Any history of Operation Market-Garden, the September 1944 Allied airborne assault behind German lines has two strikes against it—masterful accounts by Cornelius Ryan and Martin Middlebrook.
Fortunately, readers of this book will quickly discover that military historian Irwin (The Jedburghs: The Secret History of the Allied Special Forces, France 1944, 2005) uses the operation as background. Mostly, this is the story of small, highly trained three-man bands who accompanied the assault to organize Dutch resistance forces and then lead them in a campaign of sabotage and intelligence gathering. The airborne assault failed catastrophically, and Irwin follows the fortunes of several bands who remained behind or found themselves caught up in the debacle. The author concentrates on two Americans. Lt. Harvey Todd, captured after fighting with the British, underwent a miserable seven-month tour of German POW camps before, starved and injured, he escaped and reached Allied lines as the Reich collapsed in spring 1945. Maj. John Olmsted’s group avoided the fighting and set up an extensive resistance organization that gathered intelligence for the Allies. In November 1944, carrying a knapsack full of intelligence papers, he joined a group of more than 100 Allied soldiers and airmen attempting to escape to Allied lines. It was a fiasco; only a few succeeded, but Olmsted, minus his knapsack, was among them. Both men kept diaries and, being intelligence agents, underwent extensive debriefing, so the fact that their adventures were unrelated and inflicted little damage on the Nazis takes a backseat to the mass of juicy, detailed and unfamiliar material ably provided by Irwin.
Massive World War II fireworks and individual heroism that accomplished little but makes for an entertaining read.