Veterans – Over Before Christmas – September 1944
Talking of sayings, of all the famous lines from films starring Michael Caine, my favourite isn’t his most famous, the one about doors being blown off, nor even any mention of Zulus. The line I am referring to was when he portrayed the role of Lt Col Joe Vandelour, 3rd Bn Irish Guards in the film, A Bridge Too Far. When questioned by a US Colonel Caine came out with a classic reply when asked if his unit had any bridging equipment. He said…….
“When you refer to Bailey crap, I take it you mean that glorious, precision-made, British-built bridge which is the envy of the civilized world? Yes we have some.”
In reality it took 14 Squadron Royal Engineers some 12 hours to construct the Bailey Bridge, in excess of 190 feet, under cover of darkness to cross the span of the river near Valkenswaard in Holland. The date was 17th September 1944 and the Irish Guards were part of the lead for the advancing XXX Corps on the fateful mission, called Market Garden. 17th September 1944 had what is called a dark moon night, the night before the appearance of a new moon and so the bridge build was carried out in almost complete darkness, which for any Sappers out there of a certain age, like me, will know that this type of build, particularly with the Bailey was no mean feat. The bridge was completed by 14 Sqn and the allies advanced, albeit way behind what was a very tight schedule.
And due to the fact that 17th September was a dark night the general rule was that airborne operations would not be carried out when no natural light of any kind existed. It was therefore decided to carry out the drop of paratroopers into the Dutch countryside during broad daylight. The planes started taking off from UK airfields at around 9.30am bound for Holland. With a mixture of C47 aircraft carrying paratroopers or tugging gliders filled with more troops and equipment vital to the mission the biggest airborne operation ever to take place had started. This operation was repeated over the next few days with wave after wave of paras being deployed into the battle zone.
Market Garden had been an idea of the senior British Commander Field Marshall Montgomery whilst looking at an outright onslaught on the retreating German forces following the successes of the D Day Landing in June of the same year. It soon became apparent that just north of Normandy the advancing troops became bogged down with heavy fighting and stalled. Some other plan needed to be thought up. Montgomery had wanted a broad attack from all allied forces pushing directly for the Rhine. But his US counterpart, and in effect senior commander, General Dwight D Eisenhower, disagreed. In truth there was never much that the two Commander’s ever agreed upon, nor unsurprisingly Monty with the other US General, Paton. Eisenhower’s agreement to launch Market Garden was influenced by his desire to keep the retreating Germans under pressure. However, he was also under pressure from the United States to use the First Allied Airborne Army as soon as possible.
But the US were not guaranteeing the level of supplies that Monty required for such a mammoth operation. As such it was doomed to fail from the start. Although Attenborough’s film does show the heroics of all sides it also highlighted the failures and downright lack of planning that was Operation Market Garden.
Called Market Garden – Market for Air forces – or at least those arriving from the air, and Garden for the Land forces. The aim was simple, to capture the main bridges at Eindhoven and Nijmegen leading up to and including Arnhem. And once the bridges were controlled the allies could establish clear supply routes towards Germany for the fight ahead. This would be done with a massive air drop in various areas around Holland in order to clear a path for the armoured XXX Corps to barge its way through what was perceived as very little resistance from the retreating German Army. But as many will know nothing is that simple in war and much of the intelligence that appeared to suggest otherwise was ignored.
There is a scene in the film where Major Fuller tries to argue with General Browning about German tanks spotted in the Dutch countryside and other intelligence reports from the Dutch resistance. Major Fuller was actually Major Brian Urquhart in real life (name changed as the film also featured General Urquhart). After being sidelined following his showdown with Browning, Urquhart was put on sick leave before requesting a transfer away from the Airborne Division. Ultimately he went on to become Under-Secretary General of the UN in later years.
But the intelligence that was ignored so blatantly was spot on. What lay ahead of the allied invasion was the II Panzer Corps, including two panzer units in and around Arnhem and Nijmegen under the leadership of Field Marshall Model. Model was one of Germany’s greatest generals and was particularly well known for his defensive tactics.
Paratroopers are designed as Special Forces. To travel relatively lightly, be able to move in and out of areas quickly and hold positions for short periods of time. They cannot carry the right amount of ammunition for long engagements and in turn are reliant on ground forces for replenishment. And this was precisely the position the British, American, Canadian and Polish paratroopers were put into, due to the slow progress of the advancing British and US forces to reach their final destinations. In addition much of the equipment including vehicles that were meant to be transported by glider didn’t arrive or were damaged and the radio equipment they were using to communicate either had limited use, due to distances between the units, or failed to work completely.
The Operation opened with Allied success all round. In the first landing, almost all troops arrived on top of their drop zones without incident. German flak was described in reports as heavy but inaccurate. But greater resistance was just around the corner. Despite initial gains by the US troops the bridge at Son was blown up by the Germans, hence the reason for requesting the Bailey from Colonel Joe.
For Market Garden, the US Airborne Divisions would be maintained from British stocks for all common items such as food and fuel. Non-common items like ammunition, ordnance and signal and engineer stores were delivered by road of rail and due to the vast German armoured forces along the main routes these vital logistics were either stalled or delayed.
Nijmegen Bridge and that of Eindhoven were captured successfully by the allies, but none of the other objectives were met as successfully with the British taking heavy casualties during the week-long operation. Completely due to the substantial forces of the German armoured units and the defensive tactics of Field Marshall Model the British and Americans found it very slow going and failed to reach Arnhem in order to support the British Paratroopers there who gave up on around 24th September and were taken prisoner. The only possible error that Model made was his decision not to blow the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem. Had he done this the allied Operation will have failed immediately.
And Arnhem Bridge which the allies failed to capture crosses the Rhine which was the main target. The Rhine remained the main barrier between the advancing forces and the German Army until March of the following year.
In all nearly 42,000 paratroopers from the four nationalities dropped into Holland during Market Garden to be supported by one armoured division as well as an armoured brigade and 2 infantry divisions. But the operation suffered nearly 18,000 casualties, the heaviest casualties being lost in and around Arnhem.
Operation Market Garden was a failure from the point of view of its main architect Field Marshall Montgomery.
Whilst based in Rheindahlen we used to run a holiday for the ACROSS Trust which I used to volunteer for, for a week in August. On one such visit I met an old gentleman and veteran who said he was an Ex Sapper and told me from personal experience about the Bailey Bridge that was built at Son on 17th September. He had been a member of the RE Unit involved and said as a Sgt he had been chosen to test the bridge. As any Sapper will tell you that is to walk across the bridge to inspect it to make sure it is ready for trafficking. He did this in almost complete darkness only to be shot by a German sniper when he reached the far end. The bridge was subsequently crossed and the gun position taken out before he was casevacced back to the UK.
Were your relatives involved in this Operation? If so please get in contact and let us know and share their experiences either at SBT or Forgotten Veterans UK (FVUK) on Facebook or Twitter.