‘Bring up the PIAT!’

Before we begin, I have a confession to make.

I bloody love this film. It’s got EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY. Sean Connery. Anthony Hopkins. Michael Caine. Robert Redford. Gene Hackman. Dirk Bogarde. Ryan O’Neal. Edward Fox. XXX Corps. Hell’s Highway. Hail Mary. It’s got tanks. It’s got guns. It’s got aircraft. It’s got Nazis. It’s got explosions. It’s got drama and action in spades. In the words of James Holland… ‘What’s not to like?!’

In fact, I love it nearly as much as I love Where Eagles Dare.  However, whereas Clint Eastwood and his self-loading Schmeisser, Richard Burton and his incredibly complex back story, the secret Nazi helicopter, and Mary Ure’s false eyelashes, make absolutely no attempt at historical accuracy, A Bridge Too Far has taken on a life all of its own, shaping our understanding of Operation Market Garden.

According to one critic,

Some major and minor details aside, the film is remarkably historically accurate, capturing the broad sweep of events, seeking to render the chaos and carnage of warfare and, crucially, depicting failure.’[1]

Hmmm… ‘major and minor details aside’? That’s quite a qualification…

I’m not interested in gaffs by the props department, the wrong sort of tank or aircraft, wooden acting, Gene Hackman’s dodgy Polish accent, or purple smoke – what I’m talking about here is the power of film to inform our understanding of history.

A Bridge Too Far[2] was released in 1977; in the year which saw the launch of the hugely successful Star Wars[3], the big-budget, all-star-cast Second World War film was already an anachronism. Yet this film (produced and funded by Joseph Levine, allegedly as the result of a death-bed promise to Cornelius Ryan, and directed by Richard Attenborough), which received very mixed reviews at the time of its release, continues to influence historians and inform popular understanding of Operation MARKET GARDEN.

I’m going to look at the background to the film  and the influence of Ryan’s book of the same title[4] (derived from an alleged remark by Lt. Gen.  Browning) from which it was adapted. The myths created by the ‘major and minor’ inaccuracies described above and perpetuated by the film will be explored, and the role of ‘war film as history’ will  also be considered. I’m particularly looking at it from an ‘air power’ point of view, otherwise this article would be 200,000 words and not 5000.

One thing is for sure – some of you will agree with me, many of you won’t. We could talk about this for YEARS.

I have a copy of Ryan’s book, ordered from a second hand bookstore. When it arrived, it was apparent from the dedication that it had clearly belonged to one of the men ‘who was there’. In the fly leaf, and scattered between the pages, were scraps of paper, each with handwritten notes and observations on Ryan’s text.

To Eric, From Charlie: B Troop, 1st Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers, 1st Parachute Brigade.’

I never found out who ‘Eric’ was.

Whoever you are, this article is dedicated to you and your mate Charlie.

Bring up the PIAT! Dedication
To Eric, From Charlie

OMG! Operation Market Garden

As the Allied campaign in Normandy came to a hard-fought conclusion in August 1944, disagreements on the route by which the Allies should progress emerged at the highest levels of command. Operation MARKET GARDEN – the seizing of crucial bridges by airborne forces at Eindhoven (US 101st), Nijmegen (US 82nd) and Arnhem ( British 1st Airborne), to aid the progression of Allied ground forces (spearheaded by XXX Corps) across the Rhine – was the means by which Field Marshal Montgomery hoped to advance into the Ruhr and on, eventually, to Berlin, at the expense of American forces further south.

Adapted from earlier plans to utilise airborne troops to aid the Allied push through Holland (Operations LINNET and COMET),  MARKET GARDEN is portrayed in  A Bridge Too Far as a brilliant and daring operation which was doomed to failure from the outset by incompetent and arrogant commanders, hamstrung by uncooperative and over-cautious Air Force planners and deliberately-suppressed unfavourable intelligence.

The film (and the book which preceded it) have exerted enormous influence on both popular and academic understanding of MARKET GARDEN.  Historian Sebastian Ritchie[5] observes that many eminent and notable historians have ‘bought into’ and perpetuated the myths created by A Bridge Too Far. Even today, many of those myths (particularly those surrounding the role of air power) persist. Ritchie’s brilliant book, Arnhem: Myth and Reality completely dismantles much of the mythology which surrounds this ill-fated and tragic operation, and I’ll be looking at his work in detail below.

