Part 1 Holland 1944
In September 1944, British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery proposed a bold and daring plan to end the war in Europe by Christmas. Since the Allied breakout of the Normandy beachhead, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s armies were in full retreat. Relentlessly pursued through the bocage of northern France, across Belgium to Holland, the Germans showed no signs of stopping. But at the Dutch border, the Allied chase ended. Unable to draw their supplies from the liberated port at Antwerp, the Allied material was trucked, in great convoys from depots on the Normandy beach, a journey of some 200 miles.
Montgomery believed that a dash across Holland, into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany, and on to Berlin would end the war that year. To support this single thrust, however, Montgomery demanded “priority of supply,” a request which the Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower was loath to grant. Monty’s single drive was counter to Ike’s broad-frontal strategy of pressing the Germans on every front. Giving the Briton priority meant denying the Americans, Bradley, and Patton, the supplies they needed to continue their assault on Hitler’s Western Wall.
As part of his plan, Montgomery propose dropping no fewer than three airborne divisions and a Polish parachute brigade at key points on the road from the Belgium-Holland to the Dutch city of Arnhem across the Lower Rhine. The paratroopers were to seize key bridges across Dutch rivers and canals, as numerous in Holland as veins and arteries in the human body, and hold them until relieved. In the south, the American “Screaming Eagles” (101st Airborne) were to seize road bridges across the Wilhelmina Canal at Son and Best. The 82nd Airborne would be dropped farther north and seize the Maas River bridge at Grave (pronounced Grav-uh), the longest bridge in Europe, and the road and rail bridges across the Waal River at Nijmegen. The “Red Devils” of the British 1st Airborne Division and the Poles received the prize—the modern road bridge over the Lower Rhine in Arnhem. This airborne operation was codenamed Operation Market.
Operation Garden, the ground attack was the responsibility of 50,000 men of the British Second Army. XXX Corps was composed of the Guards Armored Division, the 43rd Wessex Infantry Division, 8th Armored, and Royal Netherlands “Princess Irene” Infantry Brigades. Along with its supporting artillery, engineering, and logistics units, XXX Corps would proceed north along the road, linking-up with each airborne division, and cross the Rhine paving the way for a breakout into Germany.
The airborne operation appealed to Eisenhower. The newly constituted Allied First Airborne Army, the parent unit airborne units assigned, had been marooned and idle in England since Normandy. Allied planners were beginning to wonder how much longer the paratroopers would remain inactive. What was the point of training these elite soldiers only to deploy them as infantry? Ike saw Operation Market as the perfect opportunity to utilize this formidable airborne force.
Two days before Ike and Monty met at Montgomery’s headquarters in Brussels, Hitler unleashed his V2 rockets on London. Unlike the V1s, whose approach was audible, and which were easily shot down, the ballistic V2 plunged to earth without warning and far too fast for an interception. Allied intelligence estimated that the V2 launch sites were in Holland. These two mutually supporting objectives conspired to sway Eisenhower towards Montgomery’s plan, and the fate of Operation Market-Garden was sealed.
This series of three articles, however, is not about Market-Garden per se although I cannot tell one story without telling the other. Several excellent books have already recounted the greatest airborne operation of the war. The definitive work, is, of course, A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan (1974) which does a superb job of chronicling the operation, primarily from the British point of view. Ryan’s interpretation received popular approbation when it was made into a movie, of the same name, starring Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, and Robert Redford, amongst others in 1977. John C. McManus’s September Hope (2013) tells the Operation Market story from the American point of view as the subtitle “The American Side of a Bridge Too Far” suggests. Even the German perspective has received appropriate consideration in It Never Snows in September by Robert J. Kershaw (1990).
The central theme of this series is to tell the story of a group of historians who use their passion for wargaming to explore alternative theories and outcomes of history. Replaced by computer simulations and first-person-combat video games, wargaming, in miniature is not as popular a pastime as it once was but is still practiced in living rooms, basements and meeting halls throughout the world. Author Robert Louis Stevenson fought battles with his collection of “toy soldiers” in the attic of his home in Edenborough Scotland. Futurist H.G. Wells fought “Little Wars” in his garden in the London suburb of Bromley. Prussian Army Lieutenant Georg Leopold von Reiswitz developed “Kriegsspiel” (German for war games) to train Prussian and German army officers in the early 1800s. American Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz once boasted that the Japanese did nothing that surprised him because he had already fought the Pacific war in miniature on the gymnasium floor of the Naval War College. Wargames are still very valuable learning tools, not only in Portsmouth but military academies and staff colleges all over the world, although computer programs have replaced, referees, dice rolls, cardboard counters and lead figurines.