Lieutenant-General Frederick Arthur Montague Browning
Unit : HQ 1st British Airborne Corps, and HQ 1st Allied Airborne Army
Army No. : 22588
Awards : Knight Commander of the British Empire, Companion of the Bath, Distinguished Service Order, Mentioned in Despatches, Legion of Merit, Order of Polonia Restituta, Croix de Guerre
Frederick Arthur Montague "Boy" Browning was born on the 20th December 1896, the son of Frederick "Freddie" and Anne "Nancy" Browning. His was a distinguished middle class family who traced their roots, at least mythologically speaking, to the Brunii tribe which inhabited Belgium in the era of Julius Caesar. Of their more recent and tangible history, his great-grandfather was the first of the Browning clan to enter the military, serving as a Lieutenant in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. His son was the enormously successful Admiral Sir Montague Browning, who first commanded cruiser and then battle squadrons during the Great War, before serving as head of the Allied Naval Armistice Commission, finally retiring in 1945 as Vice Admiral of the United Kingdom. His youngest son, Freddie, Boy's father, was not a military man but an avid socialite who found success in the wine trade.
Boy's christian name may have been Frederick but as his father also possessed this name he was very rarely referred to by it, and so he became known to the world as "Tommy", apparently after a toy monkey from which he was inseparable as a child. His childhood was a happy one, but it was marred by health problems which were to recur throughout his life; though never accurately diagnosed it is probable that the complaint was a nervous one which brought about severe stomach pains, referred to in his private letters as "me tum".
In 1905, Browning began his education at West Downs School, Winchester, where he was by no means exceptional academically, yet he excelled as a sportsman and represented the school at cricket, football and swimming. In 1910, he was sent to Eton, where he joined the Army Class and the Officer Training Corps. He continued to straddle the academic middle ground and, though he continued to indulge in sports, he did not represent the school in any discipline. Yet Browning took after his father in social terms and, having been elected to several prestigious institutions at Eton, he made the first of what would be many contacts with people whose careers were destined to be elevated and distinguished.
In late 1914, Browning sat the entrance exam for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. His results were poor, but he was fortunate that Eton was one of the schools whose Headmasters had the privilege of proposing students for entry via the Army Council, and Browning was duly recommended. In contrast to his previous academic efforts, Browning fared particularly well at the College, and, as Cadet Under-Officer in "H" Company, he was liked and respected by his contemporaries as a fair but quite unyielding enforcer of regulations.
He left Sandhurst on the 16th June 1915, and was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards as a Second Lieutenant. It was during his service with the Grenadiers that Browning acquired "Boy" as a nickname, probably in deference to the Regimental tradition of naming oneself after whatever one abundantly is not. In basic training he was naturally in his element whilst being drilled on the parade ground, but he also emerged as a very capable marksman. Browning was initially posted to the newly-formed 4th Battalion, but when it was summoned to France in August 1915, he was transferred to the 5th Battalion, a training unit, as he was deemed too young and inexperienced to accompany them overseas. A mere two months was considered enough to remedy this deficiency, and on the 13th October, Lieutenant Browning led a draft of reinforcements to France, where he took command of a platoon in the 2nd Battalion.
During November of that year, he continued to expand his ever-growing list of useful contacts when he was given the task of escorting Winston Churchill around the trenches; Churchill, in the political wilderness following the Gallipoli debacle, was briefly attached to the 2nd Battalion whilst awaiting a posting elsewhere. He had very little equipment with him and, in particular, lacked a greatcoat to shield him from the bitter cold. Browning immediately donated his, and Churchill never forgot the young officer, indeed it was he who later appointed him to command the 1st Airborne Division.
On the 6th January 1916, Browning fell ill and was hospitalised in England; although not conclusively diagnosed, it is believed that he was suffering from a combination of trench fever and conjunctivitis. He remained in hospital for a month and was then granted two months sick leave, but even after that he was only considered well enough for light duties, first with the 5th Reserve Battalion and then at the Guards Depot, and it was not until September that he was passed fit for the front line. The experience had been most frustrating for him, but it was likely a blessing in disguise as the 2nd Battalion, in his absence, had participated in the subsequent phases of the Somme Offensive and had sustained approximately 800 casualties; only three officers remained from the time when Browning left them nine months earlier.
Browning completed several stints on the front line with the Grenadiers, but in relatively quiet conditions as there were no fresh offensives undertaken by either side. He became a highly efficient junior officer during this time; he took a keen interest in the well-being of his men and encouraged them to keep clean and free of disease by such means as awarding prizes to those with the best kept billets. He earned their respect by undertaking perilous expeditions that he could easily have delegated, and he was not afraid to put himself in harm's way, on one occasion helping to halt a German attack by seizing a rifle from one of his men and shooting from the fire step until he had run out of ammunition.
The 2nd Battalion participated in the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele, in July 1917 and in November took part in the follow-up operations after the launch of the initially very successful but ultimately bogged down Battle of Cambrai. On the 1st December, with Browning now commanding No.2 Company, the Battalion attacked Gauche Wood. All went well at first and the Battalion, despite having to attack over open ground, reached the wood without too much incident, overran the German machine-gun positions and drove the covering infantry back with fixed bayonets. Snipers inflicted many casualties, however, and two of the four company commanders were hit. Lieutenant Westmacott, therefore, took command of those troops on the right wing and prepared to meet the expected counter-attack, leaving Browning to sort out the remainder, consisting of the bulk of the Battalion which was still in close contact with the enemy in the wood. Between the two officers, sense was made of the mess and the 2nd Battalion established a firm defensive position which it held against heavy odds until it was relieved during the night, having suffered 150 casualties. Gauche Wood was hailed as a great success and stands proud amongst the many achievements of the Grenadier Guards. Browning was promoted to Acting Captain and placed in command of No.1 Company, and both he and Westmacott were awarded the Distinguished Service Order; a decoration rarely bestowed upon Lieutenants. His citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He took command of three companies whose officers had all become casualties, reorganized them, and proceeded to consolidate. Exposing himself to very heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, in two hours he had placed the front line in a strong state of defence. The conduct of this officer, both in the assault and more especially afterwards, was beyond all praise, and the successful handing over of the front to the relieving unit as an entrenched and strongly fortified position was entirely due to his energy and skill.
Gauche Wood established Browning's reputation within the Regiment, but it came at a cost. It was the first time that he had been exposed to such close and savage fighting, and to compound the mental trauma of this experience, the outcome of this desperate situation had largely rested on his young shoulders. The memories of the blood and chaos of this battle remained with him throughout his life, and he suffered recurring nightmares.
The Germans unleashed their last great offensive on the 21st March 1918, and the 2nd Battalion was moved to the area which was to become the extreme right flank of their advance on Amiens. The enemy was met on the 27th March but they were unable to break through the positions of the Grenadiers; Browning's company in particular inflicted considerable damage by enfilading the attackers. A second assault was made on the following day but it was held, and thereafter the axis of the offensive swung away from the area.
The 2nd Battalion was not involved in further significant fighting until the first of the Allied counter-attacks in August 1918, but Browning did not end the War in their company, instead, in September, he was transferred to the Headquarters of the 4th Army to serve as Aide-de-Camp to General Sir Henry Rawlinson. It is not clear why Browning was chosen for this position, but it could be that Rawlinson, a former Etonian and Guardsman, simply wanted an experienced officer from a similar background. He returned to the front line, a week before the Armistice, as Adjutant to the 1st Grenadier Guards, who concluded the war just short of Mons.
Post-War life offered Browning several tempting job opportunities outside of the military, but he decided to stay in the Army and continued to serve as Adjutant with the 1st Battalion. His credentials on the battlefield had already been proved, so in peacetime he began to reinforce his reputation as a clever, energetic and most capable administrator who set the very highest standards for himself and demanded no less from those who he commanded. He developed a sharp and ruthlessly professional character which he adopted whenever he was in uniform. In private, amongst friends, he was much more relaxed, and to close family he could at times be uncertain and even vulnerable. Few in the military ever saw these aspects of his personality, instead they knew him as an impeccably dressed, strict disciplinarian with a ferocious but very short-lived temper, of which his subordinates could expect to be on the receiving end if they failed to match his high and unyielding expectations. Yet Browning was no petty bully, he continually displayed a keen interest in the welfare of his men and was firmly of the school that preferred to inspire greatness in people rather than beat it from them with a stick. As part of his professional demeanour, he came to acquire a manner of speaking which was often mistook for arrogance on first acquaintance, but those who knew him better understood that he was a good deal more friendly beneath the tone and was always fair in his criticism. His future Intelligence Officer at the 1st British Airborne Corps, Major Brian Urquhart, remarked: "In his dashing appearance, his perfectly harmless vanity, his enthusiasm and hyperactivity there certainly was an element of never having quite grown up." Browning would also become known as an extremely hard worker, to a degree which his more perceptive superiors came to regard as unhealthy, foreshadowing the depressions and mental exhaustion which were to blight his final years.
