Why Operation Market Garden, the Allies’ battle for Arnhem, was a disaster in the planning

Market Garden, the ill-fated Allied operation to break through the German defences in the Netherlands in September 1944, is often portrayed as a risky yet worthy gamble. In truth, argues historian Antony Beevor, it was a flawed idea from the start, more driven by ego than practical considerations

The wrecked remains of an Allied glider that participated in Market Garden

There are many myths about the battle for Arnhem and Operation Market Garden. Historians of the battle have often been tempted into the ‘if-only’ trap. If only this, or if only that, had been different, then it would all have turned out to be a brilliant success. This cherry-picking of faults is a grave distraction from the harsh fact that Market Garden was a perfect example of how not to plan an airborne operation.

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Market Garden was one of the greatest Allied disasters of the Second World War – immortalised in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far. The plan was for Allied paratroopers and land forces to launch a combined attack, which would break through German defences in the Netherlands. Beginning on 17 September 1944, it ended in failure just a week later, resulting in thousands of casualties. The British airborne troops who spearheaded the assault suffered particularly badly in their doomed attempt to capture the bridge in the Dutch town of Arnhem.

A month earlier, the mood among the Allies had been very different, as their forces routed the Germans in the concluding phases of the Battle of Normandy. As they advanced towards the Reich, the Allied commanders now had to decide on the next step to take. It was here that the disastrous plan was born.

At the heart of the failure in preparation lay the ambition of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who had commanded the Allied ground forces in Normandy. He wanted to seize control of Allied strategy by being first across the Rhine so that General Dwight D Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, would have to give him full priority in supplies and command over American formations. The prospect of ‘jumping the Rhine’ with an airborne operation leading all the way to the bridge at Arnhem, the northern route into Germany, would force the First US Army to support him on his right flank.

To do this, Montgomery needed the First Allied Airborne Army, formed on 2 August 1944 on the order of Eisenhower, who thought a single agency was required to coordinate airborne and troop carrier units. Despite Eisenhower’s devotion to balanced Allied relations, its leadership was lopsided. US general Lewis Brereton’s staff consisted mainly of US air force officers. The only senior British officer was Brereton’s deputy, Lieutenant General Frederick Browning. Matters were not helped by a strong mutual dislike between Brereton and ‘Boy’ Browning. The only characteristic the two men shared was vanity.

Browning, a hawk-faced Grenadier Guards officer with the air of a matinée idol, was married to the author Daphne du Maurier. Although brave, Browning was highly strung. He was desperate to command an airborne corps in action. His barely concealed ambition, combined with a peremptory manner, did not endear him to American paratroop commanders.

On 3 September, Montgomery met General Omar Bradley to discuss an airborne operation in south Belgium across the river Meuse. They agreed to cancel it, as Bradley wanted the troop carrier aircraft to deliver fuel to Patton’s Third Army. But Montgomery had not been straight with Bradley. He promptly ordered his chief of staff to organise an airborne operation “to secure bridges over Rhine between Wesel and Arnhem”. This was to be called Operation Comet, an idea in keeping with Montgomery’s ambition to lead the main push into Germany. Needless to say, Bradley was furious when he discovered that Montgomery had tricked him.

The crossing at Arnhem, which the Allies destroyed in the autumn of 1944
The crossing at Arnhem, which the Allies destroyed in the autumn of 1944. (Photo by Pen & Sword /SSPL/ Getty Images)

Freezing out the air force

‘Boy’ Browning was far from alone in his desire to use paratroop and glider forces in a decisive way. American generals longed to try out the new airborne army. Churchill also wanted the operation to boost British prestige. Victory euphoria following the rapid Allied advance from Normandy to Belgium fuelled a mood of optimism.

Unfortunately, Montgomery did not want to consult the RAF over Comet, even though the War Office and Air Ministry had agreed, following airborne chaos in the invasion of Sicily in 1943, that the air force side must lead the planning process. Montgomery even called Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory “a gutless bugger” because he had predicted disaster for the airborne drops that had taken place in the assault on Normandy.

