A Bridge Too Far
B.A. in History, Minor in German Language
Infantry Captain in the US Army
Graduate of the Command and General Staff College’s distance learning “Army Field/Unit Historian
I will keep my discussion of the background of Market Garden and its planning brief, as for the purposes of the podcast I don’t think it’s necessary.
Market Garden was the result of Eisenhower’s overall European strategy, and his subordinate commanders working within his intent. Eisenhower wanted to maintain a broad advancing front across Europe. So, he wanted Allied forces to advance steadily from Northern Europe to Southern Europe at generally the same pace, with the intent of overwhelming the Germany Army. Subordinate commanders in every portion of Europe therefore came up with their own plans on how, in their opinion, their respective units could best advance.
Eisenhower believed that the priority theater was Northern Europe, through the low-countries and into Northern Germany. This was for two reasons. One: Northern Germany was where the majority of German Industry was located (and thus where Germany’s ability to sustain its war effort lay). Two: passing through the Netherlands would allow the Allies to bypass the strongest portions of the Siegfried Line (the primary German line of prepared defenses that ran the course of Germany’s western border. Northern France and the low countries were where most of the British/Commonwealth forces were operating, thus was the responsibility of the British, which is why Market Garden was a British-led operation. The film’s opening narration makes a big deal about the rivalry between Montgomery and Patton, and to be sure there was a rivalry, but it is overplayed in popular history, and is not the reason Market Garden occurred. But it makes good drama for a film-going audience.
The film does a good job explaining the operational framework of Market Garden: Allied airborne troops would land behind German lines and seize a series of bridges which they would hold as the British 30th Corps penetrated German defenses and move to each bridge sequentially. Pushing through the low-country was going to prove to be a very difficult task owing to the number of rivers and other water-features present. Thus, seizing this series of main bridges in one fast operation had the potential of speeding up the Allied advance considerably, as it would allow the Allies to bypass most of the prepared German defenses in the low countries and control bridges sizable enough to support the movement of armored vehicles and large amounts of vehicular supply traffic.
In assessment, Market Garden failed to achieve its primary objective (securing a crossing point across the Rhine River (Arnhem Bridge). This meant that the operation failed to achieve its purpose: to allow the Allies to bypass the Siegfried Line. Additionally, a significant number of Allied troops were killed and captured (the total number of Allied killed and captured combined is greater than the German casualties). At the same time, Market Garden did secure important crossing points over numerous small and intermediate-sized rivers and two major rivers (the Maas and Waal), and allowed the Allies to seize a 105 kilometer-deep portion of German territory, all of which the Allies would have had to push through anyway, and possibly might have sustained a larger number of casualties attempting (although probably without the high number of captured). Although it was a rather narrow territorial gain (centered on the main road that 30th Corps was advancing along) it allowed the Allies to later launch attacks into different parts of the Netherlands and cut many Germany units off from their supply lines and left them unable to support each other. The operation also severely degraded the German military’s ability to launch rocket attacks against Great Britain and caused the German Army serious supply problems in their Northern theater (as the loss of all those bridges forced the German supply lines to lengthen and use smaller and less advantageous road networks).
Market Garden was an overall well-planned operation. It certainly had its flaws, (which are pointed out in the film), and it paid for them. But it is important to remember that combined arms warfare had not completely matured in the Second World War. Large-scale, complex operations like this were still coming of age and armies were still wrestling with how to best combine modern technology with military operations, oftentimes with technology in one warfighting domain that outstripped technology in another domain. The film is quite harsh on the military planners who planned Market Garden, and the flaws in the operation cannot be hand-waved, but hindsight is 20/20 and had intelligence been better, or had one or two breaks gone a different way, it is extremely likely that Market Garden would have achieved all its goals.
Finally, the film lays most of the blame for Market Garden’s outcome on Montgomery and Browning, and as the operation’s primary commanders this is somewhat correct. But it is important to remember that Montgomery was working within Eisenhower’s intent. Eisenhower wanted an operation to bypass the Siegfried Line through the low-countries, and that is what Montgomery tried to achieve. Furthermore, Montgomery had to receive Eisenhower’s approval to conduct this operation. Eisenhower was well-briefed on Market Garden, and he gave the “ok” to proceed. The film does not really mention this, and most people conveniently forget it.
