October 8, 2013

1944. The Assault on Nijmegen Bridge

The Nijmegen Bridge
"Cromwell tanks of the 2nd Welsh Guards cross the bridge at Nijmegen, September 21, 1944" (source)
The 82nd Airborne Division's assault on the Waal river crossing at the Dutch city of Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden was one of the most brutal battles of Field Marshal Montgomery's advance to the Rhine. The attack was nicknamed "Little Omaha" because of the heavy losses on both sides.

As an eyewitness, Bill Downs described the assault as "a single, isolated battle that ranks in magnificence and courage with Guam, Tarawa, Omaha Beach. A story that should be told to the blowing of bugles and the beating of drums for the men whose bravery made the capture of this crossing over the Waal possible." He recounted, "The Nijmegen Bridge was in our hands intact as a monument to the gallantry of the 82nd Airborne soldiers, those who crossed the river, those who stormed it from the south."

The text is from BBC War Report: A Record of Dispatches Broadcast by the BBC's War Correspondents With the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June 1944 - 5 May 1945, pp. 238-243:
NIJMEGEN
(The airborne landings had been heavily opposed, and General Dempsey's tanks were having a hard time of it through marshy country which kept our columns from deploying off the road to outflank German strong-points. Nevertheless the airborne men were fighting on grimly, and on September 20th the British Second Army reached Nijmegen. The bridge was intact. So far the plan had succeeded in spite of heavier fighting than had been hoped for, and the inability of the airborne troops to seize the bridge before the British tanks arrived):

24 September 1944.
BILL DOWNS, C.B.S.
"American airborne patrols reached the area at the southern end of the bridge on Sunday night, September 17th, shortly after they landed, but at that time they were not in enough strength to do anything about it. On Monday the paratroops and glider forces were too busy beating off the German counter-attacks to coordinate an assault on the bridge. By this time the armour of the British Second Army was on its way northwards from the Escaut Canal. Then on Tuesday the British tanks arrived on the outskirts of Nijmegen and an attack was commenced, but still the Germans held on strongly in the fortification and houses on the south end of the bridge. American airborne infantry and British tanks were only 300 yards from the bridge in the streets of Nijmegen, but they couldn't get to it.

"Tuesday night was the strangest. The American troops took machine guns to the top of the houses and sprayed the approaches and the entrance to the bridges with bullets. All night they shot at anything that moved. Perhaps it was this constant fire that kept the Germans from blowing the bridge then. But still the shuddering blast that would signal the end of the bridge did not come. And when morning arrived a new plan was devised. It was dangerous and daring and risky. The commanders who laid it out knew this; and the men who were to carry it out knew it too. Thinking a frontal assault on the bridge from the south was impossible, American infantry were to fight their way westwards down the west bank of the Waal River and cross in broad daylight to fight their way back up the river bank, and attack the bridge from the north. On Wednesday morning the infantry made their way westward through the town and got to the industrial outskirts along the river bank near the mouth of a big canal. Some British tanks went with them to give them protection in the street fighting and to act as artillery when the crossings were to be made. Accompanying this task force were trucks carrying twenty-six assault boats brought along by the British armoured units in case of such an emergency. Most of the men who were there to make the crossing had never handled an assault boat before. There was a lot of argument as to who would handle the paddles and preference was given to the men who had at least rowed a boat. Everything was going well. The Germans were supposed to be completely surprised by the audacity of the move.

"But late in the morning—the impossible happened. Two men showed themselves on a river bank and were fired at by the enemy. No Americans were supposed to be in that part of the town. The 88-mm. shells began plastering the area. The gaff was blown. Reconnaissance spotted batches of German troops being transferred to the opposite bank. A few hours later, machine guns were dug into the marshes on the far side—the plan had been discovered. The task force was under shell-fire, and several hundred Germans with machine guns were sitting on the opposite bank waiting for the crossing. This was about noon. There was a quick conference. It was decided that the original plan would proceed, but this time the men crossing the river would have the help of heavy bombers—Lancasters and Stirlings flying in daylight to drop their bombs on the opposite bank in tactical support of the men from the assault boats.

"Working under enemy shell-fire, the assault boats were assembled. When they were put into the water, another difficulty arose. The tide was moving, but with a downstream current of eight miles an hour. Some of the boats drifted 300 yards down river before they were retrieved and brought back. Meanwhile machine guns spluttered on the opposite bank and German artillery kept smashing the embarkation area regularly.

"At last everything was ready. The bombers went in, but didn't drop their bombs close enough to knock out the machine guns. Twenty-six assault boats were in the water. They would carry ten men each. Two hundred and sixty men would make the first assault. Waiting for them on the other bank were some 400 to 600 Germans. The shelling continued. Every man took a deep breath and climbed in. Someone made a wisecrack about the airborne navy and someone else said they preferred airborne submarines to this job. And off across the river they started. At the same time behind them, the British tanks fired their heavy guns, and our own heavy machine-guns fired into the opposite bank giving the little fleet as much cover as possible.

