May 17, 2020


In the course of World War II, while the British went short of much else, they nursed an almost unlimited wealth of dud military commanders. As Antony Beevor observes in The Battle of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II, his masterly account of what became the Arnhem fiasco, even among a throng of duffers Lieutenant General Frederick “Boy” Browning, the husband of the novelist Daphne du Maurier and the commander of the operation, stands proud as a model of conceit, insensitivity, and incompetence.

Browning was a forty-seven-year-old Guardsman who had seen no action since World War I. After the cancellation of a succession of airborne assaults since D-Day, their objectives overrun by the ground advance, he had become desperate to lead his corps in battle before the apparently imminent German capitulation. Browning cannot be blamed for Montgomery’s initial folly, or for the failure of communications that overtook the First Airborne in Holland, or for the sluggishness of the advance of Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks’s XXX Corps toward Arnhem along a single Dutch road, its surrounding countryside too waterlogged for armor.

He must be held responsible, however, for not saying at the outset that the plan was unworkable. (Beevor doubts that he ever spoke of the “bridge too far” attributed to him by Cornelius Ryan in his 1974 book of that title on the operation.) When the Sixth Airborne’s outstanding commander Major General Richard Gale told Browning that he would have resigned rather than execute such a crazy scheme, the Guardsman merely requested that Gale not broadcast his skepticism, lest he lower morale among those committed to it. Browning failed miserably to grip the battle once it started, confirming American commanders in their disdain and indeed disgust toward him. He poured good money after bad by sustaining the operation long after it had obviously failed. He then scapegoated everybody else in sight for his own blunders.

Beevor’s great coup in writing this account, the first by a major writer since Ryan, was to trawl the Irish-American war correspondent’s archive in the Alden Library at Ohio University. Ryan was supported in his 1970–1974 research by a small army of interviewers funded by Reader’s Digest (those were the days!). He was able to use only a fraction of the transcripts they amassed from meetings with hundreds of British, American, and German veterans. While Beevor’s narrative follows a familiar path, it is thus illuminated by a host of hitherto unpublished anecdotes and quotations, together with the fruits of his own labors in Dutch archives. The outcome is a much more comprehensive and reliable account than that produced by Ryan, not least because when the latter’s work appeared, the “Ultra secret” of Allied code-breaking triumphs had not been revealed to the world.

Beevor enjoys a further advantage: almost all the veterans of the First Airborne are now dead. Thus it is no longer necessary in Britain to try to sustain the myth that it was an elite formation, all of whose men fought like tigers; some did, but others ran away. When John Keegan avowed this disagreeable reality in print back in 1994, the former commander of the Fourth Airborne Brigade at Arnhem, the formidable pocket-sized General Sir John Hackett, sprang at the historian’s throat. A severely mauled Keegan observed to me at the time that he would never write about Arnhem again as long as Hackett was alive. It was unacceptable to Hackett’s generation to face uncomfortable truths about its own battlefield limitations. And media sentimentality always swings behind supposed “war heroes” at the expense of scholarly critics.

Related: History Buffs: What the film of A Bridge Too Far got right – and wrong (video). When the film was being written and shot in the mid-1970s, many of the officers involved were still alive and were solicited for their advice on dialogue and acting. Occasionally, they were even listened to:

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