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

Available in bookshops nationwide.

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

Book Review: Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble, by Antony Beevor

cv_ardennes_1944Available in bookshops nationwide.

If you are of a certain age, the most you would probably know about the 1944 German offensive in the Ardennes would have come from the film Battle of the Bulge. It was a good movie, but when you read Antony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble, you will understand how “once over lightly” the film was, with regards the history of the battle.

The Allied forces, having liberated France, were pushing on a very wide front toward the Ruhr and the German heartland. Their main focus was from the North with the British and Canadian armies and from the south with the American Armies. At the centre, in Belgium’s deeply wooden Ardennes, the line was being lightly held by American troops, largely being rested from other areas. There was a major breakdown in Allied intelligence that had failed to identify the build-up of two panzer armies designed to break through the American lines, drive to the Meuse, split the American and British/Canadian armies and force another Dunkirk.

The attack was a major surprise to the Allies just before Christmas, with bad weather keeping the overwhelming Allied airpower on the ground and troops frozen in their foxholes as the German tanks rolled over them. Despite early and serious setbacks, American troops managed to hold at crucial points, most famously at Bastogne. Despite the often sour relationships between American and British generals, very often created by Field Marshall Montgomery, the allies very quickly developed a plan, moved whole armies toward the battle; the weather cleared, the allied planes flew and the Germans ran out of petrol. There is no doubt that the Battle of the Ardennes was won by the Americans, as opposed to the combined allied armies. The Germans lost hundreds of thousands of troops and it was the last time that any real threat was mounted in the west against the allied armies.

Above is the short version of what happened but Antony Beevor’s book has much more to it than that. He has a great reputation for uncovering the unvarnished detail of all sides of major second world war battles, and Ardennes 1944 is another example. The book begins by shaping the context with an account of the breakout from the Normandy beachheads, the drive across France and the liberation of Paris. The political situation between the various forces is carefully explained and Beevor does not hold back in his criticisms of various key figures, particularly Montgomery, whose ego at times could have caused catastrophe if it had not been blunted by the ever diplomatic Eisenhower.

The fine detail of analysis of the actual battle, or battles, during the winter days through Christmas and into the New Year is where this book stands out. Within the Ardennes forest there are many small villages and almost every one became a scene of fierce fighting, many atrocities to soldiers of both sides and particularly against the villagers. The very clear maps within the book greatly help in overcoming the literal fog of this battle.

Some years ago I travelled by train from Dusseldorf in Germany to Paris, through the Ardennes. I remember at the time remarking on the many small villages that we passed. It was summer, but the impression was one of darkness and ruggedness. All troop movements in 1944 would have been largely restricted to narrow roads, causing attack lines to be strung out and difficult to manoeuvre. Snow, sleet and mud did not help either side. Beevor records and explains; he has researched letters and records of individuals fighting on both sides as well as official sources. There are many personal touches.The reality and horror of war is made very plain.

Hollywood could well take this book and make even a better film of the Battle of the Bulge.

Review by Lincoln Gould

Ardennes 1944
by Antony Beevor
Published by Penguin Viking
ISBN 9780670918645