Waal River Crossing

307th Report of Action

The following is edited from the “Report of Action, 307 A/B Engr. Bn, to Commanding General, 82nd Airborne Division, 25 September 1944,” written in the field by Capt. Robert K. Williams. This passage is a description of the famous crossing of the Waal River near Nijmegen on 20 September 1944, carried out by the 504th PIR and Co. C of the 307th A/B Engr Battalion. Capt. Wesley Harris, whose actions are described below, jumped from the author’s aircraft, The Argonia, Chalk No. 1, on the D-Day mission during Operation MARKET.

On Sept. 20 at 0600 Capt. Harris (see photo) received orders from the CO, 504th PIR, to prepare to make a river crossing at 1400 today. Col. [Reuben] Tucker told Capt. Harris he could pick up 26 assault boats near bridge No. 7 near the railroad at Nijmegen. The British were furnishing these boats, plus an officer and men for instructors in the use of the boats. Col. Tucker indicated the approximate crossing site about 600 yds. west of Nijmegen railroad bridge over the Waal River.

Capt. Harris went back to Co. C, assembled and briefed the officers at 0700 of the operation. Lt. Sabia was sent after the boats on a captured German motorcycle. The British furnished trucks to haul the boats. Lt. Bigler was assigned to select boat crews and instruct each crew. The Co. was made ready to move on instructions from Capt. Harris.

Capt. Harris, Lts. Patrick J. Mulloy, Ullrich, McLeod, & Holabird, and 4 EM were sent out to make a reconnaissance, following Co I, 504th Inf., which was assaulting toward the river. They arrived at river banks at about 1200; sporadic fighting.

Snipers and stragglers were taken. Co. I, 504th Inf., picked up 50 to 60 prisoners. The site was picked on the recon, and Lt. Mulloy was sent back to guide the Co. to a factory, the Nijmegen power plant. Lt. Sabia arrived with the boats at 1315 and the Co. arrived at the factory at 1330. The recon party stayed and located a forward assembly area, plus dispersion areas for boats, noting the current of the river, and the loading area for the second lift.

By 1330, Capt. Harris reported to Col. Tucker at his forward CP and found that he had set back the crossing one hour to 1500. He then conferred with Maj. Julian A. Cook, assault battalion commander, and made final arrangements for the assault. It was decided that smoke was to be placed at crossing site at H-minus-5 minutes,* and troops would start for water over banks at H-minus-3 minutes. At H-minus-20 minutes the Co. was in position, the boats had been unloaded from the vehicles, and were placed in dispersal areas. Boats hit the water at H-minus-3 minutes.

Knee-deep in mud with the heavy boats made moving to water slower than anticipated. By the time the last boat had hit the water, the smoke had cleared. Twenty-six boats with three engineers on each boat were used. Lt. John A. Holabird [Chalk No. 2] and 11 men went in one boat to clear mines on far shore, and to find anti-tank guns. This used up all personnel. All officers except Lt. Bigler who was in charge of the near-shore operations went across.

Machine guns (20mm), mortars and 88mm gun opened up on the first wave, while half-way across. Losses were heavy. Sixteen boats were left on the far shore, and 10 returned for the second lift. [Of the 260 men in the first crossing, approximately half were killed or wounded].

The enemy laid heavy fire on the far shore after the first wave attempting to forestall additional waves. The 20mm fire came from the south end of bridge, some machine-gun fire from the bridge; 88mm fire came from north end of bridge, mortar and machine-gun fire came from the woods in the front. Six of the engineers who came back on the 10 boats were wounded and unable to make another trip. Lt. Bigler collected all available men, due to the shortage of engineers, for the second crossing.

The fire had decreased by the time the second wave crossed. After the third or fourth crossing, no fire was left except snipers. By the time the assault battalion got across, some men of the 307th had rowed across river five times. On the second trip the wounded men started coming back across. Co. C lost 34 men on the assault8 killed and 26 wounded. On September 22, the Company moved back to the Battalion area.

