Operations in the Netherlands and on the Franco German Border
In the light of the supply problems, Eisenhower’s continued determination to proceed into Germany on a broad front seemed to two of his subordinates a mistake. Montgomery insisted vehemently that Eisenhower should concentrate all his resources behind one part of the front, preferably in the north, and make one sustained drive all the way to Berlin. General Patton resisted the idea just as strongly and insisted instead that, if given proper support, his Third Army could gain the Rhine in a matter of days. Though Eisenhower rejected both arguments, he nevertheless sanctioned a plan put forward by Montgomery to use 3 airborne divisions to help the British Second Army across three major water obstacles in the Netherlands: the Maas (Meuse), Waal, and Lower Rhine (Neder Rijn) rivers. This accomplished, Montgomery might outflank the West Wall and gain a position from which he might drive into the North German plain to encircle the Ruhr from the north. In the meantime, the Sixth Army Group, using separate supply routes, was to continue through the Vosges to the upper Rhine, the Third Army was to drive into the Saar, and Hodges’ First Army was to penetrate the West Wall at Aachen and gain a bridgehead over the Rhine near Cologne (Koln).
When Montgomery first proposed the airborneassisted drive through the Netherlands, the Germans had almost no forces in a position to block it. Before the operation could be launched, however, Hitler rushed forward headquarters of the First Parachute Army under Col. Gen. Kurt Student to gather the fleeing troops and build a line along the Dutch canals. He also ordered into position several divisions from a 60,000-man force of the Fifteenth Army, which had escaped entrapment on the Channel coast by ferrying across the Scheldt Estuary after the fall of Antwerp.
The big airborne attack, labeled Operation Market, began on September 17. Under Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton’s First Allied Airborne Army, 3 divisions-the British 1st and the United States 82d and 101st-landed near Arnhem, Nijmegen, and Eindhoven in the largest airborne operation of the war. The airborne troops were to seize a narrow corridor 65 miles deep to enable the Second Army, in a companion ground attack called Operation Garden, to pass through and reach the IJsselmeer (Zuider Zee), thereby cutting off all German forces in the western Netherlands. Though the airborne drops were uniformly successful and achieved full surprise, the British ground column ran into stubborn resistance and blown bridges that created serious delays. Before the ground forces could break through to the British airborne division at Arnhem, the farthest unit from the original front line, the Germans threw in remnants of 2 panzer divisions that had been reorganizing nearby. As the Germans pinned the British airborne troops to a narrow bridgehead north of the Lower Rhine, Montgomery ordered the commitment of a Polish airborne brigade, but to no avail. On September 25-26, the battered survivors (2,000 men out of an original force of not quite 9,000) withdrew to the south bank of the river.
The outcome of Market-Garden in itself would have been enough to demonstrate that the big pursuit was over, but, in addition, all Allied armies had run into trouble. Facing the German Nineteenth Army, which was strengthened by the forested foothills of the Vosges, the Sixth Army Group could make only limited gains. Though the Hitler-ordered counterattack against Patton’s south flank was doomed from the start by inadequate strength and hasty mounting, sizable advances by the Third Army were thwarted by a staunchly defended Moselle River line and by old but formidable forts around Metz. Both at Aachen and in the Ardennes the First Army pierced the West Wall in several places, but General Hodges’ forces were too greatly extended to exploit the gains. As September passed into October, Allied armies everywhere had bogged down. While the logistical situation began to improve with time, the German hold on the banks of the Scheldt Estuary continued to deny the use of Antwerp as a port, and until Antwerp could be opened, no sustained offensive could be maintained. Though Montgomery chafed at the assignment of opening Antwerp, preferring instead to make a new attempt to reach the Ruhr from the corridor opened by Operation Market-Garden, he at last turned his full attention to the task in mid-October. Yet it would be a long time before the first Allied ship dropped anchor at Antwerp. Flooding much of the low lying countryside, the Germans fought tenaciously until November 8, inflicting nearly 13,000 casualties on the Canadian First Army. Because the Scheldt Estuary still had to be cleared of mines, Antwerp did not begin functioning as a port until November 28.
In the meantime, encouraged by a steady though unspectacular improvement in the supply situation, Eisenhower had ordered a new offensive to begin in early November, with the main effort to be made by the First Army around Aachen. General Simpson’s Ninth Army, which had been moved forward from Brittany, made a supporting attack on the left, while the Third Army launched a similar thrust from the vicinity of Metz. On November 16, the heaviest air bombardment in direct support of troops on the ground to be launched during the war began east of Aachen in support of the First and Ninth armies (Operation Queen). More than 4,000 planes, including 2,400 heavy bombers, dropped over 10,000 tons of bombs on German defenses and communications centers in an effort to repeat the success of the breakout from Normandy. Unfortunately for the success of the attack, Allied commanders had attempted to cover too broad a target area and, in an effort to avoid repeating the costly errors of bombs’ falling short in Normandy, had allowed too great an interval between the attacking troops and the bomb line. By the time the ground troops could cross this interval, the Germans had recovered sufficiently to reman their posts.
It took all the rest of November and part of December for the First and Ninth armies to build up their forces along the Roer (Rur) River, in places only 7 miles beyond the line from which the offensive began. Even then the armies were powerless to cross the Roer, for a series of dams on its upper reaches remained in German hands and might be blown to flood the valley and trap any force which had moved east of the river.
Farther south the French First Army and the United States Third and Seventh armies had made greater gains, though the Germans still yielded ground only grudgingly. By the end of the first week in December, the two armies of the Sixth Army Group had compressed the Germans into a large bridgehead west of the Rhine based on the city of Colmar (the so-called Colmar pocket), and the Third Army had reached the West Wall along the face of the Saar. The British and Canadians meanwhile had cleared all of the Netherlands south and west of the Maas.