A young Dutch girl looked up at the sky on the afternoon of Sunday 17 September 1944 and exclaimed in surprise, “Jesus is throwing people out of heaven!” What she was in fact witnessing was one of the parachute drops that kicked off Operation Market Garden, an audacious and ultimately disastrous Allied plan to smash through the German defences in the Netherlands and win the war by Christmas.
Having exceeded their expectations for the campaigns in Normandy and liberated Paris, the Allies were keen to finish off Nazi Germany as quickly as possible. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower favoured a broad assault but Field Marshal Montgomery proposed a more nimble thrust through the Netherlands that would enable Allied forces to bypass much of the defensive Siegfried Line and swing into Germany from the north.
To achieve success in such an operation, the Allies would require not only to defeat any Germans in the area but also get across the Rhine and other waterways that criss-crossed the Dutch landscape. Montgomery’s ambitious solution was to drop thousands of Allied paratroopers dozens of miles behind enemy lines where they would secure the necessary bridges to allow a simultaneous ground attack to make progress.
For the typically cautious Montgomery, it was an uncharacteristically bold idea and one that stunned US General Omar Bradley, who remarked after seeing the proposals: “If the teetotal Montgomery had wobbled into my headquarters reeking of whisky, I couldn’t have been more surprised.” For Montgomery however it offered an opportunity to get himself back into the forefront of the action and for this he was prepared to embark on a risky operation.
Eisenhower was sufficiently convinced to allow Market Garden to take priority of supplies. The operation was hastily conceived, ready for execution in mid-September 1944, just over two months after D-Day. It was to be the biggest airborne assault of all time.
For the Market half of the operation the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would secure crossings close to the towns of Nijmegen and Eindhoven respectively. Meanwhile the 1st British Airborne Division would be dropped close to Arnhem where they would need to seize the town’s bridge at the furthest extent of the Allied push
The Garden half would involve a surge by the British XXX Corps along the road into the Netherlands to link up first with the American paratroopers and then finally with the British who should be holding the Arnhem bridge.
After defeating the Germans in Normandy the Allies were in confident mood prior to the start of the operation. Corporal Bob Allen later recalled: “A little German armour was reputed to be refitting in the Arnhem area. But morale was sky high. Most of us were straining at the leash to get into battle.”
Despite Allen’s bullishness, Operation Market Garden was by no means guaranteed to succeed. For such a daring plan to work virtually everything would have to go as planned.
Dropping in on the Germans
The American 101st Airborne under General Maxwell Taylor were responsible for the Eindhoven area. After landing they secured virtually all their objectives except for the bridge at Son, which was demolished before they could arrive, causing delays while a replacement was hastily erected.
Their fellow Americans of the 82nd Airborne were commanded by the youthful General James Gavin. They initially made good progress but were barred from taking the vital road bridge at Nijmegen by strong German resistance. One of the problems was that the paratroopers had been dropped several miles from their targets in order to land them on safer, better ground. This meant that the Germans had extra time to react to the situation and deploy more effective counter-measures.
The British 1st Airborne, led by Major General Robert Urquhart, were also dropped some distance from their target of Arnhem. Again this led to crucial delays and to compound matters their radios did not work properly, resulting in disastrous communication breakdowns.
What few of the Allies seem to have expected was the strength of the German forces in the area. There were two SS Panzer Divisions close-by and although they were far from full strength they were able to provide stiff resistance against the lightly armed paratroopers.
Three British parachute battalions set off to reach the bridge at Arnhem on 17 September but only one made it to the bridge. A group of around 500 men led by Colonel John Frost managed to seize one side of the crossing but under heavy fire they were unable to take control of the whole bridge.
At the same time the other British forces were facing mounting German attacks and desperately needed support to arrive quickly. Yet the XXX Corps was struggling to make up the required ground. The bridge that had been destroyed over the Son had to be rebuilt causing a hold-up of some 36 hours. To make matters worse, the vast armoured column was travelling along a single road, causing inevitable jams and hold-ups.
Too little, too late
Further British paratroopers arrived on 18 September but by now the Germans were responding in force. The new additions quickly found themselves in deadly peril with little chance of being able to capture the bridge at Arnhem.
Major Blackwood of the 4th Parachute Brigade summed up the situation on 19 September. “Message to say that our attack on the Arnhem bridge had been beaten back and that German tanks had outflanked and surrounded us… Our orders were brief – wait for the tanks, give them everything we had in the way of grenades, shoot up as many infantry as we could before we died.”
The ground forces arrived at Nijmegen on 19 September where they linked up with General Gavin’s 82nd Airborne. The crucial bridge over the Waal remained in German hands so Gavin suggested that they cross the water in boats to overwhelm the defenders on the far side. In a brave and highly dangerous action, Allied troops paddled furiously in small boats to the other side of the bridge and eventually it was taken on the afternoon of 20 September.
This though was all too late for the British near Arnhem. Polish paratroopers dropped on 21 September to support them but landed too far away to be of immediate assistance. On the same day the perilous toehold that John Frost’s men held on one side of the bridge at Arnhem was lost and the Germans once more commanded the entire crossing.
Any chance of success was long gone. The Germans had strengthened their lines and the remnants of the 1st Airborne were running low on supplies and ammunition. No longer could they entertain the possibility of capturing the bridge. Instead their priority was to get out of the inferno alive.
On 26 September the survivors of the British 1st Airborne were spirited across the Rhine to safety. Of 10,000 who had landed, little more than 2,000 made it back. Over 1,200 men had been killed and some 6,000 herded into captivity. Casualties for the British XXX Corps were around 1,500, while the American losses were in the region of 4,000.
Almost a victory?
Montgomery famously said that the operation was “90 per cent successful” and in a way he was correct because most of the bridges were captured. However the vital crossing at Arnhem stayed in German control. Without it, all the Allied plans were dashed.
The town of Nijmegen was liberated and for the next few months it stood on the frontier witnessing regular shelling by the forces of the Third Reich. Many civilians died as the buildings were reduced to rubble.
One tragic consequence of Operation Market Garden was the hunger winter of 1944-45. During the operation, Dutch railwaymen had gone on strike to support the Allied landings. In retaliation the German occupiers cut off supplies to the western parts of the Netherlands. Some 20,000 civilians died of hunger and malnutrition in the resulting famine. The numbers could have been far higher had the Germans not allowed Allied aircrews to fly low over the country in the spring of 1945 to drop food parcels to the starving people on the ground.
On 8 February 1945 the guns started up again in this part of the Netherlands when the Allies launched Operation Veritable. It began with the heaviest artillery barrage of the war in the west thus far. This time the Allies did secure their goals albeit at a slower pace than they had intended. Arnhem itself held out until April that year, over six months after it had been fought over so fiercely during Market Garden.
Now, 65 years later, Operation Market Garden excites mixed feelings among historians, veterans and the Dutch people. While few fail to recognise the drawbacks of the scheme and the blunders along the way, there were also moments of heroism and ingenuity. The local inhabitants pay tribute to those who risked their lives attempting to free them, even if the promised liberation had to wait a little longer.
Many aspects of Market Garden were immortalised in Richard Attenborough’s 1977 all-star epic A Bridge Too Far. The title is taken from an alleged quote from Airborne Commander General ‘Boy’ Browning. In the film Browning is discussing the result of Market Garden with Urquhart. He mentions Montgomery’s assertion that the operation was “90 per cent successful” but then reflects and says, “Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far”.
This article was first published by BBC History Magazine in 2009