On the night of September 26/27 1944, the remnants of the British 1st Airborne Division slipped across the Rhine to safety. What has been lost to history, however, explains Spencer Lane, is just the day before, 300 men attempted to go the opposite direction -24 hours later, just 75 returned.
A week after the start of Operation Market Garden, it was clear the operation was going to fail. The most important objective, the bridge over the Rhine, at Arnhem, was now firmly in German hands. Only a single battalion of paratroopers under the command of Lt. Col. John Frost made it to Arnhem Bridge, and after four days of clinging desperately to a few houses without support or resupply, they had been pummelled into submission by repeated German assaults.
The rest of 1st Airborne was trapped in a pocket near their drop zones, a thumb shaped pocket centred on the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek and with the Rhine at the base. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and short of ammunition —the supplies intended for them, dropped by the brave pilots of RAF Transport Command at grave peril and high cost, were largely being collected by astounded and thankful Germans, who had overrun the dropping zones and who could not believe their good luck. Radio communications between 1st Airborne and the rest of the Allied army remained patchy at best, and was usually nonexistent.
Surrounded on three sides, their backs to a river, and faced with overwhelming numbers of Germans (the paratroopers were outnumbered roughly 4 to 1), including 110 artillery guns and two panzer divisions, it was clear that 1st Airborne would have to be relieved immediately or face total destruction. The relief force—XXX Corps—which had originally expected to rendezvous with 1st Airborne in two or three days, had only barely made it past Nijmegen in six days, and even if they now made it to the south bank of the Rhine, there was no undefended point at which they could cross to relieve the beleaguered paratroopers.
The original purpose Operation Market Garden was lost—that much was clear—but the operation had to continue, now as an attempt to relieve 1st Airborne. It would not be easy. Market Garden had left the Allies in possession of a long, thin salient. While the ‘front’ lines were now somewhere between the Waal River and the Nederrijn, the Germans were pressing in on the salient in several places in an attempt to cut off the single, narrow highway connecting the Allied forces of Market Garden with their base of supply in Belgium. Market Garden had lost momentum early on when one of the many bridges the Allies needed to capture, the Son Bridge, was demolished, and regaining momentum would be incredibly difficult when nearly every Allied unit in Market Garden was caught in one giant traffic jam stretching from Belgium to Nijmegen. On top of all of this, the Germans were putting up a very good, well-coordinated resistance and even making counterattacks against the Allied toehold north of Nijmegen.
Forming a quick plan of action, Generals Browning and Horrocks decided to evacuate the airborne to the south bank of the Rhine. However, this couldn’t be done until the Allies were in position to receive them and cover their withdrawal. That necessitated the airborne hold on for just a little while longer. It also required propping up their position to prevent their complete collapse. The thankless job of making an unprotected river crossing to reinforce a surrounded position as part of a battle already lost fell to the man on the spot, in this case General Sosabowski’s Independent Polish Parachute Brigade. They had landed on the south bank of the Rhine, opposite the British paratroopers, but they were without boats or heavy equipment.
Nevertheless, in makeshift boats they made two attempts to cross the Rhine at night. On the night of the 22nd September (a full five days after the first British paratrooper landed in the Netherlands), 55 Poles somehow managed to cross the Rhine, though only about 35 actually reached British positions after the tow rope they were using to ferry their makeshift boats snapped, causing many Poles to drift wildly off course and into German hands. The following night, the Poles made another attempt, this time with the assistance of 43rd Wessex Division, elements of which had arrived near the Polish positions in Driel (directly south of Oosterbeek) and had brought assault boats. This time the Poles put across nearly 150 men. This trickle of men going to support the British paratroopers was achieved at incredibly high cost. All told, the Poles took more than 500 casualties on their first day in the Netherlands. The shambolic crossing attempts thus far were not a very inspiring example to follow, so imagine then what the poor soldiers of the Dorsetshire Regiment must have thought when they were told they would be attempting the same feat.
Battalions of the Dorsetshire Regiment had fought, as part of 43rd Wessex Division, in support of the Guard’s Armoured Division as XXX Corps advanced toward Arnhem. By the time the regiment crossed the Waal at Nijmegen, the bridge at Arnhem had already been surrendered, and German armour trickled towards the Nederrijn.
