Invasion From the Sky
Along a fifty-mile corridor extending from Eindhoven to Arnhem the sky in early afternoon of 17 September grew dark with a fecund cloud of planes and gliders. A minute or so after 1300, the cloud opened and seeded the sky.
Thousands of Dutch civilians craned to see the show. As many a soldier has come to know, civilians in a war zone possess a kind of sixth sense that tells them when to parade the streets and when to seek shelter. Those civilians paraded the streets. Most were strolling casually home from church. Others had sat down to Sunday dinners. Here and there, at once a part of the crowd and yet isolated, strolled German soldiers absorbing the sunshine and rest of a day away from their posts. Until the planes came, none knew 17 September as anything but another occupation Sunday.
From battalions on the scene to the Fuehrer's spartan command post in East Prussia, surprise in German headquarters was equally great. An SS battalion commander was entertaining an intimate lady friend. Upon first sight of the parachutes, the occupation "mayor" of Arnhem dashed out on a personal reconnaissance, only to take a British bullet for his troubles. The Armed Forces Commander Netherlands, General Christiansen, was dining leisurely with his chief of staff at a restaurant far from the scene near Amsterdam.1
The commander of the First Parachute Army, General Student, was at his desk in his command post in a cottage only nine miles west of one of the designated American drop zones. To Student the appearance of the Allied armada came as a "complete surprise."
The 17th of September, 1944 [General Student recalled later] was a Sunday, a remarkably beautiful late summer day. All was quiet at the front. Late in the morning the enemy air force suddenly became very active . . . . From my command post at Vught I was able to observe numerous enemy aircraft; I could hear the crash of bombs and fire from air craft armaments and antiaircraft guns in my immediate vicinity .... At noon there came the endless stream of enemy transport and cargo planes, as far as the eye could see . . . .2
While Student had a front row seat, his superior, Field Marshal Model, sat virtually upon the stage. Model's headquarters of Army Group B was in a hotel at Oosterbeek on the western outskirts of Arnhem. Parachutists and gliders of the 1st British Airborne Division came to earth about two miles away. Unaware of this ripe chance to capture the commander
and entire staff of Army Group B, the British made no immediate move against the hotel. Model and his coterie folded their tents and stole away. They did not stop until they reached headquarters of the II SS Panzer Corps beyond the IJssel River about eighteen miles east of Arnhem.3
In East Prussia, first reports of the airborne landings threw Hitler's headquarters into a state of high excitement. Although report after report came in, the over-all picture remained obscure. Only highlights emerged.
Hitler's personal reaction could best e described as febrile. The narrow escape of Model and his staff from the British at Oosterbeek appeared to impress him most at first. "At any rate," Hitler raged, "the business is so dangerous that you must understand clearly, if such a mess happens here-here I sit with my whole supreme command; here sit the Reichsmarschall [Goering], the OKH, the Reichsfuehrer SS [Himmler], the Reich Foreign Minister [Ribbentrop]: Well, then, this is the most worthwhile catch, that's obvious. I would not hesitate to risk two parachute divisions here if with one blow I could get my hands on the whole German command."4
During the first hour or two, no German commander could begin to estimate the scope and strength of the Allied operation. Reports and rumors of landings at almost every conceivable spot in the Netherlands spread through every headquarters.5 As late as the next day OB WEST still was excited enough to
pass along the fantastic report that a U.S. airborne division had landed at Warsaw, Poland.6
By a stroke of luck for the enemy, this kind of delirium was not to last long at the lower headquarters. Someone in an American glider that was shot down near the First Parachute Army's command post was carrying a copy of the Allied operational order. Two hours after the first parachute had blossomed, this order was on General Student's desk.7
Having the Allied objectives and dispositions at hand obviously facilitated
German reaction. Possibly as a result of the captured Allied order, Field Marshal Model divided the affected zone into three sectors corresponding roughly to the sectors of the three Allied divisions.
To General Student and the First Parachute Army Model gave the dual mission of containing the British ground offensive opposite the Meuse-Escaut bridgehead and of destroying the 101st Airborne Division in the vicinity of Eindhoven. (See Map IV) Already committed along the Meuse-Escaut, Kampfgruppe Chill was to oppose the British ground troops. For fighting the Americans, Model gave Student the 59th Infantry Division, so fortuitously in transit near Tilburg, and the 107th Panzer Brigade.8 Under command of Major Freiherr von Maltzahn, this panzer brigade had been en route to Aachen to engage the First US Army.9
The job of contesting the 82d Airborne Division at Nijmegen fell to Wehrkreis VI, the rear echelon German headquarters which controlled Corps Feldt and the 406th (Landesschuetzen) Division. These Wehrkreis units were ordered to destroy the airborne troops along the high ground southeast of Nijmegen, seize and hold the rail and road bridges across the Waal River at Nijmegen, and stand by for continued operations "in a southerly direction." Model must have recognized this as a pretty big assignment for a makeshift force like Corps Feldt; for he advised Wehrkreis VI that he intended shifting to Nijmegen corps troops and increments of parachute troops under General der Fallschirmtruppen Eugen Meindl, commander of the II Parachute Corps. Yet this help obviously could not arrive immediately, for General Meindl's headquarters would have to move from Cologne.10
Whether from design or merely because the troops were at hand, Model sent stronger forces against the British at Arnhem. To General Christiansen as Armed Forces Commander Netherlands he gave a task of attacking toward Arnhem from the northwest and north. General Christiansen would have at his disposal Division von Tettau, a collection of regional defense and training battalions quickly thrown together under command of Generalleutnant Hans von Tettau, Christiansen's director of operations and training. In the meantime General Bittrich's II SS Panzer Corps with the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions was to move toward Arnhem. After the bridge across the Neder Rijn at Arnhem was secure, the 10th SS Panzer Division was to continue south to Nijmegen. The panzer corps was to be reinforced with a motorized infantry battalion commandeered from Wehrkreis VI, even though that headquarters could ill afford to part with anything.11
Bearing the proud names Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg, the two SS panzer divisions under Bittrich's command were drastically depleted. Badly mauled at Caen and in the Argentan-Falaise pocket, the two divisions apparently had the
strength only of reinforced regiments. The 9th SS Panzer was the stronger with 1 armored infantry regiment, 1 artillery battalion, 2 assault gun batteries, 1 reconnaissance battalion, 1 company of Panther (Mark V) tanks, and increments Of engineers and antiaircraft troops. The 10th SS Panzer probably had 1 armored infantry regiment, 2 artillery battalions, 1 reconnaissance battalion, 1 engineer battalion, and 1 antiaircraft battalion.12
Confronted with a dearth of reserves all along the Western Front, the Commander in Chief West, Rundstedt, could do little immediately to help. About all Rundstedt could contribute on the first day was approval for rerouting from Aachen the 107th Panzer Brigade and another unit, the 280th Assault Gun Brigade; but these obviously could not reach the threatened sector for a day or two. As for Hitler, he had to content himself for the moment with somewhat empty orders to throw all available Luftwaffe fighters into the fray and with bemoaning the Luftwaffe's failure to set everything right. The entire Luftwaffe was incompetent, cowardly, the Fuehrer raged. The Luftwaffe had deserted him.13
On the Allied side, from the moment men of the 101st Airborne Division came to earth on 17 September, they began to fight a battle for a road. Theirs was the responsibility for a 15-mile segment of narrow concrete and macadam ribbon stretching northward and northeastward from Eindhoven in the direction of Grave. That segment men of the division were to nickname Hell's Highway.14
101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION LANDINGS near Zon.
The objectives vital for subsequent passage of the British ground column were located at intervals along the entire 15-mile stretch of road. This meant that a lightly manned and armed airborne division would be widely extended in taking and defending the objectives. The division commander, Maj. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, later was to compare the situation to the early American West, where small garrisons had to contend with sudden Indian attacks at any point along great stretches of vital railroad.
The dispersion of the 101st Airborne Division's objectives made sense only in light of the expectation of early contact with the British ground column, probably within twenty-four hours after the jump. With this and the widely separated objectives in mind, General Taylor concentrated in his early lifts upon bringing in his infantry rather than his artillery. Centrally located artillery of the caliber available to airborne troops, he reasoned, could not reach targets on the extremities of his division, The number of objectives meant that the perimeter defenses about them would be so small that guns emplaced within the perimeters could render no more than limited service. Infantry and mortars were to do the work at first along Hell's Highway.
Recalling dispersion that had plagued the division in Normandy, General Taylor insisted upon drop zones fairly close together, no matter how scattered the objectives. Two regimental drop zones and the division landing zone were located near the center of the division sector, west of Hell's Highway in a triangle marked by the villages of Zon, St. Oedenrode, and Best. Dropping close to Zon, the 506th Parachute Infantry (Col. Robert F. Sink) was to secure a highway bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal a few hundred yards south of Zon, then was to march south on Eindhoven. Coming to earth just to the north, the 502d Parachute Infantry (Col.
John H. Michaelis) was to guard both drop zones in order to ensure their use as a glider landing zone and was to capture a road bridge over the Dommel River at St. Oedenrode. Because General Taylor believed his over-all position might be strengthened by possession of bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal south of Best, four miles from Zon off the west flank of Hell's Highway, Colonel Michaelis was to send a company to these bridges. The remaining parachute regiment, the 501st Parachute Infantry (Col. Howard R. Johnson), was to drop a few miles farther north near Veghel to seize rail and road bridges over the Willems Canal and the Aa River.
