Debacle at Arnhem – Five Reasons for the Failure of Operation Market Garden

By William Buckingham

Launched on Sept. 17, 1944 – three months after D-Day and less than a month after the shattering German defeat in Normandy – Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne operation in history.

It was intended to bypass Hitler’s Westwall defensive line and open the way into the North German Plain and deep into the heart of the Third Reich.

The operation consisted of two parts. The “Market” portion involved landing more than 40,000 men from the British 1st Airborne Division and the U.S. Army’s 82nd and 101st airborne divisions along a corridor stretching 60 miles into German-occupied Holland. Once on the ground, Allied paratroopers and glider-borne units would seize 17 bridges across eight separate waterways. Their objectives were to be held until relief could arrive from the second part of the operation, the “Garden” portion. This consisted of tanks from Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks’ 30 Corps advancing north from the Belgian border.

In all, seven crossings were seized. The eighth and final objective, a bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, was not. One end of a single bridge was secured by a small force of British paratroopers who were surrounded and overwhelmed after an epic three day battle, a full day longer than tasked. Ironically, the end came just as 30 Corps crossed the seventh water obstacle at Nijmegen. The rest of the 1st Airborne Division was similarly surrounded at Oosterbeek, five miles west of Arnhem, and after a nine-day siege approximately 2,500 survivors were evacuated across the Lower Rhine on the night of Sept. 25-26.

While ambitious, Market Garden is frequently characterized as one of the costliest Allied blunders of the Second World War. But it was far from a total disaster. The airborne corridor stretched German resources along their western border. Plus, it provided a springboard for the Allied Rhine crossing in February and March of 1945. It’s more accurate to characterize Market Garden as valid gamble that came agonizingly close to success.

That said, a number of factors contributed to the failure of the operation to a more or lesser extent. These are listed below.

Bad luck

As with any military endeavour, success in Market Garden required some degree of good fortune. The destruction of the bridge at Son literally in the face of paratroopers racing to seize it caused a 36-hour delay as 30 Corps had to bring up and erect a mobile, pre-fabricated Bailey bridge.

Similarly, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division in Nijmegen were narrowly beaten to the road bridge across the River Waal by elements of the 9th SS Panzer Division. It took three days of intense fighting to secure that crossing via a hard-fought assault across the river.

Of course, the Allies enjoyed some lucky breaks, as well. For example, a fortuitous gap in the German blocking line at Arnhem allowed British paratroopers to secure the north end of the Arnhem road bridge on the evening of Sept. 17.

Elements of the 43rd Division also took advantage of another fleeting gap in the German defences on Sept. 22 to reach the Lower Rhine.

Later, a combination of heavy rain and complacency prevented the Germans from realizing that the survivors of the 1st Airborne Division were being evacuated on the night of Sept. 25-26.

Planning constraints

Although more than 1,500 assorted transport aircraft were available to the Allies for Operation Market Garden, it was still not enough to lift all three airborne divisions simultaneously.

Aircraft allotment was prioritized with the U.S. 82nd and 101st divisions being delivered into Holland in two separate lifts each and the British 1st Airborne in three lifts.

A daylight landing was necessary as U.S. aircrew were not trained in night flying and because Market had to be launched in a no-moon period. Also, paratroopers and glider pilots needed natural light to judge distances when landing.

In addition, a shortage of navigators, maintenance ground crew and the shortening autumn days meant that only one lift could be mounted per day.

At Arnhem, the closest landing zone for large numbers of gliders was seven miles west of the Arnhem bridges. And while paratroops could have been dropped close to the bridges, the ground in the area around the objective was waterlogged and riven by numerous deep ditches, which would have separated the paratroopers from their vehicles and anti-tank guns brought in on gliders.

Worse, the British portion of Market was under total control of the RAF until the troops were on the ground. Air force planners refused to countenance any changes to their air plan and ruled out an assault glider landings to seize the bridges as had been done in Normandy on D-Day.

Enemy readiness

German reactions to Market Garden were swift and efficient by any standard. Local measures to block the British landing near Arnhem were in motion within two hours and to counter Market Garden overall within three-and-a-half hours, the latter by despatching units south to secure the bridges at Nijmegen and thus block the Garden ground advance from reaching the British landing zones. The concentration and deployment of units from all over Holland and Germany to bolster defences was equally swift. Tanks and infantry from garrisons 125 miles away were fighting at the Arnhem road bridge within 24 hours. Indeed, a hodge-podge of units from all over Germany came close to overrunning the 82nd Airborne’s landing area thereby severing the airborne corridor just south of Nijmegen on two occasions. Similarly, units drawn from all over Holland were pressing on the British from the west within 48 hours.

