Military history

Part Two
Image
THE PLAN

Image

Image

IN THE EARLY EVENING of September 10, within hours of General Browning’s meeting with Field Marshal Montgomery, Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton held the first basic planning conference on Operation Market. At his Sunninghill Park headquarters near the fashionable Ascot racecourse thirty-five miles from London, twenty-seven senior officers crowded into Brereton’s large map-lined office. After General Browning briefed the group on Montgomery’s plan, Brereton told them that, because there was so little time, “major decisions arrived at now must stand—and these have to be made immediately.”

The task was monumental, and there were few guidelines. Never before had there been an attempt to send a mammoth airborne force, complete with vehicles, artillery and equipment, capable of fighting on its own, deep behind enemy front lines. In comparison with Market, previous airborne attacks had been small; yet months had gone into their planning. Now, to prepare for the greatest paratroop and glider-borne infantry operation ever conceived, Brereton and his planners had barely seven days.

Brereton’s greatest concern was not the deadline, but the possibility that this operation, like its predecessors, might be canceled. His long-idle airborne troops were impatient for action, and a serious morale problem had developed as a consequence. For weeks his elite, highly trained divisions had stood down while ground forces on the Continent swept victoriously across France and Belgium. There was a widespread feeling that victory was so near that the war might end before the First Allied Airborne Army got into battle.

The General harbored no doubts about the ability of his staff to meet the tight, one-week Market schedule. There had been so many “dry runs” in developing previous airborne schemes that his headquarters and division staffs had reached a stage of highspeed efficiency. Additionally, much of the planning that had gone into Comet and other canceled operations could be readily adapted to Market. In preparing for the aborted Comet mission, for example, the British 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Brigade, charged with that operation, had made a thorough study of the Arnhem area. Still, most of the Market concept meant vastly expanded planning—and all of it was time-consuming.

General Brereton was outwardly confident and calm, but members of his staff noted that he smoked one cigarette after another. On his desk was a framed quotation which the General often pointed out to his staff. It read: “Where is the Prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defense, as that 10,000 men descending from the clouds, might not, in many places, do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?” It had been written in 1784 by Benjamin Franklin.

Brereton was fascinated by the vision of the eighteenth-century statesman and scientist. “Even after a hundred sixty years,” he had told his staff, “the idea remains the same.” But Franklin would have been bewildered by the complexities and size of Operation Market. To invade Holland from the sky, Brereton planned to land almost 35,000 men—nearly twice the number of paratroops and glider-borne infantry used in the invasion of Normandy.

To “grab the bridges with thunderclap surprise,” as Brereton put it, and hold open the narrow, one-highway advance corridor for the British Garden ground forces—from their attack line near the Dutch-Belgian border to Arnhem sixty-four miles north—three and one half airborne divisions were to be used. Two would be American. Almost directly ahead of General Horrocks’ XXX Corps tanks, Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division was to capture canal and river crossings over a fifteen-mile stretch between Eindhoven and Veghel. North of them, Brigadier General James M. Gavin’s veteran 82nd Division was charged with the area between Grave and the city of Nijmegen, approximately a ten-mile stretch. They were to seize crossings over the great Maas and Waal rivers, in particular the huge multispan bridge at Nijmegen, which, with its approaches, was almost a half-mile long. The single most important objective of Operation Market-Garden was Arnhem and its vital crossing over the 400-yard-wide Lower Rhine. The great concrete-and-steel, three-span highway bridge, together with its concrete ramps, was almost 2,000 feet long. Its capture was assigned to the British and Poles—Major General Robert “Roy” E. Urquhart’s 1st Airborne Division and, under his command, Major General Stanislaw Sosa-bowski’s Polish 1st Parachute Brigade. Arnhem, lying farthest away from the Garden forces, was the prize. Without the Rhine crossing, Montgomery’s bold stroke to liberate Holland, outflank the Siegfried Line and springboard into Germany’s industrial Ruhr would fail.

To carry the huge force to targets three hundred miles away, an intricate air plan had to be designed. Three distinct operations were required: transportation, protection and resupply. No fewer than twenty-four different airfields would be needed for takeoff. Brereton planned to use every operable glider in his command—an immense fleet of more than 2,500. Besides hauling heavy equipment such as jeeps and artillery, the gliders were to ferry more than a third of the 35,000-man force; the rest would drop by parachute. All the craft had to be checked out, loading space allotted, heavy equipment and cargo stowed, and troop complements prepared.

Gliders posed only a single problem in the air planning. Transports to carry paratroops and tow planes to pull the gliders must be diverted from their normal task of supplying the advancing armies and grounded in order to be readied for Market. The crews of bomber squadrons had to be alerted and briefed for missions in the Market-Garden area prior to, and during, the attack. Swarms of fighter squadrons from all over England—more than 1,500 planes—would be needed to escort the airborne force. Intricate aerial traffic patterns were of prime importance. Routes between England and Holland had to be laid out to avoid heavy enemy antiaircraft fire and the equally dangerous possibility of air collision. Air-sea rescue operations, resupply missions, even a dummy parachute drop in another area of Holland to deceive the enemy, were also planned. In all, it was estimated that almost 5,000 aircraft of all types would be involved in Market. To develop plans and ready this vast air armada would take a minimum of seventy-two hours.

