Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Ray Nagell: Flight Into Holland

Minneapolis native Ray Nagell served with B-Battery, 321st Glider Artillery, 101st Airborne Division in Europe. He trained in gliders before being sent overseas, but it wasn't until he was sent into Holland that he was flown into combat as a member of a glider artillery unit. Ray remembered that experience in a 2008 oral history interview with military historian Douglas Bekke.

Oral History Excerpts

DB: What kind of warning did you get for the Holland jump, September 17th? The whole thing was put together in about two weeks.

RN: Yeah, we found out the night before!

DB: The night before. And did they put you in an isolation area again?

RN: Well, nobody got passes that last couple of days, but we didn't know what was going on. Before that, they took two gliders up and tried to see if they would last for three hours. But as soon as the plane - he'd drop his wheels if he was in trouble, and he flew for three hours around England, and when he dropped the wheels it meant cut loose, or he'd cut you loose at the plane. And it was a big connection, an aluminum connection, and if that came back and hit the glider, Plexiglas, the glider would go right down. So as soon as they dropped their wheels; no communication or radio between the plane and glider in the air. They had radio contact on the ground, but they had a wire going up, but it was so noisy in that glider you couldn't hear anything, so you couldn't depend on that at all. So they'd drop their wheels and that meant cut loose, or they're gonna cut you loose. We had gliders all over England - all over! Some guys didn't come back for a week.

DB: That was part of the training.

RN: Yeah. Well, they didn't want to cut loose, but they had to.

DB: You also experimented with some new things, too, about a C-47 pulling two gliders simultaneously. Did you ever do any of that training?

RN: That's what I'm talking about. Pull two gliders. The plane, it was too much of a load. It was actually about four ton.

DB: And didn't you also do training, then, to replace the pilot? You lost your co-pilot?

RN: Yeah. First we had chutes in case of an emergency, and then they said, "You don't need chutes to land in a glider", so they took the chutes away. And then a little while later they said, "You don't need two pilots to land the glider, so one of you guys can do it. In an emergency just land in a field and take instructions from the pilot." So everybody in the battalion had to take instructions from the pilot. He'd take it off the runway, and when we got in the air, we'd all take over and try it out, and steer it, rudders, and all that stuff.

DB: How did you feel about that? ...You think you could have landed the glider all right if you needed to?

RN: Oh yeah. There was nothing to it. Like a Model-T, you know, two pedals, the rudders and the steering was in and out and just turning the wheel. No, I don't think it would have been any problem. But you gotta come in at a pretty good speed when you got that four ton on there. Otherwise you just drop; plunk. But they did a good job with landing in a plowed field. Not trees, though. You could land at the tree if you get there and then drop your flaps and just fall.

DB: Set down flat onto the woods.

RN: Yeah. And the wind would hold you up. And then we had ropes in the glider, and you could slide down the rope.

DB: But then you still had your gun in the glider, and if you weren't carrying that, you were just out of luck.

RN: But at least you got out. But there were 60 in a flight, gliders and C- 47’s towing them, and they’d all let loose at one time in one or two fields. When you go down, you lose one foot every fifteen, you couldn’t go back up. So you’re going down all the time and you’d better have the landing lined up. And you hope that somebody else doesn't turn around and want to make a landing in front of you. That happened a lot. I saw two gliders after I had landed, and they were heading right for each other in the air, and they both swiveled opposite directions; tried to go opposite directions, but they hit and dropped right down, doing 125 miles an hour.

DB: Was that in Holland?

RN: Yeah.

DB: When you went into Holland it was pretty nice weather. Did you go in on the first day?

RN: No, second day.

DB: The second day. It was still good weather, then.

RN: Not in England. We were supposed to leave at 7 in the morning, and it was so foggy that the tow rope, which is 300 feet long, that was towing us, in the C-47 you couldn't see the plane on the ground, 300 foot.

DB: But you were able to get off.

RN: No. They cancelled the mission and said, "Wait until the fog lifts." We had a nice big breakfast; they gave us everything you could think of. Then it got to be 11:00 and they said, "We gotta go, because the paratroopers were over there yesterday, and we gotta go and support them or they would be wiped out." So at 11:00 they said, "We're gonna eat lunch and go."

