Military history


OPERATION MARKET-GARDEN was now less than forty-eight hours away. In his office Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, listened to SHAEF’s intelligence chief, British Major General Kenneth W. Strong, disclose his latest news with growing alarm. Beyond doubt, Strong said, there was German armor in the Market-Garden area.

For days, Strong and his staff had been sifting and assessing every intelligence report in an effort to determine the whereabouts of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions. Since the first week in September there had been no contact with the units. Both were badly cut up, but it was considered unlikely that they had been completely destroyed. One theory held that the units might have been ordered back into Germany. Now Dutch underground messages told a different story. The lost divisions had been spotted.

The 9th and, presumably, the 10th SS Panzer divisions were in Holland, Strong reported to Smith, “in all probability to be refitted with tanks.” Exactly what remained of the units or their fighting capability no one could say, but there was no longer any doubt about their location, Strong reported. They were definitely in the vicinity of Arnhem.

Deeply concerned about Market-Garden and, in his own words, “alarmed over the possibility of failure,” Smith immediately conferred with the Supreme Commander. The British 1st Airborne Division, due to land at Arnhem, “could not hold out against two armored divisions,” Smith told Eisenhower. To be sure, there was a question—a big question—about the strength of the units, but to be on the safe side Smith thought that Market-Garden should be reinforced. He believed two airborne divisions would be required in the Arnhem area. (Presumably, Smith had in mind as the additional unit the veteran British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Richard Gale, which had been used successfully during the Normandy invasion, but was not included in Market-Garden.) Otherwise, Smith told Eisenhower, the plan must be revised. “My feeling,” he later said, “was that if we could not drop the equivalent of another division in the area, then we should shift one of the American airborne divisions, which were to form the ‘carpet’ further north, to reinforce the British.”

Eisenhower considered the problem and its risks. On the basis of this intelligence report and almost on the eve of the attack, he was being urged to override Monty’s plan—one that Eisenhower himself had approved. It meant challenging Montgomery’s generalship and upsetting an already delicate command situation. As Supreme Commander, he had another option open: Market-Garden could be canceled; but the only grounds for such a decision would be this single piece of intelligence. Eisenhower had obviously to assume that Montgomery was the best judge of enemy strength before him and that he would plan accordingly. As Eisenhower explained to Smith, “I cannot tell Monty how to dispose of his troops,” nor could he “call off the operation, since I have already given Monty the green light.” If changes were to be made, Montgomery would have to make them. Still, Eisenhower was prepared to let Smith “fly to 21st Army Group headquarters and argue it out with Montgomery.”

Bedell Smith set out immediately for Brussels. He found Montgomery confident and enthusiastic. Smith explained his fears about the panzer units in the Arnhem area and strongly suggested that the plan might need revision. Montgomery “ridiculed the idea. Monty felt the greatest opposition would come more from terrain difficulties than from the Germans. All would go well, he kept repeating, if we at SHAEF would help him surmount his logistical difficulties. He was not worried about the German armor. He thought Market-Garden would go all right as set.” The conference was fruitless. “At least I tried to stop him,” Smith said, “but I got nowhere. Montgomery simply waved my objections airily aside.”*

Even as Montgomery and Smith conferred, across the Channel startling evidence reached British I Airborne Corps headquarters. Earlier in the day, fighters of the R.A.F.’s specially equipped photo-reconnaissance squadron returning from The Hague had made a low-level sweep over the Arnhem area. Now, in his office, intelligence officer Major Brian Urquhart took up a magnifying glass and examined five oblique-angle pictures—an “end of the run” strip from one of the fighters. Hundreds of aerial photographs of the Market-Garden area had been taken and evaluated in the previous seventy-two hours, but only these five shots showed what Urquhart had long feared—the unmistakable presence of German armor. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Urquhart later recalled. “There, in the photos, I could clearly see tanks—if not on the very Arnhem landing and drop zones, then certainly close to them.”

Major Urquhart rushed to General Browning’s office with the photographic confirmation. Browning saw him immediately. Placing the pictures on the desk before Browning, Urquhart said, “Take a look at these.” The General studied them one by one. Although Urquhart no longer remembers the exact wording, to the best of his recollection, Browning said, “I wouldn’t trouble myself about these if I were you.” Then, referring to the tanks in the photos, he continued, “They’re probably not serviceable at any rate.” Urquhart was stunned. Helplessly he pointed out that the armor, “whether serviceable or not, were still tanks and they had guns.” Looking back, Urquhart feels that “perhaps because of information I knew nothing about, General Browning was not prepared to accept my evaluation of the photos. My feeling remained the same—that everyone was so gung-ho to go that nothing could stop them.”

Urquhart was unaware that some members of Browning’s staff considered the young intelligence officer almost too zealous. The show was about to begin, and most officers were anxious and eager to get on with it. Urquhart’s pessimistic warnings irritated them. As one senior staff officer put it, “His views were colored by nervous exhaustion. He was inclined to be a bit hysterical, no doubt brought on by overwork.”

Shortly after his meeting with Browning, Urquhart was visited by the corps medical officer. “I was told,” Urquhart recalls, “that I was exhausted—who wasn’t?—and that perhaps I should take a rest and go on leave. I was out. I had become such a pain around headquarters that on the very eve of the attack I was being removed from the scene. I was told to go home. There was nothing I could say. Although I disagreed with the plan and feared the worst, still, this was going to be the big show and, curiously, I did not want to be left behind.”

*I have based this entire section on information supplied to me by General S. L. A. Marshall, Chief Historian for the European Theatre of Operations during World War II, who kindly allowed me to see his various monographs on Market-Garden and also his 1945 interview with General Bedell Smith on the meeting with Eisenhower and later Montgomery.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!