British 1st Airborne Division

From Academic Kids

The British 1st Airborne Division was a military unit that fought in World War II. It suffered terrible casualties, especially in Operation Market Garden.



Formation, North Africa, and Sicily

The 1st Airborne was formed on October 31, 1941, placed under the command of Major General Frederick Browning. At first, it consisted of the 1st Parachute Brigade and the 1st Airlanding Brigade, but in July of 1942, it received the 2nd Parachute Brigade, bringing its strength to a full division. However, in late 1942, the 1st Para was sent to North Africa, again depleting the division's strength. The 3rd Parachute Brigade was attached in its absence.

On May 1, 1943, the division, under the command of Maj. Gen. George F. Hopkinson was sent to North Africa, joining the 1st Para. It left 3rd Para behind, which formed the basis of the 6th Airborne Division. 1st Airborne was then used in the invasion of Sicily, but only the 1st Para and 1st Airlanding participated in that action.

On September 9, the unit was given orders to advance on Taranto, Italy. After immediately taking the port, 2nd and 4th Paras (the 4th Parachute Brigade had been attached soon before) advanced inland. However, Maj. Gen. Hopkinson was killed by enemy machine gun fire, and command passed to Brigadier Ernest Down, commanding 1st Para. In November, 1st Airborne was given orders to return to England, although 2nd Para was detached and remained in Italy as a separate unit.

D-Day and onwards

In January of 1944, Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart was given command of the division. On D-Day, 1st Airborne remained in reserve, while British 6th Airborne Division made the airborne drops into France.

On August 2nd 1944 the division became part of the First Allied Airborne Army.

Between Normandy and Arnhem (Operation Market Garden), about 17 airborne operations were planned for 1st Airborne, but they were all canceled for one reason or another, usually because the ground units where advancing so quickly that the targets were overrun. This caused members of the division to characterize it as the "Stillborn Division".

Operation Market Garden

Before Market Garden, 1st Airborne had never fought as a single unit, always separated. However, in this operation, it was given arguably the most important assignment. It was ordered to hold the city of Arnhem, while the British XXX Corps advanced from Belgium. In the initial planning stages, Gen. Urquhart had requested a defensible, flat area to land his division. Although a few areas seemed somewhat suitable, they all had disadvantages, and 1st Airborne was forced to land about 12 km. from the extremely important bridge it was tasked to defend, counter to key lessons from the D-Day and Sicily about landing airborne troops as close as possible to their objectives.

Also, reconnaissance aircraft and the (supposedly unreliable) Dutch resistance had spotted some enemy tanks in woods near Arnhem. However, Allied High Command disregarded these photographs, stating that the tanks were "unserviceable". In fact, two SS Panzer divisions had been recalled from the southern portion of the German defense. These two divisions, most ironically, had been retreated to Arnhem, where "nothing was going on." 1st Airborne dropped on September 17, 1944.

In order to quickly take the bridge, a motorized jeep unit had been sent as part of 1st Airborne. However, this unit was slow getting organized after landing, and its leading vehicles were ambushed on the way to Arnhem. Therefore, 1st Airborne was forced to advance into Arnhem on foot. Also, only half of the division had arrived on the first day (because of a lack of transport planes). The entire three Battalions of the 1st Parachute Brigade was sent into Arnhem; however, only 2nd Battalion was able to push through to the bridge. This battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, occupied the buildings near the bridge for the fight ahead.

The division made attempts to reinforce Frost at the bridge; however, the Germans, operating just over the border from Germany, received substantial reinforcements steadily, and were able to hold the British attacks, and then push the rest of 1st Airborne back, away from the key bridge at Arnhem, held by John Frost and 2nd Battalion. On September 20, the decision was made to abandon Frost, and for the 1st Airborne to occupy a defense position near Oosterbeek. The British had landed on the north side of the river, while XXX Corps was supposed to advance from the south. It was hoped that when XXX Corps arrived, it could secure the south side of the river and somehow cross to resuce 1st Airborne on the north side.

Col. Frost's 700 men were fighting for their lives and to hold the bridge inside the city of Arnhem. Although German tanks and artillery continually barraged and attacked the British positions, they staunchly held. However, by the 21st of September, the battalion's ammunition was all but gone. Early that day, Frost's battalion finally surrendered. It had held the bridge area for three days and four nights, which was about as long as Allied command had estimated the entire division, consisting of 10,000 elite troops, could hold it.

The Airborne division, with absolutely no armoured forces, was able to defend against a force about four times as large, which had tremendous armoured and artillery support. XXX Corps had arrived on the south side of the river on the 22nd, about three days late. However, the forces were unable to cross the river, and on the 25th, the 1st Airborne was ordered to withdraw across the river. Leaving radiomen, physicians, and the badly wounded behind, Gen. Urquhart and the 2,300 survivors of the 1st Airborne retreated across the river.


High Command had estimated that the 1st Airborne could only hold the position north of the river for four days, at its highest readiness. However, with horribly depleted forces (including a battalion stranded in a hostile town), it held the position for nine days. With less than 1/4 of the division returning from Arnhem, it saw no more action for the rest of the Britische Luftlandedivision


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