The 73-day battle of ‘Hell’s Highway was perhaps the most savagely fought single action in the history of the U.S. Army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions — and the least publicized. It is the story of a road, its bridges, and the men who fought and died to keep it open.
For the airborne troops fortunate enough to return from the assault on Normandy, the rear bases in England were utopia. Most of their buddies had come out on stretchers or were interred in the fertile soil of the French coast. The 82nd and 101st were well known to the British, who realized the sacrifices they had made in Normandy and responded to the survivors with kindness and respect. The troopers were glad to find people they could understand and, after a few days, they swarmed over the island on passes to London, Scotland and the familiar towns they had known before the invasion.
Once the divisions returned to their bases, the re-equipping, reorganizing and training began. All weapons were fired on the range: carbines, M-Is, submachine guns and Colt 45s. New equipment and men joined the units. It was a summer of alerts and dry runs. Troops received rehearsal briefings and assault equipment three times before being moved to a marshaling area. On September 11, 1944 (six days before the invasion of Holland), the unit commanders of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions received a briefing on their next parachute assault operation.
The code name of the mission was Operation Market Garden. Early in the hectic week of planning, from September 10 to September 17, Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, made one bold decision that changed the whole character of the operation. It would be a daylight jump. That was a gamble on Allied superiority in the air. The objective area was northeast of the major Belgian seaport of Antwerp. The airborne effort was designed to assist the advance of the British Second Army into Holland so it could attack eastward over the Neder Rhine River into Germany. It was essential that the British armor advance rapidly. The British would drop their 1st Airborne Division, assisted by a brigade of Polish paratroopers, at Arnhem on the other side of the Rhine. The decision on H-hour was to be made 72 hours after receipt of photographic intelligence.
The major advantage to be gained from the Market Garden operation was apparent. A thrust north across the Rhine River would flank the Siegfried Line and allow the Allies to launch armored assaults across the Westphalia Plain. The British Second Army was not capable of such an offensive at that time. Its supply lines stretched 250 miles from the Normandy ports. Antwerp had been captured but was not operating as an Allied port because German troops still dominated its approaches. All Second Army transport was being used at full capacity in order to sustain the fighting of one corps. General Bernard Montgomery insisted that airborne assistance was essential to the plan. The airborne would initiate the invasion and unroll a security carpet on the road before the advancing ground forces.
It was not a long road in comparison with some of the tremendous distances of the war, running 70 miles through Holland from the Belgian border north to Arnhem. The 101st sector was much shorter: 20 miles or less from Eindhoven through Zon and St. Oedenrode to Veghel. Twenty miles of road is more than a division is supposed to defend, especially when the road is a passageway inviting attack from both sides, a corridor that threatens to cut off a desperate enemy whose available resources of men and material were much greater than those of the Allied forces in Holland. The First Allied Airborne Army was to drop from the skies behind enemy lines and hold that corridor open at all costs. If Operation Market (the airborne part of the overall plan) was successful, the airborne would control the key bridges and strategic points and the British XXX Corps could roll in with maximum speed and complete the Garden (ground) phase of the operation. The British corps had to reach Arnhem in 48 hours, because airborne troops could not be expected to hold out longer than that without standard artillery, tanks and effective resupply.
Far to the north, where the road ran across the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, the British 1st Airborne Division was to drop. To the south, where the road crossed the Waal River at Nijmegen, the American 82nd was to hold. The 82nd, assisted by the Polish Parachute Brigade, was assigned the big bridges over the Maas River at Grave and over the Waal River at Nijmegen, plus a ridgeline to the east that dominated both bridges. The bridge at Nijmegen, well over a mile long, would become a key to the whole Market Garden operation. The 101st’s job was in the area behind the German front line at Eindhoven, running north through Zon to Uden. The division was to seize the rail and highway bridges over the Aa River and the Wilhelmina Canal at Zon, the Dommel River at Eindhoven and St. Oedenrode, and Zuit Willemsvaart Canal near Veghel. The troopers were to hold those towns and their crossings. That road later became known as Hell’s Highway.
