April 12, 2021

1944. "The Battle of Nijmegen Bridge" by Bill Downs

The Battle of Nijmegen
"Cromwell tanks of 2nd Welsh Guards crossing the bridge at Nijmegen, 21 September 1944" (source)
This report by Bill Downs from September 24, 1944 was published in the BBC's The Listener magazine on September 28, 1944. As an eyewitness, Downs described the Nijmegen bridge assault as "a single, isolated battle that ranks in magnificence and courage with Guam, Tarawa, Omaha Beach."

From The Listener, September 28, 1944:
The Battle of Nijmegen Bridge

By BILL DOWNS

The story of the battle of Nijmegen bridge 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 River possible. You know about the Nijmegen bridge. It's been called the gateway into northern Germany. It stretches half-a-mile over the wide tidal river and its flood land. And without the bridge intact the Allied airborne and ground operation northward through Holland could only be fifty per cent successful.

The Nijmegen bridge was built so it could be blown, and blown quickly. Its huge arching span is constructed in one piece. Only two strong charges of explosives would drop the whole thing into the river. Special cavities for these dynamite charges were built into the brick by the engineers that designed it. The bridge was the biggest single objective of the airborne invasion and its capture intact is a credit to all the American and British fighting men.

American airborne patrols reached the area at the southern end of the bridge on Sunday night, September 17th, shortly after they landed, but at that time they were not in enough strength to do anything about it. On Monday the paratroops and glider forces were too busy beating off the German counter-attacks to co-ordinate an assault on the bridge. By this time the armour of the British Second Army was on its way northwards from the Escaut Canal. Then on Tuesday the British tanks arrived on the outskirts of Nijmegen and an attack was commenced, but still the Germans held on strongly in the fortification and houses on the south end of the bridge. American airborne infantry and British tanks were only 300 yards from the bridge in the streets of Nijmegen, but they couldn't get to it.

Tuesday night was the strangest. The American troops took machine guns to the top of the houses and sprayed the approaches and the entrance to the bridges with bullets. All night they shot at anything that moved. Perhaps it was this constant fire that kept the Germans from blowing the bridge then. But still the shuddering blast that would signal the end of the bridge did not come. And when morning arrived a new plan was devised. It was dangerous and daring and risky. The commanders who laid it out knew this; and the men who were to carry it out knew it too. Thinking a frontal assault on the bridge from the south was impossible, American infantry were to fight their way westwards down the west bank of the Waal River and cross in broad daylight to fight their way back up the river bank, and attack the bridge from the north.

On Wednesday morning the infantry made their way westward through the town and got to the industrial outskirts along the river bank near the mouth of a big canal. Some British tanks went with them to give them protection in the street fighting and to act as artillery when the crossings were to be made. Accompanying this task force were trucks carrying twenty-six assault boats brought along by the British armoured units in case of such an emergency. Most of the men who were there to make the crossing had never handled an assault boat before. There was a lot of argument as to who would handle the paddles and preference was given to the men who had at least rowed a boat. Everything was going well. The Germans were supposed to be completely surprised by the audacity of the move.

But late in the morning the impossible happened. Two men showed themselves on a river bank and were fired at by the enemy. No Americans were supposed to be in that part of the town. The 88 mm. shells began plastering the area. The gaff was blown. Reconnaissance spotted batches of German troops being transferred to the opposite bank. A few hours later, machine guns were dug into the marshes on the far side—the plan had been discovered. The task force was under shell-fire, and several hundred Germans with machine guns were sitting on the opposite bank waiting for the crossing. This was about noon.

There was a quick conference. It was decided that the original plan would proceed, but this time the men crossing the river would have the help of heavy bombers: Lancasters and Stirlings flying in daylight a few miles from the German border to drop their bombs on the opposite bank in tactical support of the men from the assault boats.

Working under enemy shell-fire, the assault boats were assembled. When they were put into the water, another difficulty arose. The tide was moving out with a downstream current of eight miles an hour. Some of the boats drifted 300 yards down river before they were retrieved and brought back. Meanwhile machine guns spluttered on the opposite bank and German artillery kept smashing the embarkation area regularly.

