Friday, 15 December 2017

Market Garden, Best, Grave and Nijmegan - Holland 2017

One of the reasons I was keen to holiday this summer in this area of Holland was part of a planned pilgrimage to visit key places that featured in my Father's accounts of his time in Guards Armoured Division covered in previous posts.

Of course whilst touring the area, especially from the seat of a bike one was all too conscious of the key areas I was very familiar with that featured in the campaign as a whole and the events often recorded with the many road side memorials.

The areas along the Market Garden route that we investigated on holiday this summer

The area we were staying in was near to Best and the bridges along the Wilhelmina Canal at Son which were a key objective for the 101st Airborne Division as they sought to create the first access point for Guards Armoured Division's passage up the highway to Nijmegan where they would link up with the 82nd Airborne Division tasked with a similar objective in and around Nijmegan, the high-water mark as it later transpired of the Guards progress towards Arnhem.

Private Jo Mann and Lt. Colonel Robert G. Cole - The Battle for the Son Bridge

The action around the Best bridge was triggered because of Major General Taylor's, commander of the 101st ABD, wish to control an additional bridge three miles to the west of the planned axis route via Son as insurance to gaining an access route north for XXX Corps.

This decision would see fighting develop out of all proportion to anything likely to have been considered in the planning phase as the opposing forces were dragged into an escalating battle.

Following a relatively successful drop the majority of the 502 PIR was retained in the area of the drop zone acting as a security unit to defend the area for additional drops and landings as well as a divisional reserve. With his landing zones secured General Taylor ordered a single company from the third battalion to secure the alternative bridges near Best. 

A recreation at the Wings of Victory Museum of the radio equipment used during the fighting by 101st ABD

Captain Robert Jones' Company H together with the 3rd platoon, Company C, 326 Engineers and a section of machine guns from Battalion Headquarters were tasked with taking and holding the Best Road and rail bridges across the Wilhelmina Canal. 

Using the church steeple in Best as an easily recognisable reference point, the force made its way through the trees of the Zonche Forest, only to find that the density of the trees became disorienting and made it difficult to maintain their course in relation to their reference point, causing them to head towards rather than away from it and their objective on the canal. 

The small force eventually emerged into open ground four hundred meters from Best and drew immediate small arms fire from a small group of German defenders. As the paratroops pressed forward in an attempt to overcome the defenders the resistance increased with the arrival of a convoy of twelve trucks carrying three hundred German infantry from General Chill's 59th Division.

With the unexpected arrival of the German reinforcements the battle had swung decisively in favour of the Germans, and when the facts change so does the plan.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole who had been monitoring the progress of Company H and concerned the small force would be distracted from its task ordered Captain Jones to send second platoon, his engineers and machine-guns under Lieutenant Edward Wierzbowski towards the Best bridge whilst the  remaining two platoons withdrew to the tree line and dug in.

Memorial close to the site where Private Joe Mann was killed, throwing himself on a German stick grenade,
and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for his valour.

After a laborious journey through the woods with Lieutenant Wierzbowski forced to swing wide of the trails to avoid German machine-gun positions the small force eventually reached the canal bridge shortly before midnight on the 17th September, where they to were forced to dig in as they bumped strongly held German positions on the opposite bank guarding the bridge.

A German 88mm position modelled at the Wings of Victory Museum and illustrative of the kind of defences the
101st ABD were up against in Best 

As the Germans started to appreciate the American forces present within their area the intensity of the battle grew forcing the commitment of the remaining two companies of 3/502 PIR to the defence of the Zonche perimeter, with as the American reports suggest a growing aggressiveness in the attacks launched on their positions as they battled to hold on and await reinforcements.

It was during this two day battle that would eventually see the arrival of British and American reinforcements from the Guards and the US Glider troops that the two Congressional Medals of Honour were awarded posthumously.

The Zonsche forest today. Period photos show a much less mature but thick woodland in 1944

Following their clash with the bridge garrison, second platoon, H company were dug in on the corner of  the woods seen below, isolated from the rest of the division and forced to endure nearly thirty hours of intense combat until finally overwhelmed at first light on the 19th September having had three men killed, twelve wounded and only three unhurt.