On 9 September 1944, the commander of the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, Major General Sosabowski, joined Roy Urquhart of the First Airborne Division to discuss Comet with Browning. “Sir,” said Sosabowski, “I am very sorry, but this mission cannot possibly succeed.” It would be suicide with such small forces, he said. Browning took deep offence.

In Belgium, General Dempsey, commanding the Second British Army, had just reached similar conclusions to those of Sosabowski. General Horrocks of the British XXX Corps (which would later play a key role in Market Garden) had confirmed that a bridgehead over the Albert Canal in north-east Belgium was “being strongly opposed by the enemy”.

The next morning, Dempsey went to Montgomery’s headquarters and managed to persuade him that Operation Comet was too weak. They needed at least three airborne divisions. Montgomery liked the idea. It would bring the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions under his command. But to Dempsey’s dismay, Montgomery also brandished a signal at him that had arrived from London. The first V2 rockets had landed in England, having apparently been fired from the area of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. For Montgomery, who wanted to go north via Arnhem (Dempsey preferred to go east), this was the just the confirmation he needed to justify his decision.

Dempsey summoned Browning. In just two hours, they put together a plan. Market Garden consisted of two parts. Market was the airborne operation, in which the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions would seize river and canal crossings from Eindhoven to Nijmegen, with the bridges over the rivers Meuse and Waal, the largest in Europe; the British First Airborne Division and the Polish brigade would drop near Arnhem to capture the great road bridge over the Lower Rhine. Operation Garden would consist principally of Horrocks’s XXX Corps, led by tanks, charging north to meet the airborne troops. They would have to travel up a single road, with flood plain on either side broken only by woods and plantations.

Montgomery’s complaints were halted by Eisenhower saying, 'Monty, you can’t speak to me like that'

Montgomery now headed for Brussels aerodrome to see Eisenhower. It was the famous meeting when Montgomery’s tirade of complaints was halted by Eisenhower putting his hand on Montgomery’s knee, and saying: “Monty, you can’t speak to me like that. I’m your boss.” Eisenhower reminded Montgomery that he had previously given him the support of the First Allied Airborne Army, yet this led to no more than a mention of Market Garden. Here, Eisenhower followed standard US Army practice. Having agreed an overall strategy, he did not believe in interfering further.

By the time Montgomery returned to his tactical headquarters, Dempsey had “fixed with [Browning] the outline of the operation”, his diary entry stated. Browning’s excitement was palpable. He sent the codeword ‘New’ from Dempsey’s HQ back to First Allied Airborne Army at Sunninghill Park. This signified that a planning conference was to be called that evening. Brereton must have been affronted that Montgomery had made no attempt to consult him in advance. Eisenhower had ordered that planning should be shared. Montgomery had deliberately ignored this.

President Eisenhower and General Montgomery
President Eisenhower and General Montgomery. (Image by Alamy)

Fateful meeting

Twenty-seven senior officers gathered in the Sunninghill Park conference room at 6pm. Astonishingly, neither Urquhart nor Sosabowski had been invited. Browning presented what he and Dempsey had worked out, using an airlift timetable based on an earlier operation. Disingenuously, he implied that it had Eisenhower’s blessing. Brereton and his staff privately dismissed it as just “a tentative skeleton plan”.

They first of all decided that it was to be a day operation because “the supporting air forces available could knock out flak positions in advance”. Brereton then asked Major General Williams of IX Troop Carrier Command to speak. His words must have come as a bombshell to Browning. Most of the key assumptions on which he and Dempsey had worked that day were now thrown in the air. “The lift would have to be modified, due to the distance involved, which precluded the use of double tow lift… single tow only could be employed.” This meant only half the number of gliders could be taken on each lift. And since the mid-September days were shorter and the mornings mistier, Williams ruled out two lifts in a day.

