By William F Buckingham
Published by Amberley
William F Buckingham has written what may become the definitive British account of the Battle of Arnhem. In a crowded field, Buckingham’s meticulous reconstruction of the battle provides the reader with a detailed yet accessible narrative of those remarkable events of 75 years ago.
It is a big read, and may be too rich for some, yet anyone wanting to explore this subject from a soldier’s-eye-view will be fully satisfied. Although the book has its limits, at the level of well-researched combat narrative, Buckingham has few peers.
Having researched Arnhem for his PhD and taught history at the University of Glasgow, Buckingham has since undertaken more work on the subject, uncovering important new evidence. He has also produced highly regarded accounts of Verdun, the Normandy Landings, and Tobruk. Furthermore, he is a specialist on the history of airborne warfare and has authored a book on the formation of the British Parachute Regiment. Taken as a whole, his CV might have been designed for this project.
What the British call ‘the Battle of Arnhem’ was in fact an offensive campaign launched by the Allies in southern Holland during September 1944. Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne assault in history.
Three airborne divisions, two American and one British, were dropped behind German lines in an effort to open a corridor for the British 30th Corps. The corps was to advance across the Rhine and thereby outflank the main West Wall positions. This, it was hoped, would allow the Allies to advance into the Ruhr, destroying the enemy’s ability to prosecute the war.
The ‘corridor’ was a narrow one, defined by a series of water obstacles and the bridges across them. While the Americans ultimately secured all of their objectives, the British 1st Airborne Division at the far (north-eastern) limit of the operation were unable to capture any of the bridges at Arnhem.
With one battalion cut off and eventually destroyed there, the rest of the division retreated to the village of Oosterbeek, on the north bank of the Lower Rhine. Attempts to reinforce or relieve the division failed, with only 2,000 survivors rescued nine days later. It has been the stuff of legend – and, indeed, heated debate – ever since.
Buckingham’s book begins with a fascinating potted history of airborne warfare. We learn in particular about Russian and German doctrine, before moving on to an account of Germany’s use of airborne troops during the 1940 campaigns in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. This is important background, taking us naturally into the development of what became the 1st Allied Airborne Army.
Arguably less useful is the chapter that describes the activities of the other participating formations during the run up to Arnhem, such as the battles fought by the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in France; though many will enjoy this preamble.
The critical decision-making process that led to the authorisation for Market Garden is well described, although there is less here on broader strategic questions, such as the famous broad front/narrow front debate, than in other histories. Instead, the book provides an extremely well researched account of the planning for the operation itself.
It is here that Buckingham’s views on some of the key protagonists begin to emerge. For example, he traces the genesis of the contentious decision to prioritise the Groesbeek Heights within the 82nd Airborne Division’s sector, in what becomes a sustained critique of Lieutenant General Browning, commander of the airborne corps.
As elsewhere in this book, these arguments are presented in a forensic manner, reasonable judgements being set against fully referenced source material. This is robust history, yet deftly told, and never less than intriguing.
The action opens with a detailed look at the preparatory Allied air operations, together with an account of the insertion of the three airborne divisions. There is much more here for those interested in the air war than appears in other accounts. Throughout, the text is peppered with personal stories and direct quotes, providing the colour that brings these dramatic events to life.
One also has breakdowns of the squadrons and aircraft types involved, their different missions, and how those fed into the overall scheme for Operation Market (the airborne component of Market Garden). As is the case for the rest of this narrative, Buckingham builds from the bottom, eventually revealing the entire edifice. Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but thoroughly satisfying for those seeking a full grasp of the battle, rather than an overview.
PARAS ON THE GROUND
With the paratroops on the ground, the heart of the book describes events in a strict chronological context. This is an extremely helpful means of organising the material for what is a large, complex, and fluid series of events. The addition of plentiful mapping allows the reader to frame the story in spatial terms – after all, few campaigns rank quite as high as Market Garden in the importance of their geography.
For the first four days of the fight, our attention proceeds in turn through the different Allied formations involved, namely the three airborne divisions and the British 30th Corps. Buckingham delivers clear and exciting narration, not forgetting to describe German thinking, movements, and experience.
Following the American assault across the Waal River at Nijmegen, however, the book’s focus changes.
We join up with the trapped British paratroops at Arnhem for the climax of the campaign. It is here that the reader will experience one of the war’s great sieges, hour by hour, fire fight by fire fight.
The decision, openly acknowledged by the author, to present the crux of the matter at the expense of detailed coverage of those battles still being fought further south, is justified by this piece of writing. It is gripping stuff .
This, then, is the story of Arnhem from a largely British perspective. That is not to say that the other participants are left out. There is, for example, a lot of new material on the complicated German order of battle, with units switched around according to need. Interestingly, Buckingham takes issue with those who have stressed German tactical prowess during this campaign. His account amply demonstrates that while many units fought well, this was by no means always the case.
Indeed, for all the narrative detail in his book, Buckingham does present us with plenty of analysis of his own. As well as Browning, Major-General Urquhart (1st Airborne Division) is found wanting, as is Brigadier Lathbury, of the British 1st Parachute Brigade.
Buckingham also has strong views on the leadership of 30th Corps, and the culture in the upper echelons of the British Army. In overall terms though, Buckingham believes the operation could have worked. In this, he departs from another recent British book on Arnhem, that by Antony Beevor, which argued that the plan was simply wrong in concept.
Arnhem, it seems, will continue to provoke debate among historians, amateur and professional alike. Buckingham’s book makes an important contribution to this, with an exhaustive treatment of the battle at Oosterbeek and new insights into a number of other areas. Allied confusion as to the status of the ferry at Heveadorp is one; his analysis of the behaviour of Lieutenant-General Horrocks, the commander of 30th Corps, another. The shameful conduct of the British towards the Polish Brigadier-General Sosabowski is particularly well covered.
Above all, though, this is a book that pulls off that rare balancing act: it delivers serious academic history in an exciting and accessible manner. For those wishing to know more about the British disaster at Arnhem, this is a ‘must read’.
Review by Andrew Mulholland
This article was published in the June 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about how to subscribe to the magazine, click here.