Market Garden and Strategic Failure

This week I want to do something slightly different with this blog.  I have just finished reading Anthony Beevor’s history of Operation Market Garden,  Arnhem, The Battle for the Bridges, 1944. This is the military campaign described, somewhat inaccurately, in the film, A Bridge Too Far.  The Operation was the idea of the British General, soon to be Field Marshal, Bernard Montgomery.  Despite the propaganda that the campaign was 90% successful”, Market Garden was one of the biggest allied disasters of World War Two, with significant casualties, loss of equipment and collateral damage.  Operation Market Garden wholly failed to meet its ultimate objective.

What I want to do is look at Montgomery’s plan using some of the tools of modern strategic planning and see what lessons can be learnt for marketers and businesses.  Of course, my analysis has the benefit of hindsight but there were clear indications at the time that Market garden was an incredibly high risk operation that needed every aspect to go exactly as planned if it was to succeed.  We now know that Montgomery’s failure to remember Murphy’s law; that if a thing can go wrong, it will; and his incorrect assumptions as to the German response; led to the deaths of thousands of allied troops and the near destruction of the British Airborne division.

The fist aspect we need to examine is the environment within which Market Garden was created.

Following the battle for Normandy, the Germans were now in full retreat on all fronts.  The battle to secure the bridgehead following the D-Day landings, through the high hedges and sunken roads of Normandy had been fierce; but German resistance had folded and the allies had rushed across France and liberated Paris.  They had pushed on over a broad front and by the end of the summer of 1944, they were in Belgium and looking for an opportunity to cross the Rhine into Germany.  Going north to Arnhem was one route which seemed beneficial as it flanked the German Siegfried line of traps and concrete bunkers which sat between Germany, France and Belgium.

However, the allied advance was beginning to slow as supply chains lengthened.  This was not helped by the lack of operational ports.  One of the two temporary Mulberry harbours had been destroyed in storms following D-Day.  Other French ports were severely sabotaged as the Germans retreated.  The nearest port to the Allied front line was the Belgian city of Antwerp.  The allies had taken the city but the Northern bank of the river leading to the city’s port was still in German hands and was heavily fortified, making the port unusable

Eisenhower was faced with two competing strategic options, to continue with a broad front pushing the Germans back or to go for a narrow spearhead into Germany.

So let’s look at the internal and external stakeholders in the environment.

Internal stakeholders:

  1. Bernard Montgomery: The British hero of El Alemein. An ambitious general with a big ego.  Montgomery felt he was being side-lined in the chain of command as the American’s took over the brunt of the campaign in Western Europe.  He felt he should have been given a greater role in the campaign and was keen to take command of US troops in his sector of the battlefield.  He developed the Market Garden plan.
  2. George Patton: A bombastic American general with an ego as large as, if not bigger than that of Montgomery.  Patton had been at the forefront of the allied advance across France.  He favoured the broad front approach and was continually pushing for more resources to continue his advance.  Patton disliked Montgomery and saw the British general as a poor strategist.  He blamed Montgomery for the slow British advance in Normandy and a similar problem in Sicily.  He saw Montgomery as the main reason the allies had failed to take the city Caen following D-Day and risking the allied bridgehead.   The fact that in both theatres Montgomery had faced far stronger opposition from the Germans both in Sicily and Normandy did not enter Patton’s mind.  Patton was no stranger to controversy.  He had been suspended for duty after striking a solider suffering from what we would now consider PTSD and for calling the solider a coward.  This controversy meant that in the run up to D-Day Patton’s command had been the phantom army of inflatable tanks and imaginary divisions in East Anglia; part of the intelligence effort to fool the Germans into thinking the attack was to be near Calais and not the beaches of Normandy.
  3. The British Government:  Britain was under attack by Hitler’s ‘super-weapons’, the V1 and V2 rockets.  There was pressure placed on Eisenhower to put these weapons out of range.  Many of the launching sites for the V1 rockets were located in the low countries, Belgium and Holland.
  4. The American Government:  America was fighting two wars, against the Germans in Europe and against the Japanese in the Pacific.  There was pressure to finish the wat in Europe so resources could be switched to the Pacific theatre.

External Stakeholders:

  1. Stalin: The Soviet leader felt that his army had taken the brunt of the fighting in Europe and that now the western allies were in France they should be pressing home to victory.  He felt D-Day had taken too long to come and the US/British advance into Germany was taking too long.
  2. Hitler:  The German leader was increasingly nihilistic and was determined to stop the Americans and British advancing into Germany.  He was looking for a big counter offensive.  This would come after market Garden with the Battle of the Bulge where he targeted the Belgian Ardennes forest as a weak point in the allied lines with the aim of recapturing Antwerp and splitting the allied forces in two.

So were the objectives of Operation Market Garden SMART?

Well there was a Specific objective; to invade the Rhur; Germany’s industrial heartland; and deny the Nazis the capacity to wage war.  Market Garden was in two parts, airborne troops landing behind German lines and taking strategic bridges, most notably at Arnhem, Eindhoven and Nijmegen.  this was the Market element of the operation.  The allied airborne divisions had been based back in the UK since D-Day.  Thirteen times they had been placed on standby for operations in France only for their drops to be cancelled as weather intervened or Patton’s troops over-ran their intended landing grounds behind German lines.

The Garden Element was British XXX corps, an armoured division of tanks and other military vehicles which would race across Holland along a single road.  XXX Corp was given two days to drive the sixty miles to Arnhem along what was to become known as Hell’s Highway. After they crossed the Rhine they were to loop right into the Rhur destroying German industrial capacity.  The ultimate aim of market garden was to end the war in ‘100 days’.  Another way of saying finishing the war by Christmas.

