|Following lessons learned in Normandy, General Maxwell Taylor insisted that his men be landed in Holland with a high degree of concentration. The daylight operation enabled troop carrier pilots to drop the 101st closer to their intended landing zones and allowed the paratroopers and glidermen to consolidate more quickly after arriving, as the general had wished. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)|
In broad daylight the three parachute infantry regiments of the 101st Airborne Division descended with amazing accuracy on designated drop zones in Nazi-occupied Holland. It was September 17, 1944, and the Screaming Eagles were to play a vital role in Operation Market-Garden. Once the Allied armies had broken out of their D-Day beachhead and through the bocage, or hedgerow country, of France, they advanced rapidly. Disorganized German units retreated before them.
Fixed fortifications, known as the Siegfried Line or West Wall, barred a direct strike into Germany itself. In the northern area of Allied operations, British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery had devised an ambitious plan to outflank the Siegfried Line and facilitate a drive directly into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany. Montgomery’s plan relied on the First Allied Airborne Army, of which the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, including the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions, was a part. The commander of this army was Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton.
The U.S. airborne troops, who had participated in the D-Day operations, had been resting and absorbing replacements in England since mid-July. For Market-Garden, it was hoped that the Americans, along with the British 1st Airborne Division, would launch a bold strike across the Maas, Waal and Neder Rijn (Rhine) rivers in Holland that would pave the way for ground troops to advance swiftly into Germany and end the war by Christmas of 1944.
Key to the success of Montgomery’s plan would be the seizure of bridges across rivers and adjacent canals by the airborne troops and swift movement of ground forces up a single highway, spanning roughly 60 miles from the Allied lines in Belgium to the Dutch town of Arnhem. The troops would hold the bridges until relief appeared in the form of the British XXX Corps charging down the single road, crossing the bridges successively and arriving at Arnhem as the vanguard of a larger force pushing southeast into Germany.
The 101st would secure the southernmost bridges, including one over the Wilhelmina Canal at the town of Son, a pair spanning the Dommel River at St. Oedenrode and then four more over the Aar River near the town of Veghel. Eindhoven was also to be captured while the men of the 101st held open 15 miles of the road toward Arnhem for the XXX Corps’ use. By the end of their service in Market-Garden, the men of the 101st would refer to this stretch of road as ‘Hell’s Highway.’ Farther north, the 82nd Airborne was ordered to capture the bridge at Grave, the longest in Europe. The 82nd would also take one or more of the four bridges across the Maas-Waal Canal, another bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen and the area around the town of Groesbeek. The final leg of the XXX Corps’ drive involved a dash from Nijmegen to Arnhem, where the British 1st Airborne was to capture and hold three bridges across the Rhine.
Had Market-Garden succeeded, the war might indeed have been shortened. As it turned out, elements of two SS panzer divisions, the 9th and 10th, had been ordered to the vicinity of the Allied thrust to rest and refit in the days immediately prior to the start of the operation. Also, by coincidence, while Market-Garden was getting underway, the German 59th and 245th Infantry divisions were in transit from the area of the German Fifteenth Army to that of the First Parachute Army–right in the operation’s path.
Intelligence that indicated strong concentrations of German forces in the proposed area of operations appears to have been ignored by planners. Due to stiff resistance, Operation Market-Garden was doomed to failure. The 1st Airborne fought an epic battle for 10 days in and around Arnhem, but of the nearly 10,000 British paratroopers who participated, just over 2,000 escaped death or captivity.
On the afternoon of September 17, the 101st executed a nearly flawless airdrop. All but two of its battalions were delivered to their correct drop zones. Unlike what had happened in the D-Day drops, the transport pilots held their planes steady and on course through anti-aircraft fire rather than taking evasive action that could have scattered the troops. Most units assembled and moved toward their objectives shortly after landing.
Dropping near Son, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Robert F. Sink, was to capture a bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal and then advance south to Eindhoven. The 502nd, commanded by Colonel John H. Michaelis, would establish a perimeter around its drop zone just north of the 506th so that it could later be used as a glider landing zone. It was then to capture a bridge over the Dommel and take bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal near the town of Best. The 501st, under Colonel Howard R. Johnson, was still farther north, where the regiment was instructed to take both road and rail bridges on the Willems Canal and the Aar River near the town of Veghel.
|Douglas C-47 transports line up to receive Allied paratroopers for the jump, and fly toward their targets during what was called one of the division’s most successful landings. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)|
The 501st, including its 1st Battalion, which had been dropped in the wrong place, made rapid progress toward its objectives. Lieutenant Colonel Harry W.O. Kinnard, commander of the battalion, gathered his forces and set out in the direction of Veghel. Some of Kinnard’s men commandeered bicycles and trucks, leading the rest of the battalion toward the bridges. When Kinnard arrived on the outskirts of Veghel, his troopers had already taken the railroad bridge over the Aar River. The 3rd Battalion took the town of Eerde and cut the Veghel–St. Oedenrode highway, safeguarding the regiment’s rear. Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion seized three bridges at Veghel.
