© WW2 Market Garden -
On 17 September the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment jumped over drop zone B in Son, the Netherlands, as a part of Operation Market Garden. The 502nd PIR is one of four rifle regiments of the 101st Airborne Division. Their assignment was: Secure the drop-
17 September, at exactly 13.24 hours the first elements of the 502nd PIR jumped into combat over drop zone B. Company H of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment had the assignment to seize the bridge at Best. They were accompanied by 3rd platoon 326th Airborne Engineers Battalion Company C and an LMG section. Just 14 minutes after the 502nd drops on drop zone B, Company H jumped into combat. Company H’s commander: Captain Robert E. Jones gathered the men of his company as quick as possible at the edge of the drop zone to make their way to the bridge at Best. (Point 1 on the map) The mission ahead, was thought to be an easy one. Take and hold the bridge at Best and place roadblocks on the Boxtel-
Because of enemy fire the platoons of Company H got separated and lost their strength. German fire was superior to the light armed American paratroopers. Two of the platoons crossed the highway and reached the Nieuwstraat (point 3) where they got into heavy fighting. The group had to retreat quickly to prevent high casualties. During the concerted attack on the intersection the company already lost a big part of the initial 250 men.
The 502 PIR would never had guessed that German resistance at Best would be so intense. The reason for the German strength in Best, was caused by the retreat of German forces coming in from the west of the Netherlands. The 15th German army was retreating from the Scheldt estuary, accompanied by many small groups of battered divisions coming from Normandy. When operation Market Garden started, a lot of these troops were located in between Boxtel and ‘s Hertogenbosch. Although most German divisions were decimated in Normandy, the German brass organized the defense of the corridor quickly. They formed small fighting groups (Kampfgruppe) and sent them into action immediately. At the time Company H made its way for Best on the 17th, a fighting force of about 1000 German soldiers were already in Best. Later during that day, more enemy reinforcements were sent to Best, including the 59th and 245th Division and two SS police battalions.
Enemy troops made it extremely difficult for Company H to fulfil its mission of taking the bridge. The paratroopers of Company H retreated (white line) from the crossroads and organized a defensive line on the edge of the woods (point 4). An incident at the crossroads just before they moved to this position made the situation for Company H even more precarious. Twelve trucks with about 200 enemy soldiers were coming from the direction of Boxtel, also bringing two 20 mm guns into the fight. The paratroopers had set up a perfect ambush situation to annihilate the convoy. A motorcyclist, who was driving a few hundred yards in front, led the convoy towards the bridge at Best. One of the paratroopers opened fire on the motorcyclist and hit him. The motorcyclist fell of his bike. The convoy halted immediately and formed a shooting line towards the paratroopers who were now faced with even more enemy troops. Reports from Captain Jones reached the commander of third battalion, Robert G Cole. Although the reports were quite ‘positive’, Cole didn’t trust the situation and sent the entire battalion to reinforce Company H. In the meantime Captain Jones had ordered Lieutenant Ed Wierzbowski’s platoon to push through towards the bridge at Best. Wierzbowski’s platoon moved south through the forest, receiving enemy fire every time they crossed a fire lane. Eventually they got to the bridge, leaving only 100 yards in between them and their objective. (point 5).
At about 18.00 hours remains of third battalion (G, I and HQ-
Lt. Wierzbowski got an impossible task. With 18 men in his platoon and 26 engineers of Company C 326 Airborne Engineers Battalion, he had to seize the bridge at Best. Lt. Wierzbowski moved further south through the forest (point 4 towards 5). The forest is separated by fire lanes. When 2nd platoon crossed the first fire lane they were surprised by machine gun fire. Saving men and ammunition, Lt. Wierzbowski went further into the forest to see if they could cross the fire lanes without the enemy fire. Crossing the fire lanes one by one cost the platoon a lot of time. Finally at dusk, they reached the edge of the forest (just north of point H on the map below), close to the canal. The scouts of the group, Pfc Joe E. Mann and Sgt. James C. Hoyle, reached the dyke. They crept back to the platoon to show them the way to the dyke. In the meantime, 1st Lieutenant Andrew P. Duffy and some men of Lt. Robert Lair had joined 2nd platoon. They were captured by the Germans earlier that day, but managed to escape. These men were a welcome addition to the small fighting force that had to capture the bridge. On the map you see a widening in the canal. This was an unloading dock for the Philips factories. At that point there was no protection for the group, it was an open space. At about 21.00 hours the group arrived at this spot and moved cautiously towards the West. Although the bridge was located about 150 yards away, they still couldn’t spot it. Lt. Wierzbowski moved his group a bit further West of the unloading dock, where they were protected by trees and undergrowth. He halted his men and crawled further to contact the scout Pfc Joe E. Mann. Suddenly a few shots were fired by the German soldiers at the Westside of the highway. Lt. Wierzbowski made sure his men didn’t return fire, he believed the Germans didn’t really spot the group... He was right. The scout and the lieutenant crawled towards the dyke of the canal and finally spotted the target they were after, the bridge over the Wilhelmina canal.
