On the afternoon of September 17, 1944, the death blow to Hitler’s Germany seemed to blossom in the skies over Holland.
It was 75 years ago when two American and one British airborne division landed in a carpet of parachutes that stretched 60 miles from Eindhoven in southern Holland north to Arnhem on the Rhine River. Instead of the chaos that afflicted the early night airborne landings in Sicily and Normandy, the landings on that warm Sunday went remarkably smoothly, with the troops landing on their drop zones smoothly with light losses.
It was an auspicious beginning to what the Allies hoped would be the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. Just three months ago, the American, British and Canadian armies had been stuck in Normandy, penned in by hedgerows and panzer divisions. But in August, the Germans had broken apart and the Allies had broken out, in an advance that took them 500 miles into Germany itself. The once-invincible Wehrmacht, already being hammered in the East by the Soviet juggernaut, seemed to be falling apart.
But guarding Western Germany like a moat was the mighty Rhine River. Once sheltered behind it, the battered German columns fleeing France could rest and regroup. But what if the Allies could bounce the Rhine in one quick, audacious advance? Once across the waterway, they could race across the North German plain to seize the industrial heartland of the Ruhr – and then on to Berlin. Perhaps the war in Europe would end by Christmas!
The problem was how to quickly cross the numerous rivers and canals that crisscross the Netherlands, This was where the 35,000 paratroopers of the First Allied Airborne Army came in: they would swoop down to seize several bridges across the Netherlands, creating an corridor that would let the tanks race the Dutch polder (land protected from the water by dykes) until they reached the British 1st Airborne Division securing the bridge across the Nederrijn at Arnhem.
Yet just eight days later, the last exhausted survivors of the 1st Airborne Division – that had triumphantly seized the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem -- paddled back across the river. Instead of a highway to the Reich, the Allies had achieved a 60-mile corridor to nowhere.
Operation Market-Garden will always be a great what-if. Had it succeeded, it would have gone down as one of the most brilliant audacious operations in history. But it didn’t succeed, and the reasons why still matter today.