Author: Cornelius Ryan
A Bridge Too Far (1974) is Cornelius Ryan’s opus. Author of The Longest Day and The Last Battle, Ryan brings his considerable talent as a journalist, storyteller, and historian to bear in this text.
A dense read, A Bridge Too Far is some 670 page long including a generous selection of pictures, maps, index, acknowledgements, and “Soldiers and Civilians – What They Do Today” sections, and bibliography. Don’t let the length of the book scare you off, however. This is a must read for airborne history readers, with sections outlining the activities of the American 101st, 82nd, and British 1st Airborne Divisions, with emphasis on the British experience, and of course, XXX Corps, whose job it was to navigate Hell’s Highway all the way to Arnhem in short order.
What I enjoyed most about A Bridge Too Far is Ryan’s ability to narrate, especially given its length. His style reads more like a novel than a history, and that’s what makes this book work. To drive this narrative, Ryan artfully presents selections from books and articles, after-action reports and field communication logs, letters, and interviews from scores of civilians and participants, including many German leaders, whose experiences, according to the author, are told for the first time in this book.
For this reader, there is no shortage of highlights. Of particular note is the telling of the American 82nd Airborne’s crossing of the Waal river, and the last hours of Red Devils in Oosterbeek. What I like most about this book are the small touches, moments that Ryan inserts that add depth to the text. For instance, in examining tactical differences between British and Dutch military leaders (who were “excluded from the planning for Market-Garden”), Ryan writes, “the moment Dutch generals learned of the route that…XXX Corps columns proposed to take, they had anxiously tried to dissuade anyone who would listen, warning of the dangers of using exposed dike roads. ‘In our military staff colleges,’ Bernhard (Prince of the Netherlands) says, ‘we had run countless studies on the problem. We knew tanks simply could not operate along these roads without infantry’” (508).
Ryan adds a footnote about the result of British planning, which relied primarily on “Montgomery’s vast experience” (506). He writes:
“Lieutenant Rupert Mahaffey of the Irish Guards remembers that an officer of the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade came to the Guards’ mess for dinner shortly after the tanks were stopped at Elst. Looking around the table, the Dutch officer said, ‘You would have failed the examination.’ He explained that one of the problems in the Dutch Staff College examination dealt solely with the correct way to attack Arnhem from Nijmegen. There were two choices: a) attack up the main road; or b) drive it for 1-2 miles, turn left, effect a crossing of the Rhine and come around in a flanking movement. ‘Those who chose to go straight up the road failed the examination,’ the officer said. ‘Those who turned left and then moved up the river, passed’” (509).
It’s details like this that make A Bridge Too Far more than an ordinary battle history. XXX Corps, with the continued and relentless holding efforts of the 82nd and 101st , were stopped a few miles short of providing relief to the nearly devastated Red Devils. It is, indeed, an epic story. Get the book and read the dozens of other “moments” that Ryan presents here. You won’t be disappointed.