Was Daphne du Maurier responsible for the attempt to cross the ‘bridge too far’?
A few months ago I gave a talk at Boy’s prep school on one of the most glorious debacles in British military history — Operation Market Garden — which marks its 65th anniversary this week.
To bring it home, I told them that many of the boys from 1st Airborne Division who landed by glider and parachute near Arnhem on that deceptively calm, sunny September weekend weren’t much older than they; and I showed them photographs of the heartbreaking inscriptions at Oosterbeek cemetery, where some of the dwindling band of surviving veterans will be holding their annual commemorative service, and where by tradition generations of local children have each been given their own grave to adopt and tend.
‘A smiling face/A heart of gold/One of the best/This world could hold,’ says one. ‘Without you, darling, there is forever shadow where once there was sun,’ says another. ‘God’s greatest gift is remembrance. Good night, Dad,’ says a third. Even as I transcribe them now the tears well up in my eyes. The sentiment and the mode of expression border on the greetings-card kitsch. But this is what makes them so powerful and direct and arrestingly modern: they don’t sound like tributes to men who died long ago, but to people like us who might have fallen yesterday.
Operation Market Garden was a disaster for the Allies, but by God it was a magnificent one. The SS — many of them Eastern Front veterans — who fought the boys of 1st Airborne Division rated them as the toughest opposition they’d ever faced. General Roy Urquhart (Sir Menzies Campbell’s father-in-law) led the division. There were acts of heroism to take your breath away: Major Robert Cain VC (Jeremy Clarkson’s father-in-law) taking out tank after tank with his PIAT (our risible, borderline-suicide anti-tank weapon); F/Lt ‘Lummy’ Lord VC striving to keep his burning Dakota aloft for just a little longer so that his equally doomed dispatchers could push out supplies for the beleaguered men below.
But to what end did these brave boys cast away their lives so lightly and cheerfully? Of the 11,920 men (mostly British and Polish) who took part in the airborne operation at Arnhem alone, 1,485 were killed or died of wounds, 3,910 escaped across the river, and the other 6,525 were left either POWs or trying to evade capture. The operation as a whole was far more costly than D-Day; the casualty rate quite intolerable by modern standards; and the net result extremely disappointing. Instead of ending the war by Christmas, as Monty had hoped when he bullied Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower into accepting his cunning plan, it merely squandered the cream of the Allies’ fighting troops on a harebrained scheme which was doomed from the off. Or was it?
Could Operation Market Garden ever possibly have worked? And if it couldn’t, why on earth was it allowed to go ahead? I have a theory on the last one, which I don’t believe has ever been publicly aired before. I decided not to mention it at the beginning for fear of sounding flippant or disrespectful, but I’m quite serious: the disaster of the ‘bridge too far’ was at least partly the fault of Daphne Du Maurier, author of Rebecca.
Du Maurier, as you probably know, was married to the British commander of the operation Lt Gen Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning. Browning had had a ‘good’ if traumatic first war, winning a DSO in an assault during which most of his company was wiped out. But he had a lot to prove in the second, never having yet had an active combat command. Earlier in the war he had raised Britain’s first ever airborne division (though the idea that Daphne chose the distinctive maroon beret colour is probably a myth). Market Garden would be his chance to prove to the world what he and it could do. And, just as importantly, prove himself to his high-powered, independently wealthy, literary superstar wife. This isn’t a theory I concocted myself, by the way. It cropped up during a conversation I had with one of Arnhem’s greatest legends — Major General Tony Deane-Drummond, DSO, MC and Bar — who at the time was the major 2ic signals, and who later would famously evade capture by hiding for 13 days in a cramped cupboard in a room which the Germans were using to interrogate prisoners.
It came about when I wondered — as students of the battle often do — why Lt Gen Browning let it happen. He’d long nurtured misgivings about the operation and when intelligence photos showing German armour in the region of the parachute drop zones and glider landing zones, he could have seized the excuse. Instead, Browning responded, as Montgomery did, by pretending the problem didn’t exist. He went so far as to have the bearer of bad news — the op’s intelligence officer, Brian Urquhart (happily still with us), who had dispatched the Spitfire in order to confirm his worst suspicions — forcibly retired on ‘medical grounds’. The op would go ahead, panzers or no.
Now, of course, it’s quite true that Browning was in an impossible position. In the run-up to Market Garden, 16 similar operations had been cancelled at the last minute. You can’t keep doing that to soldiers and airmen: it strains the nerves hideously. Nor can you keep 33,971 airborne troops (the combined US, British, Polish number) kicking their heels indefinitely. Had Browning called off such a massive op yet again, there’s almost no doubt he would have been sacked by his immediate superior, US Air Force General Brereton.
So which was Browning to do: go ahead, risk all on an op you know has only the slimmest chance of success, or lose your job and miss the one opportunity you’ll ever get of proving yourself the equal of your much more successful (and slightly distant) wife? Browning, like so many generals before and since, chose the physically courageous decision over the morally courageous one. ‘She wasn’t the only reason, of course,’ said Maj Gen Deane-Drummond. ‘But I’m sure she played a part in his decision.’
While on the subject of Market Garden, there’s an error I should like to correct which has been haunting me for years, concerning the conduct of Guards Armoured Division at Nijmegen bridge. It has sometimes been suggested that the real reason the operation failed was because our tankers were too dilatory. If only our tanks had thrust sooner and more determinedly along that last 11 miles of road to Arnhem, instead of halting at Nijmegen, the paratroops holding out at the bridge could have been relieved and the mission accomplished.
This is a theory I repeated in a TV column a few years back when I knew less about the subject. What I’ve read since then suggests to me that those tankers have been unfairly maligned. To have tried to continue by night along a narrow road with deep water-filled dikes would have been suicide. Just one 88mm gun and a handful of panzerfausts would have stopped them. I’m sorry ever to have cast aspersions on those gallant tank crews by suggesting otherwise. Why did Market Garden fail? Lots of reasons — far too many to mention here — but to me there’s one that stands out. It’s the same one that was raised by the Polish General Sosabowski when, at a planning meeting for one of Market Garden’s earlier incarnations, he pointed out that the planners appeared to have overlooked one very important element: ‘the Germans’.
James Delingpole’s Coward at the Bridge is published by Simon & Schuster.