Military history

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IN THE WESTERN SUBURBS of Arnhem, the once tidy parks and clean-swept streets were scarred and pitted by the battle as the British 1st and 3rd battalions struggled to reach the bridge. Glass, debris and the broken boughs of copper beech trees littered the cobblestone streets. Rhododendron bushes and thick borders of bronze, orange and yellow marigolds lay torn and crushed, and vegetable gardens in back of the neat Dutch houses were in ruins. The snouts of British antitank guns protruded from the shattered windows of shops and stores, while German half-tracks, deliberately backed into houses and concealed by their rubble, menaced the streets. Black smoke spewed up from burning British and German vehicles and constant showers of debris rained down as shells slammed into strong points. The crumpled bodies of the wounded and dead lay everywhere. Many soldiers remember seeing Dutch men and women, wearing white helmets and overalls emblazoned with red crosses, dashing heedlessly through the fire from both sides, to drag the injured and dying to shelter.

This strange, deadly battle now devastating the outskirts of the city barely two miles from the Arnhem bridge seemed to have no plan or strategy. Like all street fighting, it had become one massive, fierce, man-to-man encounter in a checkerboard of streets.

The Red Devils were cold, unshaven, dirty and hungry. The fighting had been too constant to allow men more than an occasional “brew-up” of tea. Ammunition was running short and casualties were mounting; some companies had lost as much as 50 percent of their strength. Sleep had been impossible, except in brief snatches. Many men, weary and on the move for hours, had lost all sense of time. Few knew exactly where they were or how far away the bridge still was, but they were grimly determined to get there. Years later, men like Private Henry Bennett of Colonel Fitch’s 3rd Battalion, on the middle, Tiger route, would remember that throughout the constant skirmishes, sniping and mortar fire, one command was constant: “Move! Move! Move!”

Yet to General Urquhart, now absent from Division headquarters for nearly sixteen hours and without radio contact, the progress of the attack was agonizingly slow. Since 3 A.M., when he had been roused at the villa where he had spent a restless few hours, Urquhart, along with Brigadier Lathbury, had been on the road continuously with the 3rd Battalion. “Sharp encounters, brief bursts of fire, kept bringing the entire column to a stop,” Urquhart says. The psychological effectiveness of German snipers disturbed the General. He had anticipated that some of his men who had not been in action before would be “a bit bullet-shy initially,” but would rally quickly. Instead, along some streets, sniper fire alone was slowing up the progress of the entire battalion. Yet, rather than interfere with Fitch’s command, Urquhart remained silent. “As a divisional commander mixed up in a battalion encounter … I was in the worst possible position to intervene, but all the time I was conscious of each precious second that was being wasted.” German snipers were dealt with effectively, but Urquhart was appalled at the time it took to dig them out.

So was Regimental Sergeant Major John C. Lord. Like the General, Lord was chafing at the delay. “German resistance was fierce and continuous, but at least a large part of our delay was caused by the Dutch as well. They were out in the streets early, waving, smiling, offering us ersatz coffee. Some of them had even draped Union Jacks over their hedges. There they were, right in the midst of the fighting, and they didn’t even seem to realize it was going on. They, with all their good intentions, were holding us up as much as the Germans.”

Suddenly the intensive sniper fire was replaced by something far more serious: the piercing crack of the enemy’s 88 mm. artillery and self-propelled guns. At this point the forward units of Fitch’s battalion were close by the massive St. Elisabeth’s Hospital, less than two miles northwest of the Arnhem bridge. The hospital lay almost at the confluence of the two main highways leading into Arnhem, along which the 1st and 3rd battalions were attempting to march to the bridge. Here, elements of the Hohen-staufen Division’s armor had been positioned throughout the night. Both Colonel Dobie’s 1st Battalion on the Ede-Arnhem road and Fitch’s 3rd Battalion on the Utrecht road must pass on either side of the junction to get to the bridge. Dobie’s battalion was the first to feel the force of Colonel Harzer’s fanatical SS units.

