WAITING PARATROOPERS CROWDED THE AREA not far from the crossing site, one mile downstream from the Nijmegen railway bridge. Throughout Tuesday night and well into Wednesday morning, as the Anglo-American forces under Lieutenant Colonel Coulburn and Lieutenant Colonel Vandervoort continued the battle for the railroad and highway bridges to the east, American and British soldiers labored to widen the area leading to the river bank so that the tanks and heavy artillery of the Guards Armored Division could take up firing positions to support the assault. Typhoons were scheduled to fly low over the northern bank thirty minutes before H Hour, spraying the entire area with rocket and machine-gun fire. On the ground, tanks and artillery would pound the site for another fifteen minutes. Then, under a smoke screen laid down by tanks, the first wave of men led by twenty-seven-year-old Major Julian Cook were to set out in one of the most daring river crossings ever made.
The plan was as thorough as commanders working throughout the night could make it. But the boats in which Cook’s troopers would cross the 400-yard-wide river had not arrived. H Hour, originally set for 1 P.M., was postponed until 3 P.M.
In small groups the Americans waited as Cook paced up and down. “Where are the damned boats?” he wondered. Ever since he had been told by General Gavin and the 504th regimental commander, Colonel Tucker, that his 3rd Battalion would make the Waal assault crossing, Cook had been “shocked and dum-founded.” It seemed to the young West Pointer that “we were being asked to make an Omaha beach landing all by ourselves.” Many of his men had never even been in a small boat.
Cook was not the only one anxiously awaiting the arrival of the boats. Before noon General Frederick Browning had received the first clear indication of the seriousness of Urquhart’s situation. Received via British Second Army communications, the Phantom message read in part:
(201105) … senior formation still in vicinity north end of main bridge but not in touch and unable resupply … Arnhem entirely in enemy hands. Request all possible steps expedite relief. Fighting intense and opposition extremely strong. Position not too good.
Browning was deeply disturbed. Every hour now mattered and the quick seizure of the Nijmegen bridges was vital to the survival of Urquhart’s men. The relief of the Arnhem defenders was, at this moment, almost solely up to Cook and the 3rd Battalion—a fact of which Cook was unaware.
In any event, the boats were not at hand, and no one even knew what they were like. All through the night General Horrocks and his staff had been trying to speed their arrival. Far back in the engineering convoys three trucks carrying the craft had been inching their way up the jam-packed road. Back in Eindhoven they had been held up by a fierce Luftwaffe bombing attack. The whole center of the city was devastated. Scores of supply trucks had been destroyed and an entire ammunition convoy had been ignited, adding to the carnage. Now, at the Waal crossing less than one hour before H hour, there was still no sign of the trucks and the vital boats.
The assault site lay to the east of the massive PGEM electrical power plant, and originally it was believed that the crossing could be made from the plant itself. There, at the river’s edge, a small inlet afforded protection for the loading, unobserved by the Germans. Colonel Tucker had rejected the site; it was too close to the enemy-held railway bridge. As the troopers emerged from the dock area, the Germans could sweep each assault wave with machine-gun fire. Here, too, at the mouth of the inlet, the 8- to 10-mile-an-hour current swirled stronger. Shifting farther west, Tucker planned to have the men rush the boats at double time down to the river’s edge, launch them and paddle across. That, too, worried Cook. From the little he had learned, each craft weighed about 200 pounds; when they were loaded with the men’s equipment and ammunition, that figure would probably double.
Once launched, each boat would carry thirteen paratroopers and a crew of three engineers to row the men across. The operation would be continuous. In wave after wave the assault craft were to cross back and forth until the whole of Cook’s battalion and part of another, under Captain John Harrison, were across. Major Edward G. Tyler of the Irish Guards, whose tanks were to give fire support, was appalled by the whole concept. “It put the fear of God in me,” Tyler recalls. He asked the cigar-chewing Colonel Tucker if his men had ever practiced this kind of operation before. “No,” Tucker replied laconically. “They’re getting on-the-job training.”
From the ninth floor of the power plant, Cook and Lieutenant Colonel Giles Vandeleur, commanding the Irish Guards’ 2nd Battalion, observed the north shore through binoculars. Directly across from where they stood, flat ground ran inland from the river’s edge for 200 to 800 yards. Cook’s men would have to cross this unprotected stretch after they landed. Beyond the level shore, a sloping dike embankment rose some 15 to 20 feet high, and topping it was a 20-foot-wide road running west to east. A squat building, called Fort Hof Van Holland, stood about 800 yards beyond the road. Cook and Vandeleur could clearly see enemy troops in position along the top of the embankment, and they were almost sure that observation and artillery posts were positioned inside the fort. “Somebody,” Cook remembers thinking, “has come up with a real nightmare.” Yet, effective H-Hour air and artillery support could soften the German resistance and enable the troopers to command the northern bank quickly. Cook was counting heavily on that support.
Vandeleur thought the crossing might prove “ghastly, with heavy casualties.” But he intended his tanks to support the Americans to the utmost. He planned to use about thirty Sherman tanks—two squadrons under command of Major Edward G. Tyler and Major Desmond FitzGerald. At 2:30 P.M., the tanks were to move toward the river and mount the embankment, “track-to-track,” their 75 mm. guns lined up to pound the far shore. This British bombardment would be reinforced by the 82nd’s mortar and artillery fire. In all, 100 guns would batter the northern bank.
