War Classics – A Bridge Too Far

MHM Editor Neil Faulkner recalls one of the great works of military history.

Arnhem is among the most written-about battles of the Second World War. Little wonder: it has everything.

The airdrops – by British 1st Airborne at Arnhem, US 82nd Airborne at Nijmegen, and US 101st Airborne at Eindhoven – amounted to the most ambitious airborne operation in military history. Not only did it involve the largest number of parachute and glider troops ever to take part in a single operation – 35,000 – but it also involved an armoured thrust by Brian Horrocks’ XXX Corps, improvised amphibious assaults across major rivers, a massive air-resupply effort, repeated use of air-to-ground rocket strikes, and ferocious German counterattacks spearheaded by elite SS units.

The weaving together of so many different elements in the Operation Market Garden plan, all within the framework of a strict timetable, is another notable feature of the campaign. So too is the way in which the plan achieved its own momentum, eventually becoming an unstoppable force, even when intelligence emerged that two SS Panzer divisions had arrived at Arnhem.

Here the drama achieves the flavour of Greek tragedy, complete with a Cassandra figure in the form of British intelligence officer Major Brian Urquhart, whose warnings about the tanks in the woods were disregarded. As Cornelius Ryan reports a senior staff officer saying, ‘His views were coloured by nervous exhaustion. He was inclined to be a bit hysterical, no doubt brought on by overwork.’ Urquhart was sent home because he ‘had become such a pain around headquarters on the very eve of the attack’.

Born: 5 June 1920
Died: 23 November 1974
Nationality: Irish-American

In his job as a war correspondent, Cornelius Ryan travelled extensively, including to the Pacific and Palestine, before eventually settling in the United States in the early 1950s, where he became a naturalised citizen. Pictured here in the mid-1960s, he died of cancer in 1974, just months after the publication of A Bridge Too Far, his last and finest book.

An overambitious plan

A pervasive sense of doom then hangs over everything that follows. Even without the Panzer divisions, the risks were high. The British armour was required to advance some 64 miles down a single road on a two-vehicle front. Much of the road was elevated on a high embankment surrounded by soft ground dissected by dykes where tanks could not operate. Backed-up behind the Sherman tanks of the Irish Guards in the van were some 20,000 vehicles. The spearhead was expected to reach Arnhem in two days.

It was this that prompted Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning, Deputy Commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, to say to Montgomery at a military conference on 10 September 1944, ‘Sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far.’

From the inception, everything hinged on nothing going wrong; but in war, things always go wrong, for the enemy – his strength, deployment, intentions, actions, willpower – is a perennial unknown. And the Germans were masters at battlefield improvisation, a feature of their military doctrine since the time of the great Moltke and the wars of 1866 and 1870.

But even the planning was defective. As a colossal combined-arms military operation, the staff work was superlative. But allies on the ground who could have made the difference were sidelined.

The Dutch Resistance was well organised and deeply embedded in local society. It was a fund of first-class intelligence – much of which was ignored – and it had the capacity to lead a popular uprising if only it had been called on to do so and supplied with arms. Countless cities across Occupied Europe – from Athens to Belgrade to Milan to Paris – would be liberated by their own Resistance emerging from the underground. Had the Dutch Resistance entered the battle in Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem, the outcome of Market Garden might have been very different.

Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands recalls everyone being ‘exceptionally polite’ but taking no notice. ‘The general impression among my staff was that the British considered us a bunch of idiots for daring to question their military tactics… I was saying things that… were turning out to be true – and the average Englishman doesn’t like being told by a bloody foreigner that he’s wrong.’

Had it been simply a shambles, however, there would have been no drama. The jeopardy, the race against time, the succession of accidents and near misses, the extraordinary endurance of the men on the ground, the self-sacrificing courage, the horrors of close-quarters modern battle, above all the epic stand of the British paratroops at the Arnhem bridgehead and in the Oosterbeek Perimeter, make this one of the greatest stories of the Second World War.

A story often retold

That is why it has been told so many times. As well as memoirs and official histories, we have a slew of books on Market Garden by leading military historians, including Martin Middlebrook’s Arnhem 1944: the airborne battle, Robert Kershaw’s It Never Snows in September: the German view of Market Garden and the Battle of Arnhem, September 1944, William Buckingham’s Arnhem: the complete story of Operation Market Garden, 17-25 September 1944, and Antony Beevor’s Arnhem: the battle for the bridges, 1944.

