Operation Market Garden was an ambitious plan to punch a hole right through German lines and secure the key bridges that would allow a thrust into Germany itself. British and American airborne forces would be dropped at strategic locations close to the bridges in order to secure them and 30 Corps under the command of Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks would punch through enemy lines moving up from their base near the Belgian border crossing the bridges secured by the airborne elements and liberating the cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, securing the final river crossing before Germany. Eindhoven and Nijmegen were liberated quickly, but 30 Corps became bogged down on the narrow road, and the battle for Arnhem became a brutal battle for survival for Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s airborne forces.
The task of securing the bridge at Arnhem fell to the British 1st Airborne Division, under Major General Roy Urquhart. Urquhart’s problems began before they had even left British soil. The drop zone proposed by the RAF was some distance to the west of Arnhem and far from ideal, and there were insufficient aircraft to drop the whole division at once. There was also intelligence suggesting that the German forces at Arnhem may be far stronger than anticipated and may in fact include two German Panzer Divisions. This intelligence was seemingly ignored and written off as unreliable, despite the fact that the RAF had carried out reconnaissance flights in the area and had managed to photograph elements of one of the Panzer Divisions.
The first airborne troops were dropped in the early afternoon of the 17th of September and met unexpected German resistance forcing them to fight to secure the landing zones. This meant that only a small force under Lieutenant Colonel Frost was able to reach and secure the road bridge at Arnhem. Communications between Urquhart’s headquarters and the unit holding the bridge were never established due to an issue with the radio sets that had been brought on the operation, effectively cutting off Frost’s men from the rest of the operation.
Meanwhile 30 Corps were making slow progress; the Germans had demolished a bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal, and although British Sappers built a Bailey Bridge over which 30 Corps could cross, they had been delayed by a further 12 hours. Another issue faced by 30 Corps and its armoured vehicles was the road itself; narrow and surrounded by ground unsuitable for heavy vehicles they were held up every time a vehicle was hit by enemy fire, broke down, or came off the road.
Back in Arnhem Frost’s paratroopers were meeting heavy resistance from German armour, but despite their lack of heavy weapons and mounting injuries they were fighting valiantly, refusing to surrender in the hope that Horrocks and 30 Corps would relieve them. Without communications they had no Idea of the delays and continued to fight despite being out gunned by the Germans and their heavy armour. The Germans had by now regrouped after the initial shock of the allied landings and General Wilhelm Bittrich ordered his Panzer Corps to destroy Arnhem and the allied forces occupying it.
With casualties mounting, Frost refused to surrender, possibly encouraged to continue the fight by the courage and steely determination of his men. There were several attempts to relieve the men at the bridge, including an attempted river crossing by the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade under General Stanislaw Sosabowski, who after being delayed constantly on the ground in Britain had finally landed near Arnhem. Finally, after 8 days of fierce resistance from the British, the order was given to withdraw. Alan Wood, a war correspondent with the combined press was part of that withdrawal as he had been with the 1st Airborne Division throughout. “It was half-light, with the glow of fires from burning houses around when we set out. We were lucky, we went through a reputed enemy pocket without hearing a shot except for a stray sniper’s bullet. Another group met a machine gun with a fixed line of fire across their path; another had top silence a bunch of Germans with a burst of Sten (Sten Machine Gun) fire and hand grenades; another had to pause while a German finished his evening stroll across their pathway. But we all got through without the enemy realising we were doing anything more than normal night patrolling” he continued “The worst part was waiting by the riverside until our turn came for assault boats to ferry us across. The Germans, if not yet definitely suspicious, were inquisitive. They kept sending up flares and it was vital to lie flat and motionless. In our boat queue we lay flat and shivering on a soaking field, with cold rain drizzling down.”
Shortly after Alan and the men with him had crossed the Germans figured out what was going on and opened up on the river bank with mortars, injuring some of the men waiting to cross. In all just 1,892 men of the 1st Airborne were evacuated safely with 1,174 killed in action or died from their wounds, and 5,903 captures or missing. The Germans lost an estimated 1,300 men killed, and 2,000 wounded. Although the battle will be recorded as a German victory, it will forever be remembered for the courage, skill and determination of the British 1st Airborne division. In Arnhem British airborne forces proved why they are a force to be feared, a reputation which lives on today as they continue to spearhead British action around the globe.