We’re going to put to bed the following OMG myths right now:  

  1. That this enormous airborne operation was in some way unusual because it failed.
  2. That Allied Air Forces hampered the planning of the operation, particularly in relation to the selection of the drop and landing zones (DZs and LZs), the phasing of the drop over several days, and failed to properly support the operation through resupply and the provision of close air support.
  3. That Allied commanders (in particular Browning) deliberately suppressed unfavourable intelligence regarding the build-up of German armoured forces in the Arnhem area (yeah, Dirk Bogarde and those photos…)
  4. That the Arnhem part of the operation failed because of faulty wireless equipment.
  5. That Browning was largely to blame for the failure of the operation.

An unusual failure. Except it wasn’t.  

Airborne warfare was an entirely new concept when the Second World War broke out. Nobody had done this before, and to be brutally honest, nobody was very good at it. Airborne operations earlier in the war (by both Axis and Allies) had produced very mixed and often chaotic results with high casualties (for example Operation TORCH, Tunisia 1942; Operation HUSKY, Sicily, 1943; Operation MERCURY, Crete, 1941). With the possible exception of the capture of Pegasus Bridge, even the airborne element of OVERLORD had resulted in confusion and the dispersal of airborne forces over a wide area, particularly on the Cotentin peninsular.

Yet the planners of MARKET GARDEN failed to learn the lessons of these previous failures, and instead conceived an extremely ambitious and complicated plan. The inherent weaknesses of airborne warfare[6], namely the vulnerability of transport and supply aircraft to attack (and weather), the vulnerability of lightly-equipped troops to enemy counter-attack, the necessity of speedy reinforcement and resupply, and the requirement for urgent link-up with ground forces (or extraction) were perhaps overlooked, or at least downplayed, in pursuit of a dazzling objective – the crossing of the Rhine and the entry into Germany.

John Buckley notes that ‘all large scale airborne operations in the Second World War had ended in brawls’.[7] None ever came close to achieving all of their operational objectives, yet MARKET GARDEN could only work if every one of the numerous objectives were secured. If any one element was unsuccessful, the whole operation would crumble. A Bridge Too Far portrays the failure of the operation as a ‘one off’ – the one time the Allies got things wrong in the Victory Campaign– but seen in the wider context of airborne warfare in the Second World War, it could be argued that MARKET GARDEN simply went exactly the same way as most other major airborne operations which had preceded it.

Where MARKET GARDEN did differ from its predecessors was in its size, objectives and ambitions. Given that several of the major planners on the British side (Montgomery, Browning, Urquhart) had no airborne experience at all and very little understanding of airborne doctrine and practice, the operation was doomed from the start. The surprise is not that it failed, but that it didn’t go pearshaped even earlier on.

The Role of Air Power

Airborne operations cannot exist without air power, yet in the film the Allied Air Forces appear only on the periphery. Air Force commanders are portrayed as obstructive and difficult, interfering in and disrupting an otherwise audacious and brilliant plan, condemning it to eventual failure by insisting upon air drops on successive days, selecting unsuitable landing and drop zones (LZs/DZs) some 8 miles distant from the bridge at Arnhem, failing to adequately resupply troops on the ground and being too cautious in the deployment of tactical air support.

These themes are commonly reflected in the historiography, with  Stephen Badsey even arguing that MARKET GARDEN was the only battle in the entire NW Europe campaign the Allies ‘fought with Allied air inferiority, a large part of it self-inflicted’.[8]  I beg to differ!  Yet the escort operations were so successful that not a single aircraft was intercepted by the Luftwaffe during the airlift phase, despite the lack of radar coverage and fighter control in northern Holland.  

Dave Winstanley questions whether a more effective application of airpower could have resulted in an Allied victory, noting that ‘the whole operation rested on foundations built from air power…some of these foundations were fundamentally flawed’.[9]  However Ritchie goes so far as to conclude that any part played by Air Power in the failure of the operation was inconsequential (although given his position as ‘official historian’ of the Air Historical Branch, Ritchie’s pro-air power views are unsurprising).[10]

The Airlift

Winstanley argues that the dissolution of the delivery of the British 1st Airborne, with the subsequent loss of surprise, was a major factor in the operation’s failure, and that Urquhart’s basic battle plan was fundamentally sound. ‘The decision by Brereton to veto a 2nd wave during the first 24 hours effectively doomed Urquhart’s plan to failure before he had left England’.[11]  Everybody knows that, right? The film portrays transport aircraft full of troops stuck in fog-bound England while Urquhart and his men are in desperate need of reinforcement in Arnhem.

