‘As paratroopers they were inclined to be aggressive, perhaps even reckless. Now, under the extreme stress of the situation, they had become ruthless killing machines’
By September 1944 the German forces in Western Europe were reeling—France had been liberated, and Allied armored columns had driven into Belgium and Luxembourg. British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery formed an ambitious plan to bypass the northern end of the enemy’s Siegfried Line and plunge through the Netherlands into Germany by capturing key bridges over the Meuse and Rhine rivers. Operation Market Garden would be a combined armored-airborne assault, with paratroopers and glider-borne infantrymen landing behind enemy lines and holding the bridges until relieved by armored forces.
Though the attack attained many of its goals, the Allied forces failed to take and hold the bridge in Arnhem, the Netherlands, which led to the collapse of the campaign. Author Cornelius Ryan famously chronicled that battle in his bestselling 1974 book A Bridge Too Far (basis for the 1977 epic war film). In his new book September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far, John C. McManus, professor of military history at Missouri University of Science and Technology, examines the contributions by paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions to one of World War II’s most controversial battles.
In the following excerpt paratroopers of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment undertake a fiercely resisted daylight assault across the Waal branch of the Rhine at Nijmegen, using small boats provided by the British. The action opens on Sept. 20, 1944.
At precisely 1440 three British trucks rolled to a stop on the road behind the Nyma factory. The drivers hopped out and began to unload the much-anticipated boats. Lounging nearby, Major Julian Cook’s 3rd Battalion troopers stood up and descended on the trucks to help the British unload them. Curiously, although the 3rd Battalion soldiers were no more than a mile away, they could not even hear the fight for the southern end of the bridges, which was even then still raging.
Cook and his men were shocked at the flimsiness of the canvas boats. They had expected substantial watercraft, maybe even with outboard engines and some armor, not these glorified tubs. “They looked like pieces of plywood with canvas wrapped around them and a few extra boards piled on top,” Captain Moffatt Burriss said. To the South Carolinian they looked like “they wouldn’t make it across a swimming pool,” much less one of Europe’s largest rivers. The boats were 19 feet long and no more than 30 inches high. The canvas skin of each boat wrapped around a skeletal, flat, grated plywood bottom and wooden pegs that held up the gunwales. A wooden tiller at the rear served as a rudder. Chaplain Delbert Kuehl asked how the boats were propelled. “Canoe paddles,” someone replied. Each boat was supposed to come with eight paddles. In fact, some had as few as two. When Cook’s men asked him how they could row with only two paddles, he told them to use their rifle butts. Each boat weighed almost 400 pounds, but with weapons and ammo they would probably weigh twice that during the crossing.
Lieutenant Mike Sabia, one of the engineer officers, supervised assembly of the boats. The boats were fairly easy to put together. Engineers quickly snapped the wooden pegs into the proper places. Some infantrymen helped. Others crowded around to watch or, when boats were ready, piled their gear into them. To Captain Henry Keep, who hailed from a wealthy Pennsylvania family, the boats were “smaller than Daddy’s tin ducking boat.” Private Walter Hughes had frequently sailed the Hudson River during his youth, so he, more than anyone, knew how unsuited the boats were for the task at hand. His heart began to race with nervousness and fear. “I knew boats, and these things didn’t look like they belonged in a duck pond, let alone a wide river like the Waal,” he said. He thought about loosening his bootlaces so that he would be able to swim the river barefoot when his boat sank. “My fear was not the enemy; it was surviving the crossing.” Lieutenant James Megellas, who had spent many days fishing on Wisconsin lakes, had similar thoughts. To him the boats looked rather similar to the little fishing craft he had often employed. At most four or five people had been able to pack together to cast their lines. He knew that each boat team would consist of as many as 16 men, plus their ammo and weapons. “By any standard the boats would be dangerously overloaded,” Magellas wrote. “I wondered if we could stay afloat even without enemy resistance.”
