Military history


AT VALKENSWAARD, fifty-seven miles south of Arnhem, ground fog had held up the planned 6:30 A.M. jump-off time for the tanks of XXX Corps. Scout cars, however, had set out on schedule. Patrolling ahead and to the east and west since daybreak, they were feeling out the German strength. To the east, heather-covered sand and small streams made the area barely negotiable even for reconnaissance vehicles. West of the village, wooden bridges over streams and rivers were considered too light to support tanks. As scout cars in the center moved along the narrow, one-tank-wide main road out of Valkenswaard, they suddenly encountered a German tank and two self-propelled guns, which drove off toward Eindhoven as the patrol approached. From all reports it seemed clear that the quickest route into Eindhoven was still the highway, despite the sighting of German armor and the expectation of running into more as the British approached the city. Now, three hours later, General Horrocks’ tanks were only just beginning to roll again. As Colonel Frost’s men engaged Captain Gräbner’s units at the Arnhem bridge, the spearheading Irish Guards were finally on the move, heading up the main road toward Eindhoven.

Stiff German resistance had thwarted Horrocks’ plan to smash out from the Meuse-Escaut Canal on Sunday and link up with General Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division in Eindhoven in less than three hours. By nightfall on the seventeenth, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Vandeleur’s tankers had come only seven miles to Valkenswaard, six miles short of the day’s objective. There had seemed little reason to push on during the night. Brigadier Norman Gwatkin, chief of staff of the Guards Armored Division, had told Vandeleur that the Son bridge beyond Eindhoven was destroyed. Bridging equipment would have to be brought up before Vandeleur’s tanks could cross. As Vandeleur remembers, Gwatkin said, “Push on to Eindhoven tomorrow, old boy, but take your time. We’ve lost a bridge.”

Unaware of the setback, men were impatient at the delay. Lieutenant John Gorman, who had attended General Horrocks’ briefing in Leopoldsburg prior to the break-out, had thought at the time that there were too many bridges to cross. Now Gorman, recipient of the Military Cross a few weeks earlier, was edgy and irritable. His original fears seemed justified. Anxious to be off, Gorman could not understand why the Guards Armored had spent the night in Valkenswaard. Habit, he noted, “seemed to dictate that one slept at night and worked by day,” but now, Gorman felt, such behavior should not apply. “We must get on,” he remembers saying. “We can’t wait.” Lieutenant Rupert Mahaffey was equally disturbed at the Guards’ slow advance. “I began having the first faint traces of conscience,” he says. “Our advance seemed slower than intended, and I knew that if we did not pick up the pace soon we weren’t going to get to Arnhem on time.”

Although the scouting patrols of the Household Cavalry had warned of waiting German armor and infantry, the tanks of the Irish Guards met little opposition until they reached the village of Aalst, halfway to Eindhoven. Then, from the pinewood forests flanking the highway, a hail of infantry fire engulfed the column, and a lone self-propelled gun engaged the leading tanks. It was quickly put out of action and Vandeleur’s force rumbled on through the village. Two miles north, at a small bridge over the river Dommel, the Irish were held up again, this time by heavy artillery fire. Four 88 mm. guns covered the bridge. Infantry with heavy machine guns were hidden in nearby houses and behind concrete walls. Immediately the lead vehicles halted and British troops, jumping from the tanks, fought back.

To move on as quickly as possible, Vandeleur decided to call in the rocket-firing Typhoons that had aided the column so expertly during the previous day’s advance. Flight Lieutenant Donald Love, now in complete charge of ground-to-air communication, put through the request. To his astonishment, he was turned down. In Belgium, the squadrons were weathered in by fog. Vandeleur, Love recalls, “was livid.” Squinting into the bright weather over Holland, he asked Love sarcastically “if the R.A.F. is frightened by sunshine.”

