'Sky Soldiers' study historical battle for lessons learned
June 11, 2014
NIJMEGEN, Netherlands (June 11, 2014) -- Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped in to Ginkelse Heide Drop Zone here May 20 in order to begin a staff ride in and around the places where World War II's Operation Market Garden occurred.
A staff ride is an on-site tool that the Army uses to teach leaders about historical battles in a modern context.
"Our leaders were able to get together, learn about the historical event and apply it to our lives here and now," said Capt. Hugo Manzo, a brigade operations officer and the planner of the event.
Operation Market Garden was fought in September of 1944, in the Netherlands (and parts of Germany), to capture and control strategically-positioned bridges in order to advance Allied troops up to and around the German lines. Involving some 35,000 airborne troops from the United States, United Kingdom and Poland, it was the largest combat jump of it's time.
Prior to the jump into the Netherlands, leaders from each of the brigade's battalions studied a certain part of the battle to deliver it to their peers at each of the locations, including Nijmegen, Eindhoven, Arnhem, Grave and Veghel.
"We did a lot of research," said Capt. Andrew J. Michael, commander, Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment. "The best way to prepare for a staff ride is to get information from first-person accounts; so we scoured books, videos and other sources to see what these Soldiers were thinking before and after the battle.
With the 173rd Airborne Brigade forward-positioned in Europe, visiting a European battlefield was a unique benefit for the American paratroopers. The first morning after arriving in Nijmegen, the paratroopers took to the streets, running across the Waal Bridge, where during the war, Dutch combat engineering units blew up the bridge to stop the German army's advance. They also ran to other spots in the city, including the spot where troops forded the river in canvas boats -- stopping for a historical discussion at each site to visit discuss the events.
"It's a phenomenal opportunity. We don't get opportunities like this very often," said Lt. Col. Jon P. Beale, commander, 173rd Brigade Support Battalion. "The number one benefit for the officers and [non-commissioned officers] who attended the staff ride, was building their understanding of the European environment. It helps to achieve a shared understanding of our NATO allies here."
After Nijmegen, the assembled troops traveled to Arnhem's John Frost Bridge, which was named after the commander of the British 1st Airborne Division who were tasked with defending the bridge during the Battle of Arnhem, to discuss Allied and German leaders and what parts they allied played in the operation.
While many have studied the battle in a classroom setting or seen movies like "A Bridge Too Far," for the paratroopers of the 173rd, seeing history in front of them proved to be beneficial.
"It's amazing how much better it all comes to life when you see it and walk the ground, rather than just reading about it," said Beale. "I've gained a better understanding and appreciation for what our forefathers dealt with as they were trying to win the Second World War."
A key element of a staff ride is seeing the context on the battlefield that drove a leader to a particular decision, and then using that as a reference point for future decisions that may occur in other situations.
"Leaders should capitalize on events like this," said Capt. Mike Morner, commander, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. "We need to look at ever single nuance of information, get the historical facts; see what went wrong and what went right. If they failed, why did they fail? When you learn these lessons they are with you forever."
When the leaders visited the John S. Thompson Bridge at Grave, where the young lieutenant and his paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division secured a bridge across the Maas river, and the Zuid-Willemsvaart Canal Bridge at Veghel, where the army rapidly built a pontoon bridge strong enough to support armor units crossing. They spoke of the signal, logistical and engineering challenges that the operation faced and how each contributed to the mission's successes and failures. While many of the objectives of the mission were completed, the operation is generally thought to have been a failure.
The learning shouldn't end when the event does.
"After a staff ride, go back and reread all the materials and new things will jump out at you," said Col. Michael Foster, the brigade commander. "It helps to put things into context and understand the story more. It all crystallizes after coming out and seeing it."
Staff rides are a form of hands-on leader development, combining individual and team study with group participation.
"Leader development takes all forms," said Beale. "Over the last 13 years, most of our leaders have grown and gained experience in combat, but haven't gotten the depth of understanding when it comes to the historical contexts of war."
While staff ride opportunities may not be a common event, they are recommended as a learning tool.
"There are many ways to learn from staff rides," said Foster. "You can have people play different units or staff elements, you can brief at each location - looking at maps to see who has the advantage and who doesn't, but the most important thing is taking the time to do it."
The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, is the Army's Contingency Response Force in Europe, and is capable of projecting forces to conduct a full range of military operations across the United States European, Central and Africa Commands of responsibility.