Military history

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AT THE ARNHEM BRIDGE the massive defiance by the valiant few was nearly over. At dawn the Germans had renewed their terrifying bombardment. In the morning light the stark pitted wrecks that had once been houses and office buildings were again subjected to punishing fire. On each side of the bridge and along the churned, mangled ruins of the Eusebius Buiten Singel, the few strongholds that still remained were being systematically blown apart. The semicircular defense line that had protected the northern approaches had almost ceased to exist. Yet, ringed by flames and sheltering behind rubble, small groups of obstinate men continued to fight on, denying the Germans the bridge.

Only the rawest kind of courage had sustained Frost’s men up to now, but it had been fierce enough and constant enough to hold off the Germans for three nights and two days. The 2nd Battalion and the men from other units who had come by twos and threes to join it (a force that by Frost’s highest estimate never totaled more than six or seven hundred men) had been welded together in their ordeal. Pride and common purpose had fused them. Alone they had reached the objective of an entire airborne division—and held out longer than the division was meant to do. In the desperate, anxious hours, awaiting help that never came, their common frame of mind was perhaps best summed up in the thoughts of Lance Corporal Gordon Spicer, who wrote, “Who’s failing in their job? Not us!”

But now the time of their endurance had nearly run its course. Holed up in ruins and slit trenches, struggling to protect themselves and cellars full of wounded, shocked and concussed by nearly unceasing enemy fire, and wearing their filthy bloodstained bandages and impudent manners like badges of honor, the Red Devils knew, finally, that they could no longer hold.

The discovery produced a curious calmness, totally devoid of panic. It was as if men decided privately that they would fight until they dropped—if only to provoke the Germans more. Despite their knowledge that the fight was all but over, men invented still new ways to keep it going. Troopers of mortar platoons fired their last few bombs without tripods or base plates by standing the barrel up and holding it with ropes. Others, discovering there were no more detonators for the spring-loaded, Piat missile-throwers, tried instead to detonate the bombs with fuses made from boxes of matches. All about them friends lay dead or dying, and still they found the will to resist and, in doing so, often amused one another. Men remember an Irish trooper knocked unconscious by a shell burst opening his eyes at last to say, “I’m dead.” Then, thinking it over, he remarked, “I can’t be. I’m talking.”

To Colonel John Frost, whose hunting horn had called them to him on the sunny Sunday that was to be the opening of their victory march, they would always remain unbeaten. Yet now, on this dark and tragic Wednesday, he knew there was “practically no possibility for relief.”

The number of men still capable of fighting was, at best, between 150 and 200, concentrated mainly about the damaged headquarters buildings on the western side of the ramp. Over 300 British and German wounded filled the cellars. “They were crowded almost on top of each other,” Frost noted, “making it difficult for doctors and orderlies to get around and attend them.” Soon he would have to make a decision about these casualties. If the headquarters building was hit again, as it was almost certain to be, Frost told Major Freddie Gough, he “did not see how I can fight it out to the last minute, then go, and have our wounded be roasted.” Measures would have to be taken to get out casualties before the building was demolished or overrun. Frost did not know how much time was left. He still believed he could control the approaches for a time, perhaps even another twenty-four hours, but his perimeter defenses were now so weak that he knew “a determined rush by the enemy could carry them into our midst.”

On Captain Mackay’s side of the ramp, the pulverized schoolhouse looked, he thought, “like a sieve.” As Mackay later recalled, “We were alone. All the houses on the eastern side had been burned down, except for one to the south, which was held by the Germans.” And in the schoolhouse, horror had piled on horror. “The men were exhausted and filthy,” Mackay wrote, “and I was sick to my stomach every time I looked at them. Haggard, with bloodshot and red-rimmed eyes, almost everyone had some sort of dirty field dressing and blood was everywhere.” As wounded were carried down the stairway to the cellar, Mackay noted that “on each landing blood had formed in pools and ran in small rivulets down the stairs.” His remaining thirteen men were huddled “in twos and threes, manning positions that required twice that number. The only things that were clean were the men’s weapons.” In the shell of the schoolhouse Mackay and his men fought off three enemy attacks in two hours, leaving around four times their number in enemy dead.

