Category Archives: Airborne Warfare

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods DVD by Battlefield History

I’ve reviewed quite a few Battlefield History DVD‘s before, and they just keep getting better and better. This edition in their Arnhem series looks at the role of the 4th Parachute Brigade, from their drop on Ginkel Heath on 18 September 1944 until they joined the Oosterbeek perimeter two days later.

I should register a vested interest, in that my late Grandfather fought with the 11th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem. He hardly ever talked about the battle – unsurprisingly, as he was wounded and taken prisoner and the battle did not go well for the 11th Battalion – so it is a real treat to see so much focus given to his unit, one that has often been overlooked in the history of Arnhem. It’s nice to see a contribution from a soldier who was with the 11th, as so few histories of Arnhem contain anything from them.

I’ve been to Arnhem a couple of times myself, and have always found it hard to describe the terrain in that corner of Holland. This DVD does an admirable job of helping he viewer get a feel for what the battlefield was like. And that’s half the ‘battle’ – bad pun – with military history, ‘smelling’ the battlefield. The clips of re-enactors, equipment and visits to military museums add to the atmosphere and depth of the production.

I enjoyed watching it immensely, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods is published by Pen and Sword Digital

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The Devils Birthday by Geoffrey Powell

In the past I have been quite critical of the historiography of Arnhem. More than half of the books published that have Arnhem in the title or blurb offer little or no new analysis – the battle has been so raked over, that you have to wonder if there is really anything new to write. Such is why I will probably never attempt a book on Arnhem.

Written some years ago now, The Devils Birthday has aged rather well, and has always been one of my favoured works on Market Garden. And now, it has been reprinted by Pen and Sword. And not before time – it might serve to remind younger scholars and enthusiasts that much of what is presented as ‘new’ in military history, has already been written years before. This was, as the blurb tells us, the first book to be written about Market Garden as a whole by a British writer.

Perhaps the greatest faux pax in this book, is that Powell suggests that Lieutenant-General Boy Browning uttered the immortal ‘Bridge too far‘ line.  But crucially – and I have no idea why it took anyone so long to realise – Powell doesn’t actually substantiate how he knew that Browning had said such a thing. In all likelihood, it was – and remains to this day – an urban myth. As recent research has shown, there is no evidence that Browning made the ‘Bridge too far’ statement prior to the battle.

But that aside, this is a very good book. And especially so for a particpant in the battle, and a military man. It is well referenced and has good bibliography, particularly when it comes to official documentary sources. And we have to remember that Powell was writing originally in 1984- at a time when many of the key participants were still alive and able to contribute. It is perhaps a little heavy on narrative and a touch light on critique and robust conclusion – particularly when compared to modern Arnhem writers such as Robert Kershaw and William Buckingham – but military officers do tend not to drive points home against the establishment in writing!

It is a very able and useful study of the battle of Arnhem. What makes it all the more interesting is that Powell served as a company commander with the 156th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem, and was one of very few officers to return across the Rhine after the battle. Remarkably, when he and the remnants of his battalion landed on the south bank of the Rhine, they formed up and marched to billets in Nijmegen. And after almost ten days of bitter fighting. Tellingly, Powell tells this story, but is too modest to state that he was the officer in command.

The Devils Birthday is published by Pen and Sword

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General ‘Boy': The Life of Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Browning by Richard Mead

I have a confession to make – this is a book that I actually started to write a few years ago, but was ‘warned off’ by a Regimental archive that I approached, who informed me that Richard Mead was already well advanced on writing a biography of General Browning. Therefore I have been eagerly awaiting this book for some time.

I’ve written before about the idisyncracies of the military biography. The problem is that the most critical sources – personal letters, diaries, recollections and memories etc – are controlled by the subjects family, who are very unlikely to make them available to a writer who is likely to show their nearest and dearest in anything other than a flattering light. Regiments can be even more protective of their old boys, especially a clan as tightly knit and exclusive as the Grenadier Guards. Therefore the military biography is hardly an objective project at the best of times. But when the subject is a controversial figure such as Browning, this is even more so the case.

On balance, Mead’s appraisal of Browning’s role in Market Garden appears apologetic. Most of the serious criticisms of Browning are rebuffed, while a few minor faults are admitted, almost as sacrificial lambs. I remain convinved that Browning was the most pivotal figure in the whole operation, who could have forced changes in the plan but did not, and who should have foreseen errors, but did not. Browning certainly did not protest about taking a grossly inadequate Corps HQ into battle, as he knew it was his last chance to see action in the Second World War. No serious military historian would argue that I Airborne Corps‘ presence in Holland was vitally necessary on the first day of the operation.

