September 25, 1944 - Operation Market-Garden
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
September 25, 1944. Under the cover of darkness, the remnants of the British 1st Airborne Division slip across the Rhine River. Behind them, trapped paratroopers continue their hopeless fight for the city of Arnhem. Operation Market-Garden, the great Allied gamble to end the war in Europe before Christmas, has not only failed – it is a disaster. The last great airborne operation of World War II leaves only lost opportunities and a long road ahead.
In September 1944, the Western Allies – the U.S., Britain, France, and their fellow nations – had ample reason to believe that the end was nigh. Nazi Germany’s main field army in France had been nigh-on destroyed in Normandy, and even if the hard cores of many experienced combat divisions had escaped, they did so as mere skeletons of their former selves and without most of their equipment.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s forces fanned out across Western Europe. Paris was liberated on August 25. By early September, the British and Americans were crossing the border into Belgium, and George Patton’s 3rd Army was pushing east towards the German border. Southern France had been liberated as well (in one of the war’s lesser-known operations) and Lucian Truscott’s VI Corps was pushing up the road from the Riviera. Germany had no large organized units between the Allies and the very heart of Hitler’s empire. This could all be over in a matter of weeks.
That was how it looked. But as we all know, World War II in Europe did not end in late 1944. There were two reasons for this: Allied challenges and German resilience.
The Allies had overwhelming strength, firepower and numbers at the moment – but as a highly mobile and motorized army, they sucked up supplies and especially fuel at an unprecedented rate. The Allies had failed to capture a major port city before the Germans could destroy the facilities, and the supplies for over two million men in Eisenhower’s expeditionary force were still being brought in over the D-Day beaches.
This placed a hard bottleneck on the numbers of troops that could be deployed in Europe, and also severely limited fuel distribution. The farther the Allies got from Normandy, the worse this crisis became, and soon long convoys of trucks were making day-and-night journeys to bring gasoline to Patton’s tanks, along with every other unit fanning out across Europe. The “Red Ball Express,” as it came to be known, worked miracles – but even miracles were not enough.
As the iron hand of logistics slowly began to strangle and slow the Allied advance, Eisenhower had to face a decision. His preferred plan for the invasion of Europe had been the “broad front” strategy. By this method, he would place pressure on his foes all along the battlefront, using superior Allied munitions and resources to strain Germany to the breaking point. The “broad front” also allowed Allied forces to advance in a more or less straight line, decreasing the risks of a major German counterattack and alleviating the supply issues as much as possible – but also slowed the advance and kept the Allies from being very strong at any one point.
In contrast to the “broad front,” some of Eisenhower’s more energetic generals wanted to concentrate overwhelming force in one area for a total knockout blow against the Axis. Patton, for instance, wanted his army to receive the priority of supplies; he believed that with more fuel, he could get across the Rhine River in a matter of days. On the other side of the Allied line, though, was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the British commander in Europe, who wanted to punch across the Netherlands and “bounce” the Rhine at the city of Arnhem. Montgomery had even put together his own plan for this operation, code-named “Market-Garden.”
In Montgomery’s “Market Garden” plan, priority for fuel would go to the British front. In the “Garden” portion, a British tank column of the 30th Corps’ Guards Armored Division would drive north as fast as possible. The central Netherlands are a massive complex of rivers, streams, and canals, where Highway 69 stretched north from Belgium through the Dutch lowlands into Germany. To prevent the Germans from blocking or destroying the bridges, a massive carpet of airborne troops – the “Market” portion of the plan – would be airdropped up Highway 69, along a string of towns from Eindhoven in the south to (most critically) Arnhem in the north on the Rhine River.
Eisenhower approved the plan for Market-Garden, and Montgomery prepared for it even as the Allied advance slowed to a crawl elsewhere in Europe. Market-Garden is one of modern military history’s most famous failures, and its planning comes in for much well-deserved criticism. The main problem with Market-Garden was that it assumed total surprise and minimal resistance; the Allies were more concerned with what would happen if the Germans blew the bridges than if the Germans counterattacked. The concept behind Market-Garden was a swift pursuit rather than a forceful attack, and since it was also planned on the fly a lot of key intelligence work that could have been done otherwise was left incomplete.
For all the criticism that Market-Garden gets, there were very sound strategic reasons for Eisenhower’s decision and for Montgomery’s plan. Montgomery being given prioritization over Patton is often seen as an America vs. Britain deal, when in reality Eisenhower was choosing the best strategic and logistic option. A sudden strike into the Netherlands could open up the much-needed Dutch port facilities and clear German forces out from around Antwerp, a critical port that the British had just taken. It was also the fastest road to Berlin and *especially* Germany’s vital industrial sector of the Ruhr Valley. Eisenhower preferred the “broad front,” but if there HAD to be a strike in one sector, strategic and logistic necessity demanded that it be in Montgomery’s district in the north rather than Patton’s in the south.