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Colonel Frost’s position around northern approaches of Arnhem bridge, from after action report.

As morning wore on, the fighting continued. Then, around noon, the man who had so stubbornly defied the Germans was wounded. As Frost met with Major Douglas Crawley to discuss a fighting patrol to clear the area, he remembers “a tremendous explosion” that lifted him off his feet and threw him face downward several yards away. A mortar bomb had exploded almost between the two men. Miraculously both were alive, but shrapnel had torn into Frost’s left ankle and right shinbone and Crawley was hit in both legs and his right arm. Frost, barely conscious, felt ashamed that he could not “resist the groans that seemed to force themselves out of me, more particularly as Doug never made a sound.” Wicks, Frost’s batman, helped drag the two officers to cover and stretcher-bearers carried them to the cellar with the other wounded.

In the crowded basement Father Egan tried to orient himself. In the dim recesses of the chilly room, Lieutenant Bucky Buchanan, the intelligence officer who had earlier helped to rescue Egan, appeared to have propped himself up wearily against the wall. But Buchanan was dead. A bomb blast had killed him outright without leaving a mark. Then, dazed and still in shock, Egan saw Frost being carried in. “I remember his face,” Egan says. “He looked dead-tired and dejected.” Other wounded in the cellar saw their battalion commander, too. To Lieutenant John Blunt, a friend of the dead Buchanan, the sight of the Colonel on a stretcher was a crushing blow. “We subalterns had always considered him irrepressible,” Blunt wrote. “It hurt to see him carried in like that. He had never given in to anything.”

Across the room Private James Sims, who also had a shrapnel wound, remembers somebody anxiously calling out to Frost, “Sir, can we still hold out?”

In England, Major General Sosabowski watched his brigade board the long lines of troop-carrier Dakotas. Ever since Sunday he had felt the tension build as his Poles waited to go. They had made the trip from their billets to the airfield on Tuesday only to have the operation canceled. This Wednesday morning, learning of the change in his drop zone, Sosabowski himself had postponed the flight by three hours in order to work out new plans. Now, a little before 1 P.M., as the heavily laden paratroopers moved toward the planes, the atmosphere of impatience was gone. The men were on the way at last, and Sosabowski noted “an almost lighthearted attitude among them.”

His frame of mind was far different. In the few short hours since the switch in plans he had tried to learn everything he could about Urquhart’s situation and the new drop zone. He had briefed his three-battalion brigade down to platoon level but the information he could give them was sparse. Sosabowski felt that they were ill-prepared, almost “jumping into the unknown.”

Now, as propellers ticked over, his battalions began to climb aboard the 114 Dakotas that would take them to Holland. Satisfied with the loading, Sosabowski hoisted himself into the lead plane. With engines revving, the Dakota moved out, rolled slowly down the runway, turned and made ready for takeoff. Then it paused. To Sosabowski’s dismay, the engines were throttled back. Minutes passed, and his anxiety grew. He wondered what was delaying takeoff.

Suddenly the door opened and an R.A.F. officer climbed in. Making his way up the aisle to the General, he informed Sosabowski that control had just received word to halt the takeoff. The situation was a repeat of Tuesday: the southern fields were open and bomber resupply planes were taking off, but in the Grantham area a heavy overcast was settling in. Sosabowski was incredulous. He could hear the curses of his officers and men as the news was relayed. The flight was canceled for twenty-four hours more—until 1P.M. Thursday, September 21.

General Gavin’s Glider Infantry Regiment too was grounded once again. On this day of the vital Waal river assault at Nijmegen, Gavin’s sorely needed 3,400 men, with their guns and equipment, could not get out. The Driel-Heveadorp ferry was still in operation. On this crucial Wednesday, D plus 3, when the Polish Brigade might have been ferried across the Rhine to strengthen Urquhart’s flagging troopers, the weather had struck again at Market-Garden.

