Two days before his eighty-fifth birthday, Moffatt Burriss stands silently on a dike road on the northern bank of the Waal river in Holland, just a few miles from the German border. In front of him lies 900 yards of grassland sloping down from the elevated dike; beyond that the 400-yard wide river itself; and on the other side, the city of Nijmegen. Today, except for the wind blowing across the wide open space, it seems almost peaceful. But exactly sixty years ago it was anything other than peaceful, when Burriss spent the longest twenty minutes of his life here.
On the afternoon of September 20, 1944, Captain Burriss, as he then was, and 250 of his fellow US paratroopers were in flimsy canvas boats trying to cross the river, desperately paddling with their rifle butts while all hell broke loose around them. On that day there were German machine gun positions on the spot where Burriss is now standing. From there, protected by the dike, they were able to survey the flatland between them and the river. Almost as soon as the first boats hit the water, they opened fire, tearing up the river. Meanwhile Germany artillery fired from the railway bridge a mile upstream. In the space of twenty minutes, half of Burriss’s company was dead.
Burriss, then 24 years-old, was the company commander of ‘I’ company, 3d Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Until he was drafted after the United States entered the war, he had been a high school teacher at Orangeburg High School in South Carolina. He was, as he puts it, “an easygoing small-town boy who hadn’t gotten into a fight in years.” As a student at Clemson University he had been in the ROTC and held a reserve officer commission. In 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was called up for active duty and volunteered to become a paratrooper. He was assigned to the newly-formed 82nd Airborne and after attending “jump school” became the very first officer in the 3d Battalion of the 504th. Since then, he had seen a lot of fights – in North Africa, Sicily and Italy – but nothing he had experienced had come close to what happened on that afternoon in Holland in September 1944.
Sixty years later Burriss can remember it as if it were yesterday. Standing on the dike in his regimental beret, with his son Francis, his daughter Louisa, two of his grandsons, and two of his former comrades from ‘I’ Company, he examines the small plaque that commemorates the crossing of the Waal river in 1944 and a wistful look comes over him. This will probably be the last time he will come here.
Wednesday, September 20, 1944, was Day 4 of Operation Market Garden. The operation, the brainchild of Field Marshal Montgomery, was an audacious and – for Montgomery – unusually imaginative plan to invade Nazi Germany by what he called a “back door”. In what would be the biggest airborne operation ever attempted, three and a half divisions of paratroopers would seize a series of vital bridges in German-occupied eastern Holland, the main objective being the vital bridge across the Lower Rhine at Arnhem. The paratroopers would create what the military planners picturesquely called an “airborne carpet” over which a convoy of ground troops would advance, bypassing the 400-mile long Siegfried Line and quickly thrusting into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany. At the same time it would cut off German forces in Holland, liberate the Dutch, and last but not least capture the launching sites for the V-2 rockets, which had started falling on London at the beginning of September 1944. It was certainly a gamble – perhaps the biggest of the war – but if it worked, Montgomery thought, the war could be over by Christmas.
On the afternoon of Sunday, September 17, almost 35,000 British and American paratroopers from the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the British First Airborne Division had dropped or landed in gliders between Eindhoven and Arnhem. Simultaneously, the ground troops of XXX Corps of the British 2nd Army had started their advance northwards from the Belgian border.
Things started relatively well for the 101st and the 82nd, who job was to secure a total of seven bridges around the city of Nijmegen, as well as the vital Groesbeek heights. The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment had dropped near the town of Overasselt, where they faced little resistance and were able to quickly seize their first objectives, the bridge over the Maas river at Grave and two bridges across the canal linking the Maas and the Waal. Next came a more difficult task – seizing the two bridges over the Waal river at Nijmegen itself, above all the huge multi-span highway bridge over which the tanks would need to pass to get to Arnhem.
But for the British, who had the most difficult job – to take the bridge at Arnhem itself, 64 miles behind German lines – things had gone badly wrong. The planners had expected German resistance to be weak – “old men and children,” they were told – but by chance, it turned out that two SS Panzer Divisions, the 9th and 10th, were re-fitting in the Arnhem area. Within an hour of dropping, eight miles from their objective, the lightly-armed men of the British First Airborne Division were fighting intense battles against German artillery and Tiger tanks. Only a single battalion of British paratroopers, under Colonel John Frost, had been able to reach the bridge, and with each passing hour the German onslaught against them grew more fierce.
