Operation Market Garden, 17-27 September 1944

The Rival Plans
The Allied Landings
The Operation Begins in Earnest
The Weather Intervenes
The German Counterstroke
The Operation Falters
A Change of Plan
The End of Market Garden
Suggested Reading

"Where is the Prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, as that 10,000 men descending from the clouds, might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?" Benjamin Franklin, 1784.

Operation Market Garden, which includes the Battle for Arnhem, in September 1944, was the largest airborne battle in history, being bigger than Operation Mercury, the German airborne invasion of Crete in 1941, which was the only successful strategic airborne operation of World War Two. It was also the only real attempt by the Allies to use airborne forces in a strategic role in Europe. It was a massive engagement, with its principal combatants being 21 Army Group under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery for the Allies and Army Group B under Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model for the Germans. It involved thousands of aircraft and armoured vehicles, and hundreds of thousands of troops and was the only major Allied defeat of the Northwest European campaign.


The origins of the operation lay in the unexpected success of Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings) on 6 June 1944 and the Battle for Normandy in the immediate aftermath. The Allies had assumed that they would make a slow but steady advance inland once the invasion had taken place and that General Dwight D Eisenhower who commanded the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) would take over the overall conduct of the land campaign from Montgomery after a few weeks. Eisenhower would then control all three Army Groups, the 21st Army Group under Montgomery, 12th Army Group under Lieutenant General Omar Bradley and 6th Army Group under Lieutenant General Jacob Devers advancing from southern France against strong German resistance. What actually happened was that the Allies were bogged down for many weeks in a virtual stalemate in Normandy and that the German defence had virtually collapsed overnight leading to the Falaise pocket, which was a complete disaster for the Germans, of the same magnitude as Stalingrad had been on the Eastern Front. The very size of this victory was to be Montgomery's undoing as success in Normandy had depended upon close cooperation between the Allied commanders and forces. Now that many believed the end of the war was only a matter of time (possibly ending before Christmas), many commanders looked to the future development of their careers.

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Photos courtesy of MarketGarden.Com and The Battle of Arnhem Archive

In mid-August, Montgomery first raised the idea of changing Allied strategy to encompass a single thrust by his 21st Army Group, supported by the US First Army under Major General Courtney Hodges, through northern France, the Low Countries and into Germany. Montgomery's point was that there was not enough transport available at the moment to supply all three Army Groups going at full speed across a broad front. Even the fleet of Allied transport aircraft, which was supposed to be in reserve to conduct airborne operations, was being pressed into service. As German resistance had more or less collapsed against the 21st Army Group, it would make sense to give priority to them, as they could also eliminate the V1 sites that had been attacking southern England and liberate the ports along the north coast of France which would help the Allied supply situation immensely. Montgomery even offered to serve under Bradley, just so long as they would have first call on supplies.

The plan was firmly opposed by Bradley who believed that the Allies had won the Battle of Normandy in spite of Montgomery, as opposed to because of him. Now that final victory was in site, it was time for the Americans to take the lead. Also, such a plan would mean halting the American forces that had advanced the farthest from the Normandy beachhead - the US Third Army under Lieutenant General George S Patton Jr., Montgomery's old rival. Montgomery however, eventually persuaded Eisenhower that the 21st Army Group's thrust should have priority in supplies and that Bradley's US First Army, which would advance north of Aachen, should support it. In a letter to General George C Marshall, Eisenhower admitted to changing his "basic plan of attacking both north and east in order to help Montgomery seize tremendously important objectives in the northeast." Bradley however, quietly cooperated with Patton to keep his Army moving east towards Germany. The Allied heavy bomber forces had gone back to their strategic bombing campaign against German cities and so the tactical air forces (RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force and USAAF 9th Air Force) split along national lines, although there was little Luftwaffe resistance in the West. With Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory closing down the headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, Eisenhower decided to form the Combined Airborne Forces Headquarters on 2nd August under Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton, the controversial former commander of the 9th Air Force. On 16th August it became First Allied Airborne Army as part of the Allied deception plan based around the fictitious US 1st Army Group. It consisted of the US XVIII Airborne Corps (82nd, 101st, 17th Airborne Divisions under the command of Major General Matthew B Ridgeway) and British I Airborne Corps (1st and 6th Airborne Divisions as well as the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, all of which were under the command of Lieutenant General F A M Browning).

