Assault River Crossing at Nijmegen

Assault River Crossing at Nijmegen, 1944Donald P. Wright, Ph. D.In August 1944, the Allies were pushing toward Germany in attempt to defeat the Third Reich before winter arrived. Standing between Allied forces and the German heartland was the Rhine River, which Hitler planned to use to use as a formidable line of defense. Understanding that crossing the Rhine would take time and cost many lives, the Allied Command planned an audacious operation called Market-Garden that would quickly seize a major bridge over the Rhine in the Netherlands. Once secure, that bridge, located in the Dutch town of Arnhem, would be used as a gate through which Allied forces would pour into Germany. Success in this operation would require surprise and speed. To gain surprise, the Allied Commanders chose to drop two US Airborne Divisions, the 82d and 101st, in the Netherlands to seize and secure a series of six bridges along the road to Arnhem. The bridge over the Rhine itself would be seized by the British 1st Airborne Division dropped near the town of Arnhem. Once the Airborne forces were in control of the bridges, the British XXX Corps, a powerful force composed of mobile armored units, would fight quickly up the route to relieve the British Paratroopers in Arnhem and secure the gateway into the Third Reich.The 82d Airborne Division’s mission was to capture key terrain in the vicinity of the Dutch cities of Grave and Nijmegen. This included five bridges, the largest of which spanned the Waal River in Nijmegen. Because there was a limited number of aircraft available to drop the paratroopers and tow the gliders, the division’s combat power would land in the Nijmegen area over a three day period. So MG James Gavin, the division commander, designated the main Nijmegen Bridge as a priority, tasking the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) to send a battalion to seize that bridge as soon as possible on the first day of the operation. A railroad bridge over the Waal downstream from the main Nijmegen Bridge was not a priority objective. Two other regiments, the 504th PIR and 505th PIR, were directed to seize and hold four bridges in the vicinity of Grave and high ground near the town of Groesbeek on the first day as well. Glider-borne forces, including artillery and support units, would follow on the second and third days to help consolidate the gains made by the paratroop regiments.

Figure 1. Plan for Market-Garden.The jumps on the first day, 17 September, went well with little initial German opposition. Most of the division’s first day objectives were seized quickly but the main Nijmegen Bridge remained in German hands. An assault by Company A, 508th PIR had run into staunch German resistance on the south side of the bridge. Two additional American assaults on the bridge on Day 2 came within a block of the bridge entrance but were

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ultimately repulsed as the Germans had greatly reinforced their positions.The problem for MG Gavin and the 82d Airborne was how to secure the bridge so that the tanks of XXX Corps, rapidly approaching from the south, could cross the Waal and make their way to Arnhem to relieve the 1st Airborne that had seized the bridge over the Rhine and were holding on to it by their fingernails. On Day 2 of Market-Garden, Gavin began thinking about the tactical problem posed by the strong German positions on the south side of the bridge but other priorities prevented him from launching an immediate attempt to seize it. On Day 3 when reconnaissance elements of XXX Corps made contact with the 82d, Gavin was forced to act and finalized a wholly new plan that seemed to be the only means of meeting the intent of the larger operation. Although not equipped with assault boats, Gavin intended to envelop the German positions on the bridge by sending two battalions of the 504th PIR across the Waal River in a variety of civilian watercraft. Once on the north side of the river, the battalion’s Soldiers would attack and seize the northern end of the Nijmegen Bridge. At the same time, 2d Battalion, 505th PIR, with support from a British tank battalion, would attack the southern side of the bridge. Gavin’s hope was that the simultaneous attacks on both sides would force the Germans to retreat, leaving the bridge open to the Allies. When a quick search turned up few civilian boats, British staff officers in XXX Corps arranged for their engineers to bring assault boats up to Nijmegen for the crossing but because the boats could not be at Nijmegen until the afternoon of the next day (Day 4), Gavin unhappily planned for the assault crossing to begin in the afternoon. To mitigate the risk of a daylight crossing, he arranged for a great deal of fire support, including mortars, tanks, artillery, and rocket-firing Typhoon aircraft, targeting the far side of the Waal River which was defended in strength by German forces. Gavin briefed the entire plan to the XXX Corps staff and the leaders of the 504th PIR on the evening of Day 3.The assault crossing would be led by 3d Battalion, 504th PIR, commanded by a 27 year old MAJ Julian