‘Hail Mary, Full of Grace …’ II

Engineers remove the demolition charges from the Nijmegen bridge. The bridge was later found to have been fully prepared for demolition. The reason for the failure to detonate has never been conclusively found.

British tanks on the north side of the Waal bridge moving forward after the battle.

A paratrooper Lieutenant, all too aware of the horrific ordeal his battalion had just suffered, prepared to take command. It was obvious from his comments that he was undergoing an understandable crisis of confidence; anxious not only about tackling an extremely dangerous crossing of the river, but, also, as to where, if at all, it might be possible to attempt a landing on the other side. Very much sharing his doubts and concerns, it came as a great relief to me, when, instead of ordering us to load the [infantry support] artillery piece on to the raft, he decided to wait upon further developments. Respite, however, was short-lived. A tall, helmeted, American Colonel, wearing dark glasses, strode belligerently down the bank to commence an exchange of words, which are forever etched on my memory.

‘Why is this gun still here and not over the river?’, he demanded angrily. The young officer started to explain his dilemma, ‘Lieutenant’, the Colonel interrupted furiously, ‘Our boys are hurting over there and need that gun; under threat of court martial I am ordering you take it across!’

‘OK boys, let it roll’, was the laconic response from the Lieutenant. I was totally dismayed – the whole idea seemed completely insane! Every instinct was urging me to seek cover and stay there. Yet, instead, loaded with a considerable amount of explosive material, we were about to attempt the crossing of a huge expanse of open water under enemy fire – and all this on the slowest of unwieldy craft. Hastily loading the gun and cases of shells on board, we flattened ourselves on the deck. In a high state of nervous tension, I checked to make sure that there was a round in the breech of my rifle. Alas, because of high stress I inadvertently put pressure on the trigger before applying the safety catch. Even allowing for all the extraneous noise about us, the single shot, which buried itself into a wall, echoed loudly under the close lee of the power station, startling everyone. All eyes turned in my direction, and I felt distinctly embarrassed.

Shortly afterwards, the two diagonal outboard engines burst into life and we inched our way out of the creek on to the vastness of the river Waal. Immediately, our cumbersome raft, caught in the grip of the fast flowing current, turned full circle. On board was the American Lieutenant, our Lieutenant and some fourteen men from our section. Tense moments passed before the straining engines finally overcame the racing tide. The response from the enemy was both immediate and aggressive; a salvo of mortars sending up fountains of water as they exploded uncomfortably close by. There could be little doubt; we had embarked on a perilous enterprise.

Between our under-powered craft and the distant bank stretched a daunting four- to five-hundred-yard mass of powerfully surging water. Upstream, towards Nijmegen, the mighty river curved towards the huge rail and road bridges, its surface gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Much of the town seemed to be on fire. Flames reflected in the river and glowed on the underside of a vast billowing column of smoke as it towered an enormous height into the sky, before drifting away over the flat countryside. Against a background chatter of automatic weapons and the crump of shells, we headed, alarmingly exposed and all too slowly towards the opposite bank In mid-stream, a rowing boat, constantly turning in the swiftly flowing water, approached us rapidly from the town. Our Lieutenant, suspecting it might contain fleeing Germans, opened fire with a borrowed rifle as it swept by, but there was no discernible reaction.

It did not escape me entirely that, with the bridges still held by the enemy, we would be the very first land troops of the British Second Army to be crossing the river. Consequently, with this in mind, as the raft finally reached the shallows, inspired by a youthful enthusiasm to be one of the first ashore, I grabbed a rope and, with a totally unexpected and momentary sense of personal drama, plunged into the water to help pull the ungainly craft into the bank. We beached to the left of the landing area. Once across the river, we dug in and waited. It was an area of rough uncultivated marshy grassland and was almost directly opposite to the power plant.

Our arrival immediately attracted mortar fire. After hurriedly helping to disembark the gun, I frantically sought cover by diving into one of the shallow foxholes recently vacated by American paratroopers who, by this time, had moved away towards the bridges. The shelling eventually ceased. Twilight gave way to darkness, and an uneasy calm settled over the scene of recent conflict. High overhead a full moon sailed serenely in the clearest of skies, while nearby the silent river was dark and impassive, with thin mists beginning to form upon its surface, and threading the long grass upon its banks. For a time, guns crackled and tracers weaved their intricate patterns as our tanks finally stormed the distant Road Bridge – then all was still. The surrounding flat marshy ground, bathed in a cool light, appeared strangely peaceful, yet we knew only too well that, not far away, an unseen enemy would be watching and waiting, and that careless noise or reckless movement could spell disaster.

