On September 17, 1944, the Allies launched a bold and dangerous operation they hoped would catapult their armies across the Rhine, into the heart of Germany, and end the war before Christmas.
Following the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, Allied progress was soon measured in yards as they had to crawl their way through the thick hedgerows of the bocage country. Each small field was a set-piece battle; the Germans would expertly defend one and then retreat to another.
However, General Omar Bradley designed a plan to break out of the hedgerows and get into the open country of France. His “Operation Cobra” unleashed a massive bombing campaign of the German front line units. It was followed by an assault designed to pierce the German defenses and unleash the new Third Army under General Patton to drive the Germans out of the Brittany peninsula.
Patton’s troops swept across Brittany and then joined the rest of the Allies as they raced to the Meuse River and eventually reached Paris by late August. The Allied invasion of Southern France had troops linking up with American armor under Patton and then racing to the German frontier.
In early August, the Germans counterattacked at Falaise and tried to drive a wedge between the American and British forces. Despite the Germans’ initial gains, the Allied lines held firm and the awesome specter of Allied airpower became apparent. With the German troops now wedged into a small pocket, American and British troops hit them from each side while allied fighter bombers extracted a terrible toll on the German units who had no air support.
Most of the troops trapped in the pocket were virtually annihilated. At the time of the Allied invasion on June 6, the Germans had 56 infantry divisions in Normandy. In just two and a half months of combat, they had barely 20 viable divisions left. Of the 12 armored divisions, 11 mostly destroyed, with only one still able to be used as a cohesive unit. They lost 1,800 of their 2,200 tanks and assault guns during that time.
As the Germans retreated in near panic toward their frontier, the German high command sent its shattered armored units to a quiet area to rest, refit, and get ready for the coming defense of Germany. Unbeknownst to Allied planners, the armor units were sent to Holland. That move would prove pivotal in the weeks ahead.
Problems on the Allied side crept in after their lightning assault across France. Disagreements ensued on how to proceed next. The Americans wanted to advance across a wide front since the huge Allied numerical advantage would force the Germans to defend everywhere and not be able to gather their strength. The British wanted a “bold dagger thrust” into the heart of Germany with Montgomery leading the charge and the Americans supporting his flanks.
And then there were the supply problems. With no major port open, all of the supplies had to be trucked from the Normandy beaches, all the way across France. So, by the end of August, the advance had slowed as both sides paused momentarily to catch their breath.
The Germans used this lull to rescue their shattered army in France. Field Marshal Walter Model, “the fireman of the Eastern Front,” was given command of the western front. He began a series of brilliant withdrawals at night over the Seine for units that had been heavily bled during the fighting. The more intact divisions began a series of good screening actions to cover the withdrawal.
The brief respite allowed the Germans to recover much quicker than anyone had thought possible. The panic had stopped and they quickly were reorganizing their lines. They were not yet beaten.
So, after intense political pressure by the British, the Allies decided to go with Field Marshal Montgomery’s plan of an invasion into Germany through Holland. That way, the Allies could cross the crucial Rhine River and drive into the German industrial center of the Ruhr.
His plan called for “an airborne carpet” of three divisions, the American 82nd, and 101st, and the British 1st Airborne to drop in daylight and seize five major bridges. This was the most important part of the plan. The airborne divisions would drop behind the German lines, seize the bridges and hold them until the armor units of the British XXX Corps, the spearhead of the advance, could race up the single highway and establish a linkup. If successful, the Allies would bypass the Siegfried Line and cut off all of the German troops in Holland.
But while some intelligence was already beginning to point that the Germans were moving SS and Panzer Divisions into Holland to refit, these warnings were ignored. The troops in Holland were thought to be “old men and boys” and not front-line soldiers.
The British had told Eisenhower that they insisted that their airborne division “be given the toughest, most advanced assignment.” And it was granted. Little did they know, that in a few weeks’ time, most of the division’s men would be killed, wounded, or captured.
The 101st Airborne, under General Maxwell Taylor, was to drop north of Eindhoven and capture the town, as well as the four railway and road bridges over the Aa River and the Zuid Willems Vaart Canal at Vegel. They also had secure the bridge in St. Oedenrode over the Dommel as well as the bridge over the Wilhemina Canal at Son.
The 82nd Airborne under General James Gavin was to capture two major bridges, the Mass bridge over the Grave and the Waal at Nijmegen.
Given the British request, the British 1st Airborne under General Roy Urquhart was sent the farthest to Arnhem. They had to drop and seize the bridge over the Rhine, hold it, and wait for XXX Corps which was supposed to arrive in two days.
