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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.

I was increasingly unable to hide my own feelings and became obsessed with the fate of Market Garden. I was desperately anxious to go on the operation, but I was even more anxious for it to be reconsidered carefully.

I had to shuttle by jeep incessantly between Moor Park, Allied Airborne Army Headquarters at Ascot, Medmenham Air Photo Centre, and the 1st Airborne Division, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating the latest intelligence. On these long drives I agonized over the situation, sometimes wishing the jeep would crash and take me out of it all. My short nights were sleepless.

About September 10, after the date of Market Garden had been set for September 17 and Browning had been appointed the overall commander, I noticed a more or less casual remark in a 21st Army Group intelligence summary that elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps—the 9th (Hohenstaufen) and 10th (Frundsberg) SC Panzer divisions—were reported to be refitting in the Arnhem area. This was confirmed by the Dutch resistance. This was appalling news. Even if these formidable fighting units had been badly mauled in Normandy and were short of armored vehicles, they were a deadly threat to lightly armed airborne troops landing in their vicinity.

When I informed General Browning and Colonel Walch, his chief of operations, of this development they seemed little concerned and became quite annoyed when I insisted on the danger. They said, as I remember, that I should not worry unduly, that the reports were probably wrong, and that in any case the German troops were refitting and not up to much fighting. This reaction confirmed my worst suspicions about the attitude of Browning and his staff, and I concluded that Browning’s ambition to command in battle was a major factor both in the conception of Market Garden and in his refusal to take the latest news on German opposition seriously.

In this I did Browning a grave injustice. I did not fully realize until more than thirty years later, when Cornelius Ryan published his masterly account of the Arnhem battle, A Bridge Too Far, that Market Garden was the offspring of the ambition of Montgomery, who desperately wanted a British success to end the war. In fact Browning himself, in expressing his doubts about the wisdom and scope of the operation, had used the phrase which Ryan took as the title of his book.

It seemed to me essential to try to convince Browning of the immense risk to which he was subjecting the 1st Airborne Division. The risk that the relieving ground troops would not arrive in time was bad enough for the whole operation, but the 1st Airborne Division was dropping north of the northernmost of the three great bridges and would have to hang on the longest. For all the courage, fighting skill, and spirit of its officers and men, how could it hope to do this in the presence of two of the best armored divisions of the German Army?

To convince Browning of the danger I decided to try to get actual pictures of the German armor near the 1st Airborne Division’s dropping zone and asked for oblique photographs to be taken of the area at a low altitude by the acknowledged experts in this art, an RAF Spitfire squadron stationed at Benson in Oxfordshire. Oblique photographs taken at low altitude were as good as or better than pictures taken on the ground, and any danger of security leaks could be handled by including the photographic aircraft in one of the myriad Allied fighter-bomber strikes that swarmed across Holland to the Ruhr each day.

The pictures when they arrived confirmed my worst fears. There were German tanks and armored vehicles parked under the trees within easy range of the 1st Airborne Division’s main dropping zone. I rushed to General Browning with this new evidence, only to be treated once again as a nervous child suffering from a nightmare. Even in my overwrought state I got the message very clearly. I was a pain in the neck, and only our long association and his natural kindness prevented the general from saying so.

Later in the day Colonel Eggar, our chief doctor, came to visit me. He informed me that I was suffering from acute nervous strain and exhaustion and ordered me to go on sick leave. When I asked him what would happen if I refused, he said, in his kindly way, that I would be arrested and court-martialed for disobeying orders. I begged him to let me go on the operation in any capacity. He refused. I tried to explain the cause of my anxiety and asked if there was no way of stopping, or at least reshaping, the operation. He again said no, but I had the feeling he understood me better than discipline allowed him to say.

Thus at 5 PM on September 15, two days before Operation Market Garden, I handed over my job to my deputy, David Ballingall, and drove down to Amberley in Sussex where my wife, expecting our first child, was living. She was surprised to see me and even more surprised at my gaunt and haunted appearance. Since I could not, for security reasons, explain what had happened, she very sensibly set about trying to cheer me up. Nonetheless it was a desolate and miserable time.

This interlude did not last long. On Sunday, September 17, the air armada carrying Operation Market Garden aroused southeast England from its weekend torpor, and the landing was triumphantly announced the same day. On Monday the newspapers trumpeted success—“Operation Goes Off Without a Hitch” (Daily Herald). On Tuesday the communiqués remained optimistic but had become muted. On Wednesday it was clear that something was seriously wrong, and at the end of the week I was called by the War Office and told to report at once to Northolt airfield outside London where arrangements would be made for me to rejoin Airborne Corps headquarters in Nijmegen, Holland. I was unworthily relieved at this order. It had been unbearable to have nothing to do as the news got worse, and I left Amberley within the hour.

From Northolt I flew to Brussels. There were alarming stories about the plight of the 1st Airborne Division. The southernmost bridge over the Maas at Grave had been captured by the Americans early on in the operation, but the Nijmegen bridge over the Waal had only just been captured by the American 82nd Airborne Division in an incredible river-crossing assault, and the congested road to the Market Garden area from the south was constantly being cut by the Germans, impeding the advance of the relieving armored force upon which everything depended. Ryan has given a meticulous account of all this.

