Nijmegen: One More River

I

f the British column moving up from Eindhoven were to get help to Allied forces at Arnhem, it had to get across the bridge over the Waal River at Nijmegen. When it became obvious to Allied commanders that the Nijmegen bridge was not going to be taken away from the Germans without the bridge being destroyed, a plan was developed to get troops across the Waal by boat to attack German forces on the north side of the river.

The problems were both difficult and dangerous. The Nijmegen bridge, nearly a half-mile long, was defended by well-armed German forces on both the south and the north ends; others were on the structure. The plan called for an Allied attack on the both ends simultaneously to prevent the Germans on the south from withdrawing across the span and blowing the bridge. Included in this plan was the taking of a nearby railroad bridge. On the south would be British armor; on the north, troopers from the 82nd, who would have to row across the 400-yard-wide river in boats, under very heavy fire. The 82nd was shorthanded at this time, as weather had delayed the arrival of the 325th Glider Infantry. Moreover, because of the deteriorating situation in Arnhem, the crossing would have to be made immediately--in daylight.

On 19 September at 2100, General Gavin called the 50th Wing Glider Officer, Maj. Hugh Nevins, and told him to get 295 glider pilots lined up to take the places of the 504th troopers needed for the river crossing. The GPs, bivouacked near Groesbeek, were to go into the line on the Groesbeek Heights, which was under constant attack at the time. Most of the pilots were armed with nothing heavier than .45-cal. automatics or M-1 carbines; all were volunteers. The change took place around midnight of 19 September--two GPs into each foxhole, replacing two troopers. The glider pilots would not sleep for another 36 hours.

The pilots, though they were spared a frontal attack, were under steady fire from small arms, machine guns, and hourly attacks by mortars, 88s, and the “screaming mimis” (Nebelwerfers). However, according to Maj. Nevins, “The single most devastating ordeal was lack of sleep. . . [which was] really worse than the enemy fire.” In daylight on 21 September, Maj. Nevins was checking positions overlooking Mook when he spotted eight of the formidable Tiger tanks moving in on his lines from the Reichswald. The tanks, “looking like enormous crawling prehistoric monsters, were creaking up the railroad around our right flank. If they got behind us, they would slaughter us piecemeal. Over the field phone, I alerted battalion and division command posts, asking for anti-tank support as quickly as possible. I’m sure my voice was shaking.” Within minutes, two bazooka teams appeared and began to stalk the tanks. When they had crept up within less than fifty yards of the lead tanks, they cut loose and “literally detonated the first three tanks.” The others withdrew back into the woods. When the GPs were relieved, they had suffered 12 casualties, including two killed (Dank, a, 191-93).

The glider pilots were put on 26 empty trucks headed for Belgium, and evacuated on 24 September. In the 101st’s sector, just south of Veghel (see “The Unknown Hero,” the convoy was ambushed by Col. Freiherr von der Heydte’s 6th Parachute Regiment. Fortunately for the glider pilots in the convoy, the GP in charge, Capt. Elgin D. Andross, Group Glider Officer of the 313th, had previously served in the infantry. At considerable risk to his own life, Andross organized his troops, who eventually fought their way out of the ambush, killing over 100 German paratroopers. Thirteen glider pilots had been casualties, and three others were captured (Devlin, 274f).

Of the casualties, three were killed. One of these was combat veteran Dana Mudd, glider pilot of the 91st squadron (Dana performed the triple-loop of a CG-4A on the 439th’s Field Day, July 1944). After the war, Father John Whelan, 439th Chaplain, recalled his last conversation with Dana: “When I said goodbye to Dana Mudd on the mission to Holland, he seemed to know how close he was standing to eternity. He told me with a blithe spirit, which was his hallmark, that he did not expect to get by that one. And he didn’t” (Dank, c).

According to 82nd CG James Gavin, the river-crossing project was “risky. . . but something had to be done. I could not conceive of sitting on the southern bank with a regiment of infantry and the Guards Armored Division while Urquhart was destroyed eleven miles away.”

Before jump-off on the Waal River-crossing, to Gen. Gavin’s chagrin, he got word that both Mook and Beek were being overrun, and realized that he needed to get out to this area and get some help organized for those towns (see “439th Joins The Infantry,” in Into The Valley). On the other hand, Gavin knew that 504th PIR CO Col. Reuben Tucker was a “very competent battle commander,” and left Tucker in charge of the effort to take the Nijmegen Bridge. General Gavin, referring later to his division’s fighting in Holland, described the battle to cross the Waal River as “the most brilliant and spectacular battle of all” (Gavin, 172-77).

Manning the boats were the engineers of the 307th, some of whom rowed across the river several times (see story below). CBS war correspondent Bill Downs reported on the crossing: “A single isolated battle that ranks with Guam, Tarawa, Omaha Beach. A story that should be told to the blowing of bugles and the beating of drums for the men whose bravery made the capture of this crossing over the Waal possible” (82nd).

 

1st-Hand Accounts:  D-Day in Holland: War Diary  Airborne in Action  Nijmegen  Waal River Crossing  No Time to Die  Unknown Hero

Return to "From the Book"

 

 

Copyright © 2001-10 Charles D. Young. All rights reserved. 
Last modified: 16 Mar 2014