Cook. Cook had served with the regiment since Sicily and had rigorously trained his battalion, made up of hardened veterans, in England before the 504th PIR deployed to Europe. Once Cook got his rifle companies across and secured a bridgehead on the north side of the river, the 1st Battalion of the regiment would follow and secure the western flank. The landing site was approximately two miles west (down river) from the Nijmegen Bridge. After consolidating on the northern bank, two of Cook’s companies (H and I) would move east down the river bank, locate an earthen railroad embankment, and follow the north until they hit the road leading from the main Nijmegen Bridge. They would then turn southeast and assault the north end of the bridge moving companies abreast, one on either side of the road. Company G would follow to protect the rear of the two companies in the assault. By early evening, Gavin hoped to have the bridge in allied possession and the tanks of XXX Corps rolling across it on their way north to Arnhem. The realities of the terrain and the enemy’s dispositions posed serious obstacles to the operation achieving a quick victory. When MAJ Cook first saw the intended crossing site, he realized for the first time that the river was 400 yards wide and its current was swift. At that point, the battalion commander recalled thinking that someone above him had come up with “a real nightmare.” He then saw that if they succeeded in getting across this watery expanse, his Paratroopers would then have to cross a flat plain devoid of cover and concealment and which was 700 hundred yards in length until they could finally find cover behind a 30 foot high dike. Cook and his staff officers quickly identified German gun positions along the northern bank that could sweep the river and plain with machinegun and cannon fire. Several Dutch stone forts on the north side served as strongpoints for the German defense of the bridge at Nijmegen and would have to be attacked if paratroopers were to make it all the way to their objective. Finally, there was the railroad bridge on the river approximately 1,500 yards to the east of the crossing site. German units had set up 20 mm gun positions on that structure that could easily fire down on the men of the 504th PIR as they crossed the river and plain.Despite his concerns, Cook planned for his forces to consolidate at the dike and then follow the scheme of maneuver that directed H and I Companies to assault the north end of the bridge by moving southeast down the road. All understood that the intent of the division commander was the seizure of the northern end and the opening of the bridge. In the early afternoon on the day of the assault, officers briefed their men on the mission and intent as they waited for the boats to arrive. Many recalled feeling that the operation was like a Normandy-style landing and that they had not trained for that type of mission but the Soldiers also understood that the Nijmegen Bridge had to be taken if the British Paratroopers at Arnhem were to be relieved.The 26 boats arrived at the crossing site at 1430, approximately 30 minutes before the close air support would arrive and artillery barrage would begin. The Soldiers were surprised to find that they were small craft (19 feet long) with a wood frame and canvas skin. A US Engineer company had been assigned to operate the boats and found quickly that many of them were missing paddles. The Engineers went ahead and assembled them, after which the units in the first wave – Companies H and I and part of the battalion HQ – moved to their assigned boats and began loading equipment and ammunition. To many, it was clear that the boats would have a hard time making it across the Waal even without the Germans shooting at them but there was little time to ponder their plight as the artillery began to fire and the Typhoons arrived to pound the German positions on the far side of the river. Smoke rounds quickly formed a screen that would provide some concealment for the Soldiers.For most of the paratroopers, getting the boats into the water and moving across the river was a terrifying experience. Despite the smoke screen, enemy gunners quickly discovered the activities at the launch site and began firing at the men struggling with the heavy boats. Once on the water, men paddled with whatever they had to include paddles, rifle butts, and hands. German machine gun and mortar fire hit many of the boats during the crossing. The current made some of the boats almost impossible to steer. MAJ Cook, the battalion commander, led the first wave and recalled chanting, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” as he paddled.Of the 26 boats that left the southern bank, only half made it across in usable condition. Some did not make it at all. Officers and NCOs who made it to the north side quickly rallied groups of paratroopers that were still alive and not severely wounded and began leading them across the plain through more German fire. The wounded were gathered at a makeshift aid station. The Engineers began paddling the usable boats back to the southern side of the river. They would ultimately make