By now the entire column, stretching back almost to the Belgian border, was stalled by the well-sited enemy guns. Lead tanks tried to edge forward, and one gun, firing directly down the road, stopped them at point-blank range. As his tanks opened up against the Germans, Vandeleur called for heavy artillery and quickly ordered patrols to move out west along the river in search of a bridge or ford where his vehicles might cross, outflank the German battery and attack from the rear.

A barrage of steel whistled over the lead tanks as British batteries began to engage the enemy. Well positioned and fiercely determined, the Germans continued to fire. For two hours the battle went on. Fuming at the delay, Vandeleur was helpless. All he could do was wait.

But, barely four miles to the north, one of the reconnaissance units had met with unexpected success. After a circuitous crosscountry trip through water-veined terrain and marshes, and across fragile wooden bridges, one troop of scout cars, skirting the German positions, came suddenly upon American paratroopers north of Eindhoven. Shortly before noon, Lieutenant John Palmer, commanding the Household Cavalry scout unit, was warmly greeted by Brigadier General Gerald Higgins, deputy commander of the 101st Screaming Eagles. By radio, Palmer jubilantly informed his headquarters that the “Stable Boys have contacted our Feathered Friends.” The first of three vital link-ups along the corridor had been made, eighteen hours behind Market-Garden’s schedule.

With contact finally established, discussion immediately turned to the Son bridge. Waiting British engineering units needed complete details in order to bring forward the materials and equipment needed to repair the damaged crossing. Sappers, moving up alongside Vandeleur’s lead columns, prepared to rush to the bridge the moment the advance picked up again. Information could have been passed by radio, but the Americans had already discovered a simpler method. The surprised British were radioed to ask their engineers to telephone “Son 244.” The call went immediately through the German-controlled automatic telephone exchange, and within minutes the Americans at the Son bridge had given British engineers the vital information they needed to bring up the proper bridging equipment.

In the village of Aalst, Vandeleur’s tankers were startled by a sudden abrupt end to the German fire which had kept them immobilized so long on the main road. One of their own squadrons had opened the way. Working slowly down the western bank of the Dommel river, a British reconnaissance force came upon a crossing a mile north of Aalst and behind the German positions. The squadron charged the German guns from the rear, overran their positions and ended the battle.

Unaware of the move, the stalled tankers at Aalst thought the sudden silence was a lull in the fighting. Major Edward Tyler, in charge of the lead Number 2 Squadron, was debating whether he should take advantage of the cessation and order his tanks to smash on, when he spotted a man cycling down the main road toward the column. Stopping on the far bank, the man jumped off the bicycle and, waving frantically, ran across the bridge. The astounded Tyler heard him say: “Your General! Your General! The Boche have gone!”

Breathlessly, the Dutchman introduced himself. Cornelis Los, forty-one, was an engineer employed in Eindhoven but living in Aalst. “The road,” Los told Tyler, “is open and you have put out of action the only German tank at the village entrance.” Then, Tyler recalls, “he produced a detailed sketch of all the German positions between Aalst and Eindhoven.”

Immediately, Tyler gave the order to advance. The tanks moved over the bridge and up the road, passing the now ruined and deserted German artillery positions. Within the hour, Tyler saw the sprawl of Eindhoven up ahead and what appeared to be thousands of Dutch thronging the road, cheering and waving flags. “The only obstruction holding us up now are the Dutch crowds,” Major E. Fisher-Rowe radioed back down the column. In the heady carnival atmosphere, the cumbersome tanks of XXX Corps would take more than four hours to move through the city. Not until shortly after 7 P.M. did advance units reach the Son bridge, where Colonel Robert F. Sink’s weary engineers were working, as they had been ever since it was destroyed, to repair the vital span.

