September 17th was Day One of the operation and began with intense bombing and strafing attacks by the British 2nd Tactical Air Force and the American 8th and 9th Air Forces, targeting the flak guns, barracks and garrisons in the area. It is difficult to imagine the huge reach of the operation, but some idea of scale can be gleaned from the number of aircraft involved. Over 3,500 planes set off from England that day to attack the three target areas, with over 1,000 fighter escorts. Some 1,500 planes and 500 gliders were involved in the Arnhem assault giving the attackers overwhelming air superiority. A German survivor of the battle later commented ruefully on the sight, “If you saw a silver plane, it was American, if you saw a black plane it was British, if you saw no plane, it was the Luftwaffe”.
The first allied troops to land were the one hundred and eighty six pathfinders of the 21st Independent Parachute Company who immediately prepared and marked out the landing zones for the following Para and glider troops. The landings were largely unopposed and by 2.30 in the afternoon the glider troops had moved into defensive positions around the landing area, while the Paras moved east towards the bridges. Some glider losses, due to German flak, resulted in most of the reconnaissance jeeps being destroyed and were not available for the planned rush to the bridges.
The Germans were unprepared for the landings and were thrown into confusion. Feldmarschall Model, mistakenly believing that the paratroops had been sent to capture him, fled his headquarters and moved to the safety of armoured troops stationed at Doetinchem east of Arnhem.
The glider troops protecting the perimeter cleared the nearby town of Wolfheze and established a screen around the north east edge of the landing zone. The Germans had abandoned twenty one 105mm guns in the town and Royal Engineers destroyed the breeches with grenades. The Germans were not slow to react to the assault and as the size of the attack became clear, gathered their forces and hardened their defences with astonishing speed. One unit in particular reacted very sharply to the attack; this was SS Panzergrenadier Batallion 16, led by Sturmbannführer Krafft, who was based in woods east of the landing area. Krafft realised immediately that the enemy objective was Arnhem Bridge and quickly gathering every man he could find, he managed to establish a blocking line covering the more obvious routes from the landing areas to Arnhem. Although only 435 men strong, he hoped to convince the British that his force was much larger and in doing so, delay the British until proper defences could be established.
Bittich sent 9th SS Panzer Division into Arnhem, with orders to contain the 1st Airborne and then destroy it. His other tank unit was sent to Nijmegen Bridge to establish a bridgehead south of the river and deny its use to the enemy. In a report sent to Berlin, Bittich noted, “We shall soon be able to discount the threat of the British north of the Neder Rijn. We must remember that British soldiers do not act on their own initiative when they are fighting in a town and when it consequently becomes difficult for officers to exercise control. They are amazing in defence, but we need not be afraid of their capabilities in attack”.
Meanwhile, the American 101st Airborne had landed and captured the bridges at Veghel and Son. By nightfall they had linked up with the advancing British infantry and moved forward to Eindhoven.
The American 82nd Airborne had also landed at Grave and Nijmegen, but fog delayed some of the glider and tug flights and weakened the attack. The Americans were forced to attempt a crossing of the River Waal under heavy enemy fire taking heavy casualties. A US Company Commander, Moffat Burriss, recalls, “The bullets hitting the water looked like hailstones. When we reached about the half way point, then the mortar and artillery fire started falling and when a boat was hit by a mortar or artillery shell, it just disintegrated and everybody was lost”. The bridge at Waal was finally taken, followed by vicious street fighting on the 20th September by a combined British/American attack. With this bridge captured, the XXX Corps could now race towards Arnhem to relieve Urquhart’s troops.
Back at the landing ground the British paratroops advanced towards the town, but came under heavy fire from the now alert German defenders. The 3rd Battalion moved towards Arnhem through the nearby town of Oosterbeek. Only the 2nd Battalion, now down to some 500 men, led by Lieutenant Colonel Frost, and being the most southerly of the British units, managed to make progress as the Germans had covered his route less well than the other approaches to the town, but was himself slowed down by cheering Dutch civilians and did not get into the town until late in the day.
Frost secured the northern end of the bridge and the surrounding buildings including the local Van Limburg Stirum school, but was badly exposed to German fire from the south as British forces had been unable to secure the other end. German engineers then blew the railway bridge and damaged the centre span of the pontoon, leaving only the road bridge intact. All British forces were now heavily engaged in combat with the SS and were taking heavy casualties as the Germans were now being reinforced with Tiger tanks. A German survivor recalls, “The fighting was an indescribable fanaticism and the fight raged through the ceilings and staircases, hand grenades flew in every direction. Each house had to be taken in this way. The British offered resistance to their last breath”.
As the fighting progressed, more and more troops became available to the Germans as Hitler himself, stunned by the attack, ordered all available forces to aid the defenders.
The commander of the 9th SS Armoured Artillery Regiment, Obersturmführer Ludwig Spindler, was ordered to advance west and block and establish a blocking line to prevent the British forces entering the Arnhem area. There was much confusion on both sides as the fighting increased in intensity. The Commander of the Arnhem garrison, Major General Kussin was killed by Paras of the 3rd Battalion, leading to a breakdown in command and responsibilities, while the British struggled to maintain communication with each other as their radio sets failed to work properly in the heavily wooded terrain.
In Arnhem, the Paras who were lightly armed and lacked the heavy weapons required to hold the tanks off, struggled on. Major Tony Hibbert, who fought at Arnhem, recalls, “We really had nothing we could do to them and they drove up and down the street, firing high explosives into the sides of the buildings to create gaps and then fired smoke shells through them. The phosphorus from the shells burned us out. By about eight o clock on Wednesday evening, the fire got out of control and of course, by this time, we had about 300 wounded in the cellar”.
That afternoon the German, led by two tanks, managed to drive some of the defenders from the houses and school near the bridge, but were themselves driven back when one tank was destroyed by a 6 pounder and the other by a Piat, (Projectile, Infantry, Anti Tank). All day rumours had been circulating that the 1st and 3rd Battalions would arrive with reinforcements, giving much heart to the defenders. The Germans too were worried and that evening launched another infantry attack over the bridge. They were met with a hail of fire, followed by an all or nothing bayonet charge from the Paras and they retreated.
At the end of the first day, the Para’s 3rd Battalion was stalled by Krafft’s defences while the 1st Battalion went further north, but were stopped by Spindler’s group. At dusk, the last of 2nd Battalion, some Royal Engineers, plus two jeeps and four 6 pounder anti tank guns, moved into Arnhem to join Frost, whose forces now amounted to just over 700. The Germans continued to pour troops into the area, including specialist street fighting and machine gun Battalions while the British troops outside the town tried desperately to break the German lines.