The Germans quickly positioned machine-guns covering the many trails that prevented the US Paratroops from linking up their defence and made any movement hazardous
One of those killed was Private First Class Joe Mann, who early on the 18th September attacked a nearby German ammunition dump in the company of Private James C Hoyle destroying it and a nearby 88mm gun with three bazooka rounds and killing several of the crew with Mann being hit twice during the fire-fight.

Despite his wounds which caused him to have both arms heavily bandaged he insisted on taking guard duty during the night.

The remains of the foxholes dug by members of 2nd Platoon, H Company during their battle around the Best Bridge

After a while the US positions were east to identify in and around the edge of the tree line

The next morning second platoon were heavily attacked with the enemy getting within a few yards of their position and subjecting them to multiple grenade attacks during which Mann, yelling "grenade!"selflessly threw himself on a grenade that entered a slit trench he and the other wounded were sharing, for which he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.

The old Eindhoven road, opposite, next to the modern motorway bridge, right, where Household Cavalry reconnaissance armoured cars made contact with the American paratroops battling to hold this side of the canal, but were forced to withdraw having confirmed the bridge destroyed by the Germans. 

2nd Platoon, H Company position in the trees across the road

Not the same bridge as that one has gone but one close by and very similar to the Son bridge seen below

Guards Armoured finally get across the Wilhelmina Canal at Son

As mentioned the battle around Best became a problem for the 101st as more of its reserves were dragged into a battle brought on by the counter-attack launched by the German 59 Infantrie-Division with troops from 1034 Grenadier Regiment infiltrating into the American lines and engaging in multiple close combats.

Eventually the Americans were able to call in close air support from US P47 Thunderbolts who initially strafed the 101st but after several identifying smoke markers were released turned their attacks on the Germans in and around Best helping to stifle their attacks.

It was just after the air attacks had finished that Lt Colonel Robert Cole, 3rd Battalion commander stepped out from cover into the road to observe the results when he was killed by a German sniper.

The monument to Lt. Col. Cole is only a short cycle ride from the positions held by 2nd Platoon, H Company, but would have been very dangerous to cycle over in mid-September 1944.

Later it was learned that Colonel Cole had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for his leadership in Normandy where he lead the attack along the Carentan Causeway that helped to link up the Utah and Omaha bridgeheads.

The trail leading into the Zonche Forest 

The road into Best where Colonel Cole stepped out following the US air attacks and was killed by a sniper

Men of the 506th PIR, 101st ABD rally on the edge of the Zonche Forest just after landing, being watched by an inquisitive Dutch boy

A few years ago, during another summer holiday, this time in Normandy, I visited the scene of Colonel Cole's daring attack along the Carentan Causeway so it was really great to be able to see both places associated with this brave and daring commander.

The house at Dead Man's Corner in Normandy on the road leading over the Carentan causeway

Carolyn outside the museum at 'Dead Mans Corner' when we visited it a few years ago

The view of the modern road leading across the causeway into Carentan

The Grave Bridge and Battle for Nijmegan

After Guards Armoured and XXX corps cleared Eindhoven, 101st Airborne handed over the control of the route to 82nd Airborne, tasked with securing crossings in and around Nijmegan with, in between the two cities, the very important multi-span bridge at Grave over the River Maas. 

The Grave Bridge showing the two drop zones used by 504 PIR together with the two Dutch bunkers close to the sluice house

The bridge was, in 1944, the longest bridge on the Continent, spanning almost 400 metres in length. 

The bridge at Grave was a major objective during the German invasion of 1940 and had been a major block to German progress through the Netherlands when Dutch troops blew out the two centre spans as the Germans approached to cross.

Memorial to Company E, 504 PIR

The task of capturing the bridge fell to the 504th PIR, nicknamed 'Angels in Baggy Pants" and General Gavin, commanding 82nd ABD, arranged for 2/504 to have troops landed at either end of it.

