Far from your typical war flick, A Bridge Too Far was a true story, based on the best-selling novel by Cornelius Ryan. Published in 1974, it comprised the second leg of Ryan’s World War II trilogy begun with 1959’s The Longest Day (the film version of the Normandy Beach landing, also an all-star cast, featured John Wayne and Henry Fonda and a very young Sean Connery, who also landed a meaty role in Bridge). Bridge examined the Allies’ failed plan to open a venue into Germany, while the third book, The Last Battle, profiled the growing tensions among the ranks of both the Allied and the Axis powers toward the conclusion of the war.
I write about it today because it’s 17 September, the day in 1944 when this ill-fated operation began. One week later, of the 10,000 Allies who went into the mission, 6,000 were captured by the Germans and 1,400 were killed.
The Fall of Paris on August 25, 1944 (see my blog, 25 August 2010) ended the Normandy campaign, but the Allies were still dependent on the port of Cherbourg for supplies. General Patton’s Third Army had run off the French maps and was advancing on the German city of Aachen, the first German territory to come under attack. The only thing slowing Patton’s advance was a lack of fuel.
Holland had been under German occupation for four years. General Montgomery (the British commander) believed the German forces there to be weak. If airborne units could land and hold key bridges, he could send a heavy armored force racing through Holland and sweep around to take Berlin before the end of the year.
Operation MARKET-GARDEN became the largest airborne operation in military history. Three Allied divisions were involved … the US 101st Airborne would drop on Eindhoven and take the canal crossings at Veghel, the US 82nd Airborne would land on bridges over the Maas and Waal Rivers, and 60 miles behind the German lines, the British 1st Airborne and Polish 1st Airborne Brigade would be dropped on the Rhine bridges at Arnhem. This was the MARKET plan (the Airborne portion).
British General Brian Horrocks, commanding the XXX Corps, would dash up these Allied-held river crossings to relieve the 1st Airborne in the GARDEN phase (ground attack) of the operation.
Sadly, Montgomery’s plan did not take into account any of the lessons learned in Normandy. The Germans had stabilized their western forces, moving paratroopers and SS Panzer (tank) units into Arnhem. While British intelligence was aware of them, their presence was discounted.
Allied Airborne units had suffered heavily in the Normandy campaign and were still reorganizing in their camps in England when the orders came down. They had returned in early August after forty days of fighting. Some 40% of their members would never leave the Normandy coast, resting instead in Allied cemeteries.
On the morning of September 17, 1944, the airborne landings began. The Dutch population, confident that they were about to be liberated, watched from their rooftops. Even the Germans were in awe of the force that was descending on them. That same morning, the XXX Corps began to advance. Working up a single road, the Germans poured fire down on the tanks and vehicles and the assault was stalled almost as it began. Allied air support was inadequate and the Germans dominated the terrain.
The Airborne forces were able to accomplish their goals, except for the 82nd, which had to build a temporary bridge to get XXX Corps across. The “Red Devils” had dropped five miles from their target and could only take the North side of the bridge. Worse, they had dropped on part of a Panzer division and were beating back tank attacks from across the Rhine. Entire units were cut off. The British Airborne Division commander, Major General “Roy” Urquhart, was out of touch with his men for thirty-six critical hours.
Operation MARKET-GARDEN failed mightily, a failure that extended the war for almost another year. The Dutch population suffered the most. The coming winter would see mass starvation of civilians and vicious retaliation from the Germans.
I was tremendously touched by the heroism depicted in that landmark film in 1977. It stuck with me years later when I served my initial tour of duty with the 82nd Airborne (1980-1983), proudly becoming a part of not only the division’s distinguished history, but that of the international “fraternity” of paratroopers. In 1982, I had the great honor of meeting General Jim Gavin, Commander of the 82nd during WWII and portrayed by Ryan O’Neal in the film. In 1977, a friend told me it was “unrealistic” to cast O’Neal, who was too young to represent a division commander. Not true for Gavin, who was a 2-Star Division Commander at age 36.
In 1990, while stationed in Germany with the US V Corps, I took my family to the Netherlands and had the opportunity to see first-hand the Arnhem Bridge, the Allied War Museums and cemeteries that stand in mute testimony to the courage of the American soldier, even against overwhelming odds and a hopeless mission. As I stood overlooking the Arnhem Bridge in April of 1990, my mind raced back to 1944 and, in truth, to my feelings in that theater in 1977. Thousands of brave paratroopers and tens of thousands of beleaguered Dutch citizens suffered and died as a result of poor planning. Seeing it on the screen in ‘77 and standing on the ground in ‘90, it opened my eyes to the horrors of war. It’s a lesson I never forgot.
Operation MARKET GARDEN remains a significant dark spot among otherwise sparkling Allied victories in Europe in 1944-1945. It got me to thinking in 1977, again in the 80s, and yet again in 1990. One day in a staff meeting in 1981, my battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Larry Redmond (1-505 Infantry Airborne) cautioned, “Never allow the courage of your soldiers to take the place of your planning.” I think I know what you meant, sir. It’s a lesson I’ll never forget, one that we learned in a painful, bloody way, 66-years ago today, September 17, 1944.
May we never again suffer the consequences of such a mistake, finding that in spite of great intentions, we have doomed brave men and women to suffer for pushing A BRIDGE TOO FAR.