Category Archives: Arnhem

Arnhem Airborne Museum opens new extension

The new Airborne Museum extension, Arnhem

The new Airborne Museum extension, Arnhem

The Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek, Arnhem opened its brand new multi-million extension during this years 60th anniversary commemorations.

A museum about the battle was first opened in 1949 in Doorwerth Castle near the Rhine. In 1980 it moved to the Hotel Hartenstein in Oosterbeek. This large white hotel had been the headquarters of Feldmarschall Walter Model before the battle and was the HQ of Major General Roy Urquhart during the siege of Oosterbeek. I’ve visitied the museum three times now and every time I have been struck by the loving care with which it has obviously been put together, and how it is looked after so well.

An ambitious renovation programme has brought the museum right into the 21st century, with dramatic and evocative dioramas, new multimedia displays and a thoughtful emphasis on the future. It involved closing the museum for 9 months, digging an underground basement next to the museum and turning this into a new extension, leaving the original museum intact. This should make what is a grand and famous museum more accessible and enjoyable for younger visitors.

It looks like the legacy of the Battle of Arnhem is in safe hands for years to come. I can’t wait to go and see the new extension.

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65 years ago today – Arnhem: The Aftermath

Oosterbeek War Cemetery

Oosterbeek War Cemetery

The end of Operation Market Garden left the allies in possession of a 60 male salient into Holland. While a large part of Dutch territory had been liberated, the corridor led to nowhere, the aims of Market Garden had not been achieved.

For the Allied soldiers left fighting in Holland, the coming winter would be cold and miserable. The US Airborne Divisions were only withdrawn into reserve in time to take part in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. Meanwhile to the west the British and Canadians were involved in a bitter struggle to clear the approaches to Antwerp, a priority that had been overlooked in the dash to outflank the Rhine.

The Dutch civilians left in Arnhem and Oosterbeek were cleared from their houses after the battle. They suffered a terrible winter, during which much of the Dutch population starved, being left to eat tulip bulbs. They paid a terrible price for an operation that Monty described as ’90% succesful’.

The wounded and captured faced months of hardship and anguish until they were liberated at the end of the war. Many of the wounded were taken to a Hospital in Apeldoorn, and then on to POW Camps in Germany. Many were held at Stalag XIB near Fallingbostel, on the North German Plain. One of them was my Granddad, who was later moved to Stalag IIIA near Berlin before being liberated by the Russians.

Strategically, the British Second Army had been driven northwards by its advance. This in turn led to the US First Army moving northwards to stay in touch with it, opening up a dangerous gap with Patton’s US Third Army further South. In typical Patton fashion his Army had been advancing eastwards of his own accord. This gap was exploited by the Germans in December 1944.

Could Monty’s plan have worked? If Eisenhower had backed it fully with resources, and halted Patton, it is likely that the plan would have had more success, despite the failures at Arnhem. Whether the Allies could have carried on into Germany is difficult to assess. The Battle at Arnhem would have been very different had the Dropping Zones been selected closer to the Bridge, if the whole Division had been landed in two drops on one day, if Browning had stayed at home and if XXX Corps had driven with more haste at critical moments. Concerns about flak were unfounded, and Browning played little part in the battle.

Market Garden has often been cited as a blot on Monty’s reputation. It would be hard to argue that it was indeed a daring plan, and very nearly worked. But as much as it is true to say that the allies needed to capture all of the Bridges or the operation was not worth it, it is also accurate to state that unless the operation was made a complete priority and given the appropriate resources, it was not worth the risk. While Eisenhower did not want to upset American public opinion, winning the war quickly should have been more important.

Arnhem was eventually liberated in April 1945, by the 49th (West Riding) Division. The town has been rebuilt, and every year in September Veterans and grateful Dutch people gather to commemorate the Battle, which has passed into legend as one of the bravest yet most spectacular failures in military history. Nevertheless, Heroic stories abound. The story of Flight Lieutenant David Lord VC, who kept piloting his burning Dakota so his crew could escape. Major Robert Cain VC, who repeatedly fought off German tanks. Of Lance Sergeant Baskeyfield VC, who manned an anti-tank gun on his own, destroying tank after tank until killed. But most of all, the ordinary men who fought at Arnhem, and maybe didnt win medals, but did their best. We should be very proud of them.

