Operations of the 3rd Platoon, Easy Company, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Allied Airborne Army, during the seizure of the Bridge in Nijmegen, September 19-20, 1944, in Holland. Personal Experience of a Platoon Leader.
Capt John D. Phillips
By the early fall of 1944, the Allied Armies were suffering a serious handicap to the continued rapid advance along the Western front in that they were badly in need of supplies, and no Army was capable of making a sustained offensive. This situation had developed because the Seaports serving the Armies were so far to the rear that the supply lines could not adequately carry the tremendous burden required. It was necessary for the Armies to plan and execute a decisive offensive or the war would go on into the summer of 1945, and thus give the Axis leaders the time they desired to recover from their losses and improve their defenses or negotiate a better peace.
Confronted with these conditions the Allies devised a plan to deliver the final blow on the Axis. This plan was designated as Operation Market-Garden, Operation Market was the airborne phase and was to be coordinated with the ground effort. All armies on the Western front would halt their advance for the time being, except the British 2-A which would receive all supplies that could be adapted to its use and prepare for an all-out effort. The British 2-A, in conjunction with the 1st-AABA, would advance from a line generally along with the Albert Canal and Escaut Canal in Belgium to the Zuider Zee in Holland in an effort to cut off the German armies in western Holland. The Allies could then strike around the northern end of the Siegfried Line, straight into Germany, and eliminate the tenacious task of making a frontal assault through the Line. The advance would be along a narrow front, following one road through Eindhoven, Grave, Nijmegen, Arnhem, Apeldoorn, and spearheaded by the UK XXX Corps with the US VIII Corps on the right and the UK XII Corps on the left, advancing more slowly on the flanks.
The purpose of Operation Market was to land airborne troops in areas where they could seize bridges over the Maas, the Waal, and the Neder Rijn Rivers along the route of advance of the British 2-A, and open a corridor for the spearhead to pass on northward. Missions of the airborne task force were as follows: the 101st Airborne Division was to seize bridges over the Aa River and the Willems Vaart Canal near Veghel, over the Dommel River at St. Oedenrode, over the Wilhelmina Canal near Zon, and the city of Eindhoven. The 82nd Airborne Division was to capture the bridges over the Maas River at Grave, over the Waal River at Nijmegen and over the Maas-Waal Canal between.
The British 1st Airborne Division, together with the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade was to capture the bridges at Arnhem. In each case, the surrounding area was to be held until the Guards Armoured could effect a junction and then the Airborne troops were to protect the sides of the corridor. The 52nd (Lowland) Division (Air Portable) was to come into the Arnhem area as soon as an airstrip could be prepared by the Airborne Engineers. The mission of the 82-A/B specifically stated that the high hill mass in the Groesbeek area would be seized, organized, and held. This is the highest ground in all the Netherlands. The Commanding General of the 82nd (Gen James M. Gavin) was directed by the Corps Commander that all other missions, would be accomplished before the seizure of the Nijmegen Bridge was attempted.
On Sept 16, 1944, the 82-A/B closed at airfields in England 24 hours prior to take-off time. Last-minute briefings and equipment checks were made of all personnel, bundles, and aircraft. Starting at 0950 Sept 17, the Division took off for the flight to Holland. The flight took approximately three hours, the first serials landing on the drop zones at 1250. All units landed on their prescribed drop zones with, the exception of the 2/505-PIR, which was dropped two thousand yards northeast of its scheduled drop zone. Following the drop, all the units reorganized and moved to their assigned objectives while eliminating the local enemy resistance, and by 2300 hours the initial missions had been accomplished. The 504-PIR had dropped west of the Maas-Waal Canal on three separate battalion drop zones. One battalion captured the bridge at Heuman and two bridge sites near Blankenburg and Hatert, the bridges at these sites having been destroyed by the enemy prior to the arrival of the troops. One battalion cleared the western sector of the division area of all enemies and blocked movement on the Grave-Nijmegen highway. One battalion had dropped troops on either side of the Maas at Grave and both forces moved against the bridge, capturing it at 1430. The town of Grave was abandoned by approximately 400 enemies and occupied at 2300.
The 505-PIR dropped on drop zones in the vicinity of Groesbeek, seized the town and cleared all enemy from its area. Contact with the 504-PIR was made on the bridge near Heuman. The 508-PIR dropped on drop zones northeast of Groesbeek and upon receipt of information from the Dutch underground that the town of Nijmegen held few troops, moved to take the Waal River bridges. Their attack was stopped by heavy enemy resistance about 400 yards from the highway bridge and the regiment established roadblocks to prevent any movement to the South. One company encountered considerable enemy resistance in clearing glider landing zones in the area Northeast of Groesbeek.
