Europe’s largest airborne assault: 75 years on

Reconstruction of street fighting in Arnhem. Image: WIPL

The Allied failure at Arnhem in September 1944 has been debated by armchair strategists for 75 years. The controversy has generated dozens of books, including a spate of new ones this anniversary year.

The world’s largest ever airborne operation was launched during September 1944, with less than a week of planning. This was one of many ingredients in what, for the Allies, would become a major strategic setback.

For those involved, the challenges were less academic: nine days of desperate fighting, with tragedy, heroism, folly, and brilliance in plenty. Although the idea of risking a big jump behind enemy lines was not new, by September 1944 three key pressures combined to turn it into a reality.

The first was the investment made by the Western allies in their Allied Airborne Army. This two-corps formation, with three British and three American divisions, was, as has been said many times, ‘burning a hole in the Allies’ pocket’.

The two corps were expensive to maintain, the paras were highly trained elite troops, and no large-scale airborne operation had been undertaken since D-Day. It seemed to make little sense leaving these formations idle at their bases in Britain.

The second imperative was a conventional strategic one. On the Western Front, there was a sense that the impetus that had driven the Western armies racing across France was slipping away.

This was the period of the broad front/ narrow front debate – essentially a discussion about how best to move forward, given the serious logistical constraints the Allies now faced, coupled with differing views on the best route into Germany.

Many believed that all that was needed was one more heave. They had convinced themselves that Germany was on the brink of collapse.

Finally, there was the politics of leadership. On 1 September, Eisenhower had taken direct command of all Allied forces in France. Montgomery in particular (his responsibilities now confined to 21st Army Group) was resentful and ambitious.

But was the plan flawed in its conception? Arnhem is one of those great ‘might have been’ military disasters, complete with genuine heroics and agonising ‘what if’ questions about what it was that went wrong.

Paratroopers land ahead of Operation Market Garden. Image: WIPL

Post-action discussion of military operations is often problematic. This is for three main reasons.

First, everything becomes much clearer once the fog of war has lifted. At the time, no participant had complete knowledge, even at the highest command levels, and most middle-ranking field officers, making decisions in the heat of battle, had to base those decisions on very limited information indeed.

Second, battle itself, especially a fast-moving battle like Arnhem, puts participants under massive strain and limits their time for information gathering and evaluation; decisions have to be made fast, often with immediate effect, and are rarely the result of careful assessment.

Third, war – above all, perhaps, modern mechanised war – is a complex, fluid, multidimensional process, shaped by thousands of interactions and accidents, playing out rapidly in time and space. It is challenging enough for the military historian to master the immense data-sets available for an event like Arnhem, order the different factors at work, establish what is essential to understanding the action, and what merely secondary. How much more difficult must it have been for participants in the whirlpool of battle.

These are some of the reasons that caused Napoleon to remark of the business of war ‘first we engage, then we see’. What he meant, of course, was that nothing was predictable, and the job of the general was to comprehend the essence of a battle as it unfolded, as the enemy revealed intentions, strengths, and weaknesses, and so to seize opportunities as they presented themselves.

Some, like Antony Beevor, argue that Arnhem was flawed in conception and bound to fail. Others, like William Buckingham, argue that it could have succeeded but for a series of operational mistakes.

The truth, probably, is that Arnhem might have succeeded despite being flawed in conception, despite rushed planning, despite operational foul-ups, if only certain other factors had played out differently. Boldness, surprise, grit: they might have carried it to victory if, for example, the German riposte had been less well managed. And then, one assumes, it would now be celebrated as a military masterpiece.

Battles are often close-run. To be bold is to roll the dice, and matters can hang in the balance through long hours of combat before the decision comes. Riskier enterprises than Arnhem have yielded rich military rewards. It is too easy to be wise after the event.

This is an extract from a 15-page special feature on Operation Market Garden, published in the August 2019 issue of Military History Matters.