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Frederick Browning

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GENERAL 'BOY': THE LIFE OF LIEUTENANT-GENERAL SIR FREDERICK BROWNING

I think my wife would love I do first. A terrific example is always to look at the movie Underworld. Everyone loves it when individuals get together and share ideas. Great website, stick with it! Leave a Reply Cancel reply Enter your comment here It is questionable whether a complete American command structure would be politically acceptable when the majority of the Airborne Army at the time was British; who had two airborne divisions, the admittedly unofficial addition of the 52nd Lowland Division, and the Polish and SAS Brigades, whereas the Americans had only two airborne divisions, although a third was then being formed.

It is more probable, as indeed happened a few months later, that Browning would have been replaced by Major-General Gale. Browning, nevertheless, was effectively silenced as he had played his best card and lost, and Brereton may have congratulated himself on winning this power struggle within his camp, yet there remained an inherent weakness in the command structure of his new headquarters and he stumbled upon it several days later.

The 1st British Airborne Corps was a part of Brereton's Army, but it still retained a certain independence, largely because the staff at Montgomery's 21st Army Group had not yet lost the habit of contacting them directly when they wanted an airborne plan. Brereton was furious, therefore, when he proposed another operation based around Browning's Corps, only to discover that he had gone behind his back to commit it to Operation Comet in conjunction with the 2nd British Army. It can be said without any doubt, therefore, that by September , relations between Brereton and Browning, and Brereton and the 2nd Army, were exceptionally poor.

Operation Comet called for the scattering of the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Brigade across Holland to secure a series of bridges around Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. As each of the bridges in these far-flung locations would be tackled by single isolated brigade groups, there were some who issued strong objections to the plan on the basis of these forces being wholly insufficient to defend the objectives against counter-attacks. One of the chief critics was Major-General Sosabowski , and his sound judgement played a part in Operation Comet being cancelled, although his relations with Browning were not improved when he insisted on receiving his orders in writing.

The essential plan was not dead, however, and on the 10th September , Montgomery personally briefed Browning for Operation Market Garden. The objectives remained the same, but now the American airborne divisions entered the equation, and the areas around Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem respectively became the responsibility of the st, 82nd and 1st Airborne Divisions with the Poles under the command of the latter. Browning, having asked Montgomery how long the 1st Airborne would have to hold Arnhem and being told two days, replied that they could hold it for four. Whether or not he then went on to add the famous phrase that Arnhem might be " a bridge too far " is a matter for debate, though Brigadier Walch, Browning's Chief of Staff who saw him immediately after this meeting, believed that he did say it.

It is unclear whether permission came from Brereton or Montgomery, but it was agreed that Browning would participate in the battle alongside his previously untried tactical headquarters. This caused some resentment in the American camp; Lieutenant-General Ridgway was vastly the more experienced option and he was bitterly disappointed to have been overlooked, not least because the majority of the airborne troops involved in Market Garden were American. This is a little unfair as the Poles and the expected subsequent reinforcement of the 52nd Lowland Division more than equalled the balance, also Browning, unlike Ridgway, had not yet had the opportunity to command any troops in battle and so was due his chance.

More importantly, Browning had close connections amongst the British ground commanders who would be coming to his relief, and, although his tactical headquarters was no older than Ridgway's, which had been in existence for just a month, they had, nevertheless, planned Operation Comet and were therefore intimately familiar with the area; no small point as Market Garden was to be planned and launched in just seven days.

The greater mystery is why Corps Headquarters should have set foot outside of England at all, as the three divisions were to fight independent actions at great distance from the other and so had no need of a higher command structure to coordinate their efforts. Furthermore, each of these divisions were to come under the command of the 2nd Army as they relieved them, and as the schedule optimistically expected the st Airborne Division to be relieved in a few hours and the 82nd Division in one or two days, the time in which Browning would have to exercise any control over the battlefield was extremely limited.

There had, since Normandy, been a growing desire to test this new command structure alongside multiple airborne divisions, and so it could be the case that Market Garden, however unsuitable, was merely seized upon as a good opportunity. It has been suggested that Browning committed his Headquarters to the battle simply because he wished to see action, which he most emphatically did, however the decision was not his to make. During the planning for Operation Linnet a few weeks earlier, General Dempsey of the 2nd Army had been most insistent on the Headquarters being used and perhaps this was also his stance on Market Garden.