Despite flak and small arms fire, only 1 Pathfinder plane and 2 of the other 424 parachute aircraft of the 101st Airborne Division failed to reach the drop zones, although some planes went down after the paratroopers had jumped. Incurring casualties of less than 2 percent in personnel and 5 percent in equipment, 6,769 men made the jump. They did it in half an hour beginning three minutes after H-Hour, at 1303. Among the casualties was 1 man killed by antiaircraft fire as he poised in the open door of his plane. While floating earthward with parachutes open, 2 other men were cut to pieces by the propellers of a crashing C-47.
One of only two units of the division which were not delivered to the correct drop zone was the 1st Battalion (Lt. Col. Harry W. O. Kinnard, Jr.), 501st Parachute Infantry. Scheduled to drop just west of Veghel, between the AA River and the Willems Canal, the battalion instead came to earth three miles to the northwest. The battalion nevertheless had a compact drop pattern and in less than an hour was on the move to seize the bridges over the AA River at Veghel. An officer and forty-six men, including eight jump casualties, stayed behind at a chateau (Kasteel) to care for the casualties and to collect equipment bundles.
While the bulk of Colonel Kinnard's battalion marched directly down a main road toward Veghel, an advance patrol occupied the railway bridge over the AA without contest. Only as the battalion entered Veghel in quest of the highway bridge did any Germans fight back, and these offered only desultory, halfhearted fire.
Meanwhile the main force of this regiment had been landing southwest of Veghel on the other side of the Willems Canal. Unopposed in the drop and assembly, one battalion organized within forty-five minutes, quickly secured the nearby village of Eerde, and sent a detachment to throw a roadblock across Hell's Highway between Veghel and St. Oedenrode. The remaining battalion dispatched a small force to seize the railway bridge over the Willems Canal and then marched toward the highway bridge over the canal on the outskirts of Veghel. Inside Veghel, this battalion contacted Colonel Kinnard's men, who by this time had secured the road bridge over the AA River. In approximately three hours, Colonel Johnson's 501st Parachute Infantry had seized all its D-Day objectives. Now the real problem was to organize a defense in spite of ecstatic Dutch civilians.
In late afternoon a message arrived that cast a shadow on the day's success. At the chateau (Kasteel) northwest of Veghel, a force of about fifty Germans supported by mortars had surprised the officer and forty-six men who had stayed behind to collect equipment bundles.
Mindful of the need to defend Veghel securely as darkness approached, the
regimental commander, Colonel Johnson, could spare no more than a platoon for the relief of these men. A few hundred yards short of the chateau German fire forced this platoon to dig in for the night. The next morning it was obvious that the platoon either had to be reinforced or pulled back. Still apprehensive about the defense of Veghel, Colonel Johnson ordered the platoon withdrawn. That afternoon Colonel Kinnard sent a small patrol in another attempt to contact the bundle-collecting detail. "I am now at Kasteel," the patrol leader reported by radio, ". . . there are no signs of our men here but bloody bandages."
Other than Colonel Kinnard's battalion, the only unit of the 101st Airborne Division that was not delivered to the correct drop zone on D-day was a battalion of Colonel Michaelis' 502d Parachute Infantry. The regiment was scheduled to drop on the northernmost of the two drop zones between Zon and St. Oedenrode; this battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Patrick F. Cassidy, came down two miles away on the neighboring drop zone. Although delayed by this misadventure, Colonel Cassidy's battalion by nightfall had brought a persistent bunch of rear echelon Germans to heel in St. Oedenrode and thereby secured both a main highway and an alternate bridge over the Dommel River. Deploying to defend the village, Colonel Cassidy sent a patrol northeast along Hell's Highway to contact the 501st Parachute Infantry at Veghel.
Another battalion of the 502d Parachute Infantry deployed to protect the glider landing zone, while the bulk of the third battalion moved to an assembly area near Zon, ready to assist if need be the march of the neighboring regiment on Eindhoven. At the same time a company of this battalion proceeded upon a separate mission, to capture the rail and road bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal southeast of Best. Although these bridges were not assigned objectives for the 101st Airborne Division, General Taylor considered them valuable for three reasons: first, as an outpost protecting his glider landing zone and his main positions along Hell's Highway; again, as alternate crossings of the Wilhelmina Canal should the Germans destroy the bridges at Zon; and again, as control of a main highway (between Eindhoven and 's Hertogenbosch) by which the Germans otherwise might feed reinforcements to Eindhoven. To do the job, Colonel Michaelis sent Company H reinforced by a light machine gun section and a platoon of engineers.
En route to the bridges, the Company H commander, Capt. Robert E. Jones, lost his way in a thick woods, the Zonsche Forest. Emerging near a road junction cast of Best, the company came under fire from a small group of Germans apparently rallied by some local commander. The Germans gained the upper hand when infantry reinforcements and several small cannon arrived by truck from the direction of 's Hertogenbosch. These could have been an advance detachment of General Poppe's 59th Infantry Division, which was detraining at Tilburg under orders from the First Parachute Army's General Student to enter the fight.
Goaded by radio messages from his battalion commander to get somebody to the bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal, Captain Jones organized a reinforced patrol. A platoon leader, Lt. Edward L. Wierzbowski, was to take a rifle platoon and the attached engineers and machine gun section to the bridges.
Lieutenant Wierzbowski found in turn
that casualties and disorganization had left him with but eighteen riflemen and twenty-six engineers. The lieutenant and his little force still were picking their way through the Zonsche Forest toward the bridges when night came, and with the darkness, a cold, penetrating rain.
Back at regimental headquarters, Colonel Michaelis meanwhile had become perturbed about reports of Company H's encounter. He directed that the rest of the company's parent battalion go to Captain Jones's assistance. The commander, Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole, started with the battalion toward Best at 1800, but darkness fell before physical contact could be established with Captain Jones.
In the meantime, Lieutenant Wierzbowski and his men had crawled the last few yards on their bellies to reach the Wilhelmina Canal several hundred yards east of the highway bridge. Slithering along the dike, the men neared the bridge, apparently undetected. While the lieutenant and a scout crawled ahead to reconnoiter, the main body of the patrol slid down the embankment to await their return.
A barrage of "potato masher" hand grenades came suddenly from the darkness on the other side of the canal. Scared, a couple of men scrambled up the bank of the dike. Others followed. The night erupted with the fire of machine guns and rifles. Some of the men stampeded back toward the forest.
When he heard this firing, Lieutenant Wierzbowski had come within sight of the bridge, only to find it covered by German sentries. Scurrying back, he discovered he had left but 3 officers and 15 men, and 3 of these wounded. They had their individual weapons, plus a machine gun with 500 rounds of ammunition, a mortar with 6 rounds, and a bazooka with 5 rockets. Here, as the cold rain fell, the men dug in for the night.
As these events had developed, the 101st Airborne Division's D-day glider lift had begun to arrive. Although not as immune to mishap as the parachutists, a total of 53 out of 70 gliders landed successfully with 32 jeeps, 13 trailers, and 252 men. Of those that failed to make it, 1 fell in the Channel, 1 crash-landed on the landing zone, 2 collided in the air above the landing zone, 2 were unaccounted for, 4 landed in friendly territory, and 7 came down behind enemy lines.15
The part of the division headquarters that had not parachuted with General Taylor came in by glider. Also arriving by glider were reconnaissance, signal, and medical units. A radio net linked division headquarters with the three parachute regiments within minutes after the glider landings. By 1500 medics were treating casualties in a temporary hospital erected in a field and at 1700 began a major operation. An hour later the medics moved to a civilian hospital in Zon.
Before the gliders arrived, General Taylor's third regiment, the 506th Parachute Infantry, had assembled after a near-perfect drop on the southernmost division drop zone near Zon. Unhampered by opposition, a portion of one battalion assembled in less than forty-five minutes. Commanded by Maj. James L. LaPrade and accompanied by General Taylor, this battalion moved south to bypass Zon and come upon the highway bridge over the
Wilhelmina Canal from the west flank. After capture of this bridge, the 506th Parachute Infantry was to continue south about six miles to Eindhoven.
As Major LaPrade and his men advanced, they came under deadly fire from an 88-mm. gun emplaced south of the Zonsche Forest. Hope for quick capture of the bridge from the flank began to fade.
As soon as the other two battalions of the 506th Parachute Infantry assembled, the regimental commander, Colonel Sink, directed them in a column of battalions to Hell's Highway, thence south through Zon toward the canal. In Zon the leading battalion also came under fire from an 88, but a platoon acting as a point deployed among the buildings and advanced undetected within fifty yards of the gun. A round from the bazooka of Pvt. Thomas G. Lindsey finished it off.
Evidently expecting that Major LaPrade's flanking battalion would have captured the highway bridge, these two battalions made no apparent haste in moving through Zon. They methodically cleared stray Germans from the houses, so that a full two hours had passed before they emerged from the village. Having at last overcome the enemy 88 south of the Zonsche Forest, Major LaPrade's battalion caught sight of the bridge at about the same time. Both forces were within fifty yards of the bridge when their objective went up with a roar. Debris from the explosion rained all about.
