Military history

Part Three
 
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THE OBJECTIVE
 
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1
 
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A LITTLE BEFORE MIDNIGHT on Palm Sunday, an American staff car pulled up outside the gray stone headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division in Sissonne, northern France. Two officers got out. One was in American uniform, the other was dressed in British battle dress without insignia. The second man, tall and lanky, wore a neat green beret and, in vivid contrast to his blond hair, sported a large, fierce-looking red moustache. To the British and Americans his name was almost unpronounceable: Arie D. Bestebreurtje. He was widely known among them as “Arie,” or “Captain Harry.” Even those names changed from mission to mission, for he spent most of his time behind German lines. Arie was a Special Forces Agent and a member of the Dutch Intelligence Service.

A few days before, Arie had been called to Brussels by his superiors and told that he was being assigned to the 82nd Division for a special operation. He was to report to the youthful 38-year-old Major General James M. Gavin, 82nd Division commander, to take part in a top-secret briefing. Now, Arie and his escorting officer entered the headquarters, hurried up a flight of stairs to the second floor and down a corridor to a well-guarded map room. Here, their credentials were checked by a military policeman who then saluted and opened the door.

Inside, Arie was warmly greeted by General Gavin and his Chief of Staff, Colonel Robert Wienecke. Most of the men in the room, Arie saw, were old friends: he had jumped and fought with them during the 82nd’s assault on Nijmegen, Holland. His superiors in Brussels had not exaggerated the security measures he could expect. There were only fifteen officers present—regimental commanders and certain members of their staffs, all clearly hand-picked. The room itself was quite plain. There were a few benches and tables, some charts on the walls. At one end of the room a curtain covered a large, wall-sized map.

Each man’s name was now called out by a security officer who checked it off against a roster; then General Gavin quickly opened the proceedings. Standing by the curtained map, he motioned everyone to gather around. “Only those of you with an absolute reason to know have been asked to this briefing,” he began, “and I must emphasize that, until further orders, nothing you hear tonight is to go beyond this room. In a way, you will be training your men in the dark, for you will not be able to reveal to them the objective. Actually, you’ve already been giving them part of their training, although most of you were completely unaware of it. Over the last few weeks you and your men have been jumping or flying onto a specific training area deliberately marked and laid out to simulate the actual dimensions of our next assault target.

“Gentlemen, we’re going in for the kill. This is the Sunday punch.” He yanked the cords at the side of the map. The curtains slid back, revealing the target: Berlin.

Arie looked closely at the faces of the officers as they stared at the map. He thought he saw eagerness and anticipation. It did not surprise him. These commanders had been frustrated for months. Most of them had jumped with their units into Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Holland, but lately the division had been relegated to ground actions, mainly in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. Arie knew that as crack airborne troops they felt they had been denied their true role: assaulting objectives in front of the advancing armies and then holding on until relieved. The truth was that the Allied advance had been so fast that planned parachute drops had been canceled again and again.

The assault on Berlin, Gavin explained, would be part of a First Allied Airborne Army operation calling for units from three divisions. The 82nd, designated “Task Force A,” was to have the major role. Unrolling a transparent overlay from the top of the map, Gavin pointed to a series of squares and ovals marked in black grease pencil that outlined the various objectives and drop zones. “As plans now stand,” he said, “the 101st Airborne Division will grab Gatow Airfield, west of the city. A brigade from the British 1st Airborne Corps is to seize Oranienburg Airfield to the northwest.” He paused and then continued. “Our piece of real estate is right in Berlin itself—Tempelhof Airport.”

The 82nd’s target seemed incredibly small. In the sprawling 321 square miles of the city and its environs, the airport looked like a postage stamp—a smudge of green barely one and a half miles square, lying in a heavily built-up area. On its north, east and southern fringes there were, rather ominously, no less than nine cemeteries. “Two regiments will hold the perimeters,” Gavin said, “and the third will move into the buildings north of the field, toward the center of Berlin. We’ll hang on to this airhead until the ground forces get to us. That should not be long—not more than a few days at the most.”

“Blind” training of the paratroopers, Gavin said, was to be intensified. Terrain models of Tempelhof and the surrounding areas would be set up in a “secure” room of the headquarters; photographic coverage of the drop zone, intelligence appreciations and other materials would be made available to the regimental commanders and their staffs for specific planning. “We are also lucky,” said Gavin, “to have the services of Captain Harry. He is an expert on Berlin—particularly on Tempelhof and the surrounding region. He will be jumping with us and from now on will be available for briefings and to answer all your questions.”

Gavin paused again and looked at his officers. “I’m sure all of you want to know the answer to the big question: how soon? That’s up to the Germans. The airborne plan has been in the works since last November. There have been constant changes and we must expect many more before we get a target date. ‘A-Day,’ as that day has been designated, will depend on the speed of the Allied advance toward Berlin. Certainly the drop won’t be scheduled until the ground forces are within a reasonable distance of the city. But A-Day may only be a matter of two or three weeks away. So we don’t have much time. That’s all I can tell you now.”

Gavin stepped back and turned the meeting over to his staff officers. One after the other they went into each phase of the operation, and as they talked Gavin sat half listening. As he later recalled, he regretted the fact that security had prevented him from revealing the details fully. He had been less than candid, for he had told his men only one part of the First Allied Airborne operation—the operational section calling for the assault in conjunction with the Allied drive to capture Berlin. What he had not mentioned was that the same airborne drop might be ordered under a different military condition: the sudden collapse or surrender of Germany and her armed forces. But that part of the plan was still top secret. It was the logical extension to Operation Overlord—the invasion of Europe—and for a time had been known as Operation Rankin, Case C, and later as Operation Talisman. That last title had been changed in November, 1944, for security reasons. Now it bore the code name Operation Eclipse.

Eclipse was so secret that, apart from high-ranking staff officers at Supreme Headquarters, only a score of generals had been permitted to study it. They were army or corps commanders or those in the other services with equivalent responsibilities. Few division commanders knew anything about Eclipse. Gavin had learned only some of the plan’s objectives and those parts of it that specifically concerned him and his division.

During the previous months, at numerous conferences attended by General Lewis H. Brereton, Commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, and Gavin’s immediate superior, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway, Commander of the 18th Corps, Eclipse had been referred to as the occupation plan for Germany. It detailed the operational moves which would immediately take place in the event of a German surrender or collapse. Its main objectives were the enforcement of unconditional surrender and the disarmament and control of all German forces.

Under Eclipse conditions the airborne assault plan on Berlin called for the paratroopers to move swiftly to “gain control over the enemy’s capital and foremost administrative and transportation center … and display our armed strength.” They were to subdue any remaining pockets of fanatics who might continue to resist; rescue and care for prisoners of war; seize top-secret documents, files and films before they could be destroyed; control information centers such as postal and telecommunications offices, radio stations, newspaper and printing plants; capture war criminals and surviving principals of the government, and establish law and order. The airborne troops were to initiate all these moves pending the arrival of land forces and military government teams.

That was as much as Gavin had been told about Operation Eclipse. As to what the plan contained regarding the manner in which Germany or Berlin was to be occupied or zoned after the defeat, he had no knowledge. Right now Gavin’s only concern was to prepare the 82nd. But as a result of all the requirements, this meant the preparation of two distinct plans. The first was the operational assault to capture the city. The second, as conceived under Eclipse conditions, called for airborne units to drop on Berlin as an advance guard, but charged with a police action only. Gavin had told his commanders all he dared—even though he knew that if the war were to end suddenly the entire airborne mission would change dramatically. As things stood his orders were explicit. He was to follow the operational plan and get the 82nd ready for an airborne assault to capture Berlin.