The flat terrain offered a wide selection of drop zones. General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne, remembering how his forces were scattered all over Normandy during the D-Day drop, insisted on a high degree of concentration. The 506th and 502nd Parachute regiments were to come down on adjacent drop zones B and C northeast of Zon. The mission given to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of which I was a part, was to seize the Wilhelmina Canal bridge at Zon, then move south to take Eindhoven with its four highway bridges over the Dommel River.
The order of battle and points of departure for the 101st Airborne Division were as follows: from Aldermaston, 90 aircraft with the 501st Parachute Regiment less the 3rd Battalion; from Chilbolton, 45 aircraft with the 3rd Battalion of the 501st and 45 aircraft with the 3rd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Regiment, each battalion with a platoon of the 326th Parachute Engineers; from Membury, 90 aircraft with the 506th less the 3rd Battalion; from Welford, 45 aircraft with the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Parachute Regiment, 9 aircraft with the division headquarters; and from Grenham Common, 90 planes with the 502nd less the 1st Battalion.
On September 15, the troops were told they were going to pave the way for the British Second Army to cross the Rhine River. On the 16th briefings were held. Sand tables showing every feature of the terrain around the drop zones were set up in the war rooms. Men were issued two maps each, told everything there was to know about the mission, and given foreign currency and ammunition. The drop was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on September 17.
The largest airborne operation in history was about to begin. The atmosphere in the C-47 transport planes was tense. I had broken out in a cold sweat. I remembered well the hellfire of D-Day. It had looked like a Christmas tree that night over Normandy as I glanced out the aircraft door: tracers, small arms, flak and the thud of a crashing C-47. God help us if we were flying into another wall of fire, I thought. This time the skies were clear over the English Channel and the Continent as far as I could see, and the C-47s were holding pattern for the drop. Maybe we would make the right drop zone this time.
Taking off from the English airfields, the planes circled into formation and set out along the southern route over Belgium. So vast was the fleet of planes that while lead elements of the sky army were spilling from their aircraft over Dutch soil, the last echelons of the flight were taking off from their fields in England.
Swinging left at Bourg-Leopold, the planes went directly toward the front lines. As we neared the drop zone, the flak began to fly. Five minutes from the drop zone it was thick, but Allied fighters had been at work on the flak points. The flak opened up a few minutes before we reached the drop zones, and many sticks of paratroopers leaped from flaming transports, which were held steadily on course until the occupants were out. Later, the troopers lauded the courage of the pilots, who held their planes in formation and even lessened speed during the jump in spite of intense anti-aircraft fire.
In daylight, we were easier for Luftwaffe interceptors to find, but none came close. The daylight air gamble had paid off. There was no breaking of formation, no evasive action as there had been in Normandy. Even as motors started to burst into flame and wings began to break, pilots held their planes in place for the crucial seconds that gave the paratroopers a chance to jump at the assigned zones. Entire regiments came down in full view of each other. We landed close to our men and weapons. It was the most successful jump the division had ever made, either in training or in combat. Between 1 and 1:30 p.m., 6,769 men were placed in their correct drop zones with less than 2 percent casualties. That was the way a war should be fought! My whole attitude changed-temporarily.
After removing my parachute, I saw Major LaPrade, my battalion commander, and Colonel Sink, the regimental commander, at the checkpoint on the southern edge of the drop zone. They had previously agreed that, as quickly as possible, the paratroopers would be formed into 15-man groups, placed under an officer and hurried south to seize the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal. Timing was crucial in this part of the operation; minutes counted. I became part of the second group, led by Captain Mo Davis, commander of A Company. We moved on the double toward the bridge. About 200 yards out we received heavy German 88mm artillery fire, including flak that hit in the trees above us. We were forced to the ground, taking casualties from tree bursts. Davis was hit, and as his wound was being treated, the medic was also struck by a bullet. Davis said, You better hurry up, medic. They’re gaining on you.
It was Mo Davis’ third wound. He and I had come out of Normandy on stretchers, side by side on the same boat two days after our jump on June 5. In Normandy, he had been wounded in the chest and shoulder. We went to the same hospital and after a few days we raised enough hell to be released. I won’t forget Mo Davis. He was older, a big man, and his presence instilled confidence and determination in the company. As Davis was receiving treatment for his wound, a deafening explosion occurred at the canal bridge. I looked up and saw pieces of the bridge hurtling hundreds of feet into the air. I rushed on with my men and reached the canal in time to see three dazed German soldiers near the remains of the bridge, one of them with a hand-crank demolition detonator.