However, in reality there were simply insufficient aircraft available to carry all three divisions and their equipment in a single lift, and the drops had to be spread out over three days with priority being given to the southern objectives in Eindhoven and Nijmegen, to aid the initial advance of XXX Corps.[12] Ritchie argues that historians have typically misunderstood Urquhart’s battle plan; the troops in the second drop/landing were meant to establish a defensive line west of Arnhem near the LZ and on the northern perimeter of the town – they were never meant to be anywhere near the bridges. As it was, this plan achieved nothing and heavy casualties were suffered by this contingent.[13]

Two drops in a single day (one of which would have been at dusk) would have been incredibly difficult; the implied criticism in the film, and the open criticism by historians subsequently, completely fails to take into account the requirements for accompanying fighter escorts and flak suppression, let alone the refueling and reloading of thousands of men onto the transport aircraft, which would have had to be turned around, refueled and dispatched all together, in very congested airspace, and partially in darkness.

Selection of Landing/Drop Zones

Much is made in A Bridge Too Far of the selection of the LZ/DZs at Arnhem, and in particular the insistence by Air Force commanders that a site 8 miles west of Arnhem at Wolfheze be used. The selection of the LZs is frequently cited as the reason for the failure of 1st Airborne to secure both ends of the bridge. Urquhart allegedly wanted to land near to the bridge but was overruled by Hollingshurt (who had responsibility for the RAF troop carriers of 38 Group) due to the anti-aircraft defences in the vicinity. It’s been argued that the importance of securing both ends of the bridge should have outweighed concerns over enemy anti-aircraft defences[14], but Hollingshurst’s caution was justified.

MARKET GARDEN was the first large scale drop in daylight, and the first immediately adjacent to a large town; it was 64 miles inside enemy territory, and the intelligence indicated a steady buildup of flak in Arnhem and heavy anti-aircraft measures around the Luftwaffe base at Deelen.[15] The ground south of the Arnhem bridge was totally unsuitable for glider landings, consisting of polderland and ditches; the only large open fields nearby were those actually chosen. These had already been selected for the abandoned Operation COMET just a couple of weeks previously, and there is no evidence that Urquhart  (or anybody else) raised any complaints then; Ritchie believes Urquhart’s concerns have been exaggerated by historians.[16]

Winstanley’s assessment that the selection of the landings zones 8 miles away from the road bridge was in total contradiction to the fundamentals of airborne warfare, and flew in the face of all airborne warfare to date, is completely dismantled by Ritchie.[17] He argues that this line of thought completely underestimates the immense complexities in planning and supporting airborne operations, and fails to consider the events in their proper historical context.

The issue of the LZs, although a central feature of the film, is perhaps a red herring, and detracts from the fact that Urquhart’s battle plan was poor. Even on 17th September, Urquhart and Lathbury threw away the advantage of a concentrated daylight landing of a large number of troops by splitting the force into three, then sending them along different routes into Arnhem, thereby greatly diminishing their prospects of overcoming the German defenders.

Bring Up the PIAT! General Sosabowski
Not Gene Hackman… the real Sosabowski.

Failure of re-supply

One of the most memorable scenes in A Bridge Too Far shows the failed attempts of the RAF to drop supplies to beleaguered British troops in Arnhem. Steer[18] concludes that there was nothing wrong with the overall concept for airborne logistic support or with the plan for logistical support at Arnhem, yet the British were short of supplies and many supply aircraft were shot down. This has been attributed to a breakdown in communications and the inability of the Allies to adapt their plan when things went wrong, and the fact that the Germans very quickly overran the supply zones[19], rather than as a result of any particular failings by Allied Air Force pilots. Urquhart was unable to get in contact with the supply aircraft, no contingency zones had been identified and supply pilots had been instructed to ignore all signals from the ground. Once again, the airborne forces on the ground were let down by totally inadequate planning which hampered proper communication. It was a balls-up from start to finish.

Close Air Support

The film portrays Urquhart’s besieged forces in Arnhem desperately trying to call in close air support, which never arrives; the lack of tactical support is a common theme in the historiography. Beevor[20], Badsey[21] and Winstanley[22], (like Ryan before them), appear to accept Urquhart’s description of the ‘disappointingly meagre offensive air support’[23] without challenge. Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF) were criticized for failing to provide adequate air support for the operation as a whole, not just the Arnhem portion, however there was plenty of close air support available to pave the way for the movement of XXX Corps on the first day of the operation. Ritchie argues that any deficiencies in close air support resulted from Montgomery imposing the operation on Allied Air Forces with only 7 days’ notice, and that the problems over Arnhem lay on the ground, not in the air.[24] How can an operation of this size and complexity be planned in 7 days?

