“Where is the Prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defence as that 10,000 men descending from the clouds, might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?”. Benjamin Franklin, 1784.
Following the success of the D Day landings in June 1944, the Allies expected to make a steady advance eastward, but found themselves bogged down for many weeks in the bitter Battle for Normandy.
When they finally broke out and decisively defeated the German forces in the Falaise pocket, they believed that they would thereafter encounter only light resistance on their march to the Rhine. They had swept through France and Belgium and were poised to enter the Netherlands. The Germans however, while retreating, remained an obstinate enemy and the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, faced an advance on a very wide front against well prepared positions. He had four armies at his disposal. In the north were General Mongomery’s 21st Army Group, General Bradley’s 12th Army Group and 6th Army Group under General Devers. In the south was 3rd Army Group under the flamboyant General George Patton.
In mid August, Montgomery proposed a plan for 21st Army Group to make a single thrust through northern France and the Low Countries to cross the branches of the Lower Rhine, bypassing the German Siegfried Line and attacking Germany’s industrial heartland of the Ruhr. He argued that German resistance had been considerably weakened on his front and that his plan would have the benefit of eliminating the V1 rocket sites that had been attacking southern England and also liberate the ports of northern France to aid the Allied supply situation. Paratroops would be dropped close to bridges across the river and prevent them from being destroyed by the Germans until allied ground troops could advance to support them.
If successful, the plan would open the route to Berlin and hopefully force the end of the war in Europe by Christmas 1944.
Montgomery initially proposed the plan to be a British and Polish airborne operation codenamed “Comet”, but it was soon expanded to involve most of the First Allied Airborne Army supported by a set piece ground attack through the Netherlands. The plan called for the US 101st Airborne Division to capture key bridges around Eindhoven, the 82nd Airborne Division to secure the crossings around Nijmegen, while the British 1st Airborne Division with the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade attached were tasked with capturing the three furthest bridges across the Rhine at Arnhem. The British 2nd Army, led by XXX Corps, would then advance up this airborne corridor, securing the airborne troops positions and cross the Rhine in two days. The codename for the venture was Operation Market Garden and was to become the largest strategic airborne assault in the history of warfare.
Major General Roy Urqhart, a officer with no experience in airborne operations, was appointed commander of the British airborne division which consisted of three infantry brigades, (two parachute and one glider borne) some artillery, Royal Engineers, the Polish paratroops and 1,200 men of the Glider Pilot Regiment.
Urguhart was ordered to secure the road, rail and pontoon bridges over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem and hold them for two to three days until relieved by XXX Corps, but his plans were hampered from the start by the shortage of aircraft. The US 1X Troop Carrier Command, with two other major drops taking place at the same time, were unable to take Urquhart’s force to the area in one lift, meaning that it would take three days to deliver the entire Division. Furthermore, the lack of suitable landing sites for the gliders meant that Urquhart was forced to choose landing zones (LZ) and drop zones (DZ) up to eight miles from Arnhem. This would not only lose him the element of surprise, but also expose his forces to counter attack while they waited for the remainder of the group to arrive. He realised that if he was to secure the bridges, town and drop zones for subsequent supply drops, he would need to defend a perimeter of some 18 miles.
He decided to land his 1st Parachute Brigade and 1st Air Landing Brigade on the first day. The Air Landing units would secure the drop zones for the following day’s drop, while the Paras would take three separate routes into Arnhem to secure the bridges. Lieutenant Colonel John Frost commanded the 2nd Battalion and would follow the riverside route into the centre of Arnhem, (codenamed the Lion Route) and secure the main road and railway bridges as well as the pontoon bridge between the two, while the 3rd Battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel Fitch, would head through Oosterbeek to Arnhem, (Tiger Route). Lieutenant Colonel Dobie’s 3rd Battalion would follow Leopard Route north of the railway and occupy the high ground to the north and west of the town. The whole advance would be led by a squadron of reconnaissance jeeps from 1st Airborne Reconnaissance under the command of Major Gough who would attempt a fast surprise attack to take the road bridge.
A further Parachute Brigade (4th) would be dropped on the second day, together with artillery units and the remaining elements of the Air Landing Brigade to reinforce the positions north and west of Arnhem. The Polish Brigade were to be dropped on day three to reinforce the perimeter and link up with their own artillery coming in by glider. They would all then dig in, hold the perimeter and await the arrival of XXX Corps who would advance beyond the bridgehead and, together with an Infantry Division that was to be flown into the nearby Deelen airfield, smash their way forward to the Ruhr. The whole operation was to be re-supplied daily by 38 and 46 Group RAF.
Poor intelligence led the British to believe that they would encounter only light resistance from German reserve forces who were described as disorderly and dispirited and the assault troops were confident of success. Information was then received from Dutch resistance fighters that German armour was in the Arnhem area. Aerial reconnaissance was ordered by the Division’s Intelligence Officer which confirmed the presence of tanks, but the information was dismissed by senior staff and the Chief Medical Officer was ordered to have the Intelligence Officer sent on sick leave.
Crucially, Supreme Headquarters Allied European Forces (SHAEF) was also aware that two Panzer Divisions had arrived in the Arnhem area, but with the operation looming, chose to ignore the threat and did not inform Urquhart. It is difficult to justify the reasons for senior offices at Divisional Headquarters and at SHAEF to withhold this vital information to the fighting men, but it is known that Montgomery’s rather arrogant style did not suit some senior officers and a rivalry existed between him and General Patton as to who would be first into Berlin, resulting in much vying for position at Headquarters. Is it possible that some wanted to see Montgomery’s plan fail and that such small mindedness could result in the assault going ahead without the troops involved being made aware of the armour?
After the liberation of Antwerp, resulting in heavy German losses, the allies paused to regroup on the Dutch border, giving the Germans time to re-organise their defences in the Netherlands. Feldmarschall Walter Model, commander of Army Group B, had moved his headquarters to Arnhem and had re-established defences there, bringing together his scattered units. To the west of Arnhem was Kampfgruppe Von Tettau, with 7 infantry battalions, plus 16th SS Training Division, commanded by SS Sturmbannführer Sep Krafft.
Unbeknown to the British, the German 11 SS Panzer Corps had also moved into the area to refit and regroup after the heavy fighting in France. This Panzer unit, commanded by highly regarded Waffen SS Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Bittich, contained the remains of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, the 9th Panzergrenadier Brigade, a reconnaissance battalion, an artillery battalion and two batteries of self propelled guns in addition to their tanks. There were also units of Dutch SS, recruited by the Germans from fascist sympathisers. These units added some 7,000 experienced fighting men to the German defence.