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Posted on Dec 23, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Author POV – Gen. Frederick Browning’s Entourage Too Far

By Stephen L. Wright

Stephen L Wright has spent several years researching and writing about the role of Airborne Forces in World War II. His interest in this area was inspired by his uncle, a British Glider Pilot who was killed on the initial landing in Normandy. He is co-author of One Night In June: The Story of Operation Tonga, the Initial Phase of the Invasion of Normandy, 1944, and is sole author of The Last Drop: Operation Varsity March 24-25 1945.

The movie A Bridge Too Far, with its stellar cast and a William Goldman screenplay that is pretty faithful to Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same name, is, so far, the only theatrical-release film that tells the story of the Allies’ first attempt to capture a major bridge across the Rhine—OPERATION MARKET GARDEN in September 1944. This combined airborne and land-movement attempt to seize a bridge in the town in Arnhem, The Netherlands, ended disastrously. A strong enemy presence meant that the British airborne troops were unable to put up a united front and the planned link-up between airborne and ground troops also failed to materialize. The operation ended after nine days, with the bridge still in German hands.

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There is one aspect of MARKET (the airborne element) that is not raised in either Ryan’s book or the movie, although more recent books—Martin Middlebrook’s Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle and Peter Harclerode’s Arnhem: A Tragedy of Errors among others—have discussed it. This is the decision of Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning, Commanding General of British 1st Airborne Corps, to take his entire headquarters to Holland.

Browning and his HQ had never flown operationally with First Allied Airborne Army, which was comprised of British 1st Airborne Corps and U.S. 18th Airborne Corps. He was determined that this time his men were going to get involved in the field.

You may think, “So, what if he did? He obviously thought these men were important to the operation.”

The HQ had been put together quite quickly from a unit known as HQ Airborne Troops, a unit whose main work was concerned with administration and training: Browning was taking clerks and trainers into the field.

That may not have been so bad if these men had more than basic army training, but they hadn’t. Neither had they trained together in the field, nor taken part in any of the field training for the operation, nor even trained with their counterparts in the U.S. HQs. In short, Browning’s HQ would add nothing to the overall battle by being in Holland.

If it had remained behind in England, its members could have made a significant difference as the rear link. As Harclerode wrote in Tragedy of Errors, page 164, the HQ could have “(liaised) with HQ First Allied Airborne Army, (RAF) Groups and 9th U.S. Troop Carrier Command (and ensured) that the three airborne divisions received resupply and air support as required, and commit any further forces, such as 52nd (Lowland) Division, when necessary.”

Instead, Browning loaded them into thirty-two Horsa gliders, which could have been used to carry fighting troops. He also used six Waco CG-4A gliders for U.S. Signals’ personnel. Although the British 1st Airborne Division did not use this glider type in MARKET GARDEN, these six could have been used to carry three guns, crews and towing jeeps.

If I’ve done my sums right, using these gliders for troops would have allowed all 1,600 members of the 7th Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers and 1st Battalion The Border Regiment to be taken on the First Lift (September 17) plus an extra third (approximately 270) of those in 2nd Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment. That would have left enough gliders available for the Second Lift (September 18) to ferry all of the Independent Polish Brigade’s anti-tank battery, instead of spreading its delivery over two days.

The Germans were quickly alerted to a mass landing, and they continued to be on high alert in the area of the drop zones and landing zones over the next several days. Had they been enveloped by a greater number of troops on the 17th, the effectiveness of their response might well have been diminished.

My question is: In light of the fact that not all of the MARKET troops could be delivered in one go, would it not have made more tactical sense to have delivered them as soon as possible, keeping Browning’s HQ in England and thereby freeing more gliders for use by combat elements?

Post a comment below to offer your answers to these questions (free site registration required). After two weeks, we’ll post the author’s own POV on the answers.

19 Comments

  1. As much as Browning was eager to get himself back into combat, having been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Croix de Guerre for his actions in the First World War, I believe the Allied command in general shared a faulty conviction that German resolve had been crushed. It may be true that Browning overlooked aerial photographs that seemed to depict armor in the region around Arnhem, but the amazing pace at which the Allied advance had progressed after the protracted stalemate in the hedgerows of Normandy had everyone believing that the war would soon be over, except of course the Germans. Many airborne landings had already been scrubbed because ground forces were overrunning the drop zones. In that sense it seemed like a legitimate opportunity to experiment with frontline command in airborne landings. This is further verified by Browning’s interest in taking the Groesbeek heights prior to advancing on the bridges toward Nijmegen, a condition perhaps inconsistent with priorities for a fast moving penetration.
    The operation of Market Garden seems in keeping with Sir Edward Creasy’s conception of the decisive battle, in as much as one more solid blow against the German war machine would perhaps finish the struggle. Decisive battles have inherent risk, and we generally only evaluate the Market operation based on its failure to reach John Frost at Arnhem Bridge. I would voice the sentiment that the entire operation stemmed from an unwarranted overconfidence in victory, and a blissful disregard for German resolve, rather than the particular failings of Lieutenant-General Browning. However, great blunders are still created from the accumulation of smaller errors. How do you foresee the conflict changing as a result of Browning’s absence? Additionally, how do you think the operation would have changed if they had left Groesbeek Heights and occupied the bridges directly?

