Operation Market-Garden - Part 3
In the carnival atmosphere the paratroopers failed for a long time to hear the fretted clank of tanks. At 1130 the first direct radio communication with the Guards Armoured Division revealed that the armor was still five miles south of Eindhoven, engaged in a bitter fight. At 1230 hopes rose when two British armored cars appeared, but these had gone around the German flank to reach Eindhoven from the northwest. About 1900 the paratroopers spotted the head of the main British column.
The Guards Armoured Division pushed through Eindhoven without pause. When the column reached Zon, British engineers immediately began construction of a Bailey bridge to replace the destroyed bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal. At 0645 on D plus 2, 19 September, the armor rumbled across. Although the advance of XXX Corps proceeded swiftly it was at least thirty-three hours behind schedule.
General Poppe's 59th Division was the German unit defending Best. The First Parachute Army's General Student sent the bulk of the 59th Division to secure the bridges near Best. In the meantime, three companies reinforced by two replacement battalions and a police battalion were sent to cut Hell's Highway at St. Oedenrode.
The 2nd Battalion, 502nd PIR tried to push to the bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal but had to fall back to a defense with Col. Cole's battalion on the edge of the Zonsche Forest. A timely strike by a flight of P-47s held the Germans back. During this action, a German sniper killed Lt. Col. Cole as he hastened from his covered position to direct the emplacement of identification panels for the P-47s which initially strafed 3d Battalion’s positions.
All through the day of D plus 1 the sound of firing had fanned hope of relief in the minds of Lieutenant Wierzbowski and his group of fifteen men along the dike near the highway bridge. Then, at 1100, the hundred-foot concrete span over the Wilhelmina Canal trembled and lifted with a violent explosion. The objective for which the 502nd Parachute Infantry continued to fight the rest of the day was no longer of value. The experiences of Lieutenant Wierzbowski and his little group were a testimonial to the kind of hardship small, isolated units sometimes are called upon to endure. In midafternoon their troubles increased when a small German force attacked. Two German bullets hit the platoon's lead scout, Pfc. Joe E. Mann, who already had incurred two wounds; now both his arms hung useless. Though an engineer lieutenant and a sergeant tried to break through for aid, the lieutenant was captured and the sergeant wounded.
Hope stirred again during the late afternoon and early evening. First, a British armored car and a reconnaissance car appeared on the opposite bank of the canal. The British tried to raise headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division on their radio, but to no avail. They provided fire support until later in the evening when a platoon of paratroopers who had gotten lost stumbled onto Lieutenant Wierzbowski's position. Although this platoon agreed to defend one of Lieutenant Wierzbowski's flanks, the men fell back during the night in the face of a small German attack. Again Wierzbowski and his little group were alone. Lt. Wierzbowski sent word of his situation back with a small patrol from 2nd Battalion that stumbled into his position. Though the lieutenant sent word of his plight with this patrol, the report did not reach Lt. Col. Chappuis until the next morning. Distorted in transmission, the message said only that the bridge had been blown.
As a misty daylight began to break on D Plus 2, 19 September, Lieutenant Wierzbowski spotted a small German force bearing down on his position. Though the lieutenant yelled an alarm, the Germans already were too close. Two German grenades rolled down among the wounded. Although the men tossed these out before they exploded, another hit the machine gun and blinded the gunner. A moment later another grenade rolled into this man's foxhole. One eye blown out entirely, the other blinded, the soldier groped wildly for the grenade. He found it and tossed it from his foxhole only a split second before it exploded. Another grenade fell behind Private Mann, who was sitting in a trench with six other wounded. Mann saw the grenade come and felt it land behind him. Helpless, his arms bound and useless from the wounds incurred the day before, he yelled: "Grenade!" Then he lay back to take the explosion with his body.
"Shall we surrender or fight?" the men had asked persistently. As the Germans made a final charge, Lieutenant Wierzbowski gave them a succinct answer: "OK. This is the time." Only three of his men had gone unscathed. They had exhausted their supply of ammunition and grenades. One man put a dirty handkerchief on a rifle and waved it.