Most of France and Belgium had been liberated by September 1944, and Eisenhower, Patton and Montgomery were divided about how to progress towards Germany.
Fearing that an orthodox campaign would take many months and cost many lives, Montgomery argued for a pencil thrust north though the Netherlands and then east into the Ruhr, around the back of the heavily fortified Siegfried Line, which he believed offered a good chance of ending the war early.
Northern Netherlands, western Netherlands and the islands
Despite preferring to advance across a broad front, the cautious Eisenhower eventually agreed to Montgomery’s plan: Operation Market Garden. Montgomery’s offensive would divert resources from the Scheldt estuary but would bring four immediate benefits: the German army in the western Netherlands would be cut off; V2 rocket launchpads would be overrun and disabled; the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, could be surrounded; and a route to Berlin across north-central Germany would open up. A broad front at the Veluwe, with a deep bridgehead over the Ijssel river, would serve as a springboard for an offensive into the Ruhr. Montgomery (and the Allied planners who supported his idea) had good reason to be confident. The German army had already been pushed back from France and Belgium and was considered a spent force, incapable of mounting a defence against the Allied troops who had the momentum of war with them.
The plan for Market Garden called for the largest airborne operation in the history of warfare (codenamed “Market”). Thousands of British, American and Polish paratroopers would be flown from England and supported by an overland advance (codenamed “Garden”) by Brian G. Horrocks' British XXX Corps, setting out from Belgium. Three major rivers would need crossing, and nine bridges would have to be either captured or rebuilt. Crucial to the whole plan was the seizure of one of the two bridges across the Neder Rijn, a tributary of the Rhine, by Arnhem. Allied command expected the XXX Corps to reach the Veluwe – and Market Garden to succeed – in no more than three days.
On 17 September 1944, three airborne divisions were dropped behind enemy lines, responsible for taking and holding selected bridgeheads until the main army could force their way north to join them. The 1st British Airborne Division parachuted into the fields west of Wolfheze and north of Heelsum, a small village near the most northerly target of the operation. Their principal objective was to seize the bridges at Arnhem and establish a bridgehead between the Westerbouwing and the railway bridge at Westervoort. The 101st American Airborne Division was dropped to secure objectives in the area around Veghel, Sint-Oedenrode and Son. The 82nd Division was dropped around Grave and Nijmegen, for the crossings over the Maas and the Waal, and to secure higher ground at Groesbeek.
The landings around Arnhem ran into serious problems. Allied command believed there was no suitable landing zone near the city, so airborne units were dropped 10–15km away. (In fact, assumptions that German anti-aircraft guns were installed in Arnhem and Deelan were incorrect.) A shortage of transport aircraft also meant the units arrived in three waves. The first units to arrive on 17 September were stretched, being forced to capture the road bridge at Arnhem (the rail bridge had in the meantime been destroyed by the Germans) as well as securing the landing site for the second and third waves. Ginkelse Heide (Ginkel Heath) near Ede was the dropping zone on the second day of the operation; again, troops were overextended and had a long way to walk to the bridge at Arnhem. To compound their problems, General Urquhart lost control of almost his entire division after landing because the tactical radios failed. The flat terrain, divided up by an extraordinary number of canals and ditches, was difficult to traverse and offered little cover for the Allied soldiers.
Bad luck dogged the operation. Extensive intelligence work had failed to reveal the strength of the enemy. Allied Command had estimated that opposition was unlikely to exceed three thousand troops, but, as it turned out, the entire 2nd SS Panzer Corps was refitting near Arnhem just when the 1st Division landed. Seasoned SS Panzer (armoured) units put up unexpected and heavy resistance against the lightly armed Allied paratroopers.
Nevertheless, British forces were able to take the enemy by surprise, and the 2nd Parachute Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, did manage to capture the northern end of the road bridge across the Rhine, but it proved impossible to capture the southern end. Frost’s paratroopers were forced to wait for reinforcements and heavy weapons that were due to arrive by road. Surrounded, outgunned and outmanned, the 2nd Battalion held their position from September 17th to the morning of the 21st, a feat of extraordinary courage and determination.
