Aaron Bates, The Last German Victory (Pen & Sword, 2021)
There are few battles in modern military history that fit the description of ‘noble failure’ more than Operation Market Garden and the doomed attempt to cross the Rhine at Arnhem. It sometimes seems that as much ink has been spilled in analysing the Allied defeat as blood lost in the campaign, and you would think there is little left to add. But Aaron Bates brings something new to the table. He seeks an explanation for the outcome of Market Garden in the ‘ingrained systemic factors’ that led to the British fighting a battle in the wrong place at the wrong time and against the wrong enemy who should be credited with an expensive but well-earned victory.
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Bates opens with an overview of the historiography of the Market Garden operation, beginning with Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far, which provided the base for most of the research on the battle that follows. He combines those with works on operational and institutional aspects to present his interpretation of the campaign. Bates next examines German tactical and command doctrine, finding it particularly suited to counter the critical surprise element needed for Allied success. In short, the Germans could react quicker at the local level than the British and with greater ferocity. Bates intersperses his broader narrative with many case studies of local operations to bring his readers closer to the action and explain some of the difficulties the British and Americans faced; for example, the depletion of ammunition rapidly became a concern.
The author turns to the British Tactical and Command doctrine; the other side of the coin, characterized by careful planning and caution over local initiatives. The great Allied advantage in firepower also comes under Bates’ withering gaze and found wanting. As with almost everything else in this battle, the British could not adapt their concentrated firepower doctrine to the diffuse circumstances on the ground with multiple battles being waged simultaneously. Air support, in particular, proved entirely inadequate. Moreover, infantry firepower at the local level favoured the Germans, especially in machine-guns and mortars, and they had armour on the scene whereas the British had to wait and hope for theirs to turn up. Bates concludes with the Allied whitewash for their defeat, their failure to plan for victory, even if that was possible, and, ultimately, that the Germans beat them in what was their final victory of the war.
Bates builds a strong argument in favour of his thesis for The Last German Victory. That is unsurprising given it was a big part of his graduate studies. That perhaps makes his book a bit academic in style, and you can trace the dissertation structure he uses. Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly readable book, helped by the numerous case studies, and Bates has given students of Operation Market Garden much to think about. That raises the question, though: is his thesis correct? It certainly makes sense, and undoubtedly, we should look on the campaign as a German victory rather than an Allied defeat, but it still seems that the Allies could have won if certain factors had gone their way. But then isn’t that why we keep reading books on this fascinating battle?