Eisenhower was increasingly under pressure form Washington (Army Chief of Staff General George C Marshall and Commander, Army Air Forces General Henry 'Hap' Arnold) to mount a major airborne operation before the end of the war in Europe, and so placed the First Allied Airborne Army under the control of the 21st Army Group. As the Allied supply situation worsened and the rivalries and conflicting interests deepened, an airborne solution, Operation Market Garden started to emerge. As the Allied advance continued into northern France and Belgium, these factors and stiffening resistance from the German forces under Army Group B forced the advance to a halt. German resistance was helped by the escape of the Fifteenth Army under Von Zangen across the Scheldt Estuary. Army Group B had come under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Model and who had accomplished an amazing feat of reorganisation in the time available to him.

The Rival Plans

The overall Market Garden plan called for the First Allied Airborne Army to assist the rapid advance of the British Second Army from the Meuse - Escaut Canal to Nunspeet on the Zuider Zee (Ijsselmeer), a distance of around 100 miles (160km) and who would then turn east into Germany towards the industrial heartland of the Ruhr. A "carpet of airborne troops" would capture the road bridges over the major rivers and canals that lay along the route in three places: Eindhoven (around 13 miles / 20km from the start line), Nijmegen (53 miles / 85km) and Arnhem (64 miles / 100km), as well as a couple of smaller bridges at Veghel and Grave that lay between Eindhoven and Nijmegen. The route that XXX Corps (under Lt General B G Horrocks) would take (the formation that would head the British Second Army advance - the Garden part of the operation) was a tree-lined double-track road that ran across country that was almost entirely flat, consisted of sandy soil and polder (drained bogland) and broken by orchards, small woods, streams and ditches. All of this would make cross-country movement difficult and time-consuming. For the airborne (Market) operation, as far as possible USAAF aircraft would fly the paratroopers while RAF aircraft would tow the gliders, for simplicity. Brereton was keen to prove that a major assault could be attempted but sided with Major General Paul Williams (Comander, IX Troop Carrier Command) who argued that "owing to the reduced hours of daylight and distances involved, it would not be possible to consider more than one lift per day . . . casualties would result from pilot and crew fatigue". This meant that the airlift would take three days to complete, the fourth day would be devoted to resupply operations and the next two days would herald the 52nd (Lowland) Division being flown into airfields north of Arnhem. Meteorologists predicted at least two days of clear weather starting on Sunday 17 September, which became the start date for the operation.

Lieutenant General F A M Browning's British I Airborne Corps would command the Market part of the operation. The first wave of each division would land as a formed body around six miles (ten kilometres) from their objectives and then advance to capture them. The three divisions would have finished landing by the end of day three and each holding an all-round perimeter of over 25 miles (forty kilometres) allowing the ground forces to advance over them. Such timescales and distances only really made sense if there were an indication the Germans would put up little, if any, resistance. As Major Brian Urquhart, Chief of Intelligence British I Airborne Corps commented, "I simply did not believe that the Germans were going to roll over and surrender." There was poor coordination between SHAEF, 21st Army Group and the First Allied Airborne Army, which meant that although the overall estimated strength of the German forces was reasonably accurate, Allied intelligence lost the II SS Panzer Corps as it approached the Arnhem area. Most assumed that they had moved east, rather than stay in the general vicinity of Arnhem. Reports by the Dutch resistance and last minute aerial reconnaissance photographs indicated the presence of an armoured formation, as Major Brian Urquhart commented - "There, in the photos, I could clearly see tanks - if not on the very Arnhem landing and drop zones, then certainly close to them." These reports were however, dismissed all along the chain of command with the result being "the evaluation of intelligence on the Panzers in the Arnhem area was magnificently bungled." Major Urquhart was then visited by the Corps Medical Officer who suggested he take some sick leave.
The initial phase of the Allied plan (as conceived by Browning) had the US 101st Airborne Division under Major General Maxwell Taylor landing north of Eindhoven to capture the bridges over the River Aa, Willems Canal, River Dommel (St Oedenrode) and Wilhelmina Canal (Son) and then going on to capture Eindhoven. Securing the road from Eindhoven to Grave would have given the 101st a perimeter of some 40 miles (65km) to cover and Dempsey overruled Browning allowing the 101st to halt at Veghel, with a gap of some 13 miles (20km) between the 101st and 82nd. The US 82nd Airborne Division under Brigadier General James Gavin (Ridgeway's successor) also had a large area to defend. As the expected threat was from the Kleve region, Browning assigned Gavin the first priority of the capturing the Groesbeek Heights, an area of wooded hills about 8 miles (12km) long to the east of Nijmegen. He was also to capture the bridges over the River Maas (Grave), Maas-Waal Canal and finally the road bridge in the centre of Nijmegen. The 1st Airborne Division/ 1st British Airborne Division (both names were used at the time) were to land on the heathland west of Arnhem, and their targets were the road bridge in the town centre, the railway bridge out to the west on the lower Rhine and a pontoon bridge (which was discovered to have been dismantled on the eve of the operation).

