XXX Corps

 

The challenge with which XXX Corps had been presented, of passing its entire strength along a single road through sixty-four miles of enemy-held territory, was, to say the least, complicated and hazardous. Field Marshal Montgomery had told General Dempsey, commander of the 2nd British Army, that his advance should be "rapid and violent, without regard to what is happening on the flanks." Despite this instruction, few people below the rank of Divisional commander seemed to appreciate this need for haste, and although they fought a hard and bloody battle all the way to the Rhine, XXX Corps nevertheless had a somewhat leisurely approach to Market Garden.

 

In the event, the state of the flanks did become important when, on Friday 22nd September, a German counterattack near Veghel, in the 101st Airborne Division's sector, successfully cut the single road for forty-eight hours, forcing Lieutenant-General Horrocks, already struggling with enemy counterattacks and the wide diffusion of his strength, to send armour back down the line to help re-open the road. Montgomery largely blamed the failure of the Operation on the lack of progress made by XII and, in particular, VIII Corps, who were ordered to protect the flanks of XXX Corps as they advanced. The progress of both of these was very slow and so the single road became extremely exposed to such attacks. It must be stressed, however, that the supplies Montgomery had asked for to fuel the advance of the 2nd British Army had only partially arrived, and both VIII and XII Corps experienced great difficulties in this regard. In addition it is important to note that German resistance on the flanks was equal to that encountered by XXX Corps, and both VIII and XII Corps sustained marginally higher losses.

 

When the 1st Airborne Division was withdrawn across the Rhine, several of its men were perhaps a little harsh to bitterly enquire of some of XXX Corps' personnel, "Did you have a nice drive up?", when they had, after all, been fighting hard and at great cost since Normandy. Even so, the lack of a significant thrust from the 2nd British Army had cost the Division dear, and indeed it is true to say that it did not help XXX Corps either, as their frequent, often unnecessary pause enabled the Germans ahead to firm up their defences.

 

The most notable example of this was on Wednesday 20th September, when Nijmegen Bridge had finally been captured and the Guards Armoured Division, after crossing, promptly came to a halt for the night to rest, refuel and rearm. When the advance resumed on the following morning, the defence at Arnhem Bridge had finally been broken, allowing scores of reinforcements to cross the Rhine and shore-up the German blocking line to the north of Nijmegen. The Guards suffered heavily as a result of this delay, and lacking the strength to continue the advance, Major-General Thomas and his 43rd (Wessex) Division took over. By Wednesday evening, however, their foremost troops were still south of Grave, and despite the desperate need of infantry at the head of the column, they were not given priority over all traffic moving on the single road. Due to a combination of unfortunate errors, congestion on the roads, and a painful lack of urgency, it was not until Friday morning that these leading troops began to cross the River Waal via the Railway Bridge.

 

Nijmegen

 

The failure of the 82nd Airborne Division to attach maximum importance to the early capture of Nijmegen Bridge was a fatal mistake. Lieutenant-General Browning specified to their commander, Brigadier-General Gavin, who gave his approval, that the 82nd Airborne's priorities were, first, the large area of high ground known as the Groesbeek Heights, second, the bridge over the River Maas at Grave, then three bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal, and finally Nijmegen Bridge. Gavin was ordered not to make any attempt to proceed towards Nijmegen until the Groesbeek Heights had been secured, though before the Operation was launched he had enough confidence in his Divisional plan to allow a single battalion to proceed towards the Bridge immediately after landing. The drop zones of these troops, however, were as far from their objective as were the British zones at Arnhem, and far from rushing the Bridge after landing, they waited for seven hours before leaving the Heights. By this time the resistance ahead of them had considerably stiffened and no headway could be made.

