The RCAF and “a bridge too far”

There was a general belief that “Jerry” was finished after the terrific losses the Germans sustained during the 1944 Normandy campaign and their retreat through France and Belgium. All it would take would be one big push by the Allies to end the war by Christmas.

Out of 1,173 aircraft at the beginning of Market Garden, 932 were damaged or destroyed. RCAF Photo
Out of 1,173 aircraft at the beginning of Market Garden, 932 were damaged or destroyed. RCAF Photo
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Or so it was thought.

Background to Operation Market Garden

Operation Market Garden, conceived by FM Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, was an audacious attempt to create a 103-kilometre corridor through occupied Holland and establish a bridgehead over the Rhine River, thereby outflanking German defensive positions within the Siegfried Line. Conducted Sept. 17-25, 1944, there were two parts to the operation: Market, whereby the First Allied Airborne Army, consisting of the United States (U.S.) 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 1st Airborne Division, were to parachute into the area and capture nine bridges across various rivers; and Garden, a ground assault by British XXX Corps to relieve the airborne forces and consolidate Allied gains.

The operation depended heavily on Allied air power and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) personnel were in the thick of it from beginning to end.

Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces, approved the operation on Sept. 10, resulting in a flurry of planning activity. More than 35,000 troops would make the airborne assault and require an estimated 3,500 transport aircraft. The Allies had just under 1,600 aircraft, which meant that the drops would take place over three successive days (Sept. 17, 18 and 19) followed by re-supply/reinforcement missions as required. At the same time, XXX Corps was to advance along a narrow access, crossing successive river obstacles by way of bridges secured by U.S./British airborne forces with the ultimate goal of relieving the British 1st Airborne Division, Glider Pilot Regiment and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade at the Dutch city of Arnhem.

Unexpectedly fierce German resistance resulted in heavy Allied losses and delays, preventing XXX Corps from reaching Arnhem. The Allied airborne forces in the area were virtually annihilated, suffering almost 2,000 killed and 7,000 captured.

The bridge at Arnhem was “a bridge too far”, as a movie of the same name called it.

The air war during Market Garden

Six separate headquarters coordinated fighter escort, flak suppression, close-air support and air superiority (barrier) patrols. Aircraft from Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command, Air Defence of Great Britain, 2 Tactical Air Force (2 TAF) and Coastal Command, as well as the 8th and 9th U.S. Army Air Forces, were involved. It was a finely tuned aerial ballet involving thousands of aircraft — complicated by individual personalities, communication difficulties, weather, unexpected problems and, of course, enemy action.

The Luftwaffe, although reeling from losses and suffering a shortage of virtually everything, including trained pilots, moved what they could to counter the Allied thrust. Some 300 aircraft were transferred to the area and the Germans made the most of nearby airfields and the comprehensive radar and ground-observation networks already in place to counter Allied bombers. German fighters, when they could break through the protective cordon, inflicted significant damage on the transport fleets, but it was never enough to seriously challenge Allied air superiority. The most telling blow the Luftwaffe managed to land was made by its bombers on the evening of Sept. 19-20, when 75 aircraft targeted Eindhoven in Holland, damaging the city and British supply columns located therein — further delaying XXX Corps’ advance.

The bombers

Bomber Command and B-17s from the U.S. 8th Air Force got the ball rolling, attacking flak positions and enemy airfields. Fighters and fighter-bombers provided a continuous presence, beginning approximately 30 minutes before the first transport aircraft and remaining on station as necessary. As Allied radars did not cover the entire operational area, two U.S. P-51 Mustang fighter groups conducted barrier patrols east of the corridors along which the transport aircraft flew. Six additional U.S. Mustang groups mounted area cover over the southern portion of the operational area, while 18 RAF Spitfire squadrons and two Mustang groups did the same for the northern portion.

To prevent friendly-fire incidents, direct air support missions — provided primarily by aircraft from 2 TAF — were restricted in general to supporting the advance of XXX Corps. In all, more than 8,000 allied sorties were flown in support of Market-Garden.

During the evening of Sept. 16-17, Lancasters and Mosquitoes from 1 and 8 Groups of Bomber Command attacked German positions through the operational area.

During an attack on a flak position near the Dutch city of Moerdijk, the RCAF suffered its first casualties when two Lancasters collided resulting in the death of both crews. Five were members of the RCAF. A subsequent attack on flak positions near the city of Flushing the following day occurred without loss. Bomber Command support of the remainder of Market-Garden was limited to the occasional diversionary sweeps attempting to draw off German fighters.

The vast majority of RCAF personnel -- approximately 43 airmen -- were killed during the massive Market airlift. RCAF Photo
The vast majority of RCAF personnel — approximately 43 airmen — were killed during the massive Market airlift. RCAF Photo

The fighters, fighter-bombers and recce aircraft

The fighters, fighter-bombers and reconnaissance aircraft belonging to 2 TAF, when weather permitted, were on constant call throughout Market Garden. No. 84 Group was supporting the British Second Army and the Canadian First Army, which left the 29 squadrons belonging to No. 83 Group (of which 15 were RCAF) to shoulder the load for Market Garden. During the operation, 83 Group flew more than 1,700 fighter and 1,300 offensive support and reconnaissance sorties.

