Battle on the bridge
At Arnhem bridge Frost was wounded and command devolved on to Gough. More and more houses were set on fire or were reduced to rubble. The number of wounded in the cellars multiplied and were in danger of being burnt to death. The last attempt to break through with three Bren carriers filled with ammunition was defeated. By 21 September all resistance had ceased.
The rest of the 1st Airborne Division consolidated on a reduced perimeter. By the evening the eastern side, nearest the river, was held by a mixed force of the 2nd South Staffords and the 11th Parachute Battalion, with some men of the 1st Parachute Brigade, under Major Dickie Lonsdale, with positions in line with and between the forward guns of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment RA. To the west the perimeter still included the ferry at Heveadorp; on the north it extended only 1,000 yards (915m) beyond divisional headquarters. In the defensive battle of what the Germans called ‘the Cauldron’ the Glider Pilot Regiment played a notable part, for which they had been trained. For instance it was standard practice for the glider pilots with each Airlanding Light Battery to form a platoon for local protection. The 180 glider pilots who had flown in the Airlanding Light Regiment formed four platoons commanded by Major Bob Crout, who was killed, and remained under command of that regiment throughout.
The 82nd Airborne Division was under pressure from the Reichswald forest area. General Gavin believed that the Nijmegen bridge must be captured this day at all costs and that this could be done only by capturing both ends of the road and rail bridges simultaneously. He therefore ordered the 504th Parachute RCT, under Colonel Reuben H. Tucker, to cross the wide Waal in British assault boats covered by fire of artillery and tanks of the Irish Guards, and seize the northern end of the bridge. Tanks of the Grenadier Guards and a battalion of the 505th Parachute RCT stood ready to rush the bridge from the south.
Major Julian Cook’s 3rd Battalion was selected to lead the amphibious assault. This they did in British assault boats with which they were totally unfamiliar and which, because of traffic congestion and a German bombing raid on Eindhoven, only arrived at the last moment. There were enough boats for only a two‑company lift without heavy weapons.
At 1430 air attacks were made on the German position on the farther bank, at 1440 artillery and tank gun fire opened on the enemy positions, and at 1500 the first wave of boats, rowed by sappers and infantry using their rifle butts, started to cross the wide river 1 mile (1‑6km) below the bridge and in the face of intense German fire. Beyond the farther bank lay 200 to 800 yards (180 to 730m) of flat and open country terminating in a sloping dyke some 15 to 20 feet (4‑5 to 6m) high which carried a roadway open to view from a fortified building some 800 yards (730m) beyond.
The first wave of Americans rushed the embankment, routing the Germans after strong resistance. The remainder of the 3rd Battalion was ferried across, cleared the ground beyond the embankment and swinging right rushed and secured first the north end of the railway and then of the road bridge. The 3rd Battalion had suffered about 50 per cent casualties. The Guards then rushed the bridge from the south while Lieutenant Tony Jones of the Royal Engineers methodically cut the wires connecting the bridge demolition charges, while under fire. Of this magnificent action by the 504th Parachute RCT the British official report reads: ‘Desperate resistance of a strong and determined enemy, with every advantage of position, had been insufficient to stop these men.’
The last bridge before Arnhem was taken intact just as that at Arnhem was about to fall into the hands of the enemy. The higher command continued to act as though success were still a possibility. On Thursday night, plans were made to fly in supplies and possibly the 52nd (Lowland) Division, an air portable formation, to an LZ near Grave, instead of at Deelen, north of Arnhem, and on Friday the 2nd Army limited XXX Corps advance to Apeldoorn, halfway between Arnhem and the Zuider Zee! It seems certain that neither the precarious position of the 1st Airborne Division nor the remarkable recovery made by the Germans had yet been fully appreciated. German pressure against both sides of the corridor and against the 1st Airborne Division continued to grow, with serious interference in the flow of traffic as more and more men and equipment belonging to Zangen’s 15th Army were ferried across the Scheldt.
Early on Thursday Captain McMillan established wireless communication from the headquarters of the 1st Airlanding Light Battery, near Oosterbeek church, with the 64th Medium Regiment RA. From now on the 1st Airborne Division enjoyed a reliable line of communications with XXX Corps both for fire support and for operational messages; it had been through to the 2nd Army on the `Phantom’ net for some time.