In the same manner,  A Bridge Too Far‘s treatment of Browning is decried, but again, I still feel that the substance of the film is correct – Browning DID preside over a disaster. He did downplay dangerous intelligence, and did have his intelligence officer sent away on sick leave. These are not trivial accusations. Perhaps Dirk Bogarde did play Browning in a less than flattering light, but new evidence would suggest that the screenplay – and the influence of American interests – forced Bogarde into this portrayal, even against his own personal will. In any case, the main complaint is that Bogarde’s protrayal showed Browning to be vain and aloof. But, surely it’s not stretching the imagination to describe someone who designed their own extravagant uniforms as being vain? When the film was released a plethora of military figures protested, but this perhaps had more to do with military loyalty to a superior than anything else.

Where Mead really has succeeded is in ‘bookending’ Browning’s life. For too long military history has seen Browning’s life as starting in 1942 and ending in 1944 when he went to South East Asia, with what came before and after as an afterthought. His family background, his service in the First World War, his sporting activities, his regimental service between the wars and his time as Adjutant at Sandhurst all played a part in making Boy Browning the man that he was in September 1944. That he spent virtually all of his career with the Grenadier Guards – very much a closed and conservative environment – perhaps did not aid his work with others who were not part of the Brigade of Guards. He might have been a fighting soldier in 1918, but by 1939 had had a severely limited career that did not prepare him sufficiently for higher command.

In much the same manner his subsequent valuable service as Chief of Staff to Mountbatten in South East Asia, Military Secretary at the War Office, and then a key figure in the Royal Households should not be overlooked. In particular it seems that Browning was a very able administrator, particularly for the relatively young and inexperienced Mountbatten. Ironically, this kind of work was perhaps Browning’s strength, rather than active command. Perhaps it is indicative of the patronage system that pervaded the British Army that an officer singularly unsuited to active operations was allowed to reach such a position in the first place.

One aspect of Browning’s life that has very rarely been exposed is that of his mental and physical health, in particular in retirement. I have long seen glimpses of this, particularly in my own research, but it’s almost as if a veil of secrecy had been drawn over matters, so as not to portray any weakness on the part of Boy Browning. Not unlike the proverbial elephant in the room. He suffered from a lifelong stomach complaint (perhaps psychosomatic?), and not infrequent periods of exhaustion and stress. It’s probably unfortunate that somebody with such a stress threshold found themselves in command of the most high-profile failure of the Second World War.

After the War Browning developed something of a drinking problem which severely damaged his circulation, suffered from bouts of depression and at one point a serious nervous breakdown. On several occasions he was found with a revolver in his hand threatening to blow his own brains out. Browning’s relationship with his wife, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, is also examined. Both certainly had affairs, and du Maurier had liaisons with a number of women. Browning also seems to have had a difficult relationship with his children. These characterstics certainly co-align with wartime descriptions of him being nervy and highly strung, and cold and aloof. In some respects, it would be interesting to hear the thoughts of a psychologist on this evidence of a very strained life. Although we need to understand what part all of this played – if any – in his wartime actions, we should not think any less of the man purely that he suffered from personal problems.

Whilst the controversy is sure to rage on, at least Boy Browning’s life can now be seen in greater context. Whatever Historians might write about him, the focus on Browning’s life and career has for too long been far too narrow. I do not envy any Historian in the task of writing a military biography. Here Richard Mead has made the best effort that perhaps could be expected.

General ‘Boy’ is published by Pen and Sword

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Obituary – Major Richard Winters (1918-2011)

Major Dick Winters, leader of the celebrated &...

Major Richard Winters (Image via Wikipedia)

Major Richard Winters, the famous commanding officer of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division during the Second World War, and inspiration for Band of Brothers, has died at the age of 92. He had been suffering from Parkinsons for several years, and requested a private family funeral.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1918, Winters graduated college in 1941 with a degree in Business. Enlisting in the US Army in August 1941, in April 1942 he was selected for Officer Training. It was during officer training that he met his friend Lewis Nixon. He then joined the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Camp Toccoa in Georgia. Initially serving as a platoon commander in Easy Company under Captain Herbert Sobel.

In September 1943 the 101st Airborne Division arrived in England, in readiness for the invasion of Europe. Whilst in England Sobel charge Winters for supposedly failing to carry out an order. When Winters requested a court martial he was seconded out of the Company to act as Battalion mess officer. Several Easy Company NCO’s, however, later threated to resign if they were forced into action with Sobel. The Regiment’s CO, Colonel Sink, took a very dim view of their actions, but sidelined Sobel none the less.

