A Bridge Too Far


Whilst the Poles engaged in their lonely fight to liberate Warsaw, the Allied forces launched “Operation Dragoon”, landing on August 15, 1944 on the beaches of the Côte d'Azur, forcing the German troops to retreat into the Vosges mountains, on the German border. After four weeks, the Allied troops from the “Operation Dragoon” met with the Allied units from “Operation Overlord” and the offensive was halted awaiting further supplies. At this stage, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, hailed the hero of El Alamein and North Africa, believed that one big thrust towards Berlin, supported by all available resources, would be the way to end the war. Yet Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower, had a different view. He preferred a double thrust assuming that Germany would use what remained of their army to defend the industrial regions of Ruhr and the Saar. The disagreements caused a rift between the British and American command. Failing to reach consensus, the British followed their own plan conceived on September 3, 1944 by General Bernard Montgomery and General Frederick Browning of an airborne assault to capture the bridges over the Rhine and Lower Rhine. The operation codenamed 'Market Garden' envisaged seizing of nine bridges by Airborne forces with land forces swiftly following over the bridges.

The history of the formation of the airborne divisions dated back to 1940, when the British government, impressed by the success of German airborne operations, especially the capture of the Belgian fortress, Fort Eben-Emael during the western offensive in 1940, decided to form their own airborne formations. A training establishment for parachute troops was set up at RAF Ringway airport near Manchester on June 21, 1940. The Royal Air Force provided a number of medium bombers for conversion into transport aircraft for paratroopers and military gliders have been designed for carrying troops and heavy equipment to a combat zone. However, by mid-1941 the only unit trained and available for an airborne operation was No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion, formed from No. 2 Commando, a Commando unit which had been selected for conversion into an airborne unit.319 There were still very few transport aircraft available to transport an airborne force, and there were few RAF flight crews with experience of parachute droppings.320 Yet the British were determined to test the capability of their airborne units and on February 10, 1941 they dropped 35 men of No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion in souther Italy, as part of the “Operation Colossus”, with aim to destroy water aqueduct near Calitri. Equipment failures and navigational errors meant that a significant portion of the troops' explosives and a team of Royal Engineer sappers landed in the wrong area. The British troops eventually managed to destroy the aqueduct but were all captured by the Italian authorities within a short time. The British drew a lesson from the “Operation Colossus” and began to work on development of further airborne operations and expanding the airborne troops. On May 31, 1941, a joint army and air force memorandum was approved by the Chiefs-of-Staff and Winston Churchill which recommended that the British airborne forces should consist of two parachute brigades. In October 1941, Eton-educated Brigadier Frederick “Boy” Browning, who had no airborne experience at all, was promoted to major general and named the Commander Parachute and Airborne Troops.

Meanwhile, in February 1941, Polish men from Polish Army in Exile joined the British airborne training course with the British at Ringway Airfield. They were under command of Colonel Stanisław Sosabowski, experienced Polish officer and lecturer at pre-war Warsaw War Academy, who during the 1939 September Campaign, was the commander of the 21st “Children of Warsaw” Infantry Brigade, which played a central role in the defence of Warsaw. He was training his troops in Scotland to become a special elite formation to support the planned National Uprising in Poland. The soldiers of the 1st Polish Para were to be the first element of the Polish Army in Exile to reach their homeland. Hence the unofficial motto of the unit: the shortest way. After completing the airborne course at Ringway Airfield, the men came back sharper and better physically and mentally. This prompted Colonel Sosabowski to turn his brigade into an airborne unit, the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. The Poles modified British techniques and soon developed the most advanced and effective airborne training school in the world. They constructed a physically demanding course that came to be known as “Monkey Grove” and constructed 100fttall jump tower. Instead of using the British model of jumping from baskets attached to hot air balloon, Polish engineers designed a system of harnesses, riggings, pulleys and cables from which they could permanently inflare a parachute canopy and harness in a trainee. A man could jump from the tower and perfectly simulate a drop and landing. More importantly, it allowed the instructor to stop the trainee at any point in the drop, issue instructions and continue the drop. The tower design and training methods were so effective that they became the standard among allied forces. The Poles taught the British fundamental things such as how to approach the landing. The British usually landed with their legs stretched, which resulted in many injuries. Gebolys, one of the Poles, who trained in parachuting prior to the war, advised to “apply overhead kick to soften the encounter with the earth, moving like the cat or a child”, to amortise the impact on the knees and the spine.321 After many months of military training, Polish airborne men were some of the best-trained, confident and disciplined soldiers in the world.

The British commanders watched the progress of the Polish Brigade with envy. Within two years it grew to become an elite force, one that the British lacked among their ranks. Major-General Frederick Browning first came to see Colonel Sosabowski's units training in Scotland in September 1942. During their meeting General Browning proposed that Colonel Sosabowski be in command of the Airborne Division, which would consist of Polish and British forces. Colonel Sosabowski knew that what he really wanted was to get the Polish Brigade under British command. At that time Browning was very worried over the lack of British parachute volunteers. They were not coming forward in the numbers required, in spite of widespread publicity and pay inducements.322 General Sikorski, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army, was reluctant to release the Brigade under British command as it was the only Polish army in reserve to assist the liberation of Poland. In 1942 an agreement was reached between General Sikorski and General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, confirming that the Polish Parachute Brigade would stay under Polish command and be used only in Poland. In 1943, General Sikorski arranged Colonel Sosabowski's visit to America to find out if the Americans could supply the Brigade with planes to fly the return journey from England to Poland. In America, Colonel Sosabowski watched with fascination hundreds of planes in tight wing-to-wing formation drop thousands of men in a matter of minutes. He saw they were capable of carrying out all airborne operations by day or night. What he had also learnt in America was “that Europe had been divided into two distinct parts of operation; Britain and America were responsible soley for the Western Front; Russia took care of the East. They were fighting one war but in two completely separate department. This was important, because it meant that Western powers had no say about strategy in Poland.”323

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319 Lieutenant-Colonel T.B.H Otway, The Second World War 1939–1945 Army – Airborne Forces. (Imperial War Museum , 1990) ,pp. 31-32 »

320 Ibid., p. 63 »

321 The speech of Mj J.Gebolys, Polish Radio, Wspomnienia zolnierzy pierwszej brygady spadochronowej, audio from 23 December 1967; http://www2.polskieradio.pl/wojna/posluchaj.aspx?sid=6#start »

322 Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski, Freely I Served. The Memoir of the Commander - 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade 1941-1944 (Great Britain, 1982), p. 120 »

323 Sosabowski, Freely I Served, p. 127 »