Monday, 21 September 2009

Arnhem & Market Garden - A Risk Worth Taking

This weekend marks the 65th anniversary of “Operation Market Garden”, the attempt to force Allied troops across the Rhine in September 1944 by means of a combined thrust through Eastern Holland and Airborne landings at the Arnhem Bridge. The conventional view today, peddled by all the armchair warriors, academics from the shelters of their university bunkers, historical and political theorists inspecting the latest entrails, and last but not least all the psychologists who have seen violence only in punchups in academic seminars over their egos, is that it was a fiasco, or a disaster, borne out of squabbles between commanders, their personal frailties, or stupidity.

The pictures displayed are of Montgomery talking to paratroops in training. Notice how they are sat down informally, whereas when our present politicians talk to troops they are always lined up in a parade position. The other is of John (Shan) Hackett, who commanded the 4th Parachute Brigade in 1944 at Arnhem with Field Marshal Montgomery and Major General Urquhart, GOC 1st Airborne Division. Hackett commanded the 7th Armoured Division some years later and one fine night he and I, and around 17,000 others rode down from the Elbe to the Rhine, just to see how it would go if we had to do it for real. He remarked that the journey took a lot less time than the trip in the other direction in 1945. There were a number around us, officers and men, who had been there and done that in 1944 and 1945. It was their view that Operation “Market Garden” was a risk that had to be taken.

They remembered the camps. There were very many of them in Northern Germany in 1944 and 1945. There were the prisoners of war on short rations, many of whom had been marched from the East and just survived, although many hadn’t. There were holding camps for refugees from the East, many of them displaced Germans, or those who also feared the Russians. There was little food or facilities for them. Then there were the other camps, the Concentration Camps. It was the 11th Armoured Division that found Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Its Director of Medical Services calculated that over 30,000 had died there alone in the last few weeks before its liberation.

They remembered the situations they found in the German cities in Spring 1945, the ruins, the collapse of administration and services, the rates of mortality, the hunger and disease, typhus and cholera. It had been the same in Holland, and to a lesser extent in Belgium. The Danes and Norwegians were at risk. This was why in the autumn of 1944 that Montgomery, with the backing of Alan Brooke and others, decided to take the gamble that went against all the strategy and thinking they had adopted until that time.

They remembered Germany in 1918 and 1919, the political chaos, the hunger, the dangers to Europe of the collapse of so much government, law, and social structure. By 1944, the war had already gone on longer than the First War, and the extent of both physical and social damage was hugely greater with the larger scale of air and land operations. If we could force an armoured corps across the Rhine the early Autumn, and lead the 2nd Army behind the German defensive line, there was a chance that by the time winter set in of being at or across the Elbe and even reaching Berlin.

They remembered the home Atlantic Isles in the last year of the First War and after, and could see the developing situation there in 1944 and 1945. The removal from Britain of so many troops with all their logistics and support facilities had taken away a major support of the working and home population, never mind an informal source of extra food supplies. Civil authority was weakening. For all the propaganda and anxiety, the ordinary people were tiring, everything was badly run down, local services were in poor condition. It was all literally falling apart, and people were increasingly cold and hungry, the daily business of scratching around for basics had worn too many down. Remember this was the time when anti-biotics were new, in scarce supply and barely enough for military casuaties. It would be years before they were in common civilian use, so all the old scourges of disease were taking their full tolls of populations. In the south east corner morale had been damaged by the V Rocket raids and the fear they induced. Yet there was still a long, damaging, very nasty war in the East still to be fought and won, with apparently little hope of any Japanese surrender or willingness to talk.

That 30 Corps made it to close to the Rhine was an achievement in itself, the airborne assault at Arnhem was a close run thing, but failed in its main objective and the advance stalled. The later winter was a hard one. When assessing whether or not Operation “Market Garden” was a failure, and the casualties of that action are counted, set against it the figures of all those who died in Europe between, say, November 1944 and May 1945, and those who died after who might have survived had the war in the west been won earlier. Montgomery could see this and so could some others, sadly few of the Americans. It was a very high risk operation, heavier casualties were likely; despite the unfavourable intelligence it was the last chance before the winter, so the Operation went on.

So remember all those who died, and not only at Arnhem but in the camps and in the cities of so many parts of Europe in the Winter of 1944 and the Spring of 1945.

1 comment: