Military history

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AT THE PRECISE TIME that Lieutenant Colonel John Frost secured the northern end of the Arnhem bridge, a cautious approach to another prime objective eleven miles away was only just beginning. The five-span highway bridge over the Waal river at Nijmegen in the 82nd Airborne’s central sector of the corridor was the last crossing over which the tanks of General Horrocks’ XXX Corps would pass on their drive to Arnhem.

With spectacular success, Brigadier General James M. Gavin’s 504th paratroopers had grabbed the crucial Grave bridge eight miles southwest of Nijmegen; and, at about 7:30 P.M., units of the 504th and 505th regiments secured a crossing over the Maas-Waal Canal at the village of Heumen, less than five miles due east of Grave. Gavin’s hope of capturing all three canal crossings and a railroad bridge was in vain. The bridges were blown or severely damaged by the Germans before the 82nd could grab them. Yet, within six hours of landing, Gavin’s troopers had forged a route over which the British ground forces would travel. Additionally, patrols of the 505th Regiment probing the area between the 82nd’s drop zones near the Groesbeek Heights and the Reichs-wald encountered only light resistance; and, by nightfall, other troopers of the 508th Regiment had secured a 3½-mile stretch of woods along the Holland-German border north of the Groesbeek drop zone and running to the southeastern outskirts of Nijmegen. Now, with three of the 82nd’s four key objectives in hand, everything depended upon the capture of the 1,960-foot-long road bridge at Nijmegen.

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Although General Browning had directed Gavin not to go for the Nijmegen crossing until the high ground around Groesbeek was secured, Gavin was confident that all the 82nd’s objectives could be taken on this first day. Evaluating the situation some twenty-four hours before the jump, Gavin had called in the 5o8th’s commander, Colonel Roy E. Lindquist, and directed him to send one battalion racing for the bridge. In the surprise and confusion of the airborne landings, Gavin reasoned, the gamble was well worth taking. “I cautioned Lindquist about the dangers of getting caught in streets,” Gavin remembers, “and pointed out that the way to get the bridge was to approach from east of the city without going through built-up areas.” Whether by misunderstanding or a desire to clean up his initial assignments, Lindquist’s own recollection was that he was not to commit his troopers in an assault on the bridge until the regiment’s other objectives had been achieved. To the 1st Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Shields Warren, Jr., Lindquist assigned the task of holding protective positions along the Groesbeek-Nijmegen highway about a mile and a quarter southeast of the city. Warren was to defend the area and link up with the regiment’s remaining two battalions to the west and east. Only when these missions were accomplished, Warren recalled, was he to prepare to go into Nijmegen. Thus, instead of driving for the bridge from the flat farming areas to the east, Warren’s battalion found itself squarely in the center of those very built-up areas Gavin had sought to avoid.

It was nightfall before Warren achieved his other objectives. Now with precious time lost, lead companies began to move slowly through the quiet, almost deserted streets of Nijmegen. The main objective was to reach the traffic circle leading to the southern approaches of the bridge. There was a diversionary target as well. The Dutch underground reported that the detonating mechanism for destroying the great crossing was situated in the main post-office building. This vital information reached Warren’s units only after they had begun moving toward the bridge. A platoon was hurriedly sent to the post office, where, after subduing the German guards, engineers cut wires and blew up what they believed to be the detonating controls. Whether this apparatus was, in fact, actually hooked up to explosives on the bridge, no one would ever know for certain, but now, at least, electrical circuits and switchboards were destroyed. When the platoon attempted to withdraw to rejoin the main force they found that the enemy had closed in behind them. They were cut off and for the next three days would be forced to hold out in the post office until help arrived.

Meanwhile, as the remainder of Warren’s force approached a park that led toward the bridge, they came suddenly under intense machine-gun and armored-car fire. Captain Arie D. Bestebreurtje, the Dutch officer assigned to the 82nd, remembers that “guns suddenly opened up on us, and I could see the flashes of fire from the muzzles. They seemed to be all around us.” Before he could raise his carbine to fire, Bestebreurtje was hit in the left hand and elbow and the right index finger.* To Corporal James R. Blue, the eerie battle raging in the blacked-out streets was like a nightmare. “Right away we were engaged in hand-to-hand combat,” Blue remembers. He was moving through the streets with Private First Class Ray Johnson, both armed with M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets, when they came face to face with SS troops. As Johnson tried to get one of the Germans with his bayonet, Blue went after an officer with a trench knife. “Our orders were not to fire. If we came to close combat we were to use knives and bayonets. But,” Blue recalls, “that trench knife seemed mighty short, so I used my Tommy gun. That closed that chapter, but almost immediately a self-propelled gun began to fire in our direction and we moved up to the park and tied in with other platoons.” Private James Allardyce remembers hearing a call for medics up front, but “bullets were whistling down the street and there was so much confusion in the darkness that men did not know where others were. We set up a perimeter defense around a modern brick schoolhouse. Out front we heard German voices and the moaning and cries of the wounded. We couldn’t make it to the bridge. Finally it came through to us that the Jerries had stopped us.”

As indeed they had. Captain Paul Gräbner’s Reconnaissance Battalion, which had missed Frost at the Arnhem bridge, had arrived in Nijmegen well in advance of the late-starting Americans.

By midnight on this first day of the mightiest airborne assault in history, British and American paratroops were on, or fighting toward, their major objectives. Through long hours of march and savage encounters with an unexpectedly strong and tenacious enemy, they had gained most of the objectives that the planners had expected them to take swiftly and with ease. From the gallant men of Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Battalion clinging to the north end of the Arnhem bridge, all along the corridor south to where Colonel Robert Sink’s 101st troopers struggled to repair the bridge at Son, the mood was one of fierce determination; they must hold open the highway along which the British Second Army tanks and infantry would drive. On this midnight, troopers did not doubt that relief was on the way or that reinforcements and supplies, scheduled to arrive on the eighteenth, would further bolster their position. Despite heavy casualties, confusion, and communications setbacks, the men of the airborne army were completely optimistic. All in all, it had not been a bad Sunday outing.

*Several days later, Bestebreurtje was told by doctors that the finger must be amputated. “I told them absolutely not,” Bestebreurtje says. “It was my finger and I was not going to have it amputated. Besides, it would have ruined my piano playing.” He still has the finger.

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