US 82nd Airborne seizes prisoners for intelligence

The 82nd had arrived in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. Men and supplies drop from transport 'planes above Nijmegen.

The 82nd had arrived in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. Men and supplies drop from transport ‘planes above Nijmegen.

The US 82nd Airborne Division were still in Holland, holding on to the salient that Market Garden had opened up. They were now in defensive positions close to the German border.

Anticipating a German counter-attack in strength the Division was anxious for intelligence. Lieutenant James ‘Maggie’ Magellas was personally selected to lead a patrol on the night of 30th September/1st October to seize some prisoners. He later wrote a graphic account of the events that followed:

I led the patrol on a course parallel to Wyler Meer for some distance before checking the depth and the bottom to determine if it was fordable. After checking several times, I decided that the best avenue of approach to the German MLR would be to cross Wyler Meer at the footbridge. I realized that the Germans would also know this avenue of approach and might be prepared to deny its use as a crossing. We moved cautiously, expecting an outburst of enemy fire as we neared the bridge.

When we were about forty to fifty yards from it, we halted and hit the ground. I approached the bridge alone, and when I was within fifteen feet I hit the dirt and started crawling on my stomach. Using the index and second finger of my right hand in a scissorlike action, I probed for trip wires that might lead to mines. I was surprised to find that the bridge approach was not mined. The Germans had strung barbed accordion wire across the bridge.

I decided to cross over and reconnoiter the other side, but I became tangled in the wire and ripped my trousers. I was so disgusted that I used profane language, causing a couple of Germans to pop their heads out of their foxhole, making it evident that the enemy was entrenched on the other side of the bridge. I freed myself quickly and hit the ground.

I was alone confronting a German outpost line guarding the footbridge. It was dark and I was separated from my platoon by fifty yards. I crawled to the foxhole where I saw the first German helmet pop up and in my broken German called for the German to come out: “Kommen sie hier mit der hands hoch. ”

When I didn’t get a response, I pulled the pin on a hand grenade and tossed it into the foxhole. The sound created by the concussion caused two more Germans to rise up from their hole to see what was going on. They were manning a light machine gun.

I crawled next to their hole and repeated my previous command in German. When they didn’t come out, I rolled another grenade in on them and their machine gun. I spotted another head popping out of a hole a short distance away. I crawled to that hole and repeated my German command. This man also chose to remain in his hole, so I raised up on one knee and fired a quick burst from my gun into the hole.

To this day I do not know why the Germans did not fire on me when I was hung up on the barbed wire, or why they remained in their fox- holes while I was rolling grenades in on them. Apparently they were waiting to be relieved by another squad and I caught them by surprise. It was one of those incidents that happen in combat where you can never rationalize the behavior of the enemy. This was also true sometimes of our own forces.

On my solitary quest I killed four Germans and knocked out a machine gun, but I was still without a prisoner. The burst from my tommy gun must have gotten some attention, because it brought one German out of his foxhole with his hands held high.

All this while I had been on my stomach crawling from one hole to the next without exposing myself. But when the German came out, I jumped up behind him and put my left arm around his neck and my tommy gun in his back, using him as a shield. My adrenaline was flowing at a record pace in that hectic moment. I wasn’t certain that one of the Germans wouldn’t rise up and shoot us both.

Although the prisoner I now held was the fifth German I had accounted for, I had no way of knowing how many more there were in that outpost. So I tightened my hold around his neck, dug my tommy gun deeper into his back, and in my broken German asked: “Wieviel Deutsch soldat hier?” (How many German soldiers here?) The response was, “Ich verstehe nicht. ” (I don’t understand.)

I didn’t think my German was that bad, so other more persuasive means had to be used to make him talk. This was not a time for German arrogance. In the heat of battle I was locked in mortal combat and in a struggle for my life. I would just as soon have slit his throat except for the fact that I needed information, and division wanted him for the same purpose. I knocked him to the ground and, lying next to him, began choking him. Then I repeated my question. I got the same response.

I’d about had it with him. If he wouldn’t cooperate, there was no way he’d make it back to a prison camp. I got so exasperated that I whacked him across the mouth with the butt of my tommy gun. I hit him so hard that I broke some teeth and probably his jaw. I then asked again, “Wieviel Deutsch soldat hier?” This time I get a positive response. Spitting out blood and teeth, he said in English, “There are ten German soldiers here.”

I stood him up and, with my tommy gun still dug in his back, said, “Call your comrades to come out and surrender.” With that he began calling his buddies by their first names. One more surrendered, raising the count to four dead and two prisoners.

At that point I called out for the platoon sergeant to bring up the patrol, which had been waiting for my order to move out. They covered the entire length of what appeared to be the outpost position. Four more Germans were accounted for, two prisoners and two KIA. The prisoner was correct; there were ten German soldiers in that outpost. Now all were accounted for. The score on our first encounter was “bad guys,” six dead, four prisoners; “good guys,” no casualties.

It was for this action that Magellas was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, contributing to his position as the 82nd Airborne’s most decorated officer by the end of the war. See James Megellas: All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe.

Robert Capa's image of the 82nd fighting in Normandy.

Robert Capa’s image of the 82nd fighting in Normandy.

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