The 501st secured all of its September 17 objectives in about three hours, capturing 50 prisoners in the process. In his haste to move toward Veghel, however, Kinnard was unable to transport all of his battalion’s equipment. He had left 46 men under the command of Captain W.S. Burd to bring this equipment, along with those paratroopers injured in the jump, forward at a slower pace. Burd’s detachment was attacked by a strong force of Germans and pushed back to a single building. When word of Burd’s plight reached Kinnard, Johnson allowed him to send a platoon to the rescue. The attempt failed, and Burd’s group was captured.
The other unit dropped out of its prescribed zone was the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Regiment. Nevertheless, that battalion, under Lt. Col. Patrick F. Cassidy, took St. Oedenrode, which commanded a major highway and a bridge over the Dommel. The 1st’s men killed 20 Germans and captured 58 in the process.
Major General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st, wanted to capture rail and highway bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal near Best. Those bridges did not sit directly along the line of advance of the XXX Corps, but Taylor felt that their possession would strengthen his position and provide another route if the road through Son were cut.
The 502nd’s Company H drew the assignment of taking the bridges and soon ran into strong opposition. Its commander, Captain Robert E. Jones, dispatched a patrol toward the bridges. Led by Lieutenant Edward L. Wierzbowski, this group came within sight of the highway bridge but was forced to dig in, its strength reduced to only three officers and 15 men. Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole, who earned the Medal of Honor in Normandy, commanded the 3rd Battalion, 502nd. He started out with the rest of his battalion to find Captain Jones and Company H at 1800 hours on the 17th, but his effort to link up was thwarted by darkness. The fight for Best would ultimately require a much larger force, including British tanks and at least two more battalions, to secure the area during the next two days. Private First Class Joe E. Mann would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on September 19–he died after being shot by a German sniper. General Taylor moved ahead with the 1st Battalion, 506th, south of Son, approaching the Wilhelmina Canal road bridge from the west. Just south of the town, below the Zonsche Forest, 88mm guns began shelling the Americans. The other two battalions of the 506th, commanded by Colonel Sink, came under fire from additional 88s.
Don Burgett, a member of the 1st Battalion, remembered the vicious fight for Son. ‘We organized and we began to charge the guns,’ he recalled. ‘The only way we were going to survive was to knock out the 88s even though a lot of us were going to die trying to do it. As we were running toward them, they fired at us at point-blank range. We overran their positions. There were several 88s. They were sandbagged and dug in and used for anti-aircraft. A trooper from D Company got in close enough and fired a bazooka and knocked out one of the guns.’
Both groups from the 506th then moved toward the bridge. ‘We overran the 88s, took the German gunners prisoner, and someone said, ‘Let’s take the bridge,” continued Burgett. ‘We started to run toward the bridge. We were within yards of the bridge when the Germans blew it up. It went off with quite a force….We hit the ground. I rolled over on my back because everything got real quiet, and I saw the debris in the air. I remember seeing this tiny straw that was turning slowly, way up in the air, and as it hit its maximum trajectory and started to come down, it became larger and larger. About halfway down we realized the size of this thing. It was probably about 2 feet wide and 40 feet long. There was no place to run. When it hit the ground, the ground shook like jello.’
With the Son bridge in ruins, the effort to capture Eindhoven slowed. However, the XXX Corps halted that evening at Valkenswaard, six miles away. By the time the XXX Corps arrived at Eindhoven the next day, the town was in the hands of the 101st. As night fell on the 17th, the 101st controlled Veghel, St. Oedenrode and Son. Although the 502nd had encountered battle-toughened German troops around Best, the objective there was secondary. In a few hours, the 101st would have its stretch of Hell’s Highway completely open.
Almost from the beginning, jubilant Dutch civilians had welcomed the Allied paratroopers as liberators. Early on the morning of September 18, the 506th destroyed a pair of 88s and pushed into Eindhoven. While throngs of citizens welcomed them, the paratroopers disarmed a handful of Germans. As the townspeople erupted in celebration, one American officer remembered: ‘The reception was terrific. The air seemed to reek with hate for the Germans….’