From the outset, the synchronized Market-Garden schedule had allowed little margin for error. Now, like the thwarted advance of the British battalions into Arnhem, the damage to the bridge at Son was a major setback that threatened the entire operation. Twenty-eight miles of the corridor—from the Belgian border north to Veghel—were now controlled by the Anglo-Americans. With extraordinary speed, the 101st Division had covered its fifteen-mile stretch of highway, capturing the principal towns of Eindhoven, St. Oedenrode and Veghel, and all but two of eleven crossings. Yet Horrocks’ 20,000-vehicle relief column could advance no farther until the Son crossing was repaired. British engineers and equipment, moving up with the lead tanks, must work against time to repair the bridge and move XXX Corps over the Wilhelmina Canal, for there was no longer an alternative route that Horrocks’ tanks could take.

In the planning stages General Maxwell Taylor, knowing that the Son bridge was vital to a straight dash up the corridor, had included a secondary target as well. To counteract just such a setback as had occurred at Son, Taylor had ordered a one-hundred-foot-long concrete road bridge over the canal at the village of Best to be taken as well. Four miles west of the main road, the bridge could still be used in an emergency. Since intelligence sources believed that the area held few German troops, a lone company had been assigned to grab the bridge and a nearby railway crossing.

Best was to become a tragic misnomer for the American troopers sent to secure it. Lieutenant Edward L. Wierzbowski’s reinforced company had been greatly reduced during ferocious night fighting on the seventeenth. Infiltrating along dikes and canal banks, and through marshes, the dogged troopers under Wierzbowski’s command pressed on against overwhelming German forces; once they were within fifteen feet of the bridge before being stopped by a barrage of fire. At various times during the night, word filtered back that the bridge had been taken. Other reports claimed that Wierzbowski’s company had been wiped out. Reinforcements, like the original company, became quickly engulfed in the desperate, unequal struggle. At 101st headquarters, it was soon clear that German forces were heavily concentrated at Best. Far from being lightly held, the village contained upwards of one thousand troops—units of the forgotten German Fifteenth Army. And like a sponge, Best was drawing more and more American forces. As fighting raged throughout the area, Wierzbowski and the few survivors of his company were almost in the dead center of the battle. So surrounded that their own reinforcements did not know they were there, they continued to fight for the bridge.

Around noon, as advance parties of British and Americans linked up in Eindhoven, the bridge at Best was blown by the Germans. So close were Wierzbowski and his men that falling debris added to the wounds they had already sustained. Elsewhere in the area, casualties were also heavy. One of the most colorful and acerbic of the 101st commanders, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole, who held the Congressional Medal of Honor, was killed. The medal also would be awarded posthumously to another soldier. Private Joe E. Mann, so badly wounded at the bridge that both arms were bandaged and tied to his sides, saw a German grenade land among the men he was with. Unable to free his arms, Mann fell on the grenade, saving the others around him. As Wierzbowski reached him, Mann spoke just once. “My back is gone,” he told the lieutenant. Then he was dead.

With the Best bridge gone, the success of Market-Garden now hinged more critically than ever on the speed with which engineers could repair the Son crossing. In the interlocking phases of the plan—each link dependent on the next—the road beyond Son was empty of the tanks that should have moved along it hours before. Montgomery’s daring attack was moving into ever-deepening trouble.

The farther up the corridor, the more compounded the problems became. Isolated in the center from General Taylor’s Screaming Eagles to the south and the Red Devils in Arnhem, General Gavin’s 82nd Airborne were holding firmly to the 1,500-foot-long bridge at Grave and the smaller one near Heumen. To the southwest, after a brisk fight, platoons of the 504th and 508th, attacking simultaneously from opposite sides of the Maas-Waal Canal, seized another bridge over the Grave-Nijmegen highway at the village of Honinghutie, opening an alternate route into Nijmegen for Horrocks’ tanks. But just as the damaged Son bridge was holding up the British advance into the middle sector of the corridor, so the inability of the 82nd to seize the Nijmegen crossing quickly had created its own problems. There, SS troops were now dug in at the southern approaches. Well protected and concealed, they repeatedly repulsed attacks by a company of the 508th. As each hour passed, German strength was building, and Gavin could not spare more men in an all-out effort to get the bridge; for throughout the 82nd’s vast lodgment—an area ranging ten miles north to south and twelve miles east to west—a series of wild, apparently uncoordinated enemy attacks threatened disaster.

