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A Bridge too Far - Cornelius Ryan

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Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks / Unabridged Edition: July 2012

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      10.02.2013 19:14
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      This is the audio version of Cornelius Ryan's highly praised 1974 book A Bridge Too Far. The book tells the story of 1944's Operation Market Garden, one of the most ambitious and daring Allied offensives on the Western Front during World War 2. Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne military operation in history and had been designed to cut through the German position at Arnhem and lay the ground for a crossing of the Rhine. The Allies would then shorten their supply lines, capture the Ruhr (Germany's main industrial region and so of course essential to their war effort) and be able to strike directly into the heart of Germany. The war would be over much sooner than expected. That was the plan anyway. The operation was devised by the usually methodical and conservative Field Marshal Montgomery (or "Monty" as he was better known) and was remarkably complex, audacious and controversial. Until Ryan's book came out in the early 1970s, Operation Market Garden had hardly been written about at all and was largely forgotten or ignored (certainly in comparison to Normandy, The Battle of the Bulge, Stalingrad etc). Why had it apparently been so glossed over whenever the story of World War 2 was told? The most salient reason is that the operation did not meet its grandiose objectives and cost the Allies more lives than they lost during D-Day. Victors tend to write the history and no one was too keen to wax lyrical about a failed operation that highlighted not only mistakes in Allied strategy but also the sometimes stroppy and distrustful relationship during the war between the military leaders of Britain and the United States.

      As Ryan explains in some detail, German resistance was much fiercer and more formidable than anyone had anticipated and for once fate was on the side of the Wehrmacht. They fortuitously had some resting SS Panzer Divisions in exactly the right place and the Allies had (wrongly) presumed that any German units in the target area would still be ravaged from the long Normandy retreat and incapable of too much resistance. The operation eventually ended in the destruction of an entire British Parachute Division. The second reason why Operation Market Garden probably wasn't written about much before Ryan produced his masterful volume is that it was mainly a British operation in terms of planning and command and so had little interest for American writers. This is a great book and perhaps the greatest feat of Ryan is that he manages to tackle one of the most complicated operations of the war and yet still allow you to feel like you can follow everything and aren't deluged by military historian waffle. Ryan (who I always assumed was American but was in fact an Irishman who later became a journalist in the United States and was also a war correspondent in several theatres of World War 2) reminds me very of another American World War 2 historian named John Toland. They both produced books that were exhaustive and ambitious but managed to keep them very accessible and use a novelistic structure.

      Operation Market Garden was very complex with British, American and Polish paratroopers and interlocking specifically timed objectives that had to be met for the whole operation to be successful. Why Arnhem? It had two bridges that spanned the Rhine and was located in the perfect geographical position (from an Allied point of view). To put it simply: Montgomery's 21st Army Group would not have to change its axis as it advanced and once across the Rhine could threaten the Ruhr and the West Wall. I have to give Ryan credit for being even handed in his treatment of the real life figures in the book and of the mistakes and battles. There is scope for a complete character assassination of Montgomery here but Ryan doesn't go for that open goal in the way that most military armchair historians would (with relish too). The background and probing of his personality and motivation is certainly fascinating though. When Montgomery first came to prominence in the war it was as the successful commander of a British Commonwealth army fighting the Africa Korps and Italians in North Africa. But when the Americans entered the war, Montgomery, a notorious prima donna who was difficult to control, suddenly found himself with an American superior (Eisenhower) and American generals stealing his much cherished limelight. It was a situation he never really got used to or accepted easily. Market Garden was his last chance to grab the spotlight back and go down in history as the man who ended the war early.

      He badgered Eisenhower (who he didn't rate at all as a military strategist and even managed to insult in his memoirs while Eisenhower was STILL President!) into accepting his plan despite objections from US commanders and even drafted the plans for the operation with his British staff in secret, withholding them from American generals. One of the interesting things about Montgomery in relation to Market Garden is that he had a reputation for being a conservative leader who was notoriously meticulous and slow in his approach to war. While his peers disliked him, the common foot soldier respected Montgomery because they felt he would always make sure they were well prepared and would not sell their lives cheaply. This time though Monty was practically cavalier and demanding an operation of extraordinary risk and daring. Montgomery always claimed that Market Garden was a success and that he wanted to save lives by ending the war but it was certainly not his finest hour. The operation was ultimately undone by a number of failures in logistics, transport, the timing of paratroop drops and the failure of Allied intelligence to accurately predict the resistance they would meet.

      The book is quite harrowing in places, especially the bitter struggle of the British 1st Airborne Division towards the end. They were dropped 60 miles behind German lines but were surrounded and heavily outnumbered in the end. Despite this they held out for over a week with terrible losses. It's interesting but there was a certain sense of chivalry here that you couldn't imagine on the Eastern Front. The Germans allowed the badly injured to be evacuated. The passages involving the Germans trying to defend bridges and work out which one might be threatened or which they might have to destroy are fascinating at times and you really wouldn't have wanted to be a German officer charged with the responsibility. The writing is never too purple or pretentious and nicely judged too. It captures the scene. "Binoculars to his eyes, he stood on the roof of a bunker near the village of Lent. From this position on the northern bank of the Waal barely a mile from the main Nijmegen highway bridge, he could see smoke and haze off to his right and hear the crash of battle." I really enjoyed listening to this as I was chauffeur driven too and thro from my stately home and would certainly pick up the printed version in the future.

      The book is read by someone called Clive Chafer (I've never heard of him either) and he's ok. He doesn't chafe (see what I did there?) too much. I looked him up and he was born in Britain but went to work in the United States. Thankfully there isn't too much of that weird transatlantic accent thing going on. I hate that. A Bridge Too Far is an excellent account of a chapter of World War 2 that many people (including myself) might have been a trifle foggy on beforehand. More than anything the book is about the courage of the men who found themselves in a near hopeless situation in the end but still fought with fanatical determination. Descriptions of an armada of planes and parachutists filling the skies are always quite captivating today too because with modern helicopters and transport planes the era of thousands of paratroopers dropping out of the sky is long gone. At the time of writing you can buy the audio version of this for about £15. That seems a bit high to me so I would wait for a better deal to surface.

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