The plaque reads " E-company divided across eleven C-47 Skytrains had been given the mission
to take the south side of the Maas Bridge at Grave. As a result of jumping too early most of E-company
landed in the village Velp and its surrounding vicinity. In the leading aircraft Lieutenant Thompson saw,
while standing in the open doorway of his C-47 that they were flying over the built up area of Velp and
decided  to wait. Once above open ground, the remaining paratroops jumped and landed in the Maaspolder
area closer to their objective: the Maas Bridge at Grave. Completely cut off from the rest of the unit,
the decision was made to start the mission. After heavy fighting the south side of the bridge was taken. The
mission completed successfully without sustaining any losses. Once the area on the north side had also been
captured, Colonel Tucker was informed that "Bridge No. 11 is ours". With fifteen men, Lieutenant Thompson
achieved what had been assigned to an entire company."

The bridge was protected at either end by light anti-aircraft guns together with German troops occupying two Dutch built bunkers on the southern approach, The bridge guard was also supported by garrison troops based in Grave itself .

The plaque reads " On the 17th September 1944, during the Second World War, the Maas Bridge at Grave was captured by the E Company of the 2nd Battalion, 82nd US Airborne Division. On the 19th September 1944 the first tanks of  the XXXth British
Army Corps roll across this bridge. On  the 21st September 1944 the defence of  southern approach of the Maas bridge was
taken over Royal Brigade 'Princess Irene'.

It was quite a thought that the last time someone from my family drove across this bridge, it was in an M4 Sherman.

The southern end of the Grave Bridge, now renamed the John S Thompson Bridge, taken by E Company, 504 PIR

Bunker B shown on the aerial picture above, well and truly brassed up by German fire from 1940 

The sluice house with Bunker A, extreme right and drop zone E, left background

Bunker A or 'Kazemat A'  now a local museum run by volunteers and well worth a visit - see link below

Tom admiring the handiwork of RAF Typhoons who plastered the bunker with 20mm cannon shells just prior to the American paratroop drop

The view of the bridge from Bunker A

The little museum has some really interesting artefacts covering the German invasion, occupation and the Market Garden campaign and the local volunteers were very happy to show visitors around and explain the history.

The Battle for the Bridge at Nijmegan

I have often thought that the battle for Nijmegan has been overshadowed by the failure of the mission to reach and relieve the 1st British Airborne Division battling in the end for its very existence as it became increasingly obvious to higher command that the tight time schedule would not be met.

Driving into Nijmegan from the northern bank, Carolyn took this great picture of the road bridge as it is today

Both the Guards Armoured and 82nd Airborne Division fought a highly successful combined arms street battle, aided by Dutch guides, followed by an assault river crossing to capture the Nijmegan crossing in the face of almost fanatical resistance and a bridge prepared for demolition.

Guardsman Howe who rode into Nijmegan in one of his battalion's bren carriers and took part in the successful attack on the railway bridge recalled:

"After our battle the day before, we were a bit short of ammunition but I had a satchel of grenades that I used clearing the enemy out of houses he had occupied between our positions and the railway bridge. The day seemed to go on forever. Grenades through windows or door. The crack of the detonation and in we went with a burst from the Bren and the bayonet. The strange thing is that throughout the whole battle I never saw a live German until I reached the bridge and they were running away across it."

Sergeant Peter Robinson leads his Grenadier Guards troop across Nijmegan bridge
As pictured on the Osprey title

Other Grenadiers reported:
"The SS and young troops fought savagely, but the old men ran away or surrendered when the SS soldiers' backs were turned."

Interestingly it was the railway bridge that fell first to the allied attacks on the late afternoon of the 20th September, but seemed to have no effect on the allied planners and their total focus on taking the road bridge.

One of the concrete barriers that were in place across the road during the battle, still to be seen in place today

Like the Allied planners my focus was very much on the road bridge but for a very different reason.

As you can imagine I was particularly interested in any evidence of the 55th Field Regiment's involvement in this famous battle and it was a few years ago that I discovered the picture below showing the northern end of the Nijmegan bridge on the late afternoon, early evening of the 20th September 1944 firmly in the hands of the Guards with an OP tank from the 55th.

