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Recommended Reading


The Devil's Birthday: The Bridges to Arnhem 1944


A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II
 

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Momentum Lost: The Battle for the Arnhem Startline
Momentum Lost: The Battle for the Arnhem Startline
by Thomas Leckwold

After the capture of Antwerp on September 4, 1944, the Second British Army commander, Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, ordered its spearhead, the XXX Corps, to halt because it had outrun its "administrative resources."[1] The order was in response to the supply issues that were constraining the Western Allies offensive, and though not recognized at the time, the British Army offensive reached its culmination point and was suffering the effects of strategic consumption.[2][3] The British did not view the pause as being permanent and they maintained an offensive orientation in preparation to advance into the Netherlands to pursue their primary strategic objective of seizing the Ruhr industrial region. The battle of northwest Europe is often viewed as restarting with the launching of Operation Market-Garden on September 17th, which was to pursue this objective, but in actuality the offensive restarted on September 7th with limited objectives for a future offensive into the Netherlands. This transitional offensive led to a series of short and unexpectedly fierce engagements against a rapidly strengthening and determined German defense.

SHAEFs pre-invasion planning, finalized on May 3, 1944, designated the objective of capturing the Ruhr area in western Germany to the British Twenty First Army Group.[4] The Ruhr was a significant industrial center for Germany and its occupation would cripple Germany's ability to continue the war. The Allied strategy was for a broad front offensive advancing on two axis with one axis north and other south of the Ardennes. The Twenty First Army Group would be operating in the northern axis with the intermediate objective of clearing the Channel coast, West Flanders, and to secure Antwerp and its port.[5] Once Antwerp was secured, the British could focus on their primary strategic objective of capturing the Ruhr which was believed would end the war with Germany.

This broad front strategy adopted by General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, was not full supported by General Bernard Montgomery, the commander of the Normandy invasion ground forces and commander of the Twenty First Army Group, and in August he vigorously proposed a single thrust policy with his army group leading the Allied assault.[6] This single front assault was believed to allow the Allies to maintain the momentum of their offensive while husbanding their limited supplies. Montgomery's proposal was expected to open the way for his army group to seize the Ruhr via the Netherlands. The British capture of Antwerp and the supply situation allowed Montgomery an opportunity to press his argument for a single thrust in an attempt to end the war.[7]

The objective of controlling the Ruhr following the capture of Antwerp led the Allies to naturally look at the necessity of crossing the Neder Rhine in the Netherlands. This was the last natural obstacle to be breached to reach the Ruhr. The XXX Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, after it was ordered to halt was not in a good position to invade the Netherlands because two major canals in Belgium needed to be crossed. Montgomery and Dempsey both were known for maintaining tight control over the movements of their troops, but Horrocks disagreed with the halt order but he complied. However, he continued to move units to improve his position for the next offensive phase.[8]

Horrocks operated on the assumption that the offense would resume shortly. He needed to secure bridges across the Albert and Meuse-Escaut Canals to position his corps to reach the Neder Rhine with the likely crossing point being Arnhem and its two bridges across the Rhine.[9] As a result of this belief, Horrocks ordered the Guards Armoured Division to occupy Louvain to improve its position for a future operation to capture crossings over the Albert and Meuse-Escaut Canals.[10]

The British formalized their focus on the Arnhem area when they proposed Operation Comet. Operation Comet was to be launched as early as September 5th with the overall plan of air dropping the British 1st Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade to capture the bridges in Nijmegen and Arnhem in conjunction with an advance by the XXX Corps. The operation was cancelled on September 10th by Field Marshal Montgomery because of bad weather and evidence of increasing German resistance. Despite the cancellation of Comet the British continued to focus on the desire of launching an airborne operation in the Comet target area.[11]

Montgomery and Horrocks were of the same mindset and were focused on the crossing of the Rhine and they both ignored the fact that Antwerp's port was unusable because the Scheldt Estuary was controlled by the Germans. Montgomery ignored this fact, and SHAEF's priority, and rationalized that he could launch his single thrust offensive if he was given priority of supplies. This included the use of the smaller port facilities along the Channel coast including an expansion of supplies being processed through Le Havre.[12] The result of Montgomery's rationale was that he unilaterally downgraded the importance of Antwerp and he assigned the opening of the Antwerp port as the last priority for the First Canadian Army.[13]

While the Allies were determining their next move, the Germans were rapidly implementing measures to re-establish an effective defensive line. The British supply issues that halted the XXX Corps came at precisely the right time for the Germans. The Germans retreating into the Netherlands had three factors to their advantage in creating a defensive front. The first factor was that their supply lines were growing shorter as the British supply lines were growing longer. This allowed the Germans to reinforce from Germany, including the First Parachute Army, quicker as they retreated closer to their border and its still operating transportation system then the British could reinforce and re-supply their offensive that was suffering the effects of strategic consumption that was directly and indirectly caused by overstretched supply lines.