From a horseshoe-shaped perimeter covering the northern and western approaches of the city, the Germans had forced Dobie’s men off the upper road and into cover in the surrounding built-up areas. SS men, hidden on the rooftops, and snipers in attics had allowed forward units to pass unhindered before opening up with a murderous fire on troops coming up behind. In the confusion of the surprise attack, companies and platoons were dispersed in all directions.

Now, employing the same tactics, the Germans were concentrating on Fitch’s 3rd Battalion. And, in a situation that could have disastrous consequences, four critical officers—the commanders of the 1st and 3rd battalions, the officer in charge of the 1st Parachute Brigade and the commander of the 1st British Airborne Division—all found themselves bottled up in the same small, heavily populated area. Ironically, as in the case of Model and his commanders at Oosterbeek, General Urquhart and Brigadier Lathbury were surrounded by an enemy oblivious to their presence.

Trapped by fire from ahead and behind, the British columns scattered. Some men headed for buildings along the Rhine, more took to the nearby woods and others—among them, Urquhart and Lathbury—ran for safety into narrow streets of identical brick houses.

Urquhart and his group had just reached a three-story house in a block of buildings near the main Utrecht-Arnhem road when the Germans shelled the building. The British were uninjured, but German armor, Urquhart was later to note, “moved through the streets with almost casual immunity.” As one tank rumbled down the street, its commander standing in the open hatch looking for targets, Major Peter Waddy leaned out of an upper-floor window of a house next to Urquhart’s and expertly dropped a plastic explosive into the open turret, blowing the tank to pieces.* Other men, following Waddy’s example, demolished two more tanks. But, although the British fought fiercely, the lightly armed troopers were no match for the German armor.

Urquhart’s own predicament was increasing by the minute. He was desperately anxious to get back to Division headquarters and gain control of the battle. Caught up in the fighting, he believed his only means of escape was to take to the streets and, in the confusion, try to get through the German positions. His officers, fearful for his safety, disagreed, but Urquhart was adamant. The intense fighting was, as he saw it, still only “company-size action” and, as the buildings the British occupied were not yet surrounded, he felt the group should get out quickly before German strength increased and the ring tightened.

During the hasty conference amid the noise of the battle, Urquhart and his officers were dumfounded to see a British Bren gun carrier clatter down the street, as though unaware of the German fire, and pull up outside the building. A Canadian lieutenant, Leo Heaps, who in Urquhart’s words “seemed to have a charmed existence,” leaped out of the driver’s seat and raced for the building. Behind Heaps was Charles “Frenchie” Labouchère, of the Dutch resistance, who was acting as Heaps’s guide. The carrier was loaded with supplies and ammunition which Heaps hoped to deliver to Colonel Frost on the bridge. With German armor everywhere, the small vehicle and its two occupants had miraculously survived enemy fire and en route had, by chance, discovered Urquhart’s whereabouts. Now, for the first time in hours, Urquhart learned from Heaps what was happening. “The news was far from encouraging,” Urquhart later recalled. “Communications were still out. Frost was on the northern end of the bridge under heavy attack, but holding, and I was reported missing or captured.” After listening to Heaps, Urquhart told Lathbury that it was now imperative “before we’re completely bottled up to take a chance and break out.”

Turning to Heaps, Urquhart told the Canadian that if he reached Division headquarters after completing his mission at the bridge, he was to urge Mackenzie to “organize as much help as he could for Frost’s battalion.” At all costs, including his own safety, Urquhart was determined that Frost must get the supplies and men needed to hold until Horrocks’ tanks reached Arnhem.

As Heaps and Labouchère left, Urquhart and Lathbury set about making their escape. The street outside was now being swept constantly by enemy fire and buildings were crumpling under the pounding of shells. Urquhart noted “a growing pile of dead around the houses we occupied,” and concluded that any exit via the street would be impossible. The commanders, along with others, decided to leave from the rear of the building, where, under covering fire and smoke bombs, they might be able to get away. Then, taking advantage of plantings in the back gardens of the row houses, Urquhart and Lathbury hoped eventually to reach a quiet area and make their way back to headquarters.