1,514 men are buried in Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery. Nearby the Hartenstein Hotel Airborne Museum tells the story of the battle, and has just undergone a multi-million refurbishment. All of the sights and places of the battle are still there to look at, from the Drop Zone at Ginkel Heath to Arnhem Bridge.

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65 years ago today – the end at Arnhem

walking wounded being marched away from Arnhem

walking wounded being marched away from Arnhem

Early on the 25th September 1944 Generals Urquhart and Thomas agreed to evacuate the Airborne Division from Oosterbeek that night. The evacuation had to take place that night, as Urquhart feared that they were being attacked so heavily that it might be their last chance before they were overwhelmed completely.

Urquhart put together a plan that he hoped would enable as many of the surviving airborne troops to escape as possible. He modelled it on the evacuation of the Galipoli peninsula during the first world war, compared to a ‘collapsing bag’. The medical staff and chaplains agreed to stay and take care of the wounded, and wireless operators volunteered to remain behind and man the radios, giving the Germans something to listen to and keep them occupied.

On the night of the operation, sardonically code-named Operation Berlin, XXX Corps laid on a full scale artillery fire plan from the south bank of the Rhine. This gave the Germans the impression that the British were attempting to cross the Rhine and reinforce the bridgehead, and not to evacuate it.

Glider Pilots manned evacuation routes down to the River, marked by white tape. Men wrapped their boots in cloth so as to not make too much noise. Once they reached the riverbank most waited patiently for te boats. Engineers crossed the Rhine in assault boats, powered by outboard engines. Many of them ferried across again and again all through the night, finally stopping at down. More than a few airborne men decided to swim the river instead, and sadly several drowned in the Rhine’s turbulent waters.

By dawn most of the men had escaped, leaving the wounded and their helpers facing captivity. The Germans had been completely taken by surprise, and had no inkling that a withdrawal was taking place until it was completed. In the film Bridge too far the wounded sit at the Hartenstein Hotel, awaiting the Germans, and sing Abide with me. Although this probably didnt happen quite as in the film, the scence captures what the mood must have been like.

The survivors were taken back to Nijmegen, where they received food and shelter. Although they had undergone significant hardship, one party of men marched smartly from the Rhine down to Arnhem. Major Cain, who had just won a VC, even found time to shave before crossing. General Browning, waiting at Nijmegen, found it almost impossible to talk to the survivors, so startled was he by their experiences.

Over 10,000 men had landed at Arnhem. Only 2398 men returned. 1500 had been killed, and the remainder were captured and became Prisoners of War, many of them were taken to Stalag XIB POW camp in Northern Germany. They endured even more hardship until they were liberated in April and May 1945. One of them was my grandfather, Private Henry Miller. A smaller number of men evaded capture and succesfully made it back to British lines, including the seriously wounded Brigadier John Hackett.

Meanwhile, further down the corridor the two American Airborne Divisions would carry on fighting almost into November, suffering more casualties in this period than they did during the battle itself. XXX Corps remained in its positions in a cold, wet Holland throughout the winter of 1944 and 1945.

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65 years ago – The battle slips away

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

After the Poles landed south of the Rhine, the Germans carried on mortaring and shelling the British positions in the Oosterbeek perimeter. By now the British were severely lacking in ammunition, food and other supplies. They faced a number of determined attacks that threatened to overwhelm them completely.

After the Irish Guards began their advance from Nijmegen, it became clear that the high, exposed road leading to Arnhem was completely unsuitable for tanks. As a result, the 43rd (Wessex) Division took over the attack, choosing to swing left away from the road and attempt to link up with the Poles at Driel.

Given the grievous losses suffered at Arnhem and Nimegen by the airborne soldiers, it is not difficult to escape the conclusion that Thomas and his Division could have tried harder. When they eventually reached Driel and came into radio contact with Urquhart, Thomas asked Urquhart why he did not counter shell the Germans. “with what?”, was Urquharts infuriated reply.

On the night of 24 September the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment attempted to cross the River. Like the Poles before them they were met with heavy fire, and only a few men got across. Many of the Dorsets were taken prisoner, including their Commanding Officer.

