A British Airborne Corps intelligence officer raised serious questions about Operation Market-Garden, but was dismissed days before the invasion failed.
The province of Gelderland lies at the southeastern edge of Holland, on the German border. The landscape is lush and fertile, fields of corn—by September as high as an elephant’s eye—and green pastures dotted with sheep and belted Galloway cattle. Guidebooks refer to Gelderland as the “Green Heart” of Holland, and certainly the sight of such bucolic tranquility under blue skies and scudding white clouds would inspire a landscape painter like Constable to set up his easel just about anywhere.
In 1944 that painter would have been Goya, filling his canvases with images of death and destruction as a terrible battle raged in and around the market town of Arnhem. This battle would be known as Market-Garden, and it would be the last German victory of World War II.
In September 2004, I accompanied my husband Brian Urquhart to the sixtieth anniversary commemoration of Operation Market-Garden. Brian is a former British airborne officer who had much to do with the early planning of the operation and who, once he became convinced that it would almost certainly go wrong, tried to stop it, or at least get it modified.
The men who conceived Market-Garden in the summer of 1944, notably Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, believed that their plan would end the war in Europe by that Christmas. In their calculations, a vast airborne armada carrying more than thirty-five thousand men—the British 1st Airborne Division, the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions, and the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade— would quickly seize the bridges spanning the Waal, the Maas, and the lower Rhine rivers. Thousands of ground troops would then use these bridges to sidestep the German West Wall defensive line, opening the way for a decisive push into Germany’s Ruhr industrial region.
Frustrated by the highly public successes of General George Patton’s Third Army, Montgomery pressed a reluctant Dwight Eisenhower to give Market-Garden priority over all other plans. The flamboyant American general’s gift for grabbing headlines particularly enraged Montgomery. (Patton had told a group of British journalists, “If Ike stops holding Monty’s hand and gives me the supplies, I’ll go through the Siegfried Line like shit through a goose.”) Montgomery was not bashful either, and he assured Eisenhower that his forces would have an easy time of it, that they had little to fear from a shattered Wehrmacht, its ranks demoralized after a headlong retreat through France.
Just four months after the D-Day landings, the once fearsome German military machine had collapsed and retreated in rout from the Normandy bridgehead. By mid-September, however, the iron hand of Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt had halted the German divisions racing for home through Holland and restored their military discipline. These fighters bore no resemblance to the terrified teenagers who had never seen action, the grizzled veterans of the last war, or the battle-weary stragglers from the Russian campaign.
The British Second Army’s XXX Corps, commanded by General Brian Horrocks, rolling northward with armored and infantry divisions, would relieve the airborne troops holding the Arnhem bridge within two days of the airdrop, according to Montgomery. After that, Allied forces would envelop the industrialized Ruhr and enter Berlin by the end of December, well ahead of the Red Army advancing from the east and, perhaps equally important to the supremely egotistical field marshal, ahead of Patton.
Incidentally, the operation would overrun the launching sites for Hitler’s newest weapon, the V-2 rocket, positioned around The Hague. Thus Montgomery prevailed over Patton and Operation Market-Garden went from hypothesis to reality. In a jubilant radio broadcast from London, exiled Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands told her exhausted people they would soon be free.
However, nothing happened as planned. After a week of bitter fighting and a heartbreaking withdrawal across the Rhine by night, the presumed cakewalk became a catastrophe, with more than seventeen thousand British, Polish and American soldiers and airmen killed, captured, or reported missing. For the Dutch people, who had already suffered four terrible years of Nazi occupation, the winter of 1944-45 was to be the most brutal time of all.
Brian’s war began when he was twenty. He dropped out of Oxford University and enlisted in the British army on September 4, 1939, just three days after Hitler invaded Poland. By the end of 1941, he had volunteered for his country’s newly organized airborne forces and was preparing for an action over North Africa, taking practice jumps over Salisbury Plain through a hole in the floor of a lumbering, obsolete Whitley bomber. The hole was all that remained of a gun turret that the designers of the Whitley had set into the belly of the aircraft, a cylindrical space the size and shape of a trashcan, just large enough for one medium-sized man and his machine gun.
