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?
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