(The timestamps used below are relevant to the Amazon Prime version of the film)
-(Opening scene with German officers): The German subtitles in this film are far more exact and comprehensive than in The Longest Day.
27:30 (Browning speaks to Intelligence Officer): The film frequently points out that the Dutch Underground was warning the British about the presence of large amounts of German line units in the area. It portrays the British as being indifferent to these reports and suggests that the British ignore them for the simple reason of not wanting to stop Market Garden. In reality, British intelligence had recently (in April of 1944 (Market Garden occurred in September)) discovered that parts of the Dutch resistance and most of the British intelligence network in the Netherlands had been compromised by German Counterintelligence. Therefore, British intelligence was extremely skeptical of the information being passed on to them by the Dutch resistance. So unlike the film’s portrayal, there was a good, grounded reason for the British not relying heavily on Dutch resistance reports.
34:24 (MAJ Fuller is forced to take sick leave) Fuller’s character is actually supposed to be MAJ Brian Urquhart, but was renamed to Fuller so as not to confuse the audience with GEN Urquhart. MAJ Urquhart was an intelligence planner for Market Garden and was opposed to the operation. He later became seriously depressed after the operation’s conclusion and requested a transfer out of the Airborne. I found 1 article that mentioned that he was forced to take sick leave after opposing the operation, but that was all I found. So I am not sure if this was made up for the film, or if it is true.
55:58 (Mental health patients scene) There was a mental health facility in the town of Wolfheze near the 1st Airborne Division’s dropzone, and it was bombed during the war forcing the patients to be evacuated to another facility. I didn’t find any evidence showing that the patients escaped and laughed at the paratroopers.
56:31 (Artillery bombardment) I don’t know why these shells are landing so close to the British tanks
1:17:26 (First attempt to assault the far-side of the Arnhem bridge) I find this portrayal of the first assault to be inaccurate. None of the sources I read described the first assault in detail, so I can’t say for sure it didn’t happen this way, but I find it hard to believe the British just walked up to the gun position. Both because it’s a tactically ridiculous thing to do, and be cause the Germans would have been idiots to let them walk that close.
1:50:03 (PIAT firing at German tank crossing bridge) This scene gives the PIAT a bit of a bad rap. The PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank) was actually a very effective weapon, and was highly regarded by British and Commonwealth soldiers of all ranks. It’s maximum effective range of 115 meters was only 35 meters shorter than the American bazooka and the system itself was far shorter than the bazooka. The PIAT also functioned more as a mortar and less as a rocket (hence why the rounds “lob” instead of shooting straight), this meant that there was no backblast, which allowed the weapon to be safely used in-doors and meant that there was no smoke or plume of fire from the rear of the weapon that would give the firer’s position away.
2:03:13 (Generals Gavin, Browning, and Horrocks discuss taking Nijmegen bridge) This meeting took place on the 19th of September. The 82nd actually had the opportunity to seize Nijmegen bridge when they landed on the 17th of September, but due to miscommunication between Gavin and the commander of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the 508th seized positions just short of the southern side of the city and halted, which allowed the Germans to set defensive positions around the bridge and hold the 82nd off until the 20th.
On the 19th the Americans and British began assaulting the southern side of the city of Nijmegen to work their way to the southern portion of the bridge. However, resistance was too stiff, and it was decide that there would need to be a simultaneous attack from both the north side of the river and the south, which is what led to the scene later, of the river crossing.
The film doesn’t represent this large part of the battle. In the film it appears that there isn’t much urban area (or fighting) on the southern edge of the bridge, but most of Nijmegen’s urban area is on the south of the river and there was more fighting here than on the northern side. But the river crossing gets all the screen time. (But admittedly the river crossing is pretty film-worthy, and they have plenty of other urban combat in the film, so they probably didn’t feel it necessary to show this.)