D+1 found the 504-PIR and the 505-PIR conducting vigorous patrol activities, capturing additional secondary bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal and disrupting enemy communications. Easy 505 captured a train loaded with supplies and personnel trying to escape into Germany. Because of strong enemy resistance being encountered by the company previously sent to clear the glider landing zones Northeast of Groesbeek, the 508-PIR withdrew one battalion which had been in the town of Nijmegen, to assist in this mission.
Complete surprise was effected and the landing zone secured by 1400. At 0900 one company again moved into Nijmegen and was stopped by the enemy upon reaching the same area in which the regiment had been stopped the day before. Furious fighting raged through the day and at 1500 the company was withdrawn to the vicinity of Berg en Dal. During the morning, 450 gliders were lifted from bases in England and towed to the landing zones in the vicinity of Groesbeek. This lift was made up of one AT battery of the 80-A/B-AAA, 319-GFAB, 320-GFAB, 456-PFAB, and the 307-A/B Medic Co. The glider recovery was quite satisfactory even though several gliders overshot the landing zone and landed in enemy territory across the Dutch-German border. The arrival of the artillery battalions was indeed a welcome sight and they were immediately put into action, one battalion being put in direct support of each of the Parachute Regiments.
On D+2 contact was made with the Guards Armoured Division by the 504-PIR at Grave. This regiment, less three companies left to guard the bridges at Grave, Heuman, Heninghute, and to patrol the highway from Grave to the Heninghute bridge, was moved east to the Maas-Waal Canal where they relieved the 2/508-PIR. One battalion was placed in division reserve. The 505-PIR, less the 2/505 continued to hold its sector on the south of the division area, conducting extensive patrol activities throughout the day. The 508-PIR seized high ground along the Nijmegen-Cleve Highway between Ubbergen and Wyler, establishing roadblocks at these points in addition to those at Beek and in Thal. Repeated vicious counterattacks against positions in Teufels Berg during the course of the day were repulsed.
The Battalion Situation
At about 1100 on Sept 19, the Commander of the 2/505 was called to the Division HQs where he received a special mission for his unit. This mission was to accompany the Guards Armoured Division north to Nijmegen and capture intact, if possible, the vital bridge crossings of the Waal River. The 2/505 located in the vicinity of Groesbeek was alerted and after placing individual packs in a dump started the move to Nijmegen at 1245 under the command of the Battalion Executive Officer. The Commander of the 2/505 had gone forward to coordinate plans for the seizure of the bridges with the Commander of the British tank unit and the Dutch underground. The Dutch partisan elements stated that the bridges were prepared for demolitions and heavily defended by German SS and Parachute Troops.
As the 2/505 reached the outskirts of the town the CO rejoined the column and halted it, the Company Commanders were called forward and the following order was issued: Easy 505, with one section of LMG’s attached, was to lead the attack into the town, assaulting the enemy positions located in the Park and along with the approaches to the highway bridge. Upon reaching the bridge the company was to move rapidly across the river and go into a defensive position 200 yards from the north end of the bridge, its right flank extending back to the river and contact being made with Fox 505 on the left. Fox 505, with 7 tanks attached, was to follow Easy 505 to the Park area and upon entering the Park would move to King 505’s left flank and assist in the assault to the bridge, following Easy Co across the river and take up a defensive position on Easy Co’s left and extend the left flank back to the river line. Dog 505, with one section of LMG’s and eight tanks attached, was then to move northwest through the town to seize and hold the railroad bridge. The 81-MM mortar platoon would go into position on the outskirts of town and be prepared to support attacks on either of the two bridges.
The orders issued to his platoon leader by the Easy 505 CO were as follows: the 1st Plat. was to lead the assault and move along the right side of the Park area; the 3rd Plat. would follow the 1st Plat. and upon reaching the Park, move through the center and onto the bridge; the 2nd Plat. would follow the 3rd Plat. and coordinate with the 1st Plat. in supporting the 3rd Plat. with small arms and 60-MM mortar fire; Hqs Co and the attached LMG section would move to the edge of the Park and await further orders; CO would be with the 1st Plat.