At last everything was ready. The bombers went in but didn't drop their bombs close enough to knock out the machine guns. Twenty-six assault boats were in the water. They would carry ten men each: 260 men would make the first assault. Waiting for them on the other bank were some 400 to 600 Germans. The shelling continued. Every man took a deep breath and climbed in. Someone made a wisecrack about the airborne navy and someone else said they preferred airborne submarines to this job. And off across the river they started. At the same time behind them, the British tanks fired their heavy guns, and our own heavy machine guns fired into the opposite bank giving the little fleet as much cover as possible.

And over on the other side of the river the enemy tracers shrieked at the boats. The fire at first was erratic, but as the boats approached the northern bank the tracers began to spread on to the boats. Men slumped in their seats—other men could be seen shifting a body to take over the paddling. One man rose up in his seat and fell overboard. There was no thought of turning back. The paddling continued clumsily and erratically, but it continued. One of the boats had so many holes in it that the men were baling out with their tin helmets—it was almost splintered when it reached the other side.

The fighting, though, had only just begun. The hundred or so men who had arrived on the opposite side fought their way forward with bayonet and grenade, going from one machine gun nest to the other until they had established a bridgehead only a few yards deep and several hundred feet wide. The thirteen boats had hardly left for the return trip for the reinforcements, when the men on the north bank saw specks in the water. The men on the opposite bank, seeing the casualties suffered in the landing under fire, were not waiting for the boats. Some of them had stripped off their equipment, and taking a bandolier of ammunition, were swimming the river with their rifles on their backs. And thus it went—the thirteen little boats going time after time across the river under fire; the men on the bridgehead digging in and firing as rapidly as possible, routing out the German machine gun nests by hand while British tanks fired for all they were worth. After an hour and a half of concentrated hell, the infantry were over. They held a bridgehead several hundred yards wide and one hundred yards deep. At that time, one officer counted 138 Germans dead in a space of sixty yards of that bloody beachhead.

There was a welcome pause as the men consolidated and rested in their foxholes. Some had thrown the German bodies out of the Nazi machine gun nests and were using these to stiffen their defences. The plan was to turn eastwards and assault the northern end of the bridge. But on the left flank of that minute bridgehead was another menace—for there on the high ground overlooking the bridge and firing at us with some 88 mm. guns, was an ancient fort. It is called Hatz van Holland and was supposed to have been used centuries ago by Charlemagne as a fortress. The Germans had been using the fort as an anti-aircraft gun position to defend Nijmegen, and now they turned the ack-ack guns downward to bear on the bridge and the airborne bridgehead across the Waal. While these guns were firing at the back, the troops could not fight their way to the northern end of the bridge. A detail was formed to attack the Hatz van Holland and put its guns out of action.

That, as warriors centuries ago found out, was extremely difficult because the Hatz van Holland was surrounded by a moat. This moat had a few feet of water in it—black dirty water, covered with a layer of bright green slime. Also, the attacking party would have to advance under point blank 88 mm. fire. But anyhow the party set out. They crawled towards the high ground and the 88s banged away at them. And then they came to a zone where there were no 88 shells. It was found out that the other 88 guns were so installed that the guns could not reach downward that far. The German gun-crews discovered this too late and rushed to put up a rifle and machine gun defence along the moat.

But the Americans by this time had faced so much that a few machine guns were nothing. They made a stand-up attack, shouting like Indians, and, with tommy-guns blazing, knocked out the historic Hatz van Holland. A few Americans with blood in their eyes left seventy-five Germans dead in that moat. The remaining troops fought their way up the river all right. They captured the northern end of the railroad bridge and worked their way to the junction of the railroad highway from the main bridge. The entire German position on the northern side of the river was cut off. There was bitter bayonet fighting and Americans died, but more Germans died. And finally, British tanks made their way across the bridge and it was ours.

British tanks and airborne American infantry had begun their frontal assault on the southern end of the bridge at the same time as the river crossing was started. They had to make their way down streets alive with Germans. And this is how it was done. The tanks went down the streets firing at targets of opportunity, which means any German or German tank or vehicles that appeared. And the Americans went through the houses on either side of the street. Yes, literally through the houses—for instead of going along the outside of the houses and risking cross-fire from the Germans within, the American troops blew holes through the sides of the houses with bazookas. That was how they made their way through the strong defence area built to protect the bridge—blowing a hole with a bazooka into a house, clearing it of Germans and going on.

