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The Last Disaster of the War

During the summer of 1944, after five years in the British Army, three years of which were with the airborne forces, I was the chief intelligence officer of the British Airborne Corps. In this capacity I took an unwilling part in the last of the great Allied disasters of World War II.

After a period in North Africa and Sicily, where glider and parachute troops had proved disappointing, we had returned to England to prepare for D-day, June 6. Airborne troops were to have a major part in D-day landings by separate divisions. Our dashing corps commander, Lieutenant General F.A.M. (“Boy”) Browning, who in private life was the husband of the novelist Daphne du Maurier, was determined that after D-day his airborne corps would take to the field as a separate fighting formation. Hitherto our work at corps headquarters had been vital in the planning stage and in assembling all possible information for the operations of airborne troops, but we did not take to the field. Browning was determined that in future battles we would operate in the field like a normal corps headquarters.

At our headquarters at Moor Park, a golf club outside London, while intensively gathering intelligence and information for D-day, we made a determined effort to turn ourselves into an operational headquarters. In this spirit, I moved my people out of their comfortable billets into tents on the golf course, and took them on exhausting training runs, obstacle courses, and firing competitions, but we still had a formidably unmilitary appearance.

On D-day itself we were relegated to the role of elderly relatives seeing the young folk off on a great adventure. Some of General Browning’s scarcely concealed frustration certainly sprang from this condition. I saw our parachutists off for Normandy at Brize Norton airfield in the Cotswolds late in the evening of June 5 and returned with a great sense of anticlimax to Moor Park to await developments. It was six days before I managed to get to Normandy myself, but I was soon ordered to return to work at Moor Park.

The work in hand was the preparation of the first of a series of airborne operations that did not take place, and the consideration of various options. One of these was an assault on the launching sites in the Pas de Calais that the Germans used for their V-1 and V-2 terror rockets. Even by German standards, these sites had exceptionally heavy anti-aircraft defenses. Incessant strafing and bombing had little effect on these immense concrete structures. The V-2 rocket—the original ballistic missile—had now joined the V-1 “buzz bomb” in the attack on London. The V-2 carried a heavier warhead and gave no warning of its approach. The first one knew of it was a tremendous explosion followed by a strange, cosmic, whooshing sound. In the end it was decided that airborne troops would have no chance against the defenses of the launching sites and that the only solution to the V-weapons problem was to break out from the Normandy beachhead and capture the north coast of France as soon as possible.

The first major airborne plan to be considered seriously after D-day was a descent by the British Airborne Corps in the plain between Paris and Orléans, misleadingly christened the “Paris-Orléans gap,” to disrupt the retreating German army and to assist the advance of Patton’s Third Army. General Patton, who did not like the British anyway, had made his feelings about this operation clear from the start. “If I find any Limeys in the way,” he is reported to have said, “I shall shoot them down.” We actually got as far as loading up in gliders before this operation was called off because General Patton’s troops had got there first.

The breakout from the Normandy bridgehead, which Montgomery had so longed to achieve, was not carried out by the British Army. A hard tank battle with very heavy British and American air support was fought by the British for the town of Caen, where the Germans had concentrated their toughest opposition to the invasion, but the British did not surge forward. With perhaps less heavy immediate German opposition, Patton’s US Third Army did. Flooding out of the Cherbourg peninsula, his army became a military and logistical legend powerfully orchestrated and inspired by its capricious but charismatic leader. It was a splendid performance—a cavalry charge by armor on a vast scale.

The German army was caught and mangled in the pincer movement of the Argentan-Falaise pocket, and the US army pressed on and liberated Paris. The British, battered at Caen, reformed and advanced less spectacularly, Patton, as we were all aware, got the headlines.

After the breakout from the beachhead and the carnage of the Argentan-Falaise pocket, the German army in northern France collapsed and retired in disorder, and the British 21st Army Group at last surged forward. Brussels fell in August but the port of Antwerp, captured on September 4, was not opened up because its approaches remained in German hands, leaving the now enormous Allied military expedition with no major European supply port nearer than Cherbourg. This was an inexplicable strategic failure by Montgomery. Patton was still plowing on in the south and had reached Metz. Otherwise the invasion, after the capture of Brussels, generally slowed down.

