The Devil's Birthday: The Bridges to Arnhem, 1944, Geoffrey Powell

The Devil's Birthday: The Bridges to Arnhem, 1944, Geoffrey Powell

The author actually served as a company commander during Market-Garden, fighting with the airborne forces at Arnhem, and yet his style is rarely that of the over-involved eyewitness and always that of the historian, attempting to uncover what happens and to be fair to all sides. One great advantage of his direct involvement comes early on, in his account of the general mood in the Allied armies before the battle. The Germans had just collapsed in France and been bundled back almost to the German border, and hardly anyone expected them to be able to rally quickly. It was in this atmosphere of optimism that the overall plan for Market-Garden evolved, an attempt to get across the Rhine before the German defences could stiffen.

The most important feature of this book is the amount of attention paid to areas other than the airborne battle at Arnhem. This was just one part of a much larger operation, and Powell gives equal coverage to the battles fought by the American airborne divisions, the Poles and the ground troops struggling to open the road to Arnhem. This is particularly impressive given the author's involvement in part of the battle. Equally impressive is his ability to understand the problems faced by commanders whose decisions played a part in his own suffering in the besieged bridgehead outside Arnhem.

This book makes you realise that too much is made of the problems with the planning for the airborne assault on Arnhem, often the focus of British books. In fact the bridge at Arnhem was held for longer than required and it was the slow progress of the ground troops that doomed the venture to failure, along with the stiffening of German resistance as the Allies advanced out of France and towards the German border. One also wonders just how significant a victory at Arnhem might have been, with a single road linking the bridge there to the rest of the Allied armies. In the author's view the basic premise for the operation was flawed - the idea that German resistance would crumble if the Allies could get across the Rhine was based on an underestimation of Germany's remaining resources.

This is an excellent account of the Market-Garden battle, with a much better balance than many books on the same topic. Powell has some interesting thoughts on the reasons for the eventual failure of the campaign, but is also fair to the senior commanders involved, understanding more clearly than many authors the pressure they were under.

1 - Coins burning holes in SHAEF's pocket
2 - To grab the bridges with thunderclap surprise'
3 - But the Germans, General, the Germans
4 - It was evident that the initial flight … would be hazardous
5 - Signal failures were no new phenomenon
6 - The drop was better than had ever been experienced
7 - A tale you will tell your grandchildren
8 - Oh, how I wish I had ever had such powerful means at my disposal
9 - The proved to be among the bravest and most patriotic people we had liberated
10 - A grossly untidy position
11 - The retention of the high ground South of Nijmegen was of greater importance
12 - It is against text-book teaching to break off an engagement and withdraw from the battlefield in broad daylight
13 - Jim, never try to fight an entire Corps off one road
14 - Touch them and they react
15 - It was the outstanding independent parachute battalion action of the war
16 - I'm proud to meet the commander of the greatest division in the world today
17 - Der Kessel
18 - Major-General Sosabowski proved himself to be extremely difficult to work with
19 - I regard general situation on rivers as now very satisfactory
20 - Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day
21 - About the blackest moment of my life
22 - He was certain in his own mind that no reinforcement could arrive in time
23 - The position held by the Airborne Division had no military value
24 - The night was made for clandestine exits
25 - In the years to come … no one will remember that two American divisions fought their hearts out in the Dutch canal country
26 - Operation 'Market' was a brilliant success

Author: Geoffrey Powell
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 276
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2012 edition of 1984 original

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