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!
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.