Firefights would continue throughout the night. Because the radio was hit by grenade shrapnel, the radioman of the group couldn’t contact Captain Jones. Jones ordered some patrols and eventually a platoon to look for Wierzbowski’s platoon, but with no result. They concluded that the platoon was wiped out. The group was left on its own. Finally at 03.00 hours the enemy stopped firing. Still motivated to accomplish their mission, 2nd platoon had to wait till dawn, before they could make another effort at taking the bridge. But with only 20 men, 500 rounds of machine gun ammo, a mortar with 6 shells and a bazooka with 5 rounds, it was going to be a hard job.
Wierzbowski and Mann wanted to get a better understanding of the situation, so after a few minutes they crept even further towards the bridge. By doing this, the men brought themselves into a dangerous situation. There had been a guard change at the north side of the bridge. The men didn’t spot the guard walking away from the bridge. A new guard arrived and positioned himself almost next to the men. Afraid to warn nearby enemy troops by overpowering the guard, they waited. The men of 2nd platoon felt a little uneasy and started whispering with each other, so hard even Wierzbowski and Mann could hear it. Wierzbowski sent Mann back to the group to tell them to keep quiet. At that time, the German troops noticed the whispering and the guard at the bridge fired some shots in the direction of the voices. Suddenly grenades were thrown from the other side of the canal, causing a lot of casualties within the platoon. During the mayhem of the explosions Wierzbowski and Mann were able to knock out a guard and ran back towards the group. The platoon had to find a safer place, so Wierzbowski decided to withdraw the group 50 yards back. During this short attack by the Germans, the platoon lost more than half its fighting strength, leaving only 15 men and 5 officers.
First battalion of 502 PIR already captured the bridges over the Dommel on the 17th. The 506 PIR had to deal with a bridge over the Wilhelmina canal at Son that was destroyed by the Germans, but were already moving into Eindhoven, which they would later liberate. While the people of Sint-
The American paratroopers weren’t the only one who brought in new replacements, the Germans did so too. The Germans already had a few 88mm guns in Best, mainly positioned at the intersection of the Boxtel-
Company D would advance on the left flank towards the Sonse dijk (Zonsche dijk on the map) of the battalion, they had to make contact with 3rd battalion. Company F would advance on the right flank of the battalion, following the direction of the Sint-
The early morning attack started left 2nd and 3rd battalion in a precarious position. Estimated of enemy strength were still not right. Lt-
The air strike would be the only one during operation Market Garden. It was pure luck that these fighter planes (P-
While the battalions put great effort into the attack on Best and the bridge, 2nd platoon from Company H was still stuck at the bridge. The fight for the bridge was entering its second day. Early in the morning, Wierzbowski saw how difficult his mission really was. The bridge lay at about 100 yards from their position, they could reach the bridge with the group with a 20 second sprint. But, on the other side of the canal, just south of the bridge, German barracks popped into sight with prepared positions around it. Everywhere Wierzbowski looked, he saw German troops. Wierzbowski realized his position was surrounded. He couldn’t do much more then wait until there was an opportunity to capture the bridge. At dawn on the 18th, German soldiers were moving in from the woods towards the American positions. The enemy had taken up position in between the men at the bridge and the rest of the regiment. The Germans approached the American positions up to 50 yards. Wierzbowski made a brave decision not to get into a long range firefight, but now the Germans were so close he ordered his platoon to fire. When the first shots were being fired, 35 enemy troops dropped to the ground. The German line was thinned out so much, the rest fled back to the woods. The pressure was of the line once more.