As an aside, Ryan O’Neal is very young in the film, younger than many of the characters he commands. But in this instance that is actually historically accurate. His character, James Gavin, was the youngest division commander in the war. Gavin was 37 at the time of Market Garden, and O’Neal was 36 at the time of filming.
2:19:13 (Germans attempting to demolish the bridge) There is some debate as to why the Germans did not demolish the bridge. It is a fact that Field Marshall Model did not want the bridge destroyed so it could be used by the Germans in a counterattack. Most historians agree that German forces at the bridge intended to follow this order. (the bridge was wired with explosives, but local German forces were under orders not to use them) However, there is some speculation that local commanders wanted to destroy the bridge at the last second but that the wiring malfunctioned.
2:23:11 (Major Cook argues with British Armor officer) This scene is supposed to represent the decision made on the 21st of September by General Horrocks to temporarily halt 30th Corps’ advance towards Arnhem. The film clearly wants the viewer to side with Robert Redford’s Major Cook. But the reality is that the right decision was far from clear. It is true that had 30th Corps not halted, they may have made it to Arnhem in time to relieve the 1st Airborne and taken Arnhem bridge. On the other hand, it is equally true that had 30th Corps continued along the road unsupported by infantry that they would have been ambushed and suffered severe casualties. Tanks operating without infantry in areas that have forests, or urban centers, or water features are extremely vulnerable, as they are limited on where they can drive and what they can see. This is true even more so for tanks in the Second World War, as they did not posses the advanced optics that modern tanks do.
The concept of tanks needing infantry, and infantry needing tanks can be easily seen in the context of large-scale-combat-operations today in the war in Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly utilized its armored formations without infantry support and has paid dearly for this mistake.
Much is made in the film of 30th Corps inability to stick to schedule. Yet the film forgets that had the 82nd Airborne seized Nijmegen bridge on the 17th as they were supposed to (owing arguably to a lack of decisive leadership and tempo) 30th Corps would not have had to wait until the 20th to just begin crossing the bridge.
2:25:06 (LTC John Frost speaks with MAJ Harry Carlyle) Harry Carlyle’s character is based on real-life Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter. In reality he survived Arnhem and died in 1993. He did indeed carry an umbrella with him for the reason he uses in the film.
2:28:17 (Polish jump) A portion of the Poles had arrive on the 19th, and had been fighting with the 1st Airborne since. Most of the brigade could not be deployed because of weather. The remainder dropped on the 21st.
2:40:57 (Generals discuss not taking Arnhem) I don’t think the film does a very good job explaining why 30th Corps didn’t keep pushing to Arnhem. The film makes it seem that all they would have had to do was push 1 more mile and they could have taken the bridge and rescued the 1st Airborne. In reality, by the time 30th Corps was at this point, the 1st Airborne forces who had held the Northern side of the bridge (Anthony Hopkins group) had been forced to surrender, and the remainder of the 1st Airborne that was on the north side of the river was surrounded on the outskirts of the city. They did not have combat power to push to the bridge. So the Germans held both sides of Arnhem and this being the final Allied objective, there were no Allied forces north of the bridge to stop reinforcements. That means that the German forces on the northern side of the river could freely flow to the southern portion of Arnhem and defend from there, and any German forces on the northern portion were far larger than the German forces faced so far, so 30th Corps likely wouldn’t have been able to cross the bridge even if it did seize the southern side.
“A Bridge Too Far” Cornelius Ryan
“Arnhem” Antony Beevor
Army National Museum Website: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/market-garden
The Imperial War Museum Website: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-story-of-operation-market-garden-in-photos
Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps, retired medic. Father participated in the Normandy landings.
Opening credits, the narrator says "the Germans didn't have many defeats before D-Day, and Eisenhower was in command of D-Day" of words to that effect. Ike being American comes into play. (Made for an American audience)
It then goes on to say "Montgomery came up with a plan that could end the war by Christmas....." "he was in command of Market Garden..." Montgomery wasn't in command of Market Garden, (Brereton was) another American and Ike was still in total command.
Recon pictures. The low-level photo-recce by the Spitfire never happened. There were no low-level recce flights. There were high-level ones, which did show the presence of the tanks from the local school of armour such as this one....