It was becoming clear that the German opposition to Operation Market Garden had been much stronger than anticipated. All along the corridor, from the Belgian border, Eindhoven and up to Nijmegen and beyond XXX Corps and the US 82nd and 101st Division were fighting tooth and nail to hold their ground. A bridgehead over the Rhine near Arnhem could possibly have been accomplished, but it was apparent that the Ground Forces did not have the resources to carry on the advance and outflank the Ruhr, thus rendering the whole Operation a failure.

At a conference back down the corridor Horrocks and Browning met with Miles Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army. This was the first time that Dempsey had played any meaningful part in the battle. The naturally ebullient Horrocks wanted to carry out a left hook and cross the Rhine to the west, but Dempsey ordered that this was not possible, and that the survivors of the 1st British Airborne Division were to be evacuated as soon as possible. This was done with Browning’s approval, the only real contribution Browning had made to the whole operation since landing.

Sadly, the recriminations were already beginning. Sosabowski’s abrasive character had made him few friends, and rapidly senior British officers began to treat him most shamefully. He received no backing from Browning, technically his commanding officer. The Poles were placed under the command of Thomas, an officer junior to Sosabowski, who told the experienced Pole that if he did not carry out his orders, he would find someone who would.

Even though the fighting at Arnhem was drawing to a close, the shameful episode over who was at fault was only just beginning.

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65 years ago today – Arnherm Bridge

Arnhem Bridge

Arnhem Bridge

Lt Colonel Frost’s force at the Bridge had been locked in a desparate struggle for almost 4 days. Numbering around 740 men, they were short of food, ammunition and medical supplies. They had established communication with the rest of the Division, and learnt on 19 September that there was no chance of them being reinforced, unless XXX Corps arrived soon.

They had suffered high casualties from artillery shelling, and the savage urban fighting was taking its toll. At one point a part of Germans appeared under a white flag, offering a ceasefire. The British replied, memorably ‘I’m sorry, but we cannot accept your surender’. Shortly after Frost was wounded. A 2 hour truce was arranged to allow the wounded the be evacuated safely. By the early hours of 21 September most of the British had been overwhelmed. The last radio message heard from the bridge was “Out of ammo, God save the King”.

It had been estimated that the 1st Airborne Division, 10,000 strong, would only need to hold the Arnhem bridge for two days. 740 men had held it for twice as long against far heavier opposition than anticipated. Their brave stand was surely one of the most impressive Battalion sized actions of the whole war. If only the tanks that had crossed Nijmegen Bridge on the evening of 20 September had known how desparate the struggle was, and that the road to Arnhem was, for a few precious hours, completely clear.

Their fighting also impressed the Germans. One German officer, who had fought at Stalingrad, complimented a British Officer on their urban fighting, and asked where they had learnt it. “It was our first time, but next time we’ll be much better at it”. So impressed were the Germans, many of them of the feared SS, that they rescued as many British wounded as possible from burning buildings.

The Germans were now free to focuss on eliminating the Oosterbeek pocket, and XXX Corps would have to find another way to cross the Rhine.

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65 years ago today – Hells Highway

Nijmegen Bridge

Nijmegen Bridge

While the battle at Arnhem was turning into a desparate struggle for survival, the ground forces and the 2 other Airborne Divisions were fighting an intense battle of their own.

After the Irish Guards reached the Son bridge, Royal Engineers worked through the night to build a Bailey Bridge. The Bailey Bridge, one of the engineering achievements of the war, was made of very few parts, could be carried in trucks and built by very few men in the minimum of time. As soon as the bridge was completed before dawn on 19 September, the tanks raced towards Grave, where the 82nd Airborne had succesfully captured the Bridge on the first day. After rushing through Grave, they came to a halt in Nijmegen.

Although General Browning knew that Nijmegen bridge would be pivotal in the whole operation, he curiously ordered General Gavin, the 82nd’s commander, to concentrate on holding their landing zone at the Groesbeek heights. Although they felt that the heights were tactically important, it is also possible that Browning was concerned by unfounded rumours of German armour in the Reichswald forest just over the border. Also, Browning had chosen Groesbeek for his own headquarters. Whether Browning needed to go into action is also open to debate. Isolated with the 82nd, he was in no position to have any influence on the battle at all. His Headquarters was not designed or trained to be operational, and used almost a Battalion’s worth of gliders, which were taken from Urquharts allocation at Arnhem.