Patrols along the Grave-Nijmegen highway were being constantly attacked by infiltrating enemy troops. Corporal Earl Old-father, on the lookout for snipers, saw three men in a field the 504th was occupying. “One was bailing water out of his hole, the other two were digging,” Oldfather recalls. “I waved and saw one of them pick up his rifle. They were Jerries who had gotten right into our field and were firing at us from our own foxholes.”

Farther east, the two vital landing zones between the Groes-beek Heights and the German frontier quickly became battlefields as waves of low-caliber German infantry were thrown against the troopers. Among them were naval and Luftwaffe personnel, communications troops, soldiers on furlough, hospital orderlies, and even recently discharged convalescents. Corporal Frank Ruppe remembers that the first Germans he saw wore a bewildering variety of uniforms and rank insignia. The attack began so suddenly, he recalls, that “we were ambushed practically next to our own outposts.” Units appeared as though from nowhere. In the first few minutes Lieutenant Harold Gensemer captured an overconfident German colonel who boasted that “my men will soon kick you right off this hill.” They almost did.

Swarming across the German border from the town of Wyler and out of the Reichswald in overwhelming numbers, the Germans burst through the 82nd’s perimeter defenses and quickly overran the zones, capturing supply and ammunition dumps. For a time the fighting was chaotic. The 82nd defenders held their positions as long as they could, then slowly pulled back. All over the area troops were alerted to rush to the scene. Men on the edge of Nijmegen force-marched all the way to the drop zones to give additional support.

A kind of panic seemed to set in among the Dutch also. Private Pat O’Hagan observed that as his platoon withdrew from the Nijmegen outskirts, the Dutch flags he had seen in profusion on the march into the city were being hurriedly taken down. Private Arthur “Dutch” Schultz,* a Normandy veteran and a Browning automatic gunner for his platoon, noticed that “everyone was nervous, and all I could hear was the chant ‘BAR front and center.’” Everywhere he looked he saw Germans. “They were all around us and determined to rush us off our zones.” It was clear to everyone that until German armor and seasoned reinforcements arrived, the enemy units, estimated at being close to two battalions, had been sent on a suicide mission: to wipe out the 82nd at any cost and hold the drop zones—the division’s lifeline for reinforcements and supplies. If the Germans succeeded they might annihilate the second lift even as it landed.

At this time, General Gavin believed that the scheduled lift had already left England. There was no way of stopping or diverting them in time. Thus, Gavin had barely two hours to clear the areas and he needed every available trooper. Besides those already engaged, the only readily available reserves were two companies of engineers. Immediately Gavin threw them into the battle.

Bolstered by mortar and artillery fire, the troopers, outnumbered sometimes five to one, fought all through the morning to clear the zones. * Then with fixed bayonets many men went after the Germans down the slopes. It was only at the height of the battle that Gavin learned that the second lift would not arrive until 2 P.M. The woods remained infested with a hodgepodge of German infantry and it was obvious that these enemy forays heralded more concentrated and determined attacks. By juggling his troops from one area to another, Gavin was confident of holding, but he was only too well aware that for the moment the 82nd’s situation was precarious. And now with information that the Son bridge was out and being repaired, he could not expect a British link-up before D plus 2. Impatiently and with growing concern, Gavin waited for the second lift, which would bring him desperately needed artillery, ammunition and men.

*See Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day, pp. 63, 300.

*In the wild, chaotic fighting that ensued over a period of four hours on the zones, one of the most beloved officers in the 82nd, the heavyweight champion of the division, Captain Anthony Stefanich, was killed. “We’ve come a long way together,” he told his men. “Tell the boys to do a good job.” Then he died.

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