I drove my car over the Rhine (Rijn in Dutch) river at Arnhem today. No big deal, hundreds of cars go over the bridge daily, but I went over it with a sense of history. This bridge is the famous “Bridge Too Far.”
You probably know that name, but may be fuzzy on the details. Here’s a little history. The Allies invaded Europe at Normandy in June, 1944. They got bogged down in France and Belgium by the end of the summer. Anxious to end the war by Christmas, the British General Bernard Law Montgomery devised a plan to attack Germany from the North through Holland. This plan became known as “Operation Market Garden,” and became the biggest Allied disaster of the war. The plan called for the largest deployment of airborne troops in history. The paratroopers jumped more or less on a line from Eindhoven to Nijmegen to Arnhem. Because Holland is an endless series of rivers and canals, these forces were supposed to capture several bridges along the way and hold them while armored divisions raced northwards out of Belgium and then massed together to pour into Germany. But the intelligence was wrong – the Germans had much stronger forces than the Allies imagined, the fighting was intense, the armored divisions were supposed to travel north up one highway and some of the bridges they were supposed to hold had already been destroyed. The Allies never fully got control of that highway. The paratroopers had been sent with two-day supplies of food and ammunition, and their relief never reached them.
The fighting was especially intense around Arnhem. British and Polish forces landed there and took the northern end of the bridge I crossed today. It was the furthest bridge in the plan, and they held it for several days despite brutal opposition. They were surrounded, and about one week after they jumped in had to retreat out of Arnhem. A bit over 2000 troops were able to escape by cover of night. 17,000 others were killed in Arnhem.
Arnhem was more or less destroyed. Looking today, I noticed that, with the exception of a magnificent church, every building around the bridge was recent. The Dutch Resistance, thinking liberation was at hand, came out of hiding and were decimated. The winter of 1944-45 became the worst winter in Dutch history – it is called “The Hunger Winter” here, and huge numbers of people starved to death.
There is a museum outside of Arnhem where the British headquarters was, and one of the most moving things I saw today was a monument given jointly by the UK and Poland to the people of Arnhem in September, 1994, on the 50th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden. I’m paraphrasing, but it more or less said “You expected liberation when we came, but instead we brought destruction and devastation to you. You have never blamed us, and we will never forget that.” I contrasted that honest statement to a quote I saw from General Montgomery inside the museum. He said, “Operation Market Garden was 90% successful.”
What a perverse way of looking at one’s own colossal mistakes that cost tens of thousands of lives.
It left me thinking that there is a gap between making a true statement and telling the truth. Monty could probably defend that statement statistically, that 90% of what was supposed to happen did in fact happen. But it was a horrible failure. The death toll of Operation Market Garden is one thing, but you also have to add the death toll of the Battle of the Bulge, the German counter-attack through Belgium that Christmas to the total cost of Market Garden. Monty was a small man with a huge ego, and unable to admit how wrong he was.
Why can’t some leaders admit mistakes?
Among the endless tragedies of Market Garden is that the Polish Commander objected to the plan from the start. He expressed his reservations that his men were supposed to be part of a surprise attack, but would be dropped some 10 miles from their target because the British felt the area around the bridge too marshy to jump into. The Polish Commander asked, “What could be surprising about landing ten miles away from where you want to go?” But in the military chain of command, after one expresses his reservations, he obeys orders. The soldiers under his command were decimated.
At what point is it okay to say, “I’m not going to follow. I am not going to lead others to their destruction”?
I have seen leadership bestowed on whoever has the biggest ego and is most aggressive, loudest, and most intimidating. But those sort of leaders never last, do they?
It was sobering to visit the area around Arnhem and think of all that happened there a generation ago. One wonders what we have learned from disasters like Operation Market Garden.