A bridge too far

Mar­ket Gar­den, the ill-fated Al­lied op­er­a­tion to break through the Ger­man de­fences in the Nether­lands in Septem­ber 1944, is of­ten por­trayed as a risky yet wor­thy gam­ble. In truth, ar­gues Antony Beevor, it was a flawed idea from the start, more driven by e

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Antony Beevor is one of the lead­ing his­to­ri­ans of the Sec­ond World War. His new book is Arn­hem: The Bat­tle for the Bridges, 1944 (Vik­ing, 2018)

Op­er­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den was a ter­ri­ble plan right from the start and right from the top, ar­gues Antony Beevor

There are many myths about the bat­tle for Arn­hem and Op­er­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den. His­to­ri­ans of the bat­tle have of­ten been tempted into the ‘ if-only’ trap. If only this, or if only that, had been dif­fer­ent, then it would all have turned out to be a bril­liant suc­cess. This cherry-pick­ing of faults is a grave dis­trac­tion from the harsh fact that Mar­ket Gar­den was a per­fect ex­am­ple of how not to plan an air­borne op­er­a­tion.

Mar­ket Gar­den was one of the great­est Al­lied dis­as­ters of the Sec­ond World War – im­mor­talised in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far. The plan was for Al­lied para­troop­ers and land forces to launch a com­bined at­tack, which would break through Ger­man de­fences in the Nether­lands. Be­gin­ning on 17 Septem­ber 1944, it ended in fail­ure just a week later, re­sult­ing in thou­sands of ca­su­al­ties. The Bri­tish air­borne troops who spear­headed the as­sault suf­fered par­tic­u­larly badly in their doomed at­tempt to cap­ture the bridge in the Dutch town of Arn­hem.

A month ear­lier, the mood among the Al­lies had been very dif­fer­ent, as their forces routed the Ger­mans in the con­clud­ing phases of the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy. As they ad­vanced to­wards the Re­ich, the Al­lied com­man­ders now had to de­cide on the next step to take. It was here that the dis­as­trous plan was born.

At the heart of the fail­ure in prepa­ra­tion lay the ambition of Field Mar­shal Bernard Mont­gomery, who had com­manded the Al­lied ground forces in Nor­mandy. He wanted to seize con­trol of Al­lied strat­egy by be­ing first across the Rhine so that Gen­eral Dwight D Eisen­hower, supreme com­man­der of Al­lied Ex­pe­di­tionary Forces in Europe, would have to give him full pri­or­ity in sup­plies and com­mand over Amer­i­can for­ma­tions. The prospect of ‘ jump­ing the Rhine’ with an air­borne op­er­a­tion lead­ing all the way to the bridge at Arn­hem, the north­ern route into Ger­many, would force the First US Army to sup­port him on his right flank.

To do this, Mont­gomery needed the First Al­lied Air­borne Army, formed on 2 Au­gust 1944 on the or­der of Eisen­hower, who thought

a sin­gle agency was re­quired to co­or­di­nate air­borne and troop car­rier units. De­spite Eisen­hower’s de­vo­tion to balanced Al­lied re­la­tions, its lead­er­ship was lop­sided. US gen­eral Lewis Br­ere­ton’s staff con­sisted mainly of US air force of­fi­cers. The only se­nior Bri­tish of­fi­cer was Br­ere­ton’s deputy, Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Fred­er­ick Brown­ing. Mat­ters were not helped by a strong mu­tual dis­like be­tween Br­ere­ton and ‘Boy’ Brown­ing. The only char­ac­ter­is­tic the two men shared was van­ity.

Brown­ing, a hawk-faced Gre­nadier Guards of­fi­cer with the air of a mat­inée idol, was mar­ried to the au­thor Daphne du Mau­rier. Al­though brave, Brown­ing was highly strung. He was des­per­ate to com­mand an air­borne corps in ac­tion. His barely con­cealed ambition, com­bined with a peremp­tory man­ner, did not en­dear him to Amer­i­can para­troop com­man­ders.

On 3 Septem­ber, Mont­gomery met Gen­eral Omar Bradley to dis­cuss an air­borne op­er­a­tion in south Bel­gium across the river Meuse. They agreed to can­cel it, as Bradley wanted the troop car­rier air­craft to de­liver fuel to Pat­ton’s Third Army. But Mont­gomery had not been straight with Bradley. He promptly or­dered his chief of staff to or­gan­ise an air­borne op­er­a­tion “to se­cure bridges over Rhine be­tween We­sel and Arn­hem”. This was to be called Op­er­a­tion Comet, an idea in keep­ing with Mont­gomery’s ambition to lead the main push into Ger­many. Need­less to say, Bradley was fu­ri­ous when he dis­cov­ered that Mont­gomery had tricked him.

Freez­ing out the air force

‘Boy’ Brown­ing was far from alone in his de­sire to use para­troop and glider forces in a de­ci­sive way. Amer­i­can gen­er­als longed to try out the new air­borne army. Churchill also wanted the op­er­a­tion to boost Bri­tish pres­tige. Vic­tory eu­pho­ria fol­low­ing the rapid Al­lied ad­vance from Nor­mandy to Bel­gium fu­elled a mood of op­ti­mism.

Un­for­tu­nately, Mont­gomery did not want to con­sult the RAF over Comet, even though the War Of­fice and Air Min­istry had agreed, fol­low­ing air­borne chaos in the in­va­sion of Si­cily in 1943, that the air force side must lead the plan­ning process. Mont­gomery even called Air Chief Mar­shal Leigh-Mal­lory “a gut­less bug­ger” be­cause he had pre­dicted dis­as­ter for the air­borne drops that had taken place in the as­sault on Nor­mandy.

On 9 Septem­ber 1944, the com­man­der of the Pol­ish In­de­pen­dent Parachute Bri­gade, Ma­jor Gen­eral Sos­abowski, joined Roy Urquhart of the First Air­borne Di­vi­sion to dis­cuss Comet with Brown­ing. “Sir,” said Sos­abowski, “I am very sorry, but this mis­sion can­not pos­si­bly suc­ceed.” It would be sui­cide with such small forces, he said. Brown­ing took deep of­fence.

In Bel­gium, Gen­eral Dempsey, com­mand­ing the Sec­ond Bri­tish Army, had just reached sim­i­lar con­clu­sions to those of Sos­abowski. Gen­eral Hor­rocks of the Bri­tish XXX Corps (which would later play a key role in Mar­ket Gar­den) had con­firmed that a bridge­head over the Al­bert Canal in north-east Bel­gium was “be­ing strongly op­posed by the en­emy”.

The next morn­ing, Dempsey went to Mont­gomery’s head­quar­ters and man­aged to per­suade him that Op­er­a­tion Comet was too weak. They needed at least three air­borne di­vi­sions. Mont­gomery liked the idea. It would bring the Amer­i­can 82nd and 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sions un­der his com­mand. But to Dempsey’s dis­may, Mont­gomery also bran­dished a sig­nal at him that had ar­rived from Lon­don. The first V2 rock­ets had landed in Eng­land, hav­ing ap­par­ently been fired from the area of Rot­ter­dam and Am­s­ter­dam. For Mont­gomery, who wanted to go north via Arn­hem (Dempsey pre­ferred to go east), this was the just the con­fir­ma­tion he needed to jus­tify his de­ci­sion.

Dempsey sum­moned Brown­ing. In just two hours, they put to­gether a plan. Mar­ket Gar­den con­sisted of two parts. Mar­ket was the air­borne op­er­a­tion, in which the Amer­i­can 101st and 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sions would seize river and canal cross­ings from Eind­hoven to Ni­jmegen, with the bridges over the rivers Meuse and Waal, the largest in Europe; the Bri­tish First Air­borne Di­vi­sion and the Pol­ish bri­gade would drop near Arn­hem to cap­ture the great road bridge over the Lower Rhine. Op­er­a­tion Gar­den would con­sist prin­ci­pally of Hor­rocks’s XXX Corps, led by tanks, charg­ing north to meet the air­borne troops. They would have to travel up a sin­gle road, with flood plain on ei­ther side bro­ken only by woods and plan­ta­tions.