It seems probable, as in fact happened, that this was more to a mind of the Corps helping to coordinate the movements of the airborne divisions after their relief rather than before. Lieutenant-General Horrocks' XXX Corps at this time consisted of one armoured and two infantry divisions plus three independent brigade groups; it would have put a severe strain on his headquarters to properly control three airborne divisions as well in the midst of a fast and fluid battle. In this instance, an additional headquarters to share the burden and organise the rear area, leaving XXX Corps free to focus on matters at the front, would have been most welcome.

Browning's Headquarters was, however, quite unready to serve in the field. The Main Headquarters of the 1st British Airborne Corps had been in existence for a long time, but it had only ever been designed and maintained as a planning and administrative body, not as a battle-ready tactical headquarters, despite Browning's continual requests to the War Office to make it so. Permission was finally granted in the weeks before Market Garden, but this was a wholly insufficient time for a new headquarters to become fully mobilised, and as a consequence it entered the battle inexperienced and unprepared.

Although the addition of the Headquarters may have improved matters for the 2nd Army, it inadvertently caused problems for the 1st Airborne Division. There was only a limited number of transport aircraft available for the airlift, and if thirty-eight gliders were required to transport Corps Headquarters to Nijmegen then one of the airborne divisions would consequently have to lose an equivalent number on its own lift.

Politics dictated that the British Division must suffer for the sake of the British Corps, and so only half of the 2nd South Staffordshires could be flown to Arnhem on the first day. The matter was made worse for the 1st Airborne Division as its proportionate share of aircraft was the lowest of all the divisions.

Browning denied their request for a larger allocation as the swift progress of the 2nd Army was judged to be of the greatest importance, and so the st Airborne Division, closest to the relieving troops, had priority on aircraft, followed by the 82nd Airborne Division and finally the 1st Airborne. On the 15th September, Browning was approached by his Intelligence Officer, Major Brian Urquhart, who had received reports of the sudden appearance of the 9th and 10th S. Panzer Divisions in the vicinity of Arnhem.

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Vague rumours of their presence had been circulated by the Dutch Resistance, whom the British did not trust, but Urquhart subsequently received more substantial information from Montgomery's 21st Army Group, who, unlike Browning's Headquarters, were privy to the findings of the ULTRA codebreakers, and he also obtained several reconnaissance photographs which showed a small number of modern tanks just ten miles from Arnhem.

This alarming information placed Browning in a most difficult position as it was too vague for him to call the operation off. Worried that another cancellation could risk a further breakdown of morale in the 1st Airborne Division, he chose to brush off the tanks as probably being barely serviceable. Urquhart, once described by his friend, Major Tony Hibbert , as a " highly strung but intelligent " man, admitted himself that he had become obsessed with the possibility of danger at Arnhem, and he described Browning's treatment of his information as though it came from " a nervous child suffering from a nightmare.

Much criticism has been directed at Browning for ignoring the possible presence of tanks at Arnhem, but it should be remembered that the evidence placed before him was far from conclusive and that few at the time imagined that the Germans could possibly react in the decisive manner that they did to the Operation.

Numerous higher formations than Browning's Headquarters, above all SHAEF and 21st Army Group, received the same information but in an undiluted form, as was necessary to protect the ULTRA secret, and they were either inclined to doubt the evidence or concluded that the operation had to proceed in spite of the risks.

If Browning was at fault then it is because he made no effort to mention the possibility of this threat to the 1st Airborne Division, whom he had briefed to expect nothing more than a brigade group of infantry supported by a small number of tanks during the later phases of the battle.


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  • Suggestions of the presence of these two panzer divisions nevertheless filtered through, but more emphatic information may have resulted in them taking additional anti-tank equipment and adopting tactics better suited to dealing with heavy opposition. Browning and Brigadier-General Gavin, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, were in agreement that the priorities around Nijmegen were first the vast area of high ground known as the Groesbeek Heights, followed by the bridge at Grave, the three smaller bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal, and finally the very large bridge at Nijmegen.

    Browning also told Gavin that he was not to make any attempt to move towards Nijmegen until the Heights had been secured; Gavin agreed though he later felt confident enough in his plan to allow one battalion to head for the bridge immediately after landing. The Groesbeek Heights were certainly important as they served as the Division's main drop zone and dominated the entire area, and so there is no question that the position of the 82nd Airborne Division, not to mention the right flank of the 2nd British Army when they arrived, would have been placed under considerable pressure if the area were to remain in enemy hands.