Rushing to the bank of the canal, Major LaPrade, a lieutenant, and a sergeant jumped into the water and swam across. Though Germans in a house on the south bank opened fire, other paratroopers found a rowboat and ferried a squad across. This advance party reduced the opposition. The little rowboat made trip after trip across the canal while a platoon of engineers improvised a shaky footbridge, but not until an hour before midnight was the entire regiment across.
Perturbed by civilian reports of a strong German garrison in Eindhoven, Colonel Sink was reluctant to enter the city by night. Aware that Eindhoven was a secondary objective on the division's timetable and that the British had been told the city might not be taken on D-day, General Taylor approved a halt until daylight.
As matters stood, the British ground column was no closer to Eindhoven than were the paratroopers, so that this conservative approach worked no hardship. Yet it was a distinct risk, because General Taylor and Colonel Sink hardly could have known where the British were at the time. One of the gliders that failed to reach the 101st Airborne Division's landing zone had contained attached British signal personnel; without them, immediate contact with the 30 Corps proved impossible. Not until the next morning, when the 506th Parachute Infantry made radio contact with some American signalmen attached to the 30 Corps, could the Americans learn how far the British had advanced.
Behind an artillery barrage that began an hour after the first troop carrier aircraft passed over the British lines, the 30 Corps had attacked on schedule with tanks in the lead. Against five German battalions, including two SS battalions that 30 Corps intelligence had failed to detect, the spearhead Guards Armoured Division had made steady progress. In view of the fact that woods and marshy ground confined the attack to a front not much wider than the highway leading to Eindhoven, progress was remarkable,
though not sufficient to take the tanks to Eindhoven. As night came the British stopped in Valkenswaard, their "formal" objective. The objective of Eindhoven, which General Horrocks had indicated he hoped to reach on D-day, lay six miles to the north.16
Against ineffective delaying actions by small enemy groups, Colonel Sink's 506th Parachute Infantry pressed the advance on Eindhoven early on D plus 1, 18 September. By midmorning, the leading battalion had knocked out a nest of two 88-mm. guns and pushed deep into the heart of the city. Colonel Sink had expected to find at least a regiment of Germans in Eindhoven; he actually flushed no more than a company. Having taken four bridges over the Dommel River and a canal in the city by noon, the paratroopers spent the rest of the day
rounding up enemy stragglers and clearing the southern outskirts for entry of the Guards Armoured Division. As they performed these tasks, Eindhoven went on a binge. As if by magic the city blossomed with the national color. "The reception was terrific," said one American officer. "The air seemed to reek with hate for the Germans . . . ."
In the carnival atmosphere the paratroopers failed for a long time to hear the fretted clank of tanks they were listening for. At 1130 the first direct radio communication with the Guards Armoured Division had revealed that the armor still was five miles south of Eindhoven, engaged in a bitter fight. At 1230 hopes rose with the appearance of two British armored cars, but these had sneaked around the German flank to reach Eindhoven from the northwest. Shadows were falling when about 1900 the paratroopers at last spotted the head of the main British column.
The Guards Armoured Division pushed through Eindhoven without pause. At Zon, British engineers, who had been forewarned that the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal was out, set to work. During the night they installed a Bailey bridge, so that at 0645 (D plus 2, 19 September) the armor rumbled across. The ground advance was proceeding swiftly, but was it swift enough? General Horrocks' 30 Corps was at least thirty-three hours behind schedule.
Though overshadowed by the events at Eindhoven, the side show that had developed near Best actually provided the 101st Airborne Division's stiffest fighting on D plus 1 and 2. Destruction of the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Zon having lent exigency to the 502d Parachute Infantry's mission of securing alternate bridges, Colonel Michaelis early on D plus 1, 18 September, committed a second battalion to the Best fight.
The answer to the situation at Best lay in General Poppe's 59th Division. No sooner had this force detrained at Tilburg than the First Parachute Army's General Student sent the bulk of the division to secure the bridges near Best. In the meantime, three companies reinforced by two replacement battalions and a police battalion were to cut Hell's Highway at St. Oedenrode.17
The Americans could be grateful that General Poppe's division faced an ammunition situation that was "nearly desperate," having had to leave behind most of its ammunition when ferried across the Schelde estuary as part of the Fifteenth Army.18 As it was, the two American battalions had all they could do to hold their own. The fresh battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Steve A. Chappuis, tried to drive to the bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal but had to fall back to a defense with Colonel Cole's battalion on the edge of the Zonsche Forest. A timely strike by a flight of P-47's held the Germans off. Colonel Cole himself fell, dead of a German bullet through the temple.
All through the day of D plus 1 the sound of firing had fanned hope of relief in the minds of Lieutenant Wierzbowski and his group of fifteen men along the dike near the highway bridge. Then, at 1100, the hundred-foot concrete span over the Wilhelmina Canal trembled and lifted with a violent explosion. The objective for which the 502d Parachute Infantry
continued to fight the rest of the day was no longer worth fighting for.
The experiences of Lieutenant Wierzbowski and his little group were a testimonial to the kind of hardship small, isolated units sometimes are called upon to endure. In midafternoon their troubles increased when a small German force attacked. One man was killed outright. Seriously wounded in the base of the spine, another slowly died from loss of blood. Obsessed with a belief that enemy fire had torn off his testicles, one of the engineer officers pleaded with Lieutenant Wierzbowski to kill him. Wierzbowski finally convinced him his wounds were not that serious. Two German bullets hit the platoon's lead scout, Pfc. Joe E. Mann, who already had incurred two wounds; now both his arms hung useless. Though an engineer lieutenant and a sergeant tried to break through for aid, the lieutenant was captured and the sergeant wounded.
Hope stirred again during the late afternoon and early evening. First, a British armored car and a reconnaissance car appeared on the opposite bank of the canal. The British tried to raise headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division on their radio, but to no avail. They provided fire support until later in the evening when a platoon of paratroopers who had gotten lost stumbled onto Lieutenant Wierzbowski's position.
Although this platoon agreed to defend one of Lieutenant Wierzbowski's flanks, the men fell back during the night in the face of a small German attack. Again Wierzbowski and his little group were alone. Then a small patrol from Colonel Chappuis' battalion stumbled onto the position. Though the lieutenant sent word of his plight by this patrol, the report was not to reach Colonel Chappuis until the next morning. Distorted in transmission, the message said only that the bridge had been blown.
As a misty daylight began to break on D Plus 2, 19 September, Lieutenant Wierzbowski spotted a small German force bearing down on his position. Though the lieutenant yelled an alarm, the Germans already were too close. Two German grenades rolled down among the wounded. Although the men tossed these out before they exploded, another hit the machine gun and blinded the gunner. A moment later another grenade rolled into this man's foxhole. One eye blown out entirely, the other blinded, the soldier groped wildly for the grenade. He found it and tossed it from his foxhole only a split second before it exploded.
Another grenade fell behind Private Mann, who was sitting in a trench with six other wounded. Mann saw the grenade come and felt it land behind him. Helpless, his arms bound and useless from the wounds incurred the day before, he yelled: "Grenade!" Then he lay back to take the explosion with his body.19
"Shall we surrender or fight?" the men had asked persistently. As the Germans made a final charge, Lieutenant Wierzbowski gave them a succinct answer: "OK. This is the time." Only three of his men had gone unscathed. They had virtually no ammunition. Their last grenade was gone. One man put a dirty handkerchief on a rifle and waved it.20
In the meantime, a kind of stalemate had developed in the fighting along the edge of the Zonsche Forest. Though the two American battalions held their own, their regimental commander, Colonel Michaelis, could not reinforce them without neglecting defense of St. Oedenrode, which was one of his primary missions.
The solution came at last in the juncture with the British ground troops, whereby a squadron of British tanks and a modicum of artillery support became available. Arrival by glider in the afternoon of D plus 1 of two battalions of the 327th Glider Infantry under Col. Joseph H. Harper also helped.21 Because of rain and mist along the southern air route, this glider lift had come in via the northern route and brought successful landing of 428 out of 450 gliders of the 101st Airborne Division. A total of 2,579 men, 146 jeeps, 109 trailers, 2 bulldozers, and some resupply had arrived.
General Taylor ordered his assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Gerald J. Higgins, to take over-all command of the two battalions of the 502d Parachute Infantry near Best, contingents of the 327th Glider Infantry, a squadron of British tanks, and elements of British artillery and to reduce all enemy east of the highway between Eindhoven and 's Hertogenbosch and north of the Wilhelmina Canal. Though the destruction of the Best highway bridge had eliminated the original purpose of the Best fighting, the job of protecting the west flank of the 101st Airborne Division remained.
The British tanks made the difference in an attack that began at 1400 on D plus 2. Within German ranks, a festering disintegration by late afternoon became a rout. "Send us all the MP's available," became the cry as hundreds of Germans began to give up. For almost three days a bitter, costly, and frustrating fight, the action at Best now became little more than a mop-up. By the end of D plus 2 the prisoners totaled more than 1,400, and the paratroopers actually counted more than 300 enemy dead. Some of the prisoners came in with Lieutenant Wierzbowski and the survivors of his little band. They had been taken to a German aid station and there had talked their captors into surrender.
