Sunday, 3 August 2014

Arnhem/Oosterbeek IV – Impressions and Questions




Copyright: Bundesarchiv 497/3531A/34.
 I’ve met a few Dutch people over the years and found them to be very friendly with a great sense of humour. The railway staff and those used to dealing with tourists are generally exceptionally friendly and efficient, but the Arnhem transport staff and the staff at the Hartenstein are something else. By coincidence I had the same bus driver to and from Oosterbeek and she was wonderful. She told me what to look for as the bus got near the stop in Oosterbeek and put me off the bus with directions to the museum (it’s very easy really) and showed me where the bus stop was for the return trip. As I got back on the bus for the return journey I was immediately asked if I’d found the museum easily and if my visit had been ‘worthwhile’. I liked that because the Hartenstein isn’t the sort of museum you ‘enjoy’ as such.

When it comes to military things I’m not particularly impressionable. I’ve always been able to have a detached view and a fairly clinical approach when studying a period or event. That’s not to say I don’t get emotional, but I try not to let it cloud the picture. However, there’s something about the Hartenstein that’s beyond my powers of description. As it was a Saturday I didn’t expect heavy traffic or much bustle in the town, but the park and the surrounding area was very quiet.

The topography has barely changed and it was very easy to get an impression of the close quarter fighting and the absolute hell inside the ‘Cauldron’. You really need to read about any battle before you visit the site and with the Arnhem/Oosterbeek battles little would make sense if you didn’t. In my case though, I found that at first this created a sense of awe and then a feeling of real sadness. I think part of it may have been because it’s such a nice area. Many battlefields are just that: fields, but here the battlefield has clean, attractive houses and well maintained public spaces. Seventy years ago these same areas were a living hell for British, Poles, Dutch and Germans. The neat lawns and green areas were pitted by slit trenches and shell fire and every available ‘safe’ space was filled with civilians and wounded. It took the Germans over a week to fight their way from the Oosterbeek crossroads to the Hartenstein, a walk of only a few minutes. Any buildings were effectively destroyed either during the fighting or after the battle when they were looted and systematically stripped by the Germans to provide materials to strengthen their defences or make them more comfortable for what was expected to be the inevitable Allied onslaught. As punishment for supporting the Airborne troops the population was evicted en masse and Arnhem/Oosterbeek area became a virtual desert until the civilians were allowed to return in May 1945 and begin the salvage and rebuilding process. 

Arnhem after the battle
 As for the battle, the objectives of the Airborne troops had been achieved to all intent and purpose, but the success was eroded by the actions (or lack of them) of others beyond reach. The confidence and humour of Sunday 17th September were replaced by grim determination, but morale remained high. In the end they were simply overwhelmed. The Airborne troops received little in the way of replacement weapons and ammunition, food or medical supplies  despite the very best efforts of the RAF and the USAAF whose contribution to this fight is often forgotten. They received no reserves or replacements save for the few Polish paratroops and British infantry from the 43rd Wessex Division who made it across the Rhine, although the invaluable support from the medium artillery of XXX Corps which provided incredibly accurate fire from across the river is sometimes barely mentioned. Conversely, although the Germans suffered heavy casualties, they received replacements and reinforcements in men, armour and ammunition (including British supplies and weapons which were dropped into what had rapidly become the wrong areas as drop zones were overrun).

There are many questions and ‘what ifs’ about Operation Market Garden in general and the Arnhem battle in particular. The air plan, although subject to simple logistical constraints imposed by the sheer scale of the operation, was lacking in imagination. There were no coup de main elements save for the British jeep squadron, no nightime drops (because of the lack of time to train pilots) and the almost laughable location of some of the landing and drop zones, particularly for the British. To add to the problems for the British, Browning (Overall commander of the British Airborne element) wanted to be in on the act and insisted on taking his HQ into Holland. This required 38 gliders which could otherwise have been used on the first lift for the British. So, an HQ of little value and no importance to the immediate battle took the place of additional troops,equipment, vehicles and anti-tank guns.   

It was this sense of over-confidence on the part of the command and the planners that laid the ground for the ultimate sacrifice of the British Airborne. The Airborne themselves were desperate not to miss out on the final campaign and were willing victims to some extent, but the misgivings of their commanders, particularly Sossabowski and Urquart, were simply laid aside. Rumours and reports from the Dutch underground and photo reconnaissance of armour and SS troops in the area (particularly around Arnhem) rather than the second line units which were anticipated were played down and didn’t filter through to the sharp end until it was useless information. Had this information been given its true weight then at least Allied units could have reconsidered the composition of their drops to include a greater anti-tank capability early on or even to radically modify the operation, if not cancelling it completely as had been done in the weeks before.

The questions simply accumulate as we go on and the ‘what ifs’ grow in proportion:

Should more emphasis have been given to the Nijmegen phase?

What happened to the ‘cab rank’, given Allied air superiority?

Would Patton have been a better ground commander for the operation than Montgomery and Horrocks?

All these are pretty common questions and the answers are subjective. However, I’ve listed below a short bibliography which should allow anyone interested to form their own view. There are many books about this campaign and battle, but the small selection here is enough to satisfy the majority of readers. Kershaw’s  book is important because it gives the German view of the affair and debunks a few of the myths which have grown since the end of the war.