  2. These are very accurate statements as to the immediate effect of Browning’s decision. The only effect (and an important one) that I would add is that it would also have allowed the three battalions of the 1st parachute Brigade to take with them their reconnaissance platoons. The lack of these slowed down the advance towards the bridge at Arnhem and allowed the Germans to ambush some sections of the brigade.

    However it should be evaluated in terms of what was known at the time, not in retrospect. The primary reason why he took his staff was that they would have been very valuable once the bridges were taken and the 3 airborne divisions leading a ground advance into Germany and the Netherlands. In such circumstances the radios taken in the gliders would have been essential when coordinating the airborne corps, especially since the parachute/glider radios were sadly inadequate. The alternative – that the airborne units would go under the command of XXX Corps would have meant that Browning was out of a job and, far more important, would have overloaded the traffic capacity of XXX Corps signals.

    Were I to pick a single (and there were many) reasons for the collapse of Market-Garden it was allowing some American officer to fly in carrying all the detailed plans of the operation. When Model saw them the same day failure was inevitable.

  3. Thank you for your very interesting comment. I agree with you about the overconfidence of the general staff.

    To answer your first question, I can only reiterate what I said about the fact that more fighting troops could have been delivered much sooner. The delay to the Poles, because of fog, would have been avoided. The Wacos could have been used to bring in A/T guns as well: a resource that, as it happened, were desperately needed.

    As to your second question, that is a seperate issue – if I may be so bold. However, the issue is the same, with regard to the types of troops inserted into the zones. If Gavin had not had the additional objective of securing the Heights he could then have brought in more support troops, such as A/T, on the 17th and ‘driven’ straight to the bridge at Nijmegen. However, the Heights were a position, which offered both sides a strategic advantage – ergo, they had to be secured.

  4. Mr Hughes,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Your point about 1st PB’s Recce Platoons is an interesting one. But I would ask, ‘Would they have fared any better than 1st AIrlanding’s Recce?

  5. Hello Mr. Wright,

    I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this article with its author.

    In as much as Browning was part of the failure of Market Garden, I would have to agree that his presence (or rather, the absence of additional combat troops) in the field had detrimental effects to victory. I don’t know if its true but I read that upon landing, Browning ran into the woods. After a short absence he returned to his men, remarking that he wanted to be the first to p*ss on German territory. If that’s true, it’s a further indication that they were fairly unaware of the true dangers ahead.
    However, would they have taken anti-tank guns on those extra gliders, given their regards towards the operation as it stood in 1944? If Browning were out of the picture, would they have sent combat troops, or simply someone else in his place? From what I understand, American Lieutenant-General Matthew Ridgway would have gone on the mission if Browning were absent. I would have to say that the separate nature of an airborne landing itself implies the limited use of a coordinated field command structure, since the individual operations would have limited contact, and in that sense you have a most valid point regarding the slight use of poorly combat tested operatives.
    I it could be done over again, they would perhaps need more combat troops, particularly A-T weapons, a more rapid assault of the bridges while the ground forces advanced upon the hard points (as I believe you have already alluded to), and perhaps a more limited/realistic goal. Everything had to work for Market to succeed, and when the German’s decided to fight, I think it was already going against the Allies.
    To change the tone just a bit, do you feel that another commander could have achieved greater success? In other words, would you say it was an individual failing of Browning himself, or of the operational outlook for Market Garden in general?

  6. Hello, Mr Illies

    Many thanks for your additional comments.

    I believe the story of Browning and the woods is ‘true’.

    The issue of whether more troops would have been sent is, of course, open to discussion. However, if Ridgway had gone: 1) I don’t think there would have been such a large HQ and 2) in my opinion, the better general would have been on the ground.

    The situation regarding the Germans was always going to be the same, regardless of which Allied commanders were present, but I believe that several fundamental errors were made in the planning (all of which have been discussed elswhere and in great depth).

  7. I agree with you. Mathew Ridgeway, who had already gained experience in Sicily and Normandy with the 82nd, would have made a better choice for such a challenging operation. Point well taken.

