Heritage - 35: Market Garden Mired, How Well Planned Was This Thrust to Bypass the German Siegfried Line?
Planning a 'sucker punch' across the Rhine
Operation 'Market Garden', September 17-25, 1944
In its aim to secure bridges over the Rhine on the Dutch-German border the operation proved resoundingly unsuccessful. However that was not for want of trying or effort by the participants. As an exercise in strategy it proved futile, though ambitious, and came at a time when German forces had rallied after resting and refitting.
The operation was divided into two tactical elements that reflected the overall name:
'Market' - the airborne element, First Allied Airborne Army FAAA) would seize key bridges;
'Garden' - the ground units, British XXX Corps to cross the Netherlands in a south-north movement and relieve FAAA with help from the US 82nd and 101st Airborne (the 'Screaming Eagles') in the Nijmegen area.
The operation was to be the largest airborne undertaking in the war to date.
Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery's strategic aim was to cut off the hub of German heavy manufacturing industry in the Ruhr with a pincer movement. The northern end of this pincer would bypass the northern end of the German fortifications known as the Siegfried Line. This would make entering Germany easier and less costly in lives.
The task of 'Market' was to secure the northern end of the pincer, ready for 'Garden' to move across the Rhine into the Fatherland. Allied forces would push north out of Belgium 60 miles (97 kms) through the Netherlands, over the Rhine and gather north of Arnhem to snap shut the pincer.
The operation massed airborne infantry and mobile units to secure the bridges and hold their ground for armoured units to mass north of Arnhem and bridges crossing the Maas, two arms of the Rhine - the Waal and Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine) - with crossings over smaller waterways and tributaries.
Finally on their way after many false starts ...
A number of crossings between Eindhoven and Nijmegen were taken easily enough early on.
However, Lt. General Brian Horrocks' XXX Corps' progress was held up by failure in securing bridges at Son and Nijmegen. German engineers blew the bridge on the Wilhelmina Canal at Son before 101st Airborne Division could secure it. 82nd Airborne likewise were unable to take the main road bridge across the River Waal at Nijmegen before 20th September, delaying XXX Corps' progress.
At Arnhem the British 1st Airborne Division met with strong resistance to begin with, the delays allowing the Germans to regroup and move into Arnhem with their armour. In the battle that followed a small British force took the northern end of the Arnhem road bridge. When the ground units were unable to relieve them the paratroopers were overpowered on 21st September. The rest of the 1st Airborne Division were trapped in a diminishing pocket west of the bridge and had to be pulled out with heavy losses on 25th September. Thus the Allies were unable to cross the Rhine and the river proved a major barrier until offences at Remagen, Oppenheim, Rees and Wesel in March, 1945. Market Garden's failure saw the war continue for another seven months.
Christmas 1944 would witness another shock for the Allies...
Montgomery had initially put forward 'Operation Comet' for 2nd September, an airborne operation using the 1st Airborne Division with the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. These would take several Rhine bridges to ease an Allied advance to the North German plain. Divisional HQ for the 1st Airborne Division would land at Nijmegen. 1st Parachute Brigade were to land at Arnhem and 4th Parachute Brigade would touch down at Graves. Several days of dismal flying weather intervened and Montgomery's fears about mounting German resistance saw him postpone Comet, and finally to cancel on 10th September.
Comet was superseded by a grander plan to bypass the Siegfried Line northward, allowing the Allies to cross the Rhine with overwhelming force to trap the German 15th Army between Arnhem and the Ijsselmeer, a large inland sea. This would be Market Garden. One of the pressing issues Montgomery gave was that a signal from London urged the neutralising of V2 (flying bomb) sites, London being one of the main targets with Paris and Antwerp.
Operation Market Garden: The Campaign for the Low Countries, Autumn 1944
A thorough-going overview by Wolverhampton Military Studies of the ambition to free the northern Netherlands and bypass German fortifications on the Siegfried Line to isolate the Axis from their weapons suppliers. Also important was to locate firing sites for the V2 Flying Bomb, Hitler's vengeance weapon aimed at London and Paris. Things turned out less simple. XXX Corps' progress was hindered despite drops by the 82nd/101st US Paratroops to secure bridges en route. The British 1st Army was beset by problems after dropping near Arnhem and the outcome for MARKET GARDEN was mired .by more than one failure
What about the availability of close air support in September, 1944?
