Saturday, September 20, 2014

Operation Market Garden - Day 4

Day 4

On day 4 of 'Operation Market Garden,' the 101st airborne continued to repulse the German probing attacks up and down their narrow corridor of 'Hell's Highway,' but the real action was taking place in Nijmegen and Arnhem. The British paratroopers were still grimly holding on, but they were massively outgunned and outnumbered and they had taken catastrophic casualties. The relief columns still pinned down in Nijmegen were already 30 hours behind schedule. There was no sign of a breakthrough. A bold plan was required to take the all important bridge.

Gavin meeting British generals
82nd Airborne General, James M. Gavin and a group of British generals met on the south side of the Waal river. They discussed how a simultaneous assault on both ends of the bridge might break the German's grip. Captain T.Moffatt Burris, of I company 504, was present at the meeting. 
 Captain T.Moffatt Burriss explains

Original crossing boat (courtesy Groesbeek museum)

The boats chosen for the crossing were narrow, flimsy, canvas and collapsible.

Original crossing site, Waal River
As the troopers drifted out into the middle of the fast flowing river,  they paddled with their rifle butts as the Germans opened up with everything they had. Many of the little boats were blown clean out of the water. Casualties on the crossing alone amounted to over 50%. After the survivors reached a small sandy area on the far bank, now named 'Little Omaha,'  they had to make a 500 yard dash in the face of withering machine gun and mortar fire.

Open ground on far bank of Waal River.
 While the 504 were making the river crossing, elements of the 505 and 508, with British tanks in support, were attacking from the Southern end. After killing or capturing the German defenders on the far bank, the troopers of the 504 began their fight to the Northern end of the bridge. It was a house to house battle, which took several hours. Finally they fought up the steps of the bridge and overpowered the defenders while continuing to take fire from snipers up in the superstructure.

Steps to Northern end of Nijmegen Bridge.
The actions of the other regiments of the 82nd Airborne at the Southern end had also succeeded and British tanks started to make their dash across.

Heinz Harmel (courtesy Bundesarchiv)
SS Brigadefuhrer, Heinz Harmel, watched as the first tanks started to cross. He wanted to wait until they reached the center before giving the order to detonate. He gave the command and nothing happened! He realized the wires had been cut!

Captain Moffatt Burriss met up with the first tanks across. 

The British stopped for the night, but in the morning when they moved off the Germans had re-grouped and re-supplied. There would be no relief for the British paratroopers at Arnhem. Of the 10,000 British at Arnhem, only 2,000 escaped death or captivity.

Though all American objectives had been achieved, 'Operation Market Garden' had failed. The war would not end by Christmas 1944 and northern Holland would not see liberation until the Spring of 1945.

The Americans on Hell's Highway is the 2nd part of 'The American Road to Victory' trilogy, which has been broadcast on PBS stations nationwide. It is available on DVD priced $ 23.95 or $69.95 for the entire WWII trilogy.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Operation Market Garden - Day 3

Day 3
At 06:00 am, U.S paratroopers and British engineers, having worked all through the night, finally waved the British tanks across the bridge at Son. By 07:15 am, the British tanks had reached the midway point of the Highway at Veghel, where some peeled of to support the 501st. At 08:30, the forward British elements were at the Grave Bridge South of Nijmegen, which was still firmly held by the troopers of 504th, 82nd Airborne.

Nijmegen Bridge
The tanks reached Nijmegen soon after and paratroopers and armor battled towards the bridge.

Jan van Hoof
There was hellish street fighting and there paratroopers sustained many casualties.  The SS held a firm grip on the bridge. They had a fine vantage point and could direct accurate fire on the approaching Americans. The Germans had wired the bridge with explosives as a last ditch attempt to stop the advancing Allies. Late in the night on Day 3, a young Dutch patriot, Jan Van Hoof , is reputed to have climbed under the bridge in the dead of night and cut the detonating wires. Jan was caught and executed by the Germans on the morning of the 20th as he lay wounded after a British scout car that he had been traveling on was hit by a German grenade.

The Americans on Hell's Highway  is the 2nd part of 'The American Road to Victory' trilogy, which has been broadcast on PBS stations nationwide. It is available on DVD priced $23.95 or $69.95 for the trilogy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Operation Market Garden - Day 2

Day 2
Leonard Funk
In the early morning of Day 2, the 82nd Airborne drop zone at Groesbeek, an area vital for the re-supply operations, came under heavy fire. Their German attackers had recovered from the initial shock of the paratroop and glider landings. In danger of being completely overrun, 1st Sgt Leonard Funk of the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment saved the day. He mustered a group of paratroopers and repulsed the German attack, taking many prisoners.

