A daylight operation is planned



A daylight operation is planned

The scale on which the operation was planned was larger than any which had previously been undertaken or contemplated. For the invasion of Normandy some 17,000 airborne troops had been used; for the capture of the three bridges many more must come into action. So great a number could not be transported in one lift. Moreover, the aircraft available were either Dakotas (C.47s) which are slow, unarmed and unarmoured transport aircraft not fitted with self-sealing tanks, or Stirlings, Halifaxes and Albemarles not designed to fly in daylight at a low height over hostile territory. For – and this was perhaps the most striking feature of the plan – the whole operation was to be carried out by the light of day. The Allied air forces were supreme in the air and attacks by fighters of the Luftwaffe were neither expected nor feared. The profusion of Spitfires, Thunderbolts, Mustangs, Typhoons and other fighters was so great that the protection they could give was rightly regarded as overwhelming.

There remained only the anti-aircraft defences of the enemy. As has been said, these were formidable and daily increasing. The dropping and landing zones were at extreme range and this meant that the transport and tug aircraft would have to follow the shortest possible route. The long, roaring columns would have to fly over the Dutch islands on which for the past four years the Germans had concentrated anti-aircraft batteries to prevent, if they could, the passage of day and night bombers on their way to the Ruhr. Round the objectives themselves light flak was being concentrated in ever larger and larger quantities. Nevertheless the planners felt confident that the losses which might be incurred from anti-aircraft fire would not be so great as to imperil the operation. As it turned out, they were right, for it was only during the latter stages, when it became necessary to drop supplies to the men on the ground, that casualties became severe.

The task of the airborne troops was one with which most of them were familiar – the capture of a bridge. This is an operation in which surprise must always play an important part. In this instance all three bridges were known to be prepared for demolition with charges built into the piers and exploding apparatus housed a short distance away. They were defended by dual-purpose guns which could be used both against aircraft and troops attacking on the ground. At Nijmegen the medieval citadel called Walkhof commanded the southern approach to the bridge and had been made into a strongpoint. Finally, and this was the most important consideration of all, the airborne army – for it was nothing less – could not remain long unsupported. Two days and nights were judged to be the maximum period during which it might be able to fight on its own without the aid of the heavy artillery, the tanks, and all the other weapons at the disposal of armies on the ground.

In the event of the capture of the three bridges, could the leading Corps of the Second Army then push forward with sufficient speed to relieve the airborne forces in time? The task was difficult. Nevertheless, it was hoped and believed that it would be able to press on, provided always that the bridges were in Allied hands. Were it to be held up, however, elaborate arrangements were made for supplying the airborne troops from the air, though, even if all supplies fell in the right place and were collected without loss, those troops would still be without heavy artillery support against an enemy who before long would have at his disposal heavy and self-propelled guns. Yet all these risks were accepted in order to breach at one blow the last natural frontiers of Germany.