MONTGOMERY’S MARKET GARDEN GAMBLE FAILS

Berlin, Germany September 26, 1944

On this date in 1944 the German news agency announced the surrender of 600 British troops in a small village west of Arn­hem in Holland. For days the lightly armed men of the British 1st Air­borne Divi­sion had held the north­ern end of a key bridge that crossed the Dutch Lower Rhine, but Brit­ish armored rein­force­ments were not able to secure the south bank of the river. Forced to retreat under withering Ger­man assaults along the narrow and exposed 30‑mile‑long Eind­hoven-Nijmegen high­way corri­dor (“Hell’s High­way”), the British left behind 7,000 dead, wounded, missing, or captured.

The Battle of Arnhem was part of Opera­tion Mar­ket Garden (Septem­ber 17–26, 1944), an auda­cious Anglo-Amer­ican land-airborne opera­tion devised by British Field Marshal (since Septem­ber 1, 1944) Bernard Law Mont­gomery intended to out­flank Ger­man forces defending the West Wall (or Sieg­fried Line) by crossing the Lower Rhine and thrusting into the heart­land of the Third Reich—the indus­trial Ruhr—which was Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower’s opera­tional objec­tive for the destruc­tion of enemy forces in the West. Fresh from having taken the vital resupply port of Ant­werp in Bel­gium, “Monty” had hugely mis­cal­culated Allied prowess and late-war German doggedness, due partly to his most con­spicu­ous attri­bute, namely his un­shake­able self-con­fi­dence. The demo­li­tion of a bridge over the Wilhel­mina Canal, an extreme­ly over­stretched supply line, and stiffer resis­tance than anti­ci­pated at the bridge at Arn­hem failed to deliver a force suf­ficient to cross the Rhine. That river remained a bar­rier to the Allied advance into the German heart­land until the offen­sives at Rema­gen (under Maj. Gen. John William Leo­nard), Oppen­heim (under Gen. George S. Patton), Rees, and Wesel (both under Montgomery) in March 1945.

Market Garden blemished Montgomery’s standing within the head­quarters of SHAEF (Supreme Head­quarters Allied Expe­di­tion­ary Forces) at least from that time on. Market Garden shat­tered the opti­mism among the Western Allies that the war in Europe was nearing an end, and it ushered in a period of stale­mate on the Western Front that occa­sion­ally would inflict much pain; for example, the Battle of the Bulge during which, just among Ameri­can forces, 81,000 were killed, wounded, and taken pri­soner (mid-Decem­ber 1944 to mid-Janu­ary 1945). It was the largest and dead­liest battle fought by U.S. forces in World War II. Not until late Janu­ary 1945 were the Western Allies again in a posi­tion to engage the enemy in a strong, coordinated offensive along their front lines. And it was not until the end of April that the Soviet armed forces, in mortal combat on the Eastern Front, were able to drive their armored lance into the prostrate body of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in the European War’s last combat gasp, the Battle of Berlin.


With help from Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s son David, The Lonely Leader: Monty by Alistair Horne focuses on the British Army’s performance under Field Marshal Montgomery during the final war years, 1944–1945. Horne’s account is distin­guished by the inclu­sion of letters and enclo­sures Mont­gomery sent to his son. One gets a strong sense of Monty’s ego and vanity when he wrote David on one occasion and enclosed a “photo portrait, painted of me for the nation.” Besides his much docu­mented vanity, the letters add a touch of pater­nal sensi­tivity to Mont­gomery’s character that could be easily over­looked. Horne shows us how Monty warned his son against “playing the fool” in school, imploring him to “culti­vate a sense of respon­si­bility.” On another occasion Mont­gomery praised his son for being top of his class in a school report, writing that “I want you to know that I am simply delighted.” Thus, Horne’s book gives an ele­ment of humanity to the reader’s impres­sion of Mont­gomery, who, though cer­tainly con­ceited, was not beyond human com­pas­sion. None­the­less, Horne is apt to slight Mont­gomery’s clearest failings. For example, the disas­trous Arn­hem landings of Septem­ber 1944, which saw an entire British air­borne divi­sion destroyed, is reduced to four pages, and Horne uncon­vincingly deflects blame for the operation onto Monty’s American superiors.—John Merrington




Battle of Arnhem, September 17–26, 1944

Arnhem, Holland, bridge over Lower Rhine British glider-borne battalion en route to Arnhem, September 18, 1944

Left: Aerial view of the road bridge over the Neder­rijn (Dutch, “Lower Rhine” or “Nether Rhine”), Arn­hem, one of a num­ber of choke points over water obstacles leading into Ger­many. British troops and destroyed Ger­man armored vehicles are visible at the north end of the bridge. Had Field Marshal Bernard Mont­gomery’s ambi­tious scheme for seizing the road, rail, and pon­toon bridges over the Lower Rhine suc­ceeded, the war in Europe might have been shortened by months. How­ever, back­up forces were un­able to come up quickly enough to enable the advance air­borne troops to hold the strategically vital bridge at Arnhem.

Right: The Battle of Arnhem was fought in and around the Dutch towns of Arn­hem, Ooster­beek, Wolf­heze, Driel, and the sur­rounding country­side. In this photo, men of the British 2nd Bat­talion South Stafford­shire Regi­ment are shown towing a 6‑pounder anti­tank gun as they enter Ooster­beek en route to Arn­hem, Septem­ber 18, 1944. The 2nd Bat­talion started the opera­tion 867 men strong but only 139 returned to British lines.

Arnhem bridge after battle to hold it for the Allies Captured Arnhem bridge fighters

Left: The bridge at Arnhem—the “bridge too far”—after the British 2nd Para­chute Bat­talion (745 lightly armed men) had been over­run and driven back when it ran out of ammu­ni­tion following four days of some of the fierc­est fighting seen by either side. If all had gone to plan there would have been almost 9,000 men holding the Arn­hem road bridge for the two days it was supposed to take the British XXX Corps, 50,000 strong, to reach them.

Right: British prisoners at Arnhem Bridge, Septem­ber 1944. The British 1st Air­borne Divi­sion, sup­ported by men of the Glider Pilot Regi­ment, and the Polish 1st Inde­pen­dent Para­chute Bri­gade lost approx­i­mately 1,984 killed and 6,854 cap­tured. After nine days of fighting, the remains of the air­borne forces were with­drawn. With no secure road or rail bridges over the Neder­rijn, the Allies were un­able to advance further and the front line stabilized south of Arnhem. The British 1st Air­borne Divi­sion lost nearly three-quarters of its strength and never saw combat again.

National Geographic Documentary: Operation Market Garden, the Netherlands, September 1944


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