General Maxwell Taylor 101st Airborne
The 101st Abn's 501 regiment came under heavy attack at Eerde, but beat off a determined offensive by the same German paratroopers who had attacked the British armored columns on day one. Holding only a narrow corridor, Allied paratroopers were vulnerable to attacks from the flanks. 

The Germans were using their forces as a 'fire brigade', rushing up and down either side of the highway, attacking at will. General Maxwell Taylor of The 101st Airborne Division described the position as being "like guarding the railroad from Indian attacks in the Wild West."

The 101st Airborne 506th had managed to construct a makeshift walkway across the canal at Son, they had entered  Eindhoven and had met up with the British XXX Corps. A Bailey bridge was requested and the British battled through the cheering crowds to reach Son. They would finally arrive at 23:00.

The 505 and 508 regiments of the 82nd Airborne continued to fight the stubborn Germans in Nijmegen. They were still a way from their objective, the main bridge.

Elements of the British 1st Airborne were locked in deadly combat with the German 9th & 10th SS panzer divisions at Arnhem. They were being decimated.

The Americans on Hell's Highway  is the 2nd part of 'The American Road to Victory' trilogy, which has been broadcast on PBS stations nationwide. It is available on DVD priced $23.95 or $69.95 for the trilogy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Operation Market Garden - Day 1


Operation ‘Market Garden’ is usually considered a complete failure, but was it? Certainly in it’s entirety, the operation, the largest daylight airborne drop ever mounted, failed to achieve it’s overall objective. But American forces, although hampered by setbacks, did secure all the bridges and crossings allotted to them. A substantial German force was also tied up for the remainder of the war.

In our blog series this week, we will seek to explain what happened during 4 crucial days in September 1944.

Unlike D-Day, which was 2 years in the planning, Market Garden was hastily put together in a matter of days. It involved the largest parachute drop of the war. 

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, fresh from his success in Normandy, believed he could 'walk on water', and this buoyed optimism led to an audacious, but hasty and ill prepared operation.

The operations were split into two phases, 'Market' and 'Garden.' 'Market' was the code name given to the massive Allied parachute drop and 'Garden,' the ground offensive. 

Two American Airborne Divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, were to seize bridges and hold road crossings between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, and take control a stretch of highway between the two cities, while the British 1st Airborne were to drop on the Northernmost town of Arnhem and take control. Arnhem was the final barrier to entry into the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr.

As the various airborne divisions landed and took control of their objectives, British XXX Corps an armored and infantry force, waiting on the Belgian side of the Dutch border, were to jump off from their start point, rush up the newly seized highway and cross the Rhine river at Arnhem, opening a spearhead into Germany thus ending the war by Christmas 1944. 

Market Garden Operational Map ©
As with all hastily planned operations, very little notice was taken of intelligence reports. The Dutch resistance had repeatedly informed the Allies there were German SS panzer divisions resting and re-equipping in the Arnhem and Nijmegen zones. Even RAF reconnaissance had photographed camouflaged tanks, but the line fed to the airborne troops was entirely different. They would be facing a force of "old men, boys and walking wounded" with no stomach for a fight.

 Day 1

The largest allied parachute drop of WWII took place in broad daylight on September 17th 1944. 

101st DZ at Best
Transport aircraft and gliders carried the 502nd and 506th regiments of the 101st airborne to their drop zone in the southern sector, North of Eindhoven, while their sister regiment the 501st were dropped further up the highway at Eerde. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon when the aircraft roared into view over their respective zones. 

Three regiments of the 82nd Airborne were transported to their zones in the Nijmegen and Grave areas. The British 1st Abn were dropped some 8 miles from their objective at Arnhem. The drops were virtually unopposed, most units landed on target and the Germans were clearly taken by surprise, but they soon regrouped.

Grave Bridge
By the end of Day 1, The 504 82nd Airborne had taken and secured  their objective, the Grave bridge.  The other regiments had landed unopposed on their drop zone at Groesbeek and were making probing attacks towards Nijmegen.

The 101st had achieved mixed results. The 501 had taken their objectives at Eerde, but the 506th and the 502nd had run into stiff opposition at Son and Best.The Son Bridge, vital for the British XXX Corps relief effort, had been blown in their faces.  A British Bailey bridge would be needed to cross the canal at Son, but where were the British armored columns?

British XXX Corps
After crossing the border, XXX Corps had come under heavy artillery fire from elements of German paratroopers and SS artillery, who were well dug in . After a vicious fight the British columns ground to a halt and rested for the night. The operation was already falling behind.

German Paratrooper Eckhert Schucany describes the attack.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

D-Day +77

Map of German encirclement
By August 22nd 1944, thousands of Germans had been slaughtered during their desperate attempt to escape the tight pocket created by the Allies at Falaise. The end of the German 7th Army in Normandy had been brought about by a well coordinated team effort. What had started hesitantly finally developed into an aggressive and devastating action. Montgomery's 21st Army group which consisted of British, Canadian, and Polish troops had squeezed the Germans from the North and West, while the American forces of Courtenay Hodges' First Army and Patton's Third Army completed the encirclement from the South and East.

Open "Killing Grounds"
General Gerow
Although elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division had attacked the village of Le Bourg-St-Leonard (mentioned in the previous post) and ousted the US 90th Division on August 17th, thus temporarily holding the shoulder of the pocket, the arrival of a new American Corps commander, who was put in charge of the three American Divisions in the area, helped seal the German's fate.

Lieutenant General Leonard Townsend Gerow of Petersburg Virginia, was a tough WWI veteran, a favorite of Eisenhower, and a talented strategist. It was Gerow who tightened the noose around the necks of the retreating Germans. Gerow's V Corps was part of Hodges' 1st army and now here he was taking over elements of Patton's Third Army, unbeknown even to the great general himself, who had already embarked on his lightening dash to the German border.

There were also changes in the German 7th Army command. The despondent Gunther von Kluge was replaced by fervent Nazi Field Marshal Walther Model. Von Kluge, who was loosely suspected of being involved in the July 20th bomb plot against Hitler, was recalled to Germany. He committed suicide en-route.

Escaping on foot
Incredibly, and despite intense Allied pressure, the retreating German forces did not become a disorganized rabble, they continued to receive limited supplies by air and kept trudging on in their typically disciplined way.

Under Gerow's stewardship, the 90th Division re-took Le Bourg-St-Leonard at midnight on August 18th and prepared to advance on Chambois for the final "coup de gras." The Germans put up a strong defense and the American forces were not successful in their initial attempt to overrun the ancient Normand town. Enemy artillery knocked out four shermans, and the Werfer Brigade of the 116th Panzer Division launched barrage after barrage of rockets at the GIs of the 90th Division.

Chambois, signs to Hill 262
Polish and American officers meeting at Chambois

Other Allies were progressing. The Canadians took Falaise, and the important village of Trun was almost within their grasp. Polish forces had attacked in the direction of Mont Ormel which overlooked the whole axis of the German retreat and dominated the one and only remaining escape route. By noon on August 19th, Hill 262, as it became known, was in the hands of a section of the Polish forces, while other units of Poles moved on Chambois at the foot of the hill. They met up with Americans from the 90th Division on the afternoon of August 19th. The scene that greeted these Allies was one of total carnage. The fetid stench of burning flesh, the roads jammed with the detritus of war, and the crumbling ruins of old buildings were but a prelude to what was to be perhaps the most apocalyptic action of the war.

View from Mont Ormel "Hill 262"
With the Poles on Mont Ormel, the Canadians in Trun, and the Americans in Chambois, the pocket was reduced to a few kilometers in width. From the Foret de Gouffern, Germans continued to make the dash towards Mont Ormel and comparative escape.

The small town of St. Lambert sur Dives was the epicenter of this desperate German exodus and one that became famous for it's corridor of death," and a Canadian Major, David Vivian Currie, who was awarded The Victoria Cross for his actions in halting the Germans.

"Corridor of Death"
In addition to the mighty array of Allied tanks, artillery, and infantry zeroing in on the remnants of a once formidable army, RAF fighter bombers, who had absolute control of the skies, were able to patrol at will, firing on vehicles and horse drawn transports, sending them skywards in plumes of flame and smoke.

On August 20th, the Polish forces on Hill 262 came under attack from elements the 2nd SS Panzer Division, who had already escaped the pocket and had returned to clear a way for the remainder of their comrades. This action, together with an attack on the Polish perimeter at the hamlet of Coudehard, which lies just beneath the summit of Hill 262, by paratroopers of General Eugene Meindl's 3rd Parachute Division, had the effect of compressing the Polish perimeter and opening a narrow escape route.

Another view of the carnage
Below the summit of Hill 262, scenes as one might expect to see in Dante's inferno were unfolding. The remnants of thousands of men and horses, disemboweled by artillery and mortar fire littered every lane and hedgerow. Body parts hung from trees and the smouldering wreckage of vehicles filled the skies with acrid smoke. Even the most battle hardened combat veterans had to look away from the abject horror.

