On the 6th June 1944, two Allied armies, one British and one American, landed on the Normandy beaches and secured a firm foothold in German-occupied Europe. They attempted to push the invasion inland, but the Germans reacted with determination and aggression, forcing them to battle for every inch of ground. Progress was slow and bloody, but after almost three months of fighting, the aim of gradually wearing down German manpower and materiel was showing signs of success. Following a co-ordinated offensive, in which the British 21st Army Group attacked in the east to draw in the German armoured reserves, the 12th US Army Group succeeded in breaking through the German line in the west on the 31st July. With the 1st Canadian and 2nd British Armies attacking them from the north, the Americans proceeded to encircle the German 7th Army from the south, trapping and cutting it to pieces in the Falaise Pocket. The Battle of Normandy had been won.
With their front line breached, the German forces under the command of Oberbefelshaber West fell back in disarray. The Allies took full advantage of this and closely followed the retreat, preventing the Germans from organising any new front line that could hope to contain their unbridled armies. After three months of slow and bitter fighting in Normandy, the Allies were surprised at the amount of territory that was now falling into their hands. At one point, their spearheads were advancing two hundred miles in a single week, and by the beginning of September, almost all of France and Belgium had been freed. In Holland, liberation was expected to come at any moment, and on the 5th September came "Mad Tuesday", a day when German panic reached its zenith, as wild rumour circulated and spoke of the imminent arrival of the 2nd British Army. But they did not come.
So unexpected had been the sudden German collapse that the supply lines of the Allied armies became stretched. Despite the vast amount of territory they had gained, the majority of the French ports in the English Channel remained in the hands of the German 15th Army, therefore the Allies could only land their supplies at Cherbourg and on the two temporary Mulberry Harbours off the Normandy beaches. Although air drops were a daily occurrence, most supplies were still delivered by truck; the railway system having previously been so successfully destroyed by Allied air power that it was now useless to them. At such a distance from the front line, proceeding along congested roads through heavily bombed towns, not enough supplies could be produced to maintain the advance at its current pace.
On the 4th September 1944, however, the British 11th Armoured Division captured the excellent Belgian port of Antwerp intact, a facility that could have solved all of these supply difficulties. Unfortunately the vast approaches to Antwerp were still in German hands, and so the port could not be used until the Scheldt Estuary had been cleared; which did not happen until late November. On that same day, 4th September, the 2nd British Army, only a few miles short of the border between Belgium and Holland, was forced to halt through a lack of supplies. It was a controversial decision which did not please Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks, the commander of XXX Corps, who were spearheading the British advance. Horrocks had his eyes on capturing a crossing over the River Rhine in Holland, the last remaining water obstacle between the Allies and Germany. There was very little opposition to block XXX Corps at the time, and with his tanks carrying a full load of fuel and the certainty of more working its way up to them, Horrocks felt sure that his men could have penetrated deep into Holland and secured a bridgehead across the Rhine before coming to a halt.
The Germans of Army Group B were therefore granted a little time to organise themselves. Numerous divisions had escaped from the chaos of Normandy, but they were now skeletal formations at a mere fraction of their full operation strength. To all eyes, including their own, the Germans were demoralised and beaten, but the speed and efficiency with which they were able to improvise a defensive position from these scant resources was a truly remarkable feat. On the 6th September, XXX Corps resumed its advance, but resistance ahead of them had considerably stiffened, and far from reaching the Rhine, it took them four days of hard fighting to advance the short distance to secure two bridgeheads across the Meuse-Escaut canal, a few miles from the Dutch border. The greatest success of this German reorganisation was the escape of the 15th Army, which had almost been cut off by the rapid British advance, but was subsequently allowed to slip away over the Scheldt Estuary and along the perilously narrow Beveland isthmus. XXX Corps were at fault for not detecting and closing this gap, which was immediately within their grasp, and as a result Army Group B were eventually able to salvage some eighty-two thousand men complete with their vehicles and artillery.
With no immediate hope of finding a solution to the critical supply situation, the Allied commanders considered a change in tactics. The Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, still wished to proceed with all of his forces advancing on a broad front, but with so few supplies this was simply impossible. Field Marshal Montgomery, commanding the 21st Army Group, of which the 2nd British Army was a part, felt that with Oberbefelshaber West in such disarray, priority of supplies should be given to a single army to enact a plan that would deal the enemy a decisive blow and quickly end the War.
Montgomery desperately tried to persuade Eisenhower to agree to a number of plans that he felt would achieve this, one of these was given the codename Operation Comet. The plan was to drop the elite 1st British Airborne Division, by parachute and glider, into Holland to capture the five key bridges in and around the towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. The 2nd British Army would then break through the German front line and advance the sixty-four miles to the River Rhine at Arnhem, properly securing each of the bridges as they went. Once the final bridge at Arnhem had been reached, there would be no more river obstacles standing between the 2nd British Army and Germany. Montgomery then wished to advance on Berlin and seize it from under the noses of the Russians, but with the great distances that this involved it was considered far too cavalier a move to be possible. Eisenhower, however, was persuaded of the merit of capturing the Dutch bridges and so gave his consent to Operation Comet. It was to have been launched on the 9th September, but Comet was cancelled shortly before take-off as it became apparent that it was asking too much of a single Division to capture and defend so many bridges over such an expanse of territory. It is widely accepted that if Comet had taken place then it would have been a complete disaster for all concerned.
The plan was not dead, however. Instead it was renamed Operation Market Garden, and the number of airborne troops involved was dramatically increased with the addition of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The plan was essentially the same, except that the bridges in the Eindhoven and Nijmegen areas became the responsibility of the 101st and 82nd Airborne respectively, allowing the 1st Airborne Division to concentrate on the bridges at Arnhem. At the moment that these troops began to land on their drop zones, the 2nd British Army, with XXX Corps in the lead, would then drive with all speed to Arnhem, linking up with the Airborne troops in turn.
It was estimated that the first British tanks would reinforce the 101st Airborne Division after only a few hours, whilst the 82nd Airborne would have to hold their objectives for a day or possibly two before help arrived. The 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, however, were expected to be on their own for two or three days before XXX Corps could relieve them. As their time in isolation was the longest, an extra force was assigned to Major-General Roy Urquhart and his ten-thousand strong 1st Airborne Division, in the form of one thousand five hundred men of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade Group, under the command of Major-General Stanislaw Sosabowski. Once all the bridges had been taken, it was planned to withdraw the two American divisions at the first opportunity, but the 1st Airborne Division were to remain in place to act in an ordnary infantry capacity.
Having reached Arnhem, XXX Corps were then to drive a further thirty miles northwards until they reached the Ijsselmeer sea inlet, thereby cutting Holland in two and trapping all the German forces to the west of Arnhem. What was to happen after this point had not been decided upon, though there were a number of possibilities. A general advance westwards, to the ports Antwerp and Rotterdam, the latter being a rumoured destination for the 1st Airborne Division, would have certainly put an end to the Allied supply difficulties, and a further incentive in this direction was the launching sites for the V2 rockets, which had just begun to unleash their terror on the residents of London. To the east of Arnhem, the prize seemed even brighter still. The heavily fortified four hundred mile long Siegfried Line could easily be outflanked here and, with this in mind, Montgomery still favoured an advance in the direction of Berlin. General Eisenhower also had his eye on the Siegfried Line, but with a view to capturing what lay immediately behind it; the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland. Success at Arnhem would enable the 2nd British Army to begin an encircling movement from the north whilst the 1st US Army did likewise from the south. If the Ruhr was captured, Germany's production capabilities would collapse and it was believed that the war would be over before the end of 1944.