The most pressing question of the conference, in Brereton’s opinion, was whether the operation should be undertaken by day or by night. Previous major airborne operations had taken place in moonlight. But semidarkness had led to confusion in finding landing zones, lack of troop concentration and unnecessary casualties. The General decreed that the huge airborne assault would take place in broad daylight. It was an unprecedented decision. In the history of airborne operations, a daylight drop of such proportions had never before been made.

Brereton had other reasons than the desire to avoid confusion. The week scheduled for Operation Market was a no-moon period and night landings on a large scale were therefore impossible. Apart from that, Brereton chose a daylight attack because, for the first time in the war, it was feasible. Allied fighters held such overwhelming superiority over the battlefields that now interference from the Luftwaffe was practically nonexistent. But the Germans did have night fighters. In a night drop, against columns of slow-moving troop-carrying planes and gliders, they might prove devastatingly effective. German antiaircraft strength was another consideration: flak maps of the approaches to the Market drop areas were dotted with antiaircraft positions. The charts, based on photo-reconnaissance flights and the experience of bomber crews flying over Holland en route to Germany, looked formidable—particularly so because gliders were without protective armor, except in the cockpits, and C-47 troop-carriers and tow planes had no self-sealing gas tanks. Nevertheless, Brereton believed that enemy antiaircraft positions could be neutralized by concentrated bomber and fighter attacks preceding and during the assault. In any event, most antiaircraft was radar-directed, and therefore was as effective after dark as it was during the day. Either way, losses were to be expected. Still, unless bad weather and high winds intervened, the airborne force, by attacking in daylight, could be dropped with almost pinpoint accuracy on the landing zones, thus guaranteeing a quick concentration of troops in the corridor. “The advantages,” Brereton told his commanders, “far outweigh the risks.”

Brereton made his final announcement. To command the giant operation he appointed his deputy, the fastidious forty-seven-year-old Lieutenant General Frederick “Boy” Browning, head of the British I Airborne Corps. It was an excellent choice, though disappointing to Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the other corps in the airborne army—the XVIII Airborne Corps. Still, Browning had been slated to command the aborted Operation Comet, which, though smaller and utilizing only British and Polish airborne troops, was similar in concept to Market-Garden. Now, under the enlarged and innovative plan Montgomery had devised, American paratroops would serve under a British airborne commander for the first time.

To the assembled airborne commanders Browning delivered an optimistic summation. He ended his talk with the kind of picturesque confidence that had always made him a heroic figure to his men. As his chief of staff, Brigadier Gordon Walch, remembers, “General Browning was in high spirits, delighted that at last we were going. ‘The object,’ he told us, ‘is to lay a carpet of airborne troops down over which our ground forces can pass.’ He believed this single operation held the key to the duration of the war.”

Browning’s enthusiasm was catching. As the large meeting broke up, to be replaced by smaller staff conferences which would last throughout the night, few officers were aware that an underlying friction existed between Brereton and Browning. Originally, when the First Allied Airborne Army was formed, British hopes ran high that Browning, Britain’s senior airborne authority and one of the pioneers in the use of paratroops, would be named commander. Because of the preponderance of American troops and equipment within the newly organized army, the coveted post went to an American, General Brereton.

In rank, Browning was six months Brereton’s senior; and although the American was a distinguished tactical air force officer, he had never before commanded airborne forces. Additionally, there were wide personality differences between the two men. Brereton had been a World War I flyer and had served brilliantly in World War II, first in the Far and Middle East and later as commanding general of the U.S. Ninth Air Force in England. He was tenacious and single-minded, but his zeal to achieve was cloaked by a quiet, stolid demeanor. Now Brereton proceeded on the awesome assignment he had been handed with the determination and bulldozing tactics that characterized many of his fellow American career officers.

Browning, a Grenadier Guards officer, was also a perfectionist, equally determined to prove the worth of paratroops. But he had never commanded an airborne corps before. In contrast to Brereton, “Boy” Browning was a somewhat glamorous figure, elegant and impeccably groomed, with an air of easy assurance often misunderstood for arrogance, not only by Americans but by some of his own commanders. Though he was temperamental and sometimes overly impatient, his reputation as an airborne theorist was legendary among his admirers. Still, he lacked the battle experience of some other officers, such as General Richard Gale of the British 6th Airborne Division and the veteran American commanders, Generals Gavin and Taylor. And, Browning had yet to prove that he possessed the administrative genius of the most experienced of all airborne commanders, General Ridgway.

