Market Garden 65 Years On: Reflections of a Tragedy
The idea behind Market Garden was brilliant if only it had been better carried out.
Recently we celebrated the sixty-fifth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. To many of us who were alive in 1944 it seems as if it were a short time-hack ago in history.
In this year of anniversaries, September marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of one of the war’s grandest and most frustrating military operations: the greatest airborne operation in history called Operation Market Garden. Sixty-five years on, Market Garden remains one of those moments in history where defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by a series of events that combined to produce one of the greatest tragedies of the war. Market Garden was a squandered opportunity, if not to end the war in 1944, to certainly have changed its course. If not for human error its success would have eliminated the dreadful and costly Battle of the Bulge during which the US Army sustained the highest casualties of World War II.
In September 1944 the Allies planned a massive airborne operation in Holland to gain a bridgehead over the principal obstacle to an advance on the Ruhr, the mighty Rhine River. By outflanking the heavily defended German West Wall, the Allies would have had an unimpeded clear shot into the Ruhr. Moreover, once across the Rhine, the British ground commander, newly promoted Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery was convinced that Eisenhower would be obliged to give logistical priority to his single-thrust concept. Breaching the Rhine had important psychological implications as well. An Allied advance into the heart of the Reich in 1944 would have sent a clear signal that for Germany to continue the war would be futile.
On September 10, Eisenhower gave Montgomery a green light to mount a major airborne operation in Holland. Speed was urgent before the Germans could react and on that basis it was quickly approved for the following Sunday, September 17.
The operation was to be carried out by the newly-created First Allied Airborne Army (FAAA), commanded by Lt. Gen. Lewis Brereton, the high-living, marginally competent air commander whom the chief of the army air corps, Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold had plucked from the Philippines as the Japanese attacked, sent first to the Middle East and later to England to head the Ninth Air Force.
Whereas Brereton’s qualifications were debatable, his deputy, Lt. Gen. F.A.M. “Boy” Browning, was considered a pioneer in the evolution of British airborne operations. A qualified glider pilot who had briefly been the first commander of the 1st Airborne Division when it was formed in 1942, Browning was also the commander of the British airborne corps. On paper Browning had brilliant qualifications; in reality he lacked battle experience.
U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall, was a long-time advocate of airborne operations and emphatically on record favoring the creation of an Allied airborne army, as was Arnold, who pressed unrelentingly for a role for the vast U.S. Army Air Force troop carrier fleet that had been reluctantly created by the airmen to support airborne and glider operations, but which was currently sitting idle in England. Both exhorted Eisenhower to employ his airborne forces. By the summer of 1944 Eisenhower had little choice except to embrace the airborne concept thrust upon him by the creation of the First Allied Airborne Army, which became the Allied strategic reserve, a versatile force to be employed when and where Eisenhower and SHAEF decided. Once the decision was made to create such an organization, the pressure immediately mounted to find some means to employ it.
The First Allied Airborne Army brought under a single command three American airborne divisions, one British airborne division, and an independent Polish airborne brigade plus various RAF and USAAF troop carrier formations. Although based in England, the FAAA was equally smitten with the “victory disease” and “the euphoria which existed across the Channel and in the Airborne Corps was that the war was nearly over,” said Major General R.E. Urquhart, who commanded the British First Airborne Division. Numerous plans to employ an airborne force had to be repeatedly abandoned as the Normandy campaign turned into a rout and Allied troops overran proposed targets before airborne operations could be mounted. Eighteen such plans had already been created and scrapped.
With each passing day the pressures increased to employ the air and ground forces immobilized in England. Thus, as an official U.S. historian notes, “The paratroopers and glidermen resting and training in England became in effect coins burning holes in SHAEF’s pocket.”
It was in an atmosphere of eagerness on the part of the new airborne force to initiate a valid mission, and Montgomery’s burning determination to keep alive his single thrust concept that resulted in the creation of the most ill-conceived major operation of World War II. Code-named Market Garden, it was a daring plan to open the way to the heartland of the German Ruhr by means of airborne landings in Holland by the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions to seize the rivers and canal crossings around Eindhoven, the bridges across the River Waal at Nijmegen, the Maas at Grave, and by the British 1st Airborne Division to capture and hold the vital bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. In reserve was the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, which was to reinforce the British at Arnhem.
The airborne landings were to be followed by a ground thrust to relieve the airborne by Lt. Gen. Miles Dempsey’s Second British Army from the Belgian-Netherlands border area. The airborne operation by the First Allied Airborne Army was code-named “Market.” The ground operation by which a British corps was to thrust north along the narrow sixty-five mile corridor from Eindhoven to Nijmegen opened by the airborne was called “Garden.” Once in control of Arnhem Bridge, the remainder of Second Army was to turn the German flank and rapidly assault the Ruhr. By means of this surprise assault through the so-called back door to Germany, Montgomery hoped to hasten the collapse of the Third Reich and end the war in 1944.
