On September 4, the day the Allies captured the city of Antwerp, Hitler reinstated Rundstedt as commander in chief in the West. His steady hand would now compound Ramsay’s worst fears as Rundstedt immediately sought to deprive the Allies of port facilities in France and Belgium, thus swinging the tide of war in Germany’s favor. By securing the north and south shores of the Scheldt, while simultaneously defending the English Channel fortresses of Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk, Rundstedt would starve the Allies of the logistical support needed for the advance into Germany. This would give Rundstedt time to gather forces to reman the Siegfried Line and frustrate a rapid invasion of Germany.
Rundstedt expected Montgomery on September 4 to advance immediately and seal off Walcheren Island and the South Beveland Peninsula from the mainland. If Monty had done so, the German Fifteenth Army would have been trapped and eliminated. The Allied halt enabled Rundstedt to rescue the remains of General Hans von Zangen’s encircled Fifteenth Army under the cover of darkness. A scratch fleet of two ancient Dutch freighters, Rhine river barges, small craft, and even rafts evacuated over 100,000 troops, artillery, vehicles, and even horses across the three-mile mouth of the Scheldt Estuary into the South Beveland Peninsula. The Germans were surprised that the convoy met with no Allied naval force interference. Stiffened by fresh troops, the Germans regrouped around strong positions along both sides of the river. The causeway on South Beveland connecting it to the mainland could be defended by a small number of troops. Across from Beveland, Walcheren Island was very heavily fortified with nearly thirty batteries of powerful coastal guns, from nine-inch to three-inch in caliber, as well as other strongholds.
The German navy laid a variety of mines and put other deadly obstacles in place. The ship channel leading to the Port of Antwerp would have to be thoroughly cleared before freighters could use it. As the channel is seventy-three miles long and varies in width from 300 to 1,400 yards, this presented a clearance task of great magnitude and complexity. Port access between Antwerp and the sea was locked up tight.
The initial Allied response to this German buildup was insufficient. It began on September 13, nine days after Antwerp’s capture, and included Crerar’s First Canadian Army and the First and Fourth Polish Armored Divisions. Their tanks were largely useless for canal attacks. Canadian infantry support was ineffective. This first attack met with disaster. The Canadians abandoned the initial bridgehead across the Leopold Canal due to heavy German fire. As it was decided that the Canadians needed additional forces, the Scheldt operation was abandoned in favor of clearing French ports. For three additional weeks no opposition was offered to the continued German additional fortification of the estuary.
During these critical weeks the Allies’ attention was focused elsewhere. It was placed on the rushed planning, execution, and recovery from Montgomery’s “full-blooded thrust” to the northeast, Operation MARKET GARDEN.
A BRIDGE TO NOWHERE
Montgomery’s recent rapid advances culminating in the capture of Brussels and Antwerp had created considerable optimism in the Second Army. This lightning drive showed that British armor could match Patton’s tanks. Monty was fixated on bypassing what was left of the German Fifteenth Army and dashing nonstop over the Rhine to the Ruhr and beyond. If he had continued his push on September 4 for about thirty-six hours, the British armor could have raced through almost undefended country between Antwerp and the Rhine.
Montgomery’s Operation MARKET GARDEN called for a quick thrust to the Reich through a sixty-mile corridor. The “MARKET” component of the operation would involve the use of the First Airborne Corps comprising the American Eighty-Second and 101st and the British First Airborne Divisions, commanded by the British lieutenant general Frederick Browning. These forces would land at three drop zones running from west to east: Eindhoven (101st US), Nijmegen (Eighty-Second US), and Arnhem (First British). This airborne operation was monumental in scope, deploying about five thousand fighters, bombers, transports, and over 2,500 gliders. This huge air army was deployed in an unprecedented daylight attack complete with their equipment and vehicles. Owing to a shortage of aircraft to carry paratroops, these landings would be conducted over a three-day period, thus giving German defenders advance warning that a major offensive was in progress. These divisions would then link up with the “GARDEN” component, the ground force, the British XXX Corps, and part of Montgomery’s Second Army, led by Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, which would advance from their present positions into Holland.
MARKET GARDEN had two major objectives. First, the British Twenty-First Army with the airborne army was to cross the two branches of the Rhine at Nijmegen and Arnhem. Second, Hodges’s American First Army was to drive on Aachen and reach the Rhine at Cologne.
The aim of MARKET GARDEN was an advance beyond the Rhine to surround the Ruhr industrial region. This advance would clear the west bank of the Rhine and outflank the German forces on the Siegfried Line, rendering it useless. Finally, the British could advance from Arnhem and capture the port of Rotterdam.
Due to recent Allied successes, optimism was running high. Eisenhower was both intrigued and impressed with Montgomery’s bold, imaginative plan. This was the kind of innovative mass attack he had been looking for. In a September 14 letter to Marshall, Eisenhower was extremely optimistic that MARKET GARDEN would carry the Allies up to and across the Rhine.
