AN AIRBORNE CARPET IN THE NORTH
A maxim of war is that you reinforce success. In early September of 1944, the problem was not to find a success but to choose among many. The very nature of General Eisenhower's strategic reserve narrowed the choice. His reserve was not conventional but airborne.
In anticipation of an opportunity to use this latent strength, General Eisenhower as early as mid-July had solicited his planners to prepare an airborne plan marked by "imagination and daring." Spurred by this directive and the glittering successes of the breakout and pursuit, the planning staffs had begun almost to mass produce blueprints for airborne operations. By mid-August creation of a combined Allied airborne headquarters controlling most of the airborne troops and much of the troop carrier strength in the theater had implemented the planning. This headquarters was the First Allied Airborne Army.1 General Eisenhower's desire for a suitable occasion to employ the army was heightened by the fact that the U.S. Chief of Staff, General Marshall, and General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, wanted to see what a large-scale airborne attack could accomplish deep in enemy territory.2
By the time the first Allied patrols neared the German border, eighteen separate airborne plans had been considered. Five had reached the stage of detailed planning. Three had progressed almost to the point of launching. But none had matured. The fledgling plans embraced a variety of objectives: the city of Tournai, to block Germans retreating from the Channel coast; the vicinity of Liège, to get the First Army across the Meuse River; the Aachen-Maastricht gap, to get Allied troops through the West Wall. In most cases fast-moving ground troops were about to overrun the objectives before an airborne force could be thrown in.3
No matter that circumstances had denied an immediate commitment of SHAEF's strategic reserve; the maxim of reinforcing success was nonetheless valid. Indeed, each day of fading summer and continued advance heightened desire for early use of the airborne troops. The paratroopers and glidermen resting and training in England became, in effect, coins burning holes in SHAEF's pocket. This is not to say that SHAEF intended to spend the airborne troops rashly but that SHAEF had decided on the advisa-
bility of buying an airborne product and was looking about for the right occasion. Even the Germans believed an airborne attack imminent, although they had no fixed idea where.4
The fact that a sensitive ear might have detected portentous sputterings as the Allied war machine neared the German border did little or nothing to lessen interest in an airborne operation. Except in the case of General Bradley, who was reluctant to relinquish the support of troop carrier aircraft flying supply missions, the signs that the pursuit might be nearing an end heightened the desire to use the airborne troops.5 Both General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery began to look to the airborne forces for the extra push needed to get the Allies across the Rhine River before the logistical situation should force a halt and enable the Germans to recoup behind the Rhine.
Most of the airborne plans considered in the last days of August and in early September focused upon getting some part of the Allied armies across the Rhine. Among these was Operation COMET, a plan to seize river crossings in the Netherlands near Arnhem along the projected axis of the Second British Army. COMET still was on the drawing boards when concern mounted that the one and a half airborne divisions allotted for the job would be insufficient. On 10 September COMET was canceled.
Though canceled, COMET was not abandoned. On the day of cancellation, 10 September, Field Marshal Montgomery approached General Eisenhower with another proposal that was in effect a strengthening of COMET. After General Eisenhower had endorsed it, this plan looked like the real thing.
The new plan was labeled Operation MARKET. Three and a half airborne divisions were to drop in the vicinity of Grave, Nijmegen, and Arnhem to seize bridges over several canals and the Maas, Waal (Rhine), and Neder Rijn Rivers. They were to open a corridor more than fifty miles long leading from Eindhoven northward. As soon as an adequate landing field could be secured, an air portable division was to be flown in as reinforcement.
In a companion piece named Operation GARDEN, ground troops of the Second British Army were to push from the Dutch-Belgian border to the IJsselmeer (Zuider Zee), a total distance of ninety-nine miles. The main effort of the ground attack was to be made by the 30 Corps from a bridgehead across the Meuse-Escaut Canal a few miles south of Eindhoven on the Dutch-Belgian frontier. (See Map 1.) On either flank the 8 and 12 Corps were to launch supporting attacks.
Operation MARKET-GARDEN had two major objectives: to get Allied troops across the Rhine and to capture the Ruhr. Three major advantages were expected to accrue: (1) cutting the land exit of those Germans remaining in western Holland; (2) outflanking the West Wall, and (3) positioning British ground forces for a subsequent drive into Germany along the North German Plain.6
Although the proposed operation prompted some objections at 12th Army Group, at First Allied Airborne Army, and even among some members of Field Marshal Montgomery's staff, it conformed to General Arnold's recommendation for an operation some distance behind the enemy's forward positions and beyond the area where enemy reserves normally were located; it afforded an opportunity for using the long-idle airborne resources; it was in accord with Montgomery's desire for a thrust across the Rhine, while the enemy was disorganized; and it appeared to General Eisenhower to be the boldest and best move the Allies could make at the moment. At the least, General Eisenhower thought the operation would strengthen the 21 Army Group in its later fight to clear the Schelde estuary and open the port of Antwerp to Allied shipping. Field Marshal Montgomery examined the objections that the proposed route of advance "Involved the additional obstacle of the Lower Rhine (Neder Rijn) as compared with more easterly approaches, and would carry us to an area relatively remote from the Ruhr." He considered these to be overridden by the fact that the operation would outflank the West Wall, would be on a line which the enemy would consider least likely for the Allies to use, and would be within easy range of Allied airborne forces located in England.7
Operation MARKET-GARDEN was nothing if not daring. It was particularly so in light of a logistical situation that, at best, was strained and in light of the unpredictable nature of the weather in northwestern Europe at this season. Set against these factors was the climate of opinion that pervaded most Allied headquarters during early September. This was the same optimistic period when the First Army was preparing to dash through the West Wall in a quick drive to the Rhine. Not until the day Operation MARKET began was the First Army to experience any particular trouble in the West Wall; even then it would have been hard to convince most Allied commanders that this rugged countenance the Germans had begun to exhibit was anything more than a mask.
