Market Garden, 1944

Ego:

(a) Self-esteem or sense of self-importance.

(b) The part of the mind that meditates between the conscious and unconscious, responsible for reality testing and personal identity.

Introduction

A military aviator with an inadequate grasp of aeronautics, who doesn’t know the capabilities and limitations of his aircraft type, a combat pilot who hasn’t mastered air combat maneuvering, or an airman who runs out of luck, is likely only to kill himself.  On the other hand, an inadequate field commander may very well die, but he is just as likely to kill hundreds or thousands of his men in the process.

No one doubts the stress experienced by a combat pilot, and no one should believe that it is an easy matter to command troops in the field, either.  A good leader, whether in the air or on the ground, must know their profession — but more than that, they must know themselves.  A pilot must never think of himself as better than his aircraft; a ground commander must never think of himself as better than his least experienced troops.  We expect our pilots and ground commanders to demonstrate confidence, not overconfidence.

Bernard Law Montgomery

According to his account, Bernard Montgomery was a horrid child made that way by his equally despicable mother and a father who was gone from home for long periods.  When Maud Montgomery died in 1949, her son Bernard refused to attend her funeral.  Bernard had become a bully toward his peers, including those at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.  It was something he should have grown out of long before he reached college, and his violent behavior nearly resulted in his expulsion from Sandhurst.  Nevertheless, he graduated in 1908, commissioned a second lieutenant with the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  Later that year, Montgomery posted with his battalion in India.

Four years later, Montgomery served as battalion adjutant at Shorncliffe Army Camp, a training base in Kent, which served as a training/staging base during the First World War.  Montgomery moved to France with his battalion in August 1914.  The Royal Warwickshire Regiment became part of the 10th Brigade, 4th British Infantry Division.  In mid-October, he was twice wounded at Méteren, Belgium, and cited for conspicuous and gallant leadership.  In 1915, Montgomery served as Brigade Major (Temporary) with the 112th Brigade and later with the 104th Brigade.[1]  Between 1916-17, Montgomery served as a staff officer with the 33rd Division and the IX Corps, Plumer’s Second Army.  After the war, the Army reverted Montgomery to captain but appointed him to brevet major and command of the 17th Service Battalion.

When the British Army passed Montgomery over for attending the Staff College, placing in jeopardy any hope he had for permanent promotion or command, he directly appealed to the Commander-in-Chief, asking to have his name added to the list.

After Montgomery graduated, the Army appointed him to serve as Brigade Major, 17th Infantry Brigade, located in County Cork, Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence.  Montgomery did not believe the British could defeat the insurgency without resorting to harsh measures, but he also thought the better course of action would be to grant self-government to Ireland.

In May 1923, Montgomery was promoted to major and assigned to command an infantry company in his parent battalion.  From 1926 to 1929, he served as Deputy Assistant Adjutant at Staff College (Camberley) while serving as a temporary lieutenant colonel.

After his wife died in 1937, Brigadier Montgomery immersed himself in his military duties.  His unhappy childhood and the tragedy of his wife’s death likely contributed to his eccentricities and inferiority complex.  These factors made him over-compensate for his self-perceived inadequacies and drove him to assume the role of an overbearing bully or tyrant.  His intolerance of “lesser men” and constant suspicion that others were plotting against him produced a paranoid man who hardly anyone could tolerate, professionally or socially.

If there was one agreement among Montgomery’s associates, peers, and antagonists alike, it was that he was a difficult man to like.  British Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, a peer, could not understand why Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, didn’t fire Montgomery for his insufferable arrogance and insubordination.  Instead, Eisenhower tolerated Montgomery even though he was so full of himself that it frequently crossed the line into psychotic behavior.  The evidence for this was Montgomery’s repudiation of everything the Allied staff knew in 1944 about conducting successful military operations.  His stubbornness resulted in the combat deaths of good men — about which Montgomery seemed to care little.

It is difficult to know which of these generals hated the other more, Patton or Montgomery.  Their disputes, in the field and the press, have become the subject of many books and magazine articles.  Scholars who admired either of these men offered continuous praise; critics saw the squabbles as mean and petty, more focused on their egos than the sacred duty of leading men in combat.

A Californian by birth, Patton had ties to the Old South; his grandfather was killed in 1864 while serving as a Confederate colonel.  He attended the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the US Military Academy (USMA).  He was an Olympic athlete and an early advocate of mechanized warfare.  Like Montgomery, Patton sought fame throughout his long career.  He possessed a legendary temper and could not abide unmanly behavior, leading to two incidents of slapping low-ranking soldiers.   The only difference between Patton and Montgomery was that Patton exhibited a superiority complex and was behaviorally less eccentric.

Toward Market Garden

In the weeks following D-Day, the speed of the Allied advance across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands produced two false impressions among Allied leaders.  The first was that the Allied forces were winning against the Germans, and the second was that the German army was crumbling.  In  September 1944, neither of these was true.  Moreover, rapid advancement produced three crises: the first was that the advancing armies were spread too thin, the second was that the advancing troops outpaced their logistics train, and the third was that the front-line troops were exhausted.  All these conditions were dangerous in the extreme, not to mention foolhardy, as Allied forces approached Germany’s formidable Siegfried Defensive Line.

Relationships between Montgomery, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton, became strained. By early September 1944, a crack developed within the Allied command. Montgomery became convinced that he alone could win the war and achieve it before Christmas 1944.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew the United Kingdom needed its alliance with the United States, so he supported General Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that maintaining a healthy partnership with the British would make them strong allies after the war.

Montgomery planned to bypass the German Siegfried Line by executing an allied envelopment into Germany through The Netherlands.  Neither General Patton nor General Bradley could support Montgomery’s plan arguing that it was logistically unsupportable.

Undeterred, Field Marshal Montgomery devised a plan of action in two parts: Operation Market and Operation Garden.  Operation Market would employ airborne forces behind enemy lines to seize German-held bridges.  Operation Garden would push land and armor forces through The Netherlands, across the bridges, and into Germany.  Together, the plan was called Market Garden.

Of the airborne units, Montgomery planned on 40,000 men parachuting into Germany.  The units earmarked for this operation were the 101st U.S. Airborne (assigned to seize five bridges), the 82nd U.S. Airborne (responsible for one bridge), the British 1st Airborne, and the Polish 1st Independent Airborne Brigade (actually focused on two bridges).  The two critical elements for the success of Montgomery’s plan were (a) seizing the bridges from the Germans and (b) holding them.

Americans back home had their favorite military heroes; some adored Eisenhower, who never held a combat command.  Other Americans idolized Patton, the epitome of a combat officer and a bull in a fine China shop.  Still, others supported Omar Bradley, the so-called “soldier’s general.”  The British needed their heroes, as well.  Political pressure pushed Eisenhower to appoint Montgomery as Commander 1st Allied Airborne Army.  General Eisenhower was fully aware that Montgomery was working on a plan, but Eisenhower (later supported by his staff) claimed that he didn’t know any of the details of Market Garden.

As an Army commander, Montgomery did not believe he needed to obtain Eisenhower’s permission to proceed.  In the aftermath of the Market-Garden disaster — even well after the war, Montgomery continued to claim that Eisenhower had approved his plan.  Every success in combat has a proud father; every disaster in war is a red-headed stepchild.

Was Field Marshal Montgomery delusional?  Evidence shows that Eisenhower “approved in principle” Montgomery’s three-pronged attack.  Still, there is no evidence that Eisenhower gave his final approval or that Montgomery asked for one.  Still, one would think that the appropriation of thousands of allied aircraft would have required Eisenhower’s approval.

