From ‘Neptune’ to ‘Market’ I

In the summer of 1944 the sun shone over Southern England and success greeted the allied armies in France and Belgium. At airfields in south-west England and in Lincolnshire increased activity aroused suspicions but no one really knew what was in the wind. In August WAAF Corporal Ruth Mary Parker was posted to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. `This airfield had the longest runways in the country and had been used by the United States Army Air Force as a base. The billets where we slept and spent much of our off-duty time were built of corrugated metal shaped like long tunnels, with the door and only windows at each end. The bedsteads we used were made of iron and had previously been used by the Americans. The `Yanks’, as we called them, who were well known for their gumchewing habit, had left dollops of this stuck all round the frames! Mind you, they also left us some delicious tinned peaches, pineapples and Spam, which were at that time unobtainable in Britain because of the rationing. When I arrived at Fairford everyone was immediately confined to camp and letters home were all censored. The phrase `Careless talk costs lives’ was used widely by the government during the war: it was an attempt to make sure that no-one let slip anything which a German spy might find useful. The reason we were not allowed to leave the camp was because Fairford was going to be involved in a top secret operation intended to shorten the war.’

Between `D-Day’, 6 June 1944 and the airborne landings in Holland in September that year, no fewer than sixteen airborne operations were planned, mounted and, often at the very last moment, cancelled. In the three months between `Neptune’ and `Market’ the First Allied Airborne Army was created and Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton relinquished his command of the 9th Air Force to head the new command on 16 July with headquarters at Sunnyhill Park near Ascot. Later in the month crews were instructed to add an `Airborne’ flash above their shoulder patch. Eisenhower had nominated Brereton to command the organization, based on his extensive and diverse combat command experience at the air force level over Lieutenant General Sir Frederick A. M. `Boy’ Browning, commanding the British 1st Airborne Corps, despite Browning being four months senior. Although Brereton was a distinguished tactical air force officer, he had never before commanded airborne forces. On 2 August Eisenhower asked Brereton to pay particular attention to improving troop carrier navigation. Two days’ later Brereton accepted Browning as his deputy commander. A Grenadier Guards officer, Browning had a legendary reputation as an airborne theorist in some quarters but he had never commanded an airborne corps before and he lacked the battle experience of some of his British and American contemporaries. On the 5th the embryonic organization was plunged into the planning of Operation `Market-Garden’.

The plan was for the Allied Parachute Army to seize three vital bridgeheads which would enable the main forces to break through the last three natural defensive positions left to the Germans. The 1st British Airborne Division had the job of securing the vital road bridge over the Neder-Rhine at Arnhem which would open up the way to the plains of Northern Germany. Brigadier General James M. Gavin’s 82nd `All-American’ Airborne Division would jump ten miles below Arnhem at various zones around the city of Nijmegen and secure the big bridges across the Waal River. General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st `Screaming Eagles’ Airborne would jump about thirty miles to the south at Eindhoven so that a British armoured spearhead (XXX Corps) could drive down this Airborne-held corridor to swing eastwards into Germany, outflanking the Siegfried line and sweeping on to Berlin. Brereton called for the bridges to be taken `with thunderclap surprise’ but his decisions were to achieve exactly the opposite. When Browning consulted Major General Richard Nelson `Windy’ Gale DSO OBE MC commanding 6th Airborne Division who had dropped on `D-Day’ so successfully, Gale was adamant that at least one brigade should be dropped next to the Arnhem road bridge to hold it until the remainder of the Division arrived. He told Browning, `Without such a drop, the chances of success were slim’ and added that, had he been in command at Arnhem, he would have persisted with this demand to the point of resignation.

Airborne Army exercised command of the British 1st Airborne Corps under Browning and command of the American airborne through XVIII Airborne Corps, a new headquarters under the command of Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway. It took over operational control of IX TCC from AEAF despite spirited protests from AVM Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Inclusion of 38 Group and 46 Group was impeded by involvement of the former in special operations with resistance groups on the Continent and by the desire of the RAF to keep at least part of 46 Group for its own use in air supply. Ninth Air Force and USSTAF each had an American air transport group assigned to it and serving it almost exclusively. For these reasons the status of 38 Group and 46 Group was left open and Airborne Army was only given control of `such RAF transports’ as might be allocated to it `from time to time.’

