Operation Berlin (Arnhem)
|Part of the Battle of Arnhem|
Operation Market Garden
|Planned||25 September 1944|
|Planned by||Major General Roy Urquhart|
|Objective||Safely withdraw the British 1st Airborne Division|
|Date||Night of the 25/26 September 1944|
2200 – 0500
|Executed by||1st Polish Parachute Brigade |
43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division
|Outcome||Approximately 2,400 men evacuated|
|Casualties||Approximately 95 killed|
Operation Berlin (25–26 September 1944) was a night-time evacuation of the remnants of the beleaguered British 1st Airborne Division, trapped in German occupied territory north of the Lower Rhine in the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden in the Second World War. The aim of the operation was to withdraw safely the remnants of the division while covered by the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, and surrounded on three sides by superior German forces and in danger of being encircled and destroyed. The operation successfully evacuated approximately 2,400 men of the British 1st Airborne Division and effectively ended Market Garden, the Allied plan to cross the Rhine and end the war in Europe by the end of 1944. The surviving glider pilots attached to the division were ordered to lay a white tape through the woods, leading from the Perimeter, the grounds of the Hartenstein Hotel, to the north bank of the Neder-Rijn (Lower Rhine) where the Royal Canadian Engineers were waiting with small boats to ferry them to safety across the Rhine to a landing point north of Driel.
The Battle of Arnhem
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In September 1944 the Allies launched Operation Market Garden, an attempt by the British 2nd Army to bypass the Siegfried Line and advance into the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. The operation required the 1st British Airborne Division and the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to seize several bridges over rivers and canals in the Netherlands, the main target being the bridge at Arnhem. This would allow General Brian Horrocks' XXX Corps to advance approximately 30 miles up an 'airborne corridor' to relieve the 10,095 men flown into Arnhem, charged to capture and hold the bridge over the lower Rhine and so enable the Allied forces to advance into the Ruhr valley. They were told they would be relieved in just two days. Of the men taken to Arnhem, approximately 40% were members of the Parachute Regiment, later supported by members of the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade. The remainder of the division comprised a number of Regiments. These were flown in and landed in gliders, piloted by just over 1200 members of the Glider Pilot Regiment, almost its total strength. The landings and Parachute drops extended over three days beginning on 17 September 1944. However, they encountered far more resistance than had been expected, including the II SS Panzer Corps. Only a small force under Lt. Col. John Dutton Frost were able to reach the bridge, (now named 'The John Frost Bridge') and capture and hold one end of it, but, heavily outnumbered and outgunned, were overwhelmed after four days. The rest of the division established a strong defensive position called 'The Perimeter' in the grounds of the Hartenstein Hotel (now the Airborne Museum 'Hartenstein') in Oosterbeek, a suburb of Arnhem, in the hope that when XXX Corps did arrive, they would be able to cross the river and establish a bridgehead there. The 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade landed south of the river on 21 September, but did not have the equipment to cross the river to assist the British. Meanwhile, XXX Corps' advance had been severely delayed and lead elements did not make contact with the Poles at Driel until 22 September.
Efforts to relieve the 1st Division
Major General Roy Urquhart, commander of the 1st Division, originally requested the 1st Polish Brigade to cross the river and take up their positions on the night of 21 September. However neither unit had any boats and so the Poles withdrew into Driel for the night, setting up a hedgehog defence. Lead elements of XXX Corps reached Driel the following day, but at the same time the Germans formed a blocking line to the west to prevent an Allied advance on the road bridge.
During the day the 1st Division sourced six rubber boats and again assisted the Poles attempt to cross. That night (the 22nd) the plan was put into operation, but the tow rope designed to pull the boats across snapped, and the oars were too small to row against the river's strong current. 55 men crossed but only 35 were able to reach the British positions.
On the 23rd the 43rd Wessex Division arrived at Driel in strength and offered assault boats for the Poles. Unfortunately these arrived late and the Poles, unfamiliar with the craft, were only able to put 153 men across the river - less than a quarter of the hoped for reinforcement.
On the 24th, Horrocks himself visited the Polish positions to assess the situation. That afternoon a conference was held at Valburg to discuss how best to relieve what was left of the 1st Airborne. Major General Gwilym Ivor Thomas of the 43rd (Wessex) Division outlined a plan to put across a battalion of his division and one of the Polish battalions - to the fury of their commander Major General Stanisław Sosabowski. Despite this it seems that Horrocks realised the futility of the Division's position and preliminary plans were drawn up for its withdrawal.
That night's attempt to cross the river was disastrous. Insufficient boats arrived for both battalions and so only the 4th Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment made the attempt. Unfortunately their crossing led into prepared German positions and of the 315 men who crossed before daylight, over 200 were captured. Two men who did reach the Airborne forces carried copies of the withdrawal plan for Urquhart's consideration.
At a conference between Miles Dempsey, Frederick Browning, and Brian Horrocks, it was decided that the British needed to be immediately evacuated from Arnhem. Urquhart's plan called for small groups of men to thin out and man the Oosterbeek perimeter. Then, under cover of night, the main bulk of the force would follow the white tape, laid by the Glider Pilots, through the woods to the river and slip across. The remaining defenders would slowly withdraw and soon they too would make it across the Rhine. To trick the Germans into thinking that the British were still fighting, radio traffic was planned to continue heavily and artillery would bombard the eastern shore of the Rhine to trick the Germans into thinking that there would be another landing to the east. Meanwhile, the division would go by boat across the Rhine to the village of Driel held by the Poles. The wounded would all be left behind to be cared for by the Germans.
Another part of Urquhart's plan called for the 4th Dorsets Battalion of the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division to be deployed across the Rhine prior to the British retreat. These forces would open up the base of the Oosterbeek Perimeter and prevent it from being bottled-up by the Germans while the 1st Airborne crossed to safety.
Of the original 10,095 men landed in Arnhem, 2,500 were fighting capable on the night of the 25th. Of these, 2,163 British, among them 75 men of the 4th Dorsets, along with 160 Poles, made it across the Rhine and into the safety of Driel.
On the south bank of the Rhine there is a monument commemorating the role of the Canadian and British engineers who participated in Operation Berlin. The text on the monument is:
It is 25th September 1944: The battle of Arnhem is still raging, but the position of the surrounded British and Polish troops on the northern Rhine bank has become untenable. Then the order for their evacuation across the river is given. In that rainy night hundreds of soldiers come in small parties to the river forelands, between the farmhouse and the Old Church - both clearly visible from here - and wait to be rescued. Under heavy German fire from the Westerbouwing, British (260 and 553 Fd Coys) and Canadian (20 and 23 Fd Coys) Engineers make dozens of trips in their small boats from this bank. In one night, supported by other units, they manage to rescue 2,400 airborne troops. At the time the rescued had hardly seen their savers, so they have never been able to thank them. This monument has been erected to express their gratitude (15 September 1989).
The majority of the men who were ferried across the river were transported by the members of the 23rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers using Storm boats. The 23rd lost seven men that night.
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- Middlebrook, p. 409
- Kershaw, p. 244
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- Middlbrook, p. 422
- Ryan, p. 515
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- Ryan, p. 430
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