Therefore, the Nijmegen bridge was still in German hands when the Guards arrived. Knowing that the Bridge was crucial to the allies, the Germans had put in place strong defences. However, Gavin and his officers put together a daring plan to cross the river in assault boats and seize both ends at once. What followed was one of the outstanding small-unit actions of the whole war. The airborne troopers crossed to the north bank, at the same time as the Grenadier Guards tanks assaulted the south bank.

What followed was one of the most devestating events of the whole war. At a time when the John Frost and the 2nd Battalion at Arnhem were fighting for their lives, and the road to Arnhem was wide open, the British tanks stopped for tea. Although they had been ordered to wait for infantry to catch them up, it is hard to escape the fact that many american troops had died fighting their way across the river, and knew that their comrades at Arnhem were fighting for survival. To see the tanks settling down for the night caused what was almost a serious diplomatic incident. Although the road from Arnhem to Nijmegen was highly exposed to tanks, the 82nd had taken massive risks in capturing the bridge, and it was high time that the Guards realised the urgency of the situation.

Although XXX Corps were streaming towards Arnhem, up the narrow highway, the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were fighting a savage battle to keep the road clear of Germans. On numerous occasions the road was cut and had to be cleared again.

Clearly, talk of reaching Arnhem in 2 to 3 days, and of fighting old men and children, had been way wide of the mark.

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65 years ago today – the hinge of fate

Captain Lionel Queripel VC

Captain Lionel Queripel VC

The remnants of the four Parachute Battalions that had been attacking into the town had fallen back to Oosterbeek. The Headquarters and support troops, as well as the Artillery – were gathering in the village of Oosterbeek.

In the north, the 4th Brigade had been pinned down overnight. As it became clear that their attack had little chance of succeeding, Brigadier Hackett and Major-General Urquhart agreed that the 4th Brigade would disengage and move underneath the railway and attempt to fight their way into Arnhem on the southern route.

What followed was pandemonium. It was against all training and doctrine to disengage in the open, in daylight, when in action. What started as an orderly withdrawl became a pell mell retreat. Rumours began to spread that the Germans had advanced from the east and taken the Wolfheze crossroads, which would have taken the 4th Brigade from the rear, eliminated their escape route and cut them off completely. In the mele most of the Jeeps were passed under a culvert under the railway, and men scrambled up and over the embankment. The Germans followed hot on the Paras heels and inflicted heavy casualties.

Captain Lionel Queripel, a 25 year old Captain in the 10th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, was the senior officer in a group of men cut off and in danger of being overwhelmed. With no regard for his own safety he ordered his men to retreat and covered them, firing his pistol and lobbing hand grenades. he was never seen alive again.

The survivors of the 4th Brigade trickled their way into Oosterbeek, where the rest of the Division was established. Brigadier Hackett and one party of men became surrounded in a hollow, some distance from safety. After sitting it out for several hours they decided to make a charge for it, and safely made it into the forming Oosterbeek perimeter.

After only 4 days of fighting the Germans had completely surrounded the British, both at the Bridge and in Oosterbeek. The British had lost a massive amount of men killed, wounded, missing or captured. They could no longer count on reinforcements, as the Polish Para Brigade’s drop had been cancelled the day before due to poor weather in england, and a new dropping zone had to be found for them. And curiously, given the allies complete air superiority, there was an almost complete lack of close air support. The designated supply dropping zones had been overun too, so the British would be receiving next to no supplies of food, ammunition or medical supplies.

The Germans, meanwhile, were getting stronger all the time. Reinforcements were pouring in from all over Holland and Germany. Heavy weapons were being moved into the battle zone. And with XXX Corps still south of Nijmegen and unable to influence events at Arnhem, what was supposed to be a walkover had turned into a bitter struggle for survival.

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65 years ago today – the charge of the Para Brigades

As dawn broke on the 19th September the battle of Arnhem had reached a critical balance.

4 Battalions of British airborne troops began their advance into Arnhem at daybreak. The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the Parachute Regiment began to advance along the riverside. The 2nd South Staffords, slightly to the north, attacked near the Arnhem Museum, supported by the 11th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. However, the Germans had thrown together a strong blocking line on three sides, supported by half-tracks, machine guns and mortars. As dawn broke the attack into this urban valley of death ground the a halt. The British were fighting in such a narrow area, with no room for maneouvre of flanking movements. Fighting with no overall commander, the Paras were neither trained or equipped for such a situation. They were forced back to the area around St Elisabeth’s Hospital, taking heavy casualties. However, one positive note was that Major-General Urquhart had re-appeared, after the house he had been sheltering in was over-run by the British.

