Military history

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AS IF ON SIGNAL, German guns opened up as the planes carrying the 82nd Airborne Division made their approach to the drop zones. Looking down, Brigadier General James M. Gavin saw ground fire spurting from a line of trenches paralleling the Maas-Waal Canal. In wooded areas, enemy batteries that had remained silent and hidden until now also began to fire. Watching, Gavin wondered if his battle plan for the 82nd, which had been based on a calculated risk, might founder.

Charged with holding the middle sector of the Market-Garden corridor, the division had widespread objectives, running ten miles south-to-north and twelve miles west-to-east. Besides the drop of one paratroop company near the western end of the Grave bridge, which was to be seized by a surprise coup de main assault, Gavin had chosen three drop areas and one large landing zone. The latter would accommodate his fifty Waco gliders and the thirty-eight Horsas and Wacos of General Frederick Browning’s British I Airborne Corps headquarters. But Gavin had ordered only one drop zone, north of Overasselt, to be marked by pathfinders. The other three, lying close to the Groesbeek ridge and the German border, were deliberately left unmarked. Gavin’s paratroopers and gliders would land without identifying beacons or smoke in order to confuse the enemy as to their touchdown areas. Some thirteen minutes after the 82nd was down, Browning’s Corps headquarters would land.

Because Gavin’s primary concern was that enemy tanks might suddenly emerge from the Reichswald along the German border east of his largest glider and drop zone, he had given two unusual orders. To protect both his division and Browning’s headquarters, he had instructed paratroopers to jump close to any antiaircraft batteries they were able to spot from the air and render them useless as quickly as possible. And, for the first time in airborne history, he was parachuting in a complete battalion of field artillery, dropping it onto the large zone directly facing the forest and approximately one and one-half miles from the German border itself. Now, looking at the intense antiaircraft fire and thinking of the possibility of enemy tanks in the Reichswald, Gavin knew that while he had planned for nearly all eventualities, the men of the 82nd faced a tough task.

Gavin’s Normandy veterans had never forgotten the slaughter of their own in Ste. Mère Église. Dropped by accident on that village, men had been machine-gunned by the Germans as they came down; many were killed as they hung helpless in their parachutes, from telephone lines and trees around the village square. Not until Ste. Mère Église was finally secured by Lieutenant Colonel Ben Vandervoort were the dead troopers cut down and buried. Now, as the 82nd prepared to jump over Holland, some men called out to troopers still hooked up behind them: “Remember Ste. Mere Église.” Although it was a risky procedure, many troopers jumped with their guns blazing.

Captain Briand Beaudin, coming down over his drop zone near the Groesbeek Ridge, saw that he was descending directly over a German antiaircraft emplacement with guns aiming at him. Beaudin began firing with his Colt .45. “Suddenly I realized,” Beaudin remembers, “how futile it was, aiming my little peashooter while oscillating in the air above large-caliber guns.” Landing close to the flak site, Beaudin took the entire crew prisoner. He thinks the Germans “were so startled they couldn’t fire a single shot.”

First Lieutenant James J. Coyle thought he was heading for a landing on a German tent hospital. Suddenly, enemy troops poured out of the tent and began running for 20 mm. antiaircraft guns around the perimeter. He, too, worked his .45 from its holster but his parachute began to oscillate and Coyle drifted away from the tent. One of the Germans started to run in Coyle’s direction. “I couldn’t get off a shot at the Kraut,” Coyle recalls. “One second I’d be pointing the pistol at the ground; the next, I’d be aiming at the sky. I did have enough sense left to put the Colt back into the holster so I wouldn’t drop it or shoot myself when I hit.” On the ground, even before he tried to get out of his harness, Coyle drew his pistol once more. “The Kraut was now only a few feet away, but he was acting as though he didn’t know I existed. Suddenly I realized that he wasn’t running toward me; he was just running away.” As the German hurried past Coyle he threw away his gun and helmet, and Coyle could see “he was only a kid, about eighteen years old. I just couldn’t shoot an unarmed man. The last I saw of the boy he was running for the German border.”

When tracer bullets began ripping through his canopy, Private Edwin C. Raub became so enraged that he deliberately sideslipped his chute so as to land next to the antiaircraft gun. Without removing his harness, and dragging his parachute behind him, Raub rushed the Germans with his Tommy gun. He killed one, captured the others and then, with plastic explosives, destroyed the flak-gun barrels.

