Sixty-five years ago today on a pleasant, sunny September day like this one (only it was a Sunday, not a Thursday) began the greatest battle of the Second World War: Operation Market Garden.
At least it’s the greatest if you’re British. Of course there were many more strategically important battles – eg Stalingrad; El Alamein; D-Day; Midway – but Market Garden, especially the battle for Arnhem and the “bridge too far” is the one that has always caught the public imagination.
It was the battle that had everything: red berets (faarsands of ‘em); countless acts of superhuman courage leading to five VCs (one of which was won by Jeremy Clarkson’s father-in-law Major Robert Cain); classic British pluck and sangfroid (Major Digby Tatham-Warter disabling an armoured car with his umbrella; the dispatchers in a doomed Dakota pushing out vital supplies even as their burning plane plummeted towards the ground); a fearsome opposition (battlehardened SS who rated the British airborne troops tougher than any they’d faced); plus, most poignantly and frustratingly, the dozens of “What ifs?” which mean that every time you read about the battle, you can’t help fantasising about an alternative universe where this time – as of course, we think we deserve – it ends in an Allied victory.
But it didn’t. Quite right though we are to worship and adore the heroes of Arnhem, the unfortunate fact is that they lost. Operation Market Garden was one of the biggest Allied military disasters of the war. Of the 11,920 mostly British and Polish troops of 1st Airborne Division who landed at Arnhem, no fewer than 1,485 were killed, 3,910 escaped back over the river two weeks later, while 6,525 were taken prisoner – at least 2,000 of them wounded. We achieved little if anything of any strategic value. We didn’t open the way to the Ruhr industrial heartland, nor circumvent the Siegfried Line, nor end the war by Christmas. Worse still, we made life significantly more horrible for the Dutch – briefly liberating them before dashing their hopes on our withdrawal and subjecting them to many more months of brutal Nazi rule.
Yet even the months immediately afterwards, Arnhem managed to acquire a reputation as something to be celebrated rather than mourned. (We’re very good at this, we British: see also, Dunkirk; Scott of The Antarctic; Eddie The Eagle). Indeed this used to infuriate veterans of the 6th Airborne Division (the one that succeeded in all its major objectives on D-Day, including the coup de main capture by glider-borne troops of Pegasus Bridge; the taking of the Merville Battery). They’d be wearing their red berets in a pub and people would come up to them and say, awestruck: “Were you at Arnhem?” “No,” they’d reply crossly. “We WON our battle.”
Look, I could give you more of this stuff, loads more. I too love Market Garden and I love the men who fought in it, some of whom I’m privileged to call my friends. If you like what I’ve written so far, you will totally love my account of the battle in COWARD AT THE BRIDGE. And no I don’t feel at all embarrassed to plug it. It’s a bloody good read and I’m proud of it.
But there’s another book I want to mention which I think you should also read – a fantastically exciting, vivid account of life on the front line in Afghanistan by Sam Kiley called Desperate Glory. It’s so intense, yet lyrically done, you could almost call it war porn. It captures perhaps better than any other book I’ve read the smells, the sounds, the fear and excitement of modern infantry warfare. Read it and you fully understand why men want to go to war: because though its the most grisly thing they will ever experience it’s also the most exciting and fulfilling.
But what you will also carry away with you – not that you didn’t suspect this is already – is a sense of the sheer hopelessness of our involvement in Afghanistan. The Government’s failure to provide our helicopters and mine-protected vehicles is, of course, a disgrace which has led to many avoidable deaths and injuries. The bigger picture, though, is more depressing still. What the hell are we doing there?
Don’t get me wrong. My heart swells with pride and I get a tremendous boysy thrill when I read stories like the one about Lt James Anderson bayonetting a Taliban machinegunner and shouting “have some of this” as he riddled another with bullets. I feel much about our boys’ (and girls’) performance in Helmand as I do about their predecessors’ performance at Arnhem: What self-sacrifice! What magnificence!
But in Aghanistan as at Arnhem, heroism is no substitute for strategy. Operation Market Garden failed for lots of reasons, mostly failures of planning. No matter how well the men fought there they were always going to lose. The same is true, I fear, of Afghanistan.
What is the point of our presence there?
To kill as many of the enemy as possible? But the supply from across the border in Pakistan is endless.
To win hearts and minds? Then why are we destroying their principal cash crop – opium – and killing so many civilians (the Americans rather more often than us, it must be said)?
To conquer and hold territory? When the Soviets were in Afghanistan, they allocated a whole division of 12,000 men to Helmand. We’re trying to make do with 5,000.
To create some semblance of democracy? Yeah right.