65 years ago today – the Red Devils

1st British Airborne Division

1st British Airborne Division

Before we catch up with events from the 17th of September 1944 onwards, lets take a look at the opposing sides that would be fighting the battle.

Sadly, while the Airborne Division were amongst the finest troops that the British Army could put into battle in 1944, the perception that they were all battle hardened, experienced and well trained is somewhat wide of the mark. As historian William Buckingham has shown, many of the men had never been in battle before, and even the older Battalions that had fought in North Africa and Italy had to take in a lot of replacements. Their training during the period leading up to Market Garden was inadequate too – the Division only trained as a whole once, when it provided the ‘enemy’ for the 6th Airborne Division before it took off for Normandy. This was woefully inadequate. Most of the time seems to have been spent in small unit training, physical training, refresher parachute training and firing exercises.

Neither was morale as high as it could have been. After being inactive while the Normandy battles raged, one operation after another was cancelled during the summer. Fights became common in the garrison towns, with each other, Americans, and Military Police. The men began to refer to themselves as the ‘stillborn division’. This no doubt wore away at their battle-readiness.

Having said this, volunteering to jump out of a plane into battle, or to career into the fight in a glider, takes a certain sort of courage and character. As was shown later in the battle, the red devils were indeed men apart. But as so often happens, they were let down by those who trained them, and the planners above them.

Neither were all of the commanders as experienced as might have been hoped. Major-General Urquhart, the commander of the 1st Airborne Division, was a stranger to Airborne operations, although he had seen much service in North Africa and Sicily. If he had been more experienced in airborne warfare, he almost certainly would have opposed the plan that was forced upon him. His counterpart, the highly experienced Richard Gale, confessed that he would have rather resigned than accept it.

In hindsight, the division was being sent into a battle that the British Army was wholly unsuited to, by equipment, ethos and doctrine. With a chronic shortage of manpower, the Army’s priority was to conserve men, as very few replacements were available. This meant that time and time again units called on the excellent artillery and air support that was at their disposal. But this kind of support would be very sparse at Arnhem, and it would be down to the rifle and the bayonet, a style of fighting that would be sure to cause heavy casualties.

As the German’s often commented themselves, whilst the British soldier was redoutable and tenacious in defence, in attack it was often a different matter. This contrasted firmly with the Wehrmacht and the SS, who had been fighting a savage battle on the Eastern Front for almost 3 years.

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Remembrance, World War Two

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