The route was nightmarish. While paratroopers laid down a heavy smoke screen, Urquhart’s group dashed out the back door, sprinted through a vegetable garden and climbed a fence separating the house from its neighbor. As they paused for a moment near the next enclosure, Lathbury’s Sten gun went off accidentally, barely missing the General’s right foot. As Urquhart was later to write, “I chided Lathbury about soldiers who could not keep their Stens under control. It was bad enough for a division commander to be jinking about … and it would have been too ironic for words to be laid low by a bullet fired by one of my own brigadiers.”

Climbing fence after fence, and once a ten-foot-high brick wall, the men moved down the entire block of houses until, finally, they reached an intersecting cobbled street. Then, confused and weary, they made a drastic miscalculation. Instead of veering left, which might have given them a margin of safety, they turned right toward St. Elisabeth’s Hospital, directly into the German fire.

Running ahead of Urquhart and Lathbury were two other officers, Captain William Taylor of the Brigade’s headquarters staff and Captain James Cleminson of the 3rd Battalion. One of them called out suddenly but neither Urquhart nor Lathbury understood his words. Before Taylor and Cleminson could head them off, the two senior officers came upon a maze of intersecting streets where, it seemed to Urquhart, “a German machine gun was firing down each one.” As the four men attempted to run past one of these narrow crossings, Lathbury was hit.

Quickly the others dragged him off the street and into a house. There, Urquhart saw that a bullet had entered the Brigadier’s lower back and he appeared to be temporarily paralyzed. “All of us knew,” Urquhart recalls, “that he could travel no farther.” Lathbury urged the General to leave immediately without him. “You’ll only get cut off if you stay, sir,” he told Urquhart. As they talked, Urquhart saw a German soldier appear at the window. He raised his automatic and fired at point-blank range. The bloodied mass of the German’s face disappeared. Now, with the Germans so near, there was no longer any question that Urquhart must leave quickly. Before going, he talked with the middle-aged couple who owned the house and spoke some English. They promised to get Lathbury to St. Elisabeth’s Hospital as soon as there was a lull in the fighting. In order to save the owners from German reprisal, Urquhart and his party hid Lathbury in a cellar beneath a stairway until he could be removed to the hospital. Then, Urquhart remembers, “we left by the back door and into yet another maze of tiny, fenced gardens.” The three men did not get far, but Urquhart’s life may well have been saved by the prompt action of fifty-five-year-old Antoon Derksen, owner of a terrace house at Zwarteweg 14.

In the maelstrom of firing, Antoon, his wife Anna, their son Jan, and daughter Hermina were sheltering in the kitchen at the rear of the house. Glancing through a window, Derksen was amazed to see three British officers vault over the fence into his back garden and head for the kitchen door. Quickly, he let them in.

Unable to communicate—he didn’t speak English and no one in Urquhart’s party knew Dutch—Antoon, gesturing, tried to warn the Britishers that the area was surrounded. “There were Germans in the street,” he later recalled, “and at the back, in the direction the officers had been going. At the end of the row of gardens there were Germans in position at the corner.”

Derksen hastily ushered his visitors up a narrow staircase to a landing and from there into a bedroom. In the ceiling was a pulldown door with steps leading to the attic. Cautiously looking out the bedroom window the three men saw the reason for Derksen’s wild pantomime. Only a few feet below them, in positions all along the street, were German troops. “We were so close to them,” Urquhart remembers, “we could hear them talking.”

