An Excess Of Daring? Or Hubris?

It was 68 years ago that “Operation Market Garden,” the Western Allies’ attempt at a decisive blow to defeat the demoralized Germans on the Western Front, was acknowledged to have been failure. On 26 September 1944, after tens of thousands of troops had been deployed in history’s largest-ever airborne operation, with thousands of allied troops were dropped many miles deep into German-held territory, the operation was cancelled and such troops as could effectively withdraw were given the order to do so. Of the more than 10,000 allied airborne troops committed for ten days to this massive aerial invasion of the town of Arnhem in the Netherlands, fewer than 3,000 were able to make their way back to the safety of allied lines, with the remainder being killed or captured.

After the unparalleled and unexpectedly one-sided success of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, allied planners were convinced that their experience and expertise in aerial invasion could be used to leapfrog the plodding pace of traditional infantry ground maneuvers to take the fighting right to Germany’s Western doorstep. Planning began in July of 1944 as the allies started to drive the German Army from Normandy and central France.

U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower was in overall command of the European Theater of Operations, but Britain’s Field Marshall Montgomery was the allied commander of the forces that had come ashore in D-Day and its aftermath. Eisenhower was inclined to be cautious, preferring the steady land-based attack that had been employed from D+1, whereas “Monty” argued that a massive, unexpected aerial invasion behind German lines would instill panic and confusion among the German forces, while cutting their supply lines and communications, thereby permitting the allies to drive rapidly on to Berlin and effect a German surrender.

Eisenhower had not only the obligation to oversee the military aspects of the European campaign, he also had to ensure that the political realities of the Western Alliance were carefully considered as well. Monty was among the most capable field commanders in Europe and he was Britain’s foremost General, a true national hero. It is also true that Montgomery had an ego to match his fame and acclaim, and that he was inclined to plan brilliant “master strokes” rather than to employ traditional methods and strategies. Though he and Eisenhower differed fundamentally on the advisability of “Market Garden,” Eisenhower finally decided to compromise, approving Montgomery’s plan. Eisenhower reasoned that the capture of the Rhine Bridges that Montgomery envisioned for his quick stab into the heart of Germany would also prove useful for allied capture of Germany’s industrial heart in the Ruhr and Saar valleys.

The planning for D-Day had occupied more than a year, but Montgomery was so certain that the allies could leverage that experience that he allotted less than 7 weeks to plan and arrange the logistics of “Market Garden.” To many of the planners involved, it was clear that the time scale did not allow for the detailed “what-if” analyses that had been conducted during the planning for D-Day. It was also unclear whether or not the allies forces could provide all of the needed materiĆ©l and logistical support for a sustained operation. Operation Market Garden was notably lacking in contingency plans: it was entirely dependent upon a precise and unvarying time-table. But it was abundantly clear that the initial aerial invasion could be accomplished.

Despite the planning, Market Garden was a complete disaster. The time-table could not be followed. Key bridges remained in German hands, and the Germans responded in far greater force than the allied planners had projected. The troops who had parachuted behind German lines were cut off and surrounded. Indeed, far from everything going according to plan, it was very nearly true that nothing went according to plan. In the end, thousands were lost to no avail.

In retrospect, one overwhelming question has always stood out: why did the planners ignore the problems inherent in planning an invasion with little or no contingency planning? Why were the many manifest and evident problems not pointed out and explored? Why was a rush-job allowed? How was Market Garden given the go-ahead when its planning required that all details work as planned at all points?

Cornelius Ryan explored these questions in his classic account of Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far, (1974.) The reasons were many and varied as might be expected, but Ryan concludes that the most crucial failure in the entire planning process was the failure to consider “negative opinions.” The high-level planners were so intent that Market Garden be a smashing success that they did not want to take the time to listen to the possible problems and difficulties that might be present. In very short order, it became unacceptable to point out oversights and omissions, and those who tried to do so were asked to leave the planning team. Even minor, low-level staffers were pressured to omit any planning that considered the possibility of failure at any level.

Ryan’s analysis was emphasized by several business writers in the early 1970s, because it was a textbook case of “Group Think,” as it was dubbed by behavioralists William Whyte and Irving Janis. In “Group Think,” every member of a group is required, often unconsciously, to support the planned outcome without exception. When a group meets to devise a plan for which the desired outcome is the only acceptable vision, those who wish to offer differing opinions are shut out and labelled “negative” or worse. “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news …”

In 1977, Ryan’s book was made into an epic film of the same title. Sir Richard Attenborough’s masterful film is faithful to the book and is as fine a piece of historical film-making as one is likely ever to see. One will likely never see so many stars in one film again. With a huge cast that included a pantheon of Hollywood greats, and gargantuan special effects and recreations, the movie itself was an almost perfect case of “Group Think” as well. Though several market analyses indicated that the American public was not terribly interested in war films in the mid 1970s, the studio decided to forge ahead making what was at that time the single most expensive film to date.

It was a colossal disappointment for the studio financially, though it did receive well-deserved rave reviews. One post-mortem of the film dubbed it “A Movie Too Far.”

Operation Market Garden did not fail for lack of qualified, capable, and valorous troops: the men who fought in the operation were as brave and as skilled as any soldiers who fought in World War II. The failure was top-down. When the planners stopped listening to contrary opinions, or to possible problems, branding those who raised the issues as “negative,” or “not team players,” they failed the “team” as a whole. It would take more than valor, more than skill, for a plan such as Market Garden to have worked. It required perfection. And so the plan was doomed from the start, doomed by the mere fact that so many people so desperately wanted it to succeed.

The town of Arnhem was finally liberated on 15 April 1945, seven months after the first allied troops parachuted into “Market Garden.”

— Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If two men agree on everything, you may be sure that one of them is doing the thinking. — Lyndon Baines Johnson