Fairly typical of the Allied point of view was SHAEF's estimate of the situation a week before the airborne attack. The SHAEF G-2 estimated enemy strength throughout the West at 48 divisions with a true equivalent of 20 infantry and 4 armored divisions. Four days before the airborne attack the 1st British Airborne Corps calculated that the Germans in the Netherlands had few infantry reserves and a total armored strength of not more than fifty to one hundred tanks. While numerous signs pointed to German reinforcements of river and canal lines near Arnhem and Nijmegen, the British believed the troops manning them were few and of a "low category." Thinking back after the operation was over, the 1st British Airborne Division recalled, "It was thought the enemy must still be disorganized after his long and hasty retreat from south of the River Seine and that though there might be numerous small bodies of enemy in the area, he would not be capable of organized resistance to any great extent."8.
This is not to say that warning notes were not struck. By 10 September, the day when General Eisenhower approved the operation, the British had remarked that "Dutch Resistance sources report that battered panzer formations have been sent to Holland to refit, and mention Eindhoven and Nijmegen as the reception areas."9 A few days later the SHAEF G-2 announced that these panzer formations were the 9th SS Panzer Division and presumably the 10th SS Panzer Division. They probably were to be reequipped with new tanks from a depot reported "in the area of Cleves [Kleve]," a few miles across the German frontier from Nijmegen and Arnhem.10
News of these two German armored divisions near Arnhem caused particular concern to General Eisenhower's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Walter B. Smith. Believing strongly that the Allies would have to employ not one but two airborne divisions at Arnhem if they were to counter the German armor, General Smith obtained the Supreme Commander's permission to go to Field Marshal Montgomery with a warning. Either they should "drop the equivalent of a second division in the Arnhem area" or change the plan and move one of the American divisions, scheduled to drop farther south, up to Arnhem. But, General Smith recalled after the war, "Montgomery "ridiculed the idea" and "waved my objections airily aside."11
The likelihood of encountering enemy armor in the vicinity of the drop zones obviously was of serious concern to airborne commanders, particularly in view of the fifty-mile dispersion, of the airborne drop. American commanders, whose troops possessed even less in the way of antitank weapons than did British airborne troops, were especially perturbed.12 There were other disturbing signs. Stiffening resistance around the British bridgehead across the Meuse-Escaut Canal did not go unremarked.13 The G-2 of the 82d U.S. Airborne Division noted further, "A captured document indicates that the degree of control exercised over the regrouping and collecting of the apparently scattered remnants of a beaten army [was] little short of remarkable. Furthermore, the fighting capacity of the new Battle Groups formed from the remnants of battered divisions seems unimpaired."14
Despite these warnings, the general view appeared to be as recounted after the operation by the British Airborne Corps. This was that "once the crust of resistance in the front line had been broken, the
German Army would be unable to concentrate any other troops in sufficient strength to stop the breakthrough." Although the 30 British Corps would have to advance ninety-nine miles, leading units "might reach the Zuider Zee between 2-5 days after crossing the Belgian-Dutch frontier."15
Had MARKET-GARDEN been scheduled two weeks earlier than it was, the Allies would have found the German situation in the Netherlands much as they predicted. For not until 4 September, when news of the fall of Antwerp had jolted Hitler into dispatching General Student and headquarters of the First Parachute Army to the Dutch-Belgian border, was cohesion of any description introduced into German defenses along this "door to northwestern Germany." General Student had at first but one corps, the LXXXVIII Corps under General der Infanterie Hans Reinhard, and one division, the 719th Infantry Division under Generalleutnant Karl Sievers. The corps headquarters General Student had borrowed from the neighboring Fifteenth Army. (See Map I.) The division was a "fortress" division that had been guarding the coast of the Netherlands since 1940.
Though at full strength, this one division was scarcely sufficient to cover the entire corps front, a fifty-mile stretch along the Albert Canal from Antwerp southeast to Hasselt. General Reinhard therefore concentrated the bulk of the 719th Division in the west near Antwerp where he expected the main British attack. A drive north from Antwerp was logical, for by continuing in this direction the British might seal off the island of Walcheren and the peninsula of South Beveland from the Dutch mainland. This appeared expedient; for even though seizure of Antwerp had trapped the German Fifteenth Army against the coast the bulk of that army yet might escape across the Schelde estuary to Walcheren and South Beveland and thence to the mainland. If the British corked up these two promontories, they might annihilate the Fifteenth Army at will and in so doing clear the seaward approaches to Antwerp, without which the port was useless.16
General Reinhard hardly could have anticipated that Field Marshal Montgomery was so intent on getting a bridgehead across the Rhine that he would turn his drive northeastward toward the left wing of the LXXXVIII Corps in the direction of Eindhoven. From a local viewpoint, the reorientation of the British drive meant that the 719th Division's Albert Canal line would be hit along its weak eastern extension.
Prospects for averting a major breakthrough across the Albert toward Eindhoven were dark, when from an unexpected source came assistance. It
emerged in the form of an audacious and prescient commander, Generalleutnant Kurt Chill. Retreating from the debacle in France with remnants of his own 85th Infantry Division and two others, General Chill had received orders to assemble his survivors in the Rhineland. Soon thereafter, General Chill perceived the critical situation along the Albert Canal. Acting with independence and dispatch, he postponed his withdrawal in order to set up straggler rallying points along the canal. By nightfall of 4 September General Chill had caught in his net a conglomeration of Navy, Luftwaffe, and military government troops and men from almost every conceivable branch of the Wehrmacht. A crazy-quilt mob—but General Chill managed in a matter of hours to fashion a fairly presentable defense that was sufficient to repulse the first minor British probes toward the canal.
