Operation Market Garden: 68th Anniversary

17 Sep

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On the morning of September 17th, 1944, the fighting along the Western Front in Europe had subsided. The massive battles that had been waged in Normandy, from the Battle of Caen to the Falaise Pocket, as well as the Battle of Cherbourg, Brest, and Operation Cobra, had passed, and with Dietrich von Choltitz’s surrender of Paris on August 25th, the German  Wehrmacht was largely regarded as being in complete disarray. They retreated from Normandy across the River Seine, and had spread out across France, retreating in the direction of Germany’s western frontier, as well as easily defensible positions in Belgium and Luxembourg, or, as in the case of the 15th Army, a stable garrison far from the front line in the Netherlands. The retreat of the remnants of Germany’s Army Group B after its disastrous suicidal battle near Falaise, where 60,000 of its 100,000 men had been killed, wounded, or captured, along with the majority of their armor and available artillery, and where their commanding officer, Gunther von Kluge, had committed suicide out of humiliation, the Allies, under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, largely believed, and agreed, that the German  Wehrmacht is France was obliterated, and would collapse at any moment. They could not have been farther from the truth.

As August came to a close, the majority of France, from Chaumont to Marseilles, was in the hands of the Allies. With the launch of Operation Anvil-Dragoon, directed at southern France, on August 15th, conducted by Jacob Devers’s 6th Army Group, the southern flank of the Allied advance was secured. Following the liberation of Paris and the breakout from Normandy, General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army and General Courtney Hodges’s 1st Army, under the jurisdiction of General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group, made their way in the direction of Alsace-Lorraine, Germany’s southern border with France, while General William Hood Simpson’s 9th Army, General Harry Crerar’s 1st Army (Canadian), and General Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army (British), under the jurisdiction of General Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, made their way into Belgium and Luxembourg. To the south, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s 1st Army (French) and Alexander Patch’s 7th Army, under the command of Jacob Devers’s 6th Army Group, made their way from Marseilles north to the French border with Switzerland. The front had begun to stabilize by September 1st, giving the Allies a false sense that the war was over, and the German Army’s strength resembled that of a deck of cards: one gust of wind could blow it over. With the Germans being forced to cope with the Allies, who could only bring about roughly 20 divisions against them, they also were forced to cope with the Russians, who were capable of bringing over 350 divisions to bear against them, and after the success of Operation Bagration and the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive in Poland and the Ukraine, respectively, the Germans were gradually being forced back to the River Oder, their eastern border with Poland, while the Russians advanced from the Ukraine into southern Germany and Austria. Simultaneously, Soviet armies had penetrated into the Balkan Peninsula, with their spearhead armored units advancing in the direction of Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. Romania, one of the few nations in Europe that had signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany in 1939, collapsed into disarray in August, with a royal coup ousting the established Nazi government and signing itself over to the Allies. Romania had been Germany’s prime supplier of crude oil, and with her surrender, Germany would be forced to wage war with what it had, which was not much at all.

Germany’s situation was much less drastic in the west than it was in the east, yet it was far more disconcerting for the Allies. Prior to the airborne and amphibious landings conducted during Operation Neptune, the assault phase of Operation Overlord, large scale Allied bombardments had wrecked the French rail system, which had crippled the German supply network. That had benefited the Allies as it kept German reinforcements and much-needed supplies from being moved to the front quickly. Yet once the Allies moved inland from the invasion beaches, this turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. As June turned to July, the Allies had no deep-water serviceable ports available to them, other than Cherbourg, which the Germans had destroyed prior to its surrender. The only ports the Allies did have were hastily constructed artificial ports, known as Mulberries, but these had been destroyed in a storm in the English Channel. On September 4th, the Canadian 1st Army seized Antwerp, a deep-water Belgium port operating from the Scheldt Estuary, yet the Estuary came in from the Netherlands, which was still in German hands. As long as the Scheldt was closed off and controlled by the Germans, and until Cherbourg could be repaired, all supplies had to be brought to the front line from the invasion beaches. Considering their small stature and shallow water, the beaches could only handle a small amount of supplies a day, compared to deep-water ports. Combined with the rapid Allied advance in the wake of the collapse of German resistance following Falaise, and their quick retreat across the Seine to the venerable defenses of the vaunted Siegfried Line, supply lines became incredibly strained. What little supplies could be brought to the rapidly advancing Allied armies from the beaches had to be brought by truck, and the near legendary Red Ball Express was established to assist in this. Operated by primarily black infantry, the Express became a much needed cog in the Allied war machine in 1944 Europe, but it had little effect on the outcome of the war.