Only days before, an incident had occurred that pointed up the differences between Brereton and Browning. On September 3, Browning had protested to Brereton the dangers of trying to launch an airborne assault on just thirty-six hours’ notice. Since D Day on June 6, seventeen airborne operations had been prepared and canceled. In the thirty-three days of Brereton’s command, in his eagerness to get into action, plans had been processed at the rate of almost one a week. None reached the launching stage. Browning, watching the mass production of airborne schemes, was deeply concerned about the haste and the risks being run. When Operation Linnet I—a drop before the British army in Belgium—was canceled on September 2, Brereton quickly found new objectives ahead of the speeding armies and proposed Operation Linnet II, as a substitute attack to take place on the morning of September 4.

As Brereton later recalled the incident, “Browning was quite agitated about Operation Linnet II in which there was a serious shortage of information, photographs and, in particular, maps. As a result, ‘Boy’ claimed his troops could not be briefed properly.” Airborne operations, Browning contended, “should not be attempted on such short notice.” In principle Brereton had agreed, but he had told his deputy that “the disorganization of the enemy demands that chances be taken.” The disagreement between the two men had ended with Browning stiffly stating that he intended to submit his protest in writing. A few hours later his letter had arrived. Because “of our sharp differences of opinion,” Browning wrote, he could no longer “continue as Deputy Commander of the First Allied Airborne Army.” Brereton, unintimidated, had begun at once to consider the problem of Browning’s replacement. He had alerted General Ridgway to “stand by to take over.” The delicate problem was solved when Operation Linnet II was canceled; the following day Brereton had persuaded Browning to withdraw his letter of resignation.

Now, their differences set aside, both men faced the huge, complex task of preparing Market. Whatever reservations Browning entertained were now secondary to the job ahead.

There was one decision Brereton could not make at the initial meeting: exactly how the airborne troops comprising the carpet were to be carried to the targets. The airborne commanders could not make detailed plans until this greatest of all problems was solved. The fact was that the airborne army was only as mobile as the planes that would carry it. Apart from gliders, Brereton had no transports of his own. To achieve complete surprise, the ideal plan called for the three and one-half divisions in Market to be delivered to landing zones on the same day at the same hour. But the immense size of the operation ruled out this possibility. There was an acute shortage of both aircraft and gliders; the planes would have to make more than one trip. Other factors also forced a different approach. Each division had separate combat requirements. For example, it was essential that the transport for General Taylor’s 101st Airborne carry more men than equipment when the attack began so that the division could carry out its assigned task of achieving a link-up with the Garden forces within the first few hours. Also, Taylor’s men had to join quickly with the 82nd Airborne on the corridor north of them. There, General Gavin’s troops not only had to secure the formidable bridges across the Maas and the Waal but also hold the Groes-beek ridge to the southeast, terrain which had to be denied the Germans because it dominated the countryside. Gavin’s special assignment also imposed special requirements. Because the 82nd Airborne would have to fight longer than the 101st before the linkup occurred, Gavin needed not only troops but artillery.

Farther north, the problems of the British 1st Airborne under General Urquhart were different still. The British 1st was to hold the Arnhem bridge until relieved. With luck, German reaction would be sluggish enough so that ground forces could reach the lightly armed British troopers before any real enemy strength developed. But until Horrocks’ tanks arrived, Urquhart’s men would have to hang on. Urquhart could not dissipate his strength by sending units south to link up with Gavin. Lying at the farthest end of the airborne carpet, the British 1st Airborne would have to hold longer than anyone else. For this reason, Urquhart’s force was the largest, his division bolstered by the addition of Polish paratroops, plus the 52nd Lowland Division, which was to be flown in as soon as air strips could be located and prepared in the Arnhem area.

On the morning of the eleventh, after a hectic night of assessing and analyzing aircraft availability for the attack, Major General Paul L. Williams, commander of the U.S. IX Troop Carrier Command, and in charge of all Market air operations, gave his estimate to Brereton. There was such a shortage of gliders and planes, he reported, that even with an all-out effort, at best only half the troop strength of Browning’s total force could be flown in on D Day. Essential items such as artillery, jeeps and other heavy cargo scheduled for the gliders could be included only on a strict priority basis. Brereton urged his air commander to explore the possibility of two D-Day airlifts but the suggestion was found impractical. “Owing to the reduced hours of daylight and the distances involved, it would not be possible to consider more than one lift per day,” General Williams said. It was too risky. There would be no time for maintenance or battle-damage repair, he pointed out, and almost certainly “casualties would result from pilot and crew fatigue.”

