Pros: Behind-the-scenes view of a battle gone wrong. Thrilling battle action. Horrifyingly pointless death.
Cons: Too many "If only this was different, the whole battle would have changed" statements.
Operation Market-Garden, World War II's largest airborne offensive operation, was a 90% success. That 10% failure meant that the Allies had a 60 mile salient to nowhere, unused in the following year's offensives. Thousands of soldiers and civilians died as a result. A glorious failure, or a waste of human lives?
Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan
In the past, there has been a tendency, among the general public and war historians alike, to analyse disasters more closely than easy victories. The Battle of the Bulge, or the landings at Omaha Beach, or the German army's disastrous attempt to take Stalingrad; these battles all get more than their fair share of attention, but the brilliantly executed invasion, with little or no loss of life, is ignored. Possibly because there are fewer relatives demanding to know about their son's last moments in combat.
Successful battles have the air of inevitability about them, while a failure is the result of a hundred different small factors. Successful invasions do not lack for people willing to take credit for a success they were only a small part of. With failures, there is an opposed fleeing from the scene of the crime. The assigning of blame usually requires the publication of a few hundred sets of memoirs.
Thus it is with Operation Market Garden. The failed attempt by the Airborne army planners and Field Marshal Montgomery to end the war in 1944 has been blamed on lack of priority for resources (Montgomery and Chester Wilmot), ignoring intelligence that would have drastically altered the plans (Ryan), and lack of fighting spirit among the ground troops that were to come to the rescue of the Airborne troops (Ryan, Gavin, Urquhart, et al). The military mind is good at analysis, and in an operation that was a "90% success", but in which the 10% failure was devastating to the overall plan, analysis is good for the soul.
A note about the book
Reading A Bridge Too Far does not require a degree in military history. Ryan is as clear as can be about who belongs to what unit, the major commanding officers involved, and the area of Holland they were trying to liberate or defend. Where some analysis of character is involved, Ryan is careful to be fair. There are differences between men in wartime and in peacetime. Enough time has elapsed between the battles and the history for rough edges to be scraped off personalities. It's clear that Ryan didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings in writing A Bridge Too Far. By far the worst criticism falls on Montgomery, who seems to have no feelings.
Larger than June 6th, 1944 (the Normandy invasion), the basic concept of Operation Market Garden called for Airborne troops from three divisions (the U.S. 101st and 82nd, the British 1st, and a Polish brigade) to capture a series of river crossings, including the final one, the bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, in Holland. XXX Corps' armoured army would smash through German opposition, use the captured bridges in crossing the rivers, and establish a bridgehead on the opposite side of the Rhine. Allied troops would pour onto the opposite side of the Rhine and then turn right, straight for the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr, and then on to Berlin. The operation was to begin September 17th, the Rhine crossed two days later, and the whole war over by Christmas, 1944.
It didn't quite happen that way.
The Allied army command believed the Germans facing them were demotivated, panicky, and ready to surrender. Armoured columns pushing their way into Holland and Eastern France were moving so quickly that it was believed that one "full-blooded thrust" (Montgomery's words) into Germany and directly towards Berlin would demoralize the German army so completely that capitulation would result. To accomplish this full-blooded thrust, the Allies needed a river crossing over the Rhine. It was felt that the Germans would not expect a crossing so far north. This feeling was borne out by the German army, which expected any attack to come in Patton's area.
The second motivation behind the operation is less noble. The airborne army was relatively new. The upper levels of command were eager to get the airborne into combat, to see what they were capable of. The feeling was that this great resource, these highly trained and motivated men, were going to waste. The operation seemed to take on a life of its own, going forward because the airborne army needed targets, rather than because it was a great plan.
Ryan spends a great deal of time on the circumstances that led up to the Market-Garden offensive, beginning with the mad rush forward by various armoured armies in the fall of 1944, and the battle between Montgomery and Eisenhower's over which sector would get the most resources, and the origins of the supply shortages encountered everywhere along the front.
It's clear from what Ryan writes, that there were several critical errors in judgement. The first error was in not extending the British lines another 18 miles north, and cutting off the possible retreat of Von Zangen's 15th army, bottled up on the south side of the Shelde. Much is made of this in A Bridge Too Far, with various people saying that it lay within a day's marching, and that it would have been easy enough to shoulder aside the opposition. I'm not so sure. Even if the forward armoured group could have entrenched themselves, there's no guarantee that they could have held off 80,000 15th Army troops. Certainly seems like a lost opportunity, though. The possibility of a Falaise-like shattering of the opposing army seems tantalizing, especially in retrospect.
The next error was Montgomery's, in taking his eyes off the current situation and looking too soon towards the end of the war.
The current situation required that the Allies gain a major port before winter. Antwerp had fallen to the Allies without a fight, but before they could use it as a port, they had to clear the German army from the approaches to it. Until the Allies controlled the channel, most of their supplies were coming to the fighting men over the Normandy invasion beaches, an incredible distance to transport materiel.
Instead of removing the Germans from both sides of the channel and ensuring the longer term success of the war, Montgomery counted on his full-blooded thrust over the Rhine capturing the Germans unawares. In doing so, he lost track of the whereabouts of the German 15th army, which was ferried north across the Scheldt, and pulled back towards Arnhem, rescued for future operations, and vital in counterattacking.
