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WWII Articles
American Airborne Units in WWII
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Published works on WWII OOB for land forces
Flying Tiger, Hidden Eagle
SAARF – Special Allied Airborne Recon Force
Force at la Difensa
Sabotaging Hitler’s Heavy Water
Soviet Offensive in the Arctic
The Failure of Strategic Bombing
Dutch Harbor: Unraveling of Japan’s Pacific Strategy
Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Reg (Philippine Scouts)
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
Strategic Culture of the IJN
Battles of Luneville: September 1944
Visual Guide to US Fleet Subs Pt 1
Lodge Act Soldier
The Fate of the Kido Butai
Air Recon in WWII
Turning East: Hitler's only option
Resupply Operations to Malta, 1942
WWII Veteran Interview
Why Arnhem?
Hell Ship - From the Philippines to Japan
The Battleship USS Oregon
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45 to '48
Jewish Resistance in WWII
Battle for Seaports
Banzai Attack on Attu
End of the Battle of the Java Sea
Texas National Guard in WWII
How Arnhem was Lost
Saga of Ormoc Bay
Silent Service of the Pacific
USS Wahoo
Polish Cavalry: A Military Myth Dispelled
Confucian Martial Culture
Operation Market Garden
Legacy of WWII Sub Veterans
Lausdell Crossroads
Kasserine Pass
Arnhem Startline
Bushido: Valor of Deceit
British Offensive Operations
Sir Winston Churchill
American Stubbornness at Rimling
The OSS in Greece
Strategy of Blitzkrieg
Breaking Seelow Heights
The Rape of Nanking
Small Battle: Big Implications
Harris Class APA's
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Why the Bulge Didn't Break
American Forces in WWII
Shadow Warriors
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Panzer Brigades
Adolf Eichmann
Interview of a WWII Veteran
Failure and Destruction
Winter Warfare
Operation Rusty: The Gehlen-U.S. Army Connection
Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
Hitler, Germany's Worst General
Surface Actions of World War II
MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines
Japan's Monster Sub
Popski's Private Army
The Soviet Formula for Success
Japan's TA Operation
Hitler Youth: An Effective Organization
After Midway: The Fates of the Warships
Barbarossa: Strategic Miscalculation
The Story of a "Go Devil"
Long Range Desert Group
Island of Death
The Failure of Operation Barbarossa
The Liberation of Czechoslovakia 1945
Only the Admirals were Happy
Bicycle Blitzkrieg - Singapore
Good Grief Sir, We're in Trier!
Barbarossa
Thermopylae, Balaklava and Kokoda
How Hitler Could Have Won
The Battle of Midway
Waffen SS - Birth of the Elite
Nomonhan and Okinawa
Der Bund Deutscher Mädel
Rulers of the World: Hitler Youth
Breakout From the Hedgerows
Yalta
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Motivation of the Einsatzgruppen
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Battle of the Barents Sea
Anzio: The Allies' Greatest Blunder
US Army in WWII
Battle of Mers-el-Kebir
Hitler's Ultra-Secret Adlerhorst
The Wilhelm Gustloff Disaster
The 88th Infantry in Italy

Thomas Leckwold Articles
Ninety Five Theses and the Revolution
Strategic Alternatives to Citadel
Why Arnhem?
Operation Market Garden
Arnhem Startline
British Offensive Operations

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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Operation Market-Garden: British Ground Opeartions on September 17, 1944
Operation Market-Garden: British Ground Opeartions on September 17, 1944
by Thomas Leckwold

Operation Market-Garden was the largest airborne operation ever executed that was coordinated with a simultaneous ground operation. The operation ultimately failed but it was largely not an airborne failure, but a ground force failure that was attributed to a combination of the British operational doctrine and geography. The British operational doctrine was ill suited for the operation that was envisioned because, along with the geography, it emphasized the comparative weakness of the British Army while simultaneously not denying the Wehrmacht many comparative advantages in its defensive efforts. The result was the British Army’s ground forces inability to gain momentum during the first day of the offensive and was a critical factor for the failure of the entire operation.

Operation Market-Garden was an active operation from September 17th to September 25th, 1944. The ground forces were led by an armored spearhead with the objective of breaching the Neder Rijn and seizing the Ruhr industrial region in western Germany with the intent of ending the war. The ground forces were strongly supported by 35,000 American, British, and Polish airborne troops that were to seize the bridges between Eindhoven and Arnhem along Dutch Highway 69, also known as the Hechtel-Eindhoven Road. The airborne mission was intended to allow the ground forces, led by the British XXX Corps to maintain momentum from its breakout from the Neerpelt bridgehead and rapidly cross the Neder Rijn. The operation was a failure and ended with the near destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division.

The German defenses in Normandy had collapsed by the end of July and they were in full retreat from France with the Allied forces in pursuit mode. The Allied advance decimated, but was not able to overtake and surround majority of the defending German units. The result was that the Allied pursuit was able to disrupt the German armed forces from being able to reform a new defensive front of sufficient strength that could halt the Allied advance. The Allied advance was finally stopped by supply issues and not German resistance. The supply issue led to the halting of the British offensive on September 4th after the fall of Antwerp.[1] The timing of the British halt order was a fortunate event for the Wehrmacht.

