The Allies were bogged down for weeks in heavy fighting
after the landing at Normandy before finally breaking through the German
lines and liberating Paris and Brussels. As Allied forces
got closer to the Fatherland, German resistance increased. After years
of resisting his generals’ pleas for strategic retreats, Hitler finally saw an advantage to falling back to the Siegfried Line. This
line of defense was a series of concrete pillboxes, troop shelters,
and other fortifications arranged as much as three miles deep that stretched
from Switzerland to the border where the Rhine enters the Netherlands.
Hitler hoped to make his stand there long enough to send in reinforcements.
The Allies guessed Hitler’s strategy (and also
knew much of what the Germans were doing from messages they decrypted)
and planned to outflank it by landing paratroopers behind the Siegfried
Line. As conceived by Montgomery, 30,000 British and American airborne
troops were to be flown behind enemy lines to capture eight bridges
along the Dutch/German border. The idea was for the paratroopers to
open up enough of a gap for the ground troops to break through and then
outflank the Germans in the Netherlands.
Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne operation
of the war, with three divisions parachuting on September 17 near Eindhoven,
Arnhem, and Nijmegan. The British airborne division at Arnhem, however,
ran into stiff resistance, and the ground troops could not get through
to support the attack. The 2,000 survivors of the air drop had to retreat
back across the Neder Rijn river after the other 7,000 men were killed
or taken prisoner.
If Operation Market Garden had succeeded, the Allies
would probably have reached Berlin weeks before the Russians, ending the war by Christmas 1944, saved thousands
of civilian and military lives, and perhaps changed the fate of postwar
Europe. Instead, it took another four months before the Allies crossed
the Rhine and began the final conquest of Germany.
The failure of Market Garden reflected the general
stalemate that persisted in the fall. Not until mid-November did the
Allies mount a major offensive. This time the full weight of Allied
air power was brought to bear, with more than 4,000 aircraft dropping
more than 10,000 tons of bombs on the Germans near Aachen. Even with
all that firepower, however, the ground troops could make little headway
and the Allies remained largely stalled west of the Siegfried Line.