101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION: RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY.22 januari 2022
HATS & BEANIES5 maart 2022
OPERATION MARKET GARDEN:
ATTEMPTING TO LIBERATE THE NETHERLANDS.
The heroes of D-Day had liberated France and Belgium from German occupation. The next challenge was to liberate the Netherlands. In September 1944, an extremely ambitious plan was put into operation in the hope of ending the war by Christmas.
Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne operation in history and one of the most extensive Allied operations of the Second World War.
The idea was to have a two-pronged attack. First, 41,628 English, American and Polish airborne paratroopers would be dropped into the Netherlands behind enemy lines, implementing Operation Market. While this took place, three divisions in Belgium would travel across land to implement Operation Garden.
As they moved from the southern Dutch border to Arnhem, they would secure nine bridges and many cities for the Allies. This included three main bridges over the rivers Maas (Meuse), Waal and Rhine.
This route was chosen in the hope of outflanking the heavy German defences on the Siegfried Line. Known by the Germans as the Westerwaal, the Siegfried Line was a series of more than 18,000 bunkers and tunnels stretching over 630 km from Kleve in Germany on the southern Dutch border to Weil am Rhein on the Swiss border.
The Allies hoped to form a pincer movement into the Ruhr area, the heart of German industry, bypassing the Siegfried Line.
A RISKY PLAN
The brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, it was a risky plan from the beginning. It didn’t succeed due primarily to the weather conditions and the unexpectedly heavy German opposition. Alongside this, the Operation Market drop zones were too far from the Nijmegen and Arnhem bridges, and there were several communication problems.
The Battle for Nijmegen was a success. Eindhoven and Nijmegen and all the towns and villages in the area were swiftly liberated. But capturing the bridge in Arnhem became the well-known “bridge too far”.
The German command suspected that an Allied attack in the region was imminent. They had received reports of reinforcements to the British Second Army, which suggested the general area in which the offensive would happen. The General was also correctly convinced that airborne troops would be used. But he missed information on where it would take place, so he needed to keep his army spread out to defend against various possibilities.
The Allies had a lot more detail about the locations and activities of the Germans. The now-famous Bletchley Park decoding school decrypted German radio traffic, producing intelligence reports under the codename Ultra. These reports spoke of German movements in Nijmegen and Arnhem that caused enough concern in Eisenhower to raise the issue with Montgomery. Unfortunately, Montgomery dismissed his concerns.
The British RAF’s Spitfires took aerial photographs, and information from the Dutch Resistance indicated that Germany had Panzer Divisions at Arnhem. The chief British intelligence officer in Arnhem, Major Brian Urquhart, expressed concern to his superior. He felt the 1st Airborne Division might be in grave danger if allowed to land at Arnhem. Unfortunately, his superior dismissed the reports and sent Urquhart on sick leave.
HOPE FROM THE AIR
Having seen the success of the Allied forces in Normandy and the subsequent liberation of France and Belgium, most German civilians in the Netherlands packed up and went back to Germany. There was a spirit of hopefulness amongst the Dutch people, believing peace was close.
The citizens living around Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem must have been excited when on Sunday, the 17th of September 1944, they witnessed thousands of planes and gliders dropping some 35,000 paratroopers into their land.
But it was not a time to celebrate yet. Speed was of the essence, and the soldiers followed their brief to move as quickly as possible to the bridges. The Germans were taken by surprise, and the first bridges were soon in Allied hands. The start of Operation Market Garden was a great success.
There were severe logistical problems. Before D-Day, the Allies had bombed the French rail network to disrupt German logistics. Therefore, the plan was for their supplies to be sent by sea. Although this over-the-beach supply route worked well, September brought rough weather, and it was clear that this form of supply would soon dry up.
The port of Antwerp was captured. But this was followed by what has been called “one of the greatest tactical mistakes of the war”. Montgomery and Eisenhower decided not to clear the Scheldt Estuary, which was still in German hands, a further impediment to supplying the troops.
There were not enough vehicles and not enough fuel to man the vehicles they had. Attempts to rebuild the damaged French railway or create a fuel pipeline took too long.
Then, the Allies encountered the wet and boggy terrain of the lowlands. The main thoroughfare that needed to be travelled ran from Eindhoven past Nijmegen to Arnhem and beyond. But it only had two lanes and, in some places, was surrounded by polder or floodplains, and there were dikes and ditches. Wetness meant the verge was too soft to support vehicles turning, and trees meant observation was restricted. No wonder those travelling it nicknamed it “Hell’s Highway”.
Disaster hit the British in Arnhem. All the delays meant the German army had time to regroup and fight back. As well as this, the German troops at Arnhem were far bigger and stronger than expected. They were able to halt the Allied advance, costing them valuable time.
New Allied troops were landing in areas still occupied by the Germans, but the Allies couldn’t reach their isolated colleagues. The radios weren’t functioning, which hampered communication, even over a few hundred metres, making coordination on the ground chaotic.
The Allies could not capture the bridge at Arnhem, and Operation Market Garden had failed.
This meant that thousands of paratroopers were stuck behind enemy lines. Many lost their lives, were captured or injured, and the Germans gained more weapons.
However, with the help of the Dutch Resistance, several hundred evaded capture by going into hiding. Firstly, they hoped to wait for the British to resume their advance so they could join their colleagues in capturing the bridge. But when it became clear that the Allies would not make it across the Rhine that year, they decided to escape back into Allied territory.
Codenamed Pegasus, the first escape operation was successful, but the second was compromised and failed. During that winter, the resistance helped small groups of men escape to Allied-held territory so they could continue the fight to liberate the country.
A SETBACK, BUT NOT DEFEATED
Whilst Operation Market Garden had failed, it was part of the drive to end the war, and the south of the Netherlands had been liberated. It would prove to be the last success of the German army in Europe.
But it was a costly operation for both sides. The Germans lost between 8,000 and 13,000 men in one week, but the Allies lost 17,000. Approximately 3,000 Dutch resistance fighters were killed following the operation, as the German army wanted revenge.
Alongside this, there was the cost of the destruction of cities, towns and villages and many displaced Dutch people.
The failure of the Battle of Arnhem meant the war went on for a further nine months. Civilians in the Netherlands, especially in the north, suffered what became known as the “Hunger Winter”. Over 20,000 Dutch people died in those cold, desolate months.
But the Allies saw it as a setback; they were not defeated. These brave men battled on, inch by inch, until May 1945, when the Germans surrendered and the Netherlands was liberated.
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