As we might have expected, the bridges had been previously prepared for demolition. The three German engineers had done their job well. The intermediate support structure was still intact, however, and our parachute Engineer Company went to work. In 1 1/2 hours they had rigged a footbridge. But a bridgehead on the Zon side of the canal was still the number one priority. Major LaPrade and two men swam the canal and someone silenced the 88s. When my group moved on, we stumbled onto some A Company men who had found a rowboat. We rowed across the canal as fast as possible. By then, a number of troops had reached the far side. In my opinion, the bridgehead was established. I took a few men and entered the southern section of the town. We clung close to the walls of the houses and moved about two blocks before stopping. I was really not a troop leader during this operation. My arm cast from the Normandy wound had only been off a few days. As a result, I had been given a staff job at battalion — which I viewed as a step down from the job of platoon leader. I spotted a radio operator, got on the battalion net, and asked Major LaPrade if he wanted me to establish a command post. When he agreed to my offer, I went ahead and set up in one of the houses. Within a few minutes, he reached the house I had selected, water still dripping from his clothes after his swim.
I heard a reconnaissance report over the radio that the two smaller bridges over the canal had been demolished several days earlier. The footbridge could allow only a few men to cross at a time. Getting the regiment across was painfully slow, dragging on through the evening until midnight.
We were supposed to have taken Eindhoven by 8 p.m. to assist the British in their breakthrough. Colonel Sink considered the possibility of making a night attack but decided it would be too risky when he heard a report that a German regiment had occupied the town. He hoped the blown bridge at Zon would not cause the operation to fail.
Sink’s fears were unnecessary. The British had run into heavy resistance and had moved only halfway to Eindhoven in the first day’s fighting. They stopped for the night to the south of the town. After the most perfect drop in history, the division had succeeded in seizing all its immediate objectives along the road. The blown bridge at Zon would delay the capture of Eindhoven, but it did not hold up the overall operation.
It rained during the night, but the second day of the operation dawned clear. Soon the two American divisions were embroiled in what General Taylor characterized as Indian fighting. The 14,000 U.S. paratroopers had to control over 40 miles of Hell’s Highway, which meant a constant scurrying from one threatened sector to another. At sunrise, Colonel Sink gave marching orders for the 506th. If you see any Germans, just let them filter through. We’ve got to get to Eindhoven this morning, and we can’t waste time killing Germans.
The 3rd Battalion led the way, and 600 yards beyond the line of departure the battalion encountered rifle and machine-gun fire. For about two miles, the 3rd Battalion butted its way through, either driving the enemy back with gunfire or eliminating them where they were. When it reached Eindhoven, the battalion came under direct fire from two 88s and mortars positioned in the main street, effectively stopping all movement. Colonel Sink flanked the guns from the left with the 2nd Battalion. A Dutchman joined the Americans and promised to lead them to the 88mm battery. Then a Dutch woman signaled from a window that some Germans were approaching. Eventually, with the help of the Dutch citizens, the guns were knocked out. In the process, the troopers took 31 prisoners, killed 13 Germans and suffered only two casualties.
Suddenly, the German resistance stopped — or at least it seemed so to me. Eindhoven was free, the first Dutch city to be liberated. Joyfully, its inhabitants crowded around the paratroopers and orange streamers appeared everywhere. The 506th Parachute Regiment made contact with the British XXX Corps at noon. The British were told to move their Bailey bridge unit to the head of the column because of the destruction of the Zon bridge. They were still five miles south of Eindhoven. At that time the 506th held the center of town and was sitting on the four bridges over the Dommel River. The Germans had stopped fighting in order to withdraw and avoid the night bombing of the city. It was a sad ending to a glorious day. The enemy bombers, unhampered by anti-aircraft fire, leisurely circled and bombed the central part of the city indiscriminately. We pulled women and children from their blazing homes and tried to remove the dying from the rubble. Eindhoven, a city of 130,000 suffered more than 1,000 civilian casualties that night, including 200 dead.
At 6:45 the following morning, the British Guards Armored Division thudded across the bridge. The 36 hours lost by the British armor may have been the main cause of the annihilation of the British airborne division that was trying to hold at Arnhem. British Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning of tactical command told General Montgomery before the operation, I think we may be going a bridge too far.
Meanwhile, the British 1st Airborne Division across the Lower Rhine River at Arnhem was desperate. The British had landed in an area where there were more German troops than in all the American areas to the south. The 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions were refitting in Arnhem and were deployed immediately against the British. German reinforcements came in faster than the British airborne reinforcements, which were delayed by bad weather. British supplies were accidentally paradropped into enemy hands, and they had not been able to seize the bridge that would give them contact with the south bank of the river.
The airborne landings in Holland did not come as a complete surprise to the German high command, whose members knew that the Allies had large numbers of airborne forces to be committed. The Germans, however, had expected the airborne landings to be close to a coastal area for easy link-up with amphibious force operations. They were mildly shocked by the events of September 17, but they immediately saw the significance of the Rhine crossing in the north and each day took more extensive countermeasures.
The airborne landings had been made in the sector of the First German Parachute Army, and that formidable force went into immediate action. On the second day an armored brigade and two Volksgrenadier divisions started for the corridor. The German strategy was to contain its base and cut the road as soon as possible.
The fourth day, Allied supplies were short and getting shorter. There was only a 30 percent recovery of the paradrop that day — no gas and only one meal for the troops. The fifth day was the same. Each trooper had jumped with one K and two D rations, which were already gone. Captured rations were used by those lucky enough to get them. No casualties were evacuated during the first three days because the roads were too crowded. On the morning of the fourth day, 30 ambulances and four 2 1/2-ton trucks took the division wounded through to the evac hospital in Belgium.
From the fourth day on, the 101st was aware that the Germans would attempt to cut the corridor, stop the flow of traffic and deal, at leisure, with the 82nd in Nijmegen and the British 1st in Arnhem. A battalion of the 82nd’s 504th Parachute Regiment, commanded by Major Julian A. Cook, had mounted four devastation attacks before raising the American flag on the north side of the Nijmegen bridge. The airborne divisions could not be everywhere. Some sections of road were completely unguarded. Tension mounted; when and where would the Germans strike?
On the sixth day of the operation we found out. The town of Veghel was to be the German objective because destruction of the bridges there would stop traffic for a long time. The Dutch underground had warned the Allied divisions that an eastern force of more than 400 vehicles was moving toward Veghel and a western force of five mobile guns was ready to strike. A ferocious battle developed in this area.
For the men of the 82nd in Nijmegen and the British 1st in Arnhem, cutting the road was like severing an artery. Food, ammunition and medical supplies all stopped arriving. The men of the 101st knew they had to open the road. That day saw a complete change in the disposition of the division, which began fighting along a solid front concentrating in St. Oedenrode and Veghel.
Down from the north came a stronger German force made up of three parachute battalions from the 1st and 6th Parachute regiments and a battalion from the Hermann Göring Division-all from the best of the Lufwaffe. The road was cut. During the night, the Americans attacked and reopened the road. It was cut again. Both sides were taking heavy casualties. The 101st fought the next two days trying to reopen the road.
My company fought beside the road from the ditches. There were times when German tanks passed us and did not know we were there. We would let them go unless we had a bazooka. Sometimes they were so close we could hear the Germans radio communications from inside the tanks. If German infantry was involved, it would be brought under fire immediately after passage of the tanks. If the tanks could locate our positions, it was tough on us, but they did not like to work without their infantry, so they would normally withdraw. (We put this experience to great use later in Bastogne.)
On October 3, my battalion was ordered forward to the town of Opheusden to take over a section of the front line from the British 43rd Division. By count, my battalion received the heaviest artillery barrages of the Holland campaign. I was in battalion headquarters in the center of town, and for 18 hours there was no respite from shelling. The 321st Field Artillery Battalion provided us support and fired 2,600 counter-battery rounds that day. The punishment was severe.