Oberbefehlshaber West, or OB West, only had the 719th Infantry Division pre-deployed in the Netherlands to defend against the British advance. The 719th Infantry Division, a fortress division, was being shifted from its coastal positions to the frontlines facing the British advance. [2] This division was ill prepared to effectively challenge the British offensive, but the British halted precisely when it was the only division in place and available to defend the Netherlands.

The British halt allowed OB West the time it needed to reform a new defensive line and demonstrated the institutional improvisation and effective planning of the general staff officers of the Wehrmacht. The Germans were also assisted because they were retreating closer to their borders and its supply bases that allowed it to deploy new units and supply and collect the retreating divisions from France. The Allied halt allowed the Germans to form a new defensive line but it could also reinforce quicker then the British because of the German advantage of interior lines.

The primary reinforcement from Germany was the rapidly created First Fallschirmjaeger Army under Luftwaffe Colonel General Kurt Student. The halt also allowed escaping remnants from France to be collected and reformed into a defensive line that was not under any pressure from the British. The most significant formation retreating from France was the German Fifteenth Army that was escaping using a sea route and exiting into the Netherlands via the Beveland Isthmus. [3] Luftwaffe and various security units within the Netherlands were also scraped together and sent to face the Allied front. All these German units were cobbled together to form the main German defensive front that was to face the British ground offensive on September 17th. These defenders were to compose of units of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Waffen SS and were a demonstration of German leadership and staff work that was able to organize a retreat and chaos of late August and early September and change it into an effective defense in less than two weeks. [4]

The British Second Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, attempted to restart its offensive when its XXX Corps launched an operation to breach the Albert and Meuse-Escaut Canals that were the last water obstacles that separated Belgium and the Dutch border. The XXX Corps was commanded by Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks and started its offensive on September 7th. [5] The British offensive discovered that just in a few days the German’s were no longer retreating, but were fighting tenaciously to hold the two canals.

British were able to breach the final water barrier on September 12th with the capture of the De Groot Bridge near the city of Neerpelt on Highway 69 which led directly into the Netherlands to Nijmegen via Eindhoven. [6] The British accomplished their objectives, but were unable to gain offensive momentum because of the increased effectiveness of the German defenses. The battle was reduced to a series of hard fought tactical battles with the Guards Armoured Division struggling against the Luftwaffe scratch force including elements of the newly created German First Fallschirmjaeger Army and Kampfgruppe Chill. The capture of the bridgehead at Neerpelt gave the British their start line for their offensive toward the Arnhem area, but also reflected that the rapid advances of the summer were going to be difficult to restart even after only a three day halt of XXX Corps operations.

The Allied supply issue that had halted the British Twenty First Army Group offensive in September 1944 along the Belgian-Dutch frontier provided an opportunity to the British army group commander. The army group commander, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, lobbied SHAEF for the priority of the limited supplies that were insufficient to continue the general broad front offensive that was preferred by the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower. Montgomery intended to take advantage of the supply constraints to gain supply priority. This supply priority would allow Montgomery to restart the offensive with his army group. Montgomery intended for the offensive to seize Ruhr industrial region in western Germany which was the overall British objective of the war in northwest. [7]

The bridges in the Arnhem area were of particular interest to the British because they straddled Neder Rijn. Breaching this river would allow Montgomery to seize the Twenty First Army Group’s primary wartime objective of the Ruhr industrial region in western Germany. [8] The British first planned an airborne operation in the Nijmegen and Arnhem area, codenamed Operation Comet, which would land the 1st British Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade to seize the bridges in both cities to clear the way for the XXX Corps to advance into Germany. [9] Stiffening German resistance eventually led to the cancellation of the operation on September 10th, but this cancellation did not end Montgomery’s interest in an operation in the Arnhem area, so Comet was replaced by a larger and more ambitious operation.

Operation Comet was superseded by Operation Market-Garden on September 10, 1944 when General Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, approved Field Marshal Montgomery’s plan to seize a crossing over the Rhine River. [10] The 1st British Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade were still assigned to the operation, but were now wholly dedicated to the Arnhem area and the crossings over the Neder Rijn. These forces were to be joined by two American airborne divisions from the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps. The U.S. 82nd Airborne Division was assigned the objective of capturing the crossings over the Waal River and the high ground southeast of Nijmegen. The U.S. 101st Airborne Division was assigned the southern most objective of capturing the road between Eindhoven to Grave which included canal bridge crossings to facilitate the momentum of oncoming British ground forces. [11] The airborne component of the operation was referred to as Market, and was under the overall command of Lieutenant General F.A.M. Browning the commander of the British Airborne Corps.