Cook’s men, who had not seen the actual assault area as yet, had taken the briefing in their stride. But the width of the river shocked everyone. “At first when we were briefed, we thought they were joking,” recalls Second Lieutenant John Holabird. “It all sounded too fantastic.” Sergeant Theodore Finkbeiner, scheduled for the first wave, was sure that “our chances were pretty good because of the smoke screen.” But Captain T. Moffatt Burriss, commander of I Company, believed the plan was nothing short of a suicide mission.
So did the 504th’s Protestant chaplain, Captain Delbert Kuehl. Normally Kuehl would not have gone in with assault troops. Now he requested permission to be with Cook’s men. “It was the hardest decision I ever made,” he recalls, “because I was going on my own volition. The plan seemed absolutely impossible, and I felt if ever the men needed me, it would be on this operation.”
Captain Henry Baldwin Keep, who was known as the battalion’s millionaire because he was a member of the Philadelphia Biddle family, considered that “the odds were very much against us. In eighteen months of almost steady combat we had done everything from parachute jumps to establishing bridgeheads to acting as mountain troops and as regular infantry. But a river crossing was something else! It sounded impossible.”
Cook, according to Lieutenant Virgil Carmichael, tried to lighten the atmosphere by announcing that he would imitate George Washington by “standing erect in the boat and, with clenched right fist pushed forward, shout, ‘Onward, men! Onward!’” Captain Carl W. Kappel, commander of H Company, who had heard that the Arnhem attack was in trouble, was deeply concerned. He wanted “to get in the damn boat and get the hell across.” He had a good friend in the British 1st Airborne, and he felt if anyone was on the Arnhem bridge it was “Frosty”—Colonel John Frost.
By 2 P.M. there was still no sign of the assault craft, and now it was too late to recall the approaching squadrons of Typhoons. Back of the jump-off site, hidden behind the river embankment, Cook’s men and Vandeleur’s tanks waited. At precisely 2:30 P.M. the Typhoon strike began. Flashing overhead, the planes peeled off and screamed down, one after another, shooting rockets and machine-gun fire at the enemy positions. Ten minutes later, as Vandeleur’s tanks began taking up positions on the embankment, the three trucks carrying the assault craft arrived. With only twenty minutes to go, Cook’s men saw, for the first time, the flimsy collapsible green boats.
Each boat was nineteen feet long with a flat, reinforced plywood bottom. The canvas sides, held in place by wooden pegs, measured thirty inches from floor to gunwales. Eight paddles, four feet long, were supposed to accompany each boat, but in many there were only two. Men would have to use their rifle butts to paddle.
Quickly engineers began assembling the boats. As each was put together, the paratroopers assigned to the craft loaded their equipment on board and got ready to dash for the bank. Against the deafening din of the barrage now lashing the far shore, the twenty-six boats were finally assembled. “Somebody yelled, ‘Go!’” First Lieutenant Patrick Mulloy recalls, “and everybody grabbed the gunwales and started to lug the boats down to the river.” From the rear, shells screamed over the men’s heads; tank guns barked from the embankment ahead of them, and white smoke, “looking fairly thick” to Mulloy, drifted over the width of the river. The assault was on.
As the first wave of some 260 men—two companies, H and I, plus headquarters staff and engineers—got to the water the launching immediately began to assume the proportions of a disaster. Boats put into too-shallow water bogged down in the mud and would not budge. Struggling and thrashing in the shallows, men carried them to deeper parts, pushed them out and then climbed in. As some troopers tried to hoist themselves aboard, their boats overturned. Other boats, overloaded, were caught by the current and began circling out of control. Some sank under their heavy loads. Paddles were lost; men fell overboard. Captain Carl Kappel saw the scene as one “of mass confusion.” His boat began to founder. “Private Legacie was in the water and starting to go down,” Kappel remembers. Diving in after him, Kappel was surprised at the swiftness of the current. He was able to grab Legacie and pull him to safety “but by the time I got him to the bank I was an old man and worn out.” Jumping into another boat Kappel started out again. First Lieutenant Tom MacLeod’s craft was almost awash, and he thought they were sinking. “Paddles were flaying like mad,” he remembers, and all he could hear above the din was Cook’s voice, from a nearby boat, yelling, “Keep going! Keep going!”
The Major, a devout Catholic, was also praying out loud. Lieutenant Virgil Carmichael noticed that he had developed a kind of cadence with each line. “Hail Mary—full of Grace—Hail Mary—full of Grace,” Cook chanted with every stroke of the paddle.*Then, in the midst of the confusion, the Germans opened up.
The fire was so intense and concentrated that it reminded Lieutenant Mulloy of “the worst we ever took at Anzio. They were blazing away with heavy machine guns and mortars, most of it coming from the embankment and the railroad bridge. I felt like a sitting duck.” Chaplain Kuehl was sick with horror. The head of the man sitting next to him was blown off. Over and over Kuehl kept repeating “Lord, Thy will be done.”
From his command post in the PGEM building, Lieutenant Colonel Vandeleur, along with General Browning and General Horrocks, watched in grim silence. “It was a horrible, horrible sight,” Vandeleur remembers. “Boats were literally blown out of the water. Huge geysers shot up as shells hit and small-arms fire from the northern bank made the river look like a seething cauldron.” Instinctively men began to crouch in the boats. Lieutenant Holabird, staring at the fragile canvas sides, felt “totally exposed and defenseless.” Even his helmet “seemed about as small as a beanie.”
