Anthony Tucker-Jones talks about his newest gripping battle narrative
The Devil’s Bridge: The German Victory at Arnhem, 1944. Osprey/Bloomsbury, Hardcover, 304 pp., CDN $38.00.
I long desired to write a book on the fascinating battle for Arnhem, but it is such well-trodden ground. Years ago I read Cornelius Ryan’s excellent A Bridge Too Far and saw Richard Attenborough’s film version. Together they firmly propelled Arnhem into the public spotlight and it has remained there ever since. These though and subsequent works always focused on Allied errors, rather than how the exhausted Germans achieved such an unexpected victory. In a way this suggested they won by default, but that is unfair and certainly not the whole picture. What I wanted to do was put the reader right in the middle of the action purely from the German perspective. The time seemed ripe to tell the story from “The Other Side of the Hill.” It was they, the Germans, who created a perfect storm that completely derailed Field Marshal Montgomery’s daring but ultimately futile Operation Market Garden.
When you consider that D-Day took years of planning and that Market Garden was cobbled together in two weeks it is not difficult to see why it failed so spectacularly. It was a gamble and could have worked if the conditions had been right. Montgomery’s biggest failing was to underestimate his opponents. Although he knew that the battered 2nd SS Panzer Corps was in the Arnhem area he simply refused to believe it would fight. Likewise, he refused to consider what would happen once the German 15th Army and 1st Parachute Army attacked the flanks of General Brian Horrocks’ 30th Corps advance.
Market Garden is a very confused battle with the action taking place at numerous locations, so my biggest challenge was creating a coherent and engaging story. Foremost as an author is that you want to write a book that readers will enjoy. It was important to make it fast-paced as the fight lasted only nine days. Once I had my cast of characters it became much easier because you then follow the action through their eyes. I was also able to draw out elements of the battle that have been ignored or underplayed in the past. For example, the major counterattacks launched from the Reichswald Forest against the Americans at Nijmegen.
What first inspired me was the image of Field Marshal Walter Model settling down to Sunday lunch on 17 September 1944, only to be rudely interrupted by the abrupt arrival of British paratroopers. I was intrigued by what happened next. Some historians claim he fled in panic, but that is simply not true. Instead he very calmly consulted his commanders and set about systematically crushing Market Garden. Model, a tough veteran of the fierce fighting on the Eastern Front, was in command of Army Group B, charged with defending northern France and the Netherlands. To use an American expression he was “a tough son of a bitch,” not easily rattled. In Russia he regularly plucked victory from the jaws of disaster. He had only just retrieved a disastrous situation in the face of massive gains by the Red Army. Model had then been sent to work a similar miracle with the crumbling Western Front. He was one of Hitler’s best generals and not somebody to underestimate.
FIELD MARSHAL MODEL
Likewise, SS-General “Willi” Bittrich, in command of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, was a very able leader. His divisional commanders, SS-Brigadier Heinz Harmel and SS-Lieutenant Colonel Walter Hauser, were both highly experienced and competent individuals. Add to this mix General Kurt Student, the father of Hitler’s airborne forces, who had just been appointed to command the newly-established 1st Parachute Army – and it was very clear that Monty had his hands full.
Field Marshal von Rundstedt, Model’s boss, was reappointed Commander-in-Chief West on 4 September 1944, just thirteen days before Market Garden commenced. He had been sacked during the summer over his conduct of the Battle for Normandy. Throughout his career he had a remarkable habit of bouncing back. By mid-September the German army was in full flight across northern Europe. Just a few weeks earlier it had suffered a crushing defeat in Normandy at Falaise, losing a quarter of a million men. It also suffered a similar defeat on the Eastern Front that summer. This success, certainly in the West, lulled the Allies into a false sense of security. They could not conceive that the Germans might somehow recover. Montgomery’s response was Market Garden, which would see his ground forces leapfrog over American and British airborne divisions to capture a newly-reopened bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. From there he would strike into the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial centre, and overrun Hitler’s weapon factories. The war could be over by Christmas – or so he hoped.
