Three soldiers remember the battle for a bridge too far.
I read A Bridge Too Far when it first appeared in 1974. The subtitle to this book demonstrates how in nearly forty years the words attributed to Lt Gen Browning "A bridge too far" have come to be a universal subtitle for Operation Market Garden.
In trying to wring a best possible gloss out of this magnificent failure akin to Shakespeare's Henry V speech before Agincourt, "And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here," Field Marshal Montgomery is said to have stated that, "In years to come, it will be a great thing for a man to say 'I fought at Arnhem'."
Hence the title of this book.
When I first read A Bridge Too Far
, I was months away from joining the Army. Whilst being undoubtedly the definitive history of Operation Market Garden, to capture four bridges, push XXX Corps over a Rhine bridgehead and end the Second World War by Christmas 1944, Ryan's tome is of necessity a complex book, which the young me enjoyed without entirely understanding. When three years later I went to see the film with a 15th/19th Hussars buddy during its première week at the Odeon, Leicester Square, it did little to explain that which had been confusing shortly before, especially when the film was widely slated for putting a Hollywood slant on the story.
Some months ago I reviewed yet another history of Market Garden for these pages. It had new primary source material but if anything it just added even more confusion to the events. I did not receive that book terribly well. And so I came to this book.
The first thing to be emphasised is that this is the story of the 1st Airborne Division landings of Operation Market at Arnhem only. As such, it gives an almost exclusively private soldier's view of the operation and is far far clearer for it. The XXX Corps operation, Garden is only brought into discussion when necessary to explain the bigger picture.
As the author makes clear, the three main protagonists did not suddenly appear on the Second World War stage in September. Each had grown up in between-war decades and had served in the Armed Forces prior to September 1944. No fewer than eight chapters set the scene for Operation Market to put it into context. Pat Gorman served in 4 Parachute Brigade in 11 Parachute Battalion. A Territorial with three years' service at the outbreak of war, Ron Jordan became a Fleet Air Arm armourer and served on the Ark Royal before an accident damaged his ankle and in despair he found himself discharged from the Navy. At the end of 1941, Ron got his ankle through a medical by a colonel who, he suggests, had had a 3-pint lunch and he becomes an RAOC armourer. Tom Carpenter served as a sapper with 9 Field Company RE. From Chapter 9 and Tom Carpenter's delivery to Landing Zone Z, Op Market unfolds and unravels extremely quickly.
Fifteen chapters describe the operation with the clarity of the three men whose story this is. The book does not concentrate solely on the three: the bigger picture of Op Market as a whole and to a far lesser degree Op Garden are interwoven skilfully and seamlessly into the gaps between the three biographies in such a way that I now have a far better understanding of just what happened at Arnhem than ever before. But it is those three biographies (which do not actually cross paths at any point other that at reunions down the years) which make a history that covers much of what actually happened to the men on the ground at Arnhem.
As a brief aside, one passage brought an involuntary cheer from my lips when it described how the sound alone of 15th/19th Hussars tanks in the vicinity of the Bailey bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal caused an attack by 107 Panzer Brigade to break down, resulting in 1100 German POWs. Over the years, histories had led me to believe that my regiment had no, then very little, part to play in Op Garden: this snippet made me proud, as per the regimental motto, to be worthy.
We all know how Market Garden ended in failure. (As emphasised in the Afterword, in such an operation, 90% successful is simply failure.) Of the three protagonists, two ended up being sent on stretcher by cattle truck to POW camps around Fallingbostel; the third only discovered that the remnants of 1 Airborne Division had escaped over the Rhine when the Germans walked up to the slit trench where, unknowingly, he had been covering the withdrawal.
The seven months the three spent in the bag were bordering on horrific, not in any way to be likened to Colditz as portrayed by the film and by the BBC in the early 70s, and the homecoming each went through was movingly described.
This book is a masterpiece (the author has experience with the formula having written about the Ark Royal - which led him to Ron Jordan - the Belgrano, Basra, Bismarck and bombers over Berlin
). A Bridge Too Far may be the seminal reference for Market Garden, but We Fought At Arnhem
is a seminal story of the soldiers' battle of Arnhem.
I cannot commend this book enough.
Five Mushroomheads without a second thought.
AlienFTM We Fought at Arnhem
by Mike Roissiter published by Bantam Press Click here to buy from Amazon