Operation Market Garden

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Podcast Transcript

After the Allied landing in Normandy in World War II, the Allies made progress pushing back the Germans.

However, by September, things had slowed down. One allied commander devised a plan that he thought would end the war in one fell swoop.

The plan was bold, audacious, and highly risky, and in the end, it was ultimately a failure.

Learn more about Operation Market Garden and the attempt to quickly bring an end to the war on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Operation Market Garden was one of the biggest Allied operations of the Second World War. 

To understand the impetus behind it and to understand why it ultimately failed, we have to understand the circumstances the Allies found themselves in, in September 1944. 

The initial D-Day landing on June 6 was a success. The Allies were able to establish a foothold on the European continent. However, immediately after the landing, their advancement into France stalled due to the hedgerow landscape around the landing sites. 

I had always read about the hedgerows, and I never really viscerally understood just how much of an obstacle they were until I traveled to Normany and drove around the hedgerows myself. Not only were the shrubs and stone walls advantageous to defenders, but the narrow roads between hedgerows had become very deep over the centuries. 

The slow progress immediately after D-Day was solved with Operation Cobra.

Cobra, launched on July 25, was a breakout of the Allied forces, which allowed them to rapidly advance and capture the city of Caen. 

Once they broke through the German defenses, the Allies were able to advance rapidly, liberating much of France and eventually Paris on August 19. By early September, they were in Belgium.

Soon after, however, the advance slowed down again. The front had expanded in size, diluting the Allied forces along the front. Moreover, as they began to approach the German border, they were going to encounter the Sigfried Line. 

The Sigfried Line was a series of German defensive fortifications built along their western border from Switzerland to the Netherlands. 

It was created in the 1930s in response to the French Maginot Line, which was built by the French to stop a German invasion. 

The Maginot Line was a spectacular failure in that the Germans simply ran around it through Belgium to invade France in 1940. Once France fell, the Sigfried Line was abandoned.

However, with the Allies now advancing through France, the Sigfried Line was reactivated. 

The Allies now faced a problem similar to what the Germans had faced four years earlier. Do you directly attack the Sigfried Line in what would probably be an extremely long and bloody fight, or do you try to do an end run around the entire line? 

General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, preferred a wide front where the Allies advanced at several different points. However, many of his top generals, particularly American General George S. Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, advocated a concentrated assault. 

Of course, each general wanted to be the one to lead the primary attack. Montgomery wanted to attack north into the Netherlands, and Patton wanted to attack further south from France.

Ultimately, Montgomery’s proposal won out for several reasons.

The first was that Sigfried Line didn’t go all the way to the sea. It stopped along the border with the Netherlands. If the Allies could advance quickly enough, they could run around it and make an almost uncontested run to Berlin. 

Second was the fact that many of the German V2 bases that were launching rockets at London were located in the Netherlands. A thrust into the Netherlands could eliminate that threat.

Finally, a turn into Germany would allow the Allies to capture the German industrial heartland, eliminating their ability to wage war.

Also, Montgomery was extremely stubborn. On September 10, he flew to Brussels, which had been liberated just a week earlier, and threw a tantrum in front of Eisenhower. 

Eisenhower felt that a single thrust and a run to Berlin was impossible.

If Montgomery could do it, the war could be over by Christmas 1944. 

Monty’s plan was called Operation Market Garden.  The general plan was to advance up a single road in the Netherlands connecting several major cities. The road crossed several bridges, particularly in the cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. 

The plan had two parts known as market and garden. 

The market part would be the largest airborne operation in world history, delivering 34,600 paratroopers. The airborne soldiers would be dropped in ahead of the advancing ground forces to capture the key bridges. 

The American 101st Airborne Division would land near Eindhoven. The American 82nd Airborne Division would be dropped near Nimegen, and the British 1st Airborne Division, along with the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, would be dropped near Arnhem. In total, there were nine bridges that had to be captured.

The second part of the operation, nicknamed garden, was the ground operation. It was to be conducted primarily by the XXX Corps of the British 2nd Army. Their objective was to meet up with the 101st Airborne on the first day, the 82nd Airborne on the 2nd day, and the British/Polish airborne units by no later than the 4th day. 

Even on paper, this was an extremely risky operation. It wasn’t a broad frontal attack that was trying to expel the enemy from a territory. It would just be holding a very narrow band of road and the cities it connected. It would be a salient vulnerable to attack from both sides everywhere along the road.

Moreover, the success of the operation required the success of each phase of the operation. If they couldn’t take one of the bridges, then all of the airborne troops beyond that bridge would be stranded.  

Because the operation would take several days, the Germans could just blow up the bridges once they caught wind of what was happening. 

Despite being an enormous operation, there was very little time to plan anything. This was unlike the Normandy invasion, which had an extreme amount of detailed planning to ensure its success.