As we waited alone and vulnerable, we received orders to recover an American officer, a Captain [possibly Captain W. Stanley Burkholder of HQ Company] reported to be lying badly wounded against a distant fence. Four of us, accompanied by our corporal, set out to find him. Moving as silently as possible, dragging a stretcher and keeping very low, we crawled, with no little apprehension on my part, towards the reported position of the stricken man. Eventually, we discovered him face down in the wet grass. This fence was on the far right extending inland from the Waal river, dividing up the large area of rough grassland. The officer was lying at the fence, which was some hundred yards from the river. The Captain was clearly in dreadful pain from a serious back injury.

Before we carefully eased him on to the stretcher, face down, Ron gave him a shot of morphine to help ease his agony. ‘Be as gently as possible and keep him off the ground’, he whispered. Such urging was not needed, the man’s low pitiful moans providing all the necessary motivation for providing as smooth a progress as possible. However, I soon found lifting and moving at the same time – while struggling to keep a heavily laden stretcher just inches above the grass – required a technique entirely outside my experience. The totally unaccustomed repetitive movement – one, where my right arm was used to lift and move the surprisingly heavy stretcher forward before the left was required to lever my body in the same direction – resulted in a most unnatural contortionist twisting crawl.

It did not take long before I suffered a severe reaction. Complaining muscles rebelled to such an extent that the close presence of the enemy, which – up until then – had been an overriding concern, was totally ignored as an intensely painful cramp gripped my right shoulder and biceps. Not only was the pain acute, but I felt increasingly unable to lift the stretcher properly. In the end, it was only the life and death situation of our casualty, which gave me the will to struggle on. How much longer, I agonised? At last, after what seemed an eternity, we arrived back at the raft, it was at the same location where we had beached. The ordeal was over. Now came the tricky bit – a return to the other side. Thankfully, within minutes, a thick fog, quite miraculously, blanketed the whole area, muffling the sound of the engines and cutting visibility to a few feet.

Once we had re-crossed the river without incident, we hurried the wounded man up the embankment to where a temporary casualty station had been set up in the power plant. By the time we lowered him on to the bare concrete floor, dimly lit by its one hanging naked electric light bulb, he had lapsed into unconsciousness. I turned away, feeling far from confident about his chances of survival.

Meanwhile, at the northern end of the railway bridge, Lieutenant Sims had found the resistance light and quickly took control, sending men to search for any leads connected to the demolition charges. As he did, La Riviere arrived to reinforce his small group just as the two men saw a large group of Germans attempting to escape the battle at the southern end by running north across the bridge. ‘We let them come – two thirds of the way’ La Riviere recalled. Lieutenant McClain of HQ Company estimated as many as 500 Germans in headlong flight towards them. With two machine guns, two Browning automatic rifles and the firepower of the riflemen, the men opened up.

Before it was over they were leaping into the swift current of the river below. Some wounded fell through between the ties. Hardened by over two years of combat and the loss of many of my men, I still felt sick at this inhumanity to man.

In a blood lust, paratroopers were shooting at Germans as they jumped from the bridge until Kappel ordered them to stop wasting ammunition. During a lull, one of the German prisoners already in American hands was sent to tell the trapped men to return to the southern side and surrender but was shot by someone on the bridge before he could deliver his message. ‘They were again swept by machine-gun fire, and many leaped from the bridge even though they were not over the river. None surrendered at this time.’ McClain noted that 267 bodies remained on the bridge the next morning. Lieutenant Sims recalled that his men had ‘little concern’ about destroying the hopelessly trapped Germans but admitted it was ‘not something to be proud of or brag about. It continues to bother me that I had to make the hasty decision that led to the deaths of so many young men, our own and those opposing us.’ At 1700hrs, Kappel tried to contact Colonel Tucker to tell him that the bridge was secure and ask for tanks to be sent across. Leaving Sims at the railway bridge, La Riviere joined Burriss in a move against the highway bridge. At 1830hrs, 1st Battalion arrived in sufficient numbers to relieve the small garrison and Sims and his men set out to follow.

Burriss reached the northern end of the highway bridge at dusk.

An eerie silence had fallen at the north end, and we didn’t see any enemy troops. Could it be that the Germans posted no defense at this end of the bridge? Across the river, the city of Nijmegen was ablaze, and there was a great deal of firing around the bridge’s southern end.

