Thursday, September 29, 2011

Operation Market Garden

Operation ‘Market Garden’ is usually considered a complete failure, but was it? Certainly in it’s entirety, the operation, the largest daylight airborne drop ever mounted, failed to achieve it’s overall objective. But American forces, although hampered by setbacks, did secure all the bridges and crossings allotted to them. A substantial German force was also tied up for the remainder of the war.

This post will seek to explain what happened during  4 crucial days in September 1944.

Unlike D-Day, which was 2 years in the planning, Market Garden was hastily put together in a matter of days. It involved the largest parachute drop of the war. 

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery
Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, fresh from his success in Normandy, believed he could 'walk on water', and this buoyed optimism led to an audacious, but hasty and ill prepared operation.

The operations were split into two phases, 'Market' and 'Garden.' 'Market' was the code name given to the massive Allied parachute drop and 'Garden,' the ground offensive. 

Two American Airborne Divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, were to seize bridges and hold road crossings between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, and take control a stretch of highway between the two cities, while the British 1st Airborne were to drop on the Northernmost town of Arnhem and take control. Arnhem was the final barrier to entry into the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr.

As the various airborne divisions landed and took control of their objectives, British XXX Corps an armored and infantry force, waiting on the Belgian side of the Dutch border, were to jump off from their start point, rush up the newly seized highway and cross the Rhine river at Arnhem, opening a spearhead into Germany thus ending the war by Christmas 1944. 

Market Garden Operational Map ©
As with all hastily planned operations, very little notice was taken of intelligence reports. The Dutch resistance had repeatedly informed the Allies there were German SS panzer divisions resting and re-equipping in the Arnhem and Nijmegen zones. Even RAF reconnaissance had photographed camouflaged tanks, but the line fed to the airborne troops was entirely different. They would be facing a force of "old men, boys and walking wounded" with no stomach for a fight.

 Day 1

The largest allied parachute drop of WWII took place in broad daylight on September 17th 1944. 

101st DZ at Best
Transport aircraft and gliders carried the 502nd and 506th regiments of the 101st airborne to their drop zone in the southern sector, North of Eindhoven, while their sister regiment the 501st were dropped further up the highway at Eerde. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon when the aircraft roared into view over their respective zones. 

Three regiments of the 82nd Airborne were transported to their zones in the Nijmegen and Grave areas. The British 1st Abn were dropped some 8 miles from their objective at Arnhem. The drops were virtually unopposed, most units landed on target and the Germans were clearly taken by surprise, but they soon regrouped.

Grave Bridge
By the end of Day 1, The 504 82nd Airborne had taken and secured  their objective, the Grave bridge.  The other regiments had landed unopposed on their drop zone at Groesbeek and were making probing attacks towards Nijmegen.

The 101st had achieved mixed results. The 501 had taken their objectives at Eerde, but the 506th and the 502nd had run into stiff opposition at Son and Best.The Son Bridge, vital for the British XXX Corps relief effort, had been blown in their faces.  A British Bailey bridge would be needed to cross the canal at Son, but where were the British armored columns?

British XXX Corps
After crossing the border, XXX Corps had come under heavy artillery fire from elements of German paratroopers and SS artillery, who were well dug in . After a vicious fight the British columns ground to a halt and rested for the night. The operation was already falling behind.

German Paratrooper Eckhert Schucany describes the attack.

Day 2
Leonard Funk
In the early morning of Day 2, the 82nd Airborne drop zone at Groesbeek, an area vital for the re-supply operations, came under heavy fire. Their German attackers had recovered from the initial shock of the paratroop and glider landings. In danger of being completely overrun, 1st Sgt Leonard Funk of the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment saved the day. He mustered a group of paratroopers and repulsed the German attack, taking many prisoners.

General Maxwell Taylor 101st Airborne
The 101st Abn's 501 regiment came under heavy attack at Eerde, but beat off a determined offensive by the same German paratroopers who had attacked the British armored columns on day one. Holding only a narrow corridor, Allied paratroopers were vulnerable to attacks from the flanks. 

The Germans were using their forces as a 'fire brigade', rushing up and down either side of the highway, attacking at will. General Maxwell Taylor of The 101st Airborne Division described the position as being "like guarding the railroad from Indian attacks in the Wild West."

