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"The Arnhem Operation" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following U.S. military report on the Arnhem airborne operation was originally printed in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 57, April 1945.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]
 

The Arnhem Operation
Heroic Battle for a Rhine Bridgehead

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 2526 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 fictitious.)

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.]
Operations by a British parachute battalion to secure the Arnhem bridges.

The Landing

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 1718 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 many casualties.

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 force.

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 farther north.

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 be established.

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.

 
 


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