Book Review -Arnhem: the Battle for the Bridges by Anthony Beevor

I’ve been reading a really long time. My mom was amazed at how I was reading even before I went to Kindergarten. She never really had a chance to read to me because of that.

For only a little shorter amount of time (like 2nd-3rd grade), I’ve been reading military history books on World War II. I do remember in 3rd grade I was reading long books like Battle: the Story of the Bulge by John Toland.

I was also always a fan of Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far and the movie based on it, the epic story of the massive airborne assault on three major bridges attempting to get over the Rhine river in September 1944. The cast is amazing, but the story itself is just so good.

The Allies, thinking the war is close to being over, decide to make an effort to end the war even more quickly, and it all goes wrong.

Unfortunately, A Bridge Too Far has been my only exposure to Operation Market Garden, so I was really happy to finally read another book about the whole thing.

Anthony Beevor’s Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944 is an excellent book about the hubris of the Allies, the horrible mistakes that people in charge like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery made, and ultimately the terrible effect on the Dutch people as the operation failed to fulfill all of its promises.

Arnhem - Battle for the Bridges

What was Operation Market Garden?

The Allied army had raced across France after the D-Day landings in Normandy, with the German army retreating in total disarray. It looked like the war would be over by Christmas.

There was much infighting between American generals like Patton and Bradley and British generals such as Montgomery, about who should be given priority as they raced to the borders of Germany.

Who would get the glory of ultimately defeating the Germans and bringing the war to an end?

Montgomery devised a plan that would put a dagger into the heart of the German resistance. It would use a huge airborne army dropped into the Netherlands to secure bridges, with the XXX Corps ground army racing up the road and crossing all of these bridges to ultimately race into Germany and end all German resistance as they melted like butter in front of the Allied onslaught.

Named “Operation Market Garden,” the plan involved dropping American and British paratroops and glider-borne airborne units to secure bridges at Nijmegan, Eindhoven and Arnhem in the Netherlands. The XXX Corp tank army would race up the corridor, crossing these bridges and relieve the paratroopers before German resistance could harden in front of them.

The whole operation went disastrously wrong, though they did achieve 2/3 of what they were trying to do.

The idea is was that the US 101st Airborne Division would capture the bridges at Son and Eindhoven; the US 82nd Airborne Division would capture the road bridge at Nijmegan and the British 1st Airborne Division would capture the road bridge at Arnhem.

XXX Corp would move up the road over all the bridges and then over the Rhine river and into Germany.

Things didn’t quite work out that way.

Arnhem: the Battle for the Bridges by Anthony Beevor tells the story of this ill-fated adventure. Bad planning, bad luck, bad weather, and tenacious German resistance that the Allies had been warned about all combined to make an operation that was doomed almost from the start.

Beevor starts by outlining the situation leading up to the operation, how the Allied army raced across France, chasing the fleeing Germans as fast as possible.

Then he gets into the planning of the whole Market Garden operation, as well as the various generals’ reactions to it. Some were a bit pessimistic, some thought it would work, and others (like Polish airborne general Sosabowski, commander of the Polish 1st Independent Airborne Brigade) were outright dismissive of the whole thing.

Montgomery wanted something that would strike hard, strike fast, and highlight how important it was to prioritize his army’s supplies over Patton’s and others’ advances toward Germany.  He thought this lightning thrust would end the war.

Instead, it resulted in a lot of needless casualties that made things worse for the Dutch and killed a lot of Allied men for nothing.

After the planning, Beevor highlights each day’s action in separate chapters talking about the American divisions at Nijmegan and Eindhoven, and then the British at Arnhem, as well as the German reactions to all of this.

The story is told through diaries, letters, and other first-hand accounts of the various people involved in the action. What makes it even better is that Beevor uses Dutch sources as well, civilians that were involved either as bystanders (such as when the Germans set fire to a large portion of Nijmegan or those Dutch civilians that hid in basements or even helped the British in Arnhem either with medical aid or to hide them in basements or whatever).

The British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem was virtually wiped out, other than some stragglers that managed to get across the Rhine in the dead of night during a rainstorm a few days after the operation began. The part of the division that actually made it into Arnhem and captured the north end of the bridge was either all captured or killed, adding to the sad story of the whole operation.

One thing Beevor seems very intent on in Arnhem: the Battle for the Bridges is responding to the terrible British attempts to paint Sosabowski in a bad light. While he does admit some mistakes that Sosabowski made, he highlights the terribly shabby treatment Sosabowski received by Browning, Horrocks and others as the operation reached it’s terrible conclusion. The dismissive attitude they had toward him and the Poles really comes out in Beevor’s narrative.

They met with him after the majority of the brigade landed numerous days after they were supposed to (mainly due to the weather) and their after-battle reports talk about how he was cowardly and tried to keep his men out of the action as much as possible (even though, such as the crossing of the Rhine to try and reinforce the 1st Division, the other divisions were given priority for things like boats and stuff like that).

While A Bridge too Far does show how Sosabowski was disheartened by how he and his men were treated, it certainly doesn’t do near enough to highlight just how badly they were cashiered, both during the operation and afterward.

Beevor does his best to show how disingenuous their criticisms were.

In addition to that, Beevor does a great job of showing all aspects of the battle, both on the Allied side as well as the German. While Ryan’s book and the movie based on it show bits and pieces of the whole thing, Beevor’s book shows the German side and what their attacks were trying to do.