So the objective was time-bound – two days to take Arnhem, one hundred days to end the war.

Obviously, the objective was measurable in bridges gained, German casualties and the liberation of Holland.

That brings us to the remaining elements of the SMART mnemonic; Achievable and Realistic.

Was Market Garden achievable?  The answer to this is yes BUT only if every element of the plan went as predicted.

Was Market Garden Realistic? The answer to this in no.  There were many warning signs that the plan was in trouble from the start.

Firstly, there were issues with resources.  The allies simply did not have enough transport aircraft to deliver all the airborne troops to their target in one go.  The parachute drops and glider landings would have to take place over three days. Not only that, the British landing grounds at Arnhem were eight miles from their target bridge.  Both these issues destroyed the major advantage of airborne troops, surprise.

In the film, A Bridge Too Far, much is made of the fact that the radios of the British airborne division were faulty.  A much bigger issue was the fact that the newly developed radio beacon technology Eureka, appeared to be faulty.  This meant the airborne division at Arnhem had no way of contacting transport aircraft dropping supplies of food, medicines and ammunition.  Much of this was dropped to the Germans.  It was found later that the Eureka receivers on the planes had been set to a different frequency to the Eureka transmitters on the ground.

Montgomery’s assumption that the Germans would not be able to mount a defence and would crumble as the operation progressed was wrong.  Firstly, he miscalculated how quickly the Germans could use railways to move armour into the Arnhem area.  Little if any thought had been given to destroying railheads in Germany near the Dutch border. So a rapid response from the German army was still possible.

throughout the war the pattern had been of German defeat in battle followed by retreat but then a new defensive line being put in place. this had happened in North Africa, it had happened in Sicily and twice in Italy with Anzio and the Gustav line.  Montgomery’s assumption that the Germans were finished as a fighting force and unable to mount another defence was completely wrong.

there was also more bad luck with the weather.  Fog delayed the second and third air landings meaning the allies had fewer troops and less equipment than planned to hold the bridges.

So in a business strategy sense what can we learn from Market Garden:

  1.  Middle and Senior managers like to empire build, Montgomery certainly was an empire builder.  They like their egos to be massaged and the thrive on power and influence.  this can lead to management squabbles and office politics which divert from the main aim.  Market Garden was brewed in an environment of management dispute and ‘office politics’. It therefore diverted from more appropriate strategies such as opening up the Port of Antwerp to allow resupply near the front line.
  2. The assumption that airborne troops can only be delivered into theatre by aircraft was incorrect.  It had been perfectly possible for these troops to be delivered into theatre by ship and road.  There was also nothing stopping aircraft being moved onto the continent prior to the battle meaning the issue of fog in the North Sea was avoided.
  3. Montgomery failed to make a realistic assessment of what the German response to his plan would be. All previous campaigns in the theatre showed that, at some point, the Germans would retaliate or create a new defensive position, particularly as the allies closed in on the ‘Fatherland’.
  4. No plan ever goes 100% right.  You need contingencies in place for realistic setbacks.  Montgomery’s assumptions about the speed an armoured column could travel sixty miles along an often narrow road was wholly unrealistic and no contingencies had been made for delay.
  5. Make a solid assessment of the ground where battle is to take place. Low-lying Holland, criss-crossed with rivers, canals and high dykes was incredibly poor ground for tank warfare.  the whole strategy since America had entered the was had been Steel not Men.  America’s industrial power meant that it could flood the battlefield with tanks, guns and aircraft.  Armour was the key to victory.  By choosing to fight in Holland, that mechanical advantage over the Germans was negated.  Rivers are natural defensive lines and by destroying some of the minor bridges long XXX corps route, the Germans were able to build such defensive lines.  Armour being unable to move off the single road, meant the head of the armoured column was a sitting target.  Several times the Germans counter-attacked cutting the road.  This meant rather than rushing along the road to Arnhem, XXX Corps was delayed having to fight off counter-attacks.  Instead of taking 2 days to reach the outskirts of Arnhem, it took the armoured column eleven. the airborne troops in Arnhem had only been issued with 48 hour ration packs.
  6. Don’t let junior managers divert or dilute the plan.  Much criticism has been placed on the American General Jim Gavin for not acting in accordance with his instructions during Market Garden.  Gavin’s objective was the bridge outside the city of Nijmegen.  But instead of rushing to secure the bridge, Gavin decided that he needed to take the city and the nearby Grosbeak heights first.  This delay allowed the Germans to create a defensive line on the northern side of the bridge slowing the allied advance (this is the bit in the film where Robert Redford leads an amphibious assault across the rhine in boats.
  7. Does the plan divert from accepted methodology for no good reason.  It was a well known fact that the best tactic to take and hold bridges was to attack both ends of the bridge at once.  This is what had happened on D-Day and in Italy.  Montgomery’s plan diverted from this orthodoxy at both Arnhem and Nijmegen where troops were only landed on one side of the bridges; making their capture much, much harder.

Market Garden was a disaster.  It likely lengthened the war and encouraged Hitler’s winter offensive in the Ardennes.  It severely weakened what were seen as elite units, most notably the British airborne division.  It had horrific consequences for the people of Holland who suffered in the Hunger Winter of 1945 as the Germans retaliated by denying the Dutch population food.

The Germans forced the citizens of Arnhem to abandon what was left of their town, which they then looted.  The ghost town of Arnhem was only liberated by allied troops in the Spring of 1945.