This was the British advance of Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s XXX Corps, of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army, within the context of the combined ‘Garden’ land and ‘Market’ airborne offensives designed to secure an Allied bridgehead over the Nederrijn (lower Rhine) river at Arnhem (17/20 September 1940).
While ‘Market’ comprised parachute drops and gliderborne landings by formations of Lieutenant General F. A. M. Browning’s Allied I Airborne Corps to seize the bridges over the Wilhelmina and Zuit Willemsvaart Canals at Zon and Veghel respectively just north of Eindhoven (Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s US 101st Airborne Division), over the Maas river at Grave and over the Waal river at Nijmegen (Major General James M. Gavin’s US 82nd Airborne Division) and over the Nederrijn river at Arnhem (Major General R. E. Urquhart’s British 1st Airborne Division), the three formations of Horrocks’s XXX Corps (Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division, Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division and Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 50th Division) were required to push forward to the north from the corps’ bridgehead over the Meuse-Escaut Canal, just to the south of Borkel, for the quick relief of the airborne forces, pushing on over the intact bridges and exploiting northward toward the IJsselmeer (Zuiderzee).
It was 64 miles (103 km) from the XXX Corps’ start line to Arnhem, and Allied planners anticipated that the corps, with the Guards Armoured Division in the van, might reach the IJsselmeer, some 30 miles (48 km) farther than Arnhem, anywhere between two and five days after the start of the offensive on 17 September. What the Allied planners had not adequately considered was that the XXX Corps would have to advance a considerable distance over a single road, to the sides of which the land was too soft to be crossed by armoured fighting vehicles. Thus the loss of even one leading tank would cause considerable delay.
Moreover, the German defence was far stronger than anticipated, for under the overall control of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ was Generaloberst Kurt Student’s newly established 1st Fallschirmarmee, and though this was finding it difficult to get itself established in the area to the north of the Meuse-Escaut Canal, the German situation was eased by the presence just to the north of the Meuse-Escaut Canal of the remnants of three experienced divisions under the command of Generalleutnant Kurt Chill, and in the Arnhem area of two recuperating but still capable armoured formations, SS-Standartenführer und Oberst der Waffen-SS Walter Harzer’s 9th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hohenstaufen’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Heinz Harmel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision ‘Frundsberg’, of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich’s II SS Panzerkorps.
At 14.15 on 17 September some 300 guns of the XXX Corps opened fire with a rolling barrage in front of the corps’ start line. The barrage was 1 mile (1.6 km) wide and 5 miles ( 8 km) deep, and was supported by seven squadrons of Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers firing unguided rockets at all known German positions along the road to Valkenswaard.
The XXX Corps’ advance from its bridgehead across the Meuse-Escaut Canal started at 14.35 with the tanks and infantry of the Guards Armoured Division (Brigadier N. W. Gwatkin’s 5th Guards Armoured Brigade of three armoured and one motorised battalions and Brigadier G. F. Johnson’s 32nd Guards Brigade of four infantry battalions) in the lead. The forward units of the Irish Guards Group had broken out of the bridgehead and crossed from Belgium into the Netherlands by 15.00, but soon after this were ambushed by infantry and anti-tank guns dug in on each side of the main road. Part of the artillery barrage was re-fired and fresh waves of Typhoon fighter-bombers were called in. The Irish Guards then advanced to clear the German positions, which were held by elements of two German parachute battalions and two battalions of the 9th SS Panzerdivision, and soon drove off the defenders flanking the road. As the fighting subsided, the advance was resumed and by dusk the Irish Guards had reached and occupied Valkenswaard.
Horrocks had expected that the Irish Guards would have been able to advance the 13 miles (21 km) to Eindhoven within two to three hours, but in fact they had covered just 7 miles (11 km). The operation was already starting to fall behind schedule.
In Valkenswaard engineers were moved up to construct a 40-ton Bailey bridge over a stream, and this was completed in 12 hours. At 06.00 on 18 September the Irish Guards Group resumed its advance in the face of determined resistance by German armour and infantry and tanks. At about 12.00 the XXX Corps’ leading reconnaissance units established contact with the 101st Airborne Division. At 16.00 a radio message informed Horrocks that the bridge at Son had been destroyed and requested that a Bailey bridge be brought forward. By the end of the daylight hours the Guards Armoured Division had managed to establish itself in the Eindhoven area, but its transport columns were jammed almost solid in the packed streets and taken under German air attack during the night. The XXX Corps; engineers, supported by German prisoners of war, built a 40-ton Bailey bridge across the Wilhelmina Canal within 10 hours.
