Operation Market Garden

“A 90% success”

Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division inspecting a broken glider during Operation Market Garden
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Operation Market Garden is one of the best-known Allied failures of World War II. A daring, but hastily assembled and extremely risky plan, it was intended to liberate the Netherlands, enter Germany without having to fight through the Siegfried defensive line and bring the war to an end by the Christmas of 1944, all in one fell swoop. The plan, however, was just as badly ridden with problems as it was ambitious: equipment failure, a poor use of airborne troops, bad intelligence, a lack of aggressive spirit by some units and just having too many moving parts that could go wrong all conspired to ultimate defeat.

Paratroopers descending into the Netherlands during the operation
(Photo: U.S. government)

The Allied breakout from the Normandy beachhead (Read our earlier article) and the encirclement of much of the German forces at the Falaise pocket (Read our earlier article) opened up the continent to the Western Allies. German forces were in full retreat and seemed already beaten. The next big hurdle was supposed to be the Siegfried Line, Germany’s border defenses.
 
However, another problem also manifested: supply troubles. Eisenhower favored a “wide front” strategy, which included many units slowly advancing and rolling up German resistance in a large area. Many units spread far and wide, however, required a great deal of fuel, food, ammunition and other supplies, and the Allies just didn’t have the means to provide those supplies everywhere. Much of the supplies were still coming ashore through the one remaining Mulberry harbors at Gold Beach (the other was wrecked by a storm during the summer). The Normandy deep-sea port of Cherbourg
(Read our earlier article) was intended to receive shipments, but was so thoroughly wrecked by the Germans that it could only operate at reduced capacity, with cargo ships unloading via barges.

Trucks and men of the Red Ball Express, the convoy system that supplied frontline units with material put ashore in Normandy
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The Allied force was literally running out of gasoline and several divisions and corps had to halt their advance. On September 4, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery liberated the major Belgian port of Antwerp, hoping that bringing a new port online close to the front would alleviate supply problems. Unfortunately, the port was connected to the sea by the Scheldt Estuary, which was still heavily mined and unusable.
 
Montgomery suggested, and won Eisenhower’s support for an alternative plan to adapt to the circumstances. Instead of pushing east toward Germany with a massive force, a smaller rapid push would head north into and across the Germany-occupied Netherlands. This required less supplies, and the advance could eventually hook east, entering Germany’s industrial heartland at the Ruhr Valley by going around the Siegfried Line.

Montgomery (center) discussing the plan for the operation with Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks of XXX Corps (left) and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (right)
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The Netherlands is dominated by marshy lowlands with few points of elevation, and are crisscrossed by rivers and canals. The bridges across these would be lynchpins for the advance, and so would need to be captured by airborne troops just before the attack.
 
The British XXX Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks and spearheaded by the Guards Armoured Division, was going to be the force to travel north along Highway 69, and head to cross bridges in three areas – this part of the operation was codenamed “Garden”. “Market” stood for the airborne operations. To the south and closest to the jump-off point, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, the famous Screaming Eagles commanded by Major General Maxwell Taylor
(Read our earlier article), would seize bridges and Son and Veghel. Further north, the 82nd “All American” Airborne under Brigadier General James Gavin (Read our earlier article) would capture the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen. At the very northern end of the advance, farthest away from XXX Corps, the British 1st Airborne Division under Major-General Roy Urquhart had to seize several bridges across the Rhine at the city of Arnhem.
Map of the route of XXX Corps and the notable locations along it
(Photo: Government of the U.K.)

The entire operation was planned and prepared at a breakneck pace. The airborne landings at Normandy took months to plan; Market Garden was prepared in a single week with no rehearsals, no training program and hardly any exercises. This hastiness left numerous holes in the operation, which all became clear only when the battle was already underway.
 