Urquhart was unable to guess whether the Germans had spotted his group as they entered the rear of the house, or whether they might burst in at any moment. In spite of Derksen’s warning that the area was surrounded, he pondered the twin risks of continuing through the chain of back gardens or making a dash down the front street, using hand grenades to clear the way. He was ready to take any chance to return to his command. His officers, fearful for him, were not. At the moment, the odds were simply too great. It was far better, they argued, to wait until British troops overran the sector than for the commanding general to risk capture or possible death.

The advice, Urquhart knew, was sound, and he did not want to compel his officers to take risks that might prove suicidal. Yet, “my long absence from Division headquarters was all I could think about, and anything seemed better to me than to stay out of the battle in this way.”

The familiar creaking clack of caterpillar treads forced Urqu-hart to stay put. From the window the three officers saw a German self-propelled gun come slowly down the street. Directly outside the Derksen house, it came to a halt. The top of the armored vehicle was almost level with the bedroom window, and the crew, dismounting, now sat talking and smoking directly below. Obviously, they were not moving on and at any moment the Britishers expected them to enter the house.

Quickly Captain Taylor pulled down the attic steps and the three officers hurriedly climbed up. Crouched down and looking about him, the six-foot Urquhart saw that the attic was little more than a crawl space. He felt “idiotic, ridiculous, as ineffectual in the battle as a spectator.”

The house was now silent. Antoon Derksen, as a loyal Dutchman, had sheltered the British. Now, fearing possible reprisal if Urquhart was found, he prudently evacuated his family to a neighboring house. In the nearly airless attic, and without food or water, Urquhart and his officers could only wait anxiously, hoping either for the Germans to pull back or for British troops to arrive. On this Monday, September 18, with Market-Garden only a day old, the Germans had almost brought the Arnhem battle to a halt and, compounding all the errors and miscalculations of the operation, Urquhart, the one man who might have brought cohesion to the British attack, was isolated in an attic, trapped within the German lines.

It had been a long, tedious mission for Captain Paul Gräbner and his 9th SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion. Allied paratroopers had not landed in the eleven-mile stretch between Arnhem and Nijmegen. Of that, Gräbner was quite certain. But enemy units were in Nijmegen. Immediately after a few of Gräb-ner’s vehicles had crossed the great Waal river bridge, there had been a short, brisk small-arms encounter. In the darkness, the enemy had seemed to show no great inclination to continue the fight against his armored vehicles, and Gräbner had reported to headquarters that the Allies seemed to have little strength in the city as yet.

Now, his scouting mission completed, Gräbner ordered a few self-propelled guns from his forty-vehicle unit to guard the southern approaches to the Nijmegen bridge. With the rest of the patrol, he headed back north to Arnhem. He had seen neither paratroopers nor any enemy activity when crossing the Arnhem bridge the night before. However, from radio messages, he had learned that some British troops were on one side of the bridge. Harzer’s headquarters had merely called them “advance units.” Gräbner halted once more, this time at the town of Elst, approximately midway between Arnhem and Nijmegen. There again, to be within striking distance of either highway bridge, he left off part of his column. With the remaining twenty-two vehicles, he sped back toward the Arnhem bridge to clear it of whatever small enemy units were there. Against paratroopers armed with only rifles or machine guns, Gräbner expected little difficulty. His powerful armored units would simply smash through the lightly held British defenses and knock them out.

At precisely 9:30 A.M., Corporal Don Lumb, from his rooftop position near the bridge, yelled out excitedly, “Tanks! It’s XXX Corps!” At Battalion headquarters nearby, Colonel John Frost heard his own spotter call out. Like Corporal Lumb, Frost felt a moment’s heady exhilaration. “I remember thinking that we would have the honor of welcoming XXX Corps into Arnhem all by ourselves,” he recalls. Other men were equally cheered. On the opposite side of the northern approach, the men under the ramp near Captain Eric Mackay’s command post could already hear the sound of heavy vehicles reverberating on the bridge above. Sergeant Charles Storey pounded up the stairs to Corporal Lumb’s lookout. Peering toward the smoke still rising from the southern approach, Storey saw the column Lumb had spotted. His reaction was immediate. Racing back downstairs, the pre-Dunkirk veteran shouted, “They’re Germans! Armored cars on the bridge!”

