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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

The concept of Market-Garden was straightforward enough, however its execution would prove disastrously complex. Its success hinged on the slender thread that the airborne would seize the various bridges while the British ground forces of XXX Corps fought their way along a single highway to rapidly relieve the lightly armed airborne troops at each of the bridges.

From the outset, Market-Garden was a prescription for trouble that was plagued by mistakes, oversights, false assumptions and outright arrogance. Neither Brereton nor Browning were inclined to heed advice from their more experienced subordinate airborne troop commanders: Major General Matthew B. Ridgway, the U.S. airborne corps commander, Major Generals Maxwell Taylor (101st Airborne) and S.F. Sosabowski, the Polish airborne commander, and James M. Gavin (the youngest division commander in the U.S. Army), the new commander of the 82d Airborne. Roy Urquhart, the commander of the British 1st Airborne Division, was an infantry officer only recently assigned to the airborne arm. Arnhem would be his first airborne operation and he was thus without the experience or the influence to overcome Browning and Brereton, both of whom seized upon Market-Garden as the answer to their preoccupation to mount a significant and aggressive airborne operation.


In Market-Garden, Brereton had the ideal operation to meet Eisenhower’s wishes. With the scent of victory in everyone’s mind, caution and pessimism were unacceptable. The last thing either Brereton or Browning would countenance was a reason, no matter how valid, to scrap or even modify the operation. What would make the operation even more tragic was that Browning himself had grave concerns about Arnhem when he first learned of the proposed plan, but did nothing about them.


The decision to launch the operation was made despite accurate and timely intelligence from the Dutch underground indicating that two German panzer divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps were bivouacked near Arnhem. The intelligence officer on Browning’s staff who reported the presence of these divisions which were refitting after Normandy, was Major Brian Urquhart, a future deputy United Nations Secretary General, and no relation to the 1st Airborne Division commander. Urquhart was soundly rebuffed when he tried to warn Browning. When Urquhart then produced oblique aerial photographs taken by the RAF that clearly depicted German tanks near Arnhem, Browning dismissed his warnings as those of a “nervous child suffering from a nightmare,” and ordered him on sick leave for “nervous strain and exhaustion.” [8]

Yet, there was still time to have averted disaster. Before the operation the Ultra code-breakers at Bletchley Park had intercepted and decrypted a number of German signals that reliably revealed the presence of not only the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, but also an assault gun regiment and the headquarters of Field Marshal Model’s Army Group B in and around Arnhem. [9] Whether or not 21st Army Group knew of Major Brian Urquhart’s warnings and the compelling aerial reconnaissance photos is unclear, but what is certain is that Montgomery’s G-2 failed to take either the intelligence or its implications seriously.

Unlike Browning and others, when Ike’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, learned of the reported presence of two panzer divisions near Arnhem, he took the matter gravely enough to strongly recommend that not one but two airborne divisions be employed at Arnhem to counter the German threat. With Eisenhower’s permission, Smith personally voiced his concerns to Montgomery who, “ridiculed the idea and waved my objections airily aside.” [10] Others were likewise concerned but unheard. SHAEF intelligence identified the two units as the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions and warned they likely had been re-equipped with new tanks. [11] Miles Dempsey (CG of the British Second Army) who, among the British ground commanders, understood airborne operations better than his counterparts, was sufficiently concerned that he recommended that an airborne drop be made near Wesel, which would have enabled First Army to help block a German counterattack. Dempsey’s proposal was never seriously considered nor his concerns addressed.

Roy Urquhart may have been inexperienced, but he knew enough to warn his superiors that the British landing zones were too far away (four to nine miles) from Arnhem Bridge, and would forfeit the vital element of surprise necessary to carry out a coup-de-main. [12] Moreover, the decision to lift his division into Arnhem over a three-day period seriously impaired Urquhart’s ability to carry out his assigned mission; however, his appeal for two lifts on D-Day was rejected when the air commanders refused to drop the paratroopers or land the glider troops closer to the bridge in the mistaken belief that German ack-ack ringing Arnhem made the operation too dangerous for their aircraft. The combined effect of both decisions was to cripple the chances of Market’s success before the first aircraft ever left the ground. It was in this highly charged atmosphere that the planning for Market went full-steam ahead, as if its pitfalls were of little or no consequence.

Browning received other warnings from both Sosabowski and the battle-experienced British airborne commander in Sicily and Normandy, Major General R.N. Gale (whose 6th Airborne Division was not involved but who was consulted by Browning) that the drop zones at Arnhem were ill conceived and potentially disastrous. Browning not only disregarded their advice but actually concealed it. [13]

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