The Devil’s Bridge: the German victory at Arnhem, 1944

Few events in military history have been picked over as much as Operation Market Garden, now notorious only because it resulted in a German victory when it was believed that, halfway through 1944, German victories were a thing of the past.

With The Devil’s Bridge, Anthony Tucker-Jones has given us a new history of the operation, this time approaching the events from the perspective of the victorious Nazis. For the most part, this shift in emphasis is subtle, with everyone on the Allied side below Montgomery and Eisenhower referred to as either ‘the British’ or ‘the Americans’, while ‘the Germans’ are broken down into individual actors, each with their own tactics and flaws.

As is well known, Market Garden was intended to create a route from the Belgian border through the Netherlands to the crossing of the lower Rhine at Arnhem. Airborne divisions would be dropped at strategic positions and would then link up with advancing ground troops, tarmacking a smooth path into the enemy’s industrial heartland.

The sheer ambition of this, Tucker-Jones suggests, stemmed at least partially from anxiety on the part of the British that they were becoming increasingly irrelevant in comparison to their Allied partners, and needed to do something bold to keep up with American fighting power.

It may also have been because it was felt that the Allied Airborne Army, which was expensive to maintain, needed to justify its existence. By boosting flagging Allied morale following D-Day, Operation Market Garden would in theory hit several birds with one stone.

Loading the operation with such high expectations was itself a mistake, alongside the more tactical errors, such as the decision to rely on a single road for the entire campaign. It was inevitable that the enemy would seek to block it at every stage.

Above all, failure arose from a belief that the Germans were a spent force and that the well-armed 1st Airborne Division, dropped near Arnhem Bridge, would be safe before help arrived. In fact, the enemy did everything it could to deny that help a clear path.

This is what makes Tucker-Jones’ approach so fascinating. From the German point of view, the entire operation was a story of desperate struggle to patch together enough able men to throw at the enemy. ‘Deserters, stragglers, teenagers, trainees, old men, and Luftwaffe staff’ were all enlisted, with little hope of success, and yet ‘somehow stopped three airborne, three infantry, and one armoured division’.

Walter Model was the master at stitching new armies together. Following his success in stabilising the Eastern Front in the summer, Hitler hoped his loyal field marshal could work the same magic as Army Group B Commander in the West.

For most of the nine-day campaign, it seemed as if Model would not succeed. The Germans struggled to form new divisions in time, while commanders were left gobsmacked by the state of their men as they attempted to do so.

Troublesome too was Model’s seemingly deluded refusal to blow up the various strategic bridges on the road to Arnhem, on the grounds that he believed they would be necessary for a later German counter-attack. ‘With what?’, cried exasperated deputies on several occasions.

One such subordinate was Heinz Harmel, commander of the 10th SS Panzer Division, who decided to ignore this decision and attempted to detonate the bridge at Nijmegen when he saw British tanks rolling across it. But as with their men, German materials were scarce and unreliable: the explosives were duds.

Fresh approach

Eventually, however, the flaws that had been built into Market Garden since its inception (it was devised in just over a week) made themselves apparent. The Allied momentum began to stutter, particularly after they captured Nijmegen, with the Germans fighting tenaciously at Elst and Driel to the north of the city.

By skilfully utilising the network of ditches, dykes, and high road embankments between Nijmegen and Arnhem, terrain described by Harmel as ‘the worst possible for tanks – on both sides’, the Allied advance was slowed, leaving the 1st Airborne Division stranded and endangered at Arnhem Bridge.

Paratroopers land in the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden, 1944. The campaign’s built-in flaws were exposed by a hastily-prepared German response. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The remaining airborne troops were then pushed into the neighbouring ‘Witches Cauldron’ at Oosterbeek, where they were squeezed mercilessly, the river providing the only escape route. Watching the gruesome spectacle was a young Dirk Bogarde, star of the 1977 film of the debacle, who recalled how ‘uselessly one wept, or dragged muddied, soaking bodies up the slithering riverbanks, and watched as our youth drained away into the swirling waters of the Rhine’. Market Garden had ended in failure.

Although undoubtedly a German victory, it was really only a minor setback for the Allies; their campaign had still cut a 60-mile corridor through German lines. Montgomery himself would have agreed with Tucker-Jones’ assessment that the disaster at the last stage had been ‘magnified far beyond its strategic importance by the peculiar circumstances and the poignant tragedy of the stranded paratroops’.

As the author clearly explains, Model was unable to capitalise on his victory. He may have had a rare chance to brag to Hitler about a success, but his plan to retake Nijmegen in the following weeks failed miserably. The Americans, armed with better explosives than the Germans, then blew up the very bridge that had caused so much grief.

After the Ardennes Offensive in the winter, with which Hitler was too engrossed in planning to care about Market Garden, the Allies eventually pushed into Germany in the spring of 1945. Model shot himself just a fortnight before the war’s end.

With The Devil’s Bridge, Anthony Tucker-Jones has given us a fresh and pacey account of an operation that continues to absorb students of great military cock-ups.

The broad approach, bringing in related events before and after the operation, greatly aids our understanding of how the seemingly exhausted German Army was able to put together a defence strong enough to clip the wings, albeit briefly, of a seemingly unstoppable opponent.

Review by Calum Henderson.
The Devil’s Bridge: the German victory at Arnhem, 1944, Anthony Tucker-Jones, Osprey Publishing, £20 (hbk), ISBN 978-1472839862.