Saturday, August 22, 2020

Arnhem by Anthony Beevor

Beevor’s latest tome takes on the WWII battle that perhaps fascinates me the most.

For what occurred around that last bridge in September 1944 is forever poised in that uncertain space between heroic British failure and epic British cock-up.

Our lot were left to assign themselves the trickiest bit of the operation with the least logistical support, largely because they dared not run the risk of an American airborne division being wiped out whilst under British command. (The Germans later wrote up a report detailing how the whole air-dropped advance had been back to front.)

That said, the ‘plan’, as such, was flawed on so many levels and Beevor doesn't hold back...

“Many historians, with an ‘if only’ approach to the British defeat, have focused so much on different aspects of Operation Market Garden which went wrong that they have tended to overlook the central element. It was quite simply a very bad plan right from the start and right from the top. Every other problem stemmed from that.

“Montgomery had not shown any interest in the practical problems surrounding airborne operations. He had not taken any time to study the often chaotic experiences of North Africa, Sicily and the drop on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. Montgomery’s intelligence chief, Brigadier Bill Williams, also pointed to the way that ‘Arnhem depended on a study of the ground [which] Monty had not made when he decided on it.’ In fact he obstinately refused to listen to the Dutch commander-in-chief Prince Bernhard, who had warned him about the impossibility of deploying armoured vehicles off the single raised road on to the low-lying polderland flood plain.

“Yet towering over everything else, and never openly admitted, was the fact that the whole operation depended on everything going right, when it was an unwritten rule of warfare that no plan survives contact with the enemy. This was doubly true of airborne operations.”

Monty’s reputation has certainly taken a a bit of a beating since my schooldays. As an Old Pauline he was quietly venerated in that institution, especially for his role in planning the D-Day landings. One of the key spaces in the school was permanently adorned with an example of the massive Normandy planning maps he’d apparently used.

I’d witnessed his state funeral in Windsor live on TV and was also aware how my uncle had served under him as a ‘desert rat’ in North Africa. Alamein was still seen as a key turning point in the war pre-Pearl Harbour.

But these days there’s no getting around the way he allowed ‘office politics’ to cloud his judgment in the formulation of Market Garden.

Beevor even suggests that part of the problem was that Allied commanders then felt somehow released from the need for extreme care that had preceded the establishment of the beachhead.

So far this is Beevor's most readable bit of wartime history, probably because he appears to be prioritising the narrative elements over the military detail that he has previously been over fond of. In the very first chapter he allows himself the levity of referring to 'A German regiment...' without further ado.

No matter how much one thinks one knows about these events, they retain their inevitable power to shock on re-acquaintance...

"Generalleutnant Walter Dornberger, the Inspector of Long-Range Rocket Troops, was later recorded secretly in a British prisoner-of-war camp speaking of the activities of his colleague SS-Standartenführer Behr. ‘In the Netherlands he made Dutchmen build the sites for the V2,’ Dornberger told fellow officers, ‘then he had them herded together and killed by machinegun fire. He opened brothels for his soldiers with twenty Dutch girls. When they’d been there for two weeks they were shot and new ones brought along, so that they couldn’t divulge anything they might discover from the soldiers."


"Approximately 110,000 Jews out of 140,000 were deported from the Netherlands, and only 6,000 of these survived the war."


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