A Bridge Too Far: Setting, Summary & Description

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

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.

British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was the mastermind behind Operation Market Garden.
monty

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.

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