Urquhart’s staff had to plan this entire operation in just six days, and the problems for his 1st Airborne troops were foreboding. The flak on both sides of the river at Arnhem made a drop there impossible. Thus, they would have to drop four miles north of Arnhem and fight their way into the town.
Worst of all, due to the lack of transport aircraft to shuttle three divisions in Holland, the British would have to be dropped piecemeal. Urquhart was told by the high command that the priority had to go to the American 101st. XXX Corps had to cross all of the bridges in the 101st’s sector before they could make it to the 82nd Airborne’s sector in Nijmegen. Then only could they hope to reach Urquhart and his 1st Airborne at the Arnhem bridge.
The transport aircraft took off from 22 different airfields in Britain (four British, 18 American). The aircraft delivered the troops on target with minimal losses. General Horrocks watched the drop and then his XXX Corps began its advance up the one narrow highway. By nightfall of the first day, they had already linked up with the 101st and passed through Eindhoven.
The narrow corridor for Horrocks’ tanks was seemingly open all the way to Nijmegen. However, the bridge over the Waal was proving to be much tougher than previously believed. The Germans had many more troops in the area, and they were far from “old men and boys” but hardened troops from the SS and Panzer units. Worse, German units were able to cut the highway at many spots. This played hell with follow-on units and logistics making their way forward.
On September 20, the 82nd decided on a two-pronged assault from both the north and south sides of the Waal bridge since it was already well behind schedule. The 504th Parachute Infantry had the task of rowing across the swift-flowing river in flimsy storm boats that they had never seen or used before. The tanks on the opposite side would lay down smoke to cover their river crossing. But as the men were halfway across, the wind picked up and blew their cover away. The Germans began pouring murderous machine-gun fire on the boats.
Major Julian Cook was tasked to lead the assault. Less than half of his boats of the first wave made it across the river. But once the men began to reach the shore, they started exacting a terrible toll on the German defenders, assaulting in small groups while the boats made subsequent trips to bring more troops to the shore.
By late afternoon, they had smashed their way onto the northern end of the bridge. The Irish Guards, the leading element of XXX Corps, assaulted the southern end. They, along with other 82nd Airborne paratroopers, had to fight their way through heavy German resistance and the feared 88mm anti-tank guns to reach the southern side.
By 2100 hrs the first two tanks reached the far end and linked up with the American paratroopers on the far side. But nearly out of ammunition and exhausted after fighting non-stop since the operation began, they decided to halt and wait for their infantry. The decision, while it was the correct one, struck a chord with the American paratroopers who had paid such a heavy toll in capturing the bridge. Knowing that their fellow paratroopers of the British 1st Airborne were just hanging on, they were incensed at the pause.
Meanwhile, the British airborne forces in Arnhem had already held out for three days when they were told that they’d be relieved in two. Making matters worse, the lightly armed paratroopers, who carried nothing larger than a PIAT (light anti-armor weapons, akin to the U.S. bazooka), were facing SS panzer troops led by General Willi Bittrich Commander of the II SS Panzer Corps.
Urquhart’s men were operating blindly: Their radios weren’t functioning and the specially designed jeeps with which they were to race the bridge, hadn’t arrived.
The British were also hindered by two key factors: the drop zones assigned to the airborne troops were too far away from the bridge and the outpouring of Dutch civilians, who swarmed out to greet the British with mugs of tea, milk, and fresh fruit, slowed their advance. The Dutch who had suffered under German rule for four years were anxious to be free from occupation. They felt that the arrival of the British was a sign that the war would soon be over. Major John Frost, whose unit led the assault on Arnhem bridge, was slowed as much by friendly civilians as he was by German defenders.
However, Frost’s men reached the bridge and expertly assaulted its northern end along with some of the surrounding buildings. But the first two attempts to take the southern end of the bridge were repelled with heavy losses. That’s when Frost learned of the SS Panzer troops in front of him.
The Germans were reinforcing the southern end of the bridge with infantry, artillery, and armor including the new King Tiger tanks. Urquhart was unable to direct the operations of his troops, due to a failure of his radios, and he lost control of the situation. His battalions would be forced to fight piecemeal.
Urquhart had to take cover in a house in Zwarteweg with some members of his staff when German Panzer Grenadiers surrounded the area. A German self-propelled gun was directly under the window of the house and Urquhart was forced to stay the entire night incommunicado. Out of contact, many of his staff feared he was killed.