The ground portion of the operation was referred to as Garden. The primary component of the ground operation was the three divisions and two brigades of Horrocks’ XXX British Corps. The corps had 20,000 vehicles and was comprised of the Guards Armoured Division, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, 8th Armoured Brigade, and the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade. [12] In addition, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division would fall under the command of the XXX Corps as soon as it landed in Holland. [13]

The XXX Corps was supported by the other two corps of the British Second Army. The VIII British Corps was on the right flank and the XII British Corps on the left flank in relation to the XXX Corps. The VIII Corps was to move through Weert against Helmond. The XII Corps was to advance to an east-west line running through Turnhout and then move to exploit the Maas River. [14] These flanking corps did not have supply priority and were short of transport, and as a result were not expected to maintain the rate of advance that was set by the XXX Corps timetable. [15] In fact, only four of Dempsey’s nine divisions in the Second Army could deploy at full strength because of the lingering effects of supplies and motor transport shortages. As a result of this reality the VIII and XII Corps had received instructions not to press their attacks. [16]

The XXX Corps breakout was to be launched from the Neerpelt bridgehead and led by the Irish Guards Group of the Guards Armoured Division. The Irish Guards Group was composed of the 3rd Battalion Irish Guards of the 32nd Infantry Brigade, and the 2nd Irish Guards Armoured of the 5th Guards Armoured Brigade. The 2nd Irish Guards Armoured was led by Lieutenant Colonel J.O.E. Vandeleur and had overall command of the Irish Guards Group. The 3rd Battalion of the Irish Guards was commanded by his cousin Lieutenant Colonel Giles Vandeleur. [17] The Irish Guards breakout was to be supported by a thirty minute 350 gun artillery barrage and was to receive close air support from the 83rd R.A.F. Group. The British 50th Northumbrian Infantry Division was to provide flank support at the point of breakout for the advancing Guards Armoured Division. The remaining units of the corps were to move up with the advancing Guards Armoured and standby in reserve to facilitate the breakout. [18]

The XXX Corps timetable required that the ground forces to reach Arnhem and the awaiting British 1st Airborne Division in forty-eight hours. [19] The expected schedule for the Guards Armoured Division was for it to reach Eindhoven by 1715 hours and Veghel by 2400 hours on September 17th. By 1200 hours it was expected to reach Grave and 1800 Nijmegen on September 18th. The Guards were to be in Arnhem by 1500 hours on September 19th. [20] The British ground advance and its compact timetable was further challenged by the difficult geography that it was expected to advance to reach its objectives.

The terrain that the Garden forces were to operate to accomplish their objectives stood in sharp contrast to the broad front strategy that was preferred by General Eisenhower and made the success of the operation a risky proposition. Field Marshal Montgomery promoted a narrow front strategy instead and the adoption of Market-Garden was an opportunity for Montgomery to prove his belief in the correctness of his strategy over Eisenhower’s strategy. Montgomery believed that a narrow front offensive would allow the concentration of force and would allow the Allies to launch an immediate offensive by concentrating the limited supplies to only the forces assigned to the narrow front assault.

General Eisenhower believed that a single narrow front advance would lead to a collision of forces on the narrow front with no room to maneuver and there would be little space to correctly apply armor forces. [21] The narrow front would also allow the Germans to concentrate their defensive efforts at the point of main effort and would leave extended flanks that would be vulnerable to counter attacks. The Allies would be forced to reinforce their flanks which would reduce the forces available for the primary effort of the attack. Or the Allies would have to accept the risk of unprotected flanks that could be mitigated if the Allies had superior speed of execution in the action-decision making cycle when compared to the Wehrmacht.

The terrain that was chosen for Montgomery’s narrow front had many of the characteristics that Eisenhower feared. The British ground forces would have only Highway 69 to advance the entire XXX Corps to Nijmegen toward Arnhem. There were no other parallel roads that could be used to support the advance and cross country movement was impossible for tanks because the terrain was too soft and sandy and was intersected with steep ditches and small canals. [22]

The narrow front strategy had another drawback because the British could not use their material advantage to full effect and could not deploy the breadth of overwhelming force against the defenders. This meant that the success of the operation required the application of surprise and speed of execution. The deployment of the airborne forces along Highway 69, and the ground forces only able to use this highway largely eliminated the element of surprise because the British advance was going to be in an obvious direction and to an obvious target. This allowed the Germans to deploy their defensive forces to the maximum advantage along the narrow front and know that they were not going to be outflanked. The Germans would have to be dislodged through frontal attacks, thus reducing the material advantage of the British because they would be operating on a narrow front.

