Operation Market Garden (Battle Of Arnhem)
On September 17, 1944, the Allies launched one of their most ambitious & daring operations of WW2, Operation Market Garden. The battle was fought in the Netherlands, took less than a week to plan and lasted 9 days of intense fighting.
The objective was to create a 64 mi (103 km) salient into German territory with a bridgehead over the River Rhine, creating an Allied invasion route into northern Germany.
The operation had many moving pieces (Market being the airborne operation, seizing key bridges along the river Rhine & Garden would be a ground attack moving over the seized bridges in blitzkrieg fashion.
The allies believed that this operation would break the back of the German army, ending the war by Christmas 1944.
Day 1 (Sunday 17th September 1944)
The first lift of aircraft commenced with intense bombing & strafing raids made by the RAF’s Second Tactical Airforce & Americans 8th & 9th Airforces, Weakening flank guns, infantry positions, German garrisons & supply chains within the area.
Following the barrage of air raids the 21st Independent Parachute Company (made up of deployed under canopy and gliders, landing on their intended DZ’s by 12:40.
The landings were largely unopposed with the separate battalions formed up, in good order and ready to cross the LD by 14:45hrs
During the landings the Germans were thrown into confinement sending SS divisions to support and defend other areas being overthrown by allied forces. The 9th SS Division was left to support and defend the Arnhem AO.
The allies quickly ran into issues halting their advance. The reconnaissance squadron was ambushed by the northern flank of Krafft's blocking line and withdrew. The 1st and 3rd Parachute Battalions were also stalled by Krafft's defences and spent the rest of the day skirting his line.
The 3rd Parachute Battalion went south and halted in Oosterbeek for most of the night, while 1st Parachute Battalion went further north but hit Spindler's forces and was unable to reach the Arnhem-Ede road of Leopard route. Instead Dobie decided to abandon his original plan, and head towards the bridge to assist Frost instead. The battalion headed south into Oosterbeek overnight.
Only the 2nd Parachute Battalion was largely unopposed, bypassing the defences that did not as yet reach down as far as the river. They were slowed by cheering Dutch civilians and did not reach the bridges until late in the day.
The railway bridge was blown by German engineers as the Allies approached it and the pontoon bridge was missing its central section. At dusk, the men of A Company under Major Digby Tatham-Warter observed Gräbner's force cross the bridge, on their way to Nijmegen.
Most of the battalion and various other supporting units including two jeeps of Gough's squadron, four 6-pounder anti-tank guns, Brigade HQ (but without Lathbury), and Royal Engineers (in total numbering about 740 men) moved into Arnhem centre as night fell and, owing to the oversight in German orders, were able to secure the undefended northern end of the road bridge.
Brigade HQ was being led by Brigade Major Tony Hibbert.
Lieutenant Jack Grayburn led an attempt to secure the southern end of the bridge but was unsuccessful, and a later attempt using a flame thrower only succeeded in setting the freshly painted girders of the bridge alight. However, the British were able to make good their position and quickly repulsed the 10th SS reconnaissance battalion and other German units when they arrived to secure the bridge.
The allies encountered other issues during that first day including poor communication delaying the use of mortar & artillery assets. Friendly forces also lacked information on locations of FF & EF during the whole 9 days slowing the advance on to key objectives.
Some commanders half expected issues with communications equipment employing hunting signals to manoeuvre forces at Platoon and company level, whilst carrier pigeon was used at higher levels. One of the key factors that played towards the comms issues was the dens woodland and rolling hills in that region.
Day 2 (Monday 18th September 1944)
As the second day dawned, the Germans had reinforced and resupplied their blocking lines.
1st & 3rd Parachute battalions skirted the blocking line at night linking up with 2nd battalion hoping to make their break into the centre of Arnhem. Vicious fighting broke out as they tried to penetrate the German lines. The Germans were too strong and by 10:00hrs that morning the advance was halted.
A further coordinated attack was planned and executed that evening but was repulsed by the German occupying forces, apart from a small contingent of 2 para led by Major General John Frost. This small contingent managed to occupy and defend buildings that overlooked the Arnhem bridge int he south.
It was during this point German forces started probing tasks testing allied forces strengths, becoming heavily engaged with King's Own Scottish Borderers, threatening to hamper the arrival of the second lift. The difficulty with comm’s meant that it was impossible to warn off the aircraft.
Unknown to the 2nd drop, they landed under heavy fire at 15:00hrs. Several aircraft were shot down and allies shot in the air as they slowly made their way to the ground under canopy. This resulted in many casualties and deaths. Nevertheless as the full brigade landed, they overwhelmed the dutch forcing them to surrender in droves.
Once on the ground the 2nd drop, the 11th Battalion and South Stafford’s were retested with re-bolstering the main effort to breach the German lines in Arnhem.
Resupply fell shortly after but due to bad comm’s with the RAF, some of the drops fell into unsecured areas held buy enemy forces.