So we got in the glider and the C-47 revved up; they speed up the engine and keep the brakes on so they can get momentum on the engines, and then we both took off, and as soon as the C-47 took off we flew higher than it did because of the propeller blast. We always flew higher. But as soon as they took off, at 20, 30 feet, then our glider would drop the flaps and we were right in the air right away, following the airplane down the runway. Because of the fog, we couldn't see the airplane. We just followed that rope for over an hour. Then sixty gliders came; I don't know how they kept track of each other in the air, but sixty of them got off the ground and we took off for England, and I never saw another glider around there for over an hour. And I'm sure some of them crashed in the air because they couldn't tell where the other one was. When we got over the channel it cleared up a little bit, we got out of the fog and were in the clouds, but you could see each other once in a while. The plane crossed our ropes and we knew, our gliders were coming together and we had no contact with the airplane. So they saw each other and they backed off. It’s a good thing he backed off over the top instead of underneath and untwisted the ropes, or we’d be in the Channel.

Oh, before that, our plane put their spoilers down and slowed down, and we are flying higher than them and we passed them up; flew right over the top of the plane. It was right over the top of the plane, and then he revved up again. He was catching up to the plane in front of him, which was also towing a glider, and by the time he tightened the rope up to take the slack out, he gave us a heck of a jerk, but our rope didn’t break. They broke once in a while, but it didn’t break; we were lucky.

So then the plane's pilot decided to go northeast, or more east instead of northeast to Holland. And we were in the clouds there and we left the whole flock of gliders and planes. I didn’t know that at the time, but we came out in, I think it was Belgium, we were the only plane in the sky and it was clear, not a cloud in the sky after we got to Belgium. So the pilot must have had binoculars in the airplane and they revved up the motors, and I think our maximum speed was about 150 knots, and they went up as fast as they could go, and our glider was just shaking and vibrating. We caught up to the rest of the flight and by that time we were in Holland and we had to slow down and go down. They fly a little bit high, I don’t know, a thousand feet or so. But when you get in combat, the lower you are, the less chance they got to shoot at you because you zip over them right, right above the tree tops. So that’s what they did. And then we were flying along and we could see the German's shooting at us down below. I thought, "If we just had some hand grenades, if we had a little funnel or something at the bottom of the glider we could have tossed grenades at the Germans, they would have gone down and killed all those Germans that were shooting at us." Sixty gliders could have dropped a few hand grenades down. But nobody thought of that. And then the plane on our left, it was just above the treetops; it was cutting leaves off the trees with its propellers, and all of a sudden it made a left turn and went right into the dirt and just a big ball of flames.

DB: This was a C-47 next to you.

RN: Yeah. The glider cut loose and he landed in enemy territory. We kept going and the glider on our left - all of a sudden, I was looking out the little window there, and a shell went right through the wing, which was just cloth, and it went through the cloth on both sides, and then the wind caught it and tore the stuff back, but it didn't slow it down. But they made a good landing in the plowed potato fields. ...Then, all of a sudden we got to the drop zone, and then everybody cuts loose at the same time, sixty gliders, and that was a mess.

DB: Chaos?

RN: Oh yes. Terrible. We lost a lot of people right there.

DB: But your glider came in okay?

RN: Yup.

DB: Were you riding the gun in, or did you just have people in your glider?

RN: Yeah, I was with the gun, yeah.

DB: So, what, four people in there with a gun?

RN: There were two pilots and there were about four or five in the back. They hold it to 17.

DB: But you landed safely and the gun was intact. And so you got out and…

RN: And the Jeep came over; they had a hard time finding you because there's a big area with sixty gliders, so the jeep's gotta find the right one and pick you up. And everything tied down in there. We had a rope that you could just pull, like the bow on a shoe, and just pull that and the whole rope let loose. I forget the name of that knot, but it held the Jeep down, or anything in there. ...So we ran over to the road - there was a dirt road - and the Germans were shooting at us on one side of the woods there; they still weren't cleared out. So some of the guys went in the woods. There was a 14-year-old boy standing there, and we took the map out and showed him the drop zone and our objective, [the town of] Son, where we were going to save that bridge. And he said, "Oh, you go right down that road, six, eight, ten kilometers or something, and then take a right and go right into town." But by the time we got there we were four hours late and the Germans had blown the bridge up, so we couldn’t save it. So we had to take another route and we had to go down to the next bridge and then keep the road open, "Hell’s Highway" [Highway 69].

DB: And a lot of fire missions along there?

RN: Yeah. Lots of them.

