Monday, 17 August 2015

Book Review - The Devil's birthday : the bridges to Arnhem, 1944 by Geoffrey Powell

The Devil's Birthday : the bridges to Arnhem, 1944 by Geoffrey Powell, foreword by General Sir John Hackett

London : Buchan & Enright, 1984                                                     ISBN 0907675255

Those of us with more than a passing interest in the history of World War II think we know all about Operation Market Garden, the failed attempt by the Allies to end the war in 1944 by an airborne assault through Holland to capture bridges over the Maas and Rhine rivers, skirt the Siegfried Line and enter Germany. We've read the book or seen the movie of A bridge too far, and know that it was the lack of intelligence about the SS divisions in the area, or the lack of radio communication that ruined the chances for success. This book puts those ideas to rights and more.

Geoffrey Powell commanded C company of 156 Parachute Battalion throughout Market Garden and won the Military Cross for his actions there, although you won't find this out by reading The Devil's birthday. Nor will you find an apologia for what was one of the most vicious battles fought on the Western Front in World War II. What you will find is a clear headed exposition of the actions throughout Market Garden, dispelling some myths and  pointing to the real reasons the operation failed to achieve all its objectives.

What Powell makes clear is that the lack of time to properly plan such a complex operation cruelled its chances from the start. The Allies had built up a large airborne force, and were always on the lookout for ways to employ it - there had been quite a few operations planned after D-Day, all of which were cancelled as the advance of the Allies quickly overtook planned airborne objectives.

By September 1944 the Germans seemed to be not only on the run, but collapsing as a fighting force. Market Garden was planned to punch a hole in the collapsing lines, skirt around the top end of the Siegfried Line, cut off the Ruhr from Germany and voila, the war would be won. The planning of Market Garden took place in not much more than a week, with communications between Montgomery in France and Browning back in England not all that it could be. This led not only to some oversights in planning, but also a lack of time for the airborne command to push the USAAF and RAF to organise to land the troops closer to their objectives than what in fact occurred. The distance between the Dropping and Landing Zones and the bridges caused delays in capturing the bridge at Nijmegen, and led to the separation of forces at Arnhem, which doomed that part of the plan.

The lack of co-ordination between attack aircraft and the ground troops, due to lack of effective radio contact, and the Air Force's requirement that the attack aircraft couldn't be in the area of operations while troop-carrying or supply aircraft were in the area was a big problem.

The number of troops landed on the first day is an issue that Powell looks at closely and draws the conclusion that more could have been done to get more boots on the ground more quickly in the drop zones - the Air Forces should have been pushed to run more than one drop in a day, and there should have been more thought into which troops and supplies were dropped when - the decision by Browning to include his HQ battalion in the first drop is, to Powell, a wrong one.

The main part of the operation was the ground assault under the command of General Horrocks, and Powell gives us plenty of detail here, explaining the difficulties of running an army up one road, while also pointing out where that army was perhaps less than expeditious in its advance. He importantly points out that is was the tardiness of the advance of the flanking forces (12 Corps and 8 Corps), that led to the small German forces being able to continue to attack 30 Corps on the main road, and indeed cut that road on more than one occasion, delaying the whole operation significantly.

And what of the German forces? Much has been made in the past of the lack of intelligence about the SS Panzer Corps that were refitting in the area. However, as Powell points out, these forces were small in number, and in fact the number of troops and tanks in the area was about what the Allies had expected. What was less expected was the stiff resistance of the troops, not only because some of them were in the SS, but also because they were now fighting very close to home soil. The Germans were fortunate that the commanders in the area at the time, including Student and Bittrich, were seasoned, smart and effective. Having stated that, it is worth noting that the British forces in Oosterbeek held out for as long as they did partly because the forces opposing them were scratch units with not much tactical nous, so the German story was mixed. In fact Student himself called Market Garden a 'great success' for the Allies.

Powell's description of the fighting in the Oosterbeek pocket is harrowing to read, and no doubt accurate as he was there. As with many stories of war, the horrible waste of lives is the thing that sticks with the reader - more thought from the Allies, and perhaps less triumphalism might have stopped this operation before it began. In the end it was the "broad push" and not the "thunderbolt surprise" that got the Allies over the Rhine and into Germany. Powell has his doubts that, even if successful, Market Garden would have significantly shortened the War, and I tend to agree.

Powell ends this book with a discussion of the worth of airborne forces, and comes to the conclusion that their true worth is in operations on a smaller scale than that of Market Garden. He points out that in larger strategic operations such as Market Garden (or the invasion of Crete by the German airborne forces), even if the forces are successful their loss rate is horrendous. However, for smaller scale tactical operations there is great value in using such units. He points out that by this stage in the War the Allies had built up such a large airborne force the powers that be felt they had to do something with it to justify its formation.

Powell's last paragraph is worth quoting in full - "It is arguable that Eisenhower would have been better served in the autumn of 1944 by another half-dozen infantry or armoured divisions, backed by adequate logistic resources, than by First Allied Airborne Army. The airborne forces of the United States and Britain were expensive indeed in high quality men and in the special facilities needed to train them, in manufacturing capacity and in base area support, in scientific research and in military planners. Without any doubt, the two Allies had a need for smallish bodies of parachute or glider troops, of battalion or of regimental size. On the other hand it is not easy to justify the scarce resources which the Americans and the British devoted to their fine airborne, forces, and to the aircraft which flew them into battle."

This book may be the definitive account of operation Market Garden. It is definitely readable, interesting and comprehensive. Recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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