In 1944, the Allies seemed to have the upper hand in the war – until they attempted to take three cities at once from the Germans.
The Allied forces in Europe in World War II had a plan to advance into Germany following the D-Day landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Allies did not expect Operation Overlord, or the D-Day invasion, to be so successful. Yes, there thousands of lives lost. However, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Allied commanders did not think the Germans would retreat from France so readily.
Three months after D-Day, legendary British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery came up with the plan, dubbed Operation Market Garden. The Allies needed to pursue German forces to the border of Germany along the Rhine River before they had a chance to regroup and grow stronger.
The idea was a vast operation that involved flying 10,000 paratroopers behind enemy lines to take eight strategic bridges that crossed the Rhine River along the German border with The Netherlands. Operation Market Garden involved three towns along the Dutch-German border called Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. Once troops reached Arnhem, it would be a short way to Germany’s industrial region of Rhineland and then onward to Berlin. Victory in World War II could come by Christmas.
Maj. Tony Hibbert, commander of the 1st Parachute Brigade, said, “My first reaction was one of enormous enthusiasm and excitement, because this was the first time that anyone on our side, had contemplated the proper strategic use of airborne forces en masse.”
Indeed, the Battle of Arnhem ended up being the largest battle involving airborne troops in the history of warfare.
The operation was hugely risky, but it had big rewards. The roads were narrow. Aerial views showed two German infantry divisions hidden in wooded areas near Arnhem. Landing troops there would be dangerous because they would become sitting ducks very quickly. The land route among the eight bridges covered 100 miles, a huge swath of territory. Airborne troops had to hold out long enough for ground forces to catch up to them. There were also issues with supply lines coming up behind the advancing forces.
British and American forces both participated in the massive drop. Because there were too many troops and not enough available aircraft that would be ready all at once, troops would drop behind enemy lines in stages.
On Sept. 17, 1944, a total of 1,500 planes and 500 gliders parachuted troops about seven miles away from Arnhem. British armored troops would follow the airborne troops after fighting through two other towns. Timing was critical, because airborne troops could only carry so many supplies and limited amounts of ammunition with them. Allies thought the German anti-aircraft defenses at Arnhem were too stout to land troops at the site. Artillery from the ground forces pounded German units to cover the incoming planes while allowing tanks on the ground to advance.
Roads were narrow on the approach to Arnhem. Small German divisions disabled nine British vehicles, and it took 40 minutes to get the advance moving again. Timing was critical because the airborne troops had no armored vehicles to protect them.
Some radios for the airborne troops didn’t work. That made it impossible to coordinate the attack with armored divisions. Tanks on the ground only made it seven miles on the first day, and German troops were quickly entering Arnhem to take on the airborne forces. Ground forces advanced 20 miles on the second day, and it seemed they were making steady progress towards a major victory. Arnhem was last of the three towns the Allied forces needed to secure to make Operation Market Garden a success.
After taking the bridge in Nijmegen on Sept. 21, British Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks’s men were at a standstill trying to reach their objective in Arnhem. British paratroopers were running out of time, food and supplies. He ordered American forces, led by Capt. Moffat Burriss, to cross the River Waal (a tributary of the Rhine) in an attempt to pinch German forces on two sides. The men would have to take boats to reach the other side, but German forces could unleash a hail of bullets upon them.
Burriss said it best, “The bullets hitting the water looked like a hailstorm, kicking up little spouts of water. When we reached about the halfway point, then the mortar and artillery fire started falling. And when a boat was hit with an artillery shell or a mortar shell, it just disintegrated, and everybody was lost.”
British paratroopers actually took the town or Arnhem, but ground forces could not reach them in time to hold the position. Although the Allies beat German forces back across the bridge, artillery on the ground in Arnhem made it impossible to go further. German tanks were going through Arnhem and torching houses in which paratroopers were hiding.
Of the 10,000 paratroopers who participated in Operation Market Garden. Only 2,000 returned to their units. The original plan called for paratroopers to hold the bridge at Arnhem for two days. They held it twice as long while being outnumbered two-to-one.
The ramifications of Operation Market Garden’s failure were numerous. Instead of wrapping up the war by Christmas, the Germans hung on for four more months. The advance to Berlin cost thousands of civilian lives that could have been saved if Operation Market Garden had succeeded. If the Americans had reached Berlin in late 1944, they would have beaten the Soviets to Germany by several weeks. This might have prevented the construction of the Berlin Wall and subsequent high-profile tensions during the Cold War that lasted until the early 1990s.