In 1924, Browning returned to Sandhurst to occupy the highly prestigious and demanding post of Adjutant. He held the position for the next four years, during which time he continued to prove himself a superb administrator and impeccable disciplinarian, but it also gave him the opportunity to meet a great number of aspiring young officers who would achieve high status during the Second World War. Browning personally introduced a new tradition at Sandhurst when, during the commissioning parade in 1926, he, as was the custom, followed the procession on a white horse but did not, as he was supposed to, part company with the column as it marched up the steps to the Grand Entrance, but instead followed them up the steps and through the doors. This highly demanding demonstration of horsemanship is carried out at Sandhurst to this day.
In his spare time, Browning continued to develop his skills as an athlete. He excelled as a hurdler and only narrowly missed out on representing Britain in the 1924 Olympics; it was his bad luck to be competing at a time when Britain was awash with exceptional athletes in this event. He achieved success in the following year, however, finishing third in the Kinnaird Trophy, and second at the English AAA Championships. He also participated in the bobsleigh and accompanied the British team to the 1924 and 1928 Winter Olympics. Browning also took up archery and sailing, both of which he enjoyed throughout his life. It was during a sailing expedition across the south-coast of England in 1931 that he moored in Salcombe and had a chance meeting with Daphne du Maurier, the famous novelist. They married on the 19th July 1932.
Browning left Sandhurst in 1928 and began to display signs of exhaustion as a consequence of years of unceasing work. He was sent on sick leave for eight months, and although passed fit, it was a further eighteen months before he was able to convince the Army that he had recovered sufficiently to take on a taxing role. Browning had been recommended for Staff College every year since the end of the Great War, but his commitments had prevented him from taking the opportunity, and, due to his prolonged period of sick leave, he returned to find that he now exceeded the maximum age limit for entry. This was a potentially crippling blow to any career officer, yet his reputation had won him many strong supporters and he nevertheless continued to progress through ranks and appointments.
Promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel on the 1st February 1936, Browning was given command of the 2nd Battalion The Grenadier Guards, whom he led in Egypt for the next eighteen months. The Battalion returned to Britain before the outbreak of war and was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, but Browning did not accompany them. He was instead promoted to Colonel and became Assistant Commandant of the Small Arms School, but within a month he was upped again to Brigadier and made Commandant. He did not like the appointment though, thinking himself "rather an upstart sitting at home here getting promotion", and he would have much preferred to have been with his Regiment in France. His request to have the appointment rescinded was denied, yet he came very close to seeing active service with the 2nd Grenadier Guards as he happened to pay them a visit in May 1940 on the very day that the German offensive began; he and all other superfluous staff were hastily removed to Britain.
Immediately on his return, Browning was given orders to take command of the 128th Infantry Brigade, which he found to be a good formation but one which needed a firm hand to bring it up to full efficiency. His exacting standards achieved this in only a few months, and when he left in February 1941 he found that he had won the generous respect of his men, who lined the road to cheer him on his way. Browning then took over the 24th Guards Brigade Group, an independent formation which contained the full range of support services, effectively giving him the experience of commanding a small division. He spent a successful eight months here, participating in a series of large-scale battlefield exercises across the south of England.
On the 29th October 1941, Browning was promoted to Major-General and appointed Commander Parachute Troops and Airborne Troops, and during the following month he also formed and took command of the 1st Airborne Division. Browning is frequently cited as the father of the British Airborne movement, and this is not an unfair assessment despite the fact that it had been founded more than a year prior to his involvement. A number of excellent men had played their part in improvising Britain's first airborne capability from nothing, developing the training techniques and deployment theories which were to endure throughout the war, yet the entire machinery existed to support just a single battalion, and Browning was faced with the challenge of expanding this experimental nucleus into a large and highly capable wing of the British Army. It was a difficult time to be raising such a formation; the airborne movement was unproven in battle and struggled to survive amidst the continual demands for men and equipment from the Army and bombers and aircrews from the Royal Air Force. Browning was the ideal choice to overcome these obstacles, as he not only possessed a tremendous energy and organisational skill, but he had also acquired a long list of influential friends throughout his career, and he was not afraid to use them to obtain whatever his Division required.
The task confronting Browning was immense and he began by organising his own headquarters, which was staffed by some men whom he had personally selected and others who had come with strong recommendations. These were not appointments to be made on a whim; Browning naturally required an efficient administrative staff, but he also needed extremely capable officers to serve as heads of such services as the artillery, engineering, medical and ordnance branches of the Airborne Forces, men who would be responsible for pioneering techniques and practices in their specialist areas in what was quite unchartered territory for the British Army.
Moving beyond his headquarters, Browning found the efficiency of the Division to be his immediate problem. The 1st Airlanding Brigade, recently converted from a ground role, was in good shape but it contained a large number of conscripts who were not yet up to standard, whilst the larger part of the 1st Parachute Brigade had only just been formed by men taken from all corners of the Army, and its experienced nucleus, the 1st Battalion, had become somewhat relaxed through inaction. His answer to this problem was training and discipline, and to assist with the latter he deliberately inserted a particularly high number of Guards sergeants into the Parachute Regiment as he felt that only they could achieve the high standards which were required. His methods were not always appreciated, however, and the constant drilling led to him being known in some quarters as "Bullshit" Browning. Nevertheless, morale improved as a consequence of his regime, discipline became absolute, and a tremendous esprit de corps began to emerge. The British Airborne Forces, in short, began to take the form of a highly trained, highly motivated, disciplined body of men with a considerable support apparatus growing behind them.
Browning also did much to create the image of the Airborne Forces. In the summer of 1942, he decided that his men ought to have their own distinctive beret instead of the practice of wearing the headwear of their former units, to help reinforce the feeling of their belonging to a brotherhood. The result was the famous maroon beret; according to legend it was chosen by Daphne du Maurier, but this is now believed to be untrue and the decision was in fact made elsewhere. Browning also commissioned an artist, Major Edward Seago, to design an emblem for his Corps, and he produced an image inspired by Greek myth, of the warrior Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the winged horse.
Browning would also later design his own personal uniform, made of barathea with a false Uhlan-style front, incorporating a zip opening at the neck to reveal regulation shirt and tie. A highly polished Sam Browne belt after the style of the Guards was worn over this, as were the usual medal ribbons, collar patches and rank badges, the entire ensemble being completed with grey kid gloves and a swagger stick. It was this uniform that he wore during Operation Market Garden in September 1944.
A firm believer in not asking anyone to do something that he was not prepared to do himself, Browning embarked on a parachute course to earn his wings. The attempt ended in failure, however, as he was not a good jumper and found that he had little appetite for it, no doubt helped by the fact that he had injured himself on each of the two descents that he made. Undeterred, he trained as a glider pilot instead and was taught by no less a man than Lieutenant-Colonel Chatterton, the commander of the Regiment. Browning duly qualified, having displayed considerable aptitude for flying and being judged competent enough to go solo after 8½ hours flying time; the average for a man of less than half his 46 years.
The Americans were impressed with the strides that the British were making in Airborne warfare, and in July 1942 they invited Browning to inspect their own efforts. He was by and large pleased with all that he saw, particularly the abundance of support equipment and the apparently endless supply of transport aircraft that they possessed. The visit was marred, however, by Browning's seemingly condescending manner which ruffled American feathers and was recalled in all of their dealings with him over the coming years. He had not intended to give offence, indeed he admired all that the Americans were doing, but it was his manner to adopt a certain professional coldness when in uniform and express his opinions with considerable force, traits which were often mistook for arrogance by those who had not had the opportunity to know him better. Browning recognised that his views had been taken wrongly and understood that the Americans did not like being lectured by people whose experience was not significantly greater than their own. In his report, Browning agreed that the limited experience of the British gave them no right to tell the Americans how to do things, but they could advise them how not to do things. It is a sad truth that one never gets a second chance to make a first impression, not that Browning improved to American eyes through closer association, as he continued to make remarks which, though probably quite unintended to cause offence, simply reinforced the view amongst the American hierarchy that he was a "supercilious English aristocrat" and "an empire builder", prone to "machinations and scheming". The rift was to be more than adequately healed after the war, but throughout its duration he was viewed with a marked degree of mistrust.
