November 10, 2010


Stanisław Sosabowski: Niepokorny generał 

Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade

The Battle of Arnhem code-named Operation Market Garden was fought in The Netherlands from September 7 to 25, 1944 by Allied forces of the United Kingdom, United States, Free Polish, Dutch Resistance, and Canada. It called for the seizure of bridges across the Meuse River and two arms of the Rhine (the Waal and the Lower Rhine) as well as several smaller canals and tributaries. The Allies hoped that by crossing the Lower Rhine that they would outflank the Siegfried Line and encircle the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland.

The Operation was the largest airborne operation in history, delivering over 34,600 men of the 101st, 82nd and 1st Airborne Divisions and the Polish Brigade.  Over 2,000 transport aircraft and 478 gliders including the famous Polish 303 Squadron set off as an airborne armada to breach the western defences and open up the German plains for the final assault on Berlin.  14,589 troops were landed by glider and 20,011 by parachute. Gliders also brought in 1,736 vehicles and 263 artillery pieces. 3,342 tons of ammunition and other supplies were brought by glider and parachute drop.

C-47s Loading

Allied High Command were convinced that German resistance had broken as most of the German Fifteenth Army was withdrawing without sign of any Panzergruppen. Allied Command assessed that the XXX Corps would face only a limited resistance along Highway 69. (The German army had suffered heavy losses and a string of defeats between June 6 and August 14: 23,019 killed in action, 198,616 missing or taken prisoner and 67,240 wounded.)

However, German Command was receiving intelligence reports of a planned Allied attack and intensified their positions with reinforcements. By September 16th, Panzer divisions were mobilizing towards Nijmegen and Arnhem. British intelligence detected an increase in movements and relayed the information to senior Allied Commanders, but the news was not passed further down the chain of command. On September 10, General Eisenhower immediately sent his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, to raise the issue with Montgomery but Montgomery refused to change the plans for the landing of 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.

Major Brian Urquhart, the Chief Intelligence Officer of the Allied Division attempted to intervene and arranged an emergency meeting with Browning to apprise him of the present danger to the men of the 1st Airborne Division, but was rebuffed. Browning had subsequently ordered the senior medical officer of the division to send Urquhart on sick leave on the grounds of "nervous strain and exhaustion." Aerial photographs of Arnhem taken by reconnaissance confirmed the location of German Panzer Divisions.

General Sosabowski’s rebuff and criticism of the plans for Market Garden set the tone of a long campaign under Browning’s direction to discredit the Polish contribution and undermine the leadership of Sosabowski.
Left: Polish General Sosabowski and Gen. Browning

Initially Operation Market Garden opened with Allied success all round. On September 17, the first landing, almost all troops arrived on top of their drop zones without incident. In the 82nd Airborne Division, 89% of troops landed on or within 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) of their drop zones and 84% of gliders landed on or within 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) of their landing zones. In the south the 101st met little resistance and captured four of five bridges. To their north the 82nd arrived and the small group dropped near Grave took the bridge in a rush. They also succeeded in capturing one of the vitally important bridges over the Maas-Waal canal, the lock-bridge at Heumen

The 1st Airborne Division landed at 13:30 without serious incident but problems associated with the poor plan began soon after.

Only half of the Division arrived with the First Lift and only half of these (1st Parachute Brigade) could advance on the bridge. The remaining troops had to defend the drop zones overnight for the arrival of the Second Lift on the following day. Thus the Division's primary objective had to be tackled by less than half a brigade. While the paratroopers marched eastwards to Arnhem, the Reconnaissance Squadron was to race to the bridge in their jeeps and hold it until the rest of the Brigade arrived. The unit set off to the bridge late and having travelled only a short distance the vanguard was halted by a strong German defensive position; the squadron could make no further progress.

This had grave consequences. Five hours after the initial landing, feeling that the British were tied down in Arnhem, the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 9th Waffen-SS Panzer Division was able to cross the Arnhem bridge and drive to Nijmegen and the bridge over the Waal branch of the Rhine. No British airborne unit was at the bridge.

Two of the three battalions of the 1st Parachute Brigade were slowed down by small German units of a training battalion which had quickly established a thin blocking line covering the obvious routes into Arnhem. Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost's 2nd Battalion, advancing eastwards along the southernmost road into Arnhem near the Rhine, found its route largely undefended. They arrived at the bridge in the evening and set up defensive positions at the north end. Two attempts to capture the arched steel bridge and its southern approach failed. Of the other battalions, the 3rd had only covered half the distance to the bridge when they halted for the night, the rear of their column being under attack and needing time to catch up. The 1st Battalion was similarly fragmented, yet pushed on around the flank of the German line throughout the night. Frequent skirmishes resulted in their making little more progress.

