On September 17, 1944, the Allies launched an ambitious mission to cross the Rhine River into Germany dubbed “Operation Market Garden.” Allied leaders hoped the mission would lead to end of World War II by Christmas.
Known to many as the operation that was “a bridge too far” and for being a strategic failure, it was not without incredible tales of personal courage, grit, and determination. Here are four of those amazing stories.
1. Pvt. Joe E. Mann
Private Mann was a scout assigned to the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division when it jumped into Holland. During fighting around the city of Best, Mann crawled within bazooka range of a German artillery emplacement and single-handedly knocked it out. He then began picking off Germans one-by-one with his rifle before he was wounded four separate times. Despite gunshots to both shoulders and one of his arms, he wasn’t out of the fight, insisting on standing guard through the night.
When a German attack came early the next morning, a grenade landed near Mann. Unable to raise his arms because they were bandaged to his body, he did the only thing he could — he jumped on the grenade and absorbed the blast to save his friends. Private Mann was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
2. Maj. Julian Cook
Three days into the operation, stiff German resistance managed to hold onto the Nijmegen Bridge despite efforts by the 82nd Airborne to dislodge them. With the timetable of the British XXX Corps advance in jeopardy Gen. Gavin ordered an assault crossing of the river to seize the bridge from the far side.
With 26 collapsible canvas boats, the 307th Engineers rowed two battalions of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment across the river under heavy German fire. Some of the men had to use their rifle butts as paddles. Major Julian Cook led the 3rd Battalion across first and established a beachhead. The engineers in the boats then returned and re-crossed the river four more times, delivering the first battalion. Cook pulled several men from the water and tended to several wounded. He then led the remnants of his battalion in a 2.5 mile assault to capture German positions and secure the bridgehead.
3. Maj. Digby Tatham-Warter
Major Alison Digby Tatham-Warter, often just called “Digby,” was an eccentric character and hard-charging officer. Troops knew Digby by the umbrella he carried because, as he said, he “couldn’t remember passwords and anyone would recognize the bloody fool carrying the umbrella as an Englishman.”
He used the umbrella in one instance to stop a German armored car by shoving it through a gap and incapacitating the driver. When a fellow officer questioned his carrying of the umbrella he humorously replied, “My goodness Pat, what if it rains?” Another time, Digby led a bayonet charge wearing a bowler hat while wielding a pistol and his trusty umbrella.
Eventually, not even Digby’s courageous antics could stop the inevitable. With no options left, Digby transmitted his last radio message “out of ammo, God save the King” before being captured by the Germans. Digby’s captivity would not last long. He was transported to a hospital for his wounds and escaped that evening. He then helped organize Operation Pegasus, the rescue of British paratroopers trapped across the Rhine. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order upon his return to the United Kingdom.
4. Pvt. John Towle
Private Towle was only 19-years-old when he entered combat in the Netherlands as part of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He survived the Waal River crossing led by Maj. Julian Cook, but it was when German tanks attacked the paratroopers’ bridgehead that Towle sprang into action.
Towle left his foxhole with a bazooka and rifle to engage the German tanks. It took several bazooka rounds each before the tanks retreated in the face of the lone paratrooper. Towle then started taking fire from a building the Germans made into a strongpoint. One well-aimed shot eliminated all nine German soldiers.
When a German half-track appeared, Pvt. Towle advanced again. Just as he was preparing to fire, an enemy mortar round struck his position and killed him. Towle’s tenacity and bravery single-handedly broke up the German attack and earned him the Medal of Honor.