Military history

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INCREDIBLY, DESPITE THE NIGHT’S widespread bombing, and now the aerial attacks against Arnhem, Nijmegen and Eindhoven, the Germans failed to realize what was happening. Throughout the chain of command, attention was focused on a single threat: the renewal of the British Second Army’s offensive from its bridgehead over the Meuse-Escaut Canal.

“Commanders and troops, myself and my staff in particular, were so overtaxed and under such severe strain in the face of our difficulties that we thought only in terms of ground operations,” recalls Colonel General Kurt Student. Germany’s illustrious airborne expert was at his headquarters in a cottage near Vught, approximately twenty-one miles northwest of Eindhoven, working on “red tape—a mountain of papers that followed me even into the battlefield.” Student walked out onto a balcony, watched the bombers for a few moments, then, unconcerned, returned to his paper work.

Lieutenant Colonel Walter Harzer, commanding officer of the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen, had by now transferred as much equipment as he intended to his rival, General Heinz Harmel of the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg. Harmel, on Bittrich’s orders and without Model’s knowledge, was by now in Berlin. The last flatcars containing Harzer’s “disabled” armored personnel carriers were ready to leave on a 2 P.M. train for Germany. Having been bombed repeatedly from Normandy onward, Harzer “paid little attention to planes.” He saw nothing unusual about the huge bomber formations over Holland. He and his veteran tankers knew “it was routine to see bombers traveling east to Germany and returning several times a day. My men and I were numb from constant shelling and bombing.” With Major Egon Skalka, the 9th Panzer’s chief medical officer, Harzer set out from his headquarters at Beekbergen for the Hoenderloo barracks, about eight miles north of Arnhem. In a ceremony before the 6oo-man reconnaissance battalion of the division, he would decorate its commander, Captain Paul Gräbner, with the Knight’s Cross. Afterward there would be champagne and a special luncheon.

At II SS Panzer Corps headquarters at Doetinchem, Lieutenant General Wilhelm Bittrich was equally unconcerned about the air attacks. To him, “it was routine fare.” Field Marshal Walter Model, in his headquarters at the Tafelberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, had been watching the bomber formations for some time. The view at headquarters was unanimous: the squadrons of Flying Fortresses were returning from their nightly bombing of Germany, and as usual, other streams of Fortresses in the never-ending bombing of Germany were enroute east heading for other targets. As for the local bombing, it was not uncommon for bombers to jettison any unused bombs over the Ruhr and often, as a result, into Holland itself. Model and his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hans Krebs, believed the bombardment and low-level strafing were “softening-up operations”—a prelude to the opening of the British ground offensive.

One officer was mildly concerned by the increased aerial activity over Holland. At the headquarters of OB West in Aremberg near Koblenz, approximately 120 miles away, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt—although he still believed that airborne forces would be used only in an attack against the Ruhr—wanted more information. In Annex 2227 of the morning report for September 17, his operations chief recorded that Von Rundstedt had asked Model to investigate the possibility that a combined sea and airborne invasion was underway against northern Holland. The notation read, “The general situation and notable increase of enemy reconnaissance activities … has caused the Commander in Chief, West, to again examine the possibilities of ship assault and air landing operations…. Results of the survey are to be reported to OKW [Hitler].”

The message reached Model’s headquarters at about the time the first planes of the armada crossed the coast.

Over Arnhem at 11:30 A.M. columns of black smoke rose in the sky as fires burned throughout the city in the aftermath of a three-hour near-saturation bombing. In Wolfheze, Oosterbeek, Nijmegen and Eindhoven, whole buildings were leveled, streets were cratered and littered with debris and glass, and casualties were mounting minute by minute. Even now, low-level fighters were strafing machine-gun and antiaircraft positions all over the area. The mood of the Dutch, huddling in churches, homes, cellars and shelters or, with foolhardy courage, cycling the streets or staring from rooftops, alternated between terror and exultation. No one knew what to believe or what would happen next. To the south, eighty-three miles from Nijmegen, Maastricht, the first Dutch city to be liberated, had been entered by the U.S. First Army on September 14. Many Dutch expected American infantry to arrive at any moment in their own towns and villages. Radio Orange, broadcasting from London, fed this impression in a flurry of bulletins: “The time is nearly here. What we have been waiting for is about to happen at last…. Owing to the rapid advance of the Allied armies … it is possible that the troops will not carry Dutch money yet. If our Allies offer French or Belgian notes … cooperate and accept this money in payment…. Farmers should finish off and deliver their harvest….” Prince Bernhard, in a radio message, urged the Dutch “not to show joy by offering flowers or fruit when Allied troops liberate Netherlands territory … in the past the enemy has concealed explosives among offerings presented to the liberators.” Uppermost in the minds of most Dutchmen was the certainty that these intensive bombings were the prelude to Allied invasion—the opening of the ground offensive. Like their German conquerors, the Dutch had no inkling of the impending airborne attack.