At top speed, the vanguard of Captain Paul Gräbner’s assault force came on across the bridge. With extraordinary skill, German drivers, swerving left and right, not only avoided the smoldering wreckage cluttering the bridge, but drove straight through a mine field—a string of platelike Teller mines that the British had laid during the night. Only one of Gräbner’s five lead vehicles touched off a mine—and only superficially damaged, kept on coming. On his side of the ramp, Captain Mackay stared with amazement as the first of the squat camouflaged cars, machine guns firing constantly, barreled off the ramp, smashed through the British perimeter defenses, and kept on going straight toward the center of Arnhem. Almost immediately, Mackay saw another go past. “We had no antitank guns on our side,” Mackay says, “and I just watched helplessly as three more armored cars sped right past us and took off up the avenue.”

Gräbner’s daring plan to smash across the bridge by force and speed was underway. Out of the sight of the British, on the southern approach to the bridge, he had lined up his column. Now, half-tracks, more armored cars, personnel carriers and even a few truckloads of infantry, firing from behind heavy sacks of grain, began to advance. Crouching behind the half-tracks were other German soldiers, firing steadily.

The sudden surprise breakthrough of Gräbner’s lead vehicles had stunned the British. They recovered quickly. Antitank guns from Frost’s side of the bridge began to get the range. From the entire northern area a lethal fire enveloped the German column. From parapets, rooftops, windows and slit trenches, troopers opened fire with every weapon available, from machine guns to hand grenades. Sapper Ronald Emery, on Mackay’s side of the ramp, shot the driver and codriver of the first half-track to cross. As the second came into view, Emery shot its drivers, too. The half-track came to a dead halt just off the ramp, whereupon the remainder of its crew of six, abandoning the vehicle, were shot one by one.

Relentlessly, Gräbner’s column pressed on. Two more halftracks nosed across the bridge. Suddenly, chaos overtook the German assault. The driver of the third half-track was wounded. Panicked, he threw his vehicle into reverse, colliding with the half-track behind. The two vehicles, now inextricably tangled, slewed across the road, one bursting into flames. Doggedly the Germans coming up behind tried to force a passage. Accelerating their vehicles, frantic to gain the northern side, they rammed into one another and into the growing piles of debris tossed up by shells and mortar bursts. Out of control, some half-tracks hit the edge of the ramp with such force that they toppled over the edge and down into the streets below. Supporting German infantrymen following the half-tracks were mercilessly cut down. Unable to advance beyond the center of the bridge, the survivors raced back to the southern side. A storm of fire ricocheted against the girders of the bridge. Now, too, shells from Lieutenant Colonel Sheriff Thompson’s artillery, situated in Oosterbeek, and called in by Major Dennis Munford from the attic of Brigade headquarters near Frost’s own building, screamed into Gräbner’s stricken vehicles. Through all the din came the yelling of the now-exuberant British paratroopers as they shouted the war cry, “Whoa Mohammed,” which the Red Devils had first used in the dry hills of North Africa in 1942.*

The fierceness of the raging battle stunned the Dutch in the area. Lambert Schaap, who lived with his family on the Rijnkade—the street running east and west of the bridge—hurried his wife and nine children off to a shelter. Schaap himself remained in his house until a hail of bullets came through the windows, pitting walls and smashing furniture. Under this intense barrage Schaap fled. To Police Sergeant Joannes van Kuijk, the battle seemed endless. “The firing was furious,” he recalls, “and one building after another seemed to be hit or burning. Telephone calls from colleagues and friends were constant, asking for information about what was happening. We were having a hard time of it in our building, and neighboring premises were catching fire. The houses on Eusebius Buiten Singel were also alight.”

