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Posted on Feb 19, 2021 in Front Page Features, War College

Operation Market Garden  Comparing BG Gavin’s Leadership With Today’s Principles of Mission Command

Operation Market Garden  Comparing BG Gavin’s Leadership With Today’s Principles of Mission Command

Douglas Ritter

BG James Gavin’s leadership, both in planning and execution, was a significant factor in the success of the 82nd Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden and his successful leadership was possible due to a mastery of certain Mission Command principles. BG Gavin and his subordinates displayed disciplined initiative and risk acceptance during the execution of Operation Market Garden through their initial actions and during the gap crossings. Furthermore, BG Gavin’s leadership style was possible because his Paratroopers viewed him as a competent leader and Gavin had a strong, supporting mutual trust with his subordinate leaders.

     Gavin’s journey to commanding the 82nd Airborne Division began in 1924 when he enlisted in New York and served in Panama as a 155mm Gun Crewmember in the Coast Artillery. Gavin attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated in 1929. He attended the Infantry School in Ft. Benning and held various positions as an Infantry officer, including his first command in Company K, 7th Infantry Regiment. Following command, he was sent back to West Point to teach tactics. While stationed at West Point as an instructor, Gavin developed an interest in German airborne tactics. In 1941 Gavin volunteered for Parachute School and after graduation, took command of Company C, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR).


     After command, Gavin promoted to Major and was assigned as the Operations Officer for the Provisional Airborne Group, the organization responsible for all airborne training and doctrine at the time. Gavin’s interest in the facets of airborne warfare in the early 1940’s, and his self-study, led him to be primary writer for the Army’s first publication on airborne tactics, FM 31-30: Tactics and Techniques of Air-Borne Troops.1 According to ADP 6-0: Mission Command “Leaders supplement institutional and organizational training and education with continuous self-development”2. Gavin’s own self-development lead to a tactically competent American airborne force, and gave airborne leaders the doctrinal base to build Regiments, Divisions, and even the XVIII Airborne Corps on.

MG Gavin

     Once the U.S. entered World War II, Gavin promoted to Colonel, took command of the 505th PIR, and jumped with his Paratroopers in combat during Operation Husky. Following success during the invasion of Sicily, Gavin promoted to Brigadier General and was made Assistant Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. While Assistant Commander, Gavin jumped once again, this time into France during Operation Overlord, where he was the commander for all the Division’s Airborne Troops. In August of 1944, after only three years serving as a Paratrooper, Gavin took command of the 82nd Airborne Division and readied his Division to jump into Holland during Operation Market Garden.3

     The overall goal of Operation Market Garden was to capture a series of bridges creating an axis of approach to the German heart of industry in the Ruhr Valley and capture it with the British armored XXX Corps. This would be accomplished by deploying three Airborne Divisions each with a goal of capturing specific bridges. The 82nd Airborne Division and BG Gavin were tasked with the center section around the town of Nijmegen and Groesbeek Heights. The 82nd was to seize bridges of the Maas river, the Waal river, and the canal that connected the two.      

     In preparation for Operation Market Garden, Gavin directed that of four drop zones the 82nd would jump into, only one would be marked by pathfinders.4 During airborne operations unknown drop zones are marked so that pilots and Paratroopers can see them from the air, and Paratroopers are briefed on the markings before take off to aid in assembling with their unit. However, two of the 82nd’s regiments would be dropping very close to suspected German positions. Gavin made the decision to leave these two drop zones unmarked because it would not give the enemy an inclination to where allied forces might be landing and denied German armor time to mass their forces against an incomplete friendly force. Gavin’s decision introduced a significant risk to his Paratroopers’ safety on landing but the balance was increased time to prepare for a counter attack.

Gavin prepares his CE

     Airborne forces are not armored and have limited anti-armor capabilities. Since the 82nd’s highest priority was to protect the eastern flank in the vicinity of Groesbeek Heights from German tanks, Gavin needed as much time as possible to land his whole Division, including an entire Battalion of artillery. The airborne insertion of an artillery Battalion had never been done before but the 82nd needed the additional firepower to fend off enemy armor.5

     In order to accept such a risk to his unit, Gavin had to trust that the Airborne Artillerymen were proficient in their airborne tasks: that they could jump and land not only themselves, but also their crucial artillery pieces, assemble them quickly, and lay accurate fire on enemy targets. Gavin’s 82nd had a climate of mutual trust, specifically “shared confidence between commanders, subordinates…that they can be relied on and are competent in performing their assigned tasks.”6 Despite their commander breaking his ankle on the jump, the men of the 376th Artillery Battalion had 10 howitzers assembled and firing in just over an hour.7

     Gavin knew one of the benefits to airborne operations was the ability to create opportunities and seize the initiative. In order to capitalize on this front, Gavin directed that his Paratroopers should “jump close to any anti-aircraft batteries they could see from the air and render them useless as quickly as possible.” 8 His intent was to defend his and the Corps Headquarters, the Operations eastern flank, and to seize objectives as quickly as possible to enable the armored units to push through to their objective.