The nature of the terrain that the XXX Corps was to advance was not ideal for armored warfare. Despite this fact, the British operational doctrine in northwest Europe gave the British ground commanders’ confidence. They firmly believed they could advance the sixty two miles over the difficult terrain and reach the airborne forces at Arnhem. The British commanders’ confidence in their doctrine originated from the fact that their doctrine in northwest Europe emphasized narrow front assaults by their armored formations. They also believed that German resistance in the Netherlands was too weak from the battles of Normandy and the subsequent Allied breakout to withstand a determined assault despite the difficulties of securing the canal crossings. [23]

The terrain in Garden target area was better suited for infantry, which could maneuver in the soft and wooded terrain of the countryside when compared to an offensive that relied on armor to make the advance. Armor provided mobility and therefore the vital speed needed to make the advance to Arnhem. However, the absolute reliance on the single highway, and the restricted terrain, to move the entire XXX Corps was a comparative disadvantage to an armored led ground offensive and provided a defensive advantage to the Germans. The Germans would have the defensive flexibility to launch counterattacks along the British flanks as the XXX Corps advanced. German defensive efforts were facilitated by the two flanking British corps that were unable and unwilling to press their attacks to draw German forces away from and cover the XXX Corps flanks. The Germans could also focus their defense on a narrow strip of road to slow the advance to the airborne forces.

The British were not going to rely on infantry for their advance because their combat doctrine in northwest Europe was developed out of a favoritism of relying on their material advantage to avoid heavy infantry casualties. The British desire to avoid heavy infantry casualties was primarily determined by the strategic-political situation that the British had to operate in 1944. The British military and economic war effort and its casualties had created a manpower shortage that the British Army had to contend with that year. The British Army was a shrinking force and could no longer adequately replace its casualties. By 1944, to replace combat casualties, the British Army command was being forced to disband units to keep remaining divisions up to full strength, so casualty avoidance had to be considered. [24]

Field Marshal Montgomery realized that he had to maintain a low casualty rate to preserve the British Army, so that it could play a significant role in the defeat of Germany. Military power was going to be a relevant factor in the political influence exerted in the post-war decisions of the reshaping of Europe. If the British Army was significantly reduced through casualties, prior to the defeat of Germany, it would have a reduced military capability and therefore a reduced military mission. This would translate to the British government having less political power, and which would reduce their influence on policies that shaped the post-war Continent. The United Kingdom would no longer be viewed as an equal partner because of diminished military capacity to the more powerful U.S. and Soviet militaries. The translation of military power to political influence and power required Montgomery, and other British military leaders to ensure that the British Army was not subject to undue wastage of personnel to guarantee political influence of their government. The British military doctrine attempted to address this dilemma and had to emphasize equipment and firepower to preserve manpower to achieve military objectives. [25]

The British doctrine was also shaped by the British Army’s leadership in their belief in the fragile nature of the British Army. The leadership’s concern was that the army could not engage the Wehrmacht either structurally or in terms of morale. [26] The leadership did not believe that the British soldier of World War II was as mentally resilient as the British soldier of World War I, and would not accept casualties at the rate that were seen in that war. If operations were executed that risked high casualties it could have a significant impact on morale, and thus must be avoided. Montgomery devoted significant attention to the British soldier’s morale because he believed that any plan, no matter how good, would fall short of the objectives if morale was flagging. So, Montgomery planned operations that provided the most amount of firepower possible and relied on mobile formations to keep operations moving and avoiding static attritional battles that relied on infantry forces. [27]

The final consideration of influences on the formation of the British doctrine was the reliance of the army to leverage its material advantage provided by its economic power to rely on equipment rather then manpower to win battles. [28] The British economic base, heavily supported by the United States, was able to provide abundant material resources needed to support a material based British combat doctrine of 1944. The result was that the British Army deployed in northwest Europe in 1944 was heavily equipped with armor and artillery at the expense of fewer infantry formations. Therefore the British Army was short of infantry, but possessed heavy firepower created by the predomination of artillery and armor.

The British Army doctrine dictated the leveraging of its material advantage, to save manpower, to create maximum firepower, mainly from its artillery and airpower on a narrow section of the front to inflict maximum damage on the defending German forces. Then the attack would be followed by a well planned and organized armor assault to develop and expand the breach as the battle would enter the exploitation phase. If the assault was running into difficulty, or was becoming an attritive battle, the British would shift their point of concentration to continue the assault. [29] The geography of Market-Garden and the use of a single road and the restrictive terrain meant that the XXX Corps would not have the option of shifting the impetus its assault point once the operation was launched.

The British doctrine developed into an operational technique that planned operations emphasizing the use of firepower, firm central control of operations, attack in depth to maintain pressure, limit casualties on individual formations, and exploit opportunities created by the unfolding attack. [30] The drawback of the execution of this doctrine was that it limited low level unit initiative which is require for the success of armored and mobile attacks. This virtually guaranteed that at the tactical and operational level the Germans would have the advantage in the action-reaction decision making cycle. This would translate to German superiority in the speed of execution of their operations versus the British. Montgomery accepted these consequences because he wanted ensure that his precepts of reducing casualties would be adhered to and that he could control the direction and tempo of the operations.

How did the British doctrine compare to precepts of modern warfare? Edward Luttwak defines attributes of modern operational warfare as two ends of a spectrum. It is important to remember that Luttwak’s attributes are valid, but that it is an academic exercise and often does not fully explain all of the complexities of modern warfare that occur in actual battles. At one end of Luttwak’s spectrum is attrition warfare and at the other end of the spectrum is relational maneuver.

