Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...
Cornelius Ryan has a knack for writing military histories that are incredibly accessible. I'm a far cry from being any sort of “armchair general.” I didn't grow up playing Risk, and my primary point of reference for distinguishing between battleships and destroyers is the number of pegs required to sink them in the game Battleship (and even then I manage to mix them up). Don't get me wrong, Ryan's trio of WWII accounts (The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far) tell you who was doing what, when, and where—there are plenty of references to squadrons, troops, battalions, and divisions. However, they are full of smaller stories that give my mind something to hold on to.
I figure that if you really want to know the ins and outs of Operation Market Garden, there's plenty of excellent material out there (including this book); the quick and dirty version is basically that it was the largest airborne operation to-date, took place in the Netherlands and Germany and was not a success. So, I'm now gonna go with the “Jeff approach” I co-opted for my review of The Last Battle, and dish out some assorted bits and pieces that stuck out along the way.
Frenemies From Within
Working with other people is never easy. In retrospect, it's easy to think of the Axis and the Allies as unified fronts, but (as usual) there's way more nuance to the story. Honestly, it wasn't really until I read Panzer Commander: The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck that I began to consider the difference between a German soldier and a Nazi.
So, contentious relationship number one is between the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, and der Führer, Adolf Hitler. Rommel loathed Hitler, and with good reason—because, in September of 1944, Hitler's orders to Rommel et al. in the Western front were suicidal and insane. Long of the short, Rommel was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, and then Hitler basically “let” Rommel kill himself.
Meanwhile, the Allied leadership wasn't exactly having an easy time of things. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (aka “Monty”) wasn't the only diva Supreme Allied Commander DDE had to deal with, but he definitely earns himself a nomination for Most Difficult Colleague for Market Garden (which was, after all, his show). Monty's intentions were good—he wanted to march straight into Berlin and end the war for once and for all. However, in addition to demanding absolute priority for all resources, and declaring that he simply couldn't/wouldn't work with Patton, Monty's plans were a bit “offhanded.” One Lieutenant Colonel describes the slipshod orders to the effect of:
“First, we'll take this bridge; then that one and hop this river...”
It was at Monty's HQ that Lieutenant General Frederick Browning tried to challenge the Field Marshall: “But, sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far.”
The best one-liner regarding Monty, though, definitely came from Ryan's interview with Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands who said:
“My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success.”
Yes, this LZ!
The logistics were a mess. The 82nd Airborne Division's initial success, with 89% of troopers hitting their drops, and 84% of gliders making it within 1,000 meters of their Landing Zone (LZ), proved to be the exception, rather than the rule. The 101st Airborne Paratroopers (below) had danger coming from all directions, including themselves. One Private, after dropping a match into an oil drum, was “the only member of the 101st jumping into Holland with no eyebrows.”
Oh, and by the way, gliders are not the same thing as airplanes—something that first-time glider pilots attempted to communicate with leadership without much success. But, nevertheless, their dedication was impressive. One of the pilots of the IX Troop Carrier Command even managed to get his jumpers into the green light zone despite the fact that his plane was on fire!
Myrtle the Parachick and more...
Ryan's knack for weaving anecdotes in with military maneuvers makes it all feel more real. Lieutenant "Pat" Glover had a chicken, Myrtle, who'd accompanied him on six prior training jumps. He described that
“this rather gentle pet would wait patiently on the ground for me to land and collect her.”
Though Myrtle made the jump successfully, she, like so many others, died in the trenches on the ground in the ensuing battle. Glover “buried her with honor and properly–with her badge of rank–as befitted those who died in action.” I'm never a fan of bringing birds, or any animals into battle, this story reminded me of the fact that each fallen soldier was more than just a number.