Field Marshal Montgomery named Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Arthur Montague (“Boy”) Browning as Commander 1st Airborne Corps and Deputy Commander, First Allied Airborne Army, during Operation Market Garden.  Browning was a Montgomery sycophant who knew as much about generalship as he did about airborne operations. Browning shared many of Montgomery’s less appreciated traits: he was argumentative, arrogant, and full of himself.  American officers didn’t like Browning and, as important, didn’t trust him.  The relationship between Browning and US Army Air Corps Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton was toxic.[2]

When General Browning finally revealed his plan to the Royal Air Force staff on 10 September 1944, the RAF raised questions that were similar to those posed by General Brereton — questions about feasibility, logistics, and Northern European weather patterns.  One early problem was that in that part of Europe in September, there was insufficient daylight to conduct two airborne airlift operations in 24 hours.  Moreover, if Montgomery expected allied air cover for his assault force, then nighttime operations were out of the question.  A second issue was that General Browning expected C-47 aircraft to pull two fully manned glider craft.  Such an experiment was never tested.  General Brereton quite correctly refused to allow it.

Additionally, the Northern European weather pattern in late September is inconducive to large-scale airborne operations — or the logistics footprint required to pull it off.  In any case, the RAF and USAAC urged “Boy” Browning to reconsider his assault plan.  Browning refused, and when he did, the allied air forces refused to drop airborne troops closer than eight miles from Arnhem.   To do so, British and American air corps commanders argued, would subject the air forces to unacceptable risks.

During the operational planning phase of Market Garden, Dutch resistance leaders warned Montgomery that while the German army was withdrawing from coastal Europe, the Nazis were neither defeated nor dispirited.  Moreover, the resistance argued, it was foolhardy to march so many men 64 miles up a corridor firmly in German hands.

Major General Roy Urquhart, commanding the British 1st Airborne Division, communicated his misgivings about Market Garden to Lieutenant General Browning.[3]  Urquhart, who until then had never controlled an airborne unit, was cautioned by Browning about the effects of defeatism on unit morale.  After landing outside Arnhem, Urquhart discovered that after protecting Allied landing fields, he would have no more than a single brigade (a third of his force) to seize and hold the Arnhem Bridge.[4]  As events unfolded, only one allied unit reached the Arnhem Bridge: the British 44th Parachute Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Frost.[5]

There were other operational disasters, as well.  None of Urquhart’s high-frequency radios were working; he had no means of communicating with higher headquarters and could not receive intelligence reports from his subordinate units.  Urquhart was operating in the dark.

Market Garden was no cakewalk for the Americans, either.  Of the five bridges assigned to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, the Germans destroyed two — which produced a bottleneck restricting the movement of Allied forces across the Rhine.  When the American commander learned about the two destroyed bridges, General Matthew Ridgeway slowed his pace of advance.  This decision allowed German forces more time to prepare their defensive works.

Brigadier General James M. Gavin, commanding the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, received orders from Browning to secure the Grosbeak Heights southeast of Nijmegen.  It was an order Gavin could not obey because, given shortages of boats and ammunition, he could only provide a single battalion of the 504th Parachute Regiment to hold the Nijmegen Bridge.

This operational and logistical planning failure allowed the Germans to reinforce a vital bridge, which delayed strengthening or relieving the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.  Gavin’s 504th Parachute Regiment heroically seized the bridge across the Waal River, but by that time, the Germans had already killed or captured the men holding the bridge at Arnhem.

Aftermath and Conclusion

We remember Operation Market Garden as a colossal failure.  It was poorly conceived, inadequately planned, incompetently directed, and overly ambitious.  Montgomery/Brown failed to consider the most basic yet vital factors of warfare.  Montgomery underestimated the enemy’s strength, capability, disposition, and fighting spirit.  Moreover, Market Garden was logistically unsupportable, the terrain was ill-suited for corps-size operations, and weather patterns were ill-disposed to airborne operations.  Montgomery’s failure was more than negligent; it was malfeasant.[6]

Beyond losing 17,000 men to this poorly planned and executed fiasco, Market Garden had other consequences.  For instance, in seeking to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine, the Allied forces rushed offensive operations on three fronts in the south of the Netherlands.   To secure shipping to the vital port of Antwerp, the Allies advanced northwards and westwards.  The Canadian First Army seized the Scheldt Estuary.  Separately, Operation Aintree was designed to seize and secure the banks of the Meuse as a natural boundary for the established salient.  Aintree became a protracted battle, which eventually included Operation Overloon.  Operation Pheasant expanded the Market Garden salient westward.  The German counter-offensive intended to halt Allied use of the port of Antwerp, split the Allied lines, encircle four allied armies, and force a negotiated peace settlement.  In the aftermath of Market Garden, the Allied rush to victory resulted in over 90,000 men killed, wounded, or captured and the loss of 733 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.