The commander and men of the 1st Airborne Division, meanwhile, were besieged in their headquarters at the Hartenstein Hotel at Oosterbeek, just outside Arnhem, with supplies running low and corpses accumulating in the hotel grounds.
American troops were having their own troubles trying to capture the two bridges across the Waal at Nijmegen. The first attempt, made by units of the American 82nd Airborne Division on 17 September, managed to get within 400m of the Waal bridge, only to be repelled by German forces. The next day another attack was initiated, but again the paratroopers were unable to secure the bridge.
On 19 September the ground forces of the XXX Corps established contact with airborne units in Grave. A combined attack to secure the bridges was made, this time with tank support from the Guards Armored Division. Again, the Allied advance was halted just before the bridges. German troops had been reinforced by men from the 10th SS Panzer Division and put up stiff resistance. It was becoming clear that the bridges could not be stormed.
A plan was finally made to infiltrate behind enemy lines and attack the bridges from both sides. In a desperate effort to regain the initiative, US paratroopers crossed the Waal in 26 inadequate, canvas-sided boats. Lacking proper oars, some soldiers had to use their rifle butts to row. Half of the 160 US soldiers involved were killed or wounded before, after and during the crossing. Just half of the dinghies could be used for a second crossing.
After four hours of bloody fighting and heavy losses on both sides, the paratroopers, with the help of the XXX Corps, succeeded in capturing the bridges intact. The city of Nijmegen was liberated.
Operation Market Garden might still have succeeded had the land forces, with the Irish Guards at the front of the column, been able to relieve the paratroopers. But the ground forces were dependent on a single road between Eindhoven and Nijmegen that was vulnerable to constant fire from both sides; it soon became dubbed “Hell’s Highway”. Many lives were lost trying to move supplies northwards to the exposed troops, and matters were only made worse when immobilized tanks blocked the road.
By the morning of 25 September it was apparent that reinforcements in sufficient numbers would not be able to get through in support. There was no other option but to abandon the operation and evacuate the troops. Under the cover of darkness (during the night of 25–26 September), a dramatic and supremely well-executed withdrawal saved more than two thousand soldiers out of an original force of 10,000 from the perimeter of the Hartenstein villa in Oosterbeek. Historians generally agree that Operation Market Garden was lost within its first hours with the failure to take the bridge at Arnhem, which became known in popular literature as a “bridge too far”.
There has been controversy about Operation Market Garden ever since. Some argue that it was poorly conceived, others that it might have worked but for a series of military mishaps and miscalculations. Whatever the case, its failure created mistrust between Montgomery and Eisenhower, and tarnished Montgomery’s reputation as an infallible military strategist. Montgomery defended himself by claiming the operation had been “ninety percent successful”. Air Marshal Tedder famously retorted, “one jumps off a cliff with an even higher success rate, until the last few inches.”
For the Dutch, the consequences were severe. After the Battle of Arnhem, 95,000 civilians living in the area were forced to evacuate as the Germans turned the north bank of the Rhine into a heavily fortified line. Arnhem became a ghost town. The failed military operation also revealed to the Germans just how much of the Dutch population reviled them and were willing to “collaborate” with the enemy. This was a prime motivation for the policy that led to the Hunger Winter.
In support of Operation Market Garden and in anticipation of imminent liberation, the exiled Dutch prime minister, Pieter Gerbrandy, instructed the resistance to organize a national railway strike that would cripple Dutch infrastructure and hamper German troop movements. When Market Garden failed to achieve its aims, the country was effectively divided into an occupied northern section and a largely liberated southern one. Incensed by what they regarded as Dutch “betrayal”, the Germans decided to wreak a slow and cruel revenge by minimizing the already meagre food supplies available to Dutch citizens.
