Since its founding in 1835 as a military garrison on the moors of northeast Belgium, the Flemish town of Bourg-Léopold had seen fortune ebb and flow with each passing army. It was said that here the invading Germans in 1914 had first experimented with chlorinated gas. Between world wars, the cantonment became Europe’s largest and most modern, a camp for forty thousand Belgian soldiers and several thousand horses—all for naught against a new generation of German attackers, who bombed Bourg-Léopold in May 1940, then occupied the casern for four years, using the municipal woods to execute more than two hundred men, mostly suspected resistance supporters. British bombers in mid-May 1944 had accidentally slaughtered seventy-seven townfolk during a raid on the camp, but made amends two weeks later by returning to kill scores of German soldiers in their barracks.
Now the Germans were gone, again, and Allied soldiers swarmed through the cobbled streets. The British XXX Corps had planted its headquarters outside town, near a honey farm with brightly painted wooden hives, and military policemen in brassards and red caps briskly directed dust-caked convoys to the engineer dumps scattered around Bourg-Léopold. Nine thousand sappers had assembled two thousand truckloads of road metal, bridge girders, and barge anchors, all sorted into columns with code names for quick deployment.
On the radiant Sunday morning of September 17, dozens of British officers, none below the rank of lieutenant colonel, filed into the dingy cinema on Nicolaylaan, across from the hip-roof train station. They were a vivid lot, sporting chromatic scarves, ascots, and berets affixed with the badges of Scots, Irish, and Welsh Guards, of Grenadier and Coldstream Guards and Household Cavalry. Their costumes, a brigadier recorded, included “sniper’s smocks, parachutist’s jackets and jeep coats over brightly colored slacks, corduroys, riding breeches or even jodhpurs.” After an exchange of barked greetings—some had fought together since before Alamein—they settled into their moviegoer seats to study a huge sketch map of eastern Holland propped against the screen on stage.
At eleven A.M. Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, in a high-necked wooly beneath his battle-dress blouse and an airborne smock, ambled down the center aisle, provoking another yelping chorus of salutations. Lanky and spare, Horrocks was said by one admirer to possess “an ascetic, almost an ecclesiastical face,” and his thick nimbus of white hair added a patriarchal mien to a man barely forty-nine. Mounting the stage, he surveyed the assemblage with a wry smile, then welcomed them with a quip that would be oft-repeated in later years to illustrate his sangfroid: “This is a tale you will tell your grandchildren, and mighty bored they’ll be.” Much knee-slapping ensued.
Horrocks was made for such moments. He had been born in an Indian hill station, the son of a knighted army surgeon, and as a young officer was severely wounded in the gut and captured at Ypres in 1914; repatriated after four years in a German prison camp, he squandered his accumulated back pay in an epic six-week spree. In 1919 he was captured again, this time by the Reds while fighting with a British contingent aiding the Whites in the Russian civil war. Again he was repatriated, having managed to survive typhus in a Bolshevik jail. After eighteen years as a captain, and a turn in the 1924 Olympics as the British pentathlon champion, he quickly ascended the ranks when war resumed, although he deemed himself “a not very bright philistine who had been lucky.” Evacuated from Dunkirk, he later fought with Montgomery at Alamein and across Africa. While preparing to command the British corps at Salerno, he was struck down by a German fighter during a strafing run on Bizerte; one bullet caught him in the leg and another punctured his lungs and intestines before exiting through his spine. Half a dozen brutal surgeries kept him hospitalized for more than a year, and medicos declared he would never have another field command. Instead, Montgomery summoned him in August to take XXX Corps. The botched capture of the Scheldt adjacent to Antwerp was in part Horrocks’s fault—as he candidly confessed—and if he now radiated vigorous good humor, some of those hunched in their cinema seats thought he appeared a tad frail.
Eyes alight, graceful hands gliding up and down, he spoke for an hour to review, for a final time, the plan called MARKET GARDEN. The Allied objective was “to dominate the country to the north as far as the Zuider Zee”—a shallow lake off the North Sea, better known as the IJsselmeer—“thereby cutting off communications between Germany and the Low Countries.” With luck and élan, a quarter of a million enemy soldiers would be trapped in the western Netherlands, including those from the Fifteenth Army who had escaped across the Scheldt; the attack also would overrun many of the pestiferous V-2 rocket sites. An Allied juggernaut spearheaded by three armored divisions would then pivot east into Germany toward the Ruhr, having outflanked the Siegfried Line. Code names for various Dutch localities had been drawn from Shakespeare, including HAMLET, MACBETH, DUNCAN, BANQUO, OTHELLO, IAGO, YORICK, JULIET, and GUILDENSTERN—even indifferent scholars could not help but notice that things ended badly for this dramatis personae—but the three central characters represented a trio of large towns to be seized: BRUTUS, or Eindhoven, thirteen miles north of the current Allied line; BELCH, or Nijmegen, fifty-three miles north; and MALVOLIO, or Arnhem, sixty-four miles north. The Zuider Zee lay another thirty miles beyond Arnhem.