Hamstrung by the shortage of aircraft and the time limit, Brereton made some general assessments. A full day would be required to take aerial-reconnaissance photographs of the Dutch bridges and terrain; two days must go into the preparation and distribution of maps of the areas; intelligence had to be gathered and analyzed; detailed battle plans must be prepared. The most crucial decision of all: Brereton was forced to tailor the Market plan to suit the existing airlift capability. He must transport his force in installments, flying the three and one half divisions to their targets over a period of three days. The risks were great: German reinforcements might reach the Market-Garden area faster than anyone anticipated; antiaircraft fire could intensify; and there was always the possibility of bad weather. Fog, high winds, a sudden storm—all likely at this time of the year—could cause disaster.

Worse, once on the ground, the paratroopers and glider-borne infantry, arriving without heavy artillery or tanks, would be highly vulnerable. General Horrocks’ XXX Corps tank columns, using one narrow highway, could not make the 64-mile dash to Arnhem and beyond unless Brereton’s men seized the bridges and held open the advance route. Conversely, the airborne army had to be relieved at top speed. Cut off far behind enemy lines and dependent on supplies by air, the airborne forces could expect German reinforcements to increase with each passing day. At best the beleaguered troopers might hold out in their “airheads” for only a few days. If the British armored drive was held up or failed to move fast enough, the airborne troops would inevitably be overrun and destroyed.

More could go wrong. If General Taylor’s “Screaming Eagles” failed to secure the bridges directly ahead of the British Second Army’s tank spearheads, it would make little difference whether or not the men under General Gavin’s or General Urquhart’s command secured their objectives in Nijmegen and Arnhem. Their forces would be isolated.

Certain classic airborne risks had to be accepted: divisions might be dropped or landed by gliders in the wrong areas; crossings might be destroyed by the enemy even as the attack began; bad weather could make air resupply impossible; and even if all the bridges were seized, the corridor might be cut at any point\. These were but a few of the imponderables. The planners were gambling on speed, boldness, accuracy and surprise—all deriving from a precise synchronized land-and-airborne plan that, in its turn, gambled on German disorganization and inadequate strength. Each link in Market-Garden was interlocked with the next. If one gave way, disaster might result for all.

In Brereton’s opinion, such risks had to be accepted. The opportunity might never arise again. Additionally, on the basis of the latest information of enemy strength, from Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, Allied Airborne headquarters still felt that Brereton’s forces would meet an “ill-organized enemy of varying standards.” It was not expected that “any mobile force larger than a brigade group [about 3,000 men] with very few tanks and guns could be concentrated against the airborne troops before relief by the ground forces.” It was expected “that the flight and landings would be hazardous, that the capture intact of the bridge objectives was more a matter of surprise and confusion than hard fighting.” There was nothing here that the planners had not already taken under consideration. The last words of the intelligence summation seemed almost superfluous—“the advance of the ground forces would be very swift if the airborne operations were successful.”

Major Brian Urquhart was deeply disturbed by the optimism permeating General Browning’s British I Airborne Corps headquarters. The twenty-five-year-old intelligence chief felt that he was probably the only one on the staff with any doubts about Market-Garden. Urquhart (no relation to the British 1st Airborne Division commander, Major General Robert Urquhart) did not believe the optimistic estimates on enemy strength which arrived almost daily from Montgomery’s 21st Army command. By the morning of Tuesday, September 12, with D Day only five days away, his doubts about Market-Garden amounted to near-panic.

His feeling had been triggered by a cautious message from General Dempsey’s British Second Army headquarters. Quoting a Dutch report, Dempsey’s intelligence staff warned of an increase in German strength in the Market-Garden area and spoke of the presence of “battered panzer formations believed to be in Holland to refit.” Admittedly, the information was vague. Lacking any kind of confirmation, Dempsey’s report was not included in the latest intelligence summaries of either Montgomery’s or Eisenhower’s headquarters. Urquhart could not understand why. He had been receiving similar disquieting news from Dutch liaison officers at Corps headquarters itself. And, like General Dempsey’s staff, he believed them. Adding his own information to that received from Dempsey’s command, Major Urquhart felt reasonably certain that elements of at least two panzer divisions were somewhere in the Arnhem area. The evidence was thin. The units were unidentified, with strength unknown, and he could not tell whether they were actually being refitted or merely passing through Arnhem. Nevertheless, Urquhart, as he later recalled, “was really very shook up.”

Ever since the inception of Operation Comet and its evolution into Market-Garden, Major Urquhart’s fears had been growing. Repeatedly, he had voiced his objections to the operation to “anybody who would listen on the staff.” He was “quite frankly horrified by Market-Garden, because its weakness seemed to be the assumption that the Germans would put up no effective resistance.” Urquhart himself was convinced that the Germans were rapidly recovering and might well have more men and equipment in Holland than anyone realized. Yet the whole essence of the scheme, as he saw it, “depended on the unbelievable notion that once the bridges were captured, XXX Corps’s tanks could drive up this abominably narrow corridor—which was little more than a causeway, allowing no maneuverability—and then walk into Germany like a bride into a church. I simply did not believe that the Germans were going to roll over and surrender.”

