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In September 1944, as the Allies drove across Europe after Normandy, British field marshal Bernard Montgomery launched Operation Market Garden to secure the lower Rhine—Germany’s last great natural barrier in the west—and passage to Berlin. Though Allied soldiers outnumbered Germans two to one, they suffered devastating casualties and were forced to retreat.
Then, in March 1945, Montgomery orchestrated another airborne attack on the Rhine, called Operation Plunder. This time the Allies overwhelmed the German defenses, secured the eastern bank, and began their final march into the heart of the Third Reich.
Including detailed maps and personal accounts from those on both sides of the battle, this “vivid war story” examines Allied attempts to breach Germany’s borders, and illustrates how lessons learned from failure helped form the second plan of attack—and seal Germany’s defeat (Publishers Weekly).
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The Strategy of Exploitation
(The Allies: 25 August–17 September 1944)
Private Wally Parr broke the tension by bursting into song with all the Cockney gusto that he could muster. Perched on wooden benches bolted onto either side of the cylindrical fuselage, the platoon followed his lead, their voices battling against the creaking and whining made by the flimsy plywood glider and the throbbing engines of its bomber tug. Up front in the cramped cockpit, the pilots, Staff-Sergeants Jim Wallwork and John Ainsworth, concentrated on the red-hot glow of the Halifax's exhausts to maintain their position as they cut through the night sky. Their passengers – five sappers and 23 men from D Company, 2/Oxs and Bucks Light Infantry – were part of a coup de main force. They were supremely well prepared for every conceivable scenario, but some still believed that they were on a suicide mission. The men's singing helped mask their anxieties, and company commander Major John Howard, seated at the front of the aircraft opposite one of the exit doors, knew and respected it. He peered down the aircraft's dark interior at the ungainly shapes of his men, their blackened faces occasionally illuminated by the moonlight. Exchanging reassuring smiles with Den Brotheridge, he tried to forget that this young platoon commander had so recently found it necessary to hide from his pregnant wife the possibility that he would never see her again.
Wallwork spotted waves breaking on a beach and signalled to Howard who gave the order for silence. Seconds later, six miles from their objective, the tow-rope was released with a jerk and the glider dropped into a stomach-churning dive below the scattered clouds. When levelled out, Brotheridge released his safety belt, stood up and, stabilized by Howard, opened the exit door. Fresh air flooded into the stale compartment and the recognizable shapes of buildings, fields and hedges could be seen scudding past the void at 90 miles per hour just 200 feet below. Then Wallwork recognized the sparkling Caen Canal on his left and, reassured that he was on course, gave a thumbs-up to Howard. On the officer's command, the soldiers automatically prepared to land by linking their arms, interlinking their fingers, raising their knees and tensing up. The glider slammed hard into the ground throwing up a shower of sparks from its metal skids. The arrester parachute was briefly deployed and the contraption slowed a little before coming to a sudden bone-crunching halt against a small embankment. When the cockpit collapsed, both pilots were catapulted through the Perspex windscreen whilst still in their seats and their passengers were thrown violently around the fuselage. It was, nevertheless, a successful landing, with Wallwork managing to deliver the platoon just 85 yards from its goal, the bridge over the Caen Canal. It was 0016 hours on 6 June 1944, the Allies had arrived in Normandy and D-Day had begun.
The glider-borne assault on the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne and the subsequent operations conducted in Normandy by 6 British Airborne Division were a great success. By taking and holding the left flank of the Allied beachhead, a defensive flank was established which helped the invaders to establish themselves in France. Major-General Richard 'Windy' Gale's division then fought hard throughout the subsequent battle of Normandy, spending 12 weeks in the line, three times longer than the 82 and 101 US Airborne Divisions which were also inserted on D-Day. Gale's men returned to England having suffered 4,457 casualties. Among them was Den Brotheridge, killed by a German sentry whilst leading his men across the bridge over the Caen Canal within minutes of his glider landing. But even as the division was preparing to sail back home, a new phase in the campaign in north-west Europe was opening, with Allied ground forces striving to exploit their success in Normandy by striking eastwards. Drawing the attention of his troops to this, the chief of the Allied Land Forces and commander of Twenty-First Army Group, General Bernard Montgomery (or 'Monty' as he was popularly known) sent a personal message to his troops: 'The German armies in northwest France have suffered a decisive defeat ... there are still many surprises in store for the fleeing remnants. The victory has been complete, definitive and decisive.'
