Operation Market Garden
Allies fail to push into Holland and Germany
17 - 25 September 1944
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
Operation Market Garden was an unsuccessful Allied offensive in the Netherlands after the Normandy Campaign. Its goal was for the Allied forces to reach the German Ruhr area with a pincer attack.

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Operation Market Garden was an unsuccessful Allied campaign during World War 2. The operation took place in the Netherlands. It’s goal was to encircle the German Ruhr area with a pincer attack. After the battle of Normandy, the operation was began with a massive airborne attack, Operation Market, whose goal was to capture key locations in enemy territory, and continued with the British XXX Corps assault, codenamed Operation Garden. However the Allied forces failed to achieve their objectives due to a strong German defence.

Montgomery’s bold scheme to use the British 1st and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to try to capture the bridges over the great rivers of the Maas (Meuse), Waal (Rhine) and Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine), and thereby help the land forces to encircle the Ruhr to the north, came to grief in and around the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem.

The 1st Airborne Division’s acceptance of a distant drop zone put the operation in jeopardy: airlift planners refused to consider more than one drop per day. General Roy Urquhart would have to wait until another day for much of his division, and then two days for the Polish Airborne Brigade. Much of the first day’s force would have to guard the drop zones for the next day’s wave of paratroopers.

None of the British radios taken into the bridgehead worked upon arrival. Thus, for much of the fight, the British airborne remained out of touch with the Allied command structure, and no one outside of the perimeters around Arnhem bridge and Oosterbeek—the drop zone where the bulk of 1st Airborne Division fought and died—had a clue as to the desperate situation.

Having obtained Eisenhower's agreement to using the Allied airborne divisions, Montgomery decided on an operation in which two American and one British airborne division were to secure a series of river crossings, with the American 82nd and 101st seizing the southern two and the British 1st Airborne, reinforced by the Polish Parachute Brigade, the northernmost at Arnhem. The British 3oth Corps would strike forward to cross and join the seized bridges and thereby establish the Allies in one daring move across the lower Rhine.

Mistakes were made in the planning stages – principally by Lieutenant-General F. A. M. ‘Boy’ Browning, on the intelligence side – which meant it was doomed before it began. It was the largest airborne assault in history, but intelligence that should have warned the 1st Airborne Division of two Panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem was given insufficient weight, and it therefore did not take enough anti-tank weaponry to the drop-zones.

Montgomery's great mistake was assigning the British 1st Airborne Division a drop zone kms away from its bridge. This was designed to avoid excessive casualties in the landing but had the opposite effect. The division staff’s initial plan placed the bulk of its landing force in the immediate vicinity of the Arnhem bridge. But the air transport commander, Air Vice Marshal L. N. Hollinghurst, rejected the drop zones south of the bridge, because they required his aircraft to pass over heavy concentrations of flak. A daring operation cannot be designed to be safe, as the Normandy airborne operations had shown.

At this point Eisenhower provided Montgomery with virtually everything he asked for, including the highest priority for fuel. By the end of the first week in September, Montgomery had settled the details for the upcoming attack.

It was at this point that the failure to destroy German forces in Normandy exercised a second baneful effect on upcoming operations. Almost concurrently with Antwerp’s capture, and just as planning for Market Garden was beginning, Ultra revealed that the Germans were transferring the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions for “rest and refit” in the “Venloo, Arnhem, Hertogenbosch” areas. There they were to receive new drafts and equipment to make up for heavy losses in Normandy. The 9th SS Panzer Division would eventually entrain for the Reich to carry out its refit near Koblenz, but many of its units were still in the area when the airborne attack came.

The determination of where the divisions would drop underscores the mistakes made in the planning. The easiest drops would involve the experienced U.S. 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, while the inexperienced British 1st Airborne Division would execute the most dangerous drop at Arnhem.

The subtraction of 34 gliders from the 1st Airborne Division’s lift to support Frederick Browning’s corps, combined with Roy Urquhart’s need to guard the drop zone and take the Arnhem bridge, meant that the British attack, despite being the deepest and most exposed drop, would be seriously short of fighting power. The cascading consequences of such shoddy planning guaranteed that Market Garden’s flaws would prove fatal.

