A Bridge Too Far, by Cornelius Ryan, is yet another one of those classic history books that I hadn't read. But a few weeks ago I found an old and tattered copy of this book for sale in the Purfleet Heritage Centre and decided to pick it up. I also bought the D-Day classic The Longest Day which I reviewed a few weeks ago. I enjoyed that book so much I immediately started on A Bridge Too Far, and I wasn't disappointed.
One of the first things that strike you about this story is the daring audacity and sheer scale of the operation. Reading the early chapters of the book as the largest airborne invasion in history takes off and heads for Holland its hard not to be awe inspired. I couldn't help thinking to myself "this is bound to succeed" even though I knew the eventual outcome of the operation. And on some level I think Ryan manages to convey the wave of optimism that helped blind allied planners at all levels to the huge gamble they were undertaking. It also blinded them to the small margins for success on which the objectives of the operation depended.
Several times Ryan describes the "creeping paralysis" that seemed to overtake the mission from the very beginning. Small problems became compounded and snowballed into huge, sometime insurmountable, obstacles by the end of the offensive. No military operation ever goes to 100% according to plan, but much of the success of Market Garden seemed to rely on the Germans sitting back and doing nothing to disrupt those plans. This was never going to be the situation. As in Normandy the enemies military capability was vastly underrated and its ability to reorganise, regroup and fight on was underestimated.
As the book progresses the growing desperation of the situation faced by the British 1st Airborne Division in Arnhem is abundantly clear. With terrible inevitability the impossible task before them is revealed in probably the most graphic and eloquent description of a single action that I have ever read. For me this book identified an important tactical dilemma that had never occurred to me before. The accepted wisdom is that one should never reinforce defeat, yet almost to the end that is exactly what the allies were desperately trying to do. But this analysis is a gross oversimplification and undervalues not only the sacrifice of the men who held onto that bridgehead over the Rhine but also the potential strategic significance of that toehold.
One of the elements that I found particularly interesting was the use of anecdotal evidence gathered from the Dutch civilian population caught up in the midst of the battle. The Dutch underground seemed to have been largely disregarded and their contribution to the battle in Arnhem may have proved vital had it been utilised by the Allies. The frustration of local resistance fighters comes across clearly in this book. However it was the fate of ordinary citizens that I found most disturbing. When the Airborne troops first landed most Dutch civilians considered this their moment of liberation. By the end of nine days of fighting in and around Arnhem large parts of the city had been destroyed and over 450 civilians had been killed in the fighting. Their torment did not end there however. After the battle the Germans forcibly evicted the residents of Arnhem and its surrounding towns and systematically looted the houses and businesses of the area with the spoils being sent to bombing victims in Germany.
For me as a wargamer I keep asking myself what would have been the result if 1st Airborne had been able to hold their bridgehead. Could they have been reinforced and would the area they held have been large enough to build up the forces required to push outwards and secure the lodgement north of the Rhine? I doubt it, but its an intriguing "what-if" scenario.
If you are interested in this period of WWII history - or even if you are not - this is a gripping and spellbinding story. It is a tale of heroism, sacrifice, endurance, hubris, arrogance and tragedy that cannot fail to fascinate the reader. I thoroughly recommend it.