So its 2014 (in case it had passed you by….) which means there are some pretty significant anniversaries coming up in the realm of military history. I’d hope that everyone is aware that it’s one hundred years since the start of the Great War, also known as the First World War. This war saw a whole generation of young men across Europe and beyond just disappear. Arguably this war was just the opening phase in a whole way of warfare that would dominate the rest of the century. This wasn’t just another colonial conflict such as the Boer War, this was a full on ruck between the most advanced and industrialised nations on the planet. Never before had the world seen warfare on such a scale and intensity. It saw the end of the dominance of offensive warfare driven by esprit de corps or the elan of the infantry arms to be replaced by the superiority of the defence driven by machine guns and supported by a system of fortifications dug all the way to the Belgian coast. This was itself replaced by the re-emergence of armour on the battlefield in the form of the first tanks supported by a change in infantry tactics. The world would never be the same again after this terrible period of history.
However let us not forget that 30 years later another world changing event would take place. On June 6th 1944 Operation Overlord commenced, otherwise known as D-Day most famously known as the invasion of Normandy. This was the start of the second front against Nazi Germany and accelerated the end of that regime. Thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen poured into occupied France and for those of us who were not there the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan provide a harrowing view of what it must have been like. Seventy years since the invasion…..seventy years since Operation Market Garden. The lay person could be forgiven for not having a clue what Operation Market Garden was all about, could be forgiven for not knowing it was an ambitious attempt to end the war by the Christmas of 1944. They could be forgiven for not knowing it was the largest airborne operation in history (Operation Varsity (the crossing of the Rhine) in 1945 was the largest airborne operation to be conducted in a single day, Market Garden took place over several days had involved a greater number of airborne forces). For anyone who has seen the film A Bridge Too Far you will know what a tragic end Market Garden suffered.
There were lots of other operations in this period of the Second World War. We often forget about the overwhelming contribution made by Soviet forces on the eastern front and the fact that they had been fighting constantly since 1941. On the western front there were other notable operations such as Operation Goodwood, Operation Cobra (attempts to breakout of the Normandy countryside) and Operation Dragoon (the allied invasion of southern France).
However from a personal point of view Overlord and Market Garden have a much greater resonance. I grew up watching the Second World be reenacted on Sunday afternoons with my Dad, through the eyes of John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Clint Eastwood and many others. The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far had a massive impact on me, the sheer scale of what they were trying to recreate gripped me as a child and inspired my curiosity as a historian as I grew up. I guess the First World War didn’t lend itself to the cinema in the same way and therefore didn’t have the same chance to grip me. Not to mention I am a big geek at heart and massed armour and Spitfires beat trench warfare and Sopwith Camels in the mind of a young boy. The childlike innocence and wonder over the heroism and splendour of a well crafted action film (the nuances were lost on this small boy) soon gave way through age and study to a greater appreciation of the realities of the situation. Operation Market Garden became something of a special interest project for me as I went through my teen years.
Whats the point of this post? Well as we approach each of the anniversaries I will write another post dedicated to Operation Overlord, the start of The Great War and Operation Market Garden. Hopefully these will help to inform you dear reader of things you didn’t know and will serve to keep the significance of these events alive in our collective memory for a little longer.
Lest We Forget.