Operation Market-Garden III

Unhindered drop

The northern stream crossed the coast at Aldeburgh, made landfall at the western end of Schouwen Island and flew on to a point near ‘sHertogenbosch, where it split to deliver the men and equipment of the British 1st and US 82nd Airborne Divisions to their landing areas. The southern stream, carrying the US 101st Airborne Division, crossed the coast at the North Foreland flew almost due east to Gheel before turning north‑east to the divisional DZs and LZs north of Eindhoven. The C‑47s carrying the paratroops flew in close formations of nine aircraft (Vics of Vics); the Handley Page Halifax, Short Stirling and Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle glider‑tugs flew in loose pairs. It took 65 minutes for the northern stream to pass overhead. Between 1025 and 1155, 1,534 transport aircraft (including the Pathfinders for marking the DZs and LZs), 491 of them towing gliders, took off for Holland.

By the time the English coast had been crossed the weather was perfect. The author’s Horsa was flying rather lower than the rest, its altimeter reading 1,200 feet (366m), and standing between the two pilots the author had a wonderful view of the ships set out at regular intervals for rescue purposes, and of the stream of aircraft ahead. One felt a little anxiety as the glider crossed the formidable‑looking German coast defences. The leading aircraft were fired on from a barge as they crossed the coast but this fire was immediately suppressed by the anti‑flak escort.

Some aircraft encountered a little heavy anti‑aircraft fire, but for most all that could be detected was a squirt or two from light weapons. From neither were there any losses. The fly‑in and landing was outstandingly successful, and the disembarkation into a field of wheat stubble seemed more like an exercise than an operation of war. Had the plans anticipated how completely successful the Allied air forces’ anti‑flak plan was to prove how different would subsequent events have been.

The 1st Airborne Division started landing at 1240, some 10 minutes early; the 82nd Airborne Division at 1230, as planned; and the 101st Airborne Division at 1300, some 30 minutes late. By 1400 the first lift had been delivered. At 1435 XXX Corps started its advance (Operation `Garden’), but encountered strong opposition. By Sunday evening it had moved forward only 7 or 8 miles (1125 or 13km) and had not broken the enemy’s main defences. Its leading troops spent the night at Valkenswaard, some 6 miles (9~5km) south of Eindhoven. Who were the Germans in front of them?

Model’s reaction

Following the debacle west of the Seine, Hitler had ordered Field‑Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt once again to take overall command of the Western Front, with Field‑Marshal Walter Model commanding Army Group `B’ in the north. Model ordered a new defence line to be established behind the Meuse‑Escaut Canal. For this he asked for reinforcements from Germany and ordered General Gustav von Zangen to hold the southern bank of the Scheldt while disengaging and ferrying back units from his 80,000‑strong 15th Army, many locked up defending the Channel ports, to the northern side of the Scheldt via Walcheren Island.

To provide reinforcements Colonel-General Kurt Student was ordered from a staff and training appointment, on 4 September, to take command of some 10,000 troops, made up of units from all over Germany, only a few well trained and battle experienced, and to deploy them behind the Meuse‑Escaut Canal with the title of the 1st Parachute Army, with headquarters at Veghel, north‑east of Eindhoven‑ It was an army with very little transport, artillery or armour.

Amid the chaos of retreat, one of the German generals to keep his head was the commander of the 85th Infantry Division, Lieutenant‑General Kurt Chill. Bringing together the remnants of his own and two other divisions he established `reception stations’ along the Meuse‑Escaut Canal. These stopped and took under control the numerous parties of demoralized German servicemen `going home’. All these became a part of Student’s army which by 17 September had created defences in some depth behind the canal.

German armour

Model had ordered similar reception stations to be established by military police and local training units along the other waterlines. More important for the 1st Airborne Division, he had ordered Lieutenant‑General Willi Bittrich, commander of II SS Panzer Corps, to move north from the Mosel to Doetinchem, due east of Arnhem, on 6 September and there to re‑form the excellent but much battered 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions in the area north and east of Arnhem. The unconfirmed reports from the Dutch underground of armour assembling in the Arnhem area were only too true.