Although enemy opposition to the 505th and 508th regiments in the Groesbeek area was officially considered negligible, a considerable amount of antiaircraft and small-arms fire came from the woods surrounding the zones. Without waiting to assemble, 82nd troopers, individually and in small groups, swarmed over these pockets of resistance, quickly subduing them and taking prisoners. Simultaneously, fighter planes skimmed over the tree tops, machine-gunning the enemy emplacements. The Germans scored heavily against these low-level attacks. Within a matter of minutes, three fighters were hit and crashed near the woods. Staff Sergeant Michael Vuletich saw one of them. It cartwheeled across the drop zone and when it finally stopped, only the plane’s fuselage was intact. Moments later, the pilot emerged unscathed and stopped by the wreckage to light a cigarette. Vuletich remembers that the downed flier remained with the company as an infantryman.

From the ground, Staff Sergeant James Jones saw a P-47 aflame at about 1,500 feet. He expected the pilot to bail out but the plane came down, skidded across the drop zone and broke apart. The tail snapped off, the motor rolled away, and the cockpit came to rest on the field. Jones was sure the pilot was dead but, as he watched, the canopy slid back and “a little tow-headed guy with no hat on and a .45 under his arm ran toward us.” Jones remembers asking, “Man, why in the devil didn’t you jump?” The pilot grinned. “Hell, I was afraid to,” he told Jones.

Just after landing and assembling his gear, Staff Sergeant Russell O’Neal watched a P-51 fighter dive and strafe a hidden German position near his field. After the plane had made two passes over the machine-gun nest, it was hit; but the pilot was able to circle and make a safe belly landing. According to O’Neal, “this guy jumped out and ran up to me, shouting, ‘Give me a gun, quick! I know right where that Kraut s.o.b. is and I’m gonna get him.’ “As O’Neal stared after him, the pilot grabbed a gun and raced off toward the woods.

Within eighteen minutes, 4,511 men of the 82nd’s 505th and 508th regiments, along with engineers and seventy tons of equipment, were down on or near their drop zones straddling the town of Groesbeek on the eastern side of the wooded heights. As the men assembled, cleared the zones and struck out for objectives, special pathfinder teams marked the areas for the artillery drop, the 82nd’s glider force, and the British Corps headquarters. So far, General Gavin’s calculated risk was succeeding. Yet, although radio contact between the regiments was established almost immediately, it was still too early for Gavin, who had jumped with the 505th, to learn what was occurring eight miles west, where the 504th Regiment had dropped north of Overasselt. Nor did he know whether the special assault against the Grave bridge was proceeding according to plan.

Like the rest of the division’s planes, the 137 C-47’s carrying Colonel Reuben H. Tucker’s 504th Regiment ran into spasmodic antiaircraft fire as they neared the Overasselt drop zone. As in the other areas, pilots held their courses, and at 1:15 P.M., some 2,016 men began to jump. Eleven planes swung slightly west and headed for a small drop site near the vital nine-span, 1,500-foot-long bridge over the Maas river near Grave. These C-47’s carried Company E of Major Edward Wellems’ 2nd Battalion to the most crucial of the 82nd’s immediate objectives. Their job was to rush the bridges from the western approach; the remainder of Wellems’ battalion would strike out from Overasselt and head for the eastern side. If the Grave bridge was not taken quickly and intact, the tight Market-Garden schedule could not be maintained. Loss of the bridge might mean failure for the entire operation.

As E Company’s planes headed for the western assault site, platoon leader Lieutenant John S. Thompson could clearly see the Maas river, the town of Grave, the mass jump of the 504th to his right near Overasselt and then, coming up, the ditch-lined fields where the company was to drop. As Thompson watched, other men from the company were already out of their planes and falling toward the Grave bridge zone; but in the lieutenant’s C-47 the green light had not yet flashed on. When it did, Thompson saw that they were directly over some buildings. He waited for a few seconds, saw fields beyond and jumped with his platoon. By a fortuitous error, he and his men came down only some five or six hundred yards from the southwestern edge of the bridge.

Thompson could hear erratic firing from the direction of Grave itself, but around the bridge everything seemed quiet. He did not know whether he should wait until the remainder of the company came up or attack with the sixteen men in his platoon. “Since this was our primary mission, I decided to attack,” Thompson says. Sending Corporal Hugh H. Perry back to the company commander, Thompson gave him a laconic message to deliver: “We are proceeding toward the bridge.”

Firing from the town and nearby buildings was now more intense, and Thompson led the platoon to cover in nearby drainage ditches. Working their way toward the bridge, men waded in water up to their necks. They began to receive fire from a flak tower close to the bridge and Thompson noticed enemy soldiers with bags in their arms running to and from a building near the crossing. He thought it must be a maintenance or power plant. Fearful that the Germans were carrying demolition charges to the bridge in preparation for destroying it, Thompson quickly deployed his men, encircled the building and opened fire. “We raked the area with machine guns, overran the power plant, found four dead Germans and one wounded,” Thompson recalls. “Apparently they had been carrying their personal equipment and blankets.” Suddenly, two trucks came racing down the highway from Grave, heading toward the bridge. One of Thompson’s men killed a driver whose truck careened off the road as its load of German soldiers scrambled to get out. The second vehicle stopped immediately and the soldiers in it jumped to the ground. Thompson’s men opened up, but the Germans showed no desire to fight. Without returning fire, they ran away.