Field Marshal Walter Model was finally ready to open his counteroffensive against the British and Americans in Holland. On this critical Wednesday, September 20, the entire corridor erupted in one German attack after another.

Model, his reinforcements steadily arriving, was certain that his forces were now strong enough to wipe out Montgomery’s attack. He planned to pinch off the Allied corridor at Son, Veghel and Nijmegen. The Arnhem bridge, he knew, was almost in his hands. And Von Zangen’s Fifteenth Army—the army that had been forgotten at Antwerp by Montgomery—was now slowly renewing its strength. Staffs were being newly organized, ammunition and supplies were arriving daily. Within forty-eight hours, in Army Group B’s war diary, Annex 2342, Model would report Von Zangen’s status to Von Rundstedt in these terms: “The total number of personnel and equipment ferried across the Schelde by the Fifteenth Army totals 82,000 men; 530 guns; 4,600 vehicles; over 4,000 horses and a large amount of valuable material….”*

Model was now so confident of Von Zangen’s ability to take over that within seventy-two hours he planned to completely reorganize his own command structure. Von Zangen would command all Army Group B forces west of the Allied corridor; General Student’s First Parachute Army, now being systematically reinforced, would be assigned the eastern side. The moment had come for Model to begin his offensive with sharp probing attacks.

At the Son bridge on the morning of the twentieth, panzer forces, striking into the 101st’s area, almost succeeded in taking the bridge. Only quick action by General Taylor’s men and British tanks held off the attack. Simultaneously, as Horrocks’ columns sped toward Nijmegen, the entire stretch of Taylor’s sector came under pressure.

At 11 A.M. in General Gavin’s area, German troops, preceded by a heavy bombardment, advanced out of the Reichswald and attacked the 82nd’s eastern flank. Within a few hours a full-scale drive was in progress in the Mook area, threatening the Heumen bridge. Rushing to the scene from Nijmegen, where his men were preparing to assault the Waal, Gavin saw that “the only bridge we owned that would take armor” was in serious jeopardy. “It was essential to the survival of the British and Americans crowded into Nijmegen,” he recalls. His problem was acute; every available 82nd unit was already committed. Hurriedly Gavin asked for help from the Coldstream Guards. Then, with Gavin personally leading the counterattack, a bitter, unrelenting battle began that was to last all day. Shifting his forces back and forth like chess men, Gavin held out and eventually forced the Germans to withdraw. He had always feared attack from the Reichswald. Now Gavin and the Corps commander, General Browning, knew that a new and more terrible phase of the fighting had begun. Among the prisoners taken were men from General Mendl’s tough II Parachute Corps. Model’s intention was now obvious: key bridges were to be grabbed, the corridor was to be squeezed and Horrocks’ columns crushed.

For his part, Model was convinced that the Allies would never cross at Nijmegen and drive the last eleven miles to Arnhem. Within the week, he confidently told General Bittrich, he expected the battle to be over. Bittrich was less assured. He would feel happier, he told Model, if the Nijmegen bridges were destroyed. Model looked at him and angrily shouted, “No!”

Major General Heinz Harmel was annoyed by the attitude of his superior, General Wilhelm Bittrich. The II SS Panzer Corps commander had adopted too far-sighted a view of the battle, Harmel felt. Bittrich “seemed to have closed his mind completely to the ferrying problems at Pannerden.” Those problems had hampered Harmel from the beginning, yet it appeared to him that Bittrich never remained long enough at the site “to see for himself the almost impossible task of getting twenty tanks across the river—and three of them were Royal Tigers.” It had taken Harmel’s engineers nearly three days to build a ferry capable of carrying an estimated 40-ton load across the Rhine. Although Harmel believed the operation could now be accelerated, only three platoons of tanks (twelve Panthers) had so far reached the vicinity of Nijmegen. The remainder, including his Tiger tanks, were fighting at the Arnhem bridge under the veteran eastern front commander, Major Hans Peter Knaust.

