Operation Market Garden was an Allied military operation in World War II, which took place in September of 1944. It was an attempt to take bridges over the main rivers of the German-occupied Netherlands, enabling the Allies to advance into Germany without any remaining major obstacles.
The operation was successful up to the capture of the Rhine bridge at Nijmegen, but was overall a failure as the final bridge at Arnhem was not held, resulting in the destruction of the British 1st Airborne division.
After the breakout from the Normandy beachheads in August, the Allied forces had pushed back the German army hundreds of miles over a period of only a few weeks.
By the end of August enough Allied troops were on land to form several armies. To the east, on the right, the US had two complete armies, the 1st under Hodges and the 3rd under Patton, in a line running north-south near the German frontier.
To their left the British 2nd Army under Bernard Montgomery held the north-east corner in a line running from Antwerp to the US lines roughly along the northern border of Belgium. On their left, on the Atlantic coast, was the Canadian 1st army who had recently advanced to a line just south of the British.
At this point the offensive halted as supplies ran low. The only source of supplies in Allied hands were the shallow docks built on the original invasion beaches, and the nearby deep-water port of Cherbourg at the tip of the Cotentin.
Both of these were of limited use, as the D-Day pre-invasion "softening up" air strikes had effectively destroyed all railroad transportation in the area. The massive port of Antwerp lay in British hands, but the river estuary leading inland to this port (the Westerschelde) in front of the Canadians was still in German control.
Clearly the primary concern for the Allies should have been the advance of the Canadian army to remove the remaining German forces from the area and open Antwerp. However the Canadians had little "pull" compared to the two prima-donna generals, Patton and Montgomery.
Both consistently asked for all available supplies to be given to them for quick advances, but Eisenhower refused, and maintained a strategy of broad attack across the entire front. As the offensive faltered both Montgomery and Patton argued anew for thrusting attacks, and Eisenhower eventually asked both for their plans.
Patton favoured an attack east from his current positions to take the city of Metz, and then into the industrial area of the Saar. However this required passing the Siegfried Line of defenses at the German border, and left them in front of the equally heavily defended Rhine.
As a defensive maneuver it was an excellent plan, as it would leave the Allies in control of the easily defended west bank of the Rhine. But as an offensive plan it did little other than take more land, and left them in an only slightly better position to assault Germany.
Montgomery instead suggested an attack north to Arnhem, deep inside the Netherlands, which would bypass the Siegfried Line (which stopped about 20km south of there), cross the Rhine, and capture the entire German 15th army behind their lines between Arnhem and the shores of the IJsselmeer. This would also have the side effect of cutting off the V-2 launch sites, which were bombarding London at this time.
Eisenhower continued to dither, as he was most interested in the opening of Antwerp to supplies. Both generals continued to pester him, and political infighting was common. Montgomery pointed out that his plan ringed the entire Antwerp area well behind Allied lines, allowing it to be easily opened once the attack was completed.
The final straw was the addition of the newly-formed 1st Allied Airborne Army into the mix. This consisted of three US and two British airborne divisions, and an additional Polish brigade, which had formed up in England after the removal of the airborne forces from France after the Normandy breakout.
Eisenhower had been under intense pressure from the US to use these forces as soon as possible, so Montgomery changed his plan to use the 1st to capture three important bridges, opening the entire attack route to a very rapid advance by the 2nd Army.
The plan of action consisted of two coordinated operations, Market which was the use of the airborne troops, and Garden consisting of the British 2nd Army moving north along highway 69, spearheaded by 30 Corp.
Market would employ three of the five divisions of the 1st Airborne army. The US 101st Airborne Division would drop in two locations just north of the 30 Corp to take the bridges northwest of Eindhoven at Son (mun. Son en Breugel) and Veghel.
The 82nd Airborne Division would drop quite a bit northeast of them to take the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen, and finally the British 1st would drop at the extreme north end of the route, to take the road and rail bridges at Arnhem.
Market would be the largest airborne operation in history, delivering 30,000 men of the 101st, 82nd, 1st and the Polish Airborne brigade in a series of three huge operations known as "lifts". Commander of the 1st Army, Browning, added his own HQ to the first lift so that he could command from the front.
