In the summer of 1944 General Bernard Montgomery came up with a daring scheme to cross the River Rhine and advance into northern Germany. Codenamed MARKET GARDEN, his plan involved the seizure of bridges in Holland by the 101st and 82nd US and 1st British Airborne Divisions (MARKET). Then the British 30 Corps could advance over them and cross the Rhine and its tributaries (GARDEN). The bridges were at Eindhoven, around 20 kilometres (13 miles) from the start line, Nijmegen, 85 kilometres (53 miles), and Arnhem, 100 kilometres (62 miles) away, as well as two smaller bridges at Veghel and Grave that lay between Eindhoven and Nijmegen. If successful, the plan would liberate Holland, outflank Germany’s frontier defences, the Siegfried Line, and make possible an armoured drive into the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland.
On 17 September the airborne divisions landed by parachute and glider and eventually all the bridges were captured in what was one of the largest airborne operations in history. The plan failed largely because of 30 Corps’ inability to reach the furthest bridge at Arnhem before German forces, including elements of two SS Panzer divisions, overwhelmed the British defenders.
In fact 1st Airborne Division’s landing zones were 11 kilometres (7 miles) from the bridge at Arnhem and only one battalion reached the objective while the rest of the division was squeezed into a pocket around Oosterbeek to the west. Much of 30 Corps’ advance was along a single narrow causeway, which was vulnerable to traffic jams and German counter-attacks. Throughout the battle the Germans showed a remarkable ability to put together scratch battle groups that fought to delay the armoured columns.
Operations were also hampered by a shortage of transport aircraft. The airborne troops were flown into Holland in three lifts rather than all together. Poor flying weather and communication failures also reduced their chance of success. On 25 September about 2,100 troops from 1st Airborne Division were ferried back across the Rhine. Another 7,500 were either dead or prisoners. The crossing of the Rhine and the capture of Germany's industrial heartland were postponed for six months.
A costly failure, Operation MARKET GARDEN remains a remarkable feat of arms, not because of its strategic ambition, but because of the determination and courage shown by Allied airborne troops and the units that supported them. It also led to the liberation of a large part of Holland at a time when many Dutch people were close to starvation.
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