the breakout from Normandy

Men of the Durham Light Infantry move forward during the breakout from Normandy, 9 August 1944. The collapse and mass retreat of German forces in August 1944 precipitated a headlong advance by Allied armies across the River Seine and into Belgium and eastern France. Paris was captured by the Free French and American forces with little effort. Allied divisions advanced after the fleeing Germans so quickly they eventually outran their own supplies, and in early September the pursuit was brought to a halt so that formations could be replenished and refuelled. The Allied armies stood at the borders of the German Reich, with the British and Canadians in the north and the Americans to the south. Allied commanders now argued over the best strategy to finish the war, and who was to be in the vanguard. The delay gave the Germans a much-needed breathing space to bolster their defences and re-build shattered formations.


'Market Garden' is planned

To regain the initiative, Field Marshal Montgomery, commanding Allied ground forces, persuaded the supreme commander, General Dwight D Eisenhower, to concentrate resources for a narrow thrust through the Netherlands and into northern Germany, by passing the main enemy defences of the Siegfried Line. The result was a two-part operation codenamed 'Market Garden'. Three Allied airborne divisions would drop into Holland and secure territory and bridges in and around the towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. This would create a corridor along which British XXX Corps would advance, supported by other formations on either flank. After reaching the furthest bridge, over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, the way into Germany's industrial heartland of the Ruhr would be clear. In this photograph, Montgomery discusses the strategic situation with Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks (left), commanding XXX Corps, and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands on 8 September 1944.


Into action

This photograph shows British paratroopers of the Pioneer Assault Platoon of 1st Parachute Battalion, 1st Airborne Division, on their way to Arnhem in a USAAF C-47 aircraft on 17 September 1944. The 'Market Garden' plan employed all three divisions of First Allied Airborne Army. The US 101st Division was ordered to capture Eindhoven, and bridges over the canals and rivers north of the town. The US 82nd Division was tasked with securing crossings in and around Nijmegen, and holding the strategically important Groesbeek Heights to the east, which bordered German territory around Kleve. British 1st Airborne Division - with the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade attached - had the hardest task of all. They were to capture the all-important bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, the most distant objective from the Allied front line. Altogether, some 35,000 parachute and glider troops were involved in the operation.


The airborne drop into Holland

Paratroopers and 'parapack' supply containers of 1st Parachute Brigade drop from American C-47s onto drop zone (DZ) 'X' between Heelsum and Wolfheze, west of Arnhem, at around 2pm on 17 September. Glider troops of 1st Airlanding Brigade had already arrived, their initial task being to secure the area while the 'Paras' set off towards Arnhem. The British drop and landing zones were on heathland up to eight miles from their objectives, and no attempt was made for a small 'coup de main' party to land directly onto the Arnhem bridge itself. Allied planners were also constrained by limited numbers of transport aircraft, which meant that 4th Parachute Brigade and the remaining glider troops of 1st Airborne Division could not be brought in until the following day. The Polish Brigade had to be dropped later still. These were all controversial parts of the plan, and contributing factors in its ultimate failure.


The ground forces advance

A Sherman Firefly noses past other British tanks knocked out during XXX Corps' initial advance into Holland at the start of the second phase of Operation 'Market Garden' on 17 September. The British ground assault aimed to quickly link up with the airborne forces. It was launched by Guards Armoured Division on a narrow 'one tank' front, with the Irish Guards in the lead. Despite massive artillery and air support, the spearhead units encountered stiff opposition as they broke through the first line of enemy defences. In the opening minutes of the advance, nine British tanks were knocked out by German infantry equipped with handheld Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons. By the end of the first day, Guards Armoured Division had reached Valkenswaard, south of Eindhoven, as planned. Further north, the US 101st Airborne Division had secured most of its objectives, but failed to stop the Germans destroying the crucial bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Son.


