Countdown to Arnhem
Both the 1st and the 6th Airborne Divisions had been training heavily in England and by 1944 they were itching to take the fight to the enemy. When the D-Day landings in Normandy eventually came on the 6th June 1944 it was the 6th Airborne Division that landed, the 1st Airborne Division was held in reserve. The intention was that the 1st A/B Div would land in France to help the 6th A/B Div on around D+2 or 3 (the second or third day after the landings). The 6th A/B Div was however very successful and the 1st A/B Div was not required. The anticlimax of that time for the 1st A/B Div was keenly felt by it's highly trained men. Training continued in England as the battle raged on in France. Missions were planned for the division, only to be cancelled at the last minute, sometimes not until after the men had boarded their aircraft. There was an average of one cancelled mission a week, every time the men of the Division would prepare for the operation, only for it to be cancelled. The missions were being cancelled due to the speed of the advance in France, where often the ground forces would reach the targets before the airborne men!
The Arnhem plan
In mid September orders came through for yet another mission, this time the objective was the Dutch town of Arnhem. The men had noway of knowing that this mission would finally come off, yet they set about preparing a plan in meticulous detail. Field Marshal Montgomery had devised an uncharacteristically bold plan to take key bridges at Arnhem, Nijmegen and Eindhoven in Eastern Holland and thus provide a route around the heavily defended Siegfried line. The plan, named operation 'Market Garden', called for airborne landings at each of these towns. The British 1st Airborne Division commanded by Major-General Roy Urquhart was to land at Arnhem and form the northern most part of the 'Airborne Corridor' that would be created. The American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would land at Nijmegen and Eindhoven respectively. Together the Airborne Divisions formed the 1st Allied Airborne Army under the command of Lieutenant-General F. A. M. "Boy" Browning and they made up the 'Market' element of the operation. The 'Garden' element was the British 2nd Army, consisting of 30 Corps under the command of General Horrocks who would travel up the airborne corridor to secure the bridges. 12 Corps and 9 Corps were supporting taking the left and right flanks respectively.
The plan for the 1st A/B Div was to take and hold the road and rail bridges at Arnhem and hold them for two days
until 30 Corps arrived. Browning remarked "we can hold it for four, but I think we may be going a bridge too far."
There was only one week to plan the entire operation and so it was hastily done. The planning phase had set in place the first
of the problems to befall the operation. Intelligence had told the planners that Arnhem was only lightly defended by soldiers
on the ground, most of who were either second line or recovering from fighting. But intelligence had suggested strong anti-aircraft
defences, especially around Deelen airfield to the north. As a consequence the RAF refused to fly over Arnhem and so the landing
zones where some miles to the west of the town. Airborne divisions are only lightly armed and rely on surprise to take their
objectives, the longer they take to reach their objective the less surprise they will have.
Drive on the Bridge
When the division landed on 17th September 1944 it was Recce who lead the way, using their speed they were to charge for the bridge and so maintain as much surprise as possible. Once at the bridge they were to hold it until the rest of the division could arrive, a coup de main. Not long after landing it became apparent that the intelligence was wrong to suggest only light enemy resistance, in fact there were two German SS panzer divisions resting in and around Arnhem. It was cruelly bad luck that the enemy formations should be at Arnhem just as the British arrived. The two divisions were on their way back to Germany for rest and refit; both had been heavily involved in the previous months of fighting. They were however far from weak, operating the latest armour and equipment that the Germans had available.The German units in the area were commanded by the brilliant SS Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Willi Bittrich. Bittrich was quick to react to the landings and their objective. He moved his forces to block the routes to the bridge thus stopping the bulk of the division from reaching the bridge. Those members of Recce, including Major Gough, to reach the bridge settled in with various other men under command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost to defend the bridge.
With the route to the bridge lost, the remaining men of the division were forced into a defensive perimeter centred on Oosterbeek. At the centre of Oosterbeek was the Hartenstein hotel, in which Urquhart made his divisional HQ. Heavy fighting raged at both Oosterbeek and the bridge in Arnhem. The defenders of the bridge finally gave up after holding it for 4 days. The Germans then turned their attentions on Oosterbeek and the perimeter slowly began to shrink. All the time supplies were dwindling and not being replaced. The RAF was launching supply missions but the drop zones had a1l been overrun and the supplies were dropping to the Germans. Many desperate attempts were made by the hard-pressed defenders to recover some of the precious food and ammunition they so desperately needed to continue the fight.30 Corps artillery at Nijmegen finally came into range of the Oosterbeek area and from that point on the 7.5" guns fired on the German positions with amazing accuracy. During the day the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, attached to the 1st Airborne Division and under the command of Major-General Stanislas Sosabowski, landed on the southern bank of the river. Finally lead elements of 30 Corp's Recce unit reached the Poles on the southern banks, they had had a torrid time negotiating the narrow raised road from Nijmegen to Arnhem, the road that became known as 'Hell's Highway.' As the fight entered its 5th day the perimeter continued to shrink and food and ammunition reserves shrunk further still. That evening Sosabowski's men attempted to cross the Rhine with boats provided by 30 Corps, only about 50 Poles were able to cross before the Germans brought the crossing under intense fire. A second crossing was attempted by the Poles and elements of 30 Corps the next night, 23rd September, but was similarly unsuccessful despite all the men's efforts. The decision was finally taken to withdraw from Oosterbeek during the night of 25th, which was achieved under cover of darkness and rain. The Canadian engineers of 30 Corps ferried the men across the Rhine in their small assault craft for most of the night, often under sustained enemy fire.
End of the struggle
The men of the division had held out for 8 days, despite ever increasing pressure from the enemy and dwindling supplies of food, water and ammunition. An unmistakably courageous feat of endurance, bravery and determination. As Alan Wood, a war correspondent at Oosterbeek, said of the men of the Arnhem operation, "If in the years to come, you meet a man who says, 'I was at Arnhem,' raise your hat and buy him a drink." Of the 10,300 men who went to Arnhem with the division, 2,550 escaped back across the River Rhine, 6,450 were captured and 1,300 were killed and now lay at rest in the cemetery at Oosterbeek. Of those units involved the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron and the Glider Pilot Regiment suffered the highest proportionate losses, of more than 1 in 5 killed.
The Dutch people are in may ways the unsung heroes and heroines of the operation, their part is best summed up by the commemorative
stone to 'the people of Gelderland' from the British 1st Airborne Division at their one time headquarters, the Hartenstein hotel.
"You took us then into your homes as fugitives and friends, we took you forever into our hearts. This strong bond will continue long after we are all gone."
It was not until 14th April 1945 that Arnhem would finally be liberated and the Dutch people's occupation over.