According to the plan, escorting the transport aircraft fell primarily to U.S. units with only intermittent protection provided by 2 TAF aircraft. Canadian and British fighters conducted offensive patrols engaging enemy aircraft intermittently and attacking targets of opportunity on the ground. The first RCAF casualty occurred when F/Lt Godfrey Addison Argument (23, of Toronto, Ont.), 33 Squadron, was killed after his Spitfire was hit by flak near Antwerp, Belgium.

He would not be the last.

Both 401 and 441 Squadrons engaged more than 20 German fighters on Sept. 18 in the skies over Nijmegen, claiming three enemy aircraft destroyed and several damaged, for no loss to themselves. However, on Sept. 25 the Luftwaffe began to appear in force and air-to-air combat became more prevalent … and deadly.

All the Canadian Spitfire squadrons aloft reported clashes with gaggles of enemy fighters. Multiple claims for enemy aircraft destroyed and damaged were made, but three Canadian pilots — F/Lt Errol Hilliard Willard Treleaven (29, Elm Creek, Man.) from 416 Squadron, F/Lt Bernard Boe (28, Vancouver, B.C.) and P/O Osman McMillan (21, Windsor, Ont.), both from 441 Squadron — were killed.

Reconnaissance aircraft, operating singly or in pairs, took casualties as well.

On Sept. 17, the Mustang flown by F/O Henry James Muir (22, Trois-Rivières, Que.), from 65 Squadron, was shot down by flak south of Eindhoven. Three days later, on Sept. 20, F/Lt John Wesley Cowling (29, Peterborough, Ont.) from 430 Squadron was killed when his Mustang was lost in the same area.

Allied fighter-bombers made their presence felt on the first day of the ground assault, helping to blast a way forward for the tanks of XXX Corps. Canadian Typhoons from 438, 439, and 440 Squadrons, armed with 225 kilogram bombs, flew multiple sorties on Sept. 17, striking both flak positions and points of enemy resistance. From that point forward, these RCAF squadrons flew mostly armed reconnaissance missions, attacking targets of opportunity.

Although many of the Typhoons suffered flak damage, their only fatal casualty occurred on Sept. 24 when F/O Richard Walter Vokey (21, Montreal, Que.), flying a Typhoon, was hit by flak while engaging a concentration of enemy vehicles. However, another Canadian, F/O Tim Issie Pervin (30, Westmount, Que.), a Typhoon pilot with 181 Squadron, was killed on Sept. 22. Along with his squadron, he was conducting a rocket and cannon attack on enemy forces in the Geaven area of Holland when his aircraft was hit by flak. He was too low to recover and crashed near Eindhoven.

The transport aircraft

The vast majority of RCAF personnel — approximately 43 airmen — were killed during the massive Market airlift.

The two groups with RAF Transport Command, No. 38 (flying four-engine aircraft such as the Short Stirling) and No. 46 (flying Dakotas), had a combined strength of 371 aircraft on Sept. 17. By the end of the operation on Sept. 26, including replacement aircraft, 82 had been destroyed and another 350 damaged to varying degrees. Within the U.S. 9th Troop Carrier Command, losses were just as bad. Out of 1,173 aircraft at the beginning of Market Garden, 932 were damaged or destroyed.

Among the RCAF personnel killed were F/O George Edgar Henry (25, Flin Flon, Man.) who was mortally wounded while at the helm of a Dakota from 575 Squadron. The navigator, F/O Henry Joseph Love McKinley, and wireless operator, WO William Fowler (both RCAF), along with the second navigator WO Albert E. Smith (RAF), attempted to complete the mission. However, when the glider they were towing reported battle damage, they gently turned back so it could land in friendly territory. McKinley and Smith then nursed the Dakota back to England where they executed a smooth landing. Both were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Twelve members of 437 Husky Squadron, the only RCAF transport squadron in Europe, lost their lives during Market Garden. Formed a mere three days before the beginning of the operation, the unit’s baptism-by-fire came on Sept. 21, when four Canadian Dakotas were shot down.

Also killed was F/S Semon Lievense (28, St. Boniface, Man.), a radar mechanic in charge of Light Warning Radar Unit 6080. To provide the airborne troops with a limited ability to detect and guide the interception of enemy aircraft, air portable radars with a small detachment of RAF and RCAF personnel were to be landed by glider.

Two units, encompassing 25 personnel in two gliders, were released from their tow aircraft near Arnhem on Sept. 18. Damaged by flak, the gliders made hard landings. The radar crews immediately came under mortar and small arms fire and the radars were never set up. Instead, the crews, including F/S “Blondie” Lievense, fought as infantry. Of the 25 officers and men of these units, 10 were killed, 11 were captured and four managed to escape. Lievense was killed by German artillery on Sept. 22.

An epic gamble

Operation Market-Garden was a gamble of epic magnitude that sought to end the war by Christmas 1944. It failed — and the Allies faced more than seven more months of hard fighting before the Germans surrendered.

Arnhem, the Dutch city that had seen so many killed on the ground and in the air was finally liberated by the Canadian Army on April 15, 1945.

Sixteen RCAF squadrons proudly bear “Arnhem” as a battle honour on their standards (colours), indicative of their role in supporting Allied ground forces trying to reach “a bridge too far”.

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