My own problem was to get to Nijmegen and rejoin Browning’s headquarters as ordered. I finally found a friendly artillery spotter who was prepared to fly me there, and this, at treetop height, he did.

I do not know why I was ordered to return at this juncture and can only assume that in the debacle that Operation Market Garden had become, it looked odd for the Airborne Corps’ chief intelligence officer to be absent on sick leave. I was greeted warmly by Browning and my old friends, but I could not help noticing that talk about the current military situation was kept to a minimum. The atmosphere was very different from the triumphant and confident tone of the previous weeks.

The situation was indeed abysmal. After the 82nd Airborne Division’s heroic capture of the Nijmegen bridge, the Guards Armoured Division’s tanks were soon stopped again on the other side several miles from Arnhem. The beleaguered 1st Airborne Division had held the Arnhem bridge against enormous odds for five excruciating days, but when it became clear that they were not going to be relieved, what was left of the division was ordered to get across the river by night, leaving the wounded behind. Out of 10,005 men only 2,163 were evacuated in this way. One thousand two hundred men were dead and 6,642 were missing, wounded, or captured, among them Shan Hackett who, badly wounded, was hidden by the Dutch and escaped months later, as did many others.

The operation that was to end the war in Western Europe had been an unmitigated disaster, almost certainly destroying all possibility of an early victory. It had diverted essential support from Patton when he was forging ahead, given the Germans a success on the eve of their total defeat, made a nightmare of the last months of war for the Dutch, and landed the British Army in a riverine swamp for the winter. The casualties, both military and civilian, were appalling—more than seventeen thousand Allied soldiers and airmen killed, wounded, or missing in nine days of fighting, no possible reckoning of civilian casualties, and all for nothing or worse than nothing. Much of the town of Arnhem was destroyed, and after the battle the Germans forcibly evacuated the entire population for the remainder of the war. Small wonder that Prince Bernhard later remarked, “My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success.” A number of my friends were killed, and many were missing.

Airborne Corps headquarters had virtually nothing to do in Nijmegen. We lived on the outskirts of the town in a villa which was intermittently shelled by German 88-mm guns and tried to keep ourselves busy, but nobody’s heart was in it. From Nijmegen we could, on a clear day, see the German V-2 rockets taking off for London and Antwerp from The Hague, and this increased our sense of impotence and frustration.

My own situation had become an embarrassment to me and to everyone else. After ten days, I suggested to Browning that I be posted out of the Airborne Corps as soon as possible. He said that he regretted my desire to leave but fully understood it. He thanked me for my years with him, regretted our recent disagreements, and undertook to have me posted immediately. As usual he was as good as his word. In a letter he wrote to me on my departure Browning repeated all this, adding that it might be as well if our disagreements remained a private matter between us.

I heartily agreed with him. I was sickened by the disaster, the loss of so many good men, the idiocy of the enterprise, and my own complete failure to do anything about it. The last thing I wanted was to talk or write about it. The men of the 1st Airborne Division, as is the British custom in military disasters, had become heroes in a great cause. This at least was some consolation for the bereaved families—a small solace which I had no wish to spoil.

It was, of course, inconceivable that the opinion of one person, a young and inexperienced officer at that, could change a vast military plan approved by the President of the United States, the prime minister of Britain, and all the military top brass, but it seemed to me at the time that I could have gone about it more effectively. I believed then, as most conceited young people do, that a strong rational argument will carry the day if sufficiently well supported by substantiated facts. This, of course, is nonsense. Once a group of powerful people have made up their minds on something, it develops a life and momentum of its own that is almost impervious to reason or argument. This is particularly true when personal ambition and bravado are involved. In this case even an appeal to fear of ridicule and historical condemnation would not have worked. The decision had been taken at the highest level, and a vast military machine had been set in motion. The opinions of a young intelligence officer were not going to stop it.

There is nothing like proving to be right for making a person unpopular. With the exception of Shan Hackett, I saw virtually none of my airborne colleagues again for forty years until the fortieth anniversary ceremonies at Arnhem. I was glad to see my surviving friends again. John Frost, the hero of the bridge, told me he had never been given the information about the Germans that I had provided. He observed that General Browning should have stayed in England backstopping the operation, rather than masquerading as the Airborne Corps commander in Nijmegen where he was cut off and could do nothing to influence the battle.

The failure of Market Garden was underplayed in the press and was attributed, falsely, to bad security and, later, to betrayal by a Dutch double agent called King Kong. This was self-serving nonsense. The Germans were in church or relaxing when the first landing took place and simply couldn’t believe it was happening. The fact was that an unrealistic, foolish plan had been dictated by motives which should have played no part in a military operation that put so many lives and the early ending of the war at risk. All I wanted to do was to shut it out of my mind.

The Arnhem tragedy had a deep and lasting effect on my attitude to life. Before it I had been trusting and relatively optimistic, with a self-confidence that was sometimes excessive. After it I doubted everything, tended to distrust my own as well as other people’s judgment, and became deeply skeptical about the behavior of leaders. I never again could quite be convinced that great enterprises would go as planned or turn out well, or that wisdom and principle were a match for vanity and ambition.

Letters

Market Garden January 21, 1988

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