Linking these towns was a single narrow highway that ran through drained polders in terrain so excruciatingly flat that elevations varied no more than thirty feet over the course of fifty miles. Nine substantial bridges required capture or, if destroyed, replacement—hence the heaps of engineering matériel—and watercourses to be spanned included three wide rivers, two smaller tributaries, three major canals, and countless ditches, kills, and irrigation channels. Most imposing were the Meuse, known as the Maas once it entered Holland, and the Rhine, or Rijn, which, after widening to its greatest girth upon reaching the Dutch frontier, fractured into several “distributaries” before crossing a broad marshy plain to reach the sea. Two-thirds of the river’s flux swept down the river Waal through Nijmegen; the Neder Rijn, or Lower Rhine, which kept the original stream’s name but not its grandeur, flowed roughly parallel to the Waal and the Maas as it angled through Arnhem. The city had long been a retirement mecca for wealthy Dutch merchants from the East Indies: “Arnhem,” a holiday guide from the 1930s proclaimed, “is an attractive residential center amidst delightful scenery, and with an exceedingly healthy atmosphere.”
Horrocks paused, glancing at his notes and then at the map behind him before continuing. The deed would be done, he explained, by air and by land. For the largest airborne operation of the Second World War—the MARKET of MARKET GARDEN—the newly created First Allied Airborne Army was even now ascending from fields across England, bound for the Netherlands. Nearly 35,000 soldiers would be plunked down—most by parachute, the rest by glider—in what British planners insisted on calling “a carpet of airborne troops.” At the foot of the carpet, in the south, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division would envelop a fifteen-mile corridor that included Eindhoven. In the middle, the 82nd Airborne sector stretched for ten miles, and included both the Nijmegen bridge over the Waal and a nine-span bridge across the Maas at Grave, or rather TYBALT. At the top of the carpet, the British 1st Airborne Division would seize Arnhem and a span across the Neder Rijn.
As this unfolded, the land assault—GARDEN—starting later in the afternoon would gallop north from Belgium with three divisions under XXX Corps in a thrust that was to be, in Field Marshal Montgomery’s words, “rapid and violent, and without regard to what is happening on the flanks.” Two vehicles abreast at a density of thirty-five trucks, tanks, and personnel carriers per mile would snake up that single highway, twenty thousand vehicles all told. Speed, Horrocks stressed, was “absolutely vital.” The first Guards tanks should reach Eindhoven within two to three hours; if the vanguard reached the 1st Airborne paratroopers at Arnhem within forty-eight hours, as he hoped, much of the corps could be across the Rhine by the end of D+3, or Wednesday, September 20.
A SHAEF intelligence summary issued September 16 reported that “the enemy has by now suffered, in the West alone, losses in men and equipment which can never be repaired in this war.… No force can, then, be built up in the West sufficient for a counteroffensive or even for a successful defensive.” German strength facing the 100,000-man XXX Corps directly across the Dutch border was estimated at six infantry battalions backed by twenty armored vehicles and a dozen field guns; scant enemy activity had been detected in the last two days. Still, no one expected that an assault of such rococo choreography would be easy. The regiment chosen to lead the ground attack, the Irish Guards, concluded that “on the whole it would be much easier for a rich man to get into heaven” than for XXX Corps to reach the Zuider Zee.
The conference ended with few questions. The earlier badinage had subsided, supplanted by knit-browed sobriety as the men filed from the theater. Horrocks thought the Irish Guards officers looked especially pensive.
At an abandoned factory on the south bank of the Meuse–Escaut Canal near Bourg-Léopold, Horrocks climbed an iron ladder to the flat roof. The warm midday sun spangled the dark canal and the irrigation ditches running north into Holland. An occasional German shell swished overhead, and the yap of a machine gun could be heard in the middle distance. Behind him, he spied some of the 350 British guns hidden in woodlots and farmyards. Tanks trundled forward, slowly to avoid raising dust, and sappers reinspected their bridge loads.
Earlier that morning Horrocks had asked an American colonel, “What do you think of the plan?” When told with a shrug, “It’s all right,” the corps commander laughed gaily, but the Yank saw anxiety in his eyes. Horrocks was in fact fretful. During the mad pursuit across France he had collapsed with a recurrent fever and was confined to his caravan; Montgomery had not only concealed his frailty—“Don’t worry,” the field marshal said, “I shan’t invalid you home”—but invited him to recuperate in his own camp. Whether Horrocks was fit for the rigors ahead remained to be seen. The date also made him uneasy: no attack he had launched on a Sunday had ever fully succeeded.
From a nearby radio came word that the MARKET air armada was well under way. He cocked an ear for the distant drone of planes, a gaunt and lonely figure peering from his rooftop parapet.