The Capture of the Maas River Bridge

During

Operation Market Garden

 

An interview with  Joseph Charles Watts, Jr.

F Company/504th Parachute Infantry Regiment

 

I was assigned to F Company of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment beginning with the Africa campaign and through the end of the war. On Friday, September 15, 1944, we loaded buses and trucks for our marshaling area at an air field in England. I was 21 at the time. We had gone to this staging area twice over the past few weeks [on missions that eventually were cancelled because U.S. ground forces overran the planned drop zones,] so lounging in the big metal hangers and packing and loading bundles on the belly of C-47s had become routine again.

 

Sunday, September 17, 1944

 

After a gloomy, drizzly Saturday in England -- Sunday, September 17th dawned clear, bright, and sunny, and we were ready. We were briefed with sand-tables and aerial photos taken that morning. Our Battalion mission was to secure and hold the bridge crossing the Maas River at Grave, Holland. We would split 2nd Battalion by dropping E Company south of the bridge and the remainder of the Battalion – including myself -- to drop at the same time but on a DZ on the north side of the river.

 

We really were anxious about this operation after being left out of the Normandy drop. We were happy about it. However, it was a daylight drop which was unusual because our previous to combat jumps had been at night and, of course, we had flak on one of them and not much of anything on the other two in Sicily and Italy so we didn’t know just exactly what that would do for us. We did know we had air superiority which we hadn’t had previously. These things went through our minds but the thing that was worse was the spelling of the objective’s name: G-R-A-V-E. That bothered us, but other than that, we thought it was a good plan and we thought that the regiment and the battalion were doing just what they should be doing to make sure we all survived.

 

We were issued escape kits, some Dutch Guilders, gas masks and life belts. The word was passed to absolutely not leave your gas mask behind. We trucked to the aircraft, shouting out our aircraft chalk number so the truck would stop and let us off.

 

We didn’t stand around long, and the next thing we knew, we were flying over the English Channel and the Schelde Estuary. Somewhere along the way we took off our gas masks and inflatable life belts, kicking some into the Channel and stuffing others under the seat back webbing. Our C-47s were surrounded by U.S. and R.A.F. fighter and bomber aircraft. From a window, I watched a P-51 Mustang go after a motorcyclist riding down a dyke. Just before reaching Grave, the fighter escort seemed to vanish, moving above and to one side of our flights. I recall looking out the aircraft window to see the Maas River Bridge -- our objective -- and the town coming up on our starboard side as the green light signaled us to jump, from 600 to less than 800 feet. This was around noon that day.

 

My parachute opened. As I checked my canopy, I could see our C-47s still flying to the northeast, into Germany, as parachutes blossomed behind them all the way to what I later came to know as Wyler, Germany, then banked left on the return to England, and -- BANG -- I hit the ground. I could hear some small-arms fire coming from vicinity of the bridge, and could see some flak, not much, blossoming among the C-47s. There was flak but not around our DZ. There was flak up ahead which evidentially was in or coming from Germany.

 

As I was unharnessing from my parachute, I was busy looking for Krauts, squad members, and watching a couple of C-47s that had been hit by flak as they slowly spun, out of control, to the ground. A couple of parachutes opened from one as the crew bailed out. They looked to be within the lines that we, the 82nd, were forming. At the same time, we assembled and moved out along a road dyke southeast to take the north end of the Maas River Bridge.

 

Our E Company, further back in the line of aircraft, jumped at the same time, landing south of the river, about 500 yards southwest of the southern approach to the bridge. The idea was to attack both ends of the bridge at the same time. We had been about a mile from the northern end of the bridge approach when we assembled but could see the flak tower by the bridge at this end. It was silent. As we approached the northern end of the bridge, F Company passed through the assembling D Company to go west of the main road that ran across the bridge. Our approach march track was asphalt, as best I can recall, with a few farm houses, occupants out waving at us and calling welcome in English. One girl about 16 or 18 years old lifted her skirt to display a slip made from a parachute. I can only guess where it had come from, and how long ago.