On 6 September General Chill reported to General Reinhard to subordinate his Kampfgruppe Chill to the LXXXVIII Corps. General Reinhard must have embraced the reinforcement with delight; for on this same day the British had penetrated the extended outposts of the 719th Division to force a bridgehead over the Albert at Beeringen. (This was one of the bridgeheads subsequently employed by General Corlett's XIX U.S. Corps to get across the canal.) To General Chill fell the problem of containing the bridgehead.
For all the danger inherent in the Beeringen bridgehead, the First Parachute Army commander, General Student, could take satisfaction in the fact that tangible subordinate units now were controlling the bulk of his front from Antwerp to Hasselt. Only on the extreme eastern wing near Maastricht was there an out-and-out gap, and this he was to fill the next day, 7 September, with the 176th Division under Colonel Landau. (This was the division which subsequently opposed the left wing of General Corlett's XIX Corps.)
During the next fortnight, some of General Student's own parachute troops began to arrive in the army sector. Having been either rehabilitated or newly constituted, these units included five new parachute regiments, a new parachute antitank battalion, about 5,000 service troops, a battalion of the 2d Parachute Regiment, and another formation with a noble record, the 6th Parachute Regiment. Under command of Lt. Col. Friedrich-August Freiherr von der Heydte, the 6th Parachute Regiment had acquitted itself admirably enough in Normandy to attain the prestige, if not the strength, of a division. The regiment had been reconstituted to a strength considerably in excess of a normal parachute regiment.17
General Student threw in the bulk of his parachute troops against the British bridgehead at Beeringen. First he committed one of the newly constituted parachute regiments, the battalion of the 2d Parachute Regiment, and the entire 6th Parachute Regiment, all organized into a Kampfgruppe that took its name from the commander, Colonel Walther.18 Next General Student threw in three of his remaining new parachute regiments, organized into Parachute Training Division
Erdmann under Student's chief of staff, Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann.19
These units were responsible for the stiffening German resistance noted along the Dutch-Belgian border. Yet the end result was merely to weaken the German paratroopers on the very eve of MARKET-GARDEN. By mid-September the British had defeated every effort to repulse them at Beeringen and had pressed forward an additional twenty miles to throw two bridgeheads across the Meuse-Escaut Canal. The main bridgehead was at De Groote Barrier on the road to Eindhoven. There the British paused to await their role in MARKET-GARDEN.
From west to east the First Parachute Army was lined up in this order of battle: From Antwerp to the juncture of the Albert and Meuse-Escaut Canals was General Sievers' 719th Division. Opposing the two British bridgeheads beyond the Meuse-Escaut were Kampfgruppe Chill and Kampfgruppe Walther, the latter with at least two battalions of Colonel von der Heydte's 6th Parachute Regiment still on hand. All these troops were under General Reinhard's LXXXVIII Corps. From the bridgehead on the Eindhoven highway east to the boundary with the Seventh Army near Maastricht were the two divisions under General Student's direct control, Division Erdmann and the 176th Division.
In the meantime, the trapped Fifteenth Army under General der Infanterie Gustav von Zangen had been taking advantage of the reorientation of the British drive. Leaving some units to hold the south bank of the Schelde, Zangen began to ferry the bulk of his army across the estuary. Divisions released by this movement he assembled behind the western wing of the First Parachute Army.
The first of these divisions was the 245th Infantry, a collection of chaff that even a mild wind might blow away. On 16 September this division was transferred to the First Parachute Army's LXXXVIII Corps and utilized by General Reinhard to back up the line in rear of Kampfgruppe Chill.
The second was the 59th Infantry Division under Generalleutnant Walter Poppe, which was in transit to the First Parachute Army's sector just as the Allied airborne landings occurred. General Poppe still had about a thousand good infantrymen and a few engineers, a field replacement battalion, eighteen antitank guns, and about thirty 105- and 150-mm. howitzers.20
Both the First Parachute Army and the Fifteenth Army were subordinate to Field Marshal Model's Army Group B, the same headquarters which controlled General Brandenberger's Seventh Army at Aachen. In addition, Field Marshal Model exercised tactical control over forces of the Armed Forces Command Netherlands, a headquarters not appreciably unlike that of a U.S. communications zone. Specifically, an armed forces commander was the highest military commander in occupied territories (like Norway or the Netherlands), which were governed by a civilian (Nazi party) Reich commissioner (Reichskommissar). His duties were to represent the interests of the Wehrmacht with the civilian administration, to safeguard the administration, to guard military installations such as railways, roads, and supply dumps, and to
co-ordinate the needs of individual branches of the Wehrmacht in his territory. In the Netherlands this post had been held since 1940 by the senior Luftwaffe officer, General der Flieger Friedrich Christiansen.21
Even though the First Parachute Army and part of the Fifteenth Army had moved into the Netherlands, General Christiansen's Armed Forces Command Netherlands on the eve of MARKET-GARDEN still was charged with considerable responsibility. Much as U.S. forces draw army rear boundaries delineating responsibility between the armies and the communications zone, the Germans had drawn a line across the rear of their two armies in the Netherlands. General Christiansen still was charged with defending all territory north of that line, which followed generally the Maas and Waal Rivers. Because MARKET-GARDEN involved a penetration deep into the enemy rear areas, Christiansen and his troops would be embroiled in the fighting much as would the field armies.
