Today marks the 77th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden,mostly associated with the book of Cornelius Ryan ‘A Bridge too Far’ which was made into a star studded block buster movie in 1977 with the same title. It is a lengthy blog but it is an important story to be re-told because the effects of this operation were felt long after the war.
Operation Market Garden was in fact two combined operations.
On 17 September 1944 thousands of paratroopers descended from the sky by parachute or glider up to 150 km behind enemy lines. Their goal: to secure the bridges across the rivers in Holland so that the Allied army could advance rapidly northwards and turn right into the lowlands of Germany, hereby skirting around the Siegfried line, the German defense line. If all carried out as planned it should have ended the war by Christmas 1944.
Unfortunately this daring plan, named Operation Market Garden, didn’t have the expected outcome. The bridge at Arnhem proved to be ‘a bridge too far’. After 10 days of bitter fighting the operation ended with the evacuation of the remainder of the 1st British Airborne Division from the Arnhem area.
Field Marshal Montgomery’s strategic goal was to encircle the heart of German industry, the Ruhr, in a pincer movement.
The northern end of the pincer would circumvent the northern end of the Siegfried Line giving easier access into Germany. The aim of Operation Market Garden was to establish the northern end of a pincer ready to project deeper into Germany. Allied forces would project north from Belgium, 60 miles (97 km) through the Netherlands, across the Rhine and consolidate north of Arnhem on the Dutch/German border ready to close the pincer.
The operation made massed use of airborne forces, whose tactical objectives were to secure the bridges and allow a rapid advance by armored ground units to consolidate north of Arnhem. The operation required the seizure of the bridges across the Maas (Meuse River), two arms of the Rhine (the Waal and the Lower Rhine) together with crossings over several smaller canals and tributaries.
Several bridges between Eindhoven and Nijmegen were captured at the beginning of the operation. Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks’ XXX Corps ground force advance was delayed by the initial failure of the airborne units to secure bridges at Son and Nijmegen. German forces demolished the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Son before being secured by the 101st Airborne Division. The 82nd Airborne Division’s failure to capture the main road bridge over the river Waal at Nijmegen before 20 September also delayed the advance of XXX Corps.
At the furthest point of the airborne operation at Arnhem, the British 1st Airborne Division encountered initial strong resistance. The delays in capturing the bridges at Son and Nijmegen gave time for German forces, including armored divisions, to be moved into Arnhem from Germany. In the ensuing battle, only a small force managed to capture the north end of the Arnhem road bridge and after the ground forces failed to relieve them, the paratroopers were overrun on 21 September. The remainder of the 1st Airborne Division were trapped in a small pocket west of the bridge, having to be evacuated on 25 September.
The Allies had failed to cross the Rhine and the river remained a barrier to their advance into Germany until offensives at Remagen,Oppenheim, Rees and Wesel in March 1945. The failure of Market Garden to form a foothold over the Rhine ended Allied expectations of finishing the war by Christmas 1944
In mid-August, Montgomery first raised the idea of changing Allied strategy to encompass a single thrust by his 21st Army Group, supported by the US First Army under Major General Courtney Hodges, through northern France, the Low Countries and into Germany. Montgomery’s point was that there was not enough transport available at the moment to supply all three Army Groups going at full speed across a broad front. Even the fleet of Allied transport aircraft, which was supposed to be in reserve to conduct airborne operations, was being pressed into service. As German resistance had more or less collapsed against the 21st Army Group, it would make sense to give priority to them, as they could also eliminate the V1 sites that had been attacking southern England and liberate the ports along the north coast of France which would help the Allied supply situation immensely. Montgomery even offered to serve under Bradley, just so long as they would have first call on supplies.
The plan was firmly opposed by Bradley who believed that the Allies had won the Battle of Normandy in spite of Montgomery, as opposed to because of him.