Poor planning and leadership at Arnhem

Landing on top two Panzer divisions is the commonly cited reason for the British 1st Airborne Division’s failure at Arnhem, but this was not the case.

After being decimated in Normandy, the 9th and 10th SS panzer divisions combined totalled a fraction of one full-strength division. And by Sept. 17, the former’s personnel were being moved to Germany for re-equipping, while the latter was despatched south to block the Allied advance.

The real problem at Arnhem was poor planning and leadership. The 1st Airborne Division’s strategy was for the first troops on the ground to remain at the drop zone until the second lift arrived 24 hours later, with the exception of Brigadier Gerald Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade. The unit was to detach from the main body immediately and advance into Arnhem. Unfortunately, Lathbury planned to drop his units along three widely spaced routes to half-a-dozen isolated objectives. This virtually guaranteed the brigade would be overwhelmed piecemeal. Lathbury also wasted precious time by holding his troops back at the landing area for over an hour. Later, he drove back and forth harassing his commanders to move faster until he was cut off with part of the brigade and badly wounded.

Division commander Major-General Roy Urquhart knew even less about airborne operations, having been promoted as a Montgomery protégé with zero experience leading paratroops. He made no effort to tailor his plan to the specific mission like the two U.S. divisions, and the idea that he could simply move into Arnhem after giving the Germans 24 hours’ notice was rooted in conventional operational procedures and fanciful at best.

This was compounded by a series of poor decisions that included abruptly leaving his headquarters in response to a baseless rumour, deliberately severing his sole radio link in the process and then being cut off from his formation for 48 hours after an eventual and ill-advised attempt to regain his headquarters.

Urquhart had not properly grasped the essential difference between airborne and conventional operations, and by the time he returned to his command post the Arnhem portion of Market had effectively failed and his division was cut off with little prospect of relief.

Lack of drive by the Garden force

Although often overlooked, the most salient reason for the breakdown of Market Garden was the failure of 30 Corps’ two formations, the Guards Armoured Division and the 43rd Division, to reach the Lower Rhine at Arnhem. This is routinely ascribed to unexpectedly heavy German resistance, but it was not the case. The only opposition encountered in the ground advance up the airborne corridor was at Nijmegen, where the 82nd Airborne Division did the bulk of the fighting.

The real problem was an overall lack of urgency from the outset. Major-Generals Allan Adair’s Guards Armoured Division was scheduled to link up with the U.S. 101st Airborne at Eindhoven, approximately 16 miles from the start line, by 19:30h on Sept. 17. It did not move until 14:35 and halted at dusk after covering just seven miles. It took another full day to cover the remaining distance against minimal German resistance. The Guards started late and stopped early throughout Garden and followed the standard British dictum that tanks fought by day and halted by night, while 30 Corps also forbade vehicular movement after dark.

All this failed to address the urgency of the situation despite this being explicitly and repeatedly stressed and acknowledged in a variety of orders. Similarly, Major-General Ivor Thomas’ 43rd Division took 30 hours to travel 60 miles unmolested up the airborne corridor to Nijmegen and then effectively wasted three days after crossing the River Waal on Sept. 22. Neither formation acted with the application required, and gave the distinct impression that the plight of the 1st Airborne Division was not really their concern.

The root of the problem was that the two division commanders simply ignored direct orders and Corps commander Horrocks tolerated their behaviour, in part apparently due to illness; Horrocks had been allowed to return to duty before fully recovering from serious wounds received in 1943. He was ordered to take sick leave in December 1944. By that time the damage to Market Garden was done.

It can therefore be seen that despite the evidence being hidden in plain sight for 75 years, the real reasons for the failure of Operation Market Garden are still not fully appreciated or understood.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: William F. Buckingham is the author of Arnhem: The Complete Story of Operation Market Garden 17-25th September 1944. A leading expert on the First and Second World Wars, he has taught history at the University of Glasgow. He has written books on Tobruk, D-Day and the British airborne. Check out his Amazon page here.

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