Hell’s Highway To Arnhem

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The mission of Maxwell Taylor’s ioist Airborne was a drop near Eindhoven to seize that city and key river and canal bridges. Farther along the road to Arnhem would beJamesGavin’s 82nd Airborne, assigned the big bridges over the Maas at Grave and over the Waal at Nijmegen, plus a ridge line to the east that dominated both bridges. The farthermost objective, the bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, was allotted to Robert E. Urquhart’s ist British Airborne, assisted by a brigade of Polish paratroops.

In tactical command was British Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, dapper and brusque, the husband of novelist Daphne du Maurier. Browning had his reservations about the operation. Montgomery assured him he had to hold the Arnhem airhead only two days. “We can hold it for four,” Browning replied. “But I think we might be going a bridge too far.”

The ground forces, led by the Guards Armoured Division of the British Second Army, were to begin their northward push as the airdrop began. In command was Brian Horrocks, tall and white-haired and with something of the manner of a Biblical prophet about him. He had served Montgomery in North Africa and was both energetic and capable. Unlike Browning, Horrocks radiated optimism about the speed his forces would make. “You’ll be landing on top of our heads,” he warned the paratroops in mock seriousness.

Market-Garden lacked the “tidiness”—a substantial margin of superiority—that Montgomery usually demanded in an operation. There were few reserves in case of trouble and, with Patton embroiling the Third Army in battle to the south to keep his supplies coming, only minimum supporting stocks of gasoline and ammunition. Nevertheless, the plan was bold and imaginative; if the Germans were indeed on the brink of collapse, a victory at Arnhem just might provide the extra shove to keep the pursuit rolling and measurably shorten the war.

The opening phase of the largest airborne operation in history was, in the words of an RAF pilot, “a piece of cake.” D-day, September 17, 1944, was clear and windless, ideal for an airdrop. Shortly before 1 P.M. —following a softening-up of German defenses by 1,400 Allied bombers—some 1,400 transport planes and 425 gliders, plus swarms of escorting fighters, blackened the skies over Holland.

Edward R. Murrow had wangled a place in one of the 101st Airborne’s C-47’s to make a recording of his impressions for CBS Radio. “Now every man is out …,” Murrow reported. “I can see their chutes going down now … they’re dropping beside the little windmill near a church, hanging there, very gracefully, and seem to be completely relaxed, like nothing so much as khaki dolls hanging beneath green lampshades.… The whole sky is filled with parachutes.”

On the ground below, a few miles from the loist’s drop zones, German General Kurt Student watched the sight with frank envy. Student was a pioneer of airborne warfare who had led the aerial assaults on Rotterdam and Crete. “How I wish that I had ever had such a powerful force,” he remarked wistfully to an aide. Dutch civilians returning from church cheered the awesome sight. As the paratroopers landed, the Dutch rushed out to meet them with offers of food from their Sunday tables.

Max Taylor’s 101st Airborne in the Eindhoven sector had been assigned the longest stretch of the Arnhem road—soon to be christened Hell’s Highway. Meeting little opposition, Taylor’s units formed up and seized their objectives one after another. However, as they approached the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Zon, a few miles north of Eindhoven, they were pinned down by the accurate fire of a pair of German 88-mm guns in a nearby forest. The 88’s were finally destroyed by bazooka fire, but the delay was costly. As the paratroopers tried to rush the Zon bridge, it was blown up in their faces.

Farther up Hell’s Highway Jim Gavin’s Sand Airborne was also finding both success and frustration. The Band’s assault on the long, nine-span bridge over the Maas River at Grave was the most neatly executed strike of the day. Paratroopers landed close to both ends of the bridge. Using irrigation ditches as cover from the fire of a flak tower guarding the bridge, Gavin’s men worked their way to within bazooka range. Two rounds silenced the flak tower, and they rushed the bridge and cut the demolition wires. A second key bridge, over the MaasWaal Canal, was taken in much the same manner. Gavin’s two regiments that dropped astride the dominating heights of Groesbeek Ridge southeast of Nijmegen dug themselves in securely on the wooded slopes.

The frustration came at 8 P.M. when, with the division’s three primary objectives in the bag, a battalion of the 508th Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Shields Warren made a dash into Nijmegen to try for the big highway bridge across the Waal. It ran head-on into a newly arrived battalion of the gth SS Panzer Division. There was a sharp clash in the growing darkness. Warren’s men gained the building housing the controls for the demolition charges on the bridge, but the superior firepower of the Panzers drove them away from the span itself.