Finally, at 1700 hours that evening, the leading elements of the XXX Corps rumbled through Eindhoven virtually without stopping. At Son, Canadian engineers, who had been notified that the existing bridge had been destroyed, worked throughout the night to deploy a prefabricated Bailey bridge. At 0645 on the 19th, 33 hours behind schedule, the tanks of the XXX Corps rumbled over the Wilhelmina Canal.
|Not all members of the 101st arrived in Holland by parachute; many, including these men from the divisional headquarters company, landed via glider. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)|
By the morning of September 19, the XXX Corps had crossed the Willems Canal and the Aar River at Veghel and was moving into the 82nd Airborne’s zone. While the 82nd had been successful in achieving most of its goals, the Germans still held the bridge across the Waal at Nijmegen. It was captured with a herculean effort on the afternoon of the 20th, but the armored ‘cavalry’ did not cross the Waal until the 21st. Time was running out for the heroic British paratroopers at Arnhem.
In the 101st’s sector, the primary job became holding the narrow corridor of hope open against repeated enemy counterattacks. While Allied armor was advancing northward, it was vital to keep the road open to facilitate the flow of troops and supplies. The Germans, however, fought back viciously against the 101st’s defensive positions around Eindhoven, Son, St. Oedenrode and Veghel. General Taylor likened the action to the bushwhacking style of fighting between small garrisons of troops and Indians in the American West. The Germans would attack, cut the road and then be driven back by the troopers of the 101st.
On the 22nd, the Germans mounted a counterattack against Veghel supported by heavy artillery and aircraft. The attack was not beaten back until two days later. ‘It was a very depressing atmosphere listening to the civilians moan, shriek, sing hymns and say their prayers,’ wrote Daniel Kenyon Webster of the 506th’s Company E, remembering the rain of artillery. He and Private Don Wiseman dug a deep foxhole. ‘Wiseman and I sat in our corners and cursed,’ Webster continued. ‘Every time we heard a shell come over, we closed our eyes and put our heads between our legs. Every time the shells went off, we looked up and grinned at each other.’
On September 24, the Germans ravaged a British column on Hell’s Highway at Koevering. Burgett remembered: ‘The Germans brought up some 40mm cannons and they had some self-propelled guns, and they shot up the British who were lined up on the side of the road…brewing tea in those five-gallon tins, and the Germans just opened up on them. They killed over 300. ‘When we got down to Koevering, the trucks were still burning,’ continued Burgett. ‘We went into the attack immediately. I remember we killed two Germans in a haystack. Then we made an attack west across the road at a farmhouse. The farmhouse was set on fire. We went into the German side, and we drove them back.’
Although it became apparent that Market-Garden was a strategic failure, the men of the 101st Airborne could say that they had done their part admirably. The northern flank of the Allied armies was extended 65 miles across two canals and the Maas and Waal rivers, while a considerable amount of Dutch territory had been freed from Nazi occupation. The division had killed many Germans and captured 3,511, while suffering 2,110 casualties itself.
Although most of the men of the 101st expected to be pulled out of the line at the end of September, the division was placed under the control of the British XII Corps on the 28th and transferred north to the front line in an area known as the Island, a 5-kilometer strip of land between the Neder Rijn and the Waal. Due to heavy demands for manpower, the British were pressed for troops, and both the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions found themselves in positions that resembled the trench lines of World War I. Occasionally, they experienced artillery duels between the Germans and the British and were involved in infantry clashes.
On the night of October 5, a platoon of the 506th’s Company E, supported by a detachment from Company F, mauled two companies of German SS troops attempting to infiltrate American lines in support of an attack by the 363rd Volksgrenadier Division. Captain (later Major) Richard Winters, Company E’s commander, led his 35 men brilliantly, demonstrating great bravery and coolness under fire.
Moving along a road adjacent to a dike near the banks of the Neder Rijn, Winters shot a German who was only three yards away and then opened up on a mass of enemy troops. ‘The movements of the Germans seemed to be unreal to me,’ he reflected. ‘When they rose up, it seemed to be so slow. When they turned to look over their shoulders at me, it was in slow motion. When they started to raise their rifles to fire at me, it was in slow, slow motion. I emptied the first clip [eight rounds] and, still standing in the middle of the road, put in a second clip and, still shooting from the hip, emptied that clip into the mass.’
Winters remembered that action as the ‘highlight of all E Company actions for the entire war, even better than D-Day, because it demonstrated Easy’s overall superiority in every phase of infantry tactics: patrol, defense, attack under a base of fire, withdrawal, and above all, superior marksmanship with rifles, machine gun and mortar fire.’
The 101st held its positions on the Island until late November, when it was withdrawn to Camp Mourmelon, outside the French village of Mourmelon-le-Grand. From the Market-Garden drop until its last troopers were relieved, the division had spent 72 days in combat zones. In the defensive fighting at the Island, it suffered 1,682 casualties.
The men of the 101st experienced combat for the first time on D-Day. They had fought gallantly as veterans in Holland. But their sternest test and their finest hour were yet to come, at the Belgian crossroads town of Bastogne.
This article was written by Michael Haskew and originally appeared in World War II‘s 2004 Special Collector’s Edition of issue of Band of Brothers.
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