Exploring History

Real or Reel?: A Bridge Too Far and the Guards Armoured Division

Posted on: June 11, 2021

Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film ‘A Bridge Too Far’ is an epic war film. It tells the story of Operation Market Garden, the daring plan to size the bridge in the Dutch town of Arnhem in September 1944, as a gateway into Germany. To many this was an airborne operation, with British Paratroops attempting to sieze the bridge and ultimately failing in the face of overwhelming enemy forces.

But the ‘Garden’ part of the operation was a rapid drive by British XXX Corps from the Belgium border to Arnhem, to link up with the Paratroops and cross the bridge. This advance was spearheaded by the tanks and supporting infantry of the Guards Armoured Division. This too failed, by a few miles.

How accurately does the film portray this?

The film is known for the large array of tanks and vehicles it featured. Lines of Sherman tanks and half tracks are shown ready to advance, and in major battle scene the advancing Irish Guards are ambushed and several tanks are destroyed. But did you know that some of the moving tanks are wooden dummies on Landrover chassis?. Nonetheless, it does a good job of showing the scale of the operation.

The Guards scenes faithfully follow the general course of the operation. The tanks are ambushed shortly after crossing into Holland, temporarily halting the advance while the road is cleared. This also highlights one of the known risks of the operation; the need to head up a narrow road that was in places raised high above the drained land. The tall Sherman tanks were silhouetted against the landscape and an easy target for German gunners. Later they are held up by a blown up bridge and other ambushes. The last bridge on the way to Arnhem was at Nijmegen. Here a handful of Grenadier Guards tanks are shown dashing across the bridge under heavy fire to link up with US Paratroops holding the other end. This was quite accurate, and if anything fails to show that 2 of the tanks were hit. Finally the advance is shown being stopped a few miles from Arnhem by a single German gun which blocks the road with burning vehicles.

Sherman tanks advance in the film, and in this photo Irish Guards tanks advance past two knocked out tanks

The all star cast features several Guards officer’s. Michael Caine plays Irish Guards commander JOE Vandeleur. He voices concerns throughout the operation and no doubt some artistic licence is taken about this. In a later scene US Paratroop commander Colonel Julian Cook (Robert Redford) accuses a Grenadier Guards officer of drinking tea after crossing Nijmegen Bridge instead of advancing the last few miles to Arnhem. While no such conversation took place there was frustration from the Americans that the British tanks halted to wait for reinforcements. Their caution can be explained by the need for greater numbers to punch through the German defences. Also the British had lost control of their end of the bridge and were being mopped up by the Germans.

Michael Caine plays JOE Vandeleur (right)

Generally, the film aims to highlight the bravery of the individual soldier while criticizing the commanders. It gives a great sense of the scale of the operation and the actions involved. But it is at the end of the day a film not a documentary.

What do you think?

Check out our video on the Film https://youtu.be/evZrSIV6Ees