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    Even so, the priorities of any airborne formation has to be the capture of its ultimate objectives, i. Browning defended his decision long after the War, but it was a great mistake not to attach a higher priority to Nijmegen Bridge as, without it, the 1st Airborne Division would be cut-off behind two large rivers and 13 miles of hostile territory. Had the bridge been taken in strength and with all speed then it is entirely possible that the Guards Armoured Division would have reached Arnhem Bridge before the British defence collapsed.

    This oversight, however, was not particular to the Nijmegen plan, but a further product of the blind optimism which dogged Operation Market Garden, where the assumption was that resistance would be light and so the airborne forces allowed themselves to become distracted from their main objectives by the need to make the advance of the ground forces as rapid and uncomplicated as possible. Arriving at RAF Harwell on the morning of Sunday 17th September , Browning was in high spirits despite struggling with a heavy cold.

    Also travelling aboard were Major Cator Browning's Aide-de-Camp , Major Thomas GSO-2 Ops and Captain Louis Medical Officer , together with a plethora of equipment for the establishment of Corps HQ; these had been examined before take-off by Brigadier-General Parks, Brereton's Chief of Staff, and, having found everything from bedding rolls to bicycles, reported to his superior " I have never seen so much junk, it looked like a gypsy caravan.

    The flight to Holland was uneventful, but the landing on the Groesbeek Heights was not without incident as the glider lost a front wheel when it struck an electricity cable, however a safe landing was made in a cabbage patch a hundred yards West of the Reichswald Forest. As his staff began to unload the glider, Browning immediately ran across to the woods and returned several minutes later, explaining to Brigadier Gordon Walch, his Chief of Staff, " I wanted to be the first British officer to pee in Germany ".

    A few shells began to explode in the vicinity, prompting Colonel Chatterton to throw himself into a ditch to seek cover. Completely unperturbed, Browning stood over him and asked " George, whatever in the world are you doing down there? Corps Headquarters experienced particularly dire difficulties with communications throughout the battle, and Browning later blamed the failure on his Signals Section, an inexperienced and ill-equipped unit which had only been assigned to him on the 2nd September.

    Indeed the entire machinery of his Headquarters had problems; on the evening of Tuesday 19th September, Browning wrote a letter to his wife which said, " My staff is almost more inefficient than I could possibly imagine now we are in the field - I suppose its due to people being pushed up the tree too quickly without sufficient experience, but its really too frustrating for words. Gordon Walch has completely failed as chief of staff in the field - not entirely his fault I suppose but he seems unable to combine the two jobs.

    For the first 48 hours, Browning had no contact with either the st Airborne Division at Eindhoven or the 1st Airborne at Arnhem; the former was not serious as it was close to the 2nd Army and would soon come under its command, but the 1st Airborne Division would remain Browning's responsibility for at least two days, and the only news he had received concerning them was that they had left their airfields successfully. The first news came at He was unhappy at the pace of events as, according to the timetable, the tanks should have been nearing Arnhem by this stage, but he was cheered to find his former Regiment, the Grenadier Guards at the head of the column and he gave them orders to assist the 2nd Battalion the th Parachute Infantry Regiment in clearing Nijmegen of the enemy.

    As XXX Corps advanced, the airborne divisions were to come under the command of Lieutenant-General Horrocks, but he allowed Browning, his old friend, to retain control of the 82nd Airborne Division and the two met as equals to discuss the conduct of the battle. Although Browning nominally had two divisions under his control, there was little he could do to influence the actions of the 82nd Airborne as they were either employed in a static defence or co-ordinating their efforts with the Guards Armoured Division, and so he could only exercise any real authority over the 1st Airborne Division, but was powerless to do so as he was still out of touch with them.

    Browning's concerns for the 1st Airborne Division grew after he received a series of vague and contradictory signals, largely through the Dutch Resistance, and on Wednesday 20th September he received a message from the Division itself which stated that Arnhem was firmly in enemy hands and there had been no contact with the force holding the bridge, although they were in fact still fighting there at this time. He became anxious on the same day as he watched the th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the Grenadier Guards making their attempt to capture Nijmegen Bridge, and when it fell he said to Horrocks of the American crossing, " I have never seen a more gallant action.

    The British tanks were forced to halt beyond the Bridge until infantry could be brought up from further down the corridor. Browning spent a lot of time at the Headquarters of the 5th Guards Armoured Brigade, and although he was enormously frustrated at the pace of events he did not compound the problem by interfering or letting his concerns be known, as he realised that all that could be done was being done.