Browning was never given the opportunity to lead the 1st Airborne Division into battle, although, when elements of it were detached for operations overseas, he had a loose involvement in his concurrent role as British Advisor on Airborne Forces to the Commanders-in-Chief of all Theatres of War. In April 1943, Major-General Hopkinson took over command of the Division whilst Browning became Advisor on Airborne Training and Operations at the Headquarters of General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander. In both this and his previous advisory role he became enormously frustrated as he found that he had no direct power over the airborne operations concerned, and his opinions were either not asked for or just simply ignored when he tried to propose, as in the case of the haphazard use of the 1st Parachute Brigade in North Africa, a more sensible use of the force.
When the 1st Airborne Division as a whole arrived in the Mediterranean and planning for the Invasion of Sicily began, Major-General Hopkinson, who had already gone to considerable lengths to assert his independence from Browning, deliberately went behind his back to meet with General Montgomery and plead the merits of using the 1st Airlanding Brigade, his former command, in the vanguard of the opening assault. Montgomery agreed, knowing no better, but Browning, worried at the prospect of a long glider tow over the Mediterranean and knowing how unsuitable the landing areas were for gliders, was quite horrified but powerless to intervene. The operation was a disaster, with most of the gliders landing in the sea and hundreds being drowned, and those that reached land were scattered across the south-eastern corner of the island with only a very small percentage of the Brigade in a position to attack any of the objectives. Browning participated in the Board of Enquiry after the operation, during which he was most critical of the performance of both the American and British aircrews; a fair assessment, although the flying conditions of that night were a considerable test for even the most competent of crews.
In August 1943, Browning briefly returned to England to inspect the progress that the newly-formed 6th Airborne Division was making, and also to participate in some early discussions about the airborne role in an invasion of North-West Europe. He left for India in September to visit the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade, arriving during a Hindu festival at which the Brigade's Gurkhas were doing much singing and dancing, prompting Browning to join in with a spontaneous display of his Cossack dance, which had become his party piece after many years of entertaining. On an administrative level, he held meetings to discuss the deployment of the Brigade alongside the Chindits, as well as the enlargement of the Airborne establishment in India, which would culminate in the 44th Airborne Division.
Browning returned to Britain and succeeded, at long last, in expanding his role as Major General Airborne Forces into a much more effective position than his experience in the Mediterranean had proved it to be. He was promoted to Lieutenant-General and placed in command of Headquarters Airborne Troops, later to become known as the 1st British Airborne Corps, consisting of the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, and the Special Air Service Brigade.
The addition of the SAS to the Airborne fold was something of an anomaly. At a glance it seemed like a logical pairing, but the reality was that the devotion to discipline and tactical coordination of the Airborne Forces was completely at odds with the independent mindset of the SAS soldier and his private army outlook. Browning attempted to blend them into his establishment by extending to them the honour of wearing the maroon beret, but it was an honour which they did not want as they were far too attached to their own sand beret, and they only wore it under duress during official visits by senior dignitaries. A far more serious consequence of the differences between the two forces was that Browning's numerous responsibilities meant that he had little time to gather an understanding of how the SAS operated, and this became apparent during planning of the Normandy Landings when his headquarters came up with a proposal to drop the entire Brigade in France, thirty-six hours before D-Day, to establish a blocking line to prevent the German armoured reserves from moving forward to the beaches. It was a horrendous plan which would, in all likelihood, have seen the entire Brigade needlessly wiped out; Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Stirling threatened to resign, and later did so. Browning backed down and, on the 28th May, a new plan emerged which proposed the insertion of reconnaissance parties to link-up with the French Resistance in areas where the armoured reserves may appear, to be followed by up to company-sized detachments of the SAS with familiar orders of disrupting communications and harassing the enemy; a role which they performed admirably.
In time the 1st British Airborne Corps also incorporated, though it was never officially a part of it, the 52nd (Lowland) Division, and, as of June 1944, the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade Group. At the time of its formation it was agreed that the Brigade would remain under Polish command and was only to be used in the liberation of their homeland, thereby putting it at odds with other Polish units serving under British command in numerous theatres. This arrangement was maintained until it became clear that it would be the Russians who liberated Poland, and, as their relations with the Polish Government-in-Exile were minimal, it seemed that the Brigade would never see action there. As a consequence of this, the British, desperately short of manpower, saw this Brigade of excellent men sitting idle and eventually compelled the Polish Government to place them under Browning's command for service in North-West Europe.
Browning had initially been on good terms with their commander, Major-General Sosabowski, and in 1942 had even offered him the command of an airborne division, but once the Brigade was incorporated into his Corps their relations began to disintegrate. The two met at a tense meeting in late June to discuss Operation Beneficiary, in which the Poles had been earmarked to participate alongside the 1st Airborne Division. Sosabowski pulled the rug from beneath the entire plan by refusing, against all expectations, to declare his Brigade fully mobilised due to the deficiencies in training and equipment. Browning evidently doubted this, lost his temper and effectively undermined Sosabowski's authority by sending Major-General Down to the Brigade to help overcome these obstacles, which were duly negotiated by early August. Browning's fiery temper, as it so often did, quickly subsided and the meeting ended much more affably, but the damage had been done, by both sides, and would not be forgotten. Sosabowski resented Browning's interference as he did not like being under British command and remained loyal to the fantasy of liberating his homeland, whilst Browning for his part took offence at the Pole's obstinacy, seemingly challenging his authority as commander.
The 6th Airborne Division was deployed in Normandy in June 1944, however it was appreciated that there was a highly likely requirement for further airborne operations as the invasion unfolded, all of which would have to be planned and launched at short notice. Browning was accordingly attached to the Headquarters of the 2nd British Army, commanded by his old friend General Dempsey, and he sailed with them to France on the 5th June 1944. A plethora of plans were duly proposed but all were cancelled, commonly at the last minute.
As the Allies began to break out of the Normandy beachhead in August 1944, it occurred to the staff of General Eisenhower's headquarters that it would be desirable to create a centralised command structure to pool the resources of both the British and American airborne forces. The 1st Allied Airborne Army was duly formed under the command of the American Lieutenant-General Lewis Brereton. The command was initially intended to be Browning's, although he was probably never aware of this, but he was appointed Deputy Commander instead, in addition to maintaining control of the 1st British Airborne Corps. Browning, nevertheless, resented the snub as his commission was marginally senior to Brereton's and, more importantly, he had a wealth of airborne experience to draw upon, whereas Brereton had none whatsoever as he was from an air force background. This was not, however, a wholly improper decision because the dependency of the Airborne Forces on aircraft to deliver them into battle made it desirable to have a senior member of the airborne establishment who was completely familiar with the needs of the air forces, but it could certainly be argued that it would have been more sensible to have an airborne commander with an air force deputy rather than the reverse. It was also the custom for Anglo-American formations to have an American commander with a British deputy, but even if the pattern had been reversed in this instance it is most unlikely that Browning would have been acceptable to the Americans in view of his poor relations with them, not that a great many in the American hierarchy had much that was positive to say of Brereton either.
The relationship between Browning and Brereton therefore began unfavourably, and it was quickly reduced to dismal. On the 2nd September, after innumerable cancelled plans, Operation Linnet was proposed with the idea of inserting Browning's Headquarters, with the Poles and 1st and 82nd Airborne Divisions under command, near Lille and Courtrai. To accommodate this plan, the 2nd British Army had halted its advance so that it could act as the relieving force, but the operation was cancelled at the last moment because the 1st US Army had deliberately altered its course to take the area from under the noses of the British. Brereton immediately proposed Linnet II, which would see the same force cutting off the enemy's line of retreat around Aachen and Maastricht, however the operation was conceived in such haste that there was no time to distribute adequate maps or hold briefings. Browning quite rightly issued a strong protest at this reckless use of his force, Brereton ignored him, so he then offered his resignation. Due to differences in military culture, the Americans were appalled by Browning's stance and regarded it as tantamount to disobeying an order. Browning quickly withdrew his threat when it became clear that Brereton would be only too happy to accept it and replace him with Lieutenant-General Ridgway. It is questionable whether a complete American command structure would be politically acceptable when the majority of the Airborne Army at the time was British; who had two airborne divisions, the admittedly unofficial addition of the 52nd (Lowland) Division, and the Polish and SAS Brigades, whereas the Americans had only two airborne divisions, although a third was then being formed. It is more probable, as indeed happened a few months later, that Browning would have been replaced by Major-General Gale.
Browning, nevertheless, was effectively silenced as he had played his best card and lost, and Brereton may have congratulated himself on winning this power struggle within his camp, yet there remained an inherent weakness in the command structure of his new headquarters and he stumbled upon it several days later. The 1st British Airborne Corps was a part of Brereton's Army, but it still retained a certain independence, largely because the staff at Montgomery's 21st Army Group had not yet lost the habit of contacting them directly when they wanted an airborne plan. Brereton was furious, therefore, when he proposed another operation based around Browning's Corps, only to discover that he had gone behind his back to commit it to Operation Comet in conjunction with the 2nd British Army. It can be said without any doubt, therefore, that by September 1944, relations between Brereton and Browning, and Brereton and the 2nd Army, were exceptionally poor.
Operation Comet called for the scattering of the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Brigade across Holland to secure a series of bridges around Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. As each of the bridges in these far-flung locations would be tackled by single isolated brigade groups, there were some who issued strong objections to the plan on the basis of these forces being wholly insufficient to defend the objectives against counter-attacks. One of the chief critics was Major-General Sosabowski, and his sound judgement played a part in Operation Comet being cancelled, although his relations with Browning were not improved when he insisted on receiving his orders in writing.
The essential plan was not dead, however, and on the 10th September 1944, Montgomery personally briefed Browning for Operation Market Garden. The objectives remained the same, but now the American airborne divisions entered the equation, and the areas around Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem respectively became the responsibility of the 101st, 82nd and 1st Airborne Divisions with the Poles under the command of the latter. Browning, having asked Montgomery how long the 1st Airborne would have to hold Arnhem and being told two days, replied that they could hold it for four. Whether or not he then went on to add the famous phrase that Arnhem might be "a bridge too far" is a matter for debate, though Brigadier Walch, Browning's Chief of Staff who saw him immediately after this meeting, believed that he did say it.
It is unclear whether permission came from Brereton or Montgomery, but it was agreed that Browning would participate in the battle alongside his previously untried tactical headquarters. This caused some resentment in the American camp; Lieutenant-General Ridgway was vastly the more experienced option and he was bitterly disappointed to have been overlooked, not least because the majority of the airborne troops involved in Market Garden were American. This is a little unfair as the Poles and the expected subsequent reinforcement of the 52nd (Lowland) Division more than equalled the balance, also Browning, unlike Ridgway, had not yet had the opportunity to command any troops in battle and so was due his chance. More importantly, Browning had close connections amongst the British ground commanders who would be coming to his relief, and, although his tactical headquarters was no older than Ridgway's, which had been in existence for just a month, they had, nevertheless, planned Operation Comet and were therefore intimately familiar with the area; no small point as Market Garden was to be planned and launched in just seven days.
The greater mystery is why Corps Headquarters should have set foot outside of England at all, as the three divisions were to fight independent actions at great distance from the other and so had no need of a higher command structure to coordinate their efforts. Furthermore, each of these divisions were to come under the command of the 2nd Army as they relieved them, and as the schedule optimistically expected the 101st Airborne Division to be relieved in a few hours and the 82nd Division in one or two days, the time in which Browning would have to exercise any control over the battlefield was extremely limited. There had, since Normandy, been a growing desire to test this new command structure alongside multiple airborne divisions, and so it could be the case that Market Garden, however unsuitable, was merely seized upon as a good opportunity.
It has been suggested that Browning committed his Headquarters to the battle simply because he wished to see action, which he most emphatically did, however the decision was not his to make. During the planning for Operation Linnet a few weeks earlier, General Dempsey of the 2nd Army had been most insistent on the Headquarters being used and perhaps this was also his stance on Market Garden. It seems probable, as in fact happened, that this was more to a mind of the Corps helping to coordinate the movements of the airborne divisions after their relief rather than before. Lieutenant-General Horrocks' XXX Corps at this time consisted of one armoured and two infantry divisions plus three independent brigade groups; it would have put a severe strain on his headquarters to properly control three airborne divisions as well in the midst of a fast and fluid battle. In this instance, an additional headquarters to share the burden and organise the rear area, leaving XXX Corps free to focus on matters at the front, would have been most welcome.
Browning's Headquarters was, however, quite unready to serve in the field. The Main Headquarters of the 1st British Airborne Corps had been in existence for a long time, but it had only ever been designed and maintained as a planning and administrative body, not as a battle-ready tactical headquarters, despite Browning's continual requests to the War Office to make it so. Permission was finally granted in the weeks before Market Garden, but this was a wholly insufficient time for a new headquarters to become fully mobilised, and as a consequence it entered the battle inexperienced and unprepared.
Although the addition of the Headquarters may have improved matters for the 2nd Army, it inadvertently caused problems for the 1st Airborne Division. There was only a limited number of transport aircraft available for the airlift, and if thirty-eight gliders were required to transport Corps Headquarters to Nijmegen then one of the airborne divisions would consequently have to lose an equivalent number on its own lift. Politics dictated that the British Division must suffer for the sake of the British Corps, and so only half of the 2nd South Staffordshires could be flown to Arnhem on the first day. The matter was made worse for the 1st Airborne Division as its proportionate share of aircraft was the lowest of all the divisions. Browning denied their request for a larger allocation as the swift progress of the 2nd Army was judged to be of the greatest importance, and so the 101st Airborne Division, closest to the relieving troops, had priority on aircraft, followed by the 82nd Airborne Division and finally the 1st Airborne.
On the 15th September, Browning was approached by his Intelligence Officer, Major Brian Urquhart, who had received reports of the sudden appearance of the 9th and 10th S.S. Panzer Divisions in the vicinity of Arnhem. Vague rumours of their presence had been circulated by the Dutch Resistance, whom the British did not trust, but Urquhart subsequently received more substantial information from Montgomery's 21st Army Group, who, unlike Browning's Headquarters, were privy to the findings of the ULTRA codebreakers, and he also obtained several reconnaissance photographs which showed a small number of modern tanks just ten miles from Arnhem. This alarming information placed Browning in a most difficult position as it was too vague for him to call the operation off. Worried that another cancellation could risk a further breakdown of morale in the 1st Airborne Division, he chose to brush off the tanks as probably being barely serviceable. Urquhart, once described by his friend, Major Tony Hibbert, as a "highly strung but intelligent" man, admitted himself that he had become obsessed with the possibility of danger at Arnhem, and he described Browning's treatment of his information as though it came from "a nervous child suffering from a nightmare." Perhaps this is why Browning ordered his senior medical officer, Colonel Austin Eagger, to send Urquhart away on sick leave due to "nervous strain and exhaustion." Eagger carried out the order, though he was unhappy with it as he understood Urquhart's fears and sympathised with him.
Much criticism has been directed at Browning for ignoring the possible presence of tanks at Arnhem, but it should be remembered that the evidence placed before him was far from conclusive and that few at the time imagined that the Germans could possibly react in the decisive manner that they did to the Operation. Numerous higher formations than Browning's Headquarters, above all SHAEF and 21st Army Group, received the same information but in an undiluted form, as was necessary to protect the ULTRA secret, and they were either inclined to doubt the evidence or concluded that the operation had to proceed in spite of the risks. If Browning was at fault then it is because he made no effort to mention the possibility of this threat to the 1st Airborne Division, whom he had briefed to expect nothing more than a brigade group of infantry supported by a small number of tanks during the later phases of the battle. Suggestions of the presence of these two panzer divisions nevertheless filtered through, but more emphatic information may have resulted in them taking additional anti-tank equipment and adopting tactics better suited to dealing with heavy opposition.
