On September 17, 1944, General Kurt Student, the founder of Nazi Germany's parachute forces, heard the groaning roar of airplane engines. He went out onto his balcony above the flat landscape of southern Holland to watch the air armada of Dakotas and gliders, carrying the legendary American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the British 1st Airborne Division.
Operation Market Garden, the plan to end the war by capturing the bridges leading to the Lower Rhine and beyond, was a bold concept, but could it have ever worked? The cost of failure was horrendous, above all for the Dutch who risked everything to help. German reprisals were pitiless and cruel, and lasted until the end of the war.
Antony Beevor, using often overlooked sources from Dutch, American, British, Polish, and German archives, has reconstructed the terrible reality of the fighting, which General Student called "The Last German Victory." Yet The Battle of Arnhem, written with Beevor's inimitable style and gripping narrative, is about much more than a single dramatic battle--it looks into the very heart of war.
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The Chase is On!
Sunday August was a day of perfect summer weather in Normandy. The soporific sounds of a cricket match could be heard from a field at Saint-Symphorien-les-Bruyères, south-west of Evreux. In the adjoining pear orchard, Sherman tanks of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry had just been refitted and repaired after the battle of the Falaise Gap, the culmination of the battle for Normandy. Bats, balls, pads and stumps had been smuggled ashore on one of their supply trucks. 'Never let it be said that we invaded the Continent unprepared,' wrote one of the players.
The regiment was supposedly on twenty-four hours' notice to move, but just after lunch the order came to move out in an hour. Its tanks were on the road in seventy minutes, heading for the River Seine, which the first British formation, the 43rd Wessex Division, had crossed at Vernon the day before. British troops were rather jealous that General George Patton's US Third Army had beaten them to a Seine crossing by six days.
On August the Allied armies, now nearly a million strong, lunged forward from their bridgeheads east of the Seine, heading for Belgium and the German border. The battle for Normandy had finally been won, and the German army was in chaotic retreat. 'Along the main supply routes', an American officer wrote in his diary, 'you see the evidence of our air effort against the enemy. Trucks have been bombed and strafed, rusted and twisted in wild profusion along the roads, occasionally a truck load of gas cans with the cans bulging out like a swollen dead cow, black and charred, or a train with mounds of bulging cans, twisted steel frames from the destroyed box cars.'
For British cavalry regiments, the chase was on. Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, the commander of XXX Corps, mounted in the turret of a command tank, could not resist joining in. 'This was the type of warfare I thoroughly enjoyed,' he wrote later. 'Who wouldn't?' With more than tanks - Shermans, Churchills and Cromwells - the Guards Armoured Division, the th Armoured Division and the th Armoured Brigade charged forward on a frontage of eighty kilometres, 'scything passages through the enemy rear areas', he added, 'like a combine-harvester going through a field of corn'.
The country between the Seine and the Somme was 'open and rolling with wide fields, no hedges and good roads'. The dangerous Norman bocage of tightly enclosed pasture and sunken roads lay far behind them. The Sherwood Rangers adopted their old desert formation from the North African campaign, with a squadron of Shermans spread out in front, regimental headquarters just behind it and the other two sabre squadrons on the flanks. 'To travel at top speed across hard, open country on a lovely morning,' a cavalry troop leader wrote, 'knowing that the Germans were on the run, was exhilarating to say the least, and everyone was in the best possible spirits. It was almost like taking part in a cross-country steeplechase.'
Church bells pealed at their approach. Almost every house was festooned in the French national colours of red, white and blue. Villagers, overjoyed to be spared the destruction of Normandy, waited to greet them with bottles of wine and fruit. Unshaven members of the Resistance, wearing armbands, tried to mount the leading vehicles to show the way. A staff officer with the Guards Armoured Division in a Staghound armoured car noticed 'their odd assortment of weapons which they brandished with more exuberance than safety'.
From time to time a tank would run out of fuel. The vehicle then had to sit immobilized by the side of the road until one of the regiment's three-tonners caught up and pulled alongside. Jerrycans would then be swung across to the crew members standing on the engine deck. There were the occasional short, sharp firefights when a German group, overtaken by the advance, refused to surrender. Clearing out such pockets of resistance was called 'de-lousing'.
On the afternoon of 30 August, Horrocks felt the advance was still not fast enough. He ordered Major General 'Pip' Roberts to send his th Armoured Division through the night to take Amiens and its bridges over the River Somme by dawn. Although the tank drivers were falling asleep from exhaustion they made it to the bridges, and three-ton trucks brought in a brigade of infantry at first light to secure the town. Horrocks was close behind to congratulate Roberts on the success. After reporting on the operation, Roberts then said to his corps commander, 'I have a surprise for you, General.' A German officer in black panzer uniform was brought round. He was unshaven and his face was scarred from a wound received in the First World War which had removed most of his nose. Roberts, Horrocks noted, 'was exactly like a proud farmer leading forward his champion bull'. His trophy was General der Panzertruppe Heinrich Eberbach, the commander of the Seventh Army, who had been surprised in his bed.