    He did, however, once lose his temper as his own Headquarters and threw a bottle of ink at a picture of a German general that was hanging on the wall. Having been more or less operationally redundant until this point, Corps Headquarters became some use on Saturday 23rd September when it was assigned a number of units to protect the area of the corridor stretching from Grave Bridge to Nijmegen, thereby allowing Lieutenant-General Horrocks to focus his attentions elsewhere.

    In addition to the 82nd Airborne Division, Browning had the Royal Netherlands Brigade under command to defend Grave Bridge, as well as the Seaborne Echelon of the 52nd Lowland Division, amongst which was a battalion of infantry, engineers, a reconnaissance regiment, anti-tank and anti-aircraft batteries and a field artillery regiment. He attached the field regiment to the 82nd Airborne and the remainder protected a previously undiscovered grass airfield at Oude Keent.

    Although Browning's relationship with the Americans had been somewhat frosty in the past, he and Brigadier-General Gavin found that they got on very well in the field; Browning was happy to leave Gavin to manage his own sector without interference from him, and he reinforced him with anything that was needed. Brigadier Walch wrote " The mutual trust and respect shown by General Boy and General Jim Gavin, working closely together in the Nijmegen area, was particularly good to see. News concerning the activities of the 1st Airborne Division remained vague until Saturday 23rd September, when Browning met Lieutenant-Colonel Mackenzie , Major-General Urquhart's Chief of Staff, who informed him of all that had happened and stressed the need for urgent relief.

    Mackenzie, nevertheless, left the meeting with the impression that he had not been able to fully convince him of the seriousness of the situation. A drastic form of relief had been considered prior to this meeting.


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    On Wednesday 20th September, Major-General Hakewell-Smith, the commander of the air-transportable 52nd Lowland Division who were to reinforce the 1st Airborne after their area had been secured, offered to load one of his brigades in gliders and fly it to Arnhem immediately. Browning declined this bold and quite dangerous offer with the words " Thanks for your message, but offer not - repeat not - required as situation better than you think. We want lifts as planned including Poles. Second Army definitely require your party and intend to fly you in to Deelen airfield as soon as situation allows.

    By Sunday 24th September, however, his view had darkened considerably and he applied for permission to take the 52nd Division up on the offer, but both Montgomery and Dempsey refused to sanction it. Their stance was most probably a highly sensible one as the Division had no experience of gliders and, although a fresh Brigade of infantry would certainly have been most useful at Arnhem, the possibility of their landing intact, on unknown and undefended zones without suffering heavy if not catastrophic losses, seems remote. Market Garden was on the brink of defeat, and so a wild gamble with one of Britain's last remaining infantry reserves would not have been prudent.

    On that same day, Sunday 24th September, the principal commanders on the spot assembled for what has become known as the Valburg Conference. Lieutenant-General Horrocks gave his orders for an assault crossing of the Rhine to take place that night, but the meeting has been remembered by history for the rough handling of Major-General Sosabowski of the Polish Brigade.

    His ever confrontational attitude had caused considerable offence amongst the British generals, and they proceeded to humiliate him by undermining his authority. Browning, still struggling with a bad cold and very tired as a consequence, said nothing in his defence despite being his immediate superior.

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    Sosabowski, who was one of the more optimistic about the prospects of salvaging Market Garden, was struck by the pessimistic atmosphere at the meeting, and he later attributed this to Browning, who, he felt, should have used his influence as Deputy Commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army to persuade Montgomery, Dempsey and Horrocks to have one final and determined effort to secure a foothold on the northern bank of the Rhine.

    He felt that victory was still attainable, and regarded it as " incredible " that Browning did not urge the 2nd Army to persevere. Yet it appears that Browning was more inclined to encourage a withdrawal; at a further meeting at his own Headquarters that evening, he expressed the view to Sosabowski that the crossing might not succeed as the boats and bridging materials immediately to hand were inadequate for crossing the Rhine.

    The pessimism was well-founded, however, as Market Garden and the subsequent ideas to cut Holland in two and encircle the Ruhr were only possible if German resistance collapsed; it had not, and so XXX Corps found itself standing precariously at the tip of a sixty-four mile salient into enemy territory with its rear constantly threatened by counterattacks.

