Why Operation Market Garden Failed – A Bridge Too Far
A brief look at one of the larger Allied operations during WWII - which sadly failed.
The plan was conceived by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British forces in Europe. The success of the D–Day landings had been slowed down as resistance by the Germans became stiffer as the Allies pressed on to Berlin. One example was a major battle of conflicting forces near Falaise, France, which did succeed, but with a significant cost of lives and equipment. However, the Allies had managed to liberate Paris and Brussels, and victory was apparently close. Montgomery thought that a narrow spear-like thrust, driving deep into Germany, would have more effect than a spread out attack across the whole Western Front. The plan’s name, ‘Market Garden’ was a combination of the two operations that would work together to drive deep into Germany: ‘Market’ stood for the airborne elements – paratroopers, gliders, and supply planes; and ‘Garden’ stood for the ground forces: XXX Corps (Thirty Corps), who would advance along the road through Eindhoven and Nijmegen to Arnhem, which was the final objective.
Market Garden was one of the boldest plans of World War Two. Thirty thousand British and American airborne troops were to be flown behind enemy lines to capture the eight bridges that spanned the network of canals and rivers on the Dutch/German border. At the same time, British tanks and infantry were to push up a narrow road leading from the Allied front line to these key bridges. They would relieve the airborne troops, and then cross the intact bridges.1
The airborne invasion of Normandy, on the night prior to D–Day, had given substantial foundation to the idea of airborne troops capturing objectives ahead of the main army and holding them until reinforced. This idea was the foundation behind Operation Market Garden, which was to begin on 17 September, 1944. Seven days before the operation was to go ahead, General Browning was told about the objectives with orders to prepare the offensive.
The information he was given on the German troops in the area, however, was alarming. It suggested that there were two SS Panzer divisions around Arnhem, with many tanks and vehicles. Major Tony Hibbert recalls the bleak assessment of aerial photographs made by General Browning’s intelligence officer, Major Brian Urquhart:
‘He showed me photographs of two German Panzer 4 divisions; mainly I think they were tucked in underneath woods. I went to General Browning, and said that, because of the presence of these two divisions, in his view the operation could not succeed’. (emphasis added)2
General Browning ignored this important information and sent Major Urquhart home on sick leave, thinking that his mind was overstressed.
Another major fact was ignored as well. The glider-borne troops were given field-radios to be able to contact the other airborne divisions and XXX Corps as they came along. But the problem with the radios that were supplied to the airborne element was that they only had a range of three to five miles. Arnhem was over fifteen miles from the divisional head-quarters in Nijmegen and eight miles from the bridges. The airborne troops had complained vociferously about the inadequacy of the radios – ever since the Normandy invasion, in fact – but their pleas for capable radio-sets went unheard.
Browning planned for the three divisions of American and British paratroopers to land close to the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, capturing intact the eight bridges. But there were not enough aircraft to take them all over at once. Therefore, he decided to have them dropped over the course of three days, because, according to the army co-operation staff, the pilots would be too tired after the first flight to make another. Also, at Arnhem the anti-aircraft defenses were thought to be too strong for landing right at the bridge, so the soldiers were to be landed seven miles away outside the town. This would, of course, throw away any chance they had for surprise. One of the air staff who helped plan the ‘Market’ side of the plan said this:
The air-plan was bad. All experience and common sense pointed to landing all three divisions in the minimum amount of time so they could collect themselves before the Germans reacted . . . but the First Allied Airborne Army insisted on a plan which had the second wave of troops (with half the heavy equipment) arriving more than twenty-four hours after the German had been alerted.3
“The planners called the [above plan] an ‘airborne carpet’, along which the advancing British armor of XXX Corps could push through to Germany.”4 XXX Corps was put onto a very tight schedule: they were supposed to advance 25 miles a day through enemy occupied territory, ousting the opposition, and reinforcing the airborne troops within three days from the beginning of the attack. They only managed to cover seven miles in the first day – at the cost of at least a score of tanks, jeeps, and personnel carriers. The German resistance was stiffer than had been expected:
XXX Corps had found it difficult to gain any momentum from the outset, and the destruction of the bridge at Son slowed them even further. German pressure on the highway increased as the days passed, undeterred by the British flanking corps, which was struggling to make progress.5
Some groups of both airborne troops and ground infantry made it to their objectives, the bridges, – only to have them destroyed right under their noses. Then they would spend up to thirty-six hours repairing the bridge before moving on again, during which time however, the Germans had mustered up even more formidable oppositions.