Through events culminating in departure of the 719th Division for the Dutch-Belgian border, General Christiansen had lost to the active fighting commands all of three divisions which originally he had possessed for defense of the Netherlands. As mid-September approached, he had left only a miscellany of regional defense and housekeeping troops of all four services: Army, Navy, Luftwaffe, and Waffen-SS.22
Because the Allied landing zones at Nijmegen and Arnhem were but a few miles from the German border, troops and headquarters of another of the enemy's rear echelon formations also might become involved. This headquarters was Wehrkreis VI. Similar in some respects to the corps areas into which the United States was divided before the war, the German Wehrkreise were, in effect, military districts. The headquarters of these districts were administrative commands responsible for training replacements, organizing new units, and channeling matériel. Adjacent to the corridor the Allies planned to seize in the Netherlands, Wehrkreis VI embraced almost the whole of the province of Westphalia and parts of three other provinces. During the course of the war, Wehrkreis VI had activated numerous divisions and, as the war in the West had taken a turn for the worse, had relinquished as combat divisions even its replacement training units, the very framework about which the replacement system functioned. In mid-September the only major headquarters remaining in Wehrkreis VI was an administrative unit. This too had to go into the line to occupy the West Wall north of Aachen as the 406th (Landesschuetzen) Division.
Upon reaching the front, the 406th Division came under an ad hoc corps staff headed by General der Kavallerie Kurt Feldt, formerly Military Governor for Southwest France (Militaerbefehlshaber Suedwestfrankreich) until the inexorable
march of events had dethroned him. In recognition of the provisional nature of the command, General Feldt's corps became known not by numerical designation but as Corps Feldt. Except for the 406th Division, General Feldt had only a smattering of armored replacement units. Within his lone division the troops represented the very last reserve Wehrkreis VI possibly could muster: various Alarmeinheiten (emergency alert units), numerous "car" and "stomach" battalions, and several Luftwaffe battalions formed from Luftwaffe noncommissioned officer training schools.
The Allied airborne attack under normal circumstances might have encountered only a portion of the First Parachute Army, those two divisions of the Fifteenth Army which by mid-September had escaped across the Schelde, and those scratch rear echelon formations of Armed Forces Commander Netherlands and Wehrkreis VI. But as luck would have it, Field Marshal Model late on 3 September had issued an order that was destined to alter markedly the German strength in the immediate vicinity of the Allied landing zones. On 3 September the Army Group B commander had directed that the Fifth Panzer Army, retreating in disorder from France, release the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions to move to the vicinity of Arnhem for rehabilitation.23
Two days later Model ordered that headquarters of the II SS Panzer Corps under SS-Obergruppenfuehrer und General der Waffen-SS Willi Bittrich also move to the vicinity of Arnhem. General Bittrich was to direct rehabilitation of the 9th SS Panzer Division and two panzer divisions (the 2d and 116th), which were to move to the Netherlands whenever they could disengage from combat under General Brandenberger's Seventh Army.24
In failing to include the 10th SS Panzer Division in the charge to General Bittrich, Model apparently had in mind another order which he issued formally four days later on 9 September. He instructed the 10th SS Panzer Division to continue past Arnhem into Germany for rehabilitation presumably more thorough than could be accomplished near Arnhem. At the same time, Model altered General Bittrich's orders in regard to the 9th SS Panzer Division. Seeing the threat to Aachen posed by continuing advance of the First U.S. Army, Model instructed the 9th SS Panzer to prepare to move against this threat.25
Unfortunately for the Allies, only minor elements of either of these SS divisions had begun to move away when the first Allied parachutists landed unsuspectingly within half a day's march from their assembly areas. Field Marshal Model thus had a ready reserve with which to fight back.
On the Allied side, the planning and command for the airborne phase of MARKET-GARDEN became the responsibility of the First Allied Airborne Army. The army commander, Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, had been a top air commander
in the Pacific and the Middle East.26 Having moved to England as commander of the Ninth Air Force for the air war against Germany, General Brereton had assumed command of the First Allied Airborne Army on 8 August 1944. He was given operational control of the following: headquarters of the XVIII U.S. Corps (Airborne), commanded by Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway; headquarters of the 1st British Airborne Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. F. A. M. Browning, who served also as deputy commander of the First Allied Airborne Army; the IX U.S. Troop Carrier Command under Maj. Gen. Paul L. Williams; and two Royal Air Force troop carrier groups (38 and 46). American airborne troops under General Brereton's control were the veteran 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions and the untried 17th Airborne Division, the latter not scheduled to participate in MARKET. British troops at his disposal were the 1st Airborne Division and the 52 Lowland Division (Airportable), plus special air service troops and the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, the latter to serve in MARKET under command of the 1st Airborne Division.27
The first major planning conference on Operation MARKET convened in England late on 10 September, only a few hours after General Eisenhower in a meeting with Montgomery at Brussels had given his approval. The first conference dealt pri-
marily with command and administration. As deputy commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, General Browning was to direct operations on the ground through headquarters of his British Airborne Corps. He and his headquarters were to fly in with the airborne divisions. The XVIII U.S. Corps was relegated to certain administrative functions and to general observation of the planning and conduct of the operation. Once the ground troops overran the airborne divisions, command was to pass to the 30 British Corps. Responsibility for the complex troop carrier role fell to the commander of the IX Troop Carrier Command, General Williams. The overall commander was General Brereton.28
Although planning proceeded swiftly, Operation MARKET did not mature with-
out acute growing pains. At the outset, lack of supply threatened to stunt or at least delay growth. On 11 September Field Marshal Montgomery protested to General Eisenhower that the Supreme Commander's failure to give priority to the northern thrust over other operations (that is, to the exclusion of other offensive operations) meant that the airborne attack could not be staged before 23 September, and possibly not before 26 September. "This delay," the British commander warned, "will give the enemy time to organise better defensive arrangements and we must expect heavier resistance and slower progress."29
