Thursday, 6 February 2020

Book Review: Arnhem 1944: The Human Tragedy of the Bridge Too Far, by Dilip Sarkar

This is a special book. It stands out, even on the subject of the Battle of Arnhem which has generated so much interest, particularly following Ryan’s ‘A Bridge Too Far’, the derivative film and numerous subsequent books, websites, and blogs. Like the 300 at Thermopylae, the heroic defence by the I Airborne division and Polish parachute brigade piques the interest of many a person interested in the history of warfare. Sarkar’s book is not a retelling of those events but a personal and moving account.

The book compels the reader from the very first page; the foreword from Sophie Lambrechtsen-ter Horst, who was caught up, nay directly involved in events as a five year-old girl. Her beautifully written piece tells a little of her own story during the battle and, more importantly, of the bond between the men who fought and died there and the Dutch civilians who continue remembrance to this day.

Dilip Sarkar’s introduction follows this moving foreword. He tells of his deep interest, actually labelling it an ‘obsession’ with World War II and his fascination with the Arnhem story. He lets the reader into the background of some of his detailed research, travelling to and from Holland, uncovering information, hitting dead ends, light-bulb moments, so as to try to reveal “…the ‘hidden history’ of the dead.”

He sets the scene to the Arnhem battle with a prologue that briefly describes the events from D-Day to September 1944. In this he highlights the seeming headlong retreat of the Germans following the eventual breakout of the Allies from Normandy, as well as the advance of the Russian army towards Germany. He describes the initial success but eventual failure of Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (Battle of the Bulge) leading to another headlong allied advance bringing them to the Rhine. This brings us to Montgomery’s plan to use the airborne brigades to by-pass the barrier presented by the Rhine and Siegfried line, the ambitious Operation Comet, which was cancelled on 10th September 1944. From its ‘ashes’ rose Operation Market-Garden, involving the full airborne corps, three divisions and the Polish parachute brigade, which came into being just seven days later, 17th September 1944.

The book is illustrated with numerous black and white photographs from archival sources and the author's collection.

We then move to the heart of the book, 18 chapters focussing on 33 of the allied soldiers who died in and around Oosterbeek and Arnhem between 17th and 26th September 1944.

Each chapter tells of the background of the soldier, a little of his childhood, entrance to the army and how he made his way to the unit in which he served in September ’44. The chapters are presented chronologically so that each is set against the battles of Arnhem-Oosterbeek.

Sarkar brilliantly weaves together the story of each of the fallen with the evolving tale of the battle. Combined with details of the units involved, aspects of the war and related, often humorous anecdotes this makes for an evocative and moving telling of the tale, with the added element of bringing those who did not return to life in the mind of the reader.

His approach means that there is minor repetition of information in subsequent chapters. This hardly detracts from the book nor its readability since it is minor and relates to important points. Moreovrer, it means that each chapter, the story of each man or small group of men, stands alone as a tale and tribute in its own right. He does not state it in his introduction, but I strongly suspect that this was Sarkar’s intention.

Each of the chapters concludes with what happened post-Arnhem, to the remains of the fallen and to the members of his family. While of necessity reasonably brief, Sarkar’s relating of the impact of the death of sons, husbands and/or brothers on those at home is yet another important aspect of this wonderful, powerful and moving book. As exemplified at the end of the chapter about Lance-Corporal Ronnie Boosey (p. 68), “… his younger brother, Lesley, made frequent annual pilgrimages to pay his respects at the graveside of his much-loved brother—‘until it all became too much’. Such is the price of war.”

Three important chapters round off the book. The first considers German casualties, describing the difficulty in identifying how many fought in the Arnhem-Oosterbeek sector, let alone how many fell. As with the Allied dead, these men were first interred in battlefield graves, being exhumed and moved to the German war cemetery at Ysselsteyn. Sarkar concludes the chapter with a brief description of the life and deaths of two German commanders mentioned in the main chapters of the book; General Friedrich Kussin and SS-Hauptsturmführer Viktor-Eberhard Gräbner. This is followed by ‘Flowers in the Wind’, a chapter telling the stories of some of the Dutch civilians caught up in the battle and, lastly, Sarkar’s Epilogue in which he describes his own visits to the landmarks, memorials, museums and, of course, the Airborne Cemetery and, most importantly the ‘warmth and friendship of the Dutch people’ during his research for the book.

Photographs provided by the families of the fallen add greatly to the poignancy of the book

The book is illustrated with numerous black and white photographs from the author’s collection taken during his extensive research and frequent visits to Arnhem and surrounds, archival photos chiefly from the Imperial War Museum and lastly, and most poignantly, photos provided by the families of the fallen, most commonly their children.

Maps of the plan of Operation Market-Garden, the flight paths taken for the various drop zones of the entire operation, the planned approach for 1st Parachute Brigade, location of drop zones around Arnhem and Oosterbeek, dispositions of 1 Parachute Brigade group in Arnhem, wartime map of Oosterbeek and unit dispositions in Oosterbeek are provided both in colour in the centre of the book and in black and white with the most relevant chapter.

One of several clear maps, printed in colour that help the reader to trace the movements of the units and individuals described.

This is a fabulous example of historical story-telling at its finest. Sarkar not only brings these men to life, but also the events of the Battle of Arnhem. His is a magnificent contribution to the history of WWII and Arnhem in particular, especially since most of the old soldiers have left us and the last of the eyewitness survivors are entering their old age. As well as its value now I can see that it will be a fabulous example for people to study, in 20–50 years time and beyond, to try to learn and to imagine what it was like, who the people really were and the impact of the momentous events some 75 years later. Just as memoirs and recollections of veterans can bring those people to life in one’s imagination, so too does this book, about people whose lives were cut short, for people born long after for whom the events are from the distant past.

But for the odd typographical error this one would be a perfect ten from me.


  1. Nice post. As it was the 75th anniversary this past year, there were a lot of free podcasts that featured interviews with veterans or authors. Of note are the "World War 2 Podcast" by Angus Wallace. Another is Dan Snow's History Hit. Both feature several stories about the men at Arnhem and the other bridges in the American sector. Also check out YouTube for an hour long presentation and q&a with author and historian Anthony Beevor.
    One famous Dutch survivor who was 10 in 1944 was actress Audrey Hepburn. There are some webpages about her memories of the battle.
    As for wargamers, Lionel Tarr was a veteran of Arnhem, as mentioned in Don Featherstone's books.

    1. Thank you Doug. I like to listen to podcasts while painting, so will add those to my list. I have heard of Dan Snow's one, but not yet listened to it.
      There was an excellent interview with Beevor on our Radio National in April last year, about his then recent book. It is on my list!
      I found a number of the excellent websites and blogs that were particularly focussing on the 75th anniversary. Great sources for the history/wargaming.

  2. In the late 1980s I had a friend whose father was a pathfinder at Arnhem. Back then I was going through a period of limited interest in military history so I never asked him about it. I wish now I had as he must have had quite a story having dropped in the landing zones before the first wave arrived - imagine that! This battle still fascinates as a story but also as a potential wargame scenario.

    1. Thank you Ian. I guess that he may not have wanted to talk about it, as many vets didn't. The chapters in Sarkar's book describe sections of the battle in the entire area from the drop zones to Arnhem, so lots of information that one can relate to wargame scenarios. You are reading about a slice of the battle and then... it stops with the event that took the man's life. It is compelling and difficult to read all at once.

    2. James, I emailed you - did you get? My current email address can be accessed through the profile on my blog.


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  4. Shame that this book has about 200 errors in it.....