2019 marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden. This daring Allied airborne plan aimed to secure crossings across the River Rhine, advance into northern Germany and swiftly end the Second World War. In reality, Market Garden was a costly failure that resulted in high casualties and delayed the Allied push into Germany for months. Nevertheless, the operation was also a remarkable feat of arms due to the extreme courage of Allied troops, which was epitomised by the actions of British paratroopers at Arnhem.
One of the most recent histories about the events of September 1944 has been the Sunday Times No. 1 bestseller Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944. Written by renowned historian Sir Antony Beevor, Arnhem debunks the myths surrounding Market Garden by using overlooked sources from Dutch, British, American, Polish and German archives.
Speaking to History of War before his appearance at the inaugural Chelsea History Festival in London, Beevor reveals the highly flawed plans for the operation, the bravery of soldiers and civilians alike and the often neglected but huge suffering of the Dutch in the wake of the Allies’ failure. He also discusses his own interest in the Second World War as well as it’s continuous and potentially dangerous legacy.
What was the incentive behind writing Arnhem?
The main reason was that I was always rather irritated by other books that never really probed into the disaster of the planning. The other problem was that the real suffering of the Dutch and the consequences of the failure of Operation Market Garden had not really been developed. I’m afraid that the histories of the past have always focussed purely on the military side.
As the great Professor Sir Michael Howard rightly emphasises, it should be the “history of war”. This means that one should be a historian of war and not a military historian, which is a very different matter. You should look at the way civilians are affected just as much as soldiers on operations, as well as their success or failure.
Did you explore the topography of the battlefield at Arnhem as part of your research for the book?
Yes. When it’s possible to do so, it’s terribly important. There are some sites that have changed so much that its almost impossible to go back to. In fact, it’s often a mistake to go back in a way because you might find that it’s impossible to imagine the situation at the time.
However, in the case of Arnhem, I was incredibly lucky to find someone who knows the battlefield. His father was a member of the Dutch Resistance and, although he was very young himself, he was there so he knows the battlefield very well. Somebody like that can tell you about locations even though they might be overgrown with trees. All of those kind of details are very important and its good to see the different kinds of topography as far as possible.
What is your analysis of the plan for Operation Market Garden?
It was a very bad plan, right from the top and right from the start. Montgomery tried to impose his plan against the instructions of Eisenhower and his own War Office. In any airborne operation, the British Army left the planning to the Royal Air Force or consulted them. Montgomery refused to do that and was convinced that the RAF was cowardly. He had no idea about airborne operations but he laid down the law. General “Boy” Browning then told the American air force commanders the plan but they pointed out that it couldn’t be done.
This was because the airborne distances were greater than the calculations Browning had made and that they couldn’t stick two gliders behind each tug aircraft. The days were also shorter and, crucially, this meant that they couldn’t have two lifts on the first day. All of the assumptions were completely turned upside down and Browning should have said to Montgomery, “We must re-think the whole thing.”
The other problem was that the aircraft, paratroopers and gliders landed on the wrong side of Arnhem, eight miles away from their target. This meant that the paratroopers lost all surprise, which is the one weapon that airborne troops need. If you don’t have surprise and are too lightly armed you’re going to get a very bloody mess. I’m afraid that’s exactly what happened.
What are your thoughts on Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s and 2 Para’s stand at Arnhem Bridge?
They were incredibly brave and fought extremely well. The Panzer Grenadiers were full of admiration and considering their numbers they outfought the Germans there. But, of course, they were in a minority and didn’t have any heavy weapons. There is absolutely no critical criticism that can be held against them there and Frost’s leadership was superb. The real problem lay with the planning and that is the answer to what went wrong. Arnhem was a very unnecessary defeat.
What did Arnhem say about the determination of the Germans to keep fighting?
One has to be careful about generalising. What’s interesting is that some historians, on the whole, try to make strong contrasts between the fighting qualities of the Germans and the British. It’s true that the Germans had a much more effective system because the British Army was pretty hidebound, conservative and relied too much on the chain of command. The Germans were much more flexible but you had paratroopers fighting the SS at Arnhem and they were both elite units. When you compare the average troops then there isn’t a huge difference between them.
Many of the conscripted Germans were not that keen on fighting and they wanted to survive. Any idea that they were as fanatical as the SS is wrong. They may have had fanatics amongst them who had some reason, either because their families had been killed in the East by the Russians or in the bombing raids, and were determined to die. However, they were a small minority and while you may have had a handful in a single battalion they were not representative.
What is very striking, as British, German, American and even Russian research has shown is that, among the average troops, very few fired their guns in actual battle. They were basically not killers in that particular sense. In an average platoon you had one small group who really did the fighting, one who was prepared to run away at the first opportunity and in between you had varying groups. These were prepared to fight if they followed the fighters or they would quite often follow the runners if things went badly. So, from that point of view, one mustn’t make too many sweeping judgements about the difference between armies.
How detrimental was the failure of Operation Market Garden for the Dutch?
It was utterly disastrous. Not only did many of them (perhaps around 3,000) get killed in the fighting but also, because of their bravery in helping the Allies, the real horror came later when the Germans took their revenge.
