This week marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, the largest combat airborne drop in history. These are the guns the paratroopers carried.
On Sept. 17, 1944, more than 1,500 planes and 500 gliders delivered over 30,000 troops from the First Allied Airborne Army– composed of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Division as well as the Britsh 1st Airborne– to a corridor across German-occupied Holland. The “Market” phase of the operation was envisioned to seize dozens of key bridges and strategic points over the rivers and canals of The Netherlands ahead of the “Garden” phase, which was a rapid advance from the tanks of the British XXX Corps. It was thought that the Germans in the area were understrength and would not be able to put up much resistance. The idea was to open a quick route to the Rhine, Germany’s heartland, and shorten the war.
That thinking was ultimately wrong.
The landings initially went well, and American troops liberated the Dutch town of Eindhoven while the British, further North, was to seize Arnhem. Unlike the D-Day landings when the paratroopers landed in the dark and spent the next two days fighting as confused small groups, the Market landings were daylight drops– a risky proposition in the enemy-held territory– and the units remained largely intact.
Correspondent and radioman Edward R. Murrow tagged along for the ride and noted, “I can see their chutes going down now … they’re dropping beside the little windmill near a church, hanging there, very gracefully, and seem to be completely relaxed, like nothing so much as khaki dolls hanging beneath green lampshades… The whole sky is filled with parachutes.”
From Band of Brothers:
The two American divisions, as well as six clandestine “Jedburgh” teams formed from OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) personnel and Free Dutch soldiers who went in ahead of the airborne force, were armed with a mix of U.S. infantry small arms of the day.
The primary U.S. Army rifle of World War II was the M1 Garand. Designed by Canadian-born Springfield Armory engineer Jean Cantius Garand, the .30-06 caliber semi-automatic was fed with an eight-round en-bloc clip through the top of the receiver. Adopted in 1937, some 5.4 million of the rifles were produced during the conflict by Springfield and Winchester.
The big .30-06 saw much action with the 101st along “Hell’s Highway,” the hard-fought road to Arnhem that was soon swarming with German counterattacks and with the 82nd as they slugged it out for Nijmegen. The long walnut stocks also came in handy when paratroopers crossed the Waal River in small rubber boats to capture the staunchly defended Nijmegen railway bridge, as some of the men used them as paddles!
A more pint-sized weapon, the M1 Carbine, was a “war baby” of sorts, as it only reached production in 1942 as a compact rifle for use by support troops such as mortar crews, radiomen and truck drivers. Weighing in at just 5-pounds, the semi-auto used a detachable 15-round magazine and fired the 7.62x33mm .30 Carbine cartridge. In all, more than 5 million M1 Carbines were produced by companies as varied as Winchester, General Motor’s Inland Division, GM’s Saginaw steering division, typewriter companies IBM and Underwood, National Postal Meter (guess what they made), and jukebox maker Rock-Ola.
The Jedburghs in particular, operating in small three-man teams, each specifically carried a Winchester model M1 Carbine. Another popular gun among OSS and “Jeds” was the High Standard 22LR pistol, complete with a suppressor.
Generally reserved for use by sergeants, field-grade officers and specialist troops, the simplified wartime variant of the Auto-Ordnance Thompson–confusingly designated the M1, a label shared by both the Garand and Carbine– was heavy at 10-pounds but could spit out .45ACP rounds at 700 rounds-per-minute. Although the original Colt-produced M1921 “Tommy Gun” of Prohibition bootlegger fame retailed at around $225 at the time, its WWII descendant, with a more basic layout, came in at $70.
The Thompson, in both M1928 and M1/M1A1 variants, was common in Holland in 1944, especially with officers. However, they were already headed out of production in favor of the smaller, and much cheaper, M3 Grease Gun, which would become much more common in the tail-end of the conflict.
The standard handgun of the U.S. military on D-Day and for decades both before and after was the M1911. Designed by Browning for Colt on the eve of WWI, the classic 7+1 .45ACP Government Issue longslide is iconic. Today these World War Winners are super common in new production, with GI variants made by Rock Island, Colt, Auto-Ordnance and more.
The British 1st Airborne joined later by parts of the Free Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, was armed and equipped with standard Commonwealth small arms of the era.
First introduced in 1907, the original version of this bolt-action classic was the Short Magazine Lee–Enfield Mk III, or just plain old SMLE MK III. When mounting a giant 22-inch Pattern 1907 sword bayonet, this was the rifle that the British Army first took to France in the Great War to fight the Kaiser. Using a 10-round detachable box magazine that typically was never detached, British military doctrine of “Ten Rounds Rapid” delivered by a trained body of infantry could lay down an often deceptively large and effective volume of fire when arrayed against Mauser 98-armed opponents.
While many British Commonwealth countries, such as Australia (made by Lithgow), continued using the SMLE Mk III pattern rifles through the 1950s when they were replaced by the inch-pattern semi-auto FN FAL, Canada, and Great Britain in 1943 moved to an updated version of the Lee Enfield, the Number 4 Mk I. This rifle ditched the “hognose” front cap of the older rifle, switched out the sights and used a stronger action that had the side benefit of being faster to make.
Interestingly, Enfields remain in production by the Indian Ishapore concern today.
Easy to mass produce, over 4 million STENs were cranked out during WWII. The 9mm burp gun was a simple blow-back design that used a 32-round box magazine that inserted horizontally. The STEN Mk V, a more refined version of the gun that included wooden furniture, saw extensive use at Market Garden. British, Canadian and Polish paras jumped with a STEN and seven magazines into combat in 1944.
While some British paratroopers carried Canadian-made Browning-Inglis Hi-Powers, most at Arnhem were equipped with six-shot break-top .38 S&W caliber revolvers, specifically Webley Mk IV and Enfield No.2 Mk Is. Another common handgun, especially with members of the original “Red Devils” were American-made M1911 .45s and clones. As such, resupply missions to help hold Arnhem dropped twice as much .45ACP ammo as .38.
Sadly, the Brits had the longest to wait for relief and, out of ammunition, badly out of contact with higher-ups (93 percent of the airdropped supplies intended for them wound up in German hands) and isolated, they were mauled by German armored units. On 25 September about 2,100 survivors of the 1st Airborne Division were ferried back across the Rhine, leaving 7,500 were either dead or prisoners to the Germans.
And there is always the epic 1977 war film, A Bridge Too Far, which, among other things, has Sean Connery with an M1911 and Gene Hackman with possibly the worst Polish accent, ever.
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