1st British Airborne were totally unfamiliar with close air support techniques, tactics and procedures, lacked ground to air radios, had no support facility in their signals organisation and were not linked to the general army signals net used for requesting air support. Only a handful of requests for air strikes ever got through to 2TAF (who were too far away in England to be able to respond quickly), via a very convoluted route, and a majority of those lacked precise targeting coordinates.

Critics also fail to take into account that 2TAF and Bomber Command were simultaneously supporting other elements of Montgomery’s forces elsewhere, particularly First Canadian Army around the Channel ports. Most of 84 Group’s squadrons were too far south to be of any help; only 83 Group were in a position to operate in Holland  but their fighter bombers were based too far away from Arnhem, which was out of radar range anyway. Monty, being Monty, did not understand these difficulties, mainly because he deliberately chose not to consult any senior air force commanders about his plans, having had a massive fall out with RAF chiefs earlier.[25]

The Photos…

Whenever MARKET GARDEN is discussed, inevitably the issue of Browning and the ‘suppressed intelligence photographs’ will be raised even now, 76 years after the event, and 34 years after the film. It’s the first thing anyone (well, my dad) mentions when the subject of OMG comes up. No more than five pages are devoted to it by Ryan in his book,[26] and yet, having been seized upon by Levine’s screenplay writer Goldman, it is the main axis upon which the dramatic narrative of A Bridge Too Far revolves.

Ryan noted, ‘All down the Allied chain of command the evaluation of intelligence on the Panzers in the Arnhem area was magnificently bungled’.[27] In one of the most famous scenes in the film, Major Fuller (portraying intelligence officer Brian Urquhart) shows Browning a number of recently-gathered aerial intelligence photographs which allegedly prove the existence of German armour in the area. Browning then suppresses the intelligence, while  the anxious Fuller is sent home ‘for a rest’, paving the way for the Browning to be characterised as the callous and ambitious ‘villain of the piece’ when the operation ultimately fails.

However, Brian Urquhart’s recollection of events was at best questionable; despite Ryan’s assertions in his book as to the veracity of all of the veterans’ accounts, Brian Urquhart’s story was backed up with neither independent witness evidence nor contemporaneous documents, yet what Ritchie labels ‘the intelligence legend’ persists. The possibility that Brian Urquhart exaggerated the implications of the photographs (unconsciously or otherwise) cannot be ignored. Again, Levine’s film presents a skewed version of the facts; crucial intelligence was not ignored or suppressed, but rather Allied commanders made calculated risks on the basis of that intelligence.

With reference to the presence of German armour, Montgomery later commented,

‘We knew it was there. But we were wrong in supposing it could not fight effectively; its battle state was far beyond our expectation.[28]

The presence of SS Panzer units in the vicinity of Arnhem was one of the reasons why Montgomery had pulled the plug on COMET and implemented the much bigger MARKET GARDEN in the first place. Buckley believes ‘victory disease’ had infiltrated intelligence assessments, and that the real failure by Allied commanders was their gross underestimation of the capability of German units in the area.[29]

The Wrong Crystals

Throughout A Bridge Too Far, airborne troops (especially those in Arnhem) struggle to communicate with each other and with their headquarters. Much is made of the issue of defective or broken radio equipment, which ultimately prompts Urquhart to set off alone on his ill-advised reconnaissance trip. What WAS he thinking?  

These communications failure and faulty radios have been explored at length by historians but Bennett[30] argues that better communications ultimately would not have made any difference. By the time German opposition had solidified on D-Day + 1, with mortars, light flak and armoured vehicles at their disposal, there was really no chance of anyone relieving Frost at the bridge, even with communications systems operating at their best. Bennett’s assessment echoes that of Lewis Golden’s 1984 findings,[31] to the effect that signals actually worked better than expected, and that the failure of communications was neither a principal reason for the failure of forces to reach the bridge in numbers, nor a reason for defeat generally. The issues lay not so much with the equipment but in the lack of a coordinated, cohesive and comprehensive communications strategy, inadequate training and hasty planning, and in the resultant failure to follow operational procedures “on the ground”.

It is to be noted that for the 101st Airborne at Eindhoven, using their own systems and signals personnel, communications went smoothly; however where there was a crossover between national systems and personnel, things quickly went awry.

Nobody wanted to blame the men who fought, and it was easier for the official report to blame the equipment.[32] Urquhart himself was partially responsible for initiating the myth, which was then perpetuated by Ryan in both the book and the film, but procedural errors and mishaps were far more consequential in effecting communications than the perceived inadequacies of the equipment itself.