Best itself remained in German hands, and much of the territory taken had to be abandoned as soon as the mop-up ended. Now the battle of Hell's Highway was developing into the Indian-type fighting General Taylor later was to call it, and these men from Best were needed at other points. The engagement near Best had been costly and had secured neither of the bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal, yet it had parried what could have become a serious blow by the 59th Division. General Poppe now had scarcely a shell of a division.
While the fight raged at Best on D plus 1 and 2, the rest of the 101st Airborne Division was maintaining defensive positions at Eindhoven, Zon, St. Oedenrode, and Veghel. From Eindhoven, Colonel Sink's 506th Parachute Infantry sent a battalion to either flank to widen the base of the MARKET-GARDEN corridor, but in
both cases Sink recalled the troops before they reached their objectives. On the west the battalion returned because the 12 British Corps had begun to advance along the left flank of the corridor and was expected soon to overrun the battalion's objective. The battalion on the east returned because Colonel Sink learned that a column of German armor was loose in the region and he wanted no part of a meeting engagement with armor.
Late in the afternoon of D Plus 2 this German column struck toward Zon in an attempt to sever the thin lifeline over which the British ground column was pushing toward Nijmegen. It was Major von Maltzahn's 107th Panzer Brigade that on D-day had been rerouted from Aachen to the assistance of the First Parachute Army. Although General Student had ordered the panzer brigade and General Poppe's 59th Division to make a concentric attack toward Zon, the 59th Division at the time the brigade arrived was hors de combat.22
Even without the 59th Division the German attack came close to succeeding. Only a scratch force that included General Taylor's headquarters troops was available at the time for defending the Bailey bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Zon. Darkness had fallen, a British truck struck by a round from a German tank was burning brightly atop the bridge, and a Panther was pumping round after round into a building housing the division command post when General Taylor himself arrived with reinforcements. He led part of a glider infantry battalion and a lone 57-mm. antitank gun. One of the first rounds from this gun knocked out a German tank near the bridge. Bazooka fire disabled another. The Germans appeared to lose heart after this, and traffic gradually began to flow again along Hell's Highway.
Another German blow against Hell's Highway on D plus 2 came from the air, perhaps as a direct result of Hitler's exhortations that the Luftwaffe put his little world right again. About a hundred German twin-engine bombers came out of hiding after nightfall to bombard the central part of Eindhoven. Because most American units held positions outside the city, they incurred no damage; but more than a thousand civilians were killed or wounded, and British units were heavily hit. Whether from lack of planes, fuel, or trained crewmen, or because of all three, this was the only major strike by long-range German bombers during the course of the campaign in the West during the fall of 1944.23
At both Veghel and St. Oedenrode during these first days, Colonel Johnson's 501st Parachute Infantry and Colonel Cassidy's battalion of the 502d Parachute Infantry had held their positions about the canal and river bridges against persistent but small German attacks, most of which were in company strength. The strongest—by three companies of the 59th Division reinforced by police and replacement units—struck Colonel Cassidy's battalion on D plus 2 on the road to Schijndel. Hard pressed at first, Colonel Cassidy's men gained assistance from Sgt. James M. (Paddy) McCrory, commander of a crippled tank that had dropped out of the
British ground column. Although the tank could make no more than five miles per hour, McCrory plunged unhesitatingly into the fight. When the paratroopers tried to thank him, he brushed them off. "When in doubt," Sergeant McCrory said, "lash out." His words became a kind of unofficial motto of the battalion.
General Taylor had hoped to be in a stronger position by the end of D plus 2 with the addition of most of his airborne artillery. But the bugaboo that threatens all airborne operations had developed. The weather closed in. Though the flights on D plus 2 were postponed until late in the day on the chance the weather might clear, troops in the gliders still were to speak of a mist so thick they could see nothing but three feet of tow rope stretching out into nowhere. Because the glider pilots could not detect when their mother planes banked, many gliders turned over and had to cut loose prematurely. The Air/Sea Rescue Service worked overtime plucking ditched crewmen and passengers from the Channel. Many planes and gliders turned back. On the other hand, weather at German bases must have been better; for the Germans sent up more than 125 Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. A total of 1,086 Allied troop carrier, tow, and resupply planes and 428 gliders took off on D plus 2. A large part of these returned to base, while 45 planes and 73 gliders were lost.24
Probably because the 101st Airborne Division's landing zone was relatively secure, General Brereton allotted General Taylor, at the expense of the 82d Airborne Division, 384 gliders for the D plus 2 flight, more than twice the number originally planned. Only 212 of these arrived. After missing the landing zone and circling vainly, 82 tow planes returned to England. These were minus 31 of their gliders which cut loose behind friendly lines, 16 known to have crash-landed in enemy territory, and 26 not accounted for. Those glidermen who landed behind German lines and eventually rejoined their units brought with them harrowing tales of hairbreadth escapes punctuated with praise for the Dutch underground. Most of these men were artillerymen, for the flights bringing in the artillery units were particularly cut up. Of 66 artillery pieces and antitank guns that started the flight, only 36 arrived. None was larger than the 75-mm. pack howitzer; all planes towing gliders with 105-mm. howitzers had to turn back.
Difficulties imposed on the 101st Airborne Division by the adverse weather could not be ignored, and General Taylor's "Indian War" to keep open Hell's Highway would remain critical as long as men and supplies had to go north over the highway. Nevertheless, at the moment, a situation had developed farther north that overshadowed events along Hell's Highway. Moving on Grave and Nijmegen, the British ground column was hard pressed to cross the Maas and Waal Rivers and reach the British airborne troops at Arnhem. To ensure passage of the ground column, the 82 Airborne Division at Nijmegen was fighting against time.
For the 82d Airborne Division, the mere possession of the towns, the bridges, and the highway in the division's assigned sec-
GENERAL GAVIN and General Dempsey (on left) confer during Operation MARKETGARDEN.
tor was not sufficient to ensure the passage of the 30 Corps ground column.25
Even the bridges over two of the most formidable water obstacles along the entire path, the sprawling Maas and Waal Rivers, were overshadowed by another feature of terrain: the hill mass southeast of Nijmegen. This high ground is generally triangular in shape, but the most pronounced and highest elevations are mainly along the north and east, forming a wooded ridge line that extends southeast from Nijmegen past the resort hotel of Berg en Dal to the vicinity of the village of Wyler, thence south through Groesbeek to the village of Riethorst, close to the Maas River. Roughly 300 feet in height,
the ridge line is about eight miles long. At the base of its eastern slope lies the Dutch-German border, where the ground rises again to the east into a big forest, the Reichswald.
In the eyes of the 82d Airborne Division commander, Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin,26 possession of the ridge represented the key to success or failure. "With it in German hands," General Gavin was to note later, "physical possession of the bridges would be absolutely worthless, since it completely dominated the bridges and all the terrain around it." General Gavin believed that if he held this ridge, the British ground column ultimately could succeed, even if his airborne troops should be driven away from the bridges. The high ground also represented a ready airhead for later operations.27
An understanding of General Gavin's concern about this ridge involves going beyond consideration of the usual importance of high ground to success in almost any operation. The high ground in this instance was unusual in that almost all surrounding terrain was predominantly flat. Not only did the high ground dominate all the other objectives-the bridges over the Maas, the Maas-Waal Canal, and the Waal-it also represented the only real barrier to counterattack should the Germans strike from the east from the direction of the Reichswald. This last the 82d Airborne Division G-2, Lt. Col. Walter F. Winton, Jr., predicted might constitute the major reaction to the landings.28 From the direction of the Reichswald the Germans would have two major routes, one leading from Kleve along the north edge of the forest east into Nijmegen, the other, from Venlo, passing along the south edge of the forest and thence northeast through the villages of Riethorst and Mook and generally alongside the Maas-Waal Canal into Nijmegen.
The possibility of counterattack from this direction took on added credence from the Dutch resistance reports of panzer formations assembling in the Netherlands. The 82d Airborne Division was led to believe that this armor was concentrating in the Reichswald. This information became "a major and pressing element in the predrop picture of German forces."29
The possibility of encountering German armor underscored, in General Gavin's mind, the importance of the defensive aspects of the 82d Airborne Division's assignment. Unlike the 101st Airborne Division, the 82d could anticipate contact with the ground column no sooner than D plus 1, at the earliest, and even this was highly conjectural. General Gavin believed it necessary to plan his fight "in such a manner as to be able to conduct a good fight, well in hand, for at least three days, and almost certainly well beyond this time, if need be."30
Had the entire strength of the 82d Airborne Division been available on D-day, all assigned objectives might have been designated to be taken at once as a matter of course, despite the threat of the
Reichswald and delayed contact with the ground column. As it was, because of the limitations of the D-day lift, the question of priority of objectives entered the picture. In anticipation of a heavy fight before the ground column could provide artillery and antitank support, General Gavin allotted a portion of his D-day lift to a parachute artillery battalion. He also scheduled arrival of the rest of his artillery on D plus 1. This meant that the glider infantry regiment could not arrive until D Plus 2, so that for the first two days the 82d would have but three regiments of infantry. If these three parachute infantry regiments tried to take all assigned objectives, they would be spread dangerously thin for holding the objectives in the event enemy armor materialized from the Reichswald.
