Operation Market Garden – Interview with Jo Hook
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and an episode I’m really looking forward to because we are continuing on our journey through World War II. We’ve done a lot of World War II stuff lately. I’m so happy because during the centenary years recently there’s been so much focus on the First World War, which is not a bad thing. That’s a place very close to my heart, but I think it’s also important that we remember the Second World War and don’t become too one eyed about just remembering the First World War, particularly in Australia.
So I’m really enjoying this journey through the history of some of these great World War II battles. And today we’ve got another really exciting one. We’re going to be talking about Operation Market Garden. The great invasion of Holland that took place during the Second World War, and joining us to discuss that is someone that people who’ve traveled on our tours would know very, very well. It’s Jo Hook and Jo is a wonderful battlefield historian who does a lot of tours for us and is just an expert on lots of aspects of war remembrance from the First World War through to the Second World War. And she’s really a great member of the team. So it’s really wonderful to be talking to her about a battlefield that I know she is very passionate about. So Jo thanks very much for joining us on living history.
Jo: No problem. It’s a pleasure
Mat: Operation Market Garden. It’s a very controversial battle. It was not a victory for the allies at a time when we probably should have had victory after victory. Can we start by you giving us just your brief overview of how this battle came to be and what happened during Operation Market Garden?
Jo: Yes sure. I think you have to go back to Normandy really. Once we’ve broken out of Normandy things started to move very quickly. Gradually as treats become quicker and quicker the Brits were in Paris by August. The Americans, they were fighting on a broad front. So the Americans to their right were doing virtually the same thing. And it was almost like the media was beginning to think that the German army were in a route that they were completely destroyed. And also the intelligence we had coming through from say the Belgium resistance in Belgium was saying the Germans are retreating using whatever means of transport they can. And so there started to be this belief that we could actually end the war by Christmas. And I think it was the 5th of September, 1944 was known as Dolle Dinsdag-Mad Tuesday. And so all the media were revealing this route by the German army and gradually the victory fever receive a prevailed that actually we could be into Berlin like Christmas. And so thinking a way, people became a little bit complacent, if that makes sense.
Mat: Yes, absolutely it does. So that’s a fascinating backstory that you think that Market Garden came about because of over-confidence and poor intelligence on the part of the allies.
Jo: Well in some ways it did. The other thing that we had going is we had two airborne divisions, the First Airborne Division and six airborne divisions. Now the six airborne divisions had been used in Normandy and the First Airborne Division had been kept at home in reserve. And there was also this feeling that we need to use an airborne division because of all the training that’s gone into them. It would be a waste not to use them but because the ground troops were moving so quickly, every single operation that the First Airborne Division would’ve been involved in was canceled. And if you go into the war records, you can see operation through operation canceled and crossed out. So there was this feeling that we’ve got to use this airborne division before probably the war is over. So there was that feeling prevaricated as well.
Mat: Well, it’s a really good point because when you think about the use of airborne troops, even though they can get to a location relatively quickly. Once they’re in there due to a lack of support, they become fairly static, don’t they? The airborne troops have to be used well in advance of the moving front line. Which is why you can say that this sort of operation to drop troops effectively behind German lines in Holland had so much appeal.
Jo: Yes. And they have to drop onto objectives until relieved. But that relief as you quite correctly stated because they don’t have the heavy armored support, that relief has to come quickly. Therefore, this whole feeling with the ground forces moving so quickly and literally the Germans were retreating and retreating that this plan could go ahead because it wouldn’t take very long before those airborne troops that had been dropped on their objectives would have been relieved. But at the same time, the British ground troops were moving further and further away from their lines of supplies.
So their lines of supply were becoming elasticated and then you have the whole political thing with Eisenhower who is the supreme commander over all the troops. He politically, it doesn’t look good for him not to be backing the Americans led by Patton but he also had to play the middle man between Patton for the Americans and Montgomery for the British and be the middle man and almost like the liaison between the two of them. So he has quite a difficult position to be in. And at the back of his mind we’ve got ground troops moving so quickly. Some of them were even outstripping the maps that they had with them and also we had to use these airborne divisions. So he had a lot on his plate as well, if that makes sense.