By early October, Gerbrandy was having desperate meetings with Churchill, during which he predicted a humanitarian disaster and suggested that the Swedish government be allowed to intervene with deliveries of food. Churchill was reluctant to comply, believing that relief supplies would simply be consumed by the Germans, but by the end of the month Eisenhower had agreed in principle to such an operation. By this point winter was approaching, and it would turn out to be one of the harshest on record. To make matters worse, transport of coal from the south had stopped and gas and electricity were being cut off. People were resorting to chopping down trees and ransacking abandoned houses – some belonging to deported Jewish families – for fuel.
Throughout the winter the situation worsened, especially in the major towns where people were trying to survive on as little as 400–800 calories per day. There was no meat or milk available, only small quantities of flour and potatoes, forcing people to fall back on sugar beets and tulip bulbs as staples. Many town dwellers headed into the country seeking food, bartering their possessions with farmers for whatever they could get. The agreed relief convoys from Sweden finally began at the end of January 1945, but they only scratched the surface of what was required. People were now starving in large numbers, making them more susceptible to disease, with the elderly and very young particularly vulnerable.
Following negotiations with the Germans not to shoot down relief planes, the Allies began a series of air drops at the end of April: nearly 7000 tons of food were dropped by the RAF and the Canadian Air Force between the 29 April and 8 May, and a further 4000 tons by the USAAF between 1–8 May. But it wasn’t until the German surrender on 6 May that a full-scale and systematic relief operation could begin, by which time an estimated 20,000 Dutch citizens had died from starvation.
The price had been high, but some benefits were also gleaned from Operation Market Garden. It liberated around one fifth of the Netherlands, including the town of Eindhoven (on 18 September), and gave the Allies a valuable salient from which to launch an offensive into Germany. The salient was vulnerable to German attack, however, by troops operating from a bridgehead over the Maas near Venlo. To deal with this threat, Operation Aintree was devised to clear German troops from Overloon and Venray (which lay en route to Venlo).
The land west of Venlo was marshy and crossed by several canals. At Overloon, Allied forces came up against determined resistance between 30 September and 18 October 1944. In all, 2500 men were killed and a significant number of tanks (mainly American) were lost in what is largely regarded as a forgotten battle in the Netherlands. The Allies were ultimately successful, and managed to drive the Germans back across the Maas.
Not until four months later were the Allies ready to launch an offensive, Operation Veritable, from the Netherlands into northern Germany. British and Canadian troops were assembled in the captured Nijmegen area (Rijk van Nijmegen) and in North Limburg in preparation for Veritable, the opening move in the major Rhineland offensive beginning on 8 February 1945. However, a thaw in the cold weather jeopardized another carefully thought-out plan, as rain and mud made it virtually impossible to push forward. Montgomery was finally able to bypass Arnhem to reach the Rhine.
Arnhem was finally liberated, long after the Allies had crossed the Rhine in other places, by Operation Anger in April 1945, sometimes referred to as the Second Battle of Arnhem. The offensive to seize the city was implemented by the First Canadian Army, which incorporated British units. The attack was led by the artillery, armour and infantry of the 49th British (West Yorkshire) Division, nicknamed the Polar Bears, which had been stationed on Nijmegen Island since the previous December. They were supported by the 5th Canadian Armoured Division. Operation Anger began on 12 April 1945 and Arnhem was entered and liberated on 15 April.
Arnhem’s province, Gelderland, was also the scene of one of the last major battles in the Netherlands. After the breakthrough at the Rhine, the Allied forces where split into three groups. One of these, made up mostly of Canadian forces, swung round and started the liberation of the Netherlands from the east.
On 16 April 1945, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division liberated the village of Otterlo (near Ede) before continuing on to Wekerom and Voorthuizen, leaving the divisional headquarters and an infantry battalion behind in the village. The Germans, meanwhile, were trying to get to safety in the west of the Netherlands, and somewhere between 600 and 900 German soldiers came upon Otterlo on the evening of 16 April. The Canadians fired their guns at short range but were eventually taken out by the German soldiers. The gunners fought on using their hand guns, but groups of German soldiers managed to push through and entrench themselves in the village.
