It is September as I write this; all month long, my thoughts have been on Operation Market Garden, and the annual commemorations held in the Netherlands. I decided to re-read one of my favorite books on the subject, Men at Arnhem, by Geoffrey Powell.
Geoffrey Powell retired from the British Army in 1964 with the rank of Colonel. He was originally an officer with The Green Howards, but was seconded to the Parachute Regiment. For Operation Market Garden, he held the rank of Major, and commanded C Company, 156th Parachute Battalion; he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during the operation. Men at Arnhem is Powell’s personal account of the battle.
156th Parachute Battalion was part of 4th Parachute Brigade, 1st Airborne Division. For Market Garden, there were insufficient aircraft to take 1st Airborne to Holland in a single lift; 4th Parachute Brigade therefore dropped on September 18, 1944, as part of the second lift. The element of surprise had been completely lost by that point, and the paratroopers took fire during their drop. The original plan was to head to Arnhem and reinforce the troops who had made it to the bridge. However, enemy strength was significantly greater than expected; every time the battalion tried to advance, they hit a blocking line and took substantial casualties. They would regroup and try again, but with the same outcome. The battalion commander was killed, and Powell took over leadership of what remained of the unit. Eventually, the survivors were forced to fall back and go on the defensive; they held part of the perimeter at the village of Oosterbeek, outside Arnhem. Starving and low on ammunition, they fought as best they could from the houses and gardens of the village. By the end of the operation, only a handful were evacuated across the Rhine.
The book is very well-written. The narrative flows easily, and the descriptive language is highly effective. Stylistically, it seems like a novel, and the reader has to remember that this is not fiction; the tragic events really happened, and the descriptions of pain and loss reflect the author’s own experiences.
It helps if the reader already has a basic knowledge of the battle of Arnhem, as Powell provides little background information. However, he describes the sensations of the battle, and his writing is highly evocative. He describes the pressure of being under nearly-constant fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, as well as the deafening mortar and artillery fire, which drove some men to the edge of their sanity. He expresses his frustration at the poor intelligence and the continual breakdowns in communications, as well as his bitterness at 2nd Army’s failure to break through and relieve the airborne troops. Powell wrote about his pride in his battalion, its high level of training and esprit de corps, as well as the heartbreak of watching the unit get destroyed in just a few days. He describes the sorrow of watching his friends and comrades being killed. Powell felt tremendously guilty that he was unable to do more to save his men; the other survivors from the battalion, however, credited their escape to his leadership.
The revised edition includes a preface in which Powell explains that he initially found it very difficult to write about his memories of the battle. To ease his difficulties, he wrote and originally published the book under a pseudonym, Tom Angus. He changed the names of the people he described, and he wrote the narrative as he remembered it, which did not always match official records.
I have read a number of personal accounts of the Second World War; I consider Men at Arnhem as my favorite. This is partly because of the subject matter; I have a particular fascination with 1st Airborne Division and Operation Market Garden. However, it is the quality of the writing that truly impresses me; this is a powerful and evocative personal account that portrays the confusion and fear of combat, the author’s pride in his unit, and the tremendous sense of loss from the many casualties. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Men at Arnhem is readily available through Amazon. It is also available through the Airborne Shop, www.airborneshop.com, where all purchases provide funds for Support Our Paras, a charitable organization dedicated to assisting airborne soldiers and veterans.