On 17 September, there were some 6,000 German troops in the area. Besides the Panzer divisions there were three quite good battalions forming the reception stations along the Neder Rijn. The rest were of inferior calibre. At the time of Bittrich’s move, Model established his own headquarters in Oosterbeek, displacing companies of the local reception battalion, composed of men from the SS depot and NCO school at Arnhem, and commanded by Sturmbannfuhrer Krafft, which encamped between Oosterbeek and Arnhem.

Total surprise

The airborne assault on 17 September took the Germans completely by surprise. Model and his headquarters had to flee to Bittrich’s headquarters to avoid capture. Bittrich, as soon as he heard where the landings were taking place, ordered the tracks which had been removed from the 9th SS Panzer Division’s armour to be replaced. He appreciated that the Allies’ objective must be the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem and therefore ordered the 9th SS Panzer Division to move as soon as possible to secure the Arnhem bridge by intercepting and destroying the airborne troops west of Arnhem. The divisional reconnaissance regiment was to send patrols out toward Oosterbeek and one squadron over the Arnhem bridge toward Nijmegen. Model approved these plans, disapproved Bittrich’s suggestion that the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem be Arnhem entered blown, and ordered the 10th SS Panzer Division to be sent to Nijmegen as soon as it was ready.

Apart from a little sniper fire, the 1st Airborne Division’s first lift formed up without molestation. The 1st Border, 7th KOSB and 2nd South Staffords (less two companies) took up positions to secure the landing and dropping zones. It had been intended that Major Freddie Gough’s Reconnaissance Squadron should rush the Arnhem road bridge, taking it by coup‑de‑main. A number of the unit’s glider loads had not arrived, however, and the reconnaissance cars that went forward were ambushed near Wolfhezen. The plan miscarried but Gough with some of his squadron later joined Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion at the bridge.

Arnhem entered

The 1st Parachute Brigade Group (Brigadier Gerald Lathbury), less the guns of the 3rd Airlanding Light Battery RA, which deployed near the landing zone, set off for Arnhem by three routes which converged in the city centre. The 2nd Parachute Battalion Group, led by Lieutenant‑Colonel John Frost, whose task was to secure the rail and road bridges at Arnhem, took a secondary road close to the river; the 3rd Parachute Battalion Group moved on the central route with the lst Parachute Battalion Group to the north of them heading for the high ground on the city’s outskirts. Lathbury, with brigade headquarters, followed Frost. All three battalions ran into opposition but the 2nd, though checked on a number of occasions, was able to establish itself on the approaches to the Arnhem road bridge by dark, though the railway bridge was blown up just as Frost’s men reached it.

The other two battalions came up against increasing resistance. Sturmbannfiihrer Krafft subsequently claimed credit for imposing these delays. It was, apparently, his men who ambushed the Reconnaissance Squadron, but the main opposition was coming from the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 9th SS Panzer Division, one squadron of which crossed the Arnhem bridge heading south just before the 2nd Parachute Battalion gained control of the northern end.

Radio failure

More serious than these delays was the fading of wireless communications between the 1st Parachute Brigade and divisional headquarters as the brigade entered the tree‑clad suburbs of Arnhem. Bereft of all information, Urquhart had no alternative to setting out in his jeep to make personal contact. On reaching the 2nd Parachute Battalion he learnt that Lathbury had gone to visit the 3rd Parachute Battalion on the centre route. Here Urquhart found him and after confused and sporadic fighting in the outskirts of the town both became besieged in a house and incommunicado with the outside world.

Away to the south, by last light, the 101st Airborne Division had occupied Zon, St Oedenrode and Veghel, and was fighting for Best. The bridges they held had been captured intact, except that over the Wilhelmina Canal south of Zon though a regiment had crossed the canal from the north on an improvised bridge and had reached Bokt.