Mont­gomery now headed for Brus­sels aero­drome to see Eisen­hower. It was the fa­mous meet­ing when Mont­gomery’s tirade of com­plaints was halted by Eisen­hower putting his hand on Mont­gomery’s knee, and say­ing: “Monty, you can’t speak to me like that. I’m your boss.” Eisen­hower re­minded Mont­gomery that he had pre­vi­ously given him the sup­port of the First Al­lied Air­borne Army, yet this led to no more than a men­tion of Mar­ket Gar­den. Here, Eisen­hower fol­lowed stan­dard US Army prac­tice. Hav­ing agreed an over­all strat­egy, he did not be­lieve in in­ter­fer­ing fur­ther.

By the time Mont­gomery re­turned to his tac­ti­cal head­quar­ters, Dempsey had “fixed with [Brown­ing] the out­line of the op­er­a­tion”, his di­ary en­try stated. Brown­ing’s ex­cite­ment was pal­pa­ble. He sent the code­word ‘New’ from Dempsey’s HQ back to First Al­lied Air­borne Army at Sun­ninghill Park. This sig­ni­fied that a plan­ning con­fer­ence was to be called that evening. Br­ere­ton must have been af­fronted that Mont­gomery had made no at­tempt to con­sult him in ad­vance. Eisen­hower had or­dered that plan­ning should be shared. Mont­gomery had de­lib­er­ately ig­nored this.

Fate­ful meet­ing

Twenty-seven se­nior of­fi­cers gath­ered in the Sun­ninghill Park con­fer­ence room at 6pm. As­ton­ish­ingly, nei­ther Urquhart nor Sos­abowski had been in­vited. Brown­ing pre­sented what he and Dempsey had worked out, us­ing an air­lift timetable based on an ear­lier op­er­a­tion. Disin­gen­u­ously, he im­plied that it had Eisen­hower’s bless­ing. Br­ere­ton and his staff pri­vately dis­missed it as just “a ten­ta­tive skeleton plan”.

They first of all de­cided that it was to be a day op­er­a­tion be­cause “the sup­port­ing air forces avail­able could knock out flak po­si­tions in ad­vance”. Br­ere­ton then asked Ma­jor Gen­eral Wil­liams of IX Troop Car­rier Com­mand to speak. His words must have come as a bombshell to Brown­ing. Most of the key as­sump­tions on which he and Dempsey had worked that day were now thrown in the air. “The lift would have to be mod­i­fied, due to the dis­tance in­volved, which pre­cluded the use of double tow lift… sin­gle tow only could be em­ployed.” This meant only half the num­ber of glid­ers could be taken on each lift. And since the mid-Septem­ber days were shorter and the morn­ings mist­ier, Wil­liams ruled out two lifts in a day.

These changes sig­ni­fied that it would take up to three days to de­liver the air­borne di­vi­sions, as­sum­ing per­fect fly­ing weather. No more as­sault troops would be land­ing on the cru­cial first day than with Comet, be­cause half the force would have to be left be­hind to guard land­ing and drop zones for later lifts. And the Ger­mans, hav­ing iden­ti­fied Al­lied in­ten­tions, would be able to con­cen­trate troops and anti-air­craft bat­ter­ies against these ar­eas. Wil­liams’ ob­du­rate at­ti­tude might have con­tained an el­e­ment of re­venge af­ter Mont­gomery’s re­fusal to con­sult the air force side in ad­vance, but Mont­gomery’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to im­pose an ill-con­sid­ered plan was the real prob­lem.

At a fol­low-up meet­ing, Amer­i­can air force

Mont­gomery’s com­plaints were halted by Eisen­hower say­ing, “Monty, you can’t speak to me like that”

of­fi­cers more or less dic­tated the choice of drop and land­ing zones. Their main pri­or­ity was to avoid Ger­man flak bat­ter­ies on the way in and out. Ma­jor Gen­eral Wil­liams also re­jected the idea of glider-borne coup de main par­ties (ad­vance as­sault troops) to seize the main bridges, a key el­e­ment in Comet.

Troop Car­rier Com­mand wanted to stay well away from the key ob­jec­tives of Arn­hem and Ni­jmegen bridges be­cause of their anti-air­craft de­fences. At Arn­hem, they were also threat­ened by the Luft­waffe air­field of Dee­len just to the north of the town. As a re­sult, the Bri­tish di­vi­sion was to be dropped well to the west, with an ap­proach march of be­tween six and eight miles to the road bridge through a ma­jor town. Sur­prise, the most vi­tal el­e­ment in air­borne op­er­a­tions, was there­fore lost be­fore they even took off.