At planning conferences, Major Urquhart became increasingly alarmed at what he saw as “the desperate desire on everybody’s part to get the airborne into action.” There were constant comparisons between the current situation and the collapse of the Germans in 1918. Urquhart remembers that General Browning, perhaps reflecting Montgomery’s views and those of “several other British commanders, was thinking about another great breakthrough.” It seemed to the worried intelligence officer that everyone around him thought the war would be over by winter and “the Arnhem attack might be the airborne’s last chance of getting into action.” Urquhart was appalled at the lighthearted metaphor—“it was described as a ‘party’”—used in reference to Market-Garden. And, in particular, he was upset by General Browning’s statement that the object of the airborne attack was to “lay a carpet of airborne troops down over which our ground forces can pass.” He believed that “that single cliché had the psychological effect of lulling many commanders into a passive and absolutely unimaginative state of mind in which no reaction to German resistance, apart from dogged gallantry, was envisaged.” He considered the atmosphere at headquarters so unrealistic that, at one of the planning conferences, he asked “whether the ‘carpet’ was to consist of live airborne troops or dead ones.”

“It was absolutely impossible,” he said later, “to get them to face the realities of the situation; their personal longing to get into the campaign before it ended completely blinded them.” But young Urquhart was convinced that General Dempsey’s warning was accurate. He believed there was German armor in the vicinity of Arnhem, but he needed to substantiate the report by getting more evidence. A Spitfire fighter squadron equipped with special cameras for taking oblique pictures was stationed, Urquhart knew, at nearby Benson in Oxfordshire. The squadron was currently searching out rocket sites along the Dutch coast.

On the afternoon of September 12, Major Urquhart requested low-level R.A.F. reconnaissance sweeps of the Arnhem area. To avoid detection, enemy tanks would be hidden in forests or beneath camouflaged netting and might well escape high-altitude photographic flights. Urquhart’s request was acknowledged; low-level missions would be flown over the Arnhem area, and he would get the results as fast as possible. Photographs of the tanks, if they were there, might prove to all concerned that Major Urquhart’s fears were justified.

There was too little time now for airborne division commanders to check out intelligence reports firsthand. They were dependent on Corps or First Allied Airborne headquarters for the latest estimates. From experience, each commander knew that even this information would be several days old by the time he received it. Still, in the general view, there was little reason to anticipate any powerful enemy resistance. The risks involved in Market-Garden were, as a result, considered acceptable.

Once Generals Brereton and Browning had outlined the plan, determined the objectives and decided on airlift capability, each commander developed his own combat plans. The choice of drop zones and landing sites had priority. From previous operations, veteran airborne commanders knew that the best chance of success depended on how close to their objectives assaulting troops could be dropped. Ideally, they should be landed almost on their targets or within quick marching distance, especially if they were expected to seize a bridge. With the meager ground transport available, the pinpointing of these sites was vital.

Major General Maxwell D. Taylor was all too aware that his sites must be chosen for maximum effect. While Taylor would have the majority of his Screaming Eagle paratroops on D Day, his engineering units, artillery and most of the 101st transport would not arrive until D plus 1 and 2. Studying the southernmost part of the corridor where the 101st Airborne Division was to hold between Eindhoven and Veghel, Taylor quickly noted that over the fifteen-mile stretch of highway, his troops must capture two major canal crossings and no less than nine highway and railroad bridges. At Veghel, over the river Aa and the Willems Canal, there were four bridges, one a major canal crossing. Five miles south in St. Oedenrode, a bridge over the Lower Dommel had to be seized; four miles from there was the second major canal crossing, over the Wilhelmina Canal near the village of Son, and to the west a bridge near the hamlet of Best. Five miles farther south in Eindhoven, four bridges over the Upper Dommel had to be taken.

After studying the flat terrain between Eindhoven and Veghel, with its veining waterways, dikes, ditches and tree-lined roads, Taylor decided to pinpoint his major landing site almost in the center of his assault area, by the edge of a forest barely one and one half miles from Son and roughly equidistant between Eindhoven and Veghel. He would land two of his regiments, the 502nd and the 506th, on this zone. The 502nd was charged with objectives in St. Oedenrode and Best; the 506th with those in Son and Eindhoven. The third regiment, the 501st, was to land in two areas north and west of Veghel, within a few hundred yards of the vital four bridges. It was a formidable assignment for his men to accomplish on D Day without their back-up auxiliary units, but Taylor believed that “with luck, we can make it.”

The task of the 82nd Airborne was more intricate. Its ten-mile sector was wider than that of the 101st. In this central segment of the corridor, the huge, nine-span, 1,500-foot-long bridge over the Maas river at Grave and at least one of four smaller railroad and highway crossings over the Maas-Waal Canal must be seized. The great bridge over the Waal river at Nijmegen, almost in the center of this city of 90,000, was also a prime objective. None of these could be called “secured” unless the Groesbeek Heights, dominating the area two miles southwest of Nijmegen, were held. Also, to the east was the great belt of forest along the German border—the Reichswald—where the Germans might assemble for attack. When General Gavin explained to his headquarters’ officers what was expected of them, his chief of staff, Colonel Robert H. Wienecke, protested, “We’ll need two divisions to do all that.” Gavin was terse. “There it is, and we’re going to do it with one.”

