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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Just Finished Reading: A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan (FP: 1974)

It was the largest aerial assault ever conceived, even bigger than that used as part of the D-Day invasion and was billed to be (and believed to be) capable of shortening the war by as much as a year. It was a bold plan, actually so beyond bold it was actually reckless and ambitious so much so that it reeked of hubris, yet oddly originating with a man known for his caution and meticulous planning – the British hero of the Western Desert - General Bernard Montgomery.

The plan itself was deceptively simple: drop troops and equipment up to 60 miles behind enemy lines in a blanket from the Dutch border to the Rhine with the aim to capture and hold all of the major bridges allowing Allied armour to punch a hole through the thinly held German defences into the heart of industrial Germany itself. Within a matter of days Allied forces could be in the Ruhr holding or destroying Germany’s mighty industries on which her military strength depended. The idea was so dazzling that few opposed it and even fewer raised the obvious concerns, of which there were many:

Could all of the bridges be captured intact and held long enough by lightly armed troops to give the amour time enough to arrive and rescue them?

Could the airborne forces be resupplied to the extent they needed to be?

What would happen if one or more of the bridges was destroyed or severally damaged?

What is German resistance proved more able than reports of the old, sick and inexperienced troop’s suspected to be in the area warranted?

What would happen if anything major went wrong? Anything at all?

Well, the British airborne forces in particular where about to find out, not when anything went wrong but when everything went wrong.

The last bridge in the long string of bridges was the magnificent structure at Arnhem. If that could not be captured or held for at least two days then everything else getting to that point was wasted. But with no near-by drop zones, ineffective communications, lost equipment and the earlier dismissed rumour of armour in the area proving true (to the tune of two SS Panzer divisions resting up from their retreat from France). Unable to report their situation it had to be assumed (hoped) that the bridge had been taken – where only one side was actually in British hands – and the armour was sent hell for leather to reach them. From the very first the assault was plagued with problems. Advancing down a single road the armoured columns were easy prey for well sighted anti-tank guns. Air support was intermittent due to bad weather and a seeming reluctance to engage enemy units as the opportunity arose. Expert knowledge from the Dutch resistance was politely declined by the British commanders (yet used to advantage by the less fussy Americans) so vital intelligence was missed – including opportunities to use the telephone system to overcome problems with the radios. Then, of course, the inevitable happened – they lost a bridge and the tight timetable, so vital and so achievable on paper fell apart. The Arnhem enclave, expected to last for two days, lasted for nine under increasingly heavy fire and mounting casualties before it was overrun with Allied tanks only a mile or so away. The operation – Market Garden – had failed.

Spectacularly filmed in 1977 movie of the same name this was unsurprisingly on an epic scale with a cast of (seemingly) every major star from England, America and German background – although whoever cast Gene Hackman as the Polish Major General Sosabowski should be shot. Much of the detail of the bestselling popular history made it into the movie although the film was considerably toned down from the often harrowing stories related in this honestly gripping tale. I was not surprised in the least that it had spent months on the bestseller list. It is still a great work of military history and should be a standard reference work for any military commander responsible for putting troop’s lives on the line to show what can go wrong especially with the most optimistic of plans. If you have any interest in WW2, ‘simple’ Heroism, military blunders or simply want to read a master study of Murphy’s Law in brutal action then this is definitely the book for you. Highly Recommended.      


Brian Joseph said...

I remember loving the movie.

When I was younger I read a lot of military history oif this sort. I am sure that I would still enjoy something like this.

It is interesting that the idiom "A Bridge Too Far" has become fairly prevalent. I suppose this book is the origin of the phrase.

CyberKitten said...

if you loved the movie then you'd find the book fascinating. It goes into a lot more detail regarding the planning, problems, execution and the problems on the round - from all sides involved.

I think that the phase was quoted in the book - although I can't remember who said it. Both the book and film certainly made the phrase popular.