No recounting of the Second World War would be complete without threading through the tragedy of Operation Market-Garden.
Cornelius Ryan was born in Ireland and was a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph during the war:
He initially covered the air war in Europe, flew along on fourteen bombing missions with the Eighth and Ninth United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), and then joined General George S. Patton‘s Third Army and covered its actions until the end of the European war. He transferred to the Pacific theater in 1945, and then to Jerusalem in 1946.
[Some links deleted]
His earlier major works included The Longest Day, the story of the Normandy invasion, which was published in 1959 and subsequently made into a blockbuster movie. Ryan died in 1974, the year this book was published. I’m just going to review the book. The movie is a good account of the story, and I will touch on some movie highlights during this review.
This is a dreadful story. I read it first over 30 years ago, and I dreaded covering it again. It is a tale of immense human suffering and loss. It is also a tale of possibly the greatest feat of arms in recent history. It was 70 years ago today.
On 17 September 1944 American and British parachute divisions jumped into occupied Holland, and simultaneously British tank forces, waiting at the Dutch-Belgium border pushed northward into German defenses. The battle lasted ten days.
The movie starts out like the book. Using news footage from the war it recapitulates the events that brought the German and the Allied forces to this point. British, American, Canadian advanced into France from the Normandy coast and pushed the occupying Germans north at a dizzying pace, joined quickly by French forces. The German army in France was crushed and retreated north in vast disarray. Then, as forces under British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery advanced north into Belgium, the attack stalled. Our forces had over stretched supply lines that ran all the way back to the beaches in Normandy. With sufficient material resources there was nothing stopping us from advancing on into the heart of Germany.
The movie shows Dutch citizens awakened in the night by a strange sound. They could not go outside until daylight, else the Germans would shoot them. But some did. And some peeked out windows. They saw the Germans retreating. The Allies were coming.
But this was not to be. The Belgian port city of Antwerp had been captured but not the channel that ran to the North Sea. Lack of command decision allowed the Germans to occupy Walcheren Island, now part of the mainland where Middleburg is. Look at this from Google maps. I have added a note on top of the jagged black line that is the Belgian-Dutch border. It would be long weeks before the Germans could be pushed out of there, and until then the Allied supply channel was sucking air.
But Montgomery had a plan, and he easily sold General Dwight Eisenhower on it. Montgomery wanted to push north along a single road through Eindhoven and Nijmegen and across the Rhine at Arnhem in Holland. American, British and Polish paratroops would seize needed bridges along the way. This is delta country, crossed by a multitude of rivers and canals, any one of which would stop a tank advance. And here is where the tragedy began to set in. Allied troops reached the Dutch border about the second of September.
The Dutch, seeing these developments, were sure liberation was at hand. Resistance fighters began to pull out weapons that had been hidden from the Germans for years. People bought out supplies of orange cloth, the Dutch national color. Dutch Nazis started running for cover. Train stations were crowded with Nazis heading for Germany.
The frantic flight of Dutch Nazis and German civilians had been triggered by the Reichskommissar in Holland, the notorious fifty-two-year-old Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and by the ambitious and brutal Dutch Nazi Party leader, Anton Mussert. Nervously watching the fate of the Germans in France and Belgium, Seyss-Inquart on September 1 ordered the evacuation of German civilians to the east of Holland, closer to the Reich border. The fifty-year-old Mussert followed suit, alerting members of his Dutch Nazi Party. Seyss-Inquart and Mussert were themselves among the first to leave: they moved from The Hague east to Apeldoorn, fifteen miles north of Arnhem.
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 119-123). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
But the British didn’t come. For two weeks there was no movement. Weapons went back into hiding. People took down orange banners. And waited. The Germans regrouped and built up their forces. Even the military amateur Adolph Hitler saw the obvious and for once took correct action:
HITLER’S CRUCIAL MEASURES were already underway. On September 4 at the Führer’s headquarters deep in the forest of Gör-litz, Rastenburg, East Prussia, sixty-nine-year-old Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt prepared to leave for the western front. He had not expected a new command.