By the 24th, XXX Corps commander Brian Horrocks himself came to the frontlines—the Polish positions at Driel—to assess the situation. Although the exact sequence of events is the point of some controversy between the British and Polish generals involved, Horrocks decided to evacuate the 1st Airborne, but not before they were propped up again by some more troops ferried across the river. Just why Horrocks chose this middle path—neither evacuating the Airborne immediately nor trying to use the Oosterbeek perimeter as the basis for a permanent bridgehead across the Rhine from which a greater offensive could have been launched—is a matter of speculation, though the concern there would be too few boats to evacuate an entire division from Oosterbeek in a single night must have weighed heavily on Horrocks’ mind.
Nevertheless, 4th Battalion of the Dorset Regiment was ordered to cross the Rhine that night to try to prevent the complete collapse of the paratroopers’ position. The entirety of the Polish paratroopers were supposed to accompany the Dorsets, but when the moment came there were too few boats for both units—a persistent problem. The boats also arrived later than expected, delaying the Allies and preventing them from ferrying even more men across the river. Manhandling the assault boats down to the river was no easy task, especially since it involved crossing about 500 yards of open ground with the Germans firing haphazardly at them. The boats were laden with ammunition and other supplies, along with ten infantrymen and two sappers (tasked with rowing the boats back to the south bank) crammed into them.
The orders for the Battalion read: “1800 – C.O. ‘O’ GP intentions are that the Bn will cross river NEDERRIJN at Ferry 6876 and enlarge the Br Head already held by Parachutists also to get supplies through to the Air-borne Tps. A+B coys to be in first flight of assault boats followed by C+D coys. Then TAC Bn H.Q. followed by S coy Personnel with supplies. Bn to have support of 3 Regts of party together with 4.2 Mortars and M.Gs.”
Delayed by the late arrival of the boats, the crossings began at 01:00 on Monday, 25 September—the eighth day of Market Garden. The point chosen for the crossing was where the Poles had attempted their earlier crossings despite the Poles’ commander, Sosabowski, suggesting the crossing be made further downstream where German resistance would probably have been less fierce. The Germans by now had realised the Allies had been making some crossings and had set themselves up in defensive positions on minor bluffs overlooking likely crossing points.
4th Battalion veteran, Corporal Stanley Hodge, who was awarded the Military Medal and who turned 19 “in a pig-sty at Arnhem!”, reflected: “They were drowned, shelled; you put the canvas boat into the water and the Germans could see you — they had night glasses and they’d shell you, mortar you, machine gun you and everything. You had no paddles; you were using rifle butts to get you across the River Rhine which is so fast flowing it took a lot of the boats downstream and men just drowned.”
The one saving grace of the operation was the excellent artillery cover offered by the guns of XXX Corps, which kept the Germans’ heads down, at least initially. Although the crossings were not opposed too intensely at first, the light provided by two buildings set afire by the artillery barrage revealed the Dorsets, and German fire intensified.
Thankfully, only one boat was sunk outright and the Germans quickly retreated into the woods once the British troops had landed, but the German fire caused much confusion and forced the Dorsets to land dispersed along the river bank and attempt to regroup in the dark. Though three more hours of darkness remained, the crossings were halted at 2:15 due to the intensity of fire. It is just as well, as it would likely have served no purpose other than to send more men to their deaths or into German captivity. As it was, 297 men and 17 officers of 4th Battalion, the Dorsets, crossed the Rhine.
On the Oosterbeek side of the Rhine, on the slopes of the Westerbouwing, near what is today the Driel Ferry, 30 men of 4th Battalion were involved in an impressive action in which the German defenders rolled grenades downhill and sprayed the approaches with machine gun fire. This wall of fire cut the size of the British detachment in half, but 15 men rose to take the hilltop, and held it briefly under forced to surrender.