Mat: Absolutely. And given that incredibly complicated situation in steps Monty and comes up with this plan for Market Garden, tell us what the plan was.
Jo: Initially it came on the back of 17 other plans and the plan before it was called operation, correct me if I’m wrong, Operation Comet and that would use one airborne division to land on different bridges objectives for once of a better expression so that they could hold those bridges. So the ground troops could advance through from the Belgian Dutch border up through the Netherlands and then effectively sweep right into the industrial heartland of Germany, the rural valley where it was believed was ideal terrain for a tank battle and we could be into Berlin before Christmas.
That was the idea. And the one thing that was probably held in Montgomery’s favor at the time was the beginning of September, 1944 London experience the first V2, this huge rocket and because of morale on the home front, it was suggested that this be covered up. And actually it be fed out to the public is a gas explosion that behind the scenes we knew that the German army had these almost weapons of mass destruction and they were also on Montgomery’s chosen path to land this airborne carpet and to speed ground troops through this airborne corridor. So that was another thing in Monty’s favor that gave him the onus really over Patton in Eisenhower’s eyes.
Mat: So Monty’s got these quite well founded reasons for wanting to move the advanced forward quickly to capture these bridges over the Rhine to speed up the advance into Germany. So what was this great plan he came up with that would eventually be Market Garden?
Jo: Okay. So the plan was to land three airborne divisions two American, the 101st and 82nd and one British airborne division, the first Airborne Division onto major objectives, bridges crossing the main river-ways that flow from east to west through the Netherlands starting off with the Belgian border. Now by the time those three airborne divisions have dropped, which would eventually be about 2:00 PM on the 17th of September, the ground troops, namely 30 corps led by a guy called General Horrocks would advance in the hope that they would reach the apex of where the bridges were being held by the First Airborne Division in about 48 hours. And as they advanced, those bridges would be being held by those three airborne divisions. That was the overall plan. Once they’d crossed all the bridges, the airborne divisions would then come under the command of 30 corps and together with the 52nd Lowland division, who would due to drop in north of Arnhem itself. Then 30 corps could roll on through and head east through the heartland of the war and knock the Germans out that way.
Mat: The one thing that always strikes me, Jo, when I read about Market Garden is it was a plan that relied on absolutely everything going right because we have this situation where you’re dropping airborne troops on bridges to secure them so that the Germans couldn’t blow them up. So that would open up a pathway into Germany and then you had this huge ground force that would rode up the very narrow roads of that part of Europe, to relieve the airborne troops who couldn’t, as you said before, who couldn’t hold on for very long as they didn’t have much armor or artillery with them. It was a plan whenever I read about it that relied on absolutely everything going right and if the slightest thing went wrong, there was a huge risk of the whole thing falling apart. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Jo: Yes, I do think that’s a fair assessment. I also think that it was also a far too ambitious plan because the ground troops will be literally outstripping our supply lines. One of the main problems that happened was supply at that point was still coming in some cases by the Normandy beaches and what the 30 corps fail to do because they had so elasticated their supply lines they got to the Scheldt Estuary which is an Antwerp just by the Belgium Dutch border. And they took the Port of Antwerp, but they failed to take the main river way the estuary going into it. And without that it was mined. In doing so, they were so exhausted and it allowed something like, I think there’s something like 10,000 German troops to get across the Scheldt and make their way back to Germany to provide reinforcements for the opposing force when the airborne divisions dropped and when the ground troops moved out.
