This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri September 13th and 20th 2017. If you would like to see the current articles as they are published, you may subscribe to The Belle Banner by calling 573-859-3328, or email, or mail to The Belle Banner, PO Box 711, Belle, MO 65013. Subscription rates are; Maries, Osage, and Gasconade County = $23.55 per year, elsewhere in Missouri = $26.77, outside Missouri = $27.00, and foreign countries = $40.00.
A little history. In the summer of 1944, after D-Day (June 6th), the allied armies had pushed the German Army back across France to the borders of Germany and Belgium.
Today is Wednesday, September 13th, 2017. In 1944 September 13th was also on Wednesday. 2017 and 1944 calendars are the same. On Monday, September 11th, 1944, the commanders of the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division were briefed that they had five days to prepare for the largest airborne operation ever.
The largest airborne operation ever was conducted on Sunday, September 17th, 1944. Operation Market Garden was conceived by British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, and approved by General Eisenhower. Goal of the operation was to push 70 miles behind German lines from the Belgian city of Neerpelt, up highway 69, to the Dutch city of Arnhem. Thereby crossing some major canals and rivers that held back the allied armies and bypassing the German Siegfriedline. Once the allied armies reached Arnhem, they would be over the river Rhine, their last natural obstacle. Once over the Rhine the allied armies would sweep east into Germany, thereby knocking out the German industrial heart in the Ruhr pocket and break the German war effort. That would end the war before Christmas.
Market – the airborne forces, the First Allied Airborne Army, who would seize bridges. The 101st Airborne Division, the 82nd Airborne Division, and the 1st British Airborne Division, and the Independent Polish 1st Parachute Brigade.
Garden – the ground forces, consisting of the British XXX (30) Corps (Tanks).
The overall plan called for a “carpet of airborne troops”, dropped behind enemy lines, that would capture the road bridges over the major rivers and canals that lay along the route in three places: Eindhoven (around 13 miles from the start line), Nijmegen (53 miles) and Arnhem (64 miles), as well as a couple of smaller bridges at Veghel and Grave that lay between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, and hold that route at all costs. The route that XXX Corps would take was a tree-lined double lane road that ran across country that was almost entirely flat. The ground was sandy soil and drained bogland and broken by orchards, small woods, streams and ditches, which would have made cross-country movement difficult and time-consuming. So XXX Corps would have to stay on the road.
Sunday, September 17th, 1944 was bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. At each of the airfields, the men were up before daylight, busily trucking equipment bundles and otherwise making final preparations for the jump. Thirty years later, General Gavin, the 82nd commander, described what the men carried: “Because of our experiences in Normandy, the troopers loaded themselves with all the ammunition and antitank mines they could carry. In addition, every trooper who could get his hands on a pistol carried one as well as a rifle. So overloaded were they that one or two troopers stood beside the steps of the C-47s and helped boost the others up the steps and into the planes.” The airborne troops boarded their planes, with many pulling gliders, and started taking off, from different airfields in England, at 09:30. The 101st took the southern route into Holland, while the 82nd and the 1st British Airborne the northern route. The two columns of aircraft stretched for 94 miles in length and 3 miles wide. There was a total of 1,051 troop carriers and 516 glider / tug combinations (totaling 2,083 aircraft). Escorts amounted to 371 British fighter planes, Spitfires, Tempests, and Mosquitos on the northern route, and 548 American P-47 Thunderbolts, P-38 Lightnings, and P-51 Mustangs on the southern route. The German anti-aircraft guns along the Market Garden route were once again bombed and strafed. Resistance from German fighters and anti-aircraft fire was intermittent, but stronger near Eindhoven. The Allies lost 68 aircraft and 71 gliders, as well as two British and eighteen American fighters.
In the north, where the road ran across the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, the British 1st Airborne Division was to drop. To the south, where the road crossed the Waal River at Nijmegen, the American 82nd was to hold. The 82nd was assigned the big bridges over the Maas River at Grave and over the Waal River at Nijmegen, plus a ridgeline to the east that dominated both bridges. The bridge at Nijmegen, almost 2,000 feet long, would become a key to the whole Market Garden operation. The 101st’s job was in the area behind the German front line at Eindhoven, running north through Son to Uden. The division was to seize the rail and highway bridges over the Aa River and the Wilhelmina Canal at Son, the Dommel River at Eindhoven and St. Oedenrode, and Zuit Willemsvaart Canal near Veghel. The troopers were to hold those towns and their crossings. That road later became known as Hell’s Highway. The plan was for XXX Corps to reach Arnhem within 48 hours, because it was felt that any longer and the 1st British Airborne Division wouldn’t be able to hold against the German Army.