Browning and Brigadier-General Gavin, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, were in agreement that the priorities around Nijmegen were first the vast area of high ground known as the Groesbeek Heights, followed by the bridge at Grave, the three smaller bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal, and finally the very large bridge at Nijmegen. Browning also told Gavin that he was not to make any attempt to move towards Nijmegen until the Heights had been secured; Gavin agreed though he later felt confident enough in his plan to allow one battalion to head for the bridge immediately after landing. The Groesbeek Heights were certainly important as they served as the Division's main drop zone and dominated the entire area, and so there is no question that the position of the 82nd Airborne Division, not to mention the right flank of the 2nd British Army when they arrived, would have been placed under considerable pressure if the area were to remain in enemy hands. Even so, the priorities of any airborne formation has to be the capture of its ultimate objectives, i.e. the bridges, and all other concerns are entirely secondary. Browning defended his decision long after the War, but it was a great mistake not to attach a higher priority to Nijmegen Bridge as, without it, the 1st Airborne Division would be cut-off behind two large rivers and 13 miles of hostile territory. Had the bridge been taken in strength and with all speed then it is entirely possible that the Guards Armoured Division would have reached Arnhem Bridge before the British defence collapsed. This oversight, however, was not particular to the Nijmegen plan, but a further product of the blind optimism which dogged Operation Market Garden, where the assumption was that resistance would be light and so the airborne forces allowed themselves to become distracted from their main objectives by the need to make the advance of the ground forces as rapid and uncomplicated as possible.
Arriving at RAF Harwell on the morning of Sunday 17th September 1944, Browning was in high spirits despite struggling with a heavy cold. His Horsa glider, in the safe hands of Colonel George Chatterton, the commander of the Glider Pilot Regiment, and Major Andy Andrews, was the first to take-off at 11:20, towed by a Stirling piloted by Wing Commander Angel of 295 Squadron. Also travelling aboard were Major Cator (Browning's Aide-de-Camp), Major Thomas (GSO-2 Ops) and Captain Louis (Medical Officer), together with a plethora of equipment for the establishment of Corps HQ; these had been examined before take-off by Brigadier-General Parks, Brereton's Chief of Staff, and, having found everything from bedding rolls to bicycles, reported to his superior "I have never seen so much junk, it looked like a gypsy caravan." The contents of Browning's personal kit would certainly have raised eyebrows still further had it been seen, for it contained three teddy bears and a print of Albrecht Dürer's drawing The Praying Hands, which had accompanied Browning since the trenches of the First World War.
The flight to Holland was uneventful, but the landing on the Groesbeek Heights was not without incident as the glider lost a front wheel when it struck an electricity cable, however a safe landing was made in a cabbage patch a hundred yards West of the Reichswald Forest. As his staff began to unload the glider, Browning immediately ran across to the woods and returned several minutes later, explaining to Brigadier Gordon Walch, his Chief of Staff, "I wanted to be the first British officer to pee in Germany". A few shells began to explode in the vicinity, prompting Colonel Chatterton to throw himself into a ditch to seek cover. Completely unperturbed, Browning stood over him and asked "George, whatever in the world are you doing down there?".
Corps Headquarters experienced particularly dire difficulties with communications throughout the battle, and Browning later blamed the failure on his Signals Section, an inexperienced and ill-equipped unit which had only been assigned to him on the 2nd September. Indeed the entire machinery of his Headquarters had problems; on the evening of Tuesday 19th September, Browning wrote a letter to his wife which said, "My staff is almost more inefficient than I could possibly imagine now we are in the field - I suppose its due to people being pushed up the tree too quickly without sufficient experience, but its really too frustrating for words. Gordon Walch has completely failed as chief of staff in the field - not entirely his fault I suppose but he seems unable to combine the two jobs." Perhaps these judgemental notes, written in temper and in private, neither reflect his true opinions or the truth of the situation, for Advance Corps Headquarters had only been in existence for several weeks and so had no hope of being anything other than an inefficient organisation when put under such testing circumstances.
For the first 48 hours, Browning had no contact with either the 101st Airborne Division at Eindhoven or the 1st Airborne at Arnhem; the former was not serious as it was close to the 2nd Army and would soon come under its command, but the 1st Airborne Division would remain Browning's responsibility for at least two days, and the only news he had received concerning them was that they had left their airfields successfully. The first news came at 08:00 on Tuesday 19th September, when a brief message stated that the 1st Parachute Brigade was fighting in Arnhem but that the Bridge was no longer under their control; this was incorrect as the 2nd Battalion were still dominating it at this time.
On that same day, Browning and Gavin met the leading elements of the 2nd British Army at Grave Bridge. He was unhappy at the pace of events as, according to the timetable, the tanks should have been nearing Arnhem by this stage, but he was cheered to find his former Regiment, the Grenadier Guards at the head of the column and he gave them orders to assist the 2nd Battalion the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in clearing Nijmegen of the enemy. As XXX Corps advanced, the airborne divisions were to come under the command of Lieutenant-General Horrocks, but he allowed Browning, his old friend, to retain control of the 82nd Airborne Division and the two met as equals to discuss the conduct of the battle. Although Browning nominally had two divisions under his control, there was little he could do to influence the actions of the 82nd Airborne as they were either employed in a static defence or co-ordinating their efforts with the Guards Armoured Division, and so he could only exercise any real authority over the 1st Airborne Division, but was powerless to do so as he was still out of touch with them.
Browning's concerns for the 1st Airborne Division grew after he received a series of vague and contradictory signals, largely through the Dutch Resistance, and on Wednesday 20th September he received a message from the Division itself which stated that Arnhem was firmly in enemy hands and there had been no contact with the force holding the bridge, although they were in fact still fighting there at this time. He became anxious on the same day as he watched the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the Grenadier Guards making their attempt to capture Nijmegen Bridge, and when it fell he said to Horrocks of the American crossing, "I have never seen a more gallant action."
The British tanks were forced to halt beyond the Bridge until infantry could be brought up from further down the corridor. Browning spent a lot of time at the Headquarters of the 5th Guards Armoured Brigade, and although he was enormously frustrated at the pace of events he did not compound the problem by interfering or letting his concerns be known, as he realised that all that could be done was being done. He did, however, once lose his temper as his own Headquarters and threw a bottle of ink at a picture of a German general that was hanging on the wall.
Having been more or less operationally redundant until this point, Corps Headquarters became some use on Saturday 23rd September when it was assigned a number of units to protect the area of the corridor stretching from Grave Bridge to Nijmegen, thereby allowing Lieutenant-General Horrocks to focus his attentions elsewhere. In addition to the 82nd Airborne Division, Browning had the Royal Netherlands Brigade under command to defend Grave Bridge, as well as the Seaborne Echelon of the 52nd (Lowland) Division, amongst which was a battalion of infantry, engineers, a reconnaissance regiment, anti-tank and anti-aircraft batteries and a field artillery regiment. He attached the field regiment to the 82nd Airborne and the remainder protected a previously undiscovered grass airfield at Oude Keent. Although Browning's relationship with the Americans had been somewhat frosty in the past, he and Brigadier-General Gavin found that they got on very well in the field; Browning was happy to leave Gavin to manage his own sector without interference from him, and he reinforced him with anything that was needed. Brigadier Walch wrote "The mutual trust and respect shown by General Boy and General Jim Gavin, working closely together in the Nijmegen area, was particularly good to see."
News concerning the activities of the 1st Airborne Division remained vague until Saturday 23rd September, when Browning met Lieutenant-Colonel Mackenzie, Major-General Urquhart's Chief of Staff, who informed him of all that had happened and stressed the need for urgent relief. Mackenzie, nevertheless, left the meeting with the impression that he had not been able to fully convince him of the seriousness of the situation.
A drastic form of relief had been considered prior to this meeting. On Wednesday 20th September, Major-General Hakewell-Smith, the commander of the air-transportable 52nd (Lowland) Division who were to reinforce the 1st Airborne after their area had been secured, offered to load one of his brigades in gliders and fly it to Arnhem immediately. Browning declined this bold and quite dangerous offer with the words "Thanks for your message, but offer not - repeat not - required as situation better than you think. We want lifts as planned including Poles. Second Army definitely require your party and intend to fly you in to Deelen airfield as soon as situation allows." The optimistic nature of this statement suggests that Browning, at this stage, believed that Arnhem would be reached and that the subsequent operations of the 2nd Army would be developed. By Sunday 24th September, however, his view had darkened considerably and he applied for permission to take the 52nd Division up on the offer, but both Montgomery and Dempsey refused to sanction it. Their stance was most probably a highly sensible one as the Division had no experience of gliders and, although a fresh Brigade of infantry would certainly have been most useful at Arnhem, the possibility of their landing intact, on unknown and undefended zones without suffering heavy if not catastrophic losses, seems remote. Market Garden was on the brink of defeat, and so a wild gamble with one of Britain's last remaining infantry reserves would not have been prudent.
