Arnhem - The Last Pitched Battle Fought by The British Army
The lesson of this battle is the fierceness of war may win the day before you realise it. The enemy may have superior forces, but still not relish the fight and effectively concede the victory to the side that has greater stamina, stronger moral grounds and better military doggedness with sheer grit. The British won on all these points at Arnhem in September 1944.
This operation in September 1944 to land our paratroops and secure the Rhine bridges in Holland at Arnhem and Nijmegen, was largely a British military action commanded by our Generals and Subordinate Officers. It was called operation “Market Garden”. General Montgomery himself known as “Monty” conceived this plan to enable his troops to advance quickly on Berlin, shorten the War and hold the Red Army back from advancing so deeply into Germany proper, as indeed it did. The operation depended upon surprise and these three Rhine bridges being lightly defended.
The reverse proved correct: There were Panzer armoured divisions in the drop zone who were being rested prior to going into battle against the advancing allies in France and Belgium and the Netherlands. Thus these Panzer divisions gave our Airborne Corps troops a most unpleasant “reception party” in the words of Special Operations Executive when the Gestapo had wind of a Lysander arriving in occupied France with Resistance Agents. To be fair the Germans had no knowledge of these glider born soldiers and parachutists landing in force. They just happened to be in the right place at the right time by chance from the German Commander’s point of view.
One British paratroop division lost 8,000 killed, wounded, missing or made prisoner out of a full complement of 11,000 men. This was General Urquhart’s division and I am indebted to Richard A. Lamb’s “Montgomery in Europe 1943-45” at page 243 for that detail. (Buchan & Enright 1983)
2. The Story of the Battle Further Related
This battle in which the Germans and the British fought to the last man and a standstill as the Germans and the Russians did at Stalingrad (1942-43) was ferocious to the extreme. One German Commander later said he had never seen men fight like this and so hard ever before. It was the “Stalingrad” of the Second World War on the Western Front (1939-45) without any doubt. Yet the British soldiers were forced eventually to surrender and they were taken away into captivity as 200,000 Germans were captured in Stalingrad. Of course the numbers of captured British soldiers were much smaller.
We were meant to be winning the War in September 1944 against Hitler’s Germany, for a brief interlude we were losers at Arnhem. We never got to Berlin before the Red Army, as Monty intended, so we could not fight that bloody street battle for the bombed out Capital City. If Monty had his way the bridges would have been secured over the Rhine and the Allied armoured divisions to the West would have broken through the demoralised German lines also to the west to advance over these Rhine bridges into Germany proper. Our paratroopers would have had these German troops to the west of Arnhem encircled with the Allied armour and infantry moving forward from the west against them. The German positions would be hopeless at Arnhem militarily in the tactical and strategic sense. If we had secured the bridges we had targeted there would be no way out for these German units at Arnhem. It would be too late to “blow” these bridges and retreat east of the Rhine.
3. The German Commander at Arnhem
This was Field Marshal Model, but the Panzer forces under his command were SS units. SS units, even if at below strength as in this battle would fight on to the bitter end. Rommel took the cyanide tablet pressed on him by Hitler’s Officers a few weeks after this battle. Field-Marshal Rommel was the potential anti-Hitler rallying point yet he was no longer a field commander, and what is more he knew the contest with Hitler inside Germany was lost come what may. Essentially Model had little room for manoeuvre with Hitler secure in the wolf’s lair in East Prussia and these other circumstances. What do I mean? Model would not make peace with Monty, as Market Garden foundered, in all likelihood, as the senior German Field Commander in charge at Arnhem.
The British finally surrendered to Field Marshal Model’s subordinates at Arnhem. In different conditions the hard pressed Germans may have been brought to lay down their arms. The July plot to kill Hitler which misfired in 1944 greatly destabilised his Reich even for the obedient Germans. They knew the War was a losing battle. Hitler commanded the allegiance nevertheless of his Generals by their oath of personal loyalty to him the Fuhrer and Commander-in-Chief. The crucial axis was the German Generals’ dependence on and binding unity with their men and junior officers, which was generated by the preparedness of these men and officers to fight for these German Commanders. At Arnhem these cords could not be broken by the British. We had landed deep in occupied Holland, a great risk on any view. We took that risk and paid the price.
As things turned out with the SS Panzer units in the vicinity of the drop zone and our gliders landing area at Arnhem, you could say the result was a bit predictable. The British were on a hiding to nothing it is said, yet they did not see such opposition coming. We fought with great valour and true grit in our last truly memorable pitched battle in Holland as it happened in September 1944. We have never since fought such a contest. The Dutch remember our courage to this day and so do we all too.
I also notice Monty’s vision which gave rise to that exceptional bravery in action. Some wrongly say his strategy was faulty and would never have succeeded, even if the Panzer units had not been lurking close by. The battle at Arnhem may be counted in days in September 1944 rather than weeks. I argue Monty was a little unlucky to come across those elite enemy troops and cloud cover preventing Allied bombing raids on these armoured SS Panzer units. If Monty had it his way the Rhine bridges would have been lightly defended and then his paratroopers and glider born units would have won the day.
Conceivably Field Marshal Model unnerved, taken by surprise, and not knowing if reinforcement paratroopers would be dropped, was disorientated and off balance. At the back of his mind the Allies may be advancing from the west. Maybe even a British peace feeler to obtain a German surrender of troops under his command at Arnhem was not something Field Marshal Model would dismiss out of hand. Even German Senior Officers would consider the importance of saving the lives of German soldiers and officers from pointless slaughter. Model’s men could be trapped as I say. The cloud cover may easily have cleared to permit Allied bombing raids which would be destructive and from English airfields. This was a battle with the British for Model not the feared despised and hated Red Army of Stalin. The British would honour terms of surrender which the Russians never would have done. Model knew all this.
The fierceness of “the cauldron” at Arnhem and Nijmegen as sustained in this man to man battle with no quarter given may have lead Field Marshal Model to reconsider this ceasefire with approval. In fact one short truce was agreed at Arnhem. Monty knew he could rely on his troops to fight with real intensity and purpose to put this German Field Marshal and Commander at Arnhem on “the rack”. Then it was a shoot out and anything could happen including a German slippage among their ground troops and possibly their Field Marshal’s will to fight on would crack. This was Monty at work: - put the enemy to the bloody and final test (he is losing the War catastrophically). Then let this German enemy prove his mettle.
As with most pitched battles it was a close run thing for both sides. Monty might still have “cracked the nut” of German Resistance at Arnhem as he did with the German Afika Corps earlier in this Second World War in North Africa. He came very close to doing so despite the unforeseen presence of the SS Panzer units at and near Arnhem. Who knows when an enemy has had enough? The Germans surrendered en masse in July 1944 at Normandy to the Americans and British shortly before Arnhem. The British would not give up as Monty well understood. I say Monty could have prevailed as things were in those several days. He was a Commander of great foresight who believed in the British fighting soldiers and their officers and their padres to “deliver the goods” for him and the nation and the Allies. Our men did not let Monty down at Arnhem.
They very nearly won a battle for him which many now think was beyond us. I say he who ventures forth will achieve the greater gain. Monty was the ultimately meticulous General, yet still the one who stakes his claim to be the most imaginative and daring. You must have both qualities as a strategic military Commander if you are to rank high in those circles.