The first actions of Operation Market Garden were undertaken by the Allied air forces. During the night on the eve of the Operation, and throughout the following morning, Bomber Command and the 2nd Tactical Air Force of the RAF, and the US 8th and 9th Air Forces, flew one thousand three hundred and ninety-five sorties against targets in the Market Garden area, escorted by one thousand two hundred and forty fighters. Key German airfields and flak positions were demolished, and numerous targets in the Arnhem area were similarly dealt with. The flak emplacements at Deelen Airfield were effectively hit, as were the military barracks in Arnhem and Ede, the latter being near to the 4th Parachute Brigade's drop zone on DZ-Y.
Dozens of Dutch civilians inevitably suffered under this concentrated bombardment; the worst loss of life occurred at the psychiatric asylum in Wolfheze. The Asylum grounds, almost as large as the village itself, were believed to be occupied by German troops, and as this area bordered the glider landing zones it was vital that any opposition here be subdued. Unsurprisingly, the US 9th Air Force did not wish to take responsibility for the destruction of a medical institution and so they requested orders in writing from Major-General Urquhart. The subsequent raid, believed to have been carried out by B-26 Marauders, sadly missed the main building where some German soldiers were billeted, and it is estimated that some ninety civilians were instead killed, half of whom were psychiatric patients.
At 9:45am on Sunday 17th September, over three thousand five hundred aircraft began to take off from air bases in southern and eastern England. Four hundred and seventy-five transport aircraft; Dakotas, Albermarles, Stirlings and Halifaxes, carried the 1st Airborne Division. Their parachutists took off in one hundred and forty-three C-47's from the American bases at Barkston Heath and Spanhoe, in the Lincolnshire area, whilst the three hundred and twenty tug and glider combinations left the RAF bases of 38 and 46 Groups in the south of England; Tarrant Rushton, Keevil, Broadwell, Blakehill Farm, Manston, Down Ampney, Fairford and Harwell.
This colossal formation, flying in some cases at just one thousand five hundred feet, caused a great commotion amongst those watching on the ground of every country that it flew over. Nothing like it had been seen or heard before; the noise of the engines was deafening. Gradually, the various Squadrons met at their rallying points and two separate formations of aircraft emerged; the first, carrying the 1st Airborne and 82nd Airborne Divisions, proceeded along the Northern Route, destined to take them over occupied Holland until they reached their separation point at 's-Hertogenbosch, whilst the 101st Airborne Division on the Southern Route, for the most part, travelled behind the Allied front line until the final approach to Eindhoven.
Apart from the breathtaking spectacle, the flight to Arnhem was largely uneventful. As was expected, some gliders were lost through premature cast-offs, usually as a result of faulty tow ropes. Few of these incidents, however, resulted in casualties, and those who were able to do so returned to their bases and flew out with the Second Lift on the following day. The most severe loss was suffered shortly after take-off by the 9th Field Company RE, when one of their Horsa gliders, carrying half of their No.1 Platoon, broke up in the air and all aboard were killed. Several more gliders ditched in the sea, but the tragedy of Sicily, where hundreds of men had drowned in a similar fashion, was largely averted due to the presence of rescue boats which lined the flight path. Two gliders landed very close to the Dutch coast; one party, containing No.14 Platoon of the 7th King's Own Scottish Borderers, made their way safely ashore and were taken prisoner, following a brief skirmish in which they killed one German soldier and wounded another without loss to themselves. The other glider, carrying men from 1st British Airborne Corps HQ, ditched within sight of a coastal battery off Walcheren island. Fortunately the men manning these guns were Russian conscripts, and their shots, which continued until nightfall, all deliberately missed their mark and, in the darkness, a rescue boat spirited the men away to safety. One of the Russians was later executed for his part in this incident.
The flight path had been designed so that areas of concentrated flak would be avoided, but once over enemy territory, it was inevitable that several isolated positions would open fire. Such attacks, however, were brief and ineffective, and they were neutralised within seconds when the massive Allied fighter escort, totaling eight hundred and seventy-four aircraft, pounced upon them. The Luftwaffe made no attempt to challenge the armada.
At 12:40, the first British troops were dropped near Arnhem from twelve Stirlings of 190 and 620 Squadrons; these were the one hundred and eighty-six pathfinders of the 21st Independent Parachute Company. A platoon landed on each of the three drop and landing zones to lightly secure them against enemy action, of which there was very little, and activate their Eureka beacons to guide the approaching airborne armada to their correct zones. The Company carried out both of these functions smoothly and efficiently, their only casualties being two men hurt as a result of heavy landings.