Meanwhile the armour of XXX Corps, advancing along a single-road highway, was facing stiffer than expected resistance and fell badly behind schedule. At Son the Germans blew up a vital bridge, holding up the advance until a temporary Bailey Bridge could be constructed. The first of XXX Corps’s tanks, the 2nd (Armoured) Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, finally arrived in the city of Nijmegen on Tuesday morning – 24 hours late. That evening, in fact, they were due to be in Arnhem itself.
The Allies now had to improvise. The idea of attempting a river crossing in order to take the bridge from both ends simultaneously had been proposed by Brigadier-General James M. Gavin, the young commander of the 82nd Airborne, early on Tuesday. The proposal was initially rejected by Lieutenant-General “Boy” Browning, the British overall commander of Operation Market Garden, who had himself dropped on the 17th and set up his headquarters near Nijmegen. Expecting the prompt arrival of XXX Corps’s armour, Browning wanted to wait and take the bridge from the south with a combined tank and infantry assault. However, over the next 24 hours, as the 82nd fought street-by-street through Nijmegen, Gavin’s proposal was resurrected. He assigned the task of crossing the river to Major Julian Cook’s 3d Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Moffatt Burriss had been promoted to Captain and put in command of ‘I’ Company in England just before Market Garden. Many of the men in the company were new – raw recruits who had replaced those killed or wounded at Anzio at the beginning of 1944, where the 504th had taken heavy losses. As a result it had missed out on D-Day while it was brought back up to strength in Leicestershire. But although ‘I’ company had fought in almost every other European campaign since the war had started, never before had it attempted a river crossing. Some of the men couldn’t even swim.
Burriss was first told of the plan at a briefing on Tuesday evening. Along with ‘H’ company, they would paddle across the fast-flowing river – 175 yards wide at the point of the crossing – in boats carrying thirteen paratroopers and three engineers each and storm the German positions on the northern bank of the river. They would then have to make their way through 900 yards of open ground and over the dike, then follow it for around three miles and seize the northern end of the highway bridge. Five minutes before they started their crossing, a smoke screen across the river would be laid. They would also be covered by 30 British tanks of the Irish Guards and the 82nd’s own mortars and machine guns firing from the southern bank. Nevertheless, Major Cook would later say, “we were being asked to make an Omaha beach landing all by ourselves.”
Early on Wednesday morning, Burriss saw the terrain for the first time when he was taken to the top floor of a massive power station on the southern bank of the Waal to look at the river, along with several senior British and American officers. It was then, as he looked with horror at how wide the river was and took in the 900 yards of flat open ground on the other side, that the reality of what his company was being asked to do hit him. Through field glasses he could even see the German machine gun positions on the northern bank. “It looks like a suicide mission to me,” Burriss remembers Colonel Reuben Tucker, the cigar-chewing commander of 504th saying. Burriss knew then that casualties would be high but felt they had to try – fellow paratroopers were being “cut to shreds” at Arnhem. As Horrocks explained to them, the entire success of Operation Market Garden now depended on the two companies of the 3d Battalion.
After he explained the plan to them, Burriss’s men were anxious to get on with it. But by mid-morning they were still waiting on the boats and the crossing was postponed to 11 a.m. At 2.30 p.m., when the boats finally arrived, the paratroopers could not believe their eyes. The vessels they were going to be making the crossing in were flimsy collapsible boats, nine feet long and 75 cm deep, with flat plywood bottoms and canvas sides held in place by wooden pegs. They “looked as if they wouldn’t make it across a swimming pool,” Burriss remembers. There were only 26 instead of the expected 34, one of the trucks having been hit by German fire in the corridor. Each was supposed to have eight paddles, but in fact some only had two. The rest of the men would have to paddle with their rifle butts. This, of course, meant they could not even fire back as they crossed the river.
At 3.00 p.m. the first wave of 260 paratroopers hit the water – ‘I’ Company on the right, ‘H’ Company on the left. Initially, they had the element of surprise – the last thing the Germans were expecting was an amphibious assault in broad daylight. However, the wind quickly blew the smoke screen away and the Germans opened fire. From then on it was chaos. Some of the boats were literally blown out of the water. Others were caught by the current and spun out of control. Some of the men were reciting the Lord’s Prayer as they paddled; others, like Major Cook, a Catholic, said Hail Marys. To the senior officers, watching from the power station, the scene on the river resembled a seething cauldron.