Bring Up the PIAT! Sean Connery as Roy Urquhart
Sean Connery as Roy Urquhart

Blame and Recrimination

Ryan’s book, the foundation for the film, contains no analysis and reaches no conclusions about MARKET GARDEN. It is simply a journalistic account of events, a description of what happened by the men who were there. To obtain material for the book, Ryan and his team conducted interviews with veterans and Dutch civilians[33] (many of them by questionnaire) decades after the event, and after many of the most important participants (including Browning) had died.

The resultant book is curiously skewed in favour of the land forces; considering Allied air forces played such an enormous role in the operation, Ryan’s decision not to interview any senior RAF personnel is an odd one. Criticisms by land-based commanders of air power issues (for example Urquhart’s criticism of the lack of close air support and the selection of the LZ/DZs) are accepted at face value, and not subject to challenge. Ritchie comments that it is difficult to imagine how anyone could expect such a ‘one-dimensional array of sources’ to provide a balanced or comprehensive view of a joint operation.[34]

 Bring Up the PIAT! A Bridge Too Far
My dog-eared, second-hand copy.

Questionable decisions made on the ground (for example Gavin’s delays in attempting to seize the bridges at Nijmegen while focusing on objectives in the Groesbeek Heights; Urquhart’s battle plan to split his forces into three in Arnhem, and his odd decision to leave his men to go walkabout) are not critically examined. Given Ryan’s heavy reliance upon the memoirs of Urquhart and other participants, and the recollections of Gavin (with whom he was in regular correspondence) this is hardly surprising; their input naturally ensured that attention  was deflected away from any failings on their part. Both Urquhart and Horrocks acted as consultants on set.

Neither book nor film affords any opportunity for the reader/viewer to ascertain the views and recollections of any senior Air Force Commanders (British or American), either in relation to planning concerns, the selection of the DZs/LZs, the mechanics of the airlift, flak suppression in the vicinity, resupply issues, or tactical air support to the troops on the ground. The impressive and speedy response by German forces to the operation is largely glossed over.

Contemporaneous influences also helped shape both storyline and characterisations. When the film was commissioned, the Vietnam War had just ended. In the second half of the 1970s anti-war movies were very much in vogue both in the film industry and with US audiences.[35] Strategists and generals getting it wrong at the expense of the ordinary soldier is a motif almost as old as cinema itself, and one which is a central theme of the film.

Curiously, Montgomery escapes criticism, as does Eisenhower, who enthusiastically sanctioned Montgomery’s plan for MARKET GARDEN but who was clearly beyond reproach for US filmgoers. Montgomery is barely mentioned at all in the film (apart from General Sosabowski’s ‘God Bless Field Marshal Montgomery!’ as he embarks). Ryan chose not to interview the Field Marshal, relying instead on a much earlier interview and upon Montgomery’s own memoirs, first published in 1958, yet he is given (almost) the last word in Ryan’s book:

‘In my-prejudiced-view, if the operation had been properly backed from its inception, and given the aircraft, ground forces, and administrative resources necessary for the job -it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes, or the adverse weather, or the presence of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in the Arnhem area. I remain Market Garden’s unrepentant advocate.’[36]

That’s Monty all over. ‘90% successful’.

This idea of the failure of air power and planning scuppering Montgomery’s magnificent plan is accepted without challenge and developed further in the film. However, the failure of  MARKET GARDEN, according to Ritchie, ‘stemmed overwhelmingly from Montgomery’s decision to use at minimal notice an extremely high risk medium of warfare in an equally high-risk, conceptually-flawed and poorly-led undertaking based on contradictory intelligence and a chronic underestimate of the German Armed Forces’ residual fighting capability.’ [37]

Given the multiple failures at operational and tactical levels, for Levine and his scriptwriter Goldman to select Browning as the ‘fall guy’ was cruel and unjust. Browning was no longer alive to defend himself, and therefore an easy target; that said, there is no doubt that both he and Montgomery must be subject to strident criticism for their evident misunderstanding and over-estimation of the capabilities of airborne troops and operations.

Boy Browning - The Fall Guy
Dirk Bogarde as Boy Browning – The Fall Guy

Critical Reception

NJ Cull, writing about The Great Escape[38], comments, ‘There are many moments in the film in which it becomes clear that we are watching an American depiction of Englishness’[39]. Much the same can be said about the portrayals of senior British officers in A Bridge Too Far. Cull also refers to the use of British characters to symbolise lovers of war and Americans as reluctant but resourceful cynics – a popular and typical Hollywood trope of post-war cinema[40] – which is clearly present in A Bridge Too Far.

