It had not been in vain, claimed Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, and had helped achieve “a further all-important bound forward in the north”.
He was referring to Operation Market Garden, the bold attempt in September 1944 to outflank German defences in north-west Europe by establishing a bridgehead across the lower Rhine river at the Dutch town of Arnhem.
Truth is frequently a casualty in war, and this was no exception. In reality, Arnhem was a costly disaster that also damaged the wider Allied campaign.
The bridge was never captured and, of the 12,000 British and Polish airborne troops parachuted in to seize it, 1,500 died and more than 6,000 were taken prisoner. For the Dutch civilians who enthusiastically greeted the paratroopers as liberators, the results were also grim.
Their homes were destroyed, relatives and friends were killed, wounded, or shot, and Nazi occupation lasted until Hitler’s defeat several months later. The entire population of Arnhem itself was forcibly evacuated and its houses ransacked. The authors’ choice of subtitle is dead on target.
They’re also right to focus on the human story of those involved. What exactly went wrong, why, and who was to blame, has been much discussed by historians. Largely lost in the debate has been how the unfolding disaster was experienced by those in the air and on the ground, including the Dutch.
The pacy narrative brilliantly captures the potent mix of optimism and anxiety of the airborne troops as they take off for Holland and then experience their first brutal encounters with reality as planes are shot down and gliders crash land before even encountering the enemy. The euphoria as civilians run out throwing flowers and bringing plums rapidly dissolves as the Germans fight ferociously back in unexpected numbers.
Clichés about the fog of war are brought vividly alive as survivors recall how little anyone involved seemed to know about what was going on.
Any notion that airborne troops are somehow absolved the rigours of the traditional infantry are dispelled by vivid memories of being mortared for days in slit trenches, fighting with bayonets in hand-to-hand encounters among shattered buildings, and constantly dodging bullets from the dozens of German snipers who took a deadly toll. Amid it all, sheltering in their cellars or courageously helping where they can, the Dutch watch despairingly as their dreams of liberation slowly but inexorably turn into nightmare.
In four previous books these two authors have demonstrated an impressive ability to weave together first-hand testimony with a sure touch and fast-paced action. This one is no exception and provides a compelling read that is hard to put down.
If you believe you already know the story of Arnhem, think again. Only when you’ve finished the final page of this powerful book do you begin to comprehend the full and dreadful truth behind the effort to capture the bridge too far and the courage of those who took part.
David Stafford is the author of Endgame 1945: Victory, Retribution, Liberation (Abacus, 2008)
A Bridge too Far