The Battle of Arnhem was at the vanguard of Operation Market Garden, the Allied operation in the Netherlands between 17-25 September 1944 to end the Second World War by Christmas.
The brainchild of Bernard Montgomery, it involved the combined use of airborne and armoured divisions carving a path through the Netherlands, securing several vital bridges across the branches of the lower Rhine and holding these long enough for Allied armoured divisions to reach them. From there, bypassing the formidable Siegfried Line, the Allies could descend into Germany from the north and into the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany.
Huge cracks in the plan, however, soon caused it to crumble; a disaster ensued, depicted in the famous 1977 film A Bridge Too Far.
Here, aviation historian Martin Bowman takes a closer look at why Operation Market Garden failed.
Doomed to fail
There are myriad and highly involved reasons for the failure of the operation.
The operation was doomed to failure as soon as Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, decided to carry out airlifts over two to three days – thus ensuring that any element of surprise was completely lost.
Crucially, the US Army Air Force was unable to fly the airborne forces in two lifts on the first day. Only 1,550 aircraft were available, thus the force had to be landed in three lifts. RAF transport Command requested two drops on the first day but Major General Paul L. Williams of the IX US Troop Carrier Command did not agree.
Brereton’s limited use of ground-attack aircraft over the battlefield, protecting supply drops while escort fighters were in the air, also contributed substantially to the outcome. So too did the absence of glider coup de Main tactics.
Landing too far from the bridge
The Allied Airborne Army’s poor choice of parachute drop zones and glider landing zones were too far from the objectives. General Urquhart decided to land the whole British Division 8 miles from the bridge, rather than drop the parachutists much closer to it.
However, Urquhart had to plan an entire operation in only 7 days and so when faced with stubborn opposition from fellow commanders, he had little option but to accept the situation and move on. Nevertheless, these failings in the plan effectively sealed the fate of ‘Market-Garden’ before it began.
On the first day when take-off was delayed for 4 hours by the weather, Brigadier Hackett’s 4th Parachute Brigade was dropped even further west than the 1st Parachute Brigade. It should have been put down on the polder south of the Neder Rijn close to the Arnhem road bridge (where it was planned to drop the Polish Parachute Brigade on the following day).
But, because of a ‘communications problem’ (there was no communication – or very little, and that intermittent) between the various elements of the Airborne Corps; Urquhart or Frost at Arnhem, Browning on the Groesbeek heights, Hackett and Sosabowski in the UK, so none of this information reached Urquhart.
To send yet another brigade to the western DZs, from where they faced another contested march through the town, was clearly inadvisable, but there was no means of discussing this idea or implementing it – the communications were too bad and not helped by the fact that Browning was far away from all his subordinate units, except the 82nd Airborne.
This being so, the original plan went ahead.
Slim chances of success
Even if the polder south of the Neder Rijn was unsuitable for the mass landing of gliders, there was no good reason why a small coup de main force should not have landed by glider and parachute at the southern end of the bridge on the first day.
If a whole brigade had been dropped near the Arnhem Bridge on the first day, ideally on the south bank, the outcome of the battle of Arnhem and ‘Market-Garden’ might have been radically different.
Major General Sosabowski’s 1st Polish Brigade, which should have landed south of the river and close to the road bridge on day 2 but which was defeated by the weather, arrived south of the river on day 4, but a change in plans saw the 1st Polish Brigade dropped south of the Heveadorp ferry to take up positions west of the shrinking perimeter at Oosterbeek, by which time the battle for Arnhem was over.
If Hicks had given up the original objective of Arnhem Bridge he could have secured the Heveadorp ferry and the ground on either side, dug in and waited for XXX Corps. But this would have meant disobeying Browning’s orders and abandoning Frost.
Whether fair weather on the 19th would have brought success to ‘Market’ is far from certain. Possibly, the arrival of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment at 1000 hours as planned might have enabled the 82nd Division to take the Nijmegen Bridge that day.
Had the Polish Brigade dropped at the south end of the Arnhem Bridge they might have been able to secure it and join forces with Frost’s battalion before the latter had been crippled by losses.
Even so, they might not have been able to hold the north end of the bridge against German tanks and artillery for the time which it would probably have taken the British ground forces to get there from Nijmegen. What is certain is that after 19 September, the Allied chances of getting a bridgehead across the Rhine were negligible.
Because not all the units could arrive together was one reason why the 1st Airborne Division failed to hold the crossings of the Lower Rhine. Apart from anything else, this meant that a substantial part of the force that landed on the first day was tied down holding the DZs so that subsequent lifts could land in safety.
Hampered by foggy weather
Another was also to become apparent in the first 24 hours. The plan provided for the arrival of the second lift containing the balance of the Division at latest by ten in the morning of Monday the 18th but cloud and foggy conditions prevented combinations from taking off till after midday.