British commanders are presented as eccentric, posh and enthusiastic (Edward Fox, I’m looking at you), but largely incompetent, and the lower ranks as long-suffering but courageous; Poles are portrayed as the brave and ‘put upon’ victims; handsome (Redford and O’Neal? I mean come on…), brave and sceptical Americans only fail because the British mess things up; Germans are either heel-clicking Nazi fanatics or incompetent and pompous parodies (shout out to Hardy Kruger).

Upon release, the film received a cool reception. Many British critics felt that the film was aimed at the American market and there was some discomfort surrounding the lavish and ostentatious publicity campaign. McKenna noted,

‘Given that the film dealt with war and human tragedy, depicting events that were within living memory, such excess may well have served to damage the film’s reputation even before it had been seen…The fact that the media drive was, arguably, inappropriately ostentatious for the subject matter, running alongside fears raised in the press of historical inaccuracy meant that, almost inevitably, the film would attract criticism.’[41]

Who doesn’t love a good war film?

Hundreds of books and articles have been written about MARKET GARDEN and it remains fertile (and lucrative) ground for historians. For many people however, their first (and sometimes only) exposure to the tragic events of September 1944 is A Bridge Too Far, just as The Longest Day[42] or more recently Saving Private Ryan[43] or Band of Brothers[44] may be their first exposure to the Normandy campaign. 

Second World War history was not taught in British schools and higher education establishments until towards the end of the 20th Century; this omission created a gaping void in national and individual knowledge of the war, and perhaps goes some way to explaining the British obsession with the events of 1939-45, a pre-occupation largely based on myth, mystique, misconception and half-truths promulgated by cinema and television. This obsession continues to inform and shape our national identity. Myths such as ‘Britain stood alone’ continue to resonate in popular culture, contributing to those notions of British exceptionalism so ingrained in the national psyche.

As a piece of cinematic entertainment, A Bridge Too Far is superb. Like most films of its genre, ‘entertainment’ is its raison d’etre, and any film (or book, however scholarly) is simply an ‘interpretation’ of historical events. The film was never intended to be a documentary.

When questioned about the historical accuracy of his film, particularly the scene where the Nijmegen bridge is captured by Julian Cook (Robert Redford) rather than the British Grenadier Guards, Levine responded, ‘The facts…would be difficult and more expensive…Doing it this way means an awful lot at the Box Office.’[45] ( I was mightily relieved to learn that the legendary ‘Hail Mary’ scene where Redford and his men row across the Waal under heavy fire was actually pretty accurate.)

Where the ‘Second World War film’ comes into its own is as a portal, a window into the past. How many of us have been inspired to dash off to the library or bookshop, having just watched The Dambusters,[46]  The Desert Fox[47] or Downfall[48]A Bridge Too Far is no different. Like any good historical drama (whether fact-based or entirely fictional), it has the power to sow in the viewer those first seeds of curiosity about MARKET GARDEN, and about the history of the Second World War generally.  

‘In providing access to popular memory…film (both made at the time and since) can be an invaluable resource – not as a straightforward reflection or literal reconstruction of events but as an imaginative incitement to argument and thought.’[49]

Yet A Bridge Too Far goes beyond this, continuing to inform and influence both popular and academic understanding of why MARKET GARDEN failed; the myths perpetuated by the film, particularly those surrounding the intelligence and the perceived failure of air power in the planning and delivery of the operation, remain stubbornly embedded. 

However, irrespective of your view on the historical accuracy or otherwise, you’ve got to agree  – it’s a bloody great film.

Now – has anybody seen that PIAT??


This article was inspired by a lecture by Professor John Buckley at the University of Wolverhampton on the Second World War Studies Masters’ Degree programme, and is adapted from my resultant essay. I thoroughly recommend John’s book, Monty’s Men, which considers the campaign in Northwest Europe, and the Masters’ Degree course. You can read more about the course here .

If you’ve enjoyed this article, you might enjoy Escaping to Colditz and Lack of Moral Fibre

You can read more about my book on Bomber Command, Above Us the Stars, here

Above Us The Stars book cover


[1] AT McKenna, ‘Joseph E Levine and A Bridge Too Far (1977): A Producer’s Labour of Love’,  Historical Journal of Film , Radio and Television,  Vol 21, No. 2, (June 2011), p.218.