“We were crammed into a tiny space in the Whitley fuselage,” Brian recalled, “unable to stand up because the clearance was no more than four feet, inching along in a sitting position, while the jump master, who was a member of the bomber crew, not a paratrooper, urged us along towards the hole, yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’” The plane reeked of sweat and sometimes vomit (as even paratroopers get airsick). Brian hated jumping and was always terrified that something would go wrong. He jumped whenever he could, hoping he would get used to it, but he never really did.
Major General John Frost, the heroic defender of Arnhem bridge, always claimed to enjoy jumping and even took his golf clubs on the Market-Garden “party.” In his book A Drop Too Many, he describes why the experience of a paratrooper is so different from that of other soldiers: “The time of waiting for the aircraft to take off is, for the parachutist, the transition from peace to war. For him there is no gradual, growing consciousness of battle that other arms just feel. There are no enemy positions to study with binoculars. No preliminary bombardment to wait for, no careful moving up in dark or wet with fingers crossed against the enemy’s defensive fire.”
Another British warrior, Maj. Gen. Anthony Deane-Drummond, in his day a seasoned paratrooper, described the difficulties of “hole jumping” from the Whitley in his lively wartime memoir Return Ticket:
As soon as the green light came on, we dropped alternately from front and rear of the hole and it took about fifteen seconds to clear the whole “stick” of eight parachutists. The great idea was to jump as quickly as possible, one on top of the other, to land close together on the ground…[and] to make a clean exit without touching the sides. If you pushed off too hard, your face encountered the far edge as you went out. If you slid out too gently, the parachute on your back bounced you off your side of the hole so that your face again met the far side! Nor did the slipstream really help, for as it acted first on the legs of the parachutist as he emerged from the aircraft, it tended to topple him over unless he went out perfectly straight. As may be imagined, there were quite a few bruised and bleeding faces walking about Knutsford and Ringway [the parachute training grounds in the north of England] in those days, disfigured by what came to be called a “Whitley kiss.”
Jumping conditions improved considerably after DC-3s replaced the Whitleys. Now the soldiers could stand upright and simply step out through a door in the side of the plane.
Paratroopers are elite, highly trained and motivated assault troops, aggressive fighters who pride themselves on their ability to outfight and outwit the enemy and to operate in difficult conditions. Their major asset, however, must always be surprise. Their formidable reputation as fighters sometimes caused people to overlook the disadvantages of dropping soldiers from the sky. In World War II paratroopers had very limited transport (a few jeeps landed by glider) and few, if any, heavy weapons. All supplies, especially ammunition, had to be dropped by air, often in the face of heavy enemy fire. With their light weapons and lack of mobility, paratroops were highly vulnerable to enemy tanks. It was essential that conventional ground troops relieve them at the earliest possible moment, before the enemy brought up overwhelming forces to deal with them. In Holland that did not happen.
The victorious German airborne attack on Crete in 1941 particularly stimulated development of British and American airborne forces. Leaders of the Wehrmacht, however, regarded their success as prohibitively expensive in men and aircraft, and they never again employed airborne troops in large formations. Thus, ironically, the British and the Americans started to prepare for large-scale airborne operations in earnest at the very moment when the Germans concluded they were no longer a practicable form of warfare.
In 1941 jumping out of aircraft on purpose was considered risky, so risky that in those early days convicted felons could get their prison sentences commuted if they volunteered for airborne service. As a young officer, Brian sometimes found himself in the company of rapists, burglars, embezzlers, and assorted bad guys, but he got on well with them, and they were always loyal to him.
Military parachutes were still relatively primitive, requiring three strings of differing breaking strains to open properly—from the bottom up. In the British army the men did not pack their own chutes; members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force did this. Unfortunately, the woman who packed Brian’s parachute before an important training jump must have been seized by a fit of absentmindedness or boredom, because she reversed the procedure and put the strongest cord on the bottom, with the result that when he jumped, his chute could not fully open. As the officer, he was the last man out of the plane, but as soon as he cleared the hatch, he realized he was whistling past everyone else on the stick. When he looked up, he knew why: His chute was a budding tulip instead of a mushroom.
