A Section Commander’s Perspective: How an example of tactical action during Operation Market Garden may allow us to analyse and link the British Army Leadership Code with Mission Command, learning lessons in the process.
“Lastly hang tough! Never, ever give up regardless of the adversity. If you are a leader, a fellow who other fellows look to, you have to keep going”
I am an Infantry Section Commander serving with The Second Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. In 2019, during a British Army organised battlefield study to Holland, studying Op Market Garden, we conducted detailed analysis of the action on Grave Bridge, 17 Sep 1944. On hearing the story of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), and in particular the brave actions of Lt Thompson, it seemed that we might be able to draw parallels with modern doctrine, analyse potential links and, in the process, learn lessons from the past.
To do this, I will select relevant tenants from the British Army Leadership Code and how they might relate to Mission Command, inspired by Lieutenant Thompson’s actions on Grave Bridge.
Operation Market Garden. Timing: 1230, 17 Sep 1944.
Objective: Grave Bridge, 520 meters in length: A critical crossing point over the River Waal which must be secured to allow re-enforcements to relieve the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.
Situation: 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (US) landed near their designated zones, but were dispersed and heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the occupying German force.
Outcome: Led by Lt Thompson, 16 troops successfully secured Grave bridge, enabling the rest of the Brigade to move through. During the mission Thompson decided to continue forward towards the bridge even with reduced man-power and while severely dislocated from his Company and Battalion. Having landed with his team less than 1 km from the bridge, and with one casualty, Thompson understood the intent and seized the initiative, pressing home a successful attack against the Germans.
With hindsight, I believe he demonstrated key leadership characteristics (as defined in the Army Leadership Code), such as; demanding high performance, striving for team goals and recognising strengths and weaknesses. In turn, I believe these characteristics encourage and link to Mission Command, where increased Unity of Effort, Mutual Understanding, Freedom of Action and Trust were enhanced. This essay will pair principles to show how they are mutually supportive.
Demanding High Performance and Mutual Understanding
“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it”
In describing the principles, The Army Leadership Code notes that “high performance isn’t…desirable, it is critical” and “leaders must have high performance expectations and communicate them to their teams”, noting that “expectations must be tuned to the team” or they can be “demotivational”.
Within Mission Command, mutual understanding is the knowledge between commanders and subordinates, knowing their “issues and concerns” and well as developing an “insight into command at higher levels”, which enables soldiers to “anticipate and apply their initiative to good effect” .
Thompson split his men down into small groups, encouraging and motivating them so that they believed the mission could still be a success. Despite the odds being against them, they managed to grit their teeth, understand the common effort and goal in mind, go forward and assault the Bridge.
He demonstrated that by demanding high performance from your team, enhanced with mutual understanding, the team can have a higher chance of mission success, even in difficult circumstances.
Demanding high performance in these small teams is critical; weak links in such small groups in a high-pressure environment may put the mission at risk. I believe success relies on every man being thoroughly competent with his own soldiering skills and having the courage and confidence that is bred into our infantry soldiers, through our arduous courses, tough training and close-knit Regiments. This develops the mutual understanding between the whole team, and develops the confidence required to take on more complex missions with increased risk.
Had demands for high performance been made only at the command level, and not from private soldier to private soldier, then the mission may not have been so successful. However, success came because of the mutual understanding developed between the team. I think this demonstrates a clear link between demanding high performance, and how mutual understanding underpins it.
Strive for Team Goals and Unity of Effort
“Since this was our primary mission, I decided to attack”
To define the principles, The Army Leadership Code states that “challenging the team to accept and strive for shared goals will create shared purpose, bind them together and foster esprit de corps”.
Within Mission Command, Unity of Effort “stems from the Commander’s ability to formulate a clear intent and mission statements… designation of priorities and a main effort”.
To deliver mission success Thompson and his team had to set clear goals, enhanced with unity of effort, to achieve their mission. Breaking away in small 2-3 man teams without the usual command element can be difficult for command and control. I know this personally from working in small teams in my Specialised Infantry role at battalion. To have any hope of success each man must know what the end result is – and as a commander I have a responsibility to make sure all of my subordinates know what that result is: it is my intent. My intent is what our team goal is!