[2] A Bridge Too Far, directed by Richard Attenborough, (Joseph E Levine Productions: 1977)

[3] Star Wars, directed by George Lucas, (Lucasfilm:1977).

[4] C Ryan, A Bridge Too Far,  (London:1974).

[5] Sebastian Ritchie, Arnhem: Myth and Reality – Airborne Warfare, Air Power and the Failure of Operation Market Garden, (Marlborough: 2019 [2011]), pp.17-19.

[6]  D Winstanley, ‘How critical was air power in  the failure of Operation Market Garden?’, Air Power Review, (2004), Vol 7, Issue 3, p.96.

[7] John Buckley, Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe, (London: 2013), p.208.

[8] Stephen Badsey, Arnhem 1944 – Operation Market Garden, (Oxford: 1993), p. 45.

[9] Winstanley, ‘How Critical was Air Power in the Failure of Operation Market Garden?’, p.94.

[10] Sebastian Ritchie, ‘Operation Market Garden: Did Air Power Fail?’ , Air Power Review, (2005), Vol 8 , Issue 2, pp. 26-47.

[11] Winstanley, ‘How Critical was Air Power in the Failure of Operation Market Garden?’, p.107.

[12] Ritchie, ‘Operation Market Garden: Did Air Power Fail?’, p38.

[13] Ritchie, ‘Operation Market Garden: Did Air Power Fail?’, p. 38.

[14] Winstanley, ‘How Critical was Air Power in the Failure of Operation Market Garden?’, p.100.

[15] Ritchie, ‘Operation Market Garden: Did Air Power Fail?’ p.35.

[16] Ritchie, ‘Operation Market Garden: Did Air Power Fail?’,  p. 35.

[17] Ritchie, ‘Operation Market Garden: Did Air Power Fail?’,  pp. 26-47

[18] Frank Steer, Arnhem – The Fight to Sustain, (South Yorkshire: 2000), p.164, cited in Winstanley, ‘How critical was air power in  the failure of Operation Market Garden?’ p 109.

[19] Winstanley, ‘How critical was air power in  the failure of Operation Market Garden?’ p 109.

[20] Beevor, Arnhem, Ch.21-26.

[21] Badsey, Arnhem 44, p.45.

[22] Winstanley, ‘How critical was air power in the failure of Operation Market Garden?’, p.108.

[23] Maj Gen R Urquhart, quoted  in Longson & Taylor, An Arnhem Odyssey (London:1991), and cited in Winstanley, ‘How critical was air power in the failure of Operation Market Garden?’, p107.

[24] Ritchie, ‘Operation Market Garden: Did Air Power Fail?’, p.40.

[25] Ritchie, Arnhem: Myth and Reality, p.226.

[26] Ryan, A Bridge Too Far,   pp. 85-87 and 107-110

[27] Ryan, A Bridge Too Far, p.111.

[28] Bernard Law Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery, (London: 1958), p.275.

[29] John Buckley, Monty’s Men, p. 216.

[30] D Bennett, ‘Airborne Communications in Operation Market Garden’, Canadian Military History, (2007), Vol.16, Issue 1, Article 4, pp.46-47.

[31] Lewis Golden, Echoes from Arnhem, (London:1984), p.27.

[32] Major John W. Greenacre, ‘Assessing the reasons for failure: 1st British Airborne Division Signal Communications during Operation Market Garden’, Journal of Defence Studies, (2004), Vol 4, No 3, pp. 283-308.

[33] Ryan, A Bridge Too Far, pp.459-460.

[34] Ritchie, Arnhem: Myth and Reality, p.14.

[35] For example, Hearts and Minds, directed by Peter Davis , (BBS Productions: 1974); Coming Home, directed by Hal Ashby, (Jerome Hellmann Productions: 1978);  Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Omni Zoetrope:1979).

[36] Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery, (London: 1958) , p.267, cited in Ryan, A Bridge Too Far,  p.455.

[37] Ritchie, ‘Operation Market Garden: Did Air Power Fail?’ ,  p. 44.

[38] The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges, (Mirisch Productions:1963).

[39] NJ Cull, ‘Great Escapes: “Englishness” and the Prisoner of War Genre’, Film History, (2002), Vol 14 pp. 282-295.

[40] See for example The Bridge on the River Kwai, directed by David Lean, (Horizon Pictures: 1957); The Guns of Navarone, directed by J Lee Thompson, (Highroad Productions:1961); Where Eagles Dare, directed by Brian J Hutton,  (Winkast Film Productions:1968).

[41] McKenna, Joseph E Levine and A Bridge Too Far, p.217.

