Book #5: “A Bridge Too Far” — Cornelius Ryan (1974)
Computer Game #5: “V for Victory: Operation Market-Garden” (1993)
Flush with success after D-Day, the Allies had the Nazis on the run in the fall of 1944. Thinking he could end the war early, a British general came up with an overly-ambitious plan to hopscotch across the Netherlands and sweep around the German defenses. The attack involved the largest air drop of troops in history, and was bigger than the invasion of Normandy — which took over a year to plan — and was launched within a week. The effort to simultaneously seize seven key bridges in seven cities became one of the biggest disasters of WWII.
In fact, Operation Market-Garden nearly cost the allies the war.
It wasn’t just poor planning that doomed the attack. Hubris on the part of allied commanders lead them to believe they could punch through any enemy resistance, and misplaced assumptions lead them to ignore crucial intelligence from partisan forces. In one case, allied troops were dropped right in front of elite SS units, who promptly mowed them down. The ambitious invasion turned into a rescue operation to save as many men as possible, and “A Bridge Too Far” quickly became shorthand for over-reaching. Of course, disasters make for compelling stories, and journalist Cornelius Ryan’s oral history of the battle became one of the best books on WWII. (It is also three times as long as “The Longest Day,” his earlier book about the — very successful — D-Day invasion.) As infuriating as it is to read, it is a fascinating look at how not to fight a war.
Curiously enough, “A Bridge Too Far” was also the last of those epic star-studded war movies that Hollywood used to make. It was expected to be the biggest box office hit of 1977 … until it opened opposite of a little sci-fi flick called “Star Wars” … whoops
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Twenty years later, in time for the 50th anniversary of WWII, Atomic Games came out with a series of exceptional wargames focusing on the biggest battles of the war. “V for Victory: Operation Market-Garden” is the only wargame I’ve ever played every scenario and variation of, and it provided even greater insight into how not to fight a war.
The game is all the more interesting because it is impossible for the allies to win. Even if everything had gone according to plan, even under the most optimal conditions, the allies would have still failed in their attack. This is the sort of lesson that should be — and is — taught at military academies, and every politician who ever used the word “cakewalk” should be beaten about the head and neck with the game box.