Air Support for Market Garden II

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The Tempest returned to mainland Europe just in time to support Operation Market Garden.

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Cautious critics qualified their praise of this achievement by noting that crushing air superiority had been needed in ‘Market’ to protect airborne missions in daylight from enemy aircraft and flak. Some 5,200 sorties had been flown to protect the troop carriers from the remnants of the Luftwaffe and to neutralize anti-aircraft batteries. Flak suppression had proven both difficult and dangerous against well-camouflaged opponents who knew when to hold their fire. Nevertheless, the guns had been silenced. As for the Luftwaffe, it was never able to break through the cordon of Allied fighters. Its only successful attacks against the troop carriers were made on one occasion when arrangements for escort and cover had broken down.

The 101st Division, which had a broad, open zone and an efficient glider reception party, assembled its glider pilots quite successfully, but most of the 82nd Division’s gliders on D+1 had to land in rough, partly wooded areas some distance from their zones and in circumstances of great confusion because of the enemy offensive out of the Reichswald. Since the pilots of those gliders commonly had little knowledge of the terrain, very little idea of where they were and no maps or compasses with which to orient themselves, it is not surprising that many, having been separated from their comrades by some mishap, wandered about for as much as a day before finding their way to the CP.

Once assembled, the glider pilots were an amorphous mass, almost without organization and hard to handle because few knew anyone outside the 70 or 80 men from their own group. The senior glider officer in the 82nd Division’s area attempted to exercise authority, but he had little to build on. He had no staff and no formal chain of command. The group and squadron staffs who ordinarily administered and commanded the glider pilots were back in England. He was from the 50th Wing and the bulk of the pilots, being from the 52nd Wing, did not know him, questioned his authority and had no faith in his competence. After all, even the most disciplined infantry do better with officers whom they know.

Because of the lack of organization and because the officer in command could not be everywhere; details were sent out on the authority of junior airborne and glider officers without record or coordination. Furthermore, although few glider pilots left the assembly or bivouac areas without permission, a pilot not on detail could almost always get permission from someone, usually the ranking officer of his squadron or his group, to set out for home in accordance with the policy of quick evacuation. Thus many glider pilots were freed from military control to wander about on their own, hitchhiking, fighting; and sometimes just sight-seeing. The American glider pilots in ‘Market’ were under handicaps which made them seem less disciplined and competent than they were. They did need more infantry training. They did need to have a coherent and effective organization of their own instead of being the fifth wheels of the troop carrier squadrons. They also needed compasses, detailed maps and a more efficient assembly system. Had these needs been met their performance would probably have satisfied their critics. One step in that direction was taken when, shortly after ‘Market’, General Brereton ordered that all glider pilots be given broader and continuing combat training.

‘Market’ was the first major test of resupply by air and the test demonstrated that it was, though practicable, both inefficient and hazardous and beset with unsolved problems. One problem was capacity. Approximately 200 C-47s were required to carry the 265 tons a day of automatic supply set up for the 82nd Division. Stirlings could carry three tons apiece, but 38 Group had scarcely enough of them to meet the needs of one British division. While 250 converted B-24 Liberators had supplied the two American airborne divisions fairly well on D+1 and could have done better with a little more experience, the 8th Air Force, which felt its participation in ‘Market’ had seriously interrupted its bombing programme, could not be expected to loan its B-24 groups frequently or for long.

The tendency to dispersion inherent in a paradrop was accentuated by the multiplicity of small bundles and containers and by delays in getting bundles out the relatively small side door of the C-47 without the help of conveyors.37 As a result supply collection consumed an excessive amount of manpower. General Gavin was not exaggerating much when he estimated that prompt and efficient collection would take a third of his men. Obviously nothing like that number could be spared during a battle.

No such supply fiasco as had occurred in ‘Neptune’ took place in ‘Market’. However, at the most generous estimate 1 Airborne Division got less than 15 percent of the supplies dropped to it, the 101st Division got less than 50 percent of its supplies and the 82nd less than 70 percent. Much less would have been retrieved, particularly in the case of the 82nd Division, had not the Dutch been exceptionally helpful and honest. All three airborne divisions concluded that the bulk-loaded glider was a far more efficient means of supply than the parachute. However, gliders were so expensive and so vulnerable to bad weather or enemy action that parachute resupply still had to be relied on.

One of the features of a resupply schedule to isolated troops is its inflexibility. The missions must be flown or the men will die. The British learned at Arnhem just how risky such missions could become. Out of 630 planes sent on resupply missions they lost 52, an average of 8.5 percent and had 281 planes, 44 percent of the total, damaged. They considered losses on this scale unacceptable except in emergencies. Suggested remedies included high-altitude dropping, which was notoriously inaccurate with the techniques then used 38 and drops from a pull-up after a low-level approach, a tactic which made navigation very difficult and was unlikely to reduce losses when the enemy was massed near the drop point. Probably aware of such objections, the RAF commanders arranged to have supplies – delivered in the bomb racks of fighter-bombers of 83 Group and were about to try this experiment when 1 Airborne was evacuated. This abdication by the British troop carriers is striking evidence that the hazards of resupply had not been sufficiently appreciated.38

In spite of its failure and in spite of some mistakes, ‘Market’ was from the troop carrier point of view a brilliant success. The divisional commanders and the Polish brigade commander were unanimous in praising the skill and courage of the troop carrier crews and in calling the missions the best they had ever had in combat or even in training.

The bold decision to fly by daylight had proven safe and successful. In the first two days, before the enemy could react effectively, troop carrier losses had averaged less than 3 percent and only one major American mission had losses heavier than 5 percent. Operation by daylight not only brought a tremendous increase in navigational accuracy, it also cut the assembly time of the airborne to one-third that normally required at night. The average assembly time for a regiment was 45 minutes and almost all regiments and smaller units were able to assemble at 80 to 100 percent of strength within an hour of arrival. The excellent drop given the 376th Field Artillery was especially noteworthy as proving that by daylight artillery could be dropped successfully to support paratroop infantry.

Cautious critics qualified their praise of this achievement by noting that crushing air superiority had been needed in ‘Market’ to protect airborne missions in daylight from enemy aircraft and flak. Some 5,200 sorties had been flown to protect the troop carriers from the remnants of the Luftwaffe and to neutralize anti-aircraft batteries. Flak suppression had proven both difficult and dangerous against well-camouflaged opponents who knew when to hold their fire. Nevertheless, the guns had been silenced. As for the Luftwaffe, it was never able to break through the cordon of Allied fighters. Its only successful attacks against the troop carriers were made on one occasion when arrangements for escort and cover had broken down.

Helpful as daylight was, it did not eliminate the need for pathfinders. The three serials which missed the mark in the initial paratroop drops were all trying to hit unmarked zones. The British, as a result of their difficulties in locating obscure supply drop points, were emphatic in recommending maximum use of visual aids.

Among the most significant and successful innovations were the use of alternate routes and multiple traffic lanes. The former had paid high dividends on D+1 when shifting from the southern to the northern route saved that day’s missions from being grounded. The latter had proven that it was possible to cut the long troop carrier columns in half or even in quarters and send the segments in abreast so that a whole division might be landed in an hour.

When all is said, it is neither the monumental size nor the operational intricacies of ‘Market’ which linger longest in the memory. It is the heroism of the men who flew burning, disintegrating planes over their zones as coolly as if on review and gave their lives to get the last trooper out, the last bundle dropped. It is the stubborn courage of the airborne troops who would not surrender though an army came against them. In the sense that both troop carrier crews and airborne troops did all that men could do, there was, as Gavin said, no failure in ‘Market’.

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