Category Archives: Arnhem

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

2 Comments

Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Arnhem, Book of the Week, World War Two

Thinking about writing about Arnhem

At some point I’m going to have to think about writing subjects a bit broader than just Portsmouth. Equally, it’s always been an ambition of mine to write about Arnhem. Given that my Grandad was an Arnhem veteran, it’s pretty much what got me into military history in the first place.

But the historiography is pretty crowded. For what was, essentially, a divisional level battle, more has been written about Arnhem than any other comparable battle in history.  So many books have been written about it – scores of general histories, and pretty much every kind of unit history or personal memoir imaginable. In many cases I suspect authors and publishers have been a bit deceptive about publishing new books that don’t offer anything new, knowing that anything about Arnhem will sell.

It’s a big ambition of mine to write about Arnhem, but my historian’s conscience won’t allow me to re-hash something. But equally, it has to be something with enough appeal that publishers will take it on. The ideal scenario would be some new sources that have never been looked at, or some kind of new angle.

I’m a bit stuck for ideas – any suggestions?

10 Comments

Filed under Arnhem

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

11 Comments

Filed under Airborne Warfare, Arnhem, Book of the Week, World War Two

Surgeon at Arms by Lipmann Kessel

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I tend to devour anything written that pertains to Operation Market Garden. It’s what got me into military history, and even when I’m in a nursing home myself I’ll probably still be reading my Op MG library. The funny thing is, I don’t actually enjoy the general histories – there are so many of them, and to be honest, since Martin Middlebrook none of them have really offered anything new. But there are a wealth of personal and micro histories out there, many of them under-published and little-known.

Captain Alexander Lipmann-Kessel was serving with 16th Parachute Field Ambulance during the Battle, parachuting in on the first day and leading a surgical team at St Elisabeths Hospital in the town until after the surrender. Not only was he a very brave man and a distinguished surgeon, but he was, miraculously, a South African Jew. As such, he had more to lose than most. And as he himself states in the text, he did look stereotypically Jewish. Heaven knows how the germans did not cotton on.

Having previously read Stuart Mawson’s Arnhem Doctor, I was very interested to read another account of battlefield medicine. The privations of running an operating theatre in action, under enemy occupation, using very basic equipment and a minimum of supplies, is very inspiring indeed. For much of the battle Kessel was working alongside Dutch civilian doctors and nurses, and under pressure from the Germans all of the time. Kessel has some interesting observations about the German doctors approach to battlefield medicine. The SS doctors refused to operate on any head or stomach wounds, preferring to administer a lethal injection. Lipmann-Kessel, on the other hand, decided to operate on Brigadier Shan Hackett’s severe stomach wound, with a casual, ‘oh I don’t know, I think I might have a go at this one’.

After the withdrawl across the Rhine, the Germans gradually evacuated the hospital – not before Kessel could have Brigadier Hackett spirited away into hiding, and assist the Dutch underground in giving a ‘funeral’ to a consignment of arms. Transported to a barracks in Apeldoorn, Lipmann-Kessel eventually escaped. Coming into contact with the Dutch underground, he took part in the abortive Pegasus II attempt to get airborne fugivites back across the Rhine. Lipmann-Kessel finally made it to allied lines by canoeing down a Dutch river, evading German patrols along the way. It’s stirring stuff indeed, the stuff of a boys own novel.

Although it doesn’t state so in the book, when Lipmann-Kessel died in the 1980’s, he requested to be buried in Arnhem civilian cemetery, close by to his comrades who were killed in September 1944. Having read his account of those dramatic days, such a gesture seems completely in character with the man.

Surgeon at Arms is published by Pen and Sword

6 Comments

Filed under Army, Arnhem, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

Battleground General Arnhem 1944 by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell

Wargaming is something that I have always fancied having a go at. In the main, it has been time and expense that has precluded me having a go. Similarly, I tend to steer clear of wargaming PC games, as I find it all too easy to spend all weekend playing them! Therefore I was very interested to see this book by Sutherland and Canwell which is, in essence, wargaming in a book. And obviously, with my personal interest in the Battle of Arnhem, I was doubly fascinated to have a go at wargaming Arnhem.