The daring nature of the MARKET GARDEN operation was strangely out of character for Montgomery. Indeed he was later to admit that MARKET GARDEN was his greatest mistake as a commander. He was well-known for his detailed planning of future operations and was quite successful in staging set-piece battles. However, he had been criticized for unnecessary caution due to his failure to deploy armored divisions in situations where they had the potential to strike rapidly and effectively. Uncharacteristically Montgomery conceived and rushed through the planning of MARKET GARDEN in a matter of weeks.
Critically, Montgomery ignored vital intelligence on the feasibility of this operation. Ultra decrypts and reports from the local Dutch resistance forces indicated that two SS panzer divisions had been sent to Arnhem to refit. Also the Fifteenth Panzer Army had been moved into Holland and was well positioned to attack the left of the advancing Allied land forces. The Ninth and Tenth SS Panzer Divisions were fanned out to the north, east, and south of Arnhem. Also deployed around Eindhoven were the thirty thousand paratroops and Luftwaffe troops that formed the core of General Kurt Student’s First Parachute Army.
Montgomery’s plan produced a shock wave at his Twenty-First Army Group headquarters. After he received the go-ahead for MARKET GARDEN from Eisenhower on September 10, he outlined the operation on a map for one of Britain’s pioneer airborne experts, Lieutenant General Frederick Browning who would command the operation. The paratroops and glider-borne forces were to secure five major bridges along a sixty-four-mile invasion corridor. They would hold the corridor open until they were relieved by British armored forces. This unsettled Browning. Pointing to Arnhem, he asked Montgomery, “How long will it take the armor to reach us?” Monty answered, “Two days.” Still studying the map, Browning responded, “We can hold it for four. But sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far.” Montgomery did not want to hear it.
Other objections followed. The Dutch underground information and Ultra intercepts so worried Major Brian Urquhart, the First Airborne Corps’ intelligence officer, that he called for the information to be confirmed again by British aerial photographs. The air reconnaissance pictures clearly identified numerous German panzers in the Arnhem air drop zones or nearby. Urquhart relayed all of this damaging information to both Eisenhower and Montgomery. Ike was so alarmed that he sent Smith to discuss this with Montgomery, but Monty lightly dismissed it all.
Montgomery chose to ignore this potentially cataclysmic information and treated it as a peripheral matter rather than as a reason to cancel MARKET GARDEN. Moreover, he now took extraordinary steps to discredit Urquhart’s intelligence effort. Monty sent a senior staff medical officer, Colonel Arthur Eagger, to confirm reports that Urquhart had become “hysterical.” Urquhart told the medical officer that the intelligence reports made it clear that the proposed MARKET GARDEN operation was “madness.” Eagger immediately diagnosed Urquhart as suffering from exhaustion and sent him on medical leave, thus removing him far from the immediate scene.
But the intelligence question would not go away. A distinguished air intelligence officer, Wing Commander Asher Lee, also deeply investigated the Ultra information. His findings were conclusive regarding the presence of substantial German armored units at Arnhem. He personally conveyed his report to Montgomery’s headquarters. But he only was seen by junior staff officers, thus again dismissing the importance of this vital intelligence.
General Brian Horrocks, the commander of the XXX Corps in the MARKET GARDEN operation later lamented, “Why did I receive no information about the German formations which were being rushed daily to our front? For me, this has always been the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.” Elizabeth Coble states, “It is unforgiveable for intelligence of this magnitude to be withheld from subordinate commanders. Without all available intelligence, subordinate commands could not plan and equip their forces properly.”
Even before the operation began on September 9, General Dempsey, commander of the Second Army, had grave doubts, as he wrote in his diary,
It is clear that the enemy is bringing up all the reinforcements he can get his hands on for the defense of the ALBERT Canal, and that he appreciates the importance of the area ARNHEM-NIJMEGAN. It looks as though he is going to do all he can to hold it. This being the case, any question of a rapid advance to the North-East seems unlikely…. Are we right to direct Second Army to ARNHEM?
We do not know if Dempsey challenged Montgomery on the intelligence issue. However, it is important to note that this was the only diary entry from the onset of the Normandy invasion in which he questioned an order.
Eisenhower also was receiving further information casting doubt on the soundness of this operation. Bradley warned him that the terrain for Montgomery’s drive was unsuitable for a rapid advance as the Netherlands had numerous canals and waterways that the Germans would defend. Bradley later stated, “My opposition…was not confined to the British diversion of effort. I feared also that Monty in his eagerness to get around Model’s flank might have underestimated German capabilities on the lower Rhine.” Eisenhower, however, did not exercise his authority to cancel MARKET GARDEN. Smith lamented, “Having authorized him [Montgomery] to proceed, Eisenhower did not feel he could now instruct him not to do so, even though the head of his intelligence staff predicted a defeat.”
Brooke, the one man who might have convinced Montgomery to cancel MARKET GARDEN, had left London with Churchill and the other chiefs of staff on the morning of September 5 for the Quebec Conference, five days before Eisenhower authorized Monty to proceed with MARKET GARDEN. He did not return until September 23 by which time the operation was being wound down. It is interesting to note that MARKET GARDEN is not mentioned in his war diary.