The 82nd Airborne Division and Airborne Corps headquarters had also landed successfully. By last light the division had seized intact, and was holding, the bridges over the Maas at Grave and over the Maas‑Waal Canal at Heuven. The remainder of the division was moving north and north‑west to dominate the high and tree‑clad area south‑east of Nijmegen, vital to cover the flank from German counter attacks from the Reichswald forest.

For the 1st Airborne Division 18 September was to be a crucial day. With the arrival of the second lift, carrying the 4th Parachute Brigade, it would no longer be necessary to hold the DZ and LZ area. Urquhart would therefore have in hand two‑thirds of his division with which to influence the situation as he thought fit.

Unfortunately, at this vital time the divisional commander was still holed up in Arnhem and no one at divisional headquarters knew whether he was dead or alive. Shortly before the arrival of the 4th Parachute Brigade, which had been delayed for four hours by bad weather, Hicks had assumed command of the division in accordance with the wishes of Urquhart conveyed to his GSO I, Charles Mackenzie, a decision unknown to Hackett, commanding the 4th Parachute Brigade, who though much younger was the senior. The only news of the 1st Parachute Brigade coming into divisional headquarters was of the 2nd Parachute Battalion via the regimental net of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment RA.

Second lift delayed

The 2nd Parachute Battalion had successfully ambushed several lorries loaded with infantry making for the Arnhem bridge, and almost annihilated the reconnaissance squadron of the 9th SS Panzer Division, which tried to rush the bridge as it returned from the south and lost 16 armoured vehicles. But pressure on Frost’s men was increasing from the east as more tanks and SP guns were brought into the battle. Casualties were mounting and ammunition dwindling.

During the morning David Dobie switched his 1st Parachute Battalion from the northern route to that along the river bank in a fresh attempt to reach the bridge. Hicks, on hearing of the delay imposed on the second lift, ordered the 2nd South Staffords, less two companies not yet arrived, to reinforce the efforts to get through to Frost.

The second lift for the Airborne Corps comprised 1,360 troop‑carrying aircraft and 1,203 gliders. The 1st Airborne Division’s lift started arriving at 1500 and was met by AA and German fighter opposition. Hicks had decided that as soon as they could be assembled, the remainder of the 2nd South Staffords and the 11th Parachute Battalion would be despatched in a further attempt to get through to the bridge. At Hackett’s request, the 7th KOSB replaced the 11th Parachute Battalion under command of the 4th Parachute Brigade, which made preparations for an attempt to take the high ground at Koepel, 1 mile (16km) north‑west of the outskirts of Arnhem, early next day. Rumours of some 60 German tanks moving toward Arnhem from the north were confirmed by the Dutch underground.

XXX Corps held up

During the 18th XXX Corps advanced slowly against considerable opposition, with the fighting for most of the day centred around Aalst. The 101st Airborne Division’s capture of Eindhoven helped matters and at about 2100 the Guards Armoured Division reached the southern bank of the Wilhelmina Canal below Zon where a bridge was constructed during the night.

The 101st Airborne Division held its ground but was unable to capture Best, which the Germans had reinforced. By an outflanking movement Eindhoven was captured with its bridges intact and by dark control had been established throughout the town.

The 82nd Airborne Division continued to control the vital high ground south‑east of Nijmegen through vigorous offensive action. It attacked along the Maas‑Waal Canal, capturing the bridge for the main Grave‑Nijmegen road, intact but damaged. The Germans counterattacked vigorously from the Kranenburg and Reichswald forest areas. When the second lift arrived it was subjected to anti‑aircraft fire. Despite the fact that the LZs were being fought over, the landings were successful.