With the supply situation becoming desperate, the Allied advance ground to a halt on Germany’s western border, just short of crossing the River Rhine, the ultimate goal. General Eisenhower favored what was known as the “broad-front strategy”, in which everything west of the Rhine was to be captured from the Germans before a crossing of the Rhine would be authorized, although small-scale crossings had already been conducted as early as late September. In compliance with this, General Montgomery, on September 10th, approached General Eisenhower with a plan, code-named Operation Comet. The plan originally called for British 1st Parachute Division, under General Roy Urquhart, and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, under General Stanislaw Sosabowski, to undertake an intermediate scale airborne drop into the Netherlands along Highway 69, between Nijmegen and Arnhem, and seize the two, 2,000-foot road bridges running through those towns. Once the bridges were secured, British armor from General Brian Horrocks’s XXX Corps, supported by General Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps on his right flank, facing Germany, and General Neil Ritchie’s XII Corps on his left, facing the German 15th Army, would advance along the route from Eindhoven in the south, all the way to Arnhem, relieving the paratroopers in the two towns, then flanking the northernmost defenses of the Siegfried Line and swinging into the North German Plain, rapidly advancing in the direction of Berlin. The operation itself seemed risky at first, with only one and a half parachute divisions, but was soon modified to encompass much more.

The plan was soon modified into what became known as Operation Market Garden. The Market phase of the operation was directed at the airborne element. Instead of the original two bridges that had been envisaged, Montgomery now altered this to an incredible eight, and, on top of that, placed a near impossible timetable of two days on the operation. He also introduced two more parachute divisions, both American. The new plan was still centered around Highway 69, which was located only about twenty miles from the western German border. The operation was broken into three sections: the American 101st Airborne section (the furthest south), American 82nd Airborne section (in the middle), and the British 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade section (furthest north and closest to Germany). The American 101st Airborne Division, commanded by General Maxwell Taylor, and having only seen combat in their first drop into Normandy three months earlier, would have the object of taking the bridge at Eindhoven, six miles from the Belgian border with the Netherlands. Their target furthest north would be Son, twenty miles behind enemy lines. Between that would be Veghel and Sint-Oedenrode. With two bridges located in Son, one in Eindhoven, Veghel, and Sint-Oedenrode, the 101st was given the majority of bridges to take, yet theirs were smaller, and more insignificant. Further north was the American 82nd Airborne, commanded by General James Gavin (the previous commander, Matthew Ridgeway, had been promoted to executive officer of the First Allied Airborne Army, where these divisions were coming from), would have the objectives of seizing the bridge at Grave, and the 2,000-foot long road bridge Nijmegen. And, furthest north, was located the British 1st Airborne under General Roy Urquhart (the Division’s original commander, Frederick Browning, had been promoted to commanding officer of the First Allied Airborne Army), along with the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, would seize the 2,000-foot road bridge at Arnhem, sixty-two miles behind enemy lines in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen were by far the most important. While the bridges at Eindhoven and Son could be repaired in the event they were damaged or destroyed and could not handle the weight of Allied armor, the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem could not, and if they could, it would take months to do so. The Allies needed to move swiftly to capture the two key bridges, preferably intact. Allied intelligence reports suggested the Germans were prepping the spans with high explosives, and, in the event of an Allied invasion, would blow the bridges, sinking them into the Waal and Neder-Rhine River canals. Considering Highway 69 is the shortest and closest route to Germany, yet it is also coated in rivers and river canals, it was the prime choice for the operation. In all, 40,000 Allied paratroopers would be committed. Once the bridges were secured, the Garden phase of the operation would be implemented, with armor from General Brian Horrocks’s XXX Corps, supported by General Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps, facing Germany, and General Neil Ritchie’s XII Corps, facing the 15th Army, would drive along the length of the Highway, crossing the bridges and relieving the paratroopers as they went. They were scheduled to reach Eindhoven in two to three hours, and Arnhem within two to three days. By then, they would be within striking distance of Germany, and, without having to concentrate forces against the Siegfried Line, which could add several more weeks, if not months, onto the fighting, the British could be within Berlin by the end of the war, hopefully, ending the war by Christmas 1944. Combined with Allied intelligence reports that the German Army in the Netherlands was low on everything, especially morale, and with the high amount of casualties they had taken in the past summer, the Allies believed the Germans were broken, and were calling upon the old, sick, young, and weak to fill in the ranks of the men they had lost. They believed the Germans were finished. They were not.