Take only the bridges and you probably could not hold them without the high ground. Take only the high ground, the Waal bridge at Nijmegen, and the Maas-Waal Canal bridges, and the ground column could not get across the Maas either to use the other bridges or to relieve the airborne troops. With only so many troops at hand, General Gavin saw no solution at first other than to take first the high ground and the Maas and Maas-Waal Canal bridges—thereby ensuring juncture with the ground column—then Nijmegen.
General Gavin and his staff were not alone in this thinking. Indeed, the directive from the corps commander, General Browning, was "clear and emphatic" to the effect that the division was "not to attempt the seizure of the Nijmegen Bridge until all other missions had been successfully accomplished and the Groesbeek-Berg en Dal high ground was firmly in our hands."31 In his formal order General Browning stated: "The capture and retention of the high ground between Nijmegen and Groesbeek is imperative in order to accomplish the Division's task."32
On the other hand, the question of taking the magnificent 1,960-foot span across the Waal River at Nijmegen obviously was not dismissed summarily. The bridge in relation to strength available to take it on D-day was the subject of continuing discussion, not only before D-day but after the jump. As late as midafternoon of D plus 1 General Browning disapproved a projected plan for taking the Nijmegen bridge and directed instead that the 82d Airborne Division continue to concentrate for the time being upon defending the high ground and the bridges over the Maas and Maas-Waal.33
After "almost daily" discussions about the Nijmegen bridge in relation to the over-all plan, General Gavin and his staff
finally decided, "About 48 hours prior to take-off, when the entire plan appeared to be shaping up well," that they could risk sending one battalion in a quick strike for the bridge. This was admittedly a minimum force, but if the Germans were not in strength at the bridge and if the expected counterattacks from the Reichswald could be held with a smaller force than originally deduced, the risk would be justified because of the nature of the prize. "I personally directed Colonel Roy E. Lindquist, commanding the 508th Parachute Infantry," General Gavin recalled later, "to commit his first battalion against the Nijmegen bridge without delay after landing but to keep a very close watch on it in the event he needed it to protect himself against the Reichswald."34
In the end, the 82d Airborne Division was to try to seize all its objectives on D-day: bridges over the Maas at Grave; over the Maas-Waal Canal near Honinghutje,35 Hatert, Malden, and Heumen; and over the Waal at Nijmegen; plus the high ground. The only exception was the railroad bridge at Nijmegen for which no force apparently was allotted.
The drop zone of the 508th Parachute Infantry (Colonel Lindquist) was on the high ground north of Groesbeek. In addition to the one-battalion assignment against the Nijmegen bridge, Colonel Lindquist drew responsibility for a major portion of the high ground from Nijmegen past the resort hotel of Bergen Dal to the village of Wyler, thence generally south to the vicinity of Groesbeek, a total distance of about six miles. The regiment also was to block enemy movement southward from Nijmegen and was to assist in taking the bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal at Hatert and Honinghutje, the last on the main Grave-Nijmegen highway. A final assignment involved securing the northernmost of two glider landing zones on the eastern slopes of the ridge line, south of Wyler.
The 505th Parachute Infantry (Col. William E. Ekman) was to drop south of Groesbeek. The regiment then was to take Groesbeek, high ground in the vicinity, the southern glider landing zone southeast of Groesbeek, and the ridge line extending south as far as the Kiekberg (Hill 77.2), a high point overlooking the village of Riethorst. Patrols from this regiment were to assist in taking the Maas-Waal bridges at Heumen and Malden.
The principal assignment of the remaining regiment, the 504th Parachute Infantry (Col. Reuben H. Tucker), was to take the 9-span, 1,800-foot bridge over the Maas River near Grave. In keeping with the theory that bridges are best taken by assault from both ends, one company was to drop south of the river. The rest of the regiment was to drop between the Maas and the Maas-Waal Canal. Other assignments included blocking enemy movement between the river and the canal from the west, assisting in taking the Honinghutje bridge, and capturing the Malden and Heumen bridges. Gaining at least one of the four bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal was vital, for the canal is a sizable waterway, in most places about 200 feet wide. The 504th also was to guard against counterattack from the west.
82D AIRBORNE DIVISION DROP near Grave.
The flight, drops, and landings of the 82d Airborne Division on D-day, 17 September, proved even more phenomenally successful than did the 101st's. Employing the northern air route, the serials encountered only sporadic flak that was highly inaccurate even as it grew heavier near the drop zones. Only 1 of 482 planes and 2 Of 50 gliders failed to reach the target area. Incurring only 2 percent casualties, 7,277 men made the jump. At least 2 were killed, 1 who was struck by a supply bundle and another whose parachute failed to open. Only 7 out of 209 men who arrived by glider were injured. Eight 75-mm. guns arrived without incident. The only miscalculation was the dropping of one battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry a mile north of the assigned drop zone, but this had little effect on subsequent operations. Both General Gavin and the British Airborne Corps commander, General Browning, jumped with skeleton staffs.
Resistance to the drop and assembly was "negligible," although some individuals had to fight their way off the drop zones. The 508th Parachute Infantry met resistance from "a few widely scattered" antiaircraft crews and "some isolated labor troops," but the general picture was as summed up by the G-2: "Landed against almost no opposition."36
The task of seizing the big highway span over the Maas River near Grave was easier because one stick of sixteen men failed to get the green light signal to jump until "a bit late."37 When the signal came the officer in charge of this stick, Lt. John S. Thompson, noted that his plane was directly over a group of buildings. He decided "to wait a few seconds and jump on a field just southwest of the Grave Bridge."38 The result was that he and his men came to earth only about 700 yards from the south end of the bridge, while the rest of the company of the 504th Parachute Infantry that jumped south of the Maas came down more than a mile away.
Lieutenant Thompson lost no time getting started toward the bridge. Despite occasional small arms fire, he and his men made their way through drainage ditches to the vicinity of a tower near the bridge. Two hits from a bazooka silenced a 20-mm. flak gun in the tower. In keeping with established practice, the men made every effort to prevent any Germans from moving about near the bridge, lest they set or activate demolitions. As the men reached the bridge, they cut all visible wires.
In the meantime, the main body of Lieutenant Thompson's parent battalion had been assembling on the other side of the Maas River. As the battalion reached the north end of the bridge, only a flak gun on river flats nearby offered any real problem. In less than three hours, the 504th Parachute Infantry was in firm control of the Maas bridge, one of the major prizes of the entire MARKET-GARDEN operation. That the Germans had failed to demolish the bridge could be explained either through the precautions Lieutenant Thompson and his men had taken or through prisoner revelations that the bridge was to have been blown only on order of the German corps commander, who was not present.39
The bulk of Lieutenant Thompson's parent company had been unable to reach the bridge from the drop zone west of Grave because of small arms fire from the town. Aware that a twelve-mile gap existed between the company and closest units of the 101st Airborne Division at Veghel, the company commander set up a roadblock across the main highway to forestall German reinforcements from the south. That night a patrol went into Grave to investigate strange noises emanating from the town. The patrol found civilians gathered in the town hall lustily singing the Dutch version of "Tipperary." The Germans had gone.
Of the other two battalions of Colonel Tucker's 504th Parachute Infantry, one swept stray Germans from between the Maas and the Maas-Waal Canal as far west as the main highway, while the second set out to take two bridges over the canal. Both bridges were near the southeast end of the canal where it joins the Maas River, one near the village of Malden, the other at Heumen. These bridges were important not only as possible routes north for the ground column but also as connections between the 504th Parachute Infantry and the other regiments on the high ground to the northeast.
The battalion commander, Maj. Willard E. Harrison, sent a company to each objective. The men who charged the bridge at Malden saw their objective go up in smoke as they made a final dash toward it. At Heumen, small arms fire from an island in the canal a few yards north of the bridge stymied advance until at last 8 men infiltrated to a point near the bridge from which they could spray the island with machine gun fire. Covered by this fire, 2 officers, a corporal, and a radio operator ran for the bridge. Three of them made it. Before dark, another officer and 6 men rowed across the canal to join this trio.40 Yet the presence of this little force on the east bank of the canal had no apparent effect upon the Germans who were covering the bridge from the island.
The American company commander, Capt. Thomas B. Helgeson, expected the bridge to be blown at any moment. As approaching darkness provided some concealment, Captain Helgeson sent the battalion demolition squad to search for and cut demolition wires. "The bridge had been prepared for demolition," men of the battalion recalled later, "and nobody knows why it was not blown."41
Darkness at last provided the antidote for the German fire from the island. Soon after nightfall, a strong patrol stormed across a footbridge and overran the German positions. Six hours after H Hour the Heumen bridge was safe. It subsequently was to serve as the main route across the Maas-Waal Canal for the British ground column.
Of two other bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal—one near Hatert, northwest of Malden, the other on the main Grave-Nijmegen highway near Honinghutje—only the Hatert bridge was attacked on D-day To Hatert went elements of the 504th and a platoon of Colonel Lindquist's 508th Parachute Infantry, only to find the bridge demolished.
