In the summer of 1944, Allied forces launched a daring airborne operation to secure the River Rhine crossings and advance into northern Germany. Although it ultimately failed to achieve its objectives, the determination and courage shown by the airborne troops and the units that assisted them made Operation Market Garden one of the Second World War’s most famous battles.
Operation Market Garden – the plan
In the summer of 1944, General Bernard Law Montgomery came up with an ambitious scheme to cross the River Rhine and advance deep into northern Germany and shorten the war.
Codenamed Operation Market Garden, the plan involved the seizure of key bridges in the Netherlands by the 101st and 82nd US Airborne Divisions, along with 1st British Airborne Division who would land by parachute and glider.
The British XXX Corps (30 Corps) could then advance over the bridges and cross the Rhine and its tributaries. The bridges were at Eindhoven, around 13 miles from the start line; Nijmegen, 53 miles; and Arnhem, 62 miles away, as well as two smaller bridges at Veghel and Grave that were situated between Eindhoven and Nijmegen.
If successful, the plan would liberate the Netherlands, outflank Germany’s formidable frontier defences, the Siegfried Line, and make an armoured drive possible into the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany.
Operation Market Garden Landings
The airborne divisions landed on 17 September and all the bridges were eventually captured in what was one of the largest airborne operations in history.
The plan failed largely because of XXX Corps’ inability to reach the furthest bridge at Arnhem before German forces overwhelmed the British defenders. The presence of German tanks, including elements of two SS Panzer divisions, had not been detected by Allied intelligence.
Around 10,000 men from Major-General Roy Urquhart’s 1st British Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade landed at Arnhem. However, their landing zones were seven miles from the bridge at Arnhem. Only one battalion reached the objective while the remaining soldiers were squeezed into a pocket at Oosterbeek to the west.
Apart from a few anti-tank guns and howitzers modified to fit inside gliders, the lightly armed airborne troops had few heavy weapons with which to resist tanks.
Although units of XXX Corps captured Nijmegen bridge in conjunction with the US 82nd Airborne Division, they could not reach the furthest bridge at Arnhem. Much of its advance was along a single narrow causeway, which was vulnerable to traffic jams and German counterattacks.
In some places the advance was hindered by marshes that prevented off-road movement. The Germans also showed a remarkable ability to put together scratch battle groups, fighting to delay the armoured columns throughout the battle.
Operations were also hampered by a shortage of transport aircraft, meaning the airborne troops could not be transported into the Netherlands all together, instead flying in three separate lifts.
The wooded landscape in Arnhem severely restricted the range of wireless sets, so communication failures also reduced the chance of success. Thick fog in England and low clouds over the battle zone hampered both resupply and the air-lifting of reinforcements.
On 24-25 September 1944, about 2,100 troops from 1st Airborne Division were ferried back across the Rhine. Another 7,500 were either dead or prisoners of war.
The crossing of the Rhine and the capture of Germany’s industrial heartland were delayed for six months. The Allies would therefore have to fight their way into the Reich on a broad front.
Operation Market Garden – Failure
Despite being a costly failure, Operation Market Garden remains a remarkable feat of arms. This is not due to its strategic ambition, but because of the determination and courage shown by Allied airborne troops and the units that tried to reach them.
It also led to the liberation of a large part of the Netherlands at a time when many Dutch people were close to starvation.