The concept of Market Garden was straightforward enough, however its execution would prove disastrously complex. Its success hinged on the slender thread that the airborne would seize the various bridges while British ground forces of Lt. Gen. Sir Brian Horrocks’ XXX British Corps fought their way along a single highway to rapidly relieve the lightly armed airborne troops at each of the bridges.
From the outset Market Garden was a prescription for trouble that was plagued by mistakes, oversights, false assumptions and outright arrogance. Neither Brereton nor Browning were inclined to heed advice from their more experienced subordinate airborne troop commanders: Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, the U.S. airborne corps commander, Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor (101st Airborne Division) and Maj. Gen. S.F. Sosabowski, the Polish airborne commander, and Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin, the new commander of the 82d Airborne Division. The commander of the British 1st Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, was an infantry officer only recently assigned to the airborne arm. Arnhem would be his first airborne operation and he was thus without the experience or the influence to overcome Browning and Brereton, both of whom seized upon Market Garden as the answer to their preoccupation to mount a significant and aggressive airborne operation.
In Market Garden, Brereton had the ideal operation to meet Eisenhower’s wishes. With the scent of victory was in everyone’s mind, caution and pessimism were unacceptable. The last thing either Brereton or Browning would countenance was a reason, no matter how valid, to scrap or even modify the operation. What would make the operation even more tragic was that Browning himself had grave concerns about Arnhem when he first learned of the proposed plan, but did nothing about them.
The decision to launch the operation was made despite accurate and timely intelligence from the Dutch underground indicating that two German panzer divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps were bivouacked near Arnhem. The intelligence officer on Browning’s staff who reported the presence of these divisions which were refitting after Normandy, was Major Brian Urquhart, a future deputy United Nations Secretary General and no relation to the 1st Airborne Division commander. Urquhart was soundly rebuffed even though he produced oblique aerial photographs taken by the RAF that clearly depicted German tanks near Arnhem. Browning dismissed his warnings as those of a “nervous child suffering from a nightmare,” and ordered him on sick leave for “nervous strain and exhaustion.”
Yet, there was still time to have averted disaster. During the five-day period before the operation the British Ultra code-breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted and decrypted a number of German signals that reliably revealed the presence of not only the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, but an assault gun regiment and the headquarters of Field Marshal Model’s Army Group B in and around Arnhem.
When the SHAEF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith learned of the reported presence of two panzer divisions near Arnhem, he took the matter gravely enough to strongly recommend that not one but two airborne divisions be employed at Arnhem to counter the German threat. With Eisenhower’s permission, Smith personally voiced his concerns to Montgomery who, “ridiculed the idea and waved my objections airily aside.” Others were likewise concerned but unheard. Miles Dempsey who, among the British ground commanders, understood airborne operations better than his counterparts, was sufficiently concerned that he recommended that an airborne drop be made near Wesel, which would have enabled First Army to help block a German counterattack. Dempsey’s proposal was never seriously considered nor his concerns addressed.
Although Roy Urquhart was inexperienced, he knew enough to warn his superiors that the British landing zones were too far away (four to nine miles) from Arnhem Bridge, and would forfeit the vital element of surprise necessary to carry out a coup de main. Moreover, the decision to lift his division into Arnhem over a three-day period seriously impaired Urquhart’s ability to carry out his assigned mission, yet his appeal for two lifts on D-Day was rejected when the air commanders refused to drop the paratroopers or land the glider troops closer to the bridge in the mistaken belief that German ack-ack ringing Arnhem made the operation too dangerous for their aircraft. The combined effect of both decisions was to cripple the chances of Market’s success before the first aircraft ever left the ground.
