Maps

A map of the Arnhem area, including drop zones

Pictures

Aerial shot of Arnhem Bridge and surrounding area. Taken on the morning of Sunday the 17th

The Pontoon and Road Bridges on the 6th September 1944

 

The men of the 1st Airborne Division had suffered a prolonged and intensely frustrating period of inactivity throughout 1944. Many were veterans of North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and they were eager to get back into the war, but events on the ground were moving so fast that it appeared that it would all be over before they got the chance. They had expected a prominent role in the Normandy landings, and so were not pleased to discover that the honour had instead been given to the newly-formed 6th Airborne Division.

 

During the three months following the invasion, no fewer than seventeen operations were planned for the 1st Airborne Division, all of which were aborted, usually because the ground forces had been advancing so swiftly that they had already captured and passed the intended objective ahead of the proposed D-Day. The constant preparation and subsequent abandonment of these operations had a severe impact upon the Division's morale. High calibre troops, trained and eager for front line fighting, were bound to lose their edge if left hanging around. There was also a general belief that the 1st Airborne Division were being held in reserve for the victory parade, leading its men to christen themselves the Stillborn Division. As a consequence, there was a great desire amongst all ranks, and indeed its commanders and their superiors, to be sent into any action anywhere, come what may. With the Arnhem operation, many potential perils were overlooked quite deliberately as no one wished to suffer the frustration of another cancellation. One soldier commented that it was usual for the planning phases of airborne operations to account for 75% of what might be encountered on the ground and the remaining 25% left to chance, but at Arnhem these figures were reversed.

 

 

The greatest weapon of the airborne soldier is surprise; the ability to strike without warning and seize objectives before the enemy has time to react. This surprise is essential, because if attacked by a large armoured enemy whilst en route to their objective, the lightly armed airborne troops can easily find themselves in difficulties without adequate artillery or armoured support to counter the threat. It is only when they have taken their objectives and established firm defensive positions that airborne soldiers are able use their excellent training to compete as equals against a numerically superior and better-equipped foe. Therefore the drop zones selected for airborne troops are usually directly alongside or no more than several miles from their objectives, enabling them to reach them as soon as possible. At Arnhem, however, the 1st Airborne Division's drop zones were between six and ten miles from the Bridge.

 

The main reason for this seemingly extraordinary decision was that there were no areas of land closer to the town that were at all suitable for a large-scale glider landing. In excess of six hundred gliders were to be used at Arnhem, carrying the 1st Airlanding Brigade and the Division's heavy equipment, such as Jeeps, artillery and anti-tank guns, and these needed a large expanse of firm and open ground to land upon. Despite their great distance from Arnhem, the landing zones did possess the advantages of being ideal for the purpose and easy to defend against enemy incursion whilst the vulnerable gliders were landing.

 

Paratroopers, however, can land anywhere; on the rooftops and in the streets of Arnhem itself, if necessary. There were plenty of areas closer to Arnhem that they could have used. One area in particular caught the eye of the Division's planners, an area of ground just over a mile to the south of the Bridge; even a small-scale landing here would have enabled the rapid capture of the Bridge which could then be held until the remainder of the Division arrived from their distant dropping points. The location of these zones, however, was a matter for the Royal Air Force and not the 1st Airborne Division, and Air Vice Marshal Hollinghurst, the commander of 38 Group, one of the air force formations which was to transport the Division into battle and supply it thereafter, refused to drop paratroopers any closer to Arnhem. His reasoning was that after the troops had been dropped, his aircraft could only begin the return to their bases by banking left, in a northerly direction; to have banked right would have led them into the path of the 82nd Airborne Division's aircraft returning from Nijmegen. If the aircraft approached too close to Arnhem, their return flight path would lead them directly over the top of a very large flak installation on the nearby Deelen Airfield, and to fly over this would result in severe losses which Transport Command could not afford. For this reason, the air force insisted on dropping all of the 1st Airborne Division roughly eight miles from Arnhem.

 

Worse was to come. The Allies did not have enough transport aircraft to fly thirty-five thousand airborne troops to Holland in a single airlift, and it was apparent that no less than three lifts would be required to carry all of the men and their equipment to their drop zones. The matter was further complicated by the fact that the first days of Market Garden would occur during a new Moon period, and so to avoid the inevitable shambles that would arise from dropping and assembling thousands of men in total darkness, the landings could only take place in broad daylight. All previous major airborne operations had taken place at night, with the aid of moonlight, but as the Allies enjoyed near complete air superiority in September 1944, the prospect of enemy aircraft attempting to interfere with the slow-moving and vulnerable transport aircraft was remote, and so a daylight drop was practicable.

 

Major-General Urquhart wanted two lifts to be flown per day, however, Major-General Williams, the commander of the American IX Troop Carrier Group, which would carry all the American airborne forces and the parachute elements of the 1st Airborne Division into battle, insisted that only one lift per day should be attempted, and his assessment was supported by Lieutenant-General Brereton, the commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army. To have flown two lifts per day would have placed an enormous strain on his air and ground crews, but it would likely also have necessitated a take-off before dawn and a return landing at night, and so Williams was perhaps more persuaded by the poor record of the ability of American aircrews to navigate in darkness; the drops in Sicily and Normandy saw paratroopers scattered many miles from their objectives, and in the case of Sicily, most gliders were ditched in the sea.

 

The 1st Airborne Division suffered further restrictions on the First Lift with fewer aircraft, four hundred and seventy-five, being allocated to their transport than the five hundred and twenty and five hundred and ninety given to the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions respectively. Much of this disproportion was as a result of the priorities of each Airborne Division; the 101st Airborne, landing at Eindhoven, took very little artillery with them on the First Lift as XXX Corps would soon be on hand to provide it, and so they gave absolute priority to taking as much infantry as possible on the first day to enable the smooth advance of the ground troops. The 1st Airborne Division were to be without any such support for at least two days, and so Major-General Urquhart decided to take the balance of his artillery in on the First Lift at the expense of additional infantry. In the event, this artillery was not especially required on the first day, and it has been said that if the guns of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment had been left to the Second Lift then almost all of the Division's infantry strength could have been taken to Arnhem on Sunday 17th September.

 

In addition, the Division had lost thirty-eight of its aircraft on the First Lift because of the need to transport 1st British Airborne Corps Headquarters into battle. Despite the fact that Corps HQ were to land at Nijmegen, alongside the 82nd Airborne Division, politics dictated that their inclusion with the First Lift should be to the detriment of the British troops of the 1st Airborne Division. The decision to commit the Headquarters to the Market Garden was dubious to say the least, as their ability to exercise control over three Divisions, fighting independent actions at great distances from each other, was particularly remote. The loss of these aircraft resulted in two companies of the 2nd South Staffordshires, approximately three hundred men, being left in England until the second day.

 

As a result of all of the above, only half of the 1st Airborne Division was to land on the first day, and less than half of these were able to advance on the Bridge because the remainder had to defend the drop zones for twenty-four hours until the Second Lift arrived. The chief weapon of the airborne troops is surprise, and surprise is impossible to maintain when they arrive over a period of three days and march a distance of eight miles to their objectives in the face of a now fully-alerted enemy. Before a shot had been fired, the fate of Market Garden was sealed. At the time, however, enemy resistance was still expected to be minimal, and with this in mind there was no cause for grave concern.