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 287-289). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
By ordering Von Rundstedt to replace Field Marshal Model , Hitler was making his third change of command of OB West within two months— from Von Rundstedt to Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, to Model, and now once again to Von Rundstedt. Model, in the job just eighteen days, would now command only Army Group B under Von Rundstedt, Hitler said. Von Rundstedt had long regarded Model with less than enthusiasm. Model, he felt, had not earned his promotion the hard way; he had been elevated to the rank of field marshal too quickly by Hitler. Von Rundstedt thought him better suited to the job of a “good regimental sergeant major.” Still, the Field Marshal felt that Model’s position made little difference now. The situation was all but hopeless, defeat inevitable. On the afternoon of September 4, as he set out for his headquarters near Koblenz, Von Rundstedt saw nothing to stop the Allies from invading Germany, crossing the Rhine and ending the war in a matter of weeks.
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 366-373). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Rundstedt began to get things straightened out. The Dutch saw all of this happening, and resistance agents alerted the Allies. The warnings went unheeded.
From 2 September it took until 10 September for Montgomery’s command to decide on the Market-Garden operation. It was to be in two parts. The Garden part was the land operation. The Market part was an assault by the American 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne. The British would put their 1st Airborne Division on the north side of the Rhine at Arnhem to capture the major bridge across the river. This was to happen a few hours after the the start of the land drive.
Three days in the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade was to drop south of the river and help secure that end of the Arnhem bridge. Action was to commence on Sunday, 17 September. There were seven days available for planning and staging. Immediately there were touches of sanity. Many saw dangers:
- This was to be a major advance into Germany along a single road for 60 miles. The operation would be vulnerable to flank attacks along the entire length of the road.
- Roads in Holland were typically elevated above the surrounding terrain. Traffic on the roads would be highly visible targets. Surrounding ground was boggy and would not support heavy vehicles. Advancing vehicles had to stay on the road.
- The loss of any critical bridge would halt the entire advance. The British troops north of the Rhine at Arnhem would be left stranded.
- All supplies would have to come up the single road. Shortages were bound to develop.
These caused worry to many experienced officers, enlisted, as well. However, Montgomery’s prestige was such that nobody with the power to act saw fit to make a stand. Nobody wanted to rock the boat. Nobody wanted to be the person who called off a major Montgomery operation. The general who was to command the operation expressed early doubts:
After Eisenhower’s departure, Montgomery outlined the proposed operation on a map for Lieutenant General Browning. The elegant Browning , one of Britain’s pioneer airborne advocates, saw that the paratroopers and glider-borne forces were being called upon to secure a series of crossings— five of them major bridges including the wide rivers of the Maas, the Waal and the Lower Rhine— over a stretch approximately sixty-four miles long between the Dutch border and Arnhem. Additionally, they were charged with holding open the corridor— in most places a single highway running north— over which British armor would drive. All of the bridges had to be seized intact if the armored dash was to succeed . The dangers were obvious, but this was precisely the kind of surprise assault for which the airborne forces had been trained. Still, Browning was uneasy. Pointing to the most northern bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, he asked, “How long will it take the armor to reach us?” Montgomery replied briskly, “Two days.” Still intent on the map, Browning said, “We can hold it for four.” Then he added, “But sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far.”
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 1113-1121). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The cancer of indecision became embedded in the operation and continued to plague it to the last. Besides ignoring warnings from the Dutch resistance, the Brits ignored their own intelligence. A low-level fighter reconnaissance mission brought back photos of German tanks in the Arnhem area.
Even as Montgomery and Smith conferred, across the Channel startling evidence reached British I Airborne Corps headquarters. Earlier in the day, fighters of the R.A.F.’ s specially equipped photo-reconnaissance squadron returning from The Hague had made a low-level sweep over the Arnhem area. Now, in his office, intelligence officer Major Brian Urquhart took up a magnifying glass and examined five oblique-angle pictures— an “end of the run” strip from one of the fighters. Hundreds of aerial photographs of the Market-Garden area had been taken and evaluated in the previous seventy-two hours, but only these five shots showed what Urquhart had long feared— the unmistakable presence of German armor . “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Urquhart later recalled. “There, in the photos, I could clearly see tanks— if not on the very Arnhem landing and drop zones, then certainly close to them.”