    The operation was heading towards an unhappy end, not because of the negativity of the British generals, but because the course of events was irrevocably shifting the emphasis away from a renewed offensive towards simply trying to defend the ground that had been gained. That day, Browning wrote another letter to his wife which clearly expressed his concerns: I've got a major battle on me hands to keep the corridor open and hold the Boche on me southern flank Apart from the latter the thing has been a great success, but the whole thing is overshadowed by the tragedy in the north.

    Following the failure of the crossing on Sunday 24th September, Browning and Horrocks met on the following morning and, in no more than 15 seconds, agreed that the 1st Airborne Division must be withdrawn. When the orders were handed to Major-General Urquhart , he also received the following out-of-date letter from Browning:. Sosabowski will be bringing you this, I hope tonight. I will not labour your present position, and it may be little consolation to you and the 1st Division when I tell you that the opinion held this side of the river is that the action of the 1st Division has, apart from killing of the many Boche it has undoubtedly achieved, enabled XXX Corps and the Airborne Corps between them to capture the Nijmegen bridges and to break clean through the main German defence line on the Waal.

    From the information at our disposal, the German undoubtedly moved back the bulk of his forces from Nijmegen to Arnhem just before our attack took place, and instead of the Nijmegen crossings being an acutely difficult problem, the Arnhem crossings have become the most acute in consequence. You can rest assured that XXX Corps are doing their maximum under the most appalling difficulties to relieve you. As you known I am responsible for from inclusive Nijmegen down the narrow corridor for about 40 miles, and the road has been cut for 24 hours, which does not help matters much.

    It is now through again, and the Army is pouring through to your assistance but, as you will appreciate better than I do, very late in the day. I naturally feel, not so tired and frustrated as you do, but probably almost worse about the whole thing than you do. I enclose a letter from Field Marshal Monty, and I hope to see you in a day or two. It may amuse you to know that my front faces in all directions, but I am only in close contact with the enemy for about yards to the south-east, which is quite enough in present circumstances.

    The extent of Urquhart's amusement was never discovered. He arrived at I tried to display some briskness as I reported: I'm sorry we haven't been able to do what we set out to do. They have covered themselves in glory and without them we couldn't have done what we have done. On the morning of the 27th September, Browning addressed the survivors of the 1st Airborne Division at their billets in Nijmegen.

    It was a task, he confessed to Major Cator, that he was dreading as he did not feel that he could look them in the face, but he did it nonetheless, and explained what had happened and said that they would be flown home as soon as possible. His address was well received, one man wrote: He had made many speeches in his time, but never one to an audience such as this. Their mood was dumb weariness, and a tremendous dignity. He realized that they were beyond authority, having no more to give; truth would be clear to them, insincerity would be scabrous.

    They were most expectant. It was difficult to hear, on all four sides of the General, and as they all wanted to hear, there was a little grumbling. It was a very courageous moment for him. The remnants of the 1st Airborne Division were quickly sent home to England, but Corps Headquarters remained in Nijmegen as the area remained extremely vulnerable to enemy action, and further counter-attacks were unfolding as XXX Corps began to consolidate its awkward position.

    Browning's Corps now consisted of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Polish Brigade, the Royal Netherlands Brigade and the th Brigade, and was responsible for the defence of all the ground between the Rivers Maas and Waal and the bridges over both. There had, during this period, been another heated exchange between Browning and Sosabowski. The latter had been placed under the command of the th Brigade, and Sosabowski, a Major-General, took offence at having to take orders from a much younger Brigadier. He regarded it as a deliberate slight on Browning's part and demanded that the Brigade be restored to the command of the Corps, which was duly done, though Browning explained that the Poles had only been placed in that position because they had been disorganised by the withdrawal from Arnhem and Driel, and the th Brigade was understrength for its allotted task.

    Also during this time, no small measure of distress was caused at the Browning family home when his wife was telephoned at 3am by a reporter who wished to know if the rumour was true that her husband had been taken prisoner. The story had originated from the Germans, and it was only after frantic communications to the War Office, who then contacted Browning's Headquarters, that Daphne discovered the lie.

    The analysis of Market Garden began, and although Browning never spoke publicly about it, he did reveal his views in a letter to Air Vice Marshal Hollinghurst on the 8th October I think everyone, from the Supreme Commander downwards, has been caught out and surprised at the way the German had recovered now that he is right back and fighting on his own doorstep. British Unit Histories British Airborne Forces British Artillery Units British Cavalry Units British Empire Units British Units in World War I Durham Light Infantry History of the British Army New Zealand Units US Unit Histories Wars Ancientth Century World War One