Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three part series about the battles Lexington native Milo Koehn fought in while he was a member of the 101st Airborne Division during the Second World War.
From July 16 to Sept. 16, Koehn and the rest of the 101st Division were recuperating in England. In France after the initial hold up in the Normandy hedgerows, the Allied forces were able to break out and tore across France, sending Germans retreating toward the German border by the end of August.
This was a period of unparalleled optimism among the Allied commanders, the Germans seemed to be collapsing on the whole front and there was a real feeling the war might be over by Christmas 1944.
In order to make that hope a reality, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery envisioned an airborne and armored strike into Holland, on a narrow front, capture the bridges along the route and outflank the whole formidable German defenses along the Rhine.
Operation Market-Garden was a plan consisting of two operations, Market: airborne forces dropping into Holland and capturing vital areas like bridges and Garden: allied ground forces moving northward along a single road to secure the ground. The overall goal was to secure a bridgehead over the Rhine River.
Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the plan in an effort to keep the Germans in retreat. The plan was dangerous, daring and ambitious . . . and it failed.
Koehn along with his comrades got their briefing on Sept. 14. The 101st Airborne’s mission would be to secure the 15 miles of Highway 69, later known as “Hell’s Highway,” between the towns of Eindhoven north to Veghel.
There were signs before the offensive there would be trouble, reconnaissance reports and decrypted German radio traffic showed the Germans had moved the 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer Divisions into the area.
The Waffen SS units in the German Wehrmacht, especially the Panzer units, were crack units with the best equipment and the men fanatical fighters.
The overall German commanders in the area were Gerd von Rundstedt, a veteran commander of the Poland, France and Soviet Union campaigns and Walther Model, a hard bitten, defensive minded Nazi adherent who served in Russia and Normandy.
Montgomery learned of the German troop movements, but refused to alter the offensive plans.
On Sept. 17, 1944 at 1:15 p.m. the 101st and Koehn jumped from their planes over Drop Zone B. There was little resistance and nearly all the divisions landed where they were supposed to. One of the men of the 101st described Holland as, “one big jump field.”
Their initial task was to secure a canal bridge near the town of Son and then move south and take Eindhoven with it four bridges.
Doll Nielsen recalled Koehn saying the people of Holland in the area came out in droves to greet their liberators. The girls threw flowers as the paratroopers entered the towns. Orange banners, a patriotic symbol of the Netherlands, and forbidden by the Germans, flew out of the windows.
The festivities wouldn’t last long, as the Koehn and his comrades neared Son, the Germans began firing upon them, it was a delaying action and it worked. The Germans blew the bridges in the town, denying them to the Americans, whose lead elements were only 50 feet away.
The next day the march resumed after crossing the canal and Koehn and the 506th arrived in Eindhoven, a town of 100,000 people. Resistance was light, mainly from German snipers. Again the people of Holland came out in droves to welcome the Americans.
The British tankers finally showed up in the later afternoon. The advance would continue the next day. It’s when the real trouble would begin.
Nearing the town of Nuenen, the Germans had finally recovered from the initial surprise and were beginning to counterattack. The 107th Panzerbrigade launched an attack, with 50 tanks. The Americans and British were forced back in the face of the opposition, their light airborne equipment unable to counter tanks.
From Sept. 17 until November, Koehn and the 506th fought against increasing German attacks which cut off the single road and made it impossible for the armored column to keep moving. Hell’s Highway was several feet above the low countryside; anything moving on it was silhouetted.
Destroyed vehicles blocked the route of those following and the road was the only route to get supplies up to troops further up the line, the situation was getting worse.
Ambrose wrote, “Not only had there been no strategic or tactical gain to compensate for such losses, now the Allies had a salient leading nowhere that had to be defended. It was a narrow finger pointed into German lines, surrounded on three sides by a superior German force, dependent on the vulnerable Hell’s Highway for supplies.”
Operation Market-Garden had failed, for multiple reasons. The Germans outnumbered and outgunned the lightly armed American paratroopers, they were crack German units who fought as well as the Americans did and the coordination between the Americans and British was poor to say the best.
The Dutch would have to wait for liberation for another several months and the war did not end by Christmas.
By Nov. 26, the Koehn and the 506th had been pulled off the line, replaced by a former French artillery battalion. They rested and refitted at a camp near the town of Reims, in the north of France.
Here Koehn and the rest of the men gathered back their strength, finally in a permanent camp.
It wouldn't last long.