They were better. Man for man, German soldiers fought more effectively in World War II than their Allied counterparts did. This was never more vividly exemplified than at the prosperous Dutch town of Arnhem in September 1944, when supposedly elite British airborne troops were dropped sixty-five miles beyond the Allied front. Although profiting from surprise and an overwhelming superiority of resources, they were overwhelmed by haphazardly assembled German battle groups that inflicted a gratuitous humiliation on them in the last months before the Third Reich succumbed.
How did this come about? It was chiefly a consequence of hubris—a belief that, after the Allies’ dramatic August breakout from Normandy, Hitler’s armies were on the ropes. Britain’s commander-in-chief, the newly promoted field marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, stood by a dusty French roadside urging an armored column roaring past: “On to the kill!” This was not merely theater for the benefit of such listening war correspondents as my father: Monty really believed it. Thus he made one of the most grievous strategic errors of the northwest Europe campaign, declining to hasten troops to clear the approaches to the Scheldt River, without which the newly captured port of Antwerp was useless, as Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay warned him. Instead, he launched the most reckless thrust of his career, seeking to seize the bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem.
The principal objective of that thrust, known as Operation Market Garden, was to force the hand not of Hitler, but of Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. If the British secured a corridor beyond the Rhine, Ike would be obliged to support a drive from the north led by Montgomery into Germany: the cocky little bishop’s son saw before him the prospect of passing into history as the composer and conductor of Western Allied victory.
Monty’s chief of intelligence, the peacetime Oxford don Edgar “Bill” Williams, told me ruefully in 1982, “The Germans always punished mistakes. If you exposed a flank, stuck out a spearhead too far, they spotted it and acted.” This lesson had been driven home again and again by the painful experiences of both British and American formations in the Mediterranean and Normandy. Speed of response to the unexpected was a hallmark of German military leadership.
Yet the clumsy, euphoric, almost mindless planning for Market Garden took no heed of this. For years afterward it was alleged that the British ignored intelligence officer Major Brian Urquhart’s warning, based on aerial photos, that there were enemy tanks at Arnhem. In truth the photos were redundant. Decrypted German communications revealed indisputably their proximity. Drastically shrunken by battlefield losses though the Ninth and Tenth SS Panzer divisions were, the Allied airborne units ordered to drop on their doorsteps lacked both punch and mobility to meet even weak armor, and the armored vehicles already at Arnhem were reinforced from Germany with a speed never imagined possible.
At the insistence of Allied air chiefs fearful of flak, planners withdrew proposals to land forces beside the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem, as had been done with spectacular success at the Caen Canal on D-Day. Appointed drop zones for the two American and one British airborne formations instructed to secure the sixty-mile route between the Allied front line and Arnhem lay in open country, at least two hours’ march from the main objectives. The British First Airborne Division was allotted the longest distance to cover and thus the toughest: if the operation went wrong, it would be politically calamitous if American paratroopers became the principal victims of a British plan. Yet the US Eighty-Second and 101st Airborne Divisions were much more experienced and better led than their British counterparts, many of which had never been in combat.
In the course of World War II, while the British went short of much else, they nursed an almost unlimited wealth of dud military commanders. As Antony Beevor observes in The Battle of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II, his masterly account of what became the Arnhem fiasco, even among a throng of duffers Lieutenant General Frederick “Boy” Browning, the husband of the novelist Daphne du Maurier and the commander of the operation, stands proud as a model of conceit, insensitivity, and incompetence.
Browning was a forty-seven-year-old Guardsman who had seen no action since World War I. After the cancellation of a succession of airborne assaults since D-Day, their objectives overrun by the ground advance, he had become desperate to lead his corps in battle before the apparently imminent German capitulation. Browning cannot be blamed for Montgomery’s initial folly, or for the failure of communications that overtook the First Airborne in Holland, or for the sluggishness of the advance of Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks’s XXX Corps toward Arnhem along a single Dutch road, its surrounding countryside too waterlogged for armor.
He must be held responsible, however, for not saying at the outset that the plan was unworkable. (Beevor doubts that he ever spoke of the “bridge too far” attributed to him by Cornelius Ryan in his 1974 book of that title on the operation.) When the Sixth Airborne’s outstanding commander Major General Richard Gale told Browning that he would have resigned rather than execute such a crazy scheme, the Guardsman merely requested that Gale not broadcast his skepticism, lest he lower morale among those committed to it. Browning failed miserably to grip the battle once it started, confirming American commanders in their disdain and indeed disgust toward him. He poured good money after bad by sustaining the operation long after it had obviously failed. He then scapegoated everybody else in sight for his own blunders.
