SINCE its founding in 1835 as a military garrison on the moors of northeast Belgium, the Flemish town of Bourg-Léopold had seen fortune ebb and flow with each passing army. It was said that here the invading Germans in 1914 had first experimented with chlorinated gas. Between world wars, the cantonment became Europe’s largest and most modern, a camp for forty thousand Belgian soldiers and several thousand horses—all for naught against a new generation of German attackers, who bombed Bourg-Léopold in May 1940, then occupied the casern for four years, using the municipal woods to execute more than two hundred men, mostly suspected resistance supporters. British bombers in mid-May 1944 had accidentally slaughtered seventy-seven townfolk during a raid on the camp, but made amends two weeks later by returning to kill scores of German soldiers in their barracks.
Now the Germans were gone, again, and Allied soldiers swarmed through the cobbled streets. The British XXX Corps had planted its headquarters outside town, near a honey farm with brightly painted wooden hives, and military policemen in brassards and red caps briskly directed dust-caked convoys to the engineer dumps scattered around Bourg-Léopold. Nine thousand sappers had assembled two thousand truckloads of road metal, bridge girders, and barge anchors, all sorted into columns with code names for quick deployment.
On the radiant Sunday morning of September 17, dozens of British officers, none below the rank of lieutenant colonel, filed into the dingy cinema on Nicolaylaan, across from the hip-roof train station. They were a vivid lot, sporting chromatic scarves, ascots, and berets affixed with the badges of Scots, Irish, and Welsh Guards, of Grenadier and Coldstream Guards and Household Cavalry. Their costumes, a brigadier recorded, included “sniper’s smocks, parachutist’s jackets and jeep coats over brightly colored slacks, corduroys, riding breeches or even jodhpurs.” After an exchange of barked greetings—some had fought together since before Alamein—they settled into their moviegoer seats to study a huge sketch map of eastern Holland propped against the screen on stage.
At eleven A.M. Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, in a high-necked wooly beneath his battle-dress blouse and an airborne smock, ambled down the center aisle, provoking another yelping chorus of salutations. Lanky and spare, Horrocks was said by one admirer to possess “an ascetic, almost an ecclesiastical face,” and his thick nimbus of white hair added a patriarchal mien to a man barely forty-nine. Mounting the stage, he surveyed the assemblage with a wry smile, then welcomed them with a quip that would be oft-repeated in later years to illustrate his sangfroid: “This is a tale you will tell your grandchildren, and mighty bored they’ll be.” Much knee-slapping ensued.
Horrocks was made for such moments. He had been born in an Indian hill station, the son of a knighted army surgeon, and as a young officer was severely wounded in the gut and captured at Ypres in 1914; repatriated after four years in a German prison camp, he squandered his accumulated back pay in an epic six-week spree. In 1919 he was captured again, this time by the Reds while fighting with a British contingent aiding the Whites in the Russian civil war. Again he was repatriated, having managed to survive typhus in a Bolshevik jail. After eighteen years as a captain, and a turn in the 1924 Olympics as the British pentathlon champion, he quickly ascended the ranks when war resumed, although he deemed himself “a not very bright philistine who had been lucky.” Evacuated from Dunkirk, he later fought with Montgomery at Alamein and across Africa. While preparing to command the British corps at Salerno, he was struck down by a German fighter during a strafing run on Bizerte; one bullet caught him in the leg and another punctured his lungs and intestines before exiting through his spine. Half a dozen brutal surgeries kept him hospitalized for more than a year, and medicos declared he would never have another field command. Instead, Montgomery summoned him in August to take XXX Corps. The botched capture of the Scheldt adjacent to Antwerp was in part Horrocks’s fault—as he candidly confessed—and if he now radiated vigorous good humor, some of those hunched in their cinema seats thought he appeared a tad frail.
Eyes alight, graceful hands gliding up and down, he spoke for an hour to review, for a final time, the plan called MARKET GARDEN. The Allied objective was “to dominate the country to the north as far as the Zuider Zee”—a shallow lake off the North Sea, better known as the IJsselmeer—“thereby cutting off communications between Germany and the Low Countries.” With luck and élan, a quarter of a million enemy soldiers would be trapped in the western Netherlands, including those from the Fifteenth Army who had escaped across the Scheldt; the attack also would overrun many of the pestiferous V-2 rocket sites. An Allied juggernaut spearheaded by three armored divisions would then pivot east into Germany toward the Ruhr, having outflanked the Siegfried Line. Code names for various Dutch localities had been drawn from Shakespeare, including HAMLET, MACBETH, DUNCAN, BANQUO, OTHELLO, IAGO, YORICK, JULIET, and GUILDENSTERN—even indifferent scholars could not help but notice that things ended badly for this dramatis personae—but the three central characters represented a trio of large towns to be seized: BRUTUS, or Eindhoven, thirteen miles north of the current Allied line; BELCH, or Nijmegen, fifty-three miles north; and MALVOLIO, or Arnhem, sixty-four miles north. The Zuider Zee lay another thirty miles beyond Arnhem.
