Past Talks : June 2022

A Bridge too Far – and working for Richard Attenborough”, by Group Captain (Ret’d) Mike Jenkins


It all started in 1944. Progress following the D-Day invasion inevitably had to overcome the formidable obstacle of capturing and securing a Rhine River crossing to take the land war into Germany itself. The concept was to make a surprise drop of airborne troops to capture the bridges at Arnhem. Meanwhile, Allied land forces would push ahead rapidly to meet up with the Paras to provide reinforcement and consolidation of the bridge seizures.

The reality was very, very different resulting in a heroic, but dramatic failure and the loss of many lives.

At the time, when asked how far the land forces had to fight their way to reinforce the Paras at the bridges, the reply was 63 miles, to be covered in two days. That is “A Bridge too Far” was the rejoinder.

Nevertheless “Operation Market Garden” went ahead and made its mark in history.

That is the background to this evening’s talk by Group Captain Mike Jenkins. Mike joined the RAF from school and logged 10,000 flying hours, including a two year tour flying with the Army as a part of the Joint Airborne Task Force (JATF).

Around 1975-76 film actor and director Richard Attenborough, decided that the recently published book “A Bridge too Far” by Cornelius Ryan, would make a good film subject. Richard Attenborough therefore approached the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to ask if they would co-operate in allowing the Paras to make the drop for the film sequences?

The MoD decided to undertake a Feasibility Study and chose Wg Cdr (later Gp.Cpt) Mike Jenkins to undertake it, due to his wide experience on the subject. The Feasibility Study was positive and unsurprisingly Mike Jenkins was chosen by the MoD to work with Richard Attenborough to co-ordinate the drops.

It was an all-star film cast, produced by Joseph Levine (with over 490 films to his credit), and directed by Richard Attenborough. The first thing that struck Mike Jenkins was the immensity of the budget and  just how much some film stars were paid for very brief roles.

By comparison, it was just another day’s work for all the military participants who remained strictly under orders throughout the exercise. This also meant that apart from the drop, no serving soldier would take part in any ‘action scenes’ of the film making. This was to be treated entirely as a military training exercise for all of the MoD personnel.

Much of the film was shot on location in the Netherlands in many of the real situations. The bridge depicted in the film was not the actual one that used to be in Arnhem in 1944, but an almost identical bridge that still exists in the city of Deventer, about 40 miles from Arnhem itself.

Mike was particularly impressed with the hospitality and co-operation received from the Dutch people. The fact that English is widely spoken does help.

For the making of the film, the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment was tasked with making the drops, of which there were over 1,000 in total.

In addition 11 Douglas C-47/DC3/Dakota aircraft were procured from Portugal, Somaliland, Denmark and Finland, along with pilots experienced on the aircraft, to carry out the drops.

Conditions of Service were set out by the MoD and strictly adhered to, such as:

– Parachute operations to be controlled

  • In-service parachutes and equipment to be used
  • RAF to specify the para role-fit for the C-47 aircraft
  • RAF to check-out the pilots for the C-47 aircraft
  • No military personnel to be involved with ‘battle incidents’
  • The Drop Zone must conform to peacetime standards

One C-47 was fully equipped as the camera aircraft, with one camera mounted in the astrodome behind the cockpit, one on the port upper mainplane surface, a third camera on the outside of the forward port cabin window and a fourth on the underside of the aircraft centre section. Additional camera ports were mounted around the centre escape hatches when no troops were carried. Two additional Piper Aztec aircraft and a helicopter were available to provide back-up shots.

The C-47 aircraft were all sent to Airwork Services Ltd to be fitted with standard para-dropping equipment, including the anchor cable running overhead inside the fuselage, for attachment of the parachute release mechanism. Safety measures also required the fitment of the (HUPRA) Hung-Up Parachute Release Assembly in the event of any abnormal events requiring use of the emergency parachute.

All of the pilots were very good and professional, but some lacked any experience of formation flying and the need to provide a stable jumping platform for the parachute drops. Special training was required and results were successfully achieved. As it happened, the RAF retained the last flight jump officer before his impending retirement, to guide all participants in procedures.

1,700 parachutes were supplied, of the PX type which were not steerable and had a 13kt wind limit. Consequently, if you found yourself facing backwards after the jump, the chances were that you would land backwards.

In due course the first drop took place and everything went well and everyone was happy – except Richard Attenborough, who said ‘It was no good, it was too spread out’. Oh! More training, tighter formations, prepare again until Richard Attenborough got what he wanted.

Ultimately, 200+ paratroops were used, but by creative camera work and editing it soon looked like 2,000 troops. Each soldier had a Bergen Pack clipped to his chest, via a 15ft rope. The Bergen Pack kept him fed and watered for three days. These can be seen clearly dangling out of the way below his feet and thus land before the soldier himself.

In 1944, 478 gliders participated in Operation Market Garden. For the film, 8 Airspeed Horsa gliders were mocked-up for the ground scenes. The airborne scenes cleverly switched from the cockpit view from a modern glider towed behind the  C-47 tow plane and then cross-referred to a mocked up Horsa – smoke and mirrors come to mind.

It is worth remembering that in 1976, computer generated images (CGI) did not exist and everything you see had to happen in front of a camera. Overall, the aerial scenes took 18 days to complete and all the re-enactments went well for the filming. For the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment it was just another training exercise.

Thank you to our speaker Group Captain Mike Jenkins, for a very interesting, well illustrated talk on a subject with a different slant on aviation. Thank you also to the large number of members who attended the live talk and to the many Zoom attendees via their computers at home. Do join us next month – believe me, it is far more entertaining than watching TV.