Operation Market Garden.
How overconfidence from British leadership led to failure on the Rhine.
The summer of 1944 had seen the Allied forces fight their way across Northern Europe and push the German army back across the continent. The beach landings of June had been followed by months of slow progress across France as the Germans took up strong defensive positions. Because of this, General Bernard Montgomery conceived a plan to punch a hole through Holland and open the way for a push through to Berlin. Yet the events around the town of Arnhem in the September months later cost the lives of thousands of British soldiers and culminated in a military failure for the Allied forces.
If events in Holland went to plan, then the war could have been ended up to a year earlier. It may have even led to American or British soldiers raising their flag over the ruins of Berlin, rather than Russian troops. As it was the failure and to some extent arrogance of the allied leadership that prevented success, the information given to leaders in the build-up to the operation led to the conclusion that it could not be successful. Major Tony Hibbert, one of the leaders tasked with preparing the plan, recalled the intelligence given to him in a reconnaissance report:
“He showed me photographs of German Panzer 4’s; mainly I think they were tucked in underneath woods. He went to General Browning and said that in his view the operation could not succeed, because of the presence of these two divisions.”
The stubbornness of the Allied high command to postpone or abandon the attack was proven to be a costly decision. Due to a lack of aircraft, the paratroopers were sent in over a series of three days. They were also dropped at a landing site seven miles away from the bridges, which took away the element of surprise and exposed the troops as they made their way across the countryside.
Operation Market Garden was and still is the largest airborne assault in history. 5000 aircraft dropped 30,000 Allied paratroopers deep behind enemy lines with the intention of meeting up with ground infantry and tank divisions. The plan was to open a path right to the Rhine and the heart of the Nazi war machine, yet the failure of British command to listen to intelligence from Dutch resistance resulted in military disaster. The underground organisation had reported to the Allied leaders that a Panzer division was in the area around the drop zone. The German resistance along the narrow road to Nijmegen and Arnhem prevented much of the British second army from reaching the bridges across the river. This, added with the fact only one of the three airborne divisions met up with the ground forces, assured that the operation was to be a failure.
The determination of the few paratroopers who made it to the north side of Arnhem Bridge was nothing short of remarkable. For four days the regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, held off the 7th SS Panzer Division. The lack of heavy weapons from the Allied troops made this even more impressive. It was futile in the end, as it ultimately only delayed the inevitable as the troops were eventually overrun.
German reinforcements forced the British and Americans to abandon their positions on the river and fight their way back towards liberated France. The Allies were woefully unprepared for the German defences and the speed in which they got to the bridges to either defend or destroy them, slowing down any possible advance.
Of the ten thousand men who had landed at Arnhem, fourteen hundred were killed and over six thousand captured; only twenty-four hundred paratroopers safely crossed to the south bank of the Rhine in small rubber boats.
The Allies did push the Germans back to Berlin, but it would take many more months of fighting and bloodshed. If the warnings of the defences had been heeded, the disaster which was Operation Market Garden might have been avoided. The plan was very optimistic, born out of the successes of the Normandy beach landings in June but it simply was a battle which should not have been carried out.
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