To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, renowned military historian, Iain Ballantyne, has written a new book about the battle.
By Nicholas Drummond
Over the years, many books have been written about one of the Second World War’s most ambitious, courageous, but ultimately ill-fated strategic gambles, Operation Market Garden. This was the Allied attempt to shorten the war by seizing and holding key river bridges in Holland in September 1944. Of the books written, two stand out. One is Cornelius Ryan’s ‘A Bridge Too Far;’ the other other is Antony Beevor’s ‘Arnhem.’ Ryan’s book is memorable because of the unrivalled detail it provides. Some 45 years after being published, it remains one of the most complete historical records of any military campaign. While the author has a compelling narrative style, at more than 650 pages, it is easy to get lost among the endless array of encyclopaedic facts. This is not to diminish Ryan’s book, it is a masterpiece, but it does not take you to back Arnhem and thrust you into the action as if you were a paratrooper who had actually fought there.
Antony Beevor’s book is also a hugely impressive account of the battle for the bridges. While he has a knack of writing military history in a way that appeals to contemporary readers, with pace as well as depth, his approach tends to look at the battle from a slightly detached, high-level strategic viewpoint rather than it being a personal, fly-on-the-wall account. As with his other Second Word War histories, Beevor’s ‘Arnhem’ includes a German perspective that balances the Allied view, but he seems overly preoccupied with pinning the blame for Market Garden’s failure on various protagonists, including Montgomery, Browning and Gavin. So, again, the visceral nature of the battle as it unfolded is somewhat lost in this version of events, which brings us to Iain Ballantyne’s new offering on this topic, ‘Arnhem – Ten Days in the Cauldron.’
Within a very few pages, it becomes apparent that the author has adopted a different and refreshing approach to writing his interpretation of the Battle. He wastes little time repeating the historical details with which many readers will already be familiar. They are, of course, present, but his focus is on the fighting for the Arnhem bridge itself rather than the wider battle.
‘Ten Days in the Cauldron’ reminds us that war is a human endeavour. As such it vividly conveys the well-worn saying that no plan, however well conceived, survives first contact with the enemy. Through the tragic chain of events that lead to the plan unravelling, Ballantyne introduces us to the military version of Murphy’s Law, not only that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, but the more ambitious the plan, the more certain are its chances of ending in failure. Using a patchwork of anecdotes drawn from various sources, the author skilfully stitches together a gripping account of the battle. In particular, Ballantyne communicates the sense of camaraderie that binds men together in war and the numbing sense of loss they experience as friends are killed and success irretrievably slips beyond their grasp. These things make this a soldier’s book and one that stands-up against Ryan’s and Beevor’s offerings.
Ballantyne’s thoughtful narrative includes details that ex-servicemen and women will appreciate. He catches the emotions of the people involved, such as the sense of foreboding tinged with excitement that flows through the veins of John Frost’s paratroopers as they anticipate the mission, or their sheer bloody-minded reluctance to yield an inch as their position becomes untenable. We see that Arnhem was a tragedy, not merely because the battle was lost, but because an élite force was wasted in a pointless endeavour. Like the cavalry regiments that took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, the 1st Airborne Division found themselves in a situation where no amount of courage or tenacity could overcome the enemy’s superiority in numbers and firepower. As the story unfolds, we are further reminded that those who fought in this and many other bloody battles of the Second World War were an exceptional generation. Even though this is a book about war, the underlying theme of resilience in adversity invests it with an appeal beyond military audiences.
Any non-British person reading ‘Ten Days in the Cauldron’ may wonder why it is that we as a nation are so fascinated by our magnificent defeats, and consider Dunkirk and Arnhem among our finest hours, when in fact they were embarrassing defeats. Here the author provides an answer by leading the reader to an inevitable conclusion, that British character is shaped more by our disasters than our triumphs. He provides us with insights filled with colour where other authors have only sketched a rough outline. He does this by digging a little deeper into the archives and war diaries of the 1st Airborne Division and other units involved and by introducing a number of interesting characters. One of these is Major Robert Henry Cain, the one man tank destroyer, (who would later become Jeremy Clarkson’s father-in-law). Injured and enraged by the death of the soldiers under his command, Cain sheds his usual calm demeanour to unleash a furious assault against nearby German forces, including his destruction of Tiger tank at a range of just 20 yards using the crude and semi-effective PIAT anti-tank weapon. It was an episode that earned him the Victoria Cross. Of the five men who earned this highest award for gallantry at Arnhem, Cain was the only one to survive the battle.
It would be impossible to write such a book without exploring the reasons why Arnhem failed. Here Iain Ballantyne is more in tune with academic study rather than the more sensationalist views posited by other notable authors on this subject, but you will have to read his book to discover why. In drawing a conclusion, Ballantyne quotes Brian Wilson, a young Irish Guards officer who was part of XXX Corps’ unsuccessful bid to to relieve what was left of the 1st Airborne Division. He says Market Garden was’ excellent in intention, unrealistic in planning and poor in execution.’ This is almost certainly true, but the narrative of ‘Ten Days in the Cauldron’ leaves us in no doubt that success eluded the Allied airborne forces, not because one thing went wrong, but because everything went wrong. While the correct chain of causation will continue to be debated, the underlying strength of Ballantyne’s writing is that he plonks you squarely into the middle of a hell hole and leaves you there for ten days. He does this without undue hyperbole or sentimentality, letting the simple vignettes he has chosen to include speak for themselves. His book is all the more powerful because the narrative is constructed around real people recounting actual events. Overall, the result is a fascinating and satisfying account that contributes to the historical record of an epic and memorable battle. In this 75th anniversary year, it is also a fitting tribute to the men who dropped into Arnhem, but never left.
‘Arnhem – Ten Days in the Cauldron’ by Iain Ballantyne is published by Agora Books and sells for £9.99
(Main image: A Cromwell Mk IV tank of the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards passes over the Nijmegen Bridge, September 1944, shortly after the bridge was taken by XXX Corps. (Welsh Guards Archives)