View along the "Corridor of Death" towards forest of Gueffern

Moissy Ford 1944
Sherman, top right, moves in to get a look.
In addition to the two bridges over the river Dives at St Lambert, further along the river towards Chambois is Moissy Ford, which offered another possibility for the Germans, but all approaches to this crossing point were open and in full view of Allied tanks and artillery. It was like shooting fish in a barrel and very soon the area was another scene of unmentionable carnage.

Moissy Ford 2011
Meindl, with paratroopers in the pocket
On the ground, responsibility for the final evacuation of the remaining Germans had fallen to two men, Paratroop General Meindl and SS General Paul Hausser, who was known as "Papa" to his men. Hausser cared deeply for the soldiers under his command. He disobeyed a direct order from Model to "get out of there immediately!"

Instead, he remained with his men until the last minute.

Original footbridge in St. Lambert, crossed by Hauser and thousands of soldiers
Knowing the breach in the Polish lines could not be maintained for long, the two Generals decided to move the wounded first. All traffic was stopped and a convoy of vehicles bedecked with Red Cross flags moved off across the main road. Not a single shot was fired and the transports carrying the seriously wounded men were allowed to climb the hill unmolested.

After the convoy has passed, the firing resumed.

Meindl wrote later, "and I can openly acknowledge the feeling of gratitude to the chivalrous enemy. . . ."

Meindl and a substantial group of his men made good their escape that night. Hausser, seriously wounded, was carried out on a surviving tank.

Monument inscription to the Poles
For the Poles on Mont Ormel the situation was dire. They had received no supplies and they were under attack from three sides. They had taken over 800 prisoners and they had more than 300 wounded lying out in the open under enemy fire. By the afternoon of August 21st, the Canadians linked up with the Poles, and supplies arrived in the nick of time. Before the arrival of the Canadians, Stefanowicz commander of the Polish battle group on hill 262 said to his men,

"Gentlemen. Everything is lost. I do not believe the Canadians will manage to help us. We have only 110 men left, with 50 rounds per gun and 5 rounds per tank ... Fight to the end! To surrender to the SS is senseless, you know it well. Gentlemen! Good luck – tonight, we will die for Poland and civilization. We will fight to the last platoon, to the last tank, then to the last man."

After the battle, Polish soldiers survey the scene on the road to Mont Ormel
Fortunately, it didn't come to that. By the evening of the 21st of August 1944, the majority of Germans who were still trapped in the pocket had surrendered. Although as many as 50,000 Germans had escaped, it is estimated that between 80,000 and 150,000 were either killed or taken prisoner. Two days later, Paris was liberated.

View from Coudehard church
The gentle countryside around Mont Ormel was scarred for years and the water courses were poisoned with the toxic effluent produced by decaying flesh. For several years, tankers of water had to be brought in to supply the local population. Even at 2,000 feet, pilots complained of giant black clouds of flies and an unimaginable stench.

General Eisenhower, visiting the area 48 hours after the closing of the pocket, reported,

"The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest 'killing fields' of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh."

Author Martin Blumenson wrote in "Breakout and Pursuit,"

“The carnage wrought (in the Pocket) in the final days was perhaps the greatest of the war. The roads and fields were littered with thousands of enemy dead and wounded, wrecked and burning vehicles, smashed artillery pieces, carts laden with the loot of France overturned and smouldering, dead horses and cattle swelling in the summer’s heat….”

The destruction of the German 7th Army in the Falaise pocket sent a clear message to the German High Command, "The Thousand Year Reich will be destroyed."

This was not the end,

but it was the beginning of the end.

Friday, August 15, 2014


  After the Germans were routed at Mortain, some of the enemy divisions continued to make probing attacks towards Avranche in the vain hope of achieving at least a stalemate.
 The other units, battered and bruised, were in headlong retreat towards the town of Argentan in the Orne region of Normandy.
They still had plenty of fight, but that fight would be used in a defensive mode as a means of enabling their escape.

August 12th,16th
Bradley was excited, his forces had thrashed the Germans at Mortain and his confidence was at an all time high. The other Allies were making progress and now he could see a real chance of trapping and annihilating the remainder of the German 7th Army. Montgomery's 21st Army Group, which consisted of British, Canadian and Polish forces, had finally broken out of their beachhead around Caen and were now pressing the German forces from the North, while Bradley's own U.S forces had moved in a wide arc under the retreating Germans. He had initially proposed a much wider encirclement, but now he could see a real opportunity to tighten the noose and trap the enemy in an area between Falaise and Argentan. He had instructed Patton to swing his forces to the left, take the town of Argentan and prepare to close the pocket.

