Although it might look like a normal bridge today, the Nijmegen bridge was a pivotal strategic point throughout the entirety of the Second World War. Both the German and Allied forces sought to control the Nijmegen bridge, leading to one of the most daring operations of the War, Operation Market-Garden.
The creation of the Nijmegen Bridges
Nijmegen is a Dutch city situated on the banks of the Waal River (which is a branch of the Rhine River). The city’s name comes from the Roman word “Noviomagus” which means “new market.” Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands, being established by the Romans over 2000 years ago.
Nijmegen is located along a major river trade route, making the city an important commercial center. Barges carry goods on the Waal River from the harbor at Rotterdam in Holland to the Ruhr industrial area in Germany. However, until 1936 there was no fixed roadway connection between the town on Nijmegen and the Dutch city of Lent, situated directly across the river. Instead, there was a railway bridge that was first opened in 1879.
In 1906, plans were set in place to start construction on a highway bridge across the Waal River at Nijmegen. The advent of World War I halted those construction plans. Although the Netherlands remained neutral through the First World War, all major civic works were halted in fear that the war could potentially spill over the border.
After the end of the First World War, plans were once again put in place to renew the Nijmegen bridge project. By 1927, blueprints for the bridge were finalized, and on October 23, 1931, construction began. The bridge was officially opened on June 16, 1936, with Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina presiding over the ceremony. The Nijmegen bridge over the Waal River was the largest single-span bridge in Europe.
The Nijmegen Bridge during the Second World War
It was unfathomable that only four years after the Nijmegen bridge was opened, it would be destroyed. The Dutch government watched in anticipation in September 1939 as Germany invaded Poland. Initially, the Dutch government hoped to remain neutral throughout the conflict as they had during the First World War.
In 1939, with war already being declared between England, France, and Nazi Germany, the German government promised neutrality to the Netherlands. In reality, however, secret plans were being made to invade Denmark, Belgium, France, and The Netherlands. The 1939 promise of neutrality was just a ruse designed to keep the Dutch from mobilizing.
Nonetheless, the Dutch government was suspicious of the German promise of neutrality, and as a result, began mobilizing to strengthen their Army and Air Force in August 1939. As part of the Dutch preparation for a potential German invasion, Dutch engineers mined key bridges within easy reach of the border. The railway and highway bridges at Nijmegen were rigged with explosives to help prevent a German invasion if it inevitably happened.
As we know, the German Invasion of the Netherlands happened on May 10, 1940. Nijmegen and its two bridges were a primary objective of the German Wehrmacht. If the German’s could manage to take these bridges, they could bring in thousands of additional German troops into the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France. Knowing that a primary German objective was capturing the bridges at Nijmegen, the Dutch government decided to detonate the explosives they had rigged the structures with. In an instant, both the railway and highway Nijmegen bridge’s plunged into the Waal River below.
Unfortunately, this effort didn’t deter the German Wehrmacht. The German Army crossed the Waal in assault boats and aboard a ferry that ran between Nijmegen and Lent. Nijmegen was the first Dutch city to fall to the Germans but saw no further fighting during the 1940 campaign. However, the Germans ordered Dutch engineers to rebuild the Nijmegen bridges, and in 1943 both the railroad and highway bridges were reopened to German vehicles.
Although the Nijmegen bridges were essential in transporting German supplies into Occupied Europe, no Allied bombs were dropped on them for nearly the entirety of the War. In hindsight, it would have been possible for Allied bombers to take these bridges out again as they flew over the Netherlands, and Nijmegen specifically, day and night on their way to drop bombs on Germany.
However, this all changed on February 22, 1944, when bombs were dropped on the city of Nijmegen by American bombers. This was one of the largest bombardments of a Dutch city during the Second World War, but unfortunately, the campaign went horribly wrong for the citizens of Nijmegen. The bombs dropped on Nijmegen were supposed to be dropped over the German town of Cleves, but American pilots became disoriented and dropped their bombs over Nijmegen. In total, almost 800 Dutch citizens were killed in this bombing raid when the bombs were dropped over the residential section of the town. Similarly, many historic buildings that once stood in Nijmegen were reduced to rubble.
By late August 1944, an Allied liberation of the Netherlands seemed to be on the horizon. By the end of summer in 1944, the German Army was retreating from Belgium and France back to Germany. By September 5, 1944 (a day remembered as “Mad Tuesday”), rumors were flying around the Netherlands, saying that the long-awaited Allied liberation was finally at hand. However, German forces managed to regroup and were unwilling to give up the Netherlands without a fight.
Realizing that the German’s would not be removed from the country easily, British general Bernard Montgomery devised a plan known as Operation Market-Garden. If successful, this plan would liberate the Netherlands, and outflank the Siegfried Line, which would allow for the Allied to make a push into the Ruhr, Germany industrial heartland.
Operation Market-Garden consisted of a two-pronged plan to recapture several Dutch bridges, including the Nijmegen bridges. “Operation Market” was the airborne component of the plan in which three Allied airborne divisions (101st and 82nd US Airborne Divisions, and 1st British Airborne Division) would drop by parachute and glider into the Netherlands. These airborne divisions would then seize key territory and bridges to allow the ground forces, also known as the “Operation Garden” phase, to cross the Rhine River into Germany.
On September 17, 1944, the first attempt was made to capture the two Nijmegen bridges by units of the 82nd American Airborne Division. American forces were able to get within about 400 meters of the Waal Bridge before being thrown back by German forces.
In the following days, two more attempts were made on the 18th and 19th of September 1944 to capture the railway and highway bridges in Nijmegen but were also unsuccessful. On September 19, 1944, the ground forces of the 30th corps were able to make contact with the airborne units located in Grave. A combined attack to secure the bridges was made, but the Allied advance was once again halted by the Germans who had received reinforcements by September 19. The Allies then altered their plan as it was becoming clear that the bridges could not be stormed and taken by force. They planned to attack both Nijmegen bridges from both sides at the same time, which meant sending Allied forces across the Waal River by boat.
On September 20, 1944, Major Julian Cook’s 3rd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was ordered to cross the Waal river and capture the railroad and highway bridges from the northern side. They were under heavy enemy fire while crossing the river, and engaged in deadly hand-to-hand fighting once reaching shore. According to eye-witnesses, only 13 of the 26 boats that left the southern banks actually reached the northern side. Eventually, the Allied forces established a beachhead on the northern bank of the Waal. From this small foothold, the Allies were able to storm and capture the Nijmegen bridges and eventually liberate the city of Nijmegen.
A Bridge Too Far
A Bridge Too Far was initially a book written in 1974 by Cornelius Ryan that gave an overview of Operation Market-Garden and the failed Allied attempt to break through German lines at Arnhem. In 1977, A Bridge Too Far was made into a major Hollywood film.
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A Bridge Too Far was fairly historically accurate, presenting the events of Operation Garden Market in the way they actually happened. The cast included major Hollywood stars of the time, including Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, James Cann, Robert Redford and even Laurence Olivier.