The British field marshal Bernard Montgomery was the Supreme Commander of the operation. The commander of the British First Airborne Army was Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton. Despite the fact the British contributed only one division, they dominated Market Garden’s planning as well as command positions. The man selected to plan and command Market Garden was an immaculate guardsman, Lieutenant General Frederick “Boy” Browning.

Brereton possessed an undistinguished war record but was clearly a survivor. Brereton had been involved in a number of disasters, including the destruction of the B-17 force at Clark Field in the Philippines in December 1941. Brereton displayed considerable skill in deflecting blame onto shoulders other than his own. His most recent command of Ninth Tactical Air Force had not exactly cloaked him in glory, but he had many friends in high places. With little knowledge of airborne or ground operations, Brereton found himself in command of the Allied Airborne Army.

Browning had been involved with airborne units for a relatively lengthy period of time, but he had never jumped in combat. He now decided to accompany the operation with his entire corps staff, a decision that diverted 34 gliders from the number available to the British 1st Airborne Division in its attack on Arnhem.

It is not entirely clear why Browning received command of the operation over the more experienced American general Matthew Ridgway, commander of the newly constituted XVIII Airborne Corps. Undoubtedly, the fact that the attack was in support of Twenty-First Army Group had much to do with the choice.

When his intelligence officer, Major Brian Urquhart, confronted him with aerial photographs confirming Dutch reports of German armor in the Arnhem area, Browning declared, “I wouldn’t trouble myself about these if I were you . . . They’re probably not serviceable at any rate.” Browning then sacked Urquhart and sent him off for a rest, while at the same time failing to inform 1st Airborne Division of this vital information. By then it was probably too late to cancel the operation, but British paratroopers could certainly have adjusted their loads to take along additional anti-tank mines and weapons.

Browning’s celebrity included his marriage to the novelist Daphne du Maurier. He appears to have received his corps command because Brooke felt the guards establishment needed an appointment at corps level.

The 1st Airborne Division’s commander, Major General Roy Urquhart, a tough Scots infantryman, had no experience with airborne operations.

The most important single factor holding back the Allies was the supply situation. As they had advanced rapidly, the Allied armies had been unable to seize additional ports. Cherbourg and Marseilles had been badly damaged, while other ports could not be taken from the Germans. Antwerp was the only port at the time that had been captured intact but could not be used because of the precarious tactical situation of the Allied troops in the region. This situation forced the Allies to rely on trucks to supply the front lines. These trucks used well established routes. The "Red Ball Express" was both the most famous and the most effective of these.

Brest did not fall for months and then turned out to be so badly wrecked that it was not reopened. Other ports continued to be held by German garrisons deliberately left behind with instructions to hold on precisely to prevent use of the port facilities. The great harbor of Marseilles had been wrecked by the Germans almost as much as Cherbourg but soon came to be an essential element in the supply picture.

A major port, and the one which the Allies had counted on as the main base for a drive into Germany, had fallen into their hands intact but could not be used because the Germans controlled its approaches—Antwerp. For months Montgomery would not provide the Canadian army with the logistic and other support it needed to drive the Germans from its approaches. While the Canadians, eventually assisted by other Allied forces, battered their way forward, all the Allied armies had to be supplied to a large extent from Cherbourg and over the beaches, hundreds of km from the front.

Since shipping was one of the great bottlenecks, use of the small ports on the Channel coast, the beaches, and the only partially cleared harbor facilities at Cherbourg and later Marseilles tied up ships for inordinate lengths of time. The enormous distance from the factories in the United States to the front meant that, in the best of circumstances, it took close to four months for an item ordered in France to reach the battlefield. This long supply route in turn tied up vast quantities en route—usually there were about two thousand tanks in the pipeline from the United States to the front.

When the "Red Ball Express"ceased operating on November 16, the same day that the Normandy beaches finally closed down, it had carried over 400,000 tons of supplies. Although this system of motorized transport together with the railways and some airlift and barge traffic enabled the Allied forces to maintain their military effectiveness, these measures could not move enough material to the front fast enough to sustain the August rate of advance.

The heavy fighting in Normandy and then the combat after the August rush created a massive need for replacements. As a result the British begun to break up some divisions in order to strengthen others. The American army had concentrated on building divisions for combat and had shipped these to Europe as rapidly as possible. Now that these divisions were in combat, providing an adequate stream of replacements was complicated not only by the tight shipping situation but by what most would consider defective replacement policies. The Germans on the other hand, still had the ability to reform and reinforce their units.

In the British army, the manpower problem meant pressure to break up some divisions to provide replacements for others, a process under way by late August in spite of strenuous objections from Churchill. He saw this process, as leading to a reduced British weight in Allied discussions of strategy. There could certainly be no question of transferring units from the European to the Southeast Asian theater at this time as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff wanted. Until victory over Germany had been attained, Great Britain simply had to concentrate its shrinking manpower resources in Europe.

The American manpower situation was also tight though for entirely different reasons. Injured men were not systematically returned to their own units when they recovered from their wounds. Divisions were kept in combat far too long instead of being periodically rotated for rest and refitting. The rear area services were over staffed even if necessarily large because of the enormous distance from the American base to the front. Pouring replacements into front units on an undifferentiated basis as these units were kept in constant combat was excessively costly, as the inexperienced replacements themselves became casualties quickly.

The German collapse in France had been so sudden and complete that Allied generals found the notion of a revival of Wehrmacht forces inconceivable. By this point in the war, senior Soviet generals could certainly have warned their Western counterparts that the Germans were all too effective in resurrecting their military forces. But optimism prevailed in the Allied senior ranks.

The Allied thrust was weakening at the very time that massive German reinforcements built up a new defensive line in the West. As Hitler had explained long before, the defensive depth available in the West was not great; here the Allies could reach Germany's industrial heart. It was, therefore, to this front that most of the new divisions were sent. It was the German hope that new weapons and new formations would now enable them to strike such blows at the Western Powers as to drive them off the continent. Such a German victory could be the prelude to either a compromise peace or a renewed offensive in the East.

The American and French armies in the south were able to clear all of Lorraine and, except for a bulge around Colmar, most of Alsace; but American progress in the north was slow around Aachen, held up by German control of dams which could flood their route of advance, while the British made minimal advances in the Venlo area.

The German role in halting the Allied offensive had been the rebuilding of formations, in some cases around cores which had escaped the Falaise battle, in some cases newly organized and equipped by massive manpower mobilization, together with a substitution, in effect, of holding on to the ports as a means of reducing Allied supplies for sinking them with submarines.

Two of the new weapons were already seeing service: the V-1, the flying bomb, and the V-2, the ballistic missile. These were now increasingly directed at Antwerp in an effort to destroy the port facilities on which the Allies were correctly believed to depend heavily. But other weapons were already either in service or about to be employed.

The Germans had a lead in the design and manufacture of jet airplanes. It was their hope that the enormous advantage in speed which these planes had over all planes powered by conventional engines would enable them to drive the Allied bombers out of the skies and to regain control of the air over the battlefield. The reality quickly proved otherwise. The new jets did succeed in shooting down some bombers, but they were simply overwhelmed by the great numbers and longer endurance of the American P-51 Mustangs.

The new submarines still remained potentially a major menace to the Allies because there was no way for the convoys to outrun their greater speed or for defending planes and warships to spot them on the surface as they simply remained under water. Even the intermediate step between the old German submarines and the new, the snorkel equipped older models, caused the Allies substantial losses and great difficulties because it enabled the Germans to return to the waters close to the English coast.

The totally new submarines did constitute a realistic German hope, but one that was not realized, primarily because the Allied air offensive so disrupted the German naval construction program that none could be made ready in time. Unlike the factories for jet planes, the facilities where portions of the new submarines were built and assembled could not be placed underground and therefore remained vulnerable to air attacks.

To add to Allied bad luck, the Germans located a number of key headquarters in the area immediately north of Antwerp. The Generals Walter Model, Kurt Student and Wilhelm Bittrich were all in and around the area of operations. Thus, the Germans had a number of experienced commanders in the area who by training and inclination would respond effectively to Market Garden.

Model, now number two in the west as commander of Army Group B—Rundstedt had returned to overall command—located his headquarters near Arnhem.

General Kurt Student, the paratrooper general who had led the assault on Holland in 1940, had arrived from his training billet in the Reich and received command of a ragtag force, with the imposing title of First Parachute Army, confronting the British along the Albert Canal.

An SS corps headquarters under Wilhelm Bittrich remained near Arnhem to oversee refitting of 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions. The reconstituting of German forces north of Antwerp would play a major role in the coming battle.

