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1944: Airborne invasion of Holland begins

AUDIO : BBC's Ed Murrow counts paratroopers as they jump into Holland

Allied forces have landed behind enemy lines in Holland at the beginning of a massive operation designed to bring an end to the war in Europe.

RAF Lancasters and about 1,000 US Flying Fortress bombers had prepared the way by attacking airfields, German gun positions and barracks.

At noon today, thousands of fully equipped troops parachuted down from more than 1,000 aircraft into the Rhine delta and behind enemy lines.

RAF Mitchells and Boston Medium bombers, Mosquitoes, Typhoons, Spitfires and American Mustangs and Lightnings bombed barracks and gun emplacements allowing gliders to landed in relative safety.


"Success may mean all the difference between a rapid decision in the West and a protracted winter campaign"

Unnamed commanding officer

Several German fighters were shot down.

This is one of the largest airborne invasions ever undertaken and the first major operation carried out by the First Airborne Allied Army, which is a consolidation of British, US and Polish airborne troops under the command of Lieutenant-General Lewis Brereton, formerly commander of the US Ninth Air Force.

His deputy, Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning, set up the British airborne force.

Troops at British airbases about to embark on their mission were told in no uncertain terms that its success was vitally important.

"Success may mean all the difference between a rapid decision in the West and a protracted winter campaign," said one commanding officer, who cannot be named.

"The Army is relying implicitly on us to drop them in sufficient numbers at the right place and at the right time.

Details about the operation will not be known for at least 12 hours but one pilot has already reported the landings were successful.

Wing Commander HJW Meaking, DSC, the pilot of a Mosquito, filmed the landings.

He said: "It looked as if the whole thing went like clockwork."

Eyewitnesses in neighbouring Belgium reported seeing hundreds of aircraft fill the sky, some towing gliders.

The weather was said to be ideal for landing troop carriers with low cloud providing cover for Dakotas.

One Thunderbolt pilot said: "The C47 transports came by in perfect formation of threes, line abreast. There was little opposition from the flak towers we had attacked.

"Gliders landed in a field much like cars parked in a garage - one alongside each other, with similar rows right behind."

The German news agency announced the invasion and said its forces were already retaliating.

"Strong allied airborne forces protected by a vast air umbrella were landed at noon today west of the German-Dutch frontier on the northern bank of the Rhine.

"The landing of paratroopers was followed by the descent of countless gliders. German forces have already wiped out considerable contingents of this airborne battle force."

The British Second Army under General Miles Dempsey, spearheading its way into German-held territory, has advanced two miles across the Dutch border from their bridgehead in Beeringen and been informed that the landings were accurate and successful.

In Context
The Battle of Arnhem was part of Operation Market-Garden (17-26 September), a joint land-airborne operation devised by British General Sir Bernard Montgomery.

It was designed to outflank German defences by crossing the River Rhine, opening the way for an Allied thrust towards the Ruhr and an early end to the war.

It was intended that the ground forces would link up with the airborne forces that had captured the bridges.

The total amount of men in the initial drop was more than 16,500 paratroops along with 3,500 troops in gliders.

The Allies believed that German defences in the area were relatively poor. In fact, two divisions of 1st SS Panzer Corps were in the area and had been practising how to tackle an airborne attack.

The American landings were a success, but the British were dropped too far from their bridges, losing the element of surprise.

The British paratroops succeeded in capturing the north end of only one bridge at Arnhem and were soon pinned down under a fierce attack.

Bad weather and German attacks delayed the arrival of vital reinforcements and on 25 September Montgomery gave the order to withdraw from Arnhem.

On the night of 25 September, about a quarter of the 10,000 airborne troops who had landed managed to withdraw across the river. In total 1,130 paratroops were killed and 6,450 were captured. The Germans estimated their dead and wounded at 3,300.

In March 1945 the Allies mounted another bigger and successful airborne invasion, Operation Varsity, into the industrial heartland of Germany.


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