Attrition warfare is waged by industrialized methods with victory attained through the destruction of the enemy through the use of superior firepower and material strength. While simultaneously be able to withstand and absorb the reciprocal attrition from the enemy. Attrition warfare cannot attain victory without an overall material superiority over the defenders who are brought into range as static targets of the enemy. [31] The key point is that the enemy is reduced to an array of targets, and the more targets that can be targeted the more effective an attrition based offensive will be. [32]

The other end is relational maneuver which is a style of warfare that does not seek to destroy the enemy’s physical substance as an end in itself, but to incapacitate by some form of systematic disruption. The enemy’s strength is purposefully avoided and a particular strength is directed at presumed weaknesses of the enemy. Relational maneuver requires some level of a combination of surprise and superior speed of execution when compared to the enemy. [33] Superior speed of execution requires that a high tempo of operations be maintained that is superior when compared to the defending forces, so that the tactical vulnerability of the extended flanks is never exposed. [34] If a defender has a superior tempo of operations; then the attacker will be reacting to the defender and his tactical vulnerabilities of extended flanks will be fully exposed. The success of relational maneuver is through the ceaseless maintaining of momentum until the goals are achieved. [35]

Luttwak emphasizes that no nation has a style of warfare that is purely attritional or purely relational maneuver but is some combination of the two. [36] A nation that views itself as having a material superiority over its enemy will often choose a form of warfare that is attrition based. [37] The British Army at face value appeared to have chosen an attritional style of warfare that would leverage its material advantage; but this does not adequately describe the British method of warfare. The British wanted to avoid heavy casualties, and were not willing to absorb reciprocal damage in an attritional battle. Another consideration was that the British preferred to concentrate their attacks on a narrow front, thus reducing the number of enemy units targeted for destruction. Wider frontages are preferred in attritional warfare because it presents more targets along the linear front. The fact that the British were unwilling to accept reciprocal damage and preferred attacks on a narrow front, which is a relational maneuver attribute, means that the British doctrine has attributes that are contrary to the concept of attritional warfare.

Despite these facts that demonstrate the British doctrine was not a pure attritional doctrine, it was not a relational maneuver based doctrine, and that includes the execution of Operation Market-Garden. This operation has often been viewed as an operation of maneuver and the pinnacle of modern mobile warfare for the British Army, but this is an incorrect assumption. The British doctrine did not emphasize surprise or faster speed of execution that is required for maneuver warfare.

The Germans expected an attack out the Neerpelt bridgehead, so the British had surrendered the element surprise outside of the tactical level. The tactical surprise was lost as soon as the airborne divisions started landing along Highway 69 in occupied Netherlands. [38] The operation with focus on a single highway with restrictive terrain and deployed airborne units that had to be relieved meant the Germans would know the direction of the attack and thus greatly reducing any future element of surprise. Surprise could still be achieved by maintaining a higher speed of execution through tactical opportunism and speed of execution that changes the impulse timing of the battle to keep the defenders off guard. [39] However, the British doctrine reduced individual initiative at lower echelons because of the desire to maintain tight control of the unfolding operation. Individual initiative is one of the key factors required to maintain faster speed of execution when compared to the enemy, and the British practice discouraged low level initiative.

This evaluation demonstrates that the British doctrine was a clearly a more attritional based doctrine, but did not fully incorporate all of the elements of attrition spectrum. It also shows that the British commanders, and particularly Montgomery, misread the realities of what is required for a successful war of maneuver that would meet the Wehrmacht on equal terms.

The British doctrine of focusing its offensive operations on a narrow front meant that a single narrow thrust offensive through the Neerpelt bridgehead on Highway 69 was not a significant concern for British planners and commanders. Lieutenant General Horrocks’ primary concern was not the fact that it was a narrow front assault on a single highway, or the geography, but the subsequent traffic management as the operation unfolded that could hamper the maintaining of momentum to reach the airborne units. [40] The other concern was that the Germans may blow up one of the main bridges along the way which would take time to replace. [41] The XXX Corps had 9,000 sappers available with bridging equipment behind the lines near Bourg Leopold for this contingency. This contingency was expected to be a time consuming process to build the bridges not to mention the time needed to pass sappers and bridging equipment through advancing units along the highway. [42]

After a preliminary air bombardment of the landing areas, the Market forces started landing in occupied Holland at 1400 hours on Sunday September 17, 1944. [43] When Horrocks confirmed that the landings had started he ordered Zero Hour for Garden phase to start at 1435 hours with the preliminary 350 gun bombardment starting at 1415 hours. The initial bombardment targeted a box one mile wide and five miles deep along Highway 69 in front of the Neerpelt bridgehead with the intent of destroying or disrupting the German defenders. [44] The over flight of the airborne forces, and the preliminary air bombardment surrendered the tactical element of surprise of the impending British ground operation. This allowed the defenders that were not in fixed positions, extra time to prepare for the coming ground offensive. The result was that the artillery bombardment was able to effectively diminish the capability of the German anti-tank gun defenses that were located in near fixed position because of the lack of gun tractors. The infantry anti-tank ambush teams, on the other hand, escaped relatively little damage from the bombardment and were still effectively intact to meet the British advance. [45]

