Frederick Browning - Second World War - Airborne Troops

Airborne Troops

In 1940, Browning was given command of the 128th Infantry Brigade, with the rank of brigadier. Part of the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, the 128th was a Territorial Army brigade that was preparing to join the British Expeditionary Force. This was pre-empted by the Fall of France in June 1940, and the division assumed a defensive posture. In 1941, Browning became commander of the 24th Guards Brigade Group, whose mission was to defend London from an attack from the south.

On 3 November 1941, Browning was promoted to major-general, and appointed commander of the 1st Airborne Division. In this new role he was instrumental in parachutists adopting the maroon beret, and assigned an artist, Major Edward Seago, to design the Parachute Regiment's now famous emblem of the warrior Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the winged horse. However Browning "designed his own uniform, made of barathea with a false Uhlan-style front, incorporating a zip opening at the neck to reveal regulation shirt and tie, worn with medal ribbons, collar patches, and rank badges, capped off with grey kid gloves, and a highly polished Guards Sam Browne belt and swagger stick", all of which were worn in the field. He qualified as a pilot in 1942, and henceforth wore the Army Air Corps wings, which he also designed himself.

Browning supervised the newly-formed division as it underwent a prolonged period of expansion and intensive training, with new brigades raised and assigned to the division, and new equipment tested. Though not considered an airborne warfare visionary, he proved adept at dealing with an apathetic War Office and an obstructionist Air Ministry, and demonstrated a knack for overcoming bureaucratic obstacles. As the airborne forces expanded in size, the major difficulty in getting the 1st Airborne Division ready for operations was a shortage of aircraft. The Royal Air Force had neglected air transport before the war, and the only available aircraft for airborne troops were conversions of obsolete bombers like the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris in particular felt that the 1st Airborne Division was not worth the drain on of Bomber Command's resources.

When Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the United States Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall visited the 1st Airborne Division on 16 April 1942, they were treated to a demonstration involving every available aircraft of No. 38 Wing RAF—12 Whitleys and nine Hawker Hector biplanes towing General Aircraft Hotspur gliders. At a meeting on 6 May chaired by Churchill, Browning was asked what he required. He stated that he needed 96 aircraft to get the 1st Airborne Division battle-ready. Churchill directed Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal to find the required aircraft, and Portal agreed to supply 83 Whitleys, along with 10 Halifax bombers to tow the new, larger General Aircraft Hamilcar gliders.

In July 1942, Browning travelled to the United States, where he toured airborne training facilities with his American counterpart, Major-General William C. Lee. Browning's tendency to lecture the Americans on airborne warfare made him few friends among the Americans, who felt that the British were still novices themselves. Browning was envious of the Americans' equipment, particularly the C-47 Dakota transports. On returning to the United Kingdom, he arranged for a joint exercise to be conducted with the 2nd Battalion, US 503rd Parachute Infantry. In mid–September, as the 1st Airborne Division was coming close to reaching full strength, Browning was informed that Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, would take place in November. When he found that the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry, was to take part, Browning argued that a larger airborne force should be utilised, as the vast distances and comparatively light opposition would provide a number of opportunities for airborne operations.

The War Office and the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, General Sir Bernard Paget, were won over by Browning's arguments, and agreed to detach 1st Parachute Brigade from 1st Airborne Division and place it under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would command all Allied troops participating in the invasion. After it had been brought to full operational strength, partly by cross-posting personnel from the newly formed 2nd Parachute Brigade, and had been provided with sufficient equipment and resources, the brigade departed for North Africa at the beginning of November.

The results of British airborne operations in North Africa were mixed, and the subject of a detailed report by Browning. The airborne troops had operated under a number of handicaps, including shortages of photographs and maps. All the troop carrier aircrew were American, who lacked familiarity with airborne operations and in dealing with British troops and equipment. Browning felt that the inexperience with handling airborne operations extended to Eisenhowers's Allied Forces Headquarters and that of the First Army, resulting in the paratroops being misused. He felt that had they been employed more aggressively and in greater strength they might have shortened the Tunisian Campaign by some months. The 1st Parachute Brigade had been called the "Rote Teufel" or "Red Devils" by the German troops they had fought. Browning pointed out to the brigade that this was an honour, as "distinctions given by the enemy are seldom won in battle except by the finest fighting troops." The title was officially confirmed by General Harold Alexander and henceforth applied to all British airborne troops.

On 1 January 1943, Browning was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). He relinquished command of the 1st Airborne Division in March 1943 to take up a new post as Major-General, Airborne Forces at Eisenhower's Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ). He soon clashed with the commander of the US 82nd Airborne Division, Major-General Matthew B. Ridgway. When Browning asked to see the plans for Operation Husky, Ridgway replied that they would not be available for scrutiny until after they had been approved by the US Seventh Army commander, Lieutenant-General George S. Patton, Jr. When Browning protested, Patton backed Ridgway, but Eisenhower and his chief of staff, Major-General Walter Bedell Smith, supported Browning and forced them to back down.

Browning's dealings with the British Army were no smoother. His successor as commander of the 1st Airborne Division, Major-General George Hopkinson, had sold the commander of the British Eighth Army, General Bernard Montgomery, on Operation Ladbroke, a glider landing to seize the Ponte Grande road bridge south of Syracuse. Browning's objections to the operation were ignored, and attempts to discuss airborne operations with the corps commanders elicited a directive from Montgomery that all such discussion had to go through him. Browning concluded that to be effective, the airborne advisor had to have equal rank with the army commanders.

In September 1943, Browning travelled to India where he inspected the 50th Parachute Brigade, and met with Major-General Orde Wingate, the commander of the Chindits. Browning held a series of meetings with General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief, India; Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, the Air Officer Commander-in-Chief; and Lieutenant-General Sir George Giffard, the General Officer Commanding Eastern Army. They discussed plans for improving the airborne establishment in India and expanding the airborne force there to a division. As a result of these discussions, and Browning's subsequent report to the War Office, the 44th Indian Airborne Division was formed in October 1944. Browning sent his most experienced airborne commander, Major-General Ernest Down, to India to command it. Down's replacement as commander of the 1st Airborne Division by Montgomery's selection, Major-General Roy Urquhart, an officer with no airborne experience, rather than Browning's choice, Brigadier Gerald Lathbury of the 1st Parachute Brigade, would become controversial.

Some, however, saw him as "a ruthless and manipulative empire builder who brooked no opposition". Brigadier-General James M. Gavin recalled that when he travelled to England in November 1943, Ridgway "cautioned me against the machinations and scheming of General F. M. Browning, who was the senior British airborne officer, and well he should have." Major-General Ray Barker told him that Browning was "an empire builder", an assessment that Gavin came to agree with.

Read more about this topic:  Frederick Browning, Second World War

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