Browning received other warnings from both Sosabowski and the experienced British airborne commander in Sicily and Normandy, Maj. Gen. R.N. Gale, that the drop zones at Arnhem were ill-conceived and potentially disastrous. Browning not only disregarded their advice but actually concealed it. Market Garden was thus a disaster waiting to happen. Its key players were like the three blind mice of fable: Montgomery and Brereton had little experience of airborne operations, while Browning’s experience was at the staff level. Anyone familiar with airborne operations would never have permitted the 1st Airborne Division to be landed at sites so far from their objective. All three were utterly blinded by their eagerness to make something happen, and like Mark Clark’s decision to launch the fateful Rapido River crossings in Italy in January 1944, the Market Garden commanders and their staffs attempted to mold their plan to fit a flawed premise. Montgomery’s own staff was opposed to the plan, as was his own chief of staff. With the principal organizations scattered in far-flung locations they never met to coordinate and resolve Market Garden’s obvious flaws or question its contradictions. Montgomery, whose reputation and success were based upon meticulous planning, was caught up in the politics of the broad front, and in a shocking lack of critical analysis, never viewed the dual operation as he should have. Instead, he approved Market Garden more from a sense of despair, frustration and pressure to overrun and put out of commission Hitler’s V-bomb sites in Holland, than from a solid military foundation. No one in the Allied chain of command ever asked the crucial question: even if we capture Arnhem and the bridge, what then? How will the Germans react and what forces can we muster to sustain an offensive into the Ruhr?
On Sunday, September 17, the Allies mounted the largest airborne and glider operation of the war. A massive aerial armada of over 1,545 troop carriers and 478 gliders literally blackened the skies over England and Holland throughout the day. In all, more than 5,000 aircraft would participate in the airborne and glider landings. Over Arnhem and Nijmegen parachutes and gliders floated from the sky in an operation so mammoth that a second wave of the 1st Airborne Division had to be postponed until the next day, yet another crucial mistake, this one by Brereton who seemed to think that flying two lifts in one day was too much for his pilots.
Although the landings initially went well, “Boy” Browning’s failure to heed the warnings from the Dutch underground would soon extract a terrible price. Units of the spearhead brigade were thus obliged to march long distances on foot toward Arnhem Bridge. Only one unit actually reached it, Lt. Col. John Frost’s 2d Parachute Battalion. The remainder of the division was soon pinned down in and around Arnhem by the veteran German panzer troops Browning had disregarded. At this crucial moment not only did the British radios fail, making the growing dilemma of the British airborne even more acute, but the following day bad weather in England grounded Brereton’s aircraft. With no reinforcements or resupply of his lightly armed airborne, Urquhart’s worst fears came true.
Congestion and savage German resistance along the narrow road to Nijmegen and Arnhem soon earned it the nickname of “Hell’s Highway,” and delayed the British ground advance by crucial hours. The Germans also recovered a copy of the Market Garden plan from the corpse of an American officer who should not have been carrying it into combat. Thus forewarned, their commanders anticipated and eventually thwarted each Allied maneuver. Although XXX Corps linked up with the 101st Airborne at Eindhoven on September 18, the 82d U.S. and 1st British Airborne Divisions remained engaged in savage battles for survival.
Frost’s battalion was quickly and permanently cut-off from the rest of the division. His intrepid paratroopers held Arnhem Bridge for four days before being overwhelmed and compelled to surrender. An attempt by the Polish airborne to reach the bridge compounded the tragedy when the Germans attacked the landing zone and sunk a ferry that was to have taken them across the river.
By September 25 the operation had failed and a decision was made to attempt to save what remained of the 1st Airborne Division. Under the cover of darkness 2,400 Polish and British paratroopers and glider pilots managed to cross the Rhine to safety of the south bank in small rubber boats. Of the 10,000 men who had landed at Arnhem on September 17, 1,400 had been killed and over 6,000 were prisoners of the Germans. The gallant 1st Airborne had ceased to exist as a fighting unit.
What had begun with high optimism turned into a military disaster. Although the heroic stand of Frost’s battalion at Arnhem Bridge is widely considered one of the legendary episodes of World War II, Market Garden was an abject failure that has been mythologized by that eccentric British practice of turning military disasters such as Dunkirk into glorious occasions. Even Churchill, with his romanticized view of war, bought into the hyperbole, calling Arnhem, “a decided victory … I have not been affected by any feeling of disappointment over this and am glad our commanders are capable of running this kind of risk.” Neither the brave British paratroopers nor the Poles who fought to save them would ever have conceded that Arnhem was anything but the remembrance of a tragedy.
Montgomery’s later claim that 90% of its objectives had been attained was meaningless. The Allies had failed to establish a bridgehead north of the Rhine in what has come to be known as “a bridge too far.” Without that bridgehead Montgomery’s narrow front had died ingloriously.
Although Montgomery described himself as “bitterly disappointed,” by Arnhem and admitting mistakes were made for which he bore responsibility, “I remain Market Garden’s unrepentant advocate,’” he proclaimed in his memoirs, noting that, “In my – prejudiced – view, if the operation had been properly backed from its inception . . . it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes.” Eisenhower was similarly unapologetic when he declared after the publication of Cornelius Ryan’s best-selling account, A Bridge Too Far, “I not only approved Market-Garden, I insisted upon it. We needed a bridgehead over the Rhine.”