Fire was still coming from the flak tower, but by now it was passing over the heads of the platoon. “The gunners were unable to depress the 20 mm. flak gun sufficiently to get us,” Thompson remembers. The platoon’s bazooka man, Private Robert McGraw, crawled forward and, at a range of about seventy-five yards, fired three rounds, two of them into the top of the tower, and the gun ceased firing.

Although a twin 20 mm. gun in a tower across the river near the far end of the bridge was firing, Thompson and his men nonetheless destroyed electrical equipment and cables that they suspected were hooked up to demolitions. The platoon then set up a roadblock and placed land mines across the highway at the southwestern approach to the bridge. In the flak tower they had knocked out, they found the gunner dead but his 20 mm. weapon undamaged. Thompson’s men promptly began firing it at the flak tower across the river. The platoon, he knew, would soon be reinforced by the rest of E Company coming up behind and, shortly after, by Major Wellems’ battalion even now rushing from Overasselt to grab the northeastern end of the bridge. But, as far as Lieutenant Thompson was concerned, the prime objective was already taken.*

By now, the remaining battalions of Tucker’s 504th Regiment were moving eastward, like spokes on a wheel, for the three road crossings and the railroad bridge over the Maas-Waal Canal. Rushing toward the bridge also were units of the 505th and 508th regiments, bent on seizing the crossings from the opposite ends. Not all these objectives were essential to the Market-Garden advance. In the surprise of the assault and the ensuing confusion, Gavin hoped to seize them all; but one, in addition to the all-important Grave bridge, would suffice.

To keep the enemy off balance, defend his positions, protect General Browning’s Corps headquarters and aid his paratroopers as they moved on their objectives, Gavin was depending heavily on his howitzers; and now the guns of the 376th Parachute Field Artillery were coming in. Small artillery units had been dropped in previous operations, but they had been badly scattered and slow to assemble and fire. The unit of 544 men now approaching was hand-picked, every soldier a veteran paratrooper. Among the forty-eight planes carrying the battalion was the artillery—twelve 75 mm. howitzers, each broken down into seven pieces. The howitzers would be dropped first, followed by some 700 rounds of ammunition. Lining up, the C-47’s came in and, in quick succession, the guns rolled out. Ammunition and men followed, all making a near-perfect landing.

One accident caused scarcely a pause. Lieutenant Colonel Wilbur Griffith, commanding the 376th, broke his ankle on the jump but his men quickly liberated a Dutch wheelbarrow in which to carry him. “I shall never forget the Colonel being trundled from place to place,” Major Augustin Hart recalls, “and barking out orders for everybody to get assembled at top speed.” When the job was complete, Griffith was wheeled over to General Gavin. There he reported: “Guns in position, sir, and ready to fire on call.” In just over an hour, in the most successful drop of its kind ever made, the entire battalion was assembled and ten of its howitzers were already firing.

Fourteen minutes after the 82nd’s field artillery landed, Waco gliders carrying an airborne antitank battalion, engineers, elements of Division headquarters, guns, ammunition, trailers and jeeps began to come in. Of the original fifty gliders leaving England, all but four reached Holland. Not all, however, touched down on their landing zone. Some gliders ended up a mile or two away. One, copiloted by Captain Anthony Jedrziewski, cut loose late from its tug and Jedrziewski saw with horror that “we were heading straight for Germany on a one-glider invasion.” The pilot made a 180-degree turn and began to look for a place to land. As they came in, Jedrziewski remembers, “we lost one wing on a haystack, the other on a fence and ended up with the glider nose in the ground. Seeing earth up to my knees, I wasn’t sure if my feet were still a part of me. Then, we heard the unwelcome sound of an 88 and, in nothing flat, we had the jeep out and were racing back toward our own area.”

They were luckier than Captain John Connelly, whose pilot was killed during the approach. Connelly, who had never flown a glider before, took the controls and landed the Waco just inside the German border, six to seven miles away, near the town of Wyler. Only Connelly and one other man escaped capture. They were to hide out until darkness and finally reached their units by midmorning of September 18.

Yet, in all, the 82nd Airborne had successfully brought in 7,467 paratroopers and glider-borne men. The last elements to touch down in the area were 35 Horsas and Wacos carrying General Frederick Browning’s Corps headquarters. Three gliders had been lost en route to the drop zone, two before reaching the Continent; the third, south of Vught, had crash-landed in the vicinity of General Student’s headquarters. Browning’s headquarters landed almost on the German frontier. “There was little flak, if any, and almost no enemy opposition,” Browning’s chief of staff, Brigadier Gordon Walch, remembers. “We set down about a hundred yards west of the Reichswald Forest and my glider was roughly fifty yards away from Browning’s.”