Day 3 (Tuesday 19th September 1944)
Day 3 led to tremendous confusion with reports that the bridge had fallen causing delays in a first light raid. The reports were incorrect and the raid went ahead.
The assault plan was to assault Arnhem’s western side in-between the rail line and river. This was led by 1 para supported by what remains of 3 parra, The South Stafford’s took the left flank as 11 para followed up the rear in reserve.
1 & 3 para were spotted on the approach and received contact from 3 positions, pinning them down in open ground. This forced them to fall back.
The Stafford’s were cut off and 11 para were overwhelmed by HMG & IDF stalling their attempt to take the high ground to the north.
At the bridge, Frost's forces continued to hold but without supply or reinforcement their position was becoming weaker. The Germans realising that infantry attacks were unlikely to remove the stubborn defenders began to systematically destroy the houses the British were in using tanks, artillery and mortars. In the absence of any Allied air cover, the Luftwaffe were able to make strafing runs on the British occupied houses as well.
Day 4 (Wednesday 20th September 1944)
Due to the lack of supply, casualties and fallen….. the division would be too weak to attempt resupply Frost & his men. Eight of the nine infantry battalions were badly mauled or scattered and only one, 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment still existed as a complete unit.
Urquhart made the difficult decision to abandon the 2nd Parachute Battalion. By forming a defensive perimeter around Oosterbeek and securing the Driel ferry crossing, Urquhart hoped to hold out until XXX Corps could reach them and establish a new bridgehead over the Rhine.
At the bridge, Frost was finally able to make radio contact with his divisional commander and was given the difficult news that reinforcement was doubtful. Shortly afterwards, at about 13:30, Frost was injured in the legs by a mortar bomb and command passed to Major Gough.
Despite their stubborn defence of the few building they still held, by late afternoon the British position was becoming untenable. When fire took hold of many of the buildings in which the wounded were being treated, a two-hour truce was organised in the late afternoon and the wounded (including Frost) were taken into captivity.
Overnight, a few units managed to hold out for a little longer and several groups tried to break out toward the Oosterbeek perimeter, although almost all of them, including Major Hibbert, were captured.
By 05:00 on Thursday morning all resistance at the bridge had ceased. In the final hours of the struggle, a radio message was sent from the bridge. It was not picked up by the British but was heard by the German forces, who recalled that it ended with the sentences:
"Out of ammunition. God Save the King."
Day 5 (Thursday 21st September 1944)
Throughout the morning, the Germans mopped up British survivors and stragglers in hiding around Arnhem bridge. It took several hours to clear the bridge of debris allowing German armour to cross and reinforce Nijmegen.
Crucially, the British had held the bridge long enough to allow Nijmegen bridge to be captured by the 82nd Airborne and Guards' Armoured Division working together.
With the resistance at the bridge crushed, the Germans had more troops available to commit to the Oosterbeek engagement, although this changed suddenly in the afternoon.
The British had witnessed the Polish drop but were unable to make contact by radio so a swimmer (Private Ernest Henry Archer) was sent south of the Rhine. The British planned to supply rafts for a river crossing that night as the Poles were desperately needed on the northern bank. The Poles waited on the southern bank, but by 03:00 no rafts were evident and they withdrew to Driel to take up defensive positions.
Day 6 (Friday 22nd September 1944)
Overnight, the Germans south of the river formed a blocking line along the railway, linking up with 10th SS to the south and screening the road bridge from the Poles.
The Polish were well dug in at Driel, however, and German armour was unable to manoeuvre off of the main roads to attack them. Hopes were raised when three armoured cars of XXX Corps' Household Cavalry managed to skirt the German defences on the island and link up with Sosabowski's force.
These were followed after dark by tanks of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards and infantry of the 5th Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Behind them, the rest of the 43rd Wessex Division was making its way up a narrow corridor.
In Oosterbeek, heavy fighting continued around the perimeter. Intense shelling and snipers increased the number of casualties at the aid posts in the hotels and houses of the town.
Bittrich ordered that the attacks be stepped up and the British bridgehead north of the Rhine destroyed, and at 09:00 the major attacks began with the various Kampfgruppen of 9th SS attacking from the east and Kampfgruppe von Tettau's units from the west.
There were only small gains but these attacks were followed by simultaneous attacks in the afternoon when the Germans made determined moves on the northern and eastern ends.
To the north, they succeeded in briefly forcing back the King's Own Scottish Borderers before the latter counterattacked and retook their positions. Urquhart realised the futility of holding the tactically unimportant tip however and ordered the units in the north to fall back and defend a shorter line. To the east, the remains of 10th Parachute Battalion were nearly annihilated in their small position on the main Arnhem road, but the Germans failed to gain any significant ground.
Day 7 (Saturday 23rd September 1944)
Spindler was ordered to switch his attacks further south to try to force the British away from the river, isolating the British from any hope of reinforcement and allowing them to be destroyed.
Despite their best efforts, however, they were unsuccessful, although the constant artillery and assaults continued to wear the British defences down further.
