‘Hail Mary, Full of Grace …’ I

Captain Kappel’s sketch map of the Waal crossing.

When Major Cook gave the signal, the men of H and I Companies of 3/504th and the engineers of C Company 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion grabbed the cumbersome assault boats and began to drag them across the embankment and across the flat, open ground towards the river. Captain Kappel, leading H Company, almost immediately ran into a large chain link fence blocking their way. Placing a Gammon bomb on one of the metal supports as Lieutenant Magellas did the same further along, the fence was forced down by the weight of the men pushing against it. Instead of running across the open space in a line, the paratroops were now channelled into the gap made by Kappel. After the first Americans neared the water’s edge, the Germans reacted. A small, three-foot escarpment slowed the men down but gave them a chance to lift the boats onto their shoulders. Once past this, they ran full speed for the water as every weapon on the far shore turned toward them.

Sergeant Albert Tarbell, following closely behind Kappel, saw his officer strip off his harness and throw it into the boat. Tarbell followed suit, not knowing why. It was then he realised that a man was down and Captain Kappel was attempting to save him. It was probably this incident that inspired war correspondents to report later that men had stripped off their equipment to swim the river. As they reached the water, the men tried to clamber on board. The 19-foot boats already had a crew of two engineers as groups of 13 fully equipped paratroops tried to get in. Dangerously overloaded, several of the boats became lodged on a mud bank, forcing men to climb back out and push the boats back into the swift current.

The boats had been delivered with only a few paddles and the paratroops used the butts of their weapons to try to give them extra speed. Watching Oxbridge graduates amongst the Guards commented on ‘some remarkably bad rowing’ but the sight deeply impressed all who saw it. Captain Keep remembered

The water all around the boats was churned up by the hail of bullets, and we were soaked to the skin … By now, the broad surface of the Waal was covered with our small canvas craft, all crammed with frantically paddling men. It was a horrible picture, this river crossing. Set to the sound of a deafening roar of omnipresent firing, this scene of defenceless, frail canvas boats jammed to overflowing with humanity, all striving desperately to cross the Waal as quickly as possible, was fiendish and dreadful. We were soaked, gasping for breath, dead tired, and constantly expecting to feel that searing sensation as the bullet tore through you. I wanted to vomit; many did Kappel had rowed at Princeton University and tried to establish some sort of rhythm in his crew but found himself nervously counting ‘7-6-7-7-7-8-9’. Nearby, Major Cook, a devout Catholic, was trying to pray, using the words to match his rowing; ‘Hail Mary – full of Grace – Hail Mary – Full of Grace.’ ‘“The Lord is with thee” was too long,’ Cook recalled, ‘so I kept repeating “Hail Mary” (one stroke), “Full of Grace” (second stroke).’ Chaplain Delbert Kuehl had asked to come along, knowing that the chances were high that the men would suffer badly and believing that his place was with them. As he rowed, Kuehl heard a sickening thud as the man next to him was hit by a 20mm round and ‘had the middle part of his head blown away, so that his skull dropped on what was left of his lower face.’ The chaplain developed his own cadence, repeating over and over, ‘Lord, Thy will be done.’

Everywhere the heavy fire was taking its toll. By the time it neared the far shore, Kappel’s boat was filled with casualties. As they reached the shallows, he jumped out to push it into the bank and found that of the 13 men in the boat, 6 were dead and 4 badly wounded. Only Kappel, Staff Sergeant James Allen and medic Seymour Fox were able to move. Behind them, boats filled with dead and wounded drifted in the current. Private Leonard Trimble would later be rescued downriver by Dutch civilians and brought back to safety, the only survivor of his packed boat.

As Cook neared the shore, he noticed a commotion in the water. Lieutenant Ernest Murphy and eleven men of H Company had struggled ashore after their boat was sunk. One man was missing. Murphy looked back across the river as Cook’s boat approached. Then both men saw movement in the water. ‘I thought I was seeing things when the top of a helmet broke the surface and kept on moving.’ Cook recalled, ‘Then a face appeared under the helmet, Private Joseph Jedlicka. He had bandoliers of .30 calibre machinegun bullets draped around his shoulders and a box in either hand.’ Sinking in eight feet of water, Jedlicka could not swim but, with incredible presence of mind simply sank to the bottom and walked out of the river, soaked but alive.