Many of the stories in the book are about the bravery of the civilians and particularly the degree of suffering. The Dutch had gone out with their farm carts to help transport supplies and young teenagers had even dug trenches for paratroopers. They did anything to help and the women would pull the wounded into their houses to tend them. They did this even though the Germans would deliberately shoot them down in the street because they were regarded as traitors for having helped the British.
The Germans took their revenge afterwards by cutting off supplies to the major cities during the winter of 1944-45, which became known as the “Hunger Winter”. It’s quite astonishing and wonderful that the Dutch are so incredibly kind and generous to the veterans who go back and are welcomed. Considering all they suffered as a result of the disaster, they show gratitude for the attempt to liberate them. They don’t in any way rub it in that they suffered probably more than the British soldiers as a result of its failure. They had much to forgive and they certainly did forgive.
Despite being a disaster, is Arnhem’s famous place in British military history justified?
It’s justified from the point of view of the bravery. That is certainly true but I don’t think it’s justified from the effect of the battle – far from it. The trouble is that the reason why Arnhem has become such an – I hate to use the word – “iconic” battle in the British mentality is because the British do have a certain fascination with heroic failure. Lets face it, Arnhem is one of the largest examples of that and maybe that says something about the British character. It’s quite revealing.
What is it about the Second World War that fascinates you?
I was born in the aftermath of the war and was brought up among people whose characters and reputations were defined by whether they’d had a “good war”. But later on I found very much more when I was writing about the war and journalists were interviewing me about it. Their question always was, “Why are people still fascinated with it?” I had this with Dutch journalists recently and they can’t understand that there is this greater fascination with the Second World War now than 15-20 years ago. They find it very hard to understand.
One of the reasons for it, of course, is that the Second World War offered more moral choice than any other period in modern history. We now live in a post-military society and a health-and-safety environment. Back in those days, they were making decisions that could affect whole families. In occupied countries they had to make decisions about whether to help Jews or hide members of the Resistance movements etc, which put people at risk – including their own families.
This was a huge thing and I think that, even today, we think about it and this is different to what was happening in the First World War. When we think about it we pose the same question about ourselves, “What would I have done at the time? Would I have had the moral courage to take those sort of decisions?”
2019 is a significant year for Second World War anniversaries, including 75 years since D-Day and Operation Market Garden as well as 80 years since the outbreak of the conflict. What are your thoughts on the various commemorations?
In general terms, I think they are commemorated correctly. I think its terribly important that people are reminded because if we don’t learn from history we’re going to make very serious mistakes in the future. I think that’s very important and I always try to bang on about it if I can so that history does not repeat itself.
We can certainly learn what not to do in the future but the problem at the moment is that the world is changing so fast. People are obsessed with trying to work out what is going to happen and think that history might somehow be a predictive mechanism. It’s not, history can never be a predictive mechanism. Even though there may be a combination of elements that may sound familiar to the past, it doesn’t mean they are going to produce the same outcome or result – far from it. This is because circumstances change.
You wrote in Arnhem, “September 1944 was the origin of the disastrous cliché of Britain being a first-rate power”. Because the war is still such an emotive subject in the United Kingdom today, do you think the British have a problem with it’s continued interest in the conflict?
Less so than say the 1990s, 1980s and even a bit before then. You’ve got to remember that Britain was then the “Sick Man of Europe” and there were the Germans “rushing ahead” with “Vorsprung Durch Technik” and all that. This produced a ridiculous resentment as though there was something unfair about the whole setup and we had all those ghastly chants like, “Two World Wars and one World Cup” etc. This actually showed how pathetic that attitude was about the Second World War although I think we’ve moved on a bit from there, thank God.
However, I’m afraid that we’ve got another wave of nativism at the moment, which has been triggered by Brexit. There again seems to be a certain resentment and it is depressing to see some of the debate about Brexit coming out with less educated remarks like, “We stood alone. We won the war. We don’t need Europe”. These are a good example of a very superficial knowledge of history and it’s a very dangerous thing.
The veterans themselves, who were actually there, generally have a far more balanced view than those who have read about the war in the years since.
Despite the passage of 80 years since its outbreak, how relevant is the Second World War to today’s younger generations?
It should be relevant to them because it formed the modern world. This is particularly so if they’re going to try to understand the psychology of the European Union and lots of other elements. They have got to understand how the present world came about.
What is frightening is that people can develop an aggressive view that you need a war or a battle without having any idea of what is involved. It was rather alarming to see a national poll recently that said that 54 percent of the British population wanted to have a strong leader who was prepared to break the rules. I was horrified when I first saw it but its been backed up by research and it is true even among the young. That’s very depressing and I think we do need to show where these sort of leaders are likely to lead us. As a result, the Second World War is very important today just as much as ever before.
Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944 is published by Penguin Random House and is available to buy at: www.penguin.co.uk. Antony Beevor will be speaking about Operation Market Garden as part of the Chelsea History Festival at the National Army Museum on Wednesday 9 October 2019. For more information and to book tickets visit: www.chelseahistoryfestival.com