On that same day, Sunday 24th September, the principal commanders on the spot assembled for what has become known as the Valburg Conference. Lieutenant-General Horrocks gave his orders for an assault crossing of the Rhine to take place that night, but the meeting has been remembered by history for the rough handling of Major-General Sosabowski of the Polish Brigade. His ever confrontational attitude had caused considerable offence amongst the British generals, and they proceeded to humiliate him by undermining his authority. Browning, still struggling with a bad cold and very tired as a consequence, said nothing in his defence despite being his immediate superior. Sosabowski, who was one of the more optimistic about the prospects of salvaging Market Garden, was struck by the pessimistic atmosphere at the meeting, and he later attributed this to Browning, who, he felt, should have used his influence as Deputy Commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army to persuade Montgomery, Dempsey and Horrocks to have one final and determined effort to secure a foothold on the northern bank of the Rhine. He felt that victory was still attainable, and regarded it as "incredible" that Browning did not urge the 2nd Army to persevere. Yet it appears that Browning was more inclined to encourage a withdrawal; at a further meeting at his own Headquarters that evening, he expressed the view to Sosabowski that the crossing might not succeed as the boats and bridging materials immediately to hand were inadequate for crossing the Rhine. The pessimism was well-founded, however, as Market Garden and the subsequent ideas to cut Holland in two and encircle the Ruhr were only possible if German resistance collapsed; it had not, and so XXX Corps found itself standing precariously at the tip of a sixty-four mile salient into enemy territory with its rear constantly threatened by counterattacks. The operation was heading towards an unhappy end, not because of the negativity of the British generals, but because the course of events was irrevocably shifting the emphasis away from a renewed offensive towards simply trying to defend the ground that had been gained.
That day, Browning wrote another letter to his wife which clearly expressed his concerns: "We have had a very tragic time the last few days, as we've been unable to reach the 1st Division in time to prevent their annihilation - it's been a combination of weather, stiffening resistance and appalling country. I've got a major battle on me hands to keep the corridor open and hold the Boche on me southern flank... worried as hell about the 1st Division although the latter is not now my battle but a matter for 30 Corps who are trying to reach them. Apart from the latter the thing has been a great success, but the whole thing is overshadowed by the tragedy in the north."
Following the failure of the crossing on Sunday 24th September, Browning and Horrocks met on the following morning and, in no more than 15 seconds, agreed that the 1st Airborne Division must be withdrawn. When the orders were handed to Major-General Urquhart, he also received the following out-of-date letter from Browning:
Sosabowski will be bringing you this, I hope tonight.
I will not labour your present position, and it may be little consolation to you and the 1st Division when I tell you that the opinion held this side of the river is that the action of the 1st Division has, apart from killing of the many Boche it has undoubtedly achieved, enabled XXX Corps and the Airborne Corps between them to capture the Nijmegen bridges and to break clean through the main German defence line on the Waal.
From the information at our disposal, the German undoubtedly moved back the bulk of his forces from Nijmegen to Arnhem just before our attack took place, and instead of the Nijmegen crossings being an acutely difficult problem, the Arnhem crossings have become the most acute in consequence.
You can rest assured that XXX Corps are doing their maximum under the most appalling difficulties to relieve you. As you known I am responsible for from inclusive Nijmegen down the narrow corridor for about 40 miles, and the road has been cut for 24 hours, which does not help matters much. It is now through again, and the Army is pouring through to your assistance but, as you will appreciate better than I do, very late in the day.
I naturally feel, not so tired and frustrated as you do, but probably almost worse about the whole thing than you do.
I enclose a letter from Field Marshal Monty, and I hope to see you in a day or two.
It may amuse you to know that my front faces in all directions, but I am only in close contact with the enemy for about 8000 yards to the south-east, which is quite enough in present circumstances.
The extent of Urquhart's amusement was never discovered.
The Division was withdrawn on the night of the 25/26th September, and Browning despatched his Aide, Major Cator, to collect Urquhart and bring him to his Headquarters. He arrived at 03:00 and asked to see Browning immediately, whose immaculate dress contrasted most sharply with Urquhart's dirty uniform. "He looked as if he had just come off parade instead of from his bed in the middle of a battle. I tried to display some briskness as I reported: "The division is nearly out now. I'm sorry we haven't been able to do what we set out to do." Browning offered me a drink and assured me that everything was being done for the division. "You did all you could", he said, "Now you had better get some rest." It was a totally inadequate meeting." Browning later wrote a letter to his wife, "Roy Urquhart's party has done magnificently, but have been very badly knocked about. They have covered themselves in glory and without them we couldn't have done what we have done."
On the morning of the 27th September, Browning addressed the survivors of the 1st Airborne Division at their billets in Nijmegen. It was a task, he confessed to Major Cator, that he was dreading as he did not feel that he could look them in the face, but he did it nonetheless, and explained what had happened and said that they would be flown home as soon as possible. His address was well received, one man wrote: "The Commander of the Airborne Corps entered with his retinue, and climbed a table in the centre of the hall. He had made many speeches in his time, but never one to an audience such as this. Their mood was dumb weariness, and a tremendous dignity. He realized that they were beyond authority, having no more to give; truth would be clear to them, insincerity would be scabrous. They were most expectant. It was difficult to hear, on all four sides of the General, and as they all wanted to hear, there was a little grumbling. It was a very courageous moment for him."
The remnants of the 1st Airborne Division were quickly sent home to England, but Corps Headquarters remained in Nijmegen as the area remained extremely vulnerable to enemy action, and further counter-attacks were unfolding as XXX Corps began to consolidate its awkward position. Browning's Corps now consisted of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Polish Brigade, the Royal Netherlands Brigade and the 157th Brigade, and was responsible for the defence of all the ground between the Rivers Maas and Waal and the bridges over both. As the situation eased, the area was gradually handed over to the control of Lieutenant-General O'Connor's VIII Corps, and Browning and his staff returned to England on the 9th October.
There had, during this period, been another heated exchange between Browning and Sosabowski. The latter had been placed under the command of the 157th Brigade, and Sosabowski, a Major-General, took offence at having to take orders from a much younger Brigadier. He regarded it as a deliberate slight on Browning's part and demanded that the Brigade be restored to the command of the Corps, which was duly done, though Browning explained that the Poles had only been placed in that position because they had been disorganised by the withdrawal from Arnhem and Driel, and the 157th Brigade was understrength for its allotted task.
Also during this time, no small measure of distress was caused at the Browning family home when his wife was telephoned at 3am by a reporter who wished to know if the rumour was true that her husband had been taken prisoner. The story had originated from the Germans, and it was only after frantic communications to the War Office, who then contacted Browning's Headquarters, that Daphne discovered the lie.
The analysis of Market Garden began, and although Browning never spoke publicly about it, he did reveal his views in a letter to Air Vice Marshal Hollinghurst on the 8th October 1944.
I think everyone, from the Supreme Commander downwards, has been caught out and surprised at the way the German had recovered now that he is right back and fighting on his own doorstep. He fights just as well as he ever did and appears to have collected quite a formidable party... The way he keeps going, when he must be stretched beyond the normal limit, and has been completely cut in half in this area, does warrant considerable admiration.
Thank you for your remarks about the efforts of the 1st Division. In my private opinion there are certain points which have emerged now that we have had time to think them over, which caused the failure of one-third of the Airborne operation. I repeat 'one third' because, whatever we may think of the terrific battle put up by the 1st Division, their part was only one-third of the whole show. These points are:
1. Owing to the formation of Corps Signals a bare three weeks before operating in the Field, communications with the 1st Division from the start were precarious and continually breaking down. In fact we were always 36 to 48 hours behind in our information. As you know, fighting a battle under this disadvantage is almost impossible. If we had known accurate and up-to-date information of their situation, I believe still that their efforts would not have been in vain.
2. The leading group of the Guards Armoured Division was unfortunately held up at the Escaut canal when breaking out up the corridor. This was a very difficult operation, and the toss of a coin might have slipped them through that vital 18 hours earlier. The capture of the Nijmegen bridge would have been effected just that number of hours earlier and (in view of the information we now have) we should have beaten the Boche to it quite easily.