Garden consisted primarly of 30 Corp., the core of the 2nd Army. They were expected to arrive at the south end of the 101st's area on the launch day, the 82nd by the second day, and the 1st by the third or fourth day at the latest. They would also deliver several additional infantry divisions to take over the defensive operations from the airborne, freeing them for other operations as soon as possible.
Still, four days is a long time for an airborne force to fight unsupplied, and they are lightly armed to start with. But it seemed that the German resistance at this point was even lighter. Most of the German 15th Army in the area appeared to be fleeing the field from in front of the Canadians, and they were known to have no Panzer gruppen.
30 Corp would therefore be facing very limited resistance on their route up highway 69, and little armor. Meanwhile the German defenders would be spread out over 100km trying to contain the pockets of airborne forces, from the British 2nd Army in the south, to Arnhem in the north.
All was not what it seemed. In fact the rout of 15th army had largely ended with the arrival of Gerd von Rundstedt in early September. Rundstedt, generally detested by Hitler, was well liked by his troops, who he had back in fighting condition within the week.
The rout ended with most of the men escaping out from the pocket between the Canadian 1st and the Westerschelde, adding 80,000 men to the area just to the northwest of the attack route.
Much more alarming was an unrelated event taking place nearby. When discussing the Allied plan of attack, Rundstedt and his generals agreed that Eisenhower would favour Patton. The troops of the 9SS and 10SS Panzer divisions from the 17th Army in front of Patton were in no condition to fight, so they were ordered to rest and refit in the rear.
A suitable quiet spot was selected, which happened to be Arnhem. This meant another 9,000 troops in the area, all of them elite armored forces with heavy weapons.
Several reports started leaking out from the Netherlands reporting on the German movements, but by this time the planning was in late stages and the reports were basically ignored.
When a recce flight was sent in on behalf of the 1st Airborne Army, it returned with pictures clearly showing tanks deployed just to the northeast of Arnhem, perhaps only 15km from where the British would be dropping. These were dismissed out of hand, with the claim that they probably couldn't run and were broken down.
Worse, RAF Transport Command reported that they were desperately short of aircraft and would be barely able to support the operation. Any losses or bad weather would upset this ability. The problem was so acute that they flatly refused to drop the British to the north of their target bridge because it would put them in range of flak guns just to the north at Deelen (mun. Ede).
Another suitable drop zone just to the south of the bridge was also rejected because it was thought to be marshy, and thus unsuitable for dropping the gliders containing the force's heavier equipment. Instead they demanded a drop zone 15km away from the bridge, which would have to be taken and held overnight until the 3rd lift — the force would have to be split in half for over a day.
Realizing the seriousness of the problem, the plan was then hastily changed to add a small force of machine-gun equipped jeeps to the first lift. These would race forward from the drop zone to the bridge as soon as possible, holding it until the infantry could arrive. Three brigades would follow on foot, with the fourth and all the glider pilots holding the drop zones while they waited for the next two lifts.
In a staggeringly short period of one week, everything was ready.
Day 1, Sunday September 17, 1944
Operation Market/Garden opened with successes all around. The first lift was in daylight for accuracy, and almost all of the troops arrived on top of their target drop zones without incident. This contrasted strongly with previous operations where night drops resulted in the units being scattered by up to 20km in some cases.
In the south the 101st met little resistance and easily captured the small bridge at Veghel. However the similar bridge at Son was blown up as they approached it, after being delayed by a short engagement with German anti-tank guns. Later that day several small attacks by units of the 15th Army were beat off, while small units of the 101st had moved south of Son.
To their north the 82nd arrived, and the small group dropped near Grave took the bridge intact in a rush. However the main force of the 82nd found their task of securing the Groesbeek Heights to the east of Nijmegen much harder than they expected, and they continued to try for the rest of the day. One force tasked with taking the bridge made their attempt, but due to miscommunication they didn't start until late in the day and never made it. This left the Nijmegen bridge in German hands.
Meanwhile the 1st Airborne landed almost without a hitch, with the exception that the Land Rover force lost over half its vehicles on landing, and the rest were ambushed on their way into Arnhem. Thus the only hope of capturing the bridge was on foot.