General Eisenhower promptly sent his chief of staff, General Smith, to 21 Army Group headquarters to assure Montgomery that Allied planes and American trucks could deliver a thousand tons of supplies per day. Confirming this in writing, General Eisenhower promised this tonnage until about 1 October. At the same time, he said, the First U.S. Army would have sufficient supplies to continue its attack at Aachen.30
Except that Montgomery urged that emergency supply be continued a week past 1 October, by which time a through railway supporting the British should be in operation, he was thoroughly placated. "Most grateful to you personally and to Beetle," Montgomery wrote the Supreme Commander, "for all you are doing for me." Making the usual salaam to the vagaries of weather, he set forward the target date six days to 17 September.31
Field Marshal Montgomery's decision meant that the First Allied Airborne Army had but seven days for planning and preparation, a period strikingly short—even in view of the similarity to the defunct operation COMET—when contrasted with the long weeks and even months of planning and special training that had gone into most earlier airborne operations. Yet one of the cardinal reasons for executing MARKET at all was to take advantage of German disorganization: each day's delay lessened that advantage. With that in mind, Field Marshal Montgomery had made his decision on the side of speed. In approving, General Eisenhower noted that not only could advantage be expected from speedy exploitation of the enemy's condition but that an earlier release of the U.S. airborne divisions might be effected. This was desirable because of proposed operations to support General Bradley's 12th Army Group.32
One of the more crucial decisions facing General Brereton and the staff of the First Allied Airborne Army was that of daylight versus night attack. Moving by day, planes and gliders would be exposed to more accurate flak. This was a serious consideration, both because the C-47 (Skytrain) troop carrier planes were low-speed aircraft possessing neither armor nor self-sealing gasoline tanks and because marked increase had been noted recently in antiaircraft guns in the vicinity of the target area. On the other hand, moving by night invited greater danger from enemy aircraft. Although the enemy's daylight fighter force had been reduced almost to inconsequence, his night fighters
had retained some measure of potency. In regard to the actual drop, it went without saying that a daylight operation should provide a better drop pattern. To realize what could happen in the dark, one had but to recall the Normandy operation when drop sticks had scattered like windblown confetti.
A major factor governing selection of a night drop in Normandy had been a need to co-ordinate airborne and seaborne units. The plan for co-ordination of air and ground efforts in Operation MARKET-GARDEN imposed no restrictions. Neither had the Allies at the time of the Normandy drop possessed the unquestioned air supremacy they now had attained. It was an air supremacy that could be maintained through proximity of the target area to bases in England, France, and Belgium. Assured of a comprehensive antiflak program, General Brereton made his decision: by day.33
Another question was which of two routes to take to the target area. (Map IV) The more direct route from England passed over islands in the Schelde-Maas estuary. The aircraft would be subject to fire from flak barges and coastal flak positions and would have to fly some eighty miles over enemy-occupied territory. The alternative was a longer southern route. Over friendly Belgium most of the way, this route involved a maximum flight over enemy territory of sixty-five miles. On the other hand, flak was thick among the enemy front lines south of Eindhoven.
General Brereton and his planners considered that one long column would expose rear elements to an alerted enemy and that parallel columns along the same path would provide too many flak gunners with optimum targets. With these points in mind, they found a solution in compromise. The two divisions scheduled to land farthest north were to take the northern route across the Dutch islands. The other division was to follow the southern route across Belgium to a point near Bourg-Leopold, thence north across the front lines into the Netherlands.34
A third task of selecting appropriate drop and landing zones was more complex. Factors like flak, terrain, assigned objectives, priority of objectives, direction of flight-these and countless others entered into the consideration, so that in the end the drop zones that were selected represented, as always, compromise in its least attractive connotation. The division scheduled to land farthest north, for example, wanted drop zones close to and on either side of the major objective of the Arnhem bridge across the Neder Rijn. Because of the buildings of the city, flak concentrations close to the city, and terrain south of the bridge deemed too boggy and too compartmented by dikes, this division settled for drop zones only on one side of the river and no closer to the bridge than six to eight miles. Whether flak and terrain might not have been less of a problem than distance from the objective hardly could have been answered unequivocally during the planning stage; indeed, the actual event may not always provide an unqualified answer.35
Terrain in the target area was unusual, a patchwork pattern of polder land, dikes,
elevated roadways, and easily defended waterways. The biggest obstacles were the three major rivers, ranging in width from 200 to 400 yards, which provided the basic motive for airborne participation: the Maas (Meuse), the Waal (Rhine), and the Neder Rijn. The proposed corridor also encompassed two smaller rivers, the Dommel and the Aa, and three major canals: the Wilhelmina, the Willems, and the Maas-Waal.
Because of these waterways, the texture of the soil, and innumerable drainage ditches and dikes, a vehicular column would be road-bound almost all the way from Eindhoven to Arnhem. This was a harsh restriction. Although the cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem are communications centers, all with more than 100,000 population, only one main highway passes through them in the direction the ground troops in Operation GARDEN were to take. It runs from Eindhoven through St. Oedenrode, Veghel, Grave, and Nijmegen, thence to Arnhem. The planners had to consider that failure to secure any of the bridges along this route might spell serious delay and even defeat for the entire operation.
Between Eindhoven and Arnhem the highway passes through flat, open country with less than a 30-foot variation in altitude over a distance of fifty miles. The only major elevations in the vicinity of the road are two hill masses: one north of the Neder Rijn, northwest and north of Arnhem, rising to more than 300 feet; the other between the Maas and Waal Rivers, southeast of Nijmegen, rising to 300 feet. The two elevations represented some of the highest ground in the Netherlands.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the terrain is the extent and density of the vegetation. Almost every path and road is lined on either side by trees. Almost every field and every dike is topped by trees or large bushes. The result, during spring, summer, and early fall, is severe restriction of observation. Indeed, those who would fight in the Netherlands would encounter just as many problems of observation as did others in earlier wars in Flanders and the Po Valley of Italy. In terrain like this, it is difficult for the stronger force to bring its full power to bear at any one point, and the ability of the weaker, defending, force may be considerably enhanced.
Either the bridges over the waterways or features necessary to ensure seizure and retention of the bridges made up the principal objectives assigned to the three airborne divisions. Dropping farthest south between Eindhoven and Veghel, the 101st Airborne Division was to secure approximately fifteen miles of the corridor, including the city of Eindhoven and bridges at Zon, St. Oedenrode, and Veghel. The 82d Airborne Division was to drop in the middle to capture bridges over the Maas at Grave, the Waal at Nijmegen, and the Maas-Waal Canal in between, plus the high ground southeast of Nijmegen. To the 1st British Airborne Division fell the role farthest from the start line of the ground troops, that of securing a bridge over the Neder Rijn at Arnhem and maintaining a bridgehead north of the river sufficiently large to enable the 30 Corps to pass through en route to the IJsselmeer.36 The 1st Polish Parachute Brigade was to drop on D Plus 2 to
strengthen the British at Arnhem, and the 52 Lowland Division (Airportable) was to be flown in north of Arnhem as soon as landing strips could be prepared. Reinforcing the British was in keeping with the fact that the 1st Airborne Division would be the last to be relieved by the ground columns.37
Operation MARKET was the largest airborne operation ever mounted and was destined to retain that distinction through the rest of World War II.38 Nevertheless, the size of the initial drop was restricted by the number of troop carrier aircraft available in the theater. Only about half the troops of the three airborne divisions could be transported in one lift. Naturally anxious that all their strength arrive on D-Day, the division commanders asked that the planes fly more than one mission the first day. They pointed to the importance of bringing all troops into the corridor before the enemy could reinforce his antiaircraft defenses or launch an organized ground assault. For their part, the troop carrier commanders dissented. Flying more than one mission per aircraft, they said, would afford insufficient time between missions for spot maintenance, repair of battle damage, and rest for the crews. High casualties among the airmen might be the result. If weather remained favorable, they pointed out, and if combat aircraft assumed some of the resupply missions, the troop carriers might fly but one mission daily and still transport three and a half divisions by D plus 2.
Although it meant taking a chance on enemy reaction and on the weather, General Brereton sided with the troop carrier commanders. He decided on one lift per day. Although subsequent planning indicated that it would in fact take four days to convey the divisions, General Brereton stuck by his decision.39
The D-Day lift would be sufficient for transporting the advance headquarters of the British Airborne Corps, the three parachute regiments of both the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions, and three major increments of the 1st Airborne Division: a parachute brigade, an air landing brigade, and a regiment of air landing artillery. Enough space remained in the first lift to permit the division commanders a degree of flexibility in choosing small units of supporting troops to go in on D-Day. In the second lift, on D plus 1, the remainder of the British airborne division was to reach Arnhem, the 101st was to get its glider infantry regiment, the 82d its airborne artillery, and both American divisions another fraction of their supporting troops. On D Plus 2, despite anticipated demands of resupply, the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade was to join the British at Arnhem, the 82d was to get its glider infantry, and the 101st was to
receive its artillery. On the fourth day the tails of all divisions might arrive.40
For the D-Day lift the 101st Airborne Division was allotted 424 American parachute aircraft and 70 gliders and tugs, while the 82d Airborne Division was to employ 480 troop carriers and 50 gliders and tugs. The 1st Airborne Division was to have 145 American carriers, 354 British and 4 American gliders, and 358 British tugs. Variance in the number of parachute and glider craft assigned the British and American divisions stemmed primarily from organizational differences. The variations between the American divisions were attributable to differences in objectives and proposed tactical employment. The 101st, for example, was to use the second lift to build up infantry strength, while the 82d, in anticipation of a longer fight before contact with the ground column, was to concentrate on artillery. Some elements of all divisions not immediately needed were to travel by sea and thence overland in wake of the ground column.41
While the airborne planning proceeded in England, planning and preparation for the companion piece, Operation GARDEN, progressed on the Continent under General Dempsey's Second British Army. The 30 Corps under Lt. Gen. Brian G. Horrocks, was to strike the first blow on the ground an hour after the first parachutists jumped. As soon as logistics and regrouping might permit, the 8 and 12 Corps were to attack along either flank of the 30 Corps and gradually were to assume responsibility for the flanks of the salient created by the main attack. The advance of these two corps obviously would be affected by the strained logistical situation, by belts of marshy terrain crossed by few improved roads leading northward, and by the weakness of the 8 Corps, on the right, which would possess at first only one division.
The start line for the main attack by the 30 Corps was the periphery of the bridgehead north of the Meuse-Escaut Canal beyond De Groote Barrier, thirteen miles below Eindhoven. By moving behind a heavy curtain of artillery fire and fighter bomber attacks, General Horrocks hoped to achieve a quick breakthrough with the Guards Armoured Division, supported by the 43d and 50th Infantry Divisions.
