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Arnhem: Nine days of battle


The things that kick off an interest in a particular period or theme or process or a single event in history are not always easy to identify. I could reasonably say that my interest in the Arnhem battle stems from a family connection. My father was a Parachute Regiment chaplain just a few years after the war when many of the more prominent personalities at Arnhem were still serving soldiers, so although I never met any of those men, their names would come up in family conversation from time to time.

Alternatively, I could say that my personal connection to the battle rests with a rather fat black Labrador dog. The dog in question (Judy) belonged to one Jimmy Morrison, a chaplain who was taken prisoner at Oosterbeek while serving with 7th Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers. In the early 1950s, Major Morrison was my father’s immediate superior as senior chaplain at Aldershot. One day he asked Dad if he would look after his dog for a few days. We had her for the next 12 years.

Beyond the influence of Judy – a lovely creature – there are a great many other factors that have drawn me to this remarkable battle. The sheer drama of thousands of men dropping by parachute or landing by glider sixty miles behind enemy lines and fighting a gallant action from a near-impossible position against ever-increasing odds is one of those factors but, more than that, the incredibly optimistic approach of the senior commanders and planners in the face of rational interpretation of the intelligence material, their unwillingness to countenance even the most obvious criticism or to consider even the most obvious suggestions to improve the plan has fascinated me for many years.

I could say the same about the unscrupulous behaviour of many senior officers who colluded to pass the blame for the failure of the operation onto the shoulders of men who had pointed out all the weaknesses of the plan and the ‘victory happy’ gung-ho attitudes of their superiors, but had still gone into battle and given their all to try and procure a victory from a dreadfully ill-conceived venture.

The fact that the operation failed to achieve anything of value can hardly be blamed on the men of the 1st Airborne Division. There were certainly weaknesses in the divisional planning and in various elements of the division itself, but the determination of the officers and men who fought so bravely at Arnhem and Oosterbeek for nine days in September 1944 cannot be faulted.

From a historiographical viewpoint, the battle is something of a rarity; it is very unusual to be able to study a divisional battle in isolation; one must always be conscious of the neighbouring formations to the left and right, the supporting formation to the rear. The nature of an airborne battle is such that – at least in the early stages – there are no neighbouring formations. The division, brigade, battalion or company committed to battle must stand alone until relieved.

The battle of Arnhem stands with a handful of iconic engagements which continue to draw the attention of students, scholars and enthusiasts long after defeat or victory have ceased to have any immediate relevance, but which are notable for any one (or several) of a variety of reasons – the audacious or innovative nature of the plan, the execution of the operation, the gallantry of the soldiers, the inspirational leadership of the commander. Arnhem scores highly in all these respects and more, and I have no doubt that it will still be a battle that attracts attention a hundred years from now. 

By Chris Brown

Red Devils of Arnhem 1944

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