These changes signified that it would take up to three days to deliver the airborne divisions, assuming perfect flying weather. No more assault troops would be landing on the crucial first day than with Comet, because half the force would have to be left behind to guard landing and drop zones for later lifts. And the Germans, having identified Allied intentions, would be able to concentrate troops and anti-aircraft batteries against these areas. Williams’ obdurate attitude might have contained an element of revenge after Montgomery’s refusal to consult the air force side in advance, but Montgomery’s determination to impose an ill-considered plan was the real problem.

At a follow-up meeting, American air force officers more or less dictated the choice of drop and landing zones. Their main priority was to avoid German flak batteries on the way in and out. Major General Williams also rejected the idea of glider-borne coup de main parties (advance assault troops) to seize the main bridges, a key element in Comet.

Troop Carrier Command wanted to stay well away from the key objectives of Arnhem and Nijmegen bridges because of their anti-aircraft defences. At Arnhem, they were also threatened by the Luftwaffe airfield of Deelen just to the north of the town. As a result, the British division was to be dropped well to the west, with an approach march of between six and eight miles to the road bridge through a major town. Surprise, the most vital element in airborne operations, was therefore lost before they even took off.

An ill-conceived idea

Operation Market Garden was quite simply a very bad plan right from the start and right from the top. Every other problem stemmed from that. Montgomery had not shown any interest in the practical problems surrounding airborne operations. He had not taken any time to study the often chaotic experiences of north Africa, Sicily and the drop on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. His intelligence chief, Brigadier Bill Williams, also pointed to the way that: “Arnhem depended on a study of the ground [which] Monty had not made when he decided on it.” In fact, Montgomery obstinately refused to listen to Dutch warnings about the impossibility of deploying XXX Corps off the single raised road onto the polderland flood plain.

Towering over everything was the fact that the operation depended on everything going right, when it is an unwritten rule of warfare that no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is doubly true of airborne operations. The likelihood of the Germans blowing the road bridge at Nijmegen over the river Waal was barely discussed. Had they done so – and their failure to do so was an uncharacteristic mistake – XXX Corps could never have reached the First Airborne at Arnhem in time.

Flaws in the plan became more evident day by day, but Browning refused to advise Montgomery to reconsider the operation. On 12 September, Sosabowski heard that the number of gliders allocated to him had been reduced. He would have to leave behind all his artillery while his anti-tank guns would be landed on the opposite side of the river to his main force. Two days later, he pointed out that the bridgehead to be held extended for 10 miles in difficult terrain. There was thus the possibility that his brigade might have to drop straight onto enemy-held ground. And if the British failed to capture the bridge, the Poles would be left on the wrong side of the river.

Operation Market Garden was quite simply a very bad plan right from the start and right from the top

British brigade commanders were not nearly so critical, mainly because they could not face another cancellation. They just wanted to get on with it. And, in the view of Brigadier Hicks, who commanded the First Air Landing brigade, Market Garden at least seemed to stand a better chance than several “absolutely insane” previous plans.

Brigadier General Jim Gavin of the 82nd Airborne was appalled that Urquhart should have accepted drop and landing zones so far from his main objective. Yet Gavin himself had been told by Browning that his first priority was to secure the Groesbeek heights south-east of Nijmegen. They overlooked the Reichswald, a great forest just across the German border, thought to conceal tanks. Browning’s argument was that if the Germans occupied the Groesbeek heights, then their artillery could stop XXX Corps reaching Nijmegen. Its great road-bridge thus slipped down to become a lower priority, partly because the First Allied Airborne Army refused to land coup de main glider parties.

Montgomery refused to listen when Eisenhower’s HQ expressed concern about German strength around Arnhem. The SS Panzer Divisions Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg were indeed in the area, although with only three serviceable Panther tanks and fewer than 6,000 men between them. Yet they were still able to form a nucleus onto which other less experienced units could be grafted. What the Allies failed to grasp was the extraordinary ability of the German military machine to react with speed and determination. Almost all the tanks that Allied troops faced in Market Garden were not present at the start of the operation, but were brought in from Germany on Blitztransport trains.