The ground forces that would link up with the paratroopers would be headed by XXX Corps (2nd Household Cavalry Regiment, Guards Armoured Division, 43rd (Wessex) Division, 8th Armoured Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division and Royal Netherlands Brigade 'Prinses Irene') advancing northward up the 'Club Route', with XII Corps (7th Armoured Division, 15th (Scottish) Division and 53rd (Welsh) Division) supporting on the left and VIII Corps (11th Armoured Division, 3rd Division, 4th Armoured Brigade and 1st Belgian Brigade) supporting on the right. The Guards Armoured Division would head XXX Corps' advance and as it linked up with each airborne division, it would take control of them and hand off forces further south to VIII Corps. If any of the main bridges were destroyed, the Guards would secure the river bank and 43rd (Wessex) Division would mount an assault crossing. To their immediate front was Kampfgruppe 'Walther' with ten weak battalions with ten assault guns. Once this crust was broken, the race would be on.
As such, there was no German 'plan' for Market Garden. The Germans expected there to be an advance from the Meuse - Escaut Canal but had little real intelligence as to when exactly that would happen and the forces that would be involved. Defensive plans considered two possibilities. The first was an amphibious landing by the (fictitious) Fourth British Army on the Dutch coast to cut off the remaining forces of the Fifteenth Army; the second was a drive northwest by the 21st Army Group towards Wesel with an eye to conducting a pincer movement around the Ruhr. The Germans expected there to be landings fro the First Allied Airborne Army to support either of these eventualities and Model deployed the meagre reserve of Student's First Parachute Army in central Holland to cover them. As Student conceded, this was "grotesque improvisation on a grand scale". Unfortunately, the deployment area was right in the path of Market Garden. Model took up residence in the Hartenstein Hotel, which was just east of the British drop zone. The II SS Panzer Corps was not officially part of Model's forces, coming under Armed Forces Command Netherlands as it rested and refitted. Obergruppenführer Bittrich was headquartered in Doetinchem (15 miles / 25km east of Arnhem) with his forces spread out between Arnhem and Deventer. SS-Kampfgruppe 'Hohenstauffen' (in reality the remnants of the 9th 'Hohenstauffen' SS Panzer Division) was due to move to Siegen (near Koblenz) to be refitted on the 12th September (the last elements would move on the 17th). SS-Kampfgruppe 'Frundsberg' (the remnants of the 10th 'Frundsberg' SS Panzer Division) would move to Aachen after that. Such was the perceived situation that on the 16th September, Bittrich sent Brigadeführer Harmel to SS Headquarters in Berlin to personally plead for reinforcements. Such a shortage of troops had already been noted by Rundstedt in a letter to OKW stating that "the danger of new reverses . . . can be removed only by speeding up the dispatch of the reinforcements that have repeatedly been requested." Meanwhile, Obersturmbahführer Harzer continued organising the troops for the move east. The landings the next day would take them completely by surprise.