In summary, This crossing was made in broad daylight using British canvas assault boats. Each wave cost numerous casualties in both infantry and engineers, due to point blank enemy fire of small arms and automatic weapons. The crossing was highly successful; the Nijmegen highway and railroad bridges were secured intact (307th).

 

Soldier's Diary

The following is excerpted from Capt. Robert K. Williams' personal diary. It begins at Balderton Airfield.

Sunday, Sept. 17
About 3 o’clock the planes come back. Say they dropped men right on DZ. We are fairly happy in an expectant sort of way. I remember the field bag-less way that Conrad went in.

We are told to get up early, about 5 o’clock. Then toward night we were told to have late breakfast. It started to rain, and we wonder if we will go at all.

Monday, Sept. 18
Weather looks awful (see photos). We loaf around; load up. Sit in gliders for hours. I go out and pick up lots of four leaf clovers for Kirkwood. Strenski finds a four leaf clover with two more little leaves in the center.

We finally take off at noon—I’m in the co-pilot’s seat. The pilot has a heck of a time trimming the ship, and finally up climbs an air corps corporal—a stowaway.** He’s had some experience flying gliders, so I give him the seat and the flak suit. Eventually we pass over all the airfields and are over the Channel. There are holes in the sky, letting sunlight through, but the Channel still looks cold. Then we spy land, after an age over water. It looks peaceful enough—but only the banked up roads are above water. Seems as if everything else in under a foot or two of water. It’s a very orderly looking country.

There’s one Horsa down in somebody’s yard. Ack-ack, about four bursts, sounds like firecrackers below us. In general, the country looks deserted except for a washing hung out every now and then.

Then we started to attempt to identify ground lines on our maps. We get the four-minute signal from the co-pilot. Our altitude drops from 2700-1250 feet. We see the blown RR bridge over the Waal. Then the wooded hills of Groesbeek. It seems ages before we cut loose.

Then there is dizzy plunging and turning—we head for a house and next a group of trees like a runaway car in the movies. We see the red-cloth T on the ground. We brace for a jolt. The co-pilot pulls the parachute brake. We land as easy as falling into a feather bed.

There is some confusion in getting out, because we can’t hear. There were parachutes at the edge of field. We feel safe, but they say Jerry will shell the area shortly. We fuss around groping, confused, get jeep out and drive off edge of field. Sure enough, Jerry shells start at the field. Lt. Whalen is at outlet of field to meet us. He is picking up supplies at DZ. We leave glider pilots, go in to Battalion CP, unload and send jeeps back out after trailers. Div. asks for report on gliders—I rush around getting information. Womack & Frese with trailer are missing. Someone mentions they saw his glider go down just as we left England. It is getting dark fast. Get Co. C, B and D stories; dig a very small hole and sleep in it, cramped and aching. Baer never did return with his jeep that went after a trailer. [Pvt. Baer was killed at the DZ].

We are called up by the G-2 to send out patrols—it was after dark. We had few maps. The patrols were long and complicated and could be very dangerous; stayed up most of night reporting these in. Wonder of Wonders: they all returned. Resupply came in B-24s. Lot of it dropped on Jerry in the Reichswald.

Tuesday, Sept. 19
Co. D moves out to 508th at noon, to take up defensive position. Finlayson starts gathering boats on the canal for a river crossing. I get a haircut, as if nothing were going on. We are strafed by Jerry planes in the morning. Work on foxhole some. Get out situation report and again it gets dark early . . . to a cold bed. Inventory taken of train which was halted nearby.

Wednesday, Sept. 20
We only get 1/3 K-ration per day now. Resupply is very hard. 

In morning 500 Jerries (prisoners) are marched down road near us. A Tommy said they just rounded them up, but we think that they are merely moving PW enclosure to a safer position.

Word came in that Conrad was killed—on way to clean out machine gun nest single—handed. Co. D platoon takes German town of Beek.

Co. C made forced river crossing—lost 8 men and 26 wounded. Spike [Lynch] comes to Bn. Aid station and spends night with us.