Harclerode, Peter: ‘Arnhem, A Tragedy of Errors’, Caxton Editions, London, 1994

Kershaw, Robert: ‘It Never Snows in September’, Crowood Press, London, 1990

Middlebrook, Martin: ‘Arnhem 1944, The Airborne Battle’, Penguin, London, 1995

Powell, Geoffrey: ‘The Devil’s Birthday – The Bridges to Arnhem 1944’, Papermac (Macmillan), London, 1984

Steer, Frank: ‘Arnhem, The Landing grounds and Oosterbeek’, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., Barnsley, 2009

Steer, Frank: ‘The Bridge at Arnhem’, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., Barnsley, 2013

Waddy, John: ‘A Tour of the Arnhem Battlefield’, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., Barnsley, 1999

I think there are two major points which need to be highlighted while I've got the chance. First is the appalling treatment received by the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade which was effectively scapegoated by Browning in an attempt to save is own neck and probably welcomed by Horrocks and the like. The Germans considered them to be very hard fighters and treated them with caution (though not much respect). However, Browning did such a good job that Montgomery (also keen to find someone to blame) wrote in his report to Sir Allen Brooke 
"Polish Para Brigade fought very badly and the men showed no keenness to fight if it meant risking their own lives." Humiliation barely covers it.

Finally, amid all the British propaganda and efforts to portray the Arnhem affair as a victory, the role of the American 82nd and 101st divisions is often given a very subsidiary role. To an extent this isn't surprising as they were under British command and the focus of the press ('implanted journalists' these days) was centred on the struggles of the British troops. Lt gen Lewis H. Brereton (GOC Ist Allied Airborne Army) wrote "In the years to come everyone will remember Arnhem, but no one will remember that two American divisions fought their hearts out in the Dutch canal country and whipped hell out of the Germans." Fair comment.

5 comments:

  1. I never knew about the treatment of the Poles or 35 gliders to get Horrocks gliders in, good read mate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Fran. I find the whole Market Garden campaign very interesting. It's full of contradictions, conflicting egos and incredible good and bad luck. The Poles were a very 'useful' element for many of the commanders.

      Delete
  2. The problem I see with Market Garden is that it was a gamble (as are perhaps all military operations). Moving away from Eisenhower's broad front strategy, and adopting Montgomery's single thrust into Germany. Another thing forgotten about this operation is that Eisenhower fully supported the plan. Had it succeeded then it would have been hailed as a marvellous success. Of course it didn't, and people love someone else's failure. With Montgomery seeming able to rub up his American counterparts the wrong way at every opportunity it is hardly surprising then even now in US documentaries they seem focus on it being a British failure. In effect it was a battle we lost! As noted in Kershaw's work, the Germans 'won' because they stopped the advance at Nijmegen. Then in 2003 the US led Coalition uses pretty much the same plan for for the drive to Baghdad, and it succeeds. Okay different opponents, settings etc., but it worked.

    This battle will continue to divide opinion, for a while yet. But you cannot take anything away from the brave men (including the Dutch civilians) who died, were injured or fought and survived.. Particularly the Airborne, British, American and Polish. N.B I am not a Americanophobe, far from it. I actually over the years have come to believe the plan could have worked but things went wrong and once the balance shifts to far one way there is no way to retrieve a situation.

    Some very interesting posts, on one place I have not been fortunate to visit (yet) but only read about.



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As we see after the war Ike was a politician rather than a general and he had to contain three spoilt brats (Montgomery, Bradley & Patton). I think his broad front approach was a result of this. Napoleon would have been horrified. In my own mind, the thrust to the industrial heart of Germany makes sense and I'm sure the Germans would have supported it if the boot had been on the other foot. In fact they were completely wrong footed at the start of Market Garden because the narrow front dash to the Ruhr was when they expected, but not in the way it was to be executed.
      The old saying that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail (or as we used to say in the Navy, 'Poor planning produces piss poor performance') is a pretty good one liner to describe Market Garden. A week to plan one of the most imaginative military operations in history is a very poor reflection on the senior commanders and their planners.
      Like you, I'm not anti-American, but I often shake my head when I hear or read some of their views on the Second World War. Yes, the first and second Gulf wars could both have been planned by Montgomery yet his approach to warfare is still ridiculed today.
      Anyway, Market Garden. I think it could so easily have been a resounding success and if the same resources had been devoted to it as had been used in the Normandy campaign I think it would have been.
      I'm mulling over a return visit because it made such an impression on me. I'd like to see more of the Oosterbeek perimeter and the landing/drop zones and I'd quite like to see The Bridge in dry weather!

      Delete
    2. I deliberately did not mention Patton, I must admit. There is, in my opinion, at times a belief in certain quarters that by shifting resources to Montgomery that Patton was not able to finish the war before Christmas 1944! But I'll say no more on that. I agree some views from across the pond do at times raise the hackles.

      I'll look forward to reading your posts on further visits, if I don't get there first!
      Regards
      Mark


      Delete