The Arnhem operation has been called a military gamble that nearly became a
triumph. In order to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine which could be
used in turning the Siegfried Line at its northern end, the Allied Command
employed the reinforced British 1st Airborne Division in an attempt to
capture the Lower Rhine bridges at Arnhem, 60 miles in advance of the
Allied bridgehead across the Escaut Canal. At the same time, two intermediate
objectives, Eindhoven and Nijmegen, were taken by two U.S. airborne
divisions. While the British division failed to hold the Arnhem bridgehead, its
heroic 9-day stand prevented German counterattacks against the
Allied intermediate positions.
The mission of the 1st Airborne Division was to seize the Arnhem bridges
intact and to hold a bridgehead around the perimeter of the town in anticipation
of the arrival of land forces about 48 hours later. The plan called for
flying-in the division in three "lifts," starting on 17 September 1944.
The D-day "lift" was to consist of the 506th Parachute Brigade
and the 508th Air Landing Brigade; on the following day the 507th Parachute Brigade
was to fly in; and on the third day a Polish parachute brigade was scheduled to
arrive. The primary task of the 506th Parachute Brigade was to seize and hold
the main Arnhem bridge, while the 508th Air Landing Brigade held various
dropping and landing zones (to the west of Arnhem) to be used by the brigades
which were to arrive on the second and third days. When the whole division had
landed, each brigade was to be responsible for holding parts of the bridgehead
perimeter around Arnhem.
Although the enemy undoubtedly was taken by surprise, he recovered sufficiently
to extemporize effective counter-action soon after the initial landings. Apparently
resigning himself to conceding Eindhoven and Nijmegen to the advancing Allies, he
made a savage endeavor to annihilate the British force at Arnhem. German reaction
was so strong that the landing of the gliderborne element of the Polish brigade
was violently opposed, and the dropping zone originally designated for the Polish
paratroops was never cleared of the enemy. Only a fraction of the British division
was able to break through to the Arnhem bridges. Consequently, after the night
of D-day there were two separate engagements, that of the battalion
at the bridge and that of the main body of the division pinned down to the
west. The main body held out until the night of 25–26 September, when
the remnant which remained after 9 days of heavy fighting was evacuated across
the Lower Rhine, while the battalion at the bridge was practically wiped
out by 22 September.
Two viewpoints of the Arnhem operation are presented in this article. The first
is a British officer's account of the attempt to hold the bridges, while the
second is a German analysis of the lessons to be drawn from the Arnhem
experience. (All brigade and battalion designations in this article are
The Battle at the Bridge
This narrative was written by one of the few survivors of the parachute
battalion which captured the main bridge and held it for 5 days against
crushing German opposition.
From a dropping zone some 7 miles west of Arnhem, "Y" Parachute Battalion to which I
belonged was to move as quickly as possible to seize the three bridges at Arnhem. Later
it was to hold the western part of the 506th Parachute Brigade's sector in the
bridgehead to be formed around Arnhem.
|Operations by a British parachute battalion to secure the Arnhem bridges.|
We dropped at 1345 with perfect accuracy and had assembled ready to move off from
the rendezvous about an hour later. At the rendezvous three German motor patrols
drove up at different times and were captured.
I was commanding A Company which led the advance. We moved off as planned and
encountered no opposition until we were approaching the road junction (marked "A" on
the map) when we came under heavy fire from machine guns and mortars. This opposition
came from the extreme southern flank of a strong enemy position extending
northward and covering the western approaches to Arnhem. A platoon attack,
however, drove off the enemy confronting us, and we continued on our way skirting
around farther to the south. All the Dutch we met were very friendly and pressed
cups of tea on us.
A few sentries at the railway bridge (marked "B" on the map) delayed us for a short
while, and then, after crossing the railway, we ran into an armored car which caused
some casualties. Unfortunately it withdrew before we could get a 6-pounder on
to it. Further opposition was encountered at the road junction (marked "C" on
the map), but we managed to dodge around it through the houses. Because of the
inaccuracy of our map—which showed few of the roads that actually existed—and
the somewhat involved fighting among the houses, my company on a number of occasions
became very split up. I found that bugle calls were a very satisfactory way to rally
the men and did not seem to give any indication to the Germans of the route
we were taking.
It was now getting dark. Although we continued to meet several small parties of the
enemy, we were able to get around them in the failing light. We reached the northern
end of the main bridge at 1945, having already captured some 40 prisoners. On the
way C Company had been dropped off to carry out its task of seizing the railway
bridge over the Lower Rhine. The bridge, however, was blown as the platoon was
attempting to cross. The commanding officer had also anticipated trouble from the
high ground at Den Brink and so had ordered B Company to occupy the area while
the battalion was passing. It met considerable opposition and suffered some casualties
before moving on to its objective—the ponton bridge, which, however, had been
burned before the company arrived.