The next day, 1 September, was the fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland which had started the war in Europe. By a curious coincidence, both Allied army group commanders of the Normandy campaign happened to be sitting for portraits at their respective headquarters. Basking in the glow of victory after General George C. Patton's triumphant charge to the Seine, General Omar N. Bradley near Chartres was being painted by Cathleen Mann, who was married to the Marquess of Queensberry. They could at least enjoy cool drinks on that beautiful day. The supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had just sent Bradley a refrigerator, with the message: 'Goddamit, I'm tired of drinking warm whiskey every time I come to your headquarters.'
Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, wearing his trademark outfit of grey polo-neck sweater, corduroy trousers and black, double-badged beret, was sitting for the Scottish portraitist James Gunn. His tactical headquarters and caravan were in the park of the Château de Dangu, halfway between Rouen and Paris. Despite the messages of congratulation that morning on his promotion to field marshal, Montgomery was in such a bad mood that he refused to meet his host, the duc de Dangu, and members of the local Resistance. All Montgomery's hopes of a joint offensive under his leadership into northern Germany had been dashed, because Eisenhower was replacing him as commander-in-chief land forces. Bradley was no longer his subordinate, but his equal. In Montgomery's view, Eisenhower was throwing away the victory by a refusal to concentrate his forces.
Senior American officers, on the other hand, were far angrier at Montgomery's promotion. It made him a five-star general, while Eisenhower, his superior, still had only four stars. Patton, whose Third Army troops were already close to Verdun in eastern France, wrote to his wife that day, 'The Field Marshal thing made us sick, that is Bradley and me.' Even a number of senior British officers thought that Winston Churchill's sop to Monty and the British press to camouflage the implied demotion was a grave mistake. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the Allied naval commander-in-chief, wrote in his diary: 'Monty made a Field Marshal. Astounding thing to do and I regret it more than I can say. I gather that the PM did it on his own. Damn stupid and I warrant most offensive to Eisenhower and the Americans.'
The next day, Saturday 2 September, Patton, Eisenhower and Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, the commander of the First US Army, met at Bradley's 12th Army Group headquarters, where Lady Queensberry had put away her paintbrushes. According to Bradley's aide, Hodges was 'neat and trim as usual in his battle dress', while Patton was 'gaudy with brass buttons and the big car'. They were there to discuss strategy and the great supply problem. The unexpectedly rapid advance meant that they were outrunning the capacity of even the huge American military transport fleet. Patton begged Bradley that morning: 'Give me 400,000 gallons of gasoline and I'll put you in Germany in two days.'
Bradley had every sympathy. So keen was he that all available aircraft continue to supply Patton's Third Army that he had opposed the plans for airborne drops ahead to speed the Allied advance. Patton, who longed 'to go through the Siegfried Line like shit through a goose', was already bribing the transport pilots with cases of looted champagne, but that was still insufficient. Eisenhower refused to budge. He was also being badgered by Montgomery, who demanded the bulk of supplies to enable him to mount the main attack in the north.
Allied diplomacy required the supreme commander to balance the rival demands of the two army groups as far as was humanly possible. This led to Eisenhower adopting a 'broad-front strategy', which satisfied neither commander. Eisenhower's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, commented after the war on the problems with Montgomery and Bradley. 'It is amazing', he said, 'how good commanders get ruined when they develop a public they have to act up to. They become prima donnas.' Even the seemingly modest Bradley 'developed a public, and we had some trouble with him'.
Eisenhower's failure to resolve the competing strategies of Montgomery and Bradley was then made worse by an accident. After leaving th Army Group headquarters near Chartres that afternoon, he was flown back to his own command post at Granville on the Atlantic coast of Normandy. It was a grave mistake to have chosen a spot so far behind the rapidly developing battlefronts. In fact, as Bradley pointed out, he would have been better placed for communications if he had stayed in London. Towards the end of the flight back to Granville, his light aircraft developed engine trouble and the pilot had to land on a beach. Eisenhower, who had already damaged one knee, now wrecked the other one when helping to turn the aircraft round on the sand. He was confined to bed, with the leg in plaster, just before Bradley and Montgomery were due to meet. He stayed immobilized for a whole week, which proved to be a crucial one.