St Elisabeth's Hospital on the outskirts of Arnhem

St Elisabeth's Hospital on the outskirts of Arnhem

Elsewhere further to the north, the 4th Brigade under Brigadier Hackett were advancing down from the north. Meeting the same German blocking line in the north, they also suffered heavy casualties and were forced to fall back. The 11th Battalion, holding firm in the area to the south, were ordered to attack a piece of high ground to support the 4th Brigades advance. They were spotted by the Germans while forming up and didnt stand a chance. They were heavily mortarted and machine gunned. Many were taken prisoner, and the survivors fell back to Oosterbeek, where the rest of the Division remained. One of these was my Grandfather Private Henry Miller, who was wounded and fell back to the Dressing Station at the Schoonoord crossroads in Oosterbeek.

Just one mile from the Bridge, where the attack ground to a halt

Just one mile from the Bridge, where the attack ground to a halt

Thus ended the last serious attempt to reach Arnhem Bridge. Urquhart pulled his troops back to the area around Oosterbeek, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that nothing could be done to reach John Frost’s force at the Bridge, and that they would have to be left to their own fate. A plan was rapidly developing, almost by accident, to hold firm on the banks of the Rhine and hope that Horrocks tanks could link up with them. There was still a chain-ferry across the Rhine at Heavedorp. But a lack of communication due to poorly performing radios that they had no idea what was going on at Nijmegen or further south, and no-one outside of Arnhem had any news of the Urquhart and his men.

However, the catalogue of errors was firmly coming together. Lack of preparation and training, the distance from the landing zone to the bridge, poor use of intelligence, the underestimation of the enemy and the lack of urgency in XXX Corps advance had already swung the battle of Arnhem firmly away from the Allies had left Operation Market Garden hanging by a thread.

With the British at Arnhem rapidly being forced into a pocket on the banks of the Rhine and fighting for their lives, what was happening further south? Where was XXX Corps?

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65 years ago – the 2nd day at Arnhem

the 4th Parachute Brigade's Drop Zone at Ginkel Heath

the 4th Parachute Brigade's Drop Zone at Ginkel Heath

At dawn on 18 September 1944, the Battalions attempting to force their way into Arnhem renewed their advance. Once again, they encountered strong opposition, and decided to follow the route that John Frost’s 2nd Battalion had taken the day before. The 2nd Battalion had succesfully fortified themselves around the north end of the Arnhem Bridge, and beat off a strong German attack by armoured cars, leaving a tange of burning wreckage.

The house where Major General Urquhart was forced to shelter

The house where Major-General Urquhart was forced to hide

Major-General Urquhart was still up ahead with the units fighting their way into the town. Attempting to make his way back to his Headquarters he became separated. Brigadier Lathbury was seriously wounded, and Urquhart himself had to shoot a German soldier with his pistol. After hiding Lathbury, Urquhart was forced to take shelter in the attic of a house near the St Elisabeth’s Hospital, just outside the town. At this most critical point in the battle, the Division’s commander was cut off.

Back on the Landing Zone’s, where the rest of the Division remained waiting for the second lift, Brigadier Hicks took charge. He despatched reinforcements into the town, in the shape of the 2nd South Staffords.

When the 4th Parachute Brigade began landing in the afternoon, on Ginkel Heath near Ede, the German’s were waiting for them, the valuable element of surprise lost. As the Dakota’s approached the troops holding the Drop Zone had to clear German’s from it with a spirited bayonet charge. Even then, enemy troops around the heath fired up at the vulnerable transport planes, and the men jumping from them. The Para’s worst fear was an opposed drop. There were many casualties, and soon the heath was on fire. One of the men landing on the heath was my Grandfather, Private Henry Miller, of the 11th Parachute Battalion.

Ginkel Heath on fire

Ginkel Heath on fire

Hicks had ordered the 11th Parachute Battalion to march straight away into the town, and reinforce the units fighting their way into the town. The other two Battalions, the 10th and 156th, along with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, began their advance along the road from Ede down into Arnhem, to attempt to take the high ground north of the town.

