Alphen, Netherlands. 23 March Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower said; “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. Seventy years ago this morning as I write Operation Plunder was underway as the 51st Highland Division (Dempsey’s 2nd British Army) & Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army stormed across the Northern Rhine River into Germany. The airborne operation in support of Plunder was the largest airborne operation of World War Two, far bigger than the failed Operation Market Garden of September 1944 and the attempt to cross the Rhine at Arnhem. 1625 transport aircraft were deployed, together with 1348 gliders escorted by 889 fighters and 22,000 airborne infantry dropped into Germany. 2,163 fighters supported the ground operations in support of the 80,000 British and Canadian troops that crossed a twenty-mile stretch of the Rhine between Rees and Wesel.
In a sense Operation Plunder was a mini-Overlord, a re-run of the June 1944 Normandy landings, although the US and British-led crossings were not simultaneous. The US 9th Armored Division had famously captured the Ludendorff Bridge near Remagen on 7 March. On 22 March, Patton’s Third Army crossed the Rhine into Germany and on 23 March, the US First Army broke out of the Remagen bridgehead.
What is interesting about Plunder is that the operation demonstrated that for all the frictions that existed between American and British military commanders the allies had finally perfected the military art of combined (multinational) and joint (tri-service) operations. However, whilst the experience gained in previous operations was to prove invaluable the role of military science was vital. Since 1943 experiments and preparations for just such an operation had been underway in Yorkshire on the River Ouse and helped foster a much greater understanding of the challenges such a contested operation would face, the specialised equipment but above all the innovation that would be vital if such operations were to succeed.
Critically, for Operation Plunder 8000 Royal Engineers came under the command of the Spearhead Force XXX Corps (Lt. General Sir Brian Horrocks). Moreover, 22,000 tons of assault bridging was brought forward, together with 25,000 wooden pontoons to get armour across the river quickly, 2000 assault boats, 650 storm boats, 120 river tugs, 100 kms of balloon cable and 340 kms of steel wire rope. The balloons were used to help winch the ferries and rafts across the river and came under RAF command, whilst the Royal Navy constructed an anti-mine boom upstream of the landings to help prevent the Germans from floating mines downstream. And all of these preparations were achieved in almost total secrecy.
Such planning and preparation was vital. The 500 metre front XXX Corps attacked was defended by the German 8th Parachute Division, with elements of the 6th and 7th Parachute Divisions covering their flanks and with the 15th and 116th Panzer Divisions in reserve. Whilst weakened these elite forces put up fierce resistance after they recovered from their initial shock and repeatedly counter-attacked in the classic and highly-effective manner the Wehrmacht employed during World War Two.
What are the lessons for today? Operation Plunder was in effect an inland multinational, air-maritime-amphibious operation in support of a major land offensive. With the creation of the Readiness Action Plan at the NATO Wales Summit last September NATO is again considering how it would conduct major combined, joint combat operations in defence of the Alliance. Now, by its very definition NATO is built around a concept of force that is both combined and joint. However, years of campaigning in Afghanistan and elsewhere have to some extent denuded the combinedness and jointness of the multinational formations at NATO’s core. Such formations must be re-built.
Furthermore, with the investment in military power by illiberal states and actors, weapons-technology proliferation and the disinvestment of liberal states in their military capacity and capability a radical solution is needed to maintain the military balance and thus credible defensive and offensive capabilities. Indeed, if the growing gap is to be closed between NATO’s shrinking military capability, military capacity and the range and widening scope of possible and likely future mission and campaigns then radical solutions must be embraced.
My core message is this: NATO must forge a ‘force singularity’, a tight force focused on tight, effective deployable command and control in which ‘combinedness’ and ‘jointness’ becomes much more organic i.e, a reflex, with forces far better able to rotate in the battlespace and across the mission spectrum and thus offer commanders capability, capacity and flexibility.
Such a new NATO ‘force singularity’ will not come without much effort. Naturally, concept design and force planning will be to the fore. However, the key element will be a change in strategic mind-set from political leaders through to commanders. Indeed, such a force will only be realised if leaders and commanders are really willing to “think outside of the box” (instead of uttering that now tired phrase as a tired mantra) and properly embrace radical experimentation, exercising and education.
Operation Plunder was forged on the battlefield and emerged only after many disasters but it also reflected a willingness to try new approaches and methods. NATO forces are going to have to reinvent themselves in peacetime for a possibly very different but equally dangerous future.
On 24 March, Winston Churchill crossed the Rhine and came under fire. As ever with an eye for history Churchill wanted to be the first foreign leader to cross into Germany in over 140 years and some 241 years after his illustrious ancestor Marlborough had defeated the French at the Battle of Blenheim in Austria in 1704. As he met General Eisenhower Churchill said, “My Dear General, the German is whipped. We’ve got him. He is all through”.
The rest, as they say, is history. Planning is indeed everything, but so is thinking!