What a week for military history anniversaries it has been. Earlier this week, I published a brief blog post about the centenary of the birth of tank warfare, that day also coincided with Battle of Britain Day. The version of the Battle of Britain that I grew up with was part myth, part truth. The story was one of heroic young British Royal Air Force officers flying in Spitfires to fight the numerically superior Luftwaffe over southern England and ultimately prevailing, thereby making Hitler’s invasion of Britain impossible.
The truth is that more Fighter Command squadrons flew Hurricanes than Spitfires, a large number of the pilots were non-commissioned officers and the Battle of Britain was not a Brits-only affair. Pilots from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand also took part – a point that I wish could be hammered home to the thugs who have carried out shameful attacks on Poles living in Britain following the result of the Brexit referendum. There is now even some doubt as to whether Hitler genuinely intended to invade Britain, although I recall reading in Manstein’s memoir that in 1940 he commanded troops earmarked for seaborne landings in Kent and Sussex with no indication of doubt about the plan.
The fact remains that the Battle of Britain caused significant attrition to the Luftwaffe’s combat power and combined with the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic, ensured that the Allies retained a Centre of Gravity in Europe and that the integrity of sea lanes of communication was maintained. This set the scene for the Normandy landings in June and the subsequent attempt at an integrated airborne and ground offensive to seize a crossing point over the River Rhine that would have enabled a thrust into Germany and brought about a premature end to the war. This offensive was named Operation Market Garden and began on 17 September 1944.
The story of Operation Market Garden has been told in literature and film, most notably in Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 book A Bridge Too Far and the 1979 movie of the same name, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. Anyone who has watched the movie, will know the story; allied airborne forces insert by parachute and glider to secure crossing points at Son, Nijmegen and Arnhem and hold them to enable a link-up operation by XXX Corps. The ambitious plan, devised by Montgomery and sold to Eisenhower as achievable on paper, proves impossible in reality, with multiple factors aligning to spoil it. A Bridge Too Far illustrates these points well; planning staff are aware of limitations in aircraft availability but do not admit the fact to their seniors, British 1st Airborne Division radio communications were limited by the woodland and technical failures. Perhaps the worst failure of all was the intentional disregard of intelligence that indicated the presence of significant German forces in Arnhem. Clausewitz tells us that war in reality can never match war on paper, cautioning commanders of the impact of friction and the fog of war. There is little doubt in my mind that British hubris and a reluctance of planners to ‘speak truth to power’ contributed to the failure at Arnhem. The consequences of doing so would have been potentially significant as illustrated by the treatment of Browning’s Intelligence Officer, Major Brian Urquhart. When Urquhart voiced his concerns, Browning arranged for him to be sent on ‘sick leave’.
The ground thrust to achieve the link-up was slowed by many factors, most notably the effect of canalisation in the towns of Eindhoven and Nijmegen, the destruction of the Son bridge and of course, stiffer German resistance than had been anticipated. XXX Corps did not manage to link up with 1st Airborne Division, whose plans had been scuppered, leaving Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion isolated and surrounded at the Arnhem Bridge. Men whose orders were to hold the bridges for 72 hours ended up fighting valiantly for nine days, short on ammunition and with 87% of resupply drops falling into German hands, it was a dire situation.
Attempts to reinforce 1st Airborne Division were made by Sosabowski’s Polish Parachute Brigade. Their initial drop zones had been overrun and they were forced to land south of the river, days later than planned. The intent was for them to cross the river using a ferry, but it was later discovered that the ferryboat had been sunk by the ferryman to deny its use to the Germans. The Poles occupied defensive positions in Driel and were effective in blocking advances by German armour towards Arnhem. Following appeals from British officers, Sosabowski agreed to attempt to cross the Rhine and reinforce the British perimeter. Several attempts were made using small assault boats, but were hampered by the strong tides and a lack of oars. Around 170 Polish soldiers managed to reinforce the perimeter, about a quarter of the number that was hoped for, with a number being captured in the process. The final attempt to reinforce came on the night of 24th September when a combined Anglo-Polish crossing was planned. Sosabowski objected to this plan and bitterly resented the subordination of his troops to British command, but was effectively overruled. Following the battle, Sosabowski was smeared by British officers and was subsequently removed from command. It is not clear who instigated the plan to scapegoat Sosabowski, but fingers point variously at Browning and officers of 43rd Division. While it is clear that the Polish officer was an abrasive character, his subsequent treatment was nothing short of shameful. Honour has been restored in recent years with the award of the Military William Order to the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade and the posthumous award of the Bronze Lion to Sosabowski by HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
On the ninth day, Operation Berlin was conducted, an evacuation of the remnants of Urquhart’s 1st Airborne Division from the north bank of the Rhine, this followed a determined German thrust to complete an encirclement of the British troops that was broken up by an artillery bombardment. With boats provided the Royal Canadian Engineers and a covering force from the Polish Parachute Brigade, Operation Berlin enabled the evacuation of more than 2400 men from the Arnhem bridgehead.
Operation Market Garden was a gallant but flawed attempt at shortening the war. On paper, the British failure to link-up with the beleaguered 1st Airborne Division was a failure, but the losses inflicted on the Germans and the heroic fighting spirit that has come to symbolise the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces are nothing short of legendary. Montgomery summed up this spirit thus:
What manner of men are these that wear the maroon beret?
They are firstly all volunteers and are toughened by physical training. As a result, they have infectious optimism and that offensive eagerness which comes from well-being. They have jumped from the air and in doing so have conquered fear.
Their duty lies in the van of battle. They are proud of this honour. They have the highest standard in all things, whether it be skill in battle or smartness in the execution of all peace-time duties. They are in fact, men apart – every man an emperor.
 In the movie of A Bridge Too Far, Maj Urquhart was renamed Fuller. Apparently this was to avoid the audience confusing his character with that of Maj Gen Roy Urquhart. It is reassuring to know that Hollywood perceives that audiences lack sufficient intellect to cope with two people with the same surname in one movie.