The 1st and 3rd Parachute Battalions pushed towards the Arnhem bridge during the early hours of September 18 and made good progress but they were frequently halted in skirmishes as soon as it became light.  By the end of the day the 1st and 3rd Parachute Battalions had entered Arnhem and were within 2 km (1 mile) of the bridge with approximately 200 men, one-sixth their original strength. Most of the officers and non-commissioned officers had been killed, wounded or captured. The Second Lift was delayed by fog and jumped onto a landing zone under heavy attack but landed at full strength (the 4th Parachute Brigade consisting of the 10th, 11th and 156th Battalions of the Parachute Regiment, commanded by Brigadier-General John Winthrop Hackett) and C and D Companies of the 2nd South Staffordshire Regiment.

During the early morning hours of September 19, the 1st Parachute Brigade began its attack towards Arnhem Bridge, with the 1st Battalion leading supported by remnants of the 3rd Battalion, with the 2nd South Staffordshires on the 1st Battalion's left flank and the 11th Battalion following. As soon as it became light the 1st Battalion was spotted and halted by fire from the main German defensive line. Trapped in open ground and under heavy fire from three sides, the 1st Battalion disintegrated and what remained of the 3rd Battalion fell back. The 2nd South Staffordshires were similarly cut off and, save for about 150 men, overcome by midday. The 11th Battalion, (which had stayed out of much of the fighting) was then overwhelmed in exposed positions while attempting to capture high ground to the north. With no hope of breaking through, the 500 remaining men of these four battalions withdrew westwards in the direction of the main force, 5 km (3 miles) away in Oosterbeek.

The 2nd Battalion and attached units (approximately 600 men) were still in control of the northern approach ramp to the Arnhem bridge. The Germans recognized that they would not be moved by infantry attacks such as those that had been bloodily repulsed on the previous day so instead they heavily shelled the short British perimeter with mortars, artillery and tanks; systematically demolishing each house to enable their infantry to exploit gaps and dislodge the defenders. Although in battle against enormous odds, the British clung to their positions and much of the perimeter was held.

September 20: British positions around the north end of Arnhem bridge had weakened considerably. Casualties, mostly wounded, were high from constant shelling. An acute lack of ammunition especially anti-tank munitions, enabled enemy armour to demolish British positions from point-blank range. Food, water and medical supplies were scarce, and so many buildings were on fire and in such serious danger of collapse that a two-hour truce was arranged to evacuate the wounded.

At Arnhem the British 1st Airborne Division met far stronger resistance than anticipated. When ground forces failed to relieve them in time, they were overrun on the 21st. The rest of the division were trapped in a small pocket west of the bridge and had to be evacuated on the 25th. The Allies had failed to cross the Rhine in sufficient force. It remained a barrier to Allied advance until March 1945. The failure of Market Garden ended Allied expectations of finishing the war in 1944.

101st Airborne Division

82nd Airborne Division

British Troops of the 1st Airborne Emplaning

Polish Paratroopers

Aerial View of Glider Landings Arnhem

British XXX Corps cross bridge at Nijmegen

The Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade under the command of Major-General Stanislaw Sosabowski entered the battle on the afternoon of September 21st. Two of the brigade's three battalions were caught in the midst of heavy German gun fire opposite the 1st Airborne Division's position on a new drop zone south of the Rhine near the village of Driel. Furthermore, badly coordinated drops by the RAF resulted in supplies landing 15 km (9 miles) off target on the opposite side of the Rhine.

Polish Soldiers at Driel
September 22 " Black Friday"  The Germans shelled and mortared the airborne positions heavily. By the end of the battle over 110 guns had been brought to Oosterbeek.. Attacks were limited, conducted against specific positions and even individual houses. The survivors of the 1st Airborne were outnumbered 4 to 1.

The Polish 1st Parachute Brigade at Driel, unable to cross the Rhine, nonetheless forced a redeployment of German forces. Fearing a Polish attempt to recapture Arnhem bridge or, worse, an attempt to cut the road to the south and so trap the 10th SS Panzer Division then blocking the route of the Guards Armoured Division to Arnhem, the Germans withdrew 2,400 troops from Oosterbeek. They were moved south of the river to engage the Polish paratroopers at Driel, making attacks to little effect through the day.

