In the Summer of 1944, the western Allies had a big problem. Having broken out from Normandy, Allied Supreme Commander General Eisenhower wanted to advance on Germany on a broad front. But logistical issues meant that the Allies couldn't supply multiple army Groups with the fuel, food and ammunition they needed simultaneously. However, one British general thought that he had the solution.
Field Marshal Montgomery believed that the Allies should employ one bold stroke to shorten the war. His plan, Operation Market Garden, would put the Allies across the Rhine on Germany's frontier in a few days and possibly end the war by Christmas 1944.
The battle would become one of the most controversial episodes of the Second World War, featuring daring assaults, strategic blunders and heroic defences. A battle which would come so close to success, before falling at the final hurdle. In this episode of IWM Stories, curator Sean Rehling examines Operation Market Garden.
What went wrong?
After breaking out from Normandy in the Summer of 1944, Allied forces had advanced through the French countryside at breakneck speed. The German forces before them appeared to be finished and the war surely won. Allied Supreme Commander General Eisenhower planned to advance on a broad front with multiple army groups converging on Germany simultaneously. However there was a problem, the Allies were unable to supply the necessary fuel, food and ammunition for all the different units to advance at once. But one British general felt like he had the solution.
I'm standing in the tactical headquarters of Field Marshall Montgomery which comprised his three operational caravans. Montgomery believed that he had the answer to defeating the Germans without the need for the broad front strategy. He decided that it would be best for the Allies to employ one bold stroke which would place them on the frontiers of Germany and possibly end the war by Christmas 1944.
The battle would become one of the most controversial episodes of the Second World War, featuring daring assaults, strategic blunders and heroic defences. A battle which would come so close to success, before falling at the final hurdle. This is the story of Operation Market Garden.
Montgomery’s plan would begin with a huge parachute drop, with airborne troops seizing key bridges throughout the Netherlands. The American 101st Airborne would seize the bridges at Son and Veghel, the American 82nd Airborne would capture the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen, and the British 1st Airborne augmented by the Polish 1st Parachute Bridge would take the road and rail bridges at Arnhem. Meanwhile, the British XXX Corps would break out from their positions on the Meuse-Escaut canal and drive up highway 69 to relieve the paratroopers. They planned to reach Arnhem by the 4th day at the latest, before the 52nd Lowland Infantry division flew into Deelen airfield the following day. It was a bold plan, but if it worked it could put Allied forces across the Rhine on Germany’s border, ready to stick the killing blow.
I'm now standing in Montgomery's office caravan where he would have devised the plan that became Operation Market Garden. The walls of the caravan were lined with photographs of enemy generals. That's because Montgomery believed he'd be better able to understand their thinking and in consequence defeat them. Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne landing in military history, unfortunately the plan had inherent flaws.
Many in Allied leadership believed that the German army in the west was near breaking point. In fact the German forces in the Netherlands had recently been reinforced by the 9th and 10th SS panzer divisions. Though they were in the area to rest and refit and were at less than half strength they could still pose a serious threat to the lightly armed paratroopers. Allied intelligence confirming their presence near the landing grounds was dismissed and there were even bigger problems.
Surprise is the key element of successfully landing airborne troops. At Market Garden this element was surrendered because the landings took place over three successive days due to a lack of sufficient transport aircraft. In respect of the bridge at Arnhem, due to fears about German anti-aircraft defences, the parachutists were dropped eight miles away from their objective. Lightly armoured parachute troops must capture their objectives quickly before the enemy has time to respond in strength. The plan for Operation Market Garden made that more difficult.
Despite the warnings on the 17th of September 1944 Operation Market Garden began. The Allied parachute and glider drops were highly accurate and for the most part the paratroopers were able to form up and take their objectives quickly. The 101st were able to capture the bridge at Veghel and hold it against German counter-attacks. The bridge at Son however was blown by the Germans, but luckily the short span over the canal could be bridged by Allied engineers. At Arnhem, half the British forces defended the drop zones while the other half advanced 8 miles towards the bridges. However, the rail bridge was blown and strong German resistance stopped all but one British Battalion from reaching Arnhem road Bridge. The group, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Frost took up positions on the North end of the bridge and awaited relief. Meanwhile, the 82nd managed to capture the smaller bridge at Grave. But the larger bridge at Nijmegen was a different story. The river Waal was fast and wide, and could not bridged easily. Without it, Operation Market Garden would be over before it started
General James Gavin commander of the American airborne forces at Nijmegen prioritised capturing the Groesbeek Heights which overlooked Nijmegen. This was to guard against the danger of a German counter-attack from the forest that boarded the heights. Subsequently, there weren't sufficient troops to successfully capture Nijmegen bridge and in fact, attempts to take it were repelled by the Germans. For the offensive to succeed the bridge at Nijmegen would have to be captured quickly.
Meanwhile, XXX Corps’ advance was also falling behind. After a massive artillery barrage, the Allied tanks broke out of their positions but came under fire from both sides of the exposed Highway 69. As the first day drew to a close, they had covered only 7 of the planned 13 miles. Day 2 began with poor weather in the UK, delaying the next parachute drop. At Arnhem further attacks went in to try and reach the road bridge, but thanks to communication problems they were pushed back with heavy losses. Meanwhile, Frost’s group at the Bridge destroyed a major German armoured force attempting to cross the bridge. This photograph clearly shows the wreckage from their burnt-out vehicles.At Nijmegen, the 82nd beat off the anticipated German counter-attack on the Groesbeak Heights. But thanks to the delayed 2nd parachute drop, the vital bridge at Nijmegen would have to wait. Further south, XXX Corps finally linked up with the 101st near Eindhoven. Engineers worked through the night to construct a Bailey bridge at Son, replacing the one destroyed the day before. By the morning of the 3rd day, it was complete. That same morning, the 1st Airborne began their biggest attack yet to try and relive Frost's men inside Arnhem. But once again, they were beaten back, this time with even heavier losses. Unable to breakthrough, and facing multiple German counterattacks, they formed a pocket of their own near the town of Oosterbeek, but holding on there would be a major challenge.
