The Waal River Crossing


An interview with Thomas Pitt

 


Thomas Pitt, S-1, Third Battalion,
504th Parachute Regiment

 

Problems began to develop when elements of the 505th could not seize the  bridge across the Waal River in the town of Nijmegen. At that point meanwhile, the British finally came up there. They attempted a frontal assault a couple of times and couldn’t get it. Anyway the plan was thought up then, by someone to send the troops across the river down from the bridge. There was a factory about a mile from where the bridge was and they were gonna have boats and go across in the boats and come up the other side and take the bridge from both sides at once. Then they would have the Krauts trapped between the two forces and they would probably surrender.

The 3rd Battalion of the 504, (our outfit) was selected to be the guinea pigs. So the first thing that was to occur prior to the actual crossing was that we were to get some air cover. British Spitfires (typhoons) that had long range capability were operating (I believe) out of somewhere in France. Finally after some delay, two spitfires came over and started to strafe the opposite banks and on the opposite dike where the Krauts were dug in and all. About the second pass, they (the Germans) got one of the Spitfires and the other one went home. So that was the end of the air cover.

The British had these large tanks; I forget the name of it (Shermans). They were going to give us some artillery fire and first laid down some fire. There were about some eight or ten of them (tanks) that dug in up closer to the bridge from us. They opened fire and they put a lot of iron down in a short period, but in a couple of minutes the (German) counter battery came. I think about four or five of the tanks got hit and the others pulled out.

They then told us to get the boats and go across the river. The boat was like a canvass material with a wood frame to it and it held about twelve men in a boat. We had to paddle to get it across. We took the boats and came from behind the factory (where the Krauts I don’t think knew we were there). We started down across the sandy shore which was maybe 50 yards long till we got to the water. We were running with these boats and our weapons and what not. In addition to all that crap the old man (Major Cook) said you lay a telephone line across the river so when we can talk back to them, if we need support fire or something. We weren’t sure that the radios would work that distance with the one's we had. So I had a kid from the communications section join us with a roll of wire on a spindle-like thing.

We got into the damn boats  and thought it at first it looked like rain in the water. Then we realized it was lead coming from the Krauts on the other side. And away we went. I’ll tell you we were paddling like mad to get across. Quite a few of the boats were overturned; guys in a lot of them were killed in the getting across the thing.

When we got over to the other side to the other bank of the water I don’t know how many boats we had lost in the river. It was a hell of a wide river. We got out of the boats. The two guys that where with us, (the two engineers) had to go back to the other side to get some more people. They had a hell of a time getting them back. By then the Krauts weren’t too worried about them. They were more worried about us. We were coming across another beach-like area (200 to 800 yards wide) before the final dike. They were dug in some on the beach and then back in the dike. We were running by them practically and they were just shooting. The only thing to do was to head for the dike because there wasn’t a Goddamed bit of cover anywhere else or anything. So we finally got about half way back to the dike and this kid whose is peeling off this wire and he says "I ran out of wire should I set the phone up here?" I said "hell with it kid just take it easy now and get to the dike. We will talk to them some other day."

So we finally got over to the dike. The Krauts on the other side. The dike must have been maybe ten yards or so wide at the top and they were on the backside. We spent a little time tossing grenades from one side or the other that was fun and games. They were there with their potato mashers and we had fragmentation grenades. So my job was to hold this left flank so as we moved down towards the bridge the Krauts wouldn’t turn and come behind us. So we proceeded to hold it (the dike). The Krauts tried to come across (the dike) a couple times and we discouraged them enough with what lead we gave them. They stayed there. It got a little later on and the first battalion guys came across. We had cleaned out what was on the beach. By then it started getting dark. It was getting late in the day. They (1st Battalion) came over and said they would take the left flank.

Well, I got my guys and we started down around the dike and towards the bridges. Needless to say the sun was coming down. We came to the first bridge and were crossing under was the railroad bridge. Platoon Sergeant Grouse was with me.   When I looked up, I could see these guys and I yelled "Hay what outfit are you with?", figuring which company or what outfit was that. Oh man their was a couple of machine guns opened fire on us and we hit the sand and rolled over under the bridge.   Grouse looked over at me and said "Lieutenant, I think they might have been from one of the panzer divisions, why did you want to know that?" He got me good on that one.  The Krauts where still up on that bridge.

We went on along the dike-like thing, which really was under the bridge and along the other side. In the dark they didn’t bother us.   By the time we got to the other side, I guess they didn’t see us or could care less.   I think they had their own problems. We got down it must have been another third of a mile or so and came up where the Highway Bridge was across the river.    By the time we got there Cook, who was the Battalion Commander was there.   And then the first British tanks came roaring across the bridge. They cleaned it out there.  Most of H Company (my old company) and G Company and what not came a little shortly afterwards. I don’t know how many of them.  Then came a couple of jeeps and what not and there was (General) Gavin, the Division Commander and his radio man They came over in the jeep and came in this house and we had taken over like the command post that was right by the edge of the bridge. They had come in there to get the information and how we were and how the situation was and things like that. We had begun to take some probes out to see what was out in front of us there as from Arnhem.  By then, it was dark practically and there came a British staff car along and out got the British commander. He was, I guess. the corp commander.  I’m not sure who he was. But one of the wheels and he came on in with his folks with him and what not. (Col.) Tucker was there and (General) Gavin was there and (Major) Cook was there, myself(Lieutenant Pitt) and one of the communications officers.  We were sort of in the back ground when you get wheels like that around.

Gavin said "We will put some men up on the tanks and in front of the tanks and lets head for Arnhem." I think it was 20 some miles or so it wasn’t far, you know. This British commander said "We don’t move our tanks at night." Gavin said "You don’t move them at night? Well if we wait till day light then they (the Germans) will move some stuff in." The Brit said "Well we can’t move tanks at night." Gavin said something to him, he said "If they were my men in Arnhem we would move tanks at night. We would move anything at night to get there." This guy said "We are not. We will move them in the morning."*

September 20, 1944

So we had a front out there oh, 500 yards to 1000 yards or more perimeter. Then morning came and that road to Arnhem was nothing but German armor and what not and everything. We got no more got started half way up the road. We didn’t get a couple of miles outside the place and that was it.

But final comments, … I don’t think that any man that went across that river that day in a boat and were fortunate enough to make the other side will ever in his life forget it. There is no way you can visualize what the devil it was like. I will never forget it and I have had dreams that I am back in the boat and I am paddling like mad.

Sources:

Interview by Thomas Pitt Jr. with his father in 1992 and has been recently  transcribed. This is an oral history and very little editing was done. Those items in parenthesis were entered by the editor - Thomas F. Pitt Jr.).

Editor's note: pko:  *Other sources state that the British commander claimed he needed British infantry before he could advance to Arnhem.