Air-reconnaissance photo of the bridge at Arnhem in 1944. John Frost’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Airborne Division, held the buildings either side of the bridge on the northern side (towards the top of the picture).

But is there another telling of the story as compelling as that of Cornelius Ryan’s classic account in A Bridge Too Far? Later research might have altered details here and there; armchair judgements about what might have happened and what should have happened might vary; but is there, finally, a better overall account? If you had to recommend one book on Arnhem, would it not still be A Bridge Too Far?

Cornelius Ryan (1920-1974) was an Irishman, born in Dublin, who become a Daily Telegraph war correspondent in 1941, and then the author of three outstanding books about the Second World War: The Longest Day: 6 June 1944, D-Day (1959), The Last Battle (1966), and A Bridge Too Far (1974).

Having flown 14 bombing missions with the US Army Air Force and then accompanied George Patton’s Third Army into Germany in 1945, he had rich first-hand experience of modern combat on which to draw. His books were meticulously researched. He drew not only on official histories, after-action reports, telephone logs, diaries and letters, maps and photos, and participant memoirs, but he walked the ground, often in the company of survivors of the battles, and tracked down and interviewed huge numbers of eye-witnesses.

His research for A Bridge Too Far continued for seven years, in the course of which he interviewed more than 600 people. But his treatment of oral testimony was that of a professional historian. ‘Every statement or quote in the book’, he tells us,

is reinforced by documentary evidence or by the corroboration of others who heard or witnessed the event described. Hearsay, rumour, or third-party accounts could not be included. My files contain hundreds of stories that may be entirely accurate but cannot be supported by other participants. For reasons of historical truth, they were not used.

The list of Ryan’s contributors is a roll-call of Operation Market Garden. He spoke to General Maxwell Taylor, commander of 101st Airborne, General James Gavin, commander of 82nd Airborne, and General Roy Urquhart, commander of British 1st Airborne; also to John Frost, who led the defence of the Arnhem bridgehead, to Chaplain Pare, who ministered to the wounded in the Oosterbeek Perimeter, and to Daphne du Maurier, widow of Frederick Browning, the airborne chief who thought Arnhem ‘a bridge too far’.

The Richard Attenborough film based on Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far a Hollywood war epic with an all-star cast was released in 1977.

His German interviewees included SS commanders Wilhelm Bittrich, Heinz Harmel, and Walter Harzer. And he spoke to many of the Dutch participants, both former Resistance fighters and ordinary civilians, many of whom displayed self-sacrificing heroism in their efforts to shelter, succour, and support Allied personnel during the battle.

Superb battle narrative

The result is a forensic reconstruction of the whole, complex, multi-faceted struggle, but one that never flags, never bogs down in detail, never for a moment loses the reader’s avid attention. Ryan displays absolute mastery of the art of writing military history, combining rigorous historical method, sure-handed selection of cameo and quotation, smooth integration of grand strategy, battlefield tactics, and visceral human experience, and absolute clarity of narrative and judgement as events unfold.

No punches are pulled. Montgomery comes out badly, his over-ambitious plan portrayed as an exercise in military politics, an attempt to steal the show from Patton, whose Third Army was racing for the Franco-German frontier. The brutality of the fighting, including frequent refusals to take prisoners on both sides, is described in all its appalling reality.

Above all, the book is remarkable for its raw battle narrative, and never more so than when describing the struggle of the British 1st Airborne at Arnhem, one of the greatest epics of resistance in military history.

The division held out for three times as long as expected, despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned, despite facing elite SS tanks and grenadiers, despite the failure of aerial resupply, despite the fact that by the end only a small fraction of the men – parched, starving, exhausted, low on ammo – remained unwounded. Total Allied losses, killed, wounded, and missing, were more than 17,000; but the British 1st Airborne was effectively destroyed, with around 80% casualties.

Market Garden was, unequivocally, a defeat. The war did not end in late 1944 with a charge into Germany all the way to Berlin, as Montgomery intended. Even at this very late stage in the war, when Nazi Germany was obviously doomed, Hitler’s evil empire showed astonishing powers of resistance. Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far is a splendid memorial to the tens of thousands of participants in one of the last great battles to bring it down.