A Bridge Too Far
By Cornelius Ryan
“Fifty miles south [of Arnhem], in towns and villages close to the Belgian border, the Dutch were jubilant. They watched incredulously as the shattered remnants of Hitler’s armies in norther France and Belgium streamed past their windows. The collapse seemed infectious; besides military units, thousands of German civilians and Dutch Nazis were pulling out. And for these fleeing forces all roads seemed to lead to the German border.
“Because the withdrawal began so slowly — a trickle of staff cars and vehicles crossing the Belgian frontier — few Dutch could tell exactly when it had started. Some believed the retreat began on September 2; others, the third. But by the fourth, the movement of the Germans and their followers had assumed the characteristics of a rout, a frenzied exodus that reached its peak on September 5, a day later to be known in Dutch history as Dolle Dinsdag, ‘Mad Tuesday.’
“Panic and disorganization seemed to characterize the German flight. Every kind of conveyance was in use. Thronging the roads from the Belgian border north to Arnhem and beyond were tracks, buses, staff cars, half-track vehicles, armored cars, horse-drawn farm carts and civilian automobiles running on charcoal or wood. Everywhere throughout the disorderly convoys were swarms of tired, dusty soldiers on hastily commandeered bicycles.” – Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far
On the morning of Sept. 17, 1944, taking off from 24 airfields in southeast England in what was “the greatest armada of troop-carrying aircraft ever assembled for a single battle,” the leading elements of three Allied airborne divisions roared aloft. The massive aerial fleet set a course for their designated drop zones in Nazi-occupied Holland. Aboard this first of three lifts, men from two U.S. airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, along with the British First Airborne Division, anxiously waited for the order to step out into the Dutch sky in a daring and unprecedented daylight parachute and glider landing. Their mission, to capture (“with thunderclap surprise”) a series of bridges that spanned the Albert Canal, the Waal River, and the last river between the advancing Allied forces and Germany: the mighty Rhine.
On the Belgian-Dutch border, the tankers, soldiers, artillerymen, engineers, and vehicle drivers of Gen. Brian Horrocks’ British XXX Corps also awaited the appearance of the southern group of airborne “skytrains” and the scheduled H-Hour of 2:35 PM. Then an artillery barrage would precede the start of an armored dash along a single highway leading from the Dutch border to the city of Arnhem on the Lower Rhine – 64 miles behind enemy lines.
The ground forces had a single objective: to link up with the airborne divisions and secure the bridges, thereby allowing the British Second Army to outflank the Germans’ fixed defenses along the so-called West Wall and end the war before Chrisrmas
Surprisingly, Operation Market-Garden (Market being the airborne element, Garden designating XXX Corps) was conceived by one of the Allies’ most cautious generals: Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the commander of the 21st Army Group. Popular with the British public and his troops, “Monty” was a skilled organizer and a master of the “set-piece battle.” But he was also meticulous in his preparations for campaigns, single-minded, ambitious, and overconfident to the point of arrogance.
Above all, Montgomery wanted to be in operational command of the entire Allied ground force, including the predominant American armies. If Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allies’ Supreme Commander, gave him free rein, Montgomery had a scheme to win the European war: he would form a powerful mass of troops and vehicles to make a “single thrust” intended to pierce the German front lines and drive across the Rhine, capture the industrial cities of the Ruhr valley, and march to Berlin.
Eisenhower and the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff knew this was politically unfeasible and refused to give Montgomery command of the Allied ground armies. However, the Supreme Commander, eager to use the airborne forces in a strategically important operation, approved Monty’s plan for Operation Market-Garden.
A Bridge Too Far, first published in 1974, was Cornelius Ryan’s third and final major book on the final battles of World War II. It chronicles the nine-day long Battle of Arnhem through the stories of the soldiers and civilians caught up in the chaos and horror of battle. Of the three books in “the World War II Trilogy (which includes 1959’s The Longest Day and 1966’s The Last Battle), it’s the most complex and, in some ways, the most fascinating book.
The complexity of A Bridge Too Far mirrors its topic. Even though on the map the plan looks childishly simple, it was fiendishly complex. Ideally, the 35,000 parachutists and glider-borne infantry should all have dropped on the first day. However, there were not enough transport aircraft available, so the drop of the Market forces was divided into three lifts over three consecutive days. Most of the gliders and troop transports had to arrive safely. Even more critically, the weather had to be good enough for the delicate and complicated time schedule of reinforcement and resupply drops to hold.
On the ground, there were more variables. All the bridges had to be taken intact. The advance of the ground forces had to be fast; XXX Corps had to reach Arnhem, Market-Garden’s ultimate objective less than four days to relieve the airborne troops before the Germans reorganized and counterattacked. Finally, German forces in Holland had to be taken by total surprise.
Readers who have seen Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film adaptation of A Bridge Too Far narrative are aware that Market-Garden was a military operation jinxed by Murphy’s Law; everything that could go wrong went wrong.
Gliders slipped out of their tow lines or broke apart in mid-flight. Planes aborted due to engine failure or ran into flak. German defenders on the front facing XXX Corps proved to be tougher than expected. The bridge at Son, in the 101st Airborne’s sector, was blown up by its defenders. The British paratroopers’ radios did not work properly, and most of the gliders lost in transit were Arnhem-bound.
Worse, British intelligence, ignoring reports from the Dutch underground, failed to note the presence of vast German reinforcements in the Market-Garden area, including the two battered armored divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps.
Though hardly amounting to even a full armored division’s worth of tanks and supporting infantry, the presence of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions would spell certain doom for the lightly armed British and Polish paratroopers in the critical Arnhem bridge area.
I have read this book several times over the past 40 years. I have also seen the movie based on it often. Yet I’m still amazed at how Ryan, who battled a deadly ocancer when he wrote A Bridge Too Far, captures all the emotions and drama of one of World War II’s fiercest battles. While I believe that the cover blurb (“The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II”) is marketing hyperbole, the Battle of Arnhem was a decisive engagement. It gave the Germans a significant victory at a time when they were recovering from the battles for France and Belgium and dashing the Allies’ hopes for an early victory before winter set in.
Beginning with Part One: The Retreat and concluding with Part Five: Der Hexenkessel (The Witches’ Cauldron), A Bridge Too Far is a gripping, well-written account that leaves the reader breathless as the largest airborne operation ever mounted, launched with so much optimism on a fall Sunday morning, comes to a sobering conclusion.
- Paperback: 672 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (May 1, 1995)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 8171676367
- ISBN-13: 978-8171676361