But no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The main mistake Montgomery made in designing Market-Garden was in assuming the Germans were beaten. They were not.
When the disaster in Normandy unfolded, Hitler knew exactly the man he wanted to take command in the West.
Field Marshal Walther Model was one of the most brilliant of all the German generals, an organizational mastermind who could make miracles from nothing. He had been nicknamed the “Fuhrer’s fireman” because he was always shifted to the point of crisis to prevent disaster – and he DID it with remarkable consistency. When the massive Soviet offensive in 1944 (Operation Bagration) nearly split open the Eastern Front and destroyed the Wehrmacht, it was Model who took command, juggled fragments of units, and played a high-stakes chess game that not only stopped the Soviets but actually drove them back. Forget Rommel: Model was a military genius in every sense of the world, and an ironclad stone-cold Nazi supporter. It was Walther Model who was given the task of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again on the frontiers of Germany.
It was called “the Miracle of the West.” Mixing in raw recruits with the shards of shattered divisions and armies that had escaped Normandy, Model wove together a patchwork defense from the Atlantic to the Swiss border. These last-ditch defenders had already slowed Patton and Bradley to a halt in Lorraine and Belgium, but now Model was increasingly convinced that the main strike would come to the north. Allied intelligence utterly failed to pick up Model’s forces gathering in the Netherlands – especially, critically, fatally, the concentration of the veteran 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions near Arnhem.
On September 17, 1944, Operation Market-Garden began. As far as paradrops went, it was the most perfect airborne operation of the war. The US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions sailed to a gentle landing on the open plains of the southern Netherlands, where they were to seize five bridges stretching the 70 miles from the Belgian border through Eindhoven up to Nijmegen. The British 1st Airborne Division was dropped on the north side of the Rhine near the city of Arnhem, where they were to capture the long bridge that spanned the river. The British landed on the outskirts of the city, several miles from the bridge, and would need to make a mad dash to capture it.
By sheer coincidence, Arnhem was the site of Field Marshal Model’s headquarters. After a brief moment of panic – he assumed that it was a commando raid targeting him personally – Model quickly took command of the situation and began calling in units from all over. He correctly determined that the Allies were trying to advance in a straight shot and cross the Rhine and began ordering units to home in on the highway. Model also dispatched armored and recon units to hold the bridge at Nijmegen against the tank attack almost certainly coming in from the south.
For the Allies, the paratroopers’ jump was the last thing to go completely right. The short planning time had given rise to a confusion in exact instructions and missions; unlike in Normandy, where the airborne troops had planned for their mission months in advance, the troops in Market-Garden only got a few days. The 82nd and 101st Airborne managed to capture most of their bridges on September 17, except for the bridge at Son (blown up) and the bridge at Nijmegen (which the Germans managed to hold thanks to Model’s quick reaction.) By day one, the 101st had already linked up with 30th Corps’ advancing tank column. Not perfect, but good enough.
The British 1st Airborne had run into trouble immediately, though. Only half of the division arrived on Day 1 – the rest would follow in subsequent drops – and only half of these units could advance on the bridge since the rest had to guard the drop zone. While the paratroopers raced east, they were preceded by a unit mounted in Jeeps that tried to race forward and seize the bridge. When minutes counted, though, the British were hours away. The SS Panzer Divisions were already reacting and sending units to attack the British airborne troops. Instead of the light resistance they expected, the 1st Airborne was soon under attack by heavy tank units, including Tiger tanks.
Most of the British units never saw the Arnhem bridge. Only one battalion, the 2nd Parachute Battalion under Colonel John Frost, managed to slip past the German blocking positions. They were able to set up defensive positions on the north end of the bridge, where they began to fight off one German attack after another while waiting for their relief to arrive. They looked to the west into Arnhem, where the other airborne units were fighting to reach them, and to the south across the bridge, praying to see the British tank columns advancing up the highway. They would see neither.
It was here that the main problems of Operation Market-Garden’s planning became horrifyingly apparent. The British tank units and American paratroopers were restricted to the single two-lane road that linked all their objectives together. Failure to capture any one bridge would mean serious trouble and possible destruction for any units farther up the road, since the tanks could not reach them until the bridge was prepared. Worse, the highway was on an elevated berm, surrounded by the soggy marshland of the Dutch polders. The ground was too soft to support tanks, and the land was lousy with thick woods, dikes, drainage ditches and hiding places. In short, it was a defender’s wet dream – and the Germans knew how to defend. Market-Garden, which could only have worked with minimal German resistance, was about to run into a lot of it.
