Book Review: Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, by Anthony Beevor

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arnhem_battle_for_the_bridges.jpgEven those with the slightest knowledge of the major events of the Second World War, would have heard of the September 1944 battle for Arnhem,  in the Netherlands on the lower reaches of the Rhine.

Under Field Marshall Montgomery, airborne and ground British, American and Polish forces, attempted to push into Germany across the lower Rhine and head for Berlin. A key bridge was at Arnhem, and it proved to be a disastrous defeat of the British-led forces, which gave rise to a metaphor for achieving failure by being too ambitious – “a bridge too far”, originating from the film of that name.

The film was dramatic enough, but superficial. By contrast, Anthony Beevor’s book, Arnhem, is another example of this author’s famous mastery of detail in-depth and  wide context.

Beevor studies the lead up to the battle following the successes of the battle of Falaise Gap in Normandy and the ragged retreat of German forces across northern France, Belgium and into Holland which raised considerable expectation that victory was close. And Montgomery wanted to claim victory in Germany before the Americans – he was jealous of US General Paton’s success in the south. Thus he did not listen to good council, even managing to have the final planning meeting at a time when General Eisenhower, the overall Allied commander, was sick. Montgomery pushed his plan through even against RAF advice.

‘In fact,’ Beevor writes ‘the fundamental concept of Operation Market Garden defied military logic, because it made no allowance for anything to go wrong or for the enemy’s likely reactions’.  A lot did go wrong and the Germans were in much greater strength in the area – in itself a failure of intelligence. Too few troops were landed initially and battalions lost contact with each other, sometimes because radios didn’t work properly – some even with the wrong crystal sets. Other troops, particularly the Polish were critically delayed in flying to the battle by bad weather.

The basic idea was for the airborne troops to capture the bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen and hold it until British and American ground troops could reach them. After many delays much bitter fighting the land column reached Nijmegen, but stopped.  The situation had become hopeless at Arnhem, the Germans were winning and would be able to move against the land column.  There is much dispute about the halting of the ground column and there are probably still many unanswered questions.

However, Beevor penetrates much of the fog of war with access to post war records of all the armies and the Dutch involved, but also by using personal accounts from all ranks.

Aside from the skilful narrative describing the battle, Beevor also opens the curtains on the terrible suffering of the Dutch civilian population. Dutch resistance groups joined the allied troops which later lead to savage reprisals against the civilian population. The city of Arnhem was more or less razed to the ground and 250,000 were evacuated. Many civilians were shot because they had sheltered British wounded. The town was a haven for ghosts when Canadian soldiers finally liberated it in April 1945. But between September 1944 and final Liberation in 1945, the Dutch were treated even more cruelly than they had before the battle of the Bridges, with thousands starving to death. Beevor exposes the tragedy.

Market Garden was not a total failure: part of the southern Holland was freed and some bridges were held. But the price was high. There were more than four thousand one hundred military and civilian casualties. German retribution against Dutch railway workers who went on strike to aid the assault led to a famine that killed over 20,000.

This book recalls a few days of the Second World War that had a major impact on the total history of the war which is still debated today. There are many tragic moments recounted in the book and interestingly, not all the atrocities were perpetuated by the Nazis.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges
by Anthony Beevor
Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780241326763

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Book Review: Odyssey of the Unknown ANZAC, by David Hastings

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cv_odyssey_for_the_unknown_anzacWho is this ANZAC?

David Hastings’ Odyssey of the Unknown ANZAC is a great deal more than a fascinating story of a lost soldier of the First World War who was ‘rediscovered’ and reunited with his family 10 years after the end of the war. It is also a commentary on how the British Empire saw war then as an extension of Greek mythology, of how the colonies of New Zealand and  Australia saw themselves at the beginning and during the war, and particularly how psychiatric medicine was still in its infancy.

Actually, George Brown’s case was a stuff-up right from the beginning. He should never have gone to war to fight in Gallipoli and the Western Front,  because of his psychiatric condition. It was recommended by army medical staff on the ship going to war that he should be discharged. Someone lost the paperwork.

After bitter experiences in both theatres of the war, he was found wandering the streets of London, wearing civilian clothes and an Australian army hat.

From the London streets, David Hastings unfolds the often dark story of George Brown as he is sent to Australia and more or less ‘lost’ in a medical institution for returned soldiers.  No-one really knew who he was or where he came from – was he an Australian from the outback or a kiwi from Eketahuna or Stratford? It was not until a photo was eventually published  in the Sydney Sun  in 1928 that  the mystery of who George was, and where he came from, began to unravel .

This book and the way Hastings, a journalist by training has written it, reminds the reviewer of another journalist, Simon Winchester and his book The Surgeon of Crowthorne where the connection is made between a reality, in this case brutal war,  as opposed to a brutal murder, and mental illness. Both books explore the context of the times, conflict and tragedy and its affects on family and individuals.

David Hastings has added a timely addition to New Zealand’s war writing. In this book, he allows us to understand that war and conflict cannot always be told in the poetic  heroics of the Odyssey and the Iliad, but rather can also be told in terms of deep personal loss and tragedy.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Odyssey of the Unknown ANZAC
by David Hastings
Auckland University Press
ISBN: 9781869408824

 

Book Review: Burma ’44, by James Holland

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cv_burma44A photo caption, “Every man had to dig himself a hole in the ground” almost sums up the nature of the Battle of the Admin Box, as told in James Holland’s astonishing account of a crucial but forgotten battle fought by a “ragtag collection of clerks, drivers, doctors and muleteers….” that saved Britain’s 14th Army – the forgotten army of the war against Japan.

After many disasters and an almost total loss of faith, the British in 1944 were planning the retaking of Burma, the hard way, across the Indian Border and through the jungle. They were under new command with General Slim supported by the newly arrived Commander and Chief of the all forces in the East, Earl Mountbatten. Everything was going according to plan with a careful build-up of well-trained men, veterans from many other fronts such as Alamein. Food, ammunition and most importantly top quality fighter aircraft, Spitfires, were all available and ready to go.

But the Japanese had other ideas. They wanted to invade and conquer India. And they moved first, catching the British, who were preparing to go on the offensive, by surprise. Their path lay through Arakan, in North West Burma, an area of dense tropical forest with heavy rain and sweltering heat, making conditions very difficult. The area was defended by units of the 5th and 7th Divisions of the Indian Army, a collection of many nationalities and faiths.

The real focus of this book is what became known as the Battle of Admin Box. But is not until Part Two on Page 161, that the amazing story of this battle begins to be told in detail.
Prior to that, James Holland skillfully develops the context of the battle that took place over those few fateful days in February 1944.

Part one is really a tale of how the Britain’s Indian Army of the Raj, an army basically of occupation, was turned by defeat, retreat and humiliation into one that was well led, trained and resourced with modern equipment; that had learned how to fight, had discovered that Japanese soldiers were not superhuman and by withstanding and winning a most brutal and murderous assault, eventually triumphed.

There were later, bigger battles, at Imphal and Kohima which have had considerably more attention by historians. But perhaps for the War on the Indian sub-continent it can be said that the Battle at Shazeya was, as someone said of another battle, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. And it was not even fought by a majority of trained soldiers but a “ragtag…”

Readers, taking up this book, would be well advised to observe carefully its construction. Get a clear understanding of the maps before starting and also of “The Cast,” noting that there are no footnotes but lots of quotations from officers and soldiers. References to these are found at the back, along with an order of battle, timeline, glossary and comprehensive index.

The story is actually told by “The Cast” from their own diaries, letters and oral histories, skillfully woven into a comprehensive account of events.

This book is good, modern military history: very readable.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Burma ‘44: The Battle that Turned Britain’s War in the East
by James Holland
Published by Bantam Press
ISBN: 9780593075869

Book Review: The Secret War, Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

I accidentally left this book out in the rain. It survived, but I was disappointed that no secret messages were revealed by the water.  It would not have been surprising: every secret messaging system, code cracking device, manner of ‘trade craft’ and espionage device used in the Second World War is revealed in Max Hastings The Secret War, Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-45.