Linking these towns was a single narrow highway that ran through drained polders in terrain so excruciatingly flat that elevations varied no more than thirty feet over the course of fifty miles. Nine substantial bridges required capture or, if destroyed, replacement—hence the heaps of engineering matériel—and watercourses to be spanned included three wide rivers, two smaller tributaries, three major canals, and countless ditches, kills, and irrigation channels. Most imposing were the Meuse, known as the Maas once it entered Holland, and the Rhine, or Rijn, which, after widening to its greatest girth upon reaching the Dutch frontier, fractured into several “distributaries” before crossing a broad marshy plain to reach the sea. Two-thirds of the river’s flux swept down the river Waal through Nijmegen; the Neder Rijn, or Lower Rhine, which kept the original stream’s name but not its grandeur, flowed roughly parallel to the Waal and the Maas as it angled through Arnhem. The city had long been a retirement mecca for wealthy Dutch merchants from the East Indies: “Arnhem,” a holiday guide from the 1930s proclaimed, “is an attractive residential center amidst delightful scenery, and with an exceedingly healthy atmosphere.”
Horrocks paused, glancing at his notes and then at the map behind him before continuing. The deed would be done, he explained, by air and by land. For the largest airborne operation of the Second World War—the MARKET of MARKET GARDEN—the newly created First Allied Airborne Army was even now ascending from fields across England, bound for the Netherlands. Nearly 35,000 soldiers would be plunked down—most by parachute, the rest by glider—in what British planners insisted on calling “a carpet of airborne troops.” At the foot of the carpet, in the south, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division would envelop a fifteen-mile corridor that included Eindhoven. In the middle, the 82nd Airborne sector stretched for ten miles, and included both the Nijmegen bridge over the Waal and a nine-span bridge across the Maas at Grave, or rather TYBALT. At the top of the carpet, the British 1st Airborne Division would seize Arnhem and a span across the Neder Rijn.
As this unfolded, the land assault—GARDEN—starting later in the afternoon would gallop north from Belgium with three divisions under XXX Corps in a thrust that was to be, in Field Marshal Montgomery’s words, “rapid and violent, and without regard to what is happening on the flanks.” Two vehicles abreast at a density of thirty-five trucks, tanks, and personnel carriers per mile would snake up that single highway, twenty thousand vehicles all told. Speed, Horrocks stressed, was “absolutely vital.” The first Guards tanks should reach Eindhoven within two to three hours; if the vanguard reached the 1st Airborne paratroopers at Arnhem within forty-eight hours, as he hoped, much of the corps could be across the Rhine by the end of D+3, or Wednesday, September 20.
A SHAEF intelligence summary issued September 16 reported that “the enemy has by now suffered, in the West alone, losses in men and equipment which can never be repaired in this war.… No force can, then, be built up in the West sufficient for a counteroffensive or even for a successful defensive.” German strength facing the 100,000-man XXX Corps directly across the Dutch border was estimated at six infantry battalions backed by twenty armored vehicles and a dozen field guns; scant enemy activity had been detected in the last two days. Still, no one expected that an assault of such rococo choreography would be easy. The regiment chosen to lead the ground attack, the Irish Guards, concluded that “on the whole it would be much easier for a rich man to get into heaven” than for XXX Corps to reach the Zuider Zee.
The conference ended with few questions. The earlier badinage had subsided, supplanted by knit-browed sobriety as the men filed from the theater. Horrocks thought the Irish Guards officers looked especially pensive.
At an abandoned factory on the south bank of the Meuse–Escaut Canal near Bourg-Léopold, Horrocks climbed an iron ladder to the flat roof. The warm midday sun spangled the dark canal and the irrigation ditches running north into Holland. An occasional German shell swished overhead, and the yap of a machine gun could be heard in the middle distance. Behind him, he spied some of the 350 British guns hidden in woodlots and farmyards. Tanks trundled forward, slowly to avoid raising dust, and sappers reinspected their bridge loads.
Earlier that morning Horrocks had asked an American colonel, “What do you think of the plan?” When told with a shrug, “It’s all right,” the corps commander laughed gaily, but the Yank saw anxiety in his eyes. Horrocks was in fact fretful. During the mad pursuit across France he had collapsed with a recurrent fever and was confined to his caravan; Montgomery had not only concealed his frailty—“Don’t worry,” the field marshal said, “I shan’t invalid you home”—but invited him to recuperate in his own camp. Whether Horrocks was fit for the rigors ahead remained to be seen. The date also made him uneasy: no attack he had launched on a Sunday had ever fully succeeded.
From a nearby radio came word that the MARKET air armada was well under way. He cocked an ear for the distant drone of planes, a gaunt and lonely figure peering from his rooftop parapet.
* * *
Many others invested in MARKET GARDEN also felt perturbations, though for reasons more tangible than superstitions about the Sabbath. Under relentless pressure on Eisenhower from George Marshall and others in Washington to get those airborne divisions into the fight, the plan had been slapped together in less than a week. The First Allied Airborne Army, also created at War Department insistence, and the corps headquarters that preceded it had drafted and discarded eighteen operational plans in the past forty days, including a scheme for seizing airfields in Berlin and other missions with names like WILD OATS, TRANSFIGURE, COMET, and the unfortunate HANDS UP. Even Montgomery seemed exasperated by the frantic cycle of concocting and scuttling plans to sprinkle paratroopers across the Continent. “Are you asking me to drop cowpats all over Europe?” the field marshal had reportedly asked his subordinates.
Some commanders worried about MARKET’s dispersal of paratroopers along a fifty-mile corridor. Others opposed GARDEN’s tangential line of advance through boggy terrain to the north, away from the U.S. First Army axis toward the Ruhr. In contravention of Montgomery’s earlier demand for one “full-blooded thrust” into Germany, the two main Allied legions would steadily diverge from each other. “It’s a foolhardy thing to do, and you’ll take a lot of casualties,” Bradley told Eisenhower. “In addition, it’s not in accordance with the plan Monty and I made together.” “Flabbergasted,” as he himself said, at not being consulted before Eisenhower approved MARKET GARDEN, Bradley also resented the diversion of transport planes needed to resupply his armies. The airborne army, he complained, showed “an astonishing faculty for devising missions that were never needed.”
