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Why the Battle of Arnhem was doomed to fail

British troops entering a smouldering Arnhem in 1944. Photo/Getty Images

Historian Antony Beevor exposes the ineptitude of Britain’s military leaders in the Battle of Arnhem.

Any truthful history of a modern battle will make for horrific reading. In great numbers, people are killed or horribly wounded, towns are destroyed and civilians are rendered homeless or turned into refugees. But particularly horrific are those battles that were pointless in the first place.

In his latest densely detailed history of pivotal campaigns in World War II, Antony Beevor has no doubt about the pointlessness of “Operation Market Garden”, the battle fought in the Netherlands in September 1944. As recently as the 1990s, BBC documentaries (you can catch some on YouTube) were still depicting Market Garden as a “gallant failure”, a bold and “daring” plan that didn’t work out because of a few unfortunate accidents.

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Beevor will have none of this. From his opening pages, he describes the campaign as a very bad plan right from the start and right from the top. He places the blame squarely on Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who cooked up the plan, and his subordinate, General Frederick “Boy” Browning, who proved a spectacularly ineffective field-commander.

In fact, the Englishman Beevor is far more negative about these two men than the Irish-American historian Cornelius Ryan was in his bestselling book about the Arnhem debacle, A Bridge Too Far.

After the British had liberated Belgium, Montgomery wanted to push into the Netherlands, grab the bridges on the northern Rhine and rush into Germany. But he failed to secure the city and port of Antwerp, still controlled by the Germans and blocking supplies.

Reconnaissance was poor, the route chosen for the main attack was one that all military strategists knew should not be used, and Monty vastly underestimated the ability of the German army to swiftly deploy reserves and bring up heavy armour.

Result? A nine-day slog around the town of Arnhem, which was reduced to rubble as American, British and Polish paratroopers and infantry were slaughtered and the bridges were never taken. Market Garden handed Nazi Germany its last major military victory.

Beevor is ambiguous about Montgomery’s superior, General Dwight D Eisenhower, Allied supremo in the West, who seems to have let Montgomery have his way as a gesture to Anglo-American relations. His sympathies are, as they should be, with the people on the ground.

There are many stories of heroism, resilience and endurance. But the horror dominates. Some 3600 Dutch civilians were killed as Arnhem was blown to pieces, and when the Germans reoccupied the town, SS troops took revenge on all those who had welcomed the Allies.

Greater revenge was taken by the Nazi governor of the Netherlands. He decided to withhold food supplies from the Dutch population, so that about 30,000 people starved to death in the “Hunger Winter”.

War is hell, but war-as-cock-up is double hell. You salute the people who died bravely, but you still have to file Operation Market Garden, along with Gallipoli in 1915 and the Dieppe Raid in 1942, as one of those things that should never have been undertaken in the first place.

ARNHEM: The Battle for the Bridges, by Antony Beevor (Penguin Random House, $40)

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.