Early in the morning they saw a civilian walk up to the bridge. The civilian talked with the German guard for a while, turned around and left. Just minutes Later, at 11.00 hours, an enormous explosion caused the bridge to collapse. The 100 yard long bridge fell into the water. This must have been a great disappointment for the remaining American paratroopers at the bridge. The explosion was so big, that the paratroopers had to lay low in their foxholes because concrete and metal flew sky high and returned to earth on top of the American positions. Not knowing who the civilian is, we will never know if he was involved in the detonation of the bridge. Wierzbowski still wasn’t able to make contact with battalion HQ to tell them about the situation at the bridge. He heard fighting in the north-
The two lead scouts of 2nd platoon, Mann and Hoyle, had been in a stunning battle with the Germans. Pfc. Mann and Sgt. Hoyle knew of an enemy artillery dump position just west of their position. At noon they crawled closer to the highway and got into a position which was easy to defend. From this position Mann fired two bazooka rounds into the artillery dump, causing it to blow. Mann and Hoyle decided to stay in this position for a while, killing six Germans coming from the north in the next hour. Finally Pfc Joe E Mann got hit in both shoulders by rifle fire. Mann got back into the foxhole while Hoyle looked for new targets. He spotted an 88 mm gun at 150 yards further west alongside the canal. Mann motivated him to try his luck so Hoyle fired at the gun and destroyed it with his first shot. A few minutes later the two scouts saw the P-
Wierzbowski was able to destroy more targets at the bridge. He sent his light machine gun crew forward, covering the canal dyke and the highway. An ammunition truck trying to resupply the 88 mm guns was hit by the LMG causing it to blow. The Germans must have been fed up by the attacks of the American paratroopers and launched a couple of attacks. The attacks were repulsed, but many paratroopers were now dead or wounded. A few men were ordered by Wierzbowski to get to the lines of 3rd battalion, trying to get reinforcements, ammunition and much needed medical supplies. None of the patrols got to friendly lines. They were ambushed by the German groups hidden in the woods. Just when the situation seemed to be hopeless for 2nd platoon, two British armored cars appeared on the other side of the canal. XXX-
Later that evening a patrol of Company E reached the lines of 2nd platoon. They promised to get back to their lines and report their position. Another contact was made with the platoon of Lieutenant Motella Company D, which was cut of from 2nd battalion. Wierzbowski immediately used these men to give his lines more structure. The new group with men of 2nd platoon, C-
Finally one of the grenades rolled into the foxhole of Pfc. Joe E Mann. The previous day he had desperately asked Wierzbowski to stay on the line. Mann, wounded two times in the shoulder and two times in the arm, was put in a sling with both arms by the medic. When the grenade rolled into the foxhole, Mann couldn’t do much more than to throw his body on top of the grenade. He yelled out ‘Grenade!’ and put his back on the grenade. Thereby saving six other men in his foxhole. 2nd platoon lost another brave trooper, of which some men would say was the bravest they ever met. Eventually, only 3 men of the 15 American paratroopers at the bridge wasn’t wounded. Lt. Wierzbowski, wounded himself, knew that continuing the fight was no option, ordered Private Anthony Waldt to attach a white cloth to the barrel of his gun and wave it. The brave troopers were going to surrender. Two German medics who were captured the previous day by the paratroopers, prevented the German soldiers from killing the remainder of the group. These 15 men were taken towards the German aid station, located on what is now the Speelheideweg. The German medics came along and made sure the group wouldn’t be harmed. When they entered the aid station, Wierzbowski saw 2 other paratroopers who were captured earlier, one of them being Lieutenant Robert Lair. Later in the afternoon, another attack was made on Best by 2nd and 3rd battalion of the 502 PIR. The situation at the aid station got a bit tense. With most German manpower repulsing the attacks only a few guards were left at the aid station. Wierzbowski’s men managed to overpower the guards, capture them and were able to return to the American lines. Finally Wierzbowski and his men could put an end to this heroic battle.
In the morning of the 19th, the British engineers of XXX-
The tanks of the 15th/19th Hussars reached the positions of 3-
Second battalion of the 327th GIR had the assignment to form a blocking position in between the old lake (Oud Meer) and the Chemical factory alongside the canal. The battalion suffered minor casualties and Company G of Cpt Hugh Evans suffered none. Sgt Manuel Hidalgo and Carl Hanlon of Company G took a lot of risk during the attack, by running over the fire trails of the forest, screaming at the Germans to surrender. This was surprisingly successful and at the end of the attack Company G captured 159 POW’s.
Third battalion of the 327th GIR (1-
September 20th was an uneventful day. While fending off the attack of the American paratroopers, the Germans suffered a lot of casualties, therefore they choose to hold their ground by pulling back further into Best. The Germans decided to pull back behind the railroad tracks in Best to the West and behind the crossroads at the Steenweg in the East. The American paratroopers held their lines on the edge of the forest and just West of the highway. The wounded were already evacuated to the hospital in Son the day before. Second and third battalion were ordered to move out in the morning of the 20th. They were supposed to join forces with first battalion 502nd PIR in Sint-
Map 1: Top-
Map 2: Point 1, the dropzone. Point 2, at this point the Americans drew fire from the German troops located at the intersection/crossroads at Best.
Map 3: Point 3, the planned route for the American troops. The troops were supposed to erect a roadblock on the Eindhoven-
Map 4: The Americans changed their route because of the intense enemy fire and launched an attack towards the Best crossroads. German opposition was heavier than expected.
Map 5: German fire was so intense and more Germans were pushed into the fight that the Americans were losing the battle for the crossroads. Col. Robert Jones decided to pull back to the forest.
Map 6: While Col. Robert Jones organised defenses at point 4, he sent H company’s 2nd platoon under Lt. Wierzbowski towards the bridge.
Photo: Some of the key figures for the battle at Best. left to right: Lt-
Map 1: 2nd battalion was ready for the attack planned for the morning of September 18.
Map 2: The planned attack route for 2nd battalion.
Map 3: The attack stalled and 2nd battalion received heavy enemy machine gun fire and a lot of artillery. 2nd battalion pulled back through the lines of 3rd battalion.
Map 4: The positions for 2nd and 3rd battalion at the end of the afternoon of September 18.
Map 1: The 15/19 Hussars and the 2nd and 3rd battalion of the 327 GIR (red) were ready to attack and support the attack on the Best bridge.
Map 2: The final positions for the Americans and the 15/19 Hussars.