Oberbefehlshaber West, OB West, was relying heavily on the newly created German First Parachute Army under Colonel General Kurt Student. This force was created the day after Antwerp fell in an attempt to re-establish a defensive line to defend the Netherlands. Student's new force comprised of 10,000 paratroopers of various experience throughout Germany and were to assemble immediately to defend against the British offensive.[14] Student was also assigned General Reinhardt's LXXXVIII Corps already in place along the Albert Canal which brought the First Parachute Army up to a total strength of thirty two battalions.[15] Student was assigned to Army Group B and was to defend the area between Antwerp and Liege-Maastricht area along the Albert Canal which would be in the path of the British XXX Corps.[16] Student was able to get his first paratroopers from Germany to the Albert Canal by September 7th.[17]

The second advantageous factor was the deployment of Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe fortress units in the Netherlands. This included the 719th Infantry Division that was being moved from its coastal positions in the Netherlands to the front facing the British ground offensive.[18] The Luftwaffe had a number of security units available in the Netherlands as reinforcements and these were sent to help defend the primary defense line along the Albert Canal.[19] These units were of a low combat value and were inadequate for a full defense to stop the British Second Army, but these units were immediately available to create a hasty defense line against the waning British offensive and create collection points for retreating German units from France and Belgium.

The third factor was the evacuation of the German Fifteenth Army from northern France through an amphibious evacuation through the islands of the Netherlands. The Fifteenth Army, according to German General Eugen Schwalbe, who was responsible for the evacuation, was able to evacuate remnants of nine infantry divisions for a total of 65,000 men, 225 guns, 750 trucks, and 1,000 horses by September 23rd and to deploy them into the Netherlands to help bolster the new German defense line.[20] These reinforcements were arriving into the country when the British were starting and conducting their offensive into the Netherlands and attempting to breach the Rhine River.

Lieutenant General Kurt Chill, the commander of the German 85th Infantry Division, is the single most influential leader in slowing the British probes when they resumed their offensive, and his action allowed the Germans the time to enable their three advantages. Chill was retreating from France with his shattered division and collected remnants of the 84th and 89th Infantry Divisions along the way. He arrived in Belgium on September 4th with orders to enter Germany to refit his division. But after the fall of Antwerp, Chill deployed his troops, on his own initiative, along the Albert Canal and placed himself under the command of the LXXXVIII Corps.[21] He set up collection centers from retreating German units and added them to his scratch force to defend his new positions on the Albert Canal.[22] Chill's action put a force in place of sufficient strength to allow time for the First Parachute Army to deploy and allow the Fifteenth Army to continue its escape and redeploy through the Beveland isthmus.

The German efforts to deploy an ad hoc force to defend the Albert Canal had an immediate impact on the British advance when it was allowed to restart on September 7th. The British offensive up to the point of capturing Antwerp had been a rapid advance across a 50 mile wide front by the XXX Corps from the Seine River. In just four days, between the halt order and the continuation of the offensive, the British found that the Germans were no longer retreating but were now tenaciously defending the renewed advance.[23]

General Horrocks ordered the Guards Armoured Division to capture two bridges over the Albert Canal on September 7th in preparation for the invasion of the Netherlands. The advance was rapid from Louvain until elements closed within the main German defense line along the Albert Canal. The Guards Armoured Division discovered one of the two bridges was destroyed. However, the bridge at Beringen was only partially damaged and the Germans had abandoned the town. The Welsh Guards infantry crossed the canal to establish a bridgehead and were assisted by Belgian civilians and the Royal Engineers. The German abandonment of Beringen allowed the Welsh Guards time to establish a bridgehead while a Bailey bridge was completed and tanks could be deployed across the canal and the advance could be resumed.[24]

The Welsh Guards pushed onto the cross road towns of Helchteren and Hechtel between the Albert and Meuse-Escaut Canals. The Irish Guards stayed behind to clear Beringen of the German defenders who had returned as the Welsh Guards deploying tanks across the canal. The Welsh Guards captured Helchteren but they were slowed on the road to Hechtel. They could not clear the crossroads which was defended by the II Abteilung of the Herman Goering Division that managed to stop the Guards advance.[25] Horrocks was forced to bring forward the 11th Armoured Division and part of the 50th Infantry Division to assist the Guards Armoured Division maintain its momentum because it found itself in exposed, dispersed, and stalled between the two canals.[26]