Had they taken that estuary, the Scheldt Estuary that leads into the Port of Antwerp, it’s possible they could’ve gotten supply in there. And that was in my opinion and Market Garden is a battle of war tests in my opinion. That was a major failure. And Horrocks who commands 30 corps retrospectively looks back on that and said, we could have taken the Port of Antwerp and the Scheldt Estuary that they didn’t, but you’re quite correct in saying it relied on everything going perfectly to plan and communications being perfect. What happened was certainly from the airborne side, the overall commander of the airborne divisions with a guy called Brereton. He made the ruling that once this plan goes to paper, it doesn’t change.
The reason he made that suggestion or gave that order was that if that plan had changed on paper, it would have taken too long to disseminate that change to all the airborne divisions when they were already some in the air, some already on the ground. So he stated when that goes to paper it doesn’t change it goes ahead. But you’re correct. There were so many war tests and so many things that could go wrong, which did go wrong in the end. In my opinion, I think it’s a plan possibly shouldn’t have happened. It’s good on paper, but as you know, once things actually come off the paper and go into operations things rarely go as you would want them to.
Mat: Absolutely. And as we’ve said, it’s a complicated plan and things didn’t go according to plan. Can you give us an overview of what actually happened once the battle unfolded?
Jo: Probably, certainly with the airborne divisions it was going to be a bottom to top plan. So it was reliant on the 101st Airborne Division dropping and they dropped. They were the southernmost drops. And it was relying on them actually seizing their objectives as quickly as they could. They dropped over a day in itself. Whereas right at the top of the airborne plan with the First British Division who had the problems of having to drop over three days, they didn’t drop on their objective. So if you compare that with, say, Pegasus Bridge in Normandy where the Ochsenbach landed right on the bridge.
This didn’t happen with the British. They had to drop eight miles to the west of the Arnhem Bridge, which meant they had to forgo the element of surprise. Intelligence at the time was something. We have the intelligence we knew there was the 2nd SS Panzer Corps were in the area but we believed they had been so battered because they’d gone all the way through from Normandy all the way through to Northern Ireland, the north of Holland. And were in the process of re-equipping, refitting and sending back some of their armor to Germany. Though we knew that they were there we believed it was no more than brigade strength.
One of the other problems that happened with Market Garden was the British hesitance to rely on the Dutch intelligence. Now, Dutch intelligence had been compromised earlier on in the war and we weren’t so much, heavily relying because of our suspicions about Dutch intelligence cells being compromised as we would been reliant on say, French intelligence. Communications were the huge problem and a lot of people. If you watch the film A Bridge too Far and being an actual signals person in the film they say, oh, it’s all about the crystals in the radios, which power off the radios. Even when I was serving with the reserve forces say 20 years ago, if we took a radio out and did a practice with it and then actually went on exercise with it, the chances are a lot of the time it wouldn’t work.
So radios and the training of signalers at the time was still very much by World War 2 standards very much in its infancy. You take a radio and you put it in a glider on the back of a jeep or you strap it onto the back of a guy as a man pack and then you chuck them all out of a plane for want of a better expression and the chances are they may not work. There’s probably quite a good chance they won’t work. The radios at the time were relying on batteries and when the British were holding out as they would be when their objectives hadn’t been taken or hadn’t been held. Those batteries were meant to come in with the supply runs. And at the time the supplies were dropping outside the area that the British were held and so they couldn’t get their supplies because the Germans will get from them. It’s kind of a catalog of errors. I could go on forever but you wouldn’t want to be here for another three hours.
Mat: Well, you’re absolutely right Jo, what you’re saying and I think it’s such a big and sprawling and complicated and in some ways farcical battle. I would encourage everyone to go look it up and check it out on the Internet and read about it because there’s just so many elements to this. I know Anthony Beevor; I think last year released an excellent book about it called Arnhem. As you say, it’s a catalog of errors but basically the summation even though the battle went on for several weeks. The summation is the airborne troops successfully in most cases got at least close to the bridges they were supposed to get to but 30 corps could not get through in time to support them due to unexpected German resistance and narrow roads and a whole host of problems. And that road they were driving up really the single road that leads into this part of Holland became known as Hell’s Highway, didn’t it?