 

The Dutch didn’t come right up to us, however. It was a matter of they weren’t too sure which way the battle was going to go and they didn’t want to get to near us -- we had guns and they didn’t know what our mood would be so they stayed away from us. We saw a lot of this in Italy where you would enter a town and the Germans were going out the other end the population would stay away from you until after they were sure you were going to be there. Then they would approach you and show there friendship, but if there was a chance the place could be retaken they weren’t about to stick their necks out. So the people stayed away from us until after we secured the bridge and the area; then the citizenry became friendly.

 

As we closed on the northern end of the Maas River bridge, it was now a couple of hundred yards to our left front, we began to get incoming small arms fire from just beyond the bridge structure near the river. We didn’t get any mortar fire -- we could hear mortars some place but they weren’t directed at us evidently, but small arms fire kept coming over -- we get the crack and this stuff passed over us -- none of it hit the ground so evidently they were shooting too high. We may not have been the target, I don’t know.

 

About 200 yards down river there was a brick pump house or "waterhouse" as they called it. Every once in a while we could see Krauts running in and out of the building. The main road came up from the south headed directly for the town of Grave, then made a hard left, to the west, to line up with the bridge, then when parallel with the bridge, the road turned right, to the north, to pass over the bridge. On the north side, the road came off the bridge for about 100 or so feet and made a sharp turn west paralleling the river. About a half-mile later, the road gradually veered north toward Nijmegen. It was as though the road ran into Grave before the bridge was constructed where one would wait for a ferry to cross the river.

 

The track F Company – my company -- was on junctioned with the main road and to follow it would mean exposure to enemy fire. We left the track and passed through some woods along side the main road. When we got to about opposite the brick pump house on the river dike, we brought our squads on line along the main road and rushed across in a couple of waves. We were taking sporadic fire from both the pump house and the bridge area. To our right, up the road toward Nijmegen, we could faintly hear our 3rd Battalion having a shoot-out. Our goal was to take the bridge approach while suppressing fire from the house and bridge. There were enemy shooters in the bridge structure. About the time we had shot up the dike area, a German Volkswagen with about six men on board came flying out of the house going west, then dropped off the dike on a road and came back to the main road to our west. We knew 3rd Battalion would get them. In fact, we later heard they had also captured a train full of Germans going on leave. But now the way was clear and we moved toward the bridge proper.

 

We moved without difficulty down the ditch toward the bridge approaches. When we arrived at the north end of the bridge, we assisted clearing the flak tower; we found several dead Germans whose demise we attributed to aircraft strafing earlier in the day. Looking up we could see B-24 Liberators passing overhead parachuting bundles from their bomb-bays onto our DZ.

 

Across the river through the bridge girders we watched as at least one truck load of German soldiers and another vehicle came out of Grave and head for the [southern approach to the] bridge. The thrill of the game was on us -- they're sending in the first team. For the first time that day I was scared. Now all we needed were Panzers, I thought. It seemed too far for us to take them under fire but someone did because the truck swerved across the road and rolled off the east side, the Grave side, of the road. A few enemy soldiers scattered running toward town. As we brought fire on them, enemy fire came out of the town toward us. We were taking fire from the town and initially from the bridge girders high up where at least two German snipers tied themselves to the girders. I kept firing my Thompson sub-machine gun into the girders at them as we made our way to the flak tower by running on the dike shoulders then across the bridge using girders as shelter. A couple of our guys were using entrenching tools on bundles of what looked like communications wire. I was following right behind Lt. Middleton for a while. Bullets and fragments were buzzing all around us -- then I saw him get hit in the hand by a ricochet off a girder. We bandaged it. He said it hurt but he didn't need my help. The Lieutenant already had been issued four Purple Hearts, the latest from Anzio. Therefore, I put more space between us, I ran ahead. If he was the target, I didn't want to be too close to him.

