Tag Archives: Operation Market Garden

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?

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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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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

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

Chitral Charlie by N.S. Nash

Since studying the Operation Market Garden from an early age, I have had a keen interest in military incompetence. Arguably, one of the most well-known military disasters was that of Arnhem. Whether Boy Browning was culpable has been debated ever since. On the other hand, modern historians nowadays accept that Arthur Percival could not have done much more than he did to save Singapore from surrender.

Yet perhaps the greatest military disaster to befall the British Empire was that of Kut. During the Great War British and Indian troops advanced in Mesopotamia – modern Iraq – against the Ottoman Turk. In command was Major-General Charles Townshend. Townshend had joined the British Army in the late Victorian period. It is interesting that he chose a military career, as he had a very keen interest in the theatre and performing arts, and liked moving in those circles.

It is probably surprising that Townshend managed to reach the rank of Major-General at all. He spent large periods on leave gallivanting around Europe and North America, and swapped cap-badges for a hobby. But perhaps worst of all, he had a nasty habit of alienating his superiors, and even officers who supported him soon grew tired of his obsessive letter writing. He was constantly hassling commanders for a better posting, or bemoaning his supposed ill-fortune.

So why did the Army not simply cut him off at a lower rank? Firstly, Townshend did serve in the Sudan under Kitchener, and on the North West Frontier in India. He was awarded a total of NINE mentions in despatches. Secondly, patronage still counted for much in the British Armed forces, and ability and potential were not always the final arbiter of a career.

Regulars will by now be fed up of reading my opinion of military biographies – ie, that they are mostly hopelessly inadequate. Yet this attempt by ‘Tank’ Nash is very fair. It bears no baggage, recognises Townshend’s service but also calls his indiscretions and weaknesses very accurately.

Townshend at first advanced into Iraq, pushing the Turk’s onto the back foot. Drunk on victory, he decided to stand at Kut, and await reinforcements. The reinforcements never arrived, and eventually, after a bloody siege, Townshend and his men were captured. Many of them died brutally, yet Townshend spent the rest of the war in luxury in Constantinople. Not only did he show little concern over his men, but when he returned home he could not understand why he came in for such criticism. Incredibly, he felt that he could act as an envoy to the Turks, and could not comprehend that the Army was keen to get shot of him as soon as possible.

Townshend has many similarities with Browning. Both had shown bravery early in the careers, but then spent time away from active soldiering, and hence were rusty when war came. And worst of all, both careers were driven by ambition and patronage rather than ability. And lost battles were the result.

Chitral Charlie 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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The History of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit in the Second World War by Dr. Fred McGlade

The Imperial War Museum holds millions of photographs and films created during the Second World War, many of them by the British Army‘s Film and Photographic Unit. They are a treasured resource for military historians. Yet the story of the men who collected this iconic images has never adequately been told.

The beginning of the Second World War found the British Government ill at ease with propgadanda and information. The armed forces in particular seemed to be overly security conscious, and unwilling to inform the general public about their work. Yet total war involved every section of society, and hence it was vital to inform morale on the home front by letting the people know what their menfolk were up to overseas and at home. There were also considerable turf wars, first in Whitehall and then with allies once the US joined the war.

The British Army led the way in producing photographs and films, after forming the Army Film and Photographic Unit. Many of the films and photographs were collected by Sergeant cameramen, who were recruited from existing soldiers who had photographic experience. Hence an ideal combination was found – men who knew how to work a camera, but had also spent some time in the Army. Several of the AFPU men were killed in action, and several more were decorated for bravery. Photographing during wartime was particularly testing, especially in extreme climates such as the desert in North Africa and the jungle in Burma. And like many ‘non-combatants’, the cameramen must have been extremely brave to be in the thick of battle, without being able to take an active part in it.