Before dawn the next morning, Colonel Lindquist sent a platoon to seize the bridge at Honinghutje. When German fire pinned this platoon to nearby drainage ditches, another platoon arrived to help. Together they stormed the bridge, but not before the Germans hurriedly set off demolitions. Though the explosion failed to demolish the bridge, it weakened it to the extent that the ground column subsequently avoided it in favor of a more circuitous route via the Heumen bridge.
Like Colonel Tucker's battalions, those of Colonel Lindquist's 508th Parachute Infantry and of Colonel Ekman's 505th Parachute Infantry had assembled within an hour after the D-day drop. One battalion was moving toward its objective within twenty minutes after the drop.
With the assistance of the Dutch underground, one battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry rounded up stragglers in Groesbeek. The battalion then occupied a peak (Hill 81.8) of the ridge line in woods west of the village, constituting a division reserve, and also sent patrols southwest toward Heumen where soon after dark they contacted the 504th Parachute Infantry at the Heumen bridge. Part of another battalion occupied the Nijmegen-Groesbeek ridge south of Groesbeek, including the Kiekberg (Hill 77.2), which overlooks the village of Riethorst and the highway leading from the Reichswald to Mook and Nijmegen. A company
later in the day cleared Riethorst and set up roadblocks. Although patrols attempted to seize a railroad bridge over the Maas River near Mook, the Germans blew the bridge with moments to spare. Colonel Ekman's remaining battalion dug in along the ridge at Groesbeek and north of that village and sent a company-size patrol east to the Reichswald.
Because of the proximity of the 505th Parachute Infantry to the Reichswald, these men were particularly concerned about the report they had received in England that the Reichswald was a nest of German armor. They breathed more easily when the patrol returned with word that "no tanks could be seen." This was in keeping with information provided by Dutch civilians soon after the landings to the effect that "the report about the 1000 tanks in the Reichswald was false."42
Colonel Lindquist's 508th Parachute Infantry had begun work in the meantime on a variety of missions. One battalion moved west toward Hatert to assume defensive positions astride the Nijmegen-Mook highway, in order to block enemy movement southward from Nijmegen into the division's perimeter. This was the same battalion which sent a platoon on the unsuccessful quest of the Hatert bridge over the Maas-Waal Canal and the next morning sent two platoons to the Honinghutje bridge. Another battalion advanced north from the drop zone to occupy the northern prong of the wooded ridge line, a three-and-a-half-mile stretch extending from the southeastern fringe of Nijmegen past Hotel Berg en Dal. This the battalion had accomplished by nightfall of D Day "without serious resistance."43 Occupying the village of Beek at the foot of the ridge and thereby physically cutting the important Kleve-Nijmegen highway would have to await the next day.
In the hands of the remaining battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry rested a special destiny. This battalion, the 1st, commanded by Lt. Col. Shields Warren, Jr., represented the 82d Airborne Division's best chance for a cheap and rapid capture of the highway bridge over the sprawling Waal River at Nijmegen.44
After receiving General Gavin's prejump orders in regard to the Nijmegen bridge, Colonel Lindquist had earmarked Colonel Warren's battalion as one of two battalions from which he intended to choose one to move to the bridge, depending upon the developing situation. General Gavin's understanding, as recalled later, was that Warren's battalion was to move "without delay after landing."45 On the other hand, Colonel Lindquist's understanding, also as recalled later, was that no battalion was to go for the bridge
until the regiment had secured its other objectives, that is to say, not until he had established defenses protecting his assigned portion of the high ground and the northern part of the division glider landing zone.46 Instead of moving immediately toward the Nijmegen bridge, Colonel Warren's battalion was to take an "assigned initial objective" in the vicinity of De Ploeg, a suburb of Nijmegen a mile and a quarter southeast of the city astride the Nijmegen-Groesbeek highway.47 Colonel Warren was to organize this objective for defense, tying in with the battalion near Hatert and the other near Hotel Berg en Dal, and then was to "be prepared to go into Nijmegen later."48
The assembly and movement to De Ploeg took approximately three and a half hours. After organizing a defense of the objective, Colonel Warren about 1830 sent into Nijmegen a patrol consisting of a rifle platoon and the battalion intelligence section. This patrol was to make an aggressive reconnaissance, investigate reports from Dutch civilians that only eighteen Germans guarded the big bridge, and, if possible, capture the south end of the bridge. Unfortunately, the patrol's radio failed to function so that Colonel Warren was to get no word from the patrol until the next morning.49
As darkness approached, General Gavin ordered Colonel Lindquist "to delay not a second longer and get the bridge as quickly as possible with Warren's battalion."50 Colonel Warren, in the meantime, had found a Dutch civilian who said he could lead the battalion to the bridge and en route check with resistance headquarters within the city for the latest developments on German strength at the bridge.51 Colonel Warren directed Companies A and B to rendezvous at a point just south of Nijmegen at 1900 and move with the Dutch guide to the bridge. Company C, a platoon of which already had gone into the city as a patrol, was withheld in regimental reserve.
Although Company A reached the rendezvous point on time, Company B "got lost en route."52 After waiting until about 2000, Colonel Warren left a guide for Company B and moved through the darkness with Company A toward the edge of the city. Some seven hours after H-Hour, the first real move against the Nijmegen bridge began.
At the edge of the city Company A halted again while a patrol searched the first buildings. Finding no Germans, the company continued for several blocks up a main thoroughfare, the dark, deserted Groesbeekscheweg. As the scouts neared a traffic circle surrounding a landscaped circular park near the center of Nijmegen, the Keizer Karel Plein, from which a mall-like park led northeast toward the Nijmegen bridge, a burst of automatic weapons fire came from the circle. The time was about two hours before midnight.
As Company A formed to attack, the men heard the noise of an approaching motor convoy emanating from a side street on the other side of the traffic circle. Enemy soldiers noisily dismounted.
No one could have said so with any finality at the time, but the chance for an easy, speedy capture of the Nijmegen bridge had passed. This was all the more lamentable because in Nijmegen during the afternoon the Germans had had nothing more than the same kind of "mostly low quality"53 troops encountered at most other places on D Day.
Although the enemy commander, Field Marshal Model, had entrusted Corps Feldt under Wehrkreis VI with responsibility for Nijmegen, he apparently had recognized the dire necessity of getting a more mobile and effective force to the Nijmegen bridge immediately. Sometime during late afternoon or early evening of 17 September Model had dispatched an advance guard from the 9th SS Panzer Division's Reconnaissance Battalion to defend the highway bridge. The commander of the II SS Panzer Corps, General Bittrich, in turn directed the entire 10th SS Panzer Division to move to Nijmegen. The main effort of the II SS Panzer Corps, General Bittrich believed, should be directed toward thwarting the Americans at Nijmegen, whereupon the British at Arnhem might be defeated in detail. He directed the first arrivals of the 10th SS Panzer Division—an infantry battalion and an engineer company—to relieve the 9th SS Panzer Division's Reconnaissance Battalion, which presumably then was to return to Arnhem.54
The 9th SS Reconnaissance Battalion apparently had gotten across the Neder Rijn at Arnhem before British paratroopers reached the Arnhem bridge, but the men of the 10th SS Panzer Division were too late. They subsequently crossed the Neder Rijn at a ferry near Huissen, southeast of Arnhem. Whether it was troops of the 9th or of the 10th SS Panzer Division which reached the Keizer Karel Plein was conjectural, though probably it was the former. What mattered was that they had arrived in time to stop the first American thrust toward the Nijmegen bridge.55
When Company A attacked at the traffic circle, the SS troops counterattacked. The men of Company A became so disorganized in the darkness that they might have had to withdraw altogether had not Company B arrived to help stabilize the situation.
While Colonel Warren reported news of the encounter to his regimental commander and asked reinforcement by Company C, the commander of Company A, Capt. Jonathan E. Adams, Jr., received a report from Dutch civilians that the control mechanism for demolishing the highway bridge was housed in the main post office, only a few blocks north of the Keizer Karel Plein. Captain Adams himself led a patrol of platoon size to destroy the mechanism. Though guards at the post office put up a fight, the paratroopers forced the building and destroyed what they took to be the control apparatus. Getting back to the traffic circle was another proposition. The Germans had closed in behind them. For three days these men and sympathetic civilians were to hold out at the post office until relief came.
In the meantime Colonel Warren had tried to get a new attack moving toward the highway bridge; but this the Germans thwarted just before dawn with another sharp counterattack. While the counterattack was in progress, General Gavin arrived at the battalion command post. Noting that the companies had become "very heavily engaged in close quarters in city streets under very difficult circumstances," General Gavin directed that the battalion "withdraw from close proximity to the bridge and reorganize."56 This was to mark the end of this particular attempt to take the Nijmegen bridge.
A new attack to gain the bridge grew out of an early morning conference between General Gavin and Colonel Lindquist. In considering alternate means of getting the bridge with the limited forces available, it appeared possible that one company still might succeed if the advance was made along the less constricted southeastern and eastern fringe of Nijmegen. The unit designated was Company G, part of the 3d Battalion, 508th, under Lt. Col. Louis G. Mendez, Jr., which was defending the three-and-a-half-mile stretch of high ground centered on Berg en Dal. Company G already had occupied Hill 64, little more than a mile from the south end of the highway bridge.57
At 0745 on 18 September, D plus 1, Company G under Capt. Frank J. Novak started toward the bridge. Civilians showered the paratroopers with fruit and flowers as the advance began; but closer to the bridge the crowds markedly thinned. The reason soon became apparent. From dug-in positions about a small traffic circle south of a common, the Hunner Park, which embraces the southern approaches to the bridge, the Germans lay in wait. The center of the defense was a historic observation tower, the Belvedere, and medieval walls surrounding it.
