The airborne part of Operation `Market‑Garden’, the descent by British and US forces on Arnhem and the corridor stretching up to it from the Allied front line, was the largest Allied airborne effort of the war, and the only attempt at a semi‑strategic airborne gyration, but failed in its efforts to secure a Rhine bridge because of poor planning and intelligence.
The strategic potential of airborne forces was neither fully developed nor exploited during World War II. Such forces are extremely expensive in men and material. Large numbers of picked men have to be given special training and kept out of battle for long periods; a great many parachutes, gliders and other specialist equipment have to be provided and men trained to operate and maintain them; hundreds of four‑engined bombers to tow the gliders and transport aircraft to drop the paratroopers had to be diverted from other tasks and their crews given special training; and a large base organization is necessary to launch and maintain the force
Among senior Allied commanders’ opinions were divided on the proper use of airborne forces. Some, such as Lieutenant General George Patton, believed that airborne forces should be confined to the tactical role with airborne brigade groups assigned as corps troops for quick reaction. Others believed that the great cost of such specialist forces could only lie justified by their being used to carry out deep and strategically significant penetrations of enemy territory, though the threat which airborne forces held in reserve posed to the enemy was also a valuable bonus.
High level disputes
To promote planning for the strategic use of airborne forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces, established in August 1944 the 1st Allied Airborne Army Headquarters, under Lieutenant‑General Lewis H. Brereton, United States Army Air Force. The raw material for their planning was provided by three American and two British airborne divisions, the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade and the 52nd (Lowland) Division as an airtransportable follow‑up and consolidation formation. For air transport they had the United States IX Troop Carrier Command and Nos 38 and 46 Groups, RAF.
The establishment of this headquarters did not immediately alter the essentially tactical nature of the tasks assigned to airborne forces. Of these the most successful, so far as British forces were concerned, were the set-piece operations of 6th Airborne Division in Normandy invasion and at the Rhine crossing. Because the 1st Airborne Division, in general, and the lst Parachute Brigade, in particular, had had greater operational experience prior to the invasion, they were held in reserve for use against targets of opportunity. By the time of ‘Market‑Garden’ the 1st Airborne Division had been involved in the plans for 16 abortive operations. This had led to a great deal of frustration, best summed up by the men who had the arduous task of loading their heavy equipment, jeeps and guns, into Airspeed Horsa gliders by small side doors, an operation which became known as ‘into the ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ gliders, out of the ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ gliders!’.
The cancellations were nearly all the result of the Allies advancing more rapidly than expected or from the strength of the enemy, for one reason or another, appearing too great for the risk involved to be acceptable. The main limitation on the rapid launching of airborne operations was the time required to collect and disseminate briefing material and orders down to the level of the individual soldier. The air photographs provided for one cancelled operation were largely of month old clouds, while for another there were only nineteenth‑century French hachured maps with only the dolphins missing!
The British 2nd Army crossed the Seine on 30 August and were in Antwerp and Brussels on 4 and 5 September respectively after an advance of some 250 miles (400km). On 1 September Eisenhower took over command of all the forces in the field in North‑West Europe. The very rapid advance had put a tremendous strain on the logistic system. While the initial delay in enlarging the Normandy bridgehead had assisted the administrative planners, once the breakout started the rates of advance on which they had been told to plan proved wildly pessimistic. The Seine was reached 11 days ahead of schedule, and Allied forces were approaching the German frontier by D , 96 days while the logistic plans were based on their doing so about D ~ 300 days. Moreover, until the lower Scheldt had been cleared and Antwerp opened as a port, the armies were still being supplied through Cherbourg and over the Normandy beaches.
Narrow or broad front?
These important logistical considerations entered into the disagreement between Eisenhower, who favoured an advance on a broad front, closing up to the Rhine along the whole front before crossing it to break into the heart of Germany, and General Sir Bernard Montgomery, who advocated an advance on a narrow front launched from the 21st Army Group area and designed to carry the Allies deep into the North German plain with the chance of ending the war in 1944.
Montgomery tried to persuade Eisenhower to give the 21st Army Group absolute priority in additional formations and in logistics to support this single‑front thrust. Eisenhower was not to be persuaded, but was sufficiently impressed with the advantages of a northern advance to give Montgomery what was in effect the whole of the strategic reserve, the forces available to the 1st Allied Airborne Army. ‘Market‑Garden’ was the child of this concept and of Montgomery’s singleness of purpose.
‘Market‑Garden’ and its immediate predecessor ‘Comet’ were brilliant in concept. After occupying Antwerp and Brussels, XXX Corps, under Lieutenant‑General Sir Brian Horrocks, had reached the Meuse‑Escaut Canal. Montgomery aimed to use airborne forces to seize the bridges over the Maas, Waal, and Neder Rijn, at Grave, Nijmegen, and Arnhem respectively, and establish an airhead at the Deelen airfield just north of Arnhem into which to fly an airportable division and supplies (Operation ‘Market’), thus enabling XXX Corps to ‘bounce ‘ the Rhine and advance to the Zuider Zee (‘Garden’).
The tactical prizes for the success of such an operation were great: the German 15th Army and its forces in Holland would have their lines of communication cut, as would the V‑2 missiles sites, the elimination of which was of high priority, and the Siegfried Line would have been turned to the north.
