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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

Although the landings initially went well, “Boy” Browning’s failure to heed the warnings from the Dutch underground would soon extract a terrible price. Units of the spearhead brigade were thus obliged to march long distances on foot toward Arnhem Bridge. Only one unit actually reached the bridge, Lt. Col. John Frost’s 2d Parachute Battalion. The remainder of the division was soon pinned down in and around Arnhem by the veteran German panzer troops Browning had disregarded. At this crucial moment not only did the British radios fail, making the growing dilemma of the British airborne even more acute, but the following day bad weather in England grounded Brereton’s aircraft. With no reinforcements or resupply of his lightly armed airborne, Urquhart’s worst fears came true.


Congestion and savage German resistance along the narrow road to Nijmegen and Arnhem soon earned it the nickname of “Hell’s Highway,” and delayed the British ground advance by crucial hours. The Germans also recovered a copy of the Market-Garden plan from the corpse of an American officer who should not have been carrying it into combat. Thus forewarned, their commanders anticipated and eventually thwarted each Allied maneuver. Although XXX Corps linked up with the 101st Airborne at Eindhoven on September 18, the 82d U.S. and 1st British Airborne Divisions remained engaged in savage battles for survival.

The afternoon of September 20, two assault elements of the 82d Airborne stormed across the Waal in rubber rafts directly into heavy German fire and seized the northern end of the Nijmegen railway bridge. Despite their heroics the British failed to exploit the 82d Airborne’s hard-fought triumph by thrusting through the disrupted German defenses and relieving the besieged force at Arnhem Bridge. [16]

At Arnhem, Frost’s battalion controlled the northern approaches to Arnhem Bridge and very quickly was permanently cut-off from the rest of the division, which had become heavily engaged and pinned down in the town.

Frost’s intrepid paratroopers held Arnhem Bridge for four days before being overwhelmed and compelled to surrender. An attempt by the Polish airborne to reach the bridge compounded the tragedy when the Germans attacked the landing zone and sunk a ferry that was to have taken them across the river. In so doing, Browning had backed the incompetent commander of the Anglo-Polish force sent to reinforce Arnhem, British Major General. G.I. Thomas. Nicknamed by his own troops “Butcher Thomas,” he insisted on an assault crossing of the Rhine into the teeth of the German defenses despite Sosabowski’s warnings that it would be suicidal and could be carried out without opposition further downstream.

By September 25 the operation had failed and a decision was made to attempt to save what remained of the 1st Airborne Division. Under the cover of darkness 2,400 Polish and British paratroopers and glider pilots managed to cross the Rhine to safety on the south bank in small rubber boats. Of the 10,000 men who had landed at Arnhem on September 17, 1,400 had been killed and over 6,000 were prisoners of the Germans. The gallant 1st Airborne had ceased to exist as a fighting unit.

What had begun with high optimism turned into a military disaster. Although the heroic stand of Frost’s battalion at Arnhem Bridge is widely considered one of the legendary episodes of World War II, Market-Garden was in fact an abject failure that has been mythologized by that eccentric British practice of turning military disasters such as Dunkirk into glorious occasions. Even Churchill, with his romanticized view of war, bought into the hyperbole, calling Arnhem, “a decided victory . . . I have not been affected by any feeling of disappointment over this and am glad our commanders are capable of running this kind of risk.” [17] Neither the brave British paratroopers nor the Poles who fought to save them would ever have conceded that Arnhem was anything but the remembrance of a tragedy.


Montgomery’s later claim that 90% of its objectives had been attained was meaningless. The Allies had failed to establish a bridgehead north of the Rhine in what has come to be known as “a bridge too far.” Without that bridgehead Montgomery’s narrow front had died ingloriously.