Anyone with any experience of airborne operations could see that the British landing and dropping zones, up to eight miles to the west of Arnhem, were too far away to achieve surprise. Major General Richard Gale, who had commanded the Sixth Airborne Division on D-Day, warned Browning that the lack of coup de main parties was likely to be disastrous and that he would have resigned rather than accept the plan. Browning refused to agree and asked Gale not to mention it to anyone else as it might damage morale.

There was little Urquhart could do about the other basic flaw. While the First Parachute Brigade was to march off towards the bridge, Hicks’s First Airlanding Brigade would have to remain behind to guard the drop and landing zones ready for Hackett’s Fourth Brigade. This meant that Urquhart had just a single brigade to secure his chief objective, and his division would be split in two with a wide gap in-between. Worse still, his signals officers were rightly worried that their radios might not work over that distance.

Suicide operation

Urquhart gave no hint in any of his reports, or in his book written after the war, that he opposed the plan, but then he was not a man to rock the boat or contradict the subsequent version of events that Arnhem had been a heroic, worthwhile gamble. Yet according to General Browning’s aide, Captain Eddie Newbury, on 15 September Urquhart appeared in Browning’s office at Moor Park, and strode over to his desk. “Sir,” he said, “you’ve ordered me to plan this operation and I have done it, and now I wish to inform you that I think it is a suicide operation.”

The fears of those who had grave doubts about Market Garden were soon realised. Out of the First Airborne Division, only a single battalion made it to the bridge at Arnhem and could hold no more than its northern approach. At Nijmegen, the 82nd Airborne lacked the strength to secure its flank on the German border and also seize the great bridge over the Waal until after the much-delayed Guards Armoured Division finally arrived. By then the battalion at the Arnhem bridge had been crushed, and on 25 September, the battered remnants of the First Airborne at Oosterbeek had to evacuate to the south bank of the Lower Rhine. Out of approximately 10,600 men north of the Rhine, some 7,900 were left behind – dead, wounded and PoWs.

The Dutch suffered not just the 3,600 killed and nearly 20,000 severely disabled in the fighting, but faced German vengeance afterwards for having helped the Allies. More than 200,000 civilians were forced from their homes, which were looted and destroyed. The northern Netherlands were then subjected to famine quite deliberately in what became known as the Hunger Winter, with around 18,000 dead from starvation. They were the chief victims of the disastrous plan for Operation Market Garden.

Who were the key Allied players in Operation Market Garden?

Eisenhower and Montgomery

THE CHIEF AND THE CHEERLEADER

The man in charge of Allied forces in Europe, Eisenhower found the opinionated hero of El Alamein, Montgomery, difficult to work with. Eisenhower even considered sacking Monty after Operation Goodwood, part of the Normandy campaign, but feared a backlash in Britain

 

Frederick Browning

UP FOR THE FIGHT

The British deputy commander of the First Allied Airborne Army was desperate to command troops in battle and pushed to make Market Garden a reality

 

Lewis H Brereton

SIDELINED FLYER

Monty didn’t consult Browning’s American boss – or any other airman – over Market Garden

 

Stanisław Sosabowski

PLAIN-SPEAKING POLE

The paratrooper warned that Market Garden would fail. This infuriated British commanders and they took revenge

 

Miles Dempsey

THE PLANNER

The commander of the British Second Army helped draw up Market Garden but was worried the plan had serious flaws

 

Roy Urquhart

THE DUTIFUL SCEPTIC

Urquhart thought Market Garden to be “a suicide mission” but methodically helped bring the plan to fruition

 

Williams

TRANSPORT CARRIER COMMAND

The USAAF general rejected key parts of the plan yet Browning did not tell Monty he should reconsider

Antony Beevor is one of the leading historians of the Second World War. His new book is Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944 (Viking, 2018)

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This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine