17th September 1944 saw the launch of Operation Market Garden, the campaign that Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery hoped would end the Second World War by Christmas.
The plan was to complete the Allied invasion of Europe by attacking Germany via the northern route, i.e. through the Netherlands, although this would mean crossing the River Rhine at its widest point.
The plan was to land 20,000 airborne troops behind the German lines near Arnhem, on the far side of the Rhine, capture all the bridgeheads over the river, then hold these positions while ground-based troops caught up. Montgomery was confident that the latter would reach the captured bridges within two days.
However, the strength of German resistance was much greater than had been anticipated and the plan went wrong both with the airborne and ground assault. Capturing the bridges took much longer than expected and the armoured divisions moving north towards Arnhem could only move painfully slowly.
An attempt to reinforce the airborne troops went disastrously wrong when a division of Polish paratroopers landed on the wrong side of the river.
Eventually the signal was given to withdraw and the surviving troops escaped back across the Rhine, some of them having to swim. 17,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded or captured, and the generals were forced to think of a different way of achieving their objective.
The title of the 1977 film based on the campaign was entirely appropriate – “A Bridge Too Far”.
© John Welford