Market Garden was launched on September 17 with an artillery bombardment followed by the largest airborne assault of the war, involving more than 5,000 aircraft, 2,000 gliders and 20,000 paratroops. It began with astounding success. The two U.S. airborne divisions were dropped in their planned zones and the British armor moved forward. The bridges over the canal at Eindhoven, the river Meuse at Grave and the Waal at Nijmegen were taken.
Then it went wrong. The British 1st Airborne Division was dropped six miles from the planned zone and their armored jeeps were lost, leaving them to make a four-hour trek on foot to the road and railway bridges at Arnhem.
This delay meant that German reinforcements reached Arnhem before the British. Worse still, that reinforcement included the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, which had been refitting just outside the town. Ironically, the panzers had just returned from a training exercise that involved defeating a mock airborne assault. Bad weather delayed the 1st Airborne being reinforced by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. The plan for Monty’s armor to reach Arnhem in three days had been hopelessly optimistic and the bridges at Nijmegen were not secured until September 20.
As at Caen, Monty’s reports on the progress of the battle appeared to take no account of the facts. He announced that it was going “according to plan.” The armor left Nijmegen on the morning of September 21 to link up with the 1st Airborne, but by then it was too late. A decision was made to evacuate as many men as could be saved from Arnhem. The operation had failed to secure a bridgehead across the Rhine. The 1st Airborne Division alone had 1,300 men killed and 6,400 taken prisoner.
The phrase “a bridge too far” was not used at the time, but if it had been it would not have referred to the bridge at Arnhem. The British armor had been allowed three days to reach Arnhem, but by the time it had reached its first objective, the bridge over the canal at Eindhoven, it was already sufficiently behind schedule to render the whole timetable impracticable. Eindhoven was a bridge too far from the Second Army’s starting point to reach in the time allowed.
Why did Monty, who already had a reputation for taking no risks, take the biggest risk of all? Bradley expressed surprise when the operation was first suggested: “Had the pious, teetotal Montgomery wobbled into SHAEF with a hangover, I could not have been more astonished than I was by the daring adventure he proposed.” Soldiers prefer the word daring because its connotations are so different from those of its synonym in war, which is risky. Risky is used before an operation that, if successful, is thereafter known as daring, but if it fails it is invariably labeled foolish. Brian Urquhart, one of Monty’s intelligence officers, called it “an unrealistic, foolish plan that had been dictated by motives which should have played no part in a military operation.”
Those motives were thought at the time to include Monty’s (and thereby Eisenhower’s) concession to pressure from Churchill, who wanted the destruction of the Vergeltungswaffe sites given priority over everything else to reduce the suffering of Londoners, and taking Arnhem would have allowed that. Yet Monty had no difficulty in standing up to the prime minister on operational matters and he certainly would not have planned such a high-risk endeavor to achieve what he considered a political end.
Monty could deny Churchill’s needs. He could not deny Bernard Montgomery’s. Only personal desperation could have led him to act so wholly out of character. And that desperation arose from the long-running dispute with Eisenhower over two issues that now became joined: command and strategy. If Arnhem succeeded, the Allies would in all probability “go with a winner” and throw everything into the Montgomery thrust into the Ruhr at the expense of all other operations. They would then be operating to Montgomery’s single-thrust strategy and, as the army commander on the spot, he could expect that any “request” for overall command would be granted. We must suspect that he took the risk at Arnhem because it was the only operation that would, in one stroke, allow him to get his way—in command and in strategy—and enable him to direct the war to the early end that he genuinely believed was possible.
Bill Williams saw through the supposed limited objectives of Market Garden to Monty’s long-term strategy:
He thought that success would tilt the centre of gravity and give the British priority of supplies before the US armies. Probably Monty thought then it was just a question of who put in the final punch against a defeated enemy before a final victory. If this airborne drop succeeded in front of his Second Army drive, his punch not Patton’s would be the triumphal road to final victory.
If Monty’s motives in proposing a high-risk operation can be understood, that still fails to explain why Eisenhower went along with it. The Americans at SHAEF believed he did so as a sop to Montgomery—that, having turned down his plan for a single thrust, he accepted Market Garden to appease him, and would have turned it down if the plan had been considered on military grounds alone. (After the war when this was put to Eisenhower he strongly denied it.)
If he had intended Market Garden to keep Monty quiet, it did not. Montgomery continued to press for his “two demands”: his appointment as overall land-force commander and a single thrust through Germany to Berlin by his 21st Army Group (with the concomitant transfer of ammunition, fuel and American troops from the southern advance to Monty’s own). Ike insisted they keep to the original plan (which had been part of the pre-invasion agreement) to advance on a broad front to clear all German forces west of the Rhine before entering Germany. Monty’s refusal to accept that decision—clearly communicated to him by Ike on a growing number of occasions—now caused friction between them. Ike had been patient, he had allowed Market Garden, and now he had had enough.
Eisenhower could be thankful for one thing: Monty did not suggest that Arnhem had in fact been successful because it drew enemy forces away from Patton’s southern thrust toward Metz and the Saar. This time he had a more ingenious explanation. The operation had been 90 percent successful because 90 percent of the target area had been taken. Unfortunately, the remaining 10 percent included the bridge at Arnhem. Such an argument fooled no one and discredited him among his peers, many of whom considered that the outcome required of him a discreet silence.
Churchill put on his best bulldog face and assured the British people that it was a “decided victory.” Prince Bernhard, speaking for the people of the Netherlands, begged to differ: “My country can never again afford the luxury of a Montgomery success.”
It is a commonplace to say that Monty never admitted to a mistake, but this once he did: “The airborne forces at Arnhem were dropped too far away from the vital objective—the bridge. I take the blame for this mistake.” But he later explained who the real culprit was. There had been critical delays while extra fuel was brought in and he believed this could have been prevented if Eisenhower had kept Patton halted on the Meuse and had given full logistic support to Market Garden. “If the operation had been properly backed, it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes.” As Eisenhower had said, Monty wanted everything “and that was crazy.”
Monty stepped up his campaign for a single thrust and to gain overall command with two signals sent on September 21. The first was to Ike: “I have always said stop the right [Bradley/Patton] and go with the left [Montgomery], but the right has been allowed to go on so far that it has outstripped its maintenance and we have lost flexibility.” He asked again that “the right” be ordered to halt its advance. Monty did not know it, but Patton had already been stopped, not by Ike but by the strong German fortifications around Metz. The second signal was to Bedell Smith: “I recommend that the Supreme Commander hands the job [overall land command] over to me and gives me powers of operational command over First US Army.”
That same day Patton flew to Paris for lunch with Eisenhower. They talked about Montgomery and he noted that Ike was nearing the end of his patience: “Things look much better today. Ike still insists the main effort must be thrown to the British. However he was more peevish with Montgomery than I have ever seen him. In fact, called him a ‘clever son-of-a-bitch,’ which was very encouraging.”
Monty had been halted short of Arnhem and he blamed Ike for not reining in Patton. Patton had been halted at Metz and in his frustration, according to Bradley, he “raged at me, Ike and Monty.” In truth, in September 1944 both Monty and Patton were halted by the enemy. In general the Allies had been too certain that the war was already won, and had failed to appreciate the strength and resolution of the surviving German forces.
Following the evacuation of British and Polish troops from Arnhem Monty wrote his own press release to be issued on September 28: “There can be few episodes more glorious than the epic of Arnhem. In years to come it will be a great thing for a man to say, I fought at Arnhem. All Britain will say, You did your best, you did your duty, and we are proud of you.”
It read like the proposal for a blockbuster film.