Planning. In the movie it shows only and mentions only British planners, Monty (British. Shouldn't be there at all anyway) Browning (British) RAF member showing the drop zones to Urquhart (Sean Connery)
It should have Brereton (US) and Williams (US) in there. It was Williams that decided to do one drop per day.
Germans discuss "Montgomery or Patton?" . Besides the fact the Germans didn't know of Patton at this time. If they were to compare an American to a British commander, it would have been Bradley and Montgomery.
German tanks in Arnhem itself
There were a few Self propelled guns there, but the tanks didn't arrive there until 19 September (two days later).
Replacing the Son bridge with "Bailey crap"
"That glorious precision made bridge, that's the envy of the civilized world "
You see Americans making the bridge, where in XXX Corps they had the Royal Engineers to do that.
The big one coming up
Nijmegen and Gavin with the 82nd in the movie. No mention of Gavin and the 82nd not taking Nijmegen bridge when they were supposed to (day one), they then spent time waiting for the boats to arrive.
XXX Corps arrived and they get the boats on again American soldiers assembled them. The British engineers would have helped put them up. They then take the bridge with a river crossing by Robert Redford and the 82nd
Actual. Gavin went against the plan and went for the heights instead of the bridge on day one, he thought there was a threat from that direction and wanted to defend the LZ/DZs, there wasn't.
XXX Corps arrived at the bridge and 82nd SIX hours ahead of schedule (although previously in the movie at the Son bridge they say "we are 36 hours behind schedule..".)
Once XXX Corps arrived at Nijmegen they ended up taking the bridge themselves, using the majority of fuel and ammo they had. The first few tanks crossed the bridge before the 82nd made it to the north end after they were pushed downstream in the boats.
"You're just going to sit there ....... and ... drink tea?" No, they had no fuel to push through to Arnhem and the first tank that crossed was knocked out and the second one damaged.
Gavin would go on to be caught in some lies about who gave the order to take the heights before the bridge. This in some circles is the most damaging part of the operation.
In the movie (made for the American audience) it couldn't be shown as it would have made it a large flop in its targeted audience.
A small editing problem with the boats arriving to Robert Redford and the 82nd, they had water still in them after sitting in a truck for days, but that's nothing to do with the history of the movie, just a movie inconsistency
Redford's character starts saying "Hail Mary, full of grace" there was a commander that did something like it and he said it was to try to keep his men rowing in time.
A similar story in the movie is when the First Sergeant takes his commander to the field hospital and demands that he is seen. A veteran told a similar story to Ryan and he incorporated it.
Think two more points.
The men standing on the church tower, looking over the battlefield.
Browning "Not in Monty's plan at all"
Well of course it wasn't, it wasn't Monty's plan. It was Brereton's and Browning's plan.
Then Gene Hackman has the Anti war line. "One man says to another, let's have a war. Everybody dies"
No commander can afford to think like that, and I'm sure one that high in rank definitely wouldn't.
Lastly as I'm at the end of the movie
Browning and Urquhart
"I've just been onto Monty, very proud and pleased"
"Well as you know I thought we tried to go a bridge too far "
There are no transcripts or records that show that Browning or anyone else said that line.
Minor on History, focusing on military history
Rich’s Take: Just as the crew referred to the Longest Day as “vignette-ey”, this film felt the same. Lots of stars (in 1977) based on actual participants fighting over various bridges along “Hell's Highway” (Highway 69. Nice.)
My original intent for the history of this operation was to cover my thesis that MARKET GARDEN was General Montgomery’s (“Monty”) chance to try out his Normandy idea to drop paratroopers farther behind the lines. My thanks to Micah for our discussion regarding this (and for bringing Ambrose’s overratedness to my attention.) In looking through my sources, I was remembering incorrectly – it wasn’t Monty, it was General Marshal – Chief of Staff of the US Army, Eisenhower’s boss - who wanted to drop paratroopers further inland during the Normandy invasion.
For those playing the home game, “this is a film set in post Normandy WWII Europe so which episode of Band of Brothers is it?”, this is episode 4 – Replacements.
