January 9, 2015

1944. Operation Market Garden Commences

An Aerial D-Day
"USAAF Douglas C-47 aircraft flying over Gheel in Belgium on their way to Holland for Operation 'Market-Garden,' 17 September 1944" (source)
The portions in parentheses and the words crossed out did not pass the Allied military censor.
Bill Downs

CBS Brussels

September 17, 1944

This is Bill Downs speaking from Brussels.

Men of the First Allied Airborne Army were landed far behind the German lines in Holland today and are now fighting in strength at vital points in the Netherlands.

Today, Sunday, September 17th, is another D-Day. An aerial D-Day which may be as decisive in the defeat of the German nation as were the landings in Normandy and southern France.

This is by far the most daring stroke attempted in the campaign of Western Europe. Some of the parachute troops were landed many miles behind the fighting line. And now the Nazi troops fighting the battle of Germany must contend with well-equipped fighting in the rear areas (and across their supply lines at the same time that British Second Army troops start a drive to link up with the airborne forces).

This airborne landing is admittedly made at great risk, but the men now fighting behind the German lines in Holland are not suicide battle groups. (They even have light artillery with them. And there is a plan to link up with them in the establishment on a new battlefront on the northwest sector of the continent.)

I flew up over the front lines this morning to watch the beginning of this great aerial invasion of northwest Europe. It was one of the most tremendous sights I have ever seen in four years of covering this war.

We had been expecting the airborne invasion for some time, but never until today was the time quite ripe. Last night we were told that "(Oliver) it was on." (Oliver was the code name given the correspondents for the operation. Knowing that Oliver was on, we went to bed early and got up with that feeling of expectancy. The same feeling we had on the first D-Day when we landed in Normandy on June 6th.)

We would be informed early if there was a last minute cancellation of the operation, but about eleven o'clock this morning hundreds of Flying Fortresses flew over after bombing Germany and Holland, and we knew that the operation was definitely on.

(H-Hour was one o'clock in the afternoon.) We went to a base airdrome to find fighters and fighter-bombers already running a shuttle relay back and forth to the front, preparing the way for the airborne troops. It was perfect parachute weather; the sky was blanket gray. A haze restricted visibility to three or four miles, just enough to allow the pilots to keep themselves on course and for the troops to see where they were dropping. There was enough haze to keep any enemy aircraft from spotting the planes as they came in. But the sector over which I flew this afternoon needed no haze to protect our paratroops. Our fighters were so thick that it would have been suicide for a Nazi plane to appear in the area, but no Nazi pilot wanted to commit suicide today and not an enemy plane was to be seen.

As we flew into the battle area, it could have been a peacetime joy ride. Except for the miles and miles of Allied convoys on the road, there was no sign of battle. (The army was scheduled to move on a zero-hour coinciding with the H-Hour of the airborne forces.)

We flew around for about fifteen minutes, staring into the grey haze until our eyes hurt. It seemed as if they would never come. Our slow, lumbering unarmed observation plane, which we call the "horse and buggy," soared peacefully over the lines. There was no ground fire at any time on our sector, and although we stared hard enough to produce the whole German air force, not an enemy plane was to be seen.

Then the pilot shouted, "There they are," and flying out of the haze like bees swarming out of a hive came hundreds upon hundreds of planes. To the sides and above and below them were the fighters forming an armored aerial tunnel through which men of the First Allied Airborne Army flew to their destination.

And in the center of this swarm of fighter planes were the low-flying transports in perfect formation. It made a lump come to your throat to see them. You knew that inside those planes were men who shortly would embark on one of the most dangerous operations of warfare; men who would land smack in the middle of enemy territory and fight on as men ever fought, with enemy on all sides of them.

Every once in a while one of the fighter planes would come over to take a closer look at our ship. There were Lightnings and Mustangs and Spitfires and Thunderbolts giving this aerial production, and they gave us a few anxious moments when the dove in to identify us, but all of them held their fire.

Three great waves of planes approached and then made a majestic half-circle, every plane in formation. After the turn, the ships disappeared ahead of us into Holland.

And we saw an example of the kind of courage these men have. For in the center of one of the carrier formations, a plane suddenly burst into flames. Something had gone wrong, for there was no antiaircraft fire in this sector.

But the pilot of this transport kept the plane in perfect formation. To have broken off at that time would have meant a collision with another plane. It probably would have meant the lives of all the airborne troops inside. This pilot kept his burning plane flying perfectly, and suddenly from the side the parachutes began to bloom. One by one they came out like mushrooms popping in the air, and finally the last paratroopers dropped to safety. Only then did the pilot leave the formation. The flaming plane plunged to earth. We did not see the pilot get away. He had given his life for the men riding behind him.

This is Bill Downs in Brussels returning you to CBS in New York.