At 1450 the supporting fire began in earnest. Artillery, mortars and tanks opened up on the German positions across the river. For nearly 10 minutes the Allied crewmen hurled high-explosive shells at the enemy before switching to white smoke shells. The ensuing smoke screen looked wispy and thin to the paratroopers. Plus, the wind was blowing it back in their direction. In their hearts the men knew that German visibility would barely be impaired.
Then, at last, it was time to go. At 1503 Cook blew a whistle and ordered everyone to move out. Each boat team—26 in all—stood and hoisted their awkward, heavy boats to their shoulders. Arduously, each group ascended the dike and ran as best they could under such heavy loads. They stumbled over the road toward the river some 150 yards away. When the men were slowed by a wire fence that stood along the route to the river, tanks had to overrun parts of it, while soldiers blew more holes in the impediment with Gammon grenades.
Once past the wire fence they descended the steep embankment, then stumbled across 50 yards of open, muddy ground to the riverbank. Under the weight of the boats many of the soldiers sank ankle-deep into the mud. Already the smoke screen was dissipating. Awkwardly, the men began to heave their boats onto the sandy soil at the river’s edge and board them as best they could. Some of the boats edged into the water smoothly, while others bogged down in the mud. A few even sank and had to be pulled laboriously out of the water by frantic paratroopers.
At some point (accounts differ as to when) the Germans spotted the crossing force and opened fire. A terrifying blend of mortar shells, 20mm fire, 88mm fire, machine-gun fire and small-arms fire began coming in. Most of it was coming from enemy positions on the railroad bridge, the dike road and Fort Hof van Holland. The combination of friendly and enemy fire was deafening. “An ear-shattering noise began,” Jan van Gent, a Dutch resistance man who was with the British tanks, later related. “The 2- and 4-centimeter flak, stationed somewhere near the railroad bridge, fired like mad.” This fire was so intense that, according to van Gent, it sawed two concrete poles in half along the dike road. “As if in a rage at our trying anything so dangerous, he was throwing everything he owned at us,” Keep wrote. He himself felt naked in the wake of such fierce enemy opposition. He was right to feel that way. They were out in the open, on the low riverbank, with no cover of any kind. Behind them the Irish Guards’ tanks continued to hurl shells at the Germans, while the 2nd Battalion soldiers were laying down reasonably accurate mortar and machine-gun fire. The drifting clouds of smoke offered little real concealment. Other than that, they were pretty much on their own. Keep looked around and was amazed to see that, in spite of all this, no one was wavering.
Amid the chaos of dodging the enemy fire, the men desperately set about the task of boarding the boats. Megellas, like many of the other officers, had a difficult time maintaining any semblance of organization. “Trying to coordinate the efforts of men getting in the boats and crossing a river with a fast-moving current was next to impossible.”
By now most of the men had climbed aboard their boats and were shoving off from the fire-swept south bank. Each man jostled for a place in his boat. Some sat; some knelt; some leaned over the sides—no one stood. The men along the sides paddled as vigorously as they could. Many used their rifle butts, while a few even used their hands. On the road that paralleled the river, British Corporal Bill Chennell of the 2nd Household Cavalry Regiment stood atop his armored car and strained his eyes for a look at the boats. “I could hear the machine guns fire from the opposite bank,” he recalled. “You could … see the tracers from the machine guns, but not the Americans. It was obvious that no one would get through that blanket of fire unhurt.”
Closer to the riverbank Lieutenant John Gorman, an Irish Guards tank commander, was pumping shells at the north bank as fast his crewmen could unleash them. The little American armada struck him as almost pathetically small against the formidable backdrop of the river, the opposite bank and the hulking bridges looming a couple miles to the right. The German fire appeared to be overwhelming. “It seemed to me the Germans must have had their guns firing two or three feet above the water level, catching the Americans across the chests,” he later said. Gorman’s commander, Major Edward Tyler, was worried about the safety of his own tanks. They were, after all, perched out in the open, along the dike road, on the river side of the power station. “We were wide open. Sixteen tanks silhouetted against the skyline.” Tyler’s tanks blasted away with their main guns and their machine guns. They also fired some smoke shells to make up for the huge gaps forming between the clouds of drifting smoke. In the power station [504th Parachute Infantry Regiment commander] Colonel Reuben Tucker and [British 1st Airborne Corps commander] Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning watched, awestruck, as the boats muddled through the swift current and the wall of enemy fire. Browning turned to Tucker and said: “What magnificent troops to move forward like that. Any nation should be proud of them.”