Remembering the 82nd Airborne’s attacks in Sicily and Italy, when his troops were scattered sometimes as far as thirty-five miles from their drop zone (the standard division joke was that “we always use blind pilots”), Gavin was determined to land his men this time almost on their targets. In order of priority, he decided that his objectives were: first, the Groesbeek Heights; second, the bridge at Grave; third, the crossings on the Maas-Waal Canal; and fourth, the Waal bridge at Nijmegen. “Because of probable quick enemy reaction,” Gavin later recalled, “I decided to drop the largest part of my paratroops between the Groesbeek Heights and the Reichswald” He chose two landing zones in the Groesbeek vicinity less than a mile and a half from the ridge itself and three to four miles southwest of Nijmegen. There, his 508th and 505th regiments, plus the headquarters staff, would land. The third regiment, the 504th, was to drop on the western side of the Groesbeek Heights in the triangle between the Maas river and the Maas-Waal Canal, a mile from the eastern end of the Grave bridge and two miles west of the Maas-Waal Canal bridges. To insure the capture of the vital Grave bridge, which might be prepared for demolition, an additional phase of his plan was developed in which a company of the 504th was to be dropped a half mile from the western end of the bridge. Before the enemy could retaliate, the 504th would rush the bridge from both ends.

Obviously, the great Nijmegen bridge was the most important of all his objectives and crucial to the entire Market-Garden operation. Yet Gavin was well aware that, without holding the other objectives, the Waal river crossing by itself would be useless. General Browning agreed with him. If the first bridges were not taken or if the enemy held the Groesbeek Heights, the corridor for the Garden forces would never be opened. Therefore, Browning specifically directed, Gavin was not to attempt an attack on the Nijmegen bridge until the primary objectives were secured.

Although he was concerned about the wide dispersal of his troops, Gavin was satisfied with the plan. One aspect bothered him, as it had bothered Taylor. His entire division would not be organically complete until supporting units arrived on D plus 1 and 2, and he wondered how his men—who knew nothing about Market-Garden as yet—would react. Still, in the experienced 82nd, morale was high as always; many of his men had made three combat jumps already. “Jumping Jim” Gavin, at thirty-seven the youngest brigadier general in the U.S. Army, had no doubts that his “fugitives from the law of averages,” as they called themselves, would do their job.

The most difficult and dangerous assignment, by far, had been given to a modest, reticent career officer, Major General Robert “Roy” Urquhart, forty-two-year-old commander of the British 1st Airborne Division and the attached Polish Brigade.

Unlike General Browning and his American colleagues, Urquhart, a highly professional soldier who had fought with great distinction in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, had no airborne warfare experience. He would be commanding an airborne division in battle for the first time. Browning had chosen him because he was “hot from battle,” but Urquhart had been surprised at his appointment. He had always considered airborne units “tightly knit organizations, closed family affairs and quite exclusive.” Yet Urquhart had confidence in his ability to lead the elite unit. Once the force was on the ground the basic fighting rules remained the same, and he viewed his airborne division as “very highly trained infantry troops.”

Despite his long combat experience, Urquhart was bothered about one thing: he had never parachuted or been in a glider. “I was even prone to airsickness,” he was later to remark. On taking command in January, 1944, nine months before, Urquhart had suggested to General Browning that perhaps, as the new division commander, he ought to have some parachute training. Browning, who impressed Urquhart as a “lithe, immaculately turned-out man who gave the appearance of a restless hawk,” answered that Urquhart’s job was to get his division ready for an invasion of the Continent. Looking over the six-foot, 200-pound Scotsman, Browning added, “Leave the parachuting to younger chaps. Not only are you too large, but you’re getting on.”*

Throughout the long months of training, Urquhart “often felt like an outsider, a kind of military landlubber.” He was aware of “being watched closely; not with hostility, though some airborne officers had reservations and a few did not bother to conceal them. I was on trial; my actions were being judged. It was an unenviable position, but one I accepted.” Slowly, Urquhart’s confident, assured handling of the division won over his officers. And among the troopers, Urquhart was far more popular than he knew. Private James W. Sims, of the 1st Airborne Division’s 1st Parachute Brigade, remembers “the General’s supreme confidence and his calmness.” Sergeant John Rate, of Division headquarters, had the impression that “General Urquhart did whatever job had to be done. He didn’t just ask someone else to do it. The General didn’t stand on ceremony.” Signalman Kenneth John Pearce called him “a big wonderful fellow. He called us ‘son’ or used our first names if he knew them.” And from Sergeant Roy Ernest Hatch, of the Glider Pilot Regiment, Urquhart earned the supreme compliment. “He was,” Hatch asserted, “a bloody general who didn’t mind doin’ the job of a sergeant.”