Lieutenant Keith Heathcote of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, the commander of the lead troop, ordered his lead tank squadron to advance at 1435 hours which started the ground offensive of Operation Market-Garden. [46] The 83rd R.A.F. Group was providing air cover with rocket firing Typhoon fighters that were available to provide air support at the request of Lieutenant Colonel J.O.E. Vandeleur. The tanks of the Irish Guards advanced at eight miles per hour out of the Neerpelt bridgehead as the artillery barrage creeped forward as the lead tanks advanced about 100 yards behind the rolling artillery barrage. [47]

The lead tanks of the Irish Guards witnessed the devastation as they passed by the frontline elements of the German lead anti-tank positions. The PAK 76mm AT guns of Kampfgruppe Walther were in fixed position under the command of Captain Brockes’ that were situated along both sides of the Valkenswaard Road (part of Highway 69). These anti-tank guns were destroyed by the opening barrage. [48] The Irish Guards continued to advance toward the surviving elements of Regiment von Hoffman’s Fallschirmjager. These elements were ready to ambush the lead tanks with panzerfausts from their foxhole positions on both sides of the road from ranges as close as ten meters from the road. [49]

The Fallschirmjager allowed the lead tanks of the lead squadron to pass and waited to attack the rear of the lead squadron and the lead tanks of the follow on squadron. The German anti-tank ambush rapidly knocked out three tanks of the lead squadron and six tanks of the follow on squadron within two minutes. [50] The disabled tanks covered over a half mile of the road just as the Irish Guards had crossed into the Netherlands. The German ambush had the desired effect because it halted the British advance before it made significant progress and gain momentum. The Irish Guards’ tanks could not move off the road to outflank the German infantry because of the terrain. The British were suffering the consequences of using a narrow highway. They could not advance their tanks past the disabled tanks without slowing down to move between the wreckage, which would leave those tanks dangerously vulnerable to further panzerfaust attacks. The German defenders had quickly created the first effective block to the British attempt to reach the paratroopers.

It was too early in the offensive for the British to pursue a new impetus of their attack in accordance with the guidelines of their doctrine. This was not an option the British could exercise anyway because Highway 69 was the only route to reach the paratroopers. British armor was unable to press their attack. The advance was stalled because the highway was blocked with wreckage and was still under direct fire by the German defenders. So, Vandeleur ordered his R.A.F. liaison, Flight Lieutenant Donald Love, to call in the Typhoons of the 83rd Group to attack the German positions. The British plans had already arranged for ground and air coordination with tanks firing purple marker smoke, when an air strike was ordered, at suspected German positions. The R.A.F. Typhoons would then attack those marked positions to break up the German defenses. [51]

The British artillery also redirected their fire on identified German targets as defensive fire revealed the German positions to British spotters. The British were effectively using their air and artillery firepower, but the armor could not move either forward or backward as the Germans stubbornly continued their attacks. The British were blocked and were prevented from clearing the highway. The British firepower was not enough restart the armor advance and the Irish Guards at this point had to rely on their infantry units to dismount and start clearing both sides of the road of German defenders. [52]

The deployment of infantry was not an example of a combined arms assault, but the necessity of deploying infantry in terrain that was clearly ill suited for armored warfare. Armor could advance up the road if there was no or limited resistance. However, from the very beginning of the advance, tanks were highly vulnerable to anti-tank attacks because they were restricted to and silhouetted on the highway. The tanks had limited ability outside of direct fire support to assist the infantry or restart the advance until the infantry had pacified both sides of the highway of German defenders, or the Germans retreated.

The Irish Guards’ infantry were able to make progress against the defenders and had the continued support of the air and artillery firepower. The British infantry attack was tenacious and paid no quarter to the German defenders and sufficiently cleared the woods but at the cost of heavy British infantry casualties. [53] This allowed the Irish Guards to restart their advance but the infantry was not able to completely subdue German resistance. Heavy fighting continued throughout the day along the length of the highway and as a result the Irish Guards were only able to advance seven miles to the town of Valkenswaard before the 5th Guards Brigade commander Brigadier Norman Gwatkin ordered a halt for the night. [54] The Irish Guards had planned to advance the thirteen miles to Eindhoven by nightfall but their brigade commander consciously decided to stop six miles short of their daytime objective.

By nightfall, the British had broken out of the bridgehead but had not achieved momentum. The British inability to generate momentum was a critical factor in future failure of the entire ground operation. Instead of pressing their attack through the night, Brigadier Gwatkin cited the need for maintenance for the tanks and the need to rest his troops. Gwatkin also noted a canal bridge had been blown up at Son and there was no need to push the attack because bridging equipment had to be brought up to replace the bridge. [55]

Brigadier Gwatkin’s reasoning was questionable because the bridge being blown up was a reason to continue the advance to compensate for the delays that would be impacting the advance timeline, and showed a lack of British urgency and aggression. Pushing the Irish Guards to reach the Son Bridge without delay would allow preparations to start for the new bridge. The Irish Guards could repair their vehicles and rest once they reached the bridge and awaited the sappers. Gwatkin’s decision shows a lack of aggressiveness and no sense of urgency possibly caused by cautiousness that was a by product of reducing lower level unit initiative.

