Book Review: Men at Arnhem

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.

Hartenstein IWM

Troops of 1st Airborne Division on the grounds of the Hotel Hartenstein, Oosterbeek; the hotel was used as Divisional Headquarters during Market Garden.  The men are desperately trying to signal resupply aircraft, as the enemy had overrun the designated resupply dropping zone.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

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.

Men at Arnhem Cover

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Guard Duty and Tea

I recently read Oh What a Lovely War!  A Soldier’s Memoir, by Stanley Swift.  Swift served in the Fifth Royal Horse Artillery and crewed 25-pounder field guns.  He fought in North Africa, Italy and finally France and Germany.  The following excerpt struck me as quite amusing.

We had to do guard duty, and there’s nothing more soul destroying than having to do a twenty-four-hour guard, with all the ritualistic hooha. We were given the afternoon free from other duties in order to clean ourselves up, polish our brass, make sure our rifle was clean, put on our best uniform.  At the prescribed time we’d line up, a bombardier [RA equivalent of corporal] or sergeant in charge, and go through the drill ritual, slope arms, present arms, all that nonsense.  The bore of our rifle was examined to ensure its cleanliness, then off we marched to the guard we were about to relieve where we were inspected by the orderly officer.  We were not allowed to speak to the officer unless spoken to…

First order of the day was to make tea. Hot, strong, and sweet, it was made in a bucket.  This handy utensil was stainless steel, holding about three gallons, and the procedure was to throw in the tea, pour on boiling water, and then add Libby’s condensed milk.  For speed a hole was punched in a couple of Libby’s cans and then cans and all tossed into the brew.  In time the labels would detach, float to the surface, and be scooped out.  When the tea was finished, empty cans were fished from the bottom of the bucket.  Most efficient.

The man in charge of the guard had a book in which he was supposed to record anything unusual that happened. There was nothing in it because nothing ever happened.  But one day an entry did appear:  3:00 A.M. Accidentally kicked over tea bucket. Straightened tea bucket.  Saluted tea bucket.

Personally, I’ll stick to my own method of brewing tea and adding the condensed milk; the unglued labels are a tad off-putting.

I plan to do a complete review of this book, but I wanted to share this portion.  Oh What a Lovely War! appears to be out-of-print, but Amazon does have it available through their third-party vendors.

Oh What a Lovely War! by Stanley Swift

Update:  After originally posting this, I became intrigued by the idea of brewing tea in a bucket and wanted to find other examples.  I have not yet found any more written descriptions, but I did find a couple of photos.

The photo on the left shows troops returning to England after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.  The photo on the right shows Airborne troops in 1944 prior to emplaning for an operation.  I would like to find more photos and narratives about brewing tea in a bucket; it appears to have been a standard procedure when making large quantities.  I would also like to get my hands on a similar bucket – although I suspect the old ones may no longer be considered food-safe.

The McAuslan Stories

I just finished reading The Complete McAuslan by George MacDonald Fraser.  Or, rather, re-reading it, for at least the fifth time.

Fraser passed away recently, but was a remarkable author.  He fought in WWII in the Burma campaign, serving in The Border Regiment.  After the War, he was selected for officer training and became a Lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders.  After demobilization, he spent a number of years working in newspapers, before turning his attention to fiction and screenwriting.

Fraser is probably best known for his Flashman books, some of the most meticulously-researched historical novels ever written.  However, the title character is an anti-hero; he is a misogynistic coward whose advancements are based by taking credit for the actions of others.  I love the history in the Flashman books, but I really don’t like the character and have only read a couple of the novels.

My favorite works by Fraser are Quartered Safe Out Here and the McAuslan stories.  Quartered Safe Out Here is Fraser’s memoir of fighting in the jungles of Burma.  It is quite possibly the best first-hand narrative of WWII.  I intend to write a separate post just on that book.

Several years ago, a friend suggested that I read The Complete McAuslan.  At first, I had a hard time getting into it.  I had expected a novel, with a logical chronology.  Instead, this is a collection of short stories, all set within about a two-year period, but not presented sequentially.  The stories were originally published in three volumes, but are now more commonly available as a complete set.  (Note:  the original collections were The General Danced at Dawn, McAuslan in the Rough, and The Sheikh and the Dustbin.)

The stories were originally published as fiction, inspired by Fraser’s experiences as a post-war officer.  However, he eventually admitted that the stories were true, although he fictionalized certain elements and combined some of the characters so as not to embarrass his former comrades in arms.

Fraser’s use of the English language is quite remarkable.  His journalistic training gave him a powerful command of descriptive language.  He was also highly talented at transcribing dialects; his characters range from the aristocracy to the Glasgow gutters, and their backgrounds and personalities are reflected in their dialogue.

Many of the stories are humorous, and I admit to laughing out loud while reading them.  But by the time I reach the end, I feel rather melancholy.  The stories describe a bygone era.  The older officers and sergeants reminisce about the First World War.  Most of the stories describe life in the barracks and messes, but in the collapse of the British Empire, the garrisons get turned out to keep the peace and prove their worth.

The characters are fascinating, from Private McAuslan, the “dirtiest soldier in the world”, to the massive Wee Wully and the debonair but cold-hearted Captain Errol.  Fraser deftly weaves in the traditions of the great Gordon Highlanders, without resorting to back-stories or footnotes; they are simply part of the lives he portrays.

I cannot recommend these stories enough.  Most of them are funny, some are exciting, a few are nostalgic to the point of sadness.  Even though The Complete McAuslan is typically listed as fiction, it belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of the British Army, particularly the period just after WWII.  The descriptions of life on the parade ground, in the barracks and on exercise are based on the author’s personal experience, and have a tremendous feel of authenticity to them.

Note:  The Complete McAuslan is not always readily available in the United States; I ordered my copy through Amazon UK.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-McAuslan-George-MacDonald-Fraser/dp/0006513719/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1472353368&sr=8-1&keywords=complete+mcauslan