The 101st Airborne 506th had managed to construct a makeshift walkway across the canal at Son, they had entered  Eindhoven and had met up with the British XXX Corps. A Bailey bridge was requested and the British battled through the cheering crowds to reach Son. They would finally arrive at 23:00.

The 505 and 508 regiments of the 82nd Airborne continued to fight the stubborn Germans in Nijmegen. They were still a way from their objective, the main bridge.

Elements of the British 1st Airborne were locked in deadly combat with the German 9th & 10th SS panzer divisions at Arnhem. They were being decimated.

Day 3
At 06:am, U.S paratroopers and British engineers, having worked all through the night, finally waved the British tanks across the bridge at Son.
By 07:15 am the British tanks had reached the midway point of the Highway at Veghel, where some peeled of to support the 501st. 
At 08:30 the forward British elements were at the Grave Bridge South of Nijmegen, which was still firmly held by the troopers of 504th, 82nd Airborne.

Nijmegen Bridge
The tanks reached Nijmegen soon after and paratroopers and armor  battled towards the bridge.

Jan van Hoof
There was hellish street fighting and there paratroopers sustained many casualties.  The SS held a firm grip on the bridge. They had a fine vantage point and could direct accurate fire on the approaching Americans. The Germans had wired the bridge with explosives as a last ditch attempt to stop the advancing Allies. Late in the night on Day 3, a young Dutch patriot, Jan Van Hoof , is reputed to have climbed under the bridge in the dead of night and cut the detonating wires. Jan was caught and executed by the Germans on the morning of the 20th as he lay wounded after a British scout car that he had been traveling on was hit by a German grenade.

Day 4
On day 4 of 'Operation Market Garden,' the 101st airborne continued to repulse the German probing attacks up and down their narrow corridor of 'Hell's Highway,' but the real action was taking place in Nijmegen and Arnhem. The British paratroopers were still grimly holding on, but they were massively outgunned and outnumbered and they had taken catastrophic casualties. The relief columns still pinned down in Nijmegen were already 30 hours behind schedule. There was no sign of a breakthrough. A bold plan was required to take the all important bridge.

Gavin meeting British generals
82nd Airborne General, James.M.Gavin and a group of British generals met on the south side of the Waal river. They discussed how a simultaneous assault on both ends of the bridge might break the German's grip. Captain T.Moffatt Burris, of  I company 504, was present at the meeting. 
 Captain T.Moffatt Burriss explains

Original crossing boat (courtesy Groesbeek museum)


The boats chosen for the crossing were narrow, flimsy, canvas and collapsible.

Original crossing site, Waal River
As the troopers drifted out into the middle of the fast flowing river,  they paddled with their rifle butts as the Germans opened up with everything they had. Many of the little boats were blown clean out of the water. Casualties on the crossing alone amounted to over 50%. After the survivors reached a small sandy area on the far bank, now named 'Little Omaha,'  they had to make a 500 yard dash in the face of withering machine gun and mortar fire.

Open ground on far bank of Waal River.
 While the 504 were making the river crossing. elements of the 505 and 508, with British tanks in support, were attacking from the Southern end. After killing or capturing the German defenders on the far bank, the troopers of the 504 began their fight to the Northern end of the bridge. It was a house to house battle, which took several hours. Finally they fought up the steps of the bridge and overpowered the defenders while continuing to take fire from snipers up in the superstructure.

Steps to Northern end of Nijmegen Bridge.
The actions of the other regiments of the 82nd Airborne at the Southern end had also succeeded and British tanks started to make their dash across.

Heinz Harmel (courtesy Bundesarchiv)
SS Brigadefuhrer, Heinz Harmel, watched as the first tanks started to cross. He wanted to wait until they reached the center before giving the order to detonate. He gave the command and nothing happened! He realized the wires had been cut!

Captain Moffatt Burriss met up with the first tanks across.

The British stopped for the night, but in the morning when they moved off the Germans had re-grouped and re-supplied. There would be no relief for the British paratroopers at Arnhem. Of the 10,000 British at Arnhem, only 2000 escaped death or captivity.

Though all American objectives had been achieved,'Operation Market Garden' had failed. The war would not end by Christmas 1944 and northern Holland would not see liberation until the Spring of 1945.

The Americans on Hell's Highway  is the 2nd part of 'The American Road to Victory' trilogy, which has been broadcast on PBS stations throughout the U.S during 2011. It is available on DVD priced $ 23.95 + shipping or $69.95 including shipping for the trilogy.

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