Lacking assault craft, British and Polish engineers on both sides of the Rhine had labored throughout the day to improvise a crossing using small boats linked by signals cable, but the cable kept breaking. An unsuccessful attempt was made that night to move Polish troops across the river. They resorted to slowly rowing across the strong current which brought them under enemy fire.

Of the 8th Polish Parachute Company, only 52 soldiers survived the crossing.

Though much of the corridor was firmly in Allied hands, German counterattacks were still being mounted along its length. During the previous night, two mixed armoured formations on either side of Highway 69 attacked between Veghel and Grave; one group managed to cut the highway and prevent any further advance to Arnhem.

September 23 The Germans had figured out what the Poles were attempting to do and they spent the rest of the day trying to cut off the British in their northern bridgehead from the riverside. The British managed to hold on and both sides suffered heavy losses. The Germans also attacked the Poles on the south side in order to tie them down but several tanks arrived from XXX Corps and they were beaten off. Boats and engineers from the Canadian army also arrived that day and another river crossing that night landed 150 troops of the Polish 3rd Parachute Battalion on the north bank of the Rhine.

September 24 Another German unit cut the road to the south of Veghel and set up defensive positions for the night. It was not clear to the Allies at this point how much of a danger this represented but the principal objective of Operation Market Garden, i.e. the Allied crossing of the Rhine, was abandoned this day and the decision made to go over to the defensive with a new front line in Nijmegen. Nonetheless, an attempt was made on Sunday night to reinforce the 1st Airborne Division with the 4th Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment. Two companies were put across the river but the location of the crossing point was ill-advised and the Dorsets landed among German positions. Fragmented by their landing and immediately pinned down, of the 315 men who crossed only 75 reached Oosterbeek; the remainder were taken prisoner. As a result of this failure, it was decided to withdraw the 1st Airborne Division from its bridgehead on the northern side of the Rhine.

September 25 The 1st Airborne Division received orders to withdraw across the Rhine. They could not do so until nightfall, and in the meantime struggled to survive.  Meanwhile the Germans formed two potent SS battlegroups and made a significant thrust along a narrow front in the eastern sector. They were able to break through and for some time the Allied division was in peril. The attack met with increasing resistance as it pushed deeper into the British lines and was finally broken up by a heavy bombardment of the 64th Medium Regiment.

Employing every ruse to give the Germans the impression that their positions were unchanged, the 1st Airborne Division began its withdrawal at 22:00. British and Canadian engineer units ferried the troops across the Rhine, covered by the Polish 3rd Parachute Battalion on the north bank. By early the next morning they had withdrawn 2,398 survivors, leaving 300 men to surrender on the north bank at first light, when German fire prevented their rescue.

Of approximately 10,600 men of the 1st Airborne Division and other units who fought north of the Rhine, 1,485 were killed and 6,414 were taken prisoner of whom one third were wounded.

To the south the newly-arrived 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division attacked the Germans holding the highway and secured it by the next day. Allied positions in the Nijmegen Salient were manned throughout the rest of September and October by airborne units, then handed over to the First Canadian Army in November 1944 and remained unchanged until February 1945 when Operation Veritable was launched on the Rhineland, advancing east instead of north towards Arnhem.

British 1st Parachute Battalion

After having failed to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine, the Allies launched offensives on two fronts in the south of the Netherlands in order to secure shipping in the port of Antwerp;  advancing northwards and westwards taking the Scheldt Estuary in the Battle of the Scheldt. They also advanced eastwards in Operation Aintree in order to secure the banks of the Meuse as a natural boundary for the established salient. This attack on the German bridgehead west of the Meuse near Venlo was for the Allies an unexpectedly protracted affair, which included the Battle of Overloon.

Nijmegen after battle September 28, 1944

In February 1945, Allied forces in Operation Veritable advanced from the Groesbeek heights which had been taken during Market Garden, and into Germany crossing the Rhine in March during Operation Plunder. Arnhem was finally liberated by I Canadian Corps on April 14, 1945 after two days of fighting. A surrender of the remaining German forces in the west of the Netherlands was signed on May 5.

People of the Dutch resistance helping to find Germans and guide the Allies in the fields

A tragic consequence of Operation Market Garden was the Hongerwinter (Hungerwinter). During the battle Dutch railway workers, encouraged by the Dutch government in London, went on strike with the intention of helping the Allied assault. In retaliation Germany blocked the transportation of food and in the following winter thousands of Dutch citizens starved to death.


sources:  Wikipedia 

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