Operation Market Garden: The Allies’ Audacious WWII Gamble

With his troops in a bitter fight with German forces in northern France in the late summer of 1944, General Omar Bradley, commander of the Allied 12th Army Group, could not believe his ears. “Had the pious teetotaling Montgomery wobbled into SHAEF with a hangover, I could not have been more astonished than I was by the daring adventure he proposed,” Bradley remembered. He was of course referring to Operation Market Garden. 

Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery had led British and Commonwealth forces to victory in North Africa during the pivotal Battle of El Alamein in 1942 and then chased the German-Italian Panzer Armee Afrika across 1,000 miles of desert. Coupled with the Allied landings of Operation Torch in the west, the Axis forces were caught in a vice and defeated thoroughly by the spring of 1943. Through it all, Montgomery had proceeded with caution, meticulously planned, and made sure that his forces were superior in number to the enemy. The same conduct had characterized his command of the 21st Army Group since the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Now, however, it appeared that the cautious, deliberate Montgomery had gone off his rocker. As summer gave way to autumn in 1944, Montgomery had been lobbying General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, to abandon or at least suspend the broad front strategy that had the Allied armies advancing sluggishly toward the German frontier, where the fixed fortifications of the Siegfried Line, or West Wall, were waiting, their garrisons intent on defending the Fatherland.

Montgomery hammered home his concerns. Not only did stiff German resistance promise to become even tougher, but supply lines were stretching. The availability of fuel, ammunition, foodstuffs, and all the elements that keep an advancing military force on the move were becoming scarce.

Montgomery continually argued that the American Third and Canadian First Armies should be halted and resupplied just enough to consolidate their gains and hold their lines against any German counterattack. His own British Second Army and the American First Army would then take center stage, receive the vast majority of war matériel, outflank the Siegfried Line, and rapidly thrust into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany. A swift and successful offensive under Montgomery’s command would cripple Germany’s capacity to wage war and open a direct route to the Nazi capital of Berlin.

On September 10, 1944, Montgomery outlined his tactical blueprint in a meeting with Eisenhower in Brussels, Belgium. Along with the strategic overview of the offensive, Montgomery proposed Market Garden, a preparatory attack as bold as it was shocking.

A two-phase offensive, Operation Market Garden called for airborne troops to parachute into the German-occupied Netherlands and seize key bridges across the Maas, Waal, and Lower Rhine Rivers. The paratroopers would hold the bridges until relieved by ground troops racing swiftly through the Netherlands and into Germany. The war might even be won by Christmas 1944 if everything went according to plan.

The seizure of the bridges and adjacent canals was essential for the ground forces to move swiftly. Only a single highway was practical for the drive of approximately 60 miles from the Allied lines in Belgium to the Dutch town of Arnhem. The veteran British XXX Corps would speed down that single road from its bridgehead across the Meuse-Escaut Canal, slicing through expected enemy resistance, relieving the paratroopers at the successive bridges, and then serving as the vanguard of the war-winning offensive that would then thrust like a dagger into Germany.

Montgomery’s plan relied on the First Allied Airborne Army, activated just a month earlier, under the command of General Lewis H. Brereton. Brereton commanded the American XVIII Airborne Corps and the headquarters of the I British Airborne Corps. In early September, General Matthew Ridgway was elevated to command the XVIII Airborne Corps, and General James Gavin was promoted to lead the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. Along with the 82nd, the corps also included the 101st Airborne Division, under General Maxwell Taylor, and the 17th Airborne Division, commanded by General William Miley, as well as the IX Troop Carrier Command and other independent units. The British I Airborne Corps, under General Frederick Arthur Montague “Boy” Browning, included the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, some special operations troops of the SAS, and allocated air transport formations.