Shrapnel ripped through the little fleet. The boat carrying half of First Lieutenant James Megellas’ platoon sank without a trace. There were no survivors. First Lieutenant Allen McLain saw two craft blown apart and troopers thrown into the water. Around Captain T. Moffatt Burriss’ boat fire was coming down “like a hailstorm,” and finally the engineer steering the boat said, “Take the rudder. I’m hit.” His wrist was shattered. As Burriss leaned over to help, the engineer was hit again, this time in the head. Shell fragments caught Burriss in the side. As the engineer fell overboard, his foot caught the gunwale, causing his body to act like a rudder and swinging the boat around. Burriss had to heave the dead man into the water. By then two more troopers sitting in front had also been killed.
Under a brisk wind the smoke screen had been blown to tatters. Now German gunners raked each boat individually. Sergeant Clark Fuller saw that some men, in their haste to get across quickly, and desperately trying to avoid the fire, “rowed against each other, causing their boats to swing around in circles.” The Germans picked them off easily. Fuller was “so scared that he felt paralyzed.” Halfway across, Private Leonard G. Tremble was suddenly slammed into the bottom of the boat. His craft had taken a direct hit. Wounded in the face, shoulder, right arm and left leg, Tremble was sure he was bleeding to death. Taking water, the boat swung crazily in circles, then drifted slowly back to the southern shore, everyone in it dead but Tremble.
In the command post Vandeleur saw that “huge gaps had begun to appear in the smoke screen.” His tankers had fired smoke shells for more than ten minutes, but now the Guardsmen were running low on every kind of ammunition. “The Germans had switched ammunition and were beginning to use big stuff, and I remember almost trying to will the Americans to go faster. It was obvious that these young paratroopers were inexperienced in handling assault boats, which are not the easiest things to maneuver. They were zigzagging all over the water.”
Then the first wave reached the northern bank. Men struggled out of the boats, guns firing, and started across the exposed flat land. Sergeant Clark Fuller, who a few minutes before had been paralyzed with fear, was so happy to be alive that he felt “exhilarated. My fear had been replaced by a surge of recklessness. I felt I could lick the whole German army.” Vandeleur, watching the landing, “saw one or two boats hit the beach, followed immediately by three or four others. Nobody paused. Men got out and began running toward the embankment. My God, what a courageous sight it was! They just moved steadily across that open ground. I never saw a single man lie down until he was hit. I didn’t think more than half the fleet made it across.” Then, to Vandeleur’s amazement, “the boats turned around and started back for the second wave.” Turning to Horrocks, General Browning said, “I have never seen a more gallant action.”
As Julian Cook’s assault craft neared the beach he jumped out and pulled the boat, eager to get ashore. Suddenly to his right he saw a bubbling commotion in the gray water. “It looked like a large air bubble, steadily approaching the bank,” he remembers. “I thought I was seeing things when the top of a helmet broke the surface and continued on moving. Then a face appeared under the helmet. It was the little machine-gunner, Private Joseph Jedlicka. He had bandoliers of 30-caliber machine-gun bullets draped around his shoulders and a box in either hand.” Jedlicka had fallen overboard in eight feet of water and, holding his breath, had calmly walked across the river bottom until he emerged.
Medics were already working on the beach and as First Lieutenant Tom MacLeod prepared to return across the Waal for another boatload of troopers, he saw that rifles had been stuck in the ground next to the fallen.
Shortly after 4 P.M., General Heinz Harmel received an alarming message at his headquarters in Doornenburg. It was reported that “a white smoke screen has been thrown across the river opposite Fort Hof Van Holland.” Harmel, with some of his staff, rushed by car to the village of Lent, on the northern bank of the Waal, a mile from the Nijmegen highway bridge. The smoke could mean only one thing: the Anglo-Americans were trying to cross the Waal by boat. Still, Harmel could not believe his own analysis. The width of the river, the forces manning the northern bank, Euling’s optimistic report of the morning, and his own estimate of the British and American forces in Nijmegen—all argued against the operation. But Harmel decided to see for himself. He remembers that “I had no intention of being arrested and shot by Berlin for letting the bridges fall into enemy hands—no matter how Model felt about it.”
Major Julian Cook knew his losses were appalling, but he had no time to assess them now. His companies had landed everywhere along the exposed stretch of beach. Units were inextricably mixed up and, for the time, without organization. The Germans were flaying the beach with machine-gun fire, yet his stubborn troopers refused to be pinned down. Individually and in twos and threes they headed for the embankment. “It was either stay and get riddled or move,” Cook remembers. Struggling forward, the men, armed with machine guns, grenades and fixed bayonets, charged the embankment and viciously dug the Germans out. Sergeant Theodore Finkbeiner believes he was one of the first to reach the high dike roadway. “I stuck my head over the top, and stared right into the muzzle of a machine gun,” he recalls. He ducked, but “the muzzle blast blew my helmet off.” Finkbeiner tossed a grenade into the German emplacement, heard the explosion and the sound of men screaming. Then he quickly hoisted himself up onto the embankment road and headed for the next machine-gun nest.
