The Fall of Paris on August 25, 1944 ended the Normandy campaign, but the Allies were still dependent on the port of Cherbourg for supplies. This caused a reevaluation of the “broad front” strategy that Eisenhower followed, advancing everywhere, rather than Montgomery’s advocacy for narrow thrusts through weak points in the German lines.
US Army General George S. Patton’s Third Army, driving hard, had run off the French maps and were advancing on the German city of Aachen, the first German territory to come under attack. Hitler was determined to hold the city, but the Allies’ increasing supply problems stopped Patton cold. He was sure that given more gas, he could advance on Berlin.
Montgomery was given authorization to try his narrow advance. Holland had been under German occupation for four years, and he believed that the German forces there were weak. If airborne units could land and hold key bridges, he could send a heavy armored force racing through Holland and sweep around to take Berlin before the end of the year.
The plan called Operation Market-Garden, for the largest airborne drop in military history. Three Allied divisions would be involved. The US Army 101st Airborne would drop on Eindhoven and take the canal crossings at Veghel. The US Army 82nd Airborne would land on bridges over the Maas and Waal Rivers. 60 miles behind the German lines, the British 1st Airborne, then later the Polish 1st Airborne Brigade, would be dropped on the Rhine bridges at Arnhem. This was the “Market” plan.
UK General Brian Horrocks, commanding the XXX Corps, would dash up these Allied-held river crossings to relieve the 1st Airborne in the “Garden” phase of the operation. Montgomery’s planning did not take into account any of the lessons learned in Normandy, or even the German landings in Crete three years before.
Also, the Germans were beginning to stabilize their western forces. German paratroopers and SS panzer units were moved into Arnhem, and while British intelligence was aware of them, their presence was discounted. Also, for such a large operation, less time was taken than the Normandy landings.
The Airborne units had suffered heavily in the Normandy campaign, and were still reorganizing in their camps in England when the orders came down. They had returned in early August after forty days of fighting. Some 40% of their members would never leave the Normandy coast, resting in Allied cemeteries.
The reconstituted Allied airborne force of World War II was the greatest the world had ever seen, probably would ever see again. Highly motivated, superbly armed, they were confident they could do the job, if the XXX Corps could make the 60-mile dash to relieve the British 1st Airborne.
On the morning of September 17, 1944, the airborne landings began, and the Dutch population, confident that they were about to be liberated, watched from their rooftops. The Germans were even in awe of the force that was descending on them.
The same morning the XXX Corps began to advance. Working up a single road, the Germans poured fire down on the tanks and vehicles, and the assault was stalled almost as it began. Allied air support was inadequate, and the Germans recovered quickly.
The Airborne forces were able to accomplish their goals, except for the 82nd Airborne, which had to build a temporary bridge to get XXX Corps across. The Americans were shocked by the lack of urgency among the British armored corps, one officer saying that they “stopped for tea.” As fellow paratroopers, they knew the British 1st Airborne could not hold out for long.
The “Red Devils” had dropped five miles from their target, and could only take the North side of the bridge. Worse, they had dropped on part of a Panzer division, and were beating back tank attacks from across the Rhine. Units were cut off, and the division commander, Major General “Roy” Urquart, was out of touch with his men for thirty-six critical hours./p>
The British 1st Airborne held on. They were supposed to be relieved on the fourth day, but after nine days the XXX Corps still did not relieve them. Casualties were mounting, and it became clear that even with additional troops landing in heavy fire south of the Rhine, the 1st Airborne was cut off.
On September 26, Montgomery ordered the 1st Airborne to break out of Arnhem and rejoin the Allied lines to the south. Out of 10,000 men dropped into Arnhem, only 2,300 came out. 1,400 were dead and over 6,000 were prisoners of war.
Static operations would mark the next few months in Holland, until the capture of the port of Antwerp necessitated the clearing of the Albert Canal for Allied ships. In three month of heavy fighting, Canadian and British units fought a waterlogged campaign to clear Germans out. The first ship unloaded on December 11, 1944.
Five days later, the largest German offensive in the west stormed across Belgium and Luxembourg. General Patton wrote in his diary, “We can still lose this war.”