The Allied Landings

Operation Market Garden started just before midnight on Saturday 16 September 1944 when 200 Lancasters and twenty-three Mosquitos from RAF Bomber Command pounded four German fighter airfields in northern Holland. This was followed by 822 B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 8th Air Force the next day bombing the 117 identified anti-aircraft positions along the route the transports would take, as well as airfields at Eindhoven, Deelen and Ede. These were backed up by another fifty-four Lancasters and five Mosquitos, while another eighty-five Lancasters and fifteen Mosquitos attacked Walcheren Island. Losses were light (two B-17s, two Lancasters and three Mosquitos) and the attacks barely registered as unusual with the Germans as the Allies had massive air superiority in the west - to quote one German soldier "If you see a white plane, it's American, if you see a black plane it's RAF. If you see no planes at all it's the Luftwaffe". The Dutch Government who were in exile in London, called for a strike of all transport workers to coincide with the operation.

Sunday 17 September dawned bright and sunny. The airborne troops boarded their aircraft with the gliders and tugs taking off first at 09.30 and the C-47 Dakotas taking off later. The 101st took the southern route into Holland, while the 82nd and 1st Airborne taking the northern route. The two columns of aircraft stretched for 94 miles (150km) in length and 3 miles (5km) in width. There were a total of 1,051 troop carriers and 516 glider / tug combinations (2,083 aircraft in all). Escorts amounted to 371 Spitfires, Tempests and Mosquitos on the northern route, and 548 P-47 Thunderbolts, P-38 Lightnings and P-51Mustangs on the southern route. The 117 anti-aircraft positions along the Market garden route were once again bombed and strafed by 212 Thunderbolts, while fifty Mosquitos, forty-eight B-25 Mitchells and twenty-four Bostons bombed military facilities around Nijmegen, Deelen, Ede and Kleve. Resistance from German fighters and anti-aircraft fire was minimal overall, but stronger nearer Eindhoven. The Allies lost some sixty-eight aircraft and seventy-one gliders from all causes, as well as two RAF and eighteen USAAF fighters.

The first gliders of the 1st Airborne Division touched down just after midday (1st Airlanding Brigade) followed by the divisional artillery and troops. Losses in gliders were light, the majority of which had landed in England and would arrive the following day. The only major loss was the failure of two gliders to arrive, each carrying a 17pdr anti-tank gun. The 101st jumped north of Eindhoven. The 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment landed correctly on its drop zone south of Veghel, apart from the 1st Battalion, which dropped by mistake at Heeswijk, 3 miles on the wrong side of the Willems Canal and the River Aa. The 502nd Parachute Infantry and 506th Parachute Infantry landed with the divisional headquarters just north of the Sonsche Forest. The 82nd Airborne dropped with the minimal loss of two Dakotas. The 504th Parachute Infantry dropped at Grave (with a company of the 2nd Battalion dropped west of the bridge) while the 505th Parachute Infantry and 508th Parachute Infantry dropped on the Groesbeek Heights with the 376th Parachute Artillery Battalion (the first ever parachute deployment of artillery into battle). The 1st Airborne Corps headquarters landed near to Groesbeek village at around 13.30 while the 1st Parachute Brigade dropped at 13.53 west of Arnhem to complete the British landings. Some 20,000 troops, 511 vehicles, 330 artillery pieces and 590 tons of stores had arrived safely. As the transports departed, Brereton flew back to IX Troop Carrier Command Headquarters at Eastcote to oversee the second wave. Once that had taken off, the Market deployment would be fixed and his role would be over. There would be no-one in England to coordinate the land battle with the air plan and no contingency plans had been made.

The Operation Begins in Earnest

At 14.00 on the 17 September, 408 guns of XXX Corps opened fire to support the initial attack at Joe's Bridge. The Irish Guards battlegroup (led by Lt Col J Vandeleur) advanced "on a front two tanks wide" with infantry from the 231st Brigade (50th (Northumbrian) Division) keeping pace. The initial breakthrough went well, with Kampfgruppe 'Walther' being unable withstand the superior Allied firepower. The Guards Armoured Division (under Major General A H Adair) halted at Valkenswaard at 19.30. The XII Corps (under Lt General N M Ritchie) attacked north with the 15th (Scottish) Division and 53rd (Welsh) Division against Kampfgruppe 'Chill' but made slow progress.