That same evening of 2 September, Horrocks arrived at the headquarters of the Guards Armoured Division in Douai. He felt frustrated by the need to hold back his troops that day to allow an airborne drop on Tournai. It had then been cancelled at the last moment due to bad weather and because the American XIX Corps had already reached the drop zones. So with a certain theatrical flourish, Horrocks announced to the assembled Guards officers that their objective for the next day was Brussels, some 110 kilometres further on. There was a gasp of delighted astonishment. Horrocks also ordered Roberts's 1th Armoured Division to charge straight for the great port of Antwerp in Operation Sabot.
With the Welsh Guards preceded by the armoured cars of the nd Household Cavalry Regiment on the right and the Grenadier Guards group on the left, 'the spirit of competition was irresistible and nothing could stop us that day,' an officer recorded. The betting on who would reach Brussels first was intense. 'Les jeux sont faits - rien ne va plus!' was apparently the roulette croupier's cry at 06.00. hours, as both contingents set off. The Irish Guards group in reserve followed a few hours later. 'It was our longest drive, 82 miles in 13 hours,' their 2nd (Armoured) Battalion noted in the war diary. But for some units the headlong advance did not turn out to be so sporting. The Grenadiers lost more than twenty men in a vicious engagement with a group of SS.
The unexpected appearance of the Guards Armoured Division in the Belgian capital that evening triggered an even greater jubilation than had been seen during the liberation of Paris. 'The chief trouble was the mobbing of the crowds,' the Household Cavalry noted as they were constantly brought to a halt by exultant Belgians, packed along the road a dozen deep, singing 'Tipperary' and making V for Victory signs. 'Another universal habit of the liberated is to write messages of welcome all over the vehicles as they slowly nose their way through the crowd,' wrote the same officer. 'If you stop they swarm over the vehicle, cover it with fruit and flowers and offer wine.' The Household Cavalry and the Welsh Guards 'won the race by a short head', although 'it was a hazardous task, because every time one stopped to ask the way one was hauled from the car and soundly kissed by both sexes.'
German troops still held the aerodrome outside the capital and 'fired five rounds of high explosive' into the park in front of the Royal Palace, where Major General Allan Adair was establishing his command post under canvas. British troops were greatly helped by the Armée Blanche of the Belgian Resistance which 'proved of enormous value for rounding up the many stray Germans who were trying to escape'. Civilians, when not kissing their liberators, hissed and booed and kicked any German prisoners they saw.
Many British soldiers were struck by the contrast with Normandy, where the welcome had often been half-hearted, amid the terrible destruction wreaked on their towns and villages. 'The people dressed better,' an officer wrote, 'clothes seemed more plentiful, everyone looked clean and healthy, whereas France gave one the impression that everyone was shoddy and tired.' But appearances of comparative prosperity could be misleading. The German occupiers had seized food supplies, coal and other resources for themselves, and more than half a million Belgians had been shipped off for forced labour in German factories. Belgium, however, at least benefited from the rapidity of the Allied advance. This saved it from the destruction of battle, last-minute looting and the usual scorched-earth tactics of the Wehrmacht. But to the south-east reckless attacks by the Belgian Resistance on retreating groups of German soldiers led to vicious and indiscriminate reprisals by SS units in particular.
Excerpted from "The Battle of Arnhem"
Copyright © 2018 Antony Beevor.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
List Of Illustrations ix
List Of Maps xii
Table Of Military Ranks xvi
1 The Chase is On! 1
2 'Mad Tuesday' 9
3 The First Allied Airborne Army 23
4 Doubts Dismissed 39
5 The Day of the Hatchet 46
6 Final Touches 57
7 Eve of Battle - Saturday 16 September 65
8 Airborne Invasion - Sunday Morning 17 September 74
9 The German Reaction - Sunday 17 September 91
10 The British Landings - Sunday 17 September 98
11 The American Landings - Sunday 17 September 109
12 Night and Day Arnhem - 17-18 September 126
13 Arnhem - The Second Lift - Monday 18 September 142
14 The American Divisions and XXX Corps - Monday 18 September 154
15 Arnhem - Tuesday 19 September 172
16 Nijmegen and Eindhoven - Tuesday 19 September 194
17 Nijmegen - Crossing the Waal - Wednesday 20 September 208
18 Arnhem Bridge and Oosterbeek - Wednesday 20 September 228
19 Nijmegen and Hell's Highway - Thursday 21 September 247
20 Oosterbeek - Thursday 21 September 261
21 Black Friday - 22 September 277
22 Saturday 23 September 294
23 Sunday 24 September 305
24 Operation Berlin - Monday 25 September 321
25 Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Nijmegen - Tuesday 26 September 334
26 The Evacuation and Looting of Arnhem - 23 September to November 1944 344
27 The Island of Men - September to November 1944 353
28 The Hunger Winter - November 1944 to May 1945 364