At the beginning parts of the airborne operation ("Market") and accompanying land drive ("Garden") appeared to go well. American paratroopers entered Eindhoven and Nijmegen. But the british suffered heavy casualties. After 10 days of fighting the Allied advance had stopped, and the Allied forces were forced to pull back. The attempt to "bounce" the Rhine barrier had failed by a narrow margin in the face of a reviving German resistance, but it had failed nonetheless.

The 101st Division took Eindhoven and its bridge, replacing another one blown by the Germans with an engineer-built substitute. The 82nd after bitter fighting and a river-crossing assault combined with the advancing British armored ground forces to seize the bridge at Nijmegen. The tanks and soldiers pushing up the narrow corridor from Nijmegen loosely made contact with the Polish Parachute Brigade on the south side of the Rhine.

After they had captured the bridge at Nijmegen at great cost, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division watched—infuriated—as tankers from the Guards Armored Division stopped. By the time British armor reached the south bank of the Rhine at Arnhem, all that remained was to rescue the survivors from across the river.

Operation Market, the airborne assault was initially successful. The simultaneous ground attack by General Dempsey’s British Second Army and XXX Corps, codenamed Operation Garden, reached Eindhoven and Nijmegen but could not breakthrough determined German resistance in time to relieve the paratroopers at Arnhem.

Montgomery’s orders to Dempsey to be ‘rapid and violent, without regard to what is happening on the flanks’, seems not to have been taken sufficiently to heart. XXX Corps suffered 1,500 casualties compared with five times that number of Britons and Poles at Arnhem, who were massacred on the Lower Rhine by tank, mortar and artillery fire, with their food and ammunition exhausted.

XXX Armored Corps’ troops made an exceptionally slow advance up the airborne corridor. German troops in the area, many of whom were escapees from Fifteenth Army, launched a series of savage and effective counterattacks as the troops of XXX Corps crawled their way north toward Arnhem. On a number of occasions the Germans succeeded in cutting the corridor, which forced the British to backtrack and regain positions captured earlier. Dempsey, as commander of the Second Army, had ordered the XXX Corps to make as rapid an advance as possible. The advance was anything but that.

The 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions captured most of the bridges that were their targets or replaced them when blown. The British pushed a battalion onto the north side of the Arnhem bridge. But then things went very wrong very quickly. In Arnhem, Waffen SS troopers, whose presence in the area Browning had so casually dismissed, blocked movement into the town from every direction after one British battalion had slipped past. Thus, the Germans had isolated the 1st Airborne Division from its target. The 1st Airborne Division’s casualty figures were twice as high as the combined totals of the 82nd and the 101st Divisions. It was, nonetheless, to be the British Army’s last defeat.

Urquhart, the division commander, was cut off inside the town. Moreover, the weather turned foggy, so that the Poles, scheduled to drop south of Arnhem on day three, did not arrive until day five.

The 1st British Airborne Division had been dropped too far from the bridge at Arnhem, on the other side of the town, and could not hold the northern exit from the main road bridge across the river. German resistance, hastily organized but based on two SS armored divisions already in the area, forced the British paratroopers away from the river.

Treacherous flying conditions prevented reinforcement or resupply by air. Around 3,910 of the 11,920 men of the 1st Airborne Division and Polish Independent Brigade Group managed to withdraw to the south side of the river, the rest being either killed, wounded or captured.The 1st Airborne Division’s casualty figures were twice as high as the combined totals of the 82nd and the 101st Divisions. It was, nonetheless, to be the British Army’s last defeat.

Undeniably, Nazi ideology contributed to the fighting effectiveness of Wehrmacht units; but German military doctrine, with its emphasis on exploitation, speed, decentralized decision-making, and above all discipline, also contributed to the response at Arnhem.

At every juncture the Germans proved that any assumptions about the Wehrmacht’s defeat were premature. Perhaps the saddest comment on the British failure lay in an all-too-successful effort by Browning, with the connivance of Dempsey and Montgomery, to blame the Polish Airborne Brigade’s commander, Brigadier General Stanislaw Sosabowski for the failure. His only mistake had been to warn his superiors against overconfidence.

If Market Garden suffered from faulty assumptions at the outset, its actual execution quickly revealed larger strategic and operational weaknesses in Montgomery’s thinking. From the first, German resistance was tenacious and effective. The commanders on the spot—Model, Student, and Bittrich—reacted in the coordinated, aggressive fashion called for by German doctrine.