I've raised the issue elsewhere on this page, air support. Close Air Support was as important in WWII, as it was in the closing stages of WWI. So what was available at the time that could have suited the task of protecting the paratroopers (British, Canadian and American) during Market Garden?
Several manufacturers had designed aircraft for this purpose:
Supermarine built the Spitfire Mk IV during 1944, Hawker also had a Hurricane Mk IV. 'Hurri-bomber'. During 1942 they built the Typhoon that was tried out successfully in the North African campaign that saw Rommel's Afrika Korps ushered hastily out of Libya. De Havilland's Mosquito would have been amply suitable, tried and tested before D-Day at Amiens during bad weather at the prison breakout (that has drawn a lot of flak). Two highly useful planes emerged from the USA, in 1943 North American came out with the P51-D Mustang, 'tank-busters' and the following year Republic supplied the P47-M Thunderbolt - two highly suitable close-support attack aircraft that would not have come amiss, and the weather was certainly not unsuitable for flying over the eight days of the operation. So where were they?
*Several other US-built aircraft came out after their entry into WWII, mainly carrier-borne and used in the Pacific to support the Marines.
XXX Corps had Hell's Highway to negotiate, across open countryside on an elevated road under fire
XXX Corps were obliged to cover the distance from Allied lines along an exposed, elevated road.
At Nijmegen they were aided by US paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division when engineers were able to effect a pontoon bridge to replace one dynamited by the retreating Germans.
That one day of German resistance cost the Allies dear and heralded disasters to come, when at Christmas 1944 the Allies suspected nothing of a German push through the Ardennes towards Antwerp. This was Hitler's bid to cut through between the US and British forces and deny them the use of the port for re-supply. There had been suspicion by Bletchley Park that something was going on, but the Germans forsook Enigma use of telephones and radio. Why wasn't air support planned to coincide with the push, when time was of the essence?
Luckily at Christmas, 1944 the weather cleared as German armour was running out of fuel, strung out across eastern Belgium around Bastogne. Unable to ford swollen rivers when American engineers blew the bridges, they were picked off by the aircraft that were missing at Arnhem. Thereby hangs another tail.
Stiffening resistance around Arnhem
Disaster dogged 'Market Garden' in several ways:
Firstly the Dutch Resistance warning to Military Intelligence of an SS Panzer Division regrouping in the area was ignored. Had the task been allocated to the RAF or USAF of neutralising the tanks with the use of 'Tank Busters' or similar, this might not have proved such a threat. After all, they had been used during 'Operation Overlord' (D-Day) to great effect, so why was Montgomery denied this 'umbrella';
Secondly two-way radios supplied to the British paratroopers were fitted with the wrong batteries and it was not until late during the operation that they became operational;
Thirdly one of the officers had taken it upon himself to take a full set of operational plans of Market Garden. His glider crashed, killing him and the plans fell into the hands of General Kurt Student, the officer tasked with the German parachute landings on Crete in May, 1941;
Fourthly, because Major-General Roy Urquhart was unable to communicate with his combat units.he set out to find them at various locations and was nearly captured in the suburbs of Arnhem. Thus when the radios crackled into life he could not be found to give orders;
Fifthly Lt Colonel John Frost's men initially took the SS Panzers coming from the south to be Horrocks' XXX Corps', allowing them to get closer before wrecking several. They were nevertheless severely hammered when the SS brought artillery to bear, destroying much of the bridge area and trapping Frost by the bridge when German infantry closed on them. Also, pushed back from the supply drop zones, the British paratroopers had to watch their supplies of food, ammunition and weaponry land behind the encircling German lines.
The only saving grace was that on the night of Sunday 24th-Monday 25th September Urquhart was given artillery support for the evacuation of little over two-and-a-quarter thousand of his men with the help of the Polish paratroopers. This small miracle was known as 'Operation Berlin'. 'Market Garden' would prove to be his last major command, although its failure was not entirely his.
Taking the road north
Failure can knock hard on the doors of opportunity
© 2016 Alan R Lancaster