The Battle of Best

Operation Market Garden, the Allied airborne and ground invasion of the Netherlands in September 1944 conceived by Britain’s Gen Bernard Montgomery, didn’t need to capture just four bridges to succeed, as many of the narratives of the battle imply; the operation needed 32 bridges over 20 different rivers, canals, and streams along the 62 mile axis of advance to succeed. One such bridge was over the Wilhelmina Canal at the small town of Best outside of the Dutch city of Eindhoven. On the afternoon of 17 September, 1944, Company H, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division infiltrated the town to seize the bridge in order to allow the British armor to bypass Eindhoven on their way to Nijmegen. They didn’t know it, but they were outnumbered 6:1.

Two weeks before, Montgomery’s 1st Canadian Army seized the vital port of Antwerp and pushed the German 15th Army out of the city. A functioning port at Antwerp could alleviate the Allies massive supply problems, but the Canadians failed to also clear the Scheldt Estuary. Without the estuary cleared, Antwerp was “as useful as Timbuktu” in the words of Eisenhower’s chief of staff. Moreover, the failure to adequately clear the estuary allowed the battered German 15th Army to escape. Gen Walter Model ordered the 85,000 strong 15th Army to rest and refit just west of the Dutch town of Eindhoven.

Like Bittrich’s SS Panzer Corps at Arnhem, the German 15th Army was in a perfect position to counterattack the Allied landings and the single highway that XXX Corps was advancing northward on. The 15th Army sat astride the highway just west of the American 101st Airborne Division landings around Eindhoven.

When the planes of the airborne invasion were seen overhead on the morning of the 17 September 1944, German commanders in the 15th Army formed ad hoc “kampfgruppes” (battlegroups roughly 1000 strong) to operate against the landings. The German ability to “plug and play” units with a competent commander gave them an amazing flexibility on the battlefield. One such kampfgruppe was formed around an SS police battalion and sent to Best. As the lightly armed lone American airborne company with its attached engineers approached Best, they came under intense fire. Best became a microcosm of what happened to the British 1st Airborne at Arnhem. At Best, one platoon from Company H made it to the bridge and held the north end, while the rest of the company, and eventually the battalion was cut off nearby. That one platoon survived for two whole days before being overrun. The Germans who captured them thought an entire company had held the bridge, not just 22 men.

Over the next three days, the 15th Army counterattacked from around Best to try and cut “Hell’s Highway” at its base. Three German divisions: the 59th, 245th and 716th, and various Luftwaffe and rear area troops organized into battlegroups, including two battalions of fanatical and zealous SS policemen, launched themselves at the Americans. The fighting around the town of Best consumed the entire 502nd PIR, the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, and the 101st’s reserve BN from the 401st Infantry; or over 2/3rds of the entire 101st Airborne Division. The battle only ended when the 101st was reinforced by a brigade of British hussars and grenadiers from XXX Corps, which crossed the canal at the rebuilt Son Bridge to the east.

That British brigade was desperately needed in the fighting around Nijmegen to the north, and the lack of an exploitation force prevented the British from immediately continuing on to Arnhem after the capture of the Nijmegen Bridge over the Waal on 20 September. And although the 15th Army did not succeed at Best, it did cut the all-important highway in two other places farther north over the next several days.

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