That jump left him with a broken back, broken thigh, broken ribs, broken ankles, head injuries, internal bleeding, and shock. He was deemed a hopeless case. The field hospital pumped him full of morphine, sent for his mother, and left him to die. But he didn’t die. Thanks to one remarkable doctor and a nurse who refused to give up on him, as well as his own determination to survive, he was back in action in six months.
When planning for Market- Garden got underway in the summer of 1944, Brian had the rank of major. Although no longer able to jump out of aircraft, he was serving as chief intelligence officer for the British Airborne Corps under Lt. Gen. Frederick A.M. “Boy” Browning, a dapper, highly decorated veteran of World War I. Brian had been with Browning since 1941 and respected him.
When an airborne operation in Holland was first discussed, Brian was skeptical that the relieving forces could quickly reach the British 1st Airborne Division, north of the farthest bridge in Arnhem. Still it seemed a justifiable, if considerable, risk. Around September 11, however, intelligence reports of German armored units near Arnhem were followed by information from the Dutch Resistance warning of the possibility that the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions, two of the Wehrmacht’s toughest fighting units, were refitting near Arnhem. If that was true, opposition to the airborne assault, no matter how massive or unexpected the assault might be, would be fierce. (In fact, they had just completed an exercise on defending against an airborne invasion.)
Brian never believed, as Montgomery apparently did, that the German army was a spent force that would give up at the very border of the Fatherland. General Browning listened to his young intelligence officer but dismissed his information. Brian then ordered lowlevel oblique aerial photographs of the wooded area where he believed the German tanks were hiding, and confronted Browning with unmistakable images of Mark III and Mark IV tanks nestling under a leafy canopy, ominously close to the main dropping zone.
Browning again brushed aside Brian’s concerns. Nothing would be changed, he said, not even the location of the landing and dropping zones at Wolfheze and Ginkel Heath, eight miles on foot from the main objective—the road bridge spanning the Rhine at Arnhem. To ask paratroopers carrying as much as sixty pounds to march and perhaps fight their way over such a distance would not only exhaust them but also—worse still— destroy any element of surprise, thus giving the German defenders more than enough time to bring up reinforcements.
Increasingly impatient with his intelligence officer’s prophesies of doom, General Browning directed Colonel Austin Eagger, his chief medical officer, to get Brian out of the way by sending him home on sick leave. Brian was suffering from exhaustion and nervous strain, said the doctor. He must go home to Sussex and try to recover his spirits. If he refused to go, said the doctor, he would be arrested and court-martialed.
The truth was Browning had accepted Montgomery’s orders, and with only two days to go before takeoff, did not want to alter the plan. After more than a dozen aborted operations during the summer, the airborne commanders were determined to get into battle. There also can be little doubt that Browning and his chief of staff, Gordon Walch, grossly underestimated the German will to fight.
Brian was dismissed on September 15. On Sunday, September 17, he and his wife, Alfreda, were sitting in their garden in Sussex, listening to the roar of hundreds of aircraft—Halifaxes, Stirlings, and Dakotas towing Horsa and Waco gliders, squadrons of fighter escorts—all heading for eastern Holland and the greatest airborne assault ever undertaken.
Having failed to prevent or even modify what he was convinced would be a disaster, and then being sent home as a hysterical neurotic, was hard for Brian to bear. But five days later, when Market-Garden had gone very wrong, he was recalled to Browning’s headquarters in Nijmegen, ten miles south of Arnhem. In his memoir, A Life in Peace and War, Brian wrote:
It was, of course, inconceivable that the opinion of one person, a young and inexperienced officer at that, could change a vast military plan approved by the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Britain, and all the top military brass, but it seemed to me that I could have gone about it more effectively. I believed then, as most conceited young people do, that a strong rational argument will carry the day if sufficiently well supported by substantiated facts. This, of course, is nonsense….
The Arnhem tragedy had a deep and permanent effect on my attitude to life. Before it, I had been trusting and relatively optimistic, with a self-confidence that was sometimes excessive. After it, I doubted everything, tended to distrust my own as well as other people’s judgment, and became deeply skeptical about the behavior of leaders. I never again could quite be convinced that a great enterprise would go as planned or turn out well, or that wisdom and principle were a match for vanity and ambition.