By the last week in August, the Germans were disintegrating, having suffered losses of at least 450,000 men and 1,500 tanks and self-propelled guns in Normandy. The formations and units that survived were battered, their organization and morale severely damaged, and although continuing to fight rearguard actions, they were in no position to stem the Allied offensive. After Paris fell without a fight on 25 August, it soon became clear that fears of a problematic crossing of the River Seine were unfounded. After the claustrophobic and protracted battle for Normandy, the sense of relief for the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight 'Ike' Eisenhower, was palpable, and he urged his force on towards Germany. In northern France that force consisted of Montgomery's British Twenty-First Army Group advancing along the coast, with General Omar Bradley's US Twelfth Army Group on his right flank and Lieutenant General Jacob Dever's US Sixth Army Group – which had landed on the Mediterranean coast in mid-August – advancing up the Rhone Valley from the south. Leading the charge for the German border for the British in late August was Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey's Second Army, with Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks's XXX Corps in the vanguard with XII Corps on its left. Horrocks was in an ebullient mood, racing across France; he later wrote: 'This was the type of warfare I thoroughly enjoyed. Who wouldn't? I had upwards of 600 tanks under my command and we were advancing on a frontage of fifty miles ... like a combine-harvester going through a field of corn.' It was a measure of the man that Horrocks, wanting to keep his finger on the pulse of the battle, commanded his corps from a modified tank close to the front line. The charismatic 49-year-old 'Jorrocks', as he was known, was extremely well liked, with Major-General Allan Adair, the commander of his Guards Armoured Division, attesting:
Brian Horrocks was the best war-time commander I ever came across. He was a great leader and I found him much more impressive than Monty. When giving orders, he was very clear, and he was always right up with one and helping one along. He was full of grip and insisted on pushing us along as much as possible.
That notorious grip, however, was not always as tight as it might have been, for in June the previous year in North Africa, Horrocks had been badly wounded in the chest and leg by a strafing German fighter which had laid him up for over a year. Still weak and in some pain, it is doubtful that having been enticed from his convalescence by Monty to take command of XXX Corps in August, he was strong enough to weather the stresses and strains associated with the demanding position. Indeed, within weeks of taking up the post he succumbed to a recurring bout of illness which forced him to his bed as his corps crossed the Seine. In such circumstances it was as well that the enemy was in such disarray. One young officer wrote in his diary that Germans were 'surrendering en masse' and 'greeted our troops like long-lost family members'. Moreover, an Intelligence Summary issued on 26 August by Major-General Kenneth Strong, Ike's British head of intelligence, revealed:
Two and a half months of bitter fighting, culminating for the Germans in a blood-bath big enough even for their extravagant tastes, have brought the end of the war in Europe within sight, almost within reach. The strength of the German armies in the West has been shattered, Paris belongs to France again, and the Allied armies are streaming towards the frontiers of the Reich.
For XXX Corps, this allowed Adair's Guards Division to strike out towards the Somme, with 38-year-old Major-General Pip Roberts' 11 Armoured Division on its left. There was little to hold them up, and even the terrain was friendly. Guardsman Jim Hetherington, of 2/(Armoured) Irish Guards, had been concerned that after the Seine the countryside:
would be like Normandy all over again, small fields, heavy fighting and very little progress. [But] nothing could have been further from the truth! ... We were just tearing along ... ignoring what was happening on the flanks, and passed through, or by, town after town ... The few Germans who were about got out of our way ...