Major Urquhart rushed to General Browning’s office with the photographic confirmation. Browning saw him immediately. Placing the pictures on the desk before Browning , Urquhart said, “Take a look at these.” The General studied them one by one. Although Urquhart no longer remembers the exact wording, to the best of his recollection , Browning said, “I wouldn’t trouble myself about these if I were you.” Then, referring to the tanks in the photos, he continued, “They’re probably not serviceable at any rate.” Urquhart was stunned. Helplessly he pointed out that the armor, “whether serviceable or not, were still tanks and they had guns.” Looking back, Urquhart feels that “perhaps because of information I knew nothing about, General Browning was not prepared to accept my evaluation of the photos. My feeling remained the same— that everyone was so gung-ho to go that nothing could stop them.”
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 1976-1989). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
And that is just about it for the story of the failure of Market-Garden. Almost as a miracle, in the seven days from 10 September to 17 September all resources were gathered, and a huge attack force was put together. It was Sunday, and the weather was perfect. British forces were massed in Belgium along the Dutch border. They were going drive northward into Holland along a single road to Valkenswaard and on to Eindhoven. Here is another Google map.
That looks simple enough. But take a look at the road.
That’s a view of N69 today, 70 years after the British attack. After 70 years of rebuilding war-torn Europe, after 70 yeas of modernization, after 70 years of new highway construction and the addition of super highways that would put the old German Autobahn to shame, this is what that stretch of road looks like today. I am guessing it looked even worse in September 1944.
The movie shows General Brian Harrocks addressing his XXX Corps prior to the attack. Everybody is cheerful. Spirits are high. The weather is just smashing. They are are about to set off for a fine afternoon of invading Holland.
Hundreds of guns are pre-sighted along the advance route, and at the appointed time we see in the movie as the gunners get down to the business of killing Germans. The 155 mm howitzers open up. The British gunners can’t see their targets. It’s all mathematics and gunnery science. The shells fly off into the air, above tree tops and buildings on their way to predetermined points on the ground.
In the movie we see the Germans waiting. They are not on the road. They are concealed in trees long the route. They know for sure the British are coming. Some know for sure they are about to die. And they do. Shells burst among the German positions, and Germans start dying by the dozens. The Germans are brave troops. They don’t run. They hold their positions.
The idea in a situation like this is that the British shells won’t kill all of them. Eventually the British will come down the road, and those still alive will kill the British. And that’s what happens. British tank crew and ground troops who had a few minutes before had been cheering with their commander now die a horrible death as the lead tanks are hit by anti-tank guns, and the column is raked by machine gun fire. British tank guns and field artillery take aim at the now-revealed German survivors, and British troops wade into the trees to kill and flush out the Germans. In the movie the action is over in a few minutes.
In actual practice the British advance is stopped short of its first objective. A day out of the schedule is lost in the first few hours of fighting. Things are already going badly.
Ryan’s book gives a good account of the airborne offensive, said account being extremely well-staged but largely papering over many details in the movie. The combined parachute and glider offensive was costly from all possible sources. Accidents spilled glider troops into the air when their craft split open while being towed. Gliders collided and crashed. Accidents and problems with tow plans caused a number of gliders to be cut loose prematurely. Remarkably the seven-day preparation for the offensive also included a well-organized sea rescue, and hundreds of troops were pulled from the water.
German anti-aircraft had been attacked by fighters prior to the invasion, but the Germans had kept many units carefully concealed and unveiled them only when the airborne assault began. Not shown in either this movie or in the HBO series Band of Brothers is the heroism of the transport pilots. There is a history.
The Normandy invasion just three months before had been the first combat for many of the air crews. They became separated in a fog bank when crossing the coast into France, and German gunfire completely unnerved the pilots. Many jettisoned their airborne troops at too high a speed and too low an altitude. Very few troops landed in their assigned zones. Following this debacle, after the airborne troops were rotated back to England, commanders held a meeting with the survivors of the air crews and the troops. The air crews were advised to face the troops and to appreciate they had let them down in the operation.
In Operation Market-Garden the air crews made up for their past failings. There were instances of pilots continuing on to the assigned drop zone with one and sometimes with two engines on fire (the C-47 has only two engines). Some pilots held off for the correct drop point even knowing they would not be able to escape their doomed planes. At least one plane circled back over the drop zone to get all troops and equipment onto the assigned zone. Three grim stories of mid-20th century warfare stand out in the history of Operation Market-Garden:
- The fight for control of the Arnhem highway bridge
- The desperate stand of Major-General Roy Urquhart‘s 1st Airborne in Oosterbeek, west of Arnhem
- The amphibious crossing of the Waal River and the capture of the bridge at Nijmegen by Major Julian Cook’s men of the 82nd Airborne.
The Arnhem bridge disaster flowed down from the decision on the 1st Airborne’s landing area. The nearest suitable place was eight miles west of the bridge in the region of Oosterbeek. Other areas were unsuitable for parachutist and especially for gliders. Those that were suitable for landing would take the transports over German guns after the drop.
British parachute troops given the choice would have preferred to jump into Arnhem. Higher command threatened to bring charges of homicide if any such operation were carried out. The movie shows General Browning pointing out the Oosterbeek area, “over here on this other map.” General Urquhart registers surprise and dismay.
But not in the book. Ryan has Urquhart suggesting the place. In any event, a few hundred crack troops pushed through German resistance and made it piecemeal to buildings facing the north end of the bridge. Then the Germans cut them off, and they was never any connection between these men and the remainder of the division after the first day. General Urquhart, trying to make contact with the contingent at the bridge got cut off by German forces and had to hide out for over 24 yours, completely out of communication with the rest of the world, and particularly out of communication with his troops.
The movie depicts an incident that reflects the close action in this battle:
Running ahead of Urquhart and Lathbury were two other officers, Captain William Taylor of the Brigade’s headquarters staff and Captain James Cleminson of the 3rd Battalion. One of them called out suddenly but neither Urquhart nor Lathbury understood his words. Before Taylor and Cleminson could head them off, the two senior officers came upon a maze of intersecting streets where, it seemed to Urquhart, “a German machine gun was firing down each one.” As the four men attempted to run past one of these narrow crossings, Lathbury was hit.
Quickly the others dragged him off the street and into a house. There, Urquhart saw that a bullet had entered the Brigadier’s lower back and he appeared to be temporarily paralyzed. “All of us knew,” Urquhart recalls, “that he could travel no farther.” Lathbury urged the General to leave immediately without him. “You’ll only get cut off if you stay, sir,” he told Urquhart. As they talked, Urquhart saw a German soldier appear at the window. He raised his automatic and fired at point-blank range. The bloodied mass of the German’s face disappeared. Now, with the Germans so near, there was no longer any question that Urquhart must leave quickly.
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 4341-4349). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The men at the north end of the bridge held out days longer than required and inflicted severe casualties on German attackers. While they were there they prevented German use of the bridge, and forces seeking to reinforce the battle against the 82nd Airborne in Nijmegen had to cross the Rhine using a makeshift ferry upstream of the bridge.
In the end the Germans prevailed in Arnhem and took the survivors prisoner. In sharp contrast to German war atrocities earlier in the war and even in the coming weeks near Bastogne, the German troops who vanquished this small British force greatly admired the courage and fighting ability of the Arnhem contingent.
At one point the German’s advanced under a flag of truce and suggested surrender negotiations. One British officer offered his apologies. They were unable to handle any more prisoners.
General Urquhart’s gallant stand fared only slightly better. He had been required to hold 48 hours before being relieved by the British XXX Corps coming up the road from the south. Relief never came. Polish troops landed south of the river, but only a few were able to cross into Urquhart’s area. The Germans relentlessly compressed the Brits in Oosterbeek while the British drive stalled just a mile or so south of the bridge.