Crucially, the US Army Air Force was unable to fly the airborne forces in two lifts on the first day. The aircraft requirement for the airborne force (less 52nd Division) was 3,800 aircraft (parachute and glider tugs), but only 1,550 aircraft were available, thus the force would have to be landed in three lifts. The commander of 38 Group, RAF Transport Command, AVM Leslie N. Hollinghurst (and every division commander) requested two drops on the first day, the first before dawn, which would give time for a second lift the same day. But Major General Paul L. Williams of the IX US Troop Carrier Command did not agree. As air commander for `Market’ Williams had operational control not only of IX TCC but also of 38 Group, 46 Group and such bomber aircraft as might be used for resupply, presumably the RAF transport component, which could have flown two lifts. Williams had recently obtained extra aircraft for his units but still lacked the extra ground crew to service them and he was of the opinion that the task of servicing hundreds of transport aircraft in between two lifts would be beyond them; a view that was supported by Brereton even though two airlifts had been accomplished on the first day of Operation `Dragoon’ (the code name for the Allied invasion of Southern France on 15 August), albeit with 45 more minutes of daylight against negligible opposition. Browning does not appear to have queried the decision which resulted in having to carry out the lifts over two to three days; a decision which would ensure that any element of surprise was completely lost.

The RAF had allocated ten squadrons of 38 Group and six squadrons of 46 Group to Major General Royal `Roy’ Elliott Urquhart, Commanding First Airborne Division to tow in his gliders and the USAAF were to make available the C-47s of the 9th US Troop Carrier Command for his parachutists but Urquhart calculated that he needed at least 130 aircraft for each of his brigades. On Friday 15th September Urquhart learned from Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mackenzie his Chief of Staff, that to enable Lieutenant General Browning to take his Corps HQ to journey to Nijmegen he had needed 38 transport aircraft and 32 Horsa gliders for administrative personnel and six Waco CG-4A gliders for US Signals’ personnel (enough for an infantry battalion) on the first lift. Urquhart told Browning that he must have another forty aircraft but was told that even a proportion of these were impossible. Browning had already decided to use 36 of the badly needed gliders to take his personal staff to Holland when it was a questionable necessity.

Troop Carrier planning between `Neptune’ and `Market’ falls into three phases, one of inactivity from 13 June to 29 July, one of readjustment to a rapidly changing situation between 29 July and 17 August and a period of heavy and conflicting commitments from 17 August to 17 September. The only large airborne units available for missions up to the end of July were the First Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute Brigade, which was not fully trained. The consensus early in July was that none of the three airborne divisions committed in Normandy would be ready for another flight into battle until after at least seven days of training and refitting. The 101st Division had been kept in action until 27 June, the 82nd until 8 July. As for the British Sixth Airborne Division, it was not relieved until 26 August. The American divisions recuperated sooner than expected, but winter came before 6th Airborne was again fit for an airborne operation. Training was a major occupation for the all the troop carrier groups and the airborne units. Unfortunately, training for combat, like combat had its price. On 8 July 369 Polish paratroopers arrived at Spanhoe located between Leicester, Nottingham and Peterborough to participate in a training mission named Operation `Burden’. At 2130 hours, 33 C-47s departed Spanhoe for a training DZ near Wittering. En route over Tinwell, Rutland one of the aircraft in the 309th Squadron collided with another in the formation. Both aircraft crashed to the ground killing eight crewmen and 26 paratroopers. Only one man survived, Corporal Thomas Chambers, 9th Air Force, leaping from the aircraft as it plummeted to earth.