Jo: Yes, sure. And even today you can go up and we quite often do a tour that goes right up from the Belgium border and follows. They called it The Corridor but it follows part of Hell’s Highway. A lot of it has been built over an hour and as towns have expanded, a lot of it is lost. But certainly if you go up from Lomo, which was the first bridge really the start point for 30 corps a place called Joe’s bridge, you go up towards the town of Valkenswaard you can see either side where the road if you’re on it there’s no getting off it.
What the German army did was they form these ad hoc battalions and they adopted a policy known as mission command, where if you’re just a lance corporal, but you know what you’re supposed to do, a lance corporal, maybe with a section of men with him all you need is an anti-tank weapon. And you don’t actually have to destroy one of the tanks, you just have to stop the moving so they blocked the road and it stops the whole advance. And this is what they kept doing. They kept infiltrating, stopping the vehicles, 30 corps vehicles moving up the road. So this caused more and more delay as they were trying to get up there.
The poor old British Airborne, the First British Airborne Division actually held on and bridged for something like 72 hours when they were literally had been told, you probably be holding that bridge for no more than 48 hours because of this complacency because of this thought that we’d won the war and the Germans would literally be retreating. And it would be like a piece of cake to get into Germany before and end the war before Christmas.
Mat: And the summary is, as I said, I think people please go on and read about all these incredible little actions that occurred all over the place during Market Garden. But the upshot was that the Americans did well in the south, the 101st the 82nd Airborne did well to take the bridge at Nijmegen but the poor Brits up North held on as long as they could in the town of Arnhem before being overrun by the Germans and either killed or captured. Is that a fair summary of the results of Market Garden?
Jo: It’s a fair summary. I would say the 82nd Airborne Division; they had quite a lot of problems because they had their drop zones and landing zones. They had the largest drop and landing zones to defend. And their glider pilots. They have two different kinds of airborne troops. You have parachutists and then you’d have glider borne troops and their glider pilots, their glider borne troops. Once a pilot’s got on the ground they weren’t used for any other reason. Whereas for the first British Airborne division, their glider pilots, glider pilot regimen became double hatted when they go down to the ground, they became infantry soldiers as well. So they were utilized throughout the battle. And I think at Nijmegen had not 82nd Airborne Division also had the support of the Grenadier guards who were part of 30 corps.
They would probably have never got over Nijmegen Bridge because they didn’t have the armor to support them. By the time really, Nijmegen Bridge was taken then there were hardly any defenses left further north at the Arnhem Bridge and once the Arnhem Bridge had fallen, the British were blocked by the elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division who’d literally blocked them on all sides and were pushing them into a circular enclaves that was known as the hexen castle, the witches cauldron. All known more locally to the British as perimeter. And you can still walk the perimeter today and it’s no more than about a kilometer from east to west and no more than two kilometers north to south and gradually as supplies because our supplies were still dropping in the places we were meant to be, which by that time had been overrun by the German army.
So effectively our supplies were dropping into German hands. And as the casualties mounted, this perimeter became fluid. And so gaps were created as virtually the First British Airborne Division became depleted until eventually they really had no other option. Although if you asked a lot of the veterans there they said we should have held on, but really they had no other option but to evacuate back across the Rhine.
Mat: Thank you for that overview of Market Garden as we said, it’s very complicated and so much went wrong. It was a bit of a disaster for the allies, wasn’t it? The Germans saw this as a great victory relatively late in their war. It was probably the last effective German victory on the Western Front, wasn’t it?
Jo: Yes. I think the one thing we can look at it provided because by the end of Market Garden we’d taken Nijmegen and it provided the springboard for the rowing crossings later on in 45 and certainly a lot of the problems had been ironed out because of what happened at Market Garden and then they say two schools of thought. Montgomery said it was 90% successful and to the point that it provided that ground and that springboard for further crossings later on. I suppose you could call that a success, but really the operation itself, it had so many elements of it that were a disaster.
