Tag Archives: Browning

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

65 years ago – The battle slips away

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

After the Poles landed south of the Rhine, the Germans carried on mortaring and shelling the British positions in the Oosterbeek perimeter. By now the British were severely lacking in ammunition, food and other supplies. They faced a number of determined attacks that threatened to overwhelm them completely.

After the Irish Guards began their advance from Nijmegen, it became clear that the high, exposed road leading to Arnhem was completely unsuitable for tanks. As a result, the 43rd (Wessex) Division took over the attack, choosing to swing left away from the road and attempt to link up with the Poles at Driel.

Given the grievous losses suffered at Arnhem and Nimegen by the airborne soldiers, it is not difficult to escape the conclusion that Thomas and his Division could have tried harder. When they eventually reached Driel and came into radio contact with Urquhart, Thomas asked Urquhart why he did not counter shell the Germans. “with what?”, was Urquharts infuriated reply.

On the night of 24 September the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment attempted to cross the River. Like the Poles before them they were met with heavy fire, and only a few men got across. Many of the Dorsets were taken prisoner, including their Commanding Officer.

It was becoming clear that the German opposition to Operation Market Garden had been much stronger than anticipated. All along the corridor, from the Belgian border, Eindhoven and up to Nijmegen and beyond XXX Corps and the US 82nd and 101st Division were fighting tooth and nail to hold their ground. A bridgehead over the Rhine near Arnhem could possibly have been accomplished, but it was apparent that the Ground Forces did not have the resources to carry on the advance and outflank the Ruhr, thus rendering the whole Operation a failure.

At a conference back down the corridor Horrocks and Browning met with Miles Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army. This was the first time that Dempsey had played any meaningful part in the battle. The naturally ebullient Horrocks wanted to carry out a left hook and cross the Rhine to the west, but Dempsey ordered that this was not possible, and that the survivors of the 1st British Airborne Division were to be evacuated as soon as possible. This was done with Browning’s approval, the only real contribution Browning had made to the whole operation since landing.

Sadly, the recriminations were already beginning. Sosabowski’s abrasive character had made him few friends, and rapidly senior British officers began to treat him most shamefully. He received no backing from Browning, technically his commanding officer. The Poles were placed under the command of Thomas, an officer junior to Sosabowski, who told the experienced Pole that if he did not carry out his orders, he would find someone who would.

Even though the fighting at Arnhem was drawing to a close, the shameful episode over who was at fault was only just beginning.

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Filed under Arnhem, Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War Two