A Bridge Too Far is Cornelius Ryan's masterly chronicle of the Battle of Arnhem, which marshalled the greatest armada of troop-carrying aircraft ever assembled and cost the Allies nearly twice as many casualties as D-Day.
In this compelling work of history, Ryan narrates the Allied effort to end the war in Europe in 1944 by dropping the combined airborne forces of the American and British armies behind German lines to capture the crucial bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem. Focusing on a vast cast of characters—from Dutch civilians to British and American strategists to common soldiers and commanders—Ryan brings to life one of the most daring and ill-fated operations of the war. A Bridge Too Far superbly recreates the terror and suspense, the heroism and tragedy of this epic operation, which ended in bitter defeat for the Allies.
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In the thousand-year-old Dutch village of Driel, people listened intently. Even before dawn, restless sleepers woke and lights came on behind shuttered windows. Initially there was only a sense of something unaccountable taking place somewhere beyond the immediate, physical surroundings. Gradually vague impressions took form. In the far distance came a muted, continuous mutter.
Barely audible, but persistent, the sound reached the village in waves. Unable to identify the subtle noise, many listened instinctively for some change in the flow of the nearby Lower Rhine. In Holland, half of which lies below sea level, water is the constant enemy, dikes the major weapon in a never-ending battle that has gone on since before the eleventh century. Driel, sitting in a great bend of the Lower Rhine, southwest of Arnhem, capital of Gelderland, has an ever-present reminder of the struggle. A few hundred yards to the north, protecting the village and the region from the restless 400-yard-wide river, a massive dike, topped by a road, rises at places more than twenty feet high. But this morning the river gave no cause for alarm. The Neder Rijn swept peacefully toward the North Sea at its customary speed of two miles per hour. The sounds reverberating off the stone face of the protective dike came from another, far more ruthless, enemy.
As the sky lightened and the sun began to burn off the mist, the commotion grew louder. From roads due east of Driel the villagers could clearly hear the sound of traffic -- traffic that seemed to grow heavier by the minute. Now their uneasiness turned to alarm, for there was no doubt about the identity of the movement: in this fifth year of World War II and after fifty-one months of Nazi occupation, everyone recognized the rumble of German convoys.
Even more alarming was the size of the procession. Some people later recalled that only once before had they heard such a flow of traffic -- in May, 1940, when the Germans had invaded the Netherlands. At that time, swarming across the Reich frontier ten to fifteen miles from Driel, Hitler's mechanized armies had reached the main highways and spread swiftly throughout the country. Now, over those same roads convoys seemed once more to be moving endlessly.
Strange sounds came from the nearest main road -- a two-lane highway connecting Arnhem, on the northern bank of the Lower Rhine, with the eighth-century city of Nijmegen, on the broad river Waal, eleven miles to the south. Against the low background throb of engines, people could plainly identify individual noises which seemed curiously out of place in a military convoy -- the scrape of wagon wheels, the whir of countless bicycles and the slow, unpaced shuffling of feet.
What kind of convoy could this be? And, more important, where was it heading? At this moment in the war Holland's future could well depend on the answer to that question. Most people believed the convoys carried heavy reinforcements -- either pouring into the country to bolster the German garrison or rushing south to halt the Allied advance. Allied troops had liberated northern France with spectacular speed. Now they were fighting in Belgium and were said to be close to the capital, Brussels, less than one hundred miles away. Rumors persisted that powerful Allied armored units were driving for the Dutch border. But no one in Driel could tell for sure exactly the direction the convoys were taking. Distance and the diffusion of sound made that impossible. And because of the nightly curfew the villagers were unable to leave their houses to investigate.
Plagued by uncertainty, they could only wait. They could not know that shortly before dawn the three young soldiers who constituted little Driel's entire German garrison had left the village on stolen bicycles and pedaled off into the mist. There was no longer any military authority in the village to enforce the curfew regulations.
Unaware, people kept to their homes. But the more curious among them were too impatient to wait and decided to risk using the telephone. In her home at 12 Honingveldsestraat, next to her family's jam-and-preserves factory, young Cora Baltussen called friends in Arnhem. She could scarcely believe their eyewitness report. The convoys were not heading south to the western front. On this misty morning, September 4, 1944, the Germans and their supporters appeared to be fleeing from Holland, traveling in anything that would move.
The fighting that everyone had expected, Cora thought, would now pass them by. She was wrong. For the insignificant village of Driel, untouched until now, the war had only begun.
Fifty miles south, in towns and villages close to the Belgian border, the Dutch were jubilant. They watched incredulously as the shattered remnants of Hitler's armies in norther France and Belgium streamed past their windows. The collapse seemed infectious; besides military units, thousands of German civilians and Dutch Nazis were pulling out. And for these fleeing forces all roads seemed to lead to the German border.
Because the withdrawal began so slowly -- a trickle of staff cars and vehicles crossing the Belgian frontier -- few Dutch could tell exactly when it had started. Some believed the retreat began on September 2; others, the third. But by the fourth, the movement of the Germans and their followers had assumed the characteristics of a rout, a frenzied exodus that reached its peak on September 5, a day later to be known in Dutch history as Dolle Dinsdag, "Mad Tuesday."
Panic and disorganization seemed to characterize the German flight. Every kind of conveyance was in use. Thronging the roads from the Belgian border north to Arnhem and beyond were tracks, buses, staff cars, half-track vehicles, armored cars, horse-drawn farm carts and civilian automobiles running on charcoal or wood. Everywhere throughout the disorderly convoys were swarms of tired, dusty soldiers on hastily commandeered bicycles.
There were even more bizarre forms of transportation. In the town of Valkenswaard, a few miles north of the Belgian frontier, people saw heavily laden German troopers laboriously pushing along on children's scooters. Sixty miles away, in Arnhem, crowds standing on the Amsterdamseweg watched as a massive black-and-silver hearse pulled by two plodding farm horses passed slowly by. Crowded in the casket space in back were a score of disheveled, exhausted Germans.
Trudging in these wretched convoys were German soldiers from many units. There were Panzer troops, minus tanks, in their black battle suits; Luftwaffe men, presumably all that remained of German air force units that had been shattered in either France or Belgium; Wehrmacht soldiers from a score of divisions; and Waffen SS troops, their skull-and-crossbones insignia a macabre identification. Looking at these apparently leaderless, dazed troops moving aimlessly along, young Wilhelmina Coppens in St. Oedenrode thought that "most of them had no idea where they were or even where they were going." Some soldiers, to the bitter amusement of Dutch bystanders, were so disoriented that they asked for directions to the German frontier.
In the industrial town of Eindhoven, home of the giant Philips electrical works, the population had heard the low sound of artillery fire from Belgium for days. Now, watching the dregs of the beaten German army thronging the roads, people expected Allied troops to arrive within hours. So did the Germans. It appeared to Frans Kortie, twenty-four-year-old employee in the town's finance department, that these troops had no intention of making a stand. From the nearby airfield came the roar of explosions as engineers blew up runways, ammunition dumps, gasoline storage tanks and hangars; and through a pall of smoke drifting across the town, Kortie saw squads of troops rapidly working to dismantle heavy antiaircraft guns on the roofs of the Philips buildings.
All through the area, from Eindhoven north to the city of Nijmegen, German engineers were hard at work. In the Zuid Willemsvaart Canal running below the town of Veghel, Cornelis de Visser, an elementary-school teacher, saw a heavily loaded barge blown skyward, shooting out airplane engine parts like a deadly rain of shrapnel. Not far away, in the village of Uden, Johannes de Groot, forty-five-year-old car-body builder, was watching the retreat with his family when Germans set fire to a former Dutch barracks barely 300 yards from his home. Minutes later heavy bombs stored in the building exploded, killing four of de Groot's children, aged five to eighteen.
In places such as Eindhoven, where school buildings were set ablaze, fire brigades were prevented from operating and whole blocks were burned down. Still, the sappers, in contrast to the fleeing columns on the roads, gave evidence of following some definite plan.
The most frantic and confused among the escapees were the civilians, German, Dutch, Belgian and French Nazis. They got no sympathy from the Dutch. To farmer Johannes Hulsen at St. Oedenrode, they looked "scared stiff"; and they had reason to be, he thought with satisfaction, for with the Allies "snapping at their heels these traitors knew it was Bijltjesdag ['Hatchet Day']."
The frantic flight of Dutch Nazis and German civilians had been triggered by the Reichskommissar in Holland, the notorious fifty-two-year-old Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and by the ambitious and brutal Dutch Nazi Party leader, Anton Mussert. Nervously watching the fate of the Germans in France and Belgium, Seyss-Inquart on September 1 ordered the evacuation of German civilians to the east of Holland, closer to the Reich border. The fifty-year-old Mussert followed suit, alerting members of his Dutch Nazi Party. Seyss-Inquart and Mussert were themselves among the first to leave: they moved from The Hague east to Apeldoorn, fifteen miles north of Arnhem. Mussert rushed his family even closer to the Reich, moving them into the frontier region at Twente, in the province of Overijssel. At first most of the German and Dutch civilians moved at a leisurely pace. Then a sequence of events produced bedlam. On September 3 the British captured Brussels. The next day Antwerp fell. Now, British tanks and troops were only miles from the Dutch border.
On the heels of these stunning victories, the aged Queen of the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, told her people in a radio broadcast from London that liberation was at hand. She announced that her son-in-law, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard, had been named Commander in Chief of the Netherlands Forces and would also assume leadership of all underground resistance groups. These factions, comprising three distinct organizations ranging politically from the left to the extreme right, would now be grouped together and officially known as Binnenlandse Strijdkrachten (Forces of the Interior). The thirty-three-year-old Prince Bernhard, husband of Princess Juliana, heir to the throne, followed the Queen's announcement with one of his own. He asked the underground to have armlets ready "displaying in distinct letters the word 'Orange,'" but not to use them "without my order." He warned them to "refrain in the enthusiasm of the moment from premature and independent actions, for these would compromise yourselves and the military operations underway."
Next, a special message was broadcast from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, confirming that freedom was imminent. "The hour of liberation the Netherlands have awaited so long is now very near," he promised. And within a few hours these broadcasts were followed by the most optimistic statement of all, from the prime minister of the Dutch government in exile, Pieter S. Gerbrandy. He told his listeners, "Now that the Allied armies, in their irresistible advance, have crossed the Netherlands frontier...I want all of you to bid our Allies a hearty welcome to our native soil...."
The Dutch were hysterical with joy, and the Dutch Nazis fled for their lives. Anton Mussert had long boasted that his party had more than 50,000 Nazis. If so, it seemed to the Dutch that they all took to the roads at the same time. In scores of towns and villages all over Holland, Nazi-appointed mayors and officials suddenly bolted -- but often not before demanding back pay. The mayor of Eindhoven and some of his officials insisted on their salaries. The town clerk, Gerardus Legius, thought their posture ridiculous, but he didn't even feel badly about paying them off. Watching them scurry out of town "on everything with wheels" he wondered: "How far can they get? Where can they go?" There was also a run on the banks. When Nicolaas van de Weerd, twenty-four-year-old bank clerk, got to work in the town of Wageningen on Monday, September 4, he saw a queue of Dutch Nazis waiting outside the bank. Once the doors were opened they hurriedly closed accounts and emptied safety deposit boxes.
Railway stations were overrun by terrified civilians. Trains leaving for Germany were crammed to capacity. Stepping off a train on its arrival in Arnhem, young Frans Wiessing was engulfed by a sea of people fighting to get aboard. So great was the rush that after the train left, Wiessing saw a mountain of luggage lying abandoned on the platform. In the village of Zetten, west of Nijmegen, student Paul van Wely watched as Dutch Nazis crowding the railroad station waited all day for a Germany-bound train, which never arrived. Women and children were crying and to Van Wely "the waiting room looked like a junk store full of tramps." In every town there were similar incidents. Dutch collaborators fled on anything that would move. Municipal architect Willem Tiemans, from his office window near the great Arnhem bridge, watched as Dutch Nazis "scrambled like mad" to get onto a barge heading up the Rhine for the Reich.
Hour after hour the traffic mounted, and even during darkness it went on. So desperate were the Germans to reach safety that on the nights of September 3 and 4, in total disregard of Allied air attacks, soldiers set up searchlights at some crossroads and many overloaded vehicles crawled by, headlights blazing. German officers seemed to have lost control. Dr. Anton Laterveer, a general practitioner in Arnhem, saw soldiers throwing away rifles -- some even tried to sell their weapons to the Dutch. Joop Muselaars, a teen-ager, watched a lieutenant attempt to stop a virtually empty army vehicle, but the driver, ignoring the command, drove on through. Furious, the officer fired his pistol irrationally into the cobblestones.
Everywhere soldiers tried to desert. In the village of Eerde, Adrianus Marinus, an eighteen-year-old clerk, noticed a soldier jumping off a truck. He ran toward a farm and disappeared. Later Marinus learned that the soldier was a Russian prisoner of war who had been conscripted into the Wehrmacht. Two miles from Nijmegen, in the village of Lent on the northern bank of the Waal, Dr. Frans Huygen, while making his rounds, saw troops begging for civilian clothing, which the villagers refused. In Nijmegen deserters were not so abject. In many cases they demanded clothing at gunpoint. The Reverend Wilhelmus Peterse, forty-year-old Carmelite, saw soldiers hurriedly remove uniforms, change to suits and set off on foot for the German border. "The Germans were totally fed up with the war," recalls Garrit Memelink, Arnhem's Chief Forestry Inspector. "They were doing their damnedest to evade the military police."
With officers losing control, discipline broke down. Unruly gangs of soldiers stole horses, wagons, cars and bicycles. Some ordered farmers at gunpoint to haul them in their wagons toward Germany. All through the convoys the Dutch saw trucks, farm wagons, hand carts -- even perambulators pushed by fleeing troops -- piled high with loot filched from France, Belgium and Luxembourg. It ranged from statuary and furniture to lingerie. In Nijmegen soldiers tried to sell sewing machines, rolls of cloth, paintings, typewriters -- and one soldier even offered a parrot in a large cage.
Among the retreating Germans there was no shortage of alcohol. Barely five miles from the German border in the town of Groesbeek, Father Herman Hoek watched horse-drawn carts loaded down with large quantities of wines and liquors. In Arnhem, the Reverend Reinhold Dijker spotted boisterous Wehrmacht troops on a truck drinking from a huge vat of wine which they had apparently brought all the way from France. Sixteen-year-old Agatha Schulte, daughter of the chief pharmacist of Arnhem's municipal hospital, was convinced that most of the soldiers she saw were drunk. They were throwing handfuls of French and Belgian coins to the youngsters and trying to sell bottles of wine, champagne and cognac to the adults. Her mother, Hendrina Schulte, vividly recalls seeing a German truck carrying another kind of booty. It was a large double bed -- and in the bed was a woman.