The operation began on September 17, 1944, and the first day went well. The first wave of airborne units landed close to their landing zones, which was quite an accomplishment given the level of technology at the time.

However, not all of the airborne troops landed on the first day. There simply weren’t enough planes to deliver everyone all at once.

The 101st Airborn took four of the five bridges they were assigned, and the XXX Corps advanced with little resistance. 

However, there were some obvious problems appearing. The radios used by the British were, in many cases, inoperable. They were either too weak to communicate with other units that were too far away, or they had been set to the wrong frequencies. 

There were also failures in the Allies intelligence. The Allies assumed that the German defenses had broken and that they were in full retreat. What they didn’t know is that just days before, Hitler had moved the II SS Panzer Corps into the Netherlands under the command of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who was brought out of retirement.

On top of all that, the second and third waves of paratroopers were delayed by inclement weather in England.

When reports began coming into the Germans on the first day, they immediately figured out what was happening and took action accordingly.

After the first day, the problems began to compound. 

The XXX Corps managed to meet up with the 101st Airborne in Eindhoven on the second day. However, getting to Nijmegen was difficult. They didn’t link up with the 82nd Airborne until the fourth day, and then there were problems. 

The 82nd wasn’t able to take the bridge on the Waal River because everyone landed on only one side of the river. In order to do so, they would have to cross the river, but they didn’t have any boats. The only boats they were able to get were collapsable canvas boats, which are not bulletproof.

They also had very few paddles, so many soldiers had to use the butts of their guns to paddle across. 

They managed to take the bridge, but at great cost. 

If you remember, way back, I did a previous episode on the city of Nijmegen. Every day, veterans in the city conduct a walk over their new bridge at sunset to honor the men who gave their lives in helping to liberate the city of Nijmegen.

The real problem was with the group of British paratroopers who landed in Arnhem. 

Arnheim is only about 12 miles or 20 kilometers away from Nijmegen. However, it might as well have been a world away. 

The units that landed near Arnhem were split in two. One was caught near the town of Oosterbeek, and another group was holed up on one end of the Arnhem bridge.

The Allies were completely surrounded, and the XXX Corps couldn’t get to Arnhem. 

Despite the problem with the radios, the surrounded forces were eventually able to make contact using the telephone system. They were aware that help was not on the way. 

By day four, the British, holding one end of the bridge, sent out a radio message that wasn’t received by the Allies, but was intercepted by the Germans. The message was, “Out of ammo, God save the King.”

The British fought valiantly as they waited for rescue. They had to revert to bayonet charges to defend their position, given how low they were on ammunition. 

On the night of September 24 and 25, Polish airborne units managed to conduct a rescue of some of the stranded British 1st Airborne units in  Arnhem. They managed to rescue 2,398 British paratroopers.

Having evacuated many of the last paratroopers, the last remaining 300, many of whom were injured, surrendered to the Germans.

In the end, Operation Market Garden was considered to be a failure. The Allies did not make it to Berlin by Christmas.

Somewhere between 15000 to 17000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured, versus only 6000 to 8000 Germans. 

The failure to capture the bridge at Arnhem eventually foiled the entire operation, which depended on every part of the operation succeeding. 

Eisenhower was right, despite having approved the operation. It was ultimately a broad front, not a concentrated assault, that worked. 

While the operation was considered a failure, it wasn’t a total failure. The Allies did capture ground, and it did hasten the liberation of the Netherlands at a time when many people were nearing starvation. 

Operation Market Garden was one of the largest operations of the Second World War, and it has been depicted in books, movies, and TV shows.

Probably the best movie on Operation Market Garden was the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far. It truly had a star-studded cast, including Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connrey, James Caan, Michael Caine, and Lawrence Olivier. 

In 2001, the HBO mini series Band of Brothers documented the real exploits of Easy Company, a unit of American paratroopers who fought in Operation Market Garden and other actions in the war.

Several years ago, I made a trip following the route of the Allies from the beaches of Normandy all the way to Berlin. At the heart of the trip were the many sites associated with Operation Market Garden, including Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and the bridge at Arnhem. 

Some of the best WWII museums in the world can be found in the Netherlands. 

Most military historians agree that Operation Market Garden was an ill-conceived plan from the beginning. It suffered from a serious lack of planning, which resulted in many of the problems the troops encountered.

Of course, in the end, the Allies did win the war, but if Operation Market Garden had been successful, the war would have had a radically different ending, which would have changed the post-war world and would have made the world a very different place today. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener Jedandalyssa, over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Awesome podcast!

I love this podcast! I would like an episode on conjoined twins, I think that would be great. Thank you for making this podcast! Keep up the good work!

Thanks, Jedandalyssa! An episode on conjoined twins is certainly possible. I guess it would have to find a way to separate it from the previous episode I did on multiple births.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.