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Hell’s Highway To Arnhem
Operation Market-Garden promised to lay an airborne red carpet to victory.
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Then there was Bernard Montgomery, victor of El Alamein and Britain’s great hero, with an acrid manner and an insufferable ego that invariably grated on his American colleagues. To halt either Patton or Montgomery at the other’s expense might open a serious fissure in the Anglo-American coalition. Dwight Eisenhower was too good a student of coalition warfare to allow that to happen.
In any case the issues that September were clear: how to keep the pursuit from bogging down; how to break the barrier of the Siegfried Line; how to gain a bridgehead across the Rhine. Operation Market-Garden offered to resolve all three.
By September 10 the staging area for Market-Garden was secure. At dusk that day elements of Montgomery’s 2ist Army Group crossed the Meuse-Escaut Canal in Belgium, close to the Dutch border. Most of Belgium was in Allied hands, including Antwerp, the great port so badly needed for logistic support of Elsenhower’s armies. Antwerp was useless, however, until German troops were routed from the banks of the Scheldt estuary that linked the port with the North Sea.
Operation Market-Garden, scheduled for September 17, involved a sudden, one hundred-mile thrust from the Meuse-Escaut Canal almost due north into Holland, crossing the Lower Rhine at the city of Arnhcm and reaching all the way to the Zuider Zee. If successful, it would completely outflank the Siegfried Line and win a coveted Rhine bridgehead. In addition, it would cut Holland in two, trapping thousands of German troops and isolating the chief launching sites of the deadly v-2 ballistic missiles that were pummelling London.
With these objectives in hand Montgomery was confident that Elsenhower would have no choice but to fully support his plan to seize the Ruhr and drive on toward Berlin. Thus, the Field Marshal declared, the war could be won “reasonably quickly.”
Elsenhower was less sanguine. Hc cautioned Montgomery that the opening of Antwerp could not long be delayed. Much would depend on Market-Garden succeeding quickly and at minimum cost.
As bold as the plan itself was the technique designed to carry it out. The Dutch countryside was ideally suited to defense, marshy and heavily wooded and cut by numerous waterways: in the span of sixty-five miles the single highway running north from the Belgian border to Arnhcm crossed no less than three canals, two small rivers, and three major streams the Maas, the Waal, and the Lower Rhine. Montgomery proposed to lay a “red carpet” for his ground forces over this difficult terrain by using Elsenhower’s entire strategic reserve, the paratroops of the First Allied Airborne Army. Their mission was to seize the bridges over these eight waterways in a massive surprise invasion from the sky. This airdrop was to be coordinated with a “rapid and violent” thrust by a British armored column along the Arnhem highway.
Previous airborne operations had shown that the effectiveness of paratroops varied in inverse proportion to the time they had to hold their objectives; in a long fight they were invariably overmatched in firepower. On the face of it, then, laying down a carpet of paratroopers and glider-borne infantry up to sixty-five miles ahead of the ground forces, as Market-Garden proposed to do, was a very high-risk tactic. Elsenhower and Montgomery counted on the condition of the German forces in Holland to even the odds. Allied intelligence was confident that behind a thin crust of resistance along the Meuse-Escaut Canal, there was hardly any organized enemy at all.
Opposing the Allies in this northern sector was Field Marshal Walther Model, working with his characteristic furious energy to patch together a defensive line. Model was a stocky, roughhewn character, a favorite of Hitler’s who had performed well in crises on the Eastern Front and who liked to call himself “the Führer ’s Fireman.” His command had been so badly shattered in France, however, that facing Montgomery in early September there was only a mixed bag of stragglers, garrison troops, and Luftwaffe ground units, braced by a few green paratroop regiments and some fanatical but inexperienced SS men. Line infantry and armor were in very short supply.
A few days before Market-Garden was scheduled to begin, fragmentary reports came in from the Dutch underground of two German armored formations that had just bivouacked north of Arnhem, apparently for refitting. Allied intelligence surmised that these must be the gth and i oth SS Panzer divisions. Both were known to have been decimated in the French debacle, and intelligence discounted them as a threat to the operation.
In England U.S. Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton’s First Allied Airborne Army, honed to a fine edge, was spoiling for a fight. The three divisions slated for Market-Garden—the U.S. Sand and ioist Airborne, veterans of the Normandy airdrop, and the ist British Airborne, which had fought in Sicily and Italy—had seen eighteen scheduled drops cancelled in a period of forty days as the ground forces advanced too fast to need them.