Remembering A Bridge Too Far
On 17 September 1944, 67 years ago, over 40,000 British, American, and Polish paratroopers were dropped deep behind German lines in a daring operation to end the Second World War on the western front by Christmas. Operation Market Garden’s concept was for airborne forces to occupy strategic bridges between the Allied front line and Germany’s Ruhr region, providing a carpet for Allied armour to punch a hole in the enemy’s industrial heartland. However, as anyone who has seen the film A Bridge Too Far knows, this operation did not end the war by Christmas. While American paratroopers managed to hold their bridges between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem was decimated. Over 17,000 of the 40,000 Allied troops involved had been severely wounded or killed when the British paratroopers, who stubbornly held out in Arnhem against overwhelming odds, were finally forced to surrender on 25 September.
Historians tend to focus on the abject failure and apparent futility of the entire operation, pointing to a personal war of egos between British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, the operations brain child, and General George Patton, U.S. Third Army commander; Montgomery’s determination to outshine his rival leading to the annihilation of some of Britain and America’s finest soldiers. Yet, the potential for Allied victory made the risks of Market Garden worth the attempt. If this operation had been a success it would have ranked not only as one of the greatest operations of the war, but could have dramatically decreased its duration. General Wolfe’s siege of Quebec in 1759 was an equally enormous military risk; yet, through his victory he secured British dominance in North America at a time when British hegemony was anything but inevitable. Risks are a necessity of warfare.
However, for me, risks and grand strategies aside, Market Garden will always be about the 740 men of 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment who held Arnhem bridge for four days against one of Germany’s toughest and finest tank formations, II SS Panzerkorps. Armed only with small arms and a handful of archaic anti-tank weapons, and with a loss of 84 men dead, the British paras inflicted a near 50% casualty rate on their better armed and far numerically superior foe. With the last remnants of the battalion fighting with nothing but knives, their last radio message broadcast from the bridge was "Out of ammo, God save the King."
In 1948, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower wrote of the battle for Arnhem bridge, "In this war there has been no single performance by any unit that has more greatly inspired me or more highly excited my admiration, than the nine days action of [the 1st Airborne Division] between September 17 and 26, .”