It’s an old joke that while the Americans always choose macho names for their military operations, the British appear to prefer names from a gardening catalogue. No Operation Urgent Fury for the Brits; instead we have Operation Primrose and, I kid you not, Operation Lentil.
The most common butt of this joke is Operation Market Garden, the name the British chose for their plan to seize a series of Dutch bridges during the Second World War. As Antony Beevor points out in his excellent new history of the operation, there was dismay at this codename even at the time. One paratrooper complained that ‘market garden’ made it sound ‘like we were going to be picking apples or tiptoeing through the tulips’.
In the event, there was nothing trivial about this operation at all, and nothing much funny about it either. As Beevor shows, it was one of the most daring, dangerous and fiercely fought operations of the whole war. It was also among the most ill-judged, badly planned and wasteful. Rather than bringing an early end to the war, as its planners hoped, it resulted in a disastrous defeat and a permanent stain on the reputation of one of Britain’s most famous commanders, Field Marshal Montgomery.
The plan consisted of two halves. Operation Market involved dropping thousands of men and tons of equipment near the Dutch cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem in order to seize the all-important bridges there. Operation Garden began on the ground: Allied tanks aimed to break through German lines and rush 103 kilometres up a single road to outflank the enemy. In Monty’s imagination, it was a masterstroke that would cut the Netherlands in half, isolate an entire German army and prepare the way for a final charge towards Berlin before 1944 was out.
According to Beevor, this ambitious plan was doomed from the very start. To begin with, the drop zones for the paratroopers were too far away from the bridges they were supposed to capture. Airborne operations depend on speed and surprise, but Allied paratroopers had to travel such a long way to the bridges that by the time they arrived, all surprise was lost. This error was compounded by the failure to concentrate forces effectively. Instead, there was a series of parachute drops over several days: by day three, unsurprisingly, the Germans had organised themselves so well that the British troops at Arnhem didn’t stand a chance.
The ‘garden’ part of the plan was also a shambles. The problem with advancing 103 kilometres up a single road was that the Germans did not have to guess where the British were going. Any Dutch officer could have told British planners that they would run into trouble: one of the standard questions in their staff college exams concerned the difficulties of this route. Unfortunately the British never consulted the Dutch. In the event, all it took was a single blown-up bridge over the canal at Son to delay the whole operation by twenty-four hours, by which time the Germans had once again organised themselves. Then, as Allied armour proceeded northwards towards Arnhem, they were attacked not only head-on but also from both sides. The road they took was quickly nicknamed ‘Hell’s Highway’.
All of these facts are well known and have been described many times before by other historians. Readers can expect nothing particularly new in Beevor’s broad narrative. We see Allied gliders being blown out of the sky by flak and crash-landing in ploughed fields (one of them even crashed into a windmill). We see the British paratroopers, led by the inimitable John Frost, seize the bridge at Arnhem, only to be cut off from their commanding officer and the rest of the British force. We see the desperate ground operation trying to reach them in time; and we see its failure because, as every schoolboy knows, Arnhem was ‘a bridge too far’. Finally, we see the evacuation of the bedraggled remnants of the 1st Airborne Division, helped by reinforcements from the Polish parachute brigade. In the shameless buck-passing that took place after the debacle, these gallant Poles were falsely accused of cowardice in order to save British pride. This is the pattern that almost all books about Operation Market Garden follow, because there is no better way to tell the tale.
What Beevor does bring to this narrative, however, is a complete mastery of both the story and the sources. The beauty is in the details. At the Arnhem road bridge, besieged paratroopers ask their officers, with typical army humour, if they can now please be paid overtime. In a makeshift hospital in Oosterbeek’s Hotel Schoonord, a soldier driven mad by combat fatigue takes his clothes off and starts puffing round the room, making noises like a railway locomotive. In the rush to escape, officers and men strip and swim across the Rhine. Thereafter, one officer is forced to direct his exhausted troops while dressed ‘in a lady’s blouse and flannel trousers’, the only clothes he can get hold of.
The story told by Captain Mackay, holed up in an Arnhem school, speaks volumes. When a German soldier thrust a machine gun through the window and began firing, he had no choice but to push his pistol into the man’s mouth and pull the trigger. Here is the horrific brutality of war, summed up in just a few sentences.
Antony Beevor received some criticism a few years ago, particularly for his grand history of the Second World War, which was perhaps too vast and sprawling a subject to showcase his talents. In recent years, however, he has regained his mojo. This gripping book, with its tightly focused timescale and subject matter, shows him once again at his very best.