By the time XXX Corps managed to reach Nijmegen, the American contingent tasked with hold the bridge was only just fending off attacks on the south side of the bridge. It was now the third day, according the ‘proper’ schedule the Corps was two days behind time. Suffice it to say that after a terribly costly river crossing and landing on the fourth day, Nijmegen and its bridge were finally in the hands of the Allies – who then stopped. Tired out from four days of continuous fighting XXX Corps needed a rest to recruit their strength. This proved to have deadly results for the small group of British paratrooper holding the Arnhem bridge against heavy German armor.
Since the intelligence was correct about the two German divisions at Arnhem, how could a small group of lightly armed British paratroopers capture the two bridges there without serious casualties? More importantly, why would an undersized attacking force be landed farther away from the objective, eliminating the important element of surprise? It would, in the long run, be better for the attacking force to suffer slightly more immediate casualties in a surprise landing right at the foot of the bridge than have to slowly fight their way for seven miles across enemy territory to their goal. What was the problem with transport pilots doing even two flights a day? Some pilots did four or more flights on D–Day; and the infantry would then have been at least double the force that actually made it to the bridges – doubling the chance of success.
Why were the airborne troops not given better quality radio-sets? That at least would have prevented almost all of the communication problems that happened during the operation. Why did XXX Corps have to be on such a tight schedule with no room for problems or delays? That relates to the next question: Why did the three airborne divisions have to take so many bridges at once? If the airborne element had not been tasked with so many bridges so far away, XXX Corps would have had more time for setbacks. This would have meant a larger force for a shorter time at each bridge to enable the ‘airborne carpet’ to comfortably wait for XXX Corps.
The above and many other questions can be and have been asked: but we shall never know for certain all the answers. Field Marshal Montgomery wrote this:
The uncertainty of the weather and of whether the German forces were actually able to resist the British attack, we all accepted. It could only have been offset, and the operation made a certainty, by allotting additional resources to the project . . . I must admit a bad mistake on my part – I under-estimated the difficulties: I was wrong.6
There are differing opinions about the effect and success, or lack thereof, of Operation Market Garden. Even more diverse are the ideas and suggestions of what might have been done to prevent the terrible mistakes that unnecessarily cost one thousand Allied soldiers their lives. For example, the operation could have been practiced, if not on a full scale trial, but at least tested like the D–Day assault was months before it was to go ahead. Arguably, that would at least have found out the deficiency in the range of the radios, preventing the communication problems, and probably enabling the ‘airborne carpet’ to maintain contact with the other forces. If conditions in the weather, German opposition, and the state of equipment in the Allied forces had been better thought out, and more completely provided for, Operation Market Garden likely would have seen success. But the combination of bad planning and worse weather contributed to the ultimate withdrawal of the British and American forces.
Many courageous actions were fought during the nine day campaign; many objectives were captured and held; the withdrawal of two thousand exhausted troops from enemy territory was an amazing feat in the face of intense resistance, and many difficulties not expected were indeed overcome. But in the end:
There is no doubt that Operation Market Garden failed. No matter how close XXX Corps got to Arnhem, the British Second Army did not cross its bridge over the Rhine, and the war in Europe continued into 1945. Operation Market Garden accomplished much of what it had been designed to accomplish. Nevertheless, by the merciless logic of war, Market Garden was a failure.7
We shall never know for sure what might have happened if things had taken a turn for the better. What we do know for certain, however, is that ‘Market Garden’ was, to all involved, both fighting and observing, truly a bridge too far.
William Moore is a Christian young man who lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He writes frequently at his blog “For Christ’s Glory”, commenting on subjects ranging from Theology and History to Music and Film.
1. Fielder, Mark, The Battle of Arnhem (Operation Market Garden), http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/battle_arnhem_01.shtml#top, February 17, 2011.
3. ‘Arnhem: A Tragedy of Errors’, Peter Harclerode, (Caxton Editions, 2000), p. 162
4. Fielder, Mark, The Battle of Arnhem (Operation Market Garden). (See link above.)
5. Clark, Lloyd, Operation Market Garden Reconsidered, http://www.historynet.com/operation-market-garden-reconsidered.htm, August 17, 2007.
6. Arnhem: A Tragedy of Errors, Peter Harclerode, (Caxton Editions, 2000), p. 174-175
7. Clark, Lloyd, Operation Market Garden Reconsidered.