Hell’s Highway To Arnhem

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It would have taken considerable effort to locate an Allied fighting man on the battle line in Western Europe on September 10, 1944, who doubted that the end of the war was just around the corner. To American GI’S and British Tommies up front, heartened by six weeks of unrelieved victory, the chances of being home by Christmas were beginning to look very good indeed.

Those six weeks had been spectacular. Since late July, when the Anglo-American armies had burst out of their Normandy beachhead, the vaunted German army had fled for its life. Narrowly escaping encirclement at Falaise, nearly trapped against the Seine, harried out of Paris, driven pell-mell toward the Siegfried Line, which guarded the borders of the Third Reich itself, the German forces in France had lost a half million men and 2,200 tanks and self-propelled guns. It was a rout, a blitzkrieg in reverse.

The optimism buoying the combat troops was not entirely shared by the Allied High Command, however. Supplies were critically short, and the enemy showed signs of getting himself sorted out. A hot inter-Allied argument—soon to be christened the Great Argument - was raging over the next strategic step. On September 10 the debate hit one of its peaks. The setting was the Brussels airport, the scene the personal aircraft of the Supreme Commander, Dwight D. Elsenhower. The principal debater was British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery.

The meeting went badly from the start. Elsenhower, who had recently wrenched his knee in a forced landing during an inspection flight to the front, was confined to his plane. On arriving, Montgomery arrogantly demanded that Ike’s administrative aide leave while his own stayed. Ever the patient conciliator, Eisenhower agreed. Montgomery then delivered himself of an increasingly violent attack on the Supreme Commander’s conduct of the war. Rather than continuing the advance on Germany on a broad front, Montgomery argued for a halt to all offensive operations except for “one really powerful and full-blooded thrust” in his own sector, aimed toward the great German industrial complex in the Ruhr Valley and beyond.

“He vehemently declared,” Eisenhower was later to write, “that … if we would support his zist Army Group with all supply facilities available he would rush right on to Berlin and, he said, end the war.”

 
 
 
 

Eiscnhower’s temper rose with Montgomery’s intemperance. Finally he leaned forward, put his hand on the Field Marshal’s knee, and said: “Steady, Monty! You can’t speak to me like that. I’m your boss!” Montgomery, who calculated his outbursts for effect, saw that he had gone too far and contritely apologized. Their discussion continued calmly enough, but their strategic differences remained.

When he left the meeting, however, Montgomery carried with him Elsenhower’s approval of a plan codenamed Operation Market-Garden. If he had gained less than he sought, Montgomery at least had in MarketGarden what British war correspondent Chester Wilmot has described as “the last, slender chance of ending the German war in 1944.”

In those early days of September the Allies had simply outrun their supply network. Armored units were stalled without gasoline. Replacements, food, ammunition, and spare parts were far below even minimum needs. Yet only by applying hard, continuous pressure on the enemy could the Allies hope to breach the Siegfried Line and win a bridgehead across the Rhine before winter—and perhaps even force a complete Nazi collapse.

Supply problems could not be solved overnight. The Allies had reached the German border 233 days ahead of their preinvasion timetable, and it would take weeks for logistics to catch up. In Eisenhower’s view, just trying to reach the Rhine on the present supply shoestring was gamble enough. To approve Montgomery’s “fullblooded thrust” without a solid logistic base and without the capability of making diversionary attacks elsewhere on the front was to invite its destruction. Better to advance to the Rhine on a broad front, Ike believed, and then pause to regroup and resupply before plunging on into the Third Reich at full strength.

Ike conceded that the strategic opportunities in Montgomery’s northern sector were attractive—the vital Nazi arsenal of the Ruhr, the good “tank country” of the north German plain—and had granted supply priority to the 2ist Army Group. Yet he was unwilling to rein in completely U.S. Lieutenant General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group to the south, whose advance was aimed at the industrialized Saar region.

The Supreme Commander also carried a burden of quite a different sort: mediating between two eccentrics of towering military reputation. On the one hand, spearheading Bradley’s army group, there was the flamboyant George Patton, a familiar sight in newsreels and on front pages throughout the Allied world. His Third Army tankers had covered the most ground and grabbed the most headlines in the race across France, and to the American public they seemed unstoppable.