Arnhem: A Battle Without A Leader
Written by Captain Ermine Todd IV
Aviation Captain’s Career Course 18-002
15 May 2018
There is a narrow line in battle that separates the decisions of the commanders from the actions which lead to military victory or defeat. How well a unit executes the will of their commander is sometimes the only way that victory is achieved. Commanders must provide excellent clarity of vision in order to communicate their intentions and allow subordinates to execute their orders. In modern United States Army doctrine, this process is referred to as “Mission Command” as defined in Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 6-0 as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.” This lens of leadership will be used to examine the actions of Major General Urquhart as commander of the British 1st Airborne Division in the battle for Arnhem during World War II, and how his disuse of the principles of mission command led to his mission’s failure.
At the beginning of September in 1944, the Allies advanced into Belgium. This action came on the heels of the successful battle for and subsequent liberation of Paris. These significant gains came with a price however, the allies were outstripping their own supply capabilities. In the months since the Normandy landings in June, the Allied forces had failed to successfully seize a fully capable supply port. This required them to reach as far back as their original beach landings and the hastily constructed ports there. In the recent advance into Belgium they had successfully captured the port city of Antwerp, both capable of supporting a massive influx of sea based supplies, and undamaged by German retreat as other similar ports. Unfortunately, the Allies failed to immediately capitalize on the seizure of Antwerp and continued to requisition supplies along extended supply trains back through Normandy.
Due to Allied shortages in supply and especially limitations on fuel, as well as the rapidity of the ground forces advance, nearly a dozen planned airborne operations were cancelled during the summer of 1944. Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force was continually diverting the aircraft and fuel intended to perform airborne operations to more critical areas of the war. This perception of underutilization was beginning to wear on the minds of the airborne commanders and led to the creation of an operation to showcase the capabilities of the airborne unit, instead of using the airborne unit to fit an existing need on the battlefield. Allied commanders needed to justify the massive expenditure of men, time, equipment, and training that went into preparing an airborne force. With the speed of the allied advance, and the amount of friendly controlled terrain that was steadily growing, holding a force in reserve in order to support possible airborne operations became increasingly untenable. It was in this atmosphere of desperation for a decisive airborne fight that operation Market Garden was born.
After the battle turned against the German armored divisions responsible for the defense at Caen, the Allied war machine had been building momentum and appeared nearly unstoppable. Their advance to the Seine River was so rapid that they had developed the belief that the German forces were in total disarray and losing their ability to mount an effective defense. Field Marshal Montgomery observed that the situation for an attack thrust into the heart of Germany could have the effect of disintegrating the remaining German resistance. He envisioned a strike to the heart of Berlin and an end of the war by Christmas. Montgomery brought this plan before General Eisenhower who was at this time the Supreme Allied Commander. Eisenhower had already rejected several of Montgomery’s plans for an audacious airborne operation. This time, Eisenhower relented and agreed to give Montgomery the resources he needed for his grand offensive.
Market was to be the airborne portion of the operation. It involved landing three full airborne divisions well into German held territory. The British 1st Airborne Division would land at Arnhem while simultaneously the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions landed near Nijmegen and Eindhoven. After securing the bridge crossings in each of these cities, the airborne force would only need to hold out until the infantry and tank formations of XXX Corps were able to arrive. Operation Market was modeled after its predecessor, operation Comet. Comet had been planned for one airborne division to accomplish what three were proposed for in Market, the key difference between the plans was that Comet was intended to take advantage of the existing momentum of XXX Corps’ advance across Dutch territory up until that point. Comet was cancelled due to the slowing of the Allied advance as the Germans enacted a successful defense and began to stand instead of crumble. The result was that Market was being planned in an environment of even stronger resistance, overwhelming optimism ruled at high command and Market was given the go ahead
As the parallel to Market, Garden was to be the ground offensive, pushing through the existing German resistance. XXX Corps led by the Irish Guard was to breach German defensive positions and move rapidly along roadways in order to link up with the three Airborne Divisions and secure the final bridge in Arnhem, giving the Allies a road directly into Germany. Critical to their operation was the timing of the advance intended to allow for swift linkup. It was never intended for the lightly armed Airborne Divisions to make a stand for an extended period of time against an armored foe, or heavy artillery barrage.
