The Market Garden plan, although riddled with risk, was a perfectly reasonable operation to have attempted at the time. The German Army had been heavily defeated in Normandy, and their chaotic retreat through France and Belgium encouraged the belief that they would collapse under just one more hammer blow. As such there seemed to be no obvious reason why such a cavalier venture should not be carried forward to a successful conclusion. The paratroopers were expected to face only minimal opposition around the bridges, and although the German defences on the front line were strong, they were believed to be paper-thin, and so once the British tanks had broken through there would be little to hinder their progress towards Arnhem.
If any one factor can be singled out as to why Market Garden failed, then it is this over-optimistic attitude that the Germans were already beaten. The pencil-like thrust of the ground forces to Arnhem, the distant location of the drop zones, the subsequent plan to encircle the Ruhr: all of these were only possible if resistance crumbled upon first impact. It was a very dangerous supposition; those soldiers who had previous experience of fighting the Germans knew that they could react with speed and violence when on the brink of defeat. Many of the reasons for the failure of the Operation can be attributed to this buoyant outlook blinding the Allies to the dangers.
The Drop Zones
At Arnhem, the Operation was doomed from the outset because of the poor air plan. Due to a shortage of transport aircraft, the 1st Airborne Division lost its chief weapon of surprise through being flown to distant drop zones over a period of three days. It has been argued that, with enough high-level pressure applied, the necessary quantities of aircraft could have been found to have carried at least the majority of the 1st Airborne Division to battle in a single lift. Whether this was possible is open to speculation, but it is also hindsight and perhaps fails to take into account that the Operation had only seven days from concept to launch, and so such restructuring at short-notice was unlikely.
Lieutenant-General Brereton, the commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, supported the view of Major-General Williams, the commander of IX Troop Carrier Command, that only one lift should be made each day. All but one of the previous airborne operations had taken place at night, and all with the benefit of moonlight to aid the troops as they landed and formed up, something that the heavens denied to the Allies during the first days of Operation Market Garden. It must also be stated that the majority of the transport aircraft involved in Market Garden were American, and although their crews had since made great strides in their training, the memories of the disastrous, scattered drops of Sicily and Normandy were still fresh in the minds of the Allied commanders. A large-scale landing at night, therefore, was not feasible.
It was, however, perfectly possible that the First Lift could have taken place early in the morning of the 17th September, the Second during the evening, and the Third on the following morning. At such distances from their home bases in England, this would have undoubtedly placed a great strain upon the air and ground crews, yet if it had been done it would have transformed the situation at Arnhem. Air Vice Marshal Hollinghurst, the commander of 38 Group, was prepared to commit the British aircraft to just such a timetable, however Major-General Williams refused to allow his American squadrons to fly more than one lift per day. Although he had a great deal of aircraft at his disposal, Williams had not received a proportionate quantity of ground crew to service them, and so it was unlikely that the Americans could maintain the pace if, as was incorrectly expected, aircraft losses would be severe. Had there been a determined effort, it is more than likely that the crews could have been borrowed from other sources for the duration of the initial airlift phase, and if not then there was no reason why the British should have been prevented from making a second lift to Arnhem by themselves. Brereton, however, was persuaded by the advice of Williams and decided only one lift per day would be flown for each division.
Being lightly armed as they are, airborne troops rely on speed and surprise to achieve their objectives, and so this leisurely reinforcement was a fatal error. The great handicap of the 1st Airborne Division on the first day was that only the 1st Parachute Brigade could advance into the town, whilst the remainder had to guard the drop zones for the Second Lift. If all of the Division had arrived by the end of the first day, it is difficult to see how any hastily improvised German blocking lines could have denied them passage. If nothing else had been learned from Arnhem, it at least prompted the air planners to adopt the maxim of "everyone in at once or not at all" when, on the 24th March 1945, the 6th British and 17th US Airborne Divisions were dropped at almost full strength, in a single lift, and successfully secured a crossing over the Rhine.
Air Vice Marshal Hollinghurst, commander of 38 Group, decided upon the distant location of the drop zones, and despite requests from the 1st Airborne Division, he refused to land troops closer to Arnhem. His reasoning was that the closer his aircraft came to Arnhem, the closer they would come to the large anti-aircraft emplacements, which in the event were not in place, at Deelen Airfield. With Transport Command under severe pressure at that stage in the War, ferrying supplies to the front line and bringing back casualties to British hospitals, Hollinghurst, understandably, did not wish to lose any more aircraft than was necessary. The decision, however, ought not have been his to make as it was surely be the job of the air planners to orientate their plan around the requirements of the Airborne troops, not what was most convenient for the Air Forces. The Airborne movement was, however, in its infancy at the time and many errors of judgement, which today seem obvious, were not so clear to its pioneers during the Second World War. Brigadier Hackett describes the planners: "The airborne movement was very naive. It was very good on getting airborne troops to battle, but they were innocents when it came to fighting the Germans when we arrived. They used to make a beautiful airborne plan and then added the fighting-the-Germans bit afterwards."