The commander of the 4th Brigade, Brigadier Hackett, was most unhappy with the situation. He was senior to Hicks, and was not happy with the orders he had been given. What ensued was later described as a ‘flaming row’, an unfortunate event in the heat of such a crucial battle. After tempers had been soothed Hackett went back to his Brigade.

The German’s had reacted swiftly to the Landings. Even after a matter of 24 hours, they were gradually drawing a net around the British, at the Bridge and around the Landing grounds. They threw all the troops they could muster into the fray. This compounded the loss of surprise by the British, and the distance they had landed from the Bridge.

By nightfall on the 18th, only one Battalion had reached the Bridge. 4 others were fighting their way towards it, and 3 more were beginning their advance. Already the tide was beginning to turn against the lightly equipped Paras, who would have one last, desparate chance to break through.

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65 years ago today – the 1st day

Paras onboard a Dakota on their way to Arnhem

Paras onboard a Dakota on their way to Arnhem

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.

Paras Landing among Horsa Gliders

Paras Landing among Horsa Gliders

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.

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65 years ago today – the Ground Forces

Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks

Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks

The Airborne Forces were only half of Monty’s plan for Operation Market Garden.

As the 3 Airborne Divisions landed around Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, the ground forces of the British 2nd Army would break out of their bridgehead at Neerpelt, and ride like hell up the single highway, linking each city. The plan was simple in its theory. They had to punch a hole, and drive up the road as fast as possible, and in Monty’s words, ‘pay no attention to what was happening on the flanks’.

Sadly, what was a very simple plan in theory became woefully inadequate in practice. Due to Eisenhower’s lack of material support for Market Garden, there was only enough resources to support one Corps, XXX Corps, to make the main attack. Therefore, their flank would be horribly exposed, as there was nowhere near enough supplies to maintain VIII and XII Corps. Contrary to Monty’s orders, XXX Corps would have to be very wary about what was going on its left and right. What effect would this have on its orders to reach Arnhem in 2 to 3 days?

XXX Corps had performed gallantly since D-Day. In particular its commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, was one of the most gifted and talented British commanders of the Second World War. Seriously wounded in North Africa, he would probably have risen to greater heights had the effects of his wounds not recurred so often. A protege of Monty, he seems to have had a talent for galvanising his subordinates into doing exactly what he wanted. Horrocks was played brilliantly by Edward Fox in the film Bridge too far. Horrocks hed a briefing at Leopoldsburg, in a cinema. ‘This a story you will tell your Grandchildren – and mightily bored they’ll be’, began the ever charismatic Horrocks.

XXX Corps consisted of 3 Divisions, 2 of which would be particularly prominent in the coming battles. The Guards Armoured Division was an armoured unit based around the British royal Guards Regiments. As a result it consisted of highly disciplined, mainly regular troops. However, it was also subject to strong regimental rivalries – infantry and armoured elements from each regiment would only work with each other, for example. This was all very well for regimental harmony, but in the thick of battle when time was of the essence, could be a serious handicap. There were also doubts as to the Divisions commander, Major-General Alan Adair. Monty had attempted to have him removed before D-Day, but had come up against too much opposition from the influential Guards. The Guards would spearhead the breakout.

The 43rd Wessex Division was an infantry Division, recruited mainly from the south west of England. Its commander, Major-General Ivo Thomas, was known – not affectionately – as ‘Butcher’ Thomas, for his lack of regard for his mens lives. They had trained extensively for river crossings, and as a result were placed on standby in case any of the bridges were blown, or if the territory proved too difficult for tanks.

Monty had assured Browning that XXX Corps could do the 60 miles in 2 days. This was an astonishing prediction – and counted on there being very little opposition, and the Guards and Wessex Divisions driving hell for leather. Big risks were being taken in launching the operation, and by the Airborne troops at Arnhem. Big risks would be needed to make the link up succesfully.

But would Horrocks characteristic drive and dynamism rub off on his subordinates?

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65 years ago today – ‘but the Germans…’

German troops in action at Arnhem

German troops in action at Arnhem

In September 1944 the German Armed Forces had been fighting solidly for 5 years, in Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, the Balkans, Russia and North Africa. The Blitzkrieg brought vast swathes of Europe under the domination of the jackboot.