    What lessons are to be learned from the issue then? Seems that the political arena had a lot to do with the deciding powers, and whether to keep the peace or maintain honor, it detrimentally effected the operation. In that sense it might have been necessary, but there may also have been other more effective forms of political compromise.

    Something always to consider is the growth of overconfidence. I think its safe to say that the Allies knew they were going to win the war at that point. If Market Garden failed, they had no reason to fear destruction, except as pertains to the many individuals who remained behind enemy lines. Overconfidence may have clouded their judgement.

    What lessons do you perceive we must learn from the debacle?

  8. I very much doubt if the Allies were, as has been suggested, ‘over-confident’. Had they been there would not have assigned so much strength to checking a German attack from the east and more to taking the bridges, notably that at Nijmegan. And in all truth had the two SS Panzer divisions shifted even more of their strength (especially their trucks) to Germany or to the front, Arnhem would probably have suceeded. What they did believe was that the Germans would not be able to react fast enought to block the advance – in other words the Blitzkrieg/Shock and Awe theories.

    Also it is a little presumptuous to assume that people would have known that Ridgeway was a better corps commander than Browning. The latter had faults, but he had been the administrative commander of the two division British airborne corps for over a year. Both had led airborne divisions in action. The ‘pissing in the woods’ episode is questionable – it was written at the time not after, but there is the suggestion that some PR flak was writing it to make hime seem comparable to Patton, who seems to have flooded half of Italy and France! However the whole issue of his replacement is utterly moot in any case as the ‘rule’ in combined operations was that nationalities alternated by level of command. So you had the American Brereton as army, then the British Browning as corps commanders.

    Which does touch on one very major issue; many (I have to admit myself) feel that the critical failure was to bow to the airforce demands for ‘safe’ airdrop zones over the army demand for ‘close’ ones. This was particularly acute at Nijmegan where the drops were even further away than they were at Arnhem. It also seems (though the evidence is inconclusive) that it was the airforces that voted against ‘coup-de-main’ glider landings onto the bridges as was done In Normandy. I have always wondered what would have happened if Browning had replaced Brereton (who I understand had a very mixed war record) with Ridgeway taking his place.

    But that would never have happened because neither the Army Air Corps or the Royal Air Force would have allowed its squadrons to be commanded by an British or American Army general!

    So rather cynically I suspect that Gerald’s comment about political arena(in the sense of politicians) is much more applicable to the politics of generals and their enormous egos’s. So the lesson I would see from the battle is that the good of soldiers and nations must never be subordinated to the wishes of the military services.

  9. I have to agree with Mr Illies about the over-confidence of the Allies. Montgomery, in particular, thought he had this one ‘in the bag’. Strangely, it was Browning who thought Monty was going a ‘bridge too far’, yet he (Browning) was quite happy to dismiss out of hand the intelligence that he received about the German presence in and around Arnhem.

    The influential person who would have known about Ridgway’s superior leadership qualities was Brereton, who, after some politicking by Browning, had slated Ridgway for command of Linnet II, the successor to Market. It was only when Browning threatened to resign that further discussions took place and he was retained in command, but of a British/Polish operation (Comet). Browning had no field experience, prior to Holland. He left the 1st Airborne Division before it went to North Africa. Although he was parachute and glider trained, it still remains the fact that his experience was administrative. Ridgway was time-served in Sicily, Normandy and the Ardennes. However, when Market was put on the table, Brereton appointed Browning as ground commander, since he saw it as an extension of Linnet II. I have not read anywhere of the ‘rule’ to alternate nationalities. It was, in my opinion, a huge mistake to appoint Browning.

    I will concur on the plan to land away from the bridges. This is one of the ‘failures’ which has been discussed at length.

    Browning for Brereton and Ridgway as FAAA Deputy. Again, my opinion is that if it had happened, the roles should have been reversed.

  10. Steve: Alas no matter what, in retrospect one thinks of Ridgeway, it would still be utterly impossible for an Allied force to operate with all of its senior echelons held by Americans. Whatever maybe the case today, in WWII things simply did not happen that way. If you want to see a clear example of this just check out the changes in the command structure in the Mediterranean at Theatre Army Group and Army level. I cannot believe that the British would ever have permitted one of its elite forces to be commanded (not just controlled) by only American superiors. Especially in view of what happened when they allowed assault troops to be put under American command at Salerno and Anzio. Now I am fully aware that Ridgeway was a towering genius compared with ineffectuals like Clarke and Lucus but that again was not known at the time.

    Rank was also all important – I believe Ridgeway was just a major-general at the time, one below Browning and two below Brereton.

