Arnhem by Antony Beevor

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When it comes to framing a defeat, the British have always managed to make any remarkable failure heroic.  It is a rather remarkable trait. One of the finest examples of this is Operation Market Garden, the combined Airborne and Armour assault on the Dutch bridges in 1944.  The mission was flawed from the outset. Market Garden has been written about, made into movies and endlessly debated ever since. What isn’t debated is the incredible performance and sacrifice of the 1st Airborne Division, dropped at Arnhem to take the crucial road bridge and the equally incredible German response.  Taking a fresh look at the battle is Antony Beevor, who writes his history with an anger I haven’t seen before in his works.

Operation Market Garden came about through two competing issues, the ego and prestige of the commanders racing out of Normandy and wanting to lead the charge into Germany.  The American and British armies, once free of confines of Normandy’s brocage, hounded the retreating Germans. To the south, General George S. Patton’s armour was advancing at an incredible rate.  In the North, the newly christened Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was pushing through Belgium with his eyes on advancing into Germany through Holland. The issue was supplies. With no Channel port yet captured, supplies were still coming from the beaches via the incredible “Red Ball Express”, a constant stream of trucks supplying the fuel, food and ammunition that kept the advance going.  Who got the supplies was a fine balancing act by Eisenhower. Montgomery felt he should be in overall command of the advance and told this to everyone who would listen, and even those who wished they couldn’t. To this end, as the advance slowed at the Belgium/Dutch border, Monty ordered plans to be drawn up for an ambitious assault on the Dutch Bridges and open the door to German.

The two pronged attack would involve the First Allied Airborne Army to drop at strategic points along the road to Arnhem, Operation Market.  The American 101st Airborne would drop at Son, near Eindhoven, the 82nd at Grave, near Nijmegen and the British 1st Airborne Division, the furthest north, at Arnhem.  They were to hold until XXX Corp, under the command of the injured General Brian Horrocks could race his armour north and relieve them in Operation Garden. The plan was drawn up with supreme haste.  Issues such as the radios were not powerful enough for Dutch conditions were not raised. The fact that Operation Garden followed the exact criteria for failing the Dutch Army’s officer training course wasn’t even checked with the Dutch Government and Army in exile.  And, the planners and commanders completely underestimated the response of the Germans. Expecting “old men and boys”, they faced Generalfeldmarchall Walter Model, one of the finest defensive commanders in the Wehrmarcht, and experienced troops and commanders that would also include the II SS Panzer Corp.  It was a disaster from the off.

 The Arnhem Road Bridge, Sept 20th 1944

The Arnhem Road Bridge, Sept 20th 1944

Antony Beevor is a master at writing a compelling, complex, history.  His previous works on Stalingrad and Berlin are terrifying reads as he documents the cruelest actions of the Eastern Front.  In D-Day and Ardennes 1944, he shows in detail the difference of the Western Front, the desperate defence of the Germans and the their audacity in launching the Ardennes offensive.  In all his works, his prose flows and the horror of what the young men on both sides faced, and the terrible things they did, are contrasted with the terrible conditions of the civilians caught in the crossfire.  In Arnhem, we have Beevor at his most angry. He covers the planning at pace as he shows the siloed thinking of the commanders and planners. They assumed the war was done after Normandy and this would be the end of it.  Beevor shows us the internal politics of Allied High Command, and the failings at all levels, that allowed Monty to get away with what he did. Eisenhower was already looking ahead to fighting the peace when the war was still far from done.

Beevor frames his criticisms of the commanders around their own words and actions, so that his conclusions are backed up with fact we cannot argue too much about.  While most of the commanders come in for comment, Beevor holds Montgomery the most responsible and, as a result, Monty does not come off well in this history. Beevor backs his feelings on Monty with what happens on the ground and how Monty’s reactions where mostly were to cover his ass.  What is refreshing to read is the treatment of the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade and it’s commander, Major-General Stanislaw Sosabowski. Sosabowski’s men were delayed on dropping on Arnhem and as such, were unable to get to the 1st Airborne at the bridge or at Oosterbeek. Their performance, once in theatre, was nothing less than brilliant.  Yet, Sosabowski’s brusque demeanor did not endear him to his fellow Allied commanders and the like of Horrocks and Browning made sure that after the battle and after the war, Sosabowski would take the brunt for others failings. Beevor pays Sosabowski and his men a true tribute in his book as their actions are nothing less than remarkable.

Antony Beevor’s skill is in ensuring you don’t get lost in the middle of huge, often confusing, chains of events.  Weaving anecdotes of those involved and with often heartbreaking asides, his books place you in the heart of the action and you are transfixed by what is going on around you.  In Arnhem, as I mentioned before, his anger at the needless sacrifice of the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, and the failings of command that go to the top with Eisenhower’s continual failure to impose his authority on his subordinates, is palpable.  Arnhem races along at a pace, but is written so skillful that you know you are being guided through these terrible events by the hand of a master. Antony Beevor has written a superb tribute to the men who stepped out of the door of an aircraft into a situation that was broken from the moment it was dreamt up.

Arnhem by Antony Beevor is out now and published by Viking, who kindly supplied this review copy.