[42] The Longest Day (based upon the Cornelius Ryan book, The Longest Day, (New York: 1959) ), directed by Annakin, Marton and Wicki, (20th Century Fox: 1962).

[43] Saving Private Ryan,  directed by Stephen Spielberg, (Amblin: 1998).

[44] Band of Brothers directed by PA Robinson et al, (Dreamworks/HBO:2001).

[45] McKenna,  ‘Joseph E Levine and A Bridge Too Far’, p. 218.

[46] The Dambusters, directed by Michael Anderson, (Associated British Picture Corporation: 1955).

[47] The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel, directed by Henry Hathaway, (20th Century Fox: 1951)

[48] Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, (Constantin Film: 2004).

[49] G Eley, ‘Finding the People’s War: Film,  British Collective Memory, and World War II’, American Historical Review, June 2001, pp .818-838.

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  1. Ian pegg June 14, 2021

    What a wonderful piece of writing, some new perspectives and a reminder of what a great film it is. Brilliant

  2. Ian Mc Nee June 15, 2021

    Once again a brilliant piece of writing Jane which has help my understanding of OMG. I’ve visited the bridge more or less on the strength of having seen the film many times but you are right. My conception of this battle in particular, and indeed everything about WW2, was coloured by what I saw and read in the media and films. We studied the Tudors and Stuarts in History at school and not something that had happened less than 20 years before. Thanks for the article, I’m pleased to see you are getting stuck into your Uni course, and I hope to see you soon.

  3. Michael Lotus June 18, 2021

    This is very good.

    As to Where Eagles Dare, I might also mention the all too brief appearance of Ingrid Pitt in a dirndl as a compelling and memorable element of the film.

    The movie is indeed brilliant as a war movie, as entertainment, and as a stirring tale. The historical deficiencies, and open questions, cannot change that.

    Beyond the scope of the book, and the movie, as you note, is the ultimate rationale for the operation, which resided in Montgomery’s mind. Despite his virtues as a commander, and they were significant, he was notably misleading about his own motives and plans, and he was always trying to sanitize the record in his favor. We sometimes forget how ruthless and callous he, and Eisenhower, and the other senior leaders were, and had to be, to prosecute this war. One way to look at it is that the war was in its final phase, these airborne divisions had been built at great expense, but the opportunities to use them before the ware ended were limited and fading. Expending them on a risk maneuver like this was worth doing.

    Another element here is that Montgomery was focusing on the postwar situation, and the Americans were not. They could go home, Britain would remain an island off the Northwest coast of Europe. Controlling the Low Countries and keeping any major power out of them had been an axiom of British foreign policy for centuries. It would be surprising if a British army commander in Europe didn’t attempt to seize this territory while he could, and with an eye to seizing all of the coast up to the Baltic, to keep the Russians out as well as the Germans.

  4. Des Sullivan July 26, 2021

    I would love Netflix to run this Film in Australia.

  5. Ryan Wulfsohn March 12, 2022

    Could Eric perhaps be Captain ( later Major General ) Eric Mackay who commanded A Troop 1 Para Squadron RE at Arnhem ?

    • Jane March 13, 2022 — Post author

      Hello Ryan! I did wonder that but apparently it’s Eric Booth and Charlie Grier. I’ve found some photos of them being taken prisoner, so I’ll add a postscript to the article!

      • Ryan Wulfsohn March 14, 2022

        Oh ok glad you eventually found out . Very good article, as are the other ones on this site . Keep up the good work and I must have a look at the episode of WW2TV, which I have watched quite a lot of lately .

  6. Nigel Leaney October 15, 2023

    Thankyou. A balanced view and well written.

    One thing to consider though is that the decision to split into three was in order to take different objectives. The lower route taken by 2nd Btn (Lion) and central route taken by 3rd Btn (Tiger) were intended to facilitate access to the road, pontoon and railway bridges. 2nd Btn reached the road bridge but 3rd Btn were blocked. The Railway bridge was lost as was the pontoon bridge before 2nd Btn were able to secure them.

    The route taken 1st Btn (Leopard) was intended to secure the north of Arnhem and prevent an envisaged counter attack. As it was, Lathbury delayed 1st Btn leaving the DZ and their route was also blocked. 1st Btn rerouted and attempted to provide reinforcements to the bridge but ultimately failed on the morning of the 19th. The rest, as they say, is history.

    • Jane October 17, 2023 — Post author

      Hello Nigel! Thanks for your comment – I think you’re right. The cumulative effect of wrong and poor decisions, large and small perhaps.

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