Company G was but two blocks from the Maria Plein when the Germans opened fire. With small arms and antiaircraft guns ranging from 20- to 88-mm., they searched the streets opening onto the circle.
Captain Novak quickly deployed his men and attacked. Storming into the teeth of the enemy fire, they gained a position only a block from the traffic circle. German artillery fire emanating from the north bank of the Waal reinforced the defense. The men of Company G could go no farther.
Reinforcement of Company G appeared inadvisable. The battalion commander, Colonel Mendez, could send no help without jeopardizing his defense of the high ground in the vicinity of Hotel Berg en Dal. The regimental commander, Colonel Lindquist, had only a company in reserve, and this company probably would be needed to clear one of the division's glider landing zones for a glider lift that was scheduled to arrive almost momentarily. Some consideration apparently was given at division headquarters to reinforcing the troops in Nijmegen with a portion of the 505th Parachute Infantry, one battalion of which was in division reserve in the woods west of Groesbeek., but it was not done.58
At 1400 on 18 September Colonel Mendez ordered Company G to withdraw from Nijmegen to Hill 64. Nijmegen and the highway bridge so vital to relief of the British airborne troops farther north at Arnhem remained in German hands.59 Of three attempts to capture the bridge on D-Day and D plus 1, one of patrol size had failed because it was too weak and lacked communications; another of two-company size, because the Germans had had time to reinforce their garrison; and the third of company size, for the same reason. Though small, at least two of these attacks conceivably might have succeeded except for their timing. No attempt to seize the railway bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen had been made.60
The problem of the glider landing zones, which appeared to be one of the reasons why no stronger effort was made at Nijmegen, had grown out of two factors: the location of the landing zones and the 82d Airborne Division's shortage of infantry in relation to its numerous and widely dispersed objectives. The landing zones were situated near the bottom of the eastern slopes of the ridge between Groesbeek and the Reichswald. Though the landing zones had been fairly well cleared on D-Day, not enough infantry could be spared to hold them in strength. Beginning soon after daylight on D plus 1, the equivalent of two understrength German battalions began to infiltrate from the Reichswald onto the landing zones. Some of this infiltration reached the proportions of strong local attacks, one of which encircled a company of the 508th Parachute Infantry near Wyler and others which exerted troublesome pressure against easternmost contingents of the 505th Parachute Infantry. The enemy troops probably were advance guards of Corps Feldt's 406th (Landesschuetzen) Division, only "line-of-communications" troops, as American intelligence soon fathomed, but supported by flak wagons mounting 20-mm. antiaircraft guns.61
Since Allied tow planes and gliders took off from England at 1000, their arrival soon after midday was almost a certainty. In preparation, Colonel Lindquist released the reserve company of Colonel Warren's battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry to battalion control and directed that the company secure a line of departure overlooking the northern landing zone. After the other two companies had withdrawn from the Keizer Karel Plein in Nijmegen, they moved to assist in the clearing operation. The 505th Parachute Infantry scheduled one company to clear the other landing zone in an attack to begin at 1240.
As events developed, German pressure against the 505th Parachute Infantry was so strong that the designated company was not freed for its attack without some difficulty. Fortunately, resistance on the landing zone itself proved light and disorganized. The southern landing zone was cleared with a half hour to spare.
Opposition on the northern landing
zone was stiffer. Beginning at 1300, after the troops had made a forced march of eight miles from Nijmegen, the attack by Colonel Warren's battalion might have stalled in the face of intense small arms and flak gun fire had not the paratroopers charged the defenders at a downhill run. At the last minute, the Germans panicked. It was a photo finish, a "movie-thriller sight of landing gliders on the LZ as the deployed paratroops chased the last of the Germans from their 16 20-mm. guns."62 The enemy lost 50 men killed and 150 captured. Colonel Warren's battalion incurred but 11 casualties.
The gliders had been flown in via the northern air route over the Dutch islands. Totaling 450, they brought primarily the last of General Gavin's artillery, one parachute and two glider battalions. Following the gliders by about twenty minutes, a flight of 135 B-24 bombers dropped resupply south of Groesbeek. A good drop pattern resulted in an estimated recovery of about 80 percent.
Involving not only the 82d Airborne Division but the British and the 101st Airborne Division as well, these new landings on D plus 1 gave the Germans a jolt. This was in spite of the fact that the omniscient Hitler had predicted the course. "Tomorrow," the Fuehrer had noted at his D-Day conference, "they will surely come back; they are making such a fuss—appeal to the Dutch, and all that . . . ."63 The possibility which disturbed the Germans on the scene was that the new landings might mean arrival of additional Allied divisions. Several hours passed before German intelligence determined the true nature of the reinforcement.
The gliders having arrived, the 82d Airborne Division by midafternoon of D plus 1 was in a position to focus attention upon gaining a bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen. Though enemy pressure from the Reichswald had been troublesome, it was more a "feeling out" than actual attack. "The intent was," noted the 82d Airborne Division G-2, Colonel Winton, "to apply pressure and gain information."64 Noteworthy German counteraction had not developed elsewhere, except in the neighborhood of the 505th Parachute Infantry's reserve battalion west of Groesbeek where two somewhat bizarre incidents had occurred. After nightfall of D-Day, a German-operated railroad train had slipped out of Nijmegen and escaped through Groesbeek to the east. Before daylight on D plus 1, another train had tried it. This one the paratroopers knocked out with a bazooka and small arms fire. Though many of the Germans aboard escaped into the surrounding woods, they eventually were rounded up, sometimes only after hot little skirmishes.
A battalion each of the 505th and 508th Infantry Regiments had acted offensively during the day to improve the division's over-all position. A battalion of the 505th had cleared the village of Mook, southeast of Heumen, on the important Venlo-Nijmegen highway. Colonel Mendez' battalion of the 508th had secured Beek, at the foot of the ridge below Hotel Berg on Dal, and established roadblocks there astride the Kleve-Nijmegen highway.
If the few instances where casualties were recorded could be taken as indica-
tion, American losses had been light. On D-Day, for example, one battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry had incurred 19 casualties. On D plus 1 the entire 505th Parachute Infantry had lost 63 men. The battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry which was defending near Hatert lost but 7 men wounded on D-Day. Enemy killed were an estimated 150; German prisoners, 885.65
The situation had been relatively quiet in the sector of the 504th Parachute Infantry between the Maas-Waal Canal and the Maas River and in the bridgehead south of the river, though some concern still existed that the enemy might move from the west against the 504th. Neither had the enemy been markedly troublesome in the sector of the battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry, which was just across the canal near Hatert. Parts of both these units, General Gavin must have reasoned, might be used in a new attack against the Nijmegen highway bridge.
In response to a request from General Browning, the British Airborne Corps commander, General Gavin in midafternoon of 18 September outlined a plan for seizing the bridge that night. He intended using a battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry "in conjunction with" the 508th Parachute Infantry to envelop the bridge from the east and west.66
General Browning at first approved this plan. Then, "on giving it more thought, [and] in view of the situation in the 30th Corps, he felt that the retention of the high ground S[outh] of Nijmegen was of greater importance, and directed that the primary mission should be to hold the high gr[ound] and retain its position W[est] of the Maas-Waal Canal." General Gavin thereupon apparently called off the projected attack; for he "issued an order for the defence of the position."67
The "situation in the 30th Corps" to which General Browning referred certainly represented no incentive for urgency at Nijmegen. At this time, contact between the ground column and the 101st Airborne Division at Eindhoven still was two and a half hours away. It might be a long time before the ground column reached Nijmegen.
Whether the prospects of difficulty in holding the high ground in the 82d Airborne Division's sector justified delay in renewing the attack at Nijmegen, even in view of the "situation in the 30th Corps," was a matter for conjecture. Few concrete indications that the Reichswald was rife with German armor, or even infantry, had developed. Civilians had told men of the 505th Parachute Infantry on D-Day that the Germans had no armor in the Reichswald. Patrols from the 505th had found no armor. One patrol reported that the "high ground" in the Reichswald was unoccupied. "Towers are empty, woods are tank obstacles—too thick."68 The 82d Airborne Division's G-2 estimated that the enemy had "probably two battalions of mixed L[ine] of C[ommunications] Troops" in the Reichswald, though he modified this low evaluation by listing first among enemy capabilities the likelihood of continuing piecemeal attacks, "but in increasing strength,"
from the forest.69 No tangible incidents of armor in action had developed; most vehicles reported as tanks turned out to be flak wagons.70
On the other hand, General Gavin recalled later that the "Dutch underground chief" told him during the morning of 18 September that "the Germans were in strength both with armor and infantry in the Reichswald area."71 The division intelligence section noted early on 18 September that "civilians continue to report massing of German troops in the Reichswald Forest."72 In late afternoon of the same day ninety-seven Spitfires and Mustangs of the British 2d Tactical Air Force bombed and strafed the Reichswald in response to a request from General Gavin.73 The 82d's airborne artillery delivered harassing fire on the forest from time to time.74
No matter what the true situation in the Reichswald—which no one could have known with any certainty at this point—General Gavin endorsed the corps commander's view that the best practice for the moment was to focus upon holding what he had. General Gavin's confidence in the ability of his paratroopers made the decision easier. "To those on the ground," he recalled later, "there was no doubt . . . that the bridge would be captured and it would be captured in time to relieve the Arnhem forces." General Gavin's earlier experience in airborne combat reinforced this view. He recalled later: "Experience indicated that we could expect a linkup in about two days and we felt quite sure of one in three. If, therefore, by the end of the third day the bridge were in my hands, and I had fought a good battle with whatever might develop in the remainder of the area, I felt that I would have been fortunate enough to have done a good job as planned."75 On the basis of this theory, General Gavin had another full day in which to tackle the Germans at Nijmegen.
