In this lesson we will learn about the classic 1974 book ”A Bridge Too Far”. We will examine the historical context of the book, summarize its central themes, and describe what it is about.
A Movie Worth Watching: A Bridge Too Far
Hopefully some of you have seen the 1977 classic film A Bridge Too Far. It features an all-star cast including Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, and Robert Redford. The film is based on the 1974 non-fiction book of the same title, written by Cornelius Ryan. It details the failed Allied invasion of the Netherlands during World War II.
This unsuccessful invasion was code-named Operation Market Garden, and it took place in September 1944. Operation Market Garden represented a bold plan aimed at defeating the Nazis by the end of 1944. Had the plan succeeded, perhaps it would have been the Americans, not the Soviets that captured Berlin and put the nail in the coffin of the Third Reich.The Allies came close to succeeding in their mission, but extended themselves one ‘bridge too far’. Let’s dig deeper and learn more about this book and the true story behind it.
The Setting and Plan
The setting of the book is the Netherlands during the autumn of 1944. The Netherlands at this time was occupied by the Nazis. Prominent cities that figure into the book are Arnhem, Son, Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and others. Among the Allies and the Dutch people there was a feeling that the war was coming to an end. Even the Germans knew this, but yet they continued to put up stiff resistance as they hoped for a miracle.Let’s talk about what Operation Market Garden involved, or in other words, the plan. If we break down the code-name, we find ”Market” represents airborne forces, whose goal was to parachute into enemy territory and seize and secure bridges in near the border of the Netherlands and Germany.
”Garden”, by contrast, refers to ground forces, led by British XXX Corps (30 Corps), whose aim was to punch a thin line through Nazi-occupied territory (in the Netherlands) and meet up with the airborne troops. The plan involved capturing several different bridges before the Nazis could blow them up. The operation was intricately planned and relied on precise coordination between American airborne troops and British ground forces. There was also a Polish airborne brigade that was involved in the fighting. Not sticking to a strict time schedule could spell disaster for the entire operation.The plan was largely the brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who also commanded the operation on the ground. We should remember just how bold the plan was.
It was a tremendous risk. Many senior officers regarded Montgomery as ”nuts” for even attempting this risky undertaking.
If the plan was successful, it would give the Allies a huge head start into Germany. The success of the operation would allow for the encirclement of the industrial Rhur area of Germany in a large pincer movement. Basically a successful operation would result in establishing a springboard from which the invasion of Germany could easily take place.
A Failed Operation
Things did not go quite as well as Field Marshal Montgomery hoped. British XXX Corps was not able to move as quickly as it needed to for a number of reasons. German forces were able to blow up a bridge at Son, which delayed the advancing troops.
The Allies also encountered stiffer resistance than expected. Careless intelligence was to blame for this. The Allies believed that airborne troops would encounter light resistance from ordinary German soldiers.
Instead, paratroopers landed in an area occupied by elite SS Panzer divisions. There was also additional armor (tanks and artillery) that the Germans had kept hidden and that the Allies were unaware of. Resistance at Eindhoven, Son, and Nijmegen slowed down the advance of XXX Corps, threatening the entire operation.Despite taking longer than expected, the Allies were successful in advancing to their final objective: the road bridge in the city of Arnhem. This bridge went over the Rhine River, the last major obstacle into Germany. However, this bridge was but ”a bridge too far” as British Lieutenant General Frederick Browning put it. The Allied airborne troops encountered fierce resistance over this bridge, and with British ground troops still some nine miles away, they were not able to receive support.
Airborne held out as long as they could, but eventually became trapped in a small pocket in Arnhem and had to be evacuated. The defeat at Arnhem meant the war would continue into 1945.
More About the Book
With the 1974 publication of a A Bridge Too Far came greater public knowledge about the extent to which the operation was a complete disaster.
The book draws attention to the careless planning and the faulty intelligence that guided many of the British officers in planning the operation. Field Marshal Montgomery has historically been judged fairly harshly for his leadership in Operation Market Garden. While the book casts the planners of the operation in a less-than-glorious light, it also draws attention to some of the lesser known men who fought valiantly. In 1977 the book was turned into a major motion picture.
Both are excellent!Today the Arnhem road bridge is named the John Frost Bridge, after British Major General John Frost, who led British airborne troops into battle. He survived the war and lived until 1991. In the film A Bridge Too Far he is played by Anthony Hopkins.
Now let’s review our key terms and concepts.
- Operation Market Garden was the code-name for the unsuccessful Allied invasion of the Netherlands in September 1944. The operation involved coordinating paratroopers and ground forces. It was a complete disaster.
- Cornelius Ryan wrote A Bridge Too Far in 1974 about Operation Market Garden.
- British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was instrumental in developing and carrying out Operation Market Garden.
- The road bridge over the Rhine at the city of Arnhem was the last objective of the operation. Allied forces failed to capture this final bridge and were forced to evacuate and abort their mission.
- Today the Arnhem road bridge is named the John Frost Bridge, after British Major General John Frost, who led British airborne troops into battle.