Working in small teams means you do not have the luxury of having more knowledgeable, senior people to fall back on when you need them. So, you must have the end goal in mind and it must be widely understood. And with a bit of initiative and confidence this creates conditions to be successful. This gives everyone in the team the wider context so that unity of effort can be generated.
Thompson and his men knew the goal set for them, understood the bigger picture, and the Commander’s intent. This generated Unity of Effort, where regardless of whether your team becomes split, or commanders have died, or the situation dictates that you must go at this alone, everyone has that unity of effort and the understanding of the team goal to attack the problem from every angle.
The difference between a good team and a great team is the team spirit and respect for each other that is generated by mutual experience and the attainment of team goals; where you know if the going gets tough, you have the strength to come together and get tougher. In these situations the team develops loyalty and selfless commitment to one another, setting them up to achieve even higher standards. Once that understanding of one another is worked out, it is the baseline to foster the right values and standards required.
Recognising Strengths and Weakness and Trust
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”
The Army Leadership Code states that “Leaders must identify…strengths and weaknesses…to ensure that the team fulfils its potential”. It continues, “Strengths must be played to and challenged to inspire confidence and motivate… always seeking to optimise performance”.
Trust is the “spirit of Mission Command”, where subordinates will “sensibly interpret their intent”, and where “bonds are strengthened when Commanders tolerate mistakes”. When combined, this will improve “speed of decision making and…tempo”.
As a commander it is paramount you recognise strengths and weaknesses in your team. You have to find out what each individual offers to the team, if you are to get the best out of them. Choosing the right people for each job in the section is critical. I believe Thompson would have recognised such factors, or at least recognised in the NCOs that they understood these factors. He demonstrated that if you split people down into small teams, and you’ve identified who’s good at what, then trust them to do the job despite the odds against you: they will deliver.
Once you know the strengths and weaknesses of your men, you are able to trust them more in the jobs you have given them. I believe Lt Thompson had to trust his men fully. Whether he trusted them before the operation or as it unfolded is unknown, but I think the trust between the men complemented the team with their mission success. I think that as a commander, trust must be upheld. But trust doesn’t just mean tasking people to jobs because you trust them to carry out the task; the first man through the door has to have the trust that the man behind him will follow him up, no matter what the situation is. They then have to trust the men behind him to do the same. I feel that trust is developed though individual example, professionalism and integrity. With your knowledge of strengths and weaknesses and mutual understanding, trust will allow you to achieve the high performance standards you have set.
“Trust is a baseline that allows the other values to flourish, if it is lost then “the moral fabric of Mission Command will be lost”.
“I took 10,000 of our finest troops to Arnhem; I’ve come back with less than 2,000″
The roll of honour from Op Market Garden reminds us that we must learn valuable lessons from our forefathers if we are to elevate our chances for success in future conflict. I feel that Lt Thompson’s actions on Grave Bridge demonstrated the timeless principles of our Leadership Code and how they fuse with our principles of Mission Command. It remains a striking example of how these techniques can be exploited to achieve mission success, even against the odds.
Demanding high performance from your men is underpinned by mutual understanding; everyone wants to do well and succeed. Striving for team goals, and understanding the intent and bigger picture, gives us unity of effort which is critical if a team is to maintain momentum and take the initiative. If I understand the strengths and weaknesses in my Section, having recognised who’s good at what and with trust installed in them to do the job, then they can work with greater freedom of action. This will allow my Section (and subsequently the Battalion) to deliver quicker movement, thinking and decisions, unbalancing the enemy, just like Lt Thompson did in 1944.
About the author: Corporal Jack Smith is a section commander in the 2nd Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, an infantry battalion in the British Army. He recently took part in a battlefield tour in Holland (sometimes referred to as a ‘staff ride’) to study Operation Market Garden, the attempt to cross the Rhine and shorten the war, which was immortalised in the book and film, A Bridge Too Far. The bridge is now named the John S. Thompson Bridge.
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