Burriss was sitting at the stern of one of the two lead boats, next to an engineer from the 307th Engineers who was doing his best to steer through the powerful current. All around them boats were taking direct hits from shells and the sky seemed to be hailing bullets. “Keep going, keep going,” Burriss remembers thinking.
“Captain,” the engineer said once they were about a third of the way across, “I’ve been hit.”
Burriss looked across and saw the engineer’s wrist turning red. Burriss reached across for the rudder, and at that moment a 20mm shell hit the engineer, shattering his head and sending his brains spilling out over Burriss’s lap. Burriss felt a stinging sensation in his ribs and realized he too had hit by shrapnel. The engineer’s upper body, which had fallen overboard, was in effect acting as a second rudder and dragging the boat upstream. Burriss reached down, pulled the engineer’s feet from under the seat, and heaved his body overboard. The engineer, Pfc. Willard Jenkins from Pennsylvania, floated downstream. His body would never be found.
By the time Burriss’s boat had reached the northern bank of the Waal, three of the men in it were dead and another seven were wounded. Burriss got out of the boat, took cover behind a small embankment and immediately vomited. The machine guns on the dike were still firing, making the grass in front of them bristle. Now filled with sheer rage, what was left of ‘H’ and ‘I’ Companies charged directly towards the machine gun positions 900 yards ahead of them. “It felt like nine miles,” Burriss remembers. Taking cover at the foot of the dike, they threw grenades over it. Many of the Germans manning the machine gun positions now tried to surrendered. “It was too late,” Burriss says. “We were not about to have any mercy.”
As the Germans retreated east towards the bridges, the paratroopers pursued them in small groups. Along the way were several small houses. Burriss opened the door of one and found a bizarre sight: a dozen German soldiers, fast asleep on the floor. He lobbed a grenade in and shut the door. Back across the river, he could see intense fighting taking place in Nijmegen itself.
Just after 7 p.m., four hours after they had started out from the southern bank of the Waal, Burriss and what was left of his company had reached the highway bridge. Almost at the same moment he saw four Sherman tanks rolling across it. The tank crews of the Grenadier Guards had no idea whether the apparently suicidal river crossing had succeeded. However, on the bridge itself, the Germans were now in full retreat and the tanks were shooting at everything that moved. So when they saw some figures emerge from a ditch on the northern bank of the Waal, they assumed they were Germans and even began firing. In fact it was Burriss and his men, who had survived the crossing and fought their way up the dike to the northern end of the bridge. They in turn could not yet see if the tanks were German or British and began firing back. Finally the two sides recognized each other.
His fatigues still wet from the river crossing and covered in blood from his shrapnel wound, Burriss approached Guardsman Leslie Johnson, the gunner of a Sherman tank as it reached the northern bank.
“You guys are the most beautiful sight I’ve seen in a long time,” Burriss remembers saying.
“You’re a bloody mess, old chap,” Johnson replied.
Why the Germans did not blow the bridge before the tanks had a chance to get across remains a mystery to this day. SS Brigadier-General Heinz Harmel of the 10th SS “Frundsberg” Panzer Division had carefully laid charges, manufactured precisely to fit the girders on the bridge. Watching from an old Fort, the Hof van Holland, a few hundred years inland on the northern bank, he waited until the tanks were at the exact middle of the bridge and then ordered an engineer to blow the charges. Nothing happened. (Many Dutch people believe that the cables to the explosives had been cut by Jan van Hoof, a 22 year-old Dutch underground worker, who had been used as a guide by the 82nd Airborne. Whether this was enough to save the bridge is still unclear, even after a Dutch commission investigated the story after the war.)
Burriss and his men had done their job, albeit at a high price. But now, to his horror, as his men formed a perimeter at the north end of the bridge, the tanks stopped. Burriss could not believe it. Lt. General Brian Horrocks, the commander of XXX Corps, had told him at the briefing in the power station that, once across, the tanks would “go like hell” to Arnhem – only 11 miles away – where John Frost’s men were still desperately holding out three days after arriving. He expected them to go full throttle to reach them before darkness. Instead they seemed to be settling in for the night.
Burriss asked one of the tank drivers who was in the charge. The driver pointed him to the Sherman of Captain Peter Carrington (later Lord Carrington, British foreign secretary and NATO Secretary-General) of the 2d Armoured Battalion, the Grenadier Guards. Burriss approached Carrington and insisted he advance towards Arnhem with his tanks. Carrington explained he had no orders to advance.
“OK, I’m giving you an order,” said Burriss, an officer of equal rank in a different army.