The weather at last allowed the Polish Parachute Brigade to take off, which it did at 1400, its dropping zone being changed from south of Arnhem bridge to south of the Heveadorp ferry. The 110 Dakotas carrying the Poles encountered bad weather en route and were attacked by German fighters with some loss of aircraft. In all, 41 Dakotas returned without dropping, 13 were missing, 3 landed at Brussels and only 53 reached the dropping zone, discharging some 750 men from whom Major‑General Sosabowski formed two weak battalions.
It was intended that the Poles should join the 1st Airborne Division via the ferry, but unfortunately the Borderers were driven from the high ground commanding the ferry. The 1st Airborne Division was coming under increasing pressure from small parties of Germans supported by SP guns, while heavy mortar and gun fire took their toll within the shrinking perimeter. Ammunition for the British was getting low and no supplies were being received. On the other hand, morale was boosted by the demonstrated ability of the 64th Medium Regiment RA, with a heavy battery under command, to bring down accurate and effective fire on infiltrators within the divisional perimeter. On occasion the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment deliberately brought this fire on to its own gun positions.
It was soon realized that the capture of the Nijmegen Bridge had not opened the way for a swift dash to Arnhem by the Guards Armoured Division. The road ahead, through Elst, lay along the top of a causeway with steep banks, and on both sides, off the causeway, the country was not favourable to the use of armour. Horrocks therefore decided that the 43rd Infantry Division should take over the lead. Unfortunately it was not until nightfall on the 21st that the division had arrived in strength in the Nijmegen area.
At first light on Friday 22 September an enterprising armoured car squadron of the Household Cavalry crossed the Waal and, moving north‑west on secondary roads, got through to the Poles about Driel, and subsequently damaged a German steamer and sank three German barges on the Neder Rijn. At 0830 the 214th Infantry Brigade of the 43rd Division attacked along the main axis towards Elst, which was strongly held by units of the l0th SS Panzer Division. Held up halfway to Elst, the brigade attempted to pass a battalion mounted on tanks to the west through Oosterhaut with DUKWs to ferry supplies and the Poles across the Rhine. They were held up in Oosterhaut for six hours and only reached Driel in the evening.
Urquhart was convinced that XXX Corps did not appreciate the precarious situation of the 1st Airborne Division. He therefore decided to send Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mackenzie and Lieutenant‑Colonel Eddie Myers, commanding the Royal Engineers, across the river to report directly to XXX Corps. They were with the Poles at Driel when the 5th DCLI and a squadron of Dragoon Guards arrived. The DUKWs could not be launched and the only Poles to cross were some 50 who got across that night on rafts.
Friday was a black day. The weather again prevented effective air support, no supplies reached the 1st Airborne Division, and a strong German attack in the Veghel area cut the Allied line of communications. The 32nd Guards Brigade was sent south to support the 101st Airborne Division in restoring the situation, but the road remained closed for 24 hours.
On Saturday came a break in the bad weather. Gliders carrying the remainder of the 101st Airborne Division’s 327th Glider Infantry RCT, and the 82nd Airborne Division’s long overdue 325th Glider Infantry RCT were flown in, a very welcome reinforcement. By the end of the day the 43rd Infantry Division had its 130th Infantry Brigade established about Driel and the 214th Infantry Brigade fighting in Elst, but a plan for the 1st Airborne Division to regain control of the ferry had to be abandoned and the 5th DCLI was unable to make the river crossing to enlarge the bridgehead.
By Sunday all intention of getting through to the bridge at Arnhem had been abandoned, but the 214th Infantry Brigade continued to clear Elst against strong opposition. The 130th Infantry Brigade ordered the 4th Dorsets to cross the river that night. With great difficulty 300 to 400 men got across, but drifting down river they landed well outside the 1st Airborne Division’s shrunken perimeter; early on Monday morning an OP party from the 43rd’s divisional artillery arrived in the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment’s gun area. The pounding of the 1st Airborne Division continued, and the division was now out of food and very short of ammunition.
