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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Operation Swamp Desert

The price of failure...and success

Dick Cheney's first Iraqi adventure

In early January 1991, a plan, code-named “Operation Scorpion,” was proposed to then President George Bush. The plan had the enthusiastic backing of then Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and then Undersecretary of Defense, now Deputy Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. It was never adopted because of the opposition of Gen Colin Powell, erstwhile chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen Norman Schwarzkopf, the field commander. Their influence with President Papa Bush exceeded Mr Cheney’s to what must be Mr Bush’s everlasting regret.

“Operation Scorpion,” described in a 1995 issue of the National Interest magazine, was written by the author of the plan, Henry Rowen, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs during the Gulf war. He is a former president of the prestigious RAND Corp. and a former chairman of the CIA National Intelligence Council. Presently, he is a colleague at the Hoover Institution and director of Asia Pacific Research Centre at Stanford University. I reported on this article in a July 1995 column in The Washington Times.

Mr Rowen’s article, titled “Inchon in the desert: My rejected plan,” refers to the surprise amphibious landing in September 1950 on Korea’s west coast by Gen Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. His outnumbered troops were pinned down in southern Korea in what was then known as the “Pusan Perimeter.” By using U.S. naval and air superiority, MacArthur transformed the military situation on the Korean Peninsula in favor of the U.N. troops.

The Rowen plan was analogous to the successful Inchon landing although the medium for the operation this time was not sea-water but the sands of Iraq’s Western Desert. The desert lands were to be occupied within a 24-hour span west to Jordan and north to the Euphrates by American land forces — the 82d and 101st airborne divisions aided by mobile armored and mechanized ground forces. Iraqi opposition would be minimal because most of Saddam’s troops were either in Kuwait wreaking havoc or in the north facing Turkey or east facing Iran.

Mr Rowen’s idea had its inception with the first attacks by an Iraqi Scud on Israel and Saudi Arabia on the evening of January 16, 1991. “Operation Scorpion” was based on a valid assumption that because of the Scud’s limited range its launchers had to be somewhere in the Western Desert. Occupying this area, Mr Rowen writes “would effectively eliminate the danger of Scud attacks on Israel, along with all the attendant destruction and political risks to the [anti-Iraq] coalition,” By “political risks,” Mr Rowen meant that, had Israel effectively entered the war by responding to the Scud attacks with her own missile counterattacks on Iraq, some Arab countries might have quit the anti-Iraq coalition. “Operation Scorpion” might have provided a highly attractive gain: Saddam’s possible overthrow because occupation of the Western Desert would bring coalition troops within 60 miles of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

The plan was presented to Defense Secretary Cheney who instructed Mr Rowen to set up a planning cell and “to tell no one else about it; he would take the idea from here. Indeed he did,” wrote Mr Rowen. To President Papa Bush himself.

The small planning group was headed by retired Army Lt. Gen Dale Vesser who, writes Mr Rowen, was “someone not easily taken in by some civilian’s cockamamie ideas about military affairs.” In other words, Gen Vesser supported the Inchon idea.

Mr Rowen says he was troubled at the revelation that Gen Schwarzkopf’s first tactical concept entailed going “up the middle” against Iraqi forces. Such a concept if activated, Mr Rowen told Mr Cheney, “could be the charge of the Light Brigade into the Wadi of Death. And no one had a clue about how to deal with the predictable Scud attacks.”

The plan was approved by President Bush but he did nothing to push it. Gen Schwarzkopf in his autobiography, “It Doesn’t Take a Hero,” described the plan “as bad as it possibly could be.” Gen Powell shared this view, says Mr Rowen, and developed a different plan — a western envelopment around Kuwait that did occur. Successful as it was, it had two drawbacks, says Mr Rowen — “the Scuds flew and Saddam is still in power.
If you're a historian or even a movie buff, this plan seems, well, familiar. If you're the commander of the 82nd or 101st ABN, this is a plan which is not only familiar, but burned in your brain as a limit of your Division's capability.

There are no American war dead buried in Germany. However, one of the American Battle Monument Commission's largest cemetaries , just outside Maastricht, Netherlands. Interred there are 8,301 American dead.

Why? Because there was a plan, a clever plan, but it had a flaw and that flaw got people killed.

The plan

The Allied plan for Operation Market Garden
The Allied plan for Operation Market Garden

For a more comprehensive list of Allied and German units see Operation Market Garden order of battle

The plan of action consisted of two coordinated operations:

  • Market, which was the use of the airborne troops, and
  • Garden, consisting of the British 2nd Army moving north along highway 69 (later nicknamed "Hell's Highway") spearheaded by XXX Corps under Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks.


Market would employ three of the five divisions of the 1st Airborne army. The US 101st Airborne Division would drop in two locations just north of the XXX Corps to take the bridges northwest of Eindhoven at Son (mun. Son en Breugel) and Veghel. The 82nd Airborne Division would drop quite a bit northeast of them to take the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen, and finally the British 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade would drop at the extreme north end of the route, to take the road bridge at Arnhem and rail bridge at Oosterbeek.

Market would be the largest airborne operation in history, delivering 30,000 men of the 101st, 82nd, 1st and the Polish Brigade in a series of three huge operations known as "lifts." Commander of the 1st Army, Browning, added his own HQ to the first lift so that he could command from the front.