After Market-Garden, Brian asked to be transferred out of the Airborne Corps to form a group that would advance through Germany to capture German scientists and other important intelligence targets. Before his departure, he received a friendly handwritten letter from General Browning recalling their service together and asking him to keep their differences over Arnhem to himself.
Brian would have remained silent anyway, out of consideration for the families of the dead. In fact, he never spoke about the battle for twenty-five years, until he was interviewed by Cornelius Ryan, author of A Bridge Too Far. The photographs he requested of the German tanks in the woods are missing from the War Office files, and it seems likely that they were deliberately removed.
On a sunny afternoon in 2004, early in the week of the sixtieth anniversary commemoration, Brian and I walked through Arnhem toward the Rhine River to join the crowds watching a demonstration parachute jump by young British and Dutch airborne troops. Over the years, the town has been reborn as a shopper’s paradise, crisscrossed by pedestrian walkways lined with trendy restaurants and shops selling the latest examples of Dutch interior design. The old houses at the northern approach to the bridge are gone now, destroyed during the desperate battle for the bridge and never rebuilt. In their place is a nondescript office building.
A few hundred yards to our left was a modern replica of the Bridge Too Far so valiantly but unsuccessfully held by Lt. Col. John Frost and a handful of men, and destroyed in October 1944 by American B-26 Marauders to keep the Germans from using it to resupply their positions. Originally Frost and the men of the 2nd Parachute Battalion were told they would have to hold the northern end of the bridge for two days at most, until General Horrocks’ XXX Corps arrived to relieve them. But Horrocks’ armored divisions, rolling slowly along sixty miles of narrow road with no way of escaping enemy antitank fire, never reached the bridge.
The cellar of Frost’s headquarters filled up with dead and wounded, “crowded almost on top of each other,” he recalled. Across the way, in an old schoolhouse, the stairs were slick with blood.
“The only things that were clean,” noted one officer, “were the men’s weapons.” Frost was badly wounded, and after four days his depleted group had run out of everything—bandages, food, water, and ammunition. Unless they could escape, as some did, the men had no choice but to surrender. Of the original 525 serving under Frost at Arnhem, fifty-seven died, sixteen were evacuated, and 452 were declared missing—although many of these, including Frost himself, were taken prisoner and either managed to escape or were liberated at the end of the war.
One of the many poignant artifacts of the battle now hangs in the airborne museum at Oosterbeek. It is a fragment of wallpaper from a house in the village of Oosterbeek bearing this crudely lettered message:
F— THE GERRY’S
1st AIRBORNE DIVISION
GERMANS KILLED OR WOUNDED
21 Sept. nothing
22 Sept. nothing
24 Sept. 1944 [Here, a wobbly line of six swastikas, and on September 25, the day they were finally overrun, ten swastikas.]
Military historians called those who managed to avoid capture in the days and weeks following the battle “evaders.” Major Anthony Hibbert, a veteran of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation and many subsequent encounters in North Africa, Italy, and France, survived weeks of hiding in a Dutch farmhouse, crossed the Rhine by night with 120 other evaders in what would come to be known as the Pegasus Escape, and finally reached the British lines south of the river.
Then, just a few hundred yards short of a hot meal and a warm bed, his luck ran out. A green recruit driving much too fast and without headlights suddenly panicked and slammed his overloaded jeep into the back of the vehicle ahead of him. Hibbert was among the passengers perched precariously on the hood of the jeep and thrown off in the collision. He broke both legs in the accident. After four years of fierce fighting, this stupid, avoidable episode left him lame for life.
One lucky evader was glider pilot Louis Hagen, who decided to make his way across the river on his own. Hagen’s memoir Arnhem Lift was published anonymously in January 1945, the first personal account of the battle to appear. He too took part in the Pegasus Escape, but waiting for the little canvas assault boats that might never come did not appeal to him, so he decided to swim. Hagen and his commanding officer, “Captain Z,” hung their boots around their necks, slung their Sten guns over their shoulders and plunged into the river.
