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Operation Market-Garden

In the summer of 1944, Allied armies at last opened the Western Front with invasions of the Normandy coast in June and Southern France in August. By mid-September, General Eisenhower's forces had reached the German frontier and occupied a line running from the Netherlands south along the German border to Trier and on to Metz. In late September 1944, as Eisenhower moved to secure a bridgehead over the Rhine in the north, a large and daring Allied operation called Market-Garden was launched to establish a Rhine crossing in Holland, outflank the Siegfried Line, and clear the approaches to the critical port of Antwerp.

The bridge at Nijmegen, Holland was the scene of heavy fighting and an assault boat river crossing under fire by the 82nd Airborne during Operation Market-Garden.  Photo shows devastation of the city from both Allied and German bombing and artillery.  28 September 1944
The bridge at Nijmegen, Holland was the scene of heavy fighting and an assault boat river crossing under fire by the 82nd Airborne during Operation Market-Garden. Photo shows devastation of the city from both Allied and German bombing and artillery. 28 September 1944.

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Background to the Operation Market-Garden

Two huge invasions -- Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944, and Operation Dragoon, landings in southern France in August 1944 -- brought the Allied armies into Western Europe to directly confront German military power. The Overlord armies raced eastward from Normandy as Dragoon forces dashed north up the Rhone River Valley toward central France, meeting and joining Patton's Third Army on 11 September. Montgomery's 21 Army Group overran the V-1 rocket sites that had been bombarding England and then pushed into the Netherlands, while Third Army sped through the Argentan-Laval-Chartres area, and Hodges' First Army trapped a large German force in the Mons pocket before driving rapidly into Belgium. By mid-September, Eisenhower's forces had reached the German frontier and occupied a line running from the Netherlands south along the German border to Trier and on to Metz.

In the West, the Allies faced the Germans along a broad front with a secure rear area for the vast logistical organization necessary for the final push into Germany. In the East, the Soviet Red Army pressed inexorably westward towards the German frontier. To some, the war seemed to be almost over.

The optimistic view was wrong. Rather than a quick dash into the heart of Germany, Eisenhower's armies were facing an exhausting campaign against determined Germans fighting for the survival of their Fatherland. Hitler had 200,000 workers frantically strengthening the defensive Siegfried Line (West Wall) as the Wehrmacht dug in to hold Arnhem, Aachen, the Hürtgen Forest, Metz, and the foothills of the Vosges Mountains at any cost.

Eisenhower's first move was to secure a bridgehead over the Rhine in the north. Montgomery's 21 Army Group, along with part of the U.S. 12th Army Group and the First Allied Airborne Army, was to establish a Rhine crossing, outflank the Siegfried Line, and clear the approaches to Antwerp, opening that port to ease the tight Allied logistics bind before winter set in. The Allies named this effort Operation Market-Garden.

Plan for Operation Market-Garden

Operation Market-Garden was a combination of two plans. Operation Market was an airborne assault against the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. The Market forces -- the U.S. 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions and the 1st British Airborne Division, reinforced by the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade -- were to seize the bridges over the canals and rivers between Eindhoven and Arnhem.

Success of Market would open a corridor for exploitation by the Operation Garden forces on the ground. Second British Army's XXX Corps, would advance from a bridgehead across the Meuse-Escaut Canal south of Eindhoven to the IJssel River, moving north more than ninety miles in two to four days, supported by flanking attacks from other Second Army units. If all went according to plan, the Allies would have a bridgehead over the Rhine at Arnhem before the surprised Germans could establish a coherent defense.

Operation Market-Garden was a daring plan resting on three critical assumptions. First, the German defenses in the Eindhoven-Arnhem corridor were believed to be thinly manned by bottom tier German units who could be overcome by lightly armed airborne troops. Second, the route of advance to Arnhem was assumed to be capable of supporting the 20,000 vehicles of XXX Corps. Third, the plan relied on reinforcing and resupplying the airborne units with further airdrops, putting the plan at the mercy of the weather.

Operation Market-Garden: A Bridge Too Far

Waves of 1st Allied Airborne Army paratroopers land in Holland during Operation Market-Garden, September 1944
Waves of 1st Allied Airborne Army paratroopers land in Holland during Operation Market-Garden, September 1944.