Thursday, Sept. 21
Word comes in that the Nijmegen Hwy bridge and RR bridge both captured intact. Lt. Finlayson goes out, finds British removing explosives from highway bridge—he goes over and removes same from RR bridge. Dead Jerries all over bridge where they had tried to come across from southside after 504th had set up MGs on north side.

508th having a hell of a time just over German border near Beek. They took and lost the town 7 times. German soldiers put on civilian clothes and are hidden in cellars by the natives. We got some German jam, margarine, sugar, hardtack (really hard!), canned meat and Dutch limburger cheese, for augmentation of our K-rations.

Co. D losses high. Lt. Hendrix wounded—his platoon surrounded—it’s a whirlwind affair at 508th. He is later picked up by patrol who start to put him on a tank. Find it’s a German tank and have to leave him—he’s shot through leg, bone shattered.

To Corps HQ near Nijmegen. Circuitous route through garden at rear of mansion. John had tried to get there earlier; had a Messerschmidt shot down right in front of him, with pilot dangling in the wires across track. Another Jerry fighter shot down while we were near Nijmegen city.

[Capt. Wesley] Harris spends another night with us; 20mm shrapnel in back—healing—Doc Russell picked it out.

Friday, Sept. 22
Got Co. C river-crossing story from Capt. Harris.

Went to Hitler’s baby factory with Doc and Spike [now used as hospital]. There were 800 patients per day for last 3 days. The 508th at German border has been catching it. Also 504th on river crossing—the blood-soaked living dead are more pathetic than the waxen-dead, for these are in pain.

Saw our boys, a dozen of them; they were more manly and calm at being wounded than most of the others. They were matter-of-fact in describing their wounds. There were German wounded at the hospital. . . .

The hospital fed its first meal this morning. They had no food for the past two days.

Over to C Co. bivouac in the office of the big power generator factory. They had made their river crossing here. The place was fire glazed brick; inside—hot water showers, elevators, rugs, everything.

Then back through Nijmegen. The town was beaten up in spots, but not too much so. The people wave like the Italians. It’s a great treat. I like the people, the climate and everything here.

Planes over us today—our planes. At 2:30 Co. C comes back in Battalion area. Big squabble about a German command car they took away from the 505th. [Somebody] may get court-martialed over it.

The Guards Armored outfit has been detached from us and moved north. The roads are all jammed with British and they have stopped all over town, with the Tommies poking into the houses.

Things are fairly quiet around here, now. The sun is shining this afternoon, and the sky is almost cloudless. One forgets the morning chill, with its few raindrops. Felt so good, I cleaned my rifle and washed handkerchiefs. The water is soft and outside of Durham, the only soft water I’ve found overseas.

The people are all white-headed. Little girls want cigarettes for “my fadder.”

Kirkwood comes in with the word that 30 Jerry tanks and infantry cut the corridor just north of 101st area today [see “Unknown Hero”].

504th moving back across river. British slow in taking over. British drove DUKWs with 504th in them, returning to Div. area.

Saturday, Sept. 23
We are given British rations; sawdust sausage, more like sawdust than sawdust. The British are complaining of the shortage of food, too.

Consists mostly of cardboard crackers, marmalade butter, kidney stew, tea, navy-cut cigarettes and “boiled sweets” (candy).

Out early to German map depot captured at N. of Grave. It started to rain on way out—we got soaking wet. Left Strenski to guard maps; when I returned, all bedding was soaked. Was a miserable person with the weather turning cold and gray.

Last night the sky was clear and cold. Yesterday some of the men described the jumping of the Polish brigade at Arnhem to reinforce the British 1 Airborne. Planes flew on straight course in spite of the fact that heavy Jerry AA fire was just past DZ. Many knocked down.

 

* “H” refers to “H-Hour,” which is the time the operation is set to begin.

Robert Williams, in April 1981, stated that the Germans were also using “multi-barrel 20mm dual-purpose ack-ack and ground attack guns along the north bank.”

 ** According to 93d GP George W. Juneau, Chalk No. 74, the stowaway—a mechanic named Prince—brought a carbine, and hid under the jeep.

 


 

 

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