Now that final victory was in site, it was time for the Americans to take the lead. Also, such a plan would mean halting the American forces that had advanced the farthest from the Normandy beachhead – the US Third Army under Lieutenant General George S Patton Jr., Montgomery’s old rival. Montgomery however, eventually persuaded Eisenhower that the 21st Army Group’s thrust should have priority in supplies and that Bradley’s US First Army, which would advance north of Aachen, should support it. In a letter to General George C Marshall, Eisenhower admitted to changing his “basic plan of attacking both north and east in order to help Montgomery seize tremendously important objectives in the northeast.” Bradley however, quietly cooperated with Patton to keep his Army moving east towards Germany. The Allied heavy bomber forces had gone back to their strategic bombing campaign against German cities and so the tactical air forces (RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force and USAAF 9th Air Force) split along national lines, although there was little Luftwaffe resistance in the West. With Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory closing down the headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, Eisenhower decided to form the Combined Airborne Forces Headquarters on 2nd August under Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton, the controversial former commander of the 9th Air Force. On 16th August it became First Allied Airborne Army as part of the Allied deception plan based around the fictitious US 1st Army Group. It consisted of the US XVIII Airborne Corps (82nd, 101st, 17th Airborne Divisions under the command of Major General Matthew B Ridgeway) and British I Airborne Corps (1st and 6th Airborne Divisions as well as the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, all of which were under the command of Lieutenant General F A M Browning).
In allowing Operation Market-Garden to move forward, Allied planners were operating under the assumption that German forces in the area were still in full retreat and that the airborne and XXX Corps would meet minimal resistance. Concerned about the collapse on the western front, Adolf Hitler recalled Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt from retirement on September 4 to oversee German forces in the area.
Working with Field Marshal Walter Model, Rundstedt began to bring a degree of coherence back to the German army in the west. On September 5, Model received the II SS Panzer Corps. Badly depleted, he assigned them to rest areas near Eindhoven and Arnhem. Anticipating an Allied attack due to various intelligence reports, the two German commanders worked with a degree of urgency.
On the Allied side, intelligence reports and ULTRA radio intercepts indicated the German troop movements as well as mentioned the arrival of armored forces in the area. These caused concerns and Eisenhower dispatched his Chief of Staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, to speak with Montgomery. Despite these reports, Montgomery refused to alter the plan. At lower levels, Royal Air Force reconnaissance photos showed German armor around Arnhem. Major Brian Urquhart, the intelligence officer for the British 1st Airborne Division, showed these to Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, Brereton’s deputy, but was dismissed and instead placed on medical leave for “nervous strain and exhaustion.
Taking off on Sunday September 17, Allied airborne forces began a daylight drop into the Netherlands. Hitting their landing zones with high accuracy, they began moving to achieve their objectives. the 101st quickly secured four of the five bridges in their area, but were unable to secure the key bridge at Son before the Germans demolished it. To the north, the 82nd secured the bridges at Grave and Heumen before taking a position on the commanding Groesbeek Heights. Gavin dispatched 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment to take the main highway bridge in Nijmegen. Due to a communication error, the 508th did not move out until later in the day and missed an opportunity to capture the bridge when it was largely undefended. When they finally attacked, they met heavy resistance and were unable to take the span.
Market would employ four of the six divisions of the First Allied Airborne Army. The U.S. 101st Airborne Division, under Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, would drop in two locations just north of XXX Corps to take the bridges northwest of Eindhoven at Son and Veghel. The 82nd Airborne Division, under Brigadier General James M. Gavin, would drop northeast of them to take the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen and the British 1st Airborne Division, under Major-General Roy Urquhart, with the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, under Brigadier General Stanisław Sosabowski, attached would drop at the extreme north end of the route, capturing the road bridge at Arnhem and the rail bridge at Oosterbeek. The 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division would be flown to the captured Deelen Airfield.
The First Allied Airborne Army had been created on 16 August as the result of British requests for a coordinated headquarters for airborne operations, a concept approved by General Eisenhower on 20 June. The British had strongly hinted that a British officer—Browning in particular—be appointed its commander. Browning for his part decided to bring his entire staff with him on the operation to establish his field HQ using the much-needed 32 Horsa gliders for administrative personnel, and six Waco CG-4A gliders for U.S. Signals’ personnel. Since the bulk of both troops and aircraft were American, Brereton, a U.S. Army Air Forces officer, was named by Eisenhower on 16 July and appointed by SHAEF on 2 August. Brereton had no experience in airborne operations but had extensive command experience at the air force level in several theatres, most recently as commander of Ninth Air Force, which gave him a working knowledge of the operations of IX Troop Carrier Command.
