typically used fresh water as opposed to salt water. Their flooding had far fewer consequences for post-war reconstruction, an interesting but separate topic.

From a military point of view, flooding by bombing sea dykes was probably the best available option at the time. Despite the waning of the Third Reich by September 1944, the German armed forces had considerable numbers of highly trained (though not necessarily fully healthy) troops in Zeeland and the Netherlands. Walcheren, according to some RAF crewmen, was virtually a floating anti-aircraft battery. Given the resource constraints, most of which could be attributed to Montgomery’s idiosyncrasies, using water a weapon curtailed the high casualties that would have been inflicted upon the Allies had they not “softened up” the coastal areas and neutralized German defenses.

What is most interesting is how people in this particular Dutch province have come to remember the events of October 1944, as well as the period of post-war reconstruction that involved Canadian and British Civil Affairs officers. Tropes of “the Sweetest Spring” are celebrated in Canada—and we often think of the euphoria expressed by many Dutch civilians when Canadian troops liberated the “old provinces” in May 1945. Peter Moogk has even called the relationship a “wartime love affair” unlike any other bilateral relationship. While this isn’t wrong, it is certainly not representative of the Netherlands in its entirety. If we are to call the destruction of October and November 1944 “liberation,” Zeeland was liberated much earlier and took much longer to rebuild following the war. How many monuments commemorate Canadians in the Schelde?

When we begin to focus on the use of water as a weapon, a new narrative of the Second World War emerges. Incidentally, this is the sort of narrative that is told at the museum situated about 20 meters away from the dyke that was bombed in October 1944 in Westkapalle. The Polderhuis museum focuses on the environment, civilian casualties, and presents water as a more powerful entity than either belligerent during the war. Today, water continues to be deployed as a weapon to induce change. Rarely is water used as it was by the Allies (and others) during the Second World War, but rather now water as a resource can be used to begin droughts or even limit civilian access to drinking water. Either way, the use and abuse of water and the environment has a long history and is perhaps the most influential weapon in any army’s arsenal.