This too proved very difficult. Two of the three brigades found themselves slowed down by small German units of a training battalion rushing to hem them in. Luckily one of the three, led by Col. Frost, found their route largely undefended, and arrived at the bridge in the afternoon and set up defensive positions.
Continued attempts by the other two brigades were meeting increased resistance, so eventually the decision was made to wait for the second lift and try again tomorrow.
This is of vital importance. Unlike any of the bridges to the south, which were over smaller rivers and canals and could be bridged by engineering units, the Nijmegen and Arnhem bridges crossed two arms of the Rhine, and there was no possibility of bridging either.
To make matters worse, the British airborne were on the far side of their bridge. If either Nijmegen or Arnhem bridges were not captured and held, there was absolutely no way for 30 Corp to reach them. Yet at the end of Day 1, only a small force held Arnhem, and Nijmegen was German.
To makes matters worse, the British radios didn't work. Their long-range VFH sets were delivered with the wrong crystals, thus operating on a frequency no-one was listening to. Meanwhile the shorter range sets for use between the brigades didn't work for no obvious reason (at the time) and the various brigades were completely cut off from each other.
30 Corp didn't start their advance until 2pm, although the reasons for this planned delay are unclear. Soon after starting they ran into a force of anti-tank units dug in on the road, and it took several hours for them to be cleared, along with the loss of several of the elite Guards Armored's tanks.
By the time the light started giving out at 5pm they were still 15km south of Eindhoven and they camped in Valkenswaard. The operation was already behind schedule.
On the German side things were not much better, largely because it wasn't clear at the start what was going on. Model, in direct command of the forces in the area, was completely confused by the British dropping in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, and concluded they were commandos attempting to kidnap him.
Meanwhile Bittrich, commander of the 9th and 10th (collectively the 2nd SS Panzer Corp), had a clearer head and immediately sent a recce squadron of the 9th to Nijmegen to reinforce the bridge defense there.
Day 2, Monday the 18th
Early in the day the force of the 9th Panzer sent south the day before concluded they were not needed in Nijmegen, and attempted to return to Arnhem. They were aware of the British troops at the bridge, but attempted to cross by force anyway and were beaten back with staggering losses. Meanwhile the attempt to move the other two British brigades into the bridge area were both easily beat off by the newly arrived forces of the 10th SS. Lift two arrived late due to fog in England, but put down successfully in the afternoon.
To their south the 82nd was having troubles of its own. Grave was well protected, but German forces contined to press on the 82nd deployed to the east of Nijmegen on the heights. In the morning they took one of their landing zones, target for the second lift which was to arrive at 1pm. Troops from the entire area, even as far as the town itself, rushed to the drop zone and by 3pm it was back in their control. Luckily, due to the delay in England the second lift didn't arrive until 3:30.
The 101st, faced with the loss of the bridge at Son, attempted to take the similar bridge a few kilometers away at Best. However they found their approach heavily blocked, and eventually gave up. Other units continued moving to the south and eventually reached the northern end of Eindhoven. At about noon they were met by recce units from 30 Corp. At 4pm they made radio contact with the main force to the south and told them about the Son bridge, asking for a Bailey Bridge to be brought forward.
30 Corp soon arrived in Eindhoven, and by that night were camped out south of Son while they waited for the Royal Engineers to erect the new bridge. Thus ended Day 2, with the operation already 36 hours behind schedule and both primary bridges still in German control.
Day 3, Tuesday the 19th
By this point most of the 1st Airborne was in place, and only the Polish brigade was yet to arrive in the 3rd lift later that day. Yet another attempt was made to reinforce Frost at the bridge, and this time resistance was even stronger. It appeared that there was no longer any hope of reaching the bridge, and the isolated units then retreated to set up strong lines to the west of the town, in Oosterbeek (mun. Renkum). Meanwhile at the bridge German tanks were arriving to take up the fight, which was becoming desperate.
At 5pm a small part of the Polish units in the third lift finally arrived, but fell directly into the waiting guns of the Germans camped out arround the area – with the radios not working they still had no way to tell the HQ that the landing zone was taken and many of the Polish troops were killed. At the same time several of the supply drop points were also in German hands, and the 1st retrieved only 10% of the supplies dropped to them.