Besides the columns straggling up from the south, heavy German and civilian traffic was coming in from western Holland and the coast. It flooded through Arnhem and headed east for Germany. In the prosperous Arnhem suburb of Oosterbeek, Jan Voskuil, a thirty-eight-year-old chemical engineer, was hiding out at the home of his father-in-law. Learning that he was on a list of Dutch hostages to be arrested by the Germans, he had fled from his home in the town of Geldermalsen, twenty miles away, bringing his wife, Bertha, and their nine-year-old son. He had arrived in Oosterbeek just in time to see the evacuation. Jan's father-in-law told him not to "worry anymore about the Germans; you won't have to 'dive' now." Looking down the main street of Oosterbeek, Voskuil saw "utter confusion." There were dozens of German-filled trucks, nose-to-tail, "all dangerously overloaded." He saw soldiers "on bicycles, pedaling furiously, with suitcases and grips looped over their handlebars." Voskuil was sure that the war would be over in a matter of days.
In Arnhem itself, Jan Mijnhart, sexton of the Grote Kerk -- the massive fifteenth-century Church of St. Eusebius with a famed 305-foot-high tower -- saw the Moffen (a Dutch nickname for the Germans, equivalent to the English "Jerry") filing through the town "four abreast in the direction of Germany." Some looked old and sick. In the nearby village of Ede an aged German begged young Rudolph van der Aa to notify his family in Germany that they had met. "I have a bad heart," he added, "and probably won't live much longer." Lucianus Vroemen, a teen-ager in Arnhem, noticed the Germans were exhausted and had "no fighting spirit or pride left." He saw officers trying, with little or no success, to restore order among the disorganized soldiers. They did not even react to the Dutch, who were yelling, "Go home! The British and Americans will be here in a few hours."
Watching the Germans moving east from Arnhem, Dr. Pieter de Graaff, forty-four-year-old surgeon, was sure he was seeing "the end, the apparent collapse of the German army." And Suze van Zweden, high-school mathematics teacher, had a special reason to remember this day. Her husband, Johan, a respected and well-known sculptor, had been in Dachau concentration camp since 1942 for hiding Dutch Jews. Now he might soon be freed, for obviously the war was nearly over. Suze was determined to witness this historic moment -- the departure of the Germans and the arrival of the Allied liberators. Her son Robert was too young to realize what was happening but she decided to take her daughter Sonja, aged nine, into town. As she dressed Sonja, Suze said, "This is something you have to see. I want you to try and remember it all your life."
Everywhere the Dutch rejoiced. Dutch flags made their appearance. Enterprising merchants sold orange buttons and large stocks of ribbon to the eager crowds. In the village of Renkum there was a run on the local drapery shop, where manager Johannes Snoek sold orange ribbon as fast as he could cut it. To his amazement, villagers fashioned bows then and there and proudly pinned them on. Johannes, who was a member of the underground, thought "this was going a bit too far." To protect the villagers from their own excesses, he stopped selling the ribbon. His sister Maria, caught up in the excitement, noted happily in her diary that there was "a mood in the streets almost as though it was Koninginnedag, the Queen's birthday." Cheering crowds stood on sidewalks yelling, "Long live the Queen!" People sang the "Wilhelmus" (the Dutch national anthem) and "Oranje Boven!" ("Orange Above All!"). Cloaks flying, Sisters Antonia Stranzky and Christine van Dijk from St. Elisabeth's Hospital in Arnhem cycled down to the main square, the Velperplein, where they joined crowds on the terraces of cafés who were sipping coffee and eating potato pancakes as the Germans and Dutch Nazis streamed by.
At St. Canisius Hospital in Nijmegen, Sister M. Dosithèe Symons saw nurses dance with joy in the convent corridors. People brought out long-hidden radios and, while watching the retreat flood by their windows, listened openly for the first time in long months to the special Dutch service, Radio Orange, from London's BBC. So excited by the broadcasts was fruit grower Joannes Hurkx, in St. Oedenrode, that he failed to spot a group of Germans back of his house stealing the family bicycles.
In scores of places schools closed and work came to a halt. Employees at the cigar factories in Valkenswaard promptly left their machines and crowded into the streets. Streetcars stopped running in The Hague, the seat of government. In the capital, Amsterdam, the atmosphere was tense and unreal. Offices closed, and trading ceased on the stock exchange. Military units suddenly disappeared from the main thoroughfares, and the central station was mobbed by Germans and Dutch Nazis. On the outskirts of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, crowds carrying flags and flowers stood along main roads leading into the cities -- hoping to be the first to see British tanks coming from the south.
Rumors grew with every hour. Many in Amsterdam believed that British troops had already freed The Hague, near the coast about thirty miles to the southwest. In The Hague people thought the great port of Rotterdam, fifteen miles away, had been liberated. Rail travelers got a different story every time their trains stopped. One of them, Henri Peijnenburg, a twenty-five-year-old resistance leader traveling from The Hague to his home in Nijmegen, a distance of less than eighty miles, heard at the beginning of his journey that the British had entered the ancient border city of Maastricht. In Utrecht he was told they had reached Roermond. Then, in Arnhem he was assured that the British had taken Venlo, a few miles from the German border. "When I finally got home," he recalls, "I expected to see the Allies in the streets, but all I saw were the retreating Germans." Peijnenburg felt confused and uneasy.
Others shared his concern -- especially the underground high command meeting secretly in The Hague. To them, tensely watching the situation, Holland seemed on the threshold of freedom. Allied tanks could easily slice through the country all the way from the Belgian border to the Zuider Zee. The underground was certain that the "gateway" -- through Holland, across the Rhine and into Germany -- was wide open.
The resistance leaders knew the Germans had virtually no fighting forces capable of stopping a determined Allied drive. They were almost scornful of the one weak and undermanned division composed of old men guarding coastal defenses (they had been sitting in concrete bunkers since 1940 without firing a shot), and of a number of other low-grade troops, whose combat capabilities were extremely doubtful, among them Dutch SS, scratch garrison troops, convalescents and the medically unfit -- these last grouped into units aptly known as "stomach" and "ear" battalions, because most of the men suffered from ulcers or were hard of hearing.
To the Dutch the Allied move seemed obvious, invasion imminent. But its success depended on the speed of British forces driving from the south, and about this the underground high command was puzzled: they were unable to determine the precise extent of the Allied advance.
Checking on the validity of Prime Minister Gerbrandy's statement that Allied troops had already crossed the frontier was no simple matter. Holland was small -- only about two thirds the size of Ireland -- but it had a dense population of more than nine million, and as a result the Germans had difficulty controlling subversive activity. There were underground cells in every town and village. Still, transmitting information was hazardous. The principal, and most dangerous, method was the telephone. In an emergency, using complicated circuitry, secret lines and coded information, resistance leaders could call all over the country. Thus, on this occasion, underground officials knew within minutes that Gerbrandy's announcement was premature: British troops had not crossed the border.
Other Radio Orange broadcasts further compounded the confusion. Twice in a little more than twelve hours (at 11:45 P.M. on September 4 and again on the morning of September 5) the Dutch Service of the BBC announced that the fortress city of Breda, seven miles from the Dutch-Belgian border, had been liberated. The news spread rapidly. Illegal, secretly printed newspapers promptly prepared liberation editions featuring the "fall of Breda." But the Arnhem regional resistance chief, thirty-eight-year-old Pieter Kruyff, whose group was one of the nation's most highly skilled and disciplined, seriously doubted the Radio Orange bulletin. He had his communications expert Johannes Steinfort, a young telephone-company instrument maker, check the report. Quickly tying in to a secret circuit connecting him with the underground in Breda, Steinfort became one of the first to learn the bitter truth: the city was still in German hands. No one had seen Allied troops, either American or British.
Because of the spate of rumors, many resistance groups hurriedly met to discuss what should be done. Although Prince Bernhard and SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) had cautioned against a general uprising, some underground members had run out of patience. The time had come, they believed, to directly confront the enemy and thus aid the advancing Allies. It was obvious that the Germans feared a general revolt. In the retreating columns, the underground noted, sentries were now sitting on the fenders of vehicles with rifles and submachine guns at the ready. Undeterred, many resistance men were eager to fight.
In the village of Ede, a few miles northwest of Oosterbeek, twenty-five-year-old Menno "Tony" de Nooy tried to persuade the leader of his group, Bill Wildeboer, to attack. It had long been planned, Tony argued, that the group should take over Ede in the event of an Allied invasion. The barracks at Ede, which had been used to train German marines, were now practically empty. De Nooy wanted to occupy the buildings. The older Wildeboer, a former sergeant major in the Dutch Army, disagreed. "I don't trust this situation," he told them. "The time is not yet ripe. We must wait."
Not all resistance movements were held in check. In Rotterdam, underground members occupied the offices of the water-supply company. Just over the Dutch-Belgian border in the village of Axel, the town hall with its ancient ramparts was seized and hundreds of German soldiers surrendered to the civilian fighters. In many towns Dutch Nazi officials were captured as they tried to bolt. West of Arnhem, in the village of Wolfheze, noted principally for its hospital for the mentally ill, the district police commissioner was seized in his car. He was locked up temporarily in the nearest available quarters, the asylum, for delivery to the British "when they arrived."
These were the exceptions. In general, underground units remained calm. Yet, everywhere they took advantage of the confusion to prepare for the arrival of Allied forces. In Arnhem, Charles Labouchère, forty-two, descendant of an old French family and active in an intelligence unit, was much too busy to bother about rumors. He sat, hour after hour, by the windows of an office in the neighborhood of the Arnhem bridge and, with a number of assistants, watched German units heading east and northeast along the Zevenaar and Zutphen roads toward Germany. It was Labouchère's job to estimate the number of troops and, where possible, to identify the units. The vital information he noted down was sent to Amsterdam by courier and from there via a secret network to London.
In suburban Oosterbeek, young Jan Eijkelhoff, threading his way unobtrusively through the crowds, cycled all over the area, delivering forged food ration cards to Dutchmen hiding out from the Germans. And the leader of one group in Arnhem, fifty-seven-year-old Johannus Penseel, called "the Old One," reacted in the kind of wily manner that had made him a legend among his men. He decided the moment had come to move his arsenal of weapons. Openly, with German troops all about, he and a few hand-picked assistants calmly drove up in a baker's van to the Municipal Hospital, where the weapons were hidden. Quickly wrapping the arms in brown paper they transported the entire cache to Penseel's home, whose basement windows conveniently overlooked the main square. Penseel and his coleader, Toon van Daalen, thought it was a perfect position from which to open fire on the Germans when the time came. They were determined to live up to the name of their militant subdivision -- Landelyke Knokploegen ("Strong-arm Boys").
Everywhere men and women of the vast underground army poised for battle; and in southern towns and villages, people who believed that parts of Holland were already free ran out of their homes to welcome the liberators. There was a kind of madness in the air, thought Carmelite Father Tiburtius Noordermeer as he observed the joyful crowds in the village of Oss, southeast of Nijmegen. He saw people slapping one another on the back in a congratulatory mood. Comparing the demoralized Germans on the roads with the jubilant Dutch spectators, he noted "wild fear on the one hand and crazy, unlimited, joy on the other." "Nobody," the stolid Dutch priest recalled, "acted normally."
Many grew more anxious as time passed. In the drugstore on the main street in Oosterbeek, Karel de Wit was worried. He told his wife and chief pharmacist, Johanna, that he couldn't understand why Allied planes had not attacked the German traffic. Frans Schulte, a retired Dutch major, thought the general enthusiasm was premature. Although his brother and sister-in-law were overjoyed at what appeared to be a German debacle, Schulte was not convinced. "Things may get worse," he warned. "The Germans are far from beaten. If the Allies try to cross the Rhine, believe me, we may see a major battle."
Hitler's crucial measures were already underway. On September 4 at the Führer's headquarters deep in the forest of Gôrlitz, Rastenburg, East Prussia, sixty-nine-year-old Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt prepared to leave for the western front. He had not expected a new command.
Called abruptly out of enforced retirement, Von Rundstedt had been ordered to Rastenburg four days before. On July 2, two months earlier, Hitler had fired him as Commander in Chief West (or, as it was known in German military terms, OB West -- Oberbefehlshaber West) while Von Rundstedt, who had never lost a battle, was trying to cope with the aftermath of Germany's greatest crisis of the war, the Allied invasion of Normandy.
The Führer and Germany's most distinguished soldier had never agreed on how best to meet that threat. Before the invasion, appealing for reinforcements, Von Rundstedt had bluntly informed Hitler's headquarters (OKW -- Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) that the Western Allies, superior in men, equipment and planes, could "land anywhere they want to." Not so, Hitler declared. The Atlantic Wall, the partly completed coastal fortifications which, Hitler boasted, ran almost three thousand miles from Kirkenes (on the Norwegian-Finnish frontier) to the Pyrenees (on the Franco-Spanish border) would make "this front impregnable against any enemy." Von Rundstedt knew only too well that the fortifications were more propaganda than fact. He summed up the Atlantic Wall in one word: "Humbug."
The legendary Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, renowned for his victories in the North African deserts in the first years of the war and sent by Hitler to command Army Group B under Von Rundstedt, was equally appalled by the Führer's confidence. To Rommel, the coastal defenses were a "figment of Hitler's Wolkenkuckucksheim [cloud cuckoo land]." The aristocratic, tradition-bound Von Rundstedt and the younger, ambitious Rommel found themselves, probably for the first time, in agreement. On another point, however, they clashed. With the crushing defeat of his Afrika Korps by Britain's Montgomery at El Alamein in 1942 always in his mind, and well aware of what the Allied invasion would be like, Rommel believed that the invaders must be stopped on the beaches. Von Rundstedt icily disagreed with his junior -- whom he sarcastically referred to as the "Marschall Bubi" ("Marshal Laddie"); Allied troops should be wiped out after they landed, he contended. Hitler backed Rommel. On D Day, despite Rommel's brilliant improvisations, Allied troops breached the "impregnable" wall within hours.
In the terrible days that followed, overwhelmed by the Allies, who enjoyed almost total air supremacy over the Normandy battlefield, and shackled by Hitler's "no withdrawal" orders ("Every man shall fight and fall where he stands"), Von Rundstedt's straining lines cracked everywhere. Desperately he plugged the gaps, but hard as his men fought and counterattacked, the outcome was never seriously in doubt. Von Rundstedt could neither "drive the invaders into the sea" nor "annihilate them" (the words were Hitler's).
On the night of July 1, at the height of the Normandy battle, Hitler's chief of staff, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, called Von Rundstedt and plaintively asked, "What shall we do?" Characteristically blunt, Von Rundstedt snapped, "End the war, you fools. What else can you do?" Hitler's comment on hearing the remark was mild. "The old man has lost his nerve and can't master the situation any longer. He'll have to go." Twenty-four hours later, in a polite handwritten note, Hitler informed Von Rundstedt that, "in consideration of your health and of the increased exertions to be expected in the near future," he was relieved of command.
Von Rundstedt, the senior and most dependable field marshal in the Wehrmacht, was incredulous. For the five years of war his military genius had served the Third Reich well. In 1939, when Hitler cold-bloodedly attacked Poland, thereby igniting the conflict that eventually engulfed the world, Von Rundstedt had clearly demonstrated the German formula for conquest -- Blitzkrieg ("lightning war") -- when his Panzer spearheads reached the outskirts of Warsaw in less than a week. One year later, when Hitler turned west and with devastating speed overwhelmed most of western Europe, Von Rundstedt was in charge of an entire Panzer army. And in 1941 he was in the forefront again when Hitler attacked Russia. Now, outraged at the jeopardy to his career and reputation, Von Rundstedt told his chief of staff, Major General Gunther Blumentritt, that he had been "dismissed in disgrace by an amateur strategist." That "Bohemian corporal," he fumed, had used "my age and ill health as an excuse to relieve me in order to have a scapegoat." Given a free hand, Von Rundstedt had planned a slow withdrawal to the German frontier, during which, as he outlined his plans to Blumentritt, he would have "exacted a terrible price for every foot of ground given up." But, as he had said to his staff many times, because of the constant "tutelage from above," about the only authority he had as OB West was "to change the guard in front of the gate."
From the moment of his recall and his arrival at the end of August at the Rastenburg Wolfsschanze ("Wolf's Lair"), as it was named by Hitler, Von Rundstedt, at the Führer's invitation, attended the daily briefing conference. Hitler, according to the Deputy Chief of Operations General Walter Warlimont, greeted his senior field marshal warmly, treating him with "unwonted diffidence and respect." Warlimont also noted that throughout the long sessions Von Rundstedt simply sat "motionless and monosyllabic." The precise, practical field marshal had nothing to say. He was appalled by the situation.
The briefings clearly showed that in the east the Red Army now held a front more than 1,400 miles long, from Finland in the north to the Vistula in Poland, and from there to the Carpathian Mountains in Rumania and Yugoslavia. In fact, Russian armor had reached the borders of East Prussia, barely a hundred miles from the Führer's headquarters.
In the west Von Rundstedt saw that his worst fears had been realized. Division after division was now destroyed, the entire German line thrown helplessly back. Rear-guard units, although surrounded and cut off, still clung to vital ports such as Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre, Brest, Lorient and St. Nazaire, forcing the Allies to continue bringing supplies in from the distant invasion beaches. But now, with the sudden, stunning capture of Antwerp, one of Europe's greatest deep seaports, the Allies might well have solved their supply problem. Von Rundstedt noted, too, that the tactic of Blitzkrieg, perfected by himself and others, was being borrowed with devastating effect by Eisenhower's armies. And Field Marshal Walter Model, the fifty-four-year-old new Commander in Chief, West (he took over on August 17), was clearly unable to bring order out of the chaos. His front had been ripped apart, slashed in the north by tanks of the British Second Army and the U.S. First Army driving through Belgium toward Holland; and, south of the Ardennes, armored columns of the U.S. Third Army under General George S. Patton were heading for Metz and the Saar. To Von Rundstedt the situation was no longer merely ominous. It was cataclysmic.
He had time to dwell on the inevitability of the end. Almost four days elapsed before Hitler allowed Von Rundstedt a private audience. During his wait the Field Marshal stayed in the former country inn reserved for senior officers in the center of the vast headquarters -- a barbed-wire-enclosed enclave of wooden huts and concrete bunkers built over a catacomb of underground installations. Von Rundstedt vented his impatience at the delay on Keitel, the chief of staff. "Why have I been sent for?" he demanded. "What sort of game is going on?" Keitel was unable to tell him. Hitler had given Keitel no particular reason, short of an innocuous mention of the Field Marshal's health. Hitler seemed to have convinced himself of his own manufactured version for Von Rundstedt's dismissal on "health grounds" back in July. To Keitel, Hitler had merely said, "I want to see if the old man's health has improved."
Twice Keitel reminded the Führer that the Field Marshal was waiting. Finally, on the afternoon of September 4, Von Rundstedt was summoned to Hitler's presence, and, uncharacteristically, the Fuhrer came to the point immediately. "I would like to entrust you once more with the western front."
Stiffly erect, both hands on his gold baton, Von Rundstedt merely nodded. Despite his knowledge and experience, his distaste for Hitler and the Nazis, Von Rundstedt, in whom the Prussian military tradition of devotion to service was ingrained, did not decline the appointment. As he was later to recall, "it would have been useless to protest anyway."
Almost cursorily, Hitler outlined Von Rundstedt's task. Once more Hitler was improvising. Before D Day he had insisted that the Atlantic Wall was invulnerable. Now, to Von Rundstedt's dismay, the Führer stressed the impregnability of the Westwall -- the long-neglected, unmanned but still formidable frontier fortifications better known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. Von Rundstedt, Hitler ordered, was not only to stop the Allies as far west as possible, but to counterattack for, as the Fuhrer saw it, the most dangerous Allied threats were no more than "armored spearheads." Clearly, however, Hitler was shaken by the capture of Antwerp. Its vital port was to be denied the Allies at all costs. Thus, since the other ports were still in German hands, Hitler said, he fully expected the Allied drive to come to a halt because of overextended supply lines. He was confident that the western front could be stabilized and, with the coming of winter, the initiative regained. Hitler assured Von Rundstedt that he was "not unduly worried about the situation in the west."
It was a variation of a monologue Von Rundstedt had heard many times in the past. The Westwall, to Hitler, had now become an idée fixe, and Von Rundstedt once again was being ordered "not to give an inch," and "to hold under all conditions."
By ordering Von Rundstedt to replace Field Marshal Model, Hitler was making his third change of command of OB West within two months -- from Von Rundstedt to Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, to Model, and now once again to Von Rundstedt. Model, in the job just eighteen days, would now command only Army Group B under Von Rundstedt, Hitler said. Von Rundstedt had long regarded Model with less than enthusiasm. Model, he felt, had not earned his promotion the hard way; he had been elevated to the rank of field marshal too quickly by Hitler. Von Rundstedt thought him better suited to the job of a "good regimental sergeant major." Still, the Field Marshal felt that Model's position made little difference now. The situation was all but hopeless, defeat inevitable. On the afternoon of September 4, as he set out for his headquarters near Koblenz, Von Rundstedt saw nothing to stop the Allies from invading Germany, crossing the Rhine and ending the war in a matter of weeks.
On this same day in Wannsee, Berlin, Colonel General Kurt Student, fifty-four-year-old founder of Germany's airborne forces, emerged from the backwater to which he had been relegated for three long years. For him, the war had begun with great promise. His paratroops, Student felt, had been chiefly responsible for the capture of Holland in 1940, when some 4,000 of them dropped on the bridges of Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Moerdijk, holding the vital spans open for the main German invasion force. Student's losses had been incredibly low -- only 180 men. But the situation was different in the 1941 airborne assault of Crete. There, losses were so high -- more than a third of the 22,000-man force -- that Hitler forbade all future airborne operations. "The day of parachute troops is over," the Führer said, and the future had dimmed for Student. Ever since, the ambitious officer had been tied to a desk job as commander of an airborne-training establishment, while his elite troopers were used strictly as infantry. With shattering abruptness, at precisely 3 P.M. on this critical September 4, Student emerged into the mainstream once again. In a brief telephone call, Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Hitler's operations chief, ordered him to immediately organize an army, which the Führer had designated as the "First Parachute Army." As the astounded Student listened, it occurred to him that "it was a rather high-sounding title for a force that didn't exist."
Student's troopers were scattered all over Germany, and apart from a few seasoned, fully equipped units, they were green recruits armed only with training weapons. His force of about ten thousand had almost no transportation, armor or artillery. Student didn't even have a chief of staff.
Nevertheless, Student's men, Jodl explained, were urgently needed in the west. They were to "close a gigantic hole" between Antwerp and the area of Liège-Maastricht by "holding a line along the Albert Canal." With all possible speed, Student was ordered to rush his forces to Holland and Belgium. Weapons and equipment would be issued at the "railheads of destination." Besides his paratroopers, two divisions had been earmarked for his new "army." One of them, the 719th, Student soon learned, was "made up of old men stationed along the Dutch coast who had not as yet fired a single shot." His second division, the 176th, was even worse. It consisted of "semi-invalids and convalescents who, for convenience, had been grouped together in separate battalions according to their various ailments." They even had special "diet" kitchens for those suffering from stomach trouble. Besides these units, he would get a grab bag of other forces scattered in Holland and Belgium -- Luftwaffe troops, sailors and antiaircraft crews -- and twenty-five tanks. To Student, the expert in paratroop warfare and supertrained airborne shock troops, his makeshift army was a "grotesque improvisation on a grand scale." Still, he was back in the war again.
All through the afternoon, by telephone and teletype, Student mustered and moved his men out. It would take at least four days for his entire force to reach the front, he estimated. But his toughest and best troops, rushed in special trains to Holland in what Student called a "blitz move," would be in position on the Albert Canal, as part of Model's Army Group B, within twenty-four hours.
Jodl's call and the information he himself had since gathered alarmed Student. It seemed apparent that his most seasoned group -- the 6th Parachute Regiment plus one other battalion, together totaling about three thousand men -- probably constituted the only combat-ready reserve in the whole of Germany. He found the situation ominous.
Frantically, Field Marshal Walter Model, Commander in Chief, West, tried to plug the yawning gap east of Antwerp and halt the disorderly retreat from Belgium into Holland. As yet no news of Von Rundstedt's appointment as his successor had reached him. His forces were so entangled, so disorganized that Model had all but lost control. He no longer had contact with the second half of his command, Army Group G in the south. Had General Johannes Blaskowitz, its commander, successfully withdrawn from France? Model wasn't sure. To the harassed Field Marshal the predicament of Army Group G was secondary. The crisis was clearly in the north.
With dispatch and ferocity, Army Group B had been split in two by armored columns of the British and Americans. Of the two armies composing Army Group B, the Fifteenth was bottled up, its back to the North Sea, roughly between Calais and a point northwest of Antwerp. The Seventh Army had been almost destroyed, and thrown back toward Maastricht and Aachen. Between the two armies lay a 75-mile gap and the British had driven through it straight to Antwerp. Plunging along the same route were Model's own demoralized, retreating forces.
In a desperate effort to halt their flight, Model issued an emotional plea to his troops.
...With the enemy's advance and the withdrawal of our front, several hundred thousand soldiers are falling back -- army, air force and armored units -- troops which must re-form as planned and hold in new strong points or lines.
In this stream are the remnants of broken units which, for the moment, have no set objectives and are not even in a position to receive clear orders. Whenever orderly columns turn off the road to reorganize, streams of disorganized elements push on. With their wagons move whispers, rumors, haste, endless disorder and vicious self-interest. This atmosphere is being brought back to the rear areas, infecting units still intact and in this moment of extreme tension must be prevented by the strongest means.
I appeal to your honor as soldiers. We have lost a battle, but I assure you of this: We will win this war! I cannot tell you more at the present, although I know that questions are burning on your lips. Whatever has happened, never lose your faith in the future of Germany. At the same time you must be aware of the gravity of the situation. This moment will and should separate men from weaklings. Now every soldier has the same responsibility. When his commander falls, he must be ready to step into his shoes and carry on...
There followed a long series of instructions in which Model "categorically" demanded that retreating troops should immediately "report to the nearest command point," instill in others "confidence, self-reliance, self-control and optimism," and repudiate "stupid gossip, rumors and irresponsible reports." The enemy, he said, was "not everywhere at once" and, indeed, "if all the tanks reported by rumormongers were counted, there would have to be a hundred thousand of them." He begged his men not to give up important positions or demolish equipment, weapons or installations "before it is necessary." The astonishing document wound up by stressing that everything depended on "gaining time, which the Führer needs to put new weapons and new troops into operation."
Virtually without communications, depending for the most part on radio, Model could only hope that his Order of the Day reached all his troops. In the confusion he was not even sure of the latest position of his disorganized and shattered units; nor did he know precisely how far Allied tanks and troops had advanced. And where was the Schwerpunkt (main thrust) of the Allied drive -- with the British and Americans in the north heading for the Siegfried Line and thence across the Rhine and into the Ruhr? Was it with Patton's massive U.S. Third Army driving for the Saar, the Siegfried Line and over the Rhine into Frankfurt?
Model's dilemma was the outgrowth of a situation that had occurred nearly two months earlier at the time of Von Rundstedt's dismissal and Hitler's swift appointment of Von Kluge as the old Field Marshal's successor. On sick leave for months from his command in Russia, Von Kluge happened to be making a courtesy call on the Führer at the precise moment when Hitler decided to dismiss Von Rundstedt. With no preamble, and possibly because Von Kluge happened to be the only senior officer in sight, Hitler had named the astonished Von Kluge Commander in Chief, West.
Von Kluge, a veteran front commander, took over on July 4. He was to last forty-four days. Exactly as predicted by Von Rundstedt, the Allied breakout occurred. "The whole western front has been ripped open," Von Kluge informed Hitler. Overwhelmed by the Allied tide pouring across France, Von Kluge, like Von Rundstedt before him, found his hands tied by Hitler's insistent "no withdrawal" orders. The German armies in France were encircled and all but destroyed. It was during this period that another convulsion racked the Third Reich -- an abortive assassination attempt on Hitler's life.
During one of the endless conferences at the Führer's headquarters, a time bomb in a briefcase, placed by Colonel Claus Graf von Stauffenberg beneath a table close to Hitler, exploded, killing and wounding many in the room. The Führer escaped with minor injuries. Although only a small elite group of officers were involved in the plot, Hitler's revenge was barbaric. Anyone connected with the plotters, or with their families, was arrested; and many individuals, innocent or not, were summarily executed. Some five thousand people lost their lives. Von Kluge had been indirectly implicated, and Hitler also suspected him of trying to negotiate a surrender with the enemy. Von Kluge was replaced by Model and ordered to report immediately to the Führer. Before leaving his headquarters the despairing Von Kluge wrote a letter to Hitler. Then, en route to Germany, he took poison.
When you receive these lines I shall be no more [he wrote to the Führer]....I did everything within my power to be equal to the situation...Both Rommel and I, and probably all the other commanders here in the west with experience of battle against the Anglo-Americans, with their preponderance of material, foresaw the present developments. We were not listened to. Our appreciations were not dictated by pessimism, but from sober knowledge of the facts. I do not know whether Field Marshal Model, who has been proved in every sphere, will master the situation. From my heart I hope so. Should it not be so, however, and your new weapons...not succeed, then, my Führer, make up your mind to end the war. It is time to put an end to this frightfulness....I have always admired your greatness...and your iron will...Show yourself note also great enough to put an end to this hopeless struggle....
Hitler had no intention of conceding victory to the Allies, even though the Third Reich that he had boasted would last a millennium was undermined and tottering. On every front he was attempting to stave off defeat. Yet each move the Führer made seemed more desperate than the last.
Model's appointment as OB West had not helped. Unlike Von Rundstedt or, briefly, Von Kluge, Model did not have the combat genius of Rommel as support. After Rommel was badly wounded by a strafing Allied plane on July 17, no one had been sent to replace him. Model did not at first appear to feel the need. Confident that he could right the situation, he took on Rommel's old command as well, becoming not only OB West but also Commander of Army Group B. Despite Model's expertise, the situation was too grave for any one commander.
At this time Army Group B was battling for survival along a line roughly between the Belgian coast and the Franco-Luxembourg border. From there, south to Switzerland, the remainder of Model's command -- Army Group G under General Blaskowitz -- had already been written off. Following the second Allied invasion on August 15, by French and American forces in the Marseilles area, Blaskowitz' group had hurriedly departed southern France. Under continuous pressure they were now falling back in disarray to the German border.
Along Model's disintegrating northern front, where Allied armor had torn the 75-mile-wide gap in the line, the route from Belgium into Holland and from there across Germany's vulnerable northwest frontier lay open and undefended. Allied forces driving into Holland could outflank the Siegfried Line where the massive belt of fortifications extending along Germany's frontiers from Switzerland terminated at Kleve on the Dutch-German border. By turning this northern tip of Hitler's Westwall and crossing the Rhine, the Allies could swing into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of the Reich. That maneuver might well bring about the total collapse of Germany.
Twice in seventy-two hours Model appealed desperately to Hitler for reinforcements. The situation of his forces in the undefended gap was chaotic. Order had to be restored and the breach closed. Model's latest report, which he had sent to Hitler in the early hours of September 4, warned that the crisis was approaching and unless he received a minimum of "twenty-five fresh divisions and an armored reserve of five or six panzer divisions," the entire front might collapse, thereby opening the "gateway into northwest Germany."
Model's greatest concern was the British entry into Antwerp. He did not know whether the huge port, the second-largest in Europe, was captured intact or destroyed by the German garrison. The city of Antwerp itself, lying far inland, was not the crux. To use the port, the Allies needed to control its seaward approach, an inlet 54 miles long and 3 miles wide at its mouth, running into Holland from the North Sea past Walcheren Island and looping alongside the South Beveland peninsula. So long as German guns commanded the Schelde estuary, the port of Antwerp could be denied the Allies.
Unfortunately for Model, apart from antiaircraft batteries and heavy coastal guns on Walcheren Island, he had almost no forces along the northern bank. But on the other side of the Schelde and almost isolated in the Pas de Calais was General Gustav von Zangen's Fifteenth Army -- a force of more than 80,000 men. Though pocketed -- the sea lay behind them to the north and west, and Canadians and British were pressing in from the south and east -- they nevertheless controlled most of the southern bank of the estuary.
By now, Model believed, British tanks, exploiting the situation, would surely be moving along the northern bank and sweeping it clear. Before long the entire South Beveland peninsula could be in their hands and sealed off from the Dutch mainland at its narrow base north of the Belgian border, barely 18 miles from Antwerp. Next, to open the port, the British would turn on the trapped Fifteenth Army and clear the southern bank. Von Zangen's forces had to be extricated.
Late in the afternoon of September 4 at Army Group B's headquarters southeast of Liège in the village of La Chaude Fontaine, Model issued a series of orders. By radio he commanded Von Zangen to hold the southern bank of the Schelde and reinforce the lesser ports of Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais, which Hitler had earlier decreed were to be held with "fanatical determination as fortresses." With the remainder of his troops the hapless Von Zangen was to attack northeast into the avalanche of British armor. It was a desperate measure, yet Model saw no other course. If Von Zangen's attack was successful, it might isolate the British in Antwerp and cut off Montgomery's armored spearheads driving north. Even if the attack failed, Von Zangen's effort might buy time, slowing up the Allied drive long enough for reserves to arrive and hold a new front along the Albert Canal.
Exactly what reinforcements were on the way, Model did not know. As darkness fell he finally received Hitler's answer to his pleas for new divisions to stabilize the front. It was the terse news of his replacement as Commander in Chief, West, by Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Von Kluge had lasted forty-four days as OB West, Model barely eighteen. Normally temperamental and ambitious, Model reacted calmly on this occasion. He was more aware of his shortcomings as an administrator than his critics believed. Now he could concentrate on the job he knew best: being a front-line commander, solely in charge of Army Group B. But, among the flurry of frantic orders Model issued on this last day as OB West, one would prove momentous. It concerned the relocation of his II SS Panzer Corps.
The commander of the Corps, fifty-year-old Obergruppen-führer (Lieutenant General) Wilhelm Bittrich, had been out of touch with Model for more than seventy-two hours. His forces, fighting almost continuously since Normandy, had been badly mauled. Bittrich's tank losses were staggering, his men short on ammunition and fuel. In addition, because of the breakdown of communications, the few orders he had received by radio were already out of date when Bittrich got them. Uncertain of the enemy's movements and badly in need of direction, Bittrich set out on foot to find Model. He finally located the Field Marshal at Army Group B headquarters near Liège. "I had not seen him since the Russian front in 1941," Bittrich later recalled. "Monocle in his eye, wearing his usual short leather coat, Model was standing looking at a map and snapping out commands one after the other. There was little time for conversation. Pending official orders, which would follow, I was told to move my Corps headquarters north into Holland." With all possible speed Bittrich was directed to "supervise the refitting and rehabilitation of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions." The battered units, Model told him, were to "slowly disengage from the battle and immediately head north."
The almost unknown Bittrich could hardly foresee the critical role his 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions would play within the next two weeks. The site Model chose for Bittrich was in a quiet zone, at this point some seventy-five miles behind the front. By a historic fluke, the area included the city of Arnhem.
The headlong retreat of the Germans out of Holland was slowing, although few of the jubilant Dutch realized it as yet. From the Belgian border north to Arnhem, roads were still choked, but there was a difference in the movement. From his post in the Provincial Building above the Arnhem bridge, Charles Labouchère saw no letup in the flood of vehicles, troops and Nazi sympathizers streaming across the bridge. But a few blocks north of Labouchère's location, Gerhardus Gysbers, a seller of antique books, saw a change take place. German troops entering Arnhem from the west were not moving on. The compound of the Willems Barracks next to Gysbers' home and the streets in the immediate vicinity were filling with horse-drawn vehicles and disheveled soldiers. Gysbers noted Luftwaffe battalions, antiaircraft personnel, Dutch SS and elderly men of the 719th Coastal Division. It was clear to Arnhem's resistance chief, Pieter Kruyff, that this was no temporary halt. These troops were not heading back into Germany. They were slowly regrouping; some horse-drawn units of the 719th were starting to move south. Kruyff's chief of intelligence for the Arnhem region, thirty-three-year-old Henri Knap, unobtrusively cycling through the area, spotted the subtle change, too. He was puzzled. He wondered if the optimistic broadcasts from London were false. If so, they were cruel deceptions. Everywhere he saw the Dutch rejoicing. Everyone knew that Montgomery's troops had taken Antwerp. Surely Holland would be liberated within hours. Knap could see the Germans were reorganizing. While they still had little strength, he knew that if the British did not come soon that strength would grow.
In Nijmegen, eleven miles to the south, German military police were closing off roads leading to the German frontier. Elias Broekkamp, a wine importer, saw some troops moving north toward Arnhem, but the majority were being funneled back and traffic was being broken up, processed and fanned out. As in Arnhem, the casual spectator seemed unaware of the difference. Broekkamp observed Dutch civilians laughing and jeering at what they believed to be the Germans' bewildering predicament.
In fact the predicament was growing much less. Nijmegen was turning into a troop staging area, once more in the firm control of German military.
Farther south, in Eindhoven, barely ten miles from the Belgian border, the retreat had all but stopped. In the straggling convoys moving north there were now more Nazi civilians than troops. Frans Kortie, who had seen the Germans dismantling antiaircraft guns on the roofs of the Philips factories, noted a new development. In a railway siding near the station he watched a train pulling flatcars into position. On the cars were heavy antiaircraft guns. Kortie experienced a feeling of dread.
Far more disheartening for observant Dutch was the discovery that reinforcements were coming in from Germany. In Tilburg, Eindhoven, Helmond and Weert, people saw contingents of fresh troops arrive by train. Unloaded quickly and formed up, they set out for the Dutch-Belgian border. They were not regular Wehrmacht soldiers. They were seasoned, well-equipped and disciplined, and their distinctive helmets and camouflaged smocks instantly identified them as veteran German paratroopers.
By late afternoon of September 5 Colonel General Kurt Student's first paratroop formations were digging in at points along the north side of Belgium's Albert Canal. Their haste was almost frantic. Student, on his arrival at noon, had discovered that Model's "new German line" was strictly the 80-foot-wide water barrier itself. Defense positions had not been prepared. There were no strong points, trenches or fortifications. And, to make matters worse for the defenders, Student noted, "almost everywhere the southern bank dominated the northern side." Even the bridges over the canal were still standing. Only now were engineers placing demolition charges. In all the confusion no one apparently had ordered the crossings destroyed.
Nevertheless, Student's timetable was well planned. The "blitz move" of his airborne forces was a spectacular success. "Considering that these paratroopers were rushed in from all over Germany, from Güstrow in Mecklenburg to Bitsch in Lothringen," he later recalled, "and arms and equipment, brought in from still other parts of Germany, were waiting for them at the railheads, the speed of the move was remarkable." Student could only admire "the astonishing precision of the general staff and the entire German organization." Lieutenant General Karl Sievers' 719th Coastal Division had made good time, too. Student was heartened to see their columns heading for positions north of Antwerp "clattering down the roads to the front, their transports and artillery pulled by heavy draft horses." Hour by hour, his hastily formed First Parachute Army was arriving. Also, by extraordinary good fortune, help had come from a most unexpected source.
The headlong retreat from Belgium into Holland had been slowed and then virtually stopped by the doggedness and ingenuity of one man: Lieutenant General Kurt Chill. Because his 85th Infantry Division was almost totally destroyed, Chill had been ordered to save whatever remained and move back into Germany. But the strong-willed general, watching the near-panic on the roads and prompted by Model's Order of the Day, decided to disregard orders. Chill concluded that the only way to avert catastrophe was to organize a line along the Albert Canal. He welded what remained of his 85th Division with the remnants of two others and quickly dispersed these men to strategic points on the northern bank of the canal. Next, he turned his attention to the bridges and set up "reception centers" at their northern exits. In twenty-four hours Chill succeeded in netting thousands of servicemen from nearly every branch of the German armed forces. It was a "crazy-quilt mob," including Luftwaffe mechanics, military-government personnel, naval coastal units and soldiers from a dozen different divisions, but these stragglers, armed at best with rifles, were already on the canal when Student arrived.
Student called Chill's virtuoso performance in halting the near-rout "miraculous." With remarkable speed he had established a defense line of sorts, helping to buy a little time for all of Student's forces to arrive. This would still take several days. Even with the boost from Chill, Student's patchwork First Parachute Army might total at best 18,000-20,000 men, plus some artillery, antiaircraft guns and twenty-five tanks -- hardly the equivalent of an American division. And racing toward this scanty force -- so thin that Student could not even man the 75-mile Antwerp-Maastricht gap, let alone close it -- were the awesome armored forces of the British Second Army and part of the U.S. First Army. Student was outgunned and outnumbered; about all that stood between him and disaster was the Albert Canal itself.
At what point along it would the enemy attack? Student's line was vulnerable everywhere, but some areas were more critical than others. He was particularly concerned about the sector north of Antwerp, where the weak 719th Coastal Division was only now taking up position. Was there still time to take advantage of the 80-foot-wide water barrier and turn it into a major defense line that would delay the Allies long enough for additional reinforcements to reach the canal? This was Student's greatest hope.
He expected to be attacked at any moment, yet there were still no reports of Allied armor. Student was particularly surprised that there was almost no enemy contact north of Antwerp. He had by now expected that British tanks, after capturing the city, would strike north, cut off the Beveland peninsula, and smash into Holland. It seemed to Student that the British had slowed down. But why?
Four times in eighteen days the vast complex of the German Supreme Headquarters in the West had been forced to move. Bombed, shelled, almost overrun by Allied tanks, OB West had finally come to a halt behind the borders of the Reich. And shortly after 2 P.M. on September 5 the new commander in chief found his headquarters in the little town of Aremberg near Koblenz.
Tired and irritable after his long journey, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt dispensed with the usual military courtesies and fanfare that often accompanied a German change of command. Immediately he plunged into a series of staff conferences that were to last long into the evening. Officers not personally acquainted with the field marshal were startled by the speed of his takeover. To older hands, it was as though he had never been away. For everyone, the very presence of Von Rundstedt brought feelings of relief and renewed confidence.
Von Rundstedt's task was formidable, his problems were massive. He must produce, as quickly as possible, a strategic blueprint for the 400-mile western front running from the North Sea all the way to the Swiss border -- a plan which Field Marshal Model had candidly found beyond his capability. With the battered forces at Von Rundstedt's disposal -- Army Group B in the north and G in the south -- he was expected to hold everywhere and even to counterattack, as Hitler had directed. Simultaneously, to stave off invasion of the Reich, he was to make a reality of Hitler's "impregnable" Siegfried Line -- the long-obsolete, unfinished concrete fortifications which had lain neglected, unmanned, and stripped of guns since 1940. There was more, but on this afternoon Von Rundstedt gave first priority to the immediate problems. They were far worse than even he had anticipated.
The picture was bleak. Before his dismissal by Hitler in July, Von Rundstedt had command of sixty-two divisions. Now his operations chief, Lieutenant General Bodo Zimmermann, produced an ominous balance sheet. In the two army groups, he told the Field Marshal, there were "forty-eight 'paper' divisions, fifteen panzer divisions and four brigades with almost no tanks." So weak in men, equipment and artillery were these forty-eight divisions, Zimmermann said, that in his view they constituted "a combat power equivalent to only twenty-seven divisions." This force was less than "half the strength of the Allies." Von Rundstedt learned that his staff believed Eisenhower had at least sixty divisions, completely motorized and at full strength. (This estimate was wrong. Eisenhower had, at this moment, forty-nine divisions on the Continent.)
As for German panzer forces, they were virtually nonexistent. Along the entire front, against the Allies' estimated strength of more than two thousand tanks, there were only one hundred panzers left. The Luftwaffe had been virtually destroyed; above the battlefield, the Allies had complete aerial supremacy. Von Rundstedt's own grim summation was that in troops, most of whom were exhausted and demoralized, he was outnumbered more than 2 to 1; in artillery by 2 1/2 guns to 1; in tanks, 20 to 1; and in planes, 25 to 1. Besides there were grave shortages in gasoline, transportation and ammunition. Von Rundstedt's new chief of staff, General Siegfried Westphal, was later to recall, "The situation was desperate. A major defeat anywhere along the front -- which was so full of gaps that it did not deserve the name -- would lead to catastrophe if the enemy were to fully exploit the opportunities."
Lieutenant General Blumentritt, fully agreeing with Westphal's view, was even more specific. In his opinion, if the Allies mounted "a major thrust resulting in a breakthrough anywhere," collapse would follow. The only capable troops Von Rundstedt had were those facing General George S. Patton's U.S. Third Army driving toward Metz and heading for the industrial region of the Saar. These forces might delay Patton, but they were not strong enough to stop him. Rather than waste precious time, it seemed to Blumentritt that the Allies would strike where the Germans were weakest -- by attempting a powerful thrust in the north to cross the Rhine and move into the Ruhr. That drive, he believed, might be given priority by the Americans and the British, because, as he later put it, "He who holds northern Germany, holds Germany."
