65 years ago – Intelligence.. or, lack of

Sosabowski and Browning

Sosabowski and Browning

Conventional wisdom in the days leading up to the launching of the battle of Arnhem held that the only opposition the British, American and Polish troops would meet would be old men and children on bicycles. None of the intelligence reports that reached the planners in Britain suggested anything different.

However, unconfirmed reports were received from the Dutch underground that German tanks had been spotted in the area around Arnhem. The problem was, the Dutch underground had been so succesfully infiltrated by the Germans earlier in the war, that the allies were wary of trusting any reports coming from them. These reports were not passed on to anyone involved in planning the operation. Either it was felt not important, or it was deliberately covered up.

General Browning’s Intelligence Officer, Major Brian Urquhart (no relation to Roy Urquhart), heard the reports from the Dutch underground. Startled at the victory-happy attitude pervading the Allies, he held no illusions that the Germans were about to roll over and give in. Taking up his fears with Browning, he was given permission to order a photographic reconnaisance flight over Arnhem by Spitfire.

The photos clearly showed armoured vehicles, hidden but still apparent. As soon as Urquhart showed them to other officers, Browning’s senior medical officer confronted Urquhart and forced him to take sick leave, ostensibly for ‘stress’. Urquhart was being made a scapegoat for a rather inconvenient truth. His superiors would clearly rather sweep intelligence under the carpet than take it into account.

None of this was passed on to the men would would be jumping into Arnhem. If they had known about the existence of tanks, they would surely have taken more anti-armour weapons. Or, more likely, the operation might have been cancelled.

But there was too much riding on the operation going ahead. After so many cancelled drops in the months after D-Day, the onus was on going into action, whatever the cost. So anxious were the commanders, that the German’s part in the coming battle was almost an afterthought. Two of the more astute officers were not so easily fooled. Major-General Sosabowski, a formidable figure and commander of the Polish Brigade, feared that his men would be massacred. Brigadier John Hackett, commander of the 4th British Parachute Brigade, told his officers that their hardest fighting would not be in defending Arnhem, but reaching it in the first place.

With hindsight, it also becomes apparent that General Browning was eager to go into action, for the sake of his post-war reputation. A Grenadier Guardsmen and politically minded, with connections to Mountbatten and Churchill, he was distinctly lacking in battlefield experience. Although a gifted administrator who had overseen the development of British Airborne forces, he was eager to go into battle at any cost. Clearly, he had the influence to either cancel the operation, push for it to be changed, or fight for more aircraft, but he chose not to.

This aspect of Operation Market Garden stands as a stark warning that to ignore something, no matter how unpalatable, just because it does not fit with your preconceived plans, is sheer folly.

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Remembrance, World War Two

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