It is September as I write this, and I have been reflecting on Operation Market Garden, as I always do this time of year. I also just finished reading The Devil’s Birthday: The Bridges to Arnhem, 1944, by Geoffrey Powell.
Powell was a career soldier; he served in the British Army for 25 years, retiring at the rank of Colonel. He spent most of his career with The Green Howards, but he is better known for his wartime service with 156th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. After retiring from the Army, Powell turned to writing about history.
During Market Garden, Powell commanded C Company, 156th Parachute Battalion. His most famous book is Men at Arnhem, a powerful personal account of the battle; I have previously reviewed this book, which can be found here. The Devil’s Birthday was written later, and was a history of Operation Market Garden in its entirety, not just limited to Arnhem.
The book covers the entire operation; it would have been easy for Powell to have concentrated on his own division, 1st Airborne, but he gave equal time to the two American divisions as well as the ground forces in British 2nd Army. He was very complementary of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, particularly the spectacular river crossing at Nijmegen. The book’s title was taken from a German veteran, who described the desperate fighting in the Oosterbeek perimeter as “the devil’s birthday”; many others called it “the cauldron”.
In his introduction, Powell wrote that it was impossible for him to be completely objective because he had participated in the events described. Yet, I found the book to be well-balanced, and I appreciated his perspective. I have read several books on Market Garden and have been frustrated with some of the recent ones, when academic historians and armchair tacticians have criticized decisions made both during the planning and once on the ground. These books have not taken into sufficient account the difficulties of planning a complex operation under rapidly-changing conditions, or taking the best possible course of action when under fire. Powell agrees that there were numerous mistakes made during the planning; but to an extent, mistakes were inevitable when organizing such a large operation in a very short amount of time.
Many historians have been critical of several aspects of the handling of the operation, from the British lack of cooperation with the Dutch underground, to the allocation of aircraft to General Browning’s headquarters, to the selection of the landing and dropping zones. Powell examined the same issues, but included the human element. The Dutch Underground had been penetrated early on by German intelligence, and for two years most British agents and supplies were rounded up soon after landing; upon this discovery, it is no wonder the British were unwilling to trust the organization. While Powell agrees that the aircraft used to transport Browning’s headquarters to Nijmegen would have been better utilized taking more troops to Arnhem, he points out that Browning was the “Father of the British Airborne”; Market Garden was his first opportunity to go into the field and lead the forces he had been so crucial in creating and training, and it was just human nature to have done so. 1st Airborne’s dropping and landing zones were about eight miles from the main objective at Arnhem bridge, a situation often singled out by historians; Powell pointed out that the US 82nd had a very similar situation at Nijmegen.
Based on his personal experience, Powell made several interesting observations about airborne units, some of which I had not read before. According to Powell, airborne commanders often created complex, detailed air plans to get the troops and supplies where they needed to be. However, the ground plan was treated almost as an afterthought, with an assumption that once the men reached their dropping and landing zones, taking and holding their objectives was assured.
Another criticism seen in other books is an accusation of lack of control by brigadiers and battalion commanders over their troops, particularly in the early stages of the operation. According to Powell, however, it often took about a day into an operation before airborne troops really became effective. While they were trained to a very high degree, it took time to get used to actual combat and dealing with enemy fire. Airborne troops were only used under certain conditions, and were supposed to be withdrawn after capturing their objectives. In contrast, traditional units generally had more combat experience; they also had time to advance to enemy contact rather than quite literally dropping on top of it.
The airborne divisions, both British and American, lacked much of the support weaponry enjoyed by traditional infantry. Airborne troops were taught that attacking with “dash and daring” could overcome a lack of supporting fire, and in many cases this was proved true. However, at Arnhem, units were forced to attack strongly-defended positions without adequate support, and suffered heavily as a result; this was particularly true with 4th Parachute Brigade. 1st Airborne’s experiences reinforced the German belief that British troops, particularly the Airborne, were extremely tenacious in defense, but not as effective offensively. However, Powell again provides balance by pointing out that both the 82nd and 101st had similar experiences.
Many historians have described the Polish experience in Market Garden as disastrous and futile, particularly as Arnhem Bridge had already been recaptured by the Germans by the time the Poles made their drop. Powell, however, says the fact that the Polish landing took place south of the Rhine frightened the Germans, who re-allocated forces to prevent the Poles from retaking the bridge. This had the effect of drawing forces away from 1st Airborne north of the river, therefore helping them hold their defensive positions longer.
Powell did not finish the book with the end of the operation; there is also chapter on the battle’s aftermath. He described the escape and evasion efforts of survivors from 1st Airborne in the weeks and months following the official withdrawal. He also described the “Hunger Winter”, in which the Dutch populace suffered terribly for their support of the Allies.
I was very surprised by the concluding chapter. Powell stated that small-scale airborne operations were largely successful, such as the German assault at Eben-Emael and the British raid on the Bruneval radar station. But he questioned the need for full-sized airborne divisions and large-scale airborne operations. He wondered whether the highly-trained men might have been better used as conventional infantry. He also stated that the vast numbers of aircraft required to transport the divisions might have been better used to supply conventional forces. One must remember that Powell had been a career soldier, who only spent a short part of his 25-year career in the Parachute Regiment. Yet, it was that short period for which he is famous.
Overall, I thought this was one of the best books I have read about Arnhem and Market Garden. While this is not the most detailed of books on the subject, the narrative is fast-paced and easy to read, and gives an excellent overview of the operation. Additionally, Powell provides insights on the Airborne that I had never read before. Despite his warning to the contrary, I found Powell to be quite unbiased in his analysis of the decisions made and the reasoning behind those decisions. I will quite happily read this book again.
The Devil’s Birthday is currently out-of-print, although a downloadable e-book version is available from both Pen & Sword and Amazon. Additionally, used copies are frequently found online; my copy, which is a first edition of the American printing, was obtained through eBay.