Botch on the Rhine

British soldiers near Arnhem, the Netherlands, 1944
D.M. Smith/Imperial War Museums/Getty Images
British soldiers taking cover in a shell hole near Arnhem, the Netherlands, September 17, 1944

They were better. Man for man, German soldiers fought more effectively in World War II than their Allied counterparts did. This was never more vividly exemplified than at the prosperous Dutch town of Arnhem in September 1944, when supposedly elite British airborne troops were dropped sixty-five miles beyond the Allied front. Although profiting from surprise and an overwhelming superiority of resources, they were overwhelmed by haphazardly assembled German battle groups that inflicted a gratuitous humiliation on them in the last months before the Third Reich succumbed.

How did this come about? It was chiefly a consequence of hubris—a belief that, after the Allies’ dramatic August breakout from Normandy, Hitler’s armies were on the ropes. Britain’s commander-in-chief, the newly promoted field marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, stood by a dusty French roadside urging an armored column roaring past: “On to the kill!” This was not merely theater for the benefit of such listening war correspondents as my father: Monty really believed it. Thus he made one of the most grievous strategic errors of the northwest Europe campaign, declining to hasten troops to clear the approaches to the Scheldt River, without which the newly captured port of Antwerp was useless, as Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay warned him. Instead, he launched the most reckless thrust of his career, seeking to seize the bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem.

The principal objective of that thrust, known as Operation Market Garden, was to force the hand not of Hitler, but of Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. If the British secured a corridor beyond the Rhine, Ike would be obliged to support a drive from the north led by Montgomery into Germany: the cocky little bishop’s son saw before him the prospect of passing into history as the composer and conductor of Western Allied victory.

Monty’s chief of intelligence, the peacetime Oxford don Edgar “Bill” Williams, told me ruefully in 1982, “The Germans always punished mistakes. If you exposed a flank, stuck out a spearhead too far, they spotted it and acted.” This lesson had been driven home again and again by the painful experiences of both British and American formations in the Mediterranean and Normandy. Speed of response to the unexpected was a hallmark of German military leadership.

Yet the clumsy, euphoric, almost mindless planning for Market Garden took no heed of this. For years afterward it was alleged that the British ignored intelligence officer Major Brian Urquhart’s warning, based on aerial photos, that there were enemy tanks at Arnhem. In truth the photos were redundant. Decrypted German communications revealed indisputably their proximity. Drastically shrunken by battlefield losses though the Ninth and Tenth SS Panzer divisions were, the Allied airborne units ordered to drop on their…

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