 

Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost, and others, have speculated that the Heights, thought to be of vital importance to Browning and Gavin, were in fact of no consequence at all as far as an Airborne operation was concerned. To an extent this is true; the priority of any airborne formation is the capture of its ultimate objectives, in this instance the bridges, and all other concerns are entirely secondary. It is unfair to imagine that the Groesbeek Heights were of no significance whatsoever, because they dominated the entire area, and there is no question that the position of the 82nd Airborne Division, not to mention the right flank of the 2nd British Army when it arrived, would be severely handicapped were this area to remain in enemy hands. Furthermore the majority of the Division's drop zones were on the Heights, and although there were numerous, admittedly less suitable, zones closer to Nijmegen, and on both sides of the River Waal, that should have been made use of, the 82nd Airborne Division were as restricted by the air planners, who favoured distant drop zones and reduced flak to ensure the safety of their aircraft, as were the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.

 

Even so it was a serious mistake to allocate such a low priority to Nijmegen Bridge. If the bridge had been taken in strength and with all speed, then it is possible that British tanks would have reached Arnhem Bridge before John Frost's defence finally collapsed. It made little sense to award the three canal bridges a higher priority, particularly because they all spanned the same waterway, and so it would be of little concern, as in fact occurred, if all but one of them were destroyed. Even if all of these bridges were denied to XXX Corps, it would not have been difficult to assemble a Bailey Bridge across the comparatively narrow banks of the canal. By contrast, Nijmegen Bridge was the only way across the 400-yard wide River Waal to Arnhem, and without its capture the 1st Airborne Division would be cut-off behind two very large rivers and thirteen miles of hostile territory.

 

The 82nd Airborne Division, however, certainly does not deserve any particular criticism for this as their priorities appear to be a further product of the blind optimism that dogged Operation Market Garden, of which everyone involved was guilty. At Nijmegen, as with everywhere else, the assumption was that resistance would be light and so the main concern of the airborne units was to make the advance of the ground forces as rapid and as uncomplicated as possible, instead of devoting all their attention to primary objectives. Furthermore, it should be understood that the 82nd Airborne Division had by far the most complicated plan of any of the Airborne units involved with Market Garden, their troops being required to capture numerous objectives over a considerable expanse of terrain.

 

1st British Airborne Corps HQ

 

The decision to commit 1st British Airborne Corps Headquarters to the battle is a highly questionable one. Despite the fact that they landed at Nijmegen, alongside the 82nd Airborne Division, politics demanded that the 1st Airborne Division consequently lost thirty-eight gliders from its First Lift, and as such only half of the 2nd South Staffordshires were brought in on the first day.

 

All of the Airborne Divisions involved were operating independently and at great distance from the other, therefore they had no need of a higher command structure to co-ordinate their efforts. During the initial stages of an operation, a commander should have very little to do because his troops are acting on their pre-arranged orders, and it is only later that decisions need to be made. Thus the purpose of Corps HQ is yet more of a mystery, because as the ground forces advanced and linked up with the airborne troops, they came under the command of XXX Corps. As the 101st Airborne Division were estimated to be relieved in just a few hours, and the 82nd after a day or possibly two, the time in which Lieutenant-General Browning could exercise any control over the battlefield was extremely small.

 

It would seem likely that Corps HQ was deployed for theoretical, rather than tactical reasons. Ever since Normandy, there had been a growing desire to see several of the Divisions of the 1st Allied Airborne Army employed in a co-ordinated action under just such a Headquarters, and so Market Garden, however unsuitable, was perhaps seized upon as an opportunity to test it. The reality of the matter is that there was no need for Corps HQ to actively participate in the battle at all, in fact, if they had stayed at their Headquarters in England, with its superior communications, they would have been far better placed to direct what little of the battle was under their control.

 

Communications

 

Despite all of these mistakes, the Battle of Arnhem may still have had a successful outcome if only the radios had functioned correctly. If this had been the case, the 1st Parachute Brigade could not only have better co-ordinated its advance into Arnhem on Sunday 17th and Monday 18th September, but also it could have requested an early dispatch of reinforcements from Divisional HQ when they realised the difficulties that they were in. Instead they had to wait until those back on the drop zone grew concerned over the lack of news and sent these reinforcements, in piece-meal formation, aimlessly in the direction of battle.