It was not until between three and four in the afternoon that they arrived in the landing area. This delay of several vital hours still further complicated a situation which was becoming increasingly difficult.
After 19 September, 7 of the next 8 days had poor weather and all air operations were cancelled on 22 and 24 September. This left the 101st Airborne Division without its artillery for two days, the 82nd Airborne without its artillery for a day and without its glider infantry regiment for 4 days and the British 1st Airborne division without its fourth brigade until the fifth day.
The more time required to complete the air drops, the longer each division had to devote forces to defending the drop and landing zones, weakening their offensive power.
Animosity at the highest levels
Browning’s failure to arrange RAF and USAAF liaison officers with his troops and Brereton’s stipulation that the fighter-bomber aircraft in Belgium remain grounded while his own were flying, meant that on 18 September 82nd Airborne received only 97 close-support sorties from RAF 83 Group, and 1st British Airborne received none.
This, compared with 190 Luftwaffe fighters committed to the area.
Browning’s decision to take his Corps HQ on ‘Market’ employed 38 glider combinations reduced Urquhart’s men and guns further. Why did Browning see the need for a HQ in Holland? It could just as easily functioned from a base in England.
The HQ did not need to go in with the first lift; it could have gone in later. As it was in the early stages Browning’s Advanced Corps HQ succeeded only in establishing radio contact with the 82nd Airborne HQ and 1st British Airborne Corps HQ at Moor Park.
The former was largely superfluous given the proximity of the two HQs and the latter was rendered the same by a lack of cipher operators, which prevented the transmission of operationally sensitive material.
Animosity at the highest levels and the dispersion of Allied HQs which prevented the holding of joint command conferences with XXX Corps and Second Army exacerbated the problems of shortage of aircraft and other operational problems as they unfolded.
A myriad of problems
XXX Corps was criticised for its ‘inability’ to keep to the operation’s timetable although the delay at Son was caused by a bridge demolition and the delay at Nijmegen (having made up time, compensating for the delay while a Bailey Bridge was built at Son) was caused by Gavin’s failure to capture the bridges on the first day.
Had the US 82nd Airborne landed a parachute force north of the bridge at Nijmegen on the first day or moved at once to take the bridge from the south, the costly river assault that took place on 20 September (the third day) would not have been necessary and the Guards Armoured would have been able to drive directly across the Nijmegen bridge when they arrived in the town on the morning of 19 September on day 2.
By 20 September it was too little too late to save Frost’s men at Arnhem Bridge. General Gavin regretted giving his division’s most important tasks (Groesbeek ridge and Nijmegen) to the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment rather than his best regiment, Colonel Reuben H. Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
‘Hell’s Highway’ was never continuously under Allied control nor free from the enemy’s fire. Sometimes it was cut for hours on end; sometimes the point of the spearhead was blunted by frontal counter-attacks.
The OB West report on ‘Market-Garden’ produced in October 1944 gave the decision to spread the airborne landings over more than one day as the main reason for the Allied failure.
A Luftwaffe analysis added that the airborne landings were spread too thinly and made too far from the Allied front line. General Student regarded the Allied airborne landings as an immense success and blamed the final failure to reach Arnhem on XXX Corps’ slow progress.
Blame and regret
Lieutenant General Bradley attributed the defeat of ‘Market-Garden’ entirely to Montgomery and to the British slowness on the ‘island’ north of Nijmegen.
Major General Urquhart, who led 1 British Airborne for the last time to help liberate Norway at the end of the war, blamed the failure at Arnhem partly on the choice of landing sites too far from the bridges and partly on his own conduct on the first day.
Browning’s report blamed XXX Corps’ underestimation of the strength of German resistance and its slowness moving up ‘Hell’s Highway’, along with the weather, his own communications staff and 2nd TAF for failing to provide air support.
He also succeeded in getting Major General Sosabowski dismissed from command of 1st Polish Parachute Brigade for his increasingly hostile attitude.
Field Marshal Montgomery’s immediate reaction to ‘Market-Garden’ was to blame Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor commanding VIII Corps.
On 28 September Montgomery recommended that Browning should replace O’Connor and Urquhart should replace Browning, but Browning left England in November, having been appointed chief of staff to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten head of South-East Asia Command. Browning rose no higher in the Army.
O’Connor left VIII Corps voluntarily in November 1944, having been promoted to command Eastern Army in India.
In due course Montgomery blamed himself for part of the failure of ‘Marker-Garden’ and Eisenhower for the rest. He ‘also argued that the salient along Hell’s Highway provided a base for the attacks eastward across the Rhine in 1945, describing ‘Market-Garden’ as ‘90% successful’.