Forever a Bridge Too Far
September 17th, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden and the Battle of Arnhem. It was one of the largest airborne operations in history. This operation was even the subject of the 1977-star studded movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’ directed by Richard Attenborough.
“Sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far”
Lieutenant General Frederick Browing to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
Operation Market Garden.
Operation Market Garden was a bold plan by the normally careful British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to secure river and canal crossings in the eastern part of the Netherlands and obtain a crossing over the Lower Rhine. Allied airborne troops would hold the bridges while British Army tanks and men would force their way north to relieve them. The first landings took place on 17th September 1944.
If successful, the plan would liberate the Netherlands, outflank Germany’s formidable frontier defences, the Siegfried Line, and make possible an armoured drive into the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. However, it will be remembered as a good idea that didn’t quite work as planned, leaving many men’s lives in jeopardy.
Market Garden consisted of two sub-operations:
Market - an airborne assault to seize key bridges; laying a carpet of airborne troops.
Garden - a ground attack moving over the seized bridges creating the salient.
Operation Market Garden was a massive undertaking by the Allies. Launching from 22 British airfields in over 1,500 aircraft, three Airborne Divisions travelled to Holland to parachute into action and take control of key river and canal crossings. They were the British 1st Airborne Division, which aimed to take the bridge at Arnhem, the US 101st Division, which targeted Eindhoven and Veghel, and the US 82nd Airborne Division, which landed at Grave with a view to securing bridges there and at Nijmegen. Once they had carved a corridor through Holland, the troops were to be joined by the British Second Army, who would push fast along the road between Arnhem and Eindhoven and across all the newly captured bridges, and swing around the northern end of the German West Wall, part of the sturdy Siegfried Line of defences, capturing the Ruhr area and thereby weakening the German arms production.
The fighter and bomber units set off first to provide protection and distraction and were followed by Dakota transports and Stirling bombers converted to carry troops. For the US Divisions, things went largely to plan. They successfully landed and hastened to their objectives, having linked up with the British XXX Corps slightly later than planned. All three forces should have met up on the first evening, but the XXX Corps met with resistance from a German ambush of anti-tank defences and didn’t meet up with the 101st Division until the 18th, and the 82nd until the 19th. With their help, the 82nd troop did manage to capture the bridge at Nijmegen on 20th September, which they had struggled to do alone.
Unfortunately, all the delays, including bad luck with the weather, prevented XXX Corps from speeding to the aid of 1st Division, who had run into serious difficulties and had been expecting to be relieved within 4 days; in the event, it took many more days for help to reach them. Their troubles began when they landed short of their objective, 10 miles to the west of Arnhem and the Nederrijn Bridge, near Oosterbeek. To make matters worse, defences in the area were very much stronger than anyone had expected. The Paratroopers were lightly armed, with very little ammunition, having been expected to quickly reach their objective before a heavy defence could be mounted. To their horror, they ran straight into the heavily armed German 9th and 10th S.S. Panzer Divisions, who had been sent to the area to rest after time on the Front Line. These two divisions were sent to Arnhem to recuperate after fighting in Normandy. Their presence was discovered before the operation by British codebreakers but the information was not acted upon.
It was a desperate fight that none of the British troops had bargained for. Only one Battalion, 2 Para, made it as far as the bridge, where they found themselves cut off from the rest of the Brigade. 1 and 3 Para, meanwhile, found themselves surrounded at Oosterbeck and made the target of a full-on assault from the Panzers. They fought hard and managed to hold the Germans off for some days, but their meagre stock of ammunition rapidly dwindled. 4 Para did arrive the following afternoon, but found it was all they could do to defend themselves against the strong enemy, let along break through the opposing forces to reach their comrades. By September 20th the German Panzers were firmly over the bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Frost, the Commander of 2 Para, had been injured, all buildings occupied by British Paratroopers had been shelled, and the German infantry moved in to take most of the remaining British troops prisoner.
Luckily, that wasn’t the end of the story for the 1st Division. First, on 22nd September, the Polish 1st Airborne Brigade arrived to make a brave attempt to rescue the British troops, dropping south of the river; however, they found the ferries over the water destroyed, and came under fire from both banks. They weren’t alone for long, as XXX Corps had been laboriously fighting its way through further anti-tank defences to reach Arnhem, while the US troops held the captured bridges. XXX Corps arrived on the evening of 22nd September, and joined the fight with the Poles on the 23rd. Three Battalions of the 43rd Division reached the river bank, and the men of the 5th Dorsets crossed to try and help the remaining Paratroopers. On the evening of the 24th the tanks subjected the Germans to heavy artillery fire, while the glider pilots of the Air Landing Brigade taped out an escape route to the north river bank, where British and Canadian troops were waiting to take survivors across to the relative safety of the south bank.
On the 25th September some of the men from British 1st Division crossed to safety. Of over 9,000 who had parachuted in, just 2,100 made the crossing. Another 7,500 were either dead or remained behind as prisoners, with the last free British and Polish soldiers surrendering on the 27th; 1,000 men had given their lives in the course of the fierce fighting, and in the next two months the US forces would suffer 3,500 more casualties while defending the bridges already won. The failure to seize the bridge at Arnhem ensured that the Allies did not make it east of the Rhine to Germany until 1945, the year that saw the immensely bloody War in Europe finally draw to a close.
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