It also shows the results, and how even though the Allies were pressed very hard, they reacted and resisted most of the attacks, other than those in Arnhem and the surrounding area where things were ultimately hopeless.

The book is very detailed with stories from individual soldiers and civilians talking about what happened during the battle. It even goes into so much detail about how individual soldiers either were very heroic or, sometimes, how they died in an ignoble fashion, sometimes for just a drink of water or some other minor thing that seemed very important for them at the time.

The narrative even describes how some men were just killed as flak hit their planes and they weren’t able to jump for safety for some reason.

It’s a very detailed book and I found it fascinating to read because of that.

Normal history books take me a couple of weeks or even a month to read because they’re just so dense and I want to absorb as much as possible.

This one took me four days.

What I especially liked about Arnhem: the Battle for the Bridges is how it talked about the aftermath. When the operation was over, the Allies concentrated on holding the line and eventually (in early 1945, after the Battle of the Bulge when the Germans made a last-ditch attempt to reach Antwerp). The parts of the Netherlands that were supposed to be liberated with this operation instead suffered from German cruelty for another 9 months.

Those in Arnhem and north of there were faced with starvation, retaliation for their response. The Germans reacted very badly to the fact that the Dutch were celebrating when the Allies showed up, perhaps prematurely.

Beevor’s narrative is engrossing, so much so that I couldn’t put the book down. I admit that I haven’t read that much about the whole operation, so I can’t comment on whether any of his analysis holds up, but it’s definitely a great starting place for reading about the entirety of the battle.

He does get one little bit wrong when he’s trying to contradict Ryan’s narrative, though (or maybe just the movie, I don’t remember the book that much) mentions that there is little evidence that Browning ever made the declaration about going ” a bridge too far,” but he talks about Browning not having said it prior to the battle.

In the movie (and I assume Ryan’s book as well?) Browning said this as a reaction to the failure and not as a prediction. Is there any evidence that he didn’t say this after the fact? You wouldn’t know from Beevor’s book.

I really enjoyed Arnhem: the Battle for the Bridges. The narrative is engrossing, Beevor definitely covers every aspect of the battle, and I love how he not only captures the Allied side but also the German side.

Beevor takes great pains to note that, given the plan that was ultimately executed, there was no way the Germans would be surprised by anything. The paratroops and glider troops dropped too far from their objectives, giving the Germans time to react and reinforce if necessary.

There was no allowance for the fact that the 9th and 10th SS divisions were resting and reinforcing in Arnhem, or the fact that the heroic defense of the North side of the Arnhem bridge stopped German reinforcement of the units facing off against the American paratroopers and the XXX corp racing up the highway.

When the book details the German attacks trying to cut off the long and thin line XXX Corps were attempting to take on the highway (ultimately named “Hell’s Highway” by the Americans because of how hard it was to keep it stable), it just shows the reader how much the plan depended on everything going right, and how that was not a good thing.

If you’re a World War II enthusiast and want to know what really happened during this week where paratroopers were trying their best to hold on to what they had achieved, as well as the bravery that the British paratroopers displayed as they tried their best to hold out while waiting for XXX Corp to make their final push up the highway, Arnhem: the Battle for the Bridges is the book for you.

If your only exposure to this campaign, like me, was Cornelius Ryan’s narrative, then you owe it to yourself to read this book.

It’s engrossing, it’s definitive, and there are so many first-hand accounts in the book that it’s definitely worth reading.

Get this book and read it today.

7 Comments on “Book Review -Arnhem: the Battle for the Bridges by Anthony Beevor

  1. I have this book, as well as Ryan’s book, A Bridge Too Far. (In fact, I have three different editions of ABTF…an early ’80s paperback, a mid-1990s larger-size trade paperback, and a hardcover Library of America edition that comes “twinned” with The Longest Day.

    I think we were lucky to have been able to read ABTF at all, because even though Ryan had started researching it as far back as 1967 – the original title was The Big Jump – the author became ill with cancer. A Bridge Too Far was supposed to come out much earlier than it did (June of 1974), but Ryan was so ill that it took him YEARS to complete it.

    Ryan fans (count me among them) often refer to his books as the World War II Trilogy, but in the introduction to the Library of America edition, Rick Atkinson says that Ryan had done so much research on the war to liberate Western Europe that he was thinking of writing five books. His illness put a stop to that, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by, Alex! I’m glad you liked the review.

      It’s too bad we weren’t able to get all of Ryan’s planned books. The three that we have are really good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Last Battle is still an interesting book, but I think that Ryan lost his objectivity when it comes to the topic of Eisenhower’s decision to not “race” the Red Army to Berlin in April and May of ’45. Apparently, this particular notion was a “thing” among American historians of the time (John Toland pretty much had the same sentiment), but more recent authors, including Beevor, point out that the thesis postulated here, i.e. that the Western Allies could have rushed across the Elbe and snatched the German capital before the Red Army captured it does not reflect the reality on the ground.

        Anyway, nice review. I only suggest changing “XXX Corp” to “XXX Corps.” That is the proper military term for a unit comprised of two or three divisions.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Alex!

    WordPress’ new block editor makes it so that when I try to edit this post, nothing shows up, so I’m not going to correct that.

    However, I appreciate you pointing that out. It was a typo and not a knowledge error. I did know that. 🙂

    Edit: A typo I made a couple of times! I assure you that I did know that, though. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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