Since taking part in the D-Day invasion and the Normandy Campaign, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions had been refitting and absorbing replacements in England. The 17th Airborne Division, activated in April 1943, arrived in Britain at the end of August 1944, too late for Market Garden. The combat veterans of the 82nd and 101st became the American contribution to Market, the airborne phase of Montgomery’s plan. The British 6th Airborne had also taken part in Operation Overlord and did not return to England until early September, having suffered 4,500 casualties during three months of fighting. Therefore, the 1st Airborne, commanded by General Roy Urquhart, would constitute the British contingent for Market.

As the overall Market Garden plan was developed, the 101st Airborne would secure the southernmost bridges over the Wilhelmina Canal at the town of Son, a pair spanning the Dommel River at St. Odenrode, and then four more over the Aa River near the town of Veghel. The town of Eindhoven was also an objective, while the 101st held open 15 miles of the vital road toward Arnhem for XXX Corps. By the end of Market Garden, the troopers of the 101st would call this stretch of road “Hell’s Highway.”

North of the 101st zone of operations, the 82nd Airborne was to capture the bridge at Grave, the longest in Europe at 1,960 feet. The 82nd would also take one or more of the four bridges across the Maas-Waal Canal, another across the Waal at Nijmegen, and the area around the village of Groesbeek. The final leg of the XXX Corps dash involved a drive from Nijmegen to Arnhem, where the 1st Airborne was to seize three bridges across the Lower Rhine.

Operation Market Garden was scheduled for September 17, just a week after Montgomery and Eisenhower met. When various unit commanders were briefed on the operation, they were told that only light German opposition was expected. General Browning was said to have referred to it as a “party.” Gavin was troubled as he analyzed the 82nd Airborne role.

“The big Nijmegen bridge posed a serious problem,” Gavin observed. “Seizing it with overwhelming strength at the outset would have been meaningless if I did not get at least two other bridges: the big bridge at Grave and at least one of the four over the Canal. Further, even if I captured it, if I had lost all of the high ground that controlled the entire sector, as well as the resupply and glider landing zones, I would be in a serious predicament. Everything depended on the weight and direction of the enemy reaction, and this could not be determined until we were on the ground. The problem was how much could be spared how soon for employment on the bridge.”

The largest airborne operation in history to date, Market-Garden developed in a remarkably short period. Realistically, the time of preparation was inadequate to thoroughly address nagging concerns regarding logistics, supply, and—critically—the level of German resistance expected.

Intelligence reports contradicted the notion that the German Army was in full retreat. In fact, the Dutch Resistance warned that both the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions were near Arnhem recovering from fierce fighting in Normandy. Coincidentally, as Market Garden gained momentum the German 59th and 245th Infantry Divisions were relocating from the area of the Fifteenth Army to that of the First Parachute Army, directly in the path of the offensive.

Eisenhower’s chief of staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, relayed mounting concerns about the German presence in the Netherlands to Montgomery. The response was dismissive, uncharacteristically bold for Montgomery.

Smith wrote, “Montgomery simply waved my objections airily aside.” Urquhart brought his own worries to Browning and was told that tanks seen in reconnaissance photos were probably just being repaired. Urquhart was then advised to take a short leave and rest at his home, only hours before the first transport aircraft took off.

Market was designated a daylight operation. Allied air supremacy would minimize interference from German fighter planes, while the desire for a strong drop pattern and the coordination of air and ground movement would be facilitated. The fresh memory of the scattered, nocturnal Normandy jump outweighed the fears of more intense enemy antiaircraft fire that would doubtless be encountered. With Market more than 20,000 troopers would eventually be delivered to drop zones by parachute and more than 14,000 by glider along with 1,736 vehicles, 3,342 tons of ammunition, and 263 artillery pieces.

To minimize exposure to antiaircraft fire and deliver the three airborne divisions most efficiently, it was decided that troop carrier groups would take the 1st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, landing to the north, on a flight path across the estuary of the Scheldt and Maas Rivers, above roughly 80 miles of enemy-held territory. Those carrying the troopers of the 101st would fly a longer, southerly route mainly over Belgium and limiting the transit over German territory to 65 miles.

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