- Historic Sites
Hell’s Highway To Arnhem
Operation Market-Garden promised to lay an airborne red carpet to victory.
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Thus, the fifth day of Operation Market-Garden was frittered away, much to the frustration of the conquerors of the Nijmegen bridge. Only a trickle of tanks and other fighting vehicles crossed the hard-won span; Allied gains beyond Nijmegen were slight. And at Arnhem the last of Colonel Frost’s men, out of ammunition, had been routed from their strongholds and forced to surrender. Allied reconnaissance planes reported seeing German armored units and infantry convoys rolling south, headed toward Nijmegen, across the Arnhem bridge.
The road between Nijmegen and Arnhem runs some six feet above the low fields and orchards flanking it, making the British tanks that tried to advance northward on the next day, Friday, September 22, sitting ducks for the enemy gunners. The advance soon foundered at a roadblock in the village of Ressen, seven miles short of Arnhem.
Although the Germans now held the Arnhem bridge in strength, Horrocks believed a crossing of the Lower Rhine might still be possible by building a bridge downstream, where the Red Devils had their slender bridgehead. Horrocks’ troops eventually reached the river over back roads late in the day, but it was too late. German forces arrived on the north bank in too much strength for Horrocks to attempt a bridging operation.
Thirty miles to the south, Student’s tanks slashed across Hell’s Highway, bringing all traffic to a halt. Continued bad weather made aerial support and resupply impossible. “Waiting and waiting for the Second Army,” wrote one of the Red Devils in his diary. “The Second Army was always at the back of our minds. The thought of it made us stand up to anything.…”
On Saturday the Second Army refused to release the reserve division scheduled to be airlifted to the support of the Arnhem airhead. It is an old military maxim to reinforce success, but with each passing hour MarketGarden was looking less and less like a success. Paratroopers of the 101st Division and British tanks managed to reopen Hell’s Highway by afternoon, but not enough assault boats could be brought forward to the Lower Rhine to effectively reinforce Urquhart’s shrinking perimeter. The Red Devils were critically short of ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies; air resupply was all but impossible, although C-47 pilots repeatedly braved the German flak to try it.
On Sunday, as the Allied command groped for a way to save the battle slipping away from them, Urquhart radioed the Second Army: “Must warn you unless physical contact is made with us early 25 September [Monday] consider it unlikely we can hold out long enough.” That evening Student’s tanks cut Hell’s Highway once more.
At 9:30 A.M. on Monday Generals Browning and Horrocks made it official: Market-Garden had failed; the Arnhem airhead would be evacuated. When night fell the Red Devils began to slip away toward the river, boots and equipment muffled in rags, each paratrooper holding on to the belt of the man in front of him. In a pouring rain rescue boats hurried back and forth across the dark river under the cover of a steady bombardment by Horrocks’ guns. Hundreds of wounded had to be left behind.
Only 2,400 of the nine thousand Red Devils who had fought in and around Arnhem were rescued. When there was time for a count, it was found that in the nine days of fighting the 82nd Airborne had lost over 1,400, the ioist over 2,100. Another fifteen hundred men and seventy tanks were lost by Horrocks’ ground forces. Close to three hundred Allied planes were downed.
The Arnhem bridge—the last bridge—stayed firmly in German hands. There it would remain for seven months, until the final few weeks of the war.
Operation Market-Garden came tantalizingly close to success—a few hours saved here, a different decision made there, and everything might have been different. The weather was certainly an important factor in the failure, limiting aerial resupply and reinforcements and hampering air support. The decision to drop, the Red Devils so far from Arnhem was a costly one. The pace of the Second Army’s rear echelons carrying supplies and reinforcements was hardly what Montgomery had in mind when he called for a drive of “the utmost rapidity and violence.” Allied intelligence fumbled badly in not taking reports of the presence of the two Panzer divisions more seriously. And there was pure misfortune in Market-Garden’s taking place on the very doorsteps of Model and Student, two of the most skilled German generals on the Western Front.
Most of all, however, Market-Garden failed because it was conceived on the assumption that the German army was about to collapse. The Nazis were not as close to the brink as they seemed: to push them over the edge required a far stronger force than Market-Garden was given. “Perhaps,” writes the military historian Charles B. MacDonald, “the only real fault of the plan was overambition.”