Personally, for me the most fascinating images produced by the AFPU came from Operation Market Garden. Along with Alan Wood of the Express and Stanley Maxted of the BBC – who also produced some vital reports – three AFPU Sergeants parachuted into Arnhem, and took some iconic images of the battle. Perhaps the most memorable is that of a mortar team of the Border Regiment, their mortar barrell almost vertical in the short range, fighting hard in the cauldron of Oosterbeek. AFPU cameramen also recorded the aftermath of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, essential for ensuring that the holocaust was not to be forgotten.

There were considerable tensions with the US authorities, however. The US Government was keen to ensure that the US public saw their armed forces taking as active a part as possible in the war. Even though the US was providing by far the bulk of the men and equipment fighting in Europe, to believe some US produced films the americans won the war single-handedly. Sound familiar? Saving Private Ryan, U-571…. obviously Hollywood taking historical licence is not a new phenomenon. But the wartime film showing a band of americans liberating Burma really has to take the biscuit. Just why US public opinion justified lies has never really occured to me.

Fred McGlade has produced an important and interesting record of the work of the AFPU. There are some fascinating images in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, and this book gives them added meaning. I’ve always thought that it was a bit strange to use photographs to illustrate a war, but not to ‘illustrate’ the photographs and how they were obtained.

The History of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit in the Second World War is published by Helion

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65 years ago today – the end at Arnhem

walking wounded being marched away from Arnhem

walking wounded being marched away from Arnhem

Early on the 25th September 1944 Generals Urquhart and Thomas agreed to evacuate the Airborne Division from Oosterbeek that night. The evacuation had to take place that night, as Urquhart feared that they were being attacked so heavily that it might be their last chance before they were overwhelmed completely.

Urquhart put together a plan that he hoped would enable as many of the surviving airborne troops to escape as possible. He modelled it on the evacuation of the Galipoli peninsula during the first world war, compared to a ‘collapsing bag’. The medical staff and chaplains agreed to stay and take care of the wounded, and wireless operators volunteered to remain behind and man the radios, giving the Germans something to listen to and keep them occupied.

On the night of the operation, sardonically code-named Operation Berlin, XXX Corps laid on a full scale artillery fire plan from the south bank of the Rhine. This gave the Germans the impression that the British were attempting to cross the Rhine and reinforce the bridgehead, and not to evacuate it.

Glider Pilots manned evacuation routes down to the River, marked by white tape. Men wrapped their boots in cloth so as to not make too much noise. Once they reached the riverbank most waited patiently for te boats. Engineers crossed the Rhine in assault boats, powered by outboard engines. Many of them ferried across again and again all through the night, finally stopping at down. More than a few airborne men decided to swim the river instead, and sadly several drowned in the Rhine’s turbulent waters.

By dawn most of the men had escaped, leaving the wounded and their helpers facing captivity. The Germans had been completely taken by surprise, and had no inkling that a withdrawal was taking place until it was completed. In the film Bridge too far the wounded sit at the Hartenstein Hotel, awaiting the Germans, and sing Abide with me. Although this probably didnt happen quite as in the film, the scence captures what the mood must have been like.

The survivors were taken back to Nijmegen, where they received food and shelter. Although they had undergone significant hardship, one party of men marched smartly from the Rhine down to Arnhem. Major Cain, who had just won a VC, even found time to shave before crossing. General Browning, waiting at Nijmegen, found it almost impossible to talk to the survivors, so startled was he by their experiences.

Over 10,000 men had landed at Arnhem. Only 2398 men returned. 1500 had been killed, and the remainder were captured and became Prisoners of War, many of them were taken to Stalag XIB POW camp in Northern Germany. They endured even more hardship until they were liberated in April and May 1945. One of them was my grandfather, Private Henry Miller. A smaller number of men evaded capture and succesfully made it back to British lines, including the seriously wounded Brigadier John Hackett.

Meanwhile, further down the corridor the two American Airborne Divisions would carry on fighting almost into November, suffering more casualties in this period than they did during the battle itself. XXX Corps remained in its positions in a cold, wet Holland throughout the winter of 1944 and 1945.

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Remembrance, World War Two