     The Disciplined Initiative principle of Mission Command is defined as “…the duty individual subordinates have to exercise initiative within the constraints of the commander’s intent to achieve a desired endstate.”9 Perhaps the best example of this principle during Market Garden is the events surrounding the capture of the Grave Bridge, to the far west of the 82nd’s Area of Operations. It was here that Lieutenant John Thompson and his platoon from E Company, 504th PIR exited their aircraft late due to a faulty green light. Upon landing LT Thompson realized his platoon was only 500 yards from the western bridge head, his primary objective. Thompson decided to attack immediately, sending one Paratrooper back to his commander informing him of his decision. Thompson’s platoon was able to capitalize on their positioning and intercept German soldiers establishing a defense at the bridge head.10 Thompson was able to operate inside of the Division Commanders intent at the platoon level, demonstrating that a clear understanding of the Commander’s Intent had been communicated down five echelons of command.

OPERATION ‘MARKET GARDEN’ (THE BATTLE FOR ARNHEM): 17 – 25 SEPTEMBER 1944 (B 15742) Personalities: Major-General James Gavin, Commander of the 82nd (US) Airborne Division receiving the DSO from Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery in Munchen Gladbach. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

     Gavin did have one major incident in Holland that violated the Mission Command Principles of Commanders Intent and Mission Orders. During planning, Gavin discussed the seizure of the bridges over the Waal river with LTG Browning, Commander of the British 1st Airborne Corps. Together they decided that, although the bridges at Nijmegen were crucial to the success of Market Garden, they should be the Division’s last priority and no forces should be committed to them until the flank at Groesbeek Heights was secure, and the bridges at Grave and the canals were in Allied hands. However, just 24 hours before wheels up, Gavin talked to the 508th PIR Commander, COL Lindquist, telling him he felt that the Division could hold Groesbeek Heights successfully and have 508th commit a Battalion to attack the Nijmegen bridge head from the east immediately upon landing. Gavin’s intent was to have 1-508th PIR move from their drop zone in Groesbeek Heights directly west toward the Nijmegen road bridge, avoiding much of the urban area of the city.

     COL Lindquist did not fully understand Gavin’s intent or orders and took actions not consistent with Gavin’s direction. Lindquist had 1-508th PIR move to the south of the city upon landing and wait there to link up with his sister Battalions and receive confirmation that his unit was not needed else where and then commence with an attack from the south. 1-508th waited on the outskirts of Nijmegen for four hours before maneuvering towards the bridge head. When elements of the 1-508th were within 100 meters of the bridge head, they came under heavy machine gun fire from fortified German positions.

     This incident, in addition to showing poor communication between Gavin and Lindquist, caused a flawed shared understanding. Gavin, Lindquist, and Browning all had different understandings of where the 1-508th would be postured and their mission. This led to subsequent failed attacks on the southern bridge head over 24 hours and caused Gavin to become directly involved in planning a way to seize crossings over the Waal river.

     In order to overcome this tactical set back, Gavin devised a plan that entailed having paratroopers from the 504th PIR ferried across the Waal River by engineers from the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion in canvas assault boats procured from the 30th Corps, who had made it into the area of Nijmegen. When Gavin first proposed his plan to LTG Browning, he shut it down, calling the plan too dangerous. Gavin went back to the drawing board and later returned to LTG Browning reaffirming his belief that, while the plan was risky, it was the best way to capture the bridges over Nijmegen. Browning ultimately decided that he trusted Gavin’s judgement and allowed him to carry out the plan.

     Gavin knew his plan was not without risk. The Waal river was 400 yards wide and far to open to hope for surprise, and the opposite shore was 500 yards of flat terrain leading up to fortified German positions. Of the 26 assault boats on the first crossing half made it to the far bank and then immediately turned around for additional troops.11 Although having Paratroopers maneuver, both in boat and on foot, across almost one kilometer without cover or concealment seems almost too risky, the Allied attacks on the southern bridge head were not getting anywhere and the Germans had the ability to resupply and reinforce. Gavin’s plan removed that ability and allowed the 30th Corps to overwhelm the southern bridge head and capture the Waal River Bridge.