Captain Moffatt Burriss had no time to think about the shrapnel wound in his side. When he landed he was “so happy to be alive that I vomited.” He ran straight for the dike, yelling to his men to get “one machine gun firing on the left flank, another on the right.” They did. Burriss saw several houses back of the dike. Kicking the door of one open, he surprised “several Germans who had been sleeping, apparently unaware of what was happening.” Reaching quickly for a hand grenade, Burriss pulled the pin, threw it into the room and slammed the door.
In the smoke, noise and confusion, some men in the first wave did not remember how they got off the beach. Corporal Jack Bommer, a communications man laden down with equipment, simply ran forward. He “had only one thing in mind: to survive if possible.” He knew he had to get to the embankment and wait for further instructions. On reaching the crest he saw “dead bodies everywhere, and Germans—some no more than fifteen years old, others in their sixties—who a few minutes before had been slaughtering us in the boats were now begging for mercy, trying to surrender.” Men were too shocked by their ordeal and too angry at the death of friends to take many prisoners. Bommer recalls that some Germans “were shot out of hand at point-blank range.”
Sickened and exhausted by the crossing, their dead and wounded lying on the beach, the men of the first wave subdued the German defenders on the dike road in less than thirty minutes. Not all the enemy positions had been overrun, but now troopers hunched down in former German machine-gun nests to protect the arrival of succeeding waves. Two more craft were lost in the second crossing. And, still under heavy shellfire, exhausted engineers in the eleven remaining craft made five more trips to bring all the Americans across the bloodstained Waal. Speed was all that mattered now. Cook’s men had to grab the northern ends of the crossings before the Germans fully realized what was happening—and before they blew the bridges.
By now the embankment defense line had been overrun, and the Germans were pulling back to secondary positions. Cook’s troopers gave them no quarter. Captain Henry Keep comments that “what remained of the battalion seemed driven to fever pitch and, rendered crazy by rage, men temporarily forgot the meaning of fear. I have never witnessed this human metamorphosis so acutely displayed as on this day. It was an awe-inspiring sight but not a pretty one.”
Individually and in small groups, men who had sat helpless in the boats as friends died all around them took on four and five times their number with grenades, submachine guns and bayonets. With brutal efficiency they dug the Germans out and, without stopping to rest or regroup, continued their rampaging assault. They fought through fields, orchards and houses back of the embankment under the fire of machine guns and antiaircraft batteries hammering at them from Fort Hof Van Holland directly ahead. As some groups headed due east along the sunken dike road for the bridges, others stormed the fort, almost oblivious to the German guns. Some troopers, laden with grenades, swam the moat surrounding the fortress and began climbing the walls. Sergeant Leroy Richmond, swimming underwater, took the enemy soldier guarding the causeway by surprise, then waved his men across. According to First Lieutenant Virgil F. Carmichael, troopers “somehow climbed to the top of the fort, then others below tossed up hand grenades which were promptly dropped into the turret portholes, one after the other.” The German defenders quickly surrendered.
Meanwhile, units from two companies—Captain Burriss’ I Company and Captain Kappel’s H Company—were sprinting for the bridges. At the railroad bridge, H Company found the German defense so fierce that it looked as though the American attack might stall.* Then the continuing pressure from the British and American forces at the southern end and in Nijmegen itself caused the enemy suddenly to crack. To Kappel’s amazement the Germans began to retreat across the bridge “in wholesale numbers”—right into the American guns. From his tank near the PGEM factory, Lieutenant John Gorman “could see what looked like hundreds of Germans, confused and panic-stricken, running across the bridge right toward the Americans.” On the northern bank First Lieutenant Richard La Riviere and Lieutenant E. J. Sims also saw them coming. In disbelief, they watched as the Germans abandoned their guns and hurried toward the northern exit. “They were coming across in a mass,” recalls La Riviere, “and we let them come—two thirds of the way.” Then the Americans opened fire.
A hail of bullets ripped into the defenders. Germans fell everywhere—some into the girders under the bridge; others to the water below. More than 260 lay dead, many were wounded, and scores more were taken prisoner before the firing ceased. Within two hours of the Waal river assault, the first of the bridges had fallen. Major Edward G. Tyler of the Irish Guards saw “someone waving. I had been concentrating so long on that railroad bridge that, for me, it was the only one in existence. I got on the wireless and radioed Battalion, ‘They’re on the bridge! They’ve got the bridge!’” The time was 5 P.M. Captain Tony Heywood of the Grenadier Guards received Major Tyler’s message and found it “utterly confusing.” Which bridge did the message refer to? The Grenadiers under Lieutenant Colonel Goulburn were still fighting alongside Colonel Vandervoort’s troopers near the Valkhof, where Euling’s SS forces continued to deny them the highway bridge. If the message meant that the highway bridge had been taken, Heywood remembers, “I couldn’t figure how they had gotten across.”
The railroad bridge was intact and physically in Anglo-American hands, but Germans—either prepared to fight to the last or too frightened to leave their positions—were still on it. The Americans had made a quick search for demolition charges at the northern end. Although they had found nothing, there was still a chance that the bridge was wired and ready to be destroyed. Captain Kappel now radioed Major Cook, urging him to get British tanks across as quickly is possible. With these as support, he and Captain Burriss of I Company believed, they could grab the big prize, the Nijmegen highway bridge, slightly less than a mile east. Then, recalls Kappel, Colonel Tucker arrived. The request, Tucker said, “had been relayed, but the Germans might blow both bridges at any moment.” Without hesitation Cook’s troopers pushed on for the highway bridge.