The concept is thus. You play in the role of either of the opposing commanders – in this case, either Major General Roy Urquhart or Waffen SS General Wilhelm Bittrich. After reading the opening entry, you are given a series of choices, which usually entail making a tactical decision. Each step entails going on to another decision if you decide on a particular course of action. In essence, it is kind of like a giant flow chart, but only listed in a book. As far as I can tell it is pretty accurate to history, militarily and in terms of the geography and the ‘feel’ of the battle. I’ve walked over the ground at Arnhem a couple of times, as well as reading every book about the battle more than once, so I guess I’m as much an expert about Arnhem as you can get. Of course, it is quite simplistic, compared to say a PC game or a school hall long board wargame, but that’s the beauty of it – you can sit on the train and play it with yourself, or maybe in conjunction with another fellow military history nerd.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I won! Playing as Urquhart, I stayed at my HQ initially on the first day, but went ahead to switch the Recce Squadron and the rest of 1st Parachute Brigade to the southern route once I hit opposition on the way into the town. As a result the 2nd Battalion made the Bridge, and more of the Brigade than did in reality. Of course, I know that on the evening of the 17th Urquhart got himself trapped in Arnhem, so I prompltly pulled myself back to main HQ. The rest of the 1st Brigade were held up in the town, but on the second day I switched the 4th Brigade (Grandad included!) to the southern route, down through Oosterbeek. Along with the balance of the 1st Brigade, they made it to the Bridge. The 1st Airlanding Brigade remained on the drop zones, where the Poles later landed. With enough men on the northern end of the Bridge, I sat it out – too many Germans on the south, my probing recces found that the opposition there wasn’t worth wasting too many men on. However, once I heard that XXX Corps had taken Nijmegen Bridge and were advancing up the Island, I charged the south bank in an all or nothing coup de main – and took it!

Having read plenty of Arnhem books, I think that plan might well have worked – but of course, that takes a lot of hindsight. But then again, isn’t that what we do, as historians? Take account of hindsight where others could not at the time? When you consider how it must have been trying to make decisions back in September 1944 – when Urquhart et al knew none of this – you can see how success and failure were divided by such a thin line. A very sobering realisation indeed.

Battleground General Arnhem 1944 is published by Pen and Sword

7 Comments

Filed under Army, Arnhem, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

The (inceasingly tedious) historiography of Arnhem

I know its something I have written about before, but it never ceases to amaze me how historians and publishers will attempt to flog dead horses. Well, maybe thats not a great analogy, but some battles have been written about so much, without anything substantially ‘new’ being offered.

Coming from a background of academic history, my philosophy is that you only undertake to write something if you have a new vein of original material that has never been worked on before, or you can offer a dramatically new appraisal of something that has already been done. What you don’t do is just re-hash what somebody else has already done. It gets very tiring when you see yet another book about an epic battle, that promises much but delivers little.

Therefore I am astounded by just how many books get written about Arnhem and Market Garden. Most of them are very general books, telling any reader who has more than a little knowledge what they already know and offering nothing new in return. In Waterstones yesterday I picked up a copy of a new Arnhem book by a well-known military history duo, whose books I have previously enjoyed, but whose new effort on Arnhem appears to be re-inventing the wheel. It does seem to be publisher-motivated, as any military history publisher knows, books on Arnhem sell.

Out of the virtually hundreds of books written about Arnhem, only a handful of them are really indispensible, in my experience. Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook is the best overall, general introduction about the Battle. A Bridge too Far by Cornelius Ryan is, for obvious reasons, another good introduction, which reads almost like a novel, and takes a wider perspective. It never snows in September by Robert Kershaw is invaluable, as it is the only book that really tells the German side of the battle – and a history of a battle that only focuses on one side is like watching a football match but only being able to see half of the pitch. Arnhem 1944 by William Buckingham was, in my opinion, the first book to look at Arnhem through a more challenging, modern historiographical perspective. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, putting the cat amongs the pigeons leads for a more rigorous history in my opinion. And obviously ‘original’ texts like those by Roy Urquhart, John Frost etc are invaluable, as primary sources.

It’s so disappointing, to see big name authors with big publishing deals re-hashing what is already out there, when there are legions of historians out there who are working hard on original material, yet never get the credit that they deserve. As much as I want to sell books and pay the bills, I also want to contribute to history, and you do that by offering something new or different. I guess in that respect military history does lag behind some other disciplines, in that sometimes it is nowhere near challenging enough, and of course as a popular subject for publishing it is open to market forces more than say the history of ferret stuffing in deepest Somerset.

22 Comments

Filed under Arnhem, debate, historiography, Uncategorized, World War Two

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

23 Comments

Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Arnhem, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two