Although Montgomery described himself as “bitterly disappointed,” by Arnhem and admitting mistakes were made for which he bore responsibility, “I remain Market-Garden’s unrepentant advocate,’” he proclaimed in his memoirs.” [18] Eisenhower was similarly unapologetic when he declared after the publication of Cornelius Ryan’s best-selling account, A Bridge Too Far, “I not only approved Market-Garden, I insisted upon it. We needed a bridgehead over the Rhine. If that could be accomplished I was quite willing to wait on all other operations.” [19] Neither ever acknowledged that Market-Garden should never have failed. It was one of the few times in his life his well deserved reputation for candor failed him.

In his memoir of World War II, Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower barely mentions Market-Garden, dismissing it with the observation that it would “unquestionably have been successful except for the intervention of bad weather.” [20] In the postwar years, after the two generals traded criticism in their memoirs and their falling out was irrevocable, Eisenhower thrust the entire blame on Monty. “My staff opposed it,” he wrote in 1960, “but because he was the commander in the field, I approved.” [21]

For two men accustomed to accepting responsibility, Market-Garden was an embarrassment that did neither credit. For Montgomery, it was a desperate attempt to re-ignite the narrow front he had unsuccessfully attempted to impose upon the supreme commander; for Eisenhower, it was an attempt to satisfy Marshall’s desire to make better use of the airborne and re-ignite the sputtering Allied advance. Responsibility for the failure of Market-Garden began with Eisenhower and extended to Montgomery, Brereton, Browning and, on the ground side, Dempsey and Horrocks, neither of whom heeded Montgomery’s edict that the Second Army/XXX Corps drive to Arnhem must be “rapid and violent, without regard to what is happening on the flanks.” Neither general galvanized their tank units while there was still time to have seized and held Arnhem Bridge. Montgomery should have so influenced Dempsey and Horrocks with a well-timed boot in their backsides had he bothered to follow the course of their progress with his usual resolve and attention to detail. His unusual and uncharacteristic absence could not have come at a worse time. Had it been any other occasion, noted his G-2, Brigadier Bill Williams, Monty “would have been breathing down Horrocks’ neck.” [22]

The most ludicrous postmortem was Brereton’s preliminary after-action report sent to Eisenhower in early October which proclaimed that, “Despite the failure of the 2d Army to get through to Arnhem and establish a permanent bridgehead over the Neder Rijn, Operation MARKET was a brilliant success.” [23] It took until 1960 for Eisenhower to privately admit that Market-Garden had “miserably failed.”

It is axiomatic that military debacles require scapegoats and Arnhem was no exception. The ire of the British commanders fell upon the one officer to whom they ought to have listened. Instead they compounded the tragedy of Arnhem by pointing the finger of responsibility at Sosabowski, who was unjustly relieved of his command at Browning’s instigation. In fact, Sosabowski, an experienced and highly competent officer, was removed because he had become an embarrassment to Browning’s own ineptitude. Had Sosabowski’s counsel been heeded the battle might have been won, even at the eleventh hour. “It was,” writes a recent historian of Arnhem, “a shameful act by the British commanders.” [24] Like Browning, Montgomery, despite his postwar admissions, outrageously made the Poles the scapegoat. In a scathing letter to Brooke he characterized them as gutless and insisted that he did not want them assigned to his army group and should be sent instead to join their comrades in operating in Italy. [25] To this day, the unfortunate stain upon the honor of these brave men has yet to be officially erased.

Montgomery’s bluster failed to conceal his anguish. His once high standing as the D-Day ground commander had evolved into the perception of a whining, “arrogant, opinionated and self-serving ‘Brit.’” [26] That the triumphant Allied leadership which had carried out the greatest victory of the war should have turned so sour, so fast was as destructive as it was disheartening. The spotlight may have been on Montgomery but it was never off Eisenhower who bore the brunt of the barbs and the criticism leveled by the principal players at him, and at one another. At the height of his frustration after Arnhem, Montgomery told Brooke that Eisenhower was “quite useless,” and when Montgomery later attempted to shift the entire blame on to Eisenhower, his official biographer, Nigel Hamilton, declared that, “It was in truth his own doing,” and “nothing less than foolhardy.” Moreover, Hamilton also notes that the failure at Arnhem carried with it a greater “penalty of incalculable significance to the Allied campaign in the west: Antwerp.” [27]