General Harmel could not make out what was happening. Binoculars to his eyes, he stood on the roof of a bunker near the village of Lent. From this position on the northern bank of the Waal barely a mile from the main Nijmegen highway bridge, he could see smoke and haze off to his right and hear the crash of battle. But no one seemed to know exactly what was taking place, except that an attempt had been made to cross the river near the railroad bridge. He could see the highway bridge quite clearly; there was nothing on it. Then, as Harmel recalls, “the wounded started to arrive, and I began to get conflicting reports.” Americans, he learned, had crossed the river, “but everything was exaggerated. I could not tell if they had come across in ten boats or a hundred.” His mind “working furiously trying to decide what to do next,” Harmel checked with his engineers. “I was informed that both bridges were ready to go,” he remembers. “The local commander was instructed to destroy the railroad bridge. The detonator for the highway bridge was hidden in a garden near the bunker at Lent, and a man was stationed there awaiting orders to press the plunger.” Then Harmel received his first clear report: only a few boats had crossed the river, and the battle was still in progress. Looking through his binoculars again, he saw that the highway bridge was still clear and free of movement. Although his “instinct was to get this troublesome bridge weighing on my shoulders destroyed, I had no intention of doing anything until I was absolutely sure that it was lost.” If he was forced to blow the highway bridge, Harmel decided, he would make sure that “it was crowded with British tanks and let them go up in the blast, too.”
In Huner Park and in the Valkhof close by the southern approaches to the highway bridge, Captain Karl Euling’s SS Panzer Grenadiers were fighting for their lives. The Anglo-American attack by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Goulburn’s Grenadier Guards and Lieutenant Colonel Ben Vandervoort’s 2nd Battalion of the 82nd’s 505th Regiment was methodical and relentless. Vandervoort’s mortars and artillery pounded the German defense line as his men sprinted from house to house. Closing the gap between themselves and Euling’s steadily shrinking defenses, Goulburn’s tanks moved up the converging streets, driving the Germans before them, their 17-pounders and machine guns blasting.
The Germans fought back hard. “It was the heaviest volume of fire I ever encountered,” recalls Sergeant Spencer Wurst, then a nineteen-year-old veteran who had been with the 82nd since North Africa. “I had the feeling I could reach up and grab bullets with each hand.” From his vantage point on the ledge of a house some twenty-five yards from the Valkhof, Wurst could look down into the German positions. “There were foxholes all over the park,” he remembers, “and all the action seemed to be centered from these and from a medieval tower. I watched our men break out from right and left and charge right up to the traffic circle. We were so anxious to get that bridge that I saw some men crawl over to the foxholes and literally drag the Germans out.” Wurst’s own rifle barrel was so hot that cosmoline began to ooze from the wood stock.
As the murderous fire fight continued Wurst was astounded to see Colonel Vandervoort “stroll across the street, smoking a cigarette. He stopped in front of the house I was in, looked up and said, ‘Sergeant, I think you better go see if you can get that tank moving.’” Vandervoort pointed to the entrance to the park where a British tank was sitting, its turret closed. Clambering off the roof, Wurst ran to the tank and rapped on its side with his helmet. The turret opened. “Colonel wants you to move it,” Wurst said. “Come on. I’ll show you where to fire.” Advancing beside the tank in full view of the Germans, Wurst pointed out targets. As the intense fire coming from Vandervoort’s men and Goulburn’s tanks increased, the enemy defense ring began to collapse. The formidable line of antitank guns that had stopped each previous attack was obliterated. Finally only four self-propelled guns dug into the center of the traffic circle remained firing. Then, a little after 4 P.M., in an all-out tank and infantry assault, these too were overrun. As Vandervoort’s troopers charged with bayonets and grenades, Goulburn lined his tanks up four abreast and sent them charging into the park. In panic the Germans broke. As they retreated, some tried to take cover in the girders of the bridge; others, farther away, raced through the American and British fire toward the medieval fort. As the Germans passed, scores of troopers lobbed grenades into their midst. The assault was over. “They had given us a real tough time,” Wurst says. “We watched them charging right past us, up over the road leading onto the bridge and some went off to the east. We felt pretty good.”
General Allan Adair, commander of the Guards Armored Division, directing operations in a nearby building, remembers “gritting my teeth, dreading the sound of an explosion that would tell me the Germans had blown the bridge.” He heard nothing. The approaches to the great Waal bridge lay open, the span itself apparently intact.
Sergeant Peter Robinson’s troop of four tanks had been waiting for just this moment. Now they moved out for the bridge.* The twenty-nine-year-old Dunkirk veteran had been alerted a few hours earlier by his squadron leader, Major John Trotter, “to stand ready to go for the bridge.” Germans were still on the crossing, and Trotter now warned Robinson, “We don’t know what to expect when you cross, but the bridge has to be taken. Don’t stop for anything.” Shaking hands with the sergeant, Trotter added jokingly, “Don’t worry. I know where your wife lives and if anything happens, I’ll let her know.” Robinson was not amused. “You’re bloody cheerful, aren’t you, sir?” he asked Trotter. Climbing onto his tank, Robinson led off for the bridge.
