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Posted on May 29, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 5

By Carlo D'Este

Brereton’s deputy, Lieutenant General F.A.M. “Boy” Browning, was considered a pioneer in the evolution of British airborne operations. A qualified glider pilot who had briefly been the first commander of the 1st Airborne Division when it was formed in 1942, Browning was also the commander of the British airborne corps. On paper Browning had brilliant qualifications; in reality he lacked battle experience and common sense.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, was a long-time advocate of airborne operations and emphatically on record favoring the creation of an Allied airborne army, as was Arnold, who pressed unrelentingly for a role for the vast USAAF troop carrier fleet that had been reluctantly created by the airmen to support airborne and glider operations, but which was currently sitting idle in England. Both exhorted Eisenhower to employ his airborne forces. From the time of the airborne fiascoes in Sicily in July 1943, Eisenhower had sent out mixed signals about the usefulness of airborne operations, at one point writing to Marshall that he “did not believe in the airborne division,” only to reverse himself after a thorough investigation by a joint Anglo-American board of officers.


By the summer of 1944, Eisenhower had little choice except to embrace the airborne concept thrust upon him by the creation of the First Allied Airborne Army, which became the Allied strategic reserve, a versatile force to be employed when and where Eisenhower and SHAEF decided. Once the decision was made to create such an organization, the pressure immediately mounted to find some means to employ it.

During preliminary discussions with Brereton in July the airman found Eisenhower in a particularly aggressive mood and demanding “imagination and daring.” Brereton promised results. “I told General Eisenhower if he wanted plans with daring and imagination he would get them.”

On September 4 Eisenhower laid the groundwork for the Arnhem operation by directing Brereton to “operate in support of the Northern Group of Armies (i.e., Montgomery) up to and including the crossing of the Rhine.” In a private memorandum written the next day, Ike noted that in conjunction with the broad front advance, “we should use our airborne forces to seize crossings over the Rhine and be in a position to thrust deep into the Ruhr and threaten Berlin.” [3]


The First Allied Airborne Army brought under single command three American airborne divisions, one British airborne division, and an independent Polish airborne brigade plus various RAF and USAAF troop carrier formations. [4] Although based in England, the FAAA was equally smitten with the “victory disease” and “the euphoria which existed across the Channel and in the Airborne Corps was that the war was nearly over,” said Major General R.E. Urquhart, who commanded the British First Airborne Division. In his diary Brereton noted that, “Airborne troops are the most modern expression of warfare,” and to add emphasis he framed a 1784 quote by Benjamin Franklin that “ten thousand men descending from the clouds . . . [would] do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them.” [5]

Numerous plans (some ill-conceived by an untried and inexperienced staff) to employ an airborne force had to be repeatedly abandoned as the Normandy campaign turned into a rout and Allied troops overran proposed targets before airborne operations could be mounted. Eighteen such plans had already been created and scrapped, some because of intramural rivalries within the airborne army. Before it was abandoned, Browning and Brereton possessed sharp differences of opinion over a proposed operation around Aachen and Maastricht in support of Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges’s First U.S. Army. Browning was adamant that the new airborne force be used exclusively in support of Montgomery, and tendered his resignation, later withdrawn, when it appeared he would not get his way. “This in turn put pressure on Montgomery: use them or lose them.” [6] With each passing day the pressures increased to employ the air and ground forces immobilized in England. Thus, as an official U.S. historian notes, “The paratroopers and glider men resting and training in England became in effect coins burning holes in SHAEF’s pocket.” [7]

It was in this atmosphere of eagerness on the part of the new airborne force to initiate a valid mission, and Montgomery’s burning determination to keep alive his concept of an Allied single thrust to the Ruhr under his command that resulted in the creation of the most ill-conceived major operation of World War II. Code-named Market-Garden, it was a daring plan to open the way to the heartland of the German Ruhr by means of airborne landings in Holland by the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions to seize the rivers and canal crossings around Eindhoven, the bridges across the River Waal at Nijmegen, the Maas at Grave, and by the British 1st Airborne Division to capture and hold the vital bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem.

In reserve was the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, which was to reinforce the British at Arnhem. The airborne landings were to be followed by a ground thrust to relieve the airborne by Dempsey’s Second British Army from the Belgian-Netherlands border area. The airborne operation by the First Allied Airborne Army was code-named “Market.” The ground operation by which Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks’s British XXX Corps was to thrust north along the narrow sixty-five mile corridor from Eindhoven to Nijmegen opened by the airborne was called “Garden.” Once in control of Arnhem Bridge, the remainder of Second Army was to turn the German flank and rapidly assault the Ruhr. By means of this surprise assault through the so-called back door to Germany, Montgomery hoped to hasten the collapse of the Third Reich and end the war in 1944.

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