     Overall, Operation Market Garden was not fully successful. The British 1st Airborne Division failed to take the bridges in Arnhem and had elements completely destroyed or captured. The communication breakdown between Gavin and Lindquist was not an effective use of mission command, and specifically violated the principles of Commanders Intent and Mission Orders.

     However, BG Gavin and his subordinates displayed disciplined initiative and risk acceptance during the execution of Operation Market Garden through their initial actions and during the gap crossings. Furthermore BG Gavin’s leadership style was possible because his Paratroopers viewed him as a competent leader and Gavin had a strong, supporting mutual trust with his subordinate leaders. Gavin’s background of tactical and technical knowledge led to his widely held reputation as a competent leader. Gavin leaned on his reputation and on trust built with seniors and subordinates while serving in various commands within the 82nd Airborne Division. Gavin directed Paratroopers at the lowest level to take disciplined initiative and exploit any opportunities, especially those immediately after landing, in an attempt to maximize the advantage of airborne operations. Throughout the entirety of Operation Market Garden, Gavin identified and balanced the risks to his Paratroopers with the risk to his mission and, despite major setbacks, lead the 82nd to accomplishing all of its objectives.


  1. David Hein, “Counterpoint to Combat: The Education of Airborne Commander James M. Gavin,” Army 63, no. 7 (July 2013) 51

2. Department of the Army. ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Command and Control of Army Forces. (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, July 2019) 1-7. (1-27)

            3. Steven Zaloga, and Steve Noon, Operation Market Garden 1944 (1) (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2014), 12.

            4. Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge too Far (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster 1974), 235.

            5. Scott Glass, “Cannons Under Canopy: American Parachute Field Artillery in Operation Market-Garden,” Field Artillery 4 (July-August 2000): 20

            6. Department of the Army. ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Command and Control of Army Forces. (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, July 2019) 1-7. (1-30)

7. Ryan, 241.

            8. Ryan, 235.

            9. Department of the Army. ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Command and Control of Army Forces. (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, July 2019) 1-12. (1-59)

            10. Ryan, 239.

            11. Lloyd Clark, Arnhem: Operation Market Garden, September 1944. (Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing 2002) 165


Hein, David. “Counterpoint to Combat: The Education of Airborne Commander James M. Gavin.” Army 63, no. 7 (July 2013) 51

US, Department of the Army. ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Command and Control of    Army Forces. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. July 2019.

Zaloga, Steven, and Noon, Steve. Operation Market Garden 1944 (1).  Oxford, UK:    Osprey Publishing 2014.

Ryan, Cornelius. A Bridge too Far. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster 1974.

Glass, Scott. “Cannons Under Canopy: American Parachute Field Artillery in Operation Market-Garden.” Field Artillery 4 (July-August 2000): 20

Clark, Lloyd. Arnhem: Operation Market Garden, September 1944. Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing 2002.


  1. Thanks Douglas – that was a good read. It’s surprising to see Gavin’s rapid rise from company command to division command, but you make a good case that he had the skills and experience for the job.

  2. TO THE SOLDIERS OF THIRD ARMY * Contents * Preface * Acknowledgments * Introduction * Chapter 1 – Prologue to Operation Desert Shield * Chapter 2 – Executing a Contingency * Chapter 3 – Planning a Ground Offensive I: The CINC’s Study Group * Chapter 4 – Planning a Ground Offensive II: The ARCENT Process * Chapter 5 – Build-up to Attack * Chapter 6 – Desert Storm: Air Power and Final Issues * Chapter 7 – Desert Storm: Battle * Chapter 8 – Battle’s End * Chapter 9 – Conclusions: “A Famous Victory?” * Appendixes * A. Command and Control, ARCENT, February 1991 * B. Task Organization, Operation Desert Shield, 5 March 1991 * C. Warfighting Command and Control, XVIII Airborne Corps * D. The XVIII Airborne Corps’ Task Organization, 5 March 1991 * E. Warfighting Command and Control, VII Corps * F. The VII Corps’ Task Organization, 5 March 1991 * G. Current Combat Capability, 24 February 1991 * H. Chronology * Glossary * Bibliography

  3. Being somewhat of a historian and of course wargaming, I have questions in regard to why the British ignored the air reconnaissance of Arnhem and other locations involved in MarketGarden. To drop paras and lightly armed men in the middle of even two lightly armed SS Panzer Divisions isn’t showing a good tactical sense.


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