Von Rundstedt had already reached the same conclusion. Seizing the Ruhr was undoubtedly the major Allied objective. The British and Americans in the north were driving in that direction, toward the frontier at Aachen. There was little to stop them from penetrating the unmanned, outdated Siegfried Line, crossing Germany's last natural barrier, the vital Rhine, and striking into the Reich's industrial heart.
Von Rundstedt's analytical mind had seized on one more fact. Eisenhower's skilled and highly trained airborne forces, used so successfully in the Normandy invasion, had disappeared off German situation maps. They were not being used as infantry. Obviously these forces had been withdrawn, preparatory to another airborne operation. But where and when? It was logical that an airborne drop would coincide with a drive on the Ruhr. In Von Rundstedt's view such an attack might come at either of two key areas: behind the Westwall fortifications, or east of the Rhine to seize bridgeheads. In fact, Field Marshal Model, several days earlier, had expressed the same fear in a message to Hitler, stressing the possibility as an "acute threat." Equally, Von Rundstedt could not discount the possibility of the entire Allied front moving forward simultaneously toward the Ruhr and the Saar with airborne troops committed at the same time. The Field Marshal could see no solution to any of these impending threats. Allied opportunities were too many and too varied. His only option was to try to bring order out of chaos and to buy time by outguessing Allied intentions, if he could.
Von Rundstedt did not underestimate Eisenhower's intelligence of the German predicament. But, he pondered, was the Allied command really aware how desperate the situation was? The truth was that he was fighting, as he put it to Blumentritt, with "rundown old men" and the pillboxes of the Westwall would be "absolutely useless against an Allied onslaught." It was "madness," he said, "to defend these mouse holes for reasons of prestige." Nevertheless, the ghostly Siegfried Line must be given substance, its fortifications readied and manned. Tersely, Von Rundstedt told his staff: "We must somehow hold for at least six weeks."
Studying each aspect of the situation confronting him, diagraming possible Allied moves and weighing each alternative, he noted that the most vigorous attacks were still being made by Patton, heading for the Saar. In the north British and American pressure was noticeably less. Von Rundstedt thought he detected an absence of movement, almost a pause, in that area. Turning his attention to Montgomery's front, as Blumentritt was later to remember, Von Rundstedt concentrated on the situation at Antwerp. He was intrigued by reports that, for more than thirty-six hours now, the British had mounted no drive north from the city, nor had they cut the South Beveland peninsula. Obviously, Antwerp's great harbor facilities would solve Allied supply problems. But they could not use the port if both sides of the 54-mile-long estuary leading to it remained in German hands. To the Field Marshal, it seemed clear that the letup he had noted was real; a definite Allied slowdown had occurred, particularly in Montgomery's area.
Throughout his career, Von Rundstedt had closely studied British military tactics; he had also, to his own misfortune, been able to observe American warfare at first hand. He had found the Americans more imaginative and daring in the use of armor, the British superb with infantry. In each case, however, commanders made the difference. Thus, Von Rundstedt considered Patton a far more dangerous opponent than Montgomery. According to Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt viewed Field Marshal Montgomery as "overly cautious, habit-ridden and systematic." Now the Field Marshal weighed the significance of Montgomery's tardiness. With the other Channel ports still in German hands, Von Rundstedt saw Antwerp as essential to Eisenhower's advance -- so why had Montgomery not moved for thirty-six hours and apparently failed to secure the second-largest port in Europe? There could be only one reason: Montgomery was not ready to continue the attack. Von Rundstedt was certain that he would not depart from habit. The British would never attack until the meticulous, detail-minded Montgomery was fully prepared and supplied. The answer therefore, Von Rundstedt reasoned, was that the British had overextended themselves. This was not a pause, Von Rundstedt told his staff. Montgomery's pursuit, he was convinced, had ground to a halt.
Quickly, Von Rundstedt turned his attention to Model's orders of the previous twenty-four hours. Because now, if his theory was right, Von Rundstedt saw a chance not only to deny the port of Antwerp to the Allies but, equally important, to save General Von Zangen's trapped Fifteenth Army, a force of more than 80,000 men -- men that Von Rundstedt desperately needed.
From Model's orders he saw that, while Von Zangen had been told to hold the southern bank of the Schelde and reinforce the Channel ports, he had also been ordered to attack with the remainder of his troops northeast into the flank of the British drive -- an attack scheduled to take place on the morning of the sixth. Without hesitation, Von Rundstedt canceled that attack. Under the circumstances, he saw no merit to it. Besides, he had a bolder, more imaginative plan. The first part of Model's orders could stand, because now holding the Channel ports was more important than ever. But instead of attacking northeast, Von Zangen was ordered to evacuate his remaining troops by sea, across the waters of the Schelde to the island of Walcheren. Once on the northern bank of the estuary, Von Zangen's troops could march eastward along the one road running from Walcheren Island, across the South Beveland peninsula until they reached the Dutch mainland north of Antwerp. Because of Allied air power, ferrying operations across the 3-mile mouth of the Schelde, between the ports of Breskens and Flushing, would have to take place at night. Nevertheless, with luck, a good portion of the Fifteenth Army might be safely withdrawn within two weeks. Von Rundstedt knew that the plan was hazardous, but he saw no other course, for, if successful, he would have almost an entire German army, battered though it might be, at his disposal. More than that he would still -- unbelievably -- control the vital port of Antwerp. But the success of the operation would depend entirely on Von Rundstedt's hunch that Montgomery's drive had indeed come to a halt.
Von Rundstedt was sure of it. Further, he was banking on it that Montgomery's slowdown held a far deeper significance. Because of overextended communications and supply lines, he was convinced, the Allied breakneck pursuit had reached its limit. At the close of the conference, as Blumentritt was later to recall, "Von Rundstedt looked at us and suggested the incredible possibility that, for once, Hitler might be right."
Hitler's and Von Rundstedt's estimates of the situation, although only partly correct, were far more accurate than either realized. The precious time Von Rundstedt needed to stabilize his front was being provided by the Allies themselves. The truth was that the Germans were losing faster than the Allies could win.
Even as Von Rundstedt gambled desperately to save the trapped Fifteenth Army, Major General George Philip Roberts, commander of the British 11th Armored Division, 150 miles away in Antwerp, was jubilantly informing his superiors of a startling development. His men had captured not only the city but the huge port as well.
Together with the Guards Armored Division, Roberts' tanks had made an extraordinary dash of more than 250 miles in just five days. The spearhead of Lieutenant General Miles C. Dempsey's great British Second Army had been ordered by Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, XXX Corps commander, to "keep going like mad." Leaving the Guards to capture Brussels, Roberts' division bypassed the city and in the early hours of September 4, with the courageous help of the Belgian underground, entered Antwerp. Now, some thirty-six hours later, after clearing the deep-sea complex of a stunned and panic-stricken enemy, Roberts reported that his men had captured Antwerp's huge 1,000-acre harbor area intact. Warehouses, cranes, bridges, 3 1/2 miles of wharves, quays, locks, drydocks, rolling stock -- and, unbelievably, even the all-important electrically controlled sluice gates, in full working order -- had been seized.
German plans to demolish the port had failed. Explosives had been placed on major bridges and other key installations, but, overwhelmed by the spectacular speed of the British and resistance groups (among them Belgian engineers who knew exactly where the demolitions were planted), the disorganized German garrison never had a chance to destroy the vast harbor facilities.
The thirty-seven-year-old Roberts had brilliantly executed his orders. Unfortunately, in one of the greatest miscalculations of the European war, no one had directed him to take advantage of the situation -- that is, strike north, grab bridgeheads over the Albert Canal in the northern suburbs, and then make a dash for the base of the South Beveland peninsula only eighteen miles away By holding its 2-mile-wide neck, Roberts could have bottled up German forces on the isthmus, preparatory to clearing the vital northern bank. It was a momentous oversight. The port of Antwerp, one of the war's major prizes, was secured; but its approaches, still held by the Germans, were not. This great facility, which could have shortened and fed Allied supply lines all along the front, was useless. Yet nobody, in the heady atmosphere of the moment, saw this oversight as more than a temporary condition. Indeed, there seemed no need to hurry. With the Germans reeling, the mop-up could take place at any time. The 11th Armored, its assignment completed, held its positions awaiting new orders.
The magnificent drive of Dempsey's armored forces in the north, equaling that of Patton's south of the Ardennes, had run its course, though at this moment few realized it. Roberts' men were exhausted, short on gasoline and supplies. The same was true of the remainder of General Brian Horrocks' XXX Corps. Thus, on this same afternoon, the relentless pressure that had thrown the Germans back in the north, shattered and demoralized, suddenly relaxed. The blunder at Antwerp was compounded as the British came to a halt to "refit, refuel, and rest."
General Horrocks, the XXX Corps's capable and dynamic commander, was not even thinking about Antwerp. Like Field Marshal Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, his attention was focused on another target: the crossing of the Rhine and a swift end to the war. Only a few hours earlier, elated at the verve and dash of his armies, Montgomery had cabled the Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower: "We have now reached a stage where a really powerful and full-blooded thrust towards Berlin is likely to get there and thus end the war."
In London, His Royal Highness, the Prince of the Netherlands conferred with Queen Wilhelmina and then telephoned his wife, the Princess Juliana, in Canada. He urged her to fly immediately to England, ready to return to the Netherlands the moment the country was freed. Their long exile was about to end. The liberation, when it came, would be swift. They must be ready. Yet Bernhard was uneasy.
Over the past seventy-two hours messages reaching him from the resistance had again and again underscored the German panic in Holland and repeated the news that the retreat, begun on September 2, was still in progress. Now, on the fifth, underground leaders reported that although the Germans were still disorganized, the exodus appeared to be slowing down. Bernhard had also heard from the Dutch Prime Minister in exile. Prime Minister Gerbrandy was somewhat embarrassed. Obviously his September 3 broadcast was premature; Allied troops had most certainly not crossed the Dutch border as yet. The Prince and the Prime Minister pondered the reason. Why had the British not moved? Surely, from the underground messages they received, the situation in Holland was clear.
Bernhard had little military training and was dependent on his own advisers, yet he was puzzled. If the Germans were still disorganized and, as his resistance leaders believed, a "thrust by a few tanks" could liberate the country "in a matter of hours" -- why, then, didn't the British proceed? Perhaps Montgomery disbelieved the reports of the Dutch resistance because he considered them amateurish or unreliable. Bernhard could find no other explanation. Why else would the British hesitate, instead of instantly crossing the border? Although he was in constant touch with his ministers, the United States ambassador at large, Anthony Biddle, and Eisenhower's chief of staff, Bedell Smith, and as a result was well aware that, at this moment, the advance was so fluid that the situation was changing almost hour by hour, nevertheless Bernhard thought he would like firsthand information. He made a decision: he would request permission of SHAEF to fly to Belgium and see Field Marshal Montgomery himself as soon as possible. He had every faith in the Allied high command and, in particular, Montgomery. Still, if something was wrong, Bernhard had to know.
At his spartan, tented headquarters in the Royal Palace Gardens at Laeken, a few miles from the center of Brussels, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery impatiently waited for an answer to his coded "Personal for Eisenhower Eyes Only" message. Its urgent demand for a powerful and full-blooded thrust to Berlin was sent in the late hours of September 4. Now, by midday on September 5, the brusque, wiry fifty-eight-year-old hero of El Alamein waited for a reply and impatiently fretted about the future course of the war. Two months before the invasion of Normandy he had said, "If we do our stuff properly and no mistakes are made, then I believe that Germany will be out of the war this year." In Montgomery's unalterable opinion, a momentous strategic mistake had been made just before the Allies captured Paris and crossed the Seine. Eisenhower's "broad-front policy" -- moving his armies steadily forward to the borders of the Reich, then up to the Rhine -- may have been valid when planned before the invasion, but with the sudden disorderly collapse of the Germans, the Britisher believed, it was now obsolete. As Montgomery put it, that strategy had become "unstitched." And all his military training told him "we could not get away with it and...would be faced with a long winter campaign with all that that entailed for the British people."
On August 17 he had proposed to General Omar N. Bradley, the U.S. 12th Army Group commander, a single-thrust plan. Both his own and Bradley's army group should stay "together as a solid mass of forty divisions, which would be so strong that it need fear nothing. This force should advance northeastward." Montgomery's 21st Army Group would clear the Channel coast, and secure Antwerp and southern Holland. Bradley's U.S. 12th Army Group, its right flank on the Ardennes, would head for Aachen and Cologne. The basic objective of Montgomery's proposed drive was to "secure bridgeheads over the Rhine before the winter began and to seize the Ruhr quickly." In all probability, he theorized, it would also end the war. Montgomery's plan called for three of Eisenhower's four armies -- the British Second, the U.S. First and the Canadian First. The fourth, Patton's U.S. Third Army, at this moment making headlines around the world for its spectacular advances, Montgomery dismissed. He calmly suggested it should be brought to a halt.
Some forty-eight hours later Montgomery learned that Bradley, who he had believed was responsive to his own idea, actually favored an American thrust, a Patton drive toward the Rhine and Frankfurt. Eisenhower rejected both plans; he was not prepared to change his strategic concept. The Supreme Commander wanted to remain flexible enough to thrust both to the Ruhr and the Saar as the occasion permitted. To Montgomery, this was no longer the "broad-front policy" but a double-thrust plan. Everybody now, he felt, was "going his own way" -- especially Patton, who seemed to be allowed enormous latitude. Eisenhower's determination to persist in his original concept revealed quite clearly, in Montgomery's opinion, that the Supreme Commander was "in fact, completely out of touch with the land battle."
Montgomery's view was based on a recent development which angered him and, he felt, demeaned his own role. He was no longer the over-all coordinator of the land battle. On September 1 Eisenhower had personally taken over command. Because the Supreme Commander believed Montgomery "a master of the set battle piece," he had given the British general operational control of the D-Day assault and the initial period of fighting thereafter. Thus, General Omar N. Bradley's 12th Army Group was under Montgomery. Press stories appearing in the United States at the end of August revealing that Bradley's army group still operated under Montgomery created such a public furor that Eisenhower was promptly ordered by General George C. Marshall, U.S. Chief of Staff, to "immediately assume direct command" of all ground forces. American armies reverted back to their own command. The move caught Montgomery off base. As his chief of staff, General Francis de Guingand, later put it: "Montgomery...never, I believe, thought that the day would come so soon. Possibly he hoped that the initial command set up was there to stay for a long time. He was, I think, apt to give insufficient weight to the dictates of prestige and national feelings, or to the increasing contribution of America, in both men and arms...it was obvious, however, to most of us that it would have been an impossible situation for a British general and a British headquarters to retain command of these more numerous American formations indefinitely." It may have been obvious to his staff but not to Montgomery. He felt publicly humiliated.
It was hardly a secret that Monty and his superior, Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, were highly critical of Eisenhower. Both men considered him ambivalent and indecisive. In a letter to Montgomery on July 28, Brooke commented that Eisenhower had only "the very vaguest conception of war!" On another occasion he summarized the Supreme Commander as "a most attractive personality," but with "a very, very limited brain from a strategic point of view." Montgomery, never a man to mince words, saw "right from the beginning that Ike had simply no experience for the job," and while history, he felt, would record Eisenhower "as a very good Supreme Commander, as a field commander he was very bad, very bad." Angrily, Montgomery began promoting the idea of an over-all "Land Forces Commander," a post sandwiched between the army groups and Eisenhower He knew just the man for the job -- himself. Eisenhower was well aware of the underground campaign. He remained calm. The Supreme Commander was, in his way, as obstinate as Montgomery. His orders from General Marshall were clear and he had no intention of entertaining the idea of any overall ground commander other than himself.