In the early hours of the next morning, the situation had escalated into a serious battle. Canadian tanks had been called in for assistance. Two Wasp flamethrowers fired at the German positions, whereupon the Nazi soldiers panicked and fled. More than three hundred of them were killed, along with twelve Canadians and four civilians.
World War II left a deep and indelible mark on the community of Putten. On 2 October 1944, in retaliation for a resistance operation, 659 men were arrested here and more than one hundred homes were subsequently set alight. The men were deported first to Camp Amersfoort; on 11 October, 601 were transported on to Neuengamme concentration camp. More than 550 men died as a result of the round-up, almost Putten’s entire male population. Aid was collected from around the Netherlands – and even abroad – to support the women of the village in the following months. On 1 October 1949, Queen Juliana unveiled a memorial to the lost men of Putten – The Widow of Putten, handkerchief in hand, is a moving monument to human grief.
More than 3900 war victims are buried at Loenen Field of Honour. The graves belong to men and women who died in various campaigns around the world, including military personnel, members of the resistance, victims of reprisal and forced labour, and those who escaped the Netherlands in the first years of the war to join the Allies in England (the “Engelandvaarders”). Casualties from the Indonesian War of Independence and New Guinea, as well as victims of peacekeeping missions in Korea, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Mali, are also buried here.
With a view of the famous – if unspectacular – John Frost Bridge (the “bridge too far” that was so bloodily contested in September 1944), the Airborne at the Bridge Information Centre explains the story of Operation Market Garden and Arnhem’s pivotal role in it. The centre also tells the personal stories of some of the people involved, including British lieutenant John Grayburn, German Hauptsturmführer Viktor Eberhard Gräbner and the Dutch captain Jacob Groenewoud, who fought and died at Arnhem. The town’s tourist information office is also located here.
Given the intensity of the battle that raged here in September 1944, it’s surprising that the Hotel Hartenstein, just outside Arnhem and the villa-headquarters of the British First Airborne Division during the assault, wasn’t razed to the ground. The building, which lies just to the west of the village centre, survived the war; afterwards, it was restored and adapted to house the Airborne Museum.
The museum experience begins with a first-rate battle film, making skilful use of original footage – including a chilling scene in which German machine gunners blaze away at paratroopers dropping from the sky. Ensuing rooms hold a series of small exhibitions on some of the individuals who took part in Operation Market Garden, perhaps most memorably Private Albert Willingham, who died protecting a Dutch woman from a German grenade. There’s also a piece of wallpaper salvaged from the hotel, where British snipers marked up the score of their hits and inscribed the words, “Fuck the Gerrys”. A further display in the basement (the “Airborne experience”) recreates the scene in the hotel as the Germans closed in – the British were besieged at Hartenstein for a week before finally retreating across the river.
The Army Film and Photographic Unit landed with the British forces, and it’s their photographs that stick in the memory most of all: grimly cheerful soldiers hauling in their parachutes; tense, tired faces during the fighting; and shattered Dutch villages.
This Commonwealth war cemetery contains the graves of 1754 Allied troops, including most of the soldiers who were killed during Operation Market Garden. American remains, meanwhile, were either repatriated or interred in the cemetery of the American Battle Monuments Commission in Margraten. The “Cross of Sacrifice”, the cemetery’s main monument, supports a bronze sword and is a symbol for all the soldiers who died in the Netherlands during World War II.
The Information Centre: The Poles of Driel provides valuable insight into the battle fought by the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade in the village of Driel during Operation Market Garden. Interesting exhibits trace how the brigade was formed, the dishonourable way the Poles were treated after the failure of Operation Market Garden, and the friendship that subsequently developed between the people of Driel and the Polish parachutists.
Opened in February 2019, this brand-new information centre in Nijmegen is designed to introduce visitors to the wartime history of the region, with an overview of the stories, heritage and museums on offer.
The largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the Netherlands, the Canadian War Cemetery contains the graves of hundreds of men killed in neighbouring regions in the closing months of the war, mostly after Operation Market Garden. Many of the dead were brought here from Germany – General Crerar, commander of Canadian forces in Europe, ordered that no Canadian should be buried on German soil. All the Canadians who lost their lives during Operation Veritable – except for one man – were buried or reburied here.
The cemetery also contains the graves of 267 soldiers from Britain, as well as a few from Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Russia, New Zealand and Yugoslavia. Just inside the entrance to the cemetery is a memorial wall bearing the names of 1047 military personnel missing in action.
During Operation Market Garden, paratroopers from the 82nd US Airborne Division landed in the area where the National Liberation Museum is now located. From here, they started their advance towards the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen; the capture of these would open up the region between the Maas, Waal and Rhine rivers to the Allied advance.
This area, around Groesbeek and Nijmegen, was also the stepping stone from which Operation Veritable, aimed at clearing the Reichswald Forest, was launched in February 1945. By then, the road leading to the museum had become the front line separating the Allied and German forces. Operation Veritable opened with the heaviest artillery bombardment seen on the Western Front during World War II – more than half a million shells were fired at the German front line.
The National Liberation Museum 1944–1945 has recently emerged from a comprehensive rebuild, reopening in mid-2019 to mark the start of the commemorative 75 Years of Freedom programme. A striking new building houses its excellent collection relating to Operation Market Garden, the battle for the Reichswald and World War II more generally. Its new incarnation has been developed with a strong international outlook and a specific focus on Germany.
Opened in January 1943, Camp Vught was the only official SS concentration camp in the Netherlands. Modelled on camps in Germany, it was divided into two sections, one for political prisoners brought here from Belgium and the Netherlands, the other for Jews.
Most of the Jewish inmates were subsequently moved to Westerbork before being transported to the death camps further east. Predictably, many people died here in the cruellest of circumstances or were executed in the woods nearby. Although it’s a reconstruction, and only a fraction of the size it used to be, Camp Vught still makes a vivid impression.
The affluent little town of Overloon in Noord Brabant was rebuilt after the war, having been devastated in the eponymous battle. The final stages of the Battle of Overloon took place in the woods to the east of town, where hand-to-hand combat eventually secured the area.
The result of a proposal by local resident Harry van Daal, the Overloon War Museum was developed on a section of the former battlefield to commemorate the fighting that took place here. Founded using military hardware left behind in the wake of World War II, this excellent museum is openly didactic, intended as “an admonition and warning, a denouncement of war and violence.” The collection is particularly strong on military machinery, with tanks, rocket launchers, armoured cars, a Bailey bridge and a V1 flying bomb on display.
This museum just outside Eindhoven, located on “Hell’s Highway”, explores what life was like under German occupation and the final liberation. Expect authentic military equipment, including vehicles, and beautiful dioramas.
Bergen op Zoom is located in Noord Brabant, close to Zeeland and the “neck” of South Beveland. Some 3km east of the town are two adjacent Commonwealth cemeteries: Bergen op Zoom British War Cemetery and Bergen op Zoom Canadian War Cemetery, separated by a thick screen of trees. Many of the dead interred here died in the Battle of the Scheldt and other actions in the southwest Netherlands.
In 2013, the city of Nijmegen opened a new bridge called the Oversteek (Crossing). Erected close to the place where troops of the US 82nd Airborne Division crossed the River Waal under heavy fire on 20 September 1944, the Oversteek commemorates the soldiers of Operation Market Garden. The bridge is fitted with 48 pairs of specially programmed street lights, which are illuminated at sunset, pair by pair, at the pace of a slow march.
Each evening at dusk, a Dutch military veteran – wearing a beret, insignia and war medals – walks the Sunset March to honour the 48 American soldiers who died trying to cross the river and as a tribute to all Allied personnel who fought for the liberation of the Netherlands. The march takes 12 minutes in total; all are welcome to attend. Any veteran can volunteer to lead the march, although dates get booked up in advance (sunsetmarch.nl).
Top image: After the Battle of Nijmegen © Everett Historical/Shutterstock