3. The unfortunate failure of the weather in England (not this end) prevented the landing of (a) the Divisional second lift early on D+1 and (b) the landing of 325 Glider Regiment of 82 Airborne Division on D+2, which proved to be even more serious. The latter did not arrive until D+6. The Poles also failed to land concentrated, up to time and in the right place. The failure of 325 was the most acute as, owing to the pressure against my southern and eastern flanks, and the German attacks on both sides of the corridor, it was impossible to release enough infantry to back up the Guards Armour fighting to break through north of Nijmegen and join up with the 1st Division. Again I am convinced that if this Glider Regiment had been available to release a brigade of 43 Division from holding the north end of the corridor around Grave, it would completely have turned the scale.
4. The cutting of the life-line along the corridor was an accepted risk. It happened twice and entailed a major operation each time to clear it. This was only a contributory factor and would not, in my opinion, have been deciding.
5. The misapprehension, as I have already mentioned above, on everyone's part of the recovery powers of the Bosche meant that he had more people at Arnhem than we had expected, and he fought with much greater determination than was ever thought possible.
Browning remained convinced that Market Garden was a sound plan which had been thwarted by bad luck. The incessant reference to the operation as a "failure" was a continual annoyance to him as the parts played by the two American airborne divisions had been a great success, and it angered him that they were never, in his lifetime, given due credit. In private correspondence he wrote "People don't seem to have been told that it [Arnhem] was only rather less than a third of the Airborne effort and the whole thing was 80% successful. The two US Airborne Divisions which I have the honour to command have done marvellously and if it hadn't been for the atrocious weather and sheer bad luck the whole thing would have been 100% successful which in war would have been phenomenal." He also said "I only wish that the exploits of the two American divisions and everyone else during those hectic days when we were holding the corridor open, fighting the battle against the Germans in the Reichswald and struggling to force a corridor to the 1st Division, might be more fully appreciated."
Browning received no British recognition for the part that he played in the Battle, but he was, ironically considering his relations with both countries, honoured by the United States who awarded him the Legion of Merit, and by the Poles who gave him the Order of Polonia Restituta. His citation for the former reads:
Lieutenant General Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, British Army, as Deputy Commander, First Allied Airborne Army was Force Commander of Airborne operations in Holland, from 17 September 1944 to 9 December 1944. He prepared the original outline plan and executed the airborne operation which enabled the British Second Army to advance from Albert Canal to the southern banks of the river Lek at Arnhem, an advance of some sixty miles in six days, and which involved the passage of five major water obstacles at any one of which, but for preliminary airborne action the enemy might have imposed serious delay. By his personal qualities of leadership, he moulded his force of one British and two United States airborne divisions into a fighting team with an unrivalled esprit de corps. Leading his command into battle and personally appearing wherever the fighting was most critical he inspired the whole force in a manner which ensured the success of the operation. General Browning's service with the First Allied Airborne Army both in staff work and leadership was a major contribution to the Allied war effort.
Browning was no doubt touched by the American award, but the honour by the Polish Government-in-Exile was a source of great embarrassment in view of all that had occurred between himself and Major-General Sosabowski, not least because he was about to conspire with the British military establishment to have him removed from his command. Sosabowski wrote to Browning to offer his congratulations, and he responded with thanks but, to his credit, added "I am going to be absolutely candid, and I say to you that the award of a Polish decoration, at the present time, to me is unfortunate. As you must be most fully aware, my relationship with you and your Brigade has not been of the happiest during the last few weeks." Browning's part in the effort to remove Sosabowski from his post took the form of the following letter to Lieutenant-General Sir Ronald Weeks, Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
I have the honour to bring the following facts to your notice with regard to Major-General St. Sosabowski, Commander 1st Polish Parachute Brigade Group during operation "MARKET."
During the weeks previous to operation "MARKET," a period which entailed detailed planning for three other possible operations, the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade Group formed part of the force envisaged.
Both during this period and, in fact, ever since the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade Group was mobilised in July, Major-General Sosabowski proved himself to be extremely difficult to work with. The "difficulty" was apparent not only to commanders under whom he was planning but also to staff officers of the other airborne formations concerned.
During this period he gave me the very distinct impression that he was raising objections and causing difficulties as he did not feel that his brigade was fully ready for battle. When the brigade was first mobilised I made it absolutely clear to this officer, and in no uncertain terms, that I was the sole judge of the efficiency of his brigade and it was merely his duty to get them ready and train them with all the determination of which he was capable.
It became apparent during this training period that, capable soldier as this officer undoubtedly is, he was unable to adapt himself to the level of a parachute brigade commander, which requires intimate and direct command of his battalions. He left too much to his Chief of Staff and attempted to treat his parachute brigade as if it were a much higher and bigger formation.
During operation "MARKET" the brigade was unfortunate in being dropped in parts owing to the weather. However, during this period of operation "MARKET" great difficulties were being overcome hourly by all formations of the Second Army in their efforts to reach the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem. This officer proved himself to be quite incapable of appreciating the urgent nature of the operation, and continually showed himself to be both argumentative and loathe to play his full part in the operation unless everything was done for him and his brigade.
Subsequently, when the 1st Airborne Division had been withdrawn, and the Polish Parachute Brigade Group reverted to my command South of the R. Waal, this officer worried both me and my staff (who were at that time fighting a very difficult battle to keep the corridor open from inclusive Nijmegen to Eindhoven) about such things as two or three lorries to supplement his transport. I was forced finally to be extremely curt to this officer, and ordered him to carry out his orders from then on without query or obstruction.
Both Commander 30 Corps and Commander 43 Division will bear out my criticism of the attitude of this officer throughout the operation.
Major-General Sosabowski has undoubtedly, during the three years in which I have been connected with him, done a very great amount for the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade Group under disappointing circumstances. He was mainly responsible for the whole of the raising, organisation and training of the brigade. However, this good record cannot be allowed to interfere with the present and future efficiency of the brigade.
I am forced, therefore, to recommend that General Sosabowski be employed elsewhere, and that a younger, more flexibly minded and cooperative officer be made available to succeed him.
There are, to my knowledge, two possible candidates now serving with the brigade. The first is Lieut-Col. S. Jachnik, who is at present Deputy Commander. This officer has had practically no opportunity to display his powers owing to the somewhat overbearing nature of General Sosabowski's personality. The appointment of this officer would, in my opinion, be essentially in the nature of an experiment.
The second candidate is Major M. Tonn, who commands 1 Parachute Battalion. This officer has trained his battalion well and, in my opinion and in the opinion of the G.S.O.1. Liaison (Airborne) Lieut-Col. Stevens, he possesses the requisite drive and administrative ability to fulfill the appointment.
However, this appointment must remain largely a matter for the Polish Army to make, and it will probably be better in the long run if new blood be brought in.
Finally, I wish to emphasise again that I consider Major-General Sosabowski is a knowledgeable and efficient soldier and up to the average of his rank, but owing to his outlook, temperament and inability to cooperate he should be given a change of employment.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
(Sgd) F. A. M. Browning
Commander Airborne Corps.
There was a good deal of merit in Browning's allegations. Sosabowski was certainly argumentative and was, at times, difficult to work with as he resented being under British command and still had an eye on the liberation of his homeland. Furthermore his high rank and considerable wealth of experience often conflicted with his appointment as a mere Brigade Commander, and with it the expectations of fulfilling tasks which were beneath that of a Major-General. There may be some merit in the argument that he was unable to accept the risks that were inherent in parachute operations, but the claims that he was "incapable of appreciating the urgent nature of the operation... and loathe to play his full part in the operation unless everything was done for him and his brigade" is a piece of nonsense, as it is abundantly clear that he was anxious to get his Brigade into the battle across the Rhine, and was also keen to persevere with the operation when others were thinking of abandoning it. Major-General Sosabowski was relieved of his command on the 9th December 1944.
Field Marshal Montgomery lost no confidence in Browning's abilities as a result of Arnhem, indeed he wrote to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and said that he would like to have him as a corps commander if ever a vacancy arose; high praise indeed as Montgomery was not flippant with such recommendations. A vacancy soon arose, but by this time Browning had been committed elsewhere. On the 20th November 1944, he was informed that he was to be appointed as Admiral Mountbatten's Chief of Staff at South-East Asia Command. When Lieutenant-General Brereton heard that his Deputy, with whom he had had so much trouble, was to leave him he wrote a most conciliatory note in his diary, "General Browning is a fine soldier and, despite differences of opinion between military men, I like and admire him very much. I wish him luck."
Browning was not at all pleased with his new appointment, breaking the news to his wife with the far from encouraging words, "I've got a pretty awful job." Yet it was to be a most useful appointment as Mountbatten was pleased to have an efficient administrator like Browning on his staff, and the Army was happy to have someone at SEAC who could restrain the Supreme Commander and prevent him from over-involving himself, as was his wont, in minor details. Mountbatten wrote, "I was much impressed by Browning - a handsome man always impeccably dressed in uniforms which were said to have been designed by Daphne du Maurier, a person of few words, a good judge of men, rather stern, and a stickler for discipline. He was ready to help with information and advice whenever I approached him." Browning's impact on affairs was considerable, and he was as such greatly missed when he left the Far East in July 1946. He had, during his stay, been appointed Colonel of the Indian Parachute Regiment, and received a Knighthood in the 1946 New Year's honours list.
Returning to England, Browning struggled to adapt to family life, having spent so many years away on military service. His marriage suffered as a consequence of the extended periods of separation, but despite considerable turbulence along the way, it survived and remained strong at the end. He had three children with Daphne, two daughters, Tessa and Flavia, born in 1933 and 1937 respectively, and a son, Christian, who was born in 1940.
On the 16th September 1946, Browning was appointed to the senior and influential post of Military Secretary, having been recommended by Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the retiring CIGS, and approved by Montgomery, his successor. On the 22nd December 1947, this time recommended by Mountbatten, Browning left the Army to become Comptroller and Treasurer to the Household of Princess Elizabeth, and in 1952, following her accession to the Throne, Treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh.
Browning carried out these roles with his customary precision and efficiency, but his health began to deteriorate due to his lifestyle and many sustained years of excessive work. He had, since his posting to SEAC, become a heavy smoker and drinker, the former probably contributed to his repeated attacks of bronchitis and the latter gave rise to depressions and an argumentative temperament, in addition to amoebic dysentery, probably a legacy of his service in the Far East, and the bouts of stomach pains, "me tum", from which he had been suffering since childhood. Matters came to a head in July 1957 when he suffered a severe nervous breakdown. He was judged fit enough to return to work at the Palace in September, but the depression and fatigue remained beneath the surface and, in what was judged to be a cry for help, he was discovered one evening with his old service revolver in his hand and threatening to commit suicide. The situation continued precariously on until Daphne wrote to the Duke of Edinburgh to explain her fears, which resulted in Browning taking a sabbatical in July 1958. He felt sufficiently recovered to resume his duties in the New Year, but it was immediately apparent to him that he had lost his edge and was no longer the decisive administrator that he had once been. The Duke, reluctantly, bowed to the inevitable and Browning, at the age of 62, retired in May 1959. He was advanced in the Order to Knight Grand Cross.
Since leaving the Army to work at the Palace, Browning had sat at the Board of Directors of numerous companies, but when he retired, finding frequent long-distance travel a hardship, he gave up a number of these positions, including that of Chairman of the Airborne Forces Security Fund, though he remained a Trustee. Instead he took up various appointments around his adopted home in Cornwall, as Chairman of the Cornwall Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Association, County Group Controller of Civil Defence, and in 1960 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Cornwall. Even so, retirement presented Browning with a significant quantity of disposable time that he was unaccustomed to, and so he filled this with such activities as sailing, photography, and his new hobby of mapping UFO sightings. Although his final years continued to be troubled by illness and depression, the family grew to become much happier than they had been in the past.
Browning's health deteriorated towards the end of 1964. A blood clot formed in his left leg and caused severe pains, which he bore with good humour, but his condition did not respond to treatment and ultimately his left foot had to be amputated to prevent gangrene. Whilst recovering in Cornwall in February 1965, Browning suffered a severe attack of bronchitis which later developed into pneumonia. He died on the 14th March when a blood clot reached his heart. A veritable flood of telegrams arrived at the family home once his passing had been announced, the tributes being led by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, also Eisenhower and Mountbatten.
Two years later, Cornelius Ryan began writing his famous book about Operation Market Garden, "A Bridge Too Far", and his research assistant contacted Daphne regarding her late husband's part in the battle. She replied, "One thing I do know, although he did not talk about it, was that his grief at the loss of life at Arnhem was very deep indeed, and although the casualties of battle is a hazard that all military commanders have to face, this particular loss was something to which he could never become reconciled. He truly loved the men under his command, and the various regiments that combined to make up the Airborne Forces, his pride and his faith in them was tremendous, I would say - next to his family - the dearest thing in his life." The book was published in 1974, which Daphne read, and she found the passages concerning her husband to be fair and balanced.
Cornelius Ryan died shortly after the book was released, and it was announced that a film adaptation would follow and it chose to portray Browning in an altogether different light. As with all good cinema, a villain was required on stage and, despite there being several better candidates to choose from, Browning was selected. The actor who portrayed him, Dirk Bogarde, did his utmost to reduce the damage, writing "I did my very best to honour the man, because it was clear to me then that the U.S. Makers were determined to have a 'fall guy'... and it was to be Browning." When the film was released in 1977 it was very well received by the critics and remains a cinema classic, but, like all film adaptations, it is riddled throughout with historical inaccuracy, and though these may be of little interest to the general public, they caused severe distress to those who were wronged.
A wealth of correspondence was duly thrown at the press, including a particularly robust attack from General Hackett, a man who was known to be highly critical of the conduct of the operation, yet he commented, "...it shows a superficial, heartless, shallow person who is uncaring - even almost flippant - about the fate of brave men committed to his charge and displays, instead of strength of character, a petulant obstinacy born of weakness. He was not like that at all and could not have commanded such widespread loyalty if he had been. It is unkind because it will affront very many men who knew Browning well and, though some might say he had his faults (and who has not?), gave him their admiration and respect, but also, though he is dead, there are those still living who were closer to him still and knew him even better, and these will be deeply and unnecessarily wounded..." Cyril Ray, the American war correspondent attached to the 82nd Airborne Division at Nijmegen, wrote "I do not recognise the man I knew in battle and in peacetime in the Browning of the film... Boy Browning was debonair in manner, dapper in appearance... the dapper and debonair is one all the easier to caricature by anyone wishing to please a box office and easier still if he is dead..."
One of the most pertinent letters on the issue was sent to Daphne herself by Brian Urquhart, Browning's Intelligence Officer at the time of Market Garden, who had been sent on sick leave following his disagreement concerning the presence of the two Panzer Divisions at Arnhem. In the film, to avoid any confusion with Major-General Urquhart, his role was represented by the fictitious character of Major Fuller, a rather timid and nervous individual, something which Urquhart was abundantly not. He wrote:
Dear Lady Browning,
I have now seen the film of Cornelius Ryan's book 'A Bridge Too Far' and was appalled at the portrayal of General Browning. Of course it is too late, but I have written to the Director expressing my feelings, and I understand that there was a considerable correspondence in The London Times.
I remember your late husband with great affection and find it monstrous that a man so talented, so responsible, so magnetic and so full of imagination and vitality should be portrayed as Dirk Bogarde portrayed him in the film. I was also distressed by the account of his relationship with me during the preparations for Operation Market Garden. Although we did not always agree, and I, at the time, had no idea of the appalling pressure he was under and the tragic dilemma he was in, he always treated me with the utmost kindness and friendliness. Indeed it would have been odd if he had not, since I had been working for him for some three years and we knew each other well.
I can imagine that this film must have been most distressing to you, and this particular aspect of it certainly disgusted me. I suppose it is some consolation that enough people know the truth, all those who worked with General Browning and those who knew him, but I wish there was something more one could do about it...
Many people did know the truth, but millions more did not and so only knew the lie. Browning's reputation deteriorated severely as a direct result of the film, and, even today, many decades after the event, it continues to poison the achievements of a man who contributed so much to the British Army; more than a poorly-scripted film about a single week in a man's life ought to be allowed to efface.
This biography has been compiled from numerous sources, but above all the excellent "General Boy: The Life of Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Browning" by Richard Mead.
See also: 1st Para Brigade, 21st Independent Parachute Company, Maj-Gen Urquhart, Maj Hibbert, Maj Wilson, Lt Douglass.
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