On September 17, 1944, the Allies launched an operation they hoped would end the war in the west by Christmas. By the end of August 1944, the German army in the west was smashed and in full-retreat mode. After the Allies had come ashore at Normandy, they had to slug their way thru the thick bocage country where the hedgerows made life difficult for the attackers and gains were measured in feet. But by the end of July, the Allies had broken out of the hedgerows and hit the open fields of France.
On the right flank, General Patton’s Third Army was unleashed just as “Operation Cobra” began to break thru the German defenses. His army swept across Brittany and then joined the rest of the Allies as they raced to the Meuse River and eventually Paris.
The Germans had counter-attacked at Falaise and tried to drive a wedge between the American and British forces. As a result, their troops were caught in a pocket and virtually annihilated. Allied air power mercilessly raked the Germans who were caught in a maelstrom of hell. Of the 56 infantry divisions that were ready on D-Day, by late August only about 20 were still fit for action. The twelve Panzer divisions in the west had been wiped out, with only one still a viable force. The Germans had lost 1800 of their 2200 tanks and assault guns that were available on June 6th.
It seemed nothing could stop the Allies from bursting thru the Siegfried Line and into Germany and ending the war in 1944. But the Allies paused unsure of how to proceed next. Germany was certainly the goal but on a broad front or a dagger thrust.
The Germans used this lull to rescue their shattered army in Normandy. Field Marshal Walter Model, “the fireman of the Eastern Front” was given the command. He began a series of brilliant withdrawals at night over the Seine for the most beat up of the German formations. The more intact divisions began a series of good screening actions to cover the withdrawal.
The brief respite allowed the Germans to recover and they surprisingly did so much quicker than anyone had thought possible. The Allies after much debate decided to go with British Field Marshal Montgomery’s plan of a bold dagger thrust into Germany through Holland. That way, the Allies could cross the crucial Rhine River and drive into the German industrial center of the Ruhr.
The bold, imaginative plan called “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, two over canals and three over rivers. The bridges were key. The airborne divisions would drop in and seize the bridges and hold them until the armor units of the British XXX Corps, the spearhead of the advance, could race up the highway and establish a linkup. If successful, it would bypass the Siegfried Line and cut off all of the German troops in Holland.
But early intelligence estimates were already beginning to point to the Germans moving SS and Panzer Divisions into Holland to refit. Those would a harbinger of the things to come.
The Plan: The British had told Eisenhower that they insisted that their airborne division “be given the toughest, most advanced assignment.” And they were.
The 101st Airborne, under General Maxwell Taylor, was to drop north of Eindhoven, they were to capture the town, the four railway and road bridges over the Aa River and the Zuid Wilems Vaart Canal at Vegel. They also had to the bridge in St. Oedenrode over the Dommel as well as the bridge over the Wilhemina Canal at Son.
The 82nd Airborne under General Jim Gavin was to capture two major bridges, the Mass bridge over the Grave and the Waal at Nijmegen.
The toughest nut to crack was given, per their request to the British 1st Airborne under General Roy Urquhart, Arnhem. The staff had to plan this entire operation in just six days. The amount of planning going into the operation was ridiculous and the problems for Urquhart were foreboding. The flak on both sides of the river for the bridge at Arnhem made a drop there an impossibility. He had to drop 4 miles north of Arnhem and fight their way into the town. And worst of all, due to the lack of aircraft to shuttle three divisions in Holland, the British would have to be dropped piecemeal. As General Browning told Urquhart, the priority had to go to the American 101st. The XXX Corps to reach Arnhem and had to cross all of the bridges in the Screaming Eagles sector before they could make it to the 82nd Airborne’s sector in Nijmegen before they could hope to cross the bridge at Arnhem.
The Operation Begins: The drops, made in daylight went well, taking off from 22 airfields in Britain (4 British, 18 American) the aircraft delivered the troops on the targets with minimal losses. General Horrocks watched the drop and then his XXX Corps begin their advance up the one narrow highway. By nightfall, they had already linked up with the 101st and passed thru Eindhoven.
The narrow corridor for Horrocks’ tanks was open all the way to Nijmegen. The bridge over the Waal was proving to be a tough nut to crack. The Germans, in much more strength than previously believed in intelligence estimates, were able to push back an assault. They decided on a two-pronged assault from both the north and south sides of the bridge simultaneously. The 504th Parachute Infantry had the task of rowing across the swift-flowing river in flimsy storm boats. Major Julian Cook led the assault and less than half of the boats of the first wave made it across the river. But the men began assaulting in small groups while the boats made subsequent trips to bring more troops to the shore.