Meanwhile, the tanks had discovered that sitting on one street corner was a German Tiger tank waiting for them to make their appearance. It was out of sight and protected by the houses, but one of the Sherman tanks mounting a big 17-pounder gun decided to have a shot anyway. It aimed its armour-piercing shell in the general direction of the tank. There was a great boom: the shell plunged through twelve houses and came out with a great crash, taking a large section of the last house with it. The Tiger, seeing this destruction, decided he did not like the neighbourhood so well and retreated.

At the southern end of the bridge were stationed four self-propelled German guns guarding the streets leading to the bridge area. There was nothing to do but rush them. So the tanks lined up four abreast around the corner of the wide main street leading to the bridge and, at a signal, all roared into the street firing their mortars, their heavy guns and even machine guns. The assault was so sudden and heavy that three of the self-propelled guns were knocked out before they could bring fire to bear. The fourth gun ran to safety. Between the two—the American airborne troops and the British tankmen—the south end of the bridge was seized. At first only tanks could get across the bridge because a half-dozen fanatical Germans remained high in the girders of the bridge sniping. These were soon cleaned up. Today the Nijmegen bridge is in our hands intact—a monument to the gallantry of the Americans who crossed the river and the British and airborne troops who stormed it from the south.

March 16, 2021

1945. Edward R. Murrow's Account of Buchenwald

"If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I am not in the least sorry."


Edward R. Murrow

CBS News

April 15, 1945

Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you had been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio.
For I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. And it was built to last.

As we approached it, we saw about a hundred men in civilian clothes with rifles advancing in open order across the field. There were a few shots. We stopped to inquire. We're told that some of the prisoners have a couple of SS men cornered in there. We drove on, reached the main gate. The prisoners crowded up behind the wire. We entered. And now, let me tell this in the first person, for I was the least important person there, as you can hear.

There surged around me an evil-smelling horde. Men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death had already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over that mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were plowing.

A German, Fritz Kirchheimer, came up and said, "May I show you around the camp? I've been here ten years."

An Englishman stood to attention saying, "May I introduce myself? Delighted to see you. And can you tell me when some of our blokes will be along?" I told him "Soon," and asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovakians. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled eighty horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description.

When I reached the center of the barracks, a man came up and said, "You remember me, I am Petr Zenkl, onetime mayor of Prague." I remembered him, but did not recognize him. He asked about BeneŇ° and Jan Masaryk. I asked how many men had died in that building during the last month. They called the doctor. We inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book, nothing more—nothing of who had been where, what they had done or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died there was a cross. I counted them. They totaled 242—242 out of 1,200 in one month.

As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from the men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand-clapping of babies, they were so weak. The doctor's name was Paul Heller. He had been there since '38. As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others—they must have been over sixty—were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it but will not describe it.

In another part of the camp they showed me the children—hundreds of them. Some were only six. One rolled up his sleeve, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. D-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die.

An elderly man standing beside me said, "The children—enemies of the state." I could see their ribs through their thin shirts. The old man said, "I am Professor Charles Richet, of the Sorbonne." The children clung to my hands and stared. We crossed to the courtyard. Men kept coming up to me to speak to me and to touch me—professors from Poland, doctors from Vienna, men from all Europe. Men from the countries that made America.

We went to the hospital. It was full. The doctor told me that two hundred had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said, "Tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue, and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult." Dr. Heller pulled back the blankets from a man's feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move.

As we left the hospital I drew out a leather billfold, hoping that I had some money which would help those who lived to get home. Professor Richet from the Sorbonne said, "I should be careful of my wallet if I were you. You know there are criminals in this camp, too." A small man tottered up, saying, "May I feel the leather, please? You see, I used to make good things of leather in Vienna." Another man said, "My name is Walter Roeder. For many years I lived in Joliet. Came back to Germany for a visit and Hitler grabbed me."