An ill-con­ceived idea

Op­er­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den was quite sim­ply a very bad plan right from the start and right from the top. Ev­ery other prob­lem stemmed from that. Mont­gomery had not shown any in­ter­est in the prac­ti­cal prob­lems sur­round­ing air­borne op­er­a­tions. He had not taken any time to study the of­ten chaotic ex­pe­ri­ences of north Africa, Si­cily and the drop on the Co­tentin penin­sula in Nor­mandy. His in­tel­li­gence chief, Bri­gadier Bill Wil­liams, also pointed to the way that: “Arn­hem de­pended on a study of the ground [which] Monty had not made when he de­cided on it.” In fact, Mont­gomery ob­sti­nately re­fused to lis­ten to Dutch warn­ings about the im­pos­si­bil­ity of de­ploy­ing XXX Corps off the sin­gle raised road onto the pold­er­land flood plain.

Tow­er­ing over every­thing was the fact that the op­er­a­tion de­pended on every­thing go­ing right, when it is an un­writ­ten rule of war­fare that no plan sur­vives con­tact with the en­emy. This is dou­bly true of air­borne op­er­a­tions. The like­li­hood of the Ger­mans blow­ing the road bridge at Ni­jmegen over the river Waal was barely dis­cussed. Had they done so – and their fail­ure to do so was an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic mis­take – XXX Corps could never have reached the First Air­borne at Arn­hem in time.

Flaws in the plan be­came more ev­i­dent day by day, but Brown­ing re­fused to ad­vise Mont­gomery to re­con­sider the op­er­a­tion. On 12 Septem­ber, Sos­abowski heard that the num­ber of glid­ers al­lo­cated to him had been re­duced. He would have to leave be­hind all his ar­tillery while his anti-tank guns would be landed on the op­po­site side of the river to his main force. Two days later, he pointed out that the bridge­head to be held ex­tended for 10 miles in dif­fi­cult ter­rain. There was thus the pos­si­bil­ity that his bri­gade might have to drop straight onto en­emy-held ground. And if the Bri­tish failed to cap­ture the bridge, the Poles would be left on the wrong side of the river.

Bri­tish bri­gade com­man­ders were not nearly so crit­i­cal, mainly be­cause they could not face an­other can­cel­la­tion. They just wanted to get on with it. And, in the view of Bri­gadier Hicks, who com­manded the First Air Land­ing bri­gade, Mar­ket Gar­den at least seemed to stand a bet­ter chance than sev­eral “ab­so­lutely in­sane” pre­vi­ous plans.

Bri­gadier Gen­eral Jim Gavin of the 82nd Air­borne was ap­palled that Urquhart should have ac­cepted drop and land­ing zones so far from his main ob­jec­tive. Yet Gavin him­self had been told by Brown­ing that his first pri­or­ity was to se­cure the Groes­beek heights south-east of Ni­jmegen. They over­looked the Re­ich­swald, a great for­est just across the Ger­man bor­der, thought to con­ceal tanks. Brown­ing’s ar­gu­ment was that if the Ger­mans oc­cu­pied the Groes­beek heights, then their ar­tillery could stop XXX Corps reach­ing

Op­er­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den was quite sim­ply a very bad plan right from the start and right from the top

Ni­jmegen. Its great road-bridge thus slipped down to be­come a lower pri­or­ity, partly be­cause the First Al­lied Air­borne Army re­fused to land coup de main glider par­ties.

Mont­gomery re­fused to lis­ten when Eisen­hower’s HQ ex­pressed con­cern about Ger­man strength around Arn­hem. The SS Panzer Di­vi­sions Ho­hen­staufen and Frunds­berg were in­deed in the area, al­though with only three ser­vice­able Pan­ther tanks and fewer than 6,000 men be­tween them. Yet they were still able to form a nu­cleus onto which other less ex­pe­ri­enced units could be grafted. What the Al­lies failed to grasp was the ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity of the Ger­man mil­i­tary ma­chine to re­act with speed and de­ter­mi­na­tion. Al­most all the tanks that Al­lied troops faced in Mar­ket Gar­den were not present at the start of the op­er­a­tion, but were brought in from Ger­many on Bl­itz­trans­port trains.