In the boats the men were feeling terrified, not proud. Incoming enemy fire was so intense it seemed as if the water were churning. So many mortar shells exploded and so many machine gun bullets skipped along the water that to Staff Sgt. Clark Fuller it “made the water around us look like it was raining.” For Pfc. Everett Trefethern it was “like a school of mackerel on the feed.” The water around Megellas’ boat was swirling and splashing so much that it reminded him “of a school of piranha in a feeding frenzy.”
The engineers intended to instill a rhythm into the desperate paddling of each boat team. But in the chaos of the moment most of the men frantically gouged their paddles, rifle butts or, in a few cases, their hands into the water with little coordination. Grunting, groaning and shouting, “Heave ho!” they simply rowed as best they could. The job was at once exhausting and terrifying. Men rowed until they felt their arms would fall off. Then they handed their paddles to someone else, rested a few moments and resumed their efforts. Fuller’s boat actually circled randomly for a few moments before the soldiers figured out that they were rowing at cross-purposes. At last they established enough of a rhythm to get back on course. To the young NCO their progress was so excruciatingly slow that the river seemed to be more than a mile wide.
Aboard a nearby boat Keep flashed back to his rowing days at Princeton. Amid the stress of the moment he remembered the days of old, when his coxswain would bellow a steady cadence. Now, in this very different place, Keep began to sound off just like him—“One, two, three, four!”—to regulate the strokes of the soldiers around him. It wasn’t much, but it made him feel a little better. “By now the broad surface of the Waal was covered with our small canvas craft,” he later wrote, “all crammed with frantically paddling men. Set to the deafening roar of omnipresent firing, this scene of defenseless, frail canvas boats, all jammed to overflowing with humanity, all striving desperately to cross the Waal as quickly as possible and get to a place where at least they could fight—this was fiendish and dreadful. We looked like a bunch of animals, void of dignity and normalcy.”
Many were so frightened they could hardly command themselves to move or even raise their torsos above the gunwales of their boats. They had to, though, because anyone who wasn’t helping to row or steer was simply dead weight. Some men cursed, others prayed fervently. Behind Cook, on the same boat, Kuehl prayed aloud, over and over, “Lord, thy will be done!” The courageous clergyman seriously doubted that anyone would make it to the north bank.
To say they were all sitting ducks would be an understatement. Ducks, after all, are comfortable in the water—not so for paratroopers. With each desperate stroke they found themselves in closer range of the enemy weapons. Firing from the railroad bridge, Fort Hof van Holland and the north-bank dike, the Germans could scarcely miss. Their fire swept through water, canvas and flesh alike. The man sitting shoulder to shoulder with Kuehl had his head blown off. Fatal head shots were distressingly common (an indicator of the deadly accuracy of German fire). At the stern of Burriss’ boat he was sitting next to the engineer who was manipulating the wooden rudder, guiding the boat. All at once the captain saw the man’s wrist turn red as he got hit. He turned to Burriss and asked him to take the rudder. “Just as I reached for the rudder, he leaned forward and caught a 20mm high-explosive shell through his head, a round that was meant for me,” Burriss said.
Blood and brains splattered over Burriss’ right shoulder, helmet and neck. The dead engineer keeled over the side of the boat. With his torso and head in the water but his feet caught inside the boat, he became, in effect, a second rudder, steering the boat off course. As Burriss tried to steer with the real rudder, he reached down, disengaged the dead man’s feet and pushed him into the river. “As I watched his body float downstream, I could see the red blood streaming from what was left of his head.”
