The discussion which took place between several Israeli readers after I published last week the article about the Paratroopers Brigade exercise, brought me back to read again about the largest airborne military operation ever to take place – Operation ‘Market Garden’ in September 1944. The scale of this operation, the great promise it carried, the reasons for its eventual failure and the lessons that can be learnt from it should be studied by any senior military commander.
Operation ‘Market Garden’ was the brainchild of the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Its aim was to carry out a rapid armoured flanking manoeuvre of the German defence lines via Holland, along the route passing through the towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, to unbalance the Germans, penetrate northern Germany and end the war by Christmas 1944. On the armoured forces’ path were many water obstacles, the largest being the river Maas and the river Rhine. The bridges leading over these obstacles were critical to the success of the armoured drive and capturing and securing them were entrusted to British and American airborne forces which were to be parachuted or landed by gliders. The scale of the aerial part of the operation was massive – 1,750 transport aircraft were to drop in waves, over several days, some 20,000 paratroopers, and 3,000 gliders were to land 15,000 additional men and large quantities of equipment.
Like many military operations that came before it and after it, Operation ‘Garden Market’ was doomed to fail even before it begun. One of the main reasons for that was Eisenhower’s and Montgomery’s wrong assessment that the German army was crumbling and that it would only be capable of offering a weak and disorganised resistance. Reality was very different. Already in early September, Hitler brought back General Field Marshal von Rundstedt from a forced retirement and reappointed him commander of the western front. Von Rundstedt and the commander who replaced him in that role for a short period, General Field Marshal Model, initiated immediate preparations aimed at repelling a possible offensive in Holland, recruiting any army unit they could put their hands on and rebuilding units retreating from Western Europe after Normandy invasion. Montgomery’s and other officer’s insistence to ignore fresh intelligence that pointed to the presence of two S.S. armoured Panzer divisions in the vicinity of the paratroopers intended drop zones did not help either. The British First Airborne Division’s intelligence officer, who demanded an urgent meeting with the operation’s commander in order to warn him against the danger poses by the armoured German force, was sent on a sick leave due to what the commander described as ‘strained nerves and exhaustion.’
With heavy pressures from the US administration to make another use of the combined airborne forces that returned from Normandy before the war ended, the operation was planned within one week only and was carried out with no preparatory exercises, whilst other large scale operations benefited from months of planning and rehearsing. Relatively weak units were assigned to the most demanding objectives. Despite the fact that the success of the whole operation was totally dependent on the rapid capture of the bridges, and that achieving this was nearly totally dependent on the element of surprise, most units were parachuted some five to eight miles away from their objectives to reduce initial losses, and in broad daylight, to minimise their scatter, but by doing this lost surprise altogether. In contrast, forces that were dropped directly over their objectives captured them with hardly any resistance. The Germans deduced very quickly what the aims of the offensive were and organised themselves quickly to thwart it. They also found a full plan of the opertaion on the body of an American officer. They blew up some of the bridges and re-captured several others.
The weather forecasts proved completely wrong and after the first day the weather over England’s airfields and Holland’s drop and landing zones was bad and caused many delays in the flow of additional forces and supplies from the air. As a result, paratrooper units had to fight for a few days with a reduced force and without their heavy equipment, and to divert a substantial part of their strength to secure the drop zones instead of attacking the Germans. The main armoured column and the logistic supplies that followed it moved along one central narrow route surrounded by impassable land, which caused many delays every time the leading tanks encountered German ambushes. The paratroopers, who the armour failed to join, fought for days beyond enemy lines until they ran out of ammunition and food supplies. The radio transceivers used by the paratroopers were known to be problematic and had a very short range and a lot of the fighting took place with no radio contact between different units and with their own commanders. Many tactical opportunities were missed. Close air support that was totally dependent on radio communications was also hardly provided for fear of friendly fire incidents.
The cost of the failure of Operation ‘Market Garden’ was very heavy. During nine days of fighting, the allies lost over 10,000 men, and 6,000 more were taken prisoners of war. Not surprisingly, the exchanges of blame between the British and the Americans and between the commanders of the different forces which participated in the operation continued long after the war had ended. Very few of the initiators, planners and commanders of the operation ever admitted their mistakes, the most serious and tragic one being the underestimation of the strength and abilities of the enemy.