Winters returned to Easy Company as a platoon commander, whilst Lieutenant Thomas Meehan was given command of Easy Company. Meehan was killed on D-Day when his Dakota was destroyed, putting Winters in charge of Easy Company. Later on D-Day Winters led a text book assault on a German artillery position at Brecourt Manor. Winters was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership in the attack, which is still taught at West Point today. It later transpired that Winters had been recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honour, but an imposed quota of one Medal of Honour per Division prevented his receiving the higher award. In July 1944 Winters was promoted to Captain.

Winters and Easy Company took part in Operation Market Garden in September 1944. In October 1944 Winters was promoted to act as the Battalion’s Executive Officer. Whilst the Division was in reserve in December 1944 the Germans launched their last-gasp Ardennes Offensive. The 101st were rushed into action in bitter conditions and against heavy opposition, holding the vital crossroads town of Bastogne.VE Day found Winters and the 101st in Austria.

At the end of the war Winters was offered a regular commission in the US Army, but declined. He returned to the US in October 1945. Winters worked for Lewis Nixon’s family business, a nitration works in New Jersey. In 1951 he was recalled to the US to train recruits going to fight in the Korean War. After leaving the Army for the last time he started his own animal feed company, before retiring in 1997.

Winters always remained remarkably humble about his distinguished service. Even when the Book and then TV series of Band of Brothers appeared and Winters won worldwide fame, he remained completely modest. He famously quoted one of his men on the TV programme:

“I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said ‘No… but I served in a company of heroes…'”

Personally I find Richard Winters to be one of the most inspiring leaders of the Twentieth Century, and certainly one of the best junior officers of the Second World War. Even when it comes to everyday life, or working in a non-military environment, thinking about Richard Winter’s leadership style is extremely useful. Winters is the best example I have ever seen that to be a great leader, you do not have to run around wearing your rank and shouting your mouth off for the hell of it.

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Airborne Armour by Keith Flint

A Tank in a Glider. How the hell do you fit a Tank in a Glider, and then fly it hundreds of miles, land it, and then fight from it? It seems ridiculous, but this really did happen during the latter stages of the Second World War.

Although Britain was woefully slow in developing Airborne Forces, one aspect in which she was far in advance of her allies and enemies was that of developing means of transporting tanks into battle by air. Obviously it would have been impossible to carry anything like Sherman or Churchill by air, but it was found that the Tetrarch – a small light tank – could fit inside a General Aircraft Hamilcar Glider. Hamilcars were the largest glider used by British Forces during the war, and flew in action in Normandy, at Arnhem and during the Rhine Crossing. Flying a huge Glider loaded with a light tank was an impressive feat for the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment, who upon landing became infantry in their own right.

Flint gives us an impressive overview of the development of both the Tetrarch and Locust, and also of the Hamilcar glider that carried them into battle. Not only are we informed about the machines, but also the men and the units that fought with them. It was indeed a surprise to me to learn that once the ground forces linked up with the airborne recce units the airborne men swapped their light tanks for heavier Churchill tanks, which gave the Airborne Division much more firepower and enabled it to act as a regular infantry Division, such as in the advance to the Seine in the summer of 1944 and from the Rhine Crossing to the Elbe in 1945.

One aspect I am particularly interested in is the lack of any serious Armour in the 1st Airborne Division that landed at Arnhem. As Flint has shown, this was more by accident than by design. It would be reasonable to suggest that while Tetrarchs or Locusts might not have fared too well against Mark IVs, Tigers of Panthers later in the battle, in the early advances to the Bridge tanks might have fared better in the infamous ambush than lightly armed Jeeps. Even better, a troop of tanks in front of each Battalion heading for the Bridge would have been most effective. The 1st Airborne Recce commander, Major Freddie Gough, suggested that some of 6th Airborne’s tanks could have been used at Arnhem, but this suggestion was not taken up. This more than fits in with the impression that the Arnhem operation was badly planned and opportunities were missed.

Keith Flint has made valuable use of some original documents, particularly from the Tank Museum at Bovington and the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop. This is the kind of history I like – original research, on a new subject, that focuses on both the men and the machines. This is a significant addition to both the armoured and airborne historiographies of the Second World War.

Airborne Armour is published by Helion Press

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Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper by Martin Poppel

Airborne Warfare has always been one of my favourite subjects in military history. Its probably got something to do with the fact that my Granddad was a paratrooper and an Arnhem veteran, and – not surprisingly – I have read pretty much every book I can get my hands on about the great airborne battles of the Second World War. Or at least I thought I had. I’ve read about Bruneval, Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem, but only from the British and American (and Polish!) perspectives. But considering that the allies were relative latecomes to airborne warfare, its surprising to think that I have read virtually nothing about German paratroopers. Until now, that is.

