Market Garden

by wjw on September 19, 2009

John Appel reminded me that today is the one day when I count count on my dad having a hangover.

My father was a two-vodka-martini-before-dinner kind of drinker, at least until later in life when he realized he could save money by skipping the vermouth entirely. He rarely got hammered, but he always got hammered on September 17th.

The 17th was the anniversary of the beginning of Operation Market-Garden, the 1944 attempt to invade North Germany over bridges captured by Airborn troops. My father took part in this operation, as sergeant of an ambulance company attached to XXX Corps of the British army, which was the unit that was supposed to charge straight up Highway 69 to relieve the paratroops holding the bridges.

(My father’s company was not part of any regular unit, but reported directly to SHAEF, Eisenhower’s headquarters, and was sent wherever there were expected to be heavy casualties. Accordingly my dad landed on Omaha Beach, broke out of Normandy through St.-Lo, was at Falaise, the liberation of Paris, Market-Garden (under British command), the Bulge (still under British command), crossed the bridge at Remagen, and helped to liberate Dachau. They were under fire a lot, but being ambulance guys could not shoot back. (The best part of being under British command, my father said, was that the Brits had a daily liquor ration, whereas the Americans did not. On the other hand, he did not rate the British officers very highly.)

Anyway, back to Market-Garden. The operation was, to put it mildly, a fiasco. The commander of the British airborne, “Boy” Browning (who was, incidentally, Daphne du Maurier’s husband) fired anyone who disagreed with his plan; Allied intelligence in fact noted the presence of a couple SS armored divisions in the drop zone, but the man who pointed it out to Browning was ordered to an insane asylum for doing so; British field radios failed to work; not all bridges were captured; some were blown up; and the only Allied soldiers to get near the final bridge at Remagen were killed or captured. The Allied soldiers fought with astonishing bravery, but bravery wasn’t enough. The campaign was a failure.

The plan called for XXX Corps to advance up the single highway, which was elevated on an embankment above the Dutch polder and woods to either side. Since the Germans soon figured out that the British were funneling straight up the highway, they soon figured out that all they had to do was put all their fire onto the highway, and they’d be sure of blowing stuff up. On the elevated highway, the tanks and lorries were perfectly silhouetted targets for antitank guns or rockets, and the Germans found it criminally easy to set up ambushes.

My father spoke of the frustration of the advance. Every time the column seemed to get started, the British would stop to brew tea, allowing the Germans time to set up another ambush farther along. As long as they stayed on the highway, they were under fire all the time. A good many of my dad’s buddies were killed. Another comrade won a Silver Star by pulling troopers from a burning tank.

The whole time this was going on, they were being hectored by the British MPs, who would insist that they had to be in the column, in a certain order, under fire all the time, and getting killed.

Eventually my father’s company learned better—they just drove off the highway and rolled at top speed along the flat polder alongside, bypassing the traffic jam, the artillery fire, and the ambushes. They had no trouble doing this. (British intelligence stated it was impossible to drive vehicles on polder.) This drove the British MPs into a frenzy. They Yanks were Disobeying Instructions! They were Not Following Procedure! They were Endangering Discipline!

If the rest of XXX Corps had followed the example of my father’s unit, they would have saved an enormous number of casualties and very possibly won the battle, thereby ending the war six months early. But. They. Were. Too. Stupid.

And so, as a result, my dad would get smashed every September 17th, as a way of dulling the painful memory.

Thirty years after the battle, I gave my dad a Father’s Day present and took him to see A Bridge Too Far, the epic film of the campaign written by William Goldman and directed by Richard Attenborough. It’s an extremely good film as war epics go, very accurate, and the filming was probably as logistically complex as the real battle.

My father watched the film in silence, except for a few remarks.

In the film, Michael Caine’s Irish Guards fall into an ambush. The Germans are shooting from cover, British tanks are getting blown up, there’s flame everywhere, it’s a hideous mess. The Brits call in the air force, and Thunderbolts arrive to drop napalm on the German positions. There’s flame and smoke and screaming and confusion and horrible death.

My dad leaned over to me and said, “That’s pretty much what it was like.”

Later, during a scene that showed a tank column advancing over an asphalt road, my dad said, “That road was actually cobblestone. The tank treads tore it up, and it turned into a mud bog.”

Late in the film there’s a meeting at the top of a windmill where Generals Gavin, Horrocks, Dempsey, and “Boy” Browning agree that the Arnhem operation was a failure, and that the last British paras should be withdrawn.

“I was there!” my dad said. “But I didn’t know what they were talking about.”

So that was pretty much the last comment my father made on Operation Market-Garden, except for the continuation of his September 17th ritual.

So last night I raised a glass to my dad and to his unit. I failed to wake with a hangover this morning, but I hope my father will forgive me.

[John Appel’s blog of the battle, with photographs.]

john_appel September 19, 2009 at 5:03 pm

Thanks for joining me in remembering them, sir. FWIW, I've added an entry on Arnhem & Oosterbeek.

And if you're ever in or around Baltimore with a free evening, beer & crabcakes on me.

Lance Larka September 19, 2009 at 11:25 pm

My wife's family lives in Rockville, MD. Whenever we visit we do a crab bake with crabs from the DC marina. All I gotta say is that if walk up to the marina towing a wheeled cooler you will get the BEST deal on crabs. 🙂

halojones-fan September 23, 2009 at 5:12 pm

You have to wonder how many, many people over the years have been killed by the "correlation/causation" fallacy. "We've ALWAYS just put our heads down and pushed right on ahead, and we USUALLY win, therefore the only way to do anything is to just put your head down and push right on ahead!"

dubjay September 23, 2009 at 9:42 pm

The thing is, that "ambling straight ahead with intermittent stops for tea" wasn't working that well for the Brits =before= Market-Garden (see Operation Perch, Operation Martlet, Operation Goodwood et al). So you have to wonder why they thought it would be a good idea here.

Steve Stirling September 26, 2009 at 5:33 am

To be fair, the British had learned by painful experience that any time they tried anything swift and mobile and daring against the Germans, they got their clocks cleaned in spectacular fashion.

Because the Germans were simply -better- at that type of fighting. They were less hidebound, their army was less hierarchical, and they reacted much, much faster to the unexpected.

The only successes the British (or the Allies generally, frankly) had against the German Army were when they managed to get them to fight a slow, static, set-piece battle of attrition (like El Alamein, for instance) where they could be ground down by sheer numbers and weight of metal.

Market Garden was one of the few times the British took a chance and rolled the dice.

The result was not happy. Their army was just not built to work like that and it was probably dumb to try.

Fact is, the Germans were better soldiers at the level of battalions and divisions and corps. One German division was worth several Allied divisions.

That's why Ike insisted on a slow, methodical broad-front advance in Europe after Normandy.

We beat them because they were such lousy -strategists_.

Note that Germany tried to fight the whole rest of the world, with only one weak ally, -twice- in the period 1914-1945.

And came disturbingly close to pulling it off both times.

dubjay September 29, 2009 at 1:36 am

You wonder what the British armored corps might have turned into if JFC Fuller hadn't managed to be both a follower of Aleister Crowley =and= Oswald Mosley, and thus remain unemployed during the Second World War.

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