Secrets and Tragedy: Remembering Arnhem

Sky Warriors: British Airborne Forces in the Second World War

Saul David, published by William Collins 2024, pp. 552

The Traitor of Arnhem: WWII’S Greatest Betrayal and the Moment that Changed History Forever

Robert Verkaik, published by Headline Welbeck 2024 pp.400

Eighty years ago, thousands of Allied paratroopers jumped out of aircraft and gliders into the Arnhem region on the Dutch-German border. The operation was the brainchild of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery who believed that holding the bridges in this area — some 60 miles from the British front line — would allow Allied tanks to advance, cross the Rhine and deal Hitler a lethal blow. Many British officers were ‘gung-ho’ and thought that they would be in Berlin by Christmas 1944. 

Instead Operation Market Garden proved to be an unmitigated disaster with thousands killed, wounded and captured including many Jews serving in the forces. Britain’s most experienced airborne formation was all but eliminated. It prolonged the war by six months and allowed the death marches to bring Jews into the shrinking Reich where they died like flies, waiting for salvation. Anne Frank was deported on the last transport from Westerbork on the very day that Montgomery sat down to formulate his plan. The failure produced mass starvation in Holland during ‘the hungry winter’ of 1944-5 when 18,000 died. 

These two excellent books piece together this tragedy. The first by the military historian, Saul David, describes the campaign and dissects the decision making. The Nazis were unexpectedly lying in wait, inflicted huge causalities and forced a British retreat. Were the Panzer commanders tipped off or was it just a litany of strategic errors? 

The second book by Robert Verkaik suggests a remarkable answer through considerable research to this vexed question. He believes that it was the ‘Fourth Man’ of the Cambridge Soviet spy ring, Anthony Blunt, who informed the Germans that British and Polish paratroopers were coming. Verkaik’s account of Blunt’s additional treachery is not the stuff of mindless conspiracy theorists.

The fall of France and the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 persuaded Churchill to establish the Parachutist regiment. David describes the Bruneval raid on the French coast in 1942 when 120 paras were piped aboard 12 Whitley bombers to the sound of bagpipes. German Jew, Peter Nagel, who had escaped to Leicester from Berlin in the mid-1930s, served as the interpreter to this mission. Several chapters in Saul David’s book examine the unblemished role of the Paras in various theatres of war. The failure at Arnhem was therefore the black mark on their record. The parachutists did not ‘jump the Rhine’ until March 1945 in their last airborne operation.

British officers shelved intelligence reports that there had been a German military build-up at Arnhem. Five low-level aerial photographs, taken by a British reconnaissance aircraft were dismissed and German tanks seen thought to not be serviceable. The esteemed historian, Anthony Beevor, believes that Montgomery’s plan was a non-starter from the outset while the Allied Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower was decidedly lukewarm about its prospects. Was the catastrophe due to Montgomery’s ‘arrogant determination to lead the charge’ and be at the head of the triumphalist entry into Berlin?

These may have been factors in this defeat but it is the allegation that Anthony Blunt had prepared the Nazis beforehand that is shocking — after all Blunt was a spy for the Soviets, not the Germans. 

Blunt was one of the notorious five, Guy Burgess, Donald McLean, Kim Philby and John Cairncross who sold their collective soul to Stalin during the 1930s in a spirit of delusional idealism and principled anti-fascism.  Numerous books have been written about these spies and they continue to fascinate decades after their defection to the USSR. Burgess and McLean absconded in 1951 while Philby escaped in 1963. They are usually characterised in terms of being upper-class, gay or intellectually brilliant. What is often lost in such accounts is that they coexisted with the lost world of Jewish Communism.  

Blunt’s handler in London was the Comintern agent, Arnold Deutsch, who posed as an observant Jew. Deutsch had been in Palestine and operated in several European capitals. He moved to London and his cover was to carry out research in psychology at University College London. Deutsch lived in Lawn Road in Hampstead where he held soirèes for an interested intelligentsia. A few doors away, another Jewish agent, Bridget Lewis aka Brigitte Kuczynski, was a neighbour. Many of these Jewish Communist émigrés came from central Europe. Edith Tudor-Hart (née Suschitzky) was born in Vienna. Philby’s first wife was Litzi Friedmann. 

Blunt was an aspiring Oxford don, a multi-lingual polymath. In the early 1930s, he wrote reviews and columns for the right wing weekly, the Spectator. Blunt was introduced to Deutsch in November 1937. 

The Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 and Stalin’s about turn caused Philby no qualms despite the looming destruction of Polish Jews. A sad necessity, it was deemed, in the greater cause of international revolution. Blunt was probably not so convinced but went along with this betrayal of the West and the Jews. 

Verkaik mentions two spies who passed information about the Allied assault in 1944 to the Nazis. One was Christiaan Lindemans, code name ‘King Kong’ and the other, the mysterious ‘Josephine’. Blunt’s position at the heart of British intelligence meant he was one of the few in ‘the know’ about British agents passing disinformation to the Nazis, causing them to move forces to wrong locations. However after D-Day, ‘Josephine’ began to pass accurate information to the Nazis instead.  

Yet Lindemans, a resistance fighter against the Nazis, was discovered to be a Soviet spy — and not a German one. Were Lindemans and ‘Josephine’ suddenly ordered by Stalin to pass real information to the Nazis to undermine the Allied advance into Germany? Verkaik’s explanation is that Stalin wanted the Red Army to reach Berlin before the Allies so he could claim eastern Germany and eastern Europe for communism. Verkaik believes that ‘Josephine’ was Blunt, acting on Stalin’s orders. 

At the same time as the Arnhem operation, Stalin halted the Red Army on the outskirts of Warsaw. It allowed the Nazis to crush the anti-Communist Polish Uprising, killing 16,000 members of the Polish resistance and up to 200,000 civilians. All this fits a pattern of Soviet ruthlessness. 

The indomitable Martin Sugarman, the AJEX archivist, has compiled a record of the many Jews who fought and died at Arnhem. Many went into battle under assumed names and are buried at the cemetery at Oosterbeek. In many cases, Sugarman has uncovered their true identity and ensured that a Star of David is engraved on their tombstone and not a cross. 

Both David and Verveik have done a great service by recalling the tragedy of ‘a bridge too far’ at Arnhem. For those who perished through kudos, incompetence or indeed treachery, its partly thanks to both men that ‘at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.’ 

Jewish Chronicle 17 May 2024

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