December 19, 2019

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.