On that wide boulevard near the northern approach, Coenraad Hulleman, in his fiancée’s house only a few doors away from Captain Mackay’s command post, now stayed with the rest of the Van der Sande family in their basement shelter. “There was a funny sound overriding all the other noise and someone said it was raining,” Hulleman remembers. “I went up to the first floor, looked out, and saw that it was fire. Soldiers were running in every direction, and the entire block seemed to be in flames. The battle moved right up the boulevard, and suddenly it was our turn. Bullets smacked into the house, smashing windows, and upstairs we heard musical notes as the piano was hit. Then, amazingly, a sound like someone typing in Mr. Van der Sande’s office. The bullets were simply chewing up the typewriter.” Hulleman’s fiancée, Truid, who had followed him up, saw that shots were hitting the tower of the massive Church of St. Eusi-bius. As she watched in amazement the gold hands of the huge clock on the church spun crazily as though, Truid remembers, “time was racing by.”

To the bridge fighters, time had lost all meaning. The shock, speed and ferocity of the battle caused many men to think that the fight had gone on for many hours. Actually, Gräbner’s attack had lasted less than two. Of the armored vehicles that Colonel Harzer had jealously guarded from General Harmel, twelve lay wrecked or burning on the northern side. The remainder disengaged from the carnage and moved back to Elst, minus their commander. In the bitter no-quarter fighting, Captain Paul Gräbner had been killed.

Now the British, in pride and triumph, began to assess the damage. Medics and stretcher-bearers, braving the unrelenting sniper fire, moved through the smoke and litter, carrying the wounded of both sides to shelter. The Red Devils on the bridge had repulsed and survived the horror of an armored attack and, almost as though they were being congratulated on their success, 2nd Battalion signalmen suddenly picked up a strong clear message from XXX Corps. The grimy, weary troopers imagined that their ordeal was all but over. Now, beyond any doubt, Horrocks’ tanks must be a scant few hours away.

From airfields behind the German border, swarms of fighters took to the air. To amass and fuel the planes, the nearly depleted Luftwaffe had mounted an all-out effort. Now, after a frantic, sleepless night, during which fighters had been rushed in from all over Germany, some 190 planes gathered over Holland between 9 and 10 A.M. Their mission was to destroy the second lift of Market. Unlike the skeptical Field Marshal Model, the Luftwaffe generals believed the captured Market-Garden plans to be authentic. They saw a glittering opportunity to achieve a major success. From the plans, German air commanders knew the routes, landing zones and drop times of the Monday lift. Squadrons of German fighters patrolling the Dutch coast across the known Allied flight paths and drop zones waited to pounce on the airborne columns, due to begin their drops at 10 A.M. Zero hour passed with no sign of the Allied air fleet. The short-range fighters were ordered to land, refuel and take off again. But the sky remained empty. None of the anticipated targets materialized. Baffled and dismayed, the Luftwaffe high command could only wonder what had happened.

What had happened was simple. Unlike Holland, where the weather was clear, Britain was covered by fog. On the bases, British and American airborne troops, ready to go, waited impatiently by their planes and gliders. On this crucial morning, when every hour mattered, General Lewis H. Brereton, the First Allied Airborne Army commander, was, like the men of the second lift, at the mercy of the weather. After consultation with the meteorologists, Brereton was forced to reschedule zero hour. The men in and around Arnhem and the Americans down the corridor—all holding against the increasing German buildup—must now wait four long hours more. The second lift could not reach the drop zones before 2 P.M.

*A short time later, reconnoitering the British positions, Waddy was killed by a mortar blast.

*In that campaign, paratroopers noted that the Arabs, shouting messages to one another, seemed to begin each communication with these two words. In Arnhem, the war cry was to take on special meaning. It enabled paratroopers on both sides of the northern ramp to determine who was friend or foe in the various buildings and positions, since the Germans seemed unable to pronounce the words. According to Hilary St. George Saunders in By Air to Battle, the war cry “seemed to rouse the men to their highest endeavours.”

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