Other errors, other losses
Ryan ably relates the air of blind optimism that pervaded both the planning side of the operation and the operations side as well. The airborne army had trained too hard for this sort of operation for it to be called off one more time. Radios were not tested over the sort of terrain the airborne army would be fighting. Reconnaissance photos of armoured divisions in the Arnhem area were ignored by Browning. Dutch resistance intelligence showing the exact locations of elements of the German army was brusquely swept aside.
The battle - the short version
The airdrops were generally successful, putting troops near their objectives, which were quickly taken (except the highway bridge at Nijmegen and at Arnhem, where British paratroopers were dropped 6 km from the bridge). The armoured column advanced slowly up the narrow roads towards Arnhem, delayed at the Son canal bridge for 36 hours. With a superhuman effort, airborne paratroopers kept the corridor open, and re-opened it after the German army counterattacked and cut it. British "Red Devils" took the north end of the Arnhem bridge, controlling the approaches to it, and tried to hang on until the cavalry arrived.
They failed. Help did not arrive, and the British paratroopers were pulled back across the Rhine under cover of darkness. The Rhine was not crossed. The war continued into 1945.
Ryan is at his best, I believe, in focusing our attention before the battle. His writing is incisive; his analysis reasonable. The interviews with all major participants held a few surprises for him (in particular, Eisenhower's intense dislike for Montgomery's attitudes during this time), and he does a masterful job of pulling it all together in some coherent manner.
The battle itself is more confused. This mirrors the confusing nature of all combat, I suppose, but is especially appropriate on this battlefield, where communications were so poor that hardly anyone knew what the real situation was. The man fighting on the ground only sees the 20 or 30 yards ahead of him. A commander only knows what he's been told. A head of operations likewise. Pitifully little information was getting back to the head of operations (Browning) during the battle.
Some war writers concentrate on the strategic, treating the individual soldiers as markers on a board. Brave, plucky markers, but still.... Ryan, on the other hand, faced with 35,000 soldiers to choose from, and countless other civilians, manages to find interesting characters through whom to tell the overall story.
The plight of the Red Devils (part of the 1st British Airborne), holding on at the Northern end of the bridge at Arnhem, is at times heartbreaking and thrilling. Ryan focuses on the fascinating stories of Colonel Frost, Major Tatham-Warter and Captain Mackay. Outnumbered and outgunned, they took their objective and held it for three days against an opponent with vastly superior arms and equipment. Likewise, at Nijmegen, the taking of the highway bridge during an insanely brave daylight boat crossing of the Maas river into the teeth of the enemy, is both stirring and chilling, when told by Major Cook and some of his men.
The action does get a bit confusing, with the large number of units in action, battles at several points along the long salient, and the added challenge of trying to keep track of several German units as well. In some sections, keeping the Allied units straight was well nigh impossible without the aid of my trusty Military Maps of World War II, which has several maps of key skirmishes in the Nijmegan and Arnhem areas, helping me out when the text confused me. The maps and illustrations in A Bridge Too Far are generally better than those in Ryan's other landmark book, The Longest Day.
In general, Cornelius Ryan makes the best of a bad, confusing battle.
For want of a nail
Ryan draws our attention to small details, each one of which could have been decisive in the battle for Arnhem bridge:
- If communications were better between the British Airborne units and headquarters, re-supplies could have been accurately dropped, allowing them to hold out longer
- If the British Airborne had been aware of the Oosterbek ferry on the Rhine, they could have used it to establish a beachhead on the South side of the Rhine, allowing reinforcements to reach them.
- If the trucks containing the bridge components had been quicker to arrive at the Son bridge (blown), the timetable for the Armoured column rescue operation wouldn't have been thrown off by 36 hours.
- If the trucks containing the boats used to cross the Waal river hadn't been stuck way back in the armoured column, the assault on the Nijmegan bridge could have taken place sooner, giving the infantry and armoured columns more time to make it to Arnhem.
- If British Airborne commander Urquhart had not been missing for 36 hours during a crucial moment of the battle, he could have directed counterattacks in the direction of the bridge in a co-ordinated manner.
- If the British had been dropped closer to the Arnhem bridge, they might have been able to hold it longer against opposition, instead of having to fight their way through suburbs.
- If the British had used Dutch intelligence, instead of brushing them off for fear of being duped, they would have known about the German armoured divisions, the ferry, and how to connect to any military unit along the corridor by using the public phone system. The Americans fought side by side with the Dutch resistance, and used the phone system when necessary.
The key was communications. If any of the Red Devils at the Arnhem bridge had listened to the Dutch resistance, they could have had excellent communications with anyone, all the way back to the jumping off point.
How different it all could have been.
Ryan's literary voice rings with admiration for the fine soldiers fighting the battle, and he manages to be fair to those who faltered badly in planning and preparation. The damnation of those who persisted in their blind optimism in shoving aside objections and obstacles to the operation he leaves to history. He's a fair witness.
And he's written a fascinating book of warfare.
Well worth reading.