Personalities added fat to the fire. Commanding that airborne army was a short, vain, querulous U.S. Army Air Forces lieutenant general named Lewis H. Brereton, a Naval Academy graduate said to be capable of swearing in four languages and whose philandering had drawn a personal rebuke from General Marshall. “Mystify, mislead, and surprise,” Brereton liked to tell subordinates, quoting Stonewall Jackson, but some wondered who was being duped. Blamed for ineffective close air support with the ground forces during the Normandy campaign’s early weeks, when he commanded the Ninth Air Force, Brereton was “not sincere nor energetic nor cooperative,” according to Bradley, who applauded his transfer to the airborne with two words: “Thank goodness.” Brereton was disappointed in his new role, but he now oversaw both the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps and the British I Airborne Corps—four divisions and a Polish brigade in all, as well as a fleet of transport planes.
If Brereton’s interactions with his fellow Americans were prickly—the XVIII Airborne chief of staff called him “a stupid ass”—his relations with the British had grown venomous, particularly with his deputy, Lieutenant General Frederick A. M. “Boy” Browning, who would lead the MARKET assault. A handsome, mannered Grenadier Guardsman who had served valiantly in the last war but had yet to see action in this one, Browning was a high-strung mustache-twirler given to designing his own uniforms—false uhlan front, zip opening at the neck, polished Sam Browne belt, gray kid gloves, swagger stick—and occasionally kicking over the furniture. Some British subordinates privately called him “that popinjay,” and Americans were wary of what one officer called “too deliberate a smile.” Pilot, sailor, bobsledder, and national champion in the high hurdles, Browning nevertheless owed some of his cachet to his wife, the celebrated novelist Daphne du Maurier, whose Rebecca had, when translated to film by Alfred Hitchcock, won the Oscar for best picture in 1941. Browning so loathed Brereton that in early September he quit as deputy commander, only to withdraw his resignation a day later. Even now, with planes in the air by the thousands, the two men were seeking a modus vivendi to get them through the battle.
Finally, and most substantively, some officers sensed that the Germans were less supine than presumed. Brigadier E. T. Williams, Montgomery’s intelligence chief, cautioned the field marshal that the Allies’ “enemy appreciation was very weak” and that no proper study of the ground around Arnhem had been made. (The road bridge over the Neder Rijn had been penciled onto Allied map sheets, which were based largely on Dutch surveys made in the 1920s, before the span existed.) A radio decrypt also revealed that the enemy expected a XXX Corps thrust toward Nijmegen. The Polish commander, General Stanisław Sosabowski, after listening to an excessively chipper review of the battle plan on September 14, burst out, “But the Germans, how about the Germans, what aboutthem?” Sosabowski later complained that someone “with a vivid imagination, optimism, and little knowledge was producing parachute battle orders with the same frequency and ease as a conjuror producing rabbits from a top hat.” A British brigadier acknowledged a tendency “to make a beautiful airborne plan and then add the fighting-the-Germans bit afterwards.”
Guessing which Germans would be fought proved vexing beyond all other vexations. Radio traffic showed that Model’s Army Group B headquarters had shifted to Oosterbeek, outside Arnhem. Other intelligence suggested enemy reinforcement of river and canal defenses, but with troops considered “low category”; some improvised Luftwaffe ground units were apparently so rudimentary that they lacked field kitchens. Ultra decrypt XL 9188 in early September revealed that various battered units from Normandy had been ordered to western Holland to refit, and subsequent intercepts indicated that this gaggle included the II SS Panzer Corps. Not until September 15 had the SHAEF high command taken note that the corps’ two divisions, the 9th and 10th SS Panzer, seemed to have laagered near Arnhem. Together they had suffered nine thousand casualties at Caen, at Falaise, and in the retreat across France; they had also lost much of their armor, including 120 tanks on August 19 alone. But whether the divisions were still eviscerated, where they were headed, or even precisely where they were now located remained opaque.
Montgomery’s senior staff officers almost to a man voiced skepticism about MARKET GARDEN. Beetle Smith grew anxious enough to alert Eisenhower, who hesitated to intervene in tactical dispositions but authorized his chief of staff to raise the issue with the field marshal. Smith flew to Brussels on Friday, forty-eight hours before the assault was to begin, and suggested strengthening the MARKET force to be dropped at Arnhem, perhaps by shifting one of the American airborne divisions farther north. “Montgomery ridiculed the idea and laughed me out of his tent,” Smith later reported. “He waved my objections airily aside.”
Montgomery’s insouciance was understandable, even if his alleged demeanor was not. Five Allied corps were about to descend on a narrow sliver of western Holland where the enemy was “weak, demoralized, and likely to collapse entirely if confronted with a large airborne attack,” according to a British Second Army assessment. The German defenses around Arnhem had recently been gauged as no larger than a brigade of three thousand men, with insignificant tank strength. The Dutch underground had noted panzers and SS soldiers near Arnhem, but German infiltration of the resistance had resulted in the capture and execution of several dozen agents and made the Allies distrust information sent from the Netherlands. No conclusive intelligence about the two SS panzer divisions could be teased out, and the partial reports were passed to neither Horrocks nor most airborne commanders. The presence of tanks at Arnhem “was the one awkward fact that would not fit the desired pattern,” the intelligence historian Ralph Bennett later wrote, “so the best thing was to sweep it under the carpet.”
