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The Arnhem Fighter Control Story

A Briefing Paper


The Association of RAF Fighter Control Officers


This paper has been compiled from a number of sources. Squadron Leader Mike Dean generously provided information and advice. The Association also acknowledges information it gathered from a paper by FR Hunt entitled Glider-Borne Radar and an article by Squadron Leader Frank Hayward which was published in Air Clues in the Winter of 1994. Some facts have been taken from Government sources and under the terms of the standard Open Government Licence we would like to acknowledge the importance of Air Publications 1063, 3237 and 1116 which were produced by the Air Historical Branch in the 1950s

Fighter Control During Operation Market Garden


Figure 2 - The Market Garden Plan

On the 16th September 1944 Wing Commander Laurance Brown, arguably the first Fighter Control Ace with over 100 kills to his name, met with General 'Boy' Browning to persuade him to include mobile radar units as part of the air landing at Arnhem. He won the day but little did he know that in doing so he was the architect of his own death.

Figure 1 - The bridge at Arnhem

As the Allies advanced into Holland they faced increasingly fierce resistance and to advance into Germany itself they were faced with some significant challenges in the guise of a number of difficult river crossings culminating with a need to cross the Rhine (Neder Rijn) and a defensive barrier called the Siegfried Line. Additionally, the British Second Army advance lost momentum because of the difficulty in resupplying it from Normandy.

Field Marshal Montgomery devised a plan to reinvigorate the British advance, capture important bridges crossings the Maas at Grave, the Waal at Nijmegen and the Neder Rijn at Arnhem. The bridge at Arnhem was particularly important because the Neder Rijn was over 100 metres wide at this point.

Put simply, the plan was to capture the bridges through vertical envelopment which would essentially create a corridor for the rapid advance of a main, Corps-sized, field force. This entailed three parachute Divisions, one British and two American, being dropped with supporting echelons to capture the bridges and the British XXX Corps advancing rapidly North to consolidate the capture of the bridges and to position for a flanking attack into Germany. The British XXX Corps had to advance some 70 miles to reach Arnhem along a single road axis. The operation was code named Market Garden with Operation Market covering the airborne assault and Operation Garden for the advance of XXX Corps.

Radar Coverage

Figure 3 - A Light Warning Set in a Tent

Radar surveillance and control coverage of the pocket at Arnhem was not good enough to provide effective fighter protection for the troops on the ground because all the Fighter Direction Posts (FDP) and Ground Control Interception (GCI) units were behind the main front line in some cases by several miles. Lieutenant General Lewis H Brereton, Commanding General of the Allied Airborne Army articulated on the 18th August 1944 the need for a ground based radar unit to be landed with the airborne force. The only previous experience of air insertion of radar units was in the Middle East where an AMES Type 6 radar, otherwise known as a Light Warning Set (LWS), had been modified to be carried in a Hudson or Bombay aircraft and was deployed to 'Marble Arch' in the Western Desert on 18th December 1942 where it became operational only 45 minutes after landing.

Figure 4 -
Wg Cdr Brown
(taken in North
Africa, where
he was a sqn ldr)

The radar equipment selected for the operation was once again the Type 6 radar system. This highly mobile equipment could be housed in a tent or a van sized vehicle. It had a maximum range of 50 miles and was equipped with a range height display and a Plan Position Indicator (PPI) display that meant that it could be used to control fighter aircraft. It had been produced for two main purposes; first, to provide radar cover rapidly in situations where it was not possible to deploy the larger mobile long-range systems and, secondly, to provide low-level forward coverage for larger mobile radar units. Number 60 Group put in place a rapid programme of training and two Light Warning Units (LWU) designated Numbers 6341 and 6080 were formed under the command of Squadron Leaders Wheeler and Coxon respectively. Wing Commander Laurance Brown MBE was appointed as the force commander. Wing Commander Brown was a highly experienced radar officer and controller who had been in the thick of the action during the blitz as a GCI controller and took part in every major amphibious operation in the war including landing on Gold Beach on D day; he was mentioned in despatches three times.

At the beginning of September 1944, Numbers 6080 and 6341 LWUs were transferred from No 60 Group to No 38 Group RAF and attached to Headquarters 1st British Airborne Corps. All in all it was a remarkable achievement to modify the radars and form and train these two units in such a short timescale.

Imagine the chagrin of this force and all who had done so much to prepare it when at a meeting at Bentley Priory on the 15th September the representative of the First Allied Airborne Army stated that the transportable ground radar equipment would not be required for the operation. Wing Commander Brown sought an interview with General Browning on the 16th September at RAF Harwell and the decision was reversed.