Staff Sergeant Robert Tallon was paddling intently when he heard a thud next to him. “The kid on my right groaned and slumped over in my lap,” Tallon recalled. “I looked down at him and knew that he had been hit and pushed him over onto the floor of the boat. He was dead…very dead.” Just then, to the left, a mortar shell scored a direct hit on a neighboring boat. Those who survived the blast splashed into the river. Several drowned. Private Louie Holt, who had feared that the Waal crossing was tantamount to suicide, went down with that boat. Rowing earnestly in a nearby vessel, T/4 Albert Tarbell, a radioman, happened to see Holt at that terrible moment. “To this day I can still see the look on [his] face as our eyes met.” Holt did not survive.
On another boat Lieutenant Harry Busby got hit and died, just as he had predicted to his buddy Megellas. Upon climbing into his boat, he had argued with Pfc. Matthew Kantala about where to sit. “He took the seat and he got killed,” Kantala said. Shortly after Busby’s death Kantala himself was badly wounded, with fragments to the face and hands. “Lead was flying at us from all directions,” Megellas later wrote. “In other boats bullets opened gaping holes in the canvas sides. The men were frantically trying to keep their boats afloat, bailing with their helmets.” Some vessels were so full of dead and wounded that they drifted aimlessly downstream.
Lieutenant Patrick Mulloy, an engineer platoon leader who had fought at Anzio, thought the fire was the thickest he had ever experienced. He carried a .45-caliber pistol holstered across his torso, and at one point, “something smacked into my side.” At first he thought he was hit, but instead the bullet had torn away his holster and left him only grazed. As Pfc. Leonard Tremble’s boat neared the shore, a burst of small-arms and mortar fire swept through the vessel, hitting several men and badly wounding him. “I was hit in the face, left shoulder, left leg, and compound fracture of the right arm,” he said. All he could think about was bleeding to death. He lay down in the now drifting boat and waited for help. Nearby, Pfc. Herbert Keith, an engineer, was paddling when he saw his buddy Private Herbert Wendland get hit, slump over and die. Keith, who had planned to sit in that very spot but had found a different place instead, was now consumed with guilt. “I kept thinking that would have been me sitting there,” Keith later said. “Before we got to the beach [north bank], this thing whacked me on the back and sent me sprawling to the bottom of the boat.” A 20mm shell had clipped his back and gashed it open, but the round had not exploded.
About 20 yards away from the north bank another boat was hit by a mortar shell, pitching everyone aboard forward, capsizing it. Cursing, spitting and dog-paddling, the wet troopers made it to shore as best they could. Private Joseph Jedlicka, loaded down with a BAR and two belts of oversize magazines, sank to the bottom of the river, underneath about 8 feet of water. Instead of trying to swim, he simply held his breath and walked on all fours to the north bank. His commanding officer, Lieutenant Ernest Murphy, saw Jedlicka emerge from the water. To Murphy the BAR man seemed like a wayward child. “Get out of the water,” Murphy said. “This is no time to be playing around.”
“Well, L-T,” Jedlicka replied, “I can’t swim, and I had to crawl on the bottom.” In spite of the seriousness of the situation, the lieutenant and the other soaked members of the boat team laughed.
By the most generous estimate only 13 of the boats were still in usable condition by the time they made it to the shore. The boats landed unevenly, in chaotic clumps. Fortunately, the muddy, sandy soil led to a small embankment that offered some semblance of welcome cover, at least from those Germans who were shooting from the positions along the dike and the fort. The exhausted troopers hopped out of their boats, gathered their weapons and staggered up the beach to the embankment.
In the meantime, within only a minute or two of landing, groups of unscathed soldiers—along with men who were hit but could still fight— got up and began moving over the embankment to the open ground that led to the dike. Here and there they encountered German trenches and killed a few enemy soldiers. “[We] continued through the trenches on the run, finding them generally deserted except for a few Germans who were killed, most of whom were huddled in dugouts, seeking protection from the heavy [supporting] fire from the south bank,” Captain Carl Kappel wrote.