Garden consisted primarily of XXX Corps, the core of the 2nd Army. They were expected to arrive at the south end of the 101st's area on the launch day, the 82nd by the second day, and the 1st by the third or fourth day at the latest. They would also deliver several additional infantry divisions to take over the defensive operations from the airborne, freeing them for other operations as soon as possible.

Four days was, and is, a long time for an airborne force to fight unsupplied. In addition, the Allied paratroopers lacked adequate anti-tank weapons. Even so, it seemed to the Allied high command the German resistance at this point had broken. Most of the German 15th Army in the area appeared to be fleeing the field from in front of the Canadians, and they were known to have no Panzer-gruppen. XXX Corps would therefore be facing very limited resistance on their route up highway 69, and little armor. Meanwhile, the German defenders would be spread out over 100 km trying to contain the pockets of airborne forces, from the British 2nd Army in the south to Arnhem in the north.

So what went wrong?

Day 4, Wednesday the 20th

Frost's force at the bridge continued to hold out. Around noon the radios started working and they learned that the rest of the division had no hopes of relieving them, and that XXX Corps was stuck to their south in front of Nijmegen bridge. By the afternoon the Germans had complete control of the Arnhem bridge and started setting fire to the houses the British were defending. The rest of the division had now set up defensive positions in Oosterbeek to the west of Arnhem, waiting for the arrival of XXX Corps.

In Nijmegen the boats still hadn't arrived during the night, so the troops continued to wait. They didn't arrive until the afternoon, but time was so short they decided to do the crossing in daylight. In what is generally considered to be one of the bravest actions in military history, they made the crossing in 26 rowing boats into well-defended positions. They took the banks and pressed to the bridge, which caused the Germans to pull back from their positions on the southern side. That freed the Guards Armoured, who rushed across the bridge and met the airborne troops. Nijmegen bridge was now in Allied hands after four long days.

Meanwhile the Germans organized another attack on the heights on the east side of town, this time making significant progress. Eventually the only remaining bridge suitable for tanks fell to the Germans, but was retaken by forces of the 82nd and Coldstream Guards.

To the south the running battles between the 101st and various German units continued, eventually with several Panthers once again rushing in and cutting off the roads, only leaving when they ran low on ammunition.

Day 5, Thursday the 21st

Although hard pressed, things were looking up for Market Garden this morning. XXX Corps was across the Nijmegen bridge and less than an hour's drive from the ongoing battle at the foot on Arnhem bridge. But it was too late. Frost's force was down to two houses, a handful of men, and had used up every bullet they had. With a last radio message "out of ammo, God save the King", heard only by German radio intercept operators, his remaining force surrendered. In memory of the defense at the bridge by Frost, the bridge has been renamed to the "John Frost bridge".

At the same time the rest of the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, now two days late due to weather, arrived. The situation north of the river was obviously too hostile to land, so a new drop zone on the south side across from the 1st was selected near the village of Driel. The landings went well, but the ferry they planned to use to reach the British had been sunk. Their force was largely wasted as a result.

Meanwhile the lead elements of Guards Armoured sat still. Their commander refused to move them forward while Nijmegen to their south was still under constant threat, and radioed back along to the line for the 43rd Infantry Division to move up to take over the town. However, by this point there was a 30-mile-long traffic jam behind them, and the 43rd didn't arrive until the next day. But a unit of British field artillery was close enough by this point that they were in radio contact with the units in Oosterbeek, and starting shelling any German units who attempted to approach them.

German attacks continued all along the route, but by this point the Allied forces had clearly started to gain the upper hand. Not only were the Germans attacks stalled, the British and 101st continued to take more and more area.

Day 6, Friday the 22nd (Black Friday)

The Poles were forced to sit and watch the battle from the sidelines not having the proper means to cross the river, with British artillery flying overhead from Nijmegen. That afternoon two British airborne soldiers swam the Rhine and informed them of the desperate situation, asking for any help they could give. The Poles were hastily equipped with flimsy inflatable rubber rafts, but promised to try a crossing that night. This operation was opposed, and only 52 soldiers of the 8th Polish Parachute Company made it across.

By this point much of the battle area was now in allied hands, and it appeared all of the problem was at the north end of the line with XXX Corps. As soon as the 43rd arrived things would be in better shape, and the Guards Armoured could attempt to retake the Arnhem bridge.

However, the Germans had other ideas, and during the previous night had organized two mixed armored formations on either side of highway 69 at about the middle of the line between Veghel and Grave. They attacked and only one side was stopped, while the other made it to the highway and cut the line. Any advance on Arnhem was now impossible.

Henry Rowan was looking at the wrong history book. While Inchon was possible from the sea, there was nothing stopping Saddam from shifting his units south to deal with the lightly armored Airborne divisions. No armor, limited artillery, Saddam's forces could have mopped these divisions up costing thousands of lives.

Smart generals often sign up on bad plans. The difference between Inchon and Market Garden is simple: there was no ocean where close support aircraft and battleships could protect the attacking force. Also, withdrawal, while difficult, was possible at Inchon.

Despite the risk, this plan appeared again in 2003.

Cheney and Rummy wanted to insert the 101st to seize Baghdad Airport. The fact that the US had to fight for three weeks to get to Baghdad seems to have been lost to history. The 101st would have been destroyed waiting that long.

This came to mind because Sid Blumenthal mentioned it in Salon, but didn't go into the details. The fact is that Cheney and the neocons think they understand war, when even any such plan handed in as a war college paper would get an F.

posted by Steve @ 12:30:00 AM

12:30:00 AM

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