However, the tide of the war turned, at Stalingrad and El Alamein, and even more decisively in June 1944 with the Normandy Invasion. The Germans were forced onto the offensive, and Hitler’s increasingly nonsensical orders and refusal to let his field commanders use their initiative led to massive losses in the Falaise Pocket. The forces mauled in Normandy included the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, who were both reduced to the strength of weak brigades.

After the victory in Normandy the Allies were streaming towards Germany, and it seemed that the Germans were melting away before them. In one day in early September, known as Dolle Dinesdag, or Mad Tuesday, it seemed that the whole of the occupying force in Holland was on the move.

But something changed. Rapidly, the Germans began to gather their forces and form ad-hoc battle groups, with real improvisation. A lull in the Allied advance allowed the Germans to firm up their defences on the Dutch-Belgian border. This recovery was nothing short of a miracle. Even though many of them were scratch units, formed of half-fit troops, Luftwaffe or Naval personnel, their performance came to exceed all expectations.

The 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions had both been withdrawn to near Arnhem to rest, before going back to Germany to refit. Although seriously weakened, they still contained a high proportion of highly motivated and experienced troops. Worse, they had been specially trained in attacking airborne landings. In particular, they had been taught that airborne landings had to be attacked right away, with swift reactions.

Despite the faltering economy and industry in Germany, the Germans could still call on far superior equipment to their British counterparts. Veterans often speak of the quality of German equipment and weapons. Also, as often the case in totalitarian regimes, the state propaganda influenced the average German soldier to keep fighting on steadfastly, even though most of them felt that the war was already lost. By this stage of the war most troops seem to have lost their faith in Hitler, and fought on out of duty. Hitler had ordered that all Paratroopers were to be summarily shot as spies, but this was an order that was completely ignored by most German officers and men.

As we will see, all this bode very ominously for the British Paras, who were led to believe that their enemy would consist of old men on bicycles and Hitler Youth.

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65 years ago today – the Red Devils

1st British Airborne Division

1st British Airborne Division

Before we catch up with events from the 17th of September 1944 onwards, lets take a look at the opposing sides that would be fighting the battle.

Sadly, while the Airborne Division were amongst the finest troops that the British Army could put into battle in 1944, the perception that they were all battle hardened, experienced and well trained is somewhat wide of the mark. As historian William Buckingham has shown, many of the men had never been in battle before, and even the older Battalions that had fought in North Africa and Italy had to take in a lot of replacements. Their training during the period leading up to Market Garden was inadequate too – the Division only trained as a whole once, when it provided the ‘enemy’ for the 6th Airborne Division before it took off for Normandy. This was woefully inadequate. Most of the time seems to have been spent in small unit training, physical training, refresher parachute training and firing exercises.

Neither was morale as high as it could have been. After being inactive while the Normandy battles raged, one operation after another was cancelled during the summer. Fights became common in the garrison towns, with each other, Americans, and Military Police. The men began to refer to themselves as the ‘stillborn division’. This no doubt wore away at their battle-readiness.

Having said this, volunteering to jump out of a plane into battle, or to career into the fight in a glider, takes a certain sort of courage and character. As was shown later in the battle, the red devils were indeed men apart. But as so often happens, they were let down by those who trained them, and the planners above them.

Neither were all of the commanders as experienced as might have been hoped. Major-General Urquhart, the commander of the 1st Airborne Division, was a stranger to Airborne operations, although he had seen much service in North Africa and Sicily. If he had been more experienced in airborne warfare, he almost certainly would have opposed the plan that was forced upon him. His counterpart, the highly experienced Richard Gale, confessed that he would have rather resigned than accept it.

In hindsight, the division was being sent into a battle that the British Army was wholly unsuited to, by equipment, ethos and doctrine. With a chronic shortage of manpower, the Army’s priority was to conserve men, as very few replacements were available. This meant that time and time again units called on the excellent artillery and air support that was at their disposal. But this kind of support would be very sparse at Arnhem, and it would be down to the rifle and the bayonet, a style of fighting that would be sure to cause heavy casualties.

As the German’s often commented themselves, whilst the British soldier was redoutable and tenacious in defence, in attack it was often a different matter. This contrasted firmly with the Wehrmacht and the SS, who had been fighting a savage battle on the Eastern Front for almost 3 years.

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65 years ago – Intelligence.. or, lack of

Sosabowski and Browning

Sosabowski and Browning

Conventional wisdom in the days leading up to the launching of the battle of Arnhem held that the only opposition the British, American and Polish troops would meet would be old men and children on bicycles. None of the intelligence reports that reached the planners in Britain suggested anything different.