A few minutes were taken by the Company Commanders to orient their attached tanks and the battalion started moving at 1600. As the column moved through the town artillery started to fall causing a few casualties. It was now known that the enemy had concentrated the bulk of his force around the highway bridge, and as the head of the column approached the Park, through which ran the entrances to the bridge, it came under heavy fire. Easy and Fox Cos deployed in an attempt to feel out the enemy defenses; the attached tanks, in trying to go into positions to fire on the enemy were met by a withering fire from anti-tank and machine guns. This resulted in the loss of four tanks.
Easy 505 moved through the streets of Nijmegen encountering very little enemy fire until the column reached a point about two blocks from the approaches to the highway bridge. Here, it was met by a hail of automatic and AT fire. At first, it appeared the enemy had prepared a successful trap for the company as they were receiving fire from the flanks as well as the front. Using smoke grenades to cover their movements the company managed to move into the buildings overlooking the Park, which in many cases still contained enemy strong points. Here the fighting raged from building to building and from room to room throughout the afternoon. The extent to which the enemy had prepared the defense of the bridge soon became evident. AT guns covered every street approach and automatic weapons fired from numerous loopholes in an old Dutch fort which was the center of resistance. Attempts to place the tanks into firing positions had already resulted in four of them being knocked out. The troops within this enemy position consisting of SS and Paratroopers fought with a fanaticism never before witnessed by these veterans of Sicily, Italy and Normandy.
The company was ordered to take positions in buildings on the edge of the Park and the balance of the afternoon was spent in fighting to this point. The troops moved through houses and buildings in the area, hurling hand grenades into the windows and firing as they entered. Groups of three or four would close in hand to hand fighting with nests of Germans found in the rooms. The destruction, deads, and wounded found the next day testified to the ferocity of this fighting. The men being well aware of the positions they were to occupy by nightfall fought individually and collectively to reach them.
That night, the company was in positions overlooking the Park area and were able to pour small arms and mortar fire into the enemy emplacements. The company held on throughout the night in spite of a terrific pounding by enemy artillery which included white phosphorus, causing numerous fires. One platoon infiltrated into the park from the right flank and with knives and bayonets moved from one emplacement to another killing and capturing many of the confused enemy.
The Platoon Action
When Easy 505 was stopped by the enemy fire, smoke grenades were set off to cover the movement of the troops. The 3rd Platoon moved across the Dalshe Weg at an intersection about two blocks from the Park, going into buildings on the right of the approach; they proceeded to fight from one building to another, at times in hand to hand combat. The fighting lasted for about an hour in this area before the entire block was secured. The 2nd Plat. was ordered to take over this area as the 3rd Plat. was to be withdrawn to the cover of a large church in the block. Completing the assembly at the church the CO gave the Platoon Leader another mission: move across the street opposite the buildings they had previously secured and take up positions in the buildings along the east side of the Park. When all men were in the position to open fire on the enemy with the LMG’S and BAR’s, the remainders of the Platoon were to move into the Park and close with the enemy. The 2nd Plat. would assist in the assault from their present positions and would jump off when the 3rd Plat. opened fire.
The platoon moved a block to the east and crossed the street into the buildings, being covered from enemy machine-gun fire by two knocked out tanks burning in the street and cutting off the fields of fire. These buildings had been large three-story apartment houses of brick construction, but the Germans had set them on fire on D+1 to prevent troops from taking positions in them should they progress that far. The majority of the walls were still standing but all of the wooden parts had burned and fallen through to the ground level, the rubble still smoldering and very hot.
Shortly after entering the buildings, enemy artillery began to fall on the arcs, but the men continued to work their way forward to take up their pre-designated positions. As the platoon was going into position a runner from the company arrived and stated the Company Commander wanted the platoon brought out before it was eliminated by the artillery. Three men were hit and had to be carried back to the location of the Company Command Position where the Platoon Leader received another order. This time to move two or three blocks to the east and then, north to a parkway, attack west, clearing the parkway in an effort to flank the enemy or get in behind his park positions.
The platoon, with one section of LMG’s attached, moved six blocks northeast to the eastern end of the parkway. Here the platoon was halted and left under cover of the buildings while the Platoon Leader with two men went to make a recon of the area. It was about 2000 and darkness had fallen over the countryside however the section of the town being fought over was well illuminated from the fires that were burning. The east end of the parkway came to a dead-end at the point where the Platoon Leader and his patrol entered. Using the cover of a sunken lawn to conceal their movement to the opposite side they moved in behind a bank on the north side of the parkway and discovered that it extended along the rear of the enemy positions for about two blocks, dropping off steeply to a street some twenty or thirty feet below. This was the break the platoon had been looking for; so the patrol moved along behind the enemy positions and using Tommy Guns, hand grenades, and knives eliminated the enemy in this area in less than an hours time.