Market would be the largest airborne operation in history, delivering over 34,600 men of the 101st, 82nd and 1st Airborne Divisions and the Polish Brigade. 14,589 troops were landed by glider and 20,011 by parachute. Gliders also brought in 1,736 vehicles and 263 artillery pieces. 3,342 tons of ammunition and other supplies were brought by glider and parachute drop.
To deliver its 36 battalions of airborne infantry and their support troops to the continent, the First Allied Airborne Army had under its operational control the 14 groups of IX Troop Carrier Command, and after 11 September the 16 squadrons of 38 Group (an organization of converted bombers providing support to resistance groups) and a transport formation, 46 Group.
The combined force had 1,438 C-47/Dakota transports (1,274 USAAF and 164 RAF) and 321 converted RAF bombers. The Allied glider force had been rebuilt after Normandy until by 16 September it numbered 2,160 CG-4A Waco gliders, 916 Airspeed Horsas (812 RAF and 104 US Army) and 64 General Aircraft Hamilcars. The U.S. had only 2,060 glider pilots available, so that none of its gliders would have a co-pilot but would instead carry an extra passenger.
Because the C-47s served as paratrooper transports and glider tugs and because IX Troop Carrier Command would provide all the transports for both British parachute brigades, this massive force could deliver only 60 percent of the ground forces in one lift. This limit was the reason for the decision to split the troop-lift schedule into successive days. Ninety percent of the USAAF transports on the first day would drop parachute troops, with the same proportion towing gliders on the second day (the RAF transports were almost entirely used for glider operations). Brereton rejected having two airlifts on the first day, although this had been accomplished during Operation Dragoon, albeit with forty-five more minutes of daylight against negligible opposition.
17 September was on a dark moon and in the days following it the new moon set before dark. Allied airborne doctrine prohibited big operations in the absence of all light, so the operation would have to be carried out in daylight. The risk of Luftwaffe interception was judged small, given the crushing air superiority of Allied fighters but there were concerns about the increasing number of flak units in the Netherlands, especially around Arnhem. Brereton’s experience with tactical air operations judged that flak suppression would be sufficient to permit the troop carriers to operate without prohibitive loss.
IX Troop Carrier Command’s transport aircraft had to tow gliders and drop paratroopers, duties that could not be performed simultaneously. Although every division commander requested two drops on the first day, Brereton’s staff scheduled only one lift based on the need to prepare for the first drop by bombarding German flak positions for half a day and a weather forecast on the afternoon of 16 September (which soon proved erroneous) that the area would have clear conditions for four days, so allowing drops during them.
After one week preparations were declared complete. The planning and training for the airborne drops at Sicily and Normandy had taken months. One United States Air Force historian noted that Market was the only large airborne operation of the Second World War in which the USAAF “had no training program, no rehearsals, almost no exercises, and a…low level of tactical training.”
Gavin, commanding the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, was skeptical of the plan. In his diary he wrote, “It looks very rough. If I get through this one I will be very lucky.” He was also highly critical of Browning, writing that he “…unquestionably lacks the standing, influence and judgment that comes from a proper troop experience… his staff was superficial… Why the British units fumble along… becomes more and more apparent. Their tops lack the know-how, never do they get down into the dirt and learn the hard way”
Garden consisted primarily of XXX Corps and was initially spearheaded by the Guards Armoured Division, with the 43rd Wessex and 50th Northumbrian Infantry Divisions in reserve. They were expected to arrive at the south end of the 101st Airborne Division’s area on the first day, the 82nd’s by the second day and the 1st’s by the fourth day at the latest. The airborne divisions would then join XXX Corps in the breakout from the Arnhem bridgehead.
Four days was a long time for an airborne force to fight unsupported. In addition the Allied paratroopers lacked adequate anti-tank weapons. Even so, before Operation Market Garden started it seemed to the Allied high command that the German resistance had broken. Most of the German Fifteenth Army in the area appeared to be fleeing from the Canadians and they were known to have no Panzergruppen. It was thought that XXX Corps would face limited resistance on their route up Highway 69 and little armour. Meanwhile, the German defenders would be spread out over 100 kilometres (62 mi) trying to contain the pockets of airborne forces, from the Second Army in the south to Arnhem in the north.