However, unconfirmed reports were received from the Dutch underground that German tanks had been spotted in the area around Arnhem. The problem was, the Dutch underground had been so succesfully infiltrated by the Germans earlier in the war, that the allies were wary of trusting any reports coming from them. These reports were not passed on to anyone involved in planning the operation. Either it was felt not important, or it was deliberately covered up.

General Browning’s Intelligence Officer, Major Brian Urquhart (no relation to Roy Urquhart), heard the reports from the Dutch underground. Startled at the victory-happy attitude pervading the Allies, he held no illusions that the Germans were about to roll over and give in. Taking up his fears with Browning, he was given permission to order a photographic reconnaisance flight over Arnhem by Spitfire.

The photos clearly showed armoured vehicles, hidden but still apparent. As soon as Urquhart showed them to other officers, Browning’s senior medical officer confronted Urquhart and forced him to take sick leave, ostensibly for ‘stress’. Urquhart was being made a scapegoat for a rather inconvenient truth. His superiors would clearly rather sweep intelligence under the carpet than take it into account.

None of this was passed on to the men would would be jumping into Arnhem. If they had known about the existence of tanks, they would surely have taken more anti-armour weapons. Or, more likely, the operation might have been cancelled.

But there was too much riding on the operation going ahead. After so many cancelled drops in the months after D-Day, the onus was on going into action, whatever the cost. So anxious were the commanders, that the German’s part in the coming battle was almost an afterthought. Two of the more astute officers were not so easily fooled. Major-General Sosabowski, a formidable figure and commander of the Polish Brigade, feared that his men would be massacred. Brigadier John Hackett, commander of the 4th British Parachute Brigade, told his officers that their hardest fighting would not be in defending Arnhem, but reaching it in the first place.

With hindsight, it also becomes apparent that General Browning was eager to go into action, for the sake of his post-war reputation. A Grenadier Guardsmen and politically minded, with connections to Mountbatten and Churchill, he was distinctly lacking in battlefield experience. Although a gifted administrator who had overseen the development of British Airborne forces, he was eager to go into battle at any cost. Clearly, he had the influence to either cancel the operation, push for it to be changed, or fight for more aircraft, but he chose not to.

This aspect of Operation Market Garden stands as a stark warning that to ignore something, no matter how unpalatable, just because it does not fit with your preconceived plans, is sheer folly.

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65 years ago today – The Arnhem plan

Major-General Roy Urquhart

Major-General Roy Urquhart

The task facing Major-General Roy Urqhuart, The Commander of the British 1st Airborne Division, was immense. Conventional wisdom for airborne operations held that they should be dropped as close to the objective as possible, all at the same time, and preferably at night. Operations in Normandy, and in particular the dramatic coup-de-main capture of Pegasus Bridge, had shown this perfectly. The element of surprise was the main weapon of the airborne soldier.

None of these factors were taken into account at Arnhem.

The air planners, fearful of flak near the Anrhem Bridge and at Deelen airfield to the north, were over-cautious in their choice of landing zones. Urquhart was eventually forced to accept landing zones 8 MILES away from the Bridge, woefully inadequate or the task in hand. This would mean a long march, on foot, and the loss of any surprise.

The lack of air transport meant that it would take 3 DAYS for Urquharts division to be flown into Arnhem. The shortage of aircraft was compounded by the ruling that transport crews were only to fly one mission a day.

Furthermore, the Operation was planned to take place during the wrong moon phase for a night time operation. In addition, the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions had suffered such scattered drops in Normandy after jumping at night that American senior officers were heavily opposed to night time drops.

Urquhart, very much a newcomer to Airborne operations, accepted most of these provisos. As a newcomer to this mode of fighting, he may have lacked the knowledge or confidence to question his superiors. His direct superior, General Browning, supposedly had the experience and influence to press for changes and more resources on his behalf. Tellingly, he did not do so.

All this flew completely in the face of any theory or experience. When Browning consulted Major-General Richard Gale, the commander of the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy, he stated that he would rather resign than carry out the Arnhem plan. Browning chose not to follow this advice.

But as we will see later on, practically no-one was counting on the Germans putting up and kind of opposition, so what did it matter?

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