Time, however, was running out and, in retrospect, Tuesday 19 September was the last chance of snatching victory from defeat. At the bridge at Arnhem the 2nd Parachute Battalion Group was still giving as good as it got, but the pressure and the casualties continued to rise as German tanks and SP guns began systematically to destroy and set fire to the buildings from which they fought. Their stubborn defence prevented the 10th SS Panzer Division from using the bridge to reinforce the Germans holding on to the Nijmegen bridge, and so forced them laboriously to ferry their armoured vehicles across farther up the river.

From now on the lack of any ground‑to-air communication not only deprived the 1st Airborne Division of effective close air support but combined with lack of effective communication with Airborne Corps to make it impossible to alter the preplanned dropping zones for resupply to conform with the shrinking divisional perimeter ‑. with tragic results. While bad weather and operational restrictions combined with communication failure deprived the 1st Airborne Division of close air support, good weather over the German airfields enabled German fighters in increasing numbers to strafe the divisional area.

British pull back

About 0730 Urquhart managed to get back to his divisional headquarters. He immediately sent the deputy commander of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, Colonel Hilary Barlow, to co‑ordinate the action of the 2nd South Staffords, 11th Parachute Battalion and any other available troops in a further attempt to break through to the bridge. Barlow was never seen again. The 4th Parachute Brigade’s attack to take and hold Koepel failed. Pressure on the western side of the division’s perimeter built up and threatened to isolate the 4th Parachute Brigade north of the railway.

Urquhart decided to pull back this brigade and use it to stabilize the eastern perimeter roughly on the line of the branch of the railway that crossed the Neder Rijn, and to use this as a start line for still another attempt to relieve Frost. The disengagement of the brigade in daylight entailed considerable casualties and a lot of confusion. The gliderborne part of the Polish Parachute Brigade landed in the face of heavy anti‑aircraft fire only to be caught in the cross fire of the land battle.

Matchless courage

The weather was again bad over England and the drop of the rest of the Polish Parachute Brigade south of the river had to be postponed, as had the landing of the 82nd Airborne Division gliderborne regimental combat team (RCT). Anti‑aircraft fire was intense and the Luftwaffe having, unlike the Allies, good weather over their airfields sent out more than 425 Messerschmitt 109s and Focke‑Wulf 190s against the air escort alone.

Many members of the 1st Airborne Division witnessed an unsurpassed example of bravery and devotion to duty under tragic circumstances. Failing wireless communications, every effort had been made to indicate to the re‑supply aircraft a change of dropping zone, but without avail. When the daily re‑supply aircraft came under intense anti‑aircraft fire, Flight‑Lieutenant David Lord had his Dakota hit and the starboard engine set on fire; he nevertheless held his course at 900 feet (275m) to drop his load with accuracy then turned for a second run to discharge the remainder of his cargo, being all the time under intense fire. Just before his wing collapsed he ordered his crew to bale out while he remained at the controls. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Thirteen of the 163 aircraft taking part in the re‑supply were lost and 97 damaged. Tragically nearly all the 380 tons of ammunition and supplies dropped into German hands.

At 0830 the Guards Armoured Division started to cross the Grave bridge and at 1700 a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division and one of the Grenadier Guards made an unsuccessful attack on the Nijmegen bridge, while a battalion of the Coldstream Guards was sent to support the 82nd Airborne Division on the Reichswald forest front.

Not only had bad weather deprived Urquhart of afresh reserve, but it deprived Gavin of his gliderborne RCT which would have enabled him to take the Nijmegen bridge without diverting the Guards Armoured Division from its primary task of linking up with the 1st Airborne Division. In the 101st Airborne Division’s area a sharp German attack on Zon stopped movement on the main axis of advance for several hours.

Wednesday 20 September saw the end of one great martial exploit, the 2nd Parachute Battalion Group’s stand at Arnhem bridge, and the performance of another, the crossing of the Waal at Nijmegen, by the 504th Parachute RCT of the 82nd Airborne Division supported by the Guards Armoured Division. The former by holding back the 10th SS Panzer Division made the latter possible.

Brigadier W.F.K Thompson   CO of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery with 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.

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