The fire originating from the dike road was withering. Anyone who lingered, even for a moment, risked getting riddled with bullets. Everyone was intent now, to the point of obsession, on traversing the deadly open ground and overwhelming the Germans at the dike. “The only thing to do was head for the dike, because there wasn’t a bit of cover anywhere else or anything,” Lieutenant Thomas Pitt, the battalion personnel officer, later said. Almost as one they rose up and ran along the open ground. They advanced in rushes, by leaps and bounds. One ragged group would go to ground and provide fire support for another that was running straight at the Germans. Then that group would flop down and support the next one and so on, just as they had been trained. The men howled, cursed and fired their weapons from the hip.
Pfc. Lawrence Dunlop supported the audacious attack by practically leaning on the trigger of his .30-caliber machine gun. “I think I was actually gleaming, licking my chops,” he later admitted. “We were a bloodthirsty bunch.” Indeed they were. All the pent-up fear and frustration of the river crossing now vented itself in a bloodlust for killing. The average trooper was not thinking so much of the group mission as a hunger for revenge against the enemy soldiers who had shot at them so mercilessly while they were vulnerable in their boats. For them it was payback time. “All of the fear of the last 15 or 20 minutes seemed to leave me,” Fuller said, “to be replaced by a surge of reckless abandon. I felt as though I could lick the whole German army.” Most of the others felt the same way. As paratroopers they were inclined to be aggressive, perhaps even reckless. Now, under the extreme stress of the situation, they had become ruthless killing machines. Keep later described them as “fanatics rendered crazy by rage and the lust for killing, men who temporarily forgot the meaning of fear. It is in such moments that great feats of history occur.”
There was no cover to be had, no middle course of action to take. They would either make it forward and kill their enemies, or they would die. Leading one group, Burriss somehow kept going unscathed in the face of intense machine-gun fire. “Men began to drop on both sides of me,” he wrote, “some grabbing their legs or shoulders and others falling like sacks of sand.” Those who were wounded crawled back to the river’s edge. Others kept moving. Most made it across the open ground in a matter of a few minutes. Burriss and a few others got to the leeward side of the dike and hit the ground. From here the Germans on the other side could only fire over their heads. The Americans pitched grenades at the German-held side. After the grenades exploded, the troopers stood up, leaned over the dike and shot anyone they could see.
Some of the enemy soldiers raised their hands and attempted to surrender. The Americans did not let them. “It was too late,” Burriss admitted. “Our men, in a frenzy of the wholesale slaughter of their buddies, continued to fire until every German on the dike lay dead or dying.” In another spot Lieutenant Richard LaRiviere and several men encountered a group of 30 or 40 who tried to give up (“ordinary run-of-the-mill soldiers,” in the lieutenant’s recollection). The Americans simply shot them all down.
In most cases, though, the Germans resisted to the end. The fighting was at close range, so close that the antagonists could clearly see the facial features of their enemies. Just as Lieutenant Virgil Carmichael made it to the dike, a BAR man alongside of him was crossing the dike road. A nearby German machine gunner spotted him and opened up. The burst of bullets swept through the BAR man’s helmet, “and he came turning back with his brains shot out.” The Americans pitched grenades into the machine gunner’s hole, killing him.
Gradually, as German resistance along the dike petered out, the surviving groups of Americans turned right and began making their way along the road, toward the bridges. “The attack…developed into a series of daring small-unit actions of individuals from different squads and platoons,” Megellas commented. “Ahead of my men and me were open fields, orchards and a scattering of farmhouses and barns,” and then Fort Hof van Holland.
John C. McManus is professor of U.S. military history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. He is the author of American Courage, American Carnage (2009) and the two-volume history The 7th Infantry Regiment (2008). McManus is the 7th U.S. Infantry’s official historian.
All text excerpted from September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far, by John C. McManus. Published by Arrangement with NAL Caliber, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © John McManus, 2012.