On this day in 1944, Operation Market-Garden, a plan to seize bridges in the Dutch town of Arnhem, fails, as thousands of British and Polish troops are killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
British Gen. Bernard Montgomery conceived an operation to take control of bridges that crossed the Rhine River, from the Netherlands into Germany, as a strategy to make “a powerful full-blooded thrust to the heart of Germany.” The plan seemed cursed from the beginning. It was launched on September 17, with parachute troops and gliders landing in Arnhem. Holding out as long as they could, waiting for reinforcements, they were compelled to surrender. Unfortunately, a similar drop of equipment was delayed, and there were errors in locating the proper drop location and bad intelligence on German troop strength. Added to this, bad weather and communication confused the coordination of the Allied troops on the ground.
The Germans quickly destroyed the railroad bridge and took control of the southern end of the road bridge. The Allies struggled to control the northern end of the road bridge, but soon lost it to the superior German forces. The only thing left was retreat-back behind Allied lines. But few made it: Of more than 10,000 British and Polish troops engaged at Arnhem, only 2,900 escaped.
Claims were made after the fact that a Dutch Resistance fighter, Christiaan Lindemans, betrayed the Allies, which would explain why the Germans were arrayed in such numbers at such strategic points. A conservative member of the British Parliament, Rupert Allason, writing under the named Nigel West, dismissed this conclusion in his A Thread of Deceit, arguing that Lindemans, while a double agent, “was never in a position to betray Arnhem.”
Winston Churchill would lionize the courage of the fallen Allied soldiers with the epitaph “Not in vain.” Arnhem was finally liberated on April 15, 1945.