The most important (but by no means only) contribution the Dorsets would make was in bringing along several forward artillery observers. They also attempted to bring medical supplies and surgeons across in amphibious DUKW trucks, but several of the DUKWs did not arrive at the crossing point in time and those that did mostly landed too far downstream and the men were either captured or forced to swim back to the south bank. Just three DUKWs successfully crossed as intended. Most of the Dorsets never regrouped in any organized fashion and were forced to fight in small, disorganised groups, no larger than a platoon, and often only twos or threes. Nor were they thoroughly integrated into the paratroopers’ defensive lines; although some made it into the paratroopers’ perimeter, many were in isolated positions, behind German lines or in a no-man’s-land near the river. Most were out of contact with any friendly units. Indeed, the commander of 4th Battalion, the Dorsets —Lt. Col. Tilly— suffered just such a fate. He failed to find most of his HQ section and instead fought with twenty men of C Company in a forest near Heveadorp, just above the river, until their position was surrounded and they ran out of ammunition, at which point they surrendered. Over a hundred more Dorsets were scattered along the north bank of the Rhine, out of contact with their commanding officers, the Airborne, or XXX Corps on the south bank of the river.
Only 24 hours after the miserable crossing of the Dorsets, the Allies evacuated the Oosterbeek perimeter. Paratroopers, glider pilots, Poles and Dorsets, downed airmen of RAF Transport Command and even a USAAF fighter pilot shot down by flak on the first day of Market Garden slipped down to the Rhine, covered by an intense artillery bombardment and an equally intense rainstorm.
At the main crossing point, and in true British fashion, the men who made it to the banks of the Rhine waited in a large, orderly queue for their chance to get in a boat, irrespective of rank. Despite orders to leave behind the seriously wounded, many were brought to the river, and none were denied a spot on the boats. The boats were piloted by men of the 260 (Wessex) Field Company, but a contingent of Canadian engineers provided invaluable assistance via their outboard engine powered “storm boats”—though several paratroopers suffered the unnerving experience of their boat’s engine breaking down mid-stream. Others had holes punched in their hulls by the rocks on the river bank and had to be abandoned. The Canadians made some 150 crossings that night, and they carried the majority of the men evacuated. Several Canadian boats were hit in the night or capsized from overloading, causing the Canadians some casualties, and some were even captured after being swept down river. By dawn—with many soldiers still waiting to be evacuated—the Canadians were down to just two boats. Though the exact figure is not known, it’s estimated some 300 men had to be left behind at the evacuation point as the day broke, in addition to hundreds more left in their positions; the wounded, the medics, the uncontactable, or the simply forgotten.
Although undoubtedly gallant, the sacrifice of the Dorsets’ may well have actually done a disservice to the Airborne fighting in Oosterbeek. In planning for the evacuation, those on the south bank assumed the Dorsets’ landing had been effective and had widened the perimeter enough to allow two crossing points, when in fact Urquhart was planning on using only one. This tidbit didn’t make it across the Rhine however, where many boats were assembled at the same point where the Dorsets’ had crossed the night before in anticipation of receiving the Airborne. These boats could subsequently have been used to evacuate many men who had to be left behind at the main evacuation point, but instead picked up only a handful of Dorsets who had somehow survived near the river bank for more than a day.
The Dorsets would live on to cross the Rhine later in the war. Here, men of the 5th Dorsets cross the symbolic river in a LVT Buffalo, 28 March 1945. [Key Collection]
All told, about 200 Dorsets were captured by the Germans, many were wounded. More were killed outright and just 75 returned to the south bank of the river. Aside from two contributions—the artillery spotters, and a message ordering the Airborne’s evacuation which reached General Urquhart (commander of the 1st Airborne) on the morning of the 25th — the Dorsets’ sacrifice, at no fault of their own, was next to useless. However, 4th Battalion’s sacrifice was recognised by the award of an Airborne Pennant, and the battalion became the only non-airborne unit to win that particular battle honour at Arnhem. The beleaguered paratroopers weren’t given any relief worth speaking of by the Dorsets themselves, and the artillery spotters likely could have been infiltrated across the river without an escort of 300 infantrymen. Nevertheless, the artillery support XXX Corps gave to 1st Airborne is often credited with saving them from complete destruction, and the men of 4th Battalion certainly took pride in their impressive efforts, as Stanley Hodges recalled:
“[We] tried to get the airborne out, we had to cross over the river in canvas boats with no paddles or anything like that. I could not swim but I made it across the other side. We lost about 250 men trying to get the airborne out which we did. We got so many airborne out.”
Spencer Lane is a military history graduate from the University of Kent, Canterbury. A native Californian, in addition to his historical projects for Britain at War, he writes on American politics.