by William F. Buckingham, Tempus Publishing, Shroud, Gloucestershire, 2005, $20
Students of World War II in Europe have long recognized the battle of Arnhem as an epic, a tragedy of doomed heroism. The drop of the British 1st Airborne Division into the Dutch city across the lower Rhine was part of Operation Market Garden, the centerpiece of General Bernard Law Montgomery’s “single thrust” strategy into Germany. The result of a great deal of to- and froing on the part of the Allied high command, Market Garden has remained a controversial operation since its inception. According to Monty-haters (a large and vociferous group headquartered mainly in the United States), General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to back Market Garden was a disastrous mistake, which required turning off the gasoline spigot to the rest of the Allied armies. In order to supply Montgomery, Ike literally had to stop Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army in its headlong rush toward Germany, which didn’t sit well with the American leaders. Nor did Eisenhower’s decision look any better when Market Garden ended in ignominious failure.
In assessing this great airborne operation, it is tempting to say that it was predestined to fail. It was a highly complex plan requiring split-second timing, and there was almost no margin for deviation or error. Three complete airborne divisions (101st and 82nd U.S., along with 1st British) were to drop into the Netherlands and seize the bridges over the innumerable Dutch watercourses. And they were innumerable. The 101st, for example, had no fewer than 11 target bridges in and around Eindhoven. The paratroopers’ job was to lay down an airborne “carpet” over which the divisions of British XXX Corps could drive, spearheaded by the Guards Armoured Division. More than 60 miles separated its jump-off point from the operational target: the Arnhem bridge over the Lower Rhine, which according to the plan would be securely in the hands of the 1st Airborne. The plan called for relief of the airborne force within 48 hours, standard operating procedure in airborne operation. For all their glamour and dash, airborne forces are extremely light, even fragile, and cannot stand up to combat with enemy regulars for any period of time without quick relief by regular land forces. As things turned out, XXX Corps was barely getting started by then, stymied as much by the dilatory nature of its own operations as by German resistance along the corridor. Over the next nine days, superior German forces, including a brace of SS panzer divisions, essentially destroyed the 1st Airborne.
The reasons for that failure continue to be debated, but never more trenchantly than in the new edition of William F. Buckingham’s book, which has been added to the Battles and Campaigns series under the editorial direction of Hew Strachan. It eschews the simplistic solutions of Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far. As every fan of that book (and film) knows, Ryan laid a great deal of blame on the faulty radios the British airborne carried, a deficiency that came as a shock to the troopers on the ground. As Buckingham shows convincingly, the extremely short-range airborne radios had failed in every previous British drop, and no one was surprised when they failed this time, too. Likewise, the very notion of the plan going “a bridge too far” receives short shrift here. As Buckingham argues conclusively, Maj. Gen. Frederick “Boy” Browning, the British airborne chief, almost certainly never uttered the words in question. If he had, then he was an idiot. Getting over the Arnhem bridge was not just a desirable achievement. It was the sine qua non of Market Garden. If Browning thought that the operation wasn’t going to get over the Rhine, then he should have canceled it before it got started. It was something like calling a plane crash a “partial success” because it had gotten part of the way to its destination. Browning no doubt added these words to the record after the fact, to invest himself with a prescience he certainly had not possessed at the time, and to absolve himself of blame for an operation with which he had been intimately involved from the start, and for which he bore the lion’s share of responsibility.
Throughout the book, Buckingham strips Market Garden of virtually every aspect of its mythology. His is the first account to analyze what we might call the long-term origins of the operation. After all, Market Garden did not spring into being fully formed one bright autumn day in September 1944. The chain of causation and events dates back to the very origins of the British airborne forces. For example, the fact that the Royal Air Force got to choose the landing zones for the 1st Airborne—zones characterized above all by their excessive distance from the Arnhem Bridge—shows up in every book on Market Garden. Rarely appreciated is the fact that this had always been the case in British airborne drops. Indeed, operational control of the drops by the RAF had been the price paid to the Air Ministry for supporting the creation of an airborne force in the first place. It wasn’t simply an error on the part of this or that Market Garden planner. Rather, it stumbled out of the somewhat rocky terrain of British military culture.
Likewise, the fact that every major planner and commander of the Arnhem drop was an absolute virgin when it came to airborne operations—from Montgomery to Browning to the 1st Airborne’s divisional commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Urquhart—was more than an accident. In particular, Urquhart, had no more business commanding an airborne division than I do, and he proved it repeatedly once on the ground at Arnhem. He hated to fly and was frequently airsick. Nevertheless, he was a favorite of Monty’s, and personal patronage had always trumped professional competence in assigning high command within the British army. Moreover, the British have always favored a “one size fits all” rule in distributing command assignments. One needn’t be an expert in airborne operations to command an airborne unit, according to this notion, since paratroopers are simply infantry who arrive on the battlefield in a different way.
Another notion that fills the literature on Arnhem is the elite nature of the 1st Airborne Division. Here, too, Buckingham demurs. The division was only 14 months old at the time of Market Garden, and during that period most of its constituent formations had been operating independently in North Africa and Sicily. The divisional headquarters had functioned as an operational command post for just over one week, when it accompanied two of its brigades into Italy in September 1943. The division operated as a complete entity precisely once before Arnhem, during a training exercise in
May 1944 titled “Rags,” in which it drove, rather than jumped into combat. Many of its men had seen hard fighting, it is true, but only in the context of a series of fiascoes. The 2nd Parachute Battalion’s drop at Depienne in Tunisia in November 1942 is a good example. The ground attack it was intended to spearhead was canceled, but the commanding officer involved did not bother to inform the airborne. The unlucky paratroopers jumped, formed up and then had to carry out a three-day fighting withdrawal through enemy lines—suffering 50 percent casualties in the process.
The dismal combat record did not stop the men of the 1st Airborne from adopting a group persona that crossed well over the “swagger line” into feelings of superiority to the rest of the army, and even outright arrogance. A succession of commanders found the division nearly impossible to train, and its behavior often could best be described as mutinous—especially when it was stationed back in England. In the crucial spring of 1944, when the division should have been honing itself to a fine edge for operations in Western Europe, it had to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with discipline problems.
While Buckingham deals quite well with all these systemic factors, his account also features a villain: “Boy” Browning. This so-called “father of the British airborne” is painted here as anything but. A blatant careerist, a bureaucratic empire-builder and an unscrupulous political operator whose sole qualification for command was his status as a “well connected Guards officer,” Browning wanted Market Garden not so much because it would help win the war but because it would cement his position within the postwar army. As Allied armies hurdled across Western Europe at top speed after the breakout from Normandy, one airborne operation after another became redundant and was canceled. An increasingly desperate Browning came to see the Arnhem drop as his last chance, which accounts for the incredibly cavalier way in which he planned it. Drop zones too far from their objectives? Intelligence reports that SS panzer formations had been spotted in the Arnhem area? Not enough transport aircraft to drop the entire 1st Airborne in one wave? None of these things mattered to Browning or, if they did, he simply buried them. The British intelligence officer who reported on the tanks in Arnhem, in fact, wound up being sent home on psychological sick leave, Soviet-style. Browning’s treatment of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, and his shameless attempt to lay the blame for the failure of Market Garden at the feet of the Polish commander, Brig. Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski, were cut from the same dubious cloth.
Epic? As Buckingham shows, it was much more like a soap opera. Or perhaps an amateur hour. The men of the 1st Airborne Division, who formed the sharp end of this inept operation and who gave their lives in the process, deserved better.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.