The thirty-eight-year-old Knaust had lost a leg in battle near Moscow in 1941. As Harmel recalls, “he stomped about with a wooden one and, although he was always in pain, he never once complained.” Yet, Knaust too was the target for much of Harmel’s displeasure.

To reinforce the Frundsberg Division, the “Knaust Kampfgruppe” had been rushed to Holland with thirty-five tanks, five armored personnel carriers and one self-propelled gun. But Knaust’s veterans were of low caliber. Almost all of them had been badly wounded at one time or another; in Harmel’s view they were “close to being invalids.” Under normal conditions the men would not have been in active service. Additionally, Knaust’s replacements were young, and many had had only eight weeks’ training. The Arnhem bridge battle had gone on so long that Harmel was now fearful of the situation at Nijmegen. In case the British broke through, he would need Knaust’s tanks to hold the bridge and defense positions between Nijmegen and Arnhem. More armored reinforcements were on the way, including fifteen to twenty Tiger tanks and another twenty Panthers. But Harmel had no idea when they would arrive or whether the Arnhem bridge would be open to speed their drive south. Even after its capture, Harmel envisioned a full day to clear the wreckage and get vehicles moving.

To oversee all operations, Harmel had set up an advance command post near the village of Doornenburg, two miles west of Pannerden and six miles northeast of Nijmegen. From there he drove west to roughly the mid-point of the Nijmegen-Arnhem highway to study the terrain, automatically fixing in his mind defense positions that might be used if a breakthrough occurred. His reconnaissance produced one clear impression: it seemed impossible for either British or German tanks to leave the highway. Only light vehicles could travel the thinly surfaced, brick-paved, secondary roads. His own tanks, moving to Nijmegen after crossing at Pannerden, had bogged down on just such roads, their weight crumbling the pavement. The main Nijmegen-Arnhem highway was, in places, a dike road, nine to twelve feet above soft polder on either side. Tanks moving along these high stretches would be completely exposed, silhouetted against the sky. Well-sited artillery could easily pick them off. At the moment, Harmel had almost no artillery covering the highway; thus it was imperative that Knaust’s tanks and guns get across the Rhine and in position before a British breakthrough could occur at Nijmegen.

Returning to his headquarters at Doornenburg, Harmel heard the latest reports from his chief of staff, Colonel Paetsch. There was good news from Arnhem: more prisoners were being taken, and the fighting at the bridge was beginning to break up. Knaust now believed he might have the crossing by late afternoon. Fighting continued in Nijmegen, but Captain Karl Heinz Euling, although taking heavy casualties, was containing all efforts to seize the railway and road bridges there. The Americans and British had been stopped at both approaches. In the center of the city British forces had been held up too, but that situation was more precarious.

Euling’s report reflected an optimism that Harmel did not share. Eventually, by sheer weight of numbers, British armor would surely overrun the German line. Lighting a cigar, Harmel told Paetsch that he “expected the full weight of the Anglo-American attack to be thrown at the highway bridge within forty-eight hours.” If Knaust’s tanks and artillerymen secured the Arnhem bridge quickly, they might halt the British armored drive. Should the panzers be slow in forcing the little band of British from the Arnhem bridge and clearing it of wreckage, Harmel knew that, against all orders, he must blow the Nijmegen highway bridge.

For all his careful consideration, he did not envision a most preposterous scheme: that the American paratroopers might try to ford the river in a major amphibious assault.

*Although these are the exact figures quoted from Army Group B’s diary, they seem excessive particularly in the number of guns, vehicles and horses. The evacuation of the Fifteenth Army across the Schelde and around Antwerp was directed by General Eugene Felix Schwalbe. In 1946 he gave the following estimate: 65,000 men, 225 guns, 750 trucks and wagons and 1,000 horses (see Milton Shulman, Defeat in the West, p. 180). I cannot explain the discrepancy, but Schwalbe’s figures seem much more realistic.

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