The German 59th and 245th Infantry divisions were in transit from the area of the German Fifteenth Army to that of the First Parachute Army–right in the operation’s path, and the German II SS Panzer Corps, consisting of the 9th SS Panzer Division and the 10th SS Panzer Division had been pulled back to Arnhem to rest and refit. German Field Marshal Walter Model, Commander of German Army Group B had placed his headquarters at Oosterbeek, which was between Heelsum where most of the 1st British Airborne landed and the Arnhem Bridge. Aerial reconnaissance had taken photographs of tanks at Arnhem, but they were ignored by the operations high command.
Upon landing, the 1st British Airborne Division became locked in an intense battle on practically all fronts. As soon as Field Marshall Model became aware of the scope of the allied operation, he deployed the 9th SS Panzer Division to Arnhem and sent the 10th SS to Nijmegen. He did not allow the Nijmegen Bridge to be destroyed, because he intended to use it in a counter attack. One battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Airborne, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, did manage to make it to the north end of the Arnhem Bridge, but the Germans set up a strong defense on the bridge and surrounded LTC Frosts’ battalion, effectively cutting his 600 men off from any outside help.
All but two battalions of the 101st Airborne Division landed on the proper drop zone, and those two took off at a dead run and captured their objective bridges, however the 1st Battalion, 501st did leave Captain W.S. Burd and 46 men behind with heavy equipment to be brought up later. That group was overrun and captured. The 101st met heavy resistance, but managed to capture all of its objective bridges except the Son Bridge. At Son the 506th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment), of the 101st, came under intense direct fire from German 88mm anti-aircraft/artillery guns. The paratroops charged the German positions and overran the guns, but as the Germans withdrew, they blew the Son Bridge. Early on the morning of the 18th the 101st occupied Eindhoven, allowing XXX Corps to roll through. A prefabricated Baily Bridge was located with Canadian Engineers, who brought it up and worked through the night constructing it in place. Finally, at 06:45 hours on the 19th the tanks of XXX Corps moved over the Wilhelmina Canal, at Son, 33 hours behind schedule.
General Gavin took inventory of his assets on the ground; 7,250 82nd Airborne paratroopers had jumped in the vicinity of Grave and Groesbeek. Unit after unit reported in on schedule and with few exceptions all were in their preplanned locations. The Maas Bridge at Grave was captured by E Company, 504th PIR, about two hours after landing. The southernmost bridge at Molenhoek (known to the paratroopers as Bridge #7) was captured intact by troopers from B Company, 504th, as well as by elements of the 505th PIR advancing from the direction of Groesbeek. It became very important because that afternoon and the next morning the Germans blew the three other bridges, in that area, which could have been used to keep XXX Corps moving.
Paratroopers from the 508th PIR, of the 82nd, made early attempts to seize the highway bridge at Nijmegen late on September 17th but were stopped by a superior German force. They did, however, manage to locate and deactivate demolition equipment that could have been used to blow the bridge. They were soon locked in a furious firefight with the German soldiers defending the south end of the bridge. That defense was resolutely fought, and a stalemate followed that would not be broken for three more days. During the night, troops of the 508th PIR tried in vain to capture the bridge, but the Germans had set up defenses around the bridge which were hard to destroy by the lightly armed paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. The morning of the 18th, the Germans launched several attacks. On the morning of the 19th, XXX Corps troops linked up with elements of the 504th at Grave. General Gavin asked for tank support to attack the bridge at Nijmegen. The 504th together with tanks from the Grenadier Guards, attempted to seize the bridge, but failed. The southern ramp leading up to the bridge was heavily defended. German forces from the 10th SS Panzer Division had arrived and made it extremely difficult for the 504th and Grenadier Guards to capture the bridge.
To break the deadlock, General Gavin came up with a bold plan: a force of parachute infantrymen would cross the Waal River in engineer boats borrowed from the British, with a smokescreen masking their advance. Upon reaching the opposite bank, the force would then attack the Nijmegen Bridge from the rear, outflanking its defenders. During the attack, British tanks from XXX Corps would provide fire support to suppress the German 88mm guns on the east bank.
