Molentje, Damme, Belgium (1944 / 2014-2016)

The Leopold Canal
The Leopold Canal as seen today.
Photo credit: DHH

On 11 November 2014, a metal detector hobbyist discovered a set of remains in a farmer’s field at Molentje, a hamlet of the municipality of Damme, near Bruges, Belgium, and reported the discovery to police. The police recovered some remains and artefacts, turning them over to Belgian War Graves, and noted the location of the find before ordering the site closed. Soon after, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Directorate of History and Heritage received notification of the find, and historical research confirmed that during the Second World War, The Algonquin Regiment was the only unit to have led an attack in this location on the night of 13-14 September 1944. The attack across the Dérivation de la Lys and the Leopold Canal was meant to establish a bridgehead for the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. The unsuccessful attack forced The Algonquin Regiment to withdraw, leaving many dead and wounded behind, of which eight soldiers were later reported missing. In the months that followed the discovery, the Directorate of History and Heritage worked with the Flemish Government and the Raakvlak Intercommunal Archeological Service to recover the rest of the remains that were still in the field. The archeological recovery had to happen at a time when the farmer had no crops on the field, at the beginning of April 2016. On April 5th the Raakvlak archeological team, assisted by a forensic archeologist from DHH, uncovered the remains originally discovered in 2014. DHH staff then used personnel and medical records and worked with the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team that used dental records. All the evidence from various sources allowed the Casualty Identification Review Board to confirm the identity of the soldier as Private Kenneth Donald Duncanson, one of the soldiers reported missing after 14 September 1944.

The Battle of the Leopold Canal – 13 to 14 September 1944

As part of the preliminary battles leading up to the Battle of the Scheldt, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division was tasked to move along the axis of Moerbrugge – Maldegem – Breskens. After the crossing of the Ghent Canal at Moerbrugge, it then planned for the crossing of the Dérivation de la Lys and the Leopold Canal. The area selected for the bridgehead crossing was the hamlet of Molentje, north of Moerkerke. The unit selected to establish the bridgehead was The Algonquin Regiment. Once on the northern side of the Leopold Canal, the four companies were to advance roughly 200 to 400 meters north, then dig in and form a defensive perimeter around the old bridge site. After establishing the defensive perimeter, engineers would build a new bridge, allowing the brigade to cross the canals and exploit north-west towards enemy strongholds at Sluis and Aardenburg.

A sketch of the plan of attack for The Algonquin Regiment
A sketch of the plan of attack for The Algonquin
Regiment near Molentje, Belgium found in
The Algonquin Regiment’s War Diary, September 1944.
LAC File: RG2400 Volume 15000

Unfortunately, the plan was doomed to fail: a diversion failed to draw the German forces away, the boat launch was late and the artillery support ended too quickly. Many of the paddlers from other regiments assigned to assist The Algonquin Regiment never arrived, forcing the Algonquin troops to move the heavy assault boats across the canal and over the island where many German soldiers fired at them from hidden slit trenches. After taking as many prisoners as possible, the Algonquins continued across the second canal and arrived exhausted but undeterred on the northern bank. Due to malfunctioning radios and confusion in the dark, “C” company shifted too far west while “D” company moved too far east from their intended positions. A runner established communication between the two companies, who then decided to switch their objectives.  This allowed “C” company to hold a firm flank near the canal bank while “D” company moved northwards towards Damweg road. Meanwhile “A” company had to spread their force thin to cover the entire left flank of the bridgehead after realising that the western fields were not flooded as they had expected. “B” company moved up the eastern side of the road with difficulty since “A” company’s quick clearing of the various buildings failed to eliminate all the German snipers hiding in the darkened houses. “B” company had so few uninjured men that they had to tuck in with “A” company’s position at the Damweg and Molentje road junction and leave a single platoon covering the middle of the bridgehead. Under very heavy fire, “D” company moved towards their new position but were never able to connect with “B” company to eliminate the large gap in the middle of the defensive perimeter.

Throughout the night German soldiers utilized the numerous gaps to infiltrate the Algonquins’ positions and by the light of morning on 14 September, all four companies were running low in ammunition while coming under fire from every direction. By noon, it was realised that exploiting the bridgehead was impossible and a thick smoke screen covered their withdrawal. By that time, the Germans had overrun many of the Algonquins’ forward positions, cutting them off from any possibility of retreat. Artillery fire damaged so many boats that men just stripped down and swam back across the canals. A devastatingly small group straggled back up the southern bank, confident that the enemy’s casualties were just as high and feeling that they had only been beaten because the German 64th Infantry Division had been much larger and better organised than they had anticipated.

A sketch of the company locations on 14 September 1944
This sketch from The Algonquin Regiment's history shows
the approximate location of the 4 companies near
Molentje on 14 September 1944.
Photo credit: Maj G. L. Cassidy’s Warpath,
The Ryerson Press, 1948, pg. 141.