Operation Market Garden – 75 Years On

Seventy-five years ago today, on 17th September 1944, the largest airborne operation in military history began. Operation Market Garden (as it was called) saw about 35,000 Allied troops dropped by parachute or landed in gliders behind German lines in Holland, with the aim of seizing key bridges in order to allow infantry and armoured divisions to advance, eventually into Germany. Of more immediate tactical importance was that capture of the Northernmost bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem would prevent German reinforcements from moving South to confront the advancing troops, tanks and armoured vehicles of XXX Corps whose job was to punch a hole in the German defences and link up with the airborne troops.


Motivated by the belief that German armies in the West were exhausted and on the brink of collapse as well as the desire if possible to finish the war before Christmas, Operation Market Garden was daring and imaginative, but began to unravel right from the outset and ended as a disastrous failure, with the loss of many lives.

I’m not a military historian, so am not competent to add anything significant to the huge amount that has been written about what went wrong, but I will add a personal note. A cousin of my Grandfather flew to Arnhem with the 1st British Airborne division whose job was to take and hold the bridges over the Rhine that would open the door to an invasion of Germany. Sadly, he was one of those many troops who never even made it to their objective. In fact he was dead before he even hit the ground; his unit was dropped virtually on top of heavily armed German forces and had no chance of defending themselves. I had always been told that he had been dropped by parachute, but the records at the cemetery revealed that was wrong; he was on a glider which was badly shot up during its approach and crash-landed with no survivors.

The action at Arnhem actually involved two bridges, one a railway bridge at Oosterbeek, and the other a road bridge in Arnhem itself. British paratroopers did manage to capture one end of the road bridge, but never succeeded in securing both ends of the structure. Cut off from the much larger force pinned down near their landing zones they were eventually forced to surrender simply because they had run out of ammunition. The other units that landed near Arnhem never made their objectives and had to dig in and hope for reinforcements that never came. They fought a brave but desperate defensive action until 25th September when some were successfully evacuated across the Rhine. The original battle orders had specified they were to hold their ground for 48 hours until relieved by armour and infantry advancing rapidly from the South, but 30 Corps was heavily delayed by fighting, poor tactical decisions and congestion on the single road.

Some years ago, after attending a conference in Leiden, I took time out to visit Oosterbeek cemetery, where  1437 soldiers lie buried. Such was the chaos at Arnhem that bodies of fallen soldiers are still being discovered in gardens and woods; as there were so many dead that there was only time to bury them in shallow graves where they had fallen. As remains are discovered they are removed and reburied in Oosterbeek. When I visited the cemetery about 25 years ago, there were several brand new graves.

At the time of Market Garden the local people looked on in horror as their potential liberators were cut down. It must have been deeply traumatizing for them. I think it is telling that when, in 1969, the British Army proposed bringing to an end the annual ceremonies in commemoration of these events, local Dutch civilians insisted that they continue.

As I stood by the grave I couldn’t help thinking of how lucky members of my generation are that we have not been called on to make such a sacrifice. Now I fear deeply that the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, not least in Britain, threatens to the peace in Europe that has held for almost 75 years.

The failure of Operation Market Garden had other terrible consequences. The winter of 1944/45 was a terrible time one for Dutch civilians in the part of their country that had not been liberated, with many thousands dying from hunger and the bitter cold.

And of course had the Allies succeeded in penetrating into Germany in 1944, the post-war map of Europe would probably have been very different. This is how the front lines were drawn in mid-September 1944, with the Western Front and Eastern Front roughly equidistant from Berlin.

(By Army Map Service – Document “Atlas of the World Battle Fronts in Semimonthly Phases to August 15th 1945: Supplement to The Biennial report of the Chief of Staff of the United States Army July 1, 1943 to June 30 1945 To the Secretary of War”, Public Domain, Link.)

Had Market Garden been successful would there have been 45 years of Cold War?

7 Responses to “Operation Market Garden – 75 Years On”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Fascinating final question! Allow me to quote this terrifying summary of the eastern front in WW2 as history actually had it:

    The battles on the Eastern Front of the Second World War constituted the largest military confrontation in history.[6] They were characterized by unprecedented ferocity, wholesale destruction, mass deportations, and immense loss of life due to combat, starvation, exposure, disease, and massacres. The Eastern Front, as the site of nearly all extermination camps, death marches, ghettos, and the majority of pogroms, was central to the Holocaust. Of the estimated 70–85 million deaths attributed to World War II around 30 million occurred on the Eastern Front.[7] The Eastern Front was decisive in determining the outcome in the European theatre of operations in World War II, eventually serving as the main reason for the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Axis nations.



    • The reason I asked the question is that, as the graphic I’ve just added to the post shows, in September 1944 the Western Front and the Eastern Front were about the same distance from Berlin.

      I agree, though, that the savagery of the Eastern front gets more terrifying the more you find out about it.

      • Of course there would have been a Cold War, probably even 45 years of it. There’s a Cold War on now and Berlin is currently 700km behind the frontline with NATO extending into the Russian red region on your map. From a historical point of view, it’s worth keeping in mind that in April 1945 the US Army was well advanced into what became East Germany, before the Russians had even crossed into East German territory to launch their final assault on Berlin.

  2. Memories of war can last long. But they can become unhealthy. I recall studies from the 1980’s showing that the Dutch still had a very negative view of the Germans, caused by the amount of attention given to the second world war. There should be some remembrance but not at the level where it harms the present. Things improved afterwards as it faded into history, helped along by some deliberate policies to this effect. When we arrived in the UK, the obsession with the war was very notable. There is still a balance to be found. You should learn from the past, not live in it.

    • “I recall studies from the 1980’s showing that the Dutch still had a very negative view of the Germans, caused by the amount of attention given to the second world war.”

      You might appreciate a book called Onbekende Buren (unfamiliar or unknown neighbours) about the differences between the Netherlands and Germany. Germany has 9 neighbours (I think that is the world record) and the Netherlands and Austria are the most similar to Germany. There are substantial differences, though. (It’s relative; from the perspective of Asia or South America, Norway and Sweden might appear to be similar, but there are also many differences here.) It mentions how, in the 1950s, children who were half German (usually with a German mother and Dutch father) weren’t allowed to celebrate on holidays, but rather had to sit in school and write repeatedly “I can’t take part because my mother is German”.

      Times have changed, though, and while I always speak Dutch when in a Dutch-speaking country unless someone would rather speak something else (perhaps because their English is better than my Dutch), there isn’t the deep-seated hatred there used to be. Many Dutch people speak German, having learned it from Derrick.

      • Like in Germany, so many Dutch people claimed to have been in the resistance that, if true, the resistance would have been absolutely huge. Recently, some Dutch have been taking a more realistic view, realizing that some Dutch were evil and some Germans not. There is even a <A HREF="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Book_(film) by famous Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. In 2008, the Dutch public voted it the best Dutch film ever.

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