‘A Bridge Too Far’: An audacious operation’s astonishing story (Column: Bookends)

On this September day, over seven decades ago, a most audacious Allied operation, intended to wrap up the Second World War by 1944 itself, ended ignominiously with shattered remnants of their elite forces withdrawing or marching into captivity. With its ambitious, over-optimistic planning but sheer bravery on the ground, Operation Market Garden is possibly one of the war’s best-known episodes, mainly due to a big budget, multi-star Hollywood film, whose most incongruous bits are the truest, and an episode of a popular American TV series. Both owe their origin to books.

The operation aimed at capitalising the German forces’ disorganised retreat through western Europe in August-September 1944 to liberate Holland and secure a launching pad to invade Germany. Paratroopers would seize bridges on/near the Dutch-German border (“Market”), and ground forces link up with them (“Garden”).

But as its most famous account (and film) is named, it proved to be “A Bridge Too Far”, or rather “bridges too far”, despite the valour of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the British 1st Airborne Division and their glider and transport aircraft pilots. It was rather the hubris of the commanders and the planners that doomed the mission, in which everything which could go wrong did so unerringly.

How this happened is told in the first overall account — Irish journalist Cornelius Ryan’s “The Bridge Too Far” (1974).

Ryan, who achieved fame with his multi-perspective account of the Normandy landings in “The Longest Day” (1956), did the same for “Market Garden” in his last book. Taking seven years to research and write, it was published a few months before he lost his own battle to cancer.

Still the definitive work with American, British, Polish, Dutch and German viewpoints in it, Ryan, for the first time, also revealed less than complimentary views of former US President and Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on his temperamental subordinate, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, as well as those of Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands.

The 1977 film version, directed by Richard Attenborough (who agreed to fund his own dream project “Gandhi”), mostly remained true to the book, from where some of its most famous dialogues are taken verbatim as well as dramatic events — a US soldier forcing a surgeon at gunpoint to check his apparently dead officer, for one.

However, using one statement out of context — as an unforgettable ending line, it painted the speaker, British First Airborne Corps commander Lt. Gen. Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning (husband of author Daphne Du Maurier) as a villain, or at least unconscionable. (He did make the remark, but at a conference before the operation.)

Browning was, however, guilty of neglecting information that strong German forces were near Arnhem and sending the officer concerned on medical leave (Brian Urquhart, then a major, subsequently went on to a glittering career in the UN, especially in Congo, where he convinced rebels to release him by warning Gurkha soldiers — whom they feared — would come after them if he was harmed).

Arnhem, the furthest objective with the “bridge that turned out to be too far”, has seen most leading British participants share their experiences. Prominent among these are the Division Commander, Maj. Gen. R.E. Urquhart (played by Sean Connery) in his frank but wry “Arnhem” (1958), or “A Drop Too Many” (1980) by then Lt. Col. John Frost, who reached the bridge with his 2nd battalion, was cut off but held on for four desperate days against superior forces.

Besides his account of the battle and as POW, Frost also recounts his experience of serving as an consultant to the film, his views of the actor playing him (Anthony Hopkins) and what he particularly disliked about the depiction of his exploits. He also tells us that he later found that his then German opponent, Heinz Harmel of the SS, also thought the same.

Then, there are British historian Middle Middlebrook’s “Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle” (1994), commissioned for the battle’s 50th anniversary, Chris Brown’s “Arnhem: Nine Days of Battle”, and ex-SAS director and the Attenborough film’s consultant, Col John Waddy’s “A Tour of the Arnhem Battlefields” (1999).

Robert Kershaw’s “It Never Snows in September: The German View of Market-Garden and the Battle of Arnhem, September 1944” (2007) gives a perspective from the other side.

Meanwhile, paratroopers of 101st Airborne can be seen in action in the fourth episode of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s 10-episode “Band of Brothers” (telecast 2001), based on American historian Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book of the same name.

On the other hand, one entry in Miles Noonan’s collection of military anecdotes is telling. Two British paratroopers, trapped in a house, tell a padre who drops in that the Germans have thrown everything at them except “the kitchen sink”. Exactly then another shot hits the building which nearly disintegrates. When the dust clears, what the dumbfounded trio can see before them is precisely this object.

“I knew the bastards were close,” says one soldier, “But I didn’t realise they could hear every word I was saying.”

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)



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