Some enemy horse-drawn transport was crossing the main bridge as we arrived, and I hoped
to push one platoon across, mixed up among these vehicles. It was spotted, however, and
after it had suffered heavy casualties from two twin light antiaircraft guns and
an armored car, located on the bridge itself, the attempt was abandoned and the
platoon withdrawn. We organized a defensive perimeter around the north end of the
bridge, and B Company near the burned ponton bridge was instructed to attempt
a crossing in boats. Since no boats could be found, this company was later pulled
into the battalion locality. We were also strengthened by brigade headquarters
which had been switched to our route after we had broken through. The brigadier
himself, however, was still fighting with the two other battalions.
Nothing more was heard of C Company after the incident at the railway bridge. It
would seem that, according to plan, the company moved from the railway bridge to the
sector allotted to it in the bridgehead perimeter. There it must have been cut off
and surrounded, and since no one else succeeded in reaching their allotted sectors
in the perimeter, it was eventually eliminated after 2 days' hard fighting.
During the night of 17–18 September, one company from the two battalions fighting to the
west of Arnhem managed to slip through to join us at the bridge. It became clear
that these two battalions were heavily engaged and so might be unable to force
their way through the town. The Germans tried an attack across the bridge
from the south bank, but we drove it off with heavy casualties and set a number of
vehicles alight. The blazing vehicles conveniently lit up the whole area and made
the occupation of our position an easier proposition. In fact, so useful were they
that the following night we deliberately set fire to a building near the bridge so
that we would be able to see, and therefore prevent, any attempt by the enemy to
blow the bridge. No demolition charges had been laid when we arrived.
Initial German Attacks
Our position at daylight on 18 September was very satisfactory. We held a small
perimeter around the northern end of the bridge with four 6-pounder antitank
guns and some 550 enlisted men made up from my battalion, brigade headquarters, and
the company that had joined us from one of the other battalions. We were
not, however, in touch by radio either with divisional headquarters or with
the other two battalions. Soon after daylight, the Germans started attacking us
from the east, preceded by a very heavy bombardment of artillery and mortars. The
mortaring had little effect on us in the houses beyond making us evacuate attics. Though
this mortaring continued without pause throughout the next 3 days, we paid little
heed to it. The shelling, however, was a different kettle of fish and caused
During the morning, antitank guns and PIAT's [infantry antitank projectors] made very
short work of some armored cars and halftrack vehicles that attempted to cross the
bridge from the south. Ten were left wrecked at the northern end of the bridge. Then
later in the day tanks and SP guns started attacking from the east, but
again PIAT's accounted for several and the rest sheered off. By nightfall the
position was still satisfactory, and during the night radio communication was at
last established with divisional headquarters. We were informed that two other
battalions were trying to break through to us.
German Attacks Increase in Vigor
Throughout 19 September, the Germans' attacks were continued with increasing
vigor, but even so there was no material change in our positions until the
evening. Ammunition was beginning to run short, but what was really serious
was that we had no PIAT bombs left. Since the antitank guns were unable to
establish any positions on the east side of our perimeter, the enemy tanks
were there able to approach within 30 yards of the houses we were occupying
and to pump shells into them. There was nothing to do but to evacuate
these houses temporarily, which meant, of course, that German infantry
occupied them. Then, when the tanks had withdrawn, we had to counterattack to
reestablish ourselves in the houses we had vacated. It proved a costly method
of defense, to which there did not seem to be any alternative.
That evening several key houses for the defense of the perimeter were set on
fire by German phosphorus bombs. The situation was not improved when a Tiger tank
drove down the street in front of battalion headquarters, firing three rounds
into every house. It was finally driven off, but not before it had done
considerable damage, including wounding me. I was able, however, to remain
on duty. I had taken over command of the battalion on the night
of D-day, when the commanding officer took command of the whole
Casualties, so far, had not been light, but fortunately most of them were
wounded. An aid post had been established in the spacious cellars of a big
house, and there two medical officers did all they could with the medical
equipment available. Difficulties were further increased by the cutting of the
water supply. During the night the force commander spoke to the divisional
commander on the radio, and was told that far from the rest of the division
coming to our aid, we might be asked to go and help them. He was, however, told
that some tanks were expected to reach us the following day from the south.