 

The 1st Parachute Brigade, meanwhile, had to grope its way forward, in the dark as it were. At one point, when a co-ordinated attack in the Arnhem area was desirable, both the 1st and 3rd Battalions passed within several hundred yards of each other and did not realise it. The early stages of the battle are littered with accounts of small pockets of men, fighting their own private actions without really knowing where they were or who was around them. In this way it was simple for the German delaying tactics, of patrols, snipers and machine-gun outposts, to slow up small parties of men in skirmishes and so gradually fragment the battalions, resulting in the capture of much of their strength.

 

With the gravity of the situation still unclear, the 4th Parachute Brigade committed itself to an advance on Tuesday 19th September which, had the communications been working, would likely have been abandoned as a futile effort. At the very least, the 156th Battalion, after losing "A" Company during the action on the Dreijenseweg, would not have sent "B" Company to the same fate, having believed that all ahead had gone well. It was not until units gathered in firm, static defensive positions, either at Arnhem Bridge or in the Oosterbeek Perimeter, when radio communications were barely essential, that the Division could put an end to this wasteful sacrifice of its infantry.

 

Communication with units outside of Arnhem were even worse during the early stages of the battle. Major-General Urquhart was not able to contact 1st British Airborne Corps Headquarters at Nijmegen, and many days passed before the outside world began to appreciate just how serious the situation was for the 1st Airborne Division. As a result of this imposed silence, the Second Lift could not be warned that all was not going well, nor could XXX Corps be urged to press on with all speed. It was not until Thursday 21st September that the Division was able to establish its only reliable link with the ground forces, via the gunners of the 64th Medium Regiment.

 

Perhaps the most tragic loss was that of air support. The brilliant British fighter-bombers of the 2nd Tactical Air Force could have brought down decisive fire upon formations of German troops and armour, yet they could not be contacted because the Very High Frequency sets, carried by the American 306th Fighter Control Squadron, the Division's only link with air support, had been tuned to a different frequency to that of the aircraft. Efforts were made to retune the sets, but very soon all were put out of action by mortar fire. The fighters circling overhead could not seek and destroy enemy targets on their own initiative as they were under strict orders to await requests for specific support actions from observers on the ground. In many cases, this is a sound principal as there is no easily recognisable front line in an airborne operation to distinguish friend and foe, and also airborne troops had a habit of commandeering enemy vehicles and so would risk becoming targets themselves. The flaw in this system was exposed at Arnhem, and so it was that the crucial air superiority of the Allies, which had been gained after years of struggle and thousands of lives, could not be brought to bear. A little air support was forthcoming during the final stages of the battle, but it could only be requested by the most cumbersome of methods. First the unit asking for support would have to contact Divisional Headquarters, who would then contact the 64th Medium Regiment, the Division's only reliable radio link with the outside world. The Regiment then passed on the request to 1st British Airborne Corps HQ at Nijmegen, who in turn relayed it to the 2nd British Army, who then informed the 2nd Tactical Air Force who, at last, passed on the necessary details to 83 Group RAF.

 

Breakdowns in radio communications, in both airborne and ground formations, was certainly nothing new. The 1st Airborne Divisional Signals had long noted the fragility of their system and had made numerous requests to the Airborne hierarchy for more of the powerful Type 19 sets to be issued. Permission was refused on the basis that nobody had previously imagined that an airborne operation would take place within a "goose-egg" that exceeded five miles, which was well within the range of the Type 22 sets used throughout the Division. Both of these sets, however, were so heavy that they could only be carried by a Jeep, and so to have taken more Type 19 sets into battle would have required additional gliders, which, as had been all too clearly demonstrated, were a rare commodity.