The Allies reach Eindhoven

Civilians dancing in the square of Eindhoven, the first major town in Holland to be liberated. Eindhoven was later bombed by the German Air Force.
© IWM (TR 2369)

Dutch civilians dance in the streets after the liberation of Eindhoven by the US 101st Airborne Division, 18 September. By the end of the day, XXX Corps had reached the town and engineers were labouring to erect a Bailey bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Son. The US 82nd Airborne Division had secured its positions on the Groesbeek Heights, but faced repeated German attacks aimed at dislodging them. They had taken the bridge over the River Maas at Grave, south-west of Nijmegen, but other canal crossings had been blown by the defenders. Most importantly, the Americans had not yet captured the vital road bridge over the River Waal in the centre of Nijmegen. Enemy resistance was stiffening, and German commanders had already decided that Nijmegen was the key to the battle - if they cut the Allied advance there, any success at Eindhoven or Arnhem would be rendered meaningless.


British plans go wrong

Men of 'C' Troop, 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron, near Wolfheze station on 18 September. After a successful drop, British plans soon started to go wrong. There were more German troops in the area than anticipated, and the bulk of 1st Parachute Brigade was quickly cut off from Arnhem. Only the 2nd Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost had reached the Arnhem bridge itself, and was now set up in defensive positions around its northern end. Enemy troops controlled the southern section, and a host of improvised German units (Kampfgruppen) were being thrown into action to contain the British forces. Despite the arrival of the rest of 1st Airborne Division on the landing grounds west of Arnhem, no further progress could be made towards the embattled 2nd Battalion. To make matters worse, many British radios were not working, and 1st Airborne Division's commander, Major-General Robert 'Roy' Urquhart, became separated from his headquarters and was for a time unable to direct the Arnhem battle.


The Germans counter-attack

On the morning of 18 September, the Germans launched an attack from south of the Lower Rhine against 2nd Parachute Battalion in its positions at the north end of the bridge at Arnhem. Armoured cars and half-tracks from the reconnaissance battalion of 9th SS Panzer Division charged across the bridge but were stopped by a hail of gunfire, grenades and PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank) rounds. This aerial photograph was taken later that morning by an RAF Spitfire. A tangle of burnt-out vehicles can be seen on the northern approach ramp between houses occupied by the British troops. Despite this initial success, Colonel Frost's men were in a perilous position. They had only limited water, rations and ammunition, and German reinforcements were now heading towards Arnhem with tanks and self-propelled guns. In the following two days German counterattacks would systematically reduce the British perimeter.


Link-up at Nijmegen

Dutch civilians crowd around jeeps and scout cars of XXX Corps in Grave - south-west of Nijmegen - after the British had linked up with the US 82nd Airborne Division, 19 September. Despite Allied efforts, the all-important bridge in Nijmegen was still in German hands. In desperation, Brigadier-General James Gavin, commanding the 82nd, ordered his men to make an assault crossing of the River Waal in an effort to outflank the German defenders. But the necessary boats were at the rear of the Allied column and would take time to arrive. Meanwhile at Arnhem, a final push was made by four battalions from British 1st Airborne Division to break through to the bridge from the west. The attacks failed in the face of heavy enemy resistance. Colonel Frost's 2nd Battalion would have to hold on alone. Bad weather in the UK prevented the Polish Brigade from flying in as planned, and Allied re-supply drops - on which 1st Airborne was dependent - were now landing on ground re-taken by the Germans.


The Allied advance loses momentum

American paratroopers of 101st Airborne Division take shelter as enemy artillery fire hits a XXX Corps convoy north of Eindhoven on 20 September. German attacks against the road between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, now dubbed 'Hell's Highway' by the Americans, severely hampered the Allied advance, which was now losing momentum. German resistance had increased everywhere, and the flanking operations by VIII and XII Corps in support of the main thrust by XXX Corps were painfully slow. The situation was not helped by the continuing bad weather, which curtailed Allied air support operations. That evening, the bridge at Nijmegen was finally secured. The local German commander had tried and failed to blow the bridge, and British tanks were now across the River Waal. However, after heavy fighting in support of the US 82nd Airborne Division, and lacking infantry support, Guards Armoured Division was in no position to continue the remaining eight miles on to Arnhem.


