World War II: Operation Market-Garden

A Bridge Too Far

Allied airborne drops during Operation Market-Garden, 1944
Airborne forces drop during Operation Market-Garden, September 1944. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Conflict & Date

Operation Market-Garden took place between September 17 and 25, 1944, during World War II (1939-1945).

Armies & Commanders

Allies

Germany

Background:

In the wake of the capture of Caen and Operation Cobra breakout from Normandy, Allied forces conducted a rapid advance across France and into Belgium. Attacking on a broad front, they shattered German resistance and soon were nearing Germany. The speed of the Allied advance began to place significant strains on their increasingly long supply lines. These were badly hampered by the success of bombing efforts to cripple the French railroad network in the weeks before D-Day landings and the need to open larger ports on the Continent to Allied shipping. To combat this issue, the "Red Ball Express" was formed to rush supplies to the front from the invasion beaches and those ports that were in operation. Using nearly 6,000 trucks, the Red Ball Express ran until the opening of the port of Antwerp in November 1944.

  Operating around the clock, the service transported around 12,500 tons of supplies per day and utilized roads that had been closed to civilian traffic.

Forced by the supply situation to slow the general advance and focus on a more narrow front, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, began to contemplate the Allies' next move.

General Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group in the Allied center, advocated in favor of a drive into the Saar to pierce the German Westwall (Siegfried Line) defenses and open Germany to invasion. This was countered by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding the 21st Army Group in the north, who wished to attack over the Lower Rhine into the industrial Ruhr Valley. As the German's were using bases in Belgium and Holland to launch V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 rockets at Britain, Eisenhower sided with Montgomery. If successful, Montgomery would also be in a position to clear the Scheldt islands which would open the port of Antwerp to Allied vessels.

The Plan:

To accomplish this Montgomery developed Operation Market-Garden. The concept for the plan had its origins in Operation Comet which the British leader had devised in August. Intended to be implemented on September 2, this called for the British 1st Airborne Division and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade to be dropped in the Netherlands around Nijmegen, Arnhem, and Grave with the goal of securing key bridges.  The plan was cancelled due to consistently poor weather and Montgomery's growing concerns about German troop strength in the area.

An enlarged variant of Comet, Market-Garden envisioned a two stage operation that called for troops from Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton's First Allied Airborne Army to land and capture the bridges. While these troops held the bridges, Lieutenant General Brian Horrock's XXX Corps would advance up Highway 69 to relieve Brereton's men. If successful, Allied forces would be over the Rhine in a position to attack the Ruhr, while avoiding the Westwall by working around its northern end.

For the airborne component, Market, Major General Maxwell Taylor's 101st Airborne was to be dropped near Eindhoven with orders to take the bridges at Son and Veghel. To the northeast, Brigadier General James Gavin's 82nd Airborne would land at Nijmegen to take the bridges there and at Grave. Farthest north the British 1st Airborne, under Major General Roy Urquhart, and Brigadier General Stanislaw Sosabowski's Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were to land at Oosterbeek and capture the bridge at Arnham.

Due to a lack of aircraft, the delivery of the airborne forces was divided over two days, with 60% arriving on the first day and remainder, including most of the gliders and heavy equipment, landing the second. Attacking up Highway 69, the ground element, Garden, was to relieve the 101st on the first day, the 82nd on the second, and the 1st by the fourth day. In case any of the bridges along the route were blown by the Germans, XXX Corps was accompanied by engineering units and bridging equipment.

German Activity & Intelligence:

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, ULTRA radio intercepts and messages from the Dutch resistance 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 take by No. 16 Squadron 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."

Moving Forward:

Taking off on Sunday September 17, Allied airborne forces began a daylight drop into the Netherlands. These represented the first of over 34,000 men who would airlifted to the battle. 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. Occupying this position was intended to block any German advance out of the nearby Reichswald forest and prevent the Germans from using the high ground for artillery spotting. 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 from the 10th SS Reconnaissance Battalion and were unable to take the span.

While the American divisions met with early success, the British were having difficulties. Due to the aircraft issue, only half of the division arrived on September 17. As a result, only the 1st Parachute Brigade was able to advance on Arnhem. In doing so they encountered German resistance with only Lieutenant John Frost's 2nd Battalion reaching the bridge. Securing the north end, his men were unable to dislodge the Germans from the south end.

The situation was worsened by widespread radio issues throughout the division. Far to the south, Horrocks commenced his attack with XXX Corps around 2:15 PM. Breaking through the German lines, his advance was slower than expected and he was only halfway to Eindhoven by nightfall.

Successes & Failures:

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 were ferried in 26 canvas assault boats overseen by elements of the 307th Engineer Battalion. As insufficient paddles were available, many soldiers used their rifle butts as oars. Landing on the north bank, the paratroopers sustained 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.

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.

Endgame at Arnhem:

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. In an effort to rescue the situation, the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, delayed in England due to weather, was dropped at a new landing zone on the south bank near Driel. Landing under fire, they had hoped to use the ferry to cross in support of the 3,584 survivors of the British 1st Airborne. Arriving in 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.

Failure:

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.

Aftermath:

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 Schledt 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."

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Operation Market-Garden." ThoughtCo, Jan. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-operation-market-garden-2361452. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, January 6). World War II: Operation Market-Garden. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-operation-market-garden-2361452 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Operation Market-Garden." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-operation-market-garden-2361452 (accessed January 17, 2018).