A Sherman OP tank of the 55th Field Regiment, Guards Armoured Division, at the far end of Nijmegan bridge, with six such vehicles their is a chance that my Dad was is that one. Note the German scissor optics protruding from the commanders hatch. The six pounder ATG seen below can be seen further along the road by the concrete barriers.

The Sherman's crew are making good use of a pair of German scissor range finders protruding from the commanders hatch and further down the road, captured in a close up is a Guards Armoured six pounder set up by some very obvious concrete road blocks.

The concrete barriers at the end of the bridge covered by a Guards six pounder anti-tank gun

It was a real thrill to be able to drive past those very same concrete road blocks left on the foot paths to the side of the main road and to think there was a 16% chance that Dad was parked up there seventy-three years ago.

View of the ramp on Nijmegan bridge today where the six-pounder and OP tank were parked up

Whilst on the northern bank of the Waal we could clearly see the ramparts of the 19th century fortress of Fort Lent or Hof van Holland.

This fort was garrisoned by the SS incorporating an 88mm gun and several mortars to support the German troops across the river in Nijmegan.

The ramparts of Fort Beneden Lent, built in 1862, facing the city from the north side of the River Waal

The fort was taken in a combined assault by the Paratroops who having crossed the river, were supported by a copious amount of fire from the tanks of the Irish Guards that kept the heads of the defenders down as the defences were dealt with and saw the American flag flying over them by 6pm on the 20th of September.

The rail bridge at Nijmegan was badly damaged by German frogmen and rebuilt after the war

Taking a closer look at the railway bridge and the defences still visible I found an evocative quote describing the fierce fighting here from Private Albert Tarbel, a company radio operator with the third battalion 504th PIR involved in the fighting to take this the northern ramp:

"After fighting with different groups from our H Company, I was trying to rejoin Captain Kappel. I finally met with him at the railroad bridge. We also had quite a fight there. At one point, we were passing Gammon grenades to Captain Kappel, who was throwing them at the German soldiers through an opening in the northern bridge tower entrance. Needless to say, we neither offered nor gave any quarter to the Germans on the railroad bridge."

Bunker or Kassemat covering the railway line and bridge
Of course the attack that grabbed the attention, and for very good reason, simply for the courage and audacity displayed was that of Major Julian Cook  leading the men of the 3/504th in their storm-boat crossing of the Waal under heavy machine gun fire in daylight with the combined arms of the Guards and 82nd ABD artillery and Guards tanks laying smoke.

Captain Moffatt Burris described the crossing:

"As we came out into the open, the weight of our boat seemed imponderable; our feet sank deep into the mud. We must have caught the krauts by surprise, because for the first 100 yards there wasn't a round fired from the enemy side of the river. Then suddenly all hell broke loose. We had run halfway across the flat topped plateau prior to reaching the drop, when jerry opened up with everything he had - LMGs, Mortars, 20mm guns, artillery and rifles. As if in rage of our trying anything so dangerous, he was throwing everything he owned at us.......... The water all around the boats was churned up by the hail of bullets, and we were soaked to the skin. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a boat hit in the middle by a 20mm  shell and sink. Somewhere on my left, I caught a glimpse of a figure topple overboard, only to be grabbed and pulled back on board by some hardy soul............ We climbed over the wounded and the dead in the bottom of the boat and - up to our knees in water - waded to shore."

On reaching the northern bank the enraged paratroops cleared the dyke facing the river of remaining Germans and with their numbers greatly reduced fanned out into small groups.

Burrows lead fifteen men in his own group towards the northern ramp of the Nijmegan road bridge:

"At sundown we found ourselves under the massive Nijmegan bridge, which rose nearly twenty stories. The dyke road ran under the north end of the bridge, which was supported by large concrete columns. An eerie silence had fallen at the north end, and we didn't see any enemy troops. Across the river the city of Nijmegan was ablaze, and there was a great deal of firing around the bridge's south end............ As I reached the top of the steps, I saw a lone kraut standing at the end of the bridge. He was so surprised to see us that he dropped his rifle, held up his arms, and immediately surrendered."  