For airborne troops operating behind enemy lines, resupply is crucial. Because they can't carry much in the way of equipment, ammunition, or food. However, the resupply intended for the 1st Airborne Division that Arnhem and Oosterbeek fell into German hands. They knew when they were going to take place and they had captured ground marking equipment and flares in order to decoy the Allied supply planes to dropping in the wrong place and into their hands. So whilst British troops running low on supplies the Germans were enabled to continue the relentless assault and the gradual squeezing of the defensive perimeter held by the British.
Meanwhile further south, German forces were launching further counterattacks. The Bailey bridge at Son was almost destroyed by German tanks while Eindhoven, now a vital Allied supply base, was battered by Luftwaffe bombers causing widespread destruction. Even so, XXX Corps managed to make up for earlier delays and reach the 82nd Airborne at Nijmegen. But the all-important bridge was still in German hands. The entire operation now hung in the balance. The question was which bridge would fall first? Nijmegen or Arnhem. As dawn broke on day 4, the British troops in Arnhem and Oosterbeek continued to hold against German attacks. Instead of using infantry, the Germans were simply blasting their way through the British positions with artillery, mortars, rockets and even flamethrowers. At Oosterbeeek in particular, only some well-timed bayonet charges prevented British battalions from being overrun. As they clung on in the north, the 82nd Airborne made their move.
Nijmegen bridge was proving difficult for the Allies to capture. So a plan was devised that men of the 82nd would cross the Waal river in canvas boats. Due to the shortage of paddles, some of the men had to employ their rifle butts in order to propel the boats across. Despite horrendous levels of casualties during the crossing and in the subsequent assault, they did successfully capture Nijmegen bridge. It appeared that Market Garden might just succeed. However, XXX Corps was unable to advance any further toward Arnhem. The rest of Nijmegen still had to cleared and a significant German counterattack on the Groesbeek Heights had to be stopped as well. As Day 4 drew to a close, Frost and his men still held the north end of the Arnhem road Bridge, but the delay at Nijmegen would prove fatal.
Frost's men were facing a very grim situation. They were hanging on by their fingernails whilst hoping beyond hope for the arrival of XXX Corps to come to their rescue. Amongst the men themselves, they were exhausted. Many of them were wounded and quite a number suffered from battle fatigue what will be known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. By the early morning of Thursday the 21st of September they had no choice but to surrender. They sent a radio message which wasn't heard by the British forces, but was intercepted by the Germans which read "Out of ammo, god save the king".
Though Arnhem bridge had been lost there was still a slim chance for Market Garden to succeed. The 1st airborne at Oosterbeek still held onto a narrow crossing point at Driel. If a Bailey bridge could be built there, the Rhine might still be crossed and victory achieved. But that would be a tall order. Out of the initial 10,000 men of the 1st Airborne, only 3,500 remained. As day 5 began the Germans attacked hard once again, attempting to batter the British into submission. But they were saved by the arrival of the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade. They were supposed to drop on day 3 but had been delayed by poor weather. Their landing across the river at Driel drew off the German attackers, giving much-needed respite to 1st Airborne. That evening, they were able to make radio contact with XXX Corps, whose artillery support was vital in keeping the Allied pocket alive. However, XXX Corps was still unable to reach them. The Highway between Nijmegen and Arnhem was raised up, leaving Allied tanks exposed to German fire. Worse still, with the recapture of the Arnhem road bridge, the Germans were able to bring new troops forward and reinforce their positions. As the 6th day of the operation dawned XXX Corps’ attack slowed to a crawl.
The German response to the Allied landings demonstrated their capacity for improvisation. They formed battle groups or kampfgruppen as they called them. Who were hastily assembled on an ad hoc basis in order to prevent XXX Crops advancing along the highway to link up with those parachute troops. They identified Veghel as a key point along that route. The Germans directed two kampfgruppen, who were armed with vehicles such as the Jagdpanther behind me, to attack Veghel. Which they successfully did, cutting the Allied route for 36 hours. The delay that the Germans enforced was a serious setback for the Allied plan.
By the time that XXX Crops had re-established their lines of communication, it was clear that the men of 1st Airborne would have to withdraw. They were only supposed to have held out for four days but on the night of the 24th of September, eight days into the operation, 2,500 men crossed the Rhine back to Allied lines. Operation Market Garden was over.
Over the following days, the new frontline stabilised around Nijmegen where Allied forces repelled a German counterattack. In October, Arnhem bridge was destroyed by the United States Army Air Force, preventing the Germans from launching further attacks. Operation Pheasant was then launched to secure the salient and the next major battle on the western front would be the Battle of the Bulge. Operation Market Garden is still controversial to this day. It failed within touching distance of Arnhem. So what went wrong?
The failure to heed the aerial reconnaissance information during the planning, the decision to deploy the troops over three days, and the ferocity of the German response spelt its failure. Consequently, the war wasn't going to be finished
by Christmas of 1944. The western Allies resumed Eisenhower's broad front strategy and the Rhine wasn't crossed until the March of 1945.