The Battle of Arnhem Operation Market Garden

How WWII Nearly Ended A Year Early

The Battle of Arnhem Operation Market Garden

It started as an audacious plan to "end the war in '44'', and had it been a success, post-Second World War Europe would have looked very different.

Following the D-Day landings, forces led by the British and Americans had swept eastward across France, while Russia, having gained the momentum after turning back the ferocious Operation Barbarossa, was pushing west - the Nazis were being pressed on both sides.

Behind the scenes, the nominally allied Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had fought backroom battles to determine the direction of the war, and then the future shape of Europe.

Stalin, for his part, was well aware of the consequences of 'liberation' of Nazi territory by Russia:

"This war is not as in the past. Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system." 

This week marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne battle in history. Occurring between September 17 and 25, 1944, it might have scuttled Stalin’s eventual capture of eastern Germany, had it succeeded. 

The plan, shown on the left image below, was for three airborne divisions to land at various DZs (Drop Zones) near key bridges, which would then be seized. The men were from the American 82 and 101 Airborne Divisions in the south, and the British 1 Airborne Division in the north at Arnhem.

The Brits had the most difficult job because they would need to hold out the longest. Paratroopers were sometimes assisted by airborne support units - infantry that swept in aboard gliders. However, their primary reinforcements were the British XXX Corps. Led by the Guards Armoured Division, they would race up Highway 69 from the south.

Airborne Second World War
The plan (image:; and right, British paratroops assemble a trolley for evacuating wounded in Ginkel Heath near Arnhem (image from 'British Paratrooper 1940-45' by Rebecca Skinner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Because of these tough odds, the mission, also called the Battle of Arnhem, has come to be regarded as something of a 'glorious British failure'- a testament to the perseverance and gallantry of troops in the Second World War. 

Fittingly enough, the operation was also the brainchild of Field Marshal Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery, hatched shortly after his glittering success in the D-Day Landings. 

It began well enough. On 17 September, 1944, 1,500 British and American aircraft and 500 gliders flew over enemy lines. By just after 1400 hours, some 20,000 combat troops, 511 vehicles, 330 artillery pieces and 590 tons of equipment had been safely landed.

What's more, unlike airborne assaults during D-Day, the landings weren't beset by mis-drops. American and British parachutists landed on target and began to move swiftly up the narrow road towards the relatively lightly-defended bridges.

With Allied guns barraging German defenders, and the paratroops moving in, the war really might be over by Christmas... if XXX Corps could get through quickly enough to consolidate any newly won positions.

Airborne Second World War
American paratroops often carried spare chutes on their chests and M1 Garand Rifles or Thompson submachine guns, as seen here (image from 'Operation Market-Garden 1944 (1)' by Steven J Zaloga © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

But then, as the XXX Corps approached, the first nine tanks were quickly picked off, and the Germans were able to organise a defence against the closer airborne troops.

Whilst the British paratroopers made their advance towards Arnhem, they soon found themselves under attack. To make things worse, their radios stopped working, spelling disaster for the advance, which quickly became uncoordinated. 

From 1 Parachute Brigade, only Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s 2 Battalion made substantial progress, and even then, the railway bridge that had been his objective was blown up just as they approached it.

Meanwhile, the Germans were regrouping, bringing in heavy reinforcements in preparation for the next day.

British Paratroopers World War 2
A 3D map showing the British positions (in blue) surrounded by German reinforcements (in red), with eventual escape routes over the river (image from 'Arnhem 1944' by Stephen Badsey © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

On day two, General Horrocks, XXX Corps Commander, desperately ordered American troops to attack across the River Waal, in hopes of their being able to capture the German side.

Members of 82 Airborne Division were forced to row across the river under heavy fire. Veteran Moffatt Burris remembered: 

'The bullets hitting the water looked like a hailstorm, kicking up little spouts of water [...] when a boat was hit with an artillery shell or a mortar shell, it just disintegrated, and everybody was lost.'

Despite fierce resistance, they made it and XXX Corps eventually pushed through.

But they were too late to save the men of 1 Airborne Division at Arnhem. They were now surrounded and, whilst many managed to escape, many more (thousands) were captured.

The bridges further south may have been seized, but as per the now famous phase, the one at Arnhem proved to be 'a bridge too far'.

For more, read 'Arnhem 1944' by Stephen Badsey, 'Operation Market-Garden 1944 (1)' by Steven J Zaloga, and 'Operation Market-Garden 1944 (2)' and 'Operation Market-Garden 1944 (3)', both by Ken Ford. 

Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

This article was first published in 2016.

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