Air Support for Market Garden I



Browning’s failure to arrange RAF and USAAF liaison officers with his troops and Brereton’s stipulation that the fighter-bomber aircraft in Belgium remain grounded while his own were flying, meant that on 18 September 82nd Airborne received only 97 close-support sorties from RAF 83 Group and 1st British Airborne received none. This, compared with 190 Luftwaffe fighters committed to the area.

Air support for the airborne troops after they landed was the responsibility of the Second Tactical Air Force, RAF. In contrast to the massive support given to the troop carrier operations, this was small in scale and ineffective, the reasons being bad weather, faulty support arrangements and lack of planned interdiction.

Apparently no plans were made for interdiction of German troop and supply movements and none was attempted, although a good deal of impromptu harassing was done. Both Allied and German experts felt that interdiction would have been worthwhile and one look at the map of Holland is sufficient to show why they thought so. Marshy soil and a multitude of waterways created bottlenecks for German armour and vehicles just as they did for those of the Allies. Surely the importance of ‘Market’ warranted the stoppering of certain of those bottlenecks, even at some inconvenience to future ground operations. As it was, the Germans were able to move troops to the ‘Market’ area much faster than they got them to Normandy at the time of the Allied landings. Two divisions moved from the Dutch coast 98 miles away and reached the battlefield on D+5.

Two air support parties with SCR.193 were allotted to each of the airborne divisions and to Browning’s headquarters. They were to send their requests to Second Army, which would turn them over to 2nd TAF’s control centre for consideration and forwarding to 83 Group. The support parties had SCR-522 sets for direct ground-air communication by VHF radio. In addition, two light warning radar sets and one GCI set were flown in. The GCI party landed in hostile territory and had to destroy its set. The personnel with the light warning units landed with 1 Airborne Division but were almost wiped out by German fire and were never able to operate their equipment.

The air support parties were frustrated by two basic difficulties. Their SCR-193 sets would not reach Second Army, which was 50 to 85 miles away and, try as they would, they could make no effective contact with support aircraft with their SCR-522 sets. On D+1 the 101st Division and Airborne Corps Headquarters made contact with a mobile listening set of XXX Corps and were able to relay requests to Second Army through that. Both SCR-193 sets with the 82nd Division were inoperative because of landing damage, but Browning’s Corps Headquarters, which was in the 82nd’s area, sent requests on its behalf and on the night of the 18th loaned the division one of its sets.

The great misfortune was that 1 Airborne was unable to put through any requests to anyone up to the time its only functioning VHF set was knocked out by a shell on D+2. Enemy fire had damaged the set very early and killed the only three well-trained operators. After making contact on 21 September with the short-range radio of 64 Regiment, the division sent some requests through that regiment to Airborne Corps to XXX Corps to 2 Army to 2nd TAF to 83 Group to the supporting units, or in other words, all around Robin Hood’s barn. Other requests were originated by Airborne Corps on the basis of 1 Airborne’s general situation, but 2nd TAF frequently objected to these on the grounds that it needed more precise information on where to strike. This was reasonable, although the airborne, so desperate that they called down artillery fire on their own positions, said later that they would rather have had inaccurate support than none. If only a ‘cab rank’ patrol of fighters and fighter-bombers had been provided, prepared to take their missions directly by ground-air radio from controllers on the spot, the problem of getting requests through to 83 Group would have ceased to be serious and instructions could have been given with all necessary precision. In the opinion of 1 Airborne close support thus provided would have been invaluable in the initial phase of ‘Market’ and might have swung the scale from defeat to victory.

In justice to 2nd TAF it should be said that it was gravely handicapped by orders not to send support missions over the ‘Market’ area when airborne missions were in progress. This restriction, intended to reduce congestion and prevent possible clashes between friendly forces, was transformed by weather conditions, repeated short postponements of airborne missions and 2nd TAF’s remoteness from Brereton’s headquarters, into something like a prohibition. Over and over again support units would be grounded in the early morning by bad weather and after that by the prospect of an airborne mission, which they would belatedly learn had been postponed a few hours. By the time the actual mission had come and gone the evening mists would be gathering or the clouds rolling in. Had support missions been flown like those of the troop carriers over a specified corridor and had they been under effective ground-air control at destination, the restriction might have been dispensed with, making it possible to send planes to the aid of the airborne whenever weather permitted.

Instead direct air support during the nine decisive days of ‘Market’ was decidedly inadequate except in a handful of cases. On 18 September 97 Spitfires and Mustangs were sent to help the 82nd Division beat off the German attacks out of the Reichswald and on 22 September 119 planes were sent to the assistance of the 101st Division, probably in response to a specific request from the division which 2nd TAF had accepted. The first direct support at Arnhem came on 24 September when 22 Typhoons attacked German positions around 1 Airborne and on the 25th when seven Typhoons and 74 Mitchells and Bostons did likewise, all to very good effect but much too late to win. Some armed reconnaissance was also flown but to comparatively little avail, since the Germans simply silenced their guns until the planes were past and waited until the coast was clear before sending in their own planes in repeated hit-and-run attacks, principally against 1 Airborne and the 82nd Division. All in all, it must be said that ground support in ‘Market’ was a difficult task badly handled and that the support provided was too little and too late.

The British glider pilots, who were organized as ground troops in a special glider pilot regiment, made a much better combat showing in ‘Market’ than the American glider pilots, who were simply an element within the troop carrier squadrons. This contrast gave rise to proposals that the American glider pilots be put under the command of the airborne divisions to make good soldiers of them. A conclusive answer to that was given by General Ridgway, who observed that since the primary duty of glider pilots was to fly gliders, they belonged with the troop carriers.

The idea has been advanced that, had the American glider pilots been comparable to the British as soldiers, the 82nd Division could have sent them to the front in place of a regimental combat team and could have used the RCT to take the Nijmegen bridge on 19 September. This theory apparently rests on the fallacious assumption that the Americans, like the British, had co-pilots in their gliders and that therefore over 900 glider pilots were available. Since only a handful of co-pilots were used, it is clear after allowance for wounds, accidents and releases in distant or hostile territory that the 82nd Division could not possibly have mustered as many as 450 glider pilots at any time up to the afternoon of D+6.

Moreover, a large proportion of those it did have were engaged in essential duties, which someone would have had to do. Thus the net gain to the division from having the glider pilots organized as infantry would have been on the order of a company rather than a regiment.

The question of why they did not do better should be considered in connection with the situation then existing. It was standard procedure to collect both British and American glider pilots at divisional CP’s, use them for guard and supply duties and evacuate them as soon as possible for employment in subsequent missions. Instructions for ‘Market’ specified that they were to be used at the front only as a last resort. Nevertheless, they should have been trained for such an emergency and were not.

The equipment and briefing of the glider pilots was also unsuitable for a mission such as ‘Market’. They were given no compasses; about half of them got no maps of their destination; and the others received only a single map on a scale of 1:100,000. Most seem to have had a rather indistinct blow-up of a high-altitude photograph of the landing area. The briefings were more concerned with the landing fields than with the surrounding terrain and said little of how and where the airborne units intended to deploy.

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