Horrocks' decision allowed the Coldstream Guards to join the Welsh Guards and they both engaged the II Abteilung over three days in a battle that required its near annihilation before it gave way to the British. The commander of the Guards Armoured Division ordered the now free Irish Guards and the Grenadier Guards supported by the Household Cavalry to bypass Hechtel and continue to the Escaut Canal. The Household Cavalry was able to lead the Irish Guards uncontested within a mile of the De Groot Bridge where it captured the bridge by coup de main and establish a bridgehead.[27] The seizing of the De Groot Bridge on September 12th, near Neerpelt, meant that the last water barrier that separated Belgium from the Netherlands was breached. The seizing of the De Groot Bridge also meant that the British held a bridge on Highway 69 led to Arnhem via Eindhoven and Nijmegen.[28] This bridgehead, known as the Neerpelt bridgehead, is where Operation Market-Garden would be launched, and also meant that the XXX Corps had opened the way for the next phase of its expected operations.

The Germans did not give way once they lost the De Groot Bridge and aggressively defended the expansion of the Neerpelt bridgehead and defending and expanding the bridgehead became more costly to the Irish Guard defenders the actual operation to seize the De Groot Bridge.[29] The Germans launched the first of a series of counterattacks starting on September 13th as Kampfgruppe Walther arrived to defend and attempt to eliminate the bridgehead. These attacks were aggressively executed but were inadequately supported by artillery and armor to dislodge the Irish Guards.[30] The counterattacks failed, but it prevented the Guards Armoured Division from being able to expand its bridgehead in preparation for future operations into the Netherlands.

The German defensive measures that were enabled by the British stop order demonstrated that Germans were able to stop their retreat and defend effectively against the XXX Corps. The energetic leadership of Student, Chill, Model, Walther, and von Runstedt combined with effective staff work allowed them to turn the rapid retreat into a defensive line that did give way but was able to prevent the British from gaining offensive momentum. The Germans were still short of fully constituted combat divisions, but were able to take remnants and ad hoc units to make the best use natural water barriers and key road junctions to delay and stymie the British armored advance.[31] It served as an indicator to the British that any advance was going to be stubbornly contested.

The Germans were further assisted because Army Group B had correctly ascertained the direction of the British Second Army's objectives which allowed it to make advantageous decisions toward their defense. Starting on September 9th the G2 (Intelligence) section issued warnings of a British offensive in the direction of Nijmegen, Arnhem, and Wesel, and though the Germans misinterpreted the Allied objectives in the Netherlands they did anticipate the overall Allied objective would be the occupation of the Ruhr.[32] This allowed them to determine the direction and to establish defensive priority against the British. The German assumptions of the direction of the British offensive were formulated four days prior to the Allies accepting the plans for Operation Market-Garden and certainly mitigated the surprise aspect of that future operation.

The British and German commanders shared the view of the importance of the Ruhr industrial region to Germany and its war effort. The British promoted a single front campaign to rapidly seize a bridge across the Rhine River and to catapult into Germany to secure the Ruhr. The Germans were shocked by the loss of Antwerp and also recognized the vulnerability of the Ruhr. They used this assessment and took advantage of their shortened lines of communication to cobble together a defensive front that was allowed to form because the British offensive had reached its culmination point. The Germans stopped their retreat and effectively used geography by deploying along the Albert, Meuse-Escaut Canals and the holding of critical road junctions between the canals to create a tenacious defense. This surprised the British and prevented them from re-gaining their offensive momentum. The result of the determined German defense was that the XXX Corps offensive to capture the canals turned into a series of tactical battles that were unexpectedly fierce and should have been a warning that the advance out of the Neerpelt bridgehead or as Horrocks called the "Arnhem start line" would not an easy or a rapid task.

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Copyright © 2009 Thomas  Leckwold

Written by Thomas Leckwold. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Thomas Leckwold at:
tleckwold@gmail.com.

About the author:
Thomas Leckwold currently lives in northwest Georgia and served in the U.S. Army from 1985-1992. He received his B.B.A. in Economics from Kennesaw State University and his M.A. in Military History from Norwich University. He works at the corporate headquarters of a nationwide retailer in Atlanta as a Senior Inventory Analyst. His interests include reading both military history, political commentary, and the occasional science fiction. He also enjoys riding his motorcycle around in the scenic mountains that are in his area.

Published online: 4/11/2009.
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