Gavin was suddenly aware that the Dutch intelligence officer was concluding his part of the briefing. “I must repeat that if you are expecting help from anyone in Berlin, forget it,” Captain Harry was saying. “Will you find guides willing to help? Answer: No. Is there an underground such as we had in France and Holland? Answer: No. Even if some Berliners are privately sympathetic, they will be too frightened to show it. We can discuss all these matters in greater detail later, but right now let me assure you of this: do not have any illusions that you will be greeted as liberators with champagne and roses. The army, the SS and the police will fight until the last bullet, and then they will come out with their hands in the air, tell you that the whole thing was really a dreadful mistake, that it was all Hitler’s fault and thank you for getting to the city before the Russians.”

The big Dutchman tugged at his moustache. “But they are going to fight like blazes,” he said, “and it may be a bit sticky for a time. It will be worth it and I’m proud to be going with you. My friends, when we take Berlin, the war is over.”

Taking Berlin would not be easy, Gavin knew, but he thought that the psychological shock of the assault might in itself overwhelm the German defenders. It would be one of the war’s biggest airborne attacks. In the initial planning, the operation called for 3,000 protective fighters, 1,500 transport planes, probably more than 1,000 gliders and some 20,000 paratroopers—more than had been dropped in Normandy on D-Day. “All we need now,” Gavin told his officers as the meeting broke up, “is a decision and the word ‘Go.’”

Thirty miles away, at Mourmelon-le-Grand, the tough 101st Airborne Division was also in training and stood ready for any operation, but nobody in the 101st knew which one would be ordered. So many paratroop assault plans had “come down the pipe” from higher headquarters that the commander, Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, his assistant, Brigadier General Gerald J. Higgins, and the staff found themselves in a quandary. They had to prepare for all of them, but they seriously wondered if any of the projected drops would ever take place.

Besides the Berlin project there were plans for an airborne attack on the German naval base at Kiel (Operation Eruption); for a series of drops on prisoner-of-war camps (Operation Jubilant); and for an assault to seize objectives ahead of the U. S. Seventh Army as it drove toward the Black Forest (Operation Effective). Many others were under study—and some were quite fantastic. The 101st headquarters had learned that the staff of the First Allied Airborne Army was even considering a jump on the mountains around Berchtesgaden, in Bavaria, to seize the Eagle’s Nest on the Obersalzberg and perhaps its owner, Adolf Hitler.

Obviously not all the drops could be scheduled. As General Higgins told the staff: “There just aren’t that many transport planes to accommodate the airborne demands if all these operations are ordered. Anyway, we’re not greedy—all we want is one!” But which operation would the airborne army get—and, in particular, what would be the role of the 101st? The Berlin drop seemed the most likely—even though the operations chief, Colonel Harry Kinnard, thought it would be “quite a hairy bit of business.” Everyone was bitter that in the event of a Berlin drop the men of the 101st had drawn Gatow Airfield, while their arch rivals, the 82nd, had been given the primary objective, Tempelhof. Still, Berlin was the biggest target of the war; there was enough for everyone.

To Colonel Kinnard an airborne drop seemed the perfect way to end the war in Europe. On the war room map he had even drawn a red line from the staging areas in France to the 101st’s drop zones in Berlin: the German capital was only 475 air miles away. If they got the green light he thought the first Americans could be in Berlin in just about five hours.

General Taylor, the 101st’s Commander, and his assistant, General Higgins, while eager for the attack, wondered if the airborne would even get the chance. Higgins morosely studied the map. “The way the ground forces are moving,” he said, “they’re going to put us out of business.”

On this same day, Sunday, March 25, the military leaders of the Western Allies received gratifying news from Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). In Washington and London, General George C. Marshall, U.S. Chief of Staff, and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, studied a cable from General Dwight D. Eisenhower that had arrived the night before. “The recent series of victories west of the Rhine has resulted as planned in the destruction of a large proportion of available enemy forces on the Western Front. While not desiring to appear over-optimistic it is my conviction that the situation today presents opportunities for which we have struggled and which must be seized boldly…. It is my personal belief that the enemy strength … is becoming so stretched that penetrations and advances will soon be limited only by our maintenance…. I am directing the most vigorous actions on all fronts … I intend to reinforce every success with utmost speed.”

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