75 years ago, in the early hours of Sunday 17 September, operation Market Garden commenced. It was a daring plan by Montgomery to outpace the Germans by bypassing the heavily fortified Westwall (Siegfried line) protecting the Ruhr area. This was part of an overarching plan by the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHEAF) to strike Germany on a broad front approaching from both a northern and southern direction. For this operation to succeed the Meuse (Maas), Waal and Rhine rivers would need to be crossed to reach the ultimate goal; the Arnhem bridge over the lower Rhine. As we now know, the Arnhem bridge would turn out to be a bridge too far. This month there are commemorations and events everywhere in the southern part of the Netherlands in remembrance of the men that took part in operation Market Garden.
Break out from Normandy
The initial Allied advance inland after the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 was rather slow – often blamed on the Normandy “bocage” hedgerow landscape. British and Canadian forces were stuck at Caen. To break out of the bridgehead, a simultaneous attack was carried out on 24 July: the American 1st Army would break out towards Avranches (operation Cobra ) while at the same time the II Canadian Corps pressured the Germans at Caen (operation Spring).
This would see the German left flank holding the Allied bridgehead back crumbling. Soon after, on 30 July, the VII Corps and XXX Corps of the British Second Army initiated operation Bluecoat to exploit the success of operation Cobra. These event would eventually lead to the complete Allied breakout Normandy and the encirclement of German troops at Falaise which was captured on 15 August. Failing to put up substantial resistance, the Werhmacht in France was in compete disarray and now fleeing towards the Seine river with the Second Army hot on their heels.
Moving steadily on, the Allied forces chased down the German troops to northern France. In the lead XXX Corps lead by General Horrocks. The Seine was crossed on 29 August and the chase continued over the French border into Belgium on 2 September. Brussels and Antwerp were liberation on the 3rd and 4th of September, respectively. As result of the rapid British advance, Von Zangen’s 15. Armee was trapped with its back to the Pas de Calais. Strangely enough, Allied forces did not act on this information and the army managed to escape northwards.
In a surprise attack on the 10th by the Guards Armoured Division, the bridge at Neerpelt over the Maas-Scheldt Canal is captured. The bridge would be nicknamed “Joe’s bridge” after Colonel “Joe” Vandeleur CO of 3rd Battalion Irish Guards.
Market and Garden
On 17 September, British XXX (30) corps was to spearhead the ground attack “Garden”. They would advance over Joe’s bridge towards Eindhoven, Nijmegen and their end goals: Arnhem. They were expected to make this more than 100 kilometre long journey in about two days under continued enemy resistance. Meanwhile, an air offensive “Market” would see the massive employment of airborne forces which were to capture the bridges along the way to enable the rapid advance of the ground troops.
A gigantic armada of “Dakota” C-47 Skytrain planes towing a variety of glider planes airdropped some 41,628 troops. The British 1st (Oosterbeek) and American 82nd (Nijmegen) as well as the 101st (Eindhoven) Airborne Divisions would be parachuted in near bridges along the route. Additionally, the 1st Parachute Brigade under the lead of Major-General Sosabowski was dropped near Driel after bad weather had prevent them to be dropped at Oosterbeek.
An undervalued adversary and setbacks
The German strength in the area was grossly underestimated and the presence of Bittrich’s II. SS-Panzerkorps1 at Arnhem simply overlooked. The single highway over which the ground offensive took place was nicknamed “Hell’s highway” after the fierce battles that took place there. The small corridor was only slowly reinforced by XII and VIII corps advancing on both flanks. The convoy on the highway was continually harassed by German Fallschirmjäger, Flak positions and Sturmgeschütze from schwere Heeres Panzerjäger Abteilung 559.
The original plan foresaw the capture of the bridge over the Waal river at Nijmegen on the first day of the offensive. Due to the fact that 82nd Airborne were all dropped on the south side of the bridge a heroic crossing of the river was made in canvas boats. No cover was available and the crossing was made in full sight of the defending German troops on the dyke road on the other side. The bridge was only fully in Allied hands on Friday 21 September! After the successful capture of the bridge over the Waal, the tanks were finally able to move, but quickly came to a standstill again. Their orders were to wait for their infantry, who were still fighting in the Nijmegen city centre.
The battle of Arnhem
The men of the 1st British Airborne Division under command of General-Major Urquhart started landing south of Arnhem near Oosterbeek – a relatively long way away from their target, the traffic bridge over the lower Rhine. John Frost was to spearhead the advance to the bridge with his 2nd Parachute Battalion. Frost and his battalion of about 745 lightly armoured infantry were able to capture the north end of the bridge. Here they would wait for the arrival of the rest of the division and eventually meet up with XXX Corps.
The plan did not work out. Frost found himself surrounded by Bittrich’s Panzer Corps and was cut off from the troops still at the drop zone. Eventually, the drop zone itself was lost to the Germans resulting in loss of supplies. The troops at Oosterbeek put up a defensive perimeter around their field HQ at Hotel Hartenstein. It was only too clear that Frost and his men still at the bridge would not be reached in time by XXX Corps. The help of Polish airborne troops on 21 September could not force a breakthrough and a British defeat at Arnhem was inevitable. Operation Pegasus in the night of 22-23 September helped some of the entrapped men to escape the German encirclement at Oosterbeek.
Market Garden had not reached its goal. In the months after, the remainder of the Netherlands below the major rivers would be liberated. The northern half would still need to wait through a winter full of hunger and cold. The Netherlands would only completely be liberated on 5 May 1945.