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World War Two - Market Garden

Updated on August 22, 2011

Operation Market Garden was Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery's bold plan to parachute Allied troops deep behind enemy lines into Nazi occupied Holland in September 1944. It was supposed to be the Allies final masterstroke to achieve overall victory in the second world war and have the war ended by Christmas. But it turned out to be a massive failure, so what went wrong?

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery
Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery
Operation Market Garden Map
Operation Market Garden Map

The Bold Plan

On the 17th September 1944, the daring plan of Market Garden was set in motion. In the three months since D-Day, the Allies had made steady progress, but by the September, with German forces in full retreat, British Commander Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery feels there is an opportunity to end the war with one swift assault.

Montgomery discusses the plan with the American Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the idea of driving deep behind enemy lines into Holland, creating a shortcut to Germany.

Along the route from Holland to Germany is a series of rivers, canals and bridges and these will have to be captured before the Germans destroy them on their retreat back into Germany in an attempt to slow the Allied advance.

The plan was to drop tens of thousands of British and American parachute divisions along a narrow corridor from Eindhoven in the south to Arnhem in the north.

At the same time, the ground trroops of the British 30 Corps along with 5,000 tanks and vehicles, were to penetrate the Nazi's frontline and speed on to link up with the Airborne divisions at the seized bridges.

Overall success would depend on speed , 30 Corps would have to reach the Arnhem bridge within 48 hours.

Allied military planners set to work at breakneck speed and just seven days later, the immense and unparalleled operation begins.

On Sunday 17th September 1944, more than 2,000 aircraft drop the British and American paratroopers and glider infantry behind the enemy lines into Holland.

American Sherman tank
American Sherman tank
The Panzerfaust
The Panzerfaust
The Arnhem Bridge
The Arnhem Bridge

Unexpected Ressistence

Initially all went to plan, but British 30 Corps soon encountered trouble and after just 10 minutes the armoured dash north is halted by a few enemy ambushes.

The main Allied route ran through dense woodland and this is from where the Germans sprang their surprise attacks.

The British armoured troops had to fight intensely to push on through the woodsland defences along the road that became known as 'Hells Highway'.

However, as they got through the woodland and out onto the open road, their problems were only just beginning. The British generally used American built Sherman tanks that were very effective and reliable, but they were relatively small, thinly armour plated and under armed. The high sided Sherman was also easy to spot by enemy armour.

Heavy rain prior to the operation was also a major factor as tanks couldn't move across the low lying fields, so they had to drive on high embanked roads, making them easy to spot and effectively sitting ducks.

Dozens of tanks were attempting to advance along a narrow highway, if they strayed from the road, they would be forced to drive in each other's tracks, with disastrous consequences.

As the Allied paratroopers raced to secure the vital bridges, the tanks of 30 Corps had ran into deadly ambushes and they were having to deal with a very effective German weapon, the Panzerfaust. This was a revolutionary disposable hand-held anti-tank weapon.

Although this only had a short range, it meant that individual infantrymen had an outstanding ambush weapon when used from concealed positions. 

The key element of the Panzerfaust's destuctive force was in it's powerful warhead. It concealed an explosive charge that literally melted metal in it's path.

This weapon took out a whole convoy of nine Sherman tanks and Montgomery's armoured dash had become little more than a bloody crawl.

Further north, the British 1st Airborne wre moving towards the Arnhem Bridge and as they moved through the wooded suburbs, they also came under fierce attack. They had been informed to expect only light German resistence, the reality was far different.

The Brish found themselves up against crack SS troops with the most powerful tanks at the German's disposal, these dramatically slowed the British charge for the Arnhem Bridge.

German troops at Arnhem 1944
German troops at Arnhem 1944
British troops at Arnhem 1944
British troops at Arnhem 1944

Inadequate Equipment

Of course, Market Garden was a complete failure, but wether Allied intellegence was incorrect or just went unheeded, German resistence at Arnhem should not have been alone enough for the operation to fail.

The Airborne troops had only to hold the town for a short time before British armour came to support them, or so they thought.

By the end of the first day, Operation Market Garden had encountered serious problems, heavier than expected German resistence had faced British and American troops and the plan had started to fall apart.

The British 30 Corps had stalled along the narrow embanked roads which they could not get off and the 1st British Airborne Division, who had landed some distance away from their objectives, began to move towards Arnhem.

The parachute regiment of 2nd Battalion did manage to get to the northern end of Arnhem Bridge, but then everything started to go wrong.

They are the only unit to even reach the bridge and they are awaiting the expected German counter-offensive.

The remainder of the British 1st Airborne is scattered amongst the woods and fields of Oosterbeek, several miles from the bridge. Added to this is another major problem when 1st Airborne encounter severe communication problems at Arnhem, but was this down to the signaller's competence or was their equipment faulty?

Arnhem veterans have consistently claimed that the military had supplied them with defective and incompetent radios for the operation.

As the parachute crews advanced more than a mile or two, the radios' signals began to fade out.

Modern day experiments with the same radios encountered similar problems caused by a loss of signal in the surrounding woods around the Arnhem Bridge area, proving the accounts given by the surviving Arnhem veterans to be true.