You can spend pages and pages diving into the minutia of every engagement of this operation. Rather than do that, I’m going to give a brief synopsis (under talking points), as well as focus on a few key points depicted in the film, plus some trivia as per usual.
The opening newsreel footage has a voiceover spoken by the actual Kate ter Horst. The “angel of Arnhem” who owned/lived at the house in Oosterbeek which became a British aid station.
The title shares the name of the book by Cornelius Ryan and is from an apocryphal conversation from General Browning to Monty, “I fear we may be going a bridge too far.”
We hear several times in this – and it has become a trope – that the objective is only defended by “old men and kids.”
Hardy Kruger: Plays the only main character who wasn’t an actual participant in the real-life events. He is an amalgamation of several German commanders. The actual German commander, SS Brigadefuhrer Heinz Harmel did not want his name used in the film.
When Kruger was 16 he was assigned to the 38th Waffen-SS Division after “being raised to love Hitler.” He became anti-Nazi and refused orders to attack an American unit. He was sentenced to death, but granted reprieve by another officer. He hid in Tyrol until the end of the war. (He co-starred in a Howard Hawks guilty pleasure of mine, Hatari, alongside – who else – John Wayne and Red Buttons on a team of folks who capture animals for zoos.)
The Plan and Operation: MARKET GARDEN was the allied advance into the Netherlands in September 1944. The objective was to push over the Rhine River and into the heavy industrial center of Germany. The idea being you could knock out Germany’s industrial center and break them quickly and win the war sooner.
The film does a good job of giving the viewer the overall general plan – these units will drop here, take and hold these bridges, and wait for the British armor crops to come up the road. This type of film has the advantage over a character driven film where some officer has to read the hero’s service record to them so that the audience can hear how spectacular they are. In this type of film, the viewer is given the viewpoint of a soldier or observer in the briefing room.
The timeline was for the British XXX Corps to reach the 101st Airborne by day 1, the 82nd Airborne by day 2, and the 1st Airborne by day 4 (a distance of roughly 62 miles.)
The Germans were prepared for this push. Germany's industrial center would be an obvious target, and just as Germany had done in WWI, knew that the obvious route was through the low countries.
This was the last German victory of the war, and the second-to-last offensive (the German counter-offensive to hold the bridges.) The final offensive (which was not a success) was of course the Battle of the Bulge.
“Tone” of the Film: This film is one of several filmed in the late 70’s/early 80’s that start to present a less than ideal version of the military (particularly the military command.) We see officers ignoring intelligence (recon photos, radio issues) and appearing callous toward the ordeal of the typical fighting man. Prior to the late 60’s, all the U.S. made war films were “rah rah rah, gung-ho, America fuck yeah” in tone. See similar themes persisting in the Dirty Dozen (1967) through Rambo (1982.)
The idea that Monty’s plan was terrible, and his arrogance was to blame for a disaster wasn’t a common sentiment until after the book was published and film was made – this book/film is partly to blame for the public’s enduring opinion of Monty.
SSgt. Charles Dohun: Did actually hold a pistol to a doctor to get him to save his Captain’s life. The circumstances were different, however. Cpt. Johnson was thought dead and already on the “dead pile” when SSgt. Dohun found him (supposedly to look for valuables to send to his family) and noticed he was alive. When this was brought to the doctor’s attention, he told Dohun there was nothing he could do. SSgt. Dohun held a Luger he had taken as a war prize on the doctor.
Things I can’t prove and have no idea how to find out but is an interesting thought discussion:
This film was released in 1977. Production procured and used 11, C-47 Skytrain “Dakotas” to reenact the assault jumps in Market Garden. The filming of these scenes may very well be the last time so many C-47’s were flying together.
- LeGrand K. Johnson | Military Wiki | Fandom (Accessed 05/15/22)
- Hardy Krüger - Wikipedia (Accessed 05/19/22)
- A Bridge Too Far. Cornelius Ryan. 1974.
- Collins Atlas of World War II. John Keegan. 2006.
- D-Day. Stephens Ambrose. 1994