Sir Brian Urquhart Interview: Institute of International Studies, UC Berekely

A Life in Peace and War: Conversation with Sir Brian Urquhart; 3/19/96 by Harry Kreisler

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The Battle of Arnhem

In your biography there are several incidents that stand out and I thought we might talk a little about them and then see what you learned from these experiences. You were seriously wounded in a parachute jump, right?

Well I had a failed parachute -- something I don't recommend.

So you spent some time in an army hospital.

I spent about six months in an army hospital getting over that.

Once that awful experience was over, you became an intelligence officer and you played an important role in the tragic battle of Arnhem, which was portrayed in the movie A Bridge Too Far. Tell us a little about that.

This was, I think, the most traumatic experience of my life. I was the chief intelligence officer of the British Airborne Corps, which was the British parachute and glider troops. Having been badly damaged, I couldn't do any more parachuting, so I became a staff officer. The Battle of Arnhem was part of Operation Market Garden. It was the largest airborne operation ever launched in history, and I think more aircraft were in the air for that operation than at any time before or since. It was one of those operations which grew bigger and bigger as the ambitions of the generals steadily swelled. And its failure was, I'm sorry to say, very largely an indictment of Field Marshal Montgomery, who was the British commander in Europe.

This was after the invasion of Normandy.

This was after the invasion of Normandy. The allied troops had taken Paris and they had just taken Brussels, and, the winter was coming on. It was September, 1944, and Montgomery wanted to have a glorious coup to end the war. Nobody except him, I think, really believed in this; certainly not General Eisenhower and certainly not Eisenhower's staff. But Montgomery was a very, very dominating figure, and a great pain in the neck when he wanted something that other people didn't want to give him, and he went on and on about it. The idea was to have an airborne operation which would take the three great bridges over the Rhine delta, in Holland, and land the allied armies on the other side, ready to preside over the surrender of Germany. To do this, they had one British airborne division, two American airborne divisions (the 82nd and 101st), and the whole allied air force. But in order to do it, they had to stop General Patton, who was going great guns in the south, because Montgomery had failed to capture Antwerp, so there was only one supply port for the entire allied expeditionary force. This was Cherbourg, miles and miles away in France, which meant that they couldn't ship in enough gasoline to run two mobile operations at the same time. So Patton was stopped when there was very little opposition in front of him, which I think was a huge mistake.

Thus we embarked on this really very risky airborne operation. My job as chief intelligence officer was to try to evaluate what the enemy reactions were going to be and how our troops ought to deal with them. The British airborne troops were going to be dropped at the far end of the operation at Arnhem -- it was across the third bridge, so there were three bridges that had to be captured before you got to the British airborne troops. I became increasingly alarmed, first of all at the German preparations, because there were intelligence reports that there were two SS Panzer divisions right next to where the British troops were to be dropped. These were the star troops of the German army, the 10th and the 9th SS Panzer divisions. They had been very badly mauled in Normandy and were refitting in this area. These were the best fighting troops in the German army and they had heavy tanks. Airborne troops in those days had absolutely nothing. They could carry their personal weapons, and a few Jeeps could be landed by glider, but that was about it. They had no heavy weapons, no supplies, very limited supplies of ammunition, and they could not fight heavy armor because they didn't have the weapons to do it.

I was also worried about the state of mind of the senior officers in my outfit, who were all extremely gung-ho and were talking about Christmas in Berlin, and this kind of thing. Somebody said they were going to take their golf clubs because it was going to be a pushover. This seemed to me to be extremely dangerous, because the German army, in fact, is not an army to surrender without being told to do it. And furthermore, these were the best troops in the German army. I tried to get this point of view across and pointed out that if we were going to do it properly, we were going to have to drop the troops in a different place so that they could immediately capture the bridge, and that there was a big question as to whether the relieving troops could get up from near Brussels in time. They were stuck on the Albert Canal, which was sixty miles away, and the country there is flat, dike country. The roads are all causeways. These are perfect roads for an armored force to stop another force from advancing. All you've got to do is to disable one tank, and that blocks the whole thing. Well, I didn't get anywhere with this. Everyone thought that I was hysterical, nervous, and so on, and I finally got sent away, I think, for a remark which turned out to be oddly prophetic. Our general, who was a very dashing figure called Boy Browning, said to Prince Bernard of the Netherlands that the Allied forces were going to advance into Germany over a carpet of airborne troops. And I said to our chief of staff, "I wonder if they're going to be alive or dead airborne troops." This didn't go well at all, and everybody decided that they'd had enough, and I got sent away. I asked if I could stay just as an ordinary officer in the operation. They said, "No, you'll be court-martialed if you disobey orders." Everybody had enough on their hands by that time, so I went.

Well, the thing went very seriously wrong and I then realized what I hadn't realized before, that these generals and great commanders and politicians who were so admired during the war were actually just like everyone else. They were vain, they were ambitious, they very often made extremely faulty judgments. I had not thought of that before; I had always thought that they were kind of super-people and I must say that the feeling has remained with me for the rest of my life. I never again trusted famous, glamorous leaders to resist vanity and ambition and make the right, mature decision, and get it right.

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