To Urquhart’s frustration, his division had not been chosen for the Normandy invasion, and “the summer passed interminably, planning one operation after another, only to see each canceled.” Now, his “Red Devils” were “hungering for a fight.” They had almost given up. “We were calling ourselves ‘The Stillborn Division,’” recalls Major George S. Powell of the 4th Parachute Brigade. “We figured we were being kept in reserve for use in the victory parade.” As Urquhart saw it, “there was a dangerous mixture of ennui and cynicism slowly creeping into our lives. We were trained to a fine edge and I knew that if we didn’t get into battle soon, we would lose it. We were ready and willing to accept anything, with all the ‘ifs.’ ”

Urquhart’s principal target—the prize of Operation Market-Garden—was Arnhem’s concrete-and-steel highway bridge over the Lower Rhine. Additionally, Urquhart’s men had two secondary objectives: a nearby floating pontoon bridge and a double-track railway crossing upriver, two and a half miles west of the town.

Urquhart’s assignment presented a series of problems. Two were particularly worrisome. Reports of heavy antiaircraft defenses in the area indicated that some enemy units were massing in the vicinity of the Arnhem bridge itself. And Urquhart was uneasy about the three days it would take to airlift his entire force of British and Polish paratroops to their objectives. Both these problems had a direct bearing on Urquhart’s choice of landing sites. Unlike the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, he could not pick zones almost on or even close to the principal target. Ideally, he should land his forces near the Arnhem bridge on both sides of the river; but Urquhart’s terrain was by no means ideal. The northern exit of the crossing ran directly into the densely populated, built-up center of Arnhem itself. Near the southern exit, low-level polder land was, according to reports, too marshy for men or gliders. “Many of my own commanders,” Urquhart remembers, “were quite willing to land on the southern side, even though it was marshy. Indeed, some were ready to risk injury by parachuting on the northern side—on the town itself.”

In the previous week, bomber crews returning from other missions had reported a 30 percent increase in antiaircraft fire near the Arnhem crossing and from Deelen airfield seven miles to the north. Consequently, R.A.F. commanders whose pilots were scheduled to tow Urquhart’s glider-borne troops raised strong objections to landing zones close to the Arnhem bridge. If sites were located near the southern exit, tug aircraft wheeling north after releasing gliders would run into heavy flak over the airfield. Turning south was almost as bad; planes might risk collision with aircraft dropping the 82nd Airborne near Nijmegen, eleven miles away. Urquhart was confronted with a dilemma: he could insist that the R.A.F. place his troops in proximity to the bridge, or he could choose drop zones much farther away, outside Arnhem itself, with all the dangers that choice entailed—delay, loss of surprise, possible German opposition. The risks were multiplied because on D Day Urquhart would have only a part of his division. “My problem was to get enough men down on the first lift,” Urquhart recalled, “not only to seize the main bridge in the town itself, but also to guard and defend the drop zones and landing areas for the succeeding lifts. To seize the main bridge on the first day my strength was reduced to just one parachute brigade.”

Faced with these restrictions, Urquhart appealed to Browning for extra planes. It seemed to him, he told the Corps commander, “that the Americans are getting all they need.” Browning disagreed. The allocation of aircraft, he assured Urquhart, was “entirely due to priorities and not to any high-level American pressure.” The entire operation, he explained, had to be planned from south to north, “bottom to top”; objectives in the southern and central sections of the corridor must be “seized first to get the ground forces through. Otherwise, the 1st Airborne would be wiped out.”

In his command caravan on the Moor Park golf course near the clubhouse that General Browning used as headquarters, Urqu-hart pored over his maps and pondered the situation. Some open sectors existed north of Arnhem in a national park, but these were too small and the terrain was unsuitable. At best, these spots might accommodate a small parachute force but no gliders. The only alternative was to land in some broad expanses of open heaths and pasture land bordered by pine woods, 250 feet above sea level, lying west and northwest of Arnhem. The heathlands were firm and flat, perfect for gliders and parachutists. They were ideal in every way—except one: the areas lay between six and eight miles from the Arnhem bridge. Faced with the R.A.F.’s continued opposition to a drop in the immediate vicinity of the bridge, Urquhart reluctantly decided on the distant sites. “There was nothing else to do,” he recalled, “but to accept the risks and plan for them. I was left with no choice.”*

By September 12, Urquhart had his plan ready. Outlined on the map were five landing and drop zones straddling the Arnhem-Amsterdam railroad in the vicinity of Wolfheze, approximately four miles northwest of Arnhem. Three sites lay north of Wolfheze and two south, the southern zones together making up an irregular box-shaped tract more than a mile square. All were at least six miles away from the bridge at Arnhem; the farthest, northwest of Wolfheze, was eight.

