Since the War, it has become a popular pastime to criticise and belittle the achievements of Field Marshal Montgomery. The man himself has certainly done more than anyone else to encourage this by his overwhelming sense of superiority to the lesser mortals around him, yet it is worth remembering that there has hardly been any General in history, one of any note at least, who has not been equally tiresome. Through the decisions he makes, a General inevitably plays with the lives of thousands if not millions of men; one cannot do this effectively without an unquestioning belief in one's own abilities, and consequently a complete disregard for any who disagree.
Even at the very zenith of his egoism, Montgomery was not reckless at the tactical level, in a manner that would needlessly endanger the lives of his men. Arnhem was an obvious exception to this, although it could be argued that the situation at the time, with the prize of a possible complete collapse of the Western Front, required bold, if not rash handling, forsaking careful planning in the interests of keeping the enemy on the run. One can examine Montgomery's battles and see horrendous loss of life in his attritional tactics, but this may not be to the detriment of his methods as, considering the nature of warfare in 1944 and 1945, and the determination and skill of an enemy numbered in the millions, it is hard to see how victory could have been secured under different leadership with substantially fewer loss; certainly no other commander in Western Europe was capable of making notably greater strides with fewer casualties.
Whatever his numerous faults as a man, Montgomery's generalship was forever characterised by meticulous planning and thorough preparation, always achieving an overwhelming superiority in materiel strength to ensure a victory which could otherwise have been lost through impatience, particularly on behalf of his superiors continually urging haste and results; Montgomery was never a man to bow to political pressure. Whilst he lacked the ruthlessness of Zhukov or the dash of Patton, he was, nevertheless, a master of the hard and much less glamorous means of waging war. Perhaps the shortest and most accurate assessment of Montgomery was made by a British general, who concluded that he was "an efficient little shit."
The Rhine Crossing is an excellent example of Montgomery's tactical ability at the set-piece battle. Following a patient and careful build-up, he made complete use of all the resources at his disposal to achieve the desired effect; a massive air and artillery bombardment to reduce the German defences, followed by an ambitious assault which, across a front of 20 miles, severely hampered the ability of the enemy to resist it. Many have commented, with very clear justification, that it was an overelaborate use of military might for the task at hand, yet the operation was nevertheless superbly planned and handled, which was no small feat considering its size and complexity.
From the airborne perspective, delaying the drop until the ground assaults had secured a sound bridgehead defied all previous convention, and it was a masterstroke of understanding. It not only ensured that the airborne troops would be relieved by the ground forces, but it also encouraged the enemy to believe that there would not be such an operation, and that he should therefore move all of his available resources forward to confront the river crossings, allowing the airborne troops not only to land largely unmolested in his rear, but in so doing cut-off his escape and so permit a rapid break-out beyond the Rhine.
It is also abundantly clear that Montgomery, his staff and the airborne planners had learned much from the hard and painful lessons of Arnhem. There, the 1st Airborne Division had landed 64 miles into enemy territory, 8 miles from their objectives, and in three lifts over a period of three days. Within two hours on a single airlift, Operation Varsity had landed all the participating units of the 6th and 17th Airborne Divisions on top of their objectives and not more than 7 miles from their already advancing relief columns.
Tactical landings, where the troops drop very close to if not directly upon their intended objectives, had been used by the British before, notably the coup-de-main raid on Pegasus Bridge in Normandy, but Operation Varsity was the first time that it was undertaken on such a large scale. The theory behind it is that, although casualties in the first moments may be very heavy, they would prove cheaper in the long run had surprise been lost by the force landing in comparative safety several miles from their objectives, and then had to fight their way through an alerted and prepared enemy to reach them. It had been observed at Arnhem that lightly-armed men, regardless of their high level of training, are placed at a severe disadvantage when they encounter large numbers of a well-entrenched enemy, adequately supported by armoured vehicles and artillery. There is no doubt that a mass tactical deployment of this nature at Arnhem would have utterly transformed the situation there in favour of the British.
Scarred by these painful memories, therefore, the pendulum had perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction on Operation Varsity, which demanded that the troops land in areas that were known to be overlooked by anti-aircraft weapons of all calibres. Too much trust was placed in the ability of the opening bombardment, from the ground and the air, to neutralise this considerable threat. Even so the tactical deployment worked well for the two parachute brigades. Their slow-moving aircraft were vulnerable to enemy fire, but once the men had jumped they became individual targets and so much more difficult to hit. Forming-up on the ground was perilous under heavy enemy fire, yet the virtues of training, discipline and initiative, so prevalent throughout the Parachute Regiment, proved an ample substitute for ideal tactical conditions, and so the men of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, landing amongst familiar scenes of confusion, if not complete chaos, were able to quickly improvise attacks on local enemy resistance and overcome them without too much difficulty. Considering the nature of their deployment and their tasks on the ground, the paratroopers suffered remarkably few casualties.
The fate of the 6th Airlanding Brigade, however, more than adequately conveys how unsuited gliderborne units were to tactical landings. The large, cumbersome and fragile craft were perfect targets for light flak and machine guns, where a lucky hit, inflicting severe damage, killing the pilots, or hitting a Jeep's petrol tank, could easily result in the complete loss of all aboard. As a consequence, the 6th Airlanding Brigade suffered more fatalities in the first two hours of the Rhine Crossing than they had in two and a half months of fighting in Normandy.
Regardless of the tactical success of Operation Varsity, it is largely as a consequence of the fate of the gliderborne elements of both the 6th and 17th Airborne Divisions that it has been questioned whether the airborne operation was worth the price. It is a question that cannot easily be answered, for how does one weigh the balance between tactical gain and hundreds of lives lost, particularly when the overwhelming majority were killed before they could even leave their gliders and begin to defend themselves? The cost had been very high, but the landing had certainly made an impact. It had cut-off the escape routes of various enemy elements confronting the ground forces, and it had secured several crossings over the River Issel together with much of the terrain leading up to them, thereby denying its use to enemy rearguards who would inevitably seize every opportunity to delay the advance and sap its momentum. Furthermore, hundreds of flak guns, which had done such terrible damage to the airborne troops, were overrun by the landings, and so they were unable to be removed from the battlefield to play a part in the defence of the Germany. This is no small point because many of these weapons could be used in an anti-tank role, and, however fragmented the Wehrmacht had become at this stage, isolated battlegroups were formed around such weapons, and they did much damage to the Allied spearheads as they pushed deeper into Germany.
Whether this was worth 2,700 casualties, on the 24th March alone, to the 6th and 17th Airborne Divisions is open to debate. What can be said, however, is that the paratroopers suffered far less severely as a result of the anti-aircraft fire than had their gliderborne kin, and whilst the lessons of Arnhem had been learned and applied to Operation Varsity, a new one now made itself abundantly clear; gliders must not land on zones which were dominated by the enemy, at least not until parachutists had preceded them to take on this enemy and occupy his full attention as the gliders approached. Had a further brigade of paratroopers landed around Hamminkeln and not the 6th Airlanding Brigade, the casualties would certainly have been far lower, and perhaps more palatable in view of what was achieved.