Argentan War memorial
Patton was elated, the opportunity to deliver this knock out blow was just what he wanted to do.

He committed 5 Divisions to the task, including the Free French 2nd Armored Division under General Leclerc, a unit totally equipped by the Americans, but lacking  discipline.

General Leclerc
French 2nd Armored Div. caused many traffic jams.
 Leclerc frequently exceeded his orders, crossed boundary lines, which were forbidden to him, and caused all kinds of foul ups. His forces fought with elan, they were brave and their exuberance was astonishing. Taking part in the long awaited liberation of their country was an emotional experience, one that they prayed for these past 5 years. Patton was a Francophile, he liked Leclerc and he was always prepared to make allowances for him.

Argentan Today
Argentan same view August 1944
 Just as the American Divisions arrived in the Argentan area, Bradley had a change of heart. His initial excitement turned to trepidation, as the prospect of his forces rushing headlong into the guns and aircraft of the other Allies, pushing down from the North, seemed a real possibility. He lost his nerve and with it his ability to annihilate an entire army.

There were of course some concerns at the prospect of further friendly fire incidents, but the Canadians were still miles away from Argentan, so no immediate threat. Patton was horrified and Bradley would come to regret this decision for the rest of his life; although he would continue, in time honored fashion, to pass the blame. His decision would give the Germans an opportunity to hold a defensive shoulder at Argentan, thus allowing thousands of enemy soldiers, complete with their equipment, to escape certain destruction.

French Sherman in Foret d'Ecouvres
South of Argentan, the main obstacle was the Foret d'Ecouvres, the clearing of which was given to Leclerc's 2nd Armored Division. This was achieved effectively and in short order after which, a group of these vengeful Frenchmen entered Argentan on the afternoon of August 13th. The Germans were ready for them and opened fire with tanks and artillery just as the civilian population came out to rejoice at their final liberation. It would be almost a week before this strategic town would be firmly in American hands, by which time it's total destruction would have been well and truly achieved.

Germans panzer grenadiers retreating on foot.
The job of holding the Americans at Argentan had been given to the 1st SS and 2nd panzer Divisions, which had originally been committed to launching an all out attack against the thinly spread American front. As it happens, these units would play a major role in enabling a significant number of their comrades to escape.

5th Armored try a flanking maneuver.
The U.S 5th Armored Division tried a flanking maneuver around Argentan, but well sited German artillery and tanks wrought havoc on the advancing U.S and French Divisions.

Once Bradley's stop order had been received, commanders on the ground halted their advance  and  prepared to attack in another direction, which was yet to be decided. It was perhaps the most serious blunder of the Normandy campaign. The following day, he changed his mind again and split the forces gathered around Argentan. The French 2nd Division and the U.S 90th Division would stay in the Argentan area. They were to be bolstered by the 80th Division moving up in support. Valuable time and considerable momentum had been lost.

A decisive action by the 5 Divisions of 3rd Army could have changed the course of events, but now this strategically timid harassing approach was to lengthen the process, enabling the Germans to fight many 'other days.'

Ancient dungeons in the square of Chambois.
The natural escape point for the Germans centered on the tiny Norman town of Chambois.

Between Argentan and Chambois, lies the Foret de Gouffern, a sprawling mass of forestry, which provided great cover for the retreating Germans. From the Goufferm they were able to make a dash across open terrain to the heights and freedom.

Forest de Gouffern
One escape route centered on the tiny town of le Bourg-St-Leonard, which straddled the Argentan Chambois road.

The 90th Division positioned a roadblock in the town and sited artillery and tank destroyers on the crest of a hill overlooking this German escape route. American forces, although still effective, had lost much of their strength, as more than 50% of their force had been sent away, to attack in another direction.

 Bourg St- Leonard route of German retreat

When the Germans decided to make their dash, it was unlikely that these thinly spread units could hold them. On August 16th, the first group of Germans, well organized and highly motivated, left the sanctuary of the Gouffern Forest and attacked the 90th at le Bourg-St-Leonard. The 90th were beaten back by an enemy who was prepared, remarkably well equipped and determined.

French Monument to the liberation of Le Bourg-St-Leonard

Was it the 'rat in the trap' syndrome, or were these 'supermen' still a force to be reckoned with?

This Tiger 1 escaped the encirclement, then returned to help others before running out of fuel and being destroyed by it's crew.