The bank was a perfect cover for the movement of the patrol from the rear of one position to the rear of another; and with the fires in front of the enemy, their heads protruding above the foxholes made perfect targets. In some instances, an enemy’s head was no more than two feet from the muzzle of a gun when the trigger was pulled. Artillery was still falling and the enemy along the parkway was so busy pouring fire into the buildings across the street that the activities of the patrol went unnoticed until it reached a point where the parkway converged with the Park. Here it was discovered and fired on by a machine gun. The fire was returned by the patrol but none of the men could get into a position to assault the enemy gun. Two men held the ground while the third man was sent back with an order to the Assistant Platoon Leader to bring the platoon forward and occupy the recent enemy positions. Two LMG’s were to be brought forward to the Platoon Leader and set up to cover the enemy machine gun. By 2300 the platoon was in position and the enemy gun that fired on the patrol had been forced to take cover.
All automatic weapons were left in position and the remainder of the platoon was organized into four-man patrols to enter the north section of the park in an effort to destroy the enemy AT guns and all of the enemy that could be found. This section of the park was on a lower level than the south section and offered a defiladed area in which the patrols could operate in and not be endangered by small arms fire from our own troops on the south. Patrol activities continued throughout the night with the net result of one 50-MM AT gun and crew being destroyed, several enemies killed, and a few taken prisoner. The patrols were withdrawn to their own lines prior to daylight and re-supplied with ammunition.
At 0530 September 20, the Battalion ordered a direct assault into the Park from the three sides held by our troops. The Platoon was to move back into the north end of the Park where they had been patrolling, assault the enemy gun positions from the rear then proceed on to the bridge. The Germans had brought reinforcements across the bridge during the early morning, and when the platoon moved into the assault it was met by a terrific volume of automatic weapons fire and forced back into its previous positions. Two bazooka teams were brought forward and put into action against the gun positions in the Park and an old Dutch fort that was located near the bridge. They were successful in eliminating the gun positions to their front, but their weapons had no effect on the fort other than to drive the enemy gunners from one window at a time.
When the fire was shifted to another window the gunners who had previously been fired on would reappear and take up their firing positions. Enemy snipers that had infiltrated into the buildings behind the Platoon were beginning to make their presence felt and it was necessary to put a four-man patrol into these buildings in an effort to eliminate them. By 1200 they had killed six Germans and the harassing fire in the rear of the Platoon had subsided. The Germans however had succeeded in killing three men and wounding four others so seriously that they had to be evacuated. Artillery had started to fall on the Platoon positions about 0700 and continued throughout most of the day. The enemy batteries were located behind a dike on the opposite side of the river and each time they fired the report gave sufficient warning for everyone to get down in their foxholes. Their efforts were not totally unrewarded, as the Platoon was receiving numerous casualties.
At 1000 the three 60-MM mortar squads in the company were grouped and attached to the platoon. These squads were put into position and given several targets to fire on. They had fired on the first target for effect when the enemy artillery located the position and knocked it out. Five men were injured and two mortars damaged so badly they could not be used. It was learned later that the enemy had observers to the rear of the platoon position, thus accounting for their accurate fire on every move being made by the men. The Battalion Medics were unable to evacuate all the casualties so the platoon aid man moved the injured men into the basement of a building where he could care for them and wait help to effect their evacuation. The order was issued by the Battalion for a combined assault with the British Armour to take place at 1445. The Platoon mission was to move into the north end of the Park from the flank and cut the enemy off from the rear.
This assault was successful and all enemy resistance on the south end of the bridge was eliminated by 1800. The first British tank crossed the bridge at 1830 and made contact with the 504-PIR who, during the day, had effected a river crossing in assault boats downstream at the western edge of the town. The ^platoon was relieved of its sector of responsibility and given the mission of patrolling the town to mop up the bypassed enemy. At 0800 Sept 21, the Platoon was relieved in Nijmegen and sent two miles east on a separate mission. During this engagement, the platoon with one section of LMG’s and two 60-MM mortar squads attached suffered the loss of five men killed and seventeen evacuated due to wounds received. The enemy in the park area was estimated to total three hundred and fifty, of which one hundred and fifteen were killed, ninety-one captured and numerous others wounded.