Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I have contributed to a discussion on the importance of the severe communication difficulties experienced in the battle of Arnhem in September 1944. This epic battle ended in the defeat of the British airborne forces, and a tragic failure to punch a route into the north German plain, the route to the industries of the Ruhr, and to Berlin.
The strategic plan, code-named "Market Garden", was famously described as "90% successful". Unfortunately only 100% success meant victory. After huge efforts and heroic fighting the Allies achieved only a 50 mile salient leading nowhere.
There are many books about Market Garden. I have studied its military history, and I have visited the area of the battle.
The film "A Bridge Too Far" is an excellent, if necessarily simplified,  popular recreation of the issues, personalities and conduct of the campaign.

Signal problems were serious at Arnhem, and perhaps avoidable, but they were not a significant element in the defeat. Arnhem failed because the strategic plan was incompetent, close to military nonsense.

Market Garden was a brilliant concept, potentially the decisive battle of the war; but hard to realize, badly planned and inadequately resourced.
Its failure must be considered a tragedy, not just for the soldiers, but for the Allies, the Dutch, the German people and for post-war Europe. Its success would have shortened the war by several months, spared our armies bitter and costly battles, spared the Dutch the terrible winter of 1944, spared the Germans much of the destruction inflicted by the strategic bombers, and ended the war with the allies in Berlin, in a much stronger position to deal with Stalin.

Market Garden was a classic tragedy - triumph leading to complacency leading to disaster.

The Arnhem bridges and ferry were the most important objectives; without them the campaign was pointless. It is astonishing that the lessons from the capture of the Orne bridges on D-Day were not applied: gliders landing commandos before dawn at the bridges, strengthened by air-landing artillery and armour at first light.
The main landings should have been also at first light, on the 'island' between Waal and Neder Rijn, with three landings planned for the first day, The perceived additional risks of landing on polder were insignificant compared to the defensive advantages, the opportunities to facilitate the capture of the Waal bridge at Nijmegan, and to deprive the Germans of their supply and communications route south from Arnhem.
The hills west of Arnhem, behind Heveadorp, should have been a vital objective in the development of the campaign. Artillery there could dominate the battle area. This required the early capture of the Osterbeek railway bridge and the Driel ferry.

Radio communications should not be a problem in such a strategy: distances much reduced, with near line of sight over flat terrain.

Another lesson forgotten from Normandy experience is the extraordinary military competence, tenacity and determination of German soldiers, officers and men. Their rapid recovery and effective reaction to the Market Garden attack was exemplary. It was no fault of theirs that their triumph was a catastrophe for their country.

Market Garden needed Montgomery as commander of all allied forces: its failure must be attributed to Eisenhower's assumption of the supreme command after the Normandy victory. His failure to restrain Patten and to give total logistical priority to Market Garden was strategic folly of historic dimensions. Europe paid the price for a half-century.

Perhaps the biggest lessons from the failure of Market Garden are as follows.
1. War demands total commitment.
2. If the strategy is flawed, individual heroism will not achieve victory.
3. Never under-estimate your enemy - especially if the enemy is German.

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