While there was some initial confusion on the German side when airborne troops first began landing, Model quickly grasped the nexus of the enemy’s plan and began shifting troops to defend Arnhem and attack the Allied advance.
The next day, XXX Corps resumed their advance and united with the 101st around noon. As the airborne had been unable to take an alternate bridge at Best, a Baily Bridge was brought forward to replace the span at Son. At Nijmegen, the 82nd repelled several German assaults on the heights and was forced to retake a landing zone needed for the Second Lift. Due to poor weather in Britain, this did not arrive until later in the day but provided the division with field artillery and reinforcements. In Arnhem, the 1st and 3rd Battalions were fighting towards Frost’s position at the bridge. Holding, Frost’s men defeated an attack by the 9th SS Reconnaissance Battalion which attempted to cross from the south bank.
Late in the day the division was reinforced by troops from the Second Lift.
At 8:20 AM on September 19, XXX Corps reached the 82nd’s positions at Grave. Having made up lost time, XXX Corps was ahead of schedule, but was forced to mount an attack to take the Nijmegen bridge. This failed and a plan was developed calling for elements of the 82nd to cross by boat and attack the north end while XXX Corps assaulted from the south.
Unfortunately the required boats failed to arrive and the attack was postponed. Outside Arnhem, elements of the 1st British Airborne resumed attacking towards the bridge. Meeting heavy resistance, they took frightful losses and were forced to retreat back towards the division’s main position at Oosterbeek. Unable to breakout north or towards Arnhem, the division focused on holding a defensive pocket around the Oosterbeek bridgehead.
The next day saw the advance halted at Nijmegen until the afternoon when the boats finally arrived. Making a hasty daylight assault crossing, American paratroopers took heavy losses, but succeeded in taking the north end of the span. This assault was supported by an attack from the south which secured the bridge by 7:10 PM.
Having taken the bridge, Horrocks controversially halted the advance stating he needed time to reorganize and reform after the battle.
The advance was led by tanks and infantry of the Irish Guards and started on time when Lieutenant Keith Heathcote, commanding the lead tank, ordered his driver to advance.The lead units of the Irish Guards Group had broken out of XXX Corps bridgehead on the Meuse-Escaut canal and crossed into the Netherlands by 15:00 hours. After crossing the border the Irish Guards were ambushed by infantry and anti-tank guns dug in on both sides of the main road. Portions of the artillery barrage were refired and fresh waves of Hawker Typhoons were called in. The Guardsmen moved forward to clear the German positions, manned by elements from two German parachute battalions and two battalions of the 9th SS Division, and soon routed the German forces flanking the road.Interrogation of captured German soldiers led to some of them willingly, others after being threatened, pointing out the remaining German positions.The fighting soon died down and the advance resumed. By last light the town of Valkenswaard had been reached and occupied by the Irish Guards Group.
Horrocks had expected that the Irish Guards would have been able to advance the 13 miles (21 km) to Eindhoven within two-three hours; however, they had only covered 7 miles (11 km). The operation was already starting to fall behind schedule. In Valkenswaard engineers were moved up to construct a 190 foot (58 m) Class 40 Bailey bridge over a stream, which was completed within 12 hours.
At the Arnhem bridge, Frost learned around noon that the division would be unable to rescue his men and that XXX Corp’s advance had been halted at the Nijmegen bridge. Short on all supplies, particularly anti-tank munitions, Frost arranged a truce to transfer wounded, including himself, into German captivity. Throughout the rest of the day, the German systematically reduced the British positions and retook the north end of the bridge by the morning of the 21st. In the Oosterbeek pocket, British forces fought through the day trying to hold their position and took heavy losses.
While German forces were actively trying to cut the highway in the rear of XXX Corps’ advance, the focus shifted north to Arnhem. On Thursday September 21, the position at Oosterbeek was under heavy pressure as the British paratroopers battled to retain control the riverbank and access to the ferry leading across to Driel.
Sosabowski’s men found the ferry missing and the enemy dominating the opposite shore.
