A narrative focused on personal stories of hardship and suffering that accompanies war. This is a story of human tragedy more than a recounting of a military disaster.
A Bridge Too Far
When I was in high school in the 1980’s the video rental fad was full-bore. One of the movies I remember renting is A Bridge Too Far originally released in 1977 with an all-star cast. That movie, based on a book by Cornelius Ryan (who also did The Longest Day) formed my earliest “knowledge” of Operation Market-Garden. As a wargamer, I
studied played other World War II airborne operations in games like Air Assault on Crete/Invasion of Malta 1942 (Avalon Hill, 1977) but in all my forty years I’ve never looked at Market-Garden. That is, until I found Antony Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II (Viking, 2018) in a bargain books store.
Narrate Me a Story
The Battle of Arnhem is written in a very narrative style that Beevor is famous for. For the historian in me this style of book is a bit challenging because I want to see the sources. Putting that aside, I found the early chapters of the book that concern the planning for the operation deeply disturbing. The incredible combination of intelligence failure, group-think and personal hubris that came together is astounding and Beevor shows it all.
The battle scenes in The Battle of Arnhem are also intensely personal. This is another Beevor-like trademark; he digs into the very personal side of a conflict and shows it to you, warts and all. Sometimes it is hard to remember that the Battle of Arnhem is talking about a huge multi-divisional operation as it focuses on some very small, personal moments.
The Battle of Arnhem also gives us the perspective of the Germans and especially the Dutch – both civilians and the Resistance. This latter is a perspective I was not very cognizant of and welcomed reading about here.
At the end of the day, The Battle of Arnhem is more a collection of human-suffering stories than a strict military history. Beevor seemingly lets his early criticism of Field Marshal Montgomery also be his conclusion. It’s hard to tell because this book, which starts out talking about the battle, ends by only talking about the people. Those stories are important to hear, but if you are looking for a book on the history of Operation Market-Garden then you need to look elsewhere.
In anticipation of reading The Battle of Arnhem, I picked up a copy of Mark Simontitch’s Holland ’44: Operation Market Garden, September 1944 (GMT Games, 2017). I laid out the map while reading the book and eventually set up the game. This was very helpful as the maps in The Battle of Arnhem book are actually not very useful.
As far as playing the game and reading the book I see two possible approaches. You can try to play “pure” as in play before reading to avoid introducing any bias into your decisions from the book. Or you might want to read the early chapters and then play out the operation, followed by reading how the actual battle went and comparing your results to history. A word of warning here; the intensely personal focus of so many parts of The Battle of Arnhem is in some ways mismatched with Holland ’44 which is an operational-level wargame with a focus around the battalion-level. There is also no real Dutch Resistance portrayed in Holland ’44.
Beevor, Antony, The Battle of Arnhem: The Deadliest Airborne Operation of World War II, New York: Viking, 2018.