Military history

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FROM THE FLAT ROOF of a large factory near the Meuse-Escaut Canal, General Brian Horrocks, commander of the British XXX Corps, watched the last of the huge airborne glider formations pass over his waiting tanks. He had been on the roof since 11 A.M., and as he put it, “I had plenty of time to think.” The sight of the vast armada was “comforting, but I was under no illusion that this was going to be an easy battle,” Horrocks remembers. Meticulously, he had covered every possible contingency, even to ordering his men to take as much food, gas and ammunition as they could carry, “since we were likely to be out in the blue on our own.” There was one worry the General could not eliminate, but he had not discussed it with anyone—he did not like a Sunday attack. “No assault or attack in which I had taken part during the war which started on a Sunday had ever been completely successful.” Bringing up his binoculars, he studied the white ribbon of road stretching away north toward Valkenswaard and Eindhoven. Satisfied that the airborne assault had now begun, Horrocks gave the order for the Garden forces to attack. At precisely 2:15 P.M., with a thunderous roar, some 350 guns opened fire.

The bombardment was devastating. Ton after ton of explosives flayed the enemy positions up ahead. The hurricane of fire, ranging five miles in depth and concentrated over a one-mile front, caused the earth to shake beneath the tanks of the Irish Guards as they lumbered up to the start line. Behind the lead squadrons, hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles began to move slowly out of their parking positions, ready to fall into line as the first tanks moved off. And up above, a “cab rank” of rocket-firing Typhoon fighters circled endlessly, waiting on call for the commander of the Irish Guards Group, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Vandeleur, to direct them to targets up ahead. At 2:35 P.M., standing in the turret of the lead tank of No. 3 Squadron, Lieutenant Keith Heathcote shouted into his microphone, “Driver, advance!”

Slowly the tanks rumbled out of the bridgehead and moved up the road at eight miles an hour. Now, the curtain of artillery fire lifted to creep ahead of the armor at exactly the same speed. Tankers could see shells bursting barely one hundred yards in front of them. As the squadrons moved forward, engulfed in the dust of the barrage, men could not tell at times whether the tanks were safely back of their own fire.

Behind the lead squadrons came the scout cars of Lieutenant Colonel Joe Vandeleur and his cousin Giles. Standing in his car, Vandeleur could see, both in front of and behind him, infantry riding on the tanks, each tank marked with yellow streamers to identify it to the Typhoons above. “The din was unimaginable,” Vandeleur remembers, “but everything was going according to plan.” By now, the lead tanks had burst out of the bridgehead and were across the Dutch frontier. Captain “Mick” O’Cock, commanding No. 3 Squadron, radioed back, “Advance going well. Leading squadron has got through.” Then, in seconds, the picture changed. As Vandeleur recalls, “The Germans really began to paste us.”

Ensconced in well-hidden, fortified positions on both sides of the road, German gunners had not only survived the tremendous barrage but had waited until it passed over them. Holding their fire, the Germans let the first few tanks go through. Then, within two minutes three tanks of the lead squadron and six of the next were knocked out of action. Burning and disabled, they littered a half mile of road. “We had just crossed the border when we were ambushed,” Lieutenant Cyril Russell recalls. “Suddenly the tanks in front either slewed across the road or burned where they stood. The awful realization dawned on me that the next one to go was the one I was sitting on. We jumped into the ditches by the roadside.” As Russell went forward to see how the remainder of his platoon was faring, a machine gun opened up; he was hit in the arm and fell back into the ditch. For Russell, the war was over.

Lance Corporal James Doggart’s tank was hit. “I don’t remember seeing or hearing the explosion,” he says. “I was suddenly flat on my back in a ditch with the tank leaning over me. I had a Bren gun across my chest and next to me was a young lad with his arm nearly severed. Nearby, another of our men was dead. The tank was on fire and I don’t recall seeing any of the crew get out.”

Lieutenant Barry Quinan, in the last tank of the lead squadron, remembers that his Sherman swung left into a ditch, and Quinan thought the driver was trying to bypass the burning tanks ahead. But the tank had been hit by a shell which killed both the driver and codriver. The Sherman began to burn and Quinan’s gunner, “trying to scramble out of the hatch, half lifted me out of the turret before I realized we were ‘brewing up.’ “As the two men climbed out of the tank, Quinan saw others coming up behind. One after the other, the tanks were hit. “I actually saw the commander of one tank trying to shield his face from a sheet of flame that engulfed the entire machine.”

