Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book Review 333: Pegasus Bridge

PEGASUS BRIDGE: June 6, 1944, by Stephen E. Ambrose. 199 pages, illustrated. Simon and Schuster paperback, $14

The story of the British Airborne’s coup de main on the left flank of the Normandy invasion is an old one, but it has its relevance for events, or would-be events, today.

The seizure of the bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal succeeded, as such bold strokes so seldom do. The attempt to rescue American hostage James Foley this month, foiled by the simple fact of moving the target, is usual.

But the British stroke did not deserve to succeed. As author Stephen Ambrose shows but fails to apprehend, the stroke failed except that Hitler’s orders controlling panzers from Germany prevented the local commander from crushing the small Pegasus force. He had more than enough time and muscle to do it.

Would that have ruined the British portion of the invasion? Who can say? It would have made it more difficult.

This was Ambrose’s first book, before he became a sort of figurehead for assembly-line war narratives, and like the British soldiers, he took plenty of time --  two years for the paras, 20 for Ambrose. (His reputation for truthfulness, challenged later when he became rich and famous, is not improved by his claim in "Pegasus Bridge" to have examined 2 million documents, which works out to 300 a day non-stop.) This allowed him to interview some of the veterans in depth, making the narrative of the attack clear and convincing.

The wrap-up is much less persuasive. He faults the British Army for expending its highly trained force as ordinary infantry -- a cogent point and another mark against the shredded reputation of Montgomery, who, as we now see, was all show and very little go. But he goes way beyond probability when he speculates that the same force, if available, could have repeated its success at Arnhem, thus (perhaps) turning that defeat into a victory.

First, at Arnhem the invaders would not have had the detailed intelligence they had in June. Second, they would have had at most weeks, not years to train. Third, at Arnhem as at Caen, the paras would have landed in the lap of skilled, veteran armored forces, and at Arnhem those tanks would not have been on a leash.

It might have worked, but the odds would have been very long, and anyway, Montgomery made the same mistake as that other overblown fool MacArthur that got the US 8th Army destroyed in Korea: extending a force on a single line of supply far into hostile territory with no prospect of flank support.

It might be as well, if you read this book, to stop at the end of Chapter 9.

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