This month in history: Operation Market Garden

Operation Market Garden was an ambitious attempt in September 1944 by the Allied forces to end the war early by advancing through the Netherlands, across several river barriers, and into Northern Germany. However, the operation failed after 9 days, and the Netherlands’ northernmost city, Arnhem, wasn’t liberated until April 1945.

By early September 1944, the Allied forces that had landed on the Normandy beaches on 6 June had already liberated Brussels, and were hovering near the border of the Netherlands. General Montgomery’s plan, codenamed Operation Market Garden, was to make a swift, narrow thrust up through the Netherlands, bypassing the German army’s defensive Siegfried Line. It would then swing east into Northern Germany and advance towards Berlin.

After much discussion, Montgomery persuaded General Eisenhower to back his strategic plan. In order to pave the way for the ground troops, paratroopers would capture and hold key bridges in the following order:

  • the American 101st Airborne Division would be dropped just north of Eindhoven to capture bridges at Son and Veghel
  • the 82nd Airborne Division would be dropped further north to take the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen
  • the 1st British Airborne Division, with the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, would be dropped at Arnhem

The plan depended on surprise, speed and firepower to achieve its ultimate aim of providing a crossing over the Rhine at Arnhem, some 60 miles from the starting point of the ground forces. It was a plan that needed all elements to work like clockwork, having very little margin for error, deviation or delay. Unfortunately, despite Montgomery’s insistence that it was ’90% successful‘, the plan failed, and no strategic advantage was gained, at great cost to the Allied Airborne Army.

However, Operation Market Garden was far from a complete disaster. South of Arnhem, Nijmegen and large parts of North Brabant were liberated. This area was the springboard for Operation Veritable, the final, momentous push for freedom launched in February 1945. But the human suffering was great, among civilians and fighting forces.

Victoria Cross recipients

A total of 5 Victoria Crosses were awarded during the 9 days of intense fighting (17 to 26 September 1944):

Captain Lionel Queripel, Parachute Regiment, 1st Airborne Division, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 19 September. He reorganised troops under heavy fire, carried a wounded sergeant to an aid post, killed crews of machine guns, threw back an enemy stick grenade and remained behind, armed only with a pistol and a few hand grenades, to allow his men to withdraw. This was the last time that he was seen (Gazette issue 36917).

Flight Lieutenant David Lord, 271 Squadron, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 19 September. Flying a Dakota III through intense anti-aircraft fire, the plane was hit twice. With one engine burning, he managed to drop supplies twice, before ordering many of his crew to bail out. Lord continued at the plane’s controls until it crashed, killing him and 6 others. He was said to have displayed ’supreme valour and self-sacrifice’ (Gazette issue 37347).

Lance-Sergeant John Daniel Baskeyfield, South Staffordshire Regiment, was awarded the Victoria Cross for defending Oosterbeek on 20 September. Commanding a pair of anti-tank guns, and after his crew had all been killed, he managed to man an anti-tank gun single-handed, firing it until he too was killed (Gazette issue 36807). His body was not identified, and he has no known grave.

Major Robert Cain, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 20 September. Armed with an anti-tank weapon, he managed to score several direct hits on an approaching Tiger tank, immobilising it, despite being wounded many times. Over the following days his ’powers of endurance and leadership won the admiration of his fellow officers‘(Gazette issue 36774). He died in 1974, aged 65.

Lieutenant John Grayburn, Parachute Regiment, 1st Airborne Division, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in Arnhem between 17 and 20 September. He assaulted the bridge and pressed on, despite being shot through the shoulder. He organised defences, managed to repel several counterattacks, and defused demolition charges on the bridge, before being fatally wounded by a tank (Gazette issue 36907).