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First Allied Airborne Army

During its eight-month existence, the First Allied Airborne Army wouldexecute two large-scale airborne assaults, Operation MARKET and Operation VARSITY. An important addition to the SHAEF forces came from the establishment of the First Allied Airborne Army in August 1944. The First Allied Airborne Army was formed as a major command operationally subordinate to SHAEF and not under an Army group. The Airborne Army was established to coordinate the air and ground forces required for airborne operations. To assist in the conduct of airborne operations and to simplify command difficulties, the Airborne Army was an integrated U.S.-British headquarters.

In August 1944, Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton was assigned to command the First Allied Airborne Army and served in the European theater of operations until the capitulation of Germany in May 1945. The airborne forces General Eisenhower allotted to the 21 Army Group were organized under the newly created headquarters of the First Allied Airborne Army. Commanded by Brereton, the headquarters controlled two British and three American airborne divisions, a Polish parachute brigade, the American troop carrier command, and two British troop carrier groups. The U.S. components of the First Allied Airborne Army were administered by Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, and the British components by the 21st Army Group. Upon commitment of its airborne troops, the First Allied Airborne Army was habitually relieved of command of the troops, and they became components of the army in whose zone they were dropped. This command was composed of the XVIII U.S. Airborne Corps with the 82d, 101st, 17th, and 13th U.S. Airborne divisions, the British Airborne Command with the lst and 6th British Airborne divisions, the IX U.S. Troop Carrier Command, and two Royal Air Force groups.

One of the principal reasons underlying the creation of the First Allied Airborne Army was the insistence by the U.S. War Department on greater strategic use of airborne troops. From February 1944 Generals George C. Marshall, U.S. Chief of Staff, and Henry H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, had let General Eisenhower know unmistakably that they attached great importance to the employment of airborne units in actual operations deep in enemy territory.

The First Allied Airborne Army was a unique unit in an organizational sense because it was both a combined and a joint headquarters on the army level. It was a combined command because it contained forces of different nations - British, American and Polish. Also, the First Allied AirborneArmy was a joint command since elements of different services - ground and air - came togetherunder one headquarters. It is interesting to note that this organization was not an ad hoc unit created for a specific operation. Unlike naval task forces or amphibious commands, it was a permanent army headquarters in the Allied forces, and in this case directly subordinate to the Supreme HeadquartersAllied Expeditionary Forces.

As had been contemplated, creation of the airborne army facilitated planning for airborne operations. The first plan was tentatively scheduled for execution on 20 August 1944 but was canceled, presumably because of concern over supply to the ground forces, since supplies were being delivered by aircraft that would have to transport the airborne troops, and because the ground troops would soon overrun the target area of the airborne forces.

Even as the first plan withered, alternative plans were under consideration. By early September when American patrols approached the German border, eighteen separate airborne plans had been considered. Five had reached the stage of detailed planning; three had progressed almost to the point of launching; but none had matured. In most cases, the cancellations had been prompted by recognition that the fast-moving ground troops would overrun the objectives before an airborne force could land. The fledgling plans had embraced a variety of objectives, among them the city of Boulogne,; the city of Tournai, with the aim of blocking German retreat from the Channel coast; the vicinity of Liege, in order to get First Army across the Meuse River; the Aachen-Maastricht Gap, to facilitate Allied passage through the West Wall; and Operation COMET, to put British forces across the Lower Rhine.

Although the First Army's V and VII Corps both penetrated the Siegfried Line in September 1944, ragtail German formations were able to blunt these spearheads. They did the same when the Allies sought to outflank the West Wall by crossing three major water barriers. The last of these, an assault on the lower Rhine, was a major coalition operation that combined the First Allied Airborne Army attack in southeastern Netherlands (Operation MARKET) with a ground attack (Operation GARDEN) by the Second British Army.

Operation MARKET-GARDEN was a daring strategic maneuver that failed. The Supreme Commander realized that the momentum of the drive into Germany was being lost and thought that by this action it might be possible to get a bridgehead across the Rhine before the Allies were stopped. The airborne divisions, he knew, were in good condition and could be supported without throwing a crushing burden on the already overstrained supply lines. It conformed to General Arnold's recommendation for an operation some distance east of the enemy's forward positions and beyond the area where enemy reserves were normally located; it afforded an opportunity for using the long-idle airborne resources. In any plan for an airborne operation the matter of weather was important. For Operation MARKET, the planners before the attack were fairly optimistic on this point. One of the field orders noted that the weather in the region was "very unreliable and subject to rapid change," but that conditions were supposed to be at their best during summer and early autumn. Yet the First Allied Airborne Army after the event admitted that though the weather had been poor during the operation, it had been no worse than could have been expected.

Operation VARSITY was the final and most successful large-scale airborne operation of World War Two. Often overlooked by military historians, this operation was critical to the success of Montgomery's Rhine crossing offensive in March 1945. Operation VARSITY is especially interesting because the First Allied Airborne Army, the responsible headquarters for this assault, made a determined effort to avoid the errors committed during Operation MARKET-GARDEN. The underlying theme of this essay is that Allied planners applied the painful lessons of Arnhem to almost every stage of planning for Operation VARSITY. Haunted by the decimation of the British 1st Airborne Division near Arnhem Bridge, First Allied Airbome Army commanders instituted changes in organization, command and tactics which secured the success of this final operation.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 01:21:59 ZULU