* * *
Boy Browning declared himself ready to sacrifice a third of his MARKET force in simply laying the airborne carpet, but such a gallant immolation would prove unnecessary. At two dozen English airfields on that lovely Sunday morning, the mighty flock had gathered: 1,545 transports and 478 gliders to be escorted by more than 1,000 fighters in two aerial trains across the North Sea for a flight almost three hours long. Hundreds of bombers also flew, bringing the entire winged fleet to 4,676. Tea wagons rattled along the runways with bacon sandwiches and great steaming mugs. “That means business,” one crewman said. “They never give you a cup of tea unless you’re really going.” At Grantham, a British sergeant strutted down the sun-washed flight line in an opera hat, doffing it and bowing to men right and left.
“Emplane!” The order echoed and reechoed. With much grunting and cursing, the thousands heaved themselves aboard—among them many Normandy veterans, who called themselves “the Old Men.” Fighters and pathfinders lifted off first, and by noon, just as Horrocks finished his briefing in the Bourg-Léopold theater, more than twenty thousand troops were off the ground, with 330 artillery tubes and 500 vehicles. Men played chess or read the Sunday papers; others dozed or gawked from the tiny windows at “an immense armada of aircraft, some towing gliders, which stretched as far as could be seen,” as one lieutenant wrote. “They floated up and down in unison like an outstretched blanket being gently shaken.”
The first British pathfinders jumped at 12:40 P.M., followed twenty minutes later by gliders landing every nine seconds—“plowing up dirt like a ship in a heavy sea,” in one GI’s image. Then, from an altitude of six hundred feet, the parachutists spilled out, so many that astonished witnesses below thought they were snowflakes or flak bursts, and within eighty minutes those twenty thousand Allied cutthroats were deep behind enemy lines. Aircraft losses were modest: sixty-eight planes, including fighters and bombers lost to flak. Gleeful children near Arnhem sang “Jingle Bells” in Dutch to parachutists wriggling from their silks.
That this welcoming chorus congregated several miles west of town underscored one of two tactical complications beclouding the sunny first hours of MARKET. Airborne doctrine held that drop and landing zones should be as close to the mission objective as possible, preferably within five miles; these instead lay seven to eight miles from the Arnhem road bridge. Accusatory fingers subsequently would be pointed either at Major General Roy Urquhart, commander of the 1st Airborne Division, a novice parachutist who was said to lack the requisite experience and credibility to insist on closer drops, or, more plausibly, at air commanders who refused to fly closer because of possible enemy flak and because of congestion in the airspace between Arnhem and Nijmegen.
The second complication was evident just by counting noses: barely half of the 3.5-division force designated for MARKET was on the ground, and no more troops would arrive until the following day or later. General Brereton’s troop carrier commanders had insisted that only a single mission fly on Sunday; a second sortie would ostensibly exhaust air and ground crews and leave insufficient time to service and reload the planes (although double missions over the same distance had been flown from Italy in DRAGOONthe previous month). Pleas by airborne commanders and by an emissary from Montgomery to Brereton’s headquarters failed to reverse the decision, despite an analysis that showed transporting the entire combat force at a deliberate rate could take up to four days. Particularly for the British, the combination of too few men with too far to travel would soon prove fateful, even as paratroopers from the 1st Airborne Division collected their kit and hurried east in search of a bridge to seize.
* * *
The day went well enough for the Yanks in the south. Almost seven thousand men from the 101st Airborne spilled across the polders between Veghel and Best, where red flags and billowing orange smoke denoted battalion assembly areas. Dutchmen capered through the fields, shaking hands with their liberators and offering sandwiches, pitchers of milk, and bicycles, for which receipts were issued. Stray Germans here and there were captured or killed in a hundred sharp spasms of violence; under a fruit tree near a captured jam factory, where GIs discovered shelves of preserved apples, pears, and plums, the poet-paratrooper Louis Simpson found a mattress “with a German officer stretched on it. He had been laid there to die in all possible comfort.”
Nine road and rail bridges stood in the division sector, but only at Son, four miles north of Eindhoven, did one span cause immediate grief. At a crossing over the Wilhelmina Canal, a bazooka team from the 506th Parachute Infantry knocked out an 88mm gun with a single round, and a sergeant with a tommy gun mowed down six fleeing crewmen. Troopers pressed to within thirty yards of the canal bank, only to see the bridge abruptly levitate from its piers and vanish in a smoky roar. Hardly had the debris stopped raining than GIs swam to the south bank or crossed in rowboats. Using ropes, scavenged doors, and barn wood, engineers threw a narrow catwalk across the stone stubs of the now naked piers, and a thousand men tiptoed to the far bank as an inky evening settled over the battlefield. The 506th was supposed to sprint south and seize Eindhoven and its bridges by eight P.M., welcoming Horrocks’s Guardsmen from Bourg-Léopold, but the delay at Son meant that any rendezvous would have to await first light on Monday.
Twenty miles north, 7,300 troops from the 82nd Airborne had also arrived intact in a confetti of green, orange, blue, red, and chartreuse parachutes. All but one of 482 planes and two of 50 gliders reached the target zones below Nijmegen. Among the few jump casualties was the 82nd commander, James Gavin, who fractured two vertebrae in a hard landing between Groesbeek and Mook. Allowing himself little more than a grimace, Gavin shed his parachute, picked up an M-1 rifle, and in less than an hour had set up his command post in a leafy thicket just west of Groesbeek.