Burrows and his men then set off across the bridge tearing up demolition wires and exchanging shots with Germans high up in the girders of the bridge to met by Captain the Lord Carrington's troop of Guards tanks coming from the opposite end.

The view of Nijmegan bridge from the Valkhof

The fighting to gain access to the southern ramp reached a crescendo as the Guards closed in on the network of pillboxes, trenches and dug in 88mm guns, many of them mapped out by Dutch resistance fighters and supplied to the British via the SOE as early as March 1944.

Map illustrating the Valkhof in relation to the Nijmegan bridge and the attacks
carried out on the afternoon and early evening of the 20th September

We visited the Valkhof park which is situated on a pinnacle that is close to the bridge crossing and gives excellent view out across the River Waal and the road below leading to the bridge.

Scene of bitter fighting between the Guards King's Company and German troops defending the bridge is now a peaceful park for summer picnics  

The emperor Frederik Barbarossa built a castle on the Valkhof hill in 1155, using stone from a previous castle built here by Charlamagne illustrating the strategic qualities of the position and its importance in the battle for Nijmegan bridge.

The Valkhof pictured soon after the battle to take it, with the wire entanglements clearly visible

One of the two chapels that remain from Barbarossa's castle

Artist impression of Barbarossa's castle

The German troops holding the positions around the bridge and on the Valkhof were Waffen SS soldiers of SS-Haupsturmfuhrer Karl-Heinz Euling's battalion along with other troops forced back from the outer suburbs. They in tern were supported by two companies of SS Engineers holding key strong-points such as the Valkhof and the whole area was festooned with barb-wire and shallow crawl trenches.

The other of the two remaining chapels in a beautiful summer setting

A British guardsman lies dead next to German equipment in nearby Hunnerpark illustrating the bitter fighting that took place in the city 

The King's Company, 1st Grenadier Guards were tasked with taking the Valkhof attacking from the west of the park supported by tanks of the 2nd Grenadier Guards and 2nd Company 1st Genadier Guards under Lieutenant Dawson.

The company made good progress in the approach to the wire, seemingly catching the German troops by surprise, receiving little defensive fire as they breached the outer perimeter of wire. However as the attack progressed casualties mounted and the company lost its commander in the early stages with Lieutenant Dawson of the 2nd Company assuming overall command.

Lance Sergeant Simpson described the attack:

"We reached the top of the slope and the platoons in the ruins of the police station behind us were firing away over our heads. We paused to gain our breath and charge our magazines. We then dashed forward a short distance to a German trench. It wasn't very deep and led to positions to our right. Still it was good cover which was very welcome and I found that I had had a close shave, with a round having shot through my water bottle on my hip."

German bunker overlooking Nijmegan bridge from the Valkhof

The German bunker above has good views out over the bridge and is directly above the small embankment used by Dawson's men to outflank the SS Engineers holding the top of the Valkhoff and enabled them to come around behind them and fighting their way into the gardens, later able to bring fire from their higher position down upon the Germans holding Hunnerpark, the last major obstacle preventing the Guards from getting their tanks onto the southern ramp.

Peaceful now but the buildings bear testament to battle years ago

We concluded our trip around the World War II Nijmegan sites with an ice-cream, sat in the lovely park that can now be found atop the Valkhof with the horror of war long forgotten but with such a peaceful scene, it seemed to me, to be such a fitting memorial to the allied soldiers who fought here over seventy years ago and particularly to those who lost their lives in the war against tyranny.

Sources consulted in this post:
Market Garden - Nijmegan, Battleground Europe, Tim Saunders
Market Garden - Hell's Highway, Battleground Europe, Tim Saunders
Operation Market Garden Then & Now Volumes 1 & 2, Karel Margry­nijmegen-the-bridges-to-nowhere/

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic insight into the actions of the day as viewed from today. Always hard to picture such combat across such peaceful looking locations!