In his war memoir, Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower barely mentions the operation, dismissing it with the observation that it would “unquestionably have been successful except for the intervention of bad weather.” In the postwar years, after the two generals traded criticism in their memoirs and their falling out was irrevocable, Eisenhower thrust the entire blame on Monty. “My staff opposed it,” he wrote in 1960, “but because he was the commander in the field, I approved.”
For two men accustomed to accepting responsibility, Market Garden was an embarrassment that did neither credit. For Montgomery, it was a desperate attempt to re-ignite his so-called narrow front; for Eisenhower, it was an attempt to satisfy Marshall’s desire to make better use of the airborne and re-ignite the sputtering Allied advance. Responsibility for the failure of Market Garden began with Eisenhower and extended to Montgomery, Brereton, Browning and, on the ground side, Dempsey and Horrocks, neither of whom heeded Montgomery’s edict that the Second Army/XXX Corps drive to Arnhem must be “rapid and violent, without regard to what is happening on the flanks.” Neither general galvanized their tank units while there was still time to have seized and held Arnhem Bridge. Montgomery should have influenced Dempsey and Horrocks with a well-timed boot in their backsides had he bothered to follow the course of their progress with his usual resolve and attention to detail. His unusual and uncharacteristic inattentiveness could not have come at a worse time. Had it been any other occasion, noted his G-2, Brig. Bill Williams, Monty “would have been breathing down Horrocks’ neck.”
The most ludicrous postmortem was Brereton’s preliminary after-action report sent to Eisenhower in early October which fatuously proclaimed that, “Despite the failure of the 2d Army to get through to Arnhem and establish a permanent bridgehead over the Neder Rijn, Operation MARKET was a brilliant success.” It took until 1960 for Eisenhower to privately admit that Market Garden had “miserably failed.”
It is axiomatic that military debacles require scapegoats and Arnhem was no exception. The ire of the British commanders fell upon the one officer to whom they ought to have listened. Instead they compounded the tragedy of Arnhem by pointing the finger of responsibility at Sosabowski, who was unjustly relieved of his command at Browning’s instigation. In fact, Sosabowski, an experienced and highly competent officer, was removed because he had become an embarrassment to Browning’s own ineptitude.
Had Sosabowski’s counsel been heeded the battle might have been won, even at the eleventh hour. “It was,” writes a recent historian of Arnhem, “a shameful act by the British commanders.” Like Browning, Montgomery, despite his postwar admissions, outrageously made the Poles the scapegoat. In a scathing letter to the chief of the imperial general staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, he characterized them as gutless. “I do not want this brigade here again,” he said, and suggested they be sent to join their comrades in Italy. To this day, the unfortunate stain upon the honor of these brave men has yet to be officially erased.
Montgomery’s bluster failed to conceal his anguish. His once high standing as the D-Day ground commander had evolved into the perception of a whining, “arrogant, opinionated and self-serving ‘Brit.’” That the triumphant Allied leadership which had carried out the greatest victory of the war should have turned so sour, so fast was as destructive as it was disheartening. The spotlight may have been on Montgomery but it was never off Eisenhower who bore the brunt of the barbs and the criticism leveled by the principal players at him, and at one another. When Montgomery later attempted to shift the entire blame on to Eisenhower, his official biographer declared that, “It was in truth his own doing,” and “nothing less than foolhardy.”
With the Allied failure to breach the Rhine at Arnhem and launch an offensive toward the Ruhr the main thrust of the war instead turned east toward Aachen, the Ardennes, Lorraine, and Alsace, and Eisenhower’s broad front soon turned into the stalled front. The idea behind Market Garden was brilliant if only it had been better carried out. There were certainly risks but with proper leadership and attention to detail Market Garden was do-able. The flaws in its planning and execution (too numerous to mention in full detail here) remain a stern reminder that in war anything can and usually will go wrong. However, what made Market Garden so tragic was that its architects failed to heed the numerous warning signs that, once corrected, could have altered the outcome dramatically. Instead, on that fateful Sunday in September 1944 a tragedy began to unfold.
What remains enduring however is the valor of the participants who sacrificed so much for so little. The images and valor of the British, American and Polish paratroopers and glidermen, along with the heroic efforts of ordinary Dutch citizens and members of the Underground, all of whom gave it their all remain engraved in our memory. On its sixty-fifth anniversary Market Garden remains one of the most debated operations of the Second World War: a tantalizing example of what might have been.
Carlo D’Este is ACG’s Consulting Historian and a member of the ACG Board of Advisers. His acclaimed books include Patton: A Genius for War and Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life. His latest book is Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945.