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

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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

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

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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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