On 17 September 1944, Operation Market-Garden filled the skies over the Netherlands with 1,000 heavy bombers and 1,100 Allied fighters attacking German positions and antiaircraft guns as well as keeping the Luftwaffe from entering the fight. In the early afternoon, 1,545 transport planes and 478 gliders -- the largest airborne operation in history -- dropped over 20,000 airborne soldiers into their objectives along the Eindhoven-Arnhem corridor, while XXX Corps launched its ground attack toward Eindhoven.

The U.S. 101st Airborne Division dropped near Eindhoven, Best, Son, St-Oedenrode and Veghel to secure the bridge over the Wilhelmina canal in Son, the bridge over the Dommel in St-Oedenrode and the bridges over the Aa and Zuid-Willemsvaart canal near Veghel. The U.S. 82nd Airborne Division dropped near Groesbeek and Overasselt taking the bridge over the Maas at Grave but were initially repulsed at Nijmegen Bridge over the Waal (lower Rhine). To secure the Nijmegen Bridge required a joint attack by British and American troops, including the 82nd Airborne crossing the river in assault boats under heavy fire. After an intense struggle with many casualties, the Nijmegen Bridge was secured on 20 September.

But the 1st British Airborne Division, after a successful landing near Arnhem, could not sieze the key bridge over the Rhine. Although they did manage to secure the north end of the Arnhem bridge and held that position and other Arnhem locations against fierce German attacks at great cost while waiting for XXX Corps, their major objective was out of reach.

Almost immediately, the Allies discovered they had severely underestimated German strength in the area. Although intelligence from Ultra and the Dutch underground had correctly reported that some of Germany's best Panzer divisions had returned to the Netherlands and would be refitting near the town of Arnhem, this information did not reach Market-Garden commanders or was ignored if it did. German Field Marshal Walter Model quickly developed a coordinated defense and stiff resistence was encountered in Arnhem and all along the corridor from Eindhoven. XXX Corps' advance ran into heavy opposition, delaying its schedule up the narrow road to Arnhem, soon named "Hell's Highway" by Allied soldiers. The Germans also managed to blow up the bridge over the Wilhelmina channel, causing a delay of 36 hours while a Bailey bridge was built to replace it for XXX Corps.

Compounding the Allies' problems, the weather turned sour for five days, delaying reinforcement of the airborne divisions, reducing air support of XXX Corps, and minimizing the effectiveness of resupply efforts.

On 21 September, the Polish reinforcements were dropped into Driel, on the south side of the Rhine, across from 1st British Airborne Division troops in Arnhem. The Germans controlled the Arnhem bridge, stranding the Poles on the south side of the river, unable to materially assist the British. Airdropped supplies often fell into German hands, when they could be dropped at all due to weather. The pockets of Arnhem on the north side of the Rhine that were held by the British shrank day by day at bitter cost.

Operation Market-Garden Ends in Failure

By 23 September, it was obvious that v could not meet its objectives. Advance elements of XXX Corps reached Driel to join the Polish paratroopers, but were stopped by German units stubbornly holding the Arnhem bridge. The 1st British Airborne Division, cutoff and suffering heavy casualties, received permission to withdraw. On the night of 25 September, after eight tortured days of fighting, about 2,000 British soldiers slipped across the Rhine River to safety on the south side behind the Allied lines. Over 7,000 dead or missing were left in the Arnhem area.

Although the drive toward Arnhem was halted, the two American Airborne divisions remained in place to tie down the Germans opposing them. The 82d Airborne lost 1,432 killed and missing during Operation Market-Garden, and the 101st sustained 2,110 casualties. 82d Airborne finally started withdrawing on 11 November, after incurring an additional 1,682 casualties, followed on 25 November by the 101st, after they suffered 1,912 more losses.

The failure to sieze the bridge at Arnhem meant the Rhine would not be crossed and the Siegfried Line could not be outflanked before the onset of winter. The annihilation of the 1st British Airborne Division, coupled with the need to retain the 101st and 82d U.S. Airborne Divisions in the field, denied Eisenhower the option of further airborne drops along the Rhine until later. The war could not end in 1944. Finally, the failure of Market-Garden reinforced Eisenhower's concept of a broad-front strategy as opposed to Mongomery's preference for a narrow thrust.

Recommended Books about Operation Market-Garden

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