Horrocks noted much the same, reporting that 'German rearguard actions were swiftly brushed aside allowing huge columns of vehicles – lorried infantry, tanks, armoured cars – to rumble forward along roads lined with locals.' 'Club Route', as the Guards called their pathway, became a high-speed road. Indeed, 2nd Lieutenant Robert Boscawen, an Eton, Cambridge and Sandhurst-educated tank troop commander in the Coldstream Guards, wrote in his diary: 'We had enough maps to reach Moscow, but in two days we had run over them all.' The Guards Armoured Division was gaining a head of steam and was determined to use its momentum to throw Second Army forward, as Boscawen notes:
Still we raced on, regardless of bogie-wheels and tracks. One of my tanks sheared off all the nuts on one side of the sprocket but I decided to keep it going ... In front the Grenadiers had practically no opposition until the Somme, except shooting up an occasional convoy. The Recce Welsh ... were well out in front shooting up Germans struggling vainly to escape.
The fact that the armoured Guardsmen were driving through the old battlefields across which their fathers and regiments had struggled a generation before was not lost on them. Captain James Osborne of the Irish Guards reflected: 'It took us two hours to cross the Western Front that had been fought over for four years in the 1914–1918 War.' It was not unusual, as the battalion War Diary notes, for the unit to advance 60 miles a day during the last week of August, and the Germans were shocked. Horrocks came across an incongruous sight on entering the city of Amiens on 31 August, later recalling:
And from behind one of the lorries was led a scowling, unshaven and very ugly German officer dressed in a black uniform. I would have disliked him at sight, even if he had not looked like a senior SS commander (which he wasn't). Roberts was exactly like a proud farmer leading forward his champion bull. He told me that his prize exhibit was General Eberbach [Heinrich Eberbach, commander of Seventh Army] ... whom the 11th Armoured had captured in his pyjamas during the night advance.
And still the advance continued, with the first day of September being particularly successful. As the War Diary of the 3/Irish Guards recorded: 'A long day of movement ... We travelled 70 miles and reached Arras as it was getting dark, to receive a great reception from the inhabitants.' The Coldstreamers, Robert Boscawen recorded, enjoyed the same welcome:
As soon as we were well into the town ... every door and house was thrown open and out from every street alleyway the liberated people of Arras flooded and swarmed around the tanks ... They completely abandoned themselves, rejoicing, shouting and cheering. Old men and young girls dancing down the street climbed onto my tank kissing and embracing me, shouting 'Vive les Anglais' and 'No more Gestapo' ... The bells pealed and Arras was free.
The tumultuous advance continued into Belgium, with Montgomery, Dempsey and Horrocks all keen to ensure that the Germans were not given any opportunity to rest and reorganize themselves. XXX Corps now had some key objectives in its sights which included 11 Armoured Division capturing Antwerp. The senior officers of the Guards Armoured Division, meanwhile, were gathered together by Adair on 2 September for a briefing. Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. Windsor Lewis, commanding the Welsh Guards Group, recalls:
It was pouring with rain as the Brigadiers and Commanding Officers, with their staffs, assembled in the General's tent to receive orders. Most of us expected to be told about maintenance and the general enemy situation; few could have guessed their sensational character.
General Adair's 'Intention' paragraph cut through the air like a swishing sword. 'Guards Armoured Division will advance and capture Brussels [still some 80 miles away] – and a very good intention, too,' added the General, wearing a mischievous smile. This was greeted with roars of laughter from the keyed-up and astounded officers.
The 2/Household Cavalry Regiment, the reconnaissance element of the Guards Armoured Division, led the way to the Belgian capital, supported by RAF fighter-bombers. They scythed through the patchwork enemy defences leaving dead Germans, burning vehicles and hordes of prisoners in their wake. By the evening of 3 September, they had penetrated into Brussels and as darkness fell were followed by the rest of the division. Windsor Lewis says of the breakthrough:
German machine guns, anti-tank guns and snipers barked at us. We barked back ... The opposition was soon overpowered, and the crowds emerged excitedly and over-ran the tanks ... The last time I had been in Brussels was in July 1940, as a fugitive escaping from the Germans. On that occasion I had entered the city from the east in a tram. Today I entered it from the west in a tank.