The Operation Market Plan

Figure 5 - Gliders Used At Arnhem

The vertical envelopment was to be accomplished in two ways, first, the main assault force was to be inserted via parachute and heavy equipment such as vehicles, artillery and, of course, the LWUs by glider. There were three types of glider, the Hamilcar, Horsa and the American Waco. A lack of sufficient transport aircraft meant that 1st Airborne Division would be dropped in three separate lifts over three successive days. Corps and Divisional headquarters elements, the 1st Parachute Brigade and most of the 1st Air Landing Brigade would land on 17th September. The 4th Parachute Brigade and the rest of 1st Air Landing Brigade would land on 18th September and, on 19th September, the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade would land, along with a supplies for the entire division. It was planned that Wing Commander Brown would go in the first lift on the 17th with the Airborne Corps commander and staff which was scheduled to land at Groesbeek near Nijmegen. Originally it was intended that the LWUs would go on the first lift but a lack of aircraft tugs meant that Numbers 6080 and 6341 LWUs would fly on day two in four Horsa gliders. Each unit was split into two loads which can be broadly categorized as the receiver and display equipment in one load and the transmitter and aerial in the other load; unit personnel were split between their two gliders.

Into Battle

Figure 6 - Stirling
Towing a Horsa

The first lift from Harwell on the 17th went well with 25 gliders assigned to transport the First Airborne Corps headquarters and Wing Commander Brown was on this lift. The picture at Figure 6 actually shows a Stirling towing a Horsa taking off from Harwell on the 17th as part of the Corps HQ lift. Wing Commander Brown could well have been in the glider.


Figure 7 - Brown's Grave

Brown's glider landed safely but he had apparently forgotten his sleeping bag and decided to retrieve it. On his way to do this the DZ was strafed by an Me 109 and Brown was hit. He died of his wounds on the 18th September and is buried in the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery. Brown was arguably the most successful interception controller of the war.

As dawn broke on the 18th at RAF Harwell the airfield was covered in thick fog and nothing could move until late morning. Numbers 6080 and 6341 LWUs with a total of five officers including a USAAC 1st Lieutenant from the 9th Army Air Corps and 19 other ranks were to be carried in four Horsha gliders chalk marked 5000 to 5003. With sufficient visibility by 1200 hours the lift started and first combination airborne was chalk 5001 with Staff Sergeant John Kennedy as first pilot and Sergeant 'Wag' Watson as co-pilot. The 'tug' was a Stirling of Number 570 Squadron flown by Flying Officer Spafford RCAF. The formation join up was complicated and Spafford's combination being the first to take off had to fly straight ahead to allow other combinations from Harwell to formate. The Harwell formation then flew to a main rendezvous at which they joined the main attack force. The main formation comprised three streams of aircraft and gliders on the left of the formation and slightly lower flew combinations of Halifaxes towing Horsas, Halifaxes towing Hamilcars and some Dakotas not towing. To the right there were numerous Dakotas towing Wacos some of them actually towing two Waco gliders. In the centre stream in which the LWUs were flying there were Halifaxes towing Hamilcars and Stirlings towing Horsas. It was a truly impressive sight.

The Horsa chalk mark 5000 with Staff Sergeant 'Lofty' Cummins as pilot and Sgt McInnes as co-pilot was carrying personnel and half the equipment of 6080 LWU and took off at 1208 hours; as it approached the turning point at 's-Hertogenbosch for the approach to the LZ the combination experienced heavy Anti-Aircract (Ack Ack) fire. The towing aircraft, which was a Stirling LK121 of 570 Squadron and piloted by Flt Sergeant Culling, was hit. Culling advised Cummins that they would have to slow down but shortly thereafter the Stirling reared up and spun into the ground from 3000 feet killing all on board. Cummins showing great presence of mind managed to cut the towline and landed heavily near the village of Hemmen some seven miles from the LZ and the wrong side of the Neder Rijn river. It was a quiet area and they were quickly surrounded by Dutch patriots all speaking good English who told them they were in German occupied territory. The radar equipment was destroyed by gunfire. The glider pilots and 6080 LWU personnel then headed on foot for Divisional HQ led by a Dutchman on a bicycle. All but Cummins crossed the Rhine by the Friel-Hevesdorp ferry and reached Oosterbeek. Although it is not clear why Cummins tried to cross the Nijmegen Bridge - the glider landed north of the river Waal - he was shot dead by a sniper in attempting to do so.

Loaded into the Horsa chalk number 5001 were personnel from 6341 LWU and half the radar equipment. Known to be on board were Flight Lieutenant Richardson and six other ranks; it is also believed that Squadron Leader Wheeler, OC 6341 LWU, may have been on board although he does not seem to have taken part in the command decisions that followed the landing but he was certainly not aboard the other 6341 LWU glider as will be seen later.

Glider 5001 also experienced heavy ack-ack fire but Staff Sergeant Kennedy was released at the right point and after pulling off to port in a climbing turn made a good approach under machine gun fire and managed to land the glider as briefed running up to the hedge on the LZ.

A dangerous situation had developed to the southern end of LZ-X where a strong German force infiltrated between two of the Border Regiment companies defending the LZ and was able to direct machine gun and other fire at landing gliders.