Intelligence

 

Much criticism has been levelled at Lieutenant-General Browning for his failure to act upon Intelligence reports that two S.S. Panzer Divisions were based in the Arnhem area. It has even been suggested that he knowingly sent the 1st Airborne Division to its fate to enhance his own career prospects. Such accusations are complete nonsense, as Browning's previous conduct shows that he was prepared to sacrifice these prospects rather than unnecessarily risk the lives of his men. Only a week earlier, on the 4th September, he had threatened to resign over the hastily organised Operation Linnet 2, which would have seen his Corps thrown recklessly into a battle without adequate maps and briefings.

 

The interpretation of Intelligence has always been a difficult business because the evidence is often conflicting and vague, rarely speaking of specific threats. The primary source of Intelligence for Operation Market Garden was Ultra, the codename for the interception and decoding of German signals received through the Enigma machine. Ultra clearly identified the presence of the 9th and 10th S.S. Panzer Divisions, but due to the vital need to protect the system and not give the Germans cause to suspect that their codes had been broken, only a select few were privy to this information in an undiluted form. The 1st British Airborne Corps, therefore, only received a blurred suggestion that the two Divisions were in the area, but this did not necessarily mean that these units were at anything like full or half strength. During the chaotic retreat from Normandy, the German divisions that survived had been so severely mauled that many were reduced to the strength of a weak brigade. Browning advised Major-General Roy Urquhart that his total opposition would consist of nothing stronger than a Brigade Group of infantry supported by a few tanks.

 

The other sources came from the Dutch Underground and Major Brian Urquhart's reconnaissance photographs. British Intelligence had very good reason to mistrust the Dutch, not merely because of their experiences of betrayal earlier in the War, which had resulted in the capture of fifty agents, but also the Dutch Resistance was much less organised than their French counterparts, who the British had been happy to make full use of. In some cases the reports coming from Holland were accurate, in others, much less so. The photographs that Urquhart presented to Browning clearly showed a small number of tanks very close to the 1st Airborne's sphere of operations, but a small number of tanks did not automatically mean the presence of an entire Panzer Division.

 

In summary, the information that Browning received was too vague to counter the widespread optimism that the German front line required only a firm strike to shatter it completely. If he was at fault then it was certainly because he made no effort to warn the 1st Airborne Division that there was a possibility of strong, armoured resistance in their area. At such short notice the basic plan could not have been altered, but it is certainly possible that the 1st Parachute Brigade would not only have taken more anti-tank ammunition with them, but also concentrated their strength for the advance into Arnhem, rather than scattering it on three separate routes. Had a warning been issued, the outcome at the end of the first day may have proved to be very different.

 

The Dutch Resistance

 

The British mistrust of the Dutch Resistance, as mentioned above, also had other effects. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions did not harbour the same doubts, possibly because they had both spent several weeks fighting in Normandy and had come to appreciate the usefulness of the French Resistance, and as such they made full use of the Dutch as soon as they landed in Holland. Resistance information, concerning enemy numbers and their locations, were gathered and made use of, and Underground members also acted as guides to speed the American troops to their objectives along little known paths. They were also allowed to take up the arms of fallen American soldiers to guard German prisoners, and even to act as snipers in forward areas. The British at Arnhem, however, did none of this. Local guides would have been invaluable during the first days, steering the Airborne troops through the unfamiliar streets and helping them to avoid enemy opposition. Furthermore, had the Underground been aware that the Division's radios were not performing well and that Major-General Urquhart could not contact Corps Headquarters in Nijmegen, they could have made use of their telephone system and established a direct link.

 

Command Errors

 

The 1st Parachute Brigade's plan to capture Arnhem Bridge was designed only to work in the face of scant opposition. The advance of its three battalions proceeded along separate routes to avoid congestion and so ensure a speedy arrival at their objectives. The 1st Battalion's objective, the high ground overlooking the main road to the North of Arnhem, was not of great importance, and the Battalion would have done better to act as the Brigade's reserve, following on directly behind the 2nd and 3rd Battalions to lend a hand if either got into difficulties. Brigadier Lathbury later blamed himself for not using the Battalion in this manner, though he could hardly have predicted what would happen. A further error in the plan was to use the Reconnaissance Squadron as a coup-de-main force, a role for which it was completely unsuited. If resistance had been very light then they would have likely captured the Bridge with ease and held it until the 2nd Battalion arrived. As it was, it is not surprising that they came to an immediate halt when faced with strong opposition.