With the ascension of Matthew Ridgway to command the XVIII Airborne Corps, Gavin had taken over the 82nd in mid-August. At thirty-seven he would be not only the youngest major general in the U.S. Army during World War II, but also the youngest division commander since the Civil War. That achievement was all the more remarkable given his start in life. Gavin was an orphan (he later concluded that his mother had been an immigrant Irish nun in Brooklyn); adopted as a toddler, he was raised among Pennsylvania’s anthracite collieries by a woman who invoked the Holy Family as she beat him with a hairbrush, a broomstick, or a cat-o’-nine-tails specially made in a harness shop. Sometimes she waited until the child was asleep to launch her assault.
After eight years of grammar school, Gavin soaped miners’ beards for a barber, delivered boots for a shoemaker, and ran a filling station for an oil company. On his seventeenth birthday he fled to New York and joined the Army. Stationed in Panama, he read and studied diligently enough to win admission to West Point. He lied about his age to avoid disclosing that he had enlisted as a minor. A perpetual student he remained, even now subscribing to The New Yorker, Time, Reader’s Digest, and the Book-of-the-Month Club. In a loose-leaf notebook titled “Generalship,” organized by virtues such as “enterprise” and “intelligence,” he copied a phrase he attributed to Voltaire: “That calm courage in the midst of tumult, that serenity of a soul in danger, which is the greatest gift of nature for command.” Gavin called it “the courage of two o’clock in the morning.” Ridgway had recently praised his young subordinate’s “self-possession regardless of the pressure in and out of battle, loyalty, initiative, zeal, sound judgment, and common sense.… He adds great charm of manner.”
Though Gavin casually referred to war as “the scuffle,” he was realistic about human limits. After combat jumps into Sicily, Salerno, and Normandy, he had come to believe that “courage for every man is like a bank account” that must not be overdrawn.MARKETwould require another judicious withdrawal. “It looks very rough,” he had written in his diary on Thursday about the impending attack. “If I get through this one I will be very lucky.”
Eleven bridges could be found in the 82nd sector, and enemy demolitionists blew those at Malden, Mook, and Hatert as paratroopers closed in. But the rivet-skinned, nine-arch span over the Maas at Grave still stood when soldiers from the 504th Parachute Infantry rushed the southern ramp, gutting a concrete flak tower with bazooka rounds through the firing ports, then shooting up two truckloads of absconding Germans and swinging a captured 20mm gun onto the remaining defenders. Shouts, explosions, bullets pinging off the girders—the battle din ebbed at last and a brilliant bouquet of green flares signaled that the hour was won. Engineers snipped detonation wires and ripped out boxes of dynamite painted to resemble bridge steel. In Grave the Dutch sang “Tipperary” as the Germans skulked off, and a message flew up the division chain of command: “Bridge number eleven is ours.”
Bridge eleven and all its sisters were worthless if the Germans seized one of the few bits of elevated terrain in Holland, and this beyond all else preoccupied Gavin. Groesbeek Ridge, an unprepossessing eminence three hundred feet high and five miles long southeast of Nijmegen, dominated the Maas, the Waal, and the Maas–Waal Canal; General Browning’s orders to the 82nd specified that “the capture and retention of the high ground between Nijmegen and Groesbeek is imperative in order to accomplish the division’s task.” With eight 75mm howitzers banging away an hour after the jump—each had arrived in seven pieces, by parachute—Gavin spent the afternoon shoring up strongpoints along the ridge and squinting across the nearby German border for signs of an enemy counterattack. Nijmegen and its two grand bridges would have to wait until these approaches were secure.
Near the 82nd command post, a Dutch commando captain stepped into a farmhouse outside Groesbeek to use the telephone. After ringing friends in the north, he emerged to tell Gavin, “Fine. Everything is going as planned, and the British have landed at Arnhem.”
* * *
So too had the Germans, and with this convergence the heartache began in earnest. Field Marshal Model had been sipping a preluncheon glass of Moselle in his headquarters at the Tafelberg Hotel in Oosterbeek when a staff officer rushed in with news of British glider landings barely two miles away. “Right. Everyone out,” Model said. “They’re after me and this headquarters.” Hurrying down the steps, papers and underwear spilling from his attaché case, he leaped into a staff car and raced to the II SS Panzer Corps headquarters, eighteen miles to the east. By midafternoon he was organizing German counterblows at Arnhem, Nijmegen, and points south. “Imagine!” Model exclaimed. “They almost got me.”
They did get the Arnhem commandant, General Friedrich Kussin, who wandered across town in his Citroën to investigate the commotion only to blunder into a fusillade of British rifle and Sten-gun fire that flattened his tires and killed both his driver and batman. Shot in the chest and throat, Kussin flopped from the car to the pavement, quite dead, a revolver in his gloved right hand and an unfinished cigarette in his left, his mouth agape in a rictus of astonishment. Vengeful Dutchmen ripped the rank badges from his collar.
Not much else went right for General Urquhart or his division. Six thousand German troops had bivouacked around greater Arnhem—double the anticipated number; they were mostly grenadiers from the two SS panzer divisions as well as “ear and stomach battalions” composed of soldiers with maladies afflicting those organs. Others hurried into battle aboard farm carts, wood-burning trucks, and even fire engines. Within ninety minutes of the British landings, about four hundred SS soldiers had blocked two of the western approaches to town, forcing the Tommies into a garden-by-garden gunfight on their long tramp toward the bridge.