The Germans found a complete set of plans on a dead British officer and thus knew where the subsequent drops were planned. They were intent on driving the British troops off of the drop zones. This would deny the airborne troops resupply and follow-on drops. While Frost’s men were holding out at the southern end of the bridge, four other battalions were fighting their way slowly through the German defenses in Arnhem in an attempt to reach his beleaguered troops.
All attempts to reach Frost were repelled by the heavy German armored formations resulting in terrible casualties. Frost’s men were still holding out but were nearly out of ammunition, with no food and no water.
On Thursday morning, September 21, the Germans finally broke through and drove Frost’s men off the southern end of the bridge. The brutal fighting went from house to house and from room to room. A German officer wrote of the “indescribable fanaticism” of the British airborne forces who “offered resistance to their last breath.”
The rest of Urquhart’s division aligned in a horseshoe perimeter to the west of Osterbeek. Urquhart had hoped that if he could hold on, XXX Corps would reach his surrounded troops as they were just 10 miles away. He received a message that the “43rd Division [had been] ordered to take all risks to effect relief today.” But Bittrich’s Panzers defending that single narrow highway extracted a horrendous toll on the troops trying to drive into the maelstrom.
Urquhart’s paratroops had to watch helplessly as RAF and American resupply transport planes, which were braving murderous anti-aircraft fire, were dropping their resupply bundles on fields now held by the Germans. The troops were out of food, water, medical supplies, and nearly out of ammunition.
On the 22nd, the Independent Polish Parachute Brigade of General Sosabowski landed on the south side of the river at Driel. Sosabowski had been appalled during the planning at the nonchalant attitude of the British who believed that they were heading for a cakewalk.
On Friday night, Sosabowski tried to have his men cross the river in small rubber boats to reach the 1st Airborne. They were driven back with heavy casualties. The Allied High Command now knew that the Operation’s outcome was not going to be successful. The next night the Dorset Regiment, spearheading XXX Corps, also tried to reach the far side of the river in boats. Yet, their goal was not to reinforce the bridgehead but rather to withdraw the surviving forces. Finally, on Monday night, the withdrawal began. Once the Germans realized what was happening, they doubled their efforts to wipe out the 1st Airborne and unleashed terrific amounts of artillery fire on the British.
The mission had failed. As General Browning had mentioned prior to the operation, the Allies were indeed going “a bridge too far.”
The losses suffered by the Airborne forces were staggering:
British 1st Airborne: 1,446 Dead (including 229 glider pilots), 6,414 Wounded and POW
Polish Indep Brigade: 97 Dead, 111 Wounded and POW
U.S. 82nd Airborne: 215 Dead, 790 Wounded, and 427 Missing
U.S. 101st Airborne: 315 Dead (including 12 glider pilots), 1,248 Wounded, and 547 Missing (of which 122 U.S. Glider pilots)
A number of factors contributed to the failure of Montgomery’s gamble.
First, the failure of Allied intelligence to either recognize or — as some have alluded to — acknowledge that the Germans had placed SS Panzer troops in the area around Arnhem. They even discounted accurate Dutch underground reports underlining the same. Nothing was going to get in the way of the operation.
Second, Urquhart was given the toughest objective and had to deal with the lack of aircraft right off the bat. His troop drops were spread out over three days. Had they, perhaps, been able to all drop on Sunday the 17th and much closer to their objective, the bridge may have been taken.
Third, the total failures in communications and communications gear forced Urquhart to operate blindly. British units in Arnhem were not able to communicate with one another. Or with anyone else. That factor alone caused all of their resupply drops to fall into enemy hands.
But the biggest factor for the mission’s failure was the one highway. There was a ridiculous amount of congestion on it between Eindhoven and Nijmegen and the troops were never able to get adequate resupply. The Germans expertly applied pressure on both sides of the highway, cutting it in several places during the battle. Understandably, the 101st called it Hell’s Highway.
One could easily make the argument that Operation Market Garden was the Western Allies’ biggest blunder of the war. Although the Allied supply chain was stretched to its breaking point from the Normandy beaches, the broad front strategy had the German army reeling. It is possible that the German army would have collapsed had the Allies kept up the pressure much longer.
However, even though the attack failed, the Allies had made bridgeheads across the Waal and the Maas Rivers. Although their advance into Germany would be delayed for several months, they were now poised for the inevitable attack into the industrial heartland of the Reich. But this attack wouldn’t come in the fall of 1944 but in the spring of 1945.
While it only prolonged the inevitable, the failure of Market Garden bought the Germans valuable time to strengthen their defenses and thus exact a heavier toll in the engagements in Germany proper.