Nijmegen: the 82nd Airborne assault across the Waal

Dutch civilians ride on a jeep during the advance towards Nijmegen, 20 September 1944.

Dutch civilians ride on a jeep during the advance towards Nijmegen, 20 September 1944.

Cromwell tanks of Guard's Armoured Division drive along 'Hell's Highway' towards Nijmegen during Operation 'Market-Garden', 20 September 1944.

Cromwell tanks of Guard’s Armoured Division drive along ‘Hell’s Highway’ towards Nijmegen during Operation ‘Market-Garden’, 20 September 1944.

The bridge at Nijmegen after it had been captured by the 82nd (US) Airborne Division. A dead German SS officer lies where he fell during the attack.

The bridge at Nijmegen after it had been captured by the 82nd (US) Airborne Division. A dead German SS officer lies where he fell during the attack.

Operation Market Garden was a series of airborne attacks on a succession of bridges on the route into Germany. The US 82nd Airborne Division had dropped in Nijmegen and been engaged in a furious fight to secure the ground around the southern end of the bridge across the Waal. They had still not secured the northern end when a small force of British tanks arrived on the 20th September.

A plan was now developed to launch an amphibious assault across the Waal while the tanks rushed the bridge. British canvas boats were now brought up and the 3rd Battalion of the 504th Regiment prepared for the attack. They were unfamiliar with the boats and untrained in this type of attack. On the opposite bank the Germans were well dug in in established positions. Lt James Magellis describes the opening of the attack:

At 1500 on 20 September, Major Cook blew a whistle signaling the start of the assault. Shrill cries of “let’s go” followed as the paratroopers released pent-up emotions. We grabbed the boats by the gunwales, charged up the embankment, crossed the open, flat top of the dike, and made a mad dash for the river. The boats, loaded with our gear and weapons, were heavy, and the going was tough in the loose sand.

We caught the Germans by surprise. For the first hundred yards they hadn’t fired a shot, but when they realized what was happening, all hell broke loose. They opened up with everything they had: small arms, machine guns, 20mm flak wagons, mortars, and artillery.

Magellis includes a number of different accounts of the action that afternoon in his memoirs, amongst them one written by Captain Henry B. Keep:

As we frantically scurried for the river’s edge, chaos and confusion reigned. With shells exploding all around us, we kept charging forward. At that point we were all driven by instinct and running on adrenaline with but a single purpose: to get our boats in the water and across the river.

At last we reached the drop. We let the boat slide down to the beach and ourselves slid alongside of them. We pulled our boat quickly across a short beach and everyone piled in. By this time, the situation was horrible.

The automatic and flat trajectory fire had increased and the artillery was deadly. Men were falling right and left. In everyone’s ears was the constant roar of bursting artillery shells, the dull wham of a 20-mm, or the disconcerting ping of rifle bullets.

After a false start we got stuck in a mud bar and several of us were forced to get out and go through the extremely uncomfortable process of pushing off again. We found ourselves floating in the wrong direction. Everyone grabbed a paddle and frantically started to work. Most of the men had never paddled before and, had it not been for the gruesomness [sic] of the situation, the sight might have been rather ludicrous.

Every movement in excess of the essential paddling was extremely dangerous since the bullets were flying so thick and fast that they gave a reasonable facsimile of a steel curtain. By now the broad surface of the Waal was covered with our small canvas crafts and crammed with frantically paddling men.

Defenseless, frail, canvas boats jammed to overflowing with humanity, all striving desperately to get across the Waal as quickly as possible. Large numbers of men were being hit in all boats and the bottoms of these crafts were littered with the wounded and dead. Here and there on the surface of the water was a paddle dropped by some poor unfortunate before the man taking his place had been able to retrieve it from his lifeless fingers.

Somehow or other we were three-quarters of the way across. Everyone was yelling to keep it up, but there was very little strength left in anyone. But at last we reached the other side.

We climbed over the wounded and dead in the bottom of the boat and up to our knees in water waded to shore where behind a small embankment we flopped down gasping for breath, safe for the moment from the incessant firing.

All along the beach what was left of our flimsy boats were reaching shore. Men more dead than alive were stumbling up the beach to get momentary protection behind the unexpected but welcome embankment before pushing across the broad flat plain in front of us.

See James Megellas: All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe.

Nijmegen and Grave 17 - 20 September 1944: A large group of German soldiers who have been taken prisoner in Nijmegen and the surrounding area by American paratroopers of the 82nd (US) Airborne Division.

Nijmegen and Grave 17 – 20 September 1944: A large group of German soldiers who have been taken prisoner in Nijmegen and the surrounding area by American paratroopers of the 82nd (US) Airborne Division.

The battle was very far from over, the 3rd Battalion was to fight an intense action before the bridge was finally secured at 1700. Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion was still battling it out in Nijmegan itself, as Germans now sought to retreat across the bridge they fell into the hand sod the 3rd Battalion.

The small force of British tanks were now ten miles away from Arnhem. Controversially they did not press on but waited to regroup before renewing the attack.

Meanwhile the isolated British Parachute Regiment were still battling it out in Arnhem:

Lance Sergeant John Baskeyfield VC

Lance Sergeant John Baskeyfield VC

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the VICTORIA CROSS to: –

No. 5057916 Lance-Sergeant John Daniel Baskeyfield, The South Staffordshire- Regiment (1st Airborne Division) (Stoke-on-Trent).