Beevor’s great coup in writing this account, the first by a major writer since Ryan, was to trawl the Irish-American war correspondent’s archive in the Alden Library at Ohio University. Ryan was supported in his 1970–1974 research by a small army of interviewers funded by Reader’s Digest (those were the days!). He was able to use only a fraction of the transcripts they amassed from meetings with hundreds of British, American, and German veterans. While Beevor’s narrative follows a familiar path, it is thus illuminated by a host of hitherto unpublished anecdotes and quotations, together with the fruits of his own labors in Dutch archives. The outcome is a much more comprehensive and reliable account than that produced by Ryan, not least because when the latter’s work appeared, the “Ultra secret” of Allied code-breaking triumphs had not been revealed to the world.
Beevor enjoys a further advantage: almost all the veterans of the First Airborne are now dead. Thus it is no longer necessary in Britain to try to sustain the myth that it was an elite formation, all of whose men fought like tigers; some did, but others ran away. When John Keegan avowed this disagreeable reality in print back in 1994, the former commander of the Fourth Airborne Brigade at Arnhem, the formidable pocket-sized General Sir John Hackett, sprang at the historian’s throat. A severely mauled Keegan observed to me at the time that he would never write about Arnhem again as long as Hackett was alive. It was unacceptable to Hackett’s generation to face uncomfortable truths about its own battlefield limitations. And media sentimentality always swings behind supposed “war heroes” at the expense of scholarly critics.
The first British and American landings were conducted by 1,500 paratroop-dropping aircraft and five hundred gliders on the afternoon of September 17, 1944. There was an interval of more than six hours—six hours!—between the first parachute opening at 1:40 PM and the arrival on foot at the north end of the Arnhem bridge of the first men of Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s Second Parachute Battalion in darkness at 8 PM. An hour earlier—more than five hours after the operation began—SS reinforcements were able to dash unimpeded south across the bridge to secure the Waal crossing at Nijmegen, held by just eighteen Germans when the first men of the US Eighty-Second Airborne dropped a few miles away.
Part of the British trouble was that many of their men were novices to battle. It was a hard thing, after the tension, terror, and thrill of their parachute and glider landings, to summon the urgency that was indispensable to stake out positions in Arnhem before the Germans recovered their balance. Insofar as there were authentic stars of the Arnhem fight, most were German or Dutch. The speed of response of the Waffen SS quartered around the town, above all Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich of II SS Panzer Corps, was awesome. The moment they saw parachutes descending to the north, on open ground beyond the suburb of Oosterbeek, they acted.
Beevor writes, “Unlike the British army, German officers did not wait for orders from above.” Those around Arnhem, notably including Sturmbannführer Sepp Krafft and Obersturmbannführer Ludwig Spindler, mustered every trainee, cook, clerk, and bottle-washer within reach into Kampfgruppen—ad hoc battle groups—that played a crucial part in sustaining the German front in northwest Europe through the closing months of the war. Krafft and Spindler interposed their motley bands to extraordinary effect between the First Airborne’s drop zone and the bridge at Arnhem.
No British attempt was made to land men simultaneously on the south bank of the Rhine, nearest the Allied lines, and the paratroops failed in their own attempts to cross the bridge under fire. Thus from the first evening of the operation, contrary to subsequent myths that they “held the bridge at Arnhem,” the Second Parachute Battalion merely clung to a foothold on the north side, with the Rhine and some very lively Germans between them and the nearest Allied land forces.
As other parachute battalions sought to advance into Arnhem to reinforce Frost, some displayed notable tactical ineptitude, plodding headlong down the road into a storm of fire, for instance. They were successively chewed and broken up by the rag-tag German forces in their path. Lightly armed, with wireless sets that proved useless and thus with their higher commanders almost impotent, through the nine days that followed they clung to shrinking perimeters as German reinforcements closed in on them.
Within twelve hours of the operation’s start it became clear it was doomed. The essential reality was that if XXX Corps were to cover only the fifty miles from the Allied lines to Nijmegen—one bridge short of the Rhine—that could not possibly make the operation 90 percent successful, as Montgomery claimed: the Allies would merely hold a cul-de-sac, a long salient to nowhere, unless they also had the Arnhem crossing.
Although British officers then and many historians since have described events as if they constituted a suspense story, there was and probably never could have been any doubt about the outcome once Frost and his men found them selves stuck on the north bank of the Rhine and obliged to surrender on the third day of their stand. The tragedy that pervades every narrative of the battle is of the host of American and British men, together with hundreds of often forgotten Dutch civilians, who perished for a mission that had already failed.
The American airborne formations, which had distinguished themselves in Normandy, did their stuff in Holland with notably greater energy and effectiveness than their British counterparts. Commanders Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin were outstanding soldiers in any setting, though the third famous American paratrooper of the war, Maxwell Taylor of the 101st, was less highly regarded or liked.
