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by Antony Beevor

Max Hastings and Antony Beevor take a delight in rubbishing the British Army’s leadership in the Second World War. Hastings, a journalist by profession, has always been obsessed by the fighting prowess of the German army, particularly the Waffen-SS. Beevor is also quite unable to resist having a pop at Monty at every opportunity.

Beevor, however, is a brilliant and colourful story-teller. His earlier books on Crete, the Battle and the Resistance and Stalingrad transformed the hitherto dull backwater of military history. Arnhem, like Stalingrad, is about men and women, fearful and fearless, some behaving honourably with compassion and courage, others falling to the basest of human emotions; and all at the hands of fate and free will. Beevor’s treatment of human detail is extraordinarily vivid. You can imagine yourself in the lead tank of Lieutenant Colonel Joe Vandeleur’s Irish Guards along ‘Hell’s Highway’; you shudder at SS Standartenfuhrer Behr who set up a brothel of 20 Dutch girls and then had them shot and replaced every two weeks in case they divulged careless pillow talk to the allies; and you can visualise the dead German snipers hanging from the girders of Nijmegen bridge grinning like grotesque gargoyles.

Beevor is too quick to get stuck into Monty who took great care not to lose lives needlessly. The 12th SS Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’ started the Normandy Campaign with 20,000 men and 150 tanks. By the end of August 44, it was reduced to 300 men and ten tanks. Monty, in the face of such fanaticism and disregard for soldiers’ lives took the bold and imaginative decision to spearhead an advance into Nazi Germany by capturing nine bridges, the last being Arnhem over the Rhine, in Operation Market Garden.

As Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff said, ‘It is amazing how good commanders get ruined when they develop a public they have to act up to’. And he wasn’t just referring to Monty. Patton and some of the American generals were awful old prima donnas. Still, it was foolish of Churchill to make Monty a field marshal while Eisenhower, his superior, had four stars. At a deeper level, Churchill’s Britain, and the army from general to private soldier, were too slow to accept they were the junior partner with America providing most of the men, hardware and fuel. Nevertheless, Arnhem, brave and bold an endeavour though it was, ended in failure. Monty, Horrocks who commanded XXX Corps, and Boy Browning who commanded 1 Airborne Corps share a heavy responsibility for its outcome.

Beevor paints the ruthlessness of the German army at Arnhem under ‘Hitler’s fireman’, Field Marshal Model in brutal detail. Model, the Reich’s best defensive tactical commander, was a master of ‘ Blitztransport’, the ruthless prioritisation of materiel and tanks to reinforce German deployments. When Standartenfuhrer Harzen of SS Hohenstaufen requested flamethrowers for street fighting, Model had them flown to the division within 12 hours from the ordnance depot in central Germany. Being wounded was no short cut to rehabilitation: the panzergrenadier training and replacement battalion, all of whom were amputees, led by Major Hans-Peter Knaust on crutches, having lost his leg in the battle for Moscow, threw themselves into the fray at Arnhem. Knaust lost all his company commanders within 24 hours.

Beevor, having served as a short service officer in the line cavalry, kicks off early on about the Guards Armoured Division. The Guards ‘were a law unto themselves. too influential due to their close relationship with the Royals...flippant hauteur of the Foot Guards.....cricketing metaphors and veiled speech....blancoing belts and polishing boots.... tall men selected for their parade ground presence unsuited to tanks...excessive respect for chain of command led to a suppression of initiative, never very good at offensive operations’.

 It’s almost as though Beevor has watched the film A Bridge too Far with its one-sided portrayal of British officers and lost all sense of critical judgement and ignored the fact that, The Guards Armoured Division, the brainchild of the CIGS, Sir Alan Brooke, fought with distinction through Normandy, the liberation of Brussels and the Ardennes offensive, winning a handful of VCs. General Sir John Hackett, a brigade commander at Arnhem, describes Boy Browning’s portrayal as effete and uncaring in the film as ‘untruthful.’ Boy Browning won the DSO aged 19, serving with The Grenadiers in 1917, defending his company position at Gauche Wood to the last.  Richard Attenborough, the film’s director wrote to his widow, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, apologising for his unfair treatment.

Beevor says in his ‘ Acknowledgements’ that there was little point in writing another book on Operation MARKET GARDEN ‘without adding new material and human detail’. Granted, the human detail is excellent but Beevor has merely plundered old American sources, Cornelius Ryan who wrote the 1974 book ‘A Bridge too Far’, and Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer prize winner. There is no acknowledgement whatsoever to British archives, Monty’s papers and memoirs, the Imperial War Museum or anything that gave an insight into to the British perspective. It is often said that a film is faithful to the book; in Beevor’s case, the reverse is true, and the book is faithful to the 1976 film, US financed by the Levine brothers, scripted by an American, and with every well-known US actor at the time getting a cameo role.

Where Beevor does excel, however, is his use of Dutch sources. I now understand why, in 1984, during a huge NATO/BAOR exercise in which I served as a liaison officer, the Dutch officers had such a visceral dislike of their German counterparts. The Dutch resistance and the Dutch people showed enormous courage. The Dutch railway strike, requested by Eisenhower, resulted in the appalling ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944-5. The SS and Gestapo exacted dreadful reprisals and the story of three young Dutch boys wearing orange arm bands, slaughtered by the side of a road, is hard reading.

Did anything good come out of Arnhem? The extraordinary fighting spirit of the 1st Airborne Division and the Parachute Regiment will always be a source of inspiration and pride to the British army, and to past, present and future members of that illustrious Regiment. But one wonders whether yet another history of the Arnhem battle is indeed ‘A book to far’.

Paul de Zulueta

Arnhem - The Battle for the Bridges by Antony Beevor. Published by Viking.

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