Any­one with any ex­pe­ri­ence of air­borne op­er­a­tions could see that the Bri­tish land­ing and drop­ping zones, up to eight miles to the west of Arn­hem, were too far away to achieve sur­prise. Ma­jor Gen­eral Richard Gale, who had com­manded the Sixth Air­borne Di­vi­sion on D-Day, warned Brown­ing that the lack of coup de main par­ties was likely to be dis­as­trous and that he would have re­signed rather than ac­cept the plan. Brown­ing re­fused to agree and asked Gale not to men­tion it to any­one else as it might dam­age morale.

There was lit­tle Urquhart could do about the other ba­sic flaw. While the First Parachute Bri­gade was to march off to­wards the bridge, Hicks’s First Air­land­ing Bri­gade would have to re­main be­hind to guard the drop and land­ing zones ready for Hack­ett’s Fourth Bri­gade. This meant that Urquhart had just a sin­gle bri­gade to se­cure his chief ob­jec­tive, and his di­vi­sion would be split in two with a wide gap in-be­tween. Worse still, his sig­nals of­fi­cers were rightly wor­ried that their ra­dios might not work over that dis­tance.

Sui­cide op­er­a­tion

Urquhart gave no hint in any of his re­ports, or in his book writ­ten af­ter the war, that he op­posed the plan, but then he was not a man to rock the boat or con­tra­dict the sub­se­quent ver­sion of events that Arn­hem had been a heroic, worth­while gam­ble. Yet ac­cord­ing to Gen­eral Brown­ing’s aide, Cap­tain Eddie New­bury, on 15 Septem­ber Urquhart ap­peared in Brown­ing’s of­fice at Moor Park, and strode over to his desk. “Sir,” he said, “you’ve or­dered me to plan this op­er­a­tion and I have done it, and now I wish to in­form you that I think it is a sui­cide op­er­a­tion.”

The fears of those who had grave doubts about Mar­ket Gar­den were soon re­alised. Out of the First Air­borne Di­vi­sion, only a sin­gle bat­tal­ion made it to the bridge at Arn­hem and could hold no more than its north­ern ap­proach. At Ni­jmegen, the 82nd Air­borne lacked the strength to se­cure its flank on the Ger­man bor­der and also seize the great bridge over the Waal un­til af­ter the much-de­layed Guards Ar­moured Di­vi­sion fi­nally ar­rived. By then the bat­tal­ion at the Arn­hem bridge had been crushed, and on 25 Septem­ber, the bat­tered rem­nants of the First Air­borne at Ooster­beek had to evac­u­ate to the south bank of the Lower Rhine. Out of ap­prox­i­mately 10,600 men north of the Rhine, some 7,900 were left be­hind – dead, wounded and PoWs.

The Dutch suf­fered not just the 3,600 killed and nearly 20,000 se­verely dis­abled in the fight­ing, but faced Ger­man vengeance af­ter­wards for hav­ing helped the Al­lies. More than 200,000 civil­ians were forced from their homes, which were looted and de­stroyed. The north­ern Nether­lands were then sub­jected to famine quite de­lib­er­ately in what be­came known as the Hunger Win­ter, with around 18,000 dead from star­va­tion. They were the chief vic­tims of the dis­as­trous plan for Op­er­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den.

The cross­ing at Arn­hem, which the Al­lies de­stroyed in the au­tumn of 1944. Its post­war re­place­ment is called the John Frost Bridge

Our map of Op­er­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den shows clearly how far the Al­lies in­tended to pen­e­trate into Ger­man-held ter­ri­tory, a plan that left air­borne troops vul­ner­a­ble to coun­ter­at­tack

Dutch civil­ians of­fer as­sis­tance to US para­troop­ers. The Dutch peo­ple would suf­fer ter­ri­bly in the fall- out from the fail­ure of Op­er­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den

ABOVE: Sol­diers of the Bri­tish 11th Parachute Bat­tal­ion sur­ren­der. The bat­tal­ion was dec­i­mated at Arn­hem af­ter it was caught in the open while try­ing to take high ground

LEFT: In an im­age that gives a sense of the ambition of Op­er­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den, waves of para­troop­ers from the First Al­lied Air­borne Army land in the Nether­lands in Septem­ber 1944. But due to plan­ning fail­ures, ar­gues Antony Beevor, many men didn’t make it home

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