The 3rd Battalion of the 504th PIR would conduct the river assault. Twenty six canvas collapsible boats were located in the British 43rd Division. They had to be hauled the 50 miles to Nijmegen. The boats were reported to have a capacity of 16 troops, including a crew of three. Company C, 307th Engineer Battalion of the 82nd would furnish three men to man each boat. When the boats finally arrived at 14:30 (2:30 PM) they would only carry 13 troops, so the assault force had to be quickly reorganized. The river, at that point, was about 1,200 feet wide, almost a quarter of a mile, with a very swift current estimated to be eight miles per hour. All boats would be used in each wave. The first wave would be Company H and Company I and the command group of the 3rd Battalion, the second wave would carry the remainder of the battalion, and succeeding waves would transport the 1st Battalion. The assault force would start behind a dike topped by a hard surface road, which ran parallel to the river, then there was about 600 yards of open area down to the water. Tanks of the 2d Irish Guards would support the crossings by fire from positions on the dike. The 376th Parachute Field Artillery, of the 82nd, was in direct support to be supplemented by all available British Artillery as it arrived. Dive bombers would strafe the area across the river 14:45 to 14:55. Artillery smoke was fired at 14:55, but a wind came up and blew away the smoke.
Lieutenant James Magellis wrote; “At 15:00 (3:00 PM), Major Julian Cook (the battalion commander) blew a whistle signaling the start of the assault. Shrill cries of “lets go” followed as the paratroopers released pent-up emotions. We grabbed the boats by the gunwales, charged up the embankment, crossed the open flat top of the dike, and made a mad dash for the river. The boats, loaded with our gear and weapons, were heavy, (about 400 pounds) and the going was tough in lose sand. We caught the Germans by surprise. For the first hundred yards they hadn’t fired a shot, but when they realized what was happening, all hell broke loose. They opened up with everything they had; small arms, machine guns, 20mm flak wagons, mortars, and artillery”.
Captain Henry Keep wrote; “As we frantically scurried for the river’s edge, chaos and confusion reigned. With shells exploding all around us, we kept charging forward. At that point we were all driven by instinct and running on adrenaline with but a single purpose: to get our boats in the water and across the river. At last we reached the drop. We let our boat slide down to the beach and ourselves slid alongside it. We pulled our boat quickly across a short beach and everyone piled in. By this time the situation was horrible. The automatic and flat trajectory fire had increased and the artillery was deadly. Men were falling right and left. In everyone’s ears was the constant roar of bursting artillery shells, the dull wham of a 20-mm, or the disconcerting ping of rifle bullets.”
Captain Carl Kappel, the H Company Commander, wrote that he was in the first boat, but as it was placed in the water it immediately sank. The current was swift enough to knock down those men in the water over their waist, and they had to swim back to shore. He then joined the third boat. That boat had lost two engineers, and immediately after launching the third engineer, at the tiller, was knocked out of the boat. A Platoon Sergeant, in the boat, took his place. One by one the men wielding the paddles slumped forward, until about twenty yards from the opposite bank there were only two paddles operating.
Captain Keep wrote; “After a false start we got stuck in a mud bar and several of us were forced to get out and push off again. We found ourselves floating in the wrong direction. Everyone grabbed a paddle and frantically started to work. Most of the men had never paddled before. Every movement in excess of essential paddling was extremely dangerous since the bullets were flying so thick and fast that they gave a reasonable facsimile of a steel curtain. Large numbers of men were being hit in all boats and the bottoms of the crafts were littered with the wounded and dead. Somehow we were three-quarters of the way across. Everyone was yelling to keep it up, but there was very little strength left in anyone. But at last we reached the other side. We climbed over the wounded and dead in the bottom of the boat and up to our knees in water waded to shore where behind a small embankment we flopped down gasping for breath, safe for the moment from the incessant firing.
Meldon Hurlbert, who was in Company C, 307th Engineer Battalion, wrote; The crossing went off late in the afternoon and the river was swift. We were all scared but we did what we were ordered to do. We had not seen the river prior to the assault. We had waited all day behind the embankment. When we first pulled the boats out into the water, men would jump in the boats too quick which grounded the boats. Many of the regular soldiers had no experience with boats. By this time all hell was breaking loose from both sides. The man in front of me (Woods) got hit and was killed by a large caliber shell which knocked him back. He landed all bloodied in my lap. The Germans were dug in and where firing directly at us from across the bank. Each boat only had several paddles so the other men used their rifle butts. Our boat was sunk about 3/4 of way across. Luckily at this point the river was not that deep and the water was up to my chin so after the boat sank I walked to the other side. When I reached the other side I was hit in the rear end with shrapnel. The situation was chaotic.
