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Operation Market Garden: Why did it fail?

19 mins read

Andrew Mulholland brings the long-running debate about Arnhem up to date.

Operation Market Garden parachute drop, September 1944.
Operation Market Garden parachute drop, September 1944.

Seventy-five years after the event, Market Garden continues to grip historians and readers alike. It is one of those great ‘might have been’ military disasters, complete with genuine heroics and agonising ‘what if’ questions about what it was that went wrong.

That ‘what if’ approach – claiming that if only the weather had been different, or bridge X taken sooner, or division Y had kept moving – represents an endlessly fascinating school within the genre. Cornelius Ryan’s classic A Bridge Too Far (1974) is the most-famous example.

The recent publication of William Buckingham’s Arnhem: the complete story of Operation Market Garden (2019) takes a similar line, albeit focusing on British command failings during the campaign. In contrast, Antony Beevor, in Arnhem: the battle for the bridges, 1944 (2018), argues that the operation was simply flawed from the outset.

Then there are those who highlight the German response. Al Murray (a trained historian as well as a comedian) provides a witty exposition of this in Watching War Films with My Dad (2014).

These three perspectives provide as good a way as any to introduce this rather addictive corner of historical analysis.

Flawed in conception?

At the strategic level, Market Garden reflected the ambiguity that pervaded Allied planning at this stage of the war. Eisenhower was being pulled in many different directions and, to an extent, his response was fudged.

That the Allies did not take the time to properly secure the vital port facilities at Antwerp meant that they continued to be dogged by logistical problems. The famous ‘Red Ball Express’ lorry convoys, all the way back to Cherbourg, reflected this failure. Not only was the German 15th Army able to keep the Scheldt estuary (and thus Antwerp) closed for too long, but it was then allowed to slip away, making all the difference to the subsequent response to Market Garden.

Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976), commander of 21st Army Group.
Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976), commander of 21st Army Group.

Market Garden itself was overly ambitious. There were problems of timing and geometry. Geometry, in that reliance on a single road for the entire project provided a constant, single point of failure: interdict that anywhere and you stopped the advance. This vulnerability was compounded by the extremely difficult terrain in the area.

The question of timing was related to this. To this day, large-scale airborne operations depend on the swift arrival of heavier friendly units. It is always a race. Horrocks, with the use of just one road, expected to be in Arnhem in only two days.

Such complacent thinking speaks of a high command for whom the war in Europe was almost won. The ease and rapidity with which the Allies had been able to pursue the Germans following the Normandy battles had contributed to such assumptions.

In Eastern Europe meanwhile, after the destruction of Army Group Centre during the summer, the Russian advance now seemed inexorable. Behind such a mindset lay the recollection of the sudden political collapse of Germany in 1918.

As Beevor shrewdly points out, however, the Nazi regime was rather different. This totalitarian government had the means and the determination to force its citizens to fight on. It is this misconception about their enemy that encouraged greater risk-taking on the part of the Allies.

To these fundamental weaknesses can be added a wealth of poor choices made concerning the detail of the planning. Most of them are quite famous, from the decision to stagger the airlift over several days, to optimistic assumptions about weather, drop zones that were too far from objectives, and a refusal to countenance ‘coup de main’ raiding parties.

Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks (1895-1985), commander of XXX Corps. James Gavin, commander of 82nd Airborne, considered him ‘the finest general officer I met during the war’.
Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks (1895-1985), commander of XXX Corps.

There is argument aplenty to be had about all these factors, and much to be explored in the literature on them. Suffice it to say that there were usually valid points on both sides. For example, the Allies simply did not have enough aircraft to lift all three divisions in one drop.

One theory that has been overstated is the notion that Market Garden was essentially an intelligence failure. Although Cornelius Ryan made this point, he did not give it the weight attributed to it in the film version of his book.

It is true that a British intelligence officer warned about II Panzer Corps, and was ignored. But the woods around Arnhem were not swarming with Panzers when the paras landed. Rather, the problem posed by this formation was Germany’s ability to reinforce it.

