September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far

  • John C. McManus
  • NAL Caliber
  • 512 pp.

A noted military historian turns his eye to World War II’s Operation Market Garden, focusing on the American point of view of the operation.

Reviewed by Gary Knight

Complementing Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far, a 1974 study of the British take on World War II’s Operation Market Garden, made into a feature film in 1977, John C. McManus gives us the U.S. perspective in September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far. Market Garden amounted to British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s germ of an idea to strike a penetrating shot through the German lines in Holland, control the bridges across the Rhine and attack Berlin, causing a termination of the European war before Britain collapsed from exhaustion. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower acceded to the plan, unwisely in the author’s view.

McManus, through extensive research, tells the story as if the reader were there. The book includes 50 pages of notes, memorializing the battle through journals, diaries, after-action reports, and telephonic or personal interviews. The author walks readers step-by-step through the midst of battle, detailing exactly which soldier was present and specifically what that grunt was doing. He introduces us to seemingly every combatant, down to the lowest private, and — often through the participants’ personal testimony — describes what happened to each. While, as in any battle, death and injury are rampant, McManus’ matter-of-fact style makes the recounting bearable.

After the liberation of Paris, Eisenhower had been planning a broad frontal attack on the retreating German forces so as not to leave his supply lines vulnerable. Montgomery, for his part, was concerned that his countrymen were reaching the point of exhaustion and a prolonged campaign (extending far into 1945) to squelch the Third Reich was unconscionable. The hubris-filled Montgomery believed that Eisenhower’s approach would take too long, and the German bombardment of England with its new, more powerful V2 rockets impelled him to pressure Eisenhower to adopt his plan, over a competing proposal from General Patton.

The Market Garden plan involved three paratrooper divisions dropped between 15 and 60 miles behind the German front lines in Holland in September 1944. The paratroopers would be landed near a half-dozen bridges across the Rhine, which they would preserve from detonation, thereby trapping the German army on the western side of the river and ensuring that the massive British XXX Corps, with its myriad of armor, could roll into Germany. The British First Airborne Division would capture the farthest bridge in Arnhem, Netherlands, and the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would be responsible for 10 bridges closer to the Allied lines.

Inaccurate intelligence reported that the towns around those bridges over the Lower Rhine were defended by either raw, untested troops or aged veterans. The valiant efforts of the Allies came close to success but to no avail. The German elements were reinforced by both paratroops and SS Panzer forces that won the day. Market Garden, by design, left a thin Allied line stretched over some 50 miles, open to German attack at any point. Add to that the delay in XXX Corps’ coming to the paratroopers’ aid and the result was three divisions left highly vulnerable.

McManus is an award-winning professor, author and military historian, and a leading expert on the history of modern American soldiers in combat. An associate professor of U.S. military history at Missouri University of Science and Technology, he was recently named to the History News Network’s prestigious list of Top Young Historians. A veteran of many battlefield tours, he constantly travels to give lectures on military history and to research the realities of combat for American soldiers. Most historians cover a battle or a campaign by depicting the decisions and actions of both sides. While McManus relates in general what the other side was doing, he gives neither insight nor reflection as to what the American opponent was thinking.

One incident of Market Garden which the reader will find in no history book is the movement of 300 members of the 82nd Airborne over the 300-yard-wide Waal River in broad daylight in two dozen canvas-covered boats to capture the Nijmegen bridge from the north end. Commanders didn’t wait until nightfall as the sooner the bridge was taken, the quicker the British tanks could cross the span and race to prevent the annihilation of the British First Airborne Division on the “bridge too far” eight miles away. Some 10 percent of the Americans perished crossing the river and securing the bridge. But then the British halted their tanks until the next morning, causing such fury among the American paratroops junior officers due to their unnecessary sacrifice, that British tank commanders had to lock themselves in their vehicles to keep from being assaulted.

In summary, the two-month Market Garden operation was a dismal failure. The British First Airborne Division and a Polish airborne brigade were essentially destroyed, and the two American paratroop divisions suffered over 3,000 dead and over 7,000 total casualties. Truth be told, about half the casualties occurred after Market Garden was over (it officially lasted two weeks), in the holding action that lasted until mid-November.

This is the ninth book in which McManus covers the action, ranging from the War of 1812 to Iraq, solely from the American point of view. In the case of Market Garden, McManus totally disapproves of the operation: “When Eisenhower gave Montgomery permission (and priority of supply) to launch Market Garden, he made his worst decision of the war. Market Garden was a bad idea because it took the Allied focus off Antwerp.” He continues, “In turning their attention from opening up this ideal supply port to unleashing the bold Market Garden, the commanders were basically pinning their hopes for success on the military equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.”

While the book is replete with detailed maps of the action, it would have been helpful if the publishers had included an overall theater map on the inside covers for ready reference in fixing in the reader’s mind where this operation fit into the overall European campaign. For such a detailed book, McManus provides a quick read. His easy-going style makes the reader want to pick up more of his works.

Gary Knight has been a writer and tutor for 14 years, following a 25-year career in lobbying and politics. He served three terms on the Falls Church City Council while raising two talented daughters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and has a graduate degree from The American University. He lives on the Chesapeake Bay with his wife Brenda and their two orange tabbies.

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