MARKET GARDEN is another example of Montgomery’s inflexibility in altering his plans. He also failed to provide subordinate commanders with relevant intelligence. On D-Day, invasion commanders did not know that the Twenty-First Panzer Division was deployed to oppose their seizure of Caen. The failure to seize Caen seriously impeded the progress of the Normandy campaign and cost lives. This time it would take even more lives.
On September 17, MARKET GARDEN operations were launched with a massive airborne assault. German general Kurt Student, paratroop commander, and his chief of staff stood on the balcony of Student’s cottage in Holland as this massive air armada went past. Student remembered they “simply stared, stunned, like fools…everywhere we looked, we saw chain of planes—fighters, troop carriers and cargo planes—flying over us…. This mighty spectacle deeply impressed me.”
Montgomery’s plan relied on the accelerated progress of Horrocks’s XXX Corps’ tank and infantry forces down one main highway to link up the invasion corridor and relieve the paratroop divisions. The progress of the Allied armies was slower than expected, as they encountered a fierce and well-conducted German resistance. As a result, it took longer than expected to capture their first objective, Eindhoven. The Germans fought stoutly for Nijmegen and its vitally important bridge, which eventually fell to a determined attack by infantry units of the Guards Armored Division. The road to MARKET GARDEN’s final objective, Arnhem, was theoretically open.
A defect in the planning was the task given to the land forces to advance over the polders (fields lying close to or below sea level) that were too marshy to support the weight of tanks. Once the Nijmegen bridge was secured the tanks and infantry of the Guards Armored Division were forced to advance in single file on the road to Arnhem, meeting determined German resistance along the way.
This check of the XXX Corps’ advance doomed the First Airborne Division at Arnhem. They valiantly defended their isolated position for ten days rather than the two that Montgomery had planned. On September 25, they were forced to surrender. About six thousand Allied soldiers were captured, half of them wounded; 1,174 died. At night 1,900 paratroopers were evacuated across the lower Rhine. The British First Airborne and Polish First Parachute Brigade were effectively destroyed as fighting units. Total Allied MARKET GARDEN killed, wounded, and missing exceeded seven thousand, five thousand more than on D-Day.
Afterward, Montgomery insisted that the operation had been a justifiable risk. Although Montgomery described himself as “bitterly disappointed” by Arnhem and admitting mistakes were made for which he bore responsibility, he proclaimed in his memoirs, “I remain MARKET GARDEN’s unrepentant advocate,” noting, “In my—prejudiced—view, if the operation had been properly backed from its inception…it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes.”
Military historians, however, have roundly criticized many facets of the MARKET GARDEN operation. Nigel Hamilton, Montgomery’s chief biographer, stated that in every military dimension, “strategic, tactical, intelligence, logistical, personal…it was…a complete disaster…[a road] that led nowhere.” Arnhem was a completely avoidable disaster. Norman Davies concludes that “it was not an act of responsible generalship.” Alun Chalfont agrees that “Arnhem…showed a serious error of judgement on Montgomery’s part.” The lightly armed airborne troops were no match for the heavily equipped SS panzer corps. Funneling the British supporting armor down narrow roads through marshland was a disaster waiting to happen.
David Bennett offers this summary judgment of MARKET GARDEN: “The truth was that the operation was too ambitious. In launching it with a tenuous supply line, no reserve build-up of supplies, a shortage of ground transport, and both VIII and XII Corps [support units to XXX Corps] unready at the start, Montgomery’s professionalism had deserted him.”
At this juncture in the campaign, everyone on the Allied side was frustrated, angry, and depressed. The MARKET GARDEN debacle had cured the earlier “victory disease.” “There was a change of mood after Arnhem,” a British captain remembers. “One just didn’t feel the same. We were getting rather tired.” Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands lamented, “My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success.”
Clearly Eisenhower had backed the wrong offensive. He had not backed Patton’s southern thrust to the Ruhr while forcing Montgomery to seize both banks of the Scheldt Estuary to open up the Port of Antwerp. Long after the war Eisenhower admitted, “I not only approved MARKET GARDEN, I insisted upon it. What we needed was a bridgehead over the Rhine. If that could be accomplished, I was quite willing to wait on all other operations. What this action proved was that the idea of ‘one full-blooded thrust’ to Berlin was silly.”
For both Eisenhower and Montgomery, Arnhem was a major mistake that served to diminish them. For Eisenhower, it was a vain attempt to masterfully end the war in 1944 as the successful supreme commander of a difficult Allied coalition. As for Montgomery, it ended his dream of being the commander of a victorious British-led drive to Berlin, securing the restoration of British prestige, and marking the capstone of his military reputation. Only Montgomery’s unrestrained ego remained, which continued to plague Eisenhower to the war’s last act and even afterward.
Alan Moorehead summed up the situation well when he wrote, “For the Allied army now no hopeful alternatives remained. There was only one way—the hard way. The immediate essential for all this was the opening up of Antwerp.”