Mat: Jo, why do you think it’s important to remember this battle today? Why is Market Garden still worth remembering 75 years down the track?
Jo: I, for me personally, it’s because it’s a battle of what ifs. The British Airborne Division certainly up at Arnhem and speaking as a Brit myself, if you’re British, a lot of us and just look at the First British Airborne Division. But if you look at the whole battlefield, it’s a fascinating battlefield but for the First British Airborne Division, they were there for nine days. And it’s this story of Brits. It’s this story of where so many things went wrong. You can stand there on the grounds that for a long time and argue what if they’d done this what if they’d done that? And I’ve had conversations with other historians.
Where do you think the failure was? And there’s always, yes, but then there was this and then there was that. It’s just a really fascinating battle. And because the ground is relatively easy ground to cover and certainly if you’d get up to Heisterbach which is where the first British Airborne Division eventually was pushed into this perimeter pocket, a lot of the ground hasn’t changed. So a lot of the photography from the time, a lot of the news clips from the time you can stand in the perimeter there and just play it and you hear in the background German anti-tank gunfire and anti-aircraft fire going off. And if you close your eyes, you can imagine you’re there. It’s just really exciting kind of, oh, I don’t know gripping battlefield. I love it.
Mat: It’s got a lot of elements in common, I think with the story of Gallipoli in some ways that things went wrong. There are so many what ifs. I know the landscape is not similar but in terms of just standing on a battlefield and imagining how things could have gone differently, there are actually quite a few similarities with Gallipoli in that respect.
Jo: Exactly. And there are few coincidental in that both operations started on a Sunday, which is okay, no big, a coincidence but also General Urquhart who commanded the first Airborne Division. The only successful thing really about the Gallipoli campaign was the evacuation. And Urquhart when he had planned his evacuation on the night of the 25th, 26th, September ’44, he’d learned about the evacuation from Gallipoli at Staff College and he based it on exactly the same thing. So they’re all sort of like elements of it where you sort of think okay two operations, disaster, successful evacuation and they are quite closely linked and make similarities between the two.
Mat: That’s extraordinary. I didn’t know that direct connection between Gallipoli and Market Garden. Jo, over the years you had the privilege of speaking to veterans from this campaign, didn’t you? What was their opinion on the success or otherwise of Market Garden? How did they feel to have been involved in this great operation?
Jo: I don’t think I ever got their opinion of the success or whether it was successful, whether it was not. There’s certainly a pride at having been there. And there’s a lovely friend of mine and unfortunately he died last year. He was in the glider pilot regimen and his name was Peter Clarke. And how I got to know him was he grew up, certainly a generation apart from me but just down the road from where I lived. And he used to ride his bike down Saltbox Hill which is right by Biggin Hill about a generation before I did. And he had an extraordinary story and he was a perfect gentleman but he was with the glider pilot regimen and when they eventually landed, he took the first border regimen and those were the glider troops that he took in.
And when he got on the ground he changed roles and became a medic. So he survived Market Garden. But when the evacuation, they were call to evacuate, he had the moral dilemma. Do I stay with the wounded or do I evacuate? Because he had the choice and he chose to stay with the wounded. He eventually got taken prisoner along with many of the other elements of the First Airborne Division. And he went to one of the stalag prison of war camps and he kept a diary, which was totally against the rules all the time that he’s in that camp. And when I knew him when he was in his eighties, he said to me in a very clipped English voice, Jo, I must get this transcribed one day and I can type, I’ve got a computer.
So I said, Peter, I will do that for you. And so in the UK, we have a website called Para data where all the data from all the different battles that the parachute and the airborne divisions have been involved in are stored. And so that’s now there in perpetuity. But he kept the star and it was just little things like conditions in prison camps. He was a very religious man, Peter but he had this pride up until about two years ago he was still going out with young soldiers of today to speak to them about his experiences. I don’t know whether he enjoyed his war, some of the veterans they’re quite reticent about talking about that, but he certainly had a pride in what he did. And I was very proud to have been a friend of his.
