This is a very detailed account of the part played by the 4th Parachute Brigade in the fighting at Arnhem. The brigade landed at Arnhem on the second day, after the best chance of reaching the bridge in force had gone. It thus suffered heavy casualties in an unsuccessful attempt to break through the German defensive line that had rapidly formed between the landing zones and the bridge, and after that played a vital part in the prolonged defence of the divisional position at Oosterbeek.
The focus on a single brigade allows for a very detailed account of the fighting, down to the level of the fate of individual soldiers. Although the title would suggest a focus on the events of 19 September, that day actually gets just over 50 pages, so the rest of the battle is also covered in some detail. The brigade suffered such heavy losses during the battle that it was disbanded – only just under one quarter of the men who entered battle were evacuated at the end of the battle, and the majority of the brigade ended up as prisoners of war (fortunately not for terribly long).
One feature of the battle that I hadn’t realised before was that the advancing XXX Corps actually got to within artillery range of the fighting at Oosterbeek, and was able to play a significant part in that battle. This does make it clear just how close the operation actually came to success, and the advancing troops did actually reach the Rhine opposite Arnhem in time to help evacuate the survivors of the battle.
The author has produced a good narrative of the brigade’s role in Market-Garden, covering the background history of the unit, the planning for the operation and its part in the fighting. The tone is generally neutral, avoiding the sort of polemic one sometimes finds in books on this subject. I’m not sure I agree with his comment that Hackett might not have been a good choice as a commander as he wasn’t within the ‘airborne community’ – Hackett had a background in Special Forces, and the first large scale use of British paratroops had been in Sicily in 1943, so nobody really had that much experience of actual operations, but apart from that I found much to agree with here.
The author does finish with a quote attributed to the Polish General Sosabowski when he was asked why the attack had failed – ‘The Germans, General, the Germans!’. However one aspect of the German resistance is missed. The Allied high command are almost always criticised for being over-optimistic when planning Market Garden, but they had very good reasons for that view. In mid August the German position in Normandy finally crumbled, and the remnants of the German armies in French back towards the German borders. The next month was the period of the ‘Great Swan’ – Paris was liberated on 25 August, Brussels on 3 September and Antwerp on 4 September. A series of potentially river barriers had been passed without much trouble, and the general feeling was that the German armies in the west were broken. The main debate on the Allied side wasn’t about the best way to win the war, but the best way to win the war quickly. Recent experience suggested that daring attacks such as this had a very good chance of success. What the Allies hadn’t realised was that the Germans had been preparing to defend the Rhine and still had the capability to create impressive new armies. The battle of the Bulge is the most famous example of this, but Market-Garden was the first point at which the Allies ran into determined resistance since Normandy. The speed with which they were able to respond to the landings at Arnhem, and the determined attacks on XXX Corps as it attempted to reach the bridge were both unexpected. It does also suggest that even if the plan had worked, the bridge had been captured intact and a bridgehead created at Arnhem, it wouldn’t have led to the rapid victory that had been expected, but instead to a bitter battle around the bridgehead, similar to the battles that were indeed fought around the smaller bridgehead that was left after the battle ended.
1 - Introduction
2 - Formation of the Brigade
3 - North Africa
4 - Italy: 'Vanguard of the D-Day Dodgers'
5 - England, winter 1943: 'A Green and Pleasant Land'
6 - 4 Parachute Brigade
7 - Sunday, 17 September: The First Day
8 - Monday, 18 September: The Second Day
9 - Tuesday, 19 September: The Third Day
10 - Wednesday, 20 September: The Fourth Day
11 - Thursday, 21 September: The Fifth Day
12 - Friday, 22 September: The Sixth Day
13 - Saturday, 23 September: The Seventh Day
14 - Sunday, 24 September: The Eighth Day
15 - Monday, 25 September: The Ninth Day
16 - Tuesday, 26 September: The Last Day
17 - Conclusion
Author: David Truesdale