On the evening of 3 September Montgomery asked for an operation by the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute Brigade to secure a crossing of the Rhine in the stretch between Arnhem and Wesel on the afternoon of the 6th or the morning of the 7th. Montgomery’s staff selected Arnhem as the crossing point, largely because the flak around Wesel was considered prohibitively thick. Airborne Army began on the 4th to prepare for this operation, which was christened `Comet’. The troops who were to take the bridge at Arnhem were to be flown in over a route very similar to the northern route later used in `Market’, to a drop zone and a landing zone five miles northwest of Arnhem which were practically identical with zones used on `Market’. In these respects `Market’ was simply `Comet’, slightly revised. The rest of the troops were to be flown over a more southern route to zones south of Nijmegen to take bridges over the Waal at Nijmegen and over the Maas at Grave. While these objectives were retained in `Market’ the planning in relation to them was drastically changed.

By 7 September `Comet’ plans were complete and field orders were issued. The 52nd Wing called in its group commanders and their staffs at 1300 for briefing. However, storm warnings forced a 24-hour postponement. On the 8th Montgomery got word that German resistance along the Albert and Meuse-Escaut canals west of Antwerp was stiffening. He therefore asked another postponement. Further news of effective German resistance and even counter-attacks caused him to delay `Comet’ again on the 9th and to cancel it on the 10th. That morning Eisenhower flew to Brussels to confer with Montgomery on the strategy they would use in the coming weeks. In a stormy session aboard Eisenhower’s aircraft Montgomery won his superior’s approval for an expanded version of `Comet’. This operation, `Market’, was to lay an airborne carpet, comprising not only the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute Brigade but also the American 82nd and 101st Divisions, along the road to Arnhem. To lift this force would require all available RAF and American troop carrier aircraft in a series of missions lasting at least two days. Montgomery also wanted ground operations outside Belgium brought to a standstill so that he could put maximum force into Operation `Garden’, a ground assault from his front along the Meuse-Escaut Canal up the Hasselt-Arnhem road.

At 1430 hours on 10 September General Browning, who had just flown back to England with news of the Brussels conference, notified Airborne Army of the decision on `Market’. At 1800 General Brereton held a conference of his troop carrier and airborne commanders and their staffs (except General Ridgway who was in France) at Airborne Army Headquarters in Sunnyhill Park near Ascot, Berkshire. There Browning sketched out Montgomery’s conception of `Market’ and a short discussion was held on the main points of the operation. The commanders agreed that the British and Polish airborne should be concentrated for the Arnhem assault, that the 82nd Division should take over the Nijmegen-Grave area and that the 101st Division should seize crossings over the principal waterways south of Grave. This decision ensured that missions carrying the 82nd Division from the Grantham area would not cross the path of missions bearing the 101st from southern England. It also ensured that the less seasoned 101st would be the first to make contact with the Allied ground forces. Finally, it was decided that the 101st was to be responsible for the crossings in a sixteen-mile area between Veghel and Eindhoven and could postpone the taking of Eindhoven until two hours after its initial operations. Thus drops near Eindhoven would not be necessary and the division could concentrate its drops and landings further north. The Nijmegen-Arnhem area was more than fifty miles behind the German front and in between were seven canals and rivers at which, the Germans might be able to hold. If they did so the predicament of the airborne would be very dangerous; just how dangerous, events were to show.

Brereton ruled that `Market’ would be flown in daylight. Intelligence estimates indicated that the Luftwaffe would not be a serious threat, but that the flak around Arnhem was increasing to the point where it might. (Whatever the danger from flak, a night mission was virtually out of the question since 17 September – the date finally selected for `Market-Garden’) fell at the dark of the moon. Postponement would not help, since on the following nights the moon would not rise until about dawn. Both doctrine and experience warned against attempting airborne missions in total darkness and Brereton judged that flak could be avoided or neutralized sufficiently so that `Market’ could be flown safely by day. Even so, objectives in `Market’, deep in enemy territory and 200 miles from the nearest `Gee’ chain would be much more difficult to locate by radar than those in Normandy had been.

On 12 or 13 September `H-Hour’, the moment when the initial troop carrier serials, exclusive of pathfinders, would arrive over their zones, was set at 1300 hours. This timing gave ample opportunity for preliminary antiflak operations between dawn and `H-Hour’. It was also considered early enough to enable armoured units of Second Army to begin their attack after `H-Hour’ and still make contact with the airborne troops in the Eindhoven area before sundown.