From the 307th Engineer Report of Action; Twenty-six boats with three engineers on each boat were used. Lt. Holabird [Chalk No. 2] and 11 men went in one boat to clear mines on far shore, and to find anti-tank guns. All officers except Lt. Bigler who was in charge of the near-shore operations went across. Machine guns (20mm), mortars and 88mm gun opened up on the first wave. Losses were heavy. Sixteen boats were left on the far shore, and 10 returned for the second lift. The enemy laid heavy fire on the far shore after the first wave attempting to forestall additional waves. The 20mm fire came from the south end of the bridge, some machine-gun fire from the bridge; 88mm fire came from north end of bridge, mortar and machine-gun fire came from the woods in the front. Six of the engineers who came back on the 10 boats were wounded and unable to make another trip. Lt. Bigler collected all available men, for the second crossing. The fire had decreased by the time the second wave crossed. After the third or fourth crossing, no fire was left except snipers. By the time the assault battalion got across, some men of the 307th had rowed across the river five times. On the second trip the wounded men started coming back across. Co. C lost 34 men on the assault—8 killed and 26 wounded.
Captain Kappel wrote that upon reaching the shore, he jumped in the water with the bow rope and pulled the sinking boat ashore. The boat was beached along a pile of rocks some two hundred yards from the intended landing area. The three dead and five wounded were placed in what cover the rock afforded. Only he, the Platoon Sergeant and the Company Medic had survived unharmed. The flat ground was being swept by fire. He picked up a Thompson sub with a bag of clips and the three left on a run for the trenches. An average of one man in each boat was killed, although boats 4 and 5 of H Company escaped with none wounded or killed.
As a devout Catholic, Major Julian Cook loudly recited Hail Mary during the crossing, spurring his men on under the withering fire. He took charge of the boats, redirecting those who were disoriented and pushing the men along. Once ashore, the Parachute Infantry Regiment cleared the river bank and assaulted the highway bridge. The 3rd Battalion, 504th PIR finally captured the bridge at 1900 hours, and the first tanks crossed the Waal River.
The price was high, the 504th had lost 24 men killed and 70 wounded in the river crossing, and taking the bridge.
The British General, Sir Miles Dempsey, after witnessing the 504th crossing the Waal, characterized the attack with a single word as he shook his head and said, “Unbelievable.”
But XXX Corps did not move until the next morning, they said their tanks couldn’t move at night, and by that time it was too late to save the British 1st Airborne. Lieutenant Colonel Frost’s battalion held out on the bridge for three days and three nights, before they were mauled to the point that they were overrun and taken as prisoners of war. Finally, on the night of the 25th, Major General Urquhart the commander of the British 1st Airborne, and about 2,000 of his men, who were able bodied, managed to escape across the river and reach allied troops. Almost 6,000, mostly wounded, remained to be taken as prisoners of war, while almost 1,200 had been killed in action.
The German Army quickly reorganized for a counter attack on the Nijmegen Bridge. Early on the morning of 21st, Company C, 1st Battalion 504th was defending the bridge that was just captured, when a strong enemy force of approximately 100 infantry supported by 2 tanks and a half-track attacked. Without being ordered to do so, a C Company soldier, Private John R. Towle, left his foxhole and ran 200 yards forward to a position on an exposed dike roadbed. From there, Towle fired his rocket launcher at both tanks, inflicting damage that forced both of them to turn back. When he drew fire from a nearby house being used by nine Germans as a strongpoint, Towle fired a single rocket into the house, killing all nine of the enemy. He then rushed forward through enemy fire again to get into a more advantageous position to fire his bazooka at the advancing half-track. Towle was kneeling and aiming his bazooka when fragments from a German mortar round fatally wounded him. He had singlehandedly broken up the enemy counterattack, which had posed a serious threat to the security of the Nijmegen bridgehead. For his self-sacrificing bravery, Private John R. Towle was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Although most of the men expected to be pulled out of the line at the end of September, the 82nd and 101st were placed under the control of the British XII Corps on the 28th and transferred north to the front line in an area known as the Island, a 5-kilometer strip of land between the Neder Rijn and the Waal. Due to heavy demands for manpower, the British were pressed for troops, and both the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions found themselves in positions that resembled the trench lines of World War I, they were relieved in November, and pulled back to France. Officially called the Holland Campaign, it was perhaps the most savagely fought single action in the history of the U.S. Army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions — and the least publicized. There are conflicting reports of casualties, but figures often used are; 82nd Airborne Division – 215 killed, 790 wounded, 427 missing, 101st Airborne Division – 315 killed, 1,248 wounded, 547 missing.
Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton, the 1st Allied Airborne Commander, said of the operation: The 82nd and 101st divisions…accomplished every one of their objectives….In the years to come everyone will remember Arnhem, but no one will remember that two American divisions fought their hearts out in the Dutch canal country and whipped hell out of the Germans.
If this interests you, it is very accurately portrayed in probably the best war movie ever, “A Bridge Too Far”. The 307th Engineer Battalion, in the 82nd at Fort Bragg, North Carolina does an annual reenactment, of the Waal River Crossing. It is “bragging rights” competition among boat crews.

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