In preparation for the landings, the airborne commanders identified specific targets that they wanted destroyed or suppressed in order to support their landings. On 16 September the US Army Air Force conducted bombing attacks to clear the intended drop zones, and prepare lanes for glider landings. A majority of the air cover was to come the following day, with more than 1200 fighters escorting the airborne force as they moved out of airfields in England.
During the planning, the Allies discovered intelligence that two formations of German tanks suspected to be the 9th and 10th SS Panzer were reassembling in the area immediately adjacent to Arnhem. A lightly armed and equipped airborne force would be no match for an experienced unit of armor. The Allies dispatched a Spitfire aircraft to secure more intelligence on the subject. The Spitfire obtained aerial photographs of Mk III and Mk IV tanks around the town. General Browning, overall commander of the airborne force, dismissed this intelligence by stating that the tanks were few in number and likely not functional. General Browning even took steps to remove the intelligence officer who prepared the reports in retaliation for his perceived non-commitment. As it turned out, the intelligence was correct, and the 9th and 10th SS Panzer had reformed in the vicinity of Arnhem. It is unknown if General Browning acted out of arrogance in ignoring this intelligence, or out of a belief that the plan was too far along to be subverted.
On 17 September, Operation Market Garden began in earnest with more than 3,500 aircraft shuttling the Soldiers of the Allied 1st Airborne Army into their positions. The landings were largely successful and followed two routes from England to Holland, the Northern route for the 1st Airborne Division and the 82nd Airborne Division, and the Southern route for the 101st Airborne Division. German Luftwaffe elements did not anticipate the assault and only two small contingents of fighters were encountered on the transit. A handful of glider tow ropes snapped due to the strain but nearly all the aircraft arrived on schedule for the first lift.
At the insistence of General Brereton, the Airborne Army commander and overall commander of all Allied Airborne forces, the landing was to be conducted during the day. Despite evidence that this would give an advantage to the Germans in terms of organizing a defense and eliminate the critical element of surprise for an airborne force. Compounding this error, no adjustments to the planned landing zones were accepted. This resulted in the greatest difficulty for the Arnhem troops of the British 1st Airborne Division. 1st Brigade under the command of Brigadier Lathbury was to be dropped nearly 10km from the bridge they were meant to seize. Optimistically with no opposition this movement would take them at least three hours to move into position. Unfortunately for Lathbury’s Brigade, the enemy observed their landing and of course mobilized a defense, having quickly identified the bridge crossing as the most likely target for an airborne assault.
The ground assault did not begin as smoothly as the airborne raid. Despite knowing that the two day planned link up with 1st Airborne Division forces would be a narrow window and require continuous advance on the part of XXX Corps vehicles, General Horrocks, commander of XXX Corps, delayed his advance. Horrocks believed that his signal to begin the assault should be the passage overhead of the airborne force. Horrocks feared that an early advance would tip the Allies’ hand and inform the Germans of their objective to cross the Rhine and seize a foothold in Germany. His delay cost them the advantage of a night attack and allowed the enemy to prepare a defense after witnessing a large airborne contingent overfly their positions.
The actual advance of the Irish Guards at the lead of XXX Corps did not begin until 1400, nearly two hours after the airborne force arrived at their targets. This costly delay would only prove to be the first of many as the advancing force came under fire from enemy anti-tank guns and requested air support. There was only a single road and the Germans had prepared anti-tank guns in succession, intended to halt and delay the column frequently. Each time they were delayed air support was called to clear the enemy, followed by engineers to clear the roadway. As a result, the XXX Corps had only advanced 10km from their start line when dusk fell. Inexplicably, XXX Corps had developed a policy of not advancing during hours of darkness due to lack of air cover and possibility of confusion, despite the original plan calling for them to advance through the night in order to reach their targets. This failure to understand the necessity for a speedy advance would become critical the following day when the Irish Guards again failed to advance before mid-day.
