The Last Disaster of the War

Brian Urquhart
Brian Urquhart; drawing by David Levine

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…

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