The German Army Group B, which had been nearly wiped out at Falaise, had come under the command of the exuberant and tenacious Field Marshal Walter Model, who had recently been transferred to the Western Front from the Soviet Union. Allies had planned to trap Army Group B between them in the southeast and the IJsselmeer, the massive reservoir forming the Netherlands’ odd northwestern shape. Yet Model had just been given priority on state-of-the-art German weaponry and armor, and planned to use them against the lightly armed shock force of the airborne troops. The paratroopers were not equipped for long-term fighting, and their German counterparts were. The Allies would also be dropping into the Netherlands during the day, Montgomery’s remedy for the debacle of the Normandy drops, in which paratroopers were horribly scattered about the countryside, far from their designated drop zones. By 1:00 P.M, the first waves of American and British paratroopers began landing in their drop zones, with the Polish being held back as a reserve until necessity proved otherwise. The British were dropped around Oosterbeek, a small commune about three miles west of Arnhem. They initially planned on a scouting unit of American-loaned jeeps equipped with light machine guns to ride ahead, take and hold the bridge and wait until further reinforcement arrived, yet the jeeps were damaged upon landing, and could not be serviced. The radios issued to the British also faltered as well, as the batteries that had been dropped in with them were either not correctly supplied, or were not supplied at all. The British invasion as already off to a horrible start, and it was still only the first day.

The American landings went sensationally well, except for two unexpected setbacks. One of the twin bridges at Son was destroyed by German artillery before it could be taken, and the Americans were forced to radio XXX Corps and ask that they bring with them a Bailey Bridge. A Bailey Bridge is a large artificial bridge that can be constructed in a matter of hours. The second setback would be that the death of the commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, when Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole was killed by a sniper’s bullet in a forest outside of Sint-Oedenrode. The actions displayed by him on September 17th earned him the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor. The American advance was plagued by a high amount of stiff German resistance, combined with the German’s extreme resourcefulness, with accounts of German defenders at Nuenen, the hometown of the great artist Vincent van Gogh, using a haystack to hide a Tiger I heavy tank until it could be brought to ambush the advancing American troops on September 19th. Other issues plagued the Americans, aside from the 101st. In the 82nd sector, once the troops had landed, General James Gavin chose to consolidate his forces for the push into Nijmegen rather than just pushing into the city and taking the bridge. Unknown to Gavin, only about twelve German troops defended the bridge when he and his division landed. They would later have to fight tooth and nail to dislodge the German forces upon the bridge.