One major problem was that the Allies had bad intelligence regarding German presence in the area. Army Group B, the German force defending the area, was commanded by Field Marshal
Walter Model (Read our earlier article), one of Nazi Germany’s most talented defensive commanders, who was rapidly consolidating a formerly shattered formation into an effective fighting force. Part of this consolidation involved the presence of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions right in the operational area, moved there for rest and refit. The divisions were only at 20-30% of their full strength and had few tanks, but still represented a serious danger to lightly armed airborne troops.

Field Marshal Model (left) at a division command post during the battle
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Aerial photographs taken by British planes around Arnhem showed the presence of German tanks, but the operation’s planners failed to take this into account. The debate about why this happened, who made the decision to ignore the photos and which planners were or were not even told is still unsettled to this day.
 
Additional warning of German tanks came from the Dutch resistance. This was also ignored, though somewhat more understandably. The Dutch resistance was thoroughly compromised by German military intelligence between 1942 and 44. British intelligence only realized this in the spring of ‘44, and was wary of trusting information coming from the resistance.
 
Another great weakness in the Allied plan was the lack of sufficient transport aircraft to carry paratroopers and tow gliders. Airborne troops need to be deployed quickly and in force to overwhelm their targets with surprise. Limited aircraft availability, however, led to the airborne units to be dropped piecemeal over three days: the initial drops that still enjoyed surprise had to fight understrength. Additionally, the first jumps had to leave behind a significant portion of their troops to guard the drop zones and advance on their targets with even fewer numbers. The British airborne landing at Arnhem faced an additional difficulty: their landing zones were 7 miles (11 km) from the city due to a fear of flak. This meant they would lose time and surprise just by having to get to their targets.

The 82nd Division dropping near Grave on the first day of the operation
(Photo: unknown photographer)
And yet, despite all the failings of the plan, the operation got off to an encouraging start on September 17. The jumps were far more accurate than in Normandy, and the 101st Airborne secured four of their five bridges with little difficulty near Eindhoven and Son. The fifth one was blown up by the Germans, but it was no great loss, since it could be easily replaced by a Bailey bridge (Read our earlier article) once XXX Corps arrived.
Dutch civilians dancing on the streets of Eindhoven after being liberated by the 101st Airborne
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Further north, the 82nd jumped near Grave. General Gavin decided not to send his entire force to take the bridges. He felt that capturing the nearby Groesbeek Heights to the east of the city of Nijmegen, which offered good command of the surrounding flatlands, was of higher priority as it would give the division better protection against German counterattacks. He also felt that if he had left the heights unoccupied, it would have easily been taken by the Germans, who could have then used their elevation advantage against Gavin’s troops on low ground. To prevent that from happening, Gavin first captured the heights and only sent a smaller force to secure three local bridges, leaving the main prize, the large road bridge over the Waal River at Nijmegen, for last. Gavin intended to send out a single battalion to Nijmegen to nab the bridge quickly, if possible, but a misunderstanding between him and one of his subordinates meant that the unit moved out of the landing zone four hours late, and were beaten to the bridge by the Germans. Two of the other, smaller bridges were blown by the Germans during the fighting, but the last was seized by the 82nd.
The ruined city of Nijmegen and its critically important bridge, photographed after the operation
(Photo: U.S. government)
At Arnhem, at the end of XXX Corps’ planned advance, the British airborne faced even more trouble. The initial drop was only a part of the full force, and half of it had to stay behind to guard the drop zones overnight, so the initial push eastward to Arnhem had to be performed by one quarter of the division. Both the recon elements racing ahead on jeeps and other units were slowed down or stopped by German forces in the area. In the end, only two units ever reached Arnhem by following a largely unguarded path: the 2nd Parachute Battalion led by Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost, and the Brigade HQ unit. They found that only one of the three local bridges was still standing: the Germans had already blown the rail bridge and the pontoon bridge had a section missing, leaving the road bridge as the only available target. The men set up positions in buildings at the north end of the last bridge that could allow XXX Corps to cross the Rhine.
British soldiers disembarking from gliders near Arnhem on the first day of the operation
(Photo: National Army Museum, UK)
The British forces were split in two with no way to communicate: the distance between Frost’s men at the bridge and the division HQ at the landing zones was 8 miles (13 km), while the range of their radios was only 3 miles (5 km). Some sources claim that communications were further hindered by the fact that the radio sets were tuned to different frequencies, some of which overlapped with British and German public broadcasting stations. Another, more recent theory blames poor performance on the abundant underground iron ore deposits in the region, which interfered with the radio.