The Germans were considerably helped by the capture of Market Garden’s plans, when an American officer, in direct disobedience to orders, took a full set of plans along with him to his death in a glider crash. Within hours, Student—a man eminently qualified to understand airborne operations— had the Allied plans in his hands.

The failure at Arnhem forced Montgomery to secure his rear. To the west of the Scheldt, the British Second Army—with American help—drove through Breda and pushed the Germans back on the Maas, creating a solid flank to the west of Market Garden’s narrow salient. But bad weather and the sodden fields, flooded plains, farms, and towns of southern Holland blocked any rapid advance. The most that Twenty-First Army Group could accomplish was to drive the dogged German defenders from their defenses and give Antwerp breathing room.

Montgomery’s strategy was territorial in nature, aimed at gaining a bridgehead over the Rhine and then fighting a battle on the north German plain. But there were no discernable operational objectives such as the cutting off of German forces or the isolation of the Ruhr, one goal of Eisenhower’s operational approach. The irony was that in stopping the advance of his troops so that he could prepare to jump to the Rhine, Montgomery closed off the possibility of trapping and destroying the German Fifteenth Army, which was not yet in position to fight a sustained battle at the mouth of the Scheldt River.

The one time in his career that Montgomery refused to play his usual cautious game, the outcome was tragic. Instead of opening the Scheldt and taking advantage of Antwerp’s capture, the new field marshal dreamed of a distant decisive victory. General Alan Brooke, who rarely found fault with Montgomery, returned from the Quebec Conference in early October to note in his diary that Allied setbacks were entirely the result of Montgomery’s September mistakes.

Montgomery’s halt allowed the Germans time to cobble together military forces sufficient to hold the Allies at bay. But if his plan to strike over the Rhine and fight a decisive battle on the far bank had succeeded, it might in fact have resulted in an even more serious defeat. With the Scheldt still closed, any effort to fight a major battle on German territory with tenuous supply lines reaching back all the way to Normandy was a recipe for serious trouble. And American forces to the south, immobilized by Montgomery’s drive, would have been incapable of pressuring the Germans.

The support Montgomery received for Market Garden represented a substantial portion of what he was demanding for his single-thrust strategy. In the end, the field marshal failed to deliver either the Rhine crossing or Antwerp.

Had the Allies followed the British strategy in 1944 of launching a single drive under Montgomery across the Rhine, the results might well have been a disaster for Anglo-American forces. Montgomery’s idea of pushing 40 divisions onto the north German plain with no clear operational goal could have resulted in a major Allied defeat, especially since American forces to the south, deprived of logistic support by Montgomery’s proposal, could not have rendered any significant support to the British.

Allied ground forces were facing the harsh realities of a supply crisis, occasioned by their rapid advance. The problem lay not only in the distance from Normandy but in the damage their own air campaign had inflicted on the French railway system. The Allies not only had to funnel supplies to their forces on the German frontier but also had to feed much of the Belgian and French civilian populations— a task rendered more difficult by the four years of extensive expropriations made by the occupying Germans. The Germans managed to stave off defeat for the moment.

What prevented the Allies from suffering a major strategic or operational defeat in late 1944 was Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in southern France, which opened up the only undamaged section of the French transportation network. Through the rest of 1944, Marseilles was responsible for carrying nearly 40 percent of the supplies used by Allied armies fighting on the Western Front.

With Market Garden’s failure in southern Holland, the swift Anglo-American advances abruptly halted. Allied armies were now on the far side of a supply desert created by the air campaign to shut down French transportation. No matter how fast or how hard engineers worked to rebuild bridges and marshalling yards, logistics confronted Allied commanders with a nightmare in projecting forward the hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies that Allied armies required.

As summer 1944 waned, victory over the Third Reich was certain. Among the Allies, the question was not “if” but “when.” For a brief moment in late August and early September, the Nazi regime, under siege from all directions, teetered on the verge of defeat. But the end did not come. Despite their seemingly hopeless situation, and in the face of unremitting Allied pressure, the Germans fought on with grim ferocity.

What became known jointly as Operation Market Garden used up scarce Allied resources, manpower and petrol at precisely the moment that Patton was nearing the Rhine without insuperable opposition. Once the Allied armies stalled for lack of supplies, however, they would be unable to cross the borders of the Reich for another six months. The Germans meanwhile used the breathing space bought by their temporary victory in Holland to rush defenders to the Siegfried Line, which had previously been under-defended.