A further oddity in the air plan was the location of the 4th Parachute Brigade's zone of DZ-Y, which was ten miles away from Arnhem, even further than the landings of the First Lift. The zones used on previous day were either overcrowded with gliders or due to be used for the landings of the Second Lift, yet it is peculiar that paratroopers, who can after all land on almost any terrain, were instead ordered to this distant spot. The only strategic benefit that occurs is that once the paratroopers had formed up and were ready to advance, their vehicles and anti-tank guns, landing on the closer landing zones, should have been unloaded and ready for use by the time they rendezvoused with them. It is to be wondered whether or not LZ-L, two miles to the east of Wolfheze, might not have been a more sensible location for their drop. The Polish gliders that were to land here on the third day would have been no more hindered by the discarded parachutes than were those gliders that landed on the 1st Parachute Brigade's drop zone with the Second Lift. Furthermore, the 7th King's Own Scottish Borderers, who, in order to protect DZ-Y, were the only unit that had to march in the opposite direction from their ultimate destination, then had to proceed to secure this same zone for the arrival of the Poles.
Due to the lie of the land, it was quite impossible for large-scale glider landings to have taken place any closer to Arnhem. Paratroopers, however, could have been dropped in a number of places. The area of open-ground only a mile to the south of the Bridge, which was to be used by the Polish Brigade on the Third Lift, caught the eye of the Division's planners, but their request to land a coup-de-main force of parachutists, to seize the Bridge in advance of the rest of the Division, was turned down by the RAF due to fears of heavy flak. This refusal placed the Operation in jeopardy because it took seven hours, from the moment of the first landings, for the 2nd Battalion to reach the Bridge on foot, and it was only sheer luck that the Germans did not have the good sense to destroy it in the meantime. Major-General Richard Gale, the experienced commander of the 6th Airborne Division, recently returned from Normandy, was briefly consulted by Lt-General Browning during the planning for Market Garden. He was adamant that at least one parachute brigade should have been dropped alongside the Bridge to hold it until the remainder of the Division arrived. He added that, had he been in command at Arnhem, he would have persisted with this demand to the point of resignation.
A further oversight, as regards a coup-de-main force, was made with the Railway Bridge. The Bridge was destroyed before the 2nd Battalion could capture it, yet it could very possibly have been seized intact had a small number of parachutists or glider-borne troops landed in the vicinity. Instead, as with Arnhem Bridge, the insistence of dropping the Division eight miles from Arnhem gave the Germans plenty of time to ready it for demolition. The successful capture of the Railway Bridge would have been a tremendous asset when XXX Corps arrived as it could easily support the weight of a tank, not to mention the Polish Brigade who, in the event, spent several days desperately trying to enact a crossing.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to generate alternative plans as to how the Arnhem drops ought to have been handled, but many of these should be dismissed as having been formed with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that there was a large number of German troops in the vicinity. One superior and quite logical plan, however, was presented by John Frost in his book, "A Drop Too Many". He regarded it as absurd to be ordered to capture a bridge without landing troops on both sides of the River, but he felt that the restrictions imposed on the locations of the Division's drop zones for the first day were unavoidable. Frost notes, however, that the Polish Brigade was to land on the area of land only a mile south to the bridge on the third day, and if this area was suitable for the Poles then it was equally suitable for the 4th Parachute Brigade on the Second Lift. Had they been dropped here, Frost states that the 1st Airlanding Brigade would not have had to guard the drop zones overnight and so all of the units that had landed on the first day would be free to advance on Arnhem Bridge. And if the Bridge had not been taken by the end of that day, then at least the following day would have seen a large force landing on the opposite side of the River to assist, at a time when German opposition in that area was slight. Frost's plan, however, fails to allow for the fact that the 1st Airlanding Brigade still had to defend the zones for the glider lift, only about half of which arrived on the first day, unless of course he intended that those that could not arrive on the first day did not arrive at all, but instead, as happened in Normandy, had to rejoin the Division via the ground route, several days later.