Nine days after jumping north of the Rhine, Urquhart had to withdraw his surviving troops south across the river. Even this was a disaster. The operation was carried out in the best of conditions for such an operation, in the middle of the night and in heavy rain and fog, but still the Germans managed to destroy half the rescue boats in the first crossing. Many troops made it to the south side by swimming the swift Rhine, 400 yards wide at that point.
Urquhart brought about 10,000 men north of the Rhine. Ten days later he had about 2000 back within British lines to the south. The rest were dead, taken prisoner by the Germans or else hiding out in the countryside, many of them aided by the Dutch.
In the movie Major Julian Cook is played by Robert Redford. Possibly nobody else could do the job. Tactical missteps coupled with lack of resources kept the Americans from capturing the impressive highway bridge over the Waal River north of Nijmegen on the first day. After that German defenses had a lock on the north end.
Look at a map. From the outskirts of Nijmegen to the German border to the east is just a short hike. The area was crawling with Germans.
German General Wilhelm Bittrich was in charge of German operations in the battle, and he ordered General Walter Model not to blow up any of the bridges. Bittrich had in mind a future counter attack. Contrary to these orders, the Germans blew up the Son Bridge north of Eindhoven and had wired the Waal bridge for destruction as well. American troops, aware of the fate of the Son bridge, did not dare to attack across the Waal bridge.
An amphibious assault across the river was the only answer. Everybody thought it was crazy, and the improbable thing is that it worked. But at a cost.
The movie shows the assault originally scheduled to begin at night. That did not happen. Boats needed for the crossing were way back down the supply chain, down that narrow road into Belgium. Ryan never mentions a nighttime schedule. Major Cook’s troops were to start across at eight in the morning. Tank guns were to fire smoke shells to shield Cook’s troops during the crossing.
The boats had not arrived by eight. The start time was pushed back to 1 p.m. Then to 3 p.m. Air support was scheduled for 3 p.m. and those planes had already taken off, but the boats had not arrived. As it was, the boats came just in time for the troops to unload them from the trucks, assemble them, and carry them over the levee and down to the water for the 3 p.m. crossing.
The tanks fired smoke shells, temporarily giving Cook’s troops some cover. Then the tanks ran low on smoke shells, and the wind blew the smoke away. Tank and field artillery assisted Cook’s men, and air support was much appreciated.
Even so, the river crossing was Medal of Honor territory from start to finish. There were not enough boats for all of Cook’s men to cross in one wave. The plan was for three waves. The first wave lost about half its boats. Each boat was delivered with only two oars. Men in the boats who were carrying rifles used them as oars. Cook, a devout Catholic was in the lead. He had joked prior to the assault. He would, he said, stand up in the lead boat and strike a George Washington pose. In reality he rowed, and with each stroke he yelled, “Hail Mary” (first stroke), “Full of grace” (second stroke). All the way across the wide river. Amazingly, men began to reach the far side.
Even more amazing, boats that reached the far side unloaded their men and cargo and headed back across to bring more troops and equipment. For those who survived the crossing there was no hesitation. All across the river they had watched as those beside them had been cut down by German bullets or blown apart by artillery shells. Survivors immediately charged the German positions behind the dike north of the river. They were in no mood to take prisoners.
Captain Moffatt Burriss had no time to think about the shrapnel wound in his side. When he landed he was “so happy to be alive that I vomited .” He ran straight for the dike, yelling to his men to get “one machine gun firing on the left flank, another on the right .” They did. Burriss saw several houses back of the dike. Kicking the door of one open, he surprised “several Germans who had been sleeping, apparently unaware of what was happening.” Reaching quickly for a hand grenade, Burriss pulled the pin, threw it into the room and slammed the door.
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 6174-6178). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Germans behind the dike were quickly overwhelmed, and Cook’s brigade turned toward the bridge, itself.
