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September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far

By John C. McManus. 512 pp. NAL Hardcover, 2012. $27.95.

Cornelius Ryan’s classic book A Bridge Too Far dominates the historical landscape of Operation Market Garden, just as in fall 1944 the Nijmegen Bridge loomed over American paratroopers’ crossing of the Waal River in canvas boats. Historian John C. McManus has correctly observed that most existing accounts of the spectacular Allied failure to outflank Germany’s Siegfried Line are British-centric, and that much remains to be told from the perspective of the American forces involved. McManus delivers with September Hope.

McManus outlines the operation’s strategic context with broad brushstrokes. He then devotes much of the book to examining the actions of the American airborne divisions. His accounts of the battles around the small Dutch town of Son and the struggle for the key bridges at Nijmegen are the most thorough we are ever likely to get. His Nijmegen narrative is an especially powerful tour de force.

A fair question to ask of any book that covers such well-studied ground is, what’s new here? Unit commanders and humble privates such as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole and Private Joe Mann, who get only brief mentions in A Bridge Too Far, come alive. One of Cole’s men eulogized the battalion commander as “the greatest man I ever knew”; his death cast a pall over his unit. Mann, best known for literally throwing himself on top of a German grenade to save his comrades, received the Medal of Honor not only for this last act, but for a continuous record of selfless service throughout the battle. “Where could anyone find braver men?” asked one officer who witnessed Mann’s heroism. But heroes can be complicated, and McManus’s airborne protagonists are hardly plaster saints. Witness his diverting accounts of their scurrilous off-duty activities, like drinking, womanizing, and heisting banks.

In addition to richer detail and numerous personal accounts, September Hope does a better job than most on the aerial aspects of Market Garden: the important flak suppression missions by Ninth Air Force fighter-bombers, the use of Eighth Air Force heavy bombers for tactical support, and especially the efforts of the C-47 troop carrier crews, who have taken a beating in some accounts of the Sicily and Normandy operations. Here they get their due. McManus records admiring testimony from paratroopers, for instance, noting how courageous transport pilots pressed on in burning aircraft and delivered their vital human cargoes to the correct drop zones.

Most books on Market Garden end with the martyrdom of the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem and the operation’s failure by late September. But McManus extends his coverage through the grim weeks of October and early November, when the depleted 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions held the line while Canadian forces and the U.S. 104th Infantry Division finally cleared the Scheldt Estuary and opened the port of Antwerp to Allied use—truly a neglected aspect of this much-discussed campaign.

Inevitably, September Hope shares some DNA with Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far, since McManus makes full use of the vast archive the noted Irish journalist deposited at Ohio University. Yet McManus has gone well beyond this trove of participant testimony, delving deeply into primary sources including unit war diaries, after-action reports, and personal letters. In the book’s foreword, McManus says he hoped to produce a book that would have met with Ryan’s approval. He has succeeded.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.