The 101st Airborne had seized most of its objectives by 16.00 with 501st Parachute Infantry securing the road and rail bridges at Heeswijk and Veghel, 502nd Parachute Infantry capturing the St Oedenrode bridge but at Son, the road bridge was blown in the faces of the 506th Parachute Infantry and a push by the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry (2/502nd) towards another bridge south of Best was turned back.

Airborne Troops advancing towards Arnhem
Airborne Troops
advancing towards

At this point General Student, watching things develop from his headquarters in Vught, ordered the 59th Infantry Division (15th Army) to reinforce the LXXXVIII Corps at Best. General Otto Sponheimer (LXXXVII Corps) moved the 719th Coastal Division eastwards to Tournhout. Meanwhile, the 508th and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments had set up defensive positions either side of Groesbeek village, while the 504th Parachute Infantry had seized Grave Bridge. Unfortunately, two of the three bridges over the Maas - Waal Canal were blown by the Germans before troops from the 504th and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments arrived. This left the bridge nearest Heumen in American hands. A company of the 1/508th was sent into Nijmegen to reconnoitre the bridge across the River Waal but was stopped short by Kampfgruppe 'Henke'. Model, on first hearing of airborne landings had left the Hartenstein Hotel and relocated to Terborg, some 30 miles (50km) to the east. He assumed direct control of II SS Panzer Corps from Armed Forces Command Netherlands. Despite Bittrich arguing that both bridges should be blown up, Model refused claiming that they would be needed for the counterattack.

Hitler, upon hearing the news of the Allied airborne landings, decided to give the defeat of the operation top priority. Virtually the entire frontline strength of the Luftwaffe (around 300 fighters) was given to Model, as was the reserves and training detachments in Wehrkreiss VI, the military district of Germany adjacent to Holland, as well as those in transit or on leave near Wesel (some 3,000 men). Armed Forces Command Netherlands (under General Friedrich Christansen) also promised reinforcements under Generalleutnant Hans von Tettau. The reinforcements that had been promised to II SS Panzer Corps would also start to arrive in 48 hours. The sort of battle that was unfolding was just the sort of improvised engagement that Model excelled at, and soon after the initial Allied landings, his plan was ready. General Student was to handle the operations near Eindhoven, using Kampfgruppe 'Chill' against XII and XXX Corps, along with 59th Infantry Division and 107th Panzer Brigade (promised by OB West) against the 101st Airborne. The forces from Wehrkreiss VI (under General Kurt Feldt) were to recapture the Groesbeek Heights from 82nd Airborne with the help of II Parachute Corps moving from Cologne. SS-Kampfgruppe 'Frundsberg' was to move across Arnhem Bridge towards Nijmegen to prevent any crossing while SS-Kampfgruppe 'Hohenstauffen' held the British west of Arnhem.
By mid-afternoon, the 1st Airlanding Brigade (1/Border, 7/KOSB & 2/South Staffs under Brigadier P H W Hicks) had started to secure the dropping zones west of Arnhem, and were already in action against the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Depot Battalion (Hauptsturmführer Sepp Krafft) and scratch units from the SS NCO Training School 'Arnheim' at Wolfheze, Luftwaffe troops from Deelen in Kampfgruppe 'Weber' and Dutch SS-Wachbattalion III (loosely translated as the 3rd SS Guard Battalion), a 1,200 man concentration camp guard unit set up under "Höhere SS und Polizeiführer - HSSPF" Nordwest. The first 47 prisoners taken by the British were from 27 different parent units. The 1st Parachute Brigade (under Brigadier G W Lathbury) started to advance towards Arnhem using three routes, 'Lion' (3/Para with the brigade headquarters) which was the main Oosterbeek Highway, 'Leopard' (1/Para) to the north and 'Tiger' (2/Para) to the south. At this point, most of the division's radios were working, but communication problems had started to appear as the division's sub-units moved away from each other. A false rumour reached Urquhart that many of the special gliders containing Major C F H 'Freedie' Gough's reconnaissance squadron had failed to arrive and so he set off to check the situation out for himself. By the time the brigade had reached Oosterbeek, it was encountering increased German resistance from the blocking force SS-Kampfgruppe 'Spindler' (part of SS-Kampfgruppe 'Hohenstaufen' under Obersturmbahführer Harzer) which gradually absorbed Krafft's force and formed a solid line by the e