British Positions Become Untenable
The Germans began using many more tanks and SP guns during 20 September and
the intensity of their attacks increased. They smashed the houses by concentrated
shellfire at almost point-blank range, and then set fire to them with phosphorus
bombs. By midday we had no positions left to the east of the bridge, since all
the houses were either burning or still too hot to be reoccupied. A very
fierce battle then raged around the end of the bridge, with the result that
most of the houses close to the river on the west side were also set alight, so
that it became necessary to move the remnants of A and B Companies to houses
Our position had grown considerably worse, but we were still quite confident that
we could hold out until the relieving land forces arrived. An encouraging message
from the division commander had told us that these forces hoped to start an attack
directed at the southern end of the bridge at 1700 that evening. We still had two
antitank guns in action covering the bridge, and we kept the minimum number
of men in the houses overlooking the bridge to prevent infiltration, while the
rest dug-in in the small gardens behind the houses. But just before dark the
remaining houses we held also caught fire, and the defenders were forced back
into the gardens.
There was now no house left in which to put the wounded, so we decided to surrender
them and called for a cessation of fire for the purpose. The enemy were very quick to
evacuate the wounded, but under cover of this evacuation they infiltrated large
numbers of infantry into every sector of our position, which as a result became
untenable. We, therefore, decided to put into effect a plan to move to a large
warehouse still standing outside our perimeter, and there to reestablish the
remnants of the force.
The move was carried out successfully, but in the process contact was lost with the
bridge headquarters part of the force. The warehouse was soon surrounded and it became
clear that it, too, would suffer the same fate as the other houses. We, therefore, divided
our remaining 100 men into two parties, with instructions that each party
should attempt to establish itself in other buildings for the night and
then to concentrate at first light the next day in our old positions
covering the bridge.
This move, however, proved impossible, since every street was well
covered by enemy machine-gun fire, and almost every building in the
neighborhood seemed to be held by them. Our little force became very
split up, and when we later heard from brigade headquarters that it
also was very dispersed, we decided that we were no longer a fighting
force. Orders were given to hide by small parties in the ruins of the
houses, in the hope that some of us, anyway, would remain undetected
until the arrival of the land forces.
By midday on 22 September all our hiding places had been discovered
and the last of us had been taken prisoner. I managed to escape the following
day and subsequently made my way back to our forces south of the Lower Rhine.
During the last day and a half of the battle, the Germans had methodically
set about busting up the houses we occupied by shelling them from tanks at
close range and then firing them with phosphorus bombs. It was difficult to
know how to counter such tactics. If ever again I have to take up a defensive
position in a built-up area, I shall, in the first place, occupy as large a
perimeter as possible comprising as many houses as possible. Against attacks
by shellfire and phosphorus bombs, the end may still be inevitable, but the
process of reduction will take longer when there are more houses to subdue. The
extra time thus given to the defenders might allow the burned-out houses to
cool down so that their ruins could be re-occupied.
German Lessons from Arnhem
German Army Group recommendations for antiairborne measures, based on the
Arnhem experience, emphasize the necessity for an improved warning service, for
forming special commando groups to defend important objectives, and
for "continuous, ceaseless, planned attacks." "Enemy" in this critique
refers to the Allies.
The enemy succeeded in taking the Germans by surprise. Preparation by the Allied air
force began about 3 hours before the landings, in the form of bombing attacks
against antiaircraft emplacements, which did not greatly exceed normal enemy
air activity. The attack against the antiaircraft positions was thought to
be an attempt to disrupt bridges. During the airborne landings the enemy
air force shielded the landing site against the German Air Force. For this
reason, in spite of the good weather, their troop movement remained
almost completely unhampered.
The enemy's chief mistakes were in not landing the entire 1st British Airborne Division
at once rather than over a period of 3 days and in not adding a second airborne division
in the area west of Arnhem. The enemy command will learn from this misfortune and
in their next large-scale airborne landing will reinforce more decisively the
center of their attack both in respect to time and place. The general opinion among
prisoners that ground forces must make contact with airborne troops within 3 days' time
at the latest makes far-reaching operational landings in the future unlikely.
The next airborne landings can be expected to be made in conjunction with ground
force attacks or with new sea-borne landings. In these the distance between the
forces of about 60 miles which was decided upon for Arnhem may be increased. This
would be possible either by day or by night. It is not very likely to take place
behind sections of the West Wall which are intact, since the enemy would probably
not think it possible to break through to the airborne troops in 2 or
3 days' time. Northeastern Holland, northwestern Germany, and adjoining
sections of the West Wall therefore are threatened particularly with the danger
of airborne landings; the enemy chooses for his airborne landings areas where
there is a lack of troops. In this case, his information service failed him, and
the strength of German opposition was a nasty surprise for him.
The time between landing and digging in was relatively long, between 2 and 3 hours. Thereby
the advantage of a surprise at Arnhem was lost. The enemy had armored reconnaissance
cars and heavy antitank guns.
In the battle for the bridges the enemy established positions in nearby houses.