Besieged at Oosterbeek

On 20 September General Urquhart - now reunited with his men - ordered the remnants of 1st Airborne Division to form a defensive pocket around the village of Oosterbeek, west of Arnhem, with its base on the Lower Rhine. Here they fought a ferocious battle against Kampfgruppe 'von Tettau', 9th SS Panzer Division and other German units. This photograph shows a 6-pounder anti-tank gun of No. 26 Anti-Tank Platoon, 1st Border Regiment, in action against a German PzKpfw B2 (f) flamethrower tank. Moments later the enemy vehicle was destroyed. In Arnhem itself, Colonel Frost was badly wounded and his men had almost run out of ammunition and water. German tanks and heavy artillery were systematically blasting them out of the buildings they were defending. That evening, a truce allowed many of the British wounded to be evacuated by the Germans. For those still holding out, their only hope now was for XXX Corps to finally break through.


Arnhem lost

A Cromwell tank of 2nd Welsh Guards crosses the bridge over the River Waal at Nijmegen, 21 September. The town was now in Allied hands, and XXX Corps pushed on as far as Elst, just south of Arnhem. Here it was blocked by Kampfgruppe 'Knaust'. Without support, the British tanks could get no further up the exposed, elevated highway. With radio communications restored, XXX Corps artillery was able to provide much needed fire support for 1st Airborne trapped at Oosterbeek, but little could be done to help 2nd Parachute Battalion in Arnhem. The bridge there was now in German hands, and British resistance in the town finally petered out. In the evening, the weather improved enough for the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade to finally fly in, but the result was a disaster. Many aircraft had to turn back or were shot down by Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Major-General Stanislaw Sosabowski and some 750 surviving Polish troops landed under murderous fire at Driel, from where they planned to reinforce the British perimeter at Oosterbeek.


Holding out

Major-General Robert 'Roy' Urquhart, commanding 1st Airborne Division, stands outside his headquarters at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 22 September. The area was under constant enemy artillery and mortar fire. Urquhart's command was holding out, thanks in great part to the artillery of XXX Corps expertly suppressing enemy attacks. But the weather was hindering air support missions and supply drops, and only a handful of men from the Polish Brigade had made it across the river. Further south, German forces launched major counterattacks on both sides of the Allied corridor between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, briefly cutting 'Hell's Highway'. Dealing with these attacks cost valuable time. After a sluggish advance, 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division eventually reached Driel and established a link with 1st Airborne, but the talk was now of evacuation rather than reinforcement.



In this posed photograph, British airborne troops move through a shell-damaged house in Oosterbeek on 23 September. Numerically superior German forces were gradually infiltrating the British perimeter, but were struggling to completely crush 1st Airborne. A truce the following day saw 1,200 British and Polish wounded taken into German captivity. 1st Airborne Division had about 1,800 exhausted men left. Relief would have to come now or not at all, but the last desperate attempts by units of XXX Corps to get across the river in strength came to naught. The evacuation of the survivors across the Lower Rhine began on the night of 25 September, with assistance from the 4th Dorsets of 43rd Division. The costly British defeat at Arnhem meant that Operation 'Market Garden' had been a failure, but the Allies had at least established a lodgement area from which to launch a future offensive into the German Rhineland.


Remembering Arnhem

Dutch civilians and veterans of 1st Airborne Division watch as children place flowers on graves at the Arnhem-Oosterbeek Cemetery, 25 September 1945. The previous year, the division had flown into action with 10,000 men. Just over 2,000 returned across the Rhine. In all, 1,485 British and Polish airborne troops were killed or died of wounds and 6,525 more became prisoners of war. Though a costly failure, the Battle for Arnhem today stands as a heroic feat of arms. As an indicator of the courage displayed by British forces, five Victoria Crosses were awarded - four of them posthumously.

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