On 11 September at a conference at Eastcote the troop carrier and airborne staffs met convened to decide on the selection of routes and zones and make preliminary decisions on the loading plan. General Paul L. Williams and his wing and group commanders considered two routes, a northern one that ran across the occupied Netherlands and a southern route that approached through Belgium. The northern route began at the seaside town of Aldeburgh (`Antigua’) beside the Alde estuary, ran for 94 miles straight across the North Sea to the west end of Schouwen Island, a distinctive landfall point and on without turning for eighteen miles to the eastern tip of the island. From there it ran for 52 miles to the IP (`Ellis’) about three miles south of Hertogenbosch and could be readily identified by several road intersections in its vicinity. The southern route started at Bradwell Bay (`Attu’) and cut across the Thames estuary for 34 miles to the tip of the North Foreland. All serials going to Arnhem and Nijmegen on `D-Day’ would use the northern route. Those for the Eindhoven area would take the southern route. Because their objectives were relatively near the Allied lines, use of that route would cut their time over enemy territory by more than half. The British were convinced that the American troop carrier tactic of flying in serials was inferior to their own method of individual navigation. The glider-towing aircraft of 38 Group flew in loose pairs at twenty-second intervals and 46 Group flew in `V’s of three aircraft at thirty-second intervals. General `Boy’ Browning was so sure that the technique of 38 Group was better that he recommended that IX TCC adopt it. American paratroop formations would be the usual nine-aircraft `V of V’s in serials of from 27 to 45 aircraft which would each tow only a single glider. Double-towing gliders was difficult and dangerous, but single-towing meant stretching the glider lift out over four days and made it necessary to add a couple of glider serials to the original sequence and to schedule additional missions on `D+2′ and `D+3′ to bring in the displaced gliders. American glider formations again would be columns made up of pairs of pairs in echelon to the right in serials of from thirty to fifty. RAF tow-aircraft and gliders would proceed in a loose column of pairs at ten second intervals, flying at 2,500 feet on the way to their zones and returning at 5,000-7,000 feet. After passing their zones the American troop carriers were to turn 180° to left or right, depending on the position of the zone and return by the way they had come. They were to fly at 1,500 feet on the trip out, descend to 500 feet to make the drop or release and return at 3,000 feet to avoid the incoming traffic.

Selection of drop and landing zones was owed much to the fact that the terrain was more favourable than that in the Normandy operations. In the north, especially around Arnhem, the land is rolling and in many places wooded. Between the Rhine and the Waal and everywhere in the Eindhoven sector it is flat, open and interlaced with rivers, canals and ditches, which could shield the airborne troops against attacks by enemy armour. Fields varied from very large to less than 200 yards in length but they were bordered by low, weak fences and small hedges instead of the formidable barriers encountered in the Cotentin.

The great prize was the single-span steel bridge which the road running north from Hasselt crossed the Lower Rhine into the city of Arnhem. The river at that point was about a tenth of a mile across. The south side was low-lying and scant settled. The north side was a thriving urban area, Arnhem being a modern city of over 100,000 persons with several good-sized suburbs. A second road bridge into the city had been destroyed but a railway bridge 2½ miles east of the road was still intact. At Heveadorp, a mile below the railway bridge, there was a ferry. The Germans were known to have built a pontoon bridge near the road.

To take and hold one or more of these crossings was the task of the First Airborne Division. Its initial paratroop drop was to be made in at DZ `X’ about six miles northwest of the centre of Arnhem, north of the village of Heelsum and just south of the Amsterdam-Arnhem railway. It was an irregular area containing about a square mile. The first British gliders were land on LZ `S’, a narrow strip over a mile long and about half a mile wide, a little way northeast of DZ `X’ and on the other side of the railway. The next contingent of gliders was assigned LZ `Z’, adjoining DZ `X’ and extending about half a mile east of it. All three zones were made up of fields, pasture and heath bordered by pine woods. All these zones were over five miles away from the road bridge which was the chief objective of the troops. American airborne doctrine, confirmed by Allied experience in Normandy, held that this was too far. Precious time would be consumed merely in marching to the bridge. The risk of delay by roadblocks was great. In addition, part of the force would have to be left behind to hold zones for use by other missions on `D+1′.

