arnhem book review

Arnhem The Fight to Sustain

By Author Frank Steer

“Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.” This quote is attributed to General Omar Bradley, although it is not verified he ever said it. Regardless, the quote highlights the importance of professional, flexible and responsive logistics support during combat operations. Franks Steer’s Arnhem: The Fight to Sustain illustrates that this is particularly true when it comes to airborne operations. Steer convincingly establishes that the logistics elements of the British 1st Airborne Division strove mightily to fulfill their role during the jump into Holland in September of 1944.

The Army Catering Corps, Royal Army Service Corps & Royal Army Ordnance Corps (abbreviated as ACC, RASC and RAOC throughout this review) do not receive much consideration in the books and discussions regarding Operation Market Garden. When one considers the vast expenditure of effort to merely get the British 1st Airborne Division into combat, and then the prodigious amount of food, water and ammunition expended in combat that needed to be replaced, the pivotal role played by these sustainers becomes readily apparent.

The book begins with a discussion how services and support organized to support the British Army. The AAC, formed in 1941 was responsible for the feeding of all Army units. The RASC has the mission of RASC packing and delivering stores by parachute and glider; parachutists typically jumped into combat with 2-3 days of supply and would quickly require refurbishment, would act as normal resupply elements once on the ground. Some aerial dispatchers trained as parachutists but not all. Additional responsibility for the supply areas of supply of food, water, fuel and materials such as clothing. Lastly, the RAOC focused on weapons, armored vehicles and other military equipment, ammunition and clothing and certain minor functions such as laundry, mobile baths and photography.

Arnhem: The Fight to Sustain explains out that logistics for airborne operations consisted of 3 main components:

  1. Departure airfield operations, which consist of transporting the troops to the airfields at which they would embark on aircraft for the jump and all the associated factors of housing, feeding arming and equipping that would take place prior to take-off.
  2. Aerial Resupply of the airborne forces once the operation commenced and the airhead was established. This was designed to be continued for a short, but indeterminate time until the paratroopers made contact with a reinforcing ground echelon and ground resupply could commence.
  3. Overland resupply operations, which continued the provision of material to the fighting troops while evacuating casualties and removing salvaged equipment from the battlefield and generally taking control of the airhead as the combat forces moved on to follow-on objectives.

Once Steer explains the doctrine involved he goes on to discuss the participation of the British First Airborne Division’s logisticians in Operation Market Garden, the jump into Holland in September of 1944.

The purpose of this review isn’t to cover the tactical details of the battle; however a short summary may be useful to readers. The 1st Airborne Division jumped in to seize a bridgehead over the Rhine river at Arnhem as part of a larger operation take and hold river crossings that would allow the British Armored XXX Corps to rapidly advance over 60 miles north from the Belgian Netherlands border and on into Germany. If successful the Allies would outflank the Siegfried Line and trap large concentrations of German forces. Allied leadership hoped that such a rapid advance could accelerate the end of the war, possibly by the end of 1944. Ultimately, the mission failed as the Allies underestimated the number and quality of German defenders, especially around the Arnhem area, and the troops dropped to seize that bridge over the Rhine were forced to surrender after holding out for over a week.

Steer emphasizes that aerial resupply was vital to the paratroopers of the 1st Airborne Division as they were at the far end of the 60 mile corridor that XXX Corps had to traverse. The plan called the ground element to reach Arnhem after 96 hours, which is just about the longest period that paratroopers can hold out with their basic load of supplies and equipment. Factoring losses sustained during the initial assault and subsequent fighting, resupply by air would be necessary to maintain combat power well before 96 hours were up.

Arnhem: The Fight to Sustain clears up a lot of misconceptions about the nature of resupply operations during the fight at Arnhem, many of which appear to stem from the 1977 film, “A Bridge Too Far”, directed by Richard Attenborough. Based on the 1974 Cornelius Ryan book of the same name, it is a dramatic depiction of Market Garden with a lot of big stars playing historical figures, such as Sean Connery playing the CG of the 1st Airborne Division Roy Urqhart. The film is popular, or at least it was, among paratroopers. This reviewer recalls it being used as a training aid during rotations to the Joint Readiness Training Center in the early 90s to illustrate the friction inherent in airborne operations. The film is replete with scenes discussing how supplies are running low and that attempts to resupply by air are failing due to the fact that the German forces have overrun the drop zones. While this is historically true, the undertone is that the logisticians had no idea what was happening on the ground, or the needs of the fighting troops. The movie drives this home when a young British para sacrifices his life to retrieve a resupply bundle that proves to be filled with maroon berets. In reality, the air crews and aerial delivery teams attempted, at great risk to themselves and their aircraft, to deliver as much material as possible. General Urqhart’s own recounting of the aerial resupply effort recalled that:

Hundreds of us saw in the doorway of a blazing Dakota (C-47 cargo plane) refusing to release a pannier until he had found the exact spot (DZ), though the machine was a flaming torch now and he had no hope of escape.

Thus, while a significant amount of material did wind up in German hands as the result of lost dropping zones, the historical record indicates that this was not for a lack of valor or devotion to duty on the part of the aerial dispatchers (aircrew or loadmasters in modern American terms).

Additionally, Steer recounts the stories of the logistics troops who landed by parachute and glider to set up resupply operations in the vicinity of Arnhem. He makes it clear that even supporting troops in that area were involved in direct combat with the defending Germans, allowing the troopers to speak in their own words about the dangers they faced while performing their missions of sustaining the fighting troops. The number of RASC, Catering Corps and RAOC troops killed, wounded and captured, listed in two annexes at the back of the book attest to the high casualties sustained.

The book consists of 172 pages with 8 annexes, and contains 4 maps, along with multiple tables and black & white illustrations. The annexes comprise a highlight of the book. In addition to the discussion of casualties, the annexes cover subject as diverse as the types and tonnages of materials delivered by air during the fighting, the technical specifications of Hamilcar gliders and aerial delivery equipment, and the composition of ration packs issued to the troops. The discussion of tonnages and classes of supply delivered to the fight are particularly interesting, consisting primarily of ammunition and weapons, signals equipment and medical supplies. No berets are listed among the various materials dropped to the troops.

Frank Steer really delivers with this slim volume. Arnhem: The Fight to Sustain is engrossing, informative and focuses on a rarely studied aspect of airborne combat. Highly recommended for readers with an interest in parachute operations in the Second World War.

This book is available at Casemate Publishers, Amazon, and Pen & Sword Books.

Ratings - Overall 85%

Historical Accuracy
Historical Value
Overall Rating