Ignoring warnings of danger ahead, Urquhart—a strapping, amiable Scot, with combat experience in Africa and Italy—wandered too far forward and found himself first under machine-gun fire and then cut off from the rest of his command in a confused warren of Dutch alleys. Darting through kitchens and across terraces, he and two other officers finally hid in the attic at 14 Zwarteweg, without food, water, or a toilet, as SS troops sniffed through the streets below and positioned an antitank gun near the front door. For forty hours, until the Germans retrenched to the east, the 1st Airborne Division headquarters would be without its commander. Urquhart acknowledged feeling “idiotic, ridiculous, [and] as ineffectual in the battle as a spectator.”
A single British parachute battalion won through. Following a southern route through gorse and birch stands near the Neder Rijn, Lieutenant Colonel John D. Frost’s 2nd Battalion had woven proffered marigolds into their helmet nets and captured a few German soldiers said to have been “snogging with their Dutch girlfriends.” Radios proved so erratic that bugle calls were used instead, and the southern span of Arnhem’s rail bridge blew up in the faces of the platoon sent to secure it. But at eight P.M. Tommies reached the northern piers of the intact road bridge, and Frost’s men soon burrowed into buildings along the riverbank. Several dozen paratroopers wrapped their hobnail boots in curtain strips to deaden their footfalls, then crept onto the span only to be smacked back by cackling machine guns. British return fire with an antitank gun and a flamethrower ignited paintwork on the girders. A German attempt to rush 10th SS Panzer troops across the bridge from the south ended with enemy trucks blazing on the ramp and charred bodies smoldering in the roadbed.
A brutal deadlock had begun. Of nearly 6,000 British paratroopers, only 740 would reach the bridge, enough to revoke German possession of the span but too few to assert a British claim. Relief battalions pushing from the west found the streets ever more perilous, not least from German snipers lashed to tree branches with rope stays. Flames danced all night from the burning bridge and from wooden houses set ablaze by gunfights along the embankments. From his makeshift command post a block from the river, Frost—an Africa veteran who optimistically had shipped his golf clubs and hunting gun overland to Holland—peered south through the lurid orange glow, hoping that a new day might reveal Horrocks’s tanks lining the far shore.
* * *
That would not happen.
At precisely two P.M. that Sunday, seventeen Allied artillery regiments had begun a lacerating barrage, as Horrocks and his coterie looked north and rubbed their hands in gleeful anticipation atop the factory roof near Bourg-Léopold. Shells gnawed at fields and pine thickets for a thousand yards on either side of the Eindhoven road, and every five minutes another eight Typhoons swooped in with rocket fire to savage any lurking ambushers.
At 2:35 P.M., the Irish Guards lieutenant commanding the lead tank ordered, “Driver, advance!” Like a circus parade the column surged forth, nose to tail, gears grinding, every chassis groaning beneath ammunition crates, rations for six days, and enough jerrican fuel to travel another 250 miles after gas tanks ran dry. The artillery barrage now rolled forward, barely three hundred yards ahead of the armored vanguard; brown dust and blue exhaust masked the bursting shells. Across the Dutch border they rumbled at eight miles per hour. “Advance going well,” an officer reported by radio. “Leading squadron has got through.”
No sooner had the hand-rubbers on the roof congratulated one another than scarlet tongues of German fire licked along the column. Within two minutes, nine Irish Guards tanks had been disemboweled with antitank guns and hand-held Panzerfausts—“a nasty gap of a half a mile littered with burning hulks,” as one witness described the scene. Infantrymen hitchhiking on the armored decks dove into roadside ditches, and crews scrambled from their hatches except for a few poor souls who burned down to their tanker boots. An armored bulldozer lurched forward to push the pyres from the concrete roadbed, and Typhoons pirouetted in for another two hundred sorties, rocketing enemy positions real and imaginary.
The German defenders soon were identified as two battalions from the 9th SS Panzer Division—“a complete surprise,” British intelligence acknowledged—plus two battalions from the 6th Parachute Regiment. “Our intelligence spent the day in a state of indignant surprise,” the Irish Guards war diary recorded. “One German regiment after another appeared which had no right to be there.” The consequent “ugly mood” inspired one Irish sergeant to force several prisoners onto his tank at gunpoint to identify hidden enemy emplacements. Even so, another artillery barrage was needed at six P.M. before the Irish Guards staggered into little Valkenswaard to harbor for the night on the central square, now laved in orange light from burning houses. A few dozen scruffy prisoners sat in a cage tucked beneath the municipal bandstand.
For seven miles from the Dutch border to Valkenswaard, double- and triple-banked British vehicles jammed the road, annoyed by occasional enemy mortar rounds. In few spots was this narrow aisle into occupied Holland wider than thirty feet, and the Guards Armored Division now knew vividly what a terrain study had concluded a week earlier: “Cross-country movement in the area varies from impracticable to impossible.… All canals and rivers present obstacles, accentuated by the thousands of dikes and shallow drainage ditches.” Eindhoven still lay six miles ahead—the 101st Airborne’s failure to reach the city by eight P.M. had not mattered—and Arnhem seemed a world away. Despite the quick destruction of those first nine tanks, losses were light: only fifteen dead in the entire Guards Armored Division. Yet the XXX Corps drive stopped cold for twelve hours, and little consideration was given to preserving at least an illusion of momentum, perhaps by letting the fresh Grenadier Guards pass through their battered Irish brethren. Horrocks had urged speed, but there was no speed.
