The battle of Arnhem was the last major battle lost by the British Army. Since late September 1944, as the bedraggled survivors returned back to Britain, debate has raged about where the blame for the disaster should lie.
Immediately it was understood that the loss was not the fault of the men who fought in Holland. Their ferocity, tenacity and courage in a desperate situation was never in doubt.
Rather, the finger of blame was pointed higher up the chain of command. First, at the staff at 1st British Airborne Division.
Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett, commander of 4th Parachute Brigade, described the plan as “very naïve”. He said the staff were “very good on getting airborne troops to battle, but they were innocents when it came to fighting the Germans when we arrived”.
“They used to make a beautiful airborne plan and then add the fighting-the-Germans bit afterwards,” he told author Martin Middlebrook for his wonderful 1994 account ‘Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle’.
Blame was also levelled at Lieutenant General ‘Boy’ Browning, the dashingly handsome 47-year old commander of 1 British Airborne Corps, husband of the famous novelist Daphne du Maurier and architect of airborne forces as a new arm of the British Army.
He was itching to command troops in combat before the war ended and was criticised for demanding his Corps headquarters be deployed; an unnecessary and confusing additional level of command on the ground and a waste of the 38 aircraft that had to carry it there.
The RAF was blamed for insisting on dropping the troops over three days and at a location about five miles west of the objective, thereby ceding the great strength of lightly-armed airborne forces: surprise.
Then there was Montgomery.
The war had been raging for exactly five years by September 1944, but the Allies had been halted after an “exhilarating drive” of over 200 miles in just a week after breaking out of Normandy.
General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander and future US president, wanted to move gradually on three fronts. The Allies had progressed so fast they had outrun their supply lines and Cherbourg, the only port big enough to handle the volume required, was over 400 miles from the front lines of Montgomery’s British 21st Army Group in the north and US General Patton’s Third Army in the south.
The strategy was not going well; the slow, gradual advance was allowing the Germans time to recover and Montgomery wanted to break the stalemate that had developed.
It was also widely suggested that Montgomery’s personal ambition to beat Patton to Berlin and his irascible personality won him few friends amongst his superiors.
Seeking a dramatic breakthrough he devised a “massive left hook into Germany,” says Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute “to do what the Germans least wanted – a deep thrust into their territory”.
Montgomery’s instincts were probably right, but to be successful it would have needed all the Allied armies. Eisenhower was not convinced and disinclined to support fully his obstreperous subordinate commander.
It was, Mr Clarke told The Telegraph, a British sideshow. An exasperated Eisenhower eventually decided: “Let Monty have a go and see how he gets on”.
Operation Market Garden was too small, poorly planned and badly led. It had been a “big ask” Mr Clarke says, to expect the British tanks of the Guards Armoured Division racing up a single track road to link up with the airborne troops that had landed 75 miles behind enemy lines (as it was they managed to get within 11 miles of Arnhem before being held up by the Germans).
But bad luck was also a factor. Although the Allies should have known two German Panzer Divisions were in the area, recovering after the mauling they had received in Normandy, they had no way of knowing German Field Marshal Walther Model, responsible for half of Germany’s entire western front, was there too and able to command the tank forces.
Had the plan worked it is accepted amongst military historians that the Allies (probably Monty’s 21st Army Group) would have been in Berlin before the Soviet Army and the war would probably have ended in 1944.
Berlin would not have been divided; the country may not have been divided.
Certainly, the Iron Curtain would have fallen, but it would have been a lot further east.
The whole of post-war European politics would have been different. The EU may not have existed. Brexit may not have happened.
We will, obviously, never know. But as we remember the sacrifice of the thousands of British, American and Polish soldiers – to whom no blame whatsoever should be attached for the defeat – we are left with the old military maxim: victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan.