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 the Nether­lands. For days the lightly armed men of the British 1st Air­borne “Red Devil” Divi­sion had held the north­ern end of a key bridge that crossed the Dutch Lower Rhine River (Neder Rhine; Dutch, Neder­rijn), 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 and complex Anglo-Amer­ican land-airborne opera­tion hur­riedly devised by British Field Marshal (since Septem­ber 1, 1944) Bernard Law Mont­gomery. In con­cert with the Dutch resis­tance net­work, “Monty’s” plan was to out­flank German forces defending the forti­fied West Wall (or Sieg­fried Line) by crossing over five stra­tegic Lower Rhine and canal bridges and then thrusting into the heart­land of the Third Reich—the indus­trial Ruhr—which was Supreme Com­mander of Allied Forces in Europe Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower’s opera­tional objec­tive for the destruc­tion of enemy forces in the West before the onset of winter.

Montgomery’s British Second Army, fresh from having taken the vital resupply port of Ant­werp in Bel­gium on Septem­ber 4, hugely mis­cal­culated Allied pro­wess and late-war German dogged­ness, due partly to Monty’s most con­spicu­ous attri­butes, namely his un­shake­able self-con­fi­dence and arro­gance. The German demo­li­tion of a bridge over the Dutch Wilhel­mina Canal, an extremely over­stretched British supply line, and stiffer German resis­tance than anti­ci­pated at the bridge at Arn­hem, 64 miles (102 km) behind German lines—all these things con­spired against Mont­gomery deli­vering a fighting force suf­ficient to cross the Lower Rhine River and strike into Germany. Indeed, prac­ti­cally the entire Rhine, stretching 766 miles (1,232 km) from its source in the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, remained a bar­rier to advances by the West­ern Allies into Germany until March 1945, when U.S., British, and Cana­dian armies kicked off a series of offen­sives on the Middle Rhine at Rema­gen under Maj. Gen. John Wil­liam Leo­nard, at Oppen­heim under Gen. George S. Patton, and at Rees and Wesel under Montgomery.

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 (mid-Decem­ber 1944 to mid-Janu­ary 1945) during which, just among Amer­i­can forces, 81,000 were killed, wounded, and taken pri­soner. The Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s Ardennes Offen­sive, 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 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

Operation Market Garden: The Battle of Arnhem, September 17–26, 1944

Operation Market Garden: Arnhem, Holland, bridge over Lower RhineOperation Market Garden: British glider-borne battalion en route to Arnhem, September 18, 1944

Left: Aerial view of the massive 2,000 ft (610 m) concrete-and-steel bridge over the Neder­rijn (Dutch, “Lower Rhine” or “Nether Rhine”) at Arn­hem—the “bridge too far”—one of a num­ber of enemy-held 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.

Operation Market Garden: Arnhem bridge after battle to hold it for the AlliesOperation Market Garden: Captured Arnhem bridge fighters

Left: Arnhem Bridge after the British 2nd Para­chute Bat­talion (745 lightly armed men) had been over­run and driven back. The bat­talion had run out of ammu­ni­tion for their Bren light machine guns and PIAT hand-held anti­tank wea­pons following four days of some of the fierc­est fighting seen by either side. Many men were killed, wounded, or captured. Those still living were driven out of town. By then German units blocked every entrance into Arnhem. If all had gone to plan there would have been almost 9,000 men holding the Arn­hem road bridge over the Lower Rhine for the two days it was sup­posed to take the British XXX Corps, 50,000 strong, to reach them. How­ever, after seven days the attempt to seize the bridge had failed, thus sealing the fate of Operation Market Garden.

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.

Interesting Rare British Footage of Operation Market Garden (Music, No Dialog)