I asked to see the kitchen. It was clean. The German in charge had been a Communist, had been at Buchenwald for nine years, had a picture of his daughter in Hamburg. Hadn't seen her for almost twelve years—and if I got to Hamburg, would I look her up? He showed me the daily ration: one piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every 24 hours. He had a chart on the wall—very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each ten men who died. He had to account for the rations, and he added, "We're very efficient here."

We went again into the courtyard, and as we walked, we talked. The two doctors, the Frenchman and the Czech, agreed that about six thousand had died during March. Kirchheimer, the German, added that back in the winter of 1939, when the Poles began to arrive without winter clothing, they died at the rate of approximately 900 a day. Five different men asserted that Buchenwald was the best concentration camp in Germany. They had had some experience in the others.

Dr. Heller, the Czech, asked if I would care to see the crematorium. He said it wouldn't be very interesting because the Germans had run out of coke some days ago, and had taken to dumping the bodies into a great hole nearby. Professor Richet said perhaps I would care to see the small courtyard. I said yes. He turned and told the children to stay behind.

As we walked across the square, I noticed that the professor had a hole in his left shoe and a toe sticking out of the right one. He followed my eyes and said, "I regret that I am so little presentable, but what can one do?" At that point, another Frenchman came up to announce that three of his fellow countrymen outside had killed three SS men and taken one prisoner.

We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall was about eight feet high. It adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little. All except two were naked. I tried to count them as best I could, and arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than five hundred men and boys lay there in two neat piles.

There was a German trailer which must have contained another fifty, but it wasn't possible to count them. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation—they had not been executed. But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last twelve years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than 20,000 in the camp. There had been as many as 60,000. Where are they now?

As I left that camp, a Frenchman who used to work for Havas in Paris came up to me and said, "You will write something about this, perhaps?" And he added, "To write about this, you must have been here at least two years, and after that...you don't want to write any more."

I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words. Dead men are plentiful in war, but the living dead, more than 20,000 of them in one camp . . . and the country round about was pleasing to the eye. And the Germans were well-fed and well-dressed. American trucks were rolling towards the rear filled with prisoners. Soon they would be eating American rations, as much for a meal as the men at Buchenwald received in four days.

If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I am not in the least sorry. I was there on Thursday, and many men in many tongues blessed the name of Roosevelt. For long years his name has meant the full measure of their hope. These men, who had kept close company with death for many years, did not know that Mr. Roosevelt would, within hours, join their comrades who had laid their lives on the scales of freedom.

Back in '41, Mr. Churchill said to me with tears in his eyes, "One day the world and history will recognize and acknowledge what it owes to your president." I saw and heard the first installment of that at Buchenwald on Thursday. It came from men from all over Europe. Their faces, with more flesh on them, might have been found anywhere at home. To them, the name Roosevelt was a symbol, a code word for a lot of guys named Joe who are somewhere out in the blue, with the armor, heading east. At Buchenwald, they spoke of the President just before he died. If there be a better epitaph, history does not record it.

Note: Some of the names as transcribed are from Murrow's notes on Buchenwald.

February 9, 2021

1947. Omaha Beach, Three Years Later

Returning to Omaha Beach
"Normandy, June, 1947: Three years after the World War II D-Day invasion that led to the liberation of Europe from the Nazis, rusting landing craft and other remnants of war litter Omaha Beach, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war" (source)
From the "Special Issue: A Report to America Two Years After V-Day," This Week magazine, August 10, 1947, pp. 20-21:
OMAHA BEACH

By BILL DOWNS

The scene of the Normandy landings is lonely and eerie—three years later

What does a soldier feel when he walks back through the battlefield and finds grass growing in the foxholes and butterflies flitting over the pillboxes? Correspondent Bill Downs, who landed on the Normandy beachhead with the British on D-Day, 1944, went back to find out. He took along a portable recorder.

The result is something new in reporting. For this is no straight account of events and people. Bill Downs looked inwardly and reported the thoughts that marched through his mind—as he walked alone through Omaha Beach. This is how he put them down on the recording tape:

I'm on Omaha Beach, where, not very many months ago, I saw bodies stacked like cordwood—American bodies. Behind me lie the remains of the Mulberry Docks, the improvised harbor that meant so much on D-Day plus. The sea is very quiet today. Battered ghost ships ride low in the surf. This morning—when the sun was just coming out—the moisture on the beach came up in small clouds of steam.