Things were going somewhat better for the 82nd, who found advanced units of 30 Corp arriving that morning. With the support of tanks they were able to quickly beat off the Germans in the area, at which point they decided to make a combined effort to take the bridge; the Guards Armored and 505th (part of the 82nd) would attack from the south while the 504th would cross the river in boats and take the north. The boats were called for to make the attempt in the late afternoon, but due to huge traffic problems to the south, they never arrived. Once again 30 Corp was held up in front of a bridge.
To their south the units of the 101st sent to take Best the day before found themselves facing a renewed attack that morning and gave ground. However as more British tanks arrived the Germans were beaten off by late afternoon. Later a small force of Panthers arrived at Son, seemingly out of nowhere, and started firing on the Bailey bridge. These too were beaten back by anti-tank guns that recently landed, and the bridge was secured.
Day 4, Wednesday the 20th
Frost's force at the bridge continued to hold out. Around noon the radios started working and they learned that the rest of the division had no hopes of relieving them, and that 30 Corp was stuck to their south in front of Nijmegen bridge. By the afternoon the Germans had complete control of the Arnhem bridge and started lighting fire to the houses the British were defending. The rest of the division had now set up defensive positions in Oosterbeek to the west of Arnhem, waiting for the arrival of 30 Corp.
In Nijmegen the boats still hadn't arrived during the night, so the troops continued to wait. They didn't arrive until the afternoon, but time was so short they decided to do the crossing in daylight. In what is generally considered to be one of the bravest actions in military history, they made the crossing in 26 rowboats into well defended positions. They took the banks and pressed to the bridge, which caused the Germans to pull back from their positions on the southern side. That freed the Guards Armored, who rushed across the bridge and met the airborne troops. Nijmegen bridge was now in Allied hands after four long days.
Meanwhile the Germans organized another attack on the heights on the east side of town, this time making significant progess. Eventually the only remaining bridge suitable for tanks fell to the Germans, but was retaken by forces of the 82nd and Coldstream Guards.
To the south the running battles between the 101st and various German units continued, eventually with several Panthers once again rushing in and cutting off the roads, only leaving when they ran low on ammo.
Day 5, Thursday the 21th
Although hard pressed, things were looking up for Market/Garden this morning. 30 Corp was across the Nijmegen bridge and less than an hour's drive from the ongoing battle at the foot on Arnhem bridge. But it was too late, Frost's force was down to two houses, a handful of men, and had used up every bullet they had. With a last radio message "out of ammo, god save the king", his remaining force surrendered.
At the same time the rest of the Polish brigade, now two days late due to weather, arrived. The situation north of the river was obviously too hostile to land, so a new drop zone on the south side across from the 1st was selected. The landings went well, but the ferry they planned to use to reach the British had been sunk. Their force was largely wasted as a result.
Meanwhile the lead elements of Guards Armored sat still. Their commander refused to move them forward while Nijmegen to their south was still under constant threat, and radioed back along to the line for the 43rd infantry division to move up to take over the town. However by this point there was a 30 mile long traffic jam behind them, and the 43rd didn't arrive until the next day. But the GA were close enough by this point that they were in radio contact with the units in Oosterbeek, and starting shelling any German units who attempted to approach them.
German attacks continued all along the route, but by this point the Allied forces had clearly started to gain the upper hand. Not only were the Germans attacks stalled, the British and 101st continued to take more and more area.
Day 6, Friday the 22nd, Black Friday
The Poles continued to sit and watch the battle from the sidelines, with British artillery flying overhead from Nijmegen. That afternoon two British airborne soldiers swam the Rhine and informed them of the desperate situation, asking for any help they could give. The Poles were equipped only with inflatable rubber rafts, but promised to try a crossing that night. This operation was opposed, and only 52 soldiers made it across.
By this point much of the battle area was now in allied hands, and it appeared all of the problem was at the north end of the line with 30 Corp. As soon as the 43rd arrived things would be in better shape, and the Guards Armored could attempt to retake the Arnhem bridge.
However the Germans had other ideas, and during the previous night had organized two mixed armored divisions on either side of highway 69 at about the middle of the line between Veghel and Grave. They attacked and only one side was stopped, while the other made it to the highway and cut the line. Any advance on Arnhem was now impossible.
