Remembering a bridge too far

Operation Market Garden 70 Years On, and Canada’s heroic role within

British troops in combat during Operation Market Garden.

British troops in combat during Operation Market Garden.

Ferdy Belland

This week marks the 70th Anniversary of the infamous Operation Market Garden, one of the most humiliating defeats suffered by the Allies during the latter phases of the European Theatre of World War II.

Fought between 17-25 September 1944, Operation Market Garden was an over-ambitious plan hatched by British Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery (aka “Monty”) to punch a hole through German lines in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, establish a bridgehead across the Rhine River via massive airborne paratrooper assaults, and drive headlong to Berlin along a seemingly open path, capturing Germany’s vital Ruhr industrial centre en route.

It didn’t happen that way.

Montgomery, ever the self-absorbed egotistical go-getter (on par with US General George Patton), had much reason to believe in the plan’s success. Following the Allied invasion of Normandy (“D-Day;” 6 June 1944) and the breakout of the Normandy bridgehead, the combat-weary German panzergrenadier divisions were routed in the battle of the Falaise Pocket, which sent the shattered remnants of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS reeling out of France and back into the Low Countries.

Over-optimistic Allied intelligence assumed that Hitler, also losing alarming ground on both the Russian and Italian fronts, his industrial output disrupted by unstoppable Allied bombing campaigns, unable to supply his forces with adequate oil, ammunition, and reinforcements, would also be unable to regroup the Wehrmacht in Holland and stop Montgomery’s promise: that the war would be over by Christmas 1944.

Montgomery did not reckon with the combined tactical genius of no less than three of Hitler’s most brilliant commanders: Gerd von Rundstedt, admired by friend and foe alike for his quick cunning; Walther Model, nicknamed “Hitler’s Fireman” for his counterattacking skills; and Kurt Student, grand architect of paratrooper concepts (proven with the Axis capture of Crete). All three men were rushed to Holland to collect the shattered Axis forces and anticipate Montgomery’s next move. All three had spent the previous 18 months bitterly rethinking a vast war that had turned against Hitler, and learning to hold their ground with their backs to the wall, undermanned and undersupplied. And there they awaited the Allies.

Operation Market Garden’s main objectives called for circumventing the German “Siegfried Line” defensive wall by a massive air-drop of over 40,000 British and American paratroopers, who would capture a series of strategic canal/river bridges around the Dutch cities of Arnhem, Nijmegen and Eindhoven; combined Allied armored and infantry divisions would then pierce deep into the Dutch countryside to the German border.

Despite initial successes after the first air-drops, the reorganized and re-disciplined Wehrmacht infantry battalions delivered devastating counter-blows which startled and surprised the Allied High Command; soon, the Allied airborne units were trapped within scattered, unconnected drop-zone pockets with seemingly no way out. After several days of vicious, confused fighting, the frustrated Montgomery grimly admitted that Market Garden was unviable, and ordered a tactical withdrawal of his 1st Airborne Division … but how?

Enter the Canadians. The 20th & 23rd Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers (initially assigned within Market Garden’s formations to capture the bridges and disarm potential German demolition attempts), the only British Commonwealth units trained in the use of the motorized stormboats used to cross the canals, braved murderous German fire to ferry trapped companies of the British 1st Airborne Division out of the failing drop-zone pockets. Major Michael Tucker and Lieutenant Russell Kennedy (both of whom commanded the withdrawal efforts) deserve as much remembrance for their efforts to salvage heroism from defeat — as much as Lt-Colonel John Frost (whose name adorns the Rhine bridge at Arnhem). British Empire thinking of the time (and that of Cornelius Ryan, author of “A Bridge Too Far”) has downplayed (and downright ignored) the Canadian contribution to Operation Market Garden; had the Allied planning been better, it is certain the Canadian forces would have performed as outstanding as they did throughout autumn 1944 and beyond; Canadian troops are still admired today for their leading role in the liberation of the Netherlands (and the famine relief for the downtrodden Dutch civilians starving under Nazi rule).

The aftermath of Operation Market Garden (144 aircraft lost, 88 armored vehicles destroyed, and over 17,000 casualties — in five days) was solid, sober proof that the Nazis were far from beaten. This would be proven again in the weeks and months to come, with horrific fighting through the Huertgen Forest and the Ardennes Offensive (the “Battle of the Bulge”). Solid coordination between the Allied units took angry months to straighten out; not until March 1945 was the Rhine River finally crossed for real and the western drive into Nazi Germany begun in earnest. Due to the agonizing delay, the capture of Berlin went to the Russians, and the resulting post-war tensions between distrustful allies stained the world until the end of the 1980s.

The Canadians were there when the Allies went a bridge too far. Lest we forget.

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

1914
It happened this week in 1914

June 13 - 19: Compiled by Dave Humphrey from the archived newspapers… Continue reading

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Most Read