65 years ago today – Hells Highway

Nijmegen Bridge

Nijmegen Bridge

While the battle at Arnhem was turning into a desparate struggle for survival, the ground forces and the 2 other Airborne Divisions were fighting an intense battle of their own.

After the Irish Guards reached the Son bridge, Royal Engineers worked through the night to build a Bailey Bridge. The Bailey Bridge, one of the engineering achievements of the war, was made of very few parts, could be carried in trucks and built by very few men in the minimum of time. As soon as the bridge was completed before dawn on 19 September, the tanks raced towards Grave, where the 82nd Airborne had succesfully captured the Bridge on the first day. After rushing through Grave, they came to a halt in Nijmegen.

Although General Browning knew that Nijmegen bridge would be pivotal in the whole operation, he curiously ordered General Gavin, the 82nd’s commander, to concentrate on holding their landing zone at the Groesbeek heights. Although they felt that the heights were tactically important, it is also possible that Browning was concerned by unfounded rumours of German armour in the Reichswald forest just over the border. Also, Browning had chosen Groesbeek for his own headquarters. Whether Browning needed to go into action is also open to debate. Isolated with the 82nd, he was in no position to have any influence on the battle at all. His Headquarters was not designed or trained to be operational, and used almost a Battalion’s worth of gliders, which were taken from Urquharts allocation at Arnhem.

Therefore, the Nijmegen bridge was still in German hands when the Guards arrived. Knowing that the Bridge was crucial to the allies, the Germans had put in place strong defences. However, Gavin and his officers put together a daring plan to cross the river in assault boats and seize both ends at once. What followed was one of the outstanding small-unit actions of the whole war. The airborne troopers crossed to the north bank, at the same time as the Grenadier Guards tanks assaulted the south bank.

What followed was one of the most devestating events of the whole war. At a time when the John Frost and the 2nd Battalion at Arnhem were fighting for their lives, and the road to Arnhem was wide open, the British tanks stopped for tea. Although they had been ordered to wait for infantry to catch them up, it is hard to escape the fact that many american troops had died fighting their way across the river, and knew that their comrades at Arnhem were fighting for survival. To see the tanks settling down for the night caused what was almost a serious diplomatic incident. Although the road from Arnhem to Nijmegen was highly exposed to tanks, the 82nd had taken massive risks in capturing the bridge, and it was high time that the Guards realised the urgency of the situation.

Although XXX Corps were streaming towards Arnhem, up the narrow highway, the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were fighting a savage battle to keep the road clear of Germans. On numerous occasions the road was cut and had to be cleared again.

Clearly, talk of reaching Arnhem in 2 to 3 days, and of fighting old men and children, had been way wide of the mark.

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Remembrance, World War One

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