The failure of Market-Garden at the “bridge too far” and the even more damaging failure to have easily advanced beyond the “bridge not far enough” and captured the vital Scheldt Estuary were blunders that would soon come back to haunt the Allies. Other than his first few months in North Africa, not even Overlord compared in intensity to the test of Eisenhower’s will that occurred in the autumn and early winter of 1944. The final installment of this series on Dwight Eisenhower next month will take a look at the Battle of the Bulge.

(Portions of this account are extracted from the author’s Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life (Henry Holt, 2002 and Owl Books, 2003.)

Source Notes

1. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis (New York, 2000), p. 717.

2. SHAEF intelligence estimates, quoted in Forrest C. Pogue, The Supreme Command (Washington, 1951), pp. 244-45.

3. DDE Office Memorandum, Sep. 5, 1944, The Eisenhower Papers, vol. IV, p. 2121.

4. In addition to the 82d and 101st Airborne, the third U.S. airborne division was the 17th Airborne, newly arrived from the U.S. Brereton’s command also included the British 52d (Lowland) Division, a non-airborne unit trained in but never employed in mountain operations. The 52d was deemed “air transportable” by troop carrier aircraft.

5. The Brereton Diaries, (Aug. 8, 1944), p. 330.

6. Geoffrey Perret, Winged Victory (New York, 1993), p. 322.

7. Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign (Washington, 1963), p. 119.

8. Martin Middlebrook, Arnhem 1944 (London, 1994), p. 66.

9. F. H. Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War, Vol III, Pt. 2, pp. 382-87 includes a detailed analysis of what Allied intelligence knew and when they knew it.

10. Bedell Smith quoted in MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, p. 122.

11. SHAEF Weekly Intelligence Summary No. 26, for the week ending Sept. 16, 1944, cited in MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, p. 122.

12. In 1983, Gen. Urquhart admitted that, “we became callous . . . We had approached the state of mind when we weren’t thinking as hard about the risks as we possibly had done earlier.” (Quoted in Nigel Hamilton, Monty: The Field Marshal, 1944-1976 (London, 1986), p. 66.)

13. See Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War, Vol III, Pt. 2, pp. 382-7.

14. Gen. Sir Charles Richardson, Send For Freddie (London, 1987, p. 165.

15. L.F. Ellis, Victory in the West, vol. II (London, 1968), p. 97.

16. During conversations in the early 1980s between the author and Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin, the division commander of the 82d Airborne during Market-Garden, it was clear he never forgave the British Guards Armored Division for failing to take advantage of the price paid in blood by his paratroopers to seize the Nijmegen railway bridge. The road to Arnhem was wide open, yet the British tanks stopped and failed to resume their attacks until the following day. By then it was too late.

17. Churchill to Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Oct. 9, 1944, quoted in Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston, 1953), p. 200.

18. Montgomery, Memoirs (London, 1958), pp. 297-8.

19. Eisenhower is quoted in The Eisenhower Papers, vol. IV, fn. 5, p. 2135.

20. Montgomery, Memoirs, and Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (London & New York, 1948), p. 349.

21. DDE to Lord Ismay, Dec. 3, 1960, Box 19, Post-Pres Papers, A-WR series, Eisenhower Library (EL).

22. Brig. E.T. Williams (21st Army Group G-2) quoted in Powell, The Devil’s Birthday, p. 184.

23. Letter and report of the First Allied Airborne Army, with cover letter from Brereton to Eisenhower, Oct. 7, 1944, Box 14, Pre-Pres Papers, EL.

24. Middlebrook, Arnhem 1944, p. 448.

25. Richard Lamb, Montgomery in Europe, 1943-45 ((London, 1983), p. 251.

26. Hamilton, Monty: The Field Marshal, 1944-1976, p. 102.

27. Ibid., pp. 89-90.

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