Hell’s Highway To Arnhem

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The Red Devils of the ist British Airborne executed an almost perfect drop at Arnhem on D-day. It was here, however, that a serious tactical error on the part of Market-Garden’s planners caught up with them. The drop zones were six to eight miles west of the city. The need to hold the drop zones for later reinforcements—there were too few aircraft to deliver the full strength of any of the divisions in the D-day lift—meant that General Urquhart could spare but a single battalion to go after the bridge in Arnhem.

That evening five hundred men under Colonel John Frost slipped into the city along an unguarded road and seized the north end of the bridge. At almost the same moment that the 9th SS Panzer was halting Gavin’s bid for the Nijmegen bridge, another unit of the same division arrived in time to prevent Frost’s men from crossing the Arnhem bridge and taking its southern approach. A second battalion sent to aid Frost was cut off by the Germans on the outskirts of Arnhem.

All in all, the airborne situation at the end of D-day was reasonably satisfactory. Montgomery’s red carpet was twenty thousand men strong. The landings had been unexpectedly easy, the easiest in fact that any of the divisions had ever made, in combat or in training. Except for the blown bridge at Zon and the failure of Gavin’s coup de main at the Nijmegen bridge, all objectives had been taken or, as at Arnhem, at least denied to the enemy.

The progress of the ground forces was less satisfactory, for the German crust beyond the Meuse-Escaut Canal was thicker and tougher than Allied intelligence had predicted. General Horrocks was forced by the marshy terrain to attack on the narrowest of fronts—the forty-foot width of Hell’s Highway. His armor was immediately in trouble. Concealed antitank guns knocked out eight of the Guards Armoured’s tanks in rapid succession. Infantry finally flushed the enemy from the woods on the flanks, but it was slow work.

Supported by rocket-firing Typhoon fighter bombers, the Guards battered their way forward, greeted in every village by the cheering Dutch. Portraits of Princess Juliana appeared magically in shop windows. But by nightfall the armored column was still a half dozen miles short of Eindhoven and a linkup with the ioist Airborne.

Heavy rain fell during the night, and in the morning of D-day plus 1—Monday, September 18—there were thick clouds over the Continent and fog over the Allied airfields in England, delaying the second day’s lift of glider infantry and supplies. By noon the 101st’s paratroopers had liberated Eindhoven, but not until seven that evening did the Guards Armoured link up with them. British engineers went to work building a prefabricated Bailey bridge to replace the blown canal bridge at Zon.

Model and Student began to put in counterattacks. Soon the two American divisions were embroiled in what Max Taylor characterized as “Indian fighting.” The fourteen thousand U.S. paratroopers had to control over forty miles of Hell’s Highway, which meant a constant scurrying from one threatened sector to another. An example was the fight for the big bridge at Nijmegen. This span was fast becoming the key to the whole MarketGarden operation, and both sides knew it.

The bridge across the Waal in Nijmegen was well over a mile long, with a high, arching center span. Five streets cut through a heavily built-up section of the city to converge on a traffic circle near the bridge’s southern entrance. Between the traffic circle and the bridge was a large wooded common known as Hunner Park, where elements of the gth and ioth SS Panzer divisions had dug in automatic weapons, mortars, self-propelled guns, and at least one of the deadly 88’s. Their fire was directed from a massive stone tower in the center of the park.

Just after dawn 82nd Division paratroopers deployed for their second attack on the bridge. The heavy-caliber German fire quickly drove them from the streets. Advancing through alleys and from doorway to doorway, the Americans worked their way to within a block of the traffic circle. That was as far as they got: reinforcements slated for the bridge attack had to turn back to meet a German thrust threatening to overrun the landing zones south of the city where gliders carrying Gavin’s artillery battalions were scheduled to land at any minute. The thrust was beaten off and the gliders landed safely—but the Nijmegen bridge remained in German hands.

A planned night attack on Hunner Park was cancelled by General Browning, who was disturbed by reports of a German buildup in front of Groesbeek Ridge to the southeast. If the Germans ever drove the thin line of paratroopers from the ridge, their guns would control both the Maas and Waal bridges, ending any chance of Market-Garden’s success.

Colonel Frost’s British troopers continued to cling to the north end of the Arnhem bridge, but the enemy repulsed every effort to reinforce the tiny bridgehead. The rest of the Red Devils were besieged at their landing zones west of the city. Communications had completely broken down. The first news from Arnhem was a clandestine telephone call placed by the Dutch underground. Recorded in an Sand Division intelligence journal, the message was brief and blunt: “Dutch report Germans winning over British at Arnhem.”