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World War II: Operation Market Garden

(September 17, 1944)

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.

Sources: Bard, Mitchell G. The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War II. 2nd Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2004; BBC.