“That went down like a lead balloon,” he laughs. Carrington refused to move.
“You yellow son-of-a-bitch,” Burriss remembers saying. With that, he cocked his Tommy gun and said, “If you don’t move I’m going to blow your fucking head off.”
Carrington withdrew into his tank and closed the hatch. “We felt betrayed,” Burriss explains sixty years later. (Carrington denies this exchange with Burriss ever took place. “They were delighted to see us,” he says. “I thought we did bloody well to get across the bridge.”) Shortly afterwards, Major Cook arrived and remonstrated with the British as Burriss had done, followed by Colonel Tucker, the commander of the 504th, but to no avail. “They were fighting the war by the book,” Tucker would later say.
Much is always made of the squabbling between the British and the Americans in Operation Market Garden. In the movie A Bridge Too Far, based on Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same name, the British tank crews are shown making tea as a livid Major Cook, played by Robert Redford, urges them to advance. In fact, in this case, the divide was not so much between Brits and Yanks as between the do-or-die, risk-taking ethos of paratroopers and the more by-the-book, cautious mentality of the Guards. Nearly all the veterans of the 82nd talk about the camaraderie among paratroopers, whether British or American: Having lost half of his own company, their thoughts were now with the men of John Frost’s 2nd Battalion who were fighting even greater odds at the Arnhem bridge. “We knew what it was for paratroopers to go up against Tiger tanks with rifles and bazookas,” Burriss says. Carl Kappel, the commander of ‘H’ company, knew Frost personally.
Historians still argue about whether the British decision to stop at the Waal was right. At that moment, as daylight faded, only four tanks were in a position to advance. Their crews were short of gasoline and ammunition. The single-lane, elevated dike road ahead to Arnhem – steep banks with ditches on either side that were mined and could also easily be covered by German guns – was totally unsuitable for tanks unaccompanied by infantry, of which there was at present none. Fighting was still going on in Nijmegen itself and the narrow corridor stretching back to Grave, where the 504th had started out on September 17, had been cut by the Germans in several places. Other units were stuck way back along the road in traffic jams.
In the end it would be 18 hours before the advance on Arnhem began. The assault, at 11 a.m. on the morning on September 21, was this time led by the Irish Guards. But they hadn’t got far when they too were stopped by German anti-tank guns. In any case, around the same time as the first of the British tanks had arrived on the bridge at Nijmegen, John Frost’s 2nd battalion at the Arnhem bridge had finally been overpowered after fighting almost non-stop for 72 hours. The ultimate objective of Operation Market Garden had been lost.
For Burriss, there was still a lot of war to fight. Exactly a week after the Waal crossing, as it defended the 82nd Airborne Division’s eastern flank against German counter-attacks in the nearby Den Heuvel woods, ‘I’ Company suffered further heavy losses. Burriss would spend the Christmas of 1944 in a frozen trench in the Ardennes as the Battle of the Bulge raged, liberate a German concentration camp and finally reach Berlin itself – one of the first Americans to see the city, as the Reichstag still smouldered. By the end of the war, only 27 of Burriss’s original company of 119 enlisted men and eight officers were still alive. But throughout the war, Burriss says he always believed he would survive and return home to his wife Louisa in South Carolina, who he had married in 1942 shortly before leaving the States for North Africa. He did so, had four children with her, set up a successful construction business and was a Republican member of the state legislature for 18 years.
As for Operation Market Garden, it has gone down in military history as one of the great failures of World War II, a grand gamble that went disastrously wrong. In the grand scheme of things, it was certainly unsuccessful: the ultimate objectives – to reach the Rhine, thrust into the Ruhr, and bring the war to a quick end, were never realized. But what is often forgotten – even in the movie A Bridge Too Far – is that the operation did liberate a large section of Holland, which had been under 51 months of German occupation at the time. The men who died in Operation Market Garden, including those of the 3d Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, did not do so in vain.
After the withdrawal from Arnhem, the front line remained at the Rhine until March 1945, when the Allies launched their next major offensive, this time a much more conventional one. In the meantime, the Dutch living north of the Rhine suffered terribly from the increasingly brutal German occupation. During the so-called “hunger winter” of 1944, when the Nazis systematically starved the Dutch population, up to 20,000 people, mainly children and the elderly, died. Operation Market Garden, and specifically the crossing of the Waal river that allowed the Allies to capture the bridge at Nijmegen, spared two million Dutch citizens that fate. One of them, living in Nijmegen at the time of Operation Market Garden, was my grandmother.