Montgomery had no opportunity to discuss his single-thrust plan or his thoughts about a land-forces commander directly with Eisenhower until August 23, when the Supreme Commander came to lunch at 21st Army Group headquarters. Then the fractious Montgomery, with extraordinary tactlessness, insisted on a private conversation with the Supreme Commander. He demanded that Eisenhower's chief of staff, General Bedell Smith, be excluded from the conference. Smith left the tent, and for an hour Eisenhower, grimly keeping his temper, was lectured by his subordinate on the need for "a firm and sound plan." Montgomery demanded that Eisenhower "decide where the main effort would be" so that "we could be certain of decisive results quickly." Again and again he pressed for the "single thrust," warning that if the Supreme Commander continued the "broad-front strategy with the whole line advancing and everyone fighting all the time, the advance would inevitably peter out." If that happened, Montgomery warned, "the Germans would gain time to recover, and the war would go on all through the winter and well into 1945. If we split the maintenance," Montgomery said, "and advance on a broad front we shall be so weak everywhere we'll have no chance of success." To his mind there was only one policy: "to halt the right and strike with the left, or halt the left and strike with the right." There could only be one thrust and everything should support it.
Eisenhower saw Montgomery's proposal as a gigantic gamble. It might produce speedy and decisive victory. It might instead result in disaster. He was not prepared to accept the risks involved. Nevertheless he found himself caught between Montgomery on one side and Bradley and Patton on the other -- each advocating "the main thrust," each wanting to be entrusted with it.
Up to this point, Montgomery, notorious for his slow-moving, if successful, tactics, had yet to prove that he could exploit a situation with the speed of Patton; and at this moment Patton's army, far ahead of everyone else, had crossed the Seine and was racing toward Germany. Diplomatically, Eisenhower explained to Montgomery that, whatever the merits of a single thrust, he could hardly hold back Patton and stop the U.S. Third Army in its tracks. "The American people," said the Supreme Commander, "would never stand for it, and public opinion wins wars." Montgomery heatedly disagreed. "Victories win wars," he announced. "Give people victory and they won't care who won it."
Eisenhower was not impressed. Although he did not say so at the time, he thought Montgomery's view was "much too narrow," and that the Field Marshal did not "understand the over-all situation." Eisenhower explained to Montgomery that he wanted Patton to continue eastward so that a link-up might be effected with the American and French forces advancing from the south. In short, he made it quite clear that his "broad-front policy" would continue.
Montgomery turned for the moment to the subject of a land commander. "Someone must run the land battle for you." Eisenhower, Montgomery declared, should "sit on a very lofty perch in order to be able to take a detached view of the whole intricate problem, which involves land, sea, air, et cetera." He retreated from arrogance to humility. If the matter of "public opinion in America was involved," Montgomery declared, he would gladly "let Bradley control the battle and serve under him."
Eisenhower quickly dismissed the suggestion. Placing Bradley over Montgomery would be as unacceptable to the British people as the reverse would be to the Americans. As for his own role he could not, he explained, deviate from the plan to take personal control of the battle. But, in seeking a solution to some of the immediate problems, he was ready to make some concessions to Montgomery. He needed the Channel ports and Antwerp. They were vital to the entire Allied supply problem. Thus, for the moment, Eisenhower said, priority would be given to the 21st Army Group's northern thrust. Montgomery could use the Allied First Airborne Army in England -- at the time SHAEF's only reserve. Additionally, he could have the support of the U.S. First Army moving on his right.
Montgomery had, in the words of General Bradley, "won the initial skirmish," but the Britisher was far from satisfied. It was his firm conviction that Eisenhower had missed the "great opportunity." Patton shared that view -- for different reasons -- when the news reached him. Not only had Eisenhower given supply priority to Montgomery at the expense of the U.S. Third Army, but he had also rejected Patton's proposed drive to the Saar. To Patton, it was "the most momentous error of the war."
In the two weeks since this clash of personalities and conflicting military philosophies had taken place, much had happened. Montgomery's 21st Army Group now rivaled Patton's in speed. By September 5, with his advance units already in Antwerp, Montgomery was more convinced than ever that his single-thrust concept was right. He was determined to reverse the Supreme Commander's decision. A crucial turning point in the conflict had been reached. The Germans, Montgomery was convinced, were teetering on the verge of collapse.
He was not alone in this view. On nearly every level of command, intelligence officers were forecasting the imminent end of the war. The most optimistic estimate came from the Combined Allied Intelligence Committee in London. The German situation had deteriorated to such an extent that the group believed the enemy incapable of recovery. There was every indication, their estimate said, that "organized resistance under the control of the German high command is unlikely to continue beyond December 1, 1944, and...may end even sooner." Supreme Headquarters shared this optimism. At the end of August, SHAEF's intelligence summary declared that "the August battles have done it and the enemy in the west has had it. Two and one half months of bitter fighting have brought the end of the war in Europe in sight, almost within reach." Now, one week later, they considered the German army "no longer a cohesive force but a number of fugitive battle groups, disorganized and even demoralized, short of equipment and arms." Even the conservative director of military operations at the British War Office, Major General John Kennedy, noted on September 6 that "If we go at the same pace as of late, we should be in Berlin by the 28th...."
In this chorus of optimistic predictions there seemed only one dissenting voice. The U.S. Third Army's intelligence chief, Colonel Oscar W. Koch, believed the enemy still capable of waging a last-ditch struggle and warned that "barring internal upheaval in the homeland and the remote possibility of insurrection within the Wehrmacht...the German armies will continue to fight until destroyed or captured." But his own intelligence officer's cautious appraisal meant little to the Third Army's ebullient commander, Lieutenant General George S. Patton. Like Montgomery in the north, Patton in the south was now only one hundred miles from the Rhine. He too believed the time had come, as Montgomery had put it, "to stick our neck out in a single deep thrust into enemy territory," and finish off the war. The only difference lay in their views of who was to stick out his neck. Both commanders, flushed with victory and bidding for glory, now vied for that opportunity. In his zeal, Montgomery had narrowed his rivalry down to Patton alone: a British field marshal in charge of an entire army group was trying to outrace an American lieutenant general in charge of a single army.
But all along the front the fever of success gripped battle commanders. After the spectacular sweep across France and Belgium and with evidence of German defeat all around, men now confidently believed that nothing could stop the victorious surge from continuing through the Siegfried Line and beyond, into the heart of Germany. Yet, keeping the enemy off balance and disorganized demanded constant, unremitting Allied pressure. Supporting that pressure had now produced a crisis that few seemed aware of. The heady optimism bordered on self-deception for, at this moment, Eisenhower's great armies, after a hectic dash of more than two hundred miles from the Seine, were caught up in a gigantic maintenance and supply problem. After six weeks of almost nonstop advance against little opposition, few noted the sudden loss of momentum. But as the first tanks approached Germany's threshold and at places began probing the Westwall itself, the advance began to slow. The Allied pursuit was over, strangled by its own success.
The chief problem crippling the advance was the lack of ports. There was no shortage of supplies, but these were stockpiled in Normandy, still being brought in across the beaches or through the only workable port, Cherbourg -- some 450 miles behind the forward elements. Supplying four great armies in full pursuit from that far back was a nightmarish task. A lack of transportation added to the creeping paralysis. Rail networks, bombed in preinvasion days or destroyed by the French underground, could not be repaired fast enough. Gasoline pipelines were only now being laid and extended. As a result, everything from rations to gasoline was being hauled by road, and there was a frustrating shortage of trucks.
To keep abreast of the pursuit which, day by day, pushed farther east, every kind of vehicle was being pressed into service. Artillery, antiaircraft guns and spare tanks had been unloaded from their conveyors and left behind so that the conveyors could be used to carry supplies. Divisions had been stripped of their transport companies. The British had left one entire corps west of the Seine so that its transport could service the rest of the speeding army. Montgomery's difficulties mounted with the discovery that 1,400 British three-ton trucks were useless because of faulty pistons.
Now, in herculean efforts to keep the pursuit going without pause, a ceaseless belt of trucks -- the "Red Ball Express" -- hammered east, delivered their supplies and then swung back to the west for more, some convoys often making a grueling round trip of between six and eight hundred miles. Even with all available transport moving around the clock and with commanders in the field applying the most stringent economies, the supply demands of the armies could not be met. Taxed beyond its capabilities, the makeshift supply structure had almost reached the breaking point.
Besides the acute transportation problem, men were tired, equipment worn out after the catapultlike advance from Normandy. Tanks, half-tracks and vehicles of every description had been driven so long without proper maintenance that they were breaking down. Overshadowing everything was a critical shortage of gasoline. Eisenhower's armies, needing one million gallons per day, were receiving only a fraction of that amount.
The effect was critical. In Belgium, as the enemy fled before it, an entire corps of the U.S. First Army was halted for four days, its tanks dry. Patton's U.S. Third Army, more than a hundred miles ahead of everyone else, and meeting little opposition, was forced to halt for five days on the Meuse, because armored columns were out of gas. Patton was furious when he discovered that of the 400,000 gallons of gasoline ordered, he had received only 32,000 due to priority cutbacks. He promptly ordered his leading corps commander: "Get off your fanny as fast as you can and move on until your engines run dry, then get out and walk, goddammit!" To his headquarters staff, Patton raged that he was "up against two enemies -- the Germans and our own high command. I can take care of the Germans, but I'm not sure I can win against Montgomery and Eisenhower." He tried. Convinced that he could bludgeon his way into Germany in a matter of days, Patton furiously appealed to Bradley and Eisenhower. "My men can eat their belts," he stormed, "but my tanks have gotta have gas."
The crushing defeat of the Germans in Normandy and the systematic and speedy annihilation of their forces following the breakout had caused the logistic crisis. On the assumption that the enemy would hold and fight on the various historic river lines, invasion planners had anticipated a more conservative advance. A pause for regrouping and massing of supplies, it was assumed, would take place after the Normandy beachhead had been secured and Channel ports captured. The lodgment area was expected to lie west of the river Seine which, according to the projected timetable, would not be reached until September 4 (D plus 90 days). The sudden disintegration of the enemy's forces and their headlong flight eastward had made the Allied timetable meaningless. Who could have foreseen that by September 4 Allied tanks would be two hundred miles east of the Seine and in Antwerp? Eisenhower's staff had estimated that it would take approximately eleven months to reach the German frontier at Aachen. Now, as tank columns approached the Reich, the Allies were almost seven months ahead of their advance schedule. That the supply and transportation system, designed for a much slower rate of progress, had stood up to the strain of the hectic pursuit at all was close to miraculous.
Yet, in spite of the critical logistic situation, no one was ready to admit that the armies must soon halt or that the pursuit was over. "Every commander from division upwards," Eisenhower later wrote, was "obsessed with the idea that with only a few more tons of supply, he could rush right on and win the war....Each commander, therefore, begged and demanded priority over all others, and it was quite undeniable that in front of each were opportunities for quick exploitation that made the demands completely logical." Still, the optimism had infected even the Supreme Commander. It was obvious that he believed the impetus of the advance could be maintained long enough for the Allied armies to overrun the Siegfried Line before the Germans had a chance to defend it, for he saw signs of "collapse" on the "entire front." On September 4 he directed that Bradley's "12th Army Group will capture the Saar and the Frankfurt area." Montgomery's "21st Army Group will capture the Ruhr and Antwerp."
Even Patton seemed appeased by the announcement. Now he was sure that, given adequate supplies, his powerful U.S. Third Army could, by itself, reach the industrial Saar and then dash on all the way to the Rhine. And in the unparalleled atmosphere of victory that prevailed, Montgomery, with his coded message of September 4, once again doggedly pressed his case. This time he went far beyond his proposal of August 17 and his conversation with Eisenhower on August 23. Convinced that the Germans were broken, the commander of the British 21st Army Group believed that he could not only reach the Ruhr but race all the way to Berlin itself.
In his nine-paragraph message to Eisenhower, Montgomery spelled out again the reasons that convinced him that the moment had come for a "really powerful and full-blooded thrust." There were two strategic opportunities open to the Allies, "one via the Ruhr and the other via Metz and the Saar." But, he argued, because "we have not enough resources, two such drives could not be maintained." There was a chance for only one -- his. That thrust, the northern one "via the Ruhr," was, in Montgomery's opinion, "likely to give the best and quickest results." To guarantee its success, Monty's single thrust would need "all the maintenance resources...without qualification." He was now clearly impatient of any other considerations. He was going on record both as to the worth of his own plan and his skill and belief in himself as the one man to carry it off. Other operations would have to get along with whatever logistic support remained. There could be no compromise, he warned the Supreme Commander. He dismissed the possibility of two drives, because "it would split our maintenance resources so that neither thrust is full-blooded" and as a result "prolong the war." As Montgomery saw the problem it was "very simple and clear-cut." But time was of "such vital importance...that a decision is required at once."
Acrid and autocratic, the most popular British commander since Wellington was obsessed by his own beliefs. Considering the acute logistic situation, he reasoned that his single-thrust theory was now more valid than it had been two weeks before. In his intractable way -- and indifferent as to how the tone of his message might be received -- Montgomery was not merely suggesting a course of action for the Supreme Commander; the Field Marshal was dictating one. Eisenhower must halt all other armies in their tracks -- in particular Patton's -- so that all resources could be put behind his single drive. And his Signal No. M-160 closed with a typical example of Montgomery's arrogance. "If you are coming this way perhaps you would look in and discuss it," he proposed. "If so, delighted to see you lunch tomorrow. Do not feel I can leave this battle just at present." That his closing words bordered on the insolent seemed not to occur to Montgomery in his anxiety that this last chance to finish off the Germans must not be lost. Limpetlike, he clung to his single-thrust plan. For now he was sure that even Eisenhower must realize that the time had come to strike the final blow.
In the bedroom of his villa at Granville on the western side of the Cherbourg peninsula, the Supreme Commander read Montgomery's Signal No. M-160 with angry disbelief. The fifty-five-year-old Eisenhower thought Montgomery's proposal "unrealistic" and "fantastic." Three times Montgomery had nagged him to exasperation about single-thrust schemes. Eisenhower thought he had settled the strategy conflict once and for all on August 23. Yet, now Montgomery was not only advocating his theory once again but was proposing to rush all the way to Berlin. Usually calm and congenial, Eisenhower now lost his temper. "There isn't a single soul who believes this can be done, except Montgomery," he exploded to members of his staff. At this moment, to Eisenhower's mind, the most urgent matter was the opening of the Channel ports, especially Antwerp. Why could Montgomery not understand that? The Supreme Commander was only too well aware of the glittering opportunities that existed. But, as he told the Deputy Supreme Commander, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Tedder, and SHAEF's assistant chief of staff Lieutenant General Frederick Morgan, for Montgomery "to talk of marching to Berlin with an army which is still drawing the great bulk of its supplies over the beaches is fantastic."