Peering across the length of the bridge, the silhouettes of tanks could be seen approaching.

As Burriss approached the northern end, Sergeant Peter Robinson led his troop of Shermans onto the bridge’s southern ramp. Earlier, the 29-year-old Dunkirk veteran had been told by his troop commander, Major Trotter, that ‘the bridge has to be taken. Don’t stop for anything.’ Both men knew that the bridge would be prepared for demolition and that it was extremely likely that it would be blown as the first tank crossed so Trotter added encouragingly that he would let Robinson’s wife know if anything happened to him. According to Robinson’s watch it was 1813hrs. Ahead lay 600 yards of steel and concrete bridge running straight ahead above the river, defended by at least three anti-tank guns and a number of Panzerfausts on this side alone and already primed for demolition.

As the troop moved out of Hunner Park, Robinson saw the huge bridge looming ahead. Around them, the whole town appeared to be burning. Edging forward towards the bridge, an 88mm round ricocheted off the road in front of Robinson’s tank and hit one of the idler wheels, the blast damaging the radio set. Pulling back, the 88 switched its attention to Lance Sergeant Billingham’s tank but the remaining vehicles were stationary and ready to give covering fire. A single shot from Sergeant Pacey destroyed the gun before it could do any more damage. Reorganising, Robinson needed a working radio and ordered Billingham out of his tank and to follow behind in Robinson’s damaged tank. Billingham tried to argue but accepted the order and the troop set out again. Under increasing pressure from his commanding officer to get across the bridge, Robinson again pushed forward to the ramp of the bridge. ‘We had barely travelled 50 yards’ he later said

… when a Panzerfaust struck a nearby girder. It seemed projectiles were coming from every angle, yet strangely we remained intact. Not only was the bridge defended from both flank and front, but we suffered repeated attacks from the air in the form of men hanging from girders dropping grenades, while snipers endeavoured to keep us running ‘blind’ [ie closed down inside the vehicle]

Sergeant Pacey was following behind Robinson:

Our happiest moment was when we saw the Germans actually on the bridge, firing at us from behind the girders and supports. ‘Well anyway,’ he said, ‘if they are going to blow the bridge, they will blow up some of their own people with it.’ Half-way over, there was a piece of piping across the road. That worried us. We thought it might be some sort of an igniter which would touch off the moment a tank passed over it.

Advancing anyway, they found it was a harmless piece of tubing.

North of the bridge, SS Brigadeführer Harmel watched the tanks start across. General Model had issued specific orders that the bridge should not be blown so that it could be used for a counter attack but it had been prepared for demolition in case of emergency.

As the crisis came I watched from the bunker on the riverbank. When I lost radio to Euling, I knew that the bridge was going to be taken. Everything seemed to pass through my mind all at once. What must be done first? What was the most important action to take? It all came down to the bridges. They must be destroyed. If Bittrich had been in my shoes, he would have blown the main bridge. In my view, Model’s order was now cancelled because the situation had changed. 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. I waited, watching and then saw one tank on the centre of the bridge, then another following behind and to a side. I ordered the pioneer with the firing mechanism to ‘Get ready’ and when two more tanks reached the centre, I gave the order, on my own responsibility ‘Let it blow!’ Nothing happened. ‘Again’ I shouted to the pioneer. I waited to see the bridge collapse with the tanks into the river. It failed to go up – probably because the initiation cable had been cut by artillery fire. Instead, the tanks kept moving forward getting bigger and closer.

Crossing closely behind the tanks was Lieutenant A.G.C. ‘Tony’ Jones, reconnaissance officer of 14 Field Squadron Royal Engineers, whose job it was to neutralise the demolition charges. Later described by Horrocks as ‘the bravest of the brave’, Jones worked under heavy fire and was amazed at the standard of the preparations. It seemed impossible that they had not been detonated.

Watching from the city, Colonel Vandervoort saw an 88mm open fire at the lead tank from the northern bank.

It was pretty spectacular. The 88 was sandbagged into the side of the highway about 100 yards from the north end of the bridge. One tank and the 88 exchanged about four rounds apiece with the tank spitting 30 calibre tracers all the while. In the gathering dusk it was quite a view.

Pumping out rounds as fast as the gun could be loaded, Guardsman Leslie Johnson, Robinson’s gunner, put the 88 out of action. Racing across the bridge, the tanks were then engaged by a second 88. Believing that they had knocked it out, Robinson’s driver drove towards a 10-foot gap between the huge concrete blocks set on the bridge as a roadblock. 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.