Martin Poppel joined the German Fallschirmjaeger shortly before the start of the Second World War, and went on to see action in Poland, Holland, Crete, several stints on the Russian front, in Sicily and Italy, in Normandy and finally in Holland and north west Germany during early 1945. He was wounded three times (in Russia, Italy and Normandy). Initally serving as a junior soldier, he was eventually commissioned as an Officer, and ended the war as a Company Commander. He was captured when the allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945. Whatever the political direction of their masters, there can be no doubt that many Germans – especially the paratroopers – fought tenaciously throughout the war. After capture Poppel was taken to England and held in a Prisoner of War Camp in North East England, an experience he does not seem to have minded too much. He was finally released a year later in 1946. Fortunately, his family were in the US zone in Munich – many of his comrades families were in the Russian sphere.

Poppel’s war diary is a fascinating read. We gain a unique insight into the daily life of the German soldier. Poppel gives us plenty of interesting snippets, about comradely relations, equipment, rations, attitudes to the Nazis and the war in general. Its interesting to note that the elite status felt by parachute troops was not limited to the allies – the fallschirmjaeger were very proud of their status. They seem to have preferred to jump into action (Poppel performed two combat jumps) towards the end of the war the paratroopers were used increasingly as a ‘fire brigade’ in order to reinforce weak points. Another interesting point to note is that Germany’s airborne troops came under the command of the Luftwaffe rather than the Army, unlike the allies.

Its also interesting to note how Poppel refers to British soldiers almost completely as ‘Tommy’ or ‘the Tommies’. Also, how dismissive the German troops were of British and American equipment, and their fighting prowess. However, for me the most interesting point was how Poppel – by his own admission a supporter of the Nazi party earlier in the war – began to see the Nazi ideology in different eyes as the war went against Germany. When returning to his unit after being wounded, his commander warned him that his negative attitude had been noted. But, interestingly, when in a Prisoner of War Camp Poppel remarked that, even though he was by no means an ardent Nazi, he still could not believe what had happened to Germany, and it took some time for the last vestiges of years of Nazi indoctrination to disappear. Evidence of just how politicised the youth of Germany were. No wonder they fought so doggedly.

I found this a fascinating and enlightening read. It has reinforced, above all, my feeling that very often fighting men on either side have more in common with each other than they do with their own generals, and definitely more in common than they do with their own politicians. And, no matter how unpleasant some ideologies might be, in many cases men simply did not have any choice but to fight. And if we are to curb extremism, we need to understand how it takes hold.

Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper is published by The History Press

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Escape from Arnhem by Godfrey Freeman

Godfrey Freeman attempted to join the RAF several times, but was turned down for having a depressed sternum. Instead he enlisted in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, and then fulfiled his flying ambition by volunteering for the Glider Pilot Regiment. The Glider Pilot Regiment gained a strong reputation, for not only were they fully trained pilots, but upon landing they also went into action as infantry.

Escape from Arnhem begins shortly after the fall of Arnhem Bridge, and follows Freeman into captivity. He feigned shell-shock, figuring that he would therefore be kept in Hospital rather than sent to a Stalag, and thus would have a much better chance of escape. He was initially sent to a makeshift hospital at the Royal Palace of Het Loo near Apeldoorn. My own Grandfather, who was also wounded and captured at Arnhem, may well have been in the same place. He eventually escaped, and took part in the daring Pegasus escape across the Rhine, along with 120 other refugees. The Pegasus Operation was featured in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. One of the men who originally escaped with Freeman, Major John Coke, was killed in a later escape attempt.

Freeman’s account gives us a very good impression of the experience of the Airborne soldiers who were captured at Arnhem. On a personal level I find this very interesting, as my Granddad talked very little about what happened to him. To read about the conditions, the relations with their German Guards, the medical care and the rations, helps fill some gaps in my understanding. It is the crystal clear memories that Freeman imparts that make a book like this. Like his recollections of Major-General Urquhart being airsick in the back of his glider, and the hospitality afforded by Dutch people who sheltered the escapees.

I find it quite telling that Freeman had to be talked into compiling his memories by his friends and family – he feared sounding like a ‘big-I-am’. His style of writing is very humble and matter of fact, which is important – these stories need no embellishing or glossing, indeed to do so would discredit them. So many books have been written about Arnhem, but none with such humility.

Escape from Arnhem is published by Pen and Sword

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