The breakout had been stopped before it had really begun and nine disabled tanks now blocked the road. Squadrons coming up could not advance. Even if they could bypass the burning hulks, hidden German gunners would pick them off. To get the advance rolling again, Vandeleur called in the rocket-firing Typhoons and, aided by purple smoke shells fired from the tanks to indicate suspected German positions, the fighters screamed down. “It was the first time I had ever seen Typhoons in action,” Vandeleur recalls, “and I was amazed at the guts of those pilots. They came in, one at a time, head to tail, flying right through our own barrage. One disintegrated right above me. It was incredible—guns firing, the roar of planes, the shouts and curses of the men. In the middle of it all, Division asked how the battle was going. My second in command just held up the microphone and said, ‘Listen.’ “

As the planes swooped down on their targets, Vandeleur sent forward an armored bulldozer to push the burning tanks off the road. The bedlam of the battle now raged over several miles of highway, stretching back as far as Vandeleur’s own car and the R.A.F. communications tender, which called the Typhoons down on demand. Flight Lieutenant Donald Love, the fighter reconnaissance pilot attached to the communications unit, was now convinced that he should never have volunteered for the job. While Squadron Leader Max Sutherland directed the Typhoons, Love got out to see what was happening. Black smoke billowed up from the road ahead and an antitank gun carrier, almost in front of the communications tender, was afire. As Love watched, a Bren gun carrier came back along the road carrying wounded. One man’s shoulder was blown off, and his clothes were burned and charred. “I was sure we were surrounded,” says Love. “I was horrified and I kept wondering why hadn’t I stayed with the Air Force, where I belonged.”

The waiting tankers farther back in the halted columns felt, as Captain Roland Langton describes it, “a strange sense of power-lessness. We could go neither forward nor backward.” Langton watched infantry moving up to clean out the woods on either side of the road with two Bren gun carriers out in front. Langton thought the soldiers might be an advance party of the 43rd Infantry Division. “Suddenly I saw both carriers catapulted into the air,” Langton remembers. “They had run over enemy land mines.” When the smoke cleared, Langton saw “bodies in the trees. I don’t know how many, it was impossible to tell. There were pieces of men hanging from every limb.”

With the Typhoons firing only yards away from them, the British infantry men grimly began to dig out the Germans from their hidden trenches. Lance Corporal Doggart had escaped from the ditch where he landed when his tank was hit. He raced across the road and jumped into an empty enemy slit trench. “At the same moment, two Germans—one a young fellow without a jacket, the other a tough-looking bastard of about thirty—jumped in after me from the opposite direction,” Doggart says. Without hesitating, Doggart kicked the older German in the face. The younger man, immediately cowed, surrendered. Covering both with his rifle, Doggart sent them marching back along the road “with streams of other Germans, all running with their hands behind their heads. Those that were too slow got a fast kick in the backside.”

From the woods, in ditches, around haystacks and along the roadway, now being slowly cleared of the disabled tanks, came the stutter of Sten guns as the infantry mopped up. The Guardsmen showed no quarter, particularly toward snipers. Men remember that prisoners were made to double-time down the road, and when they slowed they were promptly prodded with bayonets. One prisoner in the now-growing lines tried to break away, but there was more than a company of infantry in the vicinity and several men recall that—in the words of one—“he was dead the second the thought entered his mind.”

Joe Vandeleur watched the prisoners being marched past his scout car. As one German came along, Vandeleur caught a sudden movement. “The bastard had taken a grenade he’d concealed and lobbed it into one of our gun carriers. It went off with a tremendous explosion and I saw one of my sergeants lying in the road with his leg blown off. The German was cut down on all sides by machine guns.”

At his command post, General Horrocks received word that the road was gradually being cleared and that the infantry, although suffering heavy casualties, had routed the Germans on the flanks. As he later put it, “The Micks were getting tired of being shot at, and as so often happens with these great fighters, they suddenly lost their tempers.”

Perhaps no one was more enraged than Captain Eamon Fitzgerald, the 2nd Battalion’s intelligence officer, who interrogated the captured crew of an antitank gun. According to Lieutenant Colonel Giles Vandeleur, “Fitzgerald had an interesting way of extracting information. A huge giant of a man, he spoke German well, but with an atrocious accent. His normal custom was to produce his pistol, poke it into the German’s belly and, standing as close as possible, shout questions in the man’s face.” The results, Vandeleur always thought, “were positively splendid. Within a few minutes after interrogating this crew, our tanks were picking off the German camouflaged antitank positions with creditable accuracy and the road was being sufficiently cleared to allow us to continue the advance.”

Many Irish Guardsmen believe Sergeant Bertie Cowan turned the tide of the battle. Commanding a 17-pounder Sherman, Cowan had spotted a German antitank position and demolished it with a single shot. During the fight, Major Edward G. Tyler, in command of the squadron, was astonished to see that a German was standing on Cowan’s tank directing operations. He saw the tank cross the road and open fire; then, busy himself, Tyler forgot the incident. Later, Tyler learned that Cowan had knocked out three German guns. “When I could take a moment, I went to congratulate him,” Tyler says. “Cowan told me the Jerry on his tank had been a crew chief in the first position he’d overrun who had surrendered.” He had been interrogated by Captain Fitzgerald and then returned to Cowan where he had proven “most cooperative.”