I'm standing at the entrance of an American assault boat. There are about 50 here—some holed by shells, some by collisions. They're old and rusted, down at the stern, half-buried in sand.

Directly in front of me, over the open landing ramp, I can see the rise of treacherous ground the Germans held for so many hours while American troops fought their way up inch by inch. But now this rise is green and has a sort of military smallpox where naval bombardment drove the Germans back and enabled our troops to land.

It gives you an eerie, unreal feeling to be here, to see these sunken ships of the Mulberry harbor; and you wonder if perhaps sailors don't come back sometimes, and maybe soldiers, too, to man these assault boats of that exciting hour.

I walked practically the entire distance of Omaha Beach this morning, starting with the south end, where there are a half-dozen German pillboxes. In one there's a destroyed 88-millimeter gun which, even in destruction, still looks plenty tough.

All along, the hillside by the beach is marked by shellholes. Grass is beginning to grow back into them. Walking alone—there's no one around—you can find old "C" and "K" ration cans rusting in piles, shell casings, an occasional canteen or canteen cup—usually with a bullet hole through it.

Every day except Sunday, German prisoners come down and dig up the mines. Most of them have been dug up successfully, and there have been few casualties—postwar casualties—on the beach itself. Occasionally, from over the horizon, you can hear the far rumble of an explosion—fortifications or recovered mines being blown up inland by German prisoners. Over the high hill that faces the beach you can see smashed pillboxes with the steel rods that reinforced the concrete forming a pattern of deadly lace against the sky.

Two Frenchmen are riding along the beach now. It's Sunday, and the French tourists come up here quite often. The beach used to be a vacation place, and you can still see the wreckage of some summer homes. They are now roofless, shattered and windowless. They give you a sort of blank, stark stare, as if they have not yet recovered from what they saw on that fateful June 6, 1944.

After three years, you find yourself forgetting entire towns which lie inland, back on the beach. Trips that in your memory took about 10 minutes really take a half-hour or longer. Airfields that used to be there are now only wheat fields, and cattle graze on the site of your Command Post.

Almost every farmer has taken advantage of the material left behind by the armies to patch up his place. It seems to be a kind of poetic justice, remembering how our tanks knocked down fences and the corners of houses trying to get through the narrow lanes.

Incidentally, the Normandy cattle are back on their four feet. There are as many cattle now, the farmers tell us, as there were before the war, and there is no sign of those bloated things with legs in the air that populated the fields when we were there.

On the beach, the only things you hear are the singing of the birds—and you probably didn't have time to hear them when you landed, even during lulls when the artillery was quiet. And there are butterflies hovering over the pillboxes and the good, clean smell of plowed earth in the air. But you want to talk about the smell of the swollen cattle, the grim song of the flying shells, and the noise and confusion that goes with an amphibious operation.

But there's no one to talk to because you're here alone.

Maybe you plan to bring the wife and kids and try to show them the exact place where you landed. And the rim of the white, sea-washed stones that saved your life—you show them that. And maybe you try to point out the "88" position that was giving you most of the trouble.

But the explaining and the pointing out has no real meaning for anyone but yourself—and the memory is so deep inside that it needs blasting to bring it out.

I was sent by This Week and CBS to go back over this ground. There was nothing I wanted more—all those exciting, glorious days when you lived by the hour, when every story was worth doing because men were writing that story in their blood for an honest cause.

If you were in on the D-Day landings, I don't think you'd like coming back to beaches like Omaha. There's something grim and ghoulish about it. You stand and you look at the foxholes where men hid desperately. Then you go to the graveyard and read all those names—the Smiths and the Joneses and the McCloskys and the Weinsteins—and it just makes you plain mad. You think how quickly people forget, how you forgot—until you came back.

You look at these shells and this beach, this silence, and you wonder what it was all about. You wonder if you and the rest of the world will remember the terrible sights and sounds of that day three years ago—and try to make its sacrifices worthwhile.