At Moor Park this situation gave rise to all sorts of frenetic planning as we studied various operations to break the logjam. Liège, the River Meuse, and other points were scrutinized to see where the by-now impatient British and American airborne divisions, withdrawn and reformed in England, could be deployed to end the war. Nowhere did the desire for action burn more steadily than in the breast of Boy Browning, who had not yet commanded troops in battle in World War II. Holland was the limit of the range of transport aircraft stationed in Britain. The pressure to get into action intensified.

Elsewhere similar sentiments were taking hold. Montgomery, chagrined by the spectacular successes of Patton, was seeking, contrary to his reputation for caution, a British masterstroke to end the war.

Out of these and other elements the idea of Operation “Market Garden” was born. By mid-August we had researched and planned just about every remotely practicable airborne operation in northern Europe within the range of our DC-3 aircraft. The idea of an operation across the Rhine delta, where that river becomes three major rivers—Maas, Waal, and Rhine—was therefore in the nature of a desperate last throw. At that time the British 21st Army Group was stalled on the Albert Canal in Belgium and at the approaches to Antwerp. It had failed, like Hitler in 1940, to press on in the moment of victory, and the German army had rallied in ideal defensive terrain, the canal-intersected Low Countries.

From the first inkling I had of it, an operation to take the great bridges across the Rhine delta at Arnhem, Nijmegen, and Grave struck me as strategically unsound. Patton was going forward in the south against only moderate opposition and would reach the Rhine where it was one river instead of three. His tanks used enormous quantities of fuel which would have to be cut off if another large mobile armored operation were to be undertaken in the north, since the port at Cherbourg could not handle enough gasoline to supply both operations. An advance through Holland would take the Allied armies far north, quite apart from its probable effects on the fate of the Dutch population. The area between the existing British forward positions on the Albert Canal and the Rhine bridges was more than sixty miles of flat land intersected by canals and traversed by roads which were essentially causeways—ideal country for holding up an armored or motorized formation. Even if the German army was completely demoralized, it seemed unlikely that they would fail to put up a strong resistance on the borders of the fatherland.

Apart from strategic considerations, the main question was whether the relieving British ground forces could advance and secure the bridges captured by the airborne forces before the latter were overwhelmed by the German counter-attack. Antiaircraft defenses on the air route into the landing zones were also a serious problem. The airborne troops, lightly armed and virtually without transport, would have to be supplied and reinforced by air until they were relieved by the ground troops. Surprise and fighter strafing might allow the first waves to get in relatively easily, but after that the antiaircraft problem would almost certainly become severe.

We concentrated through the last days of August and the first days of September on preparing the best possible plans for Market Garden. As the days wore on the operation steadily expanded until two American and one British airborne divisions were involved. General Browning was to be in command at last, his corps headquarters landing by glider outside Nijmegen in the first wave. We were all suitably gratified at this prospect so long deferred.

As I worked day and night on the information available on the topography of the area, the aerial photographs showing German positions and antiaircraft emplacements, the information coming in from various sources, including the Dutch resistance, and the mounting evidence that the German army routed in Normandy was reforming itself, I became increasingly anxious.

I was also worried by the state of mind of General Browning and my brother officers. There seemed to be a general assumption that the war was virtually over and that one last dashing stroke would finish it. The possibility of German opposition was considered scarcely worthy of discussion. The Market Garden operation was constantly referred to as “the party.” It was said that Colonel John Frost, the gallant commander of the 1st Parachute Battalion, was considering taking along his golf clubs and ceremonial mess uniform.

This attitude struck me forcefully one day when Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands came to Moor Park for a briefing. General Browning described the forthcoming operation as “laying a carpet of airborne troops” over which the Allies would pour into Germany. I muttered to the chief of operations that I wondered if the carpet would consist of live or dead troops. He was not amused. There seemed to be a feeling that the Dutch population should have a chance to take part in the “party” and should be called out early on to harass the Germans. This seemed to me highly irresponsible. Civilians, however brave or well-intentioned, are an impossible handicap in military operations and, should the operation fail, they would be beyond help. These views, when I tried to express them, were received in hostile silence. It was very clear to me that I was beginning to be regarded as a spoilsport or worse.

I do not know what the Americans thought of the plan, although I suspect that General Ridgway and General Gavin were less than enthusiastic, but on the British side I found few people to whom I could talk rationally. One was Brigadier John (“Shan”) Hackett, the commander of the 16th Parachute Brigade. Shan was a much-decorated officer with a keen mind and an extraordinary fighting record in the Middle East and North Africa, but as the commander of three thousand men whom he was about to lead into battle, he obviously could not publicly express doubts about the wisdom of the plan.

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