"And over on the other side of the river the enemy tracers shrieked at the boats. The fire at first was erratic, but as the boats approached the northern bank the tracers began to spread on to the boats. Men slumped in their seats—other men could be seen shifting a body to take over the paddling. One man rose up in his seat and fell overboard. There was no thought of turning back. The paddling continued clumsily and erratically, but it continued. One of the boats had so many holes in it that the men were baling out with their tin helmets—it was almost splintered when it reached the other side.

"The fighting, though, had only just begun. The hundred or so men who had arrived on the opposite side fought their way forward with the bayonet and grenade, going from one machine-gun nest to the other until they had established a bridgehead only a few yards deep and several hundred feet wide. The thirteen boats had hardly left for the return trip for the reinforcements, when the men on the north bank saw specks in the water. The men on the opposite bank, seeing the casualties suffered in the landing under fire, were not waiting for the boats. Some of them had stripped off their equipment, and taking  a bandolier of ammunition, were swimming the river with their rifles on their backs. And thus it went—the thirteen little boats going time after time across the river under fire, the men on the bridgehead digging in and firing as rapidly as possible, routing out the German machine-gun nests by hand, while British tanks fired for all they were worth. After an hour and a half of concentrated hell, the infantry were over. They held a bridgehead several hundred yards wide and 100 yards deep. After that time, one officer counted 138 Germans dead in a space of sixty yards of that bloody beach-head.

"There was a welcome pause as the men consolidated and rested in their foxholes. Some had thrown the German bodies out of the Nazi machine-gun nests and were using these to stiffen their defences. The plan was to turn eastwards and assault the northern end of the bridge. But on the left flank of that minute bridgehead was another menace—for there on the high ground overlooking the bridge and firing at us with some 88 guns, was an ancient fort. It is called Hatz van Holland and was supposed to have been used centuries ago by Charlemagne as a fortress. The Germans had been using the fort as an anti-aircraft gun position to defend Nijmegen, and now they turned the ack-ack guns downward to bear on the bridge and the airborne bridgehead. While these guns were firing at the back, the troops could not fight their way to the northern end of the bridge. A detail was formed to attack the Hatz van Holland and put its guns out of action. That, as warriors centuries ago found out, was extremely difficult because the Hatz van Holland was surrounded by a moat.

"This moat had a few feet of water in it—black dirty water, covered with a layer of bright green slime. Also, the attacking party would have to advance under point blank 88 mm. fire. But anyhow the party set out. They crawled towards the high ground and the 88's banged away at them. And then they came to a zone where there were no 88 shells. It was found out that the other 88 guns were so installed that the guns could not reach downward the far. The German gun-crews discovered this too late and rushed to put up a rifle and machine-gun defence along the moat. But the Americans by this time had faced so much that a few machine guns were nothing. They made a stand-up attack, shouting like Indians, and, with tommy-guns blazing, knocked out the historic Hatz von Holland. A few Americans with blood in their eyes left seventy-five Germans dead in that moat. The remaining troops fought their way up the river all right. they captured the northern end of the railroad bridge and worked their way to the junction of the railroad highway from the main bridge. The entire German position on the northern side of the river was cut off."
Downs gave another account in an earlier broadcast from September 20, 1944, the day the bridge was taken by the Allies:
American Airborne infantry and British tanks beleaguered the streets of Nijmegen only 300 yards from the bridge that night, but they couldn't get it. A daring plan was drawn up. Wednesday morning, the infantry (504th) made its way to the industrial outskirts along the river bank. British tanks protected troopers in street fighting, acted as artillery when the crossings were made. 
Twenty-six assault boats were in the water. Two hundred and sixty men would make the first assault. Waiting for them on the other bank were 400 to 600 Germans; the shelling continued. A smoke screen was laid, but it wasn't very effective because of the wind. Men slumped in their seats; of those 260 men, half were wounded or killed. Only 13 of 26 boats came back—others didn't wait for boats. Some stripped off equipment, took a bandolier of ammunition and swam the river, rifles on their backs.
There was bitter bayonet fighting and Americans died, but more Germans died. That's only part of the story...British tanks and American Airborne Infantry (2nd Bn., 505th) began their frontal assault on the southern end of the bridge at the same time as the river crossing was started. Americans went through the houses on either side of the street.  
The southern end of the bridge has a large circular island approach. In this island were four self-propelled guns. There was nothing to do but rush the guns. So the tanks lined up four abreast and all roared into the street, firing. The American Airborne troops and British tankmen seized the south end of the bridge. Only tanks could get across at first because half a dozen fanatical Germans remained high in the girders, sniping. The Nijmegen Bridge was in our hands intact as a monument to the gallantry of the 82nd Airborne soldiers, those who crossed the river, those who stormed it from the south.