Nearby, Chaplain Kuehl and battalion surgeon Lieutenant Hyman Shapiro immediately began tending to the wounded at the water’s edge and, as he was trying to help a man with a serious stomach wound, the chaplain was hit in the back. Kuehl recalled the concern the badly wounded man showed when he asked ‘Oh chaplain, did they get you too?’ Together the surgeon and the priest worked to gather the wounded and get them back onto the boats to be taken back across the river.

From the ninth floor of the power plant, Lieutenant-Colonel Giles Vandeleur, commander of the 2nd Armoured Battalion of the Irish Guards, watched the crossing.

It was a horrible, horrible sight. 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 … I saw one or two boats hit the beaches, followed by three or four others. The men got out and began moving across an open field. My God! What a courageous sight it was! They just moved across that field steadily, I never saw a single man lie down until he was hit. I didn’t think more than half the fleet made it across. The boats started back and it was obvious half of them had been lost.

Along the shoreline, paratroopers struggled onto dry land, many vomiting with a combination of exertion and fear but their attitude had hardened somewhere out on the river; those who survived were now overwhelmed by anger and a thirst for revenge. With all unit cohesion lost, men began to move forward on their own initiative, heading for an embankment and hedge line around 800 yards inland. Captain Keep reports that the 2nd Battalion and the tanks across the river provided ‘marvellous support’ by maintaining a constant fire into the German line. Kappel found the first line of defences along the riverbank ‘generally deserted’ and the few remaining defenders were killed at bayonet point before the paratroops moved steadily forward, firing from the hip across the wide open space towards the distant embankment.

Reaching it, the men took shelter and paused for breath. By now, they were ‘at a fever pitch’ according to Keep and all accounts describe ‘a murderous rage’ amongst the Americans. Burriss ordered the men on either side of him to use grenades to clear the far side of the bank. The bombardment was followed by a moment of silence before the screams of wounded Germans could be heard. Along the line, the enemy troops stood up, hands raised, ‘but it was too late.’ Burriss wrote, ‘Our men in a frenzy over the wholesale slaughter of their buddies, continued to fire until every German on the dike lay dead or dying.’ Arriving a few minutes later, signaller Corporal Jack Bommer, laying a telephone cable to maintain contact across the river found

… 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 … [some] were shot out of hand at point blank range.

Taking over the German positions, the men of the first wave lay down protective fire to cover the eleven boats able to make the second crossing. Two were lost but the remainder brought much needed reinforcements. Gradually regrouping into cohesive formations but still intermixed, H and I Companies then began to push eastwards towards the Fort Hof Van Holland defences beside the railway bridge. As one force of four men under ‘Maggie’ Magellas attacked the squat fortress, Burriss and Kappel led their respective companies in a dash for the bridges.

Fort Hof Van Holland was a major obstacle with two sets of dual 20mm guns mounted towards the rear and thus protected from the covering tank shelling and now able to fire into the rear of the Americans. Kappel ordered the single remaining 60mm mortar to engage but with only eight rounds of ammunition there was little it could do. Instead, whilst the mortar was used as cover, Sergeant Leroy Richmond stripped off his equipment and swam across the moat to reconnoitre a way into the fort itself. Peering over the parapet, he found a causeway spanned the moat on the other side of the building. Lobbing hand grenades over the walls to keep the Germans under cover, Magellas led them around to the far side. There they found Privates Dunlop, Davis and Legacie (the man Kappel had saved from drowning at the start of the crossing). The men, all part of a machine-gun section, had made their own way to the fort and had not been aware of Magellas’ approach. As Richmond asked where they had been, Dunlop told him, ‘Buddy, we were here before you.’ Lobbing more grenades and firing their machine gun into the fort without provoking any response, Magellas decided that the defenders posed no further threat and could be left to 1st Battalion to mop up. For the rest of the afternoon the defenders continued to harass the attacking troops until the fort was finally cleared later in the day and taken over as the Regimental Command Post.

‘It was somewhere near the fort that Col Tucker came across about fifteen Bosche of the Hitler Jugend cowering in their foxholes,’ a British report states.

The Colonel ordered them to come out which they refused to do. After a brief explanation in German that they would be taken prisoner and treated as such, they still refused to move. So the Colonel, by now rather exasperated by these ‘krauts’, pulled one of them out by the scruff of his neck. He was shaking all over and crying profusely, but as soon as the Colonel released his grip he disappeared back into his fox hole like a miserable rabbit. The Herrenvolk were clearly not at their best and there was insufficient time to bother with the chosen race so, as they did not wish to be taken prisoner, there was only one alternative, and no doubt the fuehrer would be flattered that they were true to the last.