After a successful landing, confusion reigned as the British 1st Airborne Division gathered their forces for the assault on Arnhem Bridge. Major General Urquhart, the division commander, was unable to communicate with his subordinate commanders. Although his tactical HQ was set up quickly, they discovered that their radios would not be able to reach each other due to the densely wooded terrain. The first planned decisive operation was a quickly mounted reconnaissance squadron coup de main to seize the bridge or at minimum establish a foothold. This force did not depart on time due to a lack of radios. General Urquhart ordered the recon to proceed despite the communication issues, left his headquarters and rushed off to accompany 1st Brigade on their march to the bridge. 1st and 3rd Battalions were frustrated in their struggle when they encountered a German SS training battalion led by Major Kraft. Despite their numerical superiority, 1st and 3rd Battalions were delayed enough that they would not reach the bridge, and instead sought shelter in the town of Arnhem at the Hartenstein Hotel, a position they would become mired in and forced to defend. A company from 2nd Battalion encountered less trouble and was able to reach the bridge by 1930. Unfortunately they were unable to secure the bridge that evening and faced continued resistance from the Germans. German forces destroyed the two planned backup crossings, a rail bridge and a pontoon bridge before they could be secured.
The British 1st Aviation Division began the second day of operations with a great deal of confusion. The division headquarters had been unable to make communication with any of the units that had departed the landing zone on the previous day. General Urquhart was isolated with 3rd Battalion of 1st Brigade inside of Arnhem and noted “Our situation quickly took on the appearance of a siege.” His words proved to be true as the separated division became entrenched in fixed positions, unable to move freely. Communication was reestablished and Urquhart discovered that only one company had yet reached the bridge and still was not able to hold it entirely. Reinforcements from 4th Brigade would be delayed in their arrival due to weather, this same delay would affect the American 82nd Airborne Division engaged in their fierce fighting around Njimegen. When these airborne reinforcements arrived later in the day at 1530, the enemy had already achieved their most important tactical resource in defeating an airborne force, time. Worse yet, The Germans intercepted the division’s entire aerial resupply drop of critical ammunition, food, medical supplies, and fuel.
The Allied forces in Arnhem and Njimegen made almost no progress on the 18th of September. The 1st Airborne Division continued to fight on multiple fronts in the city and faced increasing opposition in the countryside as the 9th SS Panzer Division began to fight in earnest against their identified foe. Meanwhile the 82nd Airborne Division faced a similarly tenacious foe and had still not received support from the tanks of XXX Corps, they remained unable to reach the bridge at Njimegen. Although the 101st Airborne Division had successfully made contact with XXX Corps, they had not been able to prevent the Germans from destroying the bridge at Son and once again, the advance of XXX Corps had been halted while engineers constructed a replacement bridge, limiting the flow of traffic and delaying the operation for 12 hours.
The morning of 19 September saw General Urquhart finally return to his division headquarters. Recognizing the failure to secure their supply drop at LZ “L” the previous day as a critical event, Urquhart tasked 4th Brigade with securing the LZ in order to receive the supplies planned for that day. By 1500, 4th Brigade was unable to renew the attack under heavy opposition and once again failed to secure the supply drop. The 1st Airborne Division was scattered, the battalions isolated and out of communication. Elements in the city of Arnhem still could not achieve their primary mission of holding the bridgehead, while elements in the countryside were forced to withdraw from the LZs and unable to link up with the rest of the division. German resistance had continually mounted in the area until there was no longer enough ammunition or firepower possessed by the airborne division to effect a breakout.
In the South, XXX Corps forces finally made contact with the 82nd Airborne Division, but were unable to secure the bridge in Njimegen with a combined assault. The 82nd Airborne requested boats to allow a dismounted crossing and flank of the bridge defenses, but they would not arrive until the following day. Finally on the afternoon of the 20th the 82nd Airborne succeeded in crossing the river and securing the bridge, allowing for the advance to Arnhem and the rescue of the desperately isolated British Division there. Unfortunately, XXX Corps chose not to advance north of Njimegen and instead settled down for the night.
Isolated from reinforcements and running low on supplies and ammunition, the situation began to grow very dark for the 1st Aviation Brigade. Planned reinforcement by the Polish Airborne Brigade under the command of Major General Sosabowski would not arrive due to weather. Attempts to resupply the isolated forces had failed, and on the evening of the 20th, routed by a platoon of Tiger Tanks and out of anti-tank weapons, the British toehold on the bridge at Arnhem surrendered. The remainder of the division was quickly losing the ability to mount a defense, and now German forces were streaming across the bridge to reinforce the fight against XXX Corps advance in the South.