As you would expect, Max Hastings has done his research and produced non-fiction in a deeply woven narrative style that makes it as fascinating as any Le Carre novel. Within 558 pages, plus notes, Hastings  covers a very wide canvas of wartime espionage, from the mostly successful, like the Bletchley Park operation, to the “incompetence and myopia of German intelligence”.  The intelligence operations of all the major participants in the war, America, Germany,  Japan, Russia and Britain are analysed in depth.  A lot of it is grim reading.

The struggles of people in occupied territories were all part of the darkest depths of war, with government secret service agencies providing money, weapons and expertise from behind the German lines in Russia as well as in Yugoslavia and France – even via resistance  groups in Germany. The Soviets were particularly active in Germany, with groups such as the Red Orchestra. The Russian-supported partisans behind German lines were largely,  but savagely successful in tying up many divisions of German troops, who were equally savage in their  reprisals, burning whole villages, deporting whole communities (as did the Soviets).  Meanwhile, Churchill demanded violent but less savage action from resistance groups in Western Europe which among other things, provided good intelligence. This book of course also tells about the huge failure of intelligence related to the Dutch hesitance. The British intelligence in this case was wholly infiltrated by the Germans, with many British and Dutch agents being captured and shot. The British had no idea that their operation there had been utterly compromised.

The treachery of a swag of British agents recruited by Moscow, including Caincross, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and others is chronicled in depth and also interwoven into the whole context of wartime espionage. Clearly, Hastings has benefited from many of the records of what went on during the war years that have been declassified by governments including Russia (although it is understood the rich pickings of Soviet archives are being curtailed to a large extent).

For anyone interested in the history of the Second World War, this is a volume which exposes the underbelly of the conflict with its heroism, technical brilliance, bizarre and often comical behaviour, of many mistakes and many deaths in the shadows of the war.

Don’t bother leaving it in the rain, the pages stick together and you might miss out on a secret.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945
by Max Hastings
Published by William Collins
ISBN 978000750399

Book review: The German War: A Nation Under Arms: 1939-45

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cv_the_german_warNicolas Stargardt’s The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-45, is a social history of an extraordinary kind, providing an English language account of what in effect was ordinary life in Germany during the second world war, within a shattering context of bombs, genocide, food shortages and mass moral turpitude.

Stargardt quotes a German soldier writing to his fiancée: “The life of this generation seems to me to be measured by catastrophes”. This note came toward the end of the war, and sums up how the attitudes of many Germans evolved during the period of the war. Originally, there was widespread disquiet at the start of another war with memories of the defeat and starvation of World War 1 still all too real. The national mood changed though, toward euphoria, when Hitler’s armies won stunning victories in Poland, France, Norway and the Low Countries.

But as the bombs started raining down on city after city from as many as 1,000 British and American bombers, morale slumped. In May 1942, even before bombing of civilian targets became widespread, the Swiss consul in Cologne, Franz-Rudolf Weiss noted that civilian morale was “well below zero”. However, as occurred in Britain in 1940-41, the bombing developed a strong resilience among the population, with local and national authorities and ordinary folk rushing in to help. In the March 5 raid on Essen, Carola Reisner was quoted as saying that it was “really amazing with what heroic resilience and lack of complaint everything is endured here”.

The fact that this 681-page book (inclusive of bibliography and notes) includes a mass of personal reflections taken from personal letters and diaries of soldiers from the rank and file to generals to ordinary folk, artists and poets is but one illustration of the deep shaft of research that has been undertaken by Stargardt. The book also includes the results of in-depth research of official documents, including some from the Security Service (SD) , a security section of the SS in charge of foreign and domestic intelligence and espionage which produced frequent commentaries on the social conditions within the country as the war was waged.

A profoundly important result of reading this book is the understanding that ordinary Germans “knew”. They knew of the deportation and massacres of Jews, undesirable citizens of their own country and thousands of others in occupied countries. They knew of the use of slave labour and the inhumane conditions forced upon these peoples, and they knew that the peoples of occupied countries were starving, in order to maintain food supplies for Germans. And at the end of the war, Stargardt clearly documents that many, if not most Germans, turned a blind eye – “we just followed orders” or “this was a war brought upon us – not our fault”.

This is an outstanding and important history written by one of the foremost historians of Nazi Germany.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The German War: A National Under Arms, 1939-45
by Nicholas Stargardt
Published by The Bodley Head
ISBN: 9781847921000