“Many historians, with an ‘if only’ approach to the British defeat, have focused so much on different aspects of Operation Market Garden which went wrong that they have tended to overlook the central element. It was quite simply a very bad plan right from the start and right from the top. Every other problem stemmed from that.”― Antony Beevor, Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944
Last night I played a session of Crusade in Europe to pass the time. I couldn’t choose anything to watch, and the Caregiver and her boyfriend were using the big TV in the Florida room, which for various reasons is my preferred place to watch anything. The lighting in my room is adequate for most purposes, but it sucks for reading, so it was either play a computer game or watch something on my decent but smallish 4K UHD TV set.
I have been playing Crusade in Europe since I purchased the Atari reissue of the 1985 DOS game last week. Before that, I had played it since 2018 on my browser via “abandonware” sites where many ancient – at least in computer terms – games languish. And before that, I had played Crusade on my Apple II from 1988 until that computer (my first) couldn’t be used because the monitor gave up the ghost sometime in the late 1990s.
I usually play the first scenario – The Battle for Normandy – and its five variants because D-Day and the Normandy campaign are what got me interested in World War II originally. It’s the campaign that cracked Hitler’s vaunted Atlantikwall, and it’s the focal setting for many books, movies, and TV shows, including The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers.
However, the game does include four other scenarios, including the Crusade: The Battle for France grand campaign, and it’s not a bad idea to choose one of them instead of sticking to the D-Day centric battle simulations. Plus, it’s fun to challenge yourself in missions that may not necessarily go your way.
“It’s All a Question of Bridges….”
Operation Market-Garden: “A Bridge Too Far” is the third scenario in the chronology of Crusade in Europe. Its subtitle is a callback to both Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 non-fiction book and the 1977 film adaptation directed by Richard Attenborough. Its main scenario is based on the historical airborne assault on Nazi-occupied Holland by the First Allied Airborne Army (Market) and the British Second Army, spearheaded by the British XXX Corps (Garden).
Market-Garden was the brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, who had held various commands since the start of World War II and was Britain’s most popular general for defeating Germany’s dashing General (later Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel (aka The Desert Fox) at the Battle of Alamein in the fall of 1942.
Monty, as he was known to both his admirers and critics, was a polarizing figure during his lifetime, and he remains one in the 21st Century. He has a solid reputation as a trainer and motivator of British citizen soldiers. The “Tommies” who served under his various commands in France, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Northwest Europe loved him because he gave them confidence in themselves, used as much artillery and air support as possible to overwhelm the enemy, and preferred to plan and execute set-piece battles that didn’t leave much room for improvisation.
He was also a prickly, egotistic, and undiplomatic man who was difficult to get along with. He also believed that he was better suited to serve as the Allied Land Forces Commander, a position that he often “suggested” for himself as he thought that General Dwight D.” Ike” Eisenhower, an American, lacked the strategic sagacity to personally command the Allied Expeditionary Force, which Eisenhower started doing – per the Operation Overlord plan approved by the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff many months before the invasion began.
Many in the Allied command considered Montgomery to be arrogant and self-infatuated, while he viewed himself as the world’s greatest military mind. He resented that Eisenhower was his superior, openly expressing disdain and privately belittling his generalship. Eisenhower displayed heroic patience in his dealings with Monty, but still came close to sacking him. Eisenhower was particularly frustrated with Montgomery’s refusal to make a move unless ensured that a vast superiority in troops and weapons guaranteed victory and maintained his reputation.“President Eisenhower’s Top 5 Most Disliked Contemporaries” – Eisenhower National Historic Site
Market-Garden was Montgomery’s latest gambit to win a quick victory on the Western Front and end the war before Christmas 1944 – and, incidentally, win personal glory as the general who achieved this feat. Without a doubt, Monty thought the Allied cause would benefit if Hitler’s armies surrendered well before the Soviets reached the German frontiers in the east. But I don’t doubt that he also wanted to go down in history as Britain’s greatest battlefield commander – and prove that his generalship was better than Ike’s.
I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of Monty’s “narrow front” strategy versus Ike’s “broad front” strategy. This post is getting long as it is, and it’s too complex to describe in brief. What I will say is that Montgomery deduced that if he convinced Eisenhower to let him use the First Allied Airborne Army, a newly-created formation that placed American, British, Canadian, and Polish paratroopers under one headquarters, in a stunning and successful operation in the British sector, Monty would somehow get his narrow front approach adopted purely by default.
To quickly describe Operation Market-Garden, here are some quotes from William Goldman’s screenplay for A Bridge Too Far:
Lt. Gen. Horrocks: [briefing his XXX Corps officers on Operation Market Garden] Gentlemen, this is a story that you shall tell your grandchildren, and mightily bored they’ll be. [the officers laugh] The plan is called “Operation Market Garden”. “Market” is the airborne element, and “Garden”, the ground forces. That’s us. [points to a map behind him of Holland, showing the positions of the Allied forces, and the path the Corps will take] Now, this is our position on the Belgian border, here. Tomorrow, three airborne divisions will begin landing in Holland. 35,000 men taking off from 24 airfields in troop-carrying planes or towed in gliders. The American 101st, here, around Eindhoven, the American 82nd, here, south of Nijmegen, and our own 1st airborne boys, and a Polish brigade, here, at Arnhem, 64 miles behind enemy lines. Now, their job is to take and hold all the bridges in these three areas. Our job is to punch a hole through the German front line, here, and then drive like hell up this road, linking up with each airborne division on the way. Speed is the vital factor. The plan is to reach Eindhoven in two to three hours, and Arnhem in two to three days. That, gentlemen, is the prize – the bridge over the Rhine, the last bridge between us and Germany
Capt. Arie D. “Harry” Bestebreurtje: Why the emergency meeting?
