Operation Market-Garden - Part 2
The majority of the 502nd moved to an assembly area near Zon as the Division reserve. At the same time a H Company, 3rd Battalion reinforced by a light machine gun section from battalion headquarters and 3rd Platoon, C Company, 326th Engineer Regiment .proceeded upon a separate mission, to capture the rail and road bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal southeast of Best. Although these bridges were not assigned objectives for the 101st Airborne Division, General Taylor considered them valuable for three reasons: first, as an outpost protecting his glider landing zone and his main positions along Hell's Highway; again, as alternate crossings of the Wilhelmina Canal should the Germans destroy the bridges at Zon; and again, as control of a main highway (between Eindhoven and Hertogenbosch) by which the Germans otherwise might feed reinforcements to Eindhoven. To do the job, Col. Michaelis sent Company H.
En route to the bridges, the H Company Commander, Capt. Robert E. Jones, lost his way in the densely wooded Zonsche Forest. Emerging near a road junction southeast of Best, the company came under fire from a small group of Germans. The Germans gained the upper hand when infantry reinforcements and several small cannon arrived by truck from the direction of Hertogenbosch.
Goaded by radio messages from Lt. Col. Cole to secure the bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal, Capt. Jones organized a reinforced patrol. Lt. Edward L. Wierzbowski took his rifle platoon, the attached engineer platoon, and attached light machine gun section to the bridges. Lieutenant Wierzbowski found in turn that casualties and disorganization had left him with only eighteen riflemen and twenty-six engineers. Lt. Wierzbowski’s reinforced patrol was picking its way through the Zonsche Forest toward the bridges when night came with a cold, penetrating rain.
Based on stiff resistance north of Best encountered by H Company, Col. Michaelis directed Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole to take his 3rd Battalion to Captain Jones's assistance. The remainder of 3rd Battalion started toward Best at 1800, but darkness fell before they could establish physical contact with Captain Jones.
In the meantime, Lieutenant Wierzbowski and his men had crawled the last few yards on their bellies to reach the Wilhelmina Canal several hundred yards east of the highway bridge. Slithering along the dike, the men approached the bridge, apparently undetected. While the lieutenant and a scout crawled ahead to reconnoiter, the main body of the patrol slid down the embankment to await their return. A barrage of "potato masher" hand grenades came suddenly from the darkness on the other side of the canal. Scared, a couple of men scrambled up the bank of the dike. Others followed. The night erupted with the fire of machine guns and rifles. Some of the men stampeded back toward the forest. When he heard the firing, Lt. Wierzbowski was within sight of the bridge and found it covered by German sentries. Scurrying back, he discovered he only had 3 officers and 15 men remaining, and 3 of these were wounded. Collectively they had their individual weapons, a machine gun with 500 rounds of ammunition, a mortar with 6 rounds, and a bazooka with 5 rockets. As the cold rain fell, the men dug in for the night.
As these events developed, the 101st Airborne Division's D-Day glider lift began to arrive. Although not as immune to mishap as the parachutists, a total of 53 out of 70 gliders landed successfully with 32 jeeps, 13 trailers, and 252 men. Of those that failed to make it, 1 fell in the Channel, 1 crash-landed on the landing zone, 2 collided in the air above the landing zone, 2 were unaccounted for, 4 landed in friendly territory, and 7 came down behind enemy lines.
In Zon, the 506th PIR failed to secure the highway bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal before the Germans demolished the bridge. Destruction of the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal in Zon increased the importance of the 502nd PIR’s mission of securing alternate bridges in Best. On early D plus 1, 18 September, Col. Michaelis committed 2nd Battalion to the Best fight. The fight for the bridges near Best developed into the 101st Airborne Division's stiffest fighting on D plus 1 and 2.
Behind an artillery barrage that began an hour after the first troop carrier aircraft passed over the British lines, the XXX Corps had attacked on schedule with tanks in the lead. Against five German battalions, including two SS battalions that XXX Corps intelligence had failed to detect, the spearhead Guards Armoured Division made steady progress. The woods and marshy ground along the highway limited the attack to a front not much wider than the width of the highway leading to Eindhoven. As night came, the British stopped in Valkenswaard, their "formal" objective. Eindhoven remained six miles to the north.
The 506th Parachute Infantry fought through ineffective delaying actions by small enemy groups and pressed the advance on Eindhoven early on D plus 1, 18 September. By midmorning, the lead battalion knocked out a nest of two 88-mm guns and pushed deep into the heart of the city. Col. Sink expected to find at least a regiment of Germans in Eindhoven; he actually encountered no more than a company. Having taken four bridges over the Dommel River and a canal in the city by noon, the paratroopers spent the rest of the day rounding up enemy stragglers and clearing the southern outskirts in preparation of the Guards Armoured Division. As they performed these tasks, Eindhoven went on a binge. As if by magic the city blossomed with the national color. "The reception was terrific," said one American officer. "The air seemed to reek with hate for the Germans . . . ."