By late afternoon, they smashed their way onto the northern end of the bridge. The Irish Guards tanks in the vanguard of the assault on the southern end smashed their way through German 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. The road to Arnhem was clear. But the advance had been slowed by heavy German resistance and the enemy had been able to cut the narrow highway time and again which slowed the supply chain and blocked the narrow lifeline of the operation.
Arnhem: The British airborne forces in Arnhem had already held out for three days when they’d be told that they’d be relieved in two. And the resistance, supposedly divisions that had decimated in Normandy and filled with old men and boys, were the SS panzer troops led by General Willi Bittrich Commander of the II SS Panzer Corps.
Urquhart’s men were operating blind, although only C-47 was shot down on the drop, several of the gliders were lost on the trip due to broken tow ropes and these included all of the Reconnaissance Squadron’s vehicles. They were to lead the way into Arnhem for Colonel J.D. Frost, the Battalion Commander tasked with taking the bridge.
The British were 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. To the Dutch who had suffered under German rule for four years, this meant the war was soon to be over….they were wrong.
Despite the heavier German resistance encountered, Frost’s men reached the bridge and secured the northern end of it along with some of the surrounding buildings. Two attempts to take the southern end of the bridge were repelled with heavy losses.
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 lost control of the situation. His battalions would be forced to fight piecemeal.
Urquhart was forced 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.
The Germans had a complete set of plans, found on a dead British officer and knew where the subsequent drops were planned. They were intent on driving the British off of the drop zones. Frost’s men were holding out and four battalions were fighting their way slowly through the German defenses to reach he and his men.
When the resupply drops fell later, they fell into German hands. All of the attacks attempting to reach Frost were repelled with horrible casualties. Frost’s men were still holding out but were nearly out of ammunition, with no food and no water.
The Germans on Thursday morning September 21, (the operation began on Sunday), finally broke through and drove Frost’s men out. But they had to do it house-by-house, room-by-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. He had hoped that if he could hold on, 2nd Army and XXX Corps reached him, they were just 10 miles away. He received a message that the “43rd Division ordered to take all risks to effect relief today.” But Bittrich’s Panzers were making that 10 miles of road, an inferno.
Particularly galling for Urquhart’s paratroops was the sight of RAF and American resupply planes, braving murderous anti-aircraft fire, dropping their bundles on drop zones now held by the Germans. They were out of food, water 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 were believing that they were heading for a cake walk.
On Friday night of 22-23 September, Sosabowski tried to have his men swim across the river to reach 1st Airborne. They were driven back with terrible casualties. The next night the Dorset Regiment, spearheading XXX Corps tried to reach the far side of the river in boats. But not to reinforce the bridgehead but to withdraw the surviving forces. Finally, on Monday night, the withdrawal began and the Germans sensing what was happening, unleashed terrific amounts of artillery fire on the British.
Aftermath: The mission had failed. The objectives, as General Browning had mentioned prior to the operation was that perhaps the Allies were going a bridge too far had come true.
The losses suffered by the Airborne forces were staggering:
British 1st Airborne 1,446 Dead (inc 229 Glider Pilots), 6,414 Wounded & POW
Polish Indep Brigade 97 Dead & 111 Wounded & POW
US 82nd Airborne 215 Dead 790 Wounded & 427 Missing
US 101st Airborne 315 Dead 1,248 Wounded & 547 Missing
plus 122 US Glider pilots, of which 12 were killed
Why did the plan fail? One can point to a number of factors, not the least of which was the failure of Allied intelligence to recognize that the Germans had placed SS Panzer troops in the area around Arnhem. They even discounted the Dutch underground reports of the same, and those underground operatives were known to be very accurate.
The lack of aircraft was a major contributing factor. Urquhart’s 1st Airborne drops were spread out over three days. Had they been able to all drop on Sunday the 17th and closer to their objective, the bridge may have been taken …and held.
Failures in communications and communications gear were unconscionable. It never allowed the units in Arnhem to be able to communicate with one another. But the biggest reason for failure? The one highway. The 101st called it Hell’s 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.
Was it the biggest blunder of the Allies in the west? One could make that argument. Although the supply chain was stretched to the breaking point from the Normandy beaches, the broad front strategy had the German army reeling and it is at least debatable that they could have collapsed if the Allies kept up the pressure much longer.
However, even though the attack failed, the Allies had effected crossings of the Waal and the Maas Rivers and they had a good jumping off point to launch another attack on Germany. It would be delayed due to the defeat here, but the writing was still on the wall for the Germans…the end was coming.
Photos courtesy: Wikipedia