In the months following D-Day in June 1944 the success of the Allies in driving Germany out of France and Belgium made them increasingly confident the war could be brought to a swift conclusion, perhaps by the end of the year even. With Allied forces now close to the Dutch border the British commander, General Montgomery, came up with an audacious plan. Montgomery believed that a powerful, narrow thrust deep into the German lines would be more effective than an advance on a broad front.
The plan, code-named Operation Market Garden, would involve the largest airborne offensive in the history of warfare, with around 35000 men being parachuted behind enemy lines. The key objective was to capture a number of strategic bridges spanning the waterways on the Dutch/German border, thus opening the way for a rapid assault on the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland.
On September 17 in clear blue skies some 1,500 aircraft and 500 gliders dropped the first wave of 10,300 paratroopers of the British 1st Airborne Division close to the town of Arnhem in occupied Holland. Hopes were high, but the operation had already been compromised by a lack of planes which meant three separate lifts would be needed to transport the entire force. Once the paratroopers had captured the bridges they would be relieved by more heavily armed ground forces advancing north from Belgium.
Some bridgeheads were indeed established, but German resistance was stiffer and better organized than expected. Only one parachute battalion reached the ultimate objective, the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the 700 British soldiers held the bridge’s northern end for four heroic days waiting for the relief force to arrive before being overrun. The Germans recaptured the bridge and Operation Market Garden had failed.
When: September 17-26 1944
Where: Arnhem, Netherlands
Death toll: 1,300 men of the 1st Airborne Division were killed at Arnhem and over 6,400 captured, only 2,400 British and Polish paratroopers – less than a quarter of the original landing force – were rescued when the area was evacuated by the Allies and the operation abandoned. German losses are estimated to have been at least 1,500.
You should know: The 1st Airborne Division was so badly hit by casualties at Arnhem that it ceased to exist as a fighting unit and was never reconstituted, it would be another four months before the Allies crossed the Rhine again for the final offensive against Germany.