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.
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:
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.