The Americans displayed plenty of courage and initiative to secure and hold most of their objectives on the route to Arnhem, though they did not get everything right: it was an American officer who defied orders and carried Browning’s entire battle plan aboard his Waco glider to the battlefield. When he was killed, this devastating document fell into German hands and was on the desk of Field Marshal Walther Model within hours. Moreover, Gavin afterward blamed himself for dispatching his least capable regimental commander, Roy Lindquist of the 508th, to seize the bridge at Nijmegen. Lindquist dawdled; the Germans hastened; the bridge was taken only after desperate fighting, on the sixth day of battle instead of the first or second, as planned.
Beevor takes an unusually harsh, but I think just, view of Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, XXX Corps’ commander, who was responsible for the ground drive to Arnhem. Horrocks’s mask of geniality disguised a condition of constant pain, following severe wounds incurred in Italy, together with modest intellect. He too should have seen and avowed the huge flaws of the plan before it was executed.
Foremost was that the overwhelming materiel superiority of the Allies in their advance across France and the Low Countries became irrelevant on “Hell’s Highway,” the road to Arnhem, where the needle point of the attacking spearhead—a handful of Sherman tanks and supporting infantry—met doggedly determined German troops equipped with excellent antitank weapons. In the first days, Allied close air support was largely ineffective because it was ill-directed, especially around Arnhem.
The British army has never excelled at swift advances, and the Guards Armoured Division mandated to dash for the Rhine was better suited to conduct last-ditch, last-man infantry defensive actions than to emulate General Erwin Rommel’s panzers. Montgomery had wanted to replace Allan Adair, its commander, before D-Day, but the institutional weight of the Guards—a gentlemen’s trade union combating the British army’s foremost cad—frustrated his purpose.
Be that as it may, the number of Guards armored soldiers who perished on the road to Arnhem puts to flight the notion that they were cowards, but cruel American taunts about their repeated halts to brew tea were justified, says Beevor. The US Eighty-Second’s scorn for the British plumbed new depths after Major Julian Cook led the supremely heroic boat assault across the Waal on September 20, in which half his men fell—89 dead and 151 wounded among paratroopers and engineers. The British failure, after storming the Nijmegen bridge, to hasten on toward Arnhem may have been rational but was scarcely noble. Major Dick Winters of the 101st’s famous Easy Company (“Band of Brothers”) described Churchill’s soldiers as “not aggressive.”
Much has been said, and is here refreshed by Beevor, about chivalrous SS behavior toward the trapped remnants of the First Airborne, which fought on until September 26 at Oosterbeek, a village three miles west of Arnhem; that stand, though militarily futile, contributed much to the legend of Arnhem. The Germans permitted several truces to allow the removal of both sides’ wounded, and treated British casualties humanely while handling the Dutch with unbridled savagery. I once interviewed a former paratrooper captured at Arnhem who described to me the shame of himself and his comrades as the Waffen SS distributed cigarettes among them, “while on the other side of the square they were executing Dutchmen whom they thought had helped us.”
The Oosterbeek defense persisted for as long as it did because it received belated long-range support from British heavy guns at Nijmegen, and because German infantry showed a marked unwillingness to get themselves killed in the process of finishing off a pack of cornered wolves. The RAF’s gallantry in parachuting supplies and munitions amid dense flak was largely wasted, since most fell into the hands of Germans who especially appreciated the real coffee and chocolate, delicacies long denied to them at home. A para lieutenant known only as “David” scrawled some recollections of the nightmare:
I was obsessed by recurring scenes…of Mervyn with his arm hanging off, of Pete lying in his grotesque attitude, quite unrecognizable, of Angus lying in the dark clinging to the grass in his agony, of the private shouting vainly for a medical orderly…of the man running gaily across an opening, the quick crack and his surprised look as he clutched the back of his neck, of his jumps more convulsive as more bullets hit him. How stupid all this war game is.
Some 2,500 Airborne survivors were belatedly ferried back across the Rhine to Allied lines on the night of September 25–26, at the cost of another two hundred casualties. Thereafter, the hapless US Airborne divisions were obliged to sustain a miserable defense of the Arnhem salient amid the wettest winter weather in the region since 1864, under Montgomery’s command. Canadian troops suffered heavy casualties in clearing the Scheldt approaches, enabling the first Allied ship to offload at Antwerp on November 28, eighty-five days after the port was captured intact. This task could have been swiftly accomplished in September, had Montgomery grasped its importance to the campaign.
“Boy” Browning received a knighthood after Arnhem, a frequent British device for cloaking disaster in a screen of laurels: Gavin observed that an American officer in similar circumstances would have been shipped home with ignominy. Horrocks blamed most of what had gone wrong on a poor fighting performance by the paras, saying that “the First Airborne Division plan was fundamentally unsound and it fought a bad battle.”