The XXX Corps precise timetable of the attack was not accomplished and the ground operation by nightfall of September 17th was significantly behind schedule. The timing of the launching of the ground assault can also be brought into question. The ground attack did not start until 1435 hours and that only gave the British ground forces about three hours of daylight to reach Eindhoven. [56] All of this indicates the British commanders had significantly underestimated the tenacious defense that the Germans would provide in delaying their advance and achieving momentum. This British attitude was not justified or easily understood considering how stubborn the German defenders proved in resisting the British crossing of the Meuse-Escaut and Albert Canals prior to the launching of Operation Market-Garden.

Operation Market-Garden was to be considered the epitome of modern maneuver warfare, and a justification of Field Marshal Montgomery’s view of how the ground war should be fought, but the geography was ill suited for such an operation. The British doctrine shied away from infantry lead assaults, but the terrain of Highway 69 was not suited for armor and should have been an infantry and artillery led assault to create a breach for the armor. This would be the point in maneuver warfare that armor could follow through gain momentum, but infantry would continued to be needed to clear pockets of resistance in areas that were not under control of Market forces.

The final factor that prevented momentum was the German defenders themselves, and the stubborn resistance they provided against the British advance. The XXX Corps had estimated that they would encounter six battalions defending against the initial advance. Instead the Germans had ten battalions and were supported by twelve self propelled tank destroyers of the II SS Panzer Corps. [57] The Neerpelt Bridgehead was defended by Kampfgruppe Walther astride Highway 69, Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 6 on the British left flank, and the 7th Fallschirmjaeger Division on the British right flank. This ad-hoc force was put together to seal the bridgehead had units representing the SS, Wehrmacht, and the Luftwaffe. [58]

The German defense had weaknesses as it was an ad-hoc force and was short of properly constituted combat formations. The use of battle groups and rapidly organized Fallschirmjaeger regiments into larger combat formations was problematic. The major commands defending against the British bridgehead all had a level of independence from each other because they were part of different services. There was also a lack of communication equipment and support organizations. There are inherent parts found in properly constituted combat formations, and the lack of these further reduced the combat effectiveness of the German defenders. In addition, Highway 69 was originally established as an administrative boundary that created a situation that none of the independent commands wanted to claim responsibility for the road. This was not addressed until September 16th when the 1st Battalion of Fallschirmjaeger Regiment von Hoffman was deployed across the highway and gave responsibility of the highway to Kampfgruppe Walther and resulted in depth added to the German defenses. [59] This was the scratch force that would stymie the British attempt to gain momentum.

The German defenders had several distinct advantages to slow the British offensive. The first advantage was geography. The woods, the sandy ground, and the single highway that were disadvantages to the British were as a result defensive advantage for the German defenders against an armored attack. The German defenders being familiar with the British doctrine as well as being familiar with the terrain realized that the highway was the main point of effort. They also realized the restrictive terrain required the British tanks to follow only one route. This allowed the German defenders in front of the British to deploy their units to maximize the effect of their limited numbers.

Another German defensive strength was the advantage granted to them by the British operational doctrine. The British were going to attack on a narrow front and attempt to leverage their material resources and firepower. This placed defending German units along the narrow front under heavy attack, but also left entire units along adjacent sections of the front untouched by the British offensive. This allowed units to shift toward the narrow point of attack, and more importantly attack the flanks as the British pressed their attack.

The German doctrine also had a distinct institutional cultural difference when compared to the British. The Germans had a tradition of decentralized doctrine of command called Auftragstaktik (rough translation as mission tactics). The higher level commanders would pass down the general mission to subordinate commanders and allowed them to decide the means and methods to achieving the mission. [60] This stood in sharp contrast to the doctrine applied by the British that maintained tight levels of control of subordinate commanders to control the tempo and casualties of the battle and individual units.

The result of this institutional philosophy between the Wehrmacht and the British Army created a significant performance difference in the decision-action cycle between the two armies. German commanders were allowed (within reason of not violating Hitler’s orders) to make decisions independently adapt to the tactical and operational situation without consulting higher authorities. [61] This was in contrast to the British who were not allowed such latitude in reacting to tactical and operational situations without consulting with higher authorities. This was a critical advantage to the German armed forces who were able consistently execute action quicker then the British as situations developed. This was particularly important in mobile warfare. The increased the tempo of operations required rapid decisions to be made that would be converted into faster speed of execution to the military situation at the tactical and operational levels of warfare. [62]

Another institutional difference between the Wehrmacht and the British Army can be defined by the German warfare theory of Bewegungskrieg. This theory was instilled a belief in German officers that in a war of maneuver units were to seek and strike short, sharp, and rapid blows on unprotected flanks or the rear of the enemy. This created philosophy in the Wehrmacht that fostered an extreme level of aggressiveness on the battlefield. [63] The result was that German commanders, at all levels, were highly aggressive and would attack the enemy, no matter what the odds.

