Arnhem: The doorstep to Germany


By August 17th, 1944, the German armies, which four years and three months previously, had overrun so swiftly the whole land of France, were retreating even more swiftly towards their own country. More than a million men, British and American, bursting from their congested bridgeheads in Normandy, were sweeping, in a fury of controlled vengeance, towards Germany. The Americans were soon to reach the Vosges and to link with the army of General Patch moving up from the Mediterranean; the British, composing the 21st Army Group, presently crossed the Seine and the Somme and did not halt till they were well beyond Brussels. To this great victory the contribution of airborne troops was considerable. Apart from the 6th Airborne Division, far to the south, in the vanguard of General Patch’s invading army, were other airborne troops, tough sons of America, some of whom went to battle in British gliders flown by British pilots. Thirty-eight Horsas took them from a dusty airfield near Rome to a still dustier one on Corsica, and thence to their landing zone near the little town of Frejus on the French Riviera.

While these battles were being fought, the tried veterans of the 1st Airborne Division, now at full strength again, were waiting on the Berkshire Downs and in the windy spaces of Salisbury Plain, with an impatience they took small pains to conceal, to play their part in what might ultimately prove to be the final discomfiture of the enemy. At one time the period of waiting seemed likely to be long, for between June 6th and September 17th no less than sixteen airborne operations to support the Allied Expeditionary Force were planned, and all of them came to naught. The reason was simple. Time is needed to plan an airborne attack—not very much time, but enough to ensure that the aircraft and the men to be carried in them are ready and are accurately briefed; for—and it is impossible to emphasize this too often— no airborne attack can succeed unless each man taking part in it knows exactly what to do and when to do it. On each of those sixteen occasions, before the moment for take-off arrived, the armies in the field had either reached or were threatening the proposed objective or the delay imposed by the enemy made the success of an airborne operation impossible. Action, therefore, by airborne forces was not necessary. So these fine troops had perforce to remain in chafing idleness till they were called upon to resolve a situation created by an advance which had exceeded all expectations, especially those of the Germans.

By the middle of September the British 2nd Army had broken through, crossed the Seine, advanced to Brussels and penetrated into Holland. To make this possible, the whole of its transport had been placed at the disposal of its leading Corps, and the other Corps had had perforce to remain more or less immobile. Even so, by the time the main body of the Corps had reached the Brussels-Antwerp line, the situation in regard to supply was already critical. That of the German forces opposed to them, however, was still more so. It may justly be described as chaotic. No organized resistance beyond the Seine had been possible, and it seemed that the remnants of the German 15th Army, which had been allotted the task of defending the Channel coast, were faced with but two alternatives. Either they could retreat into the fortified Channel ports of Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, and Ostend and there sustain themselves as long as possible, or they could try to find a way out into southern Belgium and Holland and, if successful, attempt to re-form behind the barriers which nature has there provided.

For a day or two something akin to panic seems to have prevailed among the German forces in the Dutch islands and on the mainland itself. They had but one defensive position left before the Rhine and the frontiers of their country. It was provided by three rivers: the Meuse, which, when it crosses the Dutch frontier, becomes the Maas; the Waal, which is the main branch of the German Rhine; and the Lower Rhine. Had its difficulties of supply been overcome, there is little doubt that the 2nd Army might have pushed through and reached Germany. Yet this was impossible. The main lines of supply still ran from Cherbourg and the artificial port of Arromanches, and large stocks of all sorts were held in dumps near these ports; but road and rail communications between this base area and the front, over 250 miles away, were not equal to the task of supplying large forces which were still on the move and making heavy demands on stores of every kind. Thus were the Germans given breathing space, and they used it to the utmost.