The attack plan had called for the first wave to fight their way onto the railway embankment and along it to a point where it intersected with the highway heading north from the road bridge, then to turn south back towards the river with H Company taking the right flank, I Company the left. G Company, in the second wave, was to follow behind and block the road. Lieutenant John Holabird and his engineers were to fight their way to the bridges and disarm any demolition charges they found there. Still intermixed, the paratroopers moved towards the first bridges in their scattered groups.

Kappel, with Lieutenants Richard ‘Rivers’ La Riviere and Ed Sims led his force towards the northern end of the railway bridge, about a mile from their present position. Sergeant Theodore Finkbeiner and his group reaching the intersection and took shelter behind the embankment. Lifting his head to peer over the obstacle, he found himself staring at the muzzle of a German MG34 machine gun. ‘I think he was as surprised as I was.’ Finkbeiner wrote, ‘I ducked, but the muzzle blast blew the little wool line cap off my head.’ The Americans threw grenades, the Germans did likewise and followed it by charging the American position but the attack was beaten off. Then a vehicle-mounted 20mm flak gun arrived at the junction and opened fire on the group from behind. Private First Class Walter Muszynski edged within 15 yards of the vehicle and attacked it with grenades, wiping out the crew before himself being killed by rifle fire moments later. The action would win him a richly deserved Distinguished Service Cross.

A vicious battle for control of the embankment was underway but although the defences were well prepared for a frontal assault, there were few, if any, measures against a flanking attack. Turning his men south, Kappel sent them to search for culverts or tunnels through the embankment and it was during this phase that a group of Dutch civilians sheltering in a concrete bomb shelter in the embankment were severely wounded when the Americans threw Gammon bombs inside. Moving along the embankment, they reached the railway bridge, passed beneath it and were able to advance along the German flanks towards the highway bridge using the shelter of a dyke to protect their flank. It was now about 1600hrs. Across the river, the second wave had been delayed when the boats drifted downstream and had to be manhandled back to the start line. As fast as possible they were operating a ferry service to bring across the 1st Battalion.

Joining them was nineteen-year-old Sapper Roy Tuck who had travelled up in a canvas topped 3-ton truck, its roof covered with a bright orange cloth to identify it as an Allied vehicle. With him were a corporal, lance corporal, ten sappers and their driver, all members of 3 Troop, 615 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers. The truck had passed through Eindhoven the night before where a young Dutch girl had given Tuck a ring. Word was reaching them that the town had been heavily attacked a short time later and Tuck wondered whether she had survived. His thoughts turned to the task ahead. The group were about to take part, he remembered, ‘in what, we were forewarned, could turn out to be a traumatic assault crossing of the river Waal.’

It was early afternoon when, clinging precariously to the top of a pontoon carried by a ‘transporter’ provided by our specialised 14 Field Park Engineers Squadron we entered the outskirts of Nijmegen. We had arrived in the middle of a battle. Several houses in the close vicinity were already burning furiously. Hurriedly dismounting, I experienced the familiar sudden inner clutch of fear as we learnt that the approaches to the river were under direct enemy fire. There was a frightening crackle from small arms as we left the shelter of buildings and raced for the nearest cover … By the time I had finished crawling the length of a long, dry, shallow ditch – negotiating, as I did so, my way past not only numerous tree roots but also the lifeless body of an American paratrooper – my confidence was virtually non-existent.

Tuck was not the only one. As the group made a dash for the river, the man in front froze. Even threats to shoot him failed to get him moving and the men edged around him, even more shaken.

As we reached the huge road embankment running parallel to the river, we came across two American paratroopers standing at the doorway of a small brick hut, in an obvious state of high tension and excitement they blurted out that their battalion had just been cut to pieces while carrying out a suicidal crossing of the river. Such startling news, coupled with the ever-increasing sounds of conflict about us, did nothing for my morale.

Pausing, the men watched in surprise as a bomb-like object crashed to earth a few yards away. With relief they realised it was an empty long-range fuel tank, released by one of the supporting aircraft overhead. Apart from that, they seemed cut off from the battle around them. Then they set to work to build their Class 9 Folding Boat Equipment Raft, designed to carry up to nine tons.

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