Browning secured the sacking of the Polish Airborne Brigade’s commander, Major General Stanisław Sosabowski, one of the few officers who had the courage to say, openly and from the outset, that the operation was doomed. At the prelanding briefing the Pole interrupted the divisional commander’s fluent narrative of what was supposed to happen by wagging a cautionary finger: “But the Germans, General…the Germans!” The Polish contingents in Britain and Italy, which in the fall of 1944 could do nothing while the Germans crushed the Warsaw Uprising as the Red Army looked on from the other side of the Vistula River, were exploited with ruthless cynicism by their British hosts. Montgomery had the effrontery to write to army chief Alan Brooke, “Polish Para Brigade fought very badly…. I do not want this brigade here.”
Such Allied martial glory as was won during Market Garden belonged to the US Airborne divisions, which fought magnificently against repeated German thrusts to cut the road north. A captain of the 506th wrote, “At one point the men were so weary that [on] the order to rest, [they] fell almost as one to the ground without even attempting to remove their pack, falling immediately into deep slumber.” Beevor nonetheless notes that some people were appalled by the ruthlessness with which they shot prisoners. A British tank colonel wrote, “I shall never forget seeing a Jeep full of American paratroopers driving along with the head of a German pierced with an iron stake and tied to the front.” Imagine what Americans would have said about Waffen SS who treated a dead GI in similar fashion.
Ridgway, Gavin, and Taylor, all of whom became important figures in the postwar US Army, never recovered the respect for the British army that they lost while witnessing its abysmal showing in Market Garden. Gavin was also honest enough to note—frequently—in his diary that few ordinary US infantry formations in northwest Europe remotely matched the energy and courage displayed by the Airborne divisions.
Major Geoffrey Powell, a British para who fought at Arnhem, noted in a memoir published long afterward that the Allied cause might have been better served by using the elite paratroop units as ordinary infantry, rather than lavishing huge resources of men, planes, and equipment on creating the Airborne army. Ironically, of course, the original impulse for this came from the German seizure of Crete in 1941, an operation in which the heavy Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) casualties convinced Berlin that the mass parachute concept was not worth the trouble.
Small airborne operations, such as the 1942 British raid on the German radar station at Bruneval, in northern France, by a company led by John Frost, sometimes worked. Huge, ambitious landings, including the March 1945 Rhine crossing, almost invariably ended in a shambles. The D-Day airborne operations were also chaotic, but perversely worked by confusing the Germans. Moreover, within hours the paratroopers linked up with the formations arriving by sea.
The British Sixth Airborne Division that fought in Normandy was a far more impressive outfit, much better led than the First that dropped at Arnhem. The September battle cost the British paratroopers some 1,500 dead and 6,000 captured, almost a third of them wounded—a modest toll in the ghastly grand scheme of a world war, and fewer dead than the Dutch civilian population suffered. XXX Corps lost some 1,500 wounded and dead; US forces nearly four thousand. Geoffrey Powell stared back at the Oosterbeek perimeter across the river from the south bank after his own escape in “complete disbelief. I simply could not believe I had got out alive.”
The Germans punished Arnhem by evacuating and comprehensively looting the town. They taunted the refugees “with comments about what their friendship with the British had done for them.” Waffen SS morale soared after a victory that seemed, in some measure, to compensate for defeat in Normandy. In Nijmegen the fighting left 16,000 inhabitants homeless. Although the town was now at least liberated, much of the Netherlands suffered starvation in what became known as its Hongerwinter of 1944, in which people were reduced to eating tulip bulbs and at least 18,000 died—a horror story Beevor tells as a postscript to his narrative of the battle.
His account surely leaves almost nothing for future historians to discover or say about Arnhem, though that will not prevent them from trying. If I were to niggle, I would suggest that some anecdotage becomes as repetitive as the battle did for its participants, as day after day gangrenous para casualties tended by devoted Dutchwomen expire in crowded cellars, while signalers struggle in vain to contact higher commanders and German battle groups battered at the Allied salient.
In truth, however, Beevor has compiled a meticulous, wonderfully vivid, and justly angry account of one of the great cock-ups of World War II. He writes of Montgomery’s desperate grab at mastery of the Allied campaign:
The idea that Britain remained a first-rate power was a fantasy which Churchill desperately tried to promote, even though he knew in his heart that it was not the case…. One could argue that September 1944 was the origin of that disastrous cliché which lingers on even today about the country punching above its weight.
I am often asked by lecture audiences whether Arnhem could have worked, and earn a cheap laugh by responding, “Yes—against the Italians.” But not the Germans. Like I said, they were better.