The Field Marshal's message could hardly have come at a worse time. The Supreme Commander was propped up in bed, his right knee in a cast, as a consequence of an injury of which Montgomery, at the moment, was unaware. Eisenhower had more cause than this, however, to be edgy. Leaving the main body of SHAEF in London, he had come to the Continent to take personal control on September 1, four days earlier. His small advance command headquarters at Jullouville near Granville was totally inadequate. Because of the phenomenal movement of his armies, Eisenhower was stranded more than four hundred miles from the front -- and there were, as yet, no telephone or teletype facilities. Except for radio and a rudimentary courier system, he was unable to communicate immediately with his commanders in the field. The physical injury which added to these tactical discomforts had occurred after one of his routine flying visits to his principal commanders. On September 2, returning from a conference at Chartres with senior American generals, Eisenhower's plane, because of high winds and bad visibility, had been unable to land at the headquarters' airfield. Instead, it had put down -- safely -- on the beach near his villa. But then, trying to help the pilot pull the plane away from the water's edge, Eisenhower had badly wrenched his right knee. Thus, at this vital juncture in the war, as the Supreme Commander tried to take control of the land battle and with events happening so fast that immediate decisions were necessary, Eisenhower was physically immobilized.
Although Montgomery -- or, for that matter, Bradley and Patton -- might feel that Eisenhower "was out of touch with the land battle," only distance made that argument valid. His excellent, integrated Anglo-American staff was much more cognizant of the day-to-day situation in the field than his generals realized. And while he expected combat commanders to display initiative and boldness, only the Supreme Commander and his staff could view the over-all situation and make decisions accordingly. But it was true that, in this transitional period, while Eisenhower was assuming personal control, there appeared to be a lack of clear-cut direction, due in part to the complexity of the Supreme Commander's role. Coalition command was far from easy. Yet, Eisenhower, maintaining a delicate balance, and following to the letter the plans of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, made the system work. In the interest of Allied amity, he might modify strategy, but Eisenhower had no intention of throwing caution to the winds and allowing Montgomery, as the Supreme Commander later put it, to make a "single, knifelike drive toward Berlin."
He had been more than tolerant with Montgomery, granting him concession after concession, often incurring the anger of his own American generals. Yet, it seemed that Monty "always wanted everything and he never did anything fast in his life." Eisenhower said he understood Montgomery's peculiarities better than the Britisher realized. "Look, people have told me about his boyhood," Eisenhower recalled, "and when you have a contest between Eton and Harrow on one side and some of the lesser schools on the other, some of these juniors coming into the army felt sort of inferior. The man, all his life, has been trying to prove that he was somebody." Clearly, however, the Field Marshal's views reflected his British superiors' beliefs on how the Allies should proceed.
Understandable as this might be, Montgomery's arrogance in presenting such views invariably set American commanders' teeth on edge. As Supreme Commander, armed by the Combined Chiefs of Staff with sweeping powers, Eisenhower had one prime concern: to hold the Allies together and win the war swiftly. Although some of SHAEF's staff, including many Britishers, considered Montgomery insufferable and said so, Eisenhower never commented on him except in private to his chief of staff, Bedell Smith. But, in fact, the Supreme Commander's exasperation with Montgomery went far deeper than anyone knew. Eisenhower felt that the Field Marshal was "a psychopath...such an egocentric" that everything he had ever done "was perfect...he never made a mistake in his life." Eisenhower was not going to let him make one now. "Robbing the American Peter who is fed from Cherbourg," he told Tedder, "will certainly not get the British Paul to Berlin."
Nevertheless, Eisenhower was deeply disturbed at the widening rift between him and Britain's favorite general. Within the next few days, the Supreme Commander decided, he would meet with Montgomery in an effort to clarify what he considered to be a misunderstanding. Once more he would attempt to spell out his strategy and hope for agreement, however grudgingly it might come. In the interim before the meeting, he made one thing clear. He firmly rejected Montgomery's single-thrust plan and his bid for Berlin. On the evening of September 5, in a coded message to the Field Marshal, he said, "While agreeing with your conception of a powerful and full-blooded thrust toward Berlin, I do not agree that it should be initiated at this moment to the exclusion of all other maneuvers." As the Supreme Commander saw it, "the bulk of the German army in the west has now been destroyed," and that success should be exploited "by promptly breaching the Siegfried Line, crossing the Rhine on a wide front and seizing the Saar and the Ruhr. This I intend to do with all possible speed." These moves, Eisenhower believed, would place a "strangle hold on Germany's main industrial areas and largely destroy her capacity to wage war...." Opening the ports of Le Havre and Antwerp was essential, Eisenhower went on, before any "powerful thrust" into Germany could be launched. But, at the moment, Eisenhower emphasized, "no relocation of our present resources would be adequate to sustain a thrust to Berlin...."
Eisenhower's decision took thirty-six hours to reach Montgomery, and then only the last half of the message arrived. The concluding two paragraphs were received by Montgomery at 9 A.M. on the morning of September 7. The opening section did not arrive until September 9, another forty-eight hours later. As Montgomery saw it, Eisenhower's communication was one more confirmation that the Supreme Commander was "too far removed from the battle."
From the first fragment of the message that Montgomery received, it was abundantly clear that Eisenhower had rejected his plan, for it contained the sentence, "No relocation of our present resources would be adequate to sustain a thrust to Berlin." Montgomery immediately sent off a message disagreeing heatedly.
With the slackening of the pursuit, Montgomery's worst fears were being realized. German opposition was stiffening. In his message, focusing in particular on the shortage of supplies, Montgomery claimed that he was getting only half his requirements, and "I cannot go on for long like this." He refused to be diverted from his plan to drive to Berlin. The obvious necessity of immediately opening up the vital port of Antwerp was not even mentioned in his dispatch, yet he stressed that "as soon as I have a Pas de Calais port working, I would then require about 2,500 additional three-ton lorries, plus an assured airlift averaging about 1,000 tons a day to enable me to get to the Ruhr and finally Berlin." Because it was all "very difficult to explain," the Field Marshal "wondered if it was possible" for Eisenhower to come and see him. Unshaken in his conviction that the Supreme Commander's decision was a grave error and confident that his own plan would work, Montgomery refused to accept Eisenhower's rejection as final. Yet he had no intention of flying to Jullouville in an attempt to change Eisenhower's mind. Such diplomacy was not part of his makeup, although he was fully aware that the only hope of selling his proposal was via a face-to-face meeting with the Supreme Commander. Outraged and seething, Montgomery awaited a reply from Eisenhower. The British Field Marshal was in near-seclusion, impatient and irritable, at the moment when Prince Bernhard arrived at the headquarters to pay his respects.
Bernhard had arrived in France on the evening of the sixth. With a small staff, three jeeps, his Sealyham terrier Martin and a bulging briefcase containing Dutch underground reports, he and his party flew to the Continent, guarded by two fighter planes, in three Dakotas with Bernhard at the controls of one. From the airfield at Amiens they drove to Douai, fifty miles north, and early on the seventh set out for Belgium and Brussels. At the Laeken headquarters the Prince was met by General Horrocks, introduced to Montgomery's staff and ushered into the presence of the Field Marshal. "He was in a bad humor and obviously not happy to see me," Bernhard recalled. "He had a lot on his mind, and the presence of royalty in his area was understandably a responsibility that he could easily do without."
The Field Marshal's renown as the greatest British soldier of the war had made him, in Bernhard's words, "the idol of millions of Britishers." And the thirty-three-year-old Prince was in awe of Montgomery. Unlike Eisenhower's relaxed, almost casual manner, Montgomery's demeanor made it difficult for Bernhard to converse easily with him. Sharp and blunt from the outset, Montgomery made it clear that Bernhard's presence in his area "worried" him. With justification untempered by tact or explanation, Montgomery told the Prince that it would be unwise for Bernhard to visit the headquarters of the Dutch unit -- the Princess Irene Brigade -- attached to the British Second Army, quartered in the area around Diest, barely ten miles from the front line. Bernhard, who, as Commander in Chief of the Netherlands Forces, had every intention of visiting Diest, for the moment did not respond. Instead, he began to discuss the Dutch resistance reports. Montgomery overrode him. Returning to the matter, he told the Prince, "You must not live in Diest. I cannot allow it." Irked, Bernhard felt compelled to point out that he was "serving directly under Eisenhower and did not come under the Field Marshal's command." Thus, from the start, as Bernhard remembers the meeting, "rightly or wrongly, we got off on the wrong foot." (Later, in fact, Eisenhower backed Montgomery regarding Diest, but he did say that Bernhard could stay in Brussels "close to 21st Army Group headquarters, where your presence may be needed.")
Bernhard went on to review the situation in Holland as reflected in the underground reports. Montgomery was told of the retreat and disorganization of the Germans, which had been going on since September 2, and of the makeup of the resistance groups. To the best of his knowledge, Bernhard said, the reports were accurate. Montgomery, according to the Prince, retorted, "I don't think your resistance people can be of much use to us. Therefore, I believe all this is quite unnecessary." Startled by the Field Marshal's bluntness, Bernhard "began to realize that Montgomery apparently did not believe any of the messages coming from my agents in Holland. In a way, I could hardly blame him. I gathered he was a bit fed up with misleading information that he had received from the French and Belgian resistance during his advance. But, in this instance, I knew the Dutch groups involved, the people who were running them and I knew the information was, indeed, correct." He persisted. Showing the Field Marshal the message file and quoting from report after report, Bernhard posed a question: "In view of this, why can't you attack right away?"
"We can't depend on these reports," Montgomery told him. "Just because the Dutch resistance claim the Germans have been retreating from September 2 doesn't necessarily mean they are still retreating." Bernhard had to admit the retreat "was slowing down," and there were "signs of reorganization." Still, in his opinion, there was valid reason for an immediate attack.
Montgomery remained adamant. "Anyway," he said, "much as I would like to attack and liberate Holland, I can't do it because of supplies. We are short of ammunition. We are short of petrol for the tanks and if we did attack, in all probability they would become stranded." Bernhard was astounded. The information he received in England from both SHAEF and his own advisers had convinced him that the liberation of Holland would be accomplished in a matter of days. "Naturally I automatically assumed that Montgomery, commander on the spot, knew the situation better than anyone else," Bernhard later said. "Yet we had absolutely every detail on the Germans -- troop strength, the number of tanks and armored vehicles, the position of antiaircraft guns -- and I knew, apart from immediate front-line opposition, that there was little strength behind it. I was sick at heart, because I knew that German strength would grow with each passing day. I was unable to persuade Montgomery. In fact, nothing I said seemed to matter."
Then Montgomery made an extraordinary disclosure. "I am just as eager to liberate the Netherlands as you are," he said, "but we intend to do it in another, even better way." He paused, thought a moment and then, almost reluctantly, said, "I am planning an airborne operation ahead of my troops." Bernhard was startled. Instantly a number of questions came to his mind. In what area were the drops planned? When would the operation take place? How was it being developed? Yet he refrained from asking. Montgomery's manner indicated he would say no more. The operation was obviously still in the planning stage and the Prince's impression was that only the Field Marshal and a few of his staff officers knew of the plan. Although he was given no more details, Bernhard was now hopeful that the liberation of Holland, despite Montgomery's earlier talk of lack of supplies, was imminent. He must be patient and wait. The Field Marshal's reputation was awesome. Bernhard believed in it and in the man himself. The Prince felt a renewal of hope, for "anything Montgomery did, he would do well."
Eisenhower, acceding to Montgomery's request, set Sunday, September 10, as the date for a meeting. He was not particularly looking forward to his meeting with Montgomery and the usual temperamental arguments he had come to expect from the Field Marshal. He was, however, interested in learning what progress had been made in one aspect of the Montgomery operation. Although the Supreme Commander must approve all airborne plans, he had given Montgomery tactical use of the First Allied Airborne Army and permission to work out a possible plan involving that force. He knew that Montgomery, at least since the fourth, had been quietly exploring the possibility of an airborne operation to seize a bridgehead across the Rhine.
Ever since the formation of the First Allied Airborne Army under its American commander, Lieutenant General Lewis Hyde Brereton, six weeks earlier, Eisenhower had been searching for both a target and a suitable opportunity to employ the force. To that end he had been pressing Brereton and the various army commanders to develop bold and imaginative airborne plans calling for large-scale mass attacks deep behind the enemy's lines. Various missions had been proposed and accepted, but all had been canceled. In nearly every case the speeding land armies had already arrived at the objectives planned for the paratroops.
Montgomery's original proposal had called for units of Brereton's airborne force to grab a crossing west of the town of Wesel, just over the Dutch-German border. However, heavy antiaircraft defenses in that area had forced the Field Marshal to make a change. The site he then chose was farther west in Holland: the Lower Rhine bridge at Arnhem -- at this juncture more than seventy-five miles behind the German front lines.
By September 7, Operation Comet, as the plan was called, was in readiness; then bad weather, coupled with Montgomery's concern about the ever-increasing German opposition his troops were encountering, forced a postponement. What might have succeeded on the sixth or seventh seemed risky by the tenth. Eisenhower too was concerned; for one thing he felt that the launching of an airborne attack at this juncture would mean a delay in opening the port of Antwerp. Yet the Supreme Commander remained fascinated by the possibilities of an airborne attack.
The abortive operations, some of them canceled almost at the last minute, had created a major problem for Eisenhower. Each time a mission reached the jump-off stage, troop-carrier planes, hauling gasoline to the front, had to be grounded and made ready. This loss of precious air-supply tonnage brought cries of protest from Bradley and Patton. At this moment of relentless pursuit, the airlift of gasoline, they declared, was far mote vital than airborne missions. Eisenhower, anxious to use the paratroopers and urged by Washington to do so -- both General Marshall and General Henry H. Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army air forces, wanted to see what Brereton's new Allied Airborne Army could accomplish -- was not prepared to ground his highly trained airborne divisions. On the contrary, he was insisting that they be used at the earliest opportunity. In fact, it might be a way to catapult his troops across the Rhine at the very moment when the pursuit was slowing down. But on this morning of September 10, as he flew to Brussels, all other considerations were secondary in his mind to the opening of the vital port of Antwerp.
Not so Montgomery. Anxious and determined, he was waiting at Brussels airport as Eisenhower's plane touched down. With characteristic preciseness, he had honed and refined his arguments preparatory to the meeting. He had talked with General Miles C. Dempsey of the British Second Army, and Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, commander of the British I Airborne Corps, who was also deputy chief of the First Allied Airborne Army. Browning was waiting in the wings for the outcome of the conference. Dempsey, concerned at the ever-stiffening enemy resistance before him and aware from the intelligence reports that new units were moving in, asked Montgomery to abandon the plan for an airborne attack on the bridge at Arnhem. Instead, he suggested concentrating on seizing the Rhine crossing at Wesel. Even in conjunction with an airborne mission, Dempsey contended, the British Second Army probably was not strong enough to drive due north to Arnhem by itself. It would be better, he believed, to advance in conjunction with the U.S. First Army northeast toward Wesel.