The British airborne staff officers were not unaware of these handicaps but Major General Urquhart preferred good zones at a distance to bad zones near his objectives. North of the river there were no large open areas near the city, though some smaller ones might have been used. Dutch reports as to the topography of the south shore of the river were pessimistic, indicating that it was swampy, dissected by ditches and easily swept by gun fire from the opposite bank. Moreover, the area was said to be subject to flooding, a most unpleasant possibility to men who remembered British and American drops into swamps in Normandy. Another consideration was fear of anti-aircraft guns, great numbers of which were said to be massed near the bridge. Consequently no `D-Day’ drops or landings were to be made near Arnhem. The coup de main contemplated for `Comet’ was abandoned and nothing was put in its place. Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, commanding 2nd Parachute Battalion who were detailed to take the three bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem, regarded it as absurd to be ordered to capture a bridge without landing troops on both sides of the River, but he felt that the restrictions imposed on the locations of the Division’s drop zones for the first day were unavoidable. Colonel George James Stewart Chatterton (32), commanding the Glider Pilot Regiment recalled that he wanted `a force of five or six gliders to land near the bridge and take it.’ He saw no reason why he could not do it but apparently nobody else saw the need for it. `I distinctly remembered being called a bloody murderer and assassin for suggesting it.’ The 82nd Division in contrast to the British placed its zones on an average about a mile from its initial objectives. Its staff spent the night of 10/11 September selecting zones and next morning after discussion and some revision to me troop carrier objections its choices were approved at the Eastcote meeting.

On 12 September more than 100 officers assembled in what had once been Lady Charlotte Ebury’s bedroom in Moor Park, an elegant 18th-century Palladian mansion set within several hundred acres of parkland to the south-east of Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire. Earlier in the war the mansion had been a comfortable jail for German officers. Lieutenant General `Boy’ Browning and Major General Roy Urquhart, who were billeted in the mansion, stood up to face the men. They told their stunned audience that after a month’s frantic and secret planning that an airborne assault by parachute and glider would be launched to seize bridges across the Rhine.

For the invasion of Normandy 17,000 airborne troops had been used but `Market’ would be the largest airborne operation in history; over 34,600 men of the 101st, 82nd and 11,900 men of the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute Brigade (Samodzielna Polska Brygada Spadochronova), who would be flown to Arnhem to capture the most northerly bridge. 14,589 troops were to be landed by glider and 20,011 by parachute. Brereton had been advised that the glider losses of Normandy had been made good with 2,160 Wacos, 104 US and 812 British Horsas and 64 Hamilcars available to land over 20,000 glider troops, 1,736 vehicles, 263 artillery pieces and 3,342 tons of ammunition and other supplies. However, the US had only 2,060 glider pilots available, so that none of its gliders would have a co-pilot but would instead carry an extra passenger. To deliver its 36 battalions of airborne infantry and their support troops to the continent, the First Allied Airborne Army had under its operational control the 14 groups of IX Troop Carrier Command and after 11 September the sixteen squadrons of 38 Group RAF (an organization of converted bombers providing support to resistance groups) and a transport formation, 46 Group. The combined force had 1,438 C-47/Dakota transports (1,274 USAAF and 164 RAF) and 321 converted RAF bombers. IX Troop Carrier Command’s transport aircraft would have to tow gliders and drop paratroopers, duties that could not be performed simultaneously. Major General Williams ruled that, for ease of control, all parachute drops would be made from USAAF aircraft. Ninety percent of the USAAF transports on the first day would drop parachute troops, with the same proportion towing gliders on the second day. The RAF aircraft on the first two days would be almost entirely used as glider tugs for the British Division, except a dozen Stirlings for their pathfinders. For the first day’s landings the allocation of aircraft was: 101st Airborne Division: 501 (431 parachute: seventy tugs) 82nd Airborne Division: 530 (480 parachute: fifty tugs) 1st Airborne Division: 463 (147 parachute: 316 tugs) HQ 1st Airborne Corps: 38 (38 tugs). They would take off from 23 airfields (eight in Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, fourteen in Wiltshire and Hampshire and one in Kent).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.