On 20th September, 1944, during the battle of Arnhem, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield was the N.C.O. in charge of a 6-pounder anti-tank gun at Oosterbeek. The enemy developed a major attack on this sector with infantry, tanks and self-propelled guns with the obvious intent to break into and overrun the Battalion position. During the early stage of the action the crew commanded by this N.C.O. was responsible for the destruction of two Tiger tanks and at least one self propelled gun, thanks to the coolness and daring of this N.C.O., who, with complete disregard for his own safety, allowed each tank to come well within 100 yards of his gun before opening fire.

In the course of this preliminary engagement Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield was badly wounded in the leg and the remainder of his crew were either killed or badly wounded. During the brief respite after this engagement Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield refused to be carried to the Regimental Aid Post and spent his time attending to his gun and shouting encouragement to his comrades in neighbouring trenches.

After a short interval the enemy renewed the attack with even greater ferocity than before, under cover of intense mortar and shell fire. Manning his gun quite alone Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield continued to fire round after round at the enemy until his gun was put out of action. By this time his activity was the main factor in keeping the enemy tanks at bay. The fact that the surviving men in his vicinity were held together and kept in action was undoubtedly due to his magnificent example and outstanding courage. Time after time enemy attacks were launched and driven off.

Finally, when his gun was knocked out, Lance Sergeant Baskeyfield crawled under intense enemy fire to another 6-pounder gun nearby, the crew of which had been killed, and proceeded to man it single-handed. With this gun he engaged an enemy self propelled gun which was appoaching to attack. Another soldier crawled across the open ground to assist him but was killed almost at once. Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield succeeded in firing two rounds at the self propelled gun, scoring one direct hit which rendered it ineffective. Whilst preparing to fire a third shot, however, he was killed by a shell from a supporting enemy tank.

The superb gallantry of this N.C.O. is beyond praise. During the remaining days at Arnhem stories of his valour were a constant inspiration to all ranks. He spurned danger, ignored pain and, by his supreme fighting spirit, infected all who witnessed his conduct with the same aggressiveness and dogged devotion to duty which characterised his actions throughout.

Nijmegen and Grave 17 - 20 September 1944: British engineers removing the charge which the Germans had set in readiness to blow the Nijmegen bridge.

Nijmegen and Grave 17 – 20 September 1944: British engineers removing the charge which the Germans had set in readiness to blow the Nijmegen bridge.

A panoramic view of the city of Nijmegen, Holland, and the Nijmegen Bridge over the Waal (Rhine) River in the background.  The city was hit by German and Allied bombardment and shelling.  September 28, 1944.

A panoramic view of the city of Nijmegen, Holland, and the Nijmegen Bridge over the Waal (Rhine) River in the background. The city was hit by German and Allied bombardment and shelling. September 28, 1944.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

David Gray May 28, 2017 at 12:44 am

XXX Corps took one end of the bridge but the 82nd took the other end. John McManus “September Hope” is a good detailed look at the operations of the 82nd and 101st Airborne. Not that it mattered much given the lack of exploitation following the seizure of the bridge.

Nancy April 15, 2016 at 7:25 pm

Many members of my civilian family members died at a cafe in Ooij, Ubbergen as a result of the fighting that day….one of my 1st cousins was a civian killed by grenade fire near his home. I know of at least 15 people. My father’s family made it through okay, but for a long time he was very angry with the American military for the way they basically demolished the City of Nijmegen….he once said that the American military caused more damage on that one day tban the German’s did in the four years they occupied Nederland. Zodat wij niet vergeten….

John February 27, 2016 at 8:09 pm

The bridge was taken at both ends by XXX Corps. The 82nd were not even at the bridge when the tanks went across. They were at the far end of the village of Lent, about 1km away, which was just north of the bridge. The Germans had naturally put a road block at the end of the bridge which the tanks had to push out of the way to proceed. On leaving the bridge two tanks of the four were hit and one knocked out with men killed, injured and taken prisoner. One was got going again. The Germans were firing from the girders and land around the bridge. No 82nd were there to meet the tanks, only Germans. The 82nd first met the British tanks near the railway embankment and railway bridge at the far side of Lent. The 82nd men kissed the tank and its guns. The leading two tanks had already knocked out a German self-propelled gun and hit the church. The tank would go no further as German guns were ahead and they were to protect the bridge.

Only four tanks moved over the bridge. The rest of the tanks were fighting in Nijmegen town helping the 82nd who had not taken Nijmegen.  One tank added to the four. The tanks were tasked to secure the north end of the bridge in case of a counter-attack, not neglect their prime task and go on a suicidal night stroll into Dutch farmland. 

There wasn’t only Waffen SS in the way to Arnhem. Schwere Panzerkompanie Hummel with 14 Tiger I tanks had also crossed the Arnhem bridge at that time and took up defensive positions near Elst north of Lent. There is no way that 4 Sherman tanks would have got anywhere near Arnhem. The big point is they they were to protect the bridge and only the bridge.

The best book on this is Market Garden Then and Now. A Bridge Too Far is inaccurate on many points.

mario van limburg January 15, 2016 at 10:19 pm

@Walby There is a liberation museum at Groesbeek (NL) who kept records of al fallen allies in the world.

Glenn Ducote search for “oversteek nijmegen” lot of information. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6mpNDfv6cY

glenn ducote February 18, 2015 at 2:37 am

my father sgt. lurry ducote recieved the silver star for acton sept. 20, 1944, waal crossing. looking for any and all info i can find. thanks glenn ducote

Walby February 9, 2015 at 8:50 pm

My father lost his life in the tank cor at Nijmegen all Canadian and British tanks were lost ,but there ar no records held at the war office very strange.

A. Johnson September 26, 2014 at 5:55 am

I marched across that bridge during the 2009 Nijmegen 4-Daags March. So much history behind that bridge and that city as well.

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