Brig. Gen. Gavin: Just keeping me abreast of the little changes.
Capt. Arie D. “Harry” Bestebreurtje: How big are the little changes?
Brig. Gen. Gavin: I’ll answer with typical British understatement: gigantic. For example, they can’t get us all in at once. Too many men, too much equipment, not enough planes. It’s gonna take three days to get the men into Arnhem, Poles and the British.
Capt. Arie D. “Harry” Bestebreurtje: Well, what about us?
Brig. Gen. Gavin: We’ll be all right. Aside from the fact that we’re parachuting in daylight, we have nothing to worry about.
Capt. Arie D. “Harry” Bestebreurtje: Daylight? Has it ever been tried before?
Brig. Gen. Gavin: Not in a major drop.
Capt. Arie D. “Harry” Bestebreurtje: You think there might be a reason for that?
Brig. Gen. Gavin: Let’s hope not.
Capt. Arie D. “Harry” Bestebreurtje: What do you think?
Brig. Gen. Gavin: It’ll be all right. It’s a no-moon period anyway. We have to go in daylight. It doesn’t matter. Just so they get us over the target area. Half a mile away, three quarters of a mile, I’ll settle for that–
Capt. Arie D. “Harry” Bestebreurtje: I don’t want to hear anything else. Is there anything else?
An Unexpected Victory
If you are familiar with how the real-life operation turned out – spoiler alert: the Allies captured all of the bridges except the one at Arnhem, and the British and Polish paratroopers that tried to capture it suffered heavy casualties, thus handing the Germans one last victory in World War II – you know that things did not go the way Monty expected. (To his dying day in 1976, Montgomery insisted that his plan would have worked had he gotten all the support he wanted, and that “Market-Garden was 90% successful.”)
Of course, one of the reasons why wargames are popular is that they allow a player to replay famous battles and see if he – or she – can change the historical outcome by using different strategies and finding fresh solutions to the dilemmas faced by generals such as Monty, Ike, or Patton.
Now, even though Crusade in Europe is a user-friendly command-level wargame that does not get into mind-numbing technical details, it is still a serious attempt to be a historically accurate game. The order of battle on both sides is based on the roster of units that were actually fielded in the game’s chronology, so it’s not like a player can go, “Hmm. In Market-Garden the Allies only had three full airborne divisions and a brigade for the airborne drop. Let’s use all of the ones assigned to the First Allied Airborne Army, including the U.S. 17th Airborne and the British 6th!”
Nope. You can’t do that. In Crusade in Europe’s historical scenarios, you get what the Allied commanders had available to them during certain battles. The same goes for the Germans if you want to play them, too.
Because you have the option of changing specific tactical situations once the battle starts, and because the game does randomize background stuff such as weather and the AI’s reaction to your moves, Crusade in Europe gives you at least a chance to change history. It is hard because Market-Garden’s Achilles heel is the fact that the only way to win even a Slight Victory is to capture all the bridges along a single highway, repel German counterattacks on both flanks of that slender route, and link your armored and infantry divisions along the Eindhoven-Nijmegen-Arnhem Road, while at the same time making sure that all your units stay in supply.
Last night, I somehow managed to eke out a Slight Victory (yes, there are varying levels of victory, ranking from Slight to Total, depending on how many Victory Point (VP) locations the winner holds, the difference between your casualties and the enemy’s, and the VP value of the units both sides lose.
Don’t worry, I am not going to regale you with a blow-by-blow account of How I Achieved the Victory that Eluded Montgomery; I did not take notes, and I do not know how to record game sessions on a computer. I do recall that even though I set the game balance on Fair (neither side had an advantage), I had better weather than the Allies had in September 1944, and the enemy AI made several mistakes that I took advantage of.
The one tactic that I remember using was to attack the Germans’ II SS Panzer Corps headquarters up near Arnhem. That made it difficult for the two German panzer divisions – which, as in the real battle, were understrength and only defeated the British airborne because the “paras” had no tanks – to be in supply, and even though they were never so weakened that they’d have to surrender to the Allies, those two German divisions simply could not destroy my British 1st Airborne before the “Garden” force arrived at Arnhem.
As I wrote last night on my Facebook page:
Tonight – since I really don’t do anything exciting here – I decided to try Operation Market-Garden: “A Bridge Too Far.”
I thought the computer would beat me since in real life the Allies did not gain a victory in Market-Garden. When I played the game regularly, sometimes I won, but most of the time I lost.
Well, tonight I can honestly say…I did what Montgomery could not do in 1944.
Yep. It felt good to win – even if it was only a narrow victory.