Books: Airborne Nightmare

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670 pages. Simon & Schuster. $12.50.

It was very much like the closing stage of a chess game. Checkmate seemed inevitable, but no one was sure when or how it would come. Since D-day (June 5, 1944), W.W. II had turned around entirely. For six weeks the outnumbered Germans had been losing the war across France and Belgium faster than the Allied armies, running short of fuel, could win it. Lieut. General George Patton in the south lay only 100 miles from the Rhine and, like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in the north, he was convinced that he could reach Berlin in a matter of weeks.

Montgomery's game plan was sort of quantum leapfrog. On Sept. 17, 1944, a Sunday, the afternoon skies over Holland were filled with 5,000 planes and 2,500 gliders. Executing phase one of Operation Market-Garden, an airborne Allied army of 35,000, complete with vehicles and artillery, dropped onto Dutch countryside still occupied by Germans.

Awesome Detail. According to Montgomery, these invaders from the sky would capture and hold five key bridges (and the 64 miles of road connecting them) until Monty's Second Army had blitzed across the last bridge at Arnhem, which spanned the Lower Rhine, and driven into Germany. All the bridges except the one at Arnhem were swiftly captured. But a week and a day after it began, Operation Market-Garden phased into a withdrawal, ironically coded Operation Berlin. By then the Allies had lost 17,000 troops, or 1% times the casualties of the Normandy invasion. "The most momentous airborne offensive ever conceived" also turned out to be—in the words of Cornelius Ryan, "one of the greatest miscalculations of the European war."

Ryan, the author of The Longest Day and The Last Battle, has cancer and in fact, until a dramatic remission allowed him to continue, expected to die before his book was finished. But not even such an affliction could stop his passionate research. A Bridge Too Far lists more than 220 books, articles and reports in its bibliography. The names of the British, American, Polish, Dutch and German soldiers and civilians he interviewed fill a 35-page appendix. A cast of thousands supplies quotes: from Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands to an acting mess sergeant from Surrey.

The details amassed are awesome. The reader will learn that streetcars in Arnhem were pale yellow; that Lieut. General Frederick Browning, deputy commander of the First Allied Airborne Army (and husband of Novelist Daphne du Maurier), wore spotless gray kid gloves and sat on an empty beer crate as his glider took him into battle. Nor does Ryan fail to mention the name of the beer (Worthington)—just as he identifies the typewriter (Olivetti) being tapped by a then U.P. correspondent named Walter Cronkite. Random, trivial, even compulsive, Ryan's facts eventually justify themselves as a fragmented tableau of that most fragmented experience: war. Here are just a few of the details of just one air drop, seen like a close-up of a Flemish tapestry: A paratrooper lands on a partridge and carries the dead bird with him: half talisman, half future meal. A British colonel calls his men to him with a copper hunting horn. Bagpipes play Blue Bonnets. The inmates of a bombed mental institution, clad in white robes, float through the surrounding woods like ghosts.

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