On the morning of 17 September 1944 amid the droning sound of hundreds of aircraft, the clear skies over southern Holland were suddenly filled with what resembled a myriad of snowflakes. Operation Market Garden had begun.
Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British/Canadian 21st Army Group, planned to leap the Lower Rhine River (the Nederrijn in the Netherlands) and outflank the German Siegfried Line on Germany’s borders with France and Belgium for a concentrated thrust into the North German Plain.
The US 82nd and 101st and 1st British Airborne Divisions would provide an airborne carpet along a sixty mile route from Eindhoven via Nijmegen to Arnhem capturing bridges over several major waterways. The paratroopers would then await relief by the ground forces of the British 2nd Army’s XXX Corps led by General Sir Brian Horrocks attacking north along a single road.
The 1st Airborne had the most dangerous assignment since their objective, the road bridge at Arnhem, was the farthest from XXX Corps; however, the two US divisions had the complicated task of both securing a number of vital bridges, and defending the road against German counterattacks from both flanks (which in the event they did, heroically).
The success of the plan was jeopardized by the presence of two battered yet powerful German SS panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem. Ultimately, these units and German proficiency at improvisation would determine the outcome of Market Garden.
The two American airborne divisions achieved most of their initial objectives but the 82nd Airborne, which had secured key bridges over the Maas River and Maas-Waal Canal, and vital high ground needed to block German counterattacks from the Reichswald Forest, lacked the manpower to move immediately on the road and rail bridges over the Waal River at Nijmegen. By the time they did, it was too late – German SS troops had arrived from Arnhem to strongly fortify the approaches to both bridges.
The 1st British Airborne whose drop zones were 6-8km from Arnhem, encountered strong German opposition and only managed to get an understrength battalion, perhaps 700 men, under Lieutenant Colonel John Frost to the north end of the bridge. The rest of the division was unable to break through and soon found itself in a fight for its life against ad hoc German battle groups, as did Frost.
Meanwhile the ground offensive by XXX Corps encountered strong German resistance in its attack from the Meuse-Escaut Canal.
Already behind schedule when they reached Nijmegen, the British joined the 82nd in attacking the road and rail bridges but made little progress. So confident were the Germans that they decided not to demolish the bridges but to defend them for use in future operations.
On the fourth day with time running out for Frost’s gallant band, a battalion of the 82nd launched a daring assault in daylight across the 250-metre wide Waal downriver from Nijmegen in flimsy British canvas and plywood boats. Under intense German fire, about half of the craft managed to reach the north bank. The surviving paratroopers stormed ashore and charged towards the north end of the bridges where they met tanks of the Guards Armoured Division who, along with other American paratroopers, had finally cracked the German defences south of the bridges. German attempts to demolish the latter failed. The Nijmegen bridges were in allied hands.
By then, however, Frost’s band had been overwhelmed. And to the fury of the American paratroopers who had sacrificed so much to capture the Nijmegen bridges, XXX Corps did not attack north for 18 hours while they regrouped. By then the Germans had blocked the way to Arnhem.
The British reached the Nederrijn but could not reinforce the 1st Airborne across the river. Two thousand survivors of the 10,000 who landed were evacuated on the night of 25/26 September. Market Garden had failed.
The 82nd and 101st suffered 3,500 casualties but had performed brilliantly, solidifying their reputations as two of the finest divisions fielded by any army in World War II. That Market Garden achieved 90% of its objectives, as Montgomery later put it, was due in no small measure to their efforts. Unfortunately, the other 10% was the difference between success and failure.
For the cinematic version of this story, watch Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far, starring Anthony Hopkins as Lieutenant Colonel Frost, Edward Fox as Lieutenant General Horrocks, plus Sean Connery as Major General Urquhart.