Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Military History and Warfare: World War II: Arnhem Bridge ‘A Bridge too Far’

The Allied land and airborne operation of September 1944, codenamed ‘Market Garden’ was an ambitious plan to end the war quickly by dropping 30,000 paratroopers into Holland. The paratroopers would seize and hold a series of bridges whilst the British XXX Corps would follow behind and advance into Germany. The battle at Arnhem bridge was only one battle in a series of engagements on the sixty-four mile road from the Meuse-Escaut Canal to the Neder Rijn. However, since the success of the whole operation depended upon seizing this bridge, it was also the most important.

I do not intend to dwell too much upon the entire operation, or indeed the entire British 1st Airborne Division, who quickly found themselves scattered around Arnhem and fighting for their lives. Instead I intend to focus on the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Parachute Brigade commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Frost. This was the sole battalion to reach its objective. Alone and cut-off they held the bridge for four days awaiting reinforcements that never came.

Seven hours after landing on the 17th September, Frost and his men got within sight of Arnhem bridge. A whole Brigade had initially been dispatched, but when Frost counted the number of troops with him that evening, he had just over 700. The battalion were able to seize one end of the bridge almost immediately. However, the other end was held by the Germans. That evening Frost’s men made two attempts to get across the bridge. Both attacks were beaten back by heavy fire from a German pillbox in the centre and an armoured car at the southern end. German trucks that tried to cross the bridge were destroyed, thus discouraging further attempts by the enemy to cross the bridge under the cover of darkness. Unable to contact Brigade HQ, Frost ordered his men to deploy in defensive positions in houses at the north end of the bridge and await reinforcements. However, the Germans reacted quickly and brought in nearby SS infantry and tank units to reinforce their end of the bridge. The only good news for Frost during the night of the 17-18th September was the arrival of most of the Brigade HQ along with a captured German truck loaded with ammunition from the original drop zone.

Frost and his men did not realise that the rest of the division were by now pinned down in desperate little battles all across Arnhem. By the early hours of the 18th September, the 1st Airborne division were fragmented all over Arnhem. Just a few hours after the landing, individual groups of paratroopers were engaged in private battles with whatever local forces they encountered. The breakdown in communications added to the general confusion and chaos. The Germans were well aware of the importance of the bridge. Thanks to the capture of Allied plans carelessly left in a glider, German Field Marshal Model was fully aware of the intention of Operation Market Garden. Whilst the British fought at Arnhem, the American 82nd and 101st were fighting to take the bridges at Nijmegan and Eindhoven. As long as Frost as his men held the North end of Arnhem Bridge, German armoured reinforcements to Nijmegan would be delayed.

British paratroopers landing at Arnhem

German counterattacks began as soon as sufficient forces were assembled on the German side of the bridge early in the morning of the 18th. These attacks continued throughout the day and were beaten back by the British without great loss. Despite these early successes, the growing number of casualties and shortages in ammunition made it imperative that additional units from 1st Airborne or XXX Corps broke through as soon as possible. By early afternoon of Tuesday the 18th, ammunition supplies were so low that it was necessary to stop any sniping and only open fire when an attack was actually in progress. The units of 9th SS Panzer facing them made full use of the lull in shooting to find better positions from which to fire onto the battalion. Half-tracks from 10th SS Panzer soon joined them and were deployed on the south bank. The balance of firepower and armour was rapidly turning against the paratroopers as the Germans launched intermittent assualts on the bridge. Every German fighting vehicle capable of withstanding small-arms fire became a threat to the beleaguered paratroopers. The British forces on the bridge had only hand-held PIATs with which to counter German armour. This spring loaded weapon was the British equivalent of the American bazooka or German Panzerfaust. Unfortunately it was considerably inferior to its counterparts in those armies. Despite this, Frost's men were able to repel multiple attacks, leaving a trail of wrecked German vehicles on the bridge.

Later on the 18th, a captured British paratrooper was sent back to the British side to convey a German request for the British to surrender. With the radio now picking up signals from the British spearheads further down at Nijmegan, Frost still had every reason to believe that XXX Corps would be arriving at any moment. The messenger did not bother to convey Frost’s decline of the German offer and instead took his place back in the line with the rest of his unit.

By Wednesday morning, the Germans were demolishing British defences one building at a time. German tanks fired phosphorus shells to force the paratroopers out of each shelter. Movement between buildings was also fraught with danger as the Germans had now covered the area with machine gun positions and snipers. Casualties were starting to fill the cellars underneath the buildings. Worse still, Frost himself was injured when a mortar exploded next to him. He handed over command to Major Gough of the Reconnaissance squadron, but insisted on being consulted on all major decisions.

With their ammunition almost gone, Frost's men found themselves fixing bayonets and engaging in hand to hand combat. Groups of two or three paratroopers would leave the shelter of the houses they were hiding in to attack Tiger tanks with their PIATs. In the midst of all the fighting, the battalion medical officers convinced Frost to ask the Germans for a two hour truce, during which the wounded would be taken into German hospitals. Following the resumption of fighting, the Germans launched a concentrated mortar barrage on the remaining British positions. Refusing to surrender, groups of paratroopers were simply overrun by superior German manpower backed up with fire support. Despite horrendous conditions, the battalion had managed to hold on to the bridge for three days and four nights. By the fourth day at 9:00, 21st September, all resistance on the bridge had ceased. Eight-one paratroopers had been killed, with many of the others wounded. Frost and the remnants of the battalion were marched off into captivity. They had held a difficult position against overwhelming odds with minimal resources. Their tenacity denied German forces in Nijmegan reinforcements that could have helped stem the Allied advance. Whilst Market Garden ultimately failed to achieve its objectives, the actions of the 2nd Battalion at Arnhem Bridge became legendary.

If you interested in reading more about Operation Market Garden, have a look at these books;

David Bennett, Magnificent Disaster: The Failure of the Market Garden, The Arnhem Operation, September 1944 (2008)

Robin Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine 1944 (London, 2005)

John Keegan, The Second World War (London, 1997)

Max Hastings, Armageddon: the Battle for Germany 1944-45 (London, 2004)

1 comment:

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