    Actually I suspect that this whole debate on the corps commander is moot – in view of the general failure of communications whoever it was could probably do nothing in the critical early days and would have been over-ridden by the air marshals and generals in the planning stage.

  11. “I cannot believe that the British would ever have permitted one of its elite forces to be commanded (not just controlled) by only American superiors.”

    Yet, Ridgway was in overall command of airborne forces on Op Varsity.

  12. Yes – by then they had learnt their lesson about Browning – he was in disgrace. So too was the equally culpable commander of the 1st Airborne Division. It really is amazing how useless all but one of the UK para commanders were – compared with the US – lacking any firm knowledge I believe they in contrast were all better than competant?

    To answer your statement – yes but only for one day or less! As soon as the two British Corps commanders crossed the Rhine about ten miles away they were supposed to revert to British command. Note that in the last month of the war Montgomery was so impressed with Ridgeway that he would trust him with anything!

  13. Which para commanders do you mean: Battalion or Brigade; and to which Division are you referring?

  14. Division and Corps – Gale of the 6th Airborne Division commander and Pritchard (of the independent parachute brigade in Italy) seem to have been competant. Of course criticism was always muted (to say the least) during the war. The only giveaway is the failure to promote or heavily decorate after a battle – Browning for example.

  15. One of the basic pillars on which Market-Garden rested was that the German army was already half defeated.
    A general under appreciation of the defensive abilities of the German army shows through in the struggle for Normandy. From the beginning, Montgomery always underestimated the enemy’s defensive capabilities. If you really look at his plans to penetrate the enemy’s positions, they only appreciate the german forward positions. The british soldiers were constantly finding that their pre-assault planning assumed the enemies main line of defense would be breached, when they were only through the outpost defenses. Decision in Normandy, by Carlo d’Este, discusses this in great detail.
    I believe the planning failure of Operation Market, may be ascribed to a similar bias. Once you have seized the bridges, then the battle is won.

  16. David,

    I would also count Eric Bols, Gale’s successor. The reason I asked which commanders you meant was that, at Brigade and Battalion level, there were excellent men in charge.

  17. I agree with the overall comments about overconfidence or, a better, term, overeliance on old information. The allies were experiencing the Ultra Blckout with germans relying on land communications instead than on wireless. Their big picture had dried up after normandy. They knew Bittrich was in arnhem, but not hinv retiurn strenght for the forces involved the assumed they were a non-entity.

    But the main question is if Browning “giant” size HQ was an asset or a liability. I agree with Peter Haclerode and mr. Wright on that issue. Dropping\landing Browning in the first wave was excessive. An airborne corps HQ was needed, but the key of the operation was airlift capacity in the first days. Browning could have been flown later. First things first, I have been trained.

    Even if the additional lift wasn’t scheduled for Arnhem (a lot of lift capacity fro browning was taken from Gavin division) it could have allowed Gavin to have more artillery and more rifle strenght and push to the bridge (and defend the heights).

    Maybe is not an HQ too far (as has been pointed out a corps HQ was needed for the phase 2 exploitation), but certianly an HQ too early.

  18. dont really care who should have been charge. the point is these people knew models panzers were there at arnhem. also the drop zones were 8 miles away. the radios didnt work. and if anyone complained they were sent packing. these so called great men of battle. sent men to their deaths and didnt care. montgomery was the worst general in the history of warfare. the big generlas only wanted glory at the expense of others deaths. they were dipictable humans

  19. The main problem with Arnhem was the plan.
    1/There should have been coup de main landings to seize the railway and road bridges.
    2/Two Air landing btns landing on LZ L could have swiftly seized the high ground north of Arnhem protecting the flank of the advancing 1st Para brigade. As DZ S would have less gliders and not overspill south of the railway line, this would allow LZX and Z to be used for the 2nd lift. The protecting Air landing btn for this could then withdraw to the western side of the defensive perimeter, whilst the 4th Para brigade could move towards Oosterbeck to be used where needed. This allows units to move to positions within a protective screen.
    3/ The knowledge of 2nd Panzer Corp north of Arnhem was detailed by 21st Army goup on 10th Sept. No arrangement was made to liase with the Tactical Airforce based in Belgium to supply air cover to counter enemy armour.
    4/ No attempt appears to have been made to speed 1st Para brig off
    the DZ, all three Btns waited between 1-1.5hrs before orders to move.
    5/The appropriation of 38 gliders from the 1st lift by Browning was unforgivable, whether Corp HQ should have gone is debatable but if unavoidable it should not have at the expense of the first lift.
    6/ Many other reasons have been given but they are all secondary, the objectives and strategic ground had to be taken on the first day before the Germans had time to insert blocking lines.

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