A drive into Holland was, in any case, now imperative. The British War Office had informed Montgomery that V-2's -- the first German rockets -- had landed in London on September 8. Their launch sites were believed to be somewhere in western Holland. Whether before or after receiving this information, Montgomery altered his plans. Operation Comet, as originally devised, called for only a division and a half -- the British 1st Airborne and the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade; that force was too weak to be effective, he believed. As a result, he canceled Comet. In its place, Montgomery came up with an even more ambitious airborne proposal. As yet, only a few of the Field Marshal's upper-echelon officers knew about it and, apprehensive of General Bradley's influence with Eisenhower, they had taken great pains to see that no hint of the plan reached American liaison officers at the British headquarters. Like Eisenhower, Lieutenant General Browning and the headquarters of the First Allied Airborne Army in England were, at this moment, unaware of Montgomery's new airborne scheme.
Because of his injured knee, Eisenhower was unable to leave his plane, and the conference was held on board. Montgomery, as he had done on August 23, determined who should be present at the meeting. The Supreme Commander had brought his deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, and an assistant chief of staff, Lieutenant General Sir Humphrey Gale, in charge of administration. Curtly, Montgomery asked that Eisenhower exclude Gale from the conference while insisting that his own administrative and supply chief, Lieutenant General Miles Graham, remain. Another, less acquiescent superior might well have taken issue with Montgomery's attitude. Eisenhower patiently granted the Field Marshal's demand. General Gale left.
Almost immediately Montgomery denounced the Supreme Commander's broad-front policy. Constantly referring to a sheaf of Eisenhower's communications that had arrived during the previous week, he called attention to the Supreme Commander's inconsistencies in not clearly defining what was meant by "priority." He argued that his 21st Army Group was not getting the "priority" in supplies promised by Eisenhower; that Patton's drive to the Saar was being allowed to proceed at the expense of Montgomery's forces. Calmly Eisenhower answered that he had never meant to give Montgomery "absolute priority" to the exclusion of everyone else. Eisenhower's strategy, Montgomery reiterated, was wrong and would have "dire consequences." So long as these two "jerky and disjointed thrusts were continued," with supplies split between himself and Patton, "neither could succeed." It was essential, Montgomery said, that Eisenhower decide between him and Patton. So fierce and unrestrained was Montgomery's language that Eisenhower suddenly reached out, patted Montgomery's knee and told him, "Steady, Monty! You can't speak to me like that. I'm your boss." Montgomery's anger vanished. "I'm sorry, Ike," he said quietly.
The uncharacteristic but seemingly genuine apology was not the end of the matter. Doggedly, though with less acrimony, Montgomery continued to argue for his "single thrust." Eisenhower listened intently and with sympathy to the arguments, but his own view remained unchanged. His broad-front advance would continue. He told Montgomery clearly why. As Eisenhower was later to recall, he said, "What you're proposing is this -- if I give you all of the supplies you want, you could go straight to Berlin -- right straight to Berlin? Monty, you're nuts. You can't do it. What the hell! If you try a long column like that in a single thrust you'd have to throw off division after division to protect your flanks from attack. Now suppose you did get a bridge across the Rhine. You couldn't depend for long on that one bridge to supply your drive. Monty, you can't do it."
Montgomery, according to Eisenhower, replied, "I'll supply them all right, just give me what I need and I'll reach Berlin and end the war."
Eisenhower's rejection was firm. Antwerp, he stressed, must be opened before any major drive into Germany could even be contemplated. Montgomery then played his trump card. The most recent development -- the rocket attack on London from sites in the Netherlands -- necessitated an immediate advance into Holland. He knew exactly how such a drive should begin. To strike into Germany, Montgomery proposed to use almost the entire First Allied Airborne Army in a stunning mass attack.
His plan was an expanded, grandiose version of Operation Comet. Montgomery now wanted to use three and a half divisions -- the U.S. 82nd and 101st, the British 1st Airborne and the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade. The airborne forces were to seize a succession of river crossings in Holland ahead of his troops, with the major objective being the Lower Rhine bridge at Arnhem. Anticipating that the Germans would expect him to take the shortest route and drive northeast for the Rhine and the Ruhr, Montgomery had deliberately chosen a northern "back door" route to the Reich. The surprise airborne attack would open a corridor for the tanks of his British Second Army, which would race across the captured bridges to Arnhem, over the Rhine and beyond. Once all this was accomplished, Montgomery could wheel east, outflank the Siegfried Line, and dash into the Ruhr.
Eisenhower was intrigued and impressed. It was a bold, brilliantly imaginative plan, exactly the kind of mass attack he had been seeking for his long-idle airborne divisions. But now the Supreme Commander was caught between the hammer and the anvil: if he agreed to the attack, the opening of Antwerp would temporarily have to be delayed and supplies diverted from Patton. Yet, Montgomery's proposal could revitalize the dying advance and perhaps propel the pursuit across the Rhine and into the Ruhr. Eisenhower, fascinated by the audaciousness of the plan, not only gave his approval, but insisted that the operation take place at the earliest possible moment.
Yet the Supreme Commander stressed that the attack was a "limited one." And he emphasized to Montgomery that he considered the combined airborne-ground operation "merely an extension of the northern advance to the Rhine and the Ruhr." As Eisenhower remembered the conversation, he said to Montgomery, "I'll tell you what I'll do, Monty. I'll give you whatever you ask to get you over the Rhine because I want a bridgehead...but let's get over the Rhine first before we discuss anything else." Montgomery continued to argue, but Eisenhower would not budge. Frustrated, the Field Marshal had to accept what he called a "half measure," and on this note the conference ended.
After Eisenhower's departure, Montgomery outlined the proposed operation on a map for Lieutenant General Browning. The elegant Browning, one of Britain's pioneer airborne advocates, saw that the paratroopers and glider-borne forces were being called upon to secure a series of crossings -- five of them major bridges including the wide rivers of the Maas, the Waal and the Lower Rhine -- over a stretch approximately sixty-four miles long between the Dutch border and Arnhem. Additionally, they were charged with holding open the corridor -- in most places a single highway running north -- over which British armor would drive. All of the bridges had to be seized intact if the armored dash was to succeed. The dangers were obvious, but this was precisely the kind of surprise assault for which the airborne forces had been trained. Still, Browning was uneasy. Pointing to the most northern bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, he asked, "How long will it take the armor to reach us?" Montgomery replied briskly, "Two days." Still intent on the map, Browning said, "We can hold it for four." Then he added, "But sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far."
The embryo concept (which thereafter would bear the code name "Operation Market-Garden" -- "Market" covering the airborne drop and "Garden" for the armored drive) was to be developed with the utmost speed, Montgomery ordered. He insisted that the attack had to be launched in a few days. Otherwise, he told Browning, it would be too late. Montgomery asked: "How soon can you get ready?" Browning, at this moment, could only hazard a guess. "The earliest scheduling of the operation would be the fifteenth or sixteenth," he told the Field Marshal.
Carrying Montgomery's skeleton plan and weighed with the urgency of preparing for such a massive mission in only a few days, Browning flew back to England immediately. On landing at his Moor Park Golf Course base near Rickmansworth on the outskirts of London, he telephoned the First Allied Airborne headquarters, twenty miles away, and notified the commander, Lieutenant General Brereton, and his chief of staff, Brigadier General Floyd L. Parks. The time was 2:30 P.M., and Parks noted that Browning's message contained "the first mention of 'Market' at this headquarters."
The airborne commanders were not the only officers caught unaware. Montgomery's daring plan so impressed and surprised the Field Marshal's greatest critic, General Omar N. Bradley, that he later recalled, "Had the pious, teetotalling Montgomery wobbled into SHAEF with a hangover, I could not have been more astonished....Although I never reconciled myself to the venture, I nevertheless freely concede that it was one of the most imaginative of the war."
It was, but Montgomery remained unhappy. He now prodded the Supreme Commander even further, reverting to the cautious, perfectionist thinking that was characteristic of his military career. Unless the 21st Army Group received additional supplies and transport for the "selected thrust," Montgomery warned Eisenhower, Market-Garden could not be launched before September 23 at the earliest, and might even be delayed until September 26. Browning had estimated that Market could be ready by the fifteenth or sixteenth, but Montgomery was concerned about Garden, the land operation. Once again he was demanding what he had always wanted: absolute priority, which to his mind would guarantee success. Eisenhower noted in his desk diary for September 12: "Monty's suggestion is simple -- 'give him everything.'" Fearing that any delay might jeopardize Market-Garden, Eisenhower complied. He promptly sent his chief of staff, General Bedell Smith, to see Montgomery; Smith assured the Field Marshal of a thousand tons of supplies per day plus transport. Additionally, Montgomery was promised that Patton's drive to the Saar would be checked. Elated at the "electric" response -- as the Field Marshal called it -- Montgomery believed he had finally won the Supreme Commander over to his point of view.
Although opposition before Montgomery's troops had stiffened, he believed that the Germans in Holland, behind the hard crust of their front lines, had little strength. Allied intelligence con, firmed his estimate. Eisenhower's headquarters reported "few infantry reserves" in the Netherlands, and even these were considered to be "troops of low category." The enemy, it was thought, was still "disorganized after his long and hasty retreat...and though there might be numerous small bodies of Germans in the area," they were hardly capable of any great organized resistance. Montgomery now believed he could quickly crack the German defenses. Then, once he was over the Rhine and headed for the Ruhr, he did not see how Eisenhower could halt his drive. The Supreme Commander would have little choice, he reasoned, but to let him continue toward Berlin -- thus ending the war, as Montgomery put it, "reasonably quickly." Confidently, Montgomery set Sunday, September 17, as D Day for Operation Market-Garden. The brilliant scheme he had devised was to become the greatest airborne operation of the entire war.
Not everyone shared Montgomery's certainty about Market-Garden. At least one of his senior officers had reason to be worried. General Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army, unlike the Field Marshal, did not dispute the authenticity of Dutch resistance reports. From these, Dempsey's intelligence staff had put together a picture indicating rapidly increasing German strength between Eindhoven and Arnhem, in the very area of the planned airborne drop. There was even a Dutch report that "battered panzer formations have been sent to Holland to refit," and these too were said to be in the Market-Garden area. Dempsey sent along this news to Browning's British I Airborne Corps, but the information lacked any back-up endorsement by Montgomery or his staff. The ominous note was not even included in intelligence summaries. In fact, in the mood of optimism prevailing at 21st Army Group headquarters, the report was completely discounted.
Field Marshal Gelid von Rundstedt's high-risk gamble to rescue the remains of General Von Zangen's encircled Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais was paying off. Under cover of darkness, ever since September 6, a hastily assembled fleet consisting of two ancient Dutch freighters, several Rhine barges and some small boats and rafts had been plying back and forth across the three-mile mouth of the Schelde estuary ferrying men, artillery, vehicles and even horses.
Although powerful coastal guns on Walcheren Island protected against attack from the sea, the Germans were surprised that Allied naval forces made no effort to interfere. Major General Walter Poppe expected the convoy carrying his splintered 59th Infantry Division to be "blown out of the water." To him the one-hour trip between Breskens and Flushing "in completely darkened ships, exposed and defenseless, was a most unpleasant experience." The Allies, the Germans suspected, completely underestimated the size of the evacuation. Certainly they knew about it. Because both Von Rundstedt and Army Group B's commander, Field Marshal Walter Model, desperately in need of reinforcements, were demanding speed, some daylight trips had been made. Immediately, fighters pounced on the small convoys. Darkness, however unpleasant, was much safer.
The most hazardous part of the journey was on the Schelde's northern bank. There, under the constant threat of Allied air attack, Von Zangen's forces had to follow a single main road, running east from Walcheren Island, across the Beveland peninsula and into Holland. Part of the escape route, at the narrow neck joining the mainland, was only a few miles from Antwerp and British lines on the Albert Canal. Inexplicably the British even now made no serious effort to attack north, spring the trap, and cut the base of the isthmus. The escape route remained open. Although hammered by incessant Allied air attacks Von Zangen's Fifteenth Army would eventually reach Holland -- at a most crucial moment for Montgomery's Market-Garden operation.
While the Fifteenth Army had been extricated more by calculated design than by luck, now the opposite occurred: fate, the unexpected and unpredictable, took a hand. Some eighty miles away the battered armored units of Lieutenant General Wilhelm Bittrich's elite, veteran II SS Panzer Corps reached bivouac areas in the vicinity of Arnhem. As directed by Field Marshal Model on September 4, Bittrich had slowly disengaged the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions for "refitting and rehabilitation." Model had chosen the Arnhem area. The two reduced, but still tough, divisions were fanned out to the north, east and south of the town. Bittrich assigned the 9th SS to a huge rectangular sector north and northeast of Arnhem, where most of the division's men and vehicles were on high ground and conveniently hidden in a densely wooded national park. The 10th was encamped in a semicircle to the northeast, east and southeast. Thus, camouflaged and hidden in nearby woods, villages and towns -- Beekbergen, Apeldoorn, Zutphen, Ruurlo and Doetinchem -- both divisions were within striking distance of Arnhem; some units were within a mile or two of the suburbs. As Bittrich was later to recall, "there was no particular significance in Model choosing the Arnhem vicinity -- except that it was a peaceful sector where nothing was happening."
The possibility that this remote backwater might have any strategic value to the Allies was obviously discounted. On the morning of September 11, a small group of Model's staff officers was dispatched in search of a new site for Army Group B's head-quarters -- in Arnhem.
One of Model's aides, his general headquarters administration and transportation officer, thirty-five-year-old Lieutenant Gustav Sedelhauser, later remembered that "we visited the 9th and 10th SS division headquarters at Beekbergen and Ruurlo and General Bittrich's command post at Doetinchem. Then we inspected Arnhem itself. It had everything we wanted: a fine road net and excellent accommodations. But it was not until we drove west to the outlying district of Oosterbeek that we found what we were looking for." In the wealthy, residential village just two and a half miles from the center of Arnhem was a group of hotels, among them the gracious, white Hartenstein, with its broad expanse of crescent-shaped lawn, stretching back into parklike surroundings where deer roamed undisturbed, and the smaller, two-story, tree-shaded Tafelberg with its glassed-in veranda and paneled rooms. Impressed by the facilities and, as Sedelhauser recalled, "especially the accommodations," the group promptly recommended Oosterbeek to the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hans Krebs, as "perfect for Army Group B's headquarters." Model approved the decision. Part of the staff, he decided, would live at the Hartenstein, while he would occupy the more secluded, less ostentatious Tafelberg. Lieutenant Sedelhauser was delighted. Since his tenure the headquarters had never remained anywhere for more than a few days, and now Sedelhauser "was looking forward to some peace and a chance to get my laundry done." By September 15, Model directed, Army Group B's headquarters was to be fully operational in Oosterbeek -- approximately three miles from the broad expanse of heaths and pastureland where the British 1st Airborne Division was due to land on September 17.
Copyright © 1974 by Cornelius Ryan
Table of Contents
Operation Market-Garden, September 17-24, 1944
A Note on Casualties
The Soldiers and Civilians of A Bridge Too Far What They Do Today