Between late September and mid-November, Eisenhower’s forces found themselves fighting determined German counter-attacks in the Vosges, Moselle and the Scheldt and at Metz and Aachen. Hoping to cross the Rhine before the onset of winter, which in 1944/5 was abnormally cold, Eisenhower unleashed a massive assault on, supported by the heaviest aerial bombing of the entire war so far, with 2,807 planes dropping 10,097 bombs in Operation Queen. Even then, the US First and Ninth Armies managed to move forward only a few km, up to but not across the Roer river.

To bolster his demands for further support, Montgomery focused the Canadian First Army on a mission to clear the Channel ports and other operations inland, while ignoring German positions along the Scheldt River. Thus, instead of clearing the approaches to Antwerp, British and Canadian troops took Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais, and the Cape Gris Nez batteries. In every case, the Germans thoroughly wrecked the port facilities during their retreat. But even in undamaged condition, none of these small ports could have significantly relieved the overall supply shortages.

The withdrawal of the C-47s to get ready for the airborne operation of Market Garden ended the airlift of gas to Patton’s forces. By the time Third Army’s advance resumed, German forces defending Metz were already established. Whatever opportunities existed for further exploitation on the Western Front were rapidly disappearing. But Patton, was already driving at the wrong objective in moving against Metz, even before he lost his fuel. He might have had a better chance to reach the Rhine had he pushed toward the Ardennes, the very area through which the Germans had stormed in 1940.

The Germans had strengthened their defensive positions in the Breskens pocket south of the Scheldt, along the access routes to South Beveland and Walcheren Islands as well as on the islands themselves, which formed the northern banks of the Scheldt estuary. The Canadian 4th Armored and Polish 1st Armored Divisions attacked German positions on the south bank. Both efforts resulted in heavy casualties, and in the end they failed.

Patton attempted to seize the fortifications surrounding Metz—an area that the enemy knew in intimate detail, since during both the First World War and the current conflict it had been the center of major training areas. While Patton failed to replicate his August successes owing to constrained logistics, Third Army’s attacks disrupted German plans for launching a major counterattack in the area. Third Army, however, took heavy casualties. The summer fighting had exhausted both sides, but the Germans were in a position to use the terrain and the cold, rainy fall weather to their advantage.

Admiral Bertram Ramsey reported to Eisenhower that Montgomery had relegated the Canadians to the lowest priority for supplies, despite the importance of clearing the Scheldt. Montgomery received a direct, explicit order to clear the Scheldt immediately, and he complied by supplying the Canadians adequately, but whined all the while about Ramsey’s disloyalty. The Canadians launched a heavy attack against fierce German resistance on the north side of the Leopold Canal. Not until 2 November did they finally clear the south bank of the Scheldt of German positions.

The Germans had a number of heavy coastal batteries guarding the Scheldt. In early November, under the violent storms the North Sea can brew up, Royal Marine Commandos and Canadian troops took these coastal batteries during a week of heavy fighting and. Casualties were heavy. But after Walcheren fell, Allied minesweepers could finally clear the Scheldt.

During October, Hodges’s First Army carried much of Twelfth Army Group’s effort. The XIX Corps, led by the 30th Infantry Division and followed by the 2nd Armored Division, launched an attack aimed at encircling Aachen from the north; attacking forces planned to meet VII Corps advancing from the south at Würselen and envelop the ancient Roman city.

Initially, the attack went well despite intense German resistance. After a few days the 30th Infantry Division was within 5 km of Würselen, where the 1st Infantry Division was waiting. But the Germans prevented the Americans from closing the encirclement until 16 October. The garrison surrendered five days later, after the Americans, liberal in their use of firepower, had reduced what was left of the bombed-out city to complete ruin.

Farther south, First Army had launched a series of ill-fated attacks into the Huertgen Forest. Unfortunately, from the beginning, operations in the Huertgen reflected little credit on American commanders at any level except the front lines. Senior American generals failed to recognize that dams south and east of the forest on the Roer River would allow the Germans to flood any advance U.S. forces made in the north. The 9th Infantry Division’s intelligence staff, who did recognize the danger the dams represented before the attack, was too junior to have any influence.