 

As we jogged and dodged across the last of the nine spans, we were running out of places to hide, even though it was getting dark about now, we were still drawing fire from the direction of Grave. Fortunately, a friendly someone was standing at the base of the south flak tower warning us of mines off the dike shoulder to the west, at the base of the flak tower, right where I was headed -- someone evidently stationed there to prevent the accident prone of becoming casualties. We then learned that John Thompson's [E Company] platoon had taken that tower and had taken out the north tower using the gun from the south tower.

 

An hour later it was dark, but by then the bridge was secured -- we had the entire 2nd Battalion, about 400 men, on the south side of the Maas River outposting the town of Grave and the bridge and patrolling to the east and west, awaiting the arrival of the British XXX Corps that was scheduled to relieve us two days later. Three of us patrolled into town to contact E Company. But they weren’t in the town. We later learned they were in a bistro down the main road about a hundred yards drinking and living it up with the locals. We found the gentle people of Grave to be generous and kind.

 

Our squad position was the most easterly position, at the edge of town along the Grave-Beers road, running parallel with the river in an easterly direction, by a grave yard. The Dutch bury them into the ground, not on top like in New Orleans or some of the tidal U.S. coast towns. My foxhole was at the east juncture of the grave yard and the road on the south side. Our Platoon CP was behind us on the south side of the of the road in a feed store barn or school, I don’t remember which. Our squad A6 machinegun was on the north side of the road between the road and the river dyke across and abreast of my position with our BAR. We covered the M1A1 AT minefield we had laid just before dark. These mines had three components: the body of 12-inch diameter containing about five pounds of TNT, a separate Tetral cap or igniter, and the "Spider" which was a web of steel that fit over the mine, the center of which rested on the cap. When a vehicle rolled onto the web, the web crushed the cap and exploded the mine. When jumped and carried, all three components usually separated so the caps would not go off and so the mines and "Spiders" wouldn’t bang against one another. We all jumped two complete mines into Holland with the caps wrapped in tissue in our breast pockets, the mines in our pant leg pockets or musette bags. Our mine-fields were covered by fire and usually by observation. But we usually removed placed mines at daylight so they couldn’t be stolen and used against us or booby-trapped. At Grave, we had to cut through the asphalt topping of this dike and it was tough.

 

Thus concluded our first day of Operation Market Garden, with the Maas River bridge -- the longest span bridge in Europe at that time, nine spans -- in our hands. We sat down to await XXX Corps’ crossing of "our" bridge. It was around 2100 or 2200 hours that evening.

 

 

Monday, September 18, 1944

 

The next day, Monday, September 18, 1944, I led an eight-man patrol to the town of Beers, due east of Grave, to secure boats on the Maas River to the south side of the river, to establish non-existence of enemy armor, to establish contact with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, to coordinate Orange partisan activity. Me and one other were on the river dike with observation all around, while the other four guys were on the road looking for mines and booby-traps. It took us about 1 hours to reach Beers. All boats had been sunk, no enemy armor was evident, and we were received in Beers by the population with open arms, cold beer, hot sugary crepes and bacon, in a small tea room overlooking the plaza and junction of the Maas River and Mass-Waal canal. There were a number of 82nd troops in town, some from the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment had been trapped on this side of the river when a bridge they were trying to get was blown. I was given several dog-tags reported to have been gathered from downed U.S. Army Air Corps personnel. These were turned over to Company on our return. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, asking questions about enemy armor, and the Orange, their underground organization. No one admitted to an underground and everyone was certain there was a Tiger Tank in every barn, but no one had seen any for a week. I finally assembled our guys and we started back. We were passing a building we had not searched coming into Beers, when a man inside called to us. We immediately went into a defensive mode as I went to him. He was the Orange contact. We made arrangements for him to watch for Germans moving in or out of Beers and to notify us by telephone, the phones were working fine, except for some local lines whose insulators had been shot up, if Germans were spotted. Then we continued the march; arriving at our Grave CP before dark, around 2000 hours. I made my report to include, the fields and pastures were too wet to permit armor but would not slow infantry, than went back to my hole. That night, about 0200 hours, we heard someone in our AT minefield. Two of us scooted down the drainage ditch to where the mines were and saw three men in civilian clothes, removing our mines. Behind them was a touring car without lights, so we thought at the time, they were painted over. We challenged them and learned they were the Mayor and Council from Beers who were coming to meet with their counterparts from Grave in the morning. We called for help, escorted them to our CP while the mines were replaced. Everything settled down and was quite for about an hour when I was awakened because we heard someone was coming down the ditch from the direction of Beers. We laid an ambush and caught our friend from the Orange. He had come, on foot, to tell us about the automobile that had blown by his position outside of Beers earlier en route to Grave. They didn’t have automatic telephone switching locally and the operator didn’t work at night.

