- Historic Sites
Hell’s Highway To Arnhem
Operation Market-Garden promised to lay an airborne red carpet to victory.
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
The chief topic of conversation on the third day of battle, Tuesday, September 19, was the weather. A glider pilot complained of fog so thick that he could see “only three feet of towrope” in front of him. Less than two thirds of the reinforcements and supplies due the ioist arrived, and only a quarter of the Sand’s. A resupply effort at Arnhem was a disaster. Model’s troops had finally driven the Red Devils from the drop zones, and a glider pilot on the ground watched in anguish as the C-4/s came in and the flak caught them. “They were so helpless! I have never seen anything to illustrate the word ‘helpless’ more horribly,” he recalled. Over 90 per cent of the parachuted supplies fell into enemy hands.
As viewed by a Red Devil in the rear ranks, the situation at Arnhem “was a bloody shambles.” The bad weather scrubbed the scheduled drop of the Polish brigade at the south end of the bridge. Every effort to break through to Colonel Frost’s battalion failed. Toward evening, in the rain, several German Tiger tanks approached the British bridgehead. To Frost the Tigers looked “like some prehistoric monsters as their great guns swung from side to side breathing flame.… We drove these monsters back, but … as we prepared for yet another night Arnhem was burning.”
Guards Armoured tanks made good progress during the day, jumping off from the new Bailey bridge at Zon at dawn, linking up with Gavin’s 82nd Airborne, and reaching the outskirts of Nijmegen by early afternoon. Horrocks met with Gavin and Browning to work out a combined assault on the Nijmegen bridge. Time was a critical factor: the ground forces were now more than thirty-three hours behind the operation’s schedule.
The third attack on the Nijmegen bridge jumped off at 3 P.M. Gavin could spare only a battalion from his hardpressed forces on Groesbeek Ridge. The British contributed an infantry company and a tank battalion. A smaller force of paratroopers and tanks moved against a railroad bridge downstream.
This latter column fought its way through Nijmegen’s streets to within five hundred yards of the railroad bridge before it was halted by heavy enemy fire. Every effort to advance farther was stymied, and when an 88 knocked out one of the British tanks, the attackers withdrew.
Meanwhile, the battle for Hunner Park guarding the highway bridge reached its crescendo. Horrocks’ tanks had little maneuvering room in the narrow streets, and four of them were set ablaze by antitank fire. The German gunners kept the foot soldiers pinned down. In desperation, paratroopers attempted to advance along rooftops and through buildings, knocking out the connecting walls with explosives. But the enemy fire was too heavy and too well directed. As darkness fell, the third assault on the Nijmegen bridge sputtered out.
News from the loist’s sector to the south was ominous. Student was moving up powerful forces to try to cut Hell’s Highway behind Horrocks’ armored spearhead. In the late afternoon a squadron of Panther tanks broke through to the road and shot up a British truck convoy. General Taylor himself led a pickup force against the interlopers, and with their single antitank gun they knocked out two Panthers and drove off the rest.
That night the Luftwaffe made a devastating raid on Allied-held Eindhoven. “Half a dozen trucks carrying shells were hit directly,” reported war correspondent Alan Moorehead, “and at once the shells were detonated and began to add a spasmodic stream of horizontal fire to the bombs which were now falling at a steady rhythm every minute. Presently a number of petrol lorries took fire as well. … In the morning one saw with wonder how much of bright Eindhoven was in ruins …”
On Wednesday, September 20, the Market-Garden planners expected the Second Army’s tanks to be rolling toward the Zuider Zee. Instead they were stymied at Nijmegen. The bombing of Eindhoven and the German shelling of Hell’s Highway were having their effects. Ammunition and reinforcements were held up, and the assault boats needed for a new attack on the Nijmegen bridge were delayed almost eight hours. While they waited for the boats, the 82nd Airborne and the Guards Armoured whittled away at the bridge defenses and fought off savage enemy attacks on Groesbeek Ridge. Finally, in midafternoon, the assault boats arrived.
Gavin’s plan was to force a crossing a mile downstream from the railroad bridge and take the defenders of both the railroad and highway bridges in the rear. A battalion of paratroopers of the 504th Regiment, commanded by Major Julian A. Cook, was picked to make the crossing. In concert with the amphibious attack, Gavin and Horrocks would hurl every man and tank they could lay their hands on against the southern approach to the highway bridge. H-hour was set for 3 P.M.