Day 7, Saturday the 23rd
The Germans had figured out what the Poles were attempting to do, and spent the rest of the day trying to cut the British off from the riverside. The British managed to hold on, and both sides suffered heavy losses. The Germans also attacked the Poles on the south side in order to tie them down, but several tanks arrived from 30 Corp and they were beaten off. Boats and engineers from the Canadian army arrived that day, and another river crossing that night landed another 150 troops.
To the south several more German attacks from their road crossing were stopped, but the road was still cut. 30 Corp then sent a unit of the Guards Armored south the 20km and re-took the road. The rest of the force to the north continued to wait for infantry to move up, still only a few kilometers from Arnhem.
Day 8, Sunday the 24th
Yet another German force attacked the road, this time to the south of Veghel. Several units were in the area, but were unable to stop them, and the Germans quickly set up defensive positions for the night.
It was not clear to the Allies at this point how much of a danger these actions represented. But it was on this day that the operation was essentially stopped and the decision made to go over to the defense. The 1st Airborne, or what remained of them, would be withdrawn that night. The lines would then be solidified where they were, with the new front line in Nijmegen.
Day 9, Monday the 25th
At 10pm the withdrawal of the remains of the 1st begins, as British and Canadian engineer units start ferrying the troops across the Rhine. By early the next morning they had withdrawn some 2000 of them, but another 300 were still on the north at first light when German fire stopped the effort. They surrendered. Of the 10,000 troops of the 1st Airborne Division, only 2,000 escaped.
To the south the newly-arrived 50th Infantry attacked the Germans holding the highway. By the next day they had been surrounded and their resistance ended. The corridor was now secure, but with nowhere to go.
It's always easy to second-guess a battle, and it's likely the case that this is even more true of Market/Garden than any other battle in modern history.
One certain problem with the plan was that the entire operation required both bridges over the Rhine to be captured and held. Had the Nijmegen bridge been destroyed or remained in German hands, the British would be cut off kilometers to the north with no hope whatsoever.
Even with Nijmegen successfully taken, things would be little better if Arnhem bridge fell.
This would require a forced crossing of the Rhine to relieve the airborne, and there was no planning to allow for this very possible eventuality.
Given this, it's astounding in retrospect that the plans placed so little effort on capturing the important bridges immediately with forces dropped right on them. In the case of Veghel and Grave, where this was done, the bridges were captured with only a few shots being fired.
There seems little reason to suspect the same wouldn't have been true of Arnhem and Nijmegen, but with the troops over an hour's march away, or told to do other things, there was little hope of their success.
This is even more confusing when you consider the 1st para-landing troops. They were to land along with the glider-landing forces to secure the drop zone. This makes little sense considering that it was up to the glider forces to hold the zone, and the paratroops were going to pick up and walk off immediately anyway. There's simply no reason they couldn't have been dropped right on the south side of the bridge.
Just as baffling is the end-game actions on the part of 30 Corp. Although Frost's force was likely lost under any circumstance, Arnhem was not the only available bridge. At a minimum had they pushed north they would have arrived at the south end and secured it, leaving the way open for another crossing to the north at some other point. There was the smaller possibility of arriving with Frost's force intact. This "lack of guts" on the part of the GA is odd.
The commander of 30 Corp asked for another course of action. About 25km to the west of the action was another bridge similar to Arnhem, at Rhenen, which he predicted was undefended due to all efforts being directed on Oosterbeek.
In fact this was the case, and had the GA dashed over, it is almost certain they would have crossed unopposed and fell onto the rear of the German lines on the west of Oosterbeek. However by this time it appears Montgomery was spooked by the continued resistance of the German forces and refused to take the chance.
In the end Montgomery still called Market Garden 90% successful and said:
In my prejudiced view, if the operation had been properly backed from its inception, and given the aircraft, ground forces, and administrative resources necessary for the job, it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes, or the adverse weather, or the presence of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in the Arnhem area. I remain Market Garden's unrepentant advocate.
The story of Operation Market Garden is, among others, told in the Cornelius Ryan novel A Bridge Too Far and its subsequent film adaptation by Richard Attenborough.
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