Colonel George S. Chatterton, commanding the Glider Pilot Regiment, was at the controls of Browning’s Horsa. After clipping off a front wheel on an electric cable, Chatterton slid into a cabbage patch. “We got out,” Chatterton recalls, “and Browning, looking around, said, ‘By God, we’re here, George!’ “Nearby, Brigadier Walch saw Browning run across the landing zone toward the Reichswald. When he returned a few minutes later, he explained to Walch, “I wanted to be the first British officer to pee in Germany.”

While Browning’s jeep was being unloaded, a few German shells exploded nearby. Colonel Chatterton promptly threw himself into the closest ditch. “I shall never forget Browning standing above me, looking like some sort of explorer, and asking, ‘George, whatever in the world are you doing down there?’ “Chatterton was frank. “I’m bloody well hiding, sir,” he said. “Well, you can bloody well stop hiding,” Browning told him. “It’s time we were going.” From a pocket in his tunic, Browning took out a parcel wrapped in tissue paper. Handing it to Chatterton, he said, “Put it on my jeep.” Chatterton unfolded the tissue and saw that it contained a pennant bearing a light-blue Pegasus against a maroon background, the insignia of the British Airborne.* With the pennant fluttering from the jeep’s fender, the commander of the Market forces drove away.

At Renkum Heath west of Arnhem, Lieutenant Neville Hay, the highly trained specialist in charge of the fact-gathering liaison unit “Phantom,” was totally baffled. His team of experts had assembled their radio set with its special antenna and expected immediate contact with General Browning’s Corps headquarters. Hay’s first priority on landing was to get through to Corps and give his position. Earlier, he had learned that Division communications had broken down. While he might have anticipated that problems would arise among the less experienced Royal Signal Corps operators, he was not prepared to believe that the difficulties he was having stemmed from his own men. “We were set up on the landing zone and, although it was screened by pine woods, we had got through in considerably worse country than this,” he remembers. “We kept trying and getting absolutely nothing.” Until he could discover where the trouble lay, there was no way of informing General Browning of the progress of General Urquhart’s division or of relaying Browning’s orders to the British 1st Airborne. Ironically, the Dutch telephone system was in full operation, including a special network owned and operated by the PGEM power station authorities at Nijmegen and connected with the entire province. Had he known, all Hay had to do, with the aid of the Dutch resistance, was to pick up a telephone.

Fifteen miles away there was already anxiety at General Browning’s headquarters, now set up on the edge of the Groes-beek ridge. Both of the 82nd Airborne’s large communication sets had been damaged on landing. Browning’s had come through safely, and one of these was allocated to the 82nd, insuring immediate communication with General Gavin. The Corps communications section had also made radio contact with General Dempsey’s British 2nd Army and Airborne Corps rear headquarters in England and Browning had radio contact with the 101st. But the signal section was unable to raise Urquhart’s division. Brigadier Walch believes that Corps signals was to blame. “Before the operation was planned, we asked for a proper headquarters signals section,” he says. “We were frightfully cognizant that our sets were inadequate and our headquarters signals staff weak and inexperienced.” While Browning could direct and influence the movements of the 82nd, the 101st and Horrocks’ XXX Corps, at this vital junction the all-important battle at Arnhem was beyond his control. As Walch says, “We had absolutely no idea what was happening in Arnhem.”

A kind of creeping paralysis was already beginning to affect Montgomery’s plan. But at this early stage no one knew it. Throughout the entire Market-Garden area, some 20,000 Allied soldiers were in Holland, heading out to secure the bridges and hold open the corridor for the massive Garden units whose lead tanks were expected to link up with 101st paratroopers by nightfall.

*The 82nd’s after-action report and that of the 504th commander, Colonel Tucker, state the bridge was “taken” at 2:30 P.M. But Major Wellems’ account states that because the bridge was still under harassing fire, the first men to actually cross from the northeastern end went over at 3:35 P.M. Still, the E Company platoon under Lieutenant Thompson held the bridge and prevented its demolition from 1:45 P.M. until it was described as “secure” at 5 P.M.

*Some accounts have stated that Browning’s pennant was made by his wife, the novelist Daphne du Maurier. “I am sorry,” she writes, “to disappoint the myth-makers … but anyone who has seen my attempts to thread a needle would know this was beyond me. It is a delightful thought, however, and would have greatly amused my husband.” Actually, the pennant was made by Hobson & Sons Ltd., London, under the supervision of Miss Claire Miller, who also, at Browning’s direction, hand-sewed tiny compasses into 500 shirt collars and belts just prior to Market-Garden.

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