The 17th of September, 1944 dawned as a pleasant late summers day, in both England and Holland.
The men of the 1st Allied Airborne Army alloted to jump into action waited for a cancellation, as had happened so often in previous months. As none came, they could go about their preparations in a leisurely manner, thanks to the civilized late morning take-off time. Kit was assembled, breakfast partaken of and the men were driven to their airfields. Veterans later commented that the day had the feel of an exercise, even down to the YMCA tea and cake canteens.
Operation Market Garden was, and to this day remains, the largest airborne operation ever mounted. Even so, there were only enough transport aircraft to land around two-thirds of the 1st British Airborne Division. Most of the British Paratroopers were carried in C47 Dakota’s of the US Army Air Force, taking off from airfields in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. The 1st Parachute Brigade was to land around the village of Wolfheze, and march into Arnhem on foot and capture the Bridge, preceded by a coup-de-main of the Reconnaisance Squadron, mounted in Jeeps. The 1st Airlanding Brigade, landing in Gliders, were detailed to land north of the Railway line near Wolfheze, and to hold the drop zones for the rest of the units landing on the second and third days. This dispersal of the Division meant a serious weakening of the thrust into Arnhem. Also landing on the first day were the Divisional Headquarters, the Light Artilley Regiment, and other support troops.
After a relatively peaceful flight, with few losses, the British landed around Wolfheze. After some slight delays forming up, the Battalions set off on foot. Almost straight away, however, things began to go wrong. The reconnaisance squadron jeeps were badly shot up on an ambush as soon as they started. 2 of the Battalions met heavy opposition on the outskirts of the town, from an SS Panzer unit that had been training. Only John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion, with elements of other units, reached the Bridge.
Apart from Frost’s Battalion, there seems to have been a lack of urgency on the part of many of the troops. General Urquhart went ahead to try and instill some speed in the advance, and was separated from his HQ overnight. This, added to inadequate radios, led to a breakdown in communication. Only a small fraction of the Division had reached the Bridge, but it was not time to panic. Yet.
60 miles south, XXX Corps began their advance out of the bridgehead with a massive artillery barrage. However, as soon as the tanks started to advance, a number of them were knocked out, horribly exposed on the single road. RAF ground attack craft were called in to bombard German positions. By nightfall, the Guards were some miles short of Eindhoven. Ostensibly they had been ordered to take it easy, as the bridge at Son was destroyed. But this should have been all the more reason to rush, as time would be needed to bring up engineers and bridging equipment and repair the Bridge. If XXX Corps needed to do the 60 miles to Arnhem in 2 days, stopping after less than 10 miles on the first night does suggest that the Guards did not quite understand the need for urgency.
Even at this early stage, as night fell on the first day, the pages of a catalogue of errors were coming together.