At first all went well, but halfway across, Hagen wrote: “I wasn’t doing proper strokes any more and began to panic….How ridiculous it would seem that I, brought up as I had been by a lake, and a swimmer since I was four, should die by drowning in the calm, warm waters of the Rhine after evading every kind of violent death for the last seven days.” Hagen jettisoned his gun, his boots and helmet, even his identity papers—and finally made it to the other bank. Captain Z was never seen again.
The art of evasion reached Houdini-like perfection when Anthony Deane-Drummond, having already escaped twice in Italy, survived thirteen days in a villa occupied by the Schutzstaffel, the SS. He discovered a wall cupboard measuring seven feet high, four feet wide, and twelve inches deep and, by removing the shelves and reversing the latch, managed to lock himself in from the inside, with only two small containers of water, a one-pound tin of lard and half of a small loaf of bread to sustain him. The cupboard, set flush into the wall and somewhat camouflaged by garishly patterned wallpaper, happened to be in the room the Germans were using to interrogate prisoners. He wrote:
Little did I think that I would be confined to my cramped little cupboard for thirteen days and nights….I thought that the limit of my endurance would be reached after three or four days, because I did not start off in the best condition for an endurance test….I cannot recommend cupboard standing to anybody who wants to try out something new. I stood first on one leg then on the other; then I leaned on one shoulder and then on the other. There was no room to sit down because the cupboard was too shallow. I managed to sleep all right although occasionally my knees would give way and would drop forward against the door making a hammer-like noise.
On the thirteenth day, his meager rations had run out. Luckily the Germans guarding the house were amusing themselves upstairs with a bottle of wine, a gramophone, and some “not-too-particular” girls. He escaped through a window.
When we met Deane-Drummond, now in his late eighties and a much-decorated retired major general, he told us his wife had received word from the War Office that no one knew what had become of him and that he was almost certainly dead. But the next night she had a vision telling her he would return to her. She was right.
We saw him at the Sunday War Cemetery service sixty years later. Looking at him standing at the podium, a slight, erect figure with ginger hair and mustache, I could imagine him shrinking himself, willing himself to remain silent and rigid inside that minuscule space day after day.
When Brian and I reached the bridge, now renamed John Frostbrug (the John Frost Bridge), spectators packed it. Overhead, soldiers dropped from vintage transport aircraft and floated onto a field across the river, attached to billowing clouds of silk shaped like perfect mushrooms. A World War II–era P-51 Mustang buzzed the bridge.
“Right across from us, over there on the other side of the river, is where we should have dropped them. It would have been a total surprise to the Germans,” Brian said, refighting this part of the battle, while at the far end of the bridge, on an enormous outdoor screen, Richard Attenborough’s film A Bridge Too Far, dubbed into Dutch, was just beginning.
We could see the anguished, grotesquely enlarged face of Frank Grimes, the actor playing Brian, and that of Dirk Bogarde as General Browning arguing about the plan for Market-Garden. The images were coarse and distorted, with Bogarde-Browning’s nostrils yawning open like garage doors waiting to receive at least an armored car, or maybe even a tank. In the film, Brian had been renamed “Major Fuller” because Attenborough felt he might be confused with the character, unrelated but with the same last name, played by Sean Connery— the divisional commander, Maj. Gen. R.E. (Roy) Urquhart.
Returning to Arnhem was difficult for Brian because he felt he had no business to be there. After all, he had not fought in this particular battle; he had merely tried to prevent it or, at least, to modify it so it would not turn out as badly as it did. All around us were aging veterans of the battle— British, Polish, and American paratroopers, Royal Air Force transport and glider pilots, engineers, artillerymen, signalers—many on crutches or in wheelchairs, most of the paratroopers wearing their old maroon berets and the blue Pegasus insignia of the British Airborne Forces, all of them ablaze with combat medals and ribbons. Before a ceremonial march across the John Frostbrug, Brian and I quarreled over whether he too should wear his medals, brought along as an afterthought.
“Of course you must wear them,” I said. But he demurred and then changed his mind, putting them on at the last minute. I think he felt like the skunk at the picnic for a day or so, until a number of veterans came up to him to say they were grateful that someone at least had tried to speak out. During the parade across the bridge, Tony Hibbert marched—or rather limped—alongside Brian. “If they had listened to you,” he said, “we would have won.”