Unbeknownst to the Americans, XXX Corps was suffering setbacks of its own. Shortly after departing from Belgium, the snaking convoy of Sherman Firefly and Cromwell tanks ran into a chain of German ambushes along terrain the British had thought an earlier artillery barrage had cleared. XXX Corps did not arrive in Eindhoven until the morning of September 18th, as the Germans continuously targeted the lead vehicle in the column, and considering the road was generally only wide enough for the convoy to advance single file, this cost the British valuable time. Blended with the debacle at Son, the advance was already falling behind schedule, by well over a day. In Arnhem, the situation was rapidly deteriorating. Elements of General Wilhelm Bittrich’s 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich had arrived in the city, and the outnumbered and outgunned British troops were forced to use what they had: spring-loaded 3-in caliber PIAT grenade launchers against the six-inch thick skin of Tiger and Panther heavy tanks. Colonel John Frost, whose name would later be given to the bridge at Arnhem, commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment which fought hard against the 2nd SS to keep the bridge from falling completely into the hands of the Germans. With the situation in Arnhem deteriorating, Frederick Browning gave the go ahead for Sosabowski’s 1st Independent Parachute Brigade to be dropped around the previous British drop zone at Oosterbeek. Their time had come, and the dense fog over the English Channel that had been keeping them from landing had finally cleared. Unknown to Browning, due primarily to the faltering radios, the Germans had overrun the majority of the British defenders in Arnhem and had pushed them out of the city, all the way to the Rhine Canal. The British were now surrounded, and the Polish were dropping into enemy controlled territory in the middle of broad daylight. As they descended, German troops picked off the Polish troops before many of them had hit the ground. During the night of September 19th, the day the Polish had landed, they began to advance from cover to the British lines near the river. In the meantime, Frost and his 2nd Battalion continued to hold what little friendly ground was left in Arnhem, yet their time was almost up.

In Nijmegen, with the fall of Grave earlier on the 19th, Gavin and the 82nd sat poised to take the road bridge inside the city, yet in order to do it effectively, they would have to take both ends at once. The same day, the Coldstream Guards and Guards Armored Division of XXX Corps had assisted in an attempted seizure of the bridge, but were stopped short by just two hundred meters. Gavin requested boats from XXX Corps, but they did not arrive until the next day. By then, the situation in Arnhem had grown untenable, and the British, who had landed with a strength of 10,000 men, had taken 8,000 casualties. On September 20th, the last push by the German 2nd SS Panzer finally broke through, and Frost and his men surrendered. The 1st Airborne was left with just its position on the Rhine. That same day, out of the false hope that the men at Arnhem could be spared, Gavin and his men took Nijmegen Bridge and stopped the German plan for sabotage. Yet it was in vain. The British defense collapsed, and XXX Corps knew. During a small delay of about five hours in the British column, the fighting at Oosterbeek was becoming more and more extreme. To the south, the 101st and 82nd were forced to beat off small Waffen SS counterattacks while the situation at Arnhem was sorted out. Montgomery was forced to realize that the operation had failed, and in an attempt to save face, said that it was a ninety-five percent success. On September 25th, when the news reached the 101st, those troops were in Koevering, eliminating the last organized German resistance in their sector. The 82nd was in Nijmegen, and the British 1st was at its narrow strip of land in Oosterbeek. The news was not a shock, but a bitter disappointment to the troops who had been forced to fight and die along what came to be known as Hell’s Highway. And they believed that they had spilled their blood for nothing. On September 25th, the 2,500 British and Polish troops still defending Oosterbeek were evacuating during Operation Berlin, conducted by elements of XXX Corps. In all, the Allies had taken between 15 and 17,000 casualties, while the Germans had lost around 3 to 13,000. Market Garden can be viewed as a mild success, as it did help solidify the Allied position along the western bank of the Rhine, and did trap the 15th Army and help secure the Scheldt, which was completed in October, but it is also a failure on a Biblical scale, as it did not achieve its final objective of ending the war in Europe by Christmas. This would not be achieved until May 1945, after the final battles, such as the Battle of the Bulge and Battle of Berlin, were fought out of sheer desperation and dedication to a cause that had seen its end at the start of the war.

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