 

 

Tuesday, September 19, 1944

 

Tuesday dawned foggy and cold. So much had been happening in our sector that, though we heard traffic and noises behind us, we didn’t pay much attention. When the fog cleared guys were climbing the river dike to look at the Sherman tank sitting on the Bridge. The Guards Armored Division [attached to XXX Corps] had made it to us. About 0900 hours we were jawing with some of the Brits, some had been on Anzio with us and were familiar, drinking tea, or Chi as they called it. A runner told us to form up, we were moving out soon. We rolled our duffle and moved to first squad assembly points, then Platoon, finally to the Company assembly point just short of the bridge. Capt Sweet told us our Grave mission was complete, we were now rejoining the Regiment near Nijmegen. F Company moved out about 1030 hours, in Company route march, squad column, even numbered men on the right, odd on the left of the road to Nijmegen.

 

 

Wednesday, September 20, 1944

 

The 505th, the 508th and our glider regiment, the 325th, had drop and landing zones north of us on D-Day. Nijmegen, the Waal River, and the Maas-Waal canal bridges were their objectives. When on Wednesday, September 20th the bridges across the Waal River leading to Arnhem had not been taken, the mission was given to us, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. It really was an epic, though we didn’t think so at the time; just scary.

 

On the southern outskirts [of Nijmegen] we turned off the main road, which was clogged with traffic, westerly but still north toward the Waal River. We had a couple of small fire-fights, skirmishes, none of our guys were hurt, enroute through what was evidently the blue-collar suburbs, small machine shops and factories, one an assembly plant for German P-38 pistols. Finally, a civilian in Nijmegen -- they still weren’t sure who was going to win the battle and the war -- pointed out two tall smoke stacks that belonged to the city power plant, our Battalion assembly area. We made tracks for the stacks. We thought we would be crossing. Instead, we took up defensive positions. We stayed on the south bank, near the power plant, firing at the Germans on the far shore, supporting 3rd Battalion’s crossing. The Waal river crossing on the afternoon of 20 September 1944, was done by our 3rd Battalion, Major Julian Cook commanding. When we got up to our defensive position on the south side of the Waal River bank, there were already 3rd Battalion guys on the other side of the bank. We got there late because we got lost in the suburbs trying to get to the assembly point which was the power plant. We tried to give covering fire from the south side of the Waal River and I recall somebody coming down and saying, "knock it off – you’re lucky if you don’t hit one of our guys." It was evident that it wasn’t a big German force on the north side of the river. But there was enough of a force that it made it miserable and made it difficult especially since there wasn’t another way to get across the river at the time. There weren’t any boats left. We looked down at the river banks, at the launching sites and there were only one or two boats there -- all the rest of them were either left on the other side -- some boats did come back and go back again, and now, by the time we got there, most of the other boats were left on the other bank or had been lost so there was no way to reinforce those guys who had been left on the north side of the river. We saw the GIs crossing the river, I mean, the ones that were getting hit, obviously there were men falling into the river drowning, and the like.

 

So, there wasn’t much we could do and we had to concern ourselves with incoming German prisoners coming from the north side of the river. At dusk on Wednesday, September 20th we began to collect Wehrmacht prisoners that were sent back across the bridge into the city and coming from all over the place. Near my rifle position was a small field with dikes on four sides. This was the prisoner holding area. In the next field the dead were brought from the river and laid out waiting trucks to take them to an undisclosed burial site.

 

I was very happy to leave there that afternoon, as we route-stepped our way into the city where, long after dark, we loaded on DUCKs. The DUCKS were part of the British convoy that had been brought up, too late, to help with [Major Cook’s] Waal River crossing. Big amphibious 2 ton trucks with boat-like body and a drive-takeoff the runs a stern propeller when in water. I drives like a truck in and out of the water. But now under blackout conditions, we convoyed all over that part of Holland, getting lost then found and lost again. It was dark, very dark, no moon. We were all tired and some slept standing up, others slid down and curled up on the deck. I climbed up on what would be known as the hood or bonnet on a conventional vehicle, but was the forward deck in this thing, in front of the driver, and slept, until about 0300 hours on September 21 when the DUCKs finally stopped with a jolt and I was tossed to the ground. The word was passed to dismount and take it easy. All that noise of clashing gears and yelling above the engine noises and drivers not being able to see, flashing their headlights for a second to reorient themselves and turn around, was evidently seen by the enemy. We were on the highest land elevation in the Netherlands, the Berg en Dal heights, above Nijmegen, about 200 yards from a world renowned spa, a hotel. The order was to spread out in the local area and rest until it was light. The DUCKS departed with another clashing of gears and racing engines and indiscriminate flashing of lights. We settled down finally and for about 20 minutes; you could you could hear a pin drop in that forest. A few minutes later I heard, as most of us did, the boom of a larger gun’s muzzle blast. We waited, then the familiar sounds of Anzio Annie, the Express, came roaring down the line. Before the echo of the landing and explosion faded, there were entrenching tools banging away the the earth all over that hill. We received several more rounds before we heard a "Birddog" up trying to locate the gun. It was a railroad gun firing from deep in Germany at us. I heard casualties were in the 1st Battalion area, I don’t know what the casualty rate was. The next morning about 1030 hours they again shelled us with that big gun but it didn’t last long because of our air support.

 

 

 

Reflections on Operation Market Garden

 

[Regarding XXX Corps’ failure to move immediately up the road to Arnhem to relieve the British First Airborne Division,] we were outraged that there weren’t any Brits going -- we couldn’t see any armor going across the Waal River bridge. Frankly, we expected when we pulled up to the power plant to become party to a move to the north toward Arnhem. We thought we were going to go across the river but we were surprised, we didn’t know whether or not there was anything across the river except for portions of our 3rd Battalion. Maybe the Brits just didn’t know what the Krauts would do, but we were a very upset that they didn’t continue the march. It seemed to us that it was wide open. I remember there were some tanks, German tanks, I say some, one or two, that were back in the woods on the horizon -- way back on the north side [of the Waal River] and but every once in a while they would fire and you could tell they were moving to a new position because there would be one round from one place and another round from another place. It was extremely intermittent.

 

Our morale was okay; it wasn’t bad. The first day or so the morale was very good. And after the Waal river crossing the shellacking we had taken, even though we took the objective a whole bunch of us were a little depressed but and what this means is that the other two battalions had to do all the work and we did, but morale was never a bad thing. Our morale was, all in all, pretty good until about the first week of November and, man, we had been there just too long again. And we had to do it all over again. The weather was beginning to turn cold and rain became more frequent. It was monotonous. You know in a foxhole, it wasn’t good - so you were wet most of the time and that wasn’t very good at all. We were still wearing our jumpsuits - the 504th was the only parachute regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division that went in with the 508th and that includes the 325 Gliders, but we were the only ones still wearing the jumpsuits and some of the jumpsuits were issued in the States before we went to Casablanca and we’re still in jumpsuits -- light cotton jumpsuits and the other guys had the field trousers and field jackets. But ours were, we were lucky if we had a sweater to put on under that jacket -- it was usually a T-shirt.

Interview by Carl Fornaris of the Drop Zone with Joe Watts