The troop of four tanks came into Huner Park by the right of the roundabout. To Robinson it appeared that “the whole town was burning. Buildings to my left and right were on fire.” Wreathed in smoke, the great crossing looked “damned big.” As Robinson’s tank rumbled forward he reported constantly by radio to division headquarters. “Everyone else had been ordered off the air,” he recalls. Clanking onto the approaches, Robinson remembers, “We came under heavy fire. There was an explosion. One of the idler wheels carrying the track on one side of the tank had been hit.” The tank was still running, although “the wireless was dead and I had lost touch with headquarters.” Shouting to his driver to reverse, Robinson backed his tank to the side of the road. Quickly the sergeant jumped out, ran to the tank behind him and told its commander, Sergeant Billingham, to get out. Billingham began to argue. Robinson shouted that he was giving “a direct order. Get out of that tank damned quick and follow along in mine.” The third tank in line, commanded by Sergeant Charles W. Pacey, had pulled out and was leading the way onto the bridge. Jumping aboard Billingham’s tank, Robinson ordered the others to follow. As the four tanks advanced, Robinson recalls, they came under fire from a “big 88 parked on the other side of the river, near some burning houses and from what appeared to be a self-propelled gun in the far distance.”
Colonel Vandervoort, watching the tanks, saw the 88 begin to fire. “It was pretty spectacular,” he recalls. “The 88 was sandbagged into the side of the highway about one hundred yards from the north end of the bridge. One tank and the 88 exchanged about four rounds apiece with the tank spitting 30-caliber tracers all the while. In the gathering dusk it was quite a show.” Then Robinson’s gunner, Guardsman Leslie Johnson, got the 88 with another shot. Germans with grenades, rifles and machine guns clung to the girders of the bridge, Robinson remembers. The tank machine guns began “to knock them off like ninepins.” And Johnson, answering the heavy enemy artillery fire, “pumped shells through his gun as fast as the loader could run them through.” In a hail of fire Robinson’s troop rattled forward, now approaching the halfway mark on the highway bridge.
In the twilight, billowing smoke clogged the distant Waal highway bridge. At his forward position near Lent, General Heinz Harmel stared through his binoculars. Guns were banging all around him, and troops were moving back through the village to take up new positions. Harmel’s worst fear had now been realized. The Americans, against all expectations, had succeeded in making a bold, successful crossing of the Waal. In Nijmegen itself the optimism of Captain Karl Euling had proved unfounded. The last message received from him had been terse: Euling said he was encircled with only sixty men left. Now Harmel knew beyond doubt that the bridges were lost. He did not know whether the railroad bridge had been destroyed, but if he was to demolish the highway bridge, it must be done immediately.
“Everything seemed to pass through my mind all at once,” he recalled. “What must be done first? What is the most urgent, most important action to take? It all came down to the bridges.” He had not contacted Bittrich “beforehand to warn him that I might have to demolish the highway crossing. I presumed that it was Bittrich who had ordered the bridges readied for demolition.” So, Harmel reasoned, in spite of Model’s order, “if Bittrich had been in my shoes, he would have blown the main bridge. In my opinion, Model’s order was now automatically canceled anyway.” At any moment he expected tanks to appear on the highway bridge.
Standing next to the engineer by the detonator box, Harmel scanned the crossing. At first he could detect no movement. Then suddenly he saw “a single tank reach the center, then a second behind and to its right.” To the engineer he said, “Get ready.” Two more tanks appeared in view, and Harmel waited for the line to reach the exact middle before giving the order. He shouted, “Let it blow!” The engineer jammed the plunger down. Nothing happened. The British tanks continued to advance. Harmel yelled, “Again!” Once more the engineer slammed down the detonator handle, but again the huge explosions that Harmel had expected failed to occur. “I was waiting to see the bridge collapse and the tanks plunge into the river,” he recalled. “Instead, they moved forward relentlessly, getting bigger and bigger, closer and closer.” He yelled to his anxious staff, “My God, they’ll be here in two minutes!”
Rapping out orders to his officers, Harmel told them “to block the roads between Elst and Lent with every available antitank gun and artillery piece because if we don’t, they’ll roll straight through to Arnhem.” Then, to his dismay he learned that the railroad bridge was also still standing. Hurrying to a radio unit in one of the nearby command posts, he contacted his advance headquarters and spoke with his operations officer. “Stolley,” Harmel said, “tell Bittrich. They’re over the Waal.”**
Sergeant Peter Robinson’s four tanks pressed on across the bridge. A second 88 had stopped firing, and Robinson “reckoned we had put it out of operation, too.” Looming ahead was a roadblock of heavy concrete cubes with a gap of approximately ten feet in the middle. Robinson saw Sergeant Pacey’s tank make it through and stop on the far side. Then Robinson got past and, as Pacey covered the three tanks, took the lead once more. Robinson remembers that “visibility was terrible. I was shouting like hell, trying to direct the gunner, the driver, and inform headquarters all at the same time. The noise was unbelievable, with all sorts of fire clanging off the girders.” Three to four hundred yards ahead on the right, alongside the roadbed, Robinson saw another 88. He shouted to the gunner: “Traverse right 400 yards and fire.” Guardsman Johnson blew the gun to pieces. As infantry around it began to run, Johnson opened up with his machine gun. “It was a massacre,” he recalled. “I didn’t even have to bother looking through the periscope. There were so many of them that I just pulled the trigger.” He could feel the tank “bumping over the bodies lying in the road.”