A break in the weather allowed the RAF to finally fly combat missions against the German forces surrounding Urquhart's men.
Hawker Typhoons and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts strafed German positions throughout the day and occasionally dueled with the Luftwaffe over the battlefield.
The RAF attempted their final resupply flight from Britain on the Saturday afternoon, but lost eight planes for little gain to the Airborne troops. Some small resupply efforts would be made from Allied airfields in Europe over the next two days but to little effect.
South of the river, the Poles prepared for another crossing. That night, they awaited the arrival of assault boats from XXX Corps, but these did not arrive until after midnight, and many were without oars. The crossings started at 03:00, with fire support from the 43rd Wessex Division. Through the remaining hours of darkness, only 153 men were able to cross – less than ¼ of the hoped for reinforcement.
Day 8 (Sunday 24th September 1944)
In Oosterbeek, the situation was becoming more desperate. Hackett was wounded in the morning and had to give up the eastern command. The RAF attempted some close support around the perimeter which just held, but shelling and sniping increased casualties by the hour.
The aid stations were home to some 2,000 men, both British and German as well as Dutch civilian casualties. Because many of them were actually in the front line in homes taken over earlier in the battle, the odd situation was created where casualties were evacuated forward rather than rearwards.
Without evacuation, the wounded were often injured again and some posts changed hands between the British and Germans several times as the perimeter was fought over.
That night, the Allies on the south side of the river attempted another crossing. The plan called for 4th Battalion The Dorset Regiment and the 1st Polish Parachute Battalion to cross at 22:00 using boats and DUKWs.
Sosabowski was furious at having to give up control of one of his battalions and thought the plan dangerous, but was silenced.
The boats failed to arrive until 1 am and several had been destroyed or lost en route, so a last minute change of plan mean that only the Dorsets would cross.
The small boats without skilled crews, the strong current and poor choice of landing site on the north bank meant that of the 315 men who embarked, only a handful reached the British lines on the other side. The DUKWs and most boats landed too far downstream and at least 200 men were captured.
Day 9 (Monday 25th September 1944)
Evacuation plans were decimated that night, airborne forces would only have to endure one more day of fighting. The plan was to fall back through defensive lines utilising the river to extract.
At 10:00, the Germans began their most successful assault on the perimeter, attacking the southeastern end with infantry supported by newly arrived Tiger tanks.
This assault pushed through the defenders' outer lines and threatened to isolate the bulk of the division from the river. Strong counterattacks from the mixed defenders and concentrated shellfire from south of the river eventually repelled the Germans.
Running low on PIAT rounds and a means to counter the tiger tank armour Allied forces had to improvise and use sticky bombs. Only downfall was that the device had to be placed onto the armour by hand.
South of the river the evacuation was organised and staffed by men of the Royal Engineers of 43rd Division and Royal Canadian Engineers, using rafts and storm boats.
Men were ordered to muffle their boots and weapons to help them bypass known German incursions into the perimeter.
Under the circumstances some men took the opportunity to shave before withdrawing, providing quite a morale boost.
By 21:00, heavy rain was falling which helped disguise the withdrawal. The heavy bombardment commenced and the units began to fall back to the river.
Half of the engineers' boats were too far west to be used (43rd Division mistakenly believing the crossing points used by the Dorsets the previous night were in British hands), slowing the evacuation process.
The Germans shelled the withdrawal, believing it to be a resupply attempt. At 05:00, the operation was ceased lest the coming light enable the Germans to fire onto the boats more accurately.
2,163 Airborne men, 160 Poles, 75 Dorsets and several dozen mixed other men were evacuated but about 300 were left on the northern bank when the operation was ceased and 95 men were killed overnight.
Throughout the morning of 26 September, the Germans pressed home their attacks and finally linked up from both sides at the river. It was not until about noon that they realised the British had actually withdrawn.
Later in the day, they rounded up about 600 men, mostly the men in the aid stations and those left on the north bank, as well as some pockets of resistance that had been out of radio contact with division Headquarters and did not know about the withdrawal.
The battle exacted a heavy toll on the 1st Airborne Division from which it would never recover. Three quarters of the formation were missing when it returned to England, including two of the three brigade commanders, eight of the nine battalion commanders and 26 of the 30 infantry company commanders.
Some 500 men were still in hiding north of the Rhine, and over the coming months many of these were able to escape: initially in Operation Pegasus.
New recruits, escapees and repatriated POWs joined the division over the coming months, but the division was still so much weakened that the 4th Parachute Brigade had to be merged into the 1st Parachute Brigade, and the division as a whole could barely produce two brigades of infantry.
Between May and August 1945, many of the men were sent to Denmark and Norway to oversee the German surrenders there but on their return the division was disbanded.
The Glider Pilot Regiment suffered the highest proportion of fatal casualties during the battle (17.3% killed).
The regiment was so badly depleted that during Operation Varsity RAF pilots were used to fly many of the gliders. As glider operations were phased out after the war, the regiment shrank and was eventually disbanded in 1957.