Robin Neillands recalled that, when researching his 2005 book The Battle for the Rhine, countless veterans warned him about the historicity of the film. Those arguments about transposing history into film are still with us. Richard Attenborough’s version of Ryan’s book is entertaining, but hardly definitive.

Two points that hindsight allows us to make here are that (obviously) the planning was rushed and that the military culture of the day did not allow for effective challenge. There were plenty of critics at the time who pointed out these problems, notably General Sosabowski; they were ignored.

All of which supports Beevor’s point that the whole idea was a bad one. For him, the plan was too fragile to stand up to the rigours of reality. It did not have the flexibility to cope with the inevitable mishaps and, crucially, an active opponent who would not, and did not, behave as Allied commanders assumed.

Flawed in the execution?

Again, there is enough material on this subject to fill dozens of books. Clearly, there were a number of major errors in the Allied prosecution of the battle.

Probably top of that list was the delay in capturing the bridge at Nijmegen. The ambition for the ‘Market’ component of the plan was to capture the bridges at ‘thunderclap speed’, which surely meant top priority, straight after landing. Debate on this revolves around who said what to whom – and when.

There was an inaccurate intelligence report of up to a thousand German tanks hidden in the forest adjacent to the Groesbeek Heights, on the right flank of the 82nd Airborne drop zone. There was also airborne corps commander General Frederick Browning’s wish to establish his headquarters there.

The road to Arnhem. Was the plan fatally flawed by reliance on a single road?
The road to Arnhem. Was the plan fatally flawed by reliance on a single road?

Either way, too much emphasis was placed on this objective, at the direct expense of an early advance in strength into Nijmegen. Neilland’s book is particularly good on the detail here; and he is quite critical of General Gavin, commander of the 82nd.

Some, notably Buckingham, have cited the pace of the advance – the lack of hustle – of XXX Corps. This may have been exaggerated, especially given the tactical difficulties the tankers faced due to the terrain. But they certainly pursued their offensive in an almost leisurely manner on the Monday (D-Day+1).

On the other hand, the bridge they needed to cross (Nijmegen) was still in enemy hands. Their participation in that assault had not been foreseen, and it is certainly the case that XXX Corps had to dissipate much of its offensive power in support of the two American divisions.

This might be a textbook example of an inability to flex. The fact that additional support proved necessary is hardly unheard of in the annals of war.

Less merit attaches to the ‘delay’ allegation when it comes to the famous episode north of the Nijmegen bridge. Supposedly, the paratroop infantry who had given so much to cross the river were furious when the tanks from the Grenadier Guards halted that evening.

Nocturnal armoured assaults were difficult, although the British had succeeded with Arnhem them before. However, the tanks had little infantry support and were confined to that one elevated road. A continued charge north might just have pushed the defenders off balance; but a swift and bloody repulse seems the more likely outcome.

Other niggles also have their advocates when it comes to explaining why Market Garden failed. The problem of boats and river crossings is often mentioned. A look at the map suggests that this was likely to be a key component of the campaign. Certainly, there were insufficient boats and amphibious vehicles, they were too slow in coming forward, and most were not fit for an opposed assault. This was not the job for airborne infantry either.

Command and communication proved especially troublesome for the British. The radios flown in to Arnhem were simply not up to the task and failed repeatedly. In addition, General Urquhart, trapped in a building on the front line, spent hours out of touch with his own headquarters. For the 1st Parachute Division in particular, a difficult situation was made far worse due to these circumstances.

Browning, supposedly commanding all of the airborne troops from Nijmegen, proved ineffectual and out of touch. Montgomery failed to grip the situation at all, while Horrocks was probably too sick to be in command.

British Shermans cross the bridge at Nijmegen.
British Shermans cross the bridge at Nijmegen.

If Market Garden was poorly conceived, then the primarily British command team added to its difficulties, rather than resolving them. Buckingham is particularly convincing on this. It is tempting to speculate what might have happened if others had been involved. American Parachute General Matthew Ridgway is usually mentioned in this context.