The strategic prize was yet more glittering: the ending of the war in 1944. Not only would this have saved enormously in lives and money, but it would have altered the whole pattern of postwar Europe. The occupation zones in Germany had yet to be agreed. The Russians were advancing in the Balkans but were halted east of Warsaw, refusing even to aid the Allies in aiding the citizens of Warsaw who had risen against the Germans. The outstanding courage of the citizen army of Warsaw was not finally overcome until 2 October. Had ‘Market‑Garden’ been successful, the Western Allies would have entered Berlin and Prague and the Yalta Conference would have been a very different affair from that which it turned out to be. But strategic concepts can only be sealed through tactical success. In ‘Market‑Garden’ this was denied the Allies and it is with the causes of this failure, in particular that of the British 1st Airborne Division, that we are here concerned.
The prevalent optimism at the beginning of September is well illustrated by the plans for Operation ‘Comet’, which was to have been put into effect on 8 September. This operation had the‑same objectives as Operation ‘Market’ but was to be executed by the 1st Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade alone. The 4th Parachute Brigade was to drop south of the Maas and capture the bridge at Grave, the 1st Parachute Brigade was to drop north of the Neder Rijn (or Rhine) and capture the bridges at Arnhem, and the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute Brigade were to drop and land between the Maas and the Waal and capture the bridge at Nijmegen.
Major‑General Roy Urquhart, GOC 1st Airborne Division, has been accused by some of showing a lack of imagination in his `Market’ plan, in not planning to take the Arnhem bridges by glider coup‑de-main, as had been done by the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy. It is therefore of interest that his plan for `Comet’ included provision for a reinforced company from each of the airlanding battalions (1st Borders, 7th KOSB and 2nd South Staffords) each being allotted six Horsa gliders with the task of taking the bridges at Grave, Nijmegen and Arnhem by coup‑de‑main.
The forces were all assembled at Harwell where were the author’s regimental tactical headquarters (1st Light Regiment, RA), and the author well remembers getting ready to take off on this adventure, only to have it postponed for 24 hours just before midnight on 7‑8 September and finally cancelled about the same time on the 9th. When for `Market’ three instead of one airborne divisions were assigned for the same task, it is not surprising that optimism prevailed.
Another effect of the very rapid advance of the 2nd Army from the Seine was the increasing difficulty of getting reliable intelligence of the enemy. Successive postponements of “Comet’ were partly due to the realization that the enemy resistance was again hardening and that not only might the 1st Airborne Division find the enemy too strong for it to carry out its very dispersed mission, but that it would need a deliberate attack, strongly supported by artillery, to enable XXX Corps to breakout across the Meuse‑Escaut Canal to the north.
The plans for Operation ‘Market’ were very similar to those for ‘Comet’, but used divisions where before there had been brigades to seize five major bridges three over the Maas, Waal, and Neder Rhine, laying what was called an airborne carpet, more accurately a series of mats that would enable XXX Corps to `bounce’ the Rhine.
I British Airborne Corps (Lieutenant General F. A. M. `Boy’ Browning) commanded the airborne force until it had landed and came under British 2nd Army (Lieutenant‑General Sir Miles Dempsey). The forces available were: the British 1st Airborne Division, the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, the last under command of the 1st Airborne Division. Aircraft and gliders were provided by Nos 38 and 46 Groups, RAF, and the US IX Troop Carrier Command. The last also provided the pilots for gliders towed by American aircraft, those towed by British aircraft coming from the Glider Pilot Regiment.
Air support and air escort was provided by the 2nd Tactical Air Force, Nos 2 and 11 Groups RAF and the US 8th Air Force (fighters and bombers), all under the control of Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Air Force. The 1st Allied Airborne Army made all arrangements for air escort and for air/sea rescue and dummy parachute drops.
`Garden’ was to be carried out by XXX Corps, under Lieutenant‑General Sir Brian Horrocks (Guards Armoured Division, 43rd and 50th Infantry Divisions) with VIII Corps on its right and XII on its left keeping up what pressure they could with limited ammunition supplies. The Guards Armoured Division was to lead on what was virtually for much of the way a one tank front along the main road EindhovenUden ‑ Grave ‑ Nijmegen ‑ Arnhem ‑the Zuider Zee. Distances in miles from the start line being: Eindhoven 13 (21km); Uden 32 (52km); Grave 43 (69km); Nijmegen 53 (85km); Arnhem 64 (103km); and Zuider Zee 94 (151km).
The 52nd (Lowland) Division was to be ready to be flown in north of Arnhem. On the assumption that Operation `Market’ was successful, it was estimated that XXX Corps might reach the Zuider Zee between two to five days after crossing the Belgian Dutch border. The corps was expected to join the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem between D + 1 and D +3 days.
In drawing up its plans XXX Corps gave too little credence to Dutch warnings on how easy it would be for quite small parties of Germans to hold up the advance or interrupt the lines of communication along the single road, much of it on an embankment from which, along considerable stretches, tanks could not deploy. Nor do the warnings of the Dutch resistance of increasing German strength in the area seem to have been given the weight they deserved. On the other hand, the 1st Airborne Division in its planning paid too much attention to Dutch advice that much of the low‑lying parts of the area were too marshy and intersected by ditches and canals to be used for parachute drops or glider landings. Let us turn now from the general to the particular and consider the task of 1st Airborne Division and its plan to fulfil it.
Brigadier W.F.K Thompson CO of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery with 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.