several trips across the river, bringing the remainder of Cook’s battalion over as well as elements of the 1-504 PIR.Those in the first wave that made it to the dike quickly organized, located enemy positions on the dike, and began a ferocious battle for control of that key terrain. Many Germans surrendered while others had to be killed with grenades and in brutal hand to hand combat. The chaos during the river crossing and sprint to the dike had broken up squad, platoon, and company integrity. The paratroopers at the dike instead formed small groups and, understanding the mission and intent, had taken control of that position and begun to consolidate.The battalion’s disorganization meant that MAJ Cook’s plan to have H and I Companies attack abreast down the road toward the north end of the bridge was no longer feasible. Instead, officers and NCOs formed small groups and moved toward the Nijmegen Bridge, their ultimate objective. One of Company I’s Soldiers, SGT George Leoleis, recalled the actions of his small group, stating, “We were separated from any other men but we knew in what direction to head for, down the road toward the bridge.” The commander of Company G found that by late afternoon, the group he led included Soldiers from companies H and I as well as his own company and the battalion communications and medical sections. MAJ Cook, and his operations officer, CPT Keep, quickly put together a group of 30 men and began moving east from the dike through orchards and down ditches. Keep recalled that they formed ad hoc squads and used bounding movements across open areas and from one house to another as they approached the bridge. By quickly grabbing the initiative in this manner, Keep believed they were able to keep the German defenders off balance, preventing them from reorganizing.1LT Jim Megallas, a platoon leader in Company H, gathered about a dozen men from his platoon and moved to assault one of the Dutch forts from which the Germans were using a 20 mm gun to fire at the dike and at units crossing the river. Megallas’ force concentrated small arms fire on the fort, suppressing the German gunners. One of Megallas’ NCOs, SGT Leroy Richmond, then swam the moat surrounding the fort and tried to kill the Germans inside. Megallas quickly called him off, and remembering that the bridge was the objective, decided to move his group further east, leaving the fort for other units to seize.Figure 2. Assault river crossing at Nijmegen, 20 September 1944.

Some small groups followed the battalion plan and moved north along the railroad embankment to the road. There they met a great deal of German resistance. Another group led by CPT Carl Kappel, the commander of H Company, reached the embankment and rather than go north according to the plan, turned south toward the river. They hoped to find a way under the railroad bridge that would then open up a direct route to the main Nijmegen Bridge just 1,000 yards away. Kappel’s group was so successful that it seized the railroad bridge from the Germans. CPT Moffatt Burriss, the commander of I Company, then took charge of another ad hoc group gathered at the railroad bridge and began moving east toward the main bridge. Along the way, they had had to stop and clear a number of buildings on the banks of the river. Burriss’ group arrived under the main bridge at the same time that British tanks started crossing the bridge from the south side where the attack of the 505 PIR had been successful. The paratroopers from 3-504 went running up steps leading to the road surface above and met relatively little German resistance. In fact, the Germans defending the main bridge, threatened by the envelopment from the river crossing, had begun to pull back to the north away from the bridge. By 1915 that evening, the intact bridge was in Allied hands.The fight at Nijmegen had been a success. Part of that victory can clearly be attributed to MG Gavin’s vision of using an assault river crossing to envelop the Nijmegen Bridge from two directions but equally important was the way in which the Soldiers of the 3-504 PIR carried out the assault. Without their courage, devotion to the mission, and initiative at individual- and small-unit levels, it is difficult to envision how the crossing operation could have succeeded. The cost in lives was high. Twenty eight paratroopers from the 3-504 PIR made the ultimate sacrifice. H Company lost 15 killed or missing in action and suffered another 38 wounded. Another 40 of the battalion’s Soldiers were wounded but the actions that day allowed Allied forces to move toward Arnhem. Although the bridge over the Rhine did not remain in British hands, XXX Corps was able to extricate part of the surrounded 1st Airborne Division, saving thousands of British Soldiers from death or capture. For Further ReadingCornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far Simon Schuster, New York, 1974.Phil Nordyke, All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82d Airborne Division in World War II, Zenith Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota (2005) T. Moffatt Burriss, Strike and Hold, Potomac Books, Dulles, Virginia, 2000.