Another unhappy consequence of Market Garden was the Dutch famine of 1944-45.  Dutch workers went on strike during the battle to aid the Allied assault.  Germany forbade food transportation in retribution, and in the following winter, more than 20,000 Dutch citizens were starved to death.

A healthy ego is as essential to field commanders as for high-performance jet pilots.  Montgomery did not have a healthy ego. Instead, the field marshal appears to have been a tormented man — one who may have suffered from Asperger’s Disorder for most of his life and a man who regularly relied on bluster and position to mask severe deficiencies as a field general.  It is one thing to make a costly mistake — our senior combat commanders are, after all, human beings with strengths and weaknesses — and tragic mistakes do happen in wars.  But it is quite another matter when a field commander risks the lives of thousands of men knowing that he’s exceeded his capability and then masks that failure by pretending there was no failure or trying to blame it on subordinate officers/commands.  This, I believe, describes Bernard Montgomery.  Browning was another matter altogether, but the men who served in the 1st Airborne Army in September 1944 deserved far better men to lead them. 

Sources:

  1. Badsey, S.  Arnhem, 1944: Operation Market Garden.  London: Osprey Publishing, 1993.
  2. Clark, L.  Arnhem: Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
  3. Hoyer, B. K.  Operation Market Garden: The Battle for Arnhem.  Defense Technical Information Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] In the British Army, a brigade major serves the same function as a Brigade Executive Officer in the American Army; supervision of the several staff sections of the Brigade: Administration, Operations/Training, Intelligence, logistics, and special staff sections.  The brigade major usually held the rank of major (even if only a temporary advancement), intentionally ranked below officers commanding battalions.  The Brigade Commander directed his battalions, and the Brigade Major directed the Brigade Commander’s staff.

[2] If anyone in Europe knew about airborne operations, it was Lewis Brereton, whose entire career involved air assault operations.

[3] Robert Elliott (Roy) Urquhart (1901-88) fought with distinction at Arnhem, but in this battle, his division lost 75% of his men and was subsequently withdrawn from further combat service during World War II.  Major General Sir Richard Gale, Commander, 6th Airborne Division agreed with Urquhart’s assessment of the likely consequences of Market Garden, but Montgomery/Browning ignored him, as well.

[4] An SS training battalion was operating adjacent to the intended landing field.

[5] John Dutton Frost (1912-93) served with distinction with the parachute forces in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.  He commanded the 44th Parachute Battalion and was responsible for seizing the Arnhem Bridge and holding it against an entire German Panzer Division for four days.

[6] Supreme Allied Headquarters received numerous reports about German troop movements, including the identity of German units.  Eisenhower was so concerned that he sent this information to Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith to raise the issue with Montgomery.  Montgomery dismissed Eisenhower’s/Smith’s concerns and refused to alter his plan for landing airborne units at Arnhem.  Even when briefed by his own staff intelligence officer, who showed him photographic evidence of armor units at Arnhem, Browning dismissed his evidence out of hand — and then ordered the intelligence officer placed on sick leave owing to his “nervous strain and exhaustion.”


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Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

One thought on “Market Garden, 1944”

  1. What a waste of trained, experienced soldiers. As you mention, an entire Infantry division was taken off the line and never re-deployed. Patton was also generally disliked by his peers. But, that was more about his relentless ambition than any personality issues. Civilians do not appreciate what an affront it was to strike enlisted soldiers, not once but twice. I got to know some WW II veterans when I was a young officer. They liked Patton more or less, but there was always a “but.” “He was good but…..”
    Tom

    Like

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