In My Opinion…

January 1, 2007

Operation Market Garden: Tragedy at Arnhem

Filed under: History,Military History — Thomas Hagen @ 1:57 am

It is not uncommon for success or failure in battle to be measured solely by those who have won the war. Operation Market Garden was a failure that brought tragedy to the city of Arnhem, Holland during World War II. Errors in planning, practice, and execution cost the lives of many, and brought ruin to the city, and the people that called it home.

As August met September of 1944, the German army was in complete disarray. Allied troops were charging from recently liberated Paris into the port city of Antwerp, Belgium. The swift advance of the Allies caused themselves supply problems that resulted in fuel shortages, and the advance was halted. German troops were frantically making their way back to Germany–except for the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, who were ordered to refit, and resupply, in the city of Arnhem, Holland (Kerkhoff).

The Allies did not have enough supplies to maintain their broad-front assault towards Germany. General George Patton favored a two-pronged attack, while Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery preferred a spearhead approach. The British had long believed that, “He who holds northern Germany holds Germany” (Ryan 52), so Montgomery convinced the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, that if he were allotted all of the supplies meant for the front, he could push into Holland and then into the German industrial region—the Ruhr. Germany would be left without its war factories, and the war in Europe would be over by Christmas. This bold move was called Operation Market Garden (61-85).

The “Market” portion of the plan involved three and a half divisions of airborne troops—about 35,000 men. The U.S. 101st Airborne Division was to secure three major bridges between the cities Eindhoven and Veghel; the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division was to secure all bridges between the village Grave and the city of 90,000 people called Nijmegen; and the British 1st Airborne Division was to be supported by the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade and secure the prize of the operation—the bridge crossing the Lower Rhine at Arnhem. This would be the largest airborne operation in the history of warfare (Ryan 134-141). The “Garden” portion was to take place on the ground in the form of XXX Corps—four divisions of armor and infantry (Hickman). XXX Corps was to race up the narrow stretch of highway leading from Belgium to Arnhem, in order to support the airborne troops there, and then march on the Ruhr.

The plan was met with mixed reaction from Corporals to Commanders. Several previously planned jumps had been canceled, and General Frederick Browning was anxious to put his newly formed Allied 1st Airborne Army into action. His haste caused himself, and others, to make faulty decisions in the planning stages of the operation. Chief of Intelligence, Major Brian Urquhart, was not comfortable with the daily reports that Field Marshall Montgomery had been receiving concerning troop strengths in the Arnhem area. Enemy resistance was expected to consist of “Hitler Youth and old men”. Reports that Urquhart had received from the Dutch underground indicated that there were at least two German Panzer divisions somewhere in the vicinity of Arnhem (Fielder). Urquhart persuaded General Browning to order a low-level reconnaissance flight that yielded three photographs of armored vehicles and tanks being hidden along a tree line just outside the city. When the young intelligence officer showed the photographs to General Browning, Browning replied, “I wouldn’t trouble myself about these if I were you. They’re probably not serviceable, at any rate.” He could not have been more wrong; the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions were battle-hardened troops that had taken part in the blitzkrieg across Europe. Not long after his meeting with General Browning, Urquhart was visited by the corps medical officer. He was told that he was exhausted, and should go on leave immediately. It was made clear that those who “rocked the boat” would be left behind. (Ryan 131-33+59-60).

The commander of the British 1st Airborne Division Signals, Major Anthony Deane-Drummond, was concerned about the radios—known as a “22”–that would be used for the operation. The 22 could only transmit or receive within a diameter of three to five miles. This meant that none of the airborne units would be able to communicate with each other, nor would XXX Corps be able to communicate with them. Major Deane-Drummond took his concern to his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Stephanson, and was told “Don’t be negative; and for God’s sake, don’t rock the boat; let’s get on with the attack.” The young Major did not want to be left behind (Ryan 179-80).

The drop itself was cause for worry. As a result of numerous misdrops during the Normandy invasion, which caused units to be spread out, it was decided that this drop would take place during the day. A daytime drop of this magnitude had never been attempted and many wondered if they would be shot out of the sky before they could even land. This was to have the greatest effect on the British 1st Airborne Division, as their landing zone was almost 8 miles from the Arnhem Bridge—their objective. This landing zone was selected because the ideal LZ—directly near the bridge—was in the middle of a densely populated area, and they could not land any closer due to the terrain. This meant that the under strength unit would have to fight their way to their objective, and give up the element of surprise. To make matters worse, there were not enough aircraft to transport everyone at one time. Three drops would have to be made before the airborne units would have all of their men, artillery, and support vehicles on the ground and ready for battle (Ryan 125-31+35-39).

The operation began on September 17, 1944. The sky train of C-47’s left from several bases in England, and made their way across the English Channel into Holland. Most of the large cargo planes delivered their payload of paratroopers and gliders to their destinations. One glider that did not make it went down near the headquarters of a German Colonel. That glider was carrying a briefcase that contained attack plans for the entire Allied operation. By the end of the afternoon those plans would be sitting on the desk of a German officer, who sent out the call for reinforcements (Ryan 254-56).