In his formal orders, General Horrocks assigned the armor a D-Day objective of the village of Valkenswaard, six miles short of Eindhoven, which was the designated point of contact with the 101st Airborne Division.42 Yet General Horrocks said informally that he hoped to be in Eindhoven before nightfall on D-Day.43 Certainly the corps commander's aside was more in keeping with Field Marshal Montgomery's directive that the ground thrust be "rapid and violent, and without regard to what is happening on the flanks."44 In the same manner, a D-Day objective of Eindhoven rather than Valk-
enswaard was more realistic if General Horrocks was to succeed in expectations of reaching Arnhem "before the end of D Plus 3" and of attaining the IJsselmeer, ninety-nine miles from his start line, in "six days or less."45
Directing that vehicles advance two abreast along the single highway through Eindhoven to Arnhem, General Horrocks prohibited southbound traffic. Over this highway to Arnhem, he told a briefing conference, he intended to pass 20,000 vehicles in sixty hours. Yet the British commander hardly could have been as sanguine as he appeared, judging from questions he asked later, in private. "How many days rations will they jump with? How long can they hold out? How many days will they be supplied by air?"46
In hope of deceiving the Germans into believing that the Allied supply situation denied offensive action other than that already under way by the First and Third U.S. Armies, the British withdrew their advance patrols, in some cases as much as ten miles. They might have spared themselves the trouble. The Germans already had noted with apprehension a "constant stream" of reinforcements concentrating behind the right wing of the Second British Army. From 9 to 14 September the intelligence officer of Field Marshal Model's Army Group B issued daily warnings of an imminent British offensive, probably to be launched in the direction of Nijmegen, Arnhem, and Wesel. The objective: the Ruhr.47
Projecting himself with facility into the position of the Allied high command, the Army Group B G-2 on 14 September put imaginary words into the mouth of General Eisenhower in the form of a mythical order:
. . . The Second British Army [he imagined the Supreme Allied Commander to say] will assemble its units at the Maas-Scheldt [Meuse-Escaut] and Albert Canals. On its right wing it will concentrate an attack force mainly composed of armored units, and, after forcing a Maas crossing (see order to First U.S. Army), will launch operations to break through to the Rhenish-Westphalian Industrial Area [Ruhr] with the main effort via Roermond. To cover the northern flank, the left wing of the [Second British] Army will close to the Waal at Nijmegen, and thus create the basic conditions necessary to cut off the German forces committed in the Dutch coastal areas [the Fifteenth Army].48
As far as the ground picture was concerned, this German intelligence officer should have been decorated for his perspicacity. The British actually had intended earlier to do as the German G-2 predicted, to strike close along the left flank of the First U.S. Army to cross the Rhine near Wesel. But the introduction of Operation MARKET had altered this concept drastically.
The German conception of what the Allies would do with their airborne reserve was far more daring than anything the
Allies actually considered. Even though the Germans on the basis of purely strategic considerations expected an airborne operation about mid-September and even though they had a long-time paratrooper in command of the sector the Allies had chosen (First Parachute Army's General Student), they could not see the southern part of the Netherlands as a likely spot. In putting words into the mouth of General Eisenhower, the Army Group B G-2, for example, predicted airborne operations in conjunction with the ground offensive which he outlined, but he looked far beyond the Netherlands to a ,spot fifty miles east of the Rhine.49
As incredible as an operation like this might have appeared to the Allies at the time, the Germans saw no fantasy in it. Indeed, a step higher up the ladder of German command, at OB WEST, Field Marshal von Rundstedt endorsed the view that the Allies would use their airborne troops east of the Rhine.50 Even within Hitler's inner circle of advisers, none saw disparity between this prediction and reality. On the very eve of MARKET-GARDEN, the chief of the Armed Forces Operations Staff, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, voiced his concern about possible airborne landings in the northern part of the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark.51
Thinking independently of his G-2, the Army Group B commander, Field Marshal Model, strayed equally far from reality, but with results not unfavorable to the Germans. Having received a report on 11 September that the Allies were assembling landing craft in British ports, Model reasoned that this meant a seaborne invasion of the Netherlands.52 Reports as late as the morning of 17 September, D-Day for Operation MARKET, of "conspicuously active" sea and air reconnaissance of the Wadden Islands off the Dutch coast fed both Model's and Rundstedt's apprehension.53 Both believed that the Allies would drop airborne troops in, conjunction with a seaborne invasion. Even as Allied paratroopers and glidermen were winging toward the Netherlands, Rundstedt was ordering a thorough study of the sea- and air-landing possibilities in northern Holland. The results were to be reported to Hitler.54
As for Field Marshal Model, he had gone Rundstedt one better. As early as 11 September, Model had alerted General Christiansen, the Armed Forces Commander Netherlands, and ordered him to defend the coast of the Netherlands with all forces at his disposal. Model went so far as to order that mobile interceptor units be formed from various forces, including elements of the II SS Panzer
Corps that had been sent to the Netherlands for rehabilitation.55
No indications existed to show that this order had any effect on the actual Allied attack. Another order, however, issued to provide Army Group B a reserve, did serve the Germans well. This was a directive from Model on 12 September transferring the 59th Division (General Poppe) from the Fifteenth Army to the sector of the First Parachute Army.56 As a result, the 59th Division was in transit near Tilburg, seventeen miles northwest of Eindhoven, when the first Allied parachutists dropped. This good fortune—plus the chance presence of the II SS Panzer Corps near Arnhem—was all the more singular because not only Model but no other German commander, including Hitler, had so much as an inkling of the true nature, scope, or location of the impending Allied airborne operation.57
Back in England, troops not already on the airfields began to assemble on 15 September and were sealed in at daylight the next morning. At headquarters of General Browning's British Airborne Corps, the general belief, as recalled later, was "that the flight and landings would be hazardous, that the Capture intact of the bridge objectives was more a matter of surprise and confusion than hard fighting, that the advance of the ground forces would be very swift if the airborne operations were successful, and that, in these circumstances, the considerable dispersion of the airborne forces was acceptable.58
The troops themselves underwent the inescapable apprehensions that precede almost any military operation. In spite of their status as veterans, their fears were in many instances magnified for Operation MARKET. Not only were they to drop far behind enemy lines; they were to fly for a half hour or more over enemy territory and land in the full light of day. Neither of these had they done before.59
Armed with forecasts for favorable weather, General Brereton at 1900 on 16
September made the final, irrevocable decision. D-Day was the next day, 17 September. H Hour was 1300.60
The campaign began that night when the Royal Air Force Bomber Command started a program to eliminate as much as possible of the enemy's antiaircraft defense while at the same time concealing the fact that anything unusual was in the offing. A force of 200 Lancasters and 23 Mosquitoes dropped some 890 tons of bombs on German airfields from which fighters might threaten gliders and C-47's. Another force of 59 planes struck by night at a flak position. In each case, the pilots reported good results. Particularly effective was a strike against an airfield where the enemy's new Messerschmitt 262 jet aircraft were based. So cratered were the runways after the RAF raid that no jets could take off on 17 September.61
Early on D-Day morning, 100 British bombers escorted by Spitfires renewed the assault by bombing three coastal defense batteries along the northern air route. As time pressed close for the coming of the troop carriers, 816 Flying Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force, escorted by P-51's, took up the fight. They dropped 3039 tons of bombs on 117 flak positions along both the northern and southern routes. Six other B-17's hit an airfield at Eindhoven. Including escorts, 435 British and 983 American planes participated in the preliminary bombardment. Only 2 B-17's, 2 Lancasters, and 3 other British planes were lost.