From the turret Robinson saw that his three tanks were still coming on unharmed. He radioed to them to “close up and get a move on!” The troop was now nearing the northern end of the bridge. Within seconds a self-propelled gun began to fire. “There were two big bangs in front of us,” Robinson recalls. “My tin hat was blown off, but I wasn’t hit.” Johnson fired off three or four shells. The gun and a nearby house “burst into flame and the whole area was lit up like day.” Before he realized it, Robinson’s tanks were across the bridge.
He ordered the gunners to cease fire, and as the dust cleared, he caught sight of some figures in the ditch. At first he thought they were German. Then “from the shape of their helmets I knew they were Yanks. Suddenly there were Americans swarming all over the tank, hugging and kissing me, even kissing the tank.” Captain T. Moffatt Burriss, his clothes still damp and blood-soaked from the shrapnel wound he had received during the Waal crossing, grinned up at Johnson. “You guys are the most beautiful sight I’ve seen in years,” he said. The huge, multi-spanned Nijmegen crossing, together with its approaches almost a half mile long, had fallen intact. Of the Market-Garden bridges, the last but one was now in Allied hands. The time was 7:15 P.M., September 20. Arnhem lay only eleven miles away.
Lieutenant Tony Jones of the Royal Engineers—a man whom General Horrocks was later to describe as “the bravest of the brave”—had followed Robinson’s troop across the bridge. Searching carefully for demolitions, Jones worked so intently that he was unaware that Germans, still on the girders, were shooting at him. In fact, he recalls, “I don’t ever remember seeing any.” Near the roadblock in the center of the bridge he found “six or eight wires coming over the railing and lying on the footpath.” Jones promptly cut the wires. Nearby he found a dozen Teller mines neatly stacked in a slit trench. He reasoned that “they were presumably to be used to close the ten-foot gap in the roadblock, but the Germans hadn’t had the time to do it.” Jones removed the detonators and threw them into the river. At the bridge’s northern end he found the main explosive charges in one of the piers. He was “staggered by the preparations for the German demolition job.” The tin demolition boxes, painted green to match the color of the bridge, “were manufactured precisely to fit the girders they were attached to. Each had a matching serial number, and altogether they were packed with about five hundred pounds of TNT.” The explosives were designed to be fired electrically and the detonators were still in place and attached to the wires Jones had just cut on the bridge. He could not understand why the Germans had not destroyed the bridge unless the sudden smashing Anglo-American drive had given them no time. With the detonators now removed and all wires cut, the bridge was safe for vehicles and tanks.
But the British armored task force that the Americans had expected would move out immediately for Arnhem did not appear.
The link-up with the British 1st Airborne at the farthest end of the corridor weighed heavily on the minds of the Americans. Paratroopers themselves, they felt a strong kinship with the men still fighting up ahead. Cook’s battalion had suffered brutally in crossing the Waal. He had lost more than half of his two companies—134 men had been killed, wounded or were missing—but the mission to capture the Nijmegen bridges from both ends and open the road north had been accomplished. Now, Cook’s officers quickly pushed their units out into a perimeter defense about the northern end of the highway bridge and waited, expecting to see tanks race past them to relieve the British paratroopers up ahead. But there was no further movement over the bridge. Cook could not understand what was happening. He had expected the tanks to “go like hell” toward Arnhem before light failed.
Captain Carl Kappel, commander of H Company, whose friend Colonel John Frost was “somewhere up there,” was on edge. His men had also found and cut wires on the northern end. He was certain that the bridge was safe. As he and Lieutenant La Riviere continued to watch the empty bridge, Kappel said impatiently, “Perhaps we should take a patrol and lead them over by the hand.”
Second Lieutenant Ernest Murphy of Cook’s battalion ran up to Sergeant Peter Robinson, whose troops had crossed the bridge, and reported to him that “we’ve cleared the area ahead for about a quarter of a mile. Now it’s up to you guys to carry on the attack to Arnhem.” Robinson wanted to go, but he had been told to “hold the road and the end of the bridge at all costs.” He had no orders to move out.
Colonel Tucker, the 504th regimental commander, was fuming at the British delay. Tucker had supposed that a special task force would make a dash up the road the moment the bridge was taken and cleared of demolitions. The time to do it, he believed, “was right then, before the Germans could recover their balance.” As he later wrote, “We had killed ourselves crossing the Waal to grab the north end of the bridge. We just stood there, seething, as the British settled in for the night, failing to take advantage of the situation. We couldn’t understand it. It simply wasn’t the way we did things in the American army—especially if it had been our guys hanging by their fingernails eleven miles away. We’d have been going, rolling without stop. That’s what Georgie Patton would have done, whether it was daylight or dark.”
Lieutenant A. D. Demetras overheard Tucker arguing with a major from the Guards Armored Division. “I think a most incredible decision was being made right there on the spot,” he recalls. From inside a small bungalow being used as a command post, Demetras heard Tucker say angrily, “Your boys are hurting up there at Arnhem. You’d better go. It’s only eleven miles.” The major “told the Colonel that British armor could not proceed until infantry came up,” Demetras recalls. “They were fighting the war by the book,” Colonel Tucker said. “They had ‘harbored’ for the night. As usual, they stopped for tea.”