Horrock’s delay at Nijmegen allowed the Germans to form a defensive line across Highway 69 south of Arnhem. Recommencing their advance, XXX Corps was halted by heavy German fire. As the lead unit, the Guards Armoured Division, was constrained to the road due to marshy soil and lacked the strength to flank the Germans, Horrocks ordered the 43rd Division to take over the lead with the goal of shifting west and linking up with the Poles at Driel. Stuck in the traffic congestion on the two-lane highway, it was not ready to attack until the next day. As Friday dawned, the German began an intense shelling of Oosterbeek and began shifting troops to prevent the Poles from taking the bridge and cutting off the troops opposing XXX Corps.
Driving on the Germans, the 43rd Division linked up with the Poles on Friday evening. After an unsuccessful attempt to cross with small boats during the night, British and Polish engineers tried various means to force a crossing, but to no avail. Understanding the Allied intentions, the Germans increased pressure on the Polish and British lines south of the river. This was coupled with increased attacks along the length of Highway 69 which necessitated Horrocks sending the Guards Armoured south to keep the route open.
On Sunday, the German severed the road south of Veghel and established defensive positions. Though efforts continued to reinforce Oosterbeek, the Allied high command decided to abandon efforts to take Arnhem and to establish a new defensive line at Nijmegen. At dawn on Monday September 25, the remnants of the British 1st Airborne were ordered to withdraw across the river to Driel.
Having to wait until nightfall, they endured severe German attacks through the day. At 10:00 PM, they began crossing with all but 300 reaching the south bank by dawn.
The largest airborne operation ever mounted, Market-Garden cost the Allies between 15,130 and 17,200 killed, wounded, and captured.
The bulk of these occurred in the British 1st Airborne Division which began the battle with 10,600 men and saw 1,485 killed and 6,414 captured. German losses numbered between 7,500 and 10,000. Having failed to capture the bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, the operation was deemed a failure as the subsequent offensive into Germany could not proceed. Also, as a result of the operation, a narrow corridor in the German lines, dubbed the Nijmegen Salient, had to be defended. From this salient, efforts were launched to clear the Scheldt in October and, in February 1945, attack into Germany. The failure of Market-Garden has been attributed to a multitude of factors ranging from intelligence failures, overly optimistic planning, poor weather, and the lack of tactical initiative on the part of commanders.
Despite its failure, Montgomery remained an advocate of the plan calling it “90% successful.”
After Operation Market Garden failed to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine, Allied forces launched offensives on two fronts in the south of the Netherlands. To secure shipping to the vital port of Antwerp they advanced northwards and westwards, taking the Scheldt Estuary in the Battle of the Scheldt.Allied forces also advanced eastwards in Operation Aintree to secure the banks of the Meuse as a natural boundary for the established salient. This attack on the German bridgehead west of the Meuse near Venlo was for the Allies an unexpectedly protracted affair, which included the Battle of Overloon.
In February 1945, Allied forces in Operation Veritable advanced from the Groesbeek heights which had been taken during Market Garden, and into Germany, crossing the Rhine in March during Operation Plunder. As a result of Operation Plunder, the city of Arnhem was finally liberated by I Canadian Corps on 14 April 1945 after two days of fighting.A surrender of the remaining German forces in the west of the Netherlands was signed on 4 May.
Famine in the Netherlands
A tragic consequence of the operation’s failure was the Hongerwinter (Hungerwinter). During the battle Dutch railway workers, incited by the Dutch government in London, went on strike in order to aid the Allied assault. In retribution Germany forbade food transportation, and in the following winter nearly twenty thousand Dutch citizens starved to death.
Arnhem bridge was not the only Rhine crossing. Had the Market Garden planners realized that a ferry was available at Driel, the British might have secured that instead of the Arnhem bridge. Being a shorter distance away from their western drop and landing zones, the 1st Parachute Brigade could have concentrated to hold the Oosterbeek heights, instead of one battalion farther away at the road bridge; in this case, Arnhem was “one bridge too many”. A contrasting view is that the attack into Arnhem was intended to capture the rail bridge, the pontoon bridge and the road bridge; that the rail bridge was blown in the face of Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion, the pontoon bridge had been disabled by the removal of several sections and that this left only the road bridge intact, the Heveadorp ferry was no substitute for a bridge.