Saturday 19 October 2019

Dan Harvey: 'The Irish war reporter who jumped onto a bridge too far'

Brave Irishmen helped to record the bold but ill-fated Operation Market Garden, writes Dan Harvey

Gigantic gamble: The bridge at Arnhem
Gigantic gamble: The bridge at Arnhem

Over the past few years, I started researching and writing a book about the Irishmen who fought on D-Day. My investigations led me to discover a large number of Irishmen among the British Paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division who jumped behind the enemy lines on the eastern flank of the invasion bridgehead.

I was curious to see if the Irish involvement was mirrored three months later at Arnhem during a huge campaign known as Operation Market Garden - later made famous by the star-studded Hollywood feature film, A Bridge Too Far.

Operation Market Garden was a bold but unsuccessful attempt to shorten the war as the Allies sought to capture several bridges across the Rhine, most notably the vital bridge across the Lower Rhine at Arnhem. As with the June landings in France, there were a huge number of Irish personnel involved. But the operation was a gigantic gamble - a desperately risky undertaking at best - and it ended in disaster. For nine days the airborne men held out against overwhelming odds in one of the most fiercely fought battles of World War II.

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The Allies critically underestimated the Germans' ability to rapidly bring reinforcements, and the airborne force steadily diminished as they fought off attack after attack until the inevitable defeat. But, from within this harsh reality of defeat, emerged tales of bravery and endurance over adversity - and several Irishmen were involved in recording the events of one of the great land battles of WWII.

Jack Smyth was a war correspondent for Reuters News Agency. Born in Galway, Smyth began his journalistic career at the Connnacht Tribune before leaving for London in the early 1940s to join Reuters. Although he had not undertaken any parachute training, he dropped into Arnhem with the 1st Airborne Division and witnessed at first hand events from the thick of the battle.

One report included the following lines: "On this fifth day, our force is still being heavily mortared, sniped, machine-gunned and shelled... when the Second Army arrives and relieves this crowd, then may be told one of the epics of the war. In the meantime, they go on fighting their hearts out."

On that very same day - not long after finishing the report - Smyth was captured by the Germans. Believing he was privy to information possibly indicating further airborne operations, Gestapo ''roughly interrogated'' Smyth for 17 days before transferring him to a prison camp, where he spent eight months until he was liberated by American troops. After his release, he reportedly told a friend and fellow journalist: ''Jaysus, they beat the shit out of me! There was I, in British army officer's uniform, telling 'em I was a neutral and demanding to see the nearest Irish ambassador. Well, they were having none of that.''

After Germany, Smyth turned his attention to the East and was one of the first journalists to visit the devastated city of Hiroshima. He later worked for several newspapers in Ireland, including the Waterford Star, Evening Press and the Irish Press.

Before the tragic road accident which claimed his life and that of his wife Eileen in 1956, Jack wrote and had published a book titled Five Days in Hell about his experiences at Arnhem.

But it was a Dubliner, Cornelius Ryan, whose account would become the popular and commercially successful account of the Battle of Arnhem. Ryan's book, entitled A Bridge Too Far, was published in 1974 and formed the basis of a major Hollywood production of the same name about Arnhem in 1977. The film was directed by Richard Attenborough, had a budget of more than $20m and featured an abundance of Hollywood's biggest stars including Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Robert Redford. The film went on to gross in excess of $50m.

A much lesser-known depiction of what happened at Arnhem is the film Theirs Is The Glory (Men of Arnhem), directed just a year after the event in 1945 by Belfastman Brian Desmond Hurst. A written statement at the start of the film reads: ''Theirs Is The Glory has been produced entirely without the use of a studio set or actors. Every incident was experienced or witnessed by the people in the film.'' The film opens with 10 men, three of whom were Irishmen, preparing for their last night in camp in England before the operation. Its poignant ending shows only two men returning to the barrack hut.

David Truesdale's book Brotherhood of the Cauldron - Irishmen in the 1st Airborne Division from North Africa to Arnhem reveals more about the film's unusual production.

When Hurst had to use shots of the fighting around Arnhem Bridge, the bridge had to be painted on to a sheet of glass to create the effect that it was still standing, when in fact it had been destroyed by air raids by the American Air Force on October 6 and 7, 1944. The film covers the actions around the bridge, the fighting in the suburbs of Oosterbeek and the eventual withdrawal across the Rhine.

No blank ammunition was used; every shot fired and grenade thrown was real, as were the enemy tanks. All in all, despite its age, it remains one of the best accounts of the battle that has been committed to film.

This week, as we remember the 75th anniversary of that bridge too far, maybe it would be fitting to track down a copy of Cornelius Ryan's book or watch Hurst's film which is available on YouTube to view in full.

Dan Harvey, is the author of 'A Bloody Week - The Irish At Arnhem' and 'A Bloody Dawn - The Irish At D-Day', both published by Merrion Press

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