Saturday, November 5, 2011

Nijmegen: A Walk Through the Battlefield

Climax at Nijmegen Bridge debuted as Scenario 34 in GI: Anvil of Victory, and was redone in ASL terms for the GI's Dozen scenario bundle by MMP as scenario U4. Like many (good) ASL scenarios, it compresses actual historical events and takes liberties with the historical terrain to conform to the constraints of the geomorphic mapboards.

The story of MARKET-GARDEN is well known, but the fighting in Nijmegen is often overlooked even by enthusiasts of this operation. The fighting in the city, as well as the nearby Groesbeek heights, has been relatively under-reported, even during the events that transpired there. Only two war correspondents were assigned to the division, both of whom covered the battle on the heights while the drama inside Nijmegen itself unfolded. In the words of historian Tim Saunders, as a consequence “there has never been the level of interest or knowledge that this highly significant battle deserves.” It is often not realized, for example, that there were two bridges in Nijmegen, a railway bridge and a road bridge, and references in histories to "the Nijmegen bridge" abound.
Modern day road map of Nijmegen.
When the 82nd Airborne landed at Nijmegen on September 17th, it managed to capture the Grave bridge intact. At 18:00hrs, two companies of the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (1/508) were sent to seize a bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen; a rail bridge and a road bridge further east both spanned the river. The company ran into machine-guns and an armoured halftrack as it penetrated into the city, and engaged in a firefight in the Keizer Karel Plein, a large traffic roundabout. German commanders had decided that Nijmegen would be a centre of main effort – a Schwerpunkt – and the reconnaissance battalion of the 9th SS Panzer Division had been hurriedly dispatched to bolster the defences there, along with a battle group of mixed elements from the 10th SS Panzer Division. Their orders were to block Allied troops in the south long enough to annihilate the British in the Oosterbeek area. The seizure of the north ramp of the Arnhem bridge put a hamper on further German reinforcements, isolating units in the Nijmegen area, notwithstanding those units now willing to endure a long flanking march and slow ferry ride across the Rhine well upstream.

Other reinforcements in the immediate area, however, were activated and thrown into a ring around the bridges, including a company of the Hermann Goering Training Regiment which had happened to be in transit on that day, three companies of trainees from nearby Military District 6, and a number of other forces including NCO candidates, railway guards, reserve police, anti-aircraft units, and replacement infantry companies.

The arrival of SS reinforcements had halted all forward motion by 1/508 and the Americans stopped for the night, all thought of capturing a bridge now vanished. The local resistance did pass on that the Post Office in Nijmegen contained one of the firing mechanisms for destroying the bridges, and that same night a patrol assaulted the building. The paratroopers seized the building and destroyed the firing mechanism; they were then counter-attacked and held out for three days as food, water and ammunition slowly ran out and the rest of 1/508 first pulled back to the south of Nijmegen, and then received orders to withdraw to the Groesbeek heights to reorganize.

A new crisis materialized on the 18th, when the Germans seized dropping zones from the 82nd on the Groesbeek Heights. A single company in Nijmegen was all that could be spared to continue the assault towards the main objective, the bridges over the Waal. Company G, of the 3rd Battalion of the 508th P.I.R. attempted to bypass German resistance in the Keizer Karel Plein and brushed through a number of rear echelon troops until finally running into SS defences close to the bridge, stiffened by artillery fire, and again fell short of taking the road bridge – though they had come within 100 yards of the near ramp.

The Keizer Karel Plein today shows no evidence of the 20mm gun and German infantry positions dug into the grounds in 1944.

On the 19th, contact was made between the leading elements of the ground forces of British 30th Corps, and the U.S. paratroopers in Grave. Daimler armoured cars of the 2nd Household Cavalry led the division into the city, and were soon engaged with German heavy flak guns; the heaviest armament the Daimlers could bring to bear with their small 2-pounder (40mm) guns. They exchanged fire with German anti-aircraft units across the river, and soon the divisional artillery joined in as well, answered by fire from German 10.5cm pieces. Additional troops prepared to assault both the road and rail bridges, split into two forces:

Western Force ( Railway Bridge)
tank troop from No. 3 Sqn, 2/Grenadier Guards
platoon from No. 2 Coy, 1/Grenadier Guards
Company D, 2/505 P.I.R.

Eastern Force (Road Bridge)
3 troops of tanks from No. 3 Sqn, 2/Grenadier Guards
3 platoons from No. 2 Coy, 1/Grenadier Guards

Companies E & F, 2/505 P.I.R.

A look at the scenario card for ASL Scenario U4 shows that the research for this was well done; the unit designations match exactly to that of the Eastern Force. Though the prelude on the card correctly identifies the objective as the "road bridge" it does not mention the rail bridge.

Current Google Earth map of the area of the road bridge (today known as James Gavinweg).

The Eastern Force came under fire 300 yards from the Road Bridge, as it entered the Keizer Lodwijk Plein; the Germans were heavily fortified in stone houses and in the grounds of an ancient fortification called the Valkhof (incorrectly called "Valkhol" on the scenario card).
Buildings overlooking Keizer Lodwijk Plein in which Lieutenant Dawson of No. 2 Company, Grenadier Guards and his men sought cover. They used automatic weapons on the enemy to their front and killed a considerable number of men, according to the divisional history, but return fire from an 88mm gun scored a direct hit on their house, which caused it to be evacuated.The building is marked "1" in the map above. The camera is facing south.