Improved Defenses Necessary
Emphasis in preparatory measures should be on improvement of the warning
service, building up of warning units and fighter commando units, and the
reinforcement of all specially endangered objectives such as bridges. The
arrival of transport planes and troop-carrying gliders in large numbers, their
position and course, should be announced by radio, at the latest, as they
approach the coast. In areas particularly threatened with airborne landings a net
of doubly enforced observation sites should be arranged, having an elementary
warning system to announce the approximate distance of all actual landings
with an estimate of the number of paratroops and gliders; for example: "Direction 2300,
approximate distance 3 miles, about 100 paratroops and 30 gliders landed." Several
such warnings and estimates given to a central point will give the exact
location. Only in this way can false warnings be recognized and our own
troops be sent in the right direction without delay. Gliders flying across
are not considered landings nor does the release of gliders necessarily
mean that a landing is about to take place.
The landing of paratroop dummies must be quickly recognized and
announced as such; they can usually be taken to indicate that that
area will not be used for a real landing.
In well-fortified areas the battalion and regimental staffs are the
warning reception centers; otherwise, the local command.
In the organization of warning units, the distribution of young, experienced
leaders and subordinate leaders is especially important. Troops who are physically
under par are absolutely unqualified for this kind of fighting in which a fully
developed decision must come in a very short time. Only properly trained forces
should be assigned, insofar as they can be armed; the others, with requisitioned
vehicles, should be formed into simple types of supply units. Reinforcements
of ammunition and supplies should be brought up quickly. Nearby supply centers
must be completely released.
In the case of large airborne landings, fighter commandos have the job of looking
for the enemy, of warning, and of fighting; they must quickly occupy important sectors
and strengthen the defenses of specially threatened objectives. Every local command
must have at its disposal at least one fighter commando unit composed of 33 men and
armed with four light machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, and many machine pistols.
In addition to the fighter commandos, the greatest possible number of warning units
should be made mobile. The chances of success are greatly enhanced by an increase
and improvement in mobility. The enemy's weakest moments are just before and directly
after the landings. Quick use of light flak is especially important. Fighter
commandos must be ready for action within 15 minutes, warning units within an
hour at the latest.
Mobilizing of heavy weapons by means of temporary motor transport and by loading on
motor vehicles should be prepared; for example, 2-cm flak guns can be
mounted on temporary wooden wagons (for ground fire) or airplane machine guns on
passenger trucks. Wood-burning cars are ill-suited for combat troops as they are
not always ready to travel.
In order to combat a momentary lack of heavy weapons it is recommended that
armament supply depots be established in areas threatened with airborne landings, from
which the troops can be supplied. The same applies to means of communication.
Since airborne landings are impossible in cities, troops stationed in
them should be moved to the outskirts or to the country. They should
be taught the roads. Detours for all bridges and narrow passes should
Worn-out tanks and armored reconnaissance cars should be assigned to warning
units. Panzerschreck and Panzerfaust are very good defense in
street fighting, as is concentrated firing of grenades. Employment of weapons
is particularly important as they make it necessary for the enemy to establish
himself immediately in houses. For this purpose units should also be equipped
with special engineering weapons.
Organization of Defense
The nearest local staff must immediately take over command and establish advanced
positions in the neighborhood of the airborne landing area. All units should be
sent into action in the direction of the landing area, and reconnaissance should
be sent out immediately.
Defense of specially threatened objectives should be organized. Immediate use of
tanks and assault guns, if available, is recommended. The opponent should be
immediately attacked in the manner of a counterattack in order to cut him off
immediately. Continuous ceaseless, planned attacks in order to surround and
destroy the enemy should be begun directly. All available weapons should be
thrown in immediately. For leadership of our forces against airborne enemy
troops, only energetic, capable, and determined officers should be used. Rank
and position should not be taken into account. Units with weak leadership should
be given experienced leaders or should be divided up.
Even at night the enemy should be allowed no respite and continuous
artillery fire and heavy infantry weapons should be used. There should
be rapid introduction of strong flak in the landing area in order to
disrupt and hamper further troop and supply landings as much as
possible. Where our forces feel undoubtedly superior to the enemy, gliders
should not be shot down, since they carry valuable booty, especially
heavy weapons, motor vehicles, and motorcycles. Our troops should
display enemy landing signals which will, with experience, soon
be captured, and the enemy's water supply should be cut off by
encirclement. In particularly threatened areas, roads should be carefully
marked with luminous paint signs that can be seen in the dark.
Casualties among officers in combat with enemy airborne troops are
particularly high; therefore, after a successful landing, officer
reinforcements must immediately be thrown in.
Defense against enemy airborne landings must be realistically rehearsed at
least once a month. These rehearsals should include warning units and should
invoke limited requisitioning of civilian vehicles. In this way only can
leaders and subordinates get to know their people. Practice warnings should
be fully carried out by units of combat strength at night, as well as by day.