Sickened and exhausted by the crossing, their dead and wounded lying on the beach, the men of the first wave subdued the German defenders on the dike road in less than thirty minutes. Not all the enemy positions had been overrun, but now troopers hunched down in former German machine-gun nests to protect the arrival of succeeding waves. Two more craft were lost in the second crossing. And, still under heavy shellfire, exhausted engineers in the eleven remaining craft made five more trips to bring all the Americans across the bloodstained Waal. Speed was all that mattered now. Cook’s men had to grab the northern ends of the crossings before the Germans fully realized what was happening— and before they blew the bridges.
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 6184-6189). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
There was also a railway bridge, and it presented a disaster for the German defenders. The Americans got to the north end of the bridge and about that time the British on the south end attacked. The German defenses completely disintegrated, and German soldiers, some discarding their weapons, fled north across the bridge. The Americans were ready, and it was a slaughter.
Caught out in the open in the bridge 250 German troops were killed outright. At the north end of the highway bridge the Americans started searching for hidden demolition charges. On the south end the Brits prepared to send tanks across. Meanwhile General Heinz Harmel prepared to blow the highway bridge. He wanted to wait until it was loaded with British tanks. A tank column started across the bridge.
Standing next to the engineer by the detonator box, Harmel scanned the crossing. At first he could detect no movement. Then suddenly he saw “a single tank reach the center, then a second behind and to its right.” To the engineer he said, “Get ready.” Two more tanks appeared in view, and Harmel waited for the line to reach the exact middle before giving the order . He shouted, “Let it blow!” The engineer jammed the plunger down. Nothing happened. The British tanks continued to advance. Harmel yelled, “Again!” Once more the engineer slammed down the detonator handle, but again the huge explosions that Harmel had expected failed to occur. “I was waiting to see the bridge collapse and the tanks plunge into the river,” he recalled. “Instead, they moved forward relentlessly, getting bigger and bigger, closer and closer.” He yelled to his anxious staff, “My God, they’ll be here in two minutes!”
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 6295-6301). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The bridge was captured. A massive, carefully concealed charge was located. It had been painted to match the bridge girders and had been shaped to fit neatly in place in the bridge structure. Nobody has ever determined why the attempt to detonate it failed. It is suspected a Dutch saboteur was the hero:
Many Dutch believe that the main crossing was saved by a young underground worker, Jan van Hoof, who had been sent into Nijmegen on the nineteenth by the 82nd’s Dutch liaison officer, Captain Arie Bestebreurtje, as a guide to the paratroopers. Van Hoof is thought to have succeeded in penetrating the German lines and to have reached the bridge, where he cut cables leading to the explosives. He may well have done so. In 1949 a Dutch commission investigating the story was satisfied that Van Hoof had cut some lines, but could not confirm that these alone actually saved the bridge. The charges and transmission lines were on the Lent side of the Waal and Van Hoof’s detractors maintain that it would have been impossible for him to have reached them without being detected. The controversy still rages. Although the evidence is against him, personally I would like to believe that the young Dutchman, who was shot by the Germans for his role in the underground during the battle, was indeed responsible.
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 6401-6407). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
With the capture of the bridge came tragedy and additional controversy. After British tanks rolled across to the north side of the Waal, the column halted. They could go no further. The road ahead to Arnhem was several feet above the surrounding ground, completely exposed and unshielded by any cover. Infantry would be required to support the tanks on this drive, but no troops could be spared. All were either too far back in the column or else were committed to defending assets already captured.
With Germans in control of the surrounding countryside there was no way tanks could make it the remaining ten miles to the bridge at Arnhem and the British troops there. The sluggishness of the ground forces is considered to be a major scandal of this operation. We had just witnessed General George Patton’s dash across France in the preceding month, and we expected to see the same kind of aggressiveness from the XXX Corps. This was not the way this unit operated in Operation Market-Garden, and at their feet is laid a large part of the blame for the operation’s failure. In the end this section of the Highway to Hell was not captured until after General Urquhart’s survivors had been evacuated to south of the river.