Captain Michael Bendix of 5/Coldstream Guards recalls arriving in Brussels at 2300 hours that night: 'I can remember being kissed endlessly by girls, but fell asleep as I was so worn out. On waking up, to our great joy, there were some public baths opposite and I hadn't had a bath for a month. The noise of the cheering crowds was deafening.' That night the Irish Guards sat down to dine in the largest café in the main square. As they ate, news arrived that some Germans were still holding a house a short distance away. Lieutenant-Colonel J.O.E. (Joe) Vandeleur, commander of the Irish Guards Battle Group remembers:
Everybody was having much too good a time to be disturbed so a combined Officers' Mess party went off to deal with the matter, assisted by a Honey tank. We shot the place up and found some miserable little Huns in full marching order ... praying in slit-trenches. They were fixed up quickly and we returned to dinner. The night was uproarious and we could not get any work done on our tanks and vehicles.
With Brussels in British hands and Roberts' 11th Armoured Division taking Antwerp on 4 September, Horrocks was immensely proud of his corps' achievement. It had covered nearly 250 miles from the Seine in less than one week. The newspapers jubilantly reported the advance with Daily Mail correspondent Alexander Clifford writing: 'This mad chase is getting crazier by the hour ... You can't digest it in the least as you go along. It is so big and so swift that you almost feel it is out of control ... Our columns just press on and on and on ... The atmosphere is heady and intoxicating.' The American headline writers, meanwhile, were equally delighted with progress as Lieutenant-General George Patton's US Third Army made a swift advance towards the Saar. On 30 August, under the headline 'U.S. TANKS RACE ON', New York Times correspondent Drew Middleton declared:
Sweeping northward and eastward at a speed of better than twenty-five miles a day, the American offensive east of Paris has crossed the River Aisne at Soissons and the Marne near Chalons-sur-Marne, threatening on the one hand the main German forces northwest of Paris and on the other the security of the enemy's frontier, now less than a hundred miles from the armoured spearheads ...
The Allies were carried along on a wave of optimism, as illustrated by a diary entry of Winston Churchill's Private Secretary, John Colville: 'There is a feeling of elation, expectancy and almost bewilderment, and it may well be that the end is now very close.' The Combined Allied Intelligence Committee in London believed that the Germans were incapable of recovery and that 'organized resistance under the control of the German high command is unlikely to continue beyond December 1, 1944'. For planning purposes, the British War Cabinet used 31 December as the date for the end of the war in Europe, whilst in the United States a Gallup poll taken in the first week of September revealed that 67 per cent of Americans questioned expected the fighting to be over by Christmas. In Washington, meanwhile, General C. Marshall, Chief of the Army Staff, was already looking to redeploy certain American formations from the European theatre to the Pacific whilst cancelling some military contracts.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crossing the Rhine"
Copyright © 2008 Lloyd Clark.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Strategy of Exploitation The Allies: 25 August–17 September 1944,
2 Withdrawal The Germans: 25 August–17 September 1944,
3 Chasing the Dream Airborne Warfare and its Soldiers: The Birth of Parachuting to Summer 1944,
4 Stitching Things Together Planning: 10–17 September 1944,
5 Jumping the Rhine (I) Operation Market Garden: 17–18 September 1944,
6 Perimeters Operation Market Garden: 19–21 September 1944,
7 Touching the Rhine Operation Market Garden: 21–26 September 1944,
8 Riposte The Ardennes and Advance to the Rhine: October 1944–March 1945,
9 The Deluge Planning and Launching Plunder Varsity: 10–24 March 1945,
10 Jumping the Rhine (II) Operation Varsity: 24–28 March 1945,