We were ordered to withdraw through the lines of the 3rd Battalion, which had established defensive positions 1,200 yards to the rear. Evacuation of the seriously wounded was a problem. There were 120 who had to be carried and more who could walk with assistance. They were lying in the basements of houses along the last street, hoping we could hold at least that much of the village. The regimental surgeon sent six jeeps in after dark, and they successfully evacuated 20 of the litter patients. Six captured Germans were used to carry out three more wounded, and the rest were evacuated using the seat carry method with the M-1 rifle, a painful process for many of the wounded.
About 4 o’clock that morning, we dropped from exhaustion in an open field. Sentries manned the perimeter. At dawn the sentries spotted movement across the field. When the sentries heard the troops speaking German, they opened fire. As we discovered, a German battalion had bivouacked in an adjoining field. Our battalion quickly moved into action. B Company circled left and brought flanking fire on the German unit, and our mortars zeroed in and fired several punishing concentrations. The Germans surrendered. We captured many more Germans that morning than we had men in the battalion. If they had known what they were up against, they probably wouldn’t have surrendered.
I was returning alone across the field when I saw the body of Sergeant Mullins. We had both been assigned to the regiment in the summer of 1942, and he had been my platoon sergeant for two years. We had trained our eight machine-gun squads together, taking them through jump school and jumping with them into Normandy. When I was wounded, I left the platoon, and I hadn’t seen him in several months. I had more respect for Mullins than any subordinate I had ever known. Mullins was a big man — over 6 feet, 200 pounds and not an ounce of fat. He was like a mother hen to our men and probably died trying to protect one of them. I closed his eyes, cried over his body and left him where he fell. I could do no more. The battalion, meanwhile, was marching toward Hell’s Highway and another battle. I ran to catch up with them.
Company C had lost all its officers. They had jumped in with 120 men; only 20 were left. I was sent down to take over the company, which made me the proud commander of two understrength squads.
During the remaining days of the operation, the British 1st Airborne Division suffered the fate that all paratroopers fear — the link-up force could not break through to them. With their backs to the river, the paratroopers were cut off and surrounded. The greatly superior German forces steadily pushed them back until the division was confined to a small perimeter west of Arnhem and north of the lower Rhine. Their continued resistance in that impossible situation is one of the most heroic in modern warfare. The Allied commanders decided that future resistance at Arnhem was not justified, and with a gallant effort, using canvas rafts and improvised floats, withdrew the survivors across the river at night. The British had taken 10,095 men north of the Lower Rhine — 3,490 came back after eight days of fighting.
There was no question that Operation Market Garden was a gallant failure. It had not placed the Allies across the Rhine, nor had it encircled the German armies in Holland. It had not bared the right flank of the Siegfried Line.
Though the operation as a whole was a failure, there were some gains. The Allies’ northern flank was advanced 65 miles over a series of rigid obstacles-specifically, two canals and two rivers. Large parts of Holland were liberated, making it possible for the strategic port of Antwerp to be reopened. After 10 days, the campaign became one of normal combat operations. The assault and counterattacks had drained the forces of both sides. The battle now was an anticlimax. The airborne forces assumed their mission of assault was over and that they would be withdrawn and outfitted for another parachute operation. But that did not happen. The British did not have sufficient forces to hold. The First Allied Airborne Army was not relieved until 71 days after it jumped into Holland.
General Brereton said of the operation: The 82nd and 101st divisions…accomplished every one of their objectives….In the years to come everyone will remember Arnhem, but no one will remember that two American divisions fought their hearts out in the Dutch canal country and whipped hell out of the Germans.
As my company rode through Veghel, Uden, and Eindhoven, the Dutch recognized the 101st Screaming Eagle shoulder patches on our uniforms. They also recognized the All American shoulder patch of the 82nd. They stopped repairing their damaged buildings and shouted September 17. The Dutch had not forgotten that the American and British airborne divisions were the first to free them.
This article was written by Retired Colonel William Wilson and originally appeared in the September 1994 issue of World War II. For further reading, see: A Bridge Too Far, by Cornelius Ryan; and The Epic of the 101st Airborne, by David J. Phillips. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!