Support for the evacuation came not from the Arnhem road, but from a thrust to the west, north of Nijmegen through the village of Oosterhout and then north to the river at Driel. Initial contact between Garden (ground) forces and Urquhart’s division was accomplished by the expedient of some brave officers and men heading out through German territory east of the Arnhem road and barreling through before the Germans could react.
From the book
Bitterness among Urquhart’s survivors was intense. Many shaved for the first time since jumping in to make a good face when they confronted the XXX Corps after the breakout.
Perhaps because so few were expected to escape, there was not enough transport for the exhausted survivors. Many men, having endured so much else, now had to march back to Nijmegen. On the road Captain Roland Langton of the Irish Guards stood in the cold rain watching the 1st Airborne come back. As tired, filthy men stumbled along, Langton stepped back. He knew his squadron had done its best to drive up the elevated highway from Nijmegen to Arnhem, yet he felt uneasy, “almost embarrassed to speak to them.” As one of the men drew abreast of another Guardsman standing silently beside the road, the trooper shouted, “Where the hell have you been, mate?” The Guardsman answered quietly, “We’ve been fighting for five months.” Corporal William Chennell of the Guards heard one of the airborne men say, “Oh? Did you have a nice drive up?”
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 8090-8096). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
General Urquhart refused to meet with General Thomas of the XXX Corps:
On the road to Driel, General Urquhart came to General Thomas’ headquarters. Refusing to go in, he waited outside in the rain as his aide arranged for transportation. It was not necessary. As Urquhart stood outside, a jeep arrived from General Browning’s headquarters and an officer escorted Urquhart back to Corps. He and his group were taken to a house on the southern outskirts of Nijmegen. “Browning’s aide , Major Harry Cator, showed us into a room and suggested we take off our wet clothes,” Urquhart says. The proud Scot refused. “Perversely, I wanted Browning to see us as we were— as we had been.” After a long wait Browning appeared, “as immaculate as ever.” He looked, Urquhart thought, as if “he had just come off parade, rather than from his bed in the middle of a battle.” To the Corps commander Urquhart said simply, “I’m sorry things did not turn out as well as I had hoped.” Browning, offering Urquhart a drink, replied, “You did all you could.” Later, in the bedroom that he had been given, Urquhart found that the sleep he had yearned for so long was impossible. “There were too many things,” he said, “on my mind and my conscience.”
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 8073-8082). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The numbers tell of the disaster that this campaign was.
- Total Allied casualties, dead, wounded, missing: more than 17,000
- British: 13,226
- Urquhart’s force, including the Polish brigade: 7,578
- RAF: 294
- American: 3974
- 82nd Airborne: 1432
- 101st Airborne: 2118
- American air crew: 424
- Germans at Oosterbeek: 3300, including 1300 dead
- General Model’s troops: 7500 to 10,000, including about 1/4 mortality
Dutch civilian deaths were comparatively light considering a lot of the combat was fought in built up areas, and many civilians remained in place to provide intelligence and material support to the Allies in addition to tending to Allied and also to German wounded. The movie and the book end on the same note. The Germans were furious at Dutch complicity in the Allied effort, and in reprisal they ordered Arnhem completely evacuated. The city was not reoccupied by the Dutch until Allied forces moved in on 15 April 1945.
The movie ends with a scene of Dutch civilians, including children, trudging across the countryside, along an elevated road against a red sky. The operation left American Airborne troops in charge of protecting the road from Nijmegen up almost to Arnhem. This section was called The Island due to its elevation above the surrounding ground.
The HBO series Band of Brothers includes the actions of Easy Company of the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment during this part of the operation. I’m reviewing that video in addition to the book by Stephen E. Ambrose, on which it is based. This episode of Band of Brothers includes the rescue of over 100 of the British 1st Airborne troops who eluded German capture and hid out north of the Rhine until late October.