“Things are going very well indeed,” Brereton’s headquarters told SHAEF. “We have had very few losses.” Eisenhower’s operations chief phoned with “congratulations on the successful outcome of the operation,” the First Allied Airborne Army chief of staff noted in his diary. “Everyone at SHAEF was delighted.”
Everyone at SHAEF was deluded: MARKET GARDEN had been lost on the very first day through failure to seize the bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen, and the failure was compounded by the ponderous overland advance. A titanic, often heroic battle remained to play out, with particular fates by the tens of thousands in the balance. But the margin for victory, always razor thin, now was irretrievably gone.
* * *
Eindhoven was home to the Philips electronics company, founded in 1891 by a cousin of Karl Marx’s. In addition to making lightbulbs, the firm had expanded to vacuum tubes, radios, X-ray equipment, and, in 1939, the electric razor. Still, with no apologies to Paris, Eindhoven thought of itself as the Lichtstad, the city of light. For the past four years, nearly all exports had gone to Germany at Berlin’s insistence. But the firm proved deft at sheltering Jews by insisting they were irreplaceable specialists, and several hundred Jewish workers would survive the war.
Now this company town of thatched roofs, clipped lawns, and neat privet hedges was set free. Troopers from the 101st Airborne nudged into Eindhoven from the north early on Monday, September 18, routing a few score Germans and finding all bridges intact. Jubilation burst from every doorway and unshuttered window, a din of tin whistles, toy drums, and singing citizens draped in orange, the Dutch national color. Thousands danced in gyrating circles, offering their liberators apples and gin. “The air seemed to reek with hate for the Germans,” an American officer observed.
Not until dusk did XXX Corps arrive from the south, having taken the entire day to crawl six miles. Following a sluggish start from Valkenswaard, the Guards Armored Division encountered more troublesome ambuscades, now stiffened with Panther tanks. Fog at Belgian airfields and other aggravations grounded the Typhoons, and attempts to detour east or west were impeded by frail bridges. “Every time the advance seemed to be progressing,” the Grenadier Guards reported, “a canal or stream would intervene with a bridge that invariably broke after a couple tanks had crossed.” Pushing at last through orange-bedecked Eindhoven, the Guardsmen halted for the night below Son while engineers finished laying a Bailey bridge over that toppled Wilhelmina Canal highway span. Off again they rolled at dawn on Tuesday, down the tree-lined road known already as Hell’s Highway, through St.-Oedenrode and Veghel toward Grave, an iron thread snaking through one needle’s eye after another, now more than thirty-three hours behind schedule.
Reinforcements from England also arrived, though hardly with the ease of the surprise initial drops on Sunday. Almost 150 gliders landed at Son early Monday afternoon, defying gunfire from German marksmen lined up shoulder to shoulder as if on a rifle range. Gavin at the same time found two drop zones east of Groesbeek Ridge infested with enemy troops who had leaked across the German border with more than a dozen 20mm guns. Resupply planes were already on the wing, so an improvised counterattack force fixed bayonets and charged down the ridge to chase off the intruders just in time. A midafternoon lift of nearly four thousand aircraft delivered twelve hundred gliders and seven thousand troops across the battlefield. More than two hundred B-24 bombers, stripped of their ball turrets, bombsights, and waist guns, also spat supplies by parachute, with spotty accuracy. All in all, the 82nd received about 80 percent of its expected replenishment, but the 101st got less than half.
The 101st found more unexpected trouble four miles west of Son at Best, a town of cobblers and boot makers, with a brick factory and a cold-storage plant. Unaware that a thousand Fifteenth Army troops protected the vital German supply road through Best, a solitary company from the 502nd Parachute Infantry arrived to claim both the town and a single-span concrete bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal for an alternative route from Eindhoven. Lieutenant Edward L. Wierzbowski led his platoon to the northern lip of the canal, where five machine guns opened up from the far bank, soon punctuated by mortar rounds. At eleven A.M. on Monday the bridge blew to smithereens, and Wierzbowski and his men spent the day and following night fighting for survival from a shallow trench sixty yards back from the water’s edge.
Among seven wounded GIs huddled in an adjacent foxhole was Private First Class Joe E. Mann, a twenty-two-year-old with thin lips, wide-set eyes, and a strong nose, the fifth of nine children from a farm family near Spokane. Mann, the platoon scout, had helped destroy an ammunition dump and an 88mm gun with bazooka rounds before being shot in both arms, which now dangled uselessly in a double sling. On Tuesday morning a swirling fog abruptly lifted along the canal to unveil creeping wraiths in field gray almost atop the American position. GIs managed to scoop away two enemy grenades before they detonated but a third exploded, blinding the platoon machine-gunner, who still managed, groping wildly, to find a fourth and fling it back. The fifth grenade fell behind Mann, who leaned back and absorbed the blast with his torso, saving his comrades in a gesture later commemorated with the Medal of Honor. “My back’s gone,” he told Wierzbowski. Two minutes later he was dead.
Nearly out of ammunition and with only three men left unwounded, the lieutenant knotted a filthy handkerchief to his carbine muzzle and surrendered the platoon. The battle at Best, envisioned as a company operation, soon sucked in the entire regiment, and only the arrival of British tanks decided the day by securing the Allied left flank. Fourteen hundred German prisoners would be taken, and more than three hundred enemy corpses counted, including some reportedly shot by their own comrades while trying to give up. Yet the town itself remained just outside Allied lines, and so it would remain for weeks.