The Germans expected to have and did have the advantage of superior speed of execution because of their institutional belief in Auftragstaktik and they could be expected to be aggressive that was instilled in the theory of Bewegungskrieg. The result was that the British should have expected an aggressive defense that would make it difficult for the British Army to maintain the initiative. The British would eventually start reacting to the German counter attacks and their superior speed of execution and lose focus on the primary mission of gaining momentum to link up with the awaiting airborne forces.

Despite the British superiority in firepower they were not able to prevent the aggressive German reaction to the British offensive. The Germans, true to their theory of warfare, were not only aggressively defending against the narrow front attack of the British they were able to launch counter attacks along the flanks of the Neerpelt Bridgehead on the 17th. The attacks were unsuccessful and were repulsed by the British 50th Infantry Division but it demonstrated that the Germans were able to quickly react to the British offensive and used counter attacks to slow down the British rate of advance and take their focus off of their goal. [64]

The British did have success on that first day. As the Guards Armoured Division attack developed in the afternoon and evening of the 17th, most of the burden of defending the road and the narrow front fell on Kampfgruppe Walther which stubbornly gave ground and was being pushed back to Valkenswaard. Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 6 was also pressured by the Irish Guards advance and was forced to rollback its front 100 meters from the highway. The 7th Fallschirmjaeger Division also had units on their right flank of the British attack be overtaken by the advance Irish Guards. [65] The initial point of attack seemed to have the desired results in overwhelming the German defenders, but it did not destroy or cause the Germans to lose control of the situation.

The Germans after the initial onslaught of the British started activity along both flanks and demonstrated that they had not lost control of the battle. Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 6 attacked northward to re-establish contact with Kampfgruppe Chill along the left side of the British flanks. On the right side of the flanks the mobile formations of the II SS Panzer Corps assigned to reinforce the First Fallschirmjaeger Army were attacking the extending flank. The SS assault guns of Captain Roestel, along with infantry, attacked the Guards Armoured Division tanks as they moved along the highway in the late afternoon and into the evening. SS Kampfgruppe Richter also launched probing attacks along the right flank until it was ordered to withdrawal to the west to the town of Budel. [66] These counter attacks were made by the local commanders on the scene and not directed from upper level commands. This demonstrated the aggressiveness of the Germans in defense even when confronted with overwhelming strength of the British onslaught.

By the end of the day of September 17th the Germans, assisted by geography, were still stubbornly defending the highway despite the British overwhelming strength. The Germans were also recovering from the initial onslaught and were starting to increase their activities along the extending British flank as they showed their aggressiveness and initiative on the local level that would continue throughout the entire operation. The British halt at Valkenswaard stopped the first day’s activities and the offensive did not restart for another twelve hours. [67] The British only launched patrols out of Valkenswaard and made no attempt to move in force which astonished the German commanders facing the British and allowed time for them to gather their strength. [68]

The Irish Guards were supposed to be Veghel by the end of September 17th, but the destruction of the bridge at Son made reaching Veghel by the end of the 17th impossible. It also made the meeting of the intricate timetable of Operation Market-Garden a near impossibility. By the end of the day the British were nearly twenty miles behind schedule and were not moving toward Son during the night to repair the destroyed canal bridge. It also reasserted the German belief that the British Army was did not have the initiative or boldness in the attack to be effective during offensive operations. The lack of British urgency on the first day demonstrated that the German assessment of the British was correct. [69] The German assessment was not so far off of the British Army’s own assessment of the fragile nature of its soldier of not wanting to take risk and accept casualties. The British commanders did not appear to show any sense of urgency in reaching their objectives and relieve the airborne forces north of their positions.

The failure of the Guards Armoured Division to reach its objectives on the first day did not doom the entire operation to failure. The airborne forces were expected to continue to gain strength with two more drops initially scheduled over the next two days to continue to reinforce the airborne units in achieving their mission. The Guards Armoured, however, was not able establish momentum because of the German resistance that was taking full advantage of the restrictive terrain.

The British were furthered hampered by a doctrine that focused the offensive on a narrow front and did not promote individual initiative or aggressiveness needed to create a sense urgency to reach the days objectives. These failures of making objectives the first day, immediately put them behind schedule, and would resonate through the rest of the operation and allowed the Germans time to continue to gather reinforcements for Army Group B. The lack of offensive initiative from the very beginning of the offensive would reflect throughout the entire operation and would repeat in consistent under performance of the ground advance. This is not an indictment on the bravery of the British fighting man, the bravery of the 1st Airborne Division would eliminate any question of British bravery, but the British performance during Market-Garden was a failure of doctrine, misreading the realities of modern warfare, and lack of careful planning and clear consideration.

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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: 11/01/2009.
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