On D Day two brigades would go in—Brigadier Philip “Pip” Hicks’s 1st Airlanding Brigade, scheduled to hold the drop zones, and Brigadier Gerald Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade, which would make a dash for Arnhem and its highway, railroad and pontoon bridges. Leading the way would be a motorized reconnaissance squadron of jeeps and motorcycles. Urquhart was counting on Major C. F. H. “Freddie” Gough’s highly specialized force of some 275 men in four troops—the only unit of its kind in the British army—to reach the highway bridge and hold it until the main body of the brigade arrived.

The next day, D plus 1, Brigadier John “Shan” Hackett’s 4th Parachute Brigade was due to arrive, together with the remainder of the Airlanding Brigade; and on the third day, Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski’s Polish 1st Parachute Brigade was to be landed. Urquhart had marked in a sixth drop zone for the Poles. Because it was anticipated that, by D plus 2, the bridge would be captured and the flak batteries knocked out, the Poles were to drop on the southern bank of the Lower Rhine near the village of Elden about one mile south of the Arnhem crossing.

Despite the risks he must accept, Urquhart felt confident. He believed he had “a reasonable operation and a good plan.” Casualties, he thought, might be “somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent”; considering the intricate nature of the attack, he did not think the cost was too high. In the early evening of September 12, he briefed his commanders on the operation and, Urquhart remembers, “everybody seemed quite content with the plan.”

One commander, however, had grave misgivings. Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski, the trim, fifty-two-year-old leader of the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade, was quite sure that “we were in for a bitter struggle.” The former Polish War Academy professor had already stated his position to Generals Urquhart and Browning when he first heard about Operation Comet. At that time he had demanded that Urquhart give him his orders in writing so that “I would not be held responsible for the disaster.” With Urquhart he had visited Browning and told him “this mission cannot possibly succeed.” Browning asked why. As Sosabowski remembered, “I told him it would be suicide to attempt it with the forces we had and Browning answered, ‘But, my dear Sosabowski, the Red Devils and the gallant Poles can do anything!’”

Now, one week later, as he listened to Urquhart, Sosabowski thought, “the British are not only grossly underestimating German strength in the Arnhem area, but they seem ignorant of the significance Arnhem has for the Fatherland.” Sosabowski believed that to the Germans Arnhem represented “the gateway to Germany, and I did not expect the Germans to leave it open.” He did not believe that “troops in the area were of very low caliber, with only a few battered tanks sitting around.” He was appalled when Urquhart told the assembled brigade commanders that the 1st Airborne was to be dropped “at least six miles from the objective.” To reach the bridge the main body of troops would have “a five-hour march; so how could surprise be achieved? Any fool of a German would immediately know our plans.”

There was another part of the plan Sosabowski did not like. Heavy equipment and ammunition for his brigade was to go in by glider on an earlier lift. Thus, his stores would be on a northern landing zone when his troops landed on the southern bank. What would happen if the bridge was not taken by the time the Poles landed? As Urquhart spelled out the plan, Sosabowski learned to his astonishment that, if the bridge was still in German hands by that time, his Polish troops would be expected to take it.

Despite Sosabowski’s anxieties, at the September 12 briefing he remained silent. “I remember Urquhart asking for questions and nobody raised any,” he recalled. “Everyone sat nonchalantly, legs crossed, looking bored. I wanted to say something about this impossible plan, but I just couldn’t. I was unpopular as it was, and anyway who would have listened?”

Later, when the entire airborne operation was reviewed for all commanders at General Browning’s headquarters, others had grave misgivings about the British part of the plan but they too remained silent. Brigadier General James M. Gavin, commander of the American 82nd Airborne, was so astonished when he heard of Urquhart’s choice of landing sites that he said to his operations chief, Lieutenant Colonel John Norton, “My God, he can’t mean it.” Norton was equally appalled. “He does,” he said grimly, “but I wouldn’t care to try it.” In Gavin’s view, it was far better to take “10 percent initial casualties by dropping either on or close to the bridge than to run the risk of landing on distant drop zones.” He was “surprised that General Browning did not question Urquhart’splan.” Still, Gavin said nothing “for I assumed that the British, with their extensive combat experience, knew exactly what they were doing.”

*At their first interview Urquhart was still wearing his Brigadier’s badges and tight-fitting Tartan trousers (trews) and spats of the Highland Division. As the meeting broke up, Browning, pointing to Urquhart’s pants, said, “You might also get yourself properly dressed and get rid of those trews.”

*Colonel George S. Chatterton, commanding the Glider Pilot Regiment, recalls that he wanted a coup de main, “a force of five or six gliders to land near the bridge and take it. I saw no reason why we could not do it, but apparently nobody else saw the need for it, and I distinctly remember being called a bloody murderer and assassin for suggesting it.”

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