Today I’m going to talk about Operation Market Garden, a major Allied airborne assault behind German lines in Holland in September of 1944. Operation Market Garden is often overlooked; in fact it’s not even mentioned in the AP and SAT 2 US History study guides.
That’s because Operation Market Garden was a failure.
However, I want to tell you why I believe that it was an important and courageous strategic move, albeit poorly executed. Before I tell you about the battle, however, let me give you a little bit of context about world war two.
As most of us know Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and far fewer of us know that Russia invaded Poland from the East soon thereafter. This of course began the largest military conflict of the 20th century. On May 10, 1940 Germany attacked France and the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) and by August 1940 they had all surrendered.
In June of 1940, 338 thousand Allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk across the English Channel by a homemade flotilla of British boats. This marked the lowest point in the war for the Allied troops and Britain didn’t regain the offensive until the United States joined the war in 1941. After the battle of France, Europe looked to be impregnable and Britain was on its own.
To take back the continent of Europe the Allies began a series of operations starting with Operation Supercharge, the invasion of Libya and Egypt in 1941 and 42; various other successful invasions were launched by British and American forces in North Africa and Italy.
By Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily) the Allies had grown more confident due to their victory against Rommel in N. Africa and incorporated both airborne drops and amphibious assaults to gain the upper hand. This all culminated with Operation Overlord (D-Day landings) on June 6, 1944 and the lesser-known invasion of southern France, Operation Dragoon.
Paratroopers were tasked with capturing German gun emplacements so they were dropped at one in the morning, five hours before infantry began arriving at the beaches. Eventually the Allies broke out from the beaches at Normandy, liberated Paris and faced the prospects of invading Germany. Maintaining the rate of advance through France on a broad front (spanning Holland to Italy) would have been impossible. The Allies had two choices (1) slow down their advance or (2) concentrate their strained resources behind a single strike into Germany. They chose option two against the advice of Patton.
To capitalize on the Allies’ success at D-Day, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (high ranking British officer and hero of El Alamein) suggested a “thrust across the Rhine and into the heart of Germany.”
Although Allied commanders generally favored a broad front policy to continue the advance into Germany and the Netherlands, Montgomery proposed a bold plan to head north through the Dutch Gelderland, bypassing the German Siegfried Line defenses and opening a route into the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr. Initially proposed as a British and Polish operation codenamed Operation Comet, the plan was soon expanded to involve most of the First Allied Airborne Army and was renamed Market Garden. *Despite the fact that by now it was clear that the Germans were going to lose the war, nobody believed they would surrender, which is what made Monty’s suggestion of Market Garden so attractive. It was a way to shorten the war and save hundreds of thousands of lives.*
Market Garden consisted of two parts: Market and Garden.
“Market” employed four of the six divisions of the First Allied Airborne Army (101st, 82nd, 1st British, and 52nd (lowland)), Market would be the largest airborne assault in history with over 34,000 men dropping into Holland. Market was also the only large airborne operation in the USAAF (US Army Air Forces) had “no physical training program, no rehearsals, and low levels of tactical training.”
“Garden” consisted of the XXX (30) Corps which was expected to arrive in Eindhoven on day one, Nijmegen on day two, and Arnhem by day four at least. Four days was a long time for an airborne force to fight unsupported, in addition, Allied paratroopers lacked adequate anti-tank weapons, which turned out to be a deadly oversight. According to Allied intelligence most of the German 15th Army was fleeing from Canadian troops and it was thought that the XXX Corps would face little resistance.
General George Patton strongly opposed Montgomery’s plan, as it would take resources from his 3rd army in the south preventing him from linking up with American and French armies coming up from the Mediterranean. Patton put up such a fuss that Eisenhower gave him his supplies, stalling Montgomery, which allowed the Germans to regroup at the Rhine.
From the start, the operation was dogged with problems. Problem one: airborne troops were dropped miles from the bridges they were supposed to secure. Problem two: Allied intelligence had not revealed that there was a full Pazer Corps (tanks) near the Rhine.
Problem three: the only road to reach the three towns was a two-lane road build on top of a dike. It eventually became congested when the British armor was attacked by Panzer Corps and it took longer than expected for the XXX Corps to punch through to Arnhem.
The British 1st Airborne held the bridge at Arnhem for four days and continued to fight over the river for another five days (nine days total) before withdrawing to the south over the Rhine. They lacked sufficient anti-tank weapons, and with the absence of Allied air cover, the Luftwaffe was able to make strafing runs on British troops and British occupied houses. They were surrounded, exposed on the road, and eventually were rescued by the American 101st airborne. Of the 10,000 British paratroopers who dropped into Holland only 2,000 survived. Before the Battle of Arnhem, General Browning, Commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, told Montgomery “We can hold [the bridge] for four days. But I think we might be going a bridge too far.”
Market Garden was an Allied Operational Failure. It did not end the war before Christmas and forced the Allies (as Patton predicted) to fight a broad front war despite limited supplies. The only other way into Germany was through Belgium. Because of the failure of Market Garden the Germans were able to launch their last major offensive of the war, the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, which resulted in 89,000 American casualties and a similar number of German casualties.
Operation Market Garden was sound strategy. By shortening the war in the fall of 1944 the Allies had hoped to avoid what turned out to be 400,000+ deaths. The even more massive losses on the Eastern Front – almost 3 million Russians and Germans – would have also been avoided, if the Allies had made it to Berlin earlier.
Eventually, after the brutal winter of 1944-45 that included the Battle of Bulge, daily infantry battles over almost every inch of Germany, VE Day came. Market Garden was designed to avoid the carnage that did eventually occur in 1945 when the British and Americans lost 300,000+ troops.
For further reading:
Crossing the Rhine: Breaking into Nazi Germany, 1944 and 1945: The Greatest Airborne Battles in History by Lloyd Clark
Deliver Us from Darkness: The Untold Story of Third Battalion 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment during Operation Market Garden by Ian Gardner
Arnhem by Christopher Hibbert
A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan (there’s also a movie!)
Thanks for reading!