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Posted on May 29, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 5

By Carlo D'Este

Market-Garden was a disaster waiting to happen. Its key players were like the three blind mice of fable: Montgomery and Brereton had little experience of airborne operations, while Browning’s experience was at the staff level. Anyone familiar with airborne operations would never have permitted the 1st Airborne Division to be landed at sites so far from their objective. All three were utterly blinded by their eagerness to make something happen, and like Mark Clark’s decision to launch the disastrous Rapido River crossings in Italy in January 1944, the Market-Garden commanders and their staffs attempted to mold their plan to fit a flawed premise. Montgomery’s own staff was opposed to the plan, as was his chief of staff. Unfortunately, Major General Freddie de Guingand had appeared headed for a breakdown from overwork and had been sent by Montgomery to England for a rest and medical care. De Guingand was sufficiently worried about Market-Garden to telephone a warning to Montgomery from his sick bed, only to be told that “he was too far from the scene of action and was out of touch,” yet another telling harbinger of trouble ahead that went unheeded. [14]


Complicating the planning and decision-making process was SHAEF’s ill-timed and badly-chosen location in far distant Granville, France (along the southern end of the Cotentin Peninsula). Eisenhower’s staff was largely ignorant of the details of Market-Garden. With SHAEF in Granville, Montgomery’s HQ near Brussels, Dempsey’s elsewhere in Belgium, and the airborne army based in England, the principal organizations never met to coordinate and resolve Market-Garden’s obvious flaws or question its contradictions. Montgomery, whose reputation and success were based upon meticulous planning, was caught up in the politics of the broad front, and in a shocking lack of critical analysis, never viewed the dual operation as he should have. Instead, he approved Market-Garden, more from a sense of despair, frustration and pressure to overrun and put out of commission Hitler’s V-bomb sites in Holland, than from a solid military foundation. No one in the Allied chain of command ever asked the crucial question: even if we capture Arnhem and the bridge, what then? How will the Germans react and what forces can we muster to sustain an offensive into the Ruhr?


With all eyes directed toward Market-Garden and the breaching of the German border, there occurred one of the greatest blunders of the war. The importance of a bridgehead across the Rhine notwithstanding, the highest Allied priority in September 1944 was not a bridgehead over the Rhine but the capture and opening of Antwerp, one of the world’s largest deep-water ports. Along with Marseilles, the Normandy ports continued to bear the brunt of resupplying three army groups deployed across an enormous area running from eastern France to the Low Countries. With the Normandy beaches and ports ever farther distant from the front lines, barring a sudden German collapse and surrender, no matter what strategy the Allies employed, the opening of Antwerp had become vital. The logisticians expected Antwerp to enable the Allies to funnel 15,000 tons per day by December and 22,500 per day by March 1945.

Although Brussels was liberated on September 3 by the British Second Army, and Antwerp the following day, the British spearheads failed to secure the vital crossings over the Albert Canal leading to Antwerp’s access routes to the sea, and just as inexplicably, neither Montgomery nor Dempsey ordered the capture of the vital Scheldt estuary which remained in German hands, thus preventing the opening of the port. By the time attempts were made to seize the Albert Canal crossings, the Germans had blown all its bridges.

Alone among the combatants only the Germans recognized and acted with urgency to keep Antwerp from being utilized by the Allies. Although everyone from the Combined Chiefs of Staff to Eisenhower and Montgomery had previously identified its importance, the capture of the sixty-mile Scheldt estuary was virtually ignored until late September, when a fresh controversy erupted with the realization that, with the priority of effort and attention diverted to Market-Garden, the future of Antwerp had yet to be resolved. The British official historian chides both Eisenhower and Montgomery with failing to pay sufficient attention to “the immediate importance of the Scheldt.” [15]

The consequences were disastrous. Not only did most of the German Fifteenth Army escape, but also the Germans were able to reinforce Antwerp’s approaches, Walcheren and North Beveland Islands and the South Beveland peninsula, with some 80,000 troops ferried across the Scheldt. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place in these Dutch marshlands until well into November as the Canadian First Army fought to clear the Scheldt estuary against German formations heeding Hitler’s mandate to fight to the bitter end to prevent the port of Antwerp from becoming an Allied staging area for the final battles for Germany.

“Only casualty figures could adequately bespeak the bitterness of a fight waged under appalling conditions of cold, rain, mud, and flood,” wrote an official U.S. historian. Of the 13,000 Allied casualties, over 6,000 were Canadian, while German losses in POWs alone exceeded 40,000 or nearly half the force defending the Scheldt. Antwerp, with its great capacity to resupply the ravenous Allied armies remained useless until the first Allied convoy finally docked on November 28.

On Sunday, September 17, the Allies mounted the largest airborne and glider operation of the war. A massive aerial armada of over 1,545 troop carriers and 478 gliders literally blackened the skies over England and Holland throughout the day. In all, more than 5,000 aircraft would participate in the airborne and glider landings. Over Arnhem and Nijmegen parachutes and gliders floated from the sky in an operation so mammoth that a second wave of the 1st Airborne Division had to be postponed until the next day, yet another crucial mistake, this one by Brereton who seemed to think that flying two lifts in one day was too much for his pilots, when it had been accomplished during Operation Dragoon (the Allied invasion along the Riviera in August) without incident.

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