On the 17th September, 1944, British troops
took part in a daring operation to capture a bridge and so create
a path over the Rhine. The bridge was situated at the Dutch town
of Arnhem, behind the enemy line.
Capture of the bridge would have allowed British
and Allied troops to push across the Rhine and then outflank the
German defences, then sweeping south and cutting off the Germans
completely. It was a bold plan that could of shortened the war,
but with a series of bad luck the operation ended in disaster.
The British could not continue its push forward
until it had the bridges secured. Arnhem was situated on the Rhine,
but there was also two other rivers before the Rhine that also
proved to be obstacles. The first was the Maas (Meuse) at Grave,
and the second was the Waal at Nijmegen.
The American 101st Airborne Division parachuted
just south of the Maas, and captured all but one of its targets.
While the American 82nd Airborne Division had also captured a
crossing across the Maas, but they faced problems when they engaged
strong German defences at the Waal at Nijmegen. But the Allies
captured the crossing after fierce German attacks on 21st September,
when a combined attack by American paratroopers and the British
Guards Division tanks overwhelmed the defenders.
The targets at Arnhem was the farthest and best
defended. The British 1st parachuted in to drop zones west and
north of Arnhem, which was situated north of the Rhine, as other
troops arrived in gliders. The targets in Arnhem were two bridges,
one rail bridge and one road bridge. As the British approached
the rail bridge the Germans destroyed it. The road bridge was
heavily defended by the Germans who also had artillery, and the
British had none.
The British held out against all odds until the
20th September, but then were overwhelmed. Their acts of bravery
stopped the Germans from using the bridge and so stopped any German
reinforcements moving south to tackle the other operations that
had captured the other bridge targets.
The British had landed unprepared for the situation
they faced. As luck would have it armoured German Divisions were
at Arnhem for a refit and so were well placed to fight off the
British effort. Also British targets were known to the Germans
at the beginning of the operation, as Germans obtained maps from
captured British paratroopers and so disclosing intended targets.
On the 25th-26th September, after days of fierce
fighting Field Marshall Montgomery ordered the British paratroopers
to retreat back across the river. Only 2,400 men managed to escape
Arnhem out of a total force of 9,000. Plans to send in Polish
airborne troops to support were delayed because of poor weather,
and when they arrived it was too late, all had been lost.