Once through the gap, Robinson spotted another 88 about 300 yards ahead. Johnson fired and hit the gun with his first shot and sent the infantry around it running. As the Germans fled, Johnson mowed them down with the tank’s 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.’ The tanks carried on, ‘bumping over the bodies in the road’. Standing in his turret, Robinson urged his troop on. As they neared the northern end, a self-propelled gun fired. ‘There were two big bangs in front of us. My tin hat was blown off but I wasn’t hit.’ Johnson fired back, hitting the gun and a nearby house. Suddenly, the tanks were across. ‘Just as I got round the corner and turned right I saw these helmets duck in a ditch and run,’ Robinson said later. There was an explosion and he realised he had been hit by a gammon grenade but he ordered his crew to cease fire and saw figures in the ditch stand up. From the shape of their helmets he knew they were American. From all around, jubilant paratroopers swarmed onto the tanks. Burriss stepped forward and told him ‘You guys are the most beautiful sight I’ve seen in years.’ It was 1915hrs; Arnhem was just eleven miles away.

Robinson recalled:

Well my orders were to collect the [American] Colonel who was in a house a little way back and the first thing he said to me, ‘I have to surrender. I can’t carry on. I’ve lost nearly all my men. I haven’t got many left.’ Well I said, ‘I’m sorry. My orders are to hold this bridge to the last man and the last round. I’ve only got two tanks but if you’d like to give me the ground support for a little while until we get some more orders then we can do it.’ He said that he couldn’t do it, so I said that he better come back to my wireless and talk to General Horrocks … so he came over and had a pow-wow with General Horrocks. The Colonel said, ‘Oh very well then’ and I told him where I wanted the men but of course you can’t consolidate a Yank [i.e. establish a defensive perimeter] and they hadn’t been there for ten minutes before they were on their way again.

South of the bridge, British reinforcements began to cross. Captain P. Shervington’s troop of self-propelled anti-tank guns of Q Battery 21st Anti-Tank Regiment went first, followed around 45 minutes later by infantry of Number 2 Company of 3rd Battalion Irish Guards and shortly behind them came the battalion’s Number 1 Company. The infantry moved across the bridge on foot, still under fire from die-hard defenders tied to the highest girders. Others held out in positions under the roadway and sporadic fighting continued throughout the night.

Robinson’s troop now pushed forward towards the village of Lent and as they did so, they were hit by a hail of Panzerfaust fire and pulled back. As the firing started, Sergeant ‘Rocky’ Knight’s tank collided with the vehicle ahead and was hit and set alight. He and his crew bailed out and took shelter at the side of the road. A German patrol checked the vehicles and a soldier kicked Knight, apparently thinking him dead. The rest of the crew were captured and marched away. Knight then checked the tank and found that the fire had been confined to the camouflage nets stowed across the rear deck; he was able to restart the vehicle and follow after the rest of the troop. As word spread that Knight now needed a crew, paratroopers with previous experience of the Sherman came forward and formed a joint US/British crew.

Having run a gauntlet of fire into Lent, Robinson’s leading tanks approached the intersection where the road and railway met and where the paratroopers had earlier intended to turn south towards the bridges. The area was filled with SS troops and the Shermans’ machine guns were in constant use. Then, the luck that had brought them this far ran out. In the growing darkness, they passed beneath the railway bridge and rounded a corner. ‘We went round at 15mph’, Johnson said,

… machine-gunning as we went. Suddenly there were two terrific explosions right in front of the tank. The blast from them came down the periscope and into my eyes and I thought for a minute that I had been blinded.

The tanks had hit a roadblock formed by two mutually supporting anti-tank guns. Unable to deploy off the road at that point and by now operating in complete darkness, the tanks had no choice but to pull back. Retreating back under the railway bridge, Robinson linked up with an isolated group of paratroopers and prepared to hold the position. There was no question of continuing the attack. Both the British and the Americans were short of ammunition and the exhausted paratroopers were in no state to provide the infantry support needed to tackle the roadblock. Even if Robinson made it through the trap ahead, it was clear that his tiny force would be picked off by Panzerfausts along the exposed roadway that formed the only route the tanks could take through the low lying and boggy terrain north of Lent.

Robinson had been ordered to secure the northern end of the bridge and the roadway. Now the tanks stopped at the limit of the American bridgehead. At 2200hrs, the Guards reported that consolidation was complete.

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