Brian Horrocks remained determined and optimistic, but he was overridden by the 2nd Army commander, Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, who with Browning’s support finally secured Montgomery’s permission to withdraw the 1st Airborne Division during Monday night, 25 September, D+8 days. The division’s withdrawal was covered by intensive artillery fire from XXX Corps, which the wounded optimistically believed to herald a river crossing by the Allies. The division withdrew through the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment’s gun position near the Oosterbeek church. The gunners were the last to go, having first rendered their guns useless. Only 2,163 out of the 10,095 who took part in the battle got across, though some more came out later.
No 1944 end
Thus ended, with dire historical results, the dream of ending the war in 1944.
At the start of this article we examined some of the organizational weaknesses in the `Market‑Garden’ plan, weaknesses which were accentuated by the speed with which this complex inter‑Allied operation had to be mounted. The effects on the operations of the inadequacy of the signals equipment for the tasks required of it; the unexpectedly bad weather; the rapidity with which the German generals were able to reorganize and instill renewed fighting spirit into their beaten and demoralized soldiery; and the effects of this recovery on a plan which depended for success on a rapid advance of over 60 miles (95km) along a narrow corridor and across major water obstacles are brought out in the narrative. The author also believes that it is not unfair to say that whatever the sense of urgency at the higher levels of command this did not in every case communicate itself to the individual soldier after the widespread euphoria which followed the rapid advance to the Dutch frontier.
The technical failures of the past are of little interest for the future but the spirit of man is eternal and it is in study of human reactions under conditions of great stress both individually and in units that the main interest in these operations lays.
Individual’s actions speak for themselves. Four members of the 1st Airborne Division were awarded the Victoria Cross: Captain L. E. Queripel, The Royal Sussex Regiment, attached to the 10th Parachute Battalion; Lieutenant J. H. Grayburn, the 2nd Parachute Battalion; Lance Sergeant J. D. Baskeyfield, the 2nd South Staffords; and Major R. H. Cain, The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, attached to the’ 2nd South Staffords. All but Cain’s were posthumous, and all were awarded for acts of great gallantry and self sacrifice.
There were, of course, many acts of gallantry that went unrecognized. Courage is an expendable commodity, and it is interesting to note at Arnhem examples of men fighting with great tenacity or having suffered some shattering experience early in the battle then finding themselves drained of courage but who nevertheless got, as it were, their second wind and so came back strongly in the last days, in one case to win a well-deserved Victoria Cross. This is something worth noting for it is the responsibility of leadership to aid such recovery.
Though individual bravery is a precious asset, what counts above all in fighting efficiency, particularly where infantry is concerned, is the ability of a unit to maintain cohesion under seemingly intolerable pressure. Cohesion is the result of many factors; pride of regiment, previous success in battle, good leadership, good training, and discipline.
It is difficult to generalize. Units of the 1st Parachute Brigade had enjoyed great success in North Africa and Sicily, but they had also received many casualty replacements. Their reputation and the realistic training which sprang from their combat experience stood them in good stead. On the other hand, the 7th KOSB with no previous battle experience fought remarkably under most difficult circumstances.
Some may wonder, despite the difficulties already pointed out, why only the 700 who comprised the 2nd Parachute Battalion Group, out of more than 10,000, reached their objective. In judging the performance of other units the difficulty of the task and the fact that they included many young and inexperienced soldiers must be taken into account. No form of fighting puts a greater strain on unit cohesion than offensive action in a heavily built‑up area against a determined enemy. Street fighting requires special training and, so far as the author knows, the units trying to fight their way through to the Arnhem bridge had had little or none.
The 2nd Parachute Battalion got through with skill, and before resistance had hardened.
Moreover, the Dutch habit of putting high and strong steel‑mesh fences around their gardens provided an additional difficulty, and the prevalence of cellars was a ubiquitous temptation in situations of danger. Not all soldiers wearing the Red Beret were courageous, few perhaps were courageous all the time, but the division as a whole would endorse Major‑General Roy Urquhart’s report, made in January 1945, in which he wrote: `The losses were heavy but all ranks appreciate that the risks were reasonable. There is no doubt that all would willingly undertake another operation under similar conditions in the future.’ The author, for one, would add: `providing the, lessons learned in “Market Garden” had been applied.’
Brigadier W.F.K Thompson CO of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery with 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.