A new look at one a forgotten World War II battle

So, it's September again, when thoughts turn to politics (at least this year), football, and the beginning of another school year.

But for me, September is a very busy military history month, beginning with the 68th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden.  Now, I have blogged about this before, particularly the major books written about this mostly forgotten strategic defeat of the Allies in late 1944.

This year, there is a completely new history of the battle, written exclusively  from the American perspective.

John McManus has written several excellent volumes on American soldiers in World War II, especially his volume on the early fighting of the Battle of the Bulge, where the troops of the 28th Infantry Division were overrun buying valuable time for reinforcement to arrive and hold off the German offensive.

His new book, September Hope not only provides excellent first person narratives and recollections of the battle, he offers some interesting strategic perspectives on the battle, especially new information about high-level discussions between Eisenhower and his commanders.  McManus offers some insightful criticisms of Eisenhower and Montgomery, especially Eisenhower's mushy directives to Montgomery concerning clearing the approaches to Antwerp, a vital port needed by the Allies to overcome their severe supply problem plaguing their advance into Germany in the fall of 1944.

From a military analysis point of view, the sheer hubris of the Allied commanders is really stunning:
  • Having the 1st Airborne drop zones nearly 8 miles from the bridge is really hard to comprehend, even if the reasons seemed logical at the time.  Given that modern air assault units have huge helicopter capacity and modern airborne divisions can drop heavy equipment, it can be difficult for a modern ready to really understand the importance of a large flat surface for the follow on glider trains to land. But wow, marching 8 miles through enemy territory was really gutsy, and as it turned out, stupid.  The Germans had various scratch units scattered around, and these units were able to delay the British advance long enough for the two Panzer Divisions to get into action.  Although the American drop zones were better sited, they also came under extreme pressure from German counterattacks, and McManus details the tense fighting to clear the 82nd Airborne drop zone minutes before the arrival of follow-on glider troops....yes, not hours or days, but minutes. 
  • The intelligence failure, or more correctly the command failure to take intelligence seriously should have made heads roll.  The overconfidence of the British commander, Gen Browning, when shown PHOTOGRAPHS of German armor in the Arnhem area, is pretty mind-numbing.  World War II paratroopers were very lightly armed infantry with none of the modern, lethal anti-armor weapons current American troops have and it was sheer suicide to expect an airborne division to hold off 2 Panzer Divisions, especially SS Panzer Divisions, for 4 days...even though the British held out for nearly 9 days in the Osterbeek Perimeter.
  •  The ability of the German Wehrmacht to reconstitute itself after the disastrous campaign in France is really amazing and needs to be researched and told as a lesson in how an army can keep fighting after suffering staggering losses.  It is probably incomprehensible to modern Americans SHOCKED, yes SHOCKED when 20 or 30 U.S. troops die in a single battle, but the Germans suffered over 250,000 casualties in France from June-August 1944, effectively destroying the German 7th Army and nearly destroying the 15th Army.  And yet, within weeks they were able to stop an Allied advance under near total air dominance, with superior mechanized forces, and against the best Allied airborne divisions available.  Too bad I don't Sprechen Deutsch...I think there are some real military lessons here.  What is more interesting, from an operational point of view, was the incredible ability of the Germans to form effective Kampfgruppes, essentially scratch fighting forces formed from whatever troops were available, usually the remains of battered units, to form fairly effective combined arms groups, usually of regimental or brigade size, to carry on the battle.  Although the supply problems of the Allies were probably the main factor in the halting of the Allied offensive in 1944, the operational defeat inflicted in Holland goes to show Clausewitz' ol' maxim that the enemy gets a vote too.

What separates this book from earlier volumes, besides not retelling the gripping story of the British 1st Airborne at Arnhem, is the fact that McManus describes what happened AFTER the British survivors were evacuated.  This is a forgotten chapter in the war...and it is notable that both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were engaged in combat until November 1944 in Holland because there were NO other troops available.  In fact, the 101st was not withdrawn from Holland until nearly the end of November, which left them only about two weeks to refit and rest before being shipped to the little Belgian town of Bastogne. This is another little tidbit most Americans don't realize.  We did not STEAMROLLER over the Germans.  As this battle shows, the German Army remained a lethal fighting force with offensive capability right up until the last throw of the Ardennes Offensive.  The Allies had nearly exhausted their infantry supply by the fall of 1944, and when the 82nd and 101st came off the line, they constituted the entire strategic reserve of the Allied forces, all other infantry and armor divisions--American, Canadian, British, etc, having been committed.  This is what is so remarkable about the fact that these two units turned around and headed back to the Ardennes only weeks after coming back for rest and refit.

Today, of course, if a fiasco like this happened, with the destruction of 1 elite division and the severe mauling of 2 others, essentially rendering them combat-ineffective, the New York Times would have a field day.  And, rightly so.  The whole operation should have never happened.  Montgomery's 21st Army Group should have focused on opening up Antwerp and other, more capable American commanders, like Patton or even Jacob Devers (more on that later) should have been given the opportunity to drive into Germany.

Ike got away from this with his reputation intact, but as McManus points out, he should bear the ultimate responsibility for the failure of Market-Garden by not only approving the plan, but continuing to let Montgomery try to push through victory when it was clear the battle was lost.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to really dig into the American contribution to this battle.