Arnhem: Ten Days in the Cauldron by Iain Ballantyne
On 17th September 1944, around 10,000 airborne soldiers were dropped 64 miles behind the German lines and were required to hold the vital bridges at Arnhem. What would happen would go down in legend. Iain Ballantyne, author of the superb submarine history The Deadly Trade (my review here), takes a tactical look at the men on the ground and the civilians who found the war entering every room in their homes.
Operation Market involved dropping the First Allied Airborne Army at various strategically important points throughout Holland, the 101st Airborne at Son and Veghel, the 82nd Airborne at Grave and Nijmegen and at Arnhem and Oosterbeek the 1st Airborne and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. It is this drop that would enter legend. As soon as the men began landing on the ground, deep into Holland, they found their radios didn’t work. Without communications, a slow start in the race to their objectives was made and the commander of the British 1st Airborne, Major-General Roy Urquhart, made the decision to take to a jeep to find his men.
This lack of control was the first domino in a cascade of issues that would doom the already heavily flawed operation. The other main miscalculation was made about the opposition. Following the incredible breakout and effective destruction of the German army in Normandy, the expectation was that the German forces in Holland were of poor quality. Unfortunately for the men falling from the skies, they were not. The Germans would field what was left of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, Kurt Student’s 1st Parachute Army and the XII SS Corp. While none of these units was at full strength, the 9th and 10th were armoured, which the 1st Airborne was not.
Over the ten days of the battle, the perimeter created and defended by the British would be termed by the attacking Germans "Der Hexenkessel", the "Witches Cauldron". While Ballantyne touches on how Horrock’s XXX Corp is getting on as they race north towards Arnhem, it is 1st Airborne and the inhabitants of the towns they would briefly liberate that is the focus of Ballantyne’s narrative.
In the memoirs of Arnhem and Oosterbeek residents Jan Loos and Frans de Soet, Ballantyne is able to bring an incredible viewpoint to the battle. It would be within their homes that the battle would be fought and lost. To see this utter ferocity from the eyes of those caught in the middle is remarkable. All too often in histories of the great battles, the civilians are a footnote or a statistic, here Ballantyne uses Loos and de Soet’s viewpoint to great effect. Through each chapter that covers each day of the battle, Ballantyne show the deterioration of the conditions the men fighting and the men and women caught up in the fighting face. Also, how the joy of having the Allies show up dissipates as the reality of the overstretch starts to sink in.
Iain Ballantyne in his previous books, The Deadly Trade and Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom, has a brilliant knack of bringing the human element to the fore. The experience of the people in the thick of it can sometimes be lost in larger narratives, but with the narrow focus here, Ballantyne is able to hammer home the brutal experience of those caught up in those ten days in September 1944. But Ballantyne wisely carries the story of Loos and de Soet forward and into the usually forgotten Dutch famine that followed these battles. With the Germans stripping everything of value from Holland, the civilians faced the brutal winter of 1944 on their own. The cost of war is forever highest upon those caught up in it.
Arnhem: Ten Days in the Cauldron enters a crowded market for books on Arnhem, especially in this 75th anniversary year. But, Iain Ballantyne’s book can stand with the best of them. Ballantyne has crafted a breathless read and the testimony of Jan Loos and Frans de Soet not only elevates the narrative of this brutal battle, but complements the soldier’s view with a great level of heart and heartbreak.
Arnhem: Ten Days in the Cauldron by Iain Ballantyne is published by Agora Books on 12th September 2019 who kindly provided this review copy. RRP £9.99