Frost photographed in 1942
(Photo: public domain)
Meanwhile, XXX Corps moved out in the afternoon. They quickly learned that travelling down the narrow elevated highway made them an excellent target for German ambushes hiding along the road, and the marshy ground off the highway made it impossible to maneuver. The corps only advanced 7 of its planned 13 miles by evening.
A tank bogged down in the soft ground during the operation
(Photo: National Army Museum, UK)
Things were definitely turning sour on the second day, September 18. The weather took a turn for the worse, delaying the day’s airborne drops by several hours and hampering both close air support and supply drops. The 101st Airborne tried but failed to capture another bridge in lieu of the one the Germans destroyed the day before. Once XXX Corps reached the area, engineers and German prisoners of war spent the night building a Bailey bridge to allow the crops to move on the next morning. Meanwhile, near Nijmegen, General Gavin’s cautiousness was proven right as the Germans tried to push the 82nd off the Groesbeek Heights. The airborne held, but they, in turn, were also unable to push the Germans out of the city. It was becoming clear that the bridge would need to be captured by XXX Corps once it arrived.
 
In the furthest north, General Urquhart was still trying to reach Lieutenant-Colonel Frost’s men at the bridge, but the German forces separating the two were growing stronger as reinforcements were coming in. Two battalions managed to reach Arnhem and got within 1.2 miles (2 km) of the bridge, but lost five-sixths of their strength and had to give up in the early hours of the next morning after one battalion completely disintegrated. Meanwhile, Frost’s position at the northern bridgehead came under attack by an SS reconnaissance battalion. This force was previously headed for the Nijmegen bridge to the south, but decided they weren’t needed there and returned to the north. The battalion’s commander tried to rush across the bridge with his vehicles and take Frost’s men by storm, but the assault was repulsed and the commander killed. The Germans continued to try and take the bridge, but the British forces were holding steady.
The Arnhem road bridge on September 19. You can see British troops and destroyed German vehicles near the north end of the bridge.
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The third day, September 19, was the day the British effort at Arnhem was forced on the backfoot. The lightly armed airborne soldiers had no chance to push through the German tanks in the area, so General Urquhart gave up on the hope of reaching and reinforcing Frost at the bridge. He had his remaining men fortify the village of Oosterbeek a short distance to the west of Arnhem. Meanwhile, the Germans switched up their tactics at the bridge, called off their infantry attacks, and started methodically bombarding Frost’s positions into rubble from a long range with mortar, artillery and tanks.
British troops dug in at Oosterbeek near Arnhem, where they would hold out as long as they could, on September 18
(Photo: National Army Museum UK)
Urquhart’s force was supposed to be reinforced that day by gliders bringing in Polish soldiers and a sorely needed anti-tank battery from the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. The 35 gliders landed in a zone controlled by the Germans, who killed most of the new arrivals with ease. The rest of the Polish airborne were held back by the dense fog. The brigade’s leader, Brigadier General Stanisław Sosabowski, jumped into the village of Driel near Arnhem, but on the other, southern shore of the Rhine. A ferry was operating there, and Sosabowski hoped to use it to reinforce the men at Oosterbeek once the rest of the Polish forces arrived.
General Sosabowski (left) with the commander of the British 1st Airborne Brigade Brigadier General Frederick Browning
(Photo: public domain)
Meanwhile, XXX Corps made up for its earlier delay and arrived at Nijmegen at 8:20 in the morning. The bridge, however, was still in German hands, and Germans were also holding locations within the city itself. An attack up the bridge was halted by the defenders. An alternative plan was quickly hatched for a regiment to cross the Waal River in boats some 1.2 miles (2 km) downstream from the bridge, then attack the northern bridgehead. The boats were requested for late afternoon, but they failed to arrive: Highway 69, which earned the nickname “Hell’s Highway,” was congested by the vehicles of XXX Corps, and still under regular attacks by German kampfgruppen – “battle groups,” ad hoc formation pulled together from whatever men and vehicles were available on the spot. In fact, one such group even managed to temporarily cut the highway further south in the area of the 101st, stopping traffic until the area was retaken.
Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne take cover as artillery fire hits an XXX Corps convoy near Eindhoven, September 20
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The boats finally arrived at Nijmegen the following day, on September 20, but only in the afternoon. To make things worse, they didn’t come with enough paddles, forcing many soldiers to paddle with their rifle butts. A costly crossing was made, and the men who got through finally dislodged the bridge’s German defenders. The first four tanks that drove across the bridge came under attack by Panzefausts and grenades dropped by over 180 Germans still hiding high up in the bridge’s girders. One tank was destroyed and another badly damaged, and the tank force made the decision to stop for the night. The situation was chaotic: pockets of fighting were still going on in the city, night was falling, and nobody knew what sort of German opposition lay between the northern end of the bridge and the Arnhem bridge a mere 7 miles (11 km) away.
British Cromwell tanks crossing the Nijmegen bridge on September 21
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
We’ll never know what would have happened had the tank division pushed on in the darkness; what we do know is that the price of the delay was the Arnhem bridge. The British 1st Airborne was supposed to hold the Arnhem bridge with 10,000 men for two days. Lieutenant-Colonel Frost held it with 740 for four, but he ran out of them. Running low on ammunition and sometimes reduced to knife fighting, the battalion was ground up. Frost himself was wounded and evacuated into German captivity. The unit’s last radio message was broadcast in the morning of September 21: “Out of ammo, God save the King.” No Allied units received the message; it was only heard by German radio operators.
Arnhem after the battle
(Photo: Dutch National Archives)
In Oosterbeek, to the west of Arnhem, Urquhart’s force held out for several more impossible days. The Germans have found some of their flares and marking panels and have set up false drop zones, causing Allied cargo planes to mis-drop supplies. The rest of Sosabowski’s Polish Brigade finally landed on the 21st, some of them in the midst of heavy German fire. They tried to link up with the British troops in Oosterbeek, but found that the local ferry was missing, apparently cut loose by the ferryman to make sure the Germans couldn’t use it. The brigade still managed to help Urquhart’s men indirectly: their presence forced the Germans to move more of the troops into the area, thus lessening the pressure on Oosterbeek.
Major General Urquhart outside his HQ in Oosterbeek
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
With the loss of the Arnhem road bridge, Operation Market Garden failed, and the only goal remaining was to save as many of the trapped British airborne as possible. Those British soldiers who were still fit to move eventually withdrew to the southern side of the Rhine under the cover of night of September 25, giving up the river’s northern side for good. Even so, losses were appalling: of the 10,600 Allied troops who fought to the north of the Rhine, 1,485 were killed and 6,414 taken captive.  Both British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery, along with many other analysts during and shortly after the war, tried to present the debacle as “90% successful” due to having won much ground, but the truth is that an operation that fails to achieve its stated goal is a failed operation.
The grave of an unknown British soldier near Arnhem
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Field Marshal Model continued to launch counterattacks against the Allied salient. The Arnhem road bridge, which Frost’s men fought so hard for, was eventually bombed by the U.S. Army Air Force on October 7 to put an end to German attempts at retaking lost ground.
 
The most tragic consequence of the poorly planned operation befell not the soldiers who fought in it, but the Dutch civilians still under German occupation. Dutch railway workers, incited by the Dutch government-in-exile in London, went on strike during the battle to hinder the Germans. Germany punished this resistance attempt by forbidding food transportation over the winter, causing a starvation known today as the “Hunger Winter” that claimed the lives of 20,000 Dutch civilians.

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