 

When he heard that the Reconnaissance Squadron had been halted and that the Division's radios were not working, Major-General Urquhart made the error of leaving his Headquarters to personally inform the 1st Parachute Brigade that the Bridge had not been taken. It was very dangerous for the Divisional Commander to drive off, effectively alone, over ground that had not yet been secured, though Urquhart could not have guessed that the enemy would be in such strength that, when he reached the 3rd Battalion, he would be trapped with them until Tuesday morning. Had he remained at his Headquarters, he may well have been able to handle the Division in a more satisfactory manner than in fact occurred during the critical period from Monday 18th to the early hours of Tuesday 19th September. Urquhart's decision to leave his Headquarters on Sunday afternoon is frequently condemned as ill-judged and unnecessary, yet it should be remembered that a commander can only command when he is aware of what is happening, and he will have a far clearer picture of this if he sees it for himself. Urquhart took no more risks in this regard than any other airborne divisional commander was to do during the War, it was only unfortunate for him that circumstances conspired to ensnare him.

 

Major-General Urquhart's decision to form his defensive perimeter near Oosterbeek has also been called into question. The Perimeter merely appeared to take shape where all the participating units happened to converge, rather than in a specific position of strategic value. The more obvious location, immediately within his grasp, was the Westerbouwing restaurant area at the extreme south-west tip of the Perimeter. Not only would the high ground on which it was based have been a great asset to the Division's artillery observers, enabling them to direct counter-battery fire against the German guns and mortars, but it also overlooked the Driel-Heveadorp ferry crossing. The importance of the ferry had been disregarded by all echelons of command during the planning phases, but when the Perimeter was formed it was decided that it would be used to bring the Polish Brigade across the River when they arrived. The Westerbouwing position, however, was held by only a single company of the 1st Border, and on Thursday morning a determined enemy attack swept them from it, and so both the high ground and the ferry were denied to the Division for the remainder of the battle. It was certainly an error not to better protect this vital area. 

 

Had the Perimeter been centred around Westerbouwing, rather than the Hartenstein Hotel, the crossing would be completely under the control of the British and so reinforcement by the Polish Brigade and XXX Corps would have been far easier. Furthermore the crossing was the only place in the vicinity where two roads faced each other on opposite banks, so the prospects of constructing a Bailey Bridge to allow the Perimeter to be reinforced with armour were far brighter in this area. If the defence had been formed here, however, the Division would have had to abandon the built-up area of Oosterbeek, and with it all the possibilities of fortification that such a position can provide. By contrast, the dominant terrain around Westerbouwing was woodland. The obvious strategic advantage of a densely wooded area is that the movement of enemy vehicles is severely restricted, although a concentrated infantry attack across a narrow front may easily overwhelm a thin front line in such positions. The main feature of the fighting, from Friday 22nd onwards, was artillery. In the Oosterbeek Perimeter, slit trenches were chiefly sited in open ground, therefore requiring an unlikely direct hit for casualties to be incurred during a bombardment. In woodland, however, many rounds would explode in the trees above these trenches, causing severe damage to those sheltering in them, unless substantial overhead cover could be improvised. Although the Westerbouwing position would have resulted in easier reinforcement, it is likely that the Division would have been more vulnerable here and could not have held out for so long.

 

Misfortune

 

Pure bad luck was a contributing factor to the downfall of Market Garden. Cumbersome though the plan was, it is certainly possible that all would have gone well were it not for the fact that the 9th and 10th S.S. Panzer Divisions had moved into the Arnhem area several days before the Operation was launched. Even with the leisurely three-day lift of the Division to its drop zones, had these two units not been present then the 1st Airborne would have reached Arnhem with ease and established themselves in positions that could be held for a very long period of time.

 

The 1st Airborne Division was also unlucky that the two Panzer Divisions reacted to the landings so quickly. An airborne drop is usually followed by many hours of confusion and uncertainty on behalf of the enemy, therefore giving time for the troops to seize their objectives and form a solid defence before the enemy is able to mount a serious challenge. The German forces throughout the entire Market Garden area, however, reacted with such efficiency and ferocity that the element of surprise gained the Allies little.

 

Although the weather in Holland was mostly ideal, conditions over the airfields in England were very poor at times. The Second Lift was only delayed for four hours, but as a result of this the 4th Parachute Brigade had very little time to advance before night fell and a halt was called; the now well-organised German blocking lines, impossible to tackle in darkness, being given yet more time to stiffen their defence.

 

The worst delay was of course suffered by the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade Group. Although their glider lift went ahead as planned on Tuesday 19th September, the parachutists on the airfields further north could not take off. Their drop zone was to have been DZ-K, a mile to the south of Arnhem Bridge, and due to the strength of the enemy in that area at the time, it can be assumed that their drop would have met with considerable resistance. Nevertheless it is likely that they would have been able to quickly secure the southern end of Arnhem Bridge and then pass the majority of their strength over it to hugely reinforce John Frost's beleaguered defence.

 

On Wednesday 20th, DZ-K had been moved to Driel, but poor weather again forced the lift to be cancelled, with most unfortunate implications. The Driel-Heveadorp ferry was still under British control on Wednesday, and so it is certain that had they been able to arrive then they could at least have started the process of crossing into the Oosterbeek Perimeter, possibly shoring up the dominant yet vulnerable Westerbouwing position as they did so. As it was, both the Westerbouwing high ground and the ferry were overrun on Thursday morning and the Poles arrived in the afternoon to find that they had no effective means of crossing.

 

Reinforcement

 

Had the fears and suggestions of Major-General Sosabowski been considered more carefully by the British commanders, instead of being dismissed out of hand due to their irritation at his abrasive personality, then the crossing of the 4th Dorsets may have been successful. The British commanders decided to land them directly in amongst the German positions around the Westerbouwing high ground, but Sosabowski had had more time to survey the ground and quite correctly came to the conclusion that the enemy were in considerable strength in the immediate area of the Oosterbeek Perimeter, but a great deal less so several miles downstream. He proposed that his Brigade and the whole of the 43rd (Wessex) Division should put across the River in this area, enabling them to form up without much enemy interference and then attack in the rear the Germans besieging the western perimeter. The only flaw in Sosabowski's suggestion, not known to him at the time, was that there were not near enough boats available to mount such a large crossing, even fewer of an adequate nature, and in the event it was only considered possible to take the 4th Dorsets and 1st Polish Parachute Battalion across on Sunday 24th. Sosabowski further alienated himself from his British counterparts by demanding to know of Browning what sort of army conducted an offensive over rivers without a plentiful supply of boats. Sosabowski suffered greatly for his comments after the battle. The British commanders conspired to make the Polish Brigade a scapegoat for the failure of Market Garden, and Sosabowski was later dismissed from his post.

 

On Wednesday 20th September, Major-General Hakewell-Smith, the commander of the 52nd (Lowland) Division, who were to be flown in to support the 1st Airborne in the event of Arnhem being secured by the ground forces, became so concerned about the state of the battle that he offered to fly in a Brigade of his troops to Arnhem by glider. Lieutenant-General Browning rejected this by replying "Thanks for your message, but offer not - repeat not - required as situation better than you think." Due to the communications blackout, the gravity of the situation was not appreciated by Browning at the time, and so it is not surprising that he refused what would have been a hugely dangerous relief effort - landing glider troops onto unfriendly zones in the midst of a four-day old battle was a perilous affair to say the very least. On Sunday 24th, however, Browning was so concerned about the position of the 1st Airborne Division that he was inclined to take Hakewell-Smith up on his offer, but he was overruled by Field Marshal Montgomery and General Dempsey. By this time, the minds of the Allied commanders were now turning towards withdrawing the 1st Airborne rather than reinforcing them, and so it can be assumed that they did not wish to risk the destruction of yet another precious infantry formation in the hope of saving what was becoming a hopeless situation. After five years of War, the British Army had sustained such heavy losses, in North Africa, Italy, France and Burma, and suffered disastrous defeats at Dunkirk, Crete and Malaya, that it was extremely short of men of military age; infantry battalions were being disbanded due to a lack of manpower, and so there was a definite desire not to gamble what strength remained.

 

Nevertheless it was still possible that a determined effort to force a crossing of the Rhine could have succeeded. Lt-General Horrocks and Major-General Sosabowski were both keen to press on, but the Polish commander was politically sidelined at this time, while Horrocks was dissuaded by Major-General Thomas and Lieutenant-General Browning in particular. The reality of the matter was that a successful outcome to Operation Market Garden and its aftermath had been based entirely on the supposition that the German army was already beaten and would collapse upon contact with the Allied advance. This did not happen, and as it was extremely unlikely that enemy resistance would suddenly disintegrate, even if the 2nd British Army crossed the Rhine, it was perhaps best to abandon the Operation and order the 1st Airborne Division to withdraw as best as it could.