The Irish Guards were on the way again, but constant fighting continued. The German crust was far tougher than anyone had anticipated. Among the prisoners were men of renowned parachute battalions and—to the complete surprise of the British-veteran infantrymen from the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions: elements of the combat groups General Wilhelm Bittrich had sent to bolster Student’s First Parachute Army. To compound the surprise, some prisoners were discovered to belong to General von Zangen’s Fifteenth Army. As the Irish Guards’ war diary notes, “Our intelligence spent the day in a state of indignant surprise: one German regiment after another appeared which had no right to be there.”

General Horrocks had expected that his lead tanks would drive the thirteen miles to Eindhoven “within two to three hours.” Precious time had been lost, and the Irish Guards would cover only seven miles, reaching Valkenswaard by nightfall. Market-Garden was already ominously behind schedule.

In order to be as mobile as possible, General Maxwell D. Taylor’s gliders had brought in mostly jeeps—no artillery. The fact that the British were late in reaching Eindhoven was a blow. Taylor had hoped for the support of the tankers’ guns along the fifteen-mile stretch of corridor the Screaming Eagles must control. Taylor’s Dutch liaison officers discovered the true situation—that the 101st would have to operate independently for longer than planned—almost immediately; with the aid of the resistance, they simply used the telephone to learn what was happening with the British.

With lightning speed Taylor’s paratroopers took Veghel, the northernmost objective along the corridor, and its four crossings—the rail and highway bridges over the river Aa and the Willems Canal. Heavy fighting would ensue; nevertheless, these four objectives were seized within two hours. Farther south, midway between Veghel and Son, the town of St. Oedenrode and its highway crossing over the Dommel river were captured with relative ease. According to official Dutch telephone log books, Johanna Lathouwers, a loyal operator with the state telephone exchange, heard “an unmistakable American voice came on the Oed 1 (St. Oedenrode) line, at 1425 hours, asking for Valkenswaard, a connection that lasted forty minutes.”*

The Americans quickly learned that the spearhead of the Garden forces had not as yet even reached Valkenswaard. It now seemed unlikely that Horrocks’ tanks, already delayed, would reach Eindhoven at the southern end of the corridor before nightfall; and that would be too late to help the Americans seize and control their widespread targets. The men of the 101st had achieved spectacular success. Now, they ran into problems.

The most pressing of Taylor’s objectives was the highway bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Son, approximately five miles north of Eindhoven. As a contingency plan in case this main traffic artery was blown, Taylor had decided to seize a bridge over the canal at Best, four miles to the west. Because the bridge was considered secondary, only a single company of the 502nd Regiment was detailed to Best, and it was thought that only a few Germans would be in the area. Taylor’s intelligence was unaware that Colonel General Student’s headquarters lay only ten miles northwest of the 101st drop zones and that recent arrivals of Von Zangen’s Fifteenth Army were quartered at nearby Tilburg. Among these forces was Major General Walter Poppe’s battered 59th Infantry Division plus a considerable amount of artillery.

Almost immediately upon approaching the bridge, H Company radioed that it had run into enemy roadblocks and was meeting strong resistance. The message signaled the beginning of a bloody battle that would last throughout the night and most of the following two days. What had begun as a single-company operation eventually involved more than an entire regiment. But already the heroic men of H Company, though taking heavy casualties, were blunting the first, unexpectedly strong, German blows.

While H Company was setting out for the bridge at Best, Colonel Robert F. Sink’s 506th Regiment was going for the main highway bridge at Son. There was almost no opposition until troops reached the northern outskirts of the village. Then they were fired on by a German 88 artillery piece. In less than ten minutes, the advance party destroyed the gun emplacement with a bazooka and killed its crew. Fighting through the streets, the Americans were a bare fifty yards from the canal itself when the bridge was blown up, debris falling all around the paratroopers. For Colonel Sink, who was to take Eindhoven and its crossings by 8 P.M., the loss of the bridge was a bitter blow. Reacting quickly and still under fire, three men—Major James LaPrade, Second Lieutenant Millford F. Weller and Sergeant John Dunning—dived into the canal and swam to the far side. Other members of the battalion followed their lead or went across in rowboats. On the southern bank, they subdued the German opposition and set up a bridgehead.

The central column of the bridge was still intact, and 101st engineers immediately began the construction of a temporary crossing. Help came from an unexpected source. Dutch civilians reported that a considerable amount of black-market lumber was being stored by a contractor in a nearby garage. Within one and a half hours the engineers, utilizing the bridge’s center trestle and the liberated lumber, spanned the canal. As Colonel Sink recalled, “the bridge was unsatisfactory from every point of view, except that it did enable me to put the rest of the regiment across, single file.” Until bridging equipment could be brought up, the Market-Garden corridor at Son was reduced to a single wooden footpath.

*By Allied clocks it was actually 1525 hours; there was a one-hour difference between German and British times.

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