The tank column rolling north on a single road was ambushed at every turn by the German units from Day 1. As the days wore on, the delays became more and more problematic, since the 1st Airborne was fighting for its life at Arnhem. The SS Panzer Divisions were soon joined by elite German paratroopers, ragtag infantry divisions, and fortress units stiffened by levies of teenaged German boys and old men. These units squeezed the highway along its entire axis from both the east and the west. The American paratroopers – who had already taken all their objectives except the Nijmegen Bridge – were suddenly in danger of being overwhelmed from every direction. The struggle to keep Highway 69 open was one of the most desperate and lengthy struggles of the American airborne units in World War II; there was a reason they nicknamed it “Hell’s Highway.”
Meanwhile, the British 1st Airborne was being squeezed to death. Having dropped on top of two armored divisions, the men in the red berets engaged in bitter street fighting all across Arnhem. They managed to fight within a mile of the bridge, but by Day 2 they had already lost over half their strength. The isolated battalion of Colonel Frost on the north side of the bridge had driven off 9th SS Panzer’s armored recon battalion with heavy losses, but they had received no reinforcements and none were coming. The longer the units down south were delayed, the tighter Model’s fist squeezed on the British paratroopers.
The days wore on, with the British struggling to push their tank column up Highway 69, the American airborne units fighting nearly back-to-back to keep the highway open, and the British paratroopers at Arnhem clinging on for dear life. The second British paradrop arrived on September 19, but was unable to break through to the units already in the city. The 82nd Airborne had still not captured the bridge at Nijmegen. The British airborne, split by the German attacks, began to try and fight their way out to escape across the Rhine. Trapped platoons and companies were crushed one by one as the SS slowly cleared the red berets from Arnhem.
The remnants of the British 1st Airborne gathered in a bridgehead north of the Rhine at the village of Oosterbeek, where they tried to make contact with the British tank column. They would wait. On September 20, the 82nd Airborne made a costly river crossing in shallow-draft boats under devastating enemy fire to seize the Nijmegen Bridge, and the British tanks thundered across it. This last triumph, though, was squandered. The British tank units delayed for almost 36 hours, a capital mistake, since only hours later the Arnhem Bridge was finally overrun.
On the evening of September 20, Frost’s battalion lost the bridge. The plans had called for 10,000 men of the 1st Airborne to hold the bridge for two days until the tanks arrived; the 740 men of the 2nd Para had held it for four days, and no tanks had arrived. They were still blocked below Nijmegen, still struggling up Hell’s Highway. The last radio message broadcast from the bridge – “Out of ammo, God save the king” – was only heard by the Germans. All had been either killed or taken prisoner. Arnhem Bridge was lost. There would be no Allied crossing of the Rhine in September 1944. All that was left for the Allies was to save the remnant of the 1st Airborne.
On September 25, 1944, the 1st Airborne – which had been under constant enemy attack for nine days, only reinforced by a Polish parachute unit that volunteered to save their allies – recrossed the Rhine in fragments, totally defeated. Of the 10,600 men of the British 1st Airborne who had dropped to assault Arnhem, only 2,398 made it across the Rhine. The rest were dead or would wait out the war in German prison camps. Operation Market-Garden had utterly failed.
The Allies would pay the price for this failure. British and American units were now committed to man a narrow salient stretching over 80 miles from Belgium to the Rhine frontier. Throughout September and October, the American airborne would fight alongside the British Army to hold “Hell’s Highway” under relentless pressure from all sides. The battle had been light on casualties by World War II standards, but resulted in the destruction of an elite airborne division and the waste of multiple others. It also represented a massive disappointment for the Dutch people, who would endure unspeakable famine and hardship as a result of their failed liberation.
Market-Garden had an even greater impact on the outcome of the war in the West. The Allies had gambled on a quick solution to the war, and this gamble had gone sour. Thanks to logistics, poor planning, and (one should never forget) the jaw-dropping recovery of the Wehrmacht forces opposing them, the Allies were condemned to slug their way through tough German resistance for the next nine months. If somehow Market-Garden had worked, there is a chance that it would have been Montgomery’s tanks in Berlin, not the Soviets. But it did not.
Autumn approached, the road ahead looked harder and more painful than ever, and countless American, British and French boys faced the grim reality that the war would go on. The lost opportunities, and the false hopes, were the real tragic aftermath of Operation Market-Garden.