April 3, 2006

Watership Down author participated in "A Bridge Too Far" battle of WWII

The talking rabbit epic Watership Down by Richard Adams is one of the biggest bestseller novels of all time. To me, its main theme seems pretty obvious: the moral and functional superiority during war of English culture. Watership Down expounds the notion often attributed to the Duke of Wellington (who is cited more than once in the book) that "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton." The book is a hymn to improvised teamwork in the English public school tradition: Hazel, the Head Rabbit, is modest and self-sacrificing and his followers are loyal yet free to show initiative.

(By the way, although Watership Down is often praised for the natural history accuracy of its portrayal of rabbits, in my limited experience the male-male cooperation shown by Hazel's band is wildly anomalous. We own two neutered male bunnies, one for each son, and, believe me when I tell you this, nobody in Sicily hates anybody as much as these two cute little balls of fluff hate each other. We have to keep them locked up in separate parts of the house to prevent them from ripping each other's guts out with their strong hind claws. Denied a chance to kill each other, they've kept up a long cold war of pooping in front of each other's doors as a way of asserting the full extent of their territories. One rabbit is a pretty good pet, but two male rabbits, unless you can get them to bond together as infants, is a disaster.)

I wasn't surprised to hear from a reader that Captain Richard Adams fought in the Battle of Arnhem of September 1944, the glorious disaster of the book and movie "A Bridge Too Far," in which thousands of British and American paratroopers and glider-borne troops were dropped up to 60 miles behind German lines to seize bridges across the Rhine and end the war by Christmas, 1944. Adams was in the 1st Airborne Division which was dropped 8 miles behind the crucial bridge at Arnhem, the bridge too far. Unfortunately, by a fluke, two elite German SS Panzer Divisions happened to be stationed between the lightly armed infantry and their goal. They succeed in seizing and holding the northern end of the bridge pr several days but the main Allied army couldn't penetrate to the southern end.

Only 15% of the division, including Adams, escaped across the Rhine and then through 60 miles of German-occupied territory My reader writes:

"Parachuting behind enemy lines was the easy part. Getting back to his own lines was the hard part. He lived the rabbit story for about a week and never forgot it, apparently."

In 2004, the 84-year-old Adams attended the 60th anniversary commemoration of Operation Market Garden.

Adams has said, "In a sense.... the book is about my war. I must confess that it was the high point of my life, and the rest has been little more than an aftermath."

Update 2014: I think this post overstates Adams participation in the fighting. I don't think he ever claimed to be one of the paratroopers. I think he has said that he was an officer behind the front lines in a supply job, and Watership Down is based on the stories of friends who made the jump.

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