Three British tanks were knocked out in exchanges with German flak and anti-tank guns; attempts to gain an advantage by flanking the Germans through the side streets failed to succeed and the Eastern Force withdrew under heavy German artillery fire.

Tanks of 2./Grenadier Guards were knocked out in this square, which leads into the Valkhof Gardens. The square is marked "2" in the map above. The camera is looking south.

The Western Force, like the Eastern Force, advanced with the paratroopers riding on the tanks and the British infantry mounted in armoured carriers. This force also ran into heavy opposition and were unable to penetrate to the rail bridge. Major General James Gavin, the divisional commander of the 82nd Airborne, enquired to the commander of 30th Corps about the availability of boats, and a plan was drawn up to push across U.S. paratroopers across the Waal to try and put pressure on the Germans from the northern end of the river. The Guards Armoured Division's Royal Engineer Field Park Squadron had 26 assault boats which were ordered to the front. The 3rd Battalion of the 504th P.I.R. was to cross the Waal while forces in Nijmegen continued to attack the approaches to the bridges. The river crossing is well known as ASL scenario 25 Gavin's Gamble - the scenario card for which does not make a distinction between the rail and road bridges, and speaks as if there was one single "Nijmegen Bridge."

On the afternoon of September 20th, the date on which ASL Scenario U4 takes place, renewed attacks on the railway bridge moved closer, and buildings around Kronenburger Park were cleared, as the U.S. paratroopers learned a new method of house-to-house fighting, now fighting from rooftop to rooftop. The river crossing took place two miles to the west of Nijmegen. The crossing began after many postponements at 15:00hrs with artillery and mortar fire providing the smoke screen; the river was 175 yards wide and one report states that the boats travelled the first 100 yards without a shot being fired. The Germans had not expected an attempt to cross "one of Europe's widest and fast(est) flowing rivers in daylight", in the words of one of the German divisional commanders, and the notion was disregarded as "inconceivable and dismissed as suicidal." Only scattered outposts had been placed out on the Waal. The infantry landed in good order on the far bank, and Royal Engineers started shuttling heavy weapons over. The Hof van Holland, a 17th Century fortress, 500 metres from the north end of the railway bridge, with earthen banks and a wide water-filled moat, was next to be taken, and was blasted by fire from the south bank. By 18:00hrs the paratroopers had not only taken the fort but had driven on and flown the American flag from the north end of the railway bridge. Resistance began to melt away at the south end during the evening, but the success never got reported up the chain of command, or else the importance of the news never resonated with higher headquarters, who remained fixated on the road bridge. (Incidentally, the river crossing was simulated in Yanks scenario Gavin's Gamble (ASL 25) - often singled out as a "dog" because of the ability of German defenders to "skulk" - that is, duck back out of the way of American defensive fire, then advance into their positions again because of the peculiarities of the multi-phase turn system in ASL.)

The Valkhof Gardens (numbered "3" in the map above) are home to several fortifications, including the Belvedere, a tall tower (which is perhaps what the scenario card is referring to when it says "the action centred around a medieval tower), and two ancient brick chapels; this is a current view of one of them.

Half an hour after the river crossing started, British and American infantry were jumping off on yet another attack north towards the road bridge. The Valkhof Gardens had by now been fortified by engineers with crawl trenches and barbed wire. During the desperate fighting, a garbled radio message that the paratroopers across the river had "reached the northern edge of the bridge" was misunderstood to refer to the road bridge, not the rail bridge, and orders were given to the Grenadier Guards to dash ahead. A squadron of tanks – the last uncommitted reserves in the city – went forward and five managed to make it onto the bridge where they found German engineers working; there they engaged the engineers then dismounted to cut the cables of the demolitions.

The fighting for the road bridge had been intense but little of it had taken place in urban terrain; Hunner Park and the Valkhof Gardens are a treed green-space which the SS had fortified, located on high ground overlooking both the bridge and the inner city.

Top view shows the location of the former police station (at left) now occupied by a more modern building, from which King's Company, 1st (Motor) Battalion Grenadier Guards attacked up a then-rubble covered slope into the Valkhof Gardens. The camera is looking in the direction of the Waal. The next photo shifts the viewpoint to the right, showing the top of the Belvedere in the background. This attack gained a toehold into the Valkhof, and eventually supported the advance of No. 4 Company, and of E and F Companies of 2/505 PIR.

Future Depictions in Wargames

Nijmegen, and the Waal, have been a popular subject for pop culture depictions; the river crossing was a focal point of the movie A Bridge Too Far, as was the final rush by British tanks to cross the road bridge. Several SL and ASL scenarios have been set there, depicting the river crossing, road bridge fight, and German counter-attack to take the bridges (which resulted in a Medal of Honor being awarded to a US paratrooper). Given the tight concentration of terrain and relatively small forces involved, one could envision a Historical ASL module, and with the focus of the next Combat Mission releases including both British and - it is hoped - SS troops, quite possibly Nijmegen might feature in the plans of scenario designers for that series as well. One doubts the final word has been written on the subject.

No comments:

Post a Comment