Mat: It’s just so wonderful. Those connections with veterans isn’t it? I’ve said this a lot on the podcast recently. I’m feeling the loss, the fact that we have no World War I veterans left and we’re losing the World War II veterans at an astonishing rate. And I think we will be the poorer for it. I think it will be a different world when all those World War II veterans are gone. And I’d encourage anyone listening to this who wants to know more about veterans. To go back to the podcasts we’ve done previously, e.g. with Peter Hart, who had spent most of his working life the last 40 years interviewing World War I and World War II veterans. And it’s just such an important aspect to our understanding of what went on, isn’t it Jo?
Jo: It certainly is. And those little snippets of history, we’re lucky enough as historians to go out with the veterans and you might just get a little snippet of history that is not written in any of the books. For me, I feel that if I can go out and tell that story and pass those little snippets on to passengers from either Mat McLaughlin Tours or whatever tour company, then that’s passing on that legacy. There are so many stories. There’s a great story about a set of brothers and they were twins and they came from Cornwall and were minors so in a reserved occupation. And they were killed on the railway tracks that bend round from Arnhem to Nijmegen they’d gone to try and take the railway bridge which was another objective for the First Airborne Division. And both of them as brothers were killed on that railway track.
And you can still go to Heisterbach war cemetery today, buried side-by-side the Bruno twins and their numbers their army numbers were sequential. And obviously as twins they were born the same day. And died the same day. Little stories like that and other little stories that have come to me from veterans direct from hand to mouth stories that I think we should keep going and pass on so that other people keep that going. That legacy is a big responsibility I think.
Mat: Just those little snippets of information. It just absolutely heart-breaking. And whenever you study any battle like these particularly big one like Market Garden. There must just be thousands of little stories that never even come to light. Jo, you have led possibly hundreds of people across these battlefields. What are the little corners you most like visiting? Where do you go to tell the story? Where do you feel the strongest connection to the history?
Jo: There are two places, the twins. The story I’ve just told you. And then there’s a wonderful letter written by a young man called Ivor Rowberry and he’s buried in Heisterbach a Commonwealth war grave cemetery as well from Market Garden. And he talks about in his letter he talks about he’s not fighting for king and country. He’s fighting for his mother, for his friends in Wolverhampton, his friends at home, and he said to me and he says in the letter, he says, I loved you mom. You were the best mother in the world. And I stand and read that letter and it’s the letter that never fails to move you. And he was just one young man among many who probably thought when they went out on this airborne operation receiving all the propaganda from the papers at home that the war was nearly over. That this was going to be a walk in the park and he would be coming home. And he never did come home. And it’s those little stories.
So those places I like to go, especially with Market Garden, I like to wander around the perimeter. So if you get into the woodlands, the ground hasn’t changed. You can still see the fox holes in there if you know where to look. The trees still bear the scarring from the bullet marks when they were younger tree. So the bark, you can still see where the fighting took place. Get out in the woods by yourself. those are the places I like to be, if I’m on my own but also if I can take people there because I said I feel especially it’s a responsibility for me to carry that legacy on, to ensure that it’s not forgotten.
Mat: That’s very well said, Jo and I tell you what, you’ve encouraged me to come over and walk the ground with you because I’ve only done a very small part of Market Garden and I’d love to do more. If you are listening to this and you’re interested in going yourselves, we do have two or three throughout the year that goes to Market Garden and explores this area in depth with either Jo or one of our other great historians. It’s particularly good if you’re doing a river cruise through Europe because so many river cruises beginning or end in Amsterdam. So it’s a very easy add on to that. So visit our email@example.com today if you want some more information about that. But Jo, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really wonderful and just a fabulous insight into yet another really intriguing chapter of military history.
Jo: Great to talk to you.