Finally, this was a two-dimensional mini-campaign. The contribution of the Allied air component was at times sub-optimal. For all the undoubted bravery of the transport crews, there were problems in supplying the trapped division at Arnhem, and delivering tactical air support.

All too often, especially at Arnhem, Allied tactical airstrikes were unavailable. Sometimes it was the weather, though more often it was the inability to run both types of mission simultaneously in such a small area. When the Typhoons could get in, however, they were devastating. More air support might have tipped the balance.

There is therefore plenty to chew on in terms of what went wrong during the campaign. Whether such factors trump Beevor’s view is a matter for the reader. Yet these questions should not be considered in isolation from the German perspective.

The case for the defence

Throughout the campaign, the German defence was highly competent and extremely versatile. There were recriminations about the failure to blow the bridge at Nijmegen, but in overall terms the Allies had been pushed off balance, their plans frustrated. The Germans exceeded Allied expectations in three key respects.

First, in tactical terms, German units remained sharp. The immediate response to the initial Allied air drops demonstrated a high level of local initiative. The troops were well led and, even against elite paratroops, they held their own. This bought precious time and allowed for defensive positions to crystallise, particularly at Arnhem. There were exceptions to this, notably with armour/infantry coordination at Oosterbeek; but generally the Germans were very competent at the tactical level.

Second, at the operational level, the thinking, planning, organisation, and decision-making were exemplary. Generals Walter Model (Army Group B) and Wilhelm Bittrich (II Panzer Corps) in particular quickly grasped the nature of the situation and responded accordingly.

 The unexpected presence of large numbers
of elite Waffen-SS soldiers – like these captives –
may have been decisive in preventing the success
of Operation Market Garden.
The unexpected presence of large numbers of elite Waffen-SS soldiers – like these captives – may have been decisive in preventing the success of Operation Market Garden.

It is true that the capture of Allied documents gave them an advantage with respect to local drop schedules and signalling protocols, but they could never be entirely sure about future enemy operations. Using what they had to hand, Kampfgruppen were formed and German counter-attacks were already threatening the entire Allied offensive within 24 hours. This performance makes that of Horrocks and Browning look lacklustre.

Third, and facilitating this flexible use of resources, was Germany’s strategic reaction. 15th Army units were pulled away from the Scheldt and comprised the bulk of the infantry used to challenge Market Garden. Heavy tank battalions were rushed to the area by rail. It was Germany’s ability to prioritise these trains, even in late 1944, that meant lightly equipped British and American paratroops had to deal with Panthers and King Tigers.

As Al Murray so shrewdly points out, in assessing Market Garden we do need to reverse our perspective and recognise that the battle was as much about German competence as it was Allied mistakes. And, of course, all of this underlines the complacency that influenced so much Allied planning. Gimmick or game-changer?

There is one more idea that is relevant, irrespective of arguments about planning and execution. Were large-scale airborne operations actually worthwhile at all? The criteria used should surely go beyond immediate military success.

The obvious case in point would be Crete in 1941 – a successful German airborne invasion, but so costly as to rule out any similar German ventures for the rest of the war.

The cold cost–benefit analyses that military planners need to make with such schemes must take into account questions of training, opportunity costs, and so forth. These are the issues that Omar Bradley was referring to in his critique of the notionally successful Operation Varsity in 1945.

Such arguments were clearer when it came to smaller-scale airborne operations. These staked much less on what was an inherently high-risk proposition: small bet, but big win. German operations in Holland and Norway in 1940 serve to illustrate this point, or MacArthur’s use of a single regiment on Nadzab (New Guinea) in September 1943.

On the other hand, the really big missions could go spectacularly and expensively wrong. The Russian drop over the Dnieper in September 1943 is an example of this, as is the airborne component of Operation Husky, supposedly supporting the Allied invasion of Sicily, in July 1943. And, at best, the airborne operations for D-Day produced only mixed results.

It could be that Market Garden epitomised a doctrine which, during this period, was inherently expensive and ineffective. Whatever one’s views, such questions, coupled with the drama and tragedy of the campaign, make it a subject of enduring fascination.

Read our film review of A Bridge Too Far here.


This is an article from the August 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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