Thinking about what happened at Arnhem sixty years ago, one is overwhelmed by all the “what ifs.” What if General Browning had at least alerted his commanders that they might encounter stiff resistance? “This vital information was withheld from HQ’s XXX Corps and 1st British Airborne division,” wrote Frost. “Perhaps it was feared that the troops would jib at going if they knew, but it had the effect of making the leading brigade of 1st Airborne adopt the wrong plan and deprived it of the opportunity of increasing its anti-tank capability….Well, there it was….We had been given no inkling.”
What if the Royal Air Force had dropped the paratroopers much closer to the bridge at Arnhem? (They had refused, assuming that a heavy concentration of anti-aircraft batteries would defend the bridge. In fact, it was not protected.)
What if the RAF had agreed to fly out two lifts on the first day, rather than insisting that double round trips in twelve hours of daylight would be too tiring for the pilots? It is worth noting that Air Vice-Marshal Leslie Hollingshurst, who was responsible for most of the air plan for Arnhem, was replaced one month after the battle by Air Vice-Marshal J.R. Scarlett-Streatfield, who wrote, “In future operations against an organized enemy, it may be found necessary to complete the entire lift within a matter of hours, landing every essential unit or load before the enemy can assess the situation, and not relying on airborne reinforcement or resupply.”
What if General Horrocks, commanding the ground forces of the XXX Corps, had pushed his men harder to relieve the defenders of the bridge? Frost recalled his liberation from a German POW camp in March 1945 by Patton’s Third Army: “When they [the American soldiers] saw our red berets, they would say, ‘Arnhem. Aye. We’d have gotten through. Yes, sir. We’d have gotten through.’”
And finally, perhaps the biggest “what if” of them all, as Martin Middlebrook wrote in his brilliant history Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle: “If ‘Market-Garden’ had been successful, the Russians would not have had the favorable bargaining conditions which they wielded at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, when they secured postwar domination over half of Germany and all of Eastern Europe….No wonder that years later a German, thinking of postwar Europe and the partition of his country, should tell a Dutchman that Germany’s biggest disaster in the war was to win the Battle of Arnhem.”
During our stay in Arnhem, Brian and I were introduced to Hiltje and Nienke Van Eck, two spirited women born during the war to parents who, like so many other courageous Dutch civilians, had given no thought to their own safety or well-being. Throughout the Nazi occupation, the Van Eck family, living in relative isolation in the countryside west of Arnhem, took in Jews, hiding them under the floorboards whenever a German patrol knocked on the door. If caught, they would have faced certain death. Yet they fed and sheltered many British airborne soldiers. “Even today,” Hiltje Van Eck told us, “when a builder digs a foundation for a new house, he may expect to find human remains.”
The Allied retreat from Arnhem opened the way for the Nazis to make savage reprisals against Dutch civilians suspected of hiding British soldiers. Arnhem and its neighboring village Oosterbeek were evacuated, their citizens forced to find shelter with friends or family elsewhere in Holland.
The Germans looted homes and then torched them. “My parents had to dig up tulip bulbs for soup,” recalled Hiltje. Indeed, more than twenty thousand Dutch civilians died of starvation during the Hongerwinter of 1944-45.
It is at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery that one truly understands what happened in the week of September 17, 1944. The white marble headstones, 1,759 of them, stand in neat rows around an immaculate lawn:
Private J.W. Hope Parachute Regiment, Army Air Corp Died September 20, 1944 age 34
Private G.R.J. Gwilliam Royal Engineers Airborne Died September 21, 1944 age 26
Private G.H. Horspool The King’s Scottish Borderers Airborne Died September 25, age 21
A Soldier of the 1939-1945 War September 1944, Known to God
Flight Lieutenant D.S.A. Lord V.C., D.F.C. Pilot Royal Air Force Died September 19, 1944 age 30, Greater love than this hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends
Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Richard P. DeB. des Voeux, Baronet, Grenadier Guards Died 20 September, 1944 age 32.