DB: And the Germans counter-attacked several times and cut Hell’s Highway. Did you have any contact? Were you in the sector where they were counterattacking?

RN: Yes. Well, first thing we were supposed to go to the front lines where the British were, and they had a whole army there, and were gonna break through to us the first day. They couldn't break through. The second day they called us to hit the Germans from behind. We were the first division, the 101st, behind the lines along "Hell's Highway", and then it's the 82nd, and then the British up on our end of the line. So we had to go back and hit the Germans from behind, and right away we got through and the British got through, and so when they got the tanks through, the roads were about four foot high, and it's just level. Holland is just like an airport, just level for miles. Well, that road ["Hell's Highway"] is four foot high, and the tank another six foot high, and so they're shooting the tanks in direct fire ten miles away with the 88s and knocking them out on that highway and blocking that highway. And then they got bulldozers up there to knock the tanks off, tip them, push them off the road. And then they got a bulldozer, and then they got another bulldozer, and he'd knock a few off. And the British, they were standing there making tea, waiting for the road to get open, and they were knocking the tanks off, one after the other, and they never did get up on our end for about four days, I think. They were supposed to be up the first day.

DB: But you said you were involved with the German counter attacks to cut the highway. And did you actually fire on German tanks? Did you have direct fire missions?

RN: No. They broke through and then they’d radio us, somebody on the highway, so then we’d have to take our artillery up, and skeleton crew.

DB: You had to displace to meet some of those threats.

RN: Yeah. We had to go up there and knock them back off the highway, their Infantry.

DB: ...How long were you in that salient, going up into Holland? ...You landed the 18th of September; you came in the second day?

RN: We were on a 5-day mission but it ended up 69 days to secure the bridge at Son and to hold the 50-mile "Hell's Highway" open until the British Army broke through, going to Arnhem. While on our way our battalion got pinned down several times. The Germans mortared us and we had many casualties. We had to send guys off the road. There were these little rolling hills and the Germans sneeked up on us on the road. We often couldn't shoot with artillery because the Germans were too close so we sent some of our guys out as infantry. Twice that happened on the road going up there. We were on the road for a week or so. Finally we got to Arnhem, joining our infantry on the front lines in the fighting for the Islands. We got relocated and started using artillery again against the Germans.

DB: And you were up there until the end of November.

RN: Yeah.

DB: And then you go back to your rest areas in France?

RN: We went to Mourmelon, yeah. But about five days before we left [Holland]; we’d been there for, oh, a month and a half; the Germans decided to break through in our sector. And we were just holding it, there was nothing to do. And the Germans, all of a sudden one day at about 4 in the afternoon, they come running up those hills, running and shouting and shooting, with no artillery, just infantry. We had our infantry out in front of us and so they called for mortars and then our 75s and then 105s and 155s and 240s, and then they called for all the British tanks in that area. Everything was zeroed in, so they just gave them the location. We were shooting 105 artillery pieces in that area, and we shot for an hour and 15 minutes. And I thought we must have killed 3000 or 4000 Germans. None of them got through. We had a skeleton crew of infantry out there, because there was nothing going on. ...None of the Germans got through and with 105 guns shooting continuously for an hour and 15 minutes, we killed, I read in a book, 70 percent of the division. It was wiped out. And it was horrible. And they were about a half a mile from us. And it would rain, then the sun would come out, and you can imagine those shells, what they done to all those troops laying there. They were just chopped up. And the stench was so horrible, we couldn’t even eat. We were there for about four or five days after, and then the Canadians came in and relieved us. And they said, "March Order", and we went to Mourmelon, and we were just so happy and relieved. But you can’t imagine how horrible that was. But the poor Germans; they took a real beating that day. But our gun was so hot that the green paint on the barrel was black. I was on a sight as gunner, and you gotta get right up by the sight there to get on the aiming circles. We weren’t that accurate, but we’d just get close to where they were lined up and they were firing at will, anyhow. But one of the sergeants, there were ditches there with water, he took a bucket of water and poured it in his barrel, and that barrel split right down the middle because it was so hot. He was a private the next day. But it was just the worst day we had for killing people.

DB: Then did you take any casualties at all?

RN: Nope. We never took a one.

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Nagell, Ray; Douglas Bekke, Interviewer, Ray Nagell Oral History Interview, © Minnesota Millitary Museum, 2008, used with permission.