The Six Principles of Mission Command1. Build Cohesive Teams through Mutual Trust 2. Create Shared Understanding3. Provide a Clear Commander’s Intent 4. Exercise Disciplined Initiative5. Use Mission Orders6. Accept Prudent Risk Mission Command in the Nijmegen case 1. Build Cohesive Teams through Mutual Trust. Many of the 3-504 PIR’s Soldiers had served together in combat for years. The battalion commander, MAJ Cook, had been with the regiment since 1943. He had trained his men hard while in England in 1944 preparing for operations in Europe. CPT Moffatt Burriss, the H Company Commander, had been with the 3-504 PIR throughout this period as well and commanded HQ Company during the Anzio invasion. By the time they were preparing for the river crossing, the men of the 3-504 had fought together for days, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, building trust, and developing greater cohesion. The battalion commander and his company commanders likewise had established close relationships.2. Create Shared Understanding. MG Gavin briefed his plan for the assault crossing to his entire staff and 504th PIR leaders. MAJ Cook was then able to brief his leaders before the assault started. While waiting for the boats to arrive, subordinate leaders explained the mission to their Soldiers. All understood that the overarching mission was to seize the northern end of the main Nijmegen Bridge.3. Provide a Clear Commander’s Intent. From Gavin’s level down to squad leaders in the 3-504 PIR, it is evident that commander’s intent was effectively passed down. At Gavin’s level, he understood that seizing the Nijmegen Bridge was critical to the success of Market Garden. At the battalion level and lower, the actions of the small groups on the northern side of the river are evidence of an intent understood by all.4. Exercise Disciplined Initiative. At Gavin’s level, the division commander and his staff took the initiative to develop the plan for an envelopment of the bridge by using an assault river crossing. The actions of the small groups on the northern side of the river show commissioned officers and NCOs, in the chaos of combat, organizing small groups to move toward the objective. SGT Leoleis statement about his small group taking initiative to achieve the mission is an excellent example of this: “We were separated from any other men, but we knew in what direction to head for, down the road toward the bridge.” 1LT Megallas’ decision to end his attack on the Dutch fort in order to move his troops toward the most important objective is an excellent example of initiative that was disciplined. Because he understood the commander’s intent and needs of the mission, he chose to bypass the fort, despite the fact that it represented a very real threat to US units. 5. Use Mission Orders. As noted above, using general briefings and discussions before the river crossing, the mission was made clear to all down to Soldier level. The scheme of maneuver was simple and the objectives very clear. The mission orders were the key to success. They allowed for the small ad hoc groups to ignore the planned approach to the bridge and retain freedom of movement and decision-making. This enabled them to get to the northern end of the bridge in an unplanned but effective way.6. Accept Prudent Risk. MG Gavin had been managing risk carefully since his division landed outside of Nijmegen. His attempts to mitigate risk had led to his decision not to risk his troops in an all out frontal assault on the southern end of the bridge but by Day 3, the larger objectives of Market Garden, specifically the relief of the British 1st Airborne, overrode these concerns and Gavin made the decision to make the river crossing, understanding the danger involved. He attempted to mitigate the risk inherent in the daylight crossing of a river against an entrenched enemy by arranging for fire support and a smoke screen but this was only partially successf

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