On the final Sunday of our Arnhem week, we watched hundreds of schoolchildren, now two or even three generations removed from the war, file into the cemetery to lay a bouquet on each grave. All around us were veterans of the battle and their families, and Dutch civilians—the British ramrod straight in their blue blazers and maroon berets, combat medals glinting in the sunlight; and the Poles, looking sturdier than their British comrades in arms, flashing proud, gold-toothed grins. Together we sang “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Abide With Me,” as we watched the stone monument disappear under a pile of wreaths.
In the front row sat Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, dressed in black from head to toe, and the Prince of Wales, wearing the beret and the uniform of the British airborne forces. After the ceremony, at a reception given by the British ambassador, the queen told us that a television interviewer had recently asked her father, Prince Bernhard, to comment on the events of sixty years ago. The prince, by then in his nineties, had scathing words for General Montgomery but, said Queen Beatrix, “they were diplomatically deleted from the final text.”
Years earlier, however, responding to Montgomery’s self-serving claim that Arnhem had been “a 90 percent success,” The prince was more forthright: “My country,” he told Cornelius Ryan, “can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success.”
We returned to Arnhem this past September to honor one of the unsung heroes of the battle—Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski, a decorated veteran of World War I, defender of Warsaw in 1939, and, in 1944, commander of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade. Crusty, outspoken, tactless, this inconvenient truth teller with a Polish accent did not mince words when he told Browning, Horrocks, and others that their plan to drop the Poles a full three days into the battle was flawed. An airborne operation, he said, could not be “a purchase by installments.” The British commanders listened without comment and walked out of the room.
Dropped into a nest of German machine guns—the enemy had had time to reinforce its positions—the Polish fighters fought bravely and suffered heavy casualties. Only three weeks after the battle, in October 1944, Montgomery and Browning might have felt the need for a scapegoat who would take the blame for their failure. In a letter to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, Montgomery wrote that “Polish Para Brigade fought very badly and the men showed no keenness to fight if it meant risking their own lives. I do not want this brigade here….”
A month later, Browning chimed in with a letter to Brooke’s deputy, recommending that “General Sosabowski be employed elsewhere and that a younger, more flexible minded and cooperative officer be made available to succeed him.” Thus Sosabowski lost his command, his Polish nationality (the Communists had taken over his country), and his pension. After several business failures, he spent his last years working at a menial factory job outside London. He died penniless and forgotten in 1967.
In a Dutch TV interview in 2004, Brian had called Sosabowski’s treatment “shameful” and said that he hoped a government would act to rehabilitate the general’s reputation. Prince Bernhard saw this interview and, although he was dying, decided that the Dutch government should do something. In May 2006, Queen Beatrix awarded her country’s highest military honor to General Sosabowski and another high honor to his soldiers, the “Polish heroes who played an important role in liberating our country.”
On September 17, 2006, we gathered in the main square of the little town of Driel, where the Poles had fought and died sixty-two years ago. Brian, the other Arnhem dissenter, and a Sosabowski great-grandson unveiled a monument to the general commissioned by the British veterans of Arnhem. Brian reminded his listeners that “despite the wounding and baseless slander that destroyed his career, General Sosabowski was, is, and always will be a great fighter for freedom, a fine commander, and a very great hero.” One can only hope that one day the British government will also do its part in setting things straight.
The people of Gelderland have kept the memory of Arnhem alive for sixty-two years, and they will go on doing so because their parents and grandparents suffered and died alongside their liberators. New generations of schoolchildren will gather at the cemetery in Oosterbeek to decorate the graves with flowers. They will sing hymns and lay wreaths and recite the Lord’s Prayer in English and in Dutch, and overhead a lone Dakota will appear out of the clouds to skim above the treetops with a terrible and thrilling roar. Visitors will gather at the great stone inscribed for the fiftieth anniversary of the battle:
TO THE PEOPLE OF GELDERLAND
50 years ago British & Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to a close. Instead we brought death and destruction, for which you never blamed us.
This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen, while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.
You took us then into your homes as fugitives and friends: we took you forever into our hearts. This strong bond will continue long after we are all gone.
As Brian and I read and reread these words, an elderly Dutchman standing nearby commented to no one in particular, “We did it lovingly.”
Brian Urquhart worked in the United Nations forty years. From 1972-86 he was undersecretary-general for special political affairs, managing peacekeeping operations.
Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.