During the day Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps and Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s XII Corps, which supporting the main attack by the XXX Corps, had forced bridgeheads across Meuse-Escaut Canal in the face of determined German resistance. The 50th Division was transferred from the XXX Corps to the VIII Corps, thus relieving the XXX Corps of having to control the manner in which the ground gained so far was secured.
Throughout the day German attacks were launched against XXX Corps and against the newly gained bridgeheads over the Meuse-Escaut Canal, but none was successful.
At 08.20 on 19 September Colonel Reuben H. Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division at Grave established contact with the Grenadier Guards of the XXX Corps. By this time the core plan had demanded that the leading elements of the corps should be in Arnhem, but they were still 8 miles (13 km) from their objective and, if the schedule was to be met, had to cover this distance, through Nijmegen and across the Waal river, within the next six hours. A combined effort to take the Nijmegen bridge was made by two companies of the Guards Armoured Division and Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort’s 2/505th Parachute Infantry, but was halted some 440 yards (400 m) short of the bridge. It was next planned that the same forces would again attack the southern end of the bridge again while the 3/504th Parachute Infantry crossed the river in boats some 1.25 miles (2 km) farther downstream and then moved to attack the bridge’s northern end. The boats were requested in time for a late-afternoon effort, but had not arrived by that time.
Once again the XXX Corps was held up in front of a bridge which should have been captured before it reached the area. The 1 and 5/Coldstream Guards were attached to the division for this enterprise. An effort to parachute supplies by 35 Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft (out of 60 despatched) was unsuccessful as the supplies were dropped from a high altitude and were therefore too scattered for effective recovery. Another setback was poor weather over English bases, which prevented the planned reinforcement mission in which Colonel Harry Lewis’s 325th Glider Infantry was to been delivered, so ending any hope for the scheduled reinforcements for the 82nd Airborne Division.
The boats ordered on the previous day arrived during the early afternoon of 20 September and a daylight assault crossing was ordered and hastily implemented. At about 15.00 the 3/504th Parachute Infantry, under the command of Major Julian Cook, began its assault across the Waal river. The US paratroopers were paddled across this river by members of Company C, 307th Engineer Battalion, in the 26 British-supplied canvas assault boats. The US soldiers had received no training in how to operate these craft, and a shortage of paddles required some men to use their rifle butts. About half the boats survived the crossing under heavy fire, and 11 survived the first two crossings. Before the end of the day, C/307th Engineer Battalion had made five crossings of the Waal river to ferry two battalions of the 504th Parachute Infantry.
The paratroopers then attacked across some 220 yards (200 m) of open ground on the northern bank and seized the northern end of the bridge. The Germans withdrew from each end of the bridge, which was then rushed by Guards tanks and the 2/505th Parachute Infantry. The bridge was secured at 18.30.
Farther to the east, German attacks on the heights made significant progress, capturing the only remaining bridge suitable for tanks, but a counterattack at Mook by elements of the 505th Parachute Infantry and the 4/Coldstream Guards forced the Germans back to their start line by 20.00. The 508th Parachute Infantry was forced back at Im Thal and Legewald by German armour and infantry, and it was now clear that the German plan was to cut the highway, so dividing the Allied airborne units for defeat in detail, and at the same time cutting off the leading elements of the XXX Corps.
Despite the capture of Nijmegen bridge and the clearing of the town on the previous evening, on the morning of 21 September the five tanks of Guards Armoured Division which were across the river did not at first advance, instead moving off only 18 hours later. Horrocks later claimed that this delay was occasioned by the need to sort out the confusion among his troops following the battle for Nijmegen. The Coldstream Guards Group was repulsing an attack on the Groesbeek position, the Irish Guards Group had gone back to Eindhoven to meet another attack, the Grenadier Guards had just captured the approaches to the bridge with the US paratroops and got five tanks over it to support the airborne bridgehead, and the Welsh Guards were in 82nd Airborne Division reserve. The Guards Armoured Division was scattered over 25 sq miles (65 km²) of the Waal river’s southern bank.