Although his men were at less than half strength and almost out of ammunition, Tucker thought of sending the 82nd troopers north toward Arnhem on their own. Yet, he knew that General Gavin would never have approved his action. The 82nd, strung out along its section of the corridor, could not afford the manpower. But Gavin’s sympathies were with his men: the British should have driven ahead. As he was later to put it, “there was no better soldier than the Corps commander, General Browning. Still, he was a theorist. Had Ridgway been in command at that moment, we would have been ordered up the road in spite of all our difficulties, to save the men at Arnhem.”*
Despite their apparent casualness, the British officers—Browning, Horrocks, Dempsey and Adair—were well aware of the urgency of moving on. Yet, the problems were immense. Horrocks’ corps was short of gasoline and ammunition. He saw indications that his columns might be pinched off south of Nijmegen at any moment. Fighting was still going on in the center of the city, and Major General G. I. Thomas’ 43rd Wessex Division, far back in the column, had not even reached the bridge at Grave, eight miles to the south. Cautious and methodical, Thomas had not been able to keep pace with the British columns. The Germans had cut the road at several points and Thomas’ men had battled fiercely to resecure it and drive back attacks. Although worried by the viciousness of the German attacks that were now pressing on both sides of the narrow corridor running to Nijmegen, General Browning believed that Thomas could have moved faster. Horrocks was not so sure. Concerned by the massive traffic jams along the road, he told General Gavin, “Jim, never try to supply a corps up just one road.”
Terrain—the difficulty Montgomery had foreseen and Model had counted on—greatly influenced the tactical considerations involved in moving on from the Nijmegen bridge. It was clear to General Adair, commanding the Guards Armored Division, that the tanks had reached the worst part of the Market-Garden corridor. The dead-straight high-dike road ahead between Nijmegen and Arnhem looked like an “island.” “When I saw that island my heart sank,” Adair later recalled. “You can’t imagine anything more unsuitable for tanks: steep banks with ditches on each side that could be easily covered by German guns.” In spite of his misgivings Adair knew they would “have to have a shot at it,” but he had virtually no infantry and “to get along that road was obviously first a job for infantry.” Horrocks had reached the same conclusion. The tanks would have to wait until infantry could move up and pass through the Guards Armored columns. It would be almost eighteen hours before a tank attack toward Arnhem could begin.
Yet the Corps commander, like the Americans, had held out hope for a quick move up the corridor. Immediately upon the capture of the Nijmegen crossing, believing that the northern end of the Arnhem bridge was still in British hands, General Browning had informed Urquhart that tanks were across. At two minutes to midnight, still optimistic about an early start, Browning sent the following message:
202358 … intention Guards Armored Division … at first light to go all-out for bridges at Arnhem …
Some forty-five minutes later, learning of the delay in bringing up infantry, Browning sent Urquhart a third message:
210045 … tomorrow attack 1st Airborne Division will be first priority but do not expect another advance possibly before 1200 hours.
In Arnhem the “first priority” was far too late. The men of Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Battalion had already been enveloped by their tragic fate. Three hours before Sergeant Robinson’s troop had rattled across the great Nijmegen span, the first three tanks under Major Hans Peter Knaust’s command had at last bludgeoned their way onto the Arnhem bridge.
*“‘The Lord is with Thee’ was too long,” Cook says, “so I kept repeating, ‘Hail Mary’ (one stroke), ‘Full of Grace’ (second stroke).” Captain Keep tried to remember his crewing days at Princeton but he found himself nervously counting “7-6-7-7-7-8-9.”
*According to Charles B. MacDonald, in The Siegfried Line Campaign, p. 181, the Germans on the bridge had a formidable array of armament which included 34 machine guns, two 20 mm. antiaircraft guns and one 88 mm. dual-purpose gun.
*It has been said that an American flag was raised on the north end of the railroad bridge and, in the smoke and confusion, British tankers thought it was flying on the far end of the highway bridge—signaling the American seizure of that end. The story may be true, but in scores of interviews I have not found a single participant who confirmed it. I have walked over the entire area and it seems inconceivable that anyone looking across the highway bridge could mistake a flag flying a mile to the west as the terminus of this crossing.
*This is the first account of the German attempt to destroy the Nijmegen highway bridge. General Harmel had never before given an interview to anyone on the subject. The failure of the demolition charge remains a mystery to this day. Many Dutch believe that the main crossing was saved by a young underground worker, Jan van Hoof, who had been sent into Nijmegen on the nineteenth by the 82nd’s Dutch liaison officer, Captain Arie Bestebreurtje, as a guide to the paratroopers. Van Hoof is thought to have succeeded in penetrating the German lines and to have reached the bridge, where he cut cables leading to the explosives. He may well have done so. In 1949 a Dutch commission investigating the story was satisfied that Van Hoof had cut some lines, but could not confirm that these alone actually saved the bridge. The charges and transmission lines were on the Lent side of the Waal and Van Hoof’s detractors maintain that it would have been impossible for him to have reached them without being detected. The controversy still rages. Although the evidence is against him, personally I would like to believe that the young Dutchman, who was shot by the Germans for his role in the underground during the battle, was indeed responsible.
*Says General Gavin, “I cannot tell you the anger and bitterness of my men. I found Tucker at dawn so irate that he was almost unable to speak. There is no soldier in the world that I admire more than the British, but British infantry leaders somehow did not understand the camaraderie of airborne troops. To our men there was only one objective: to save their brother paratroopers in Arnhem. It was tragic. I knew Tucker wanted to go, but I could never have allowed it. I had my hands full. Besides, Tucker and my other line officers did not appreciate some of the problems that the British had at that moment.”