By a stroke of good luck for Model, the Arnhem area was occupied by the two depleted divisions of Bittrich’s 2nd SS Panzer Corps. At the start of the Normandy campaign this had numbered over 33,000 men with almost 300 tanks and assault guns. By the end it had lost two-thirds of its manpower and had just 20 tanks left. Bittrich’s 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer Divisions were commanded by Harzer and Harmel respectively. They had successfully extricated the survivors from Normandy after the German collapse in August 1944.
The Dutch Resistance knew all about the presence of Bittrich’s men. The 9th SS was just about to be shipped back to Germany to re-equip, so they were not expecting a fight. Most of the other SS units in the vicinity were understrength training battalions or unreliable Dutch SS concentration camp guards. However, the 16th SS Panzergrenadier training battalion was well-equipped and would cause the British 1st Airborne Division a major headache by getting between Arnhem and Oosterbeek, thereby fatally slowing their advance.
As the 9th SS were heading home they had removed the wheels and tracks from their vehicles, having declared them non-operational to avoid handing them over to the 10th SS. What this meant was that it took time to fix everything once the American and British airborne forces started to arrive. However, they had enough vehicles to quickly send various battle groups south to Nijmegen and Eindhoven. One of the Germans’ biggest mistakes was pushing a vital reconnaissance unit back over Arnhem bridge after it had be captured by 1st Airborne. What followed was essentially a massacre.
General Student was also summoned from his desk-job to take charge of the newly-created 1st Parachute Army on 4 September. This was to hold Model’s right flank to the east of Antwerp and lay directly in the path of Montgomery’s attack. Initially his command was little more than divisional strength, consisting of a few veteran parachute regiments fleshed out with teenagers. Student summoned his old comrade-in-arms General Eugen Meindl, commander of the 2nd Parachute Corps. This had also been severely mauled in Normandy and had hardly any men.
Model was at the Tafelberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, just to the west of Arnhem when the Allied airborne landings started. In response he evacuated his headquarters and met with Bittrich, instructing him to secure the bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen. Although Student’s army was cut in half, he quickly gathered reinforcements and fought the Allies south of Eindhoven. Once the Allies’ ground forces were north of the city he began to conduct repeated counterattacks. Model also ordered General Feldt, supported by Meindl, to conduct counterattacks from the Reichswald Forest against the American eastern flanks at Nijmegen.
Student and Feldt successfully delayed the British ground forces long enough for Bittrich to overwhelm the British airborne troops holding Arnhem bridge by 20 September. Although Harmel failed to stop the Allies crossing the Waal at Nijmegen that day, the holdup in Allied plans gave him time to prepare the defences in the Betuwe, the land between the Rhine and the Waal. This again slowed Horrocks’ attempts to reach 1st Airborne and sealed its fate. The survivors were forced to flee back across the Rhine on the night of 25/26 September.*
There were lots of factors that led to the failure of Market Garden, but to my mind the key ones are the recapture of Arnhem and the dogged German defence at Nijmegen. The latter cost British 30th Corps valuable time. When it finally got over the Waal the airborne troops at Oosterbeek were on the verge of being overrun. After piercing German defences in the Betuwe, Horrocks tried getting reinforcements over the Rhine, but it was a pointless exercise by that stage. Ultimately Model and Bittrich very professionally rallied their forces and delayed the Allies long enough to retake Arnhem, force 1st Airborne to evacuate and stall 30th Corps in the Betuwe. Their response to Market Garden was quite frankly exemplary. At the time though, to them it had been “a near run thing.”
Anthony Tucker-Jones is a former British intelligence analyst and is now a prolific military historian. He has appeared on the BBC, Channel 4, History Channel, Sky News and Russia Today. Click here for his author website.
* Note: Two Canadian engineer companies took part in the evacuation of 1st Airborne back across the Rhine: the 20th Field Coy, Royal Canadian Engineers under the command of Major A.W. Jones, and the 23rd Field Coy commanded by Major M.L. Tucker. See David Bennett, “A Bridge Too Far: The Canadian Role,” in Canadian Military Journal, Winter 2005-2006, pp. 95-102. — Ed.