The entire ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ plan was posited by circumstances on the timely availability of a single road as the route of advance and supply. This imposed a delay since other units could not be deployed onto other routes to maintain momentum, and the delay allowed the Germans to reinforce the defence already established at Ressen (one SS infantry battalion, 11 tanks, one infantry battalion, two batteries of 88-mm [3.465-in] dual-role guns, 20 20-mm Flak weapons and the survivors of the fighting at Nijmegen) to the south of Arnhem aided by use of the bridge following their capture of its northern end. Therefore the advance of the Guards, hindered by marshes that prevented off-road movement, was soon checked by a firm German defensive line. The Guards lacked the strength to outflank this line, so the 43rd Division was ordered to take over the lead, work its way round the German positions and establish contact with Generał brygady S. Sosabowski’s Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade at Driel, some 2.5 miles (4 km) to the south-west of Arnhem on the southern side of the Nederrijn river.
But the 43rd Division was 10 miles (16 km) distant and there was a traffic jam between it and Nijmegen, so it was not until 22 September that the whole division had crossed the Waal river and begun its advance. The Germans, clearly starting to gain the upper hand, continued their counterattacks all along the path that had to be taken by the XXX Corps, although the corps still managed to advance and the 101st Airborne Division continued to exploit its gains.
The fog lifted just as the 43rd Division’s leading units started to advance on Driel, exposing them to German fire, and they reached Driel only during the evening. For lack of assault craft, an attempt to put elements of the Polish brigade across the river during that night was unsuccessful: British and Polish engineers on each side of the river had tried during the day to improvise a means of crossing using small boats linked by signals cable, but the cable constantly broke, forcing the Polish troops to paddle slowly against the strong current. The attempt was made under enemy observation and fire and only 52 men of the Polish 8th Parachute Company survived the crossing before a halt was called at dawn.
Farther to the south, much of the corridor was firmly in Allied hands, but German counterattacks were still being mounted along its length. During the previous night, two mixed armoured formations on either side of Highway 69 attacked between Veghel and Grave, one of these groups managing to cut the highway and prevent any further advance to Arnhem.
By this time time it had become clear what the Poles were attempting, and the Germans devoted the rest of the day to an attempt to isolate the survivors of the 1st Airborne Division on the northern bank from reaching the river bank. The British managed to hold, and each side suffered heavy losses. The Germans also attacked the Poles on the southern side in order to tie them down, but several of the XXX Corps’ tanks arrived and drove off the German assault. Canadian boats and engineers also arrived on 23 September, and another river crossing that night landed 150 troops of the Polish 3rd Parachute Battalion on the northern bank.
To the south several more German attacks from each side of the road were halted, but the road link remained severed. The XXX Corps then despatched a unit of the Guards Armoured Division some 12 miles (19 km) to the south and retook the road. The rest of the force to the north continued to wait for infantry to move up, still only a short distance to the south of Arnhem.
On 24 September another German force cut the road south of Veghel and set up defensive positions for the night. It was not clear to the Allies at this point how much of a danger this represented, but the primary objective of the two operations, namely the crossing of the Nederrijn river, was abandoned during this day and the decision made to go over to the defensive with a new front line in Nijmegen. Even so, an attempt was made on 24/25 September to reinforce the 1st Airborne Division with the 4/Dorsets of Brigadier B. B. Walton’s 130th Brigade of the 43rd Division. Two companies were put across the river but the location of the crossing point had been poorly selected and the Dorsets landed among German positions. Fragmented by their landing and immediately pinned down, only 75 of the 315 men who crossed actually reached Oosterbeek, and the others were taken prisoner.
This failure persuaded the British to end ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’, and to attempt the ‘Berlin’ retrieval of the remnants of the 1st Airborne Division from its bridgehead on the northern side of the Rhine. The British airborne division, lightly equipped and short of all supplies, was now in dire straits at Arnhem, being compressed into a small bridgehead in Oosterbeek just west of Arnhem proper, with the 2/Parachute, cut off on the vital bridge and already forced to surrender on 21 September. The pocket occupied by the bulk of the 1st Airborne Division held out until 26 September and then capitulated with the loss of 7,000 men, though another 2,200 had managed to break out across the Rhine river to reach the leading elements of the XXX Corps on the southern bank of the river.
The XXX Corps had suffered the loss of 1,130 men killed in ‘Market’ by comparison with the 1st Airborne Division’s 5,354 men killed in ‘Garden’. The British dead therefore totalled 6,484, to which had to be added 851 men missing and 6,450 men taken prisoner for an overall casualty total of 13,785. The two US airborne divisions had lost 3,542 men killed in a total casualty list of some 4,000, and the Polish parachute brigade lost 102 men killed and 309 wounded for total casualties of 411. The Allied losses were therefore 18,196 men, and it is believed that the Germans losses were about 13,000 including between 4,000 and 8,000 men killed.