To the Germans, the Huertgen Forest was an essential piece of real estate, the loss of which would threaten their entire position in front of the Rhine. Ironically, an easier avenue of approach to the southeast of the Huertgen Forest would have allowed the Americans to capture the dams and then clear out the forests and difficult terrain lying down-river. Thus, the effort to protect VII Corps’ flank by clearing the Huertgen placed American forces at great disadvantage in terms of terrain and avenues of approach.

With only logging trails leading across its deep gorges, the Huertgen Forest put the attackers at a critical disadvantage, especially since on the far side the Germans possessed roads that would allow them to move in reinforcements quickly. In every respect, the location represented a tactical nightmare. First Army exacerbated its difficulties by feeding units into the fighting piecemeal.

Five days of fighting pushed two attacking regiments a mile into the forest to the first clearing. Ten days of ferocious combat won the 9th Infantry Division another mile of worthless terrain Its two-mile advance cost the attackers nearly 5,000 casualties, and they did not yet hold the whole forest.

In the north a new American army, the Ninth, under Lieutenant General W. H. Simpson, made its debut. Simpson’s forces, possessing a density of troops and artillery per kilometer not typical of Allied forces in fall 1944, launched a limited offensive that carried them through to the Roer River. But as long as the Germans held the dams, there was no possibility of crossing, since the Germans could isolate any successful lodgment by flooding.

The 28th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Norman “Dutch” Cota, crossed the Kall River gorge and reached the crossroads town of Schmidt in the first attacks. From there they threatened the dams. The Germans reacted vigorously, and with better roads available they drove two American battalions out of Schmidt after heavy fighting.

Patton launched a major attack against Metz south of the Ardennes. The Third Army had attempted to take Metz by a coup de main in September. American troops had actually stormed onto the top of Fort Driant, a major fortress guarding the city, but German defenders had fought tenaciously within the fort and called down heavy artillery fire on themselves. After heavy fighting, the city was encircled, and in December the Germans surrendered.

South of Metz, XII Corps attacked toward the Maginot Line. Heavy rains led the corps commander, Major General Manton Eddy, to argue for postponement. When Patton suggested that Eddy might want to name his successor, XII Corps attacked as ordered. While no breakthrough occurred, XII Corps committed its armor on the second day, and the Americans made major gains.

A pincer arm consisting of the 95th and 90th Infantry Divisions swinging from the north to meet the 5th Armored Division driving from the south encircled Metz. However, much of Metz’s garrison escaped before encircling forces linked up east of the city. Patton’s attack might have gained more had the weather been better. But Twelfth Army Group had refused to take into account the normal weather patterns for Western Europe in late fall.

To Patton’s south, General Jacob Devers, commanding the newly created Sixth Army Group, which was formed from forces landing in southern France in August, successfully attacked in support of Patton’s Third Army. French troops drove through the Belford gap and within four days reached the Rhine. General Leclerc’s 2nd French Armored, fighting under Lieutenant General Alexander Patch’s Seventh Army, liberated Strasbourg.

Devers lacked the troops and artillery to create a significant breakthrough in the north, while any crossing of the Rhine in the south would only lead into the interminable depths of the Black Forest. In the south, the Germans still maintained a sizeable bridgehead on the Rhine’s west bank at Colmar.

Hopes that the war might be over in 1944, which had been surprisingly widespread earlier in the campaign were comprehensively extinguished when Field Marshal von Rundstedt unleashed the greatest surprise attack of the war since Pearl Harbor. In Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein ("Operation Watch on the Rhine"), seventeen divisions – five Panzer and twelve mechanized infantry – threw themselves forward in a desperate bid to reach first the River Meuse and then the Channel itself. Instead of soft autumnal mists, it was to be winter fog, snow, sleet and heavy rain that wrecked the Allies’ aerial observation, denying any advance warning of the attack.

Rundstedt and Model had opposed the operation as too ambitious for the Wehrmacht’s resources at that stage. Hitler believed that he could split the Allied armies north and south of the Ardennes, protect the Ruhr, recapture Antwerp, reach the Channel and, he hoped, recreate the victory of 1940, and all from the same starting point. ‘The morale of the troops taking part was astonishingly high at the start of the offensive,’ recalled Rundstedt later. ‘They really believed victory was possible. Unlike the higher commanders, who knew the facts.’