Perhaps the ultimate test of how urgent was the need for the bridge at Nijmegen lay not in the "situation in the 30th Corps" but in the status of the British airborne troops farther north at Arnhem. But this no one at Nijmegen—including both General Gavin and General Browning—knew much about. The only report that had been received on the fighting at Arnhem had arrived through the 505th Parachute Infantry at 1040 on 18 September. An intelligence unit of the Netherlands Interior Forces, located in this regiment's sector, had a telephone line to Arnhem. Because the telephone network was one connecting power stations and
waterworks and messages over it had to be disguised as technical messages concerning the operations of these public utilities, the message about the fighting at Arnhem was necessarily brief.
The 505th Parachute Infantry noted the message this way: "Dutch Report Germans Winning over British at Arnhem."76
For all the lack of details, the message from the Dutch had not failed to state the situation as it actually existed with the 1st British Airborne Division at Arnhem. Having jumped into the quickest enemy build-up of any of the three Allied divisions, the paratroopers soon had found themselves in a bad way. The Germans were winning over the British at Arnhem.77
The British misfortunes had not begun with the D-Day landings. Like the two American divisions, men of the 1st Airborne Division—who called themselves Red Devils—experienced phenomenally successful flights, drops, and glider landings. Not an aircraft was lost as 331 planes and 319 gliders dropped or deposited their loads with almost 100-percent success on the correct drop and landing zones. Unlike the Americans, the British sent their gliders in first. They brought an air-landing brigade, which was to protect the drop and landing zones, plus a light regiment of artillery and lesser antitank, medical, and reconnaissance units. Close behind the gliders came a parachute brigade with the primary mission of seizing the highway bridge over the Neder Rijn at Arnhem.
The difficulties the British soon began to encounter arose not from any failure to achieve surprise. They were attributable to chance presence of General Bittrich's II SS Panzer Corps in assembly areas beyond the IJssel River a few miles east of Arnhem and to location of the British drop zones a long way from the objectives at Arnhem. Bowing to reputed difficulties of terrain and flak concentrations close to the city, the planning staffs had selected drop zones six to eight miles away, northwest of the suburb of Oosterbeek. By the time the parachutists could assemble and approach the bridge, four invaluable hours had passed.
The location of the drop and landing zones imposed an added burden in that the troops defending these zones could take no part in the main action. They would be tied up for three days until the three successive lifts had arrived. This meant that on D-Day only a brigade would be available for seizing and holding the main objectives. These objectives included not only the bridge at Arnhem but, as in the case of the 82d Airborne Division, high ground. This was the high ground north of Arnhem, its capture essential to fulfilling one of the 1st Airborne Division's missions of providing a bridgehead of sufficient size to enable the 30 Corps to pass through.
The Red Devils had not long to wait to experience the difficulties emanating both from the dispersion of effort and the presence of the SS panzer troops east of
Arnhem. Of three parachute battalions, two ran into serious difficulty almost at the outset. One heading northeast toward the high ground, the other moving east toward Arnhem, they both encountered armored reconnaissance patrols or advance guards of the 9th SS Panzer Division. When darkness came on D-Day, the two British battalions still were held up, one near Wolfheze Station, about two miles northwest of Oosterbeek, the other on the western outskirts of Oosterbeek. This left but one British battalion moving toward the vital bridge over the Neder Rijn.
Commanded by Lt. Col. J. D. Frost, this battalion bypassed the Germans at Oosterbeek by taking a secondary road close to the river. En route toward Arnhem, one company detoured to capture the railroad bridge, only to see the Germans blow it. "It seemed," said one man, "to curl back on us . . . ."78 Another company became involved in a fire fight in outlying buildings of Arnhem. This left but one company and the battalion headquarters to sneak through back streets toward the north end of the highway bridge. At 2030 this little band under Colonel Frost seized the north end. The bridge still was intact.
During the night another company also broke through to the bridge, but of the third, only remnants escaped from the fight in Arnhem. Colonel Frost's force at the highway bridge numbered at peak strength about 500.
Colonel Frost tried twice that night to capture the south end of the bridge, once by attacking across the bridge and again by sending a platoon across the river in rowboats. Both attempts failed. As daylight came of D plus 1, the men holed up in buildings about the north end to begin a dogged defense of their precarious grip on this vital prize.
Not long after daybreak (18 September) the enemy orders and preparations of the night before began to show effect. From the west, Division von Tettau, the haphazard collection of rear echelon and regional defense units belonging to the Armed Forces Commander Netherlands, attacked the air-landing brigade which was defending the drop and landing zones near Wolfheze Station. From the east, the bulk of the 9th SS Panzer Division, and possibly some of the 10th SS, bypassed Colonel Frost's little band at the highway bridge, pushed through Arnhem, and attacked westward, apparently in an attempt to link with Division von Tettau.79
The presence of the SS troops thwarted reinforcement of Colonel Frost at the bridge. Spurred by radio appeals for help, the two battalions of the British parachute brigade which had been held up on D-Day sideslipped to the south early on D plus 1 to try to reach the bridge. As they entered the western fringe of Arnhem, they ran head on into the attacking Germans. This rather than new airborne landings in reality stalled the German attack. Yet the meeting engagement brought high British casualties. Entire companies were cut off, and only shattered remnants survived.80 In late afternoon the remaining men of one
battalion, numbering about 140, launched a last effort to reach the bridge. They could make no headway.
Despite Division von Tettau's pressure against the air-landing brigade holding the drop and landing zones, the British commander, Maj. Gen. R. C. Urquhart, released an understrength battalion to go to the aid of the parachute brigade. The battalion could not penetrate a German cordon that had closed behind the paratroopers.
Delayed by the same soupy weather in England that had held up second lifts of the American divisions, the British lift on D plus 1 arrived about 1500. With this lift came the remainder of General Urquhart's division, including the other parachute brigade and last contingents of the air-landing brigade. Although this fresh parachute brigade was scheduled to capture high ground north of Arnhem, General Urquhart immediately diverted a battalion eastward to assist the hard-pressed men that were trying to reach Colonel Frost. Another battalion attempted the original mission, while General Urquhart withheld the third as a reserve.
The fresh paratroopers could make only slight inroads on the SS troops. Not until early the next morning (D plus 2, 19 September) did they reach the remnants of the other battalions in the edge of Arnhem. Even then the composite force could make no appreciable gains in the direction of the highway bridge. Eventually they had to give up. Those who remained, no more than 200 men out of three battalions of paratroopers and one battalion from the air-landing brigade, filtered back after nightfall on D plus 2 through the German cordon to the vicinity of the drop and landing zones. Their inability to reach the highway bridge was all the more frustrating because General Urquhart still had radio communication with Colonel Frost and knew that the gallant little band at the north end of the bridge still held out.
The remainder of General Urquhart's division had been fighting in the meantime against increasing odds to hold the drop and landing zones. Under strafing from German planes, shelling by mortars and artillery, and intense ground attacks from both Division von Tettau and the II SS Panzer Corps, the perimeter began to shrink. The only hope for immediate relief lay in the scheduled arrival during the afternoon of D plus 2 of the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade. Even this hope failed as the weather closed in. Only a few gliders and no additional paratroopers arrived.
As evidenced by the lack of information about the British situation at General Browning's headquarters near Nijmegen, General Urquhart's communications to the outside had failed. His radios were not strong enough to transmit successfully from the wooded and urban districts in which the British had to fight. General Urquhart thus had no way of notifying British bases in England not to drop the day's resupply on those of the drop zones the Germans had by this time overrun. As a result of this and of the weather, virtually all the resupply panniers dropped on D plus 2 fell into German hands. Critical shortages in food and ammunition were quickly manifest.
Pinning his hopes on arrival the next day of the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade or on an early juncture with the 30 Corps ground column, General Urquhart disposed his depleted forces about his perimeter and in other positions designed to
maintain a corridor to the Neder Rijn at the site of a ferry near Heveadorp, southwest of Oosterbeek. Perhaps either the Polish paratroopers or the ground column might push reinforcements across the river at the ferry site. Because of the failure of communications, General Urquhart had no way of knowing that early arrival of the ground column still depended upon getting a bridge at Nijmegen.