During the battle Dutch railway workers staged a strike to hamper German operations. In reprisal, the kind of thing that continued to be the Germans’ undoing right up to the very end, the Germans cut off food shipments to Holland, and more than 15,000 Dutch civilians starved to death before German forces in western Holland capitulated in the final days of the European war. What some may not be aware of are some people we all know who were there:
Because Market-Garden was considered an all-British operation, few American correspondents were accredited to cover the attack. None was at Arnhem. One of the Americans attached to the 101st was a United Press reporter named Walter Cronkite, who landed by glider. Cronkite recalls that “I thought the wheels of the glider were for landing. Imagine my surprise when we skidded along the ground and the wheels came up through the floor. I got another shock. Our helmets, which we all swore were hooted, came flying off on impact and seemed more dangerous than the incoming shells. After landing I grabbed the first helmet I saw, my trusty musette bag with the Olivetti typewriter inside and began crawling toward the canal which was the rendezvous point. When I looked back, I found a half dozen guys crawling after me. It seems that I had grabbed the wrong helmet. The one I wore had two neat stripes down the back indicating that I was a lieutenant.”
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 2800-2807). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Actress Audrey Hepburn was a girl of just 15 living in Arnhem at the time of the battle. She was active in the Dutch resistance.
By 1944, Hepburn had become a proficient ballet dancer. She had secretly danced for groups of people to collect money for the Dutch resistance. “The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performances”, she remarked. She also occasionally acted as a courier for the resistance, delivering messages and packages. After the Allied landing on D-Day, living conditions grew worse and Arnhem was subsequently devastated in the fighting during Operation Market Garden. During the Dutch famine that followed in the winter of 1944, the Germans had blocked the resupply routes of the Dutch already-limited food and fuel supplies as retaliation for railway strikes that were held to hinder German occupation. People starved and froze to death in the streets; Hepburn and many others resorted to making flour out of tulip bulbs to bake cakes and biscuits. One way young Audrey passed the time was by drawing; some of her childhood artwork can be seen today. When the country was liberated, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration trucks followed. Hepburn said in an interview that she fell ill from putting too much sugar in her porridge and eating an entire can of condensed milk. Hepburn’s war-time experiences sparked her devotion to UNICEF, an international humanitarian organisation, in her later career.
As mentioned, this was Ryan’s last major work published before his death, and it’s an astounding monument to writing research. The story concludes with a one-page section:
“In my— prejudiced —view, if the operation had been properly backed from its inception, and given the aircraft, ground forces, and administrative resources necessary for the job— it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes , or the adverse weather, or the presence of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in the Arnhem area. I remain MARKET-GARDEN’S unrepentant advocate.” —FIELD MARSHAL SIR BERNARD MONTGOMERY, Memoirs: Montgomery of Alamein, p. 267
“My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success.” —BERNHARD, THE PRINCE OF THE NETHERLANDS, to the author.
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 8159-8164). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
And that’s 76% into the book. The remainder includes 10% of the book devoted to telling of the survivors, presumably ones interviewed by Ryan. The remainder comprises acknowledgements and a comprehensive index.
I have the same trouble with my Kindle copy that I have with a lot of Kindle books that have been restored from print. At the time this book came out in 1974 little if any composition was being done on computer. Only printed copies remain for these books to be converted to the electronic. This operation seems to be primarily performed by OCR, optical character recognition. This process works well when it works, but sometimes human guidance is required and lacking.
For example, words in the book that are hyphened over a line break still retain their break and their hyphen, even though the Kindle reader places the sentence breaks at other points and typically does not break words using hyphens. I read through these difficulties and resist the urge to get a Kindle editor and rework the text.
Besides Robert Redford as Major Cook, the movie has Sean Connery as General Urquhart and many other film industry notables you should know. Gene Hackman is Polish Major General Stanisław Sosabowski. Anthony Hopkins is Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, whose men held out for so long at the Arnhem bridge. Read the book. See the movie regardless whether you have time to read the book. This important piece of military action does not get a lot of attention in the 21st century. Quite frankly, when it turned out to be such a flop and such an embarrassment to Britain’s favorite field marshal, the American and British press found other things to write about.