This past September saw the sixty-eighth anniversary of one of the European Theater of Operations’ most familiar operations. Conceived by Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, MARKET GARDEN was the Western Allies’ great gamble in the fall of 1944. With the Nazi war machine appearing to be on the ropes following its ignominious collapse in France, victory seemed for a brief moment to be just within grasp. The single problem, in Montgomery’s eyes, was logistics and the inability of the Anglo-American coalition to maintain the broad front strategy promoted by SHAEF commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. By offering a bold departure from his normal cautious outlook, Montgomery convinced Eisenhower to favor his Army Group with the supplies needed to carry out a bold stroke aimed at the lower Rhine crossings in Holland. Through an airborne coup de main, the Allies would seize three highway bridges at Nijmegen, Eindhoven, and Arnhem, opening up a pathway into the North German Plain, and in Montgomery’s view, very likely end the war by Christmas.
Of course, we know the operation was a dismal failure, with the British First Airborne Division nearly annihilated at Arnhem, as Montgomery went “a bridge too far,” in the words of journalist cum historian Cornelius Ryan. Indeed by this point, with numerous historical monographs and edited collections, a feature film, dozens of documentaries, an HBO miniseries, and more board games and computer games than can be counted, one might be forgiven for thinking that there is little left to be said about Operation MARKET GARDEN. But then along came historian John C. McManus’ exhaustive study of the American dimension of the battles for the Dommel, Maas, and Waal River crossings and the subsequent bitter winter fighting on the so-called “Island” between the Waal and the Lower Rhine estuary. His book, September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far (NAL, 2012), is built from a treasure trove of oral testimonies, official after action reports, captured documents, and other sources to create the single most comprehensive account of the fighting from the perspective of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, as well as the 104th Infantry and 7th Armored Divisions. The book is a very compelling account of a very bitter and misguided operation, but its true strength lies in McManus’ own insights and conclusions regarding the viability of the operation and the failings in SHAEF leadership than allowed the operation to go forward.