Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Review: A Bridge Too Far

If you haven't seen the movie version of Cornelius Ryan's A Bridge Too Far and don't have the patience or time for reading, I would say that the motion picture is a mostly faithful rendering of this battle. However, being a history minor, I wanted some more details. For the unitiated, A Bridge Too Far is about Operation Market-Garden, the largest paratrooper air raid ever attempted in World War II. It occurred in the Netherlands (Holland) in September 1944 and was the brain child of Britain's most renowned general, Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, the hero of El Alamein. Montgomery was a rival of America's greatest general of the time, George S. Patton, and enjoyed the same notoriety that Patton did, inside and outside his armies. Montgomery was also known as a rather slow and methodical general, so Market-Garden was rather out of his comfort zone.

Market-Garden was born in the two months following the Allies' successful landings at Normandy. After the breakout from the beachhead (led by Patton, incidentally), the American, British, Canadian, and other armies raced across northern Europe. The Germans were overwhelmed, even to the point of retreating faster than the Allies could advance. Both Montgomery and Patton wanted to deliver the killing blow to Germany and be the general to march on Berlin. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces, had limited supplies and a fractious coalition to hold together. My guess is that he knew Patton could invade Germany, but decided to give Montgomery his chance to keep Winston Churchill happy.

So what was Market-Garden? The first part of the plan, Market, was to drop 35,000 paratroopers--the U.S. 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, British 1st Airborne Division, and Polish Parachute Brigade--behind enemy lines and seize a series of bridges running along a single road leading across Holland to northern Germany. The Garden portion of the plan was to send Montgomery's XXX Corps, led by tank units, up the road to relieve the Market forces and roll into the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany.

It sounds impressive and ambitious--why don't we hear much about this operation--or the movie, for that matter? Because it failed. Tremendously, tragically, and horrifically. I won't go into all the details because those are what make the book and the movie so riveting. Having watched the movie, one might ask why I bothered to read the book, but then one might ask that about any book based on a movie. There was a time when people would scoff at seeing a movie version of a book, but I digress.

Being a student of philosophy and management thinking, I was interested in the philosophy behind the attack. I realize hindsight is 20/20, but if there were so many things going wrong on the front end, and if so many bright people had misgivings about the plan (including General James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne, General Maxwell Taylor of the 101st, and General "Roy" Urquhart of the British 1st Airborne), why wasn't it stopped? Here are some of the problems I was able to observe:

  • The previous fame and success of General Montgomery.
  • The uncharacteristic boldness of the plan (this is what sold Eisenhower on it--it was completely out of character for "Monty").
  • The Airborne divisions had been idle from their airborne duties for awhile, and were itching to get into the fight before the war ended.
  • A desire to win the war as soon as possible.
  • A desire not to "rock the boat."

So if you decide to sit down and read or watch A Bridge Too Far, remember that you are not just in for lessons on military strategy and tactics, but leadership theory. And the lessons will chill you.

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