The Battle For Arnhem

British 1st Airborne at Arnhem Bridge
British 1st Airborne at Arnhem Bridge

Surrounded And Fighting To Survive

Most of the paratroopers then are now out of touch with their headquarters, cut off and engaged in severe street fighting with the surrounding and steadily closing in German troops.

The Allied ground advance is now more than 12 hours behind schedule and the British 1st Airborne Division is fighting for it's very existence.

While 2nd Battalion's paratroopers cling on to the northern end of Arnhem Bridge, the remaining Airborne divisions are still scattered wide around Arnhem and Oosterbeek.

In modern warfare, urban fighting is considred one of the most specialist forms of combat.

Today, just like at Arnhem in 1944, Britain's modern army trains intensively at building-to- building combat, but at Arnhem, the parachute regiments had virtually no training in this form of warfare at all.

They were not taught how to fight in streets at close-quarters, moving from house-to-house or room-to-room.

On the other hand, the German forces at Arnhem comprised of experienced elite SS troops who had been fighting this way since D-Day.

Despite finding themselves in hostile conditions, being surrounded and facing a determined enemy, the men of British 1st Airborne battle on with legendary courage and an unyielding spirit....but for them, time was running out.

American troops crossing the River Waal in 1944
American troops crossing the River Waal in 1944

The Last Throw Of The Dice

On the 20th September 1944, three days into the airborne landings of Market Garden, things have reached a crucial stage. Just 15 miles short of the town of Arnhem, the Allied advance stalls as the imposing Nijmegen Bridge remains in German possession.

Time is running out for the British 1st Airborne Division on Arnhem Bridge, British and American units link up at Nijmegen and plan a combined river crossing assault in order to get to the other end of the bridge.

A plan is hatched to charge British tanks across the bridge, whilst paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division cross the river in small boats to envelop the German flank.

With an average of around 17 men to each boat, but only 4 to 5 paddles per boat, many of the men must paddle with their rifle butts. As they reached around a third of the way across, all hell broke loose as the Germans threw everything they had at the American boats.

of the 26 boats that set out across the river, only 11 made it to the other side and of the 260 men who took part in the attack, half of them were either killed or wounded. However, they had succeeded in breaking through the German defences to link up with the British tanks of 30 Corps who had simultaneously stormed the Nimjegen Bridge

The route through to Arnhem was now open.

The Americans wanted to advance immediately, but with nightfall approaching the British armoured divisions refused to travel in the dark, once again the Allied advance had stalled and the impetus again was lost.

Market Garden had been devised at extremely short notice in just a few days, whereas earlier Allied operations such as D-Day, had taken months to plan and train for.

Day of Days by Dave Harris
Day of Days by Dave Harris

A Bridge Too Far?

It will never be known if the tanks of the British 30 Corps may have reached Arnhem that night, for the men of the British 1st Airborne Division on Arnhem Bridge, this further delay meant the end. They were running out of food and ammunition and at 9:00am on the 21st September the Germans recaptured Arnhem Bridge.

The British had held the bridge for nearly 96 hours, twice as long as they were expected without relief. What was left of the unit held on for a further 4 days trapped in the grounds of a nearby hotel.

The only option left open to them was to somehow manage to get back across the river to the southern end of the bridge. But of the 11,000 men who landed at Arnhem, only around 2,000 made it back, the rest were either dead, wounded or made prisoners.

With Arnhem Bridge back in German hands, the Allies route into germany would have to be found elsewhere, Market Garden had ended as a costly failure.

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery who had devised the operation, stunningly declared the operation had been "90% successful" The Arnhem survivors may not overly agree with that statement and leaving 6,000 men behind was a high price to pay.

The plan had seen problems from the outset, the highly complex scheme, the largest of it's kind ever attempted, was prepared in too extreme haste as military planners were pressurised into bringing on early end to the war.

German opposition had been severely underestimated in Holland, added to the lack of urban warfare experience and joint Allied operational experience, this had left the Allies at a distinct disadvantage against battle-hardened German veteran troops.

It was to prove the only failure of the northwest European campaign which otherwise was a decidedly notable success. It proved a distinct blow to Montgomery's reputation and was a marked setback to Anglo-American relations.

There were more than 10,000 British, American, Polish and German casualties during Market garden, though the war in Europe continued for a further 8 months, it was the last Allied defeat of the second world war.


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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 17 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Extensive piece of research here Dave, well detailed and presented. Give yourself a pat on the back from me.

    • Dave Harris profile image

      Dave Harris 5 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thanks William, indeed a sad tale of a poorly thought out and executed plan. hard to believe the war went on for another 8 months following Market garden.

    • Dave Harris profile image

      Dave Harris 6 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thankyou ruffridyer your absolutely right there and thank you phdast7, glad to have been of help to you

    • profile image

      phdast7 6 years ago

      Very interesting and thorough Hub. I am a historian and my graduate work focused on Germany and the Holocaust. Then for my dissertation topic I focused very narrowly on the experience of the American GI's who liberated the concentration camps. Unfortunately, I never got to study all the other many areas and aspects of World War II. Your Hub helped fill one of the many gaps in my own knowledge base. Thank you.

    • profile image

      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      Sounds like the plan wasn't full though through.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      A sad but fascinating story of Operation Market Garden at Hitler's doorstep. Thanks, Dave Harris.