To weave a protective screen about the two great trains of troop carriers, 1,131 Allied fighters took to the air. Along the northern route, a British command, Air Defense of Great Britain, provided 371 Tempests, Spitfires, and Mosquitoes. Along the southern route, the Eighth Air Force employed 548 P-47's, P-38's, and P-51's. Adding to the total, the Ninth Air Force employed 212 planes against flak positions near the front lines along the Dutch-Belgian border.
All flights got an invaluable assist from the weather. Overland fog at the airfields in England had cleared by 0900. Over the North Sea and the Continent the weather was fair with a slight haze. Visibility varied from four to six miles. Had the day been tailor-made it hardly could have been better for an airborne operation.
Beginning at 1025 on Sunday morning, 17 September, 12 British and 6 American transport planes flew into the east to drop Pathfinder teams on drop and landing zones 20 minutes before H-Hour. Close behind them, from the stationary aircraft carrier that England had become, swarmed the greatest armada of troop-carrying aircraft ever before assembled for one operation.62
A force of 1,545 transport planes and 478 gliders took off that day from 24 airfields in the vicinity of Swinden, Newbury, and Grantham.63 Converging at rendezvous points near the British coast, the streams of aircraft split into two great trains to cross the North Sea. Along the
northern route went the planes and gliders carrying the 1st and 82d Airborne Divisions and General Browning's corps headquarters. Along the southern route went the 101st Airborne Division. Beacons and searchlight cones marked both rendezvous points and points of departure from the coast, while two marker boats fixed the routes over the North Sea.64
A small percentage of planes and gliders aborted over England and the sea. To save personnel who ditched in the sea, the Air/Sea Rescue Service, a component of Air Defense of Great Britain, had placed a string of seventeen launches along the northern route and ten along the shorter southern route. In addition, planes of Air Defense of Great Britain, the British Coastal Command, and the Eighth Air Force flew as spotters for ditched planes and gliders. During the course of Operation MARKET, a total of 205 men were snatched from the sea.
The average time of flight from base to target area on D-Day was two and a half hours. From thirty to fifty minutes of this time was spent over enemy territory.
Once the planes and gliders on the northern route reached the Dutch coast, they attracted flak ranging from light to heavy; but few aircraft were hit. Many German batteries were silent, victims of the preliminary bombardment. Others gave in quickly to ubiquitous British escort craft.
Along the southern route the 101st Airborne Division encountered concentrated flak as soon as the planes headed across German lines. One of the Pathfinder planes was hit and crashed. Some of the lower-flying planes and gliders in the main waves drew small arms fire. Although some serials escaped the flak almost without losses, others incurred severe damage. Yet few crippled planes fell before reaching the targets and releasing their loads. The paratroopers had unqualified praise for pilots who held doggedly to their courses, sometimes with motors in flames or wings broken and often at the price of their own lives after passengers or gliders had been released. No instance of a pilot resorting to evasive action under the stress of antiaircraft fire came to light on D-Day.
Luftwaffe reaction was hesitant, almost nonexistent. Although Allied pilots spotted approximately 30 German planes, only one group of about 15 Focke-Wulf 190's dared to attack. These engaged a group of Eighth Air Force fighters over Wesel but quickly gave up after shooting down but 1 U.S. fighter, hardly fair exchange for the loss of 7 German planes.
The airmen executed two other missions on D-Day. Almost at H-Hour, 84 British planes of the 2d Tactical Air Force attacked German barracks at Nijmegen, Arnhem, and two nearby cities; and after nightfall the RAF Bomber Command executed two dummy parachute drops with 10 aircraft each at points several miles to both east and west of the actual drop zones.
Planning staffs for Operation MARKET had been prepared to accept losses in transport aircraft and gliders as high as 30 percent. In reality, losses were a phenomenally low 2.8 percent. The enemy shot down not one plane or glider carrying the British airborne division and knocked
out only 35 American troop carriers and 13 gliders, most of them along the southern route. Of the escort, the British lost 2 planes, the Americans 18. Total losses in transports, gliders, and fighters were 68. Out of a total Of 4,676 transports, gliders, fighters, and bombers that participated on D Day, only 75 craft failed to get through.
Almost exactly at H-Hour transports in the leading serials began to disgorge their loads in the beginning of what was to become the most successful drop any of the three airborne divisions ever had staged, either in combat or training. British landings were almost 100 percent on the correct drop and landing zones. The 82d Airborne Division's landings were "without exception" the best in the division's history. The 101st Airborne Division's operation was a "parade ground jump" that from any viewpoint was the most successful the division had ever had.65
A total of 331 British aircraft and 319 gliders and 1,150 American planes and 106 gliders got through. Within an hour and twenty minutes, approximately 20,000 American and British troops landed by parachute and glider in good order far behind enemy lines. The unparalleled success of the drops and landings made it clear early that the decision for a daylight operation had been, under the circumstances, a happy one. Up to this point, the Allies had staged an overwhelming success.