Later that afternoon, the artillery of XXX Corps rained fire over a five-mile area as its tanks began to roll at a steady eight miles per hour. Several German gunners survived the barrage, and were waiting to ambush the approaching column. After letting the first few tanks roll by, the Germans opened fire. Six Allied tanks were knocked out in the first volley of gunfire. XXX Corps spread out its forces and, with the support of dive-bombers, dug out the well-hidden enemy, but the skirmish wasted valuable time. This was compounded by the fact that XXX Corps would not be traveling at night because, “Habit seemed to dictate that one slept by night and worked by day” (Whiting 131). XXX Corps was expected to make the sixty-five mile trip to Arnhem in three days. At the end of the first day they had traveled only seven of those miles. “The operation was already behind schedule” (Ryan 245-51).

The bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Son was the primary objective of the 101st Airborne Division. There was almost no opposition as they approached the bridge, except for a German 88 artillery piece, which was promptly destroyed. As the paratroopers got within 50 yards, the retreating Germans blew up the bridge. A footbridge was fashioned to allow infantry to cross, but it would never support the tanks of XXX Corps (Ryan 252-3). Engineers would have to be called to construct a bridge for the unit to cross. This cost valuable time, and the bridge was not crossable until the morning of the third day. As they made their way to the 82nd Airborne and the city of Nijmegen, XXX Corps was 36 hours behind schedule (Kerkhoff).

The bridge at Nijmegen crossed the river Waal. General James Gavin, Commanding Officer of the 82nd Airborne Division, decided it would be best to take the bridge on both sides at once, as heavy casualties had made a head-on approach out of the question. Boats would be needed for the river crossing, so another call went out to the rear of the XXX Corps convoy to bring up the rafts. German artillery and traffic jams caused delays, and it was afternoon the next day before the boats arrived. The “tiny fleet” was quickly assembled, and the men made their way across the river for the assault (Ryan 432-62). After five hours of intense fighting, the Allies controlled the bridge. Many explosives were found on the bridge, and it is not known why the Germans failed to destroy it (Kerkhoff). The XXX Corps column was halted to wait for its trailing infantry units to lead the approach. More precious time was wasted, and it was early the next morning before the tanks of XXX Corps proceeded. They were now more than 48 hours behind schedule. (Ryan 508-16).

As XXX Corps was making its way up to Arnhem, the men of the 1st Airborne Division were trying to secure the Arnhem Bridge. Four days of heavy fighting had done nothing but split the force in two; rendering both surrounded. Supplies and men were beginning to dwindle, and a majority of the Allies resupply efforts in that area went to the Germans; as they had overrun the 1st Airborne supply drop zone. Troops had laid out parachutes on the ground in an attempt to attract the attention of the flight crews, which were ignored (Flower 948). Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski, and his 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, was expected two days prior, but had yet to arrive due to fog in England. Their drop on the fourth day of the operation found them cut off from the 1st Airborne Division on the opposite side of the river. The Polish brigade was massacred as they landed. Those that managed to survive the drop were forced to cross the Rhine in small rubber boats, where more carnage would ensue (Kerkhoff).

By the fifth day of the operation, German reinforcements began pouring into the region. One of the units to be reinforced was the 107th Panzer Brigade, which was then ordered to launch a counter-attack on Allied forces at Veghel. The attack met the middle of the XXX Corps column, and the advance was again halted. It would be the next day before the corridor was opened. The German focus was now on the city of Nijmegen, where they launched a major offensive that, again, brought XXX Corps to a halt. One week into the three-day operation, the XXX Corps advance was cut short of their objective. They would make no more ground towards the city of Arnhem. The 1st Airborne Division was now officially stranded, and the call to retreat went out. The remaining men of the 1st British Airborne Division attempted to make their way across the river to the awaiting forces on the other side. Many injured men were unable to attempt escape and surrendered to German forces. Operation Market Garden had come to an end (Kerkhoff).

The Allied plan to end the war by Christmas was a failure. The devastated city of Arnhem was not captured, and remained in German hands for another seven months. Nazi forces would seek vengeance against the people of Holland for helping the Allies, causing the death of more than 30,000 people during the “Hongerwinter”—or “winter famine”–by ceasing all food transportation in the occupied areas. Allied forces would not march on the Ruhr, and the war would rage on for another year, ending millions of lives. General Montgomery called Market Garden a “90% success” (Kerkhoff). In that “success”, 17,200 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. The 1st Airborne Division suffered the most casualties, by far. Of the nearly 10,000 men who were dropped into Arnhem, less than 2,000 would return. “The 1st Airborne Division had effectively ceased to exist” (Keegan 438). Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands later stated, “My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success” (

Works Cited

Fielder, Mark. “World War Two History: The Battle of Arnhem (Operation Market Garden)”. BBC on the Internet. 1 September 2001. 26 January 2005  <;.

Flower, Desmond, and Reeves, James, ed. The War, 1939-1945. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977. (941-55).

Hickman, Mark. The Battle of Arnhem Archive. 1 February 2005 <http://www.arnhemarchive .org>.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Viking, 1989. (436-38).

Kerkhoff, Roel. Remember September ’44: The complete story of Operation Market Garden. 26 January 2005 <;.

Ryan, Cornelius. A Bridge Too Far. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.

“SHAEF’S THREE MAJOR ERRORS.” 3 February 2005. <http://>.

Whiting, Charles. ’44: In Combat from Normandy to the Ardennes. New York: Stein and Day, 1984. (125-45).


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