Undeterred, General Sosabowski succeeded in landing the Polish Airborne Brigade in the vicinity if Arnhem on the afternoon of 21 September. After consolidating his forces, Sosabowski sought to cross the Lower Rhine and reinforce the isolated British forces. Unfortunately, the ferry had been destroyed, and the Germans held the main bridge crossing. Attempts to cross the river by swimming were largely unsuccessful and came under heavy fire. As the XXX Corps advanced over the next few days, the British 1st Airborne Division remained isolated. On the 25 September, nine days after the start of operation Market Garden, General Urquhart and the uncaptured survivors were rescued and returned to Allied territory. The battle for Arnhem had been a colossal failure, and a stunning military defeat due to failures of logistics, intelligence, and finally the Allied commander on the ground.
Major General Urquhart faced fierce opposition from German forces, and although his actions were gallant, it was his actions at commander that ultimately led to their defeat. His first major hurdle in the battle was the failure to provide a clear commander’s intent. The expanded purpose of the mission was clear in that the 1st Airborne Division would need to secure Arnhem until XXX Corps forces could link up with them and pass through to allow a foothold for Allied forces in the area. What remained unclear was that the bridge force was the decisive operation and needed more than a company to secure the bridge. As the decisive operation, this must receive the effort of all forces to be successful, and if it were lost, it must be retained or the entire mission abandoned. Additionally, the landing zones must be held in order to receive supplies. In the end it was the critical shortage of ammunition that caused the bridge to be abandoned, the ground force to be isolated, and the mission to fail. Had General Urquhart’s Brigadiers understood the purpose and desired endstate better, it is possible they would have been able to better subdue threats to their success.
Urquhart compounded his initial error in command tremendously when he failed to remain with his headquarters as planned after landing. Unsure of the situation, Urquhart showed tremendous doubt in his subordinate’s abilities by following them. This failure had two primary results, the first was that he lost the ability to overview the situation from his headquarters, the second was that he effectively lost the ability to issue mission orders. Issuing orders is a process the commander uses to enable their flow of information and intent on the battlefield to their subordinates and allow them to execute planning. Not only did Urquhart leave his headquarters in disarray and confusion, unable to reach their commander and unaware of his location, but they also were unable to transmit information to him and receive updated orders in the chaotic first 24 hours after landing. Without the ability to transmit mission orders, Urquhart lost the ability to communicate that essential information which would allow his forces to react to changing conditions.
As a result of the lack of transmission of orders, General Urquhart stripped his commanders of the ability to exercise disciplined initiative. He had not left one of his subordinates in command when he departed the headquarters and so no commander actually led the battle. Urquhart quickly became trapped with elements of 1st Brigade. He was unaware of the difficulties the commanders of 2nd and 3rd Brigade faced and that they had met opposition and would eventually abandon the critical supply LZ. Urquhart’s subordinates did not possess the independence to observe the changing situation and react accordingly, crippling their efforts to modify the plan and fill in weaknesses.
One of the primary reasons that General Urquhart’s subordinates failed to act was that they did not possess a shared understanding of the mission. Urquhart’s vague mission instructions did not transmit the message that holding the LZs and the bridge were critical to mission success. By the time General Urquhart finally returned to his headquarters, the damage had been done to his division’s ability to fight effectively. They had taken significant losses, were fragmented and some elements lost entirely, not to mention the two missed critical supply drops that would eventually spell doom for the Division. Had his subordinate commanders held a shared understanding of the situation they would have been better able to exercise their own disciplined initiative and perhaps have altered the course of the battle.
Though he cannot be held responsible for the slow advance of XXX Corps, the logistical difficulties experienced by the Allies, or the willful ignorance of published intelligence reports, Major General Urquhart bears responsibility for the 1st Airborne Divisions failure to organize successfully in Arnhem. By violating the principles of mission command, General Urquhart was responsible for the unit separating without coordination and wasting their combat power. Had he left proper orders in place, or empowered his subordinate leaders to act in his stead, it is possible that the division in Arnhem could have held the bridge reinforcements arrived.