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