* * *
An entry in the 82nd Airborne’s intelligence log on Monday morning—“Dutch report Germans winning over British at Arnhem”—was more than matched in brevity by a British acknowledgment of “a grossly untidy situation.” In a shot-torn town where the bakeries remained open and milkmen still made their rounds, the 1st Airborne Division found itself in great peril. Three battalions had tried and failed to reach Colonel Frost and his men where they still clung to the north ramp of Arnhem’s highway bridge. Parachuted supplies had drifted mostly into German hands, and foul weather forced a postponement in the drop of Polish reinforcements. Balky radios, all but worthless in wooded or urban terrain, limited communication between the embattled Arnhem force and the rest of the First Allied Airborne Army to an occasional truncated exchange. General Urquhart would not rejoin his headquarters from the Zwarteweg attic until Tuesday morning, and by that afternoon over half of the British soldiers north of the Neder Rijn were listed as casualties. One brigadier was reduced to describing himself as “a broken-down cavalryman leading little bayonet rushes.” Brazen civilians built roadblocks with bodies—German, British, Dutch—laid head to toe like sandbags in a futile effort to keep the SS from roaming freely across town. “Everything,” a British account conceded, “had gone awry.”
Nothing was right except the courage, and nowhere was courage greater than at the bridge. Living on apples and pears scavenged in the cellars, along with tea, nips of cherry brandy, and Benzedrine, Frost’s force by Tuesday had been cudgeled back into a perimeter of ten buildings from an original eighteen. Heavy Dutch furniture barricaded the doors and windows. Buckets, jugs, and vases were filled with water to douse incendiaries. To avoid fratricide the men called to one another from blown-out windows with an old African war cry—“Waho, Mohammed!”—using rolled strips of wallpaper for megaphones. A German effort to force the bridge from the south with a dozen armored cars and two Mercedes trucks ended in a fiery welter of wrecked vehicles; another seventy enemy dead paved the ramp. An enemy FW-190 fighter swooped across the river on Tuesday afternoon to drop a bomb—it proved a dud—then clipped the southern tower of the fourteenth-century St. Walburgis church with its left wing before cartwheeling into a small lake. “Great joy all round,” wrote a British sapper.
Germans on the south bank of the Neder Rijn unlimbered 40mm flak guns against the British strongholds, then 88mm and even 150mm. Tiger tanks and Nebelwerfer six-barreled rocket launchers—Screaming Meemies—joined the cannonade with high explosives and white phosphorus. “Starting from the rooftops, buildings collapsed like dolls’ houses,” an SS private recorded. Another German likened the effect of panzer shells on masonry to “the skin peeling off a skeleton.” After a shell hit a house near the roofline, “the entire building seemed to shake itself like a dog,” a British mortarman reported, and when a second round struck “the walls appeared to breathe out before the whole structure collapsed.”
“Arnhem was burning,” Frost later recalled. “It was as daylight in the streets, a terrible enameled, metallic daylight.… I never saw anything more beautiful than those burning buildings.” Despite a BBC report that “everything was going according to plan” in the Netherlands, the 2nd Battalion’s predicament had grown hopeless. “It is a pretty desperate thing to see your battalion gradually carved to bits around you,” Frost wrote after the war. Before scrambling to another position, paratroopers loosened their helmet straps and sat for a moment with fallen comrades: “Nobody is in such dire need of companionship as a dead man,” one major explained. But soon enough, the ripe corpses of British and German alike were tossed from upper windows into the streets below.
By Wednesday the Neder Rijn embankment held by the British was described as “a sea of flame,” with enemies pressing from east, north, and west. At 1:30 P.M. mortar shards crippled Frost in both legs; he was carried to a fetid cellar where the floor was so packed with the wounded and dead that orderlies had difficulty squeezing through. “Our building is on fire,” wrote a sergeant consigned to the same hole. “We no longer have any means to put it out. In our cellar there is an all-pervading stench of blood, feces, and urine.” Germans held prisoner in the basement, including captured crewmen from a V-2 battery, sang “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles,” in hopes the SS would recognize their comrades’ voices before flinging in grenades.
Both sides agreed to a two-hour cease-fire late Wednesday to evacuate the wounded and the gibbering shock cases. “Are you British or American?” asked the first SS soldier into Frost’s cellar. Doors were ripped from their hinges and used as stretchers to hoist men outside, where “the scene resembled one of those paintings that you see in regimental museums entitled ‘The Last Stand,’” a Tommy recalled. Panzer grenadiers offered brandy, chocolate, and congratulations for a fight well fought, “a harder battle than any I had fought in Russia,” as one declared. Frost, who would spend six months in a prison hospital, considered his SS captors “kind, chivalrous, and even comforting.” But not to all: a Dutch physician who had treated British wounded in the Domestic Science School for Girls was put before a firing squad with four others, and only three hours later did a German officer, hearing moans, administer a coup de grâce with pistol shots to the head. Likewise, a young Dutchman who had fought with the paratroopers, and whose swaddled forearms had been seared by phosphorus, was forced to his knees and executed; a witness described “the heavily bandaged hands sprawled out in front like two grotesque paddles.”
The cease-fire expired and the battle resumed, briefly. The last battalion diehards surrendered at five A.M. Thursday, after holding out for more than three days. Eighty-one paratroopers had been killed, and the rest were prisoners. A final message dispatched over one of those feeble radios was heard only by German eavesdroppers: “Out of ammunition. God save the king.”