Best known for his meticulously detailed accounts of Canadian Second World War battles in Normandy and Italy, historian Mark Zuehlke has brought to life a woefully under-recorded chapter in Canadian history in the excellent Terrible Victory.
Following the collapse of German forces in Normandy in August 1944, the Allied armies raced across France and Belgium, stretching supply lines to the breaking point. Antwerp, with its enormous port facilities, was eyed as the solution to the supply problem. Although the city had already been liberated, the shipping approaches were still controlled by a rapidly reconstituting German army. In order for the port to be used, the mouth of the Scheldt River and the long shores of the Scheldt Estuary had to be cleared. The First Canadian Army was given the task.
“We were wet, always wet, always cold,” a veteran recalls in Zuehlke’s book. The statement is an apt epitaph for the grueling Second World War campaign fought by Canadians amidst the flat, muddy, and flooded polders where Holland meets the Belgian frontier and the division between sea and land is ambiguous.
The terrain to be fought over was appalling and favoured the defenders in every way. Realizing the difficulty, the commander of the First Canadian Army asked for, and was promised, additional support, but little was delivered. As Zuehlke points out, the Canadian combat battalions were under-strength and filled with less-capable raw recruits and rear echelon troops. (It is worth noting that author and historian Terry Copp has challenged these points in recent work.)
With his signature style of veteran accounts artfully interlaced with the official record, Zuehlke’s skill in writing battle narrative remains unsurpassed. The book conveys a vast amount of detail while remaining an enormously engaging, heart-rending, and exciting read. Although some of his earlier books appeal more to the aficionado, Terrible Victory rises to a whole new level and can be enjoyed by anyone interested in Canadian military history.
The First Canadian Army suffered an estimated 15,000 casualties fighting what was arguably its most costly, and most important, victory. Zuehlke has done a masterful job giving the campaign its full due at last.