At 13:00, the first gliders began to descend on LZ-S, carrying the 1st Airlanding Brigade, less "A" and "C" Companies of the 2nd South Staffordshires. Of the one hundred and fifty-three gliders that left England for this zone, all but nineteen arrived. As soon as the last glider touched down, the first of those bound for LZ-Z came in at 13:19. This lift contained Major-General Urquhart's Headquarters and approximately half of the Divisional Units, included amongst which were the Jeeps of the Reconnaissance Squadron, two batteries of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, and also the 1st Parachute Brigade's vehicles and anti-tank guns. Seventeen of the one hundred and sixty-seven gliders heading for this zone did not arrive.
Mass glider landings can be a hazardous business to say the least. As men unloaded equipment from their gliders and began to move off the landing zone, they had to keep a wary eye behind them for gliders that were still landing. The prospect of such accidents appeared to be the only cause for concern, because although the standard procedure for disembarking from a glider calls for a rapid and defensive exit, there was such a lack of enemy activity that men calmly left their craft and went about their business as if they were on a training exercise in England.
A few shots were fired at the gliders coming in and on the troops unloading them, but these were more of an annoyance than a danger and there were few casualties. There was one exception, however, when a glider carrying the 2nd South Stafford's No.21 Platoon landed almost on top of a German machine-gun position. Luckily the platoon had disembarked before it could open fire, however two men were killed and seven wounded before the gun was destroyed.
A further twelve men died as a result of crashes or collisions. The huge Hamilcar gliders, carrying particularly heavy equipment such as 17-pounder anti-tank guns and Bren Carriers, were particularly susceptible to crashing as their wheels had a habit of digging into soft soil which resulted in the glider flipping over onto its back; a very dangerous occurrence for the passengers, but usually fatal for the glider pilots, whose cockpit protruded above the fuselage. The last glider landed on LZ-Z at 13:40.
At 13:50, the two thousand two hundred and eighty-three men of the 1st Parachute Brigade and assorted other parachute-trained units, including the majority of the Reconnaissance Squadron, began to jump over DZ-X. For various reasons, four of these men refused to jump and one man, believed to have been from the 1st Parachute Battalion, was killed when his canopy failed to fully open and he plummeted to his death. Due to the particularly heavy loads that each paratrooper carried, landings were consequently hard and this resulted in a number of injuries and broken legs, though no more than would have been anticipated. As with the glider lift, men making their way off the zone to their rendezvous had to frequently check above their heads as men and supply containers were landing everywhere.
The First Lift was now complete. The landings had been almost completely unopposed and had taken place with such efficiency that, in terms of casualties sustained at least, it was certainly the cleanest major drop of the War. Major-General Urquhart had watched the spectacle of the 1st Parachute Brigade's arrival and found himself to be very pleased with the manner in which Market Garden had begun.
Whilst the paratroopers assembled for the advance into Arnhem, the 1st Airlanding Brigade busied themselves with the task of securing the zones for the next day. Two platoons of the 2nd South Staffordshires entered Wolfheze and cleared it of enemy resistance, whilst the remainder of the Battalion, only half of which had arrived with the First Lift, proceeded to establish a screen around the north-eastern edge of LZ-S. Upon closer inspection of Wolfheze, the engineers of the 9th Field Company discovered twenty-one 105mm guns in mint condition. The village was to be temporarily abandoned until the 2nd British Army arrived, and as they were unable to make any use of these guns the Royal Engineers destroyed them with hand grenades in the breeches.
The glider carrying Lieutenant-Colonel Haddon, the commander of the 1st Border, had cast-off over England, and so in his absence Major Cousens assumed command. The Battalion was to secure a perimeter around DZ-X and LZ-Z, and in the process "D" Company liberated the village of Heelsum on the southern edge of the two zones, having first fired on a German lorry, killing two soldiers and taking more prisoner. "B" Company, heading beyond them to the isolated village of Renkum, where they were to overlook the main Utrechtseweg road leading to Arnhem and so intercept any enemy moving eastwards, similarly shot up a lorry and took several more prisoners before establishing themselves in the brickworks.
The 7th King's Own Scottish Borderers, meanwhile, headed westwards to the isolated Ginkel Heath position, designated as DZ-Y for the 4th Parachute Brigade on the Second Lift. "A" Company established themselves on the Amsterdamseweg, the main road between the towns of Arnhem and Ede, and intercepted several vehicles carrying members of the S.S. Wach Battalion 3, largely consisting of Dutch S.S. volunteers who had been ordered to attack the landing zones. Most of these vehicles were badly shot up and the Germans suffered heavy casualties as a result; most of their reported twenty-five dead and sixty wounded having been accounted for by "A" Company. The remainder of the 7th KOSB dug in around the perimeter of the zone without incident.