Jan and Bertha Voskuil, taking shelter in the home of Voskuil’s father-in-law in Oosterbeek, thought the bombers in their area were aiming for Model’s headquarters in the Tafelberg Hotel. The bright day, Voskuil remembers, “was perfect bombing weather.” Yet he found it hard to “reconcile the war that was coming with the smell of ripe beetroots and sight of hundreds of sunflowers, their stems bent under the weight of their great heads. It did not seem possible that men were dying and buildings burning.” Voskuil felt strangely calm. From his father-in-law’s front veranda, he watched fighters flashing overhead and was sure they were strafing the hotel. Suddenly, a German soldier appeared in the garden without helmet or rifle and dressed only in a shirt and trousers. Politely he asked Voskuil, “May I take shelter here?” Voskuil stared at the man. “Why?” he asked. “You have your trenches.” The German smiled. “I know,” he answered, “but they are full.” The soldier came up on the porch. “It is a very heavy bombing,” he told Voskuil, “but I don’t think Oosterbeek is the target. They seem to be concentrating more to the east and west of the village.”

From inside the house, Voskuil heard voices. A friend of the family had just arrived from the Wolfheze area. It had been heavily hit, she told them, and many people were dead. “I am afraid,” she said, tremblingly, “it is our Last Supper.” Voskuil looked at the German. “Perhaps they’re bombing the Tafelberg because of Model,” he said mildly. The German’s face was impassive. “No,” he told Voskuil, “I don’t think so. No bombs fell there.” Later, after the soldier had gone, Voskuil went out to survey the damage. Rumors abounded. He heard that Arnhem had been heavily hit and that Wolfheze was almost leveled. Surely, he thought, the Allies were now under march and would arrive at any hour. He was both elated and saddened. Caen, in Normandy, he remembered, had been reduced to rubble during the invasion. He was convinced that Oosterbeek, where he and his family had found shelter, would become a ruined village.

Around Wolfheze, German ammunition caches in the woods were exploding, and the famed mental institute had received direct hits. Four pavilions surrounding the administration building were leveled, forty-five patients were dead (the toll would increase to over eighty), and countless more were wounded. Sixty terrified inmates, mostly women, were wandering about in the adjoining woods. The electricity had failed, and Dr. Marius van der Beek, the deputy medical superintendent, could not summon help. Impatiently he awaited the arrival of doctors from Ooster-beek and Arnhem, who, he knew, would surely hear the news and come. He needed to set up two operating theaters with surgical teams as quickly as possible.

One of the “inmates,” Hendrik Wijburg, was in reality a member of the underground hiding out in the asylum. “The Germans,” he recalls, “were not actually inside the institute at the moment, although they did have positions nearby and artillery and ammunition stored in the woods.” During the bombings when the dump was hit, Wijburg, on the veranda of one building, was knocked to the floor. “There was a huge explosion,” he remembers, “and shells from the dump began whizzing into the hospital, killing and injuring many.” Wijburg hastily scrambled to his feet and helped nurses, at the height of the strafing attacks, to lay out white sheets forming a huge cross on the grass. The entire area had been so badly hit that it looked to him as if “the place would soon be filled to the rafters with the dead and dying.”

In Arnhem, fire brigades fought desperately to bring the spreading flames under control. Dirk Hiddink, in charge of a fifteen-man outdated fire-fighting unit (his men pushed two carts—one loaded with coiled hoses, the other with ladders), was ordered to the German-occupied Willems Barracks, which had received direct hits from low-flying Mosquitoes. Although the barracks were blazing, Hiddink’s instructions from the Arnhem Fire Brigade Headquarters were unusual: let them burn down, he was told, but protect the surrounding houses. When his unit arrived, Hiddink saw that it would have been impossible to save the barracks in any case. The fires were too far advanced.

From his father’s apartment at Willemsplein 28, Gerhardus Gysbers saw everything around him engulfed in flames. Not only the barracks, but the nearby high school and the Royal Restaurant, opposite, were burning. The heat was so intense that Gysbers remembers “the glass in our windows suddenly became wavy and then melted completely.” The family evacuated the building immediately, scrambling over bricks and lumber into the square. Gysbers saw Germans stumbling from the blasted rubble of the barracks with blood pouring from their noses and ears. Streetcar driver Hendrik Karel reached the Willemsplein unintentionally. With the electric power cut by the bombing, Karel’s pale-yellow streetcar coasted down a slight incline to reach a stop at the square. There he found a jumble of other streetcars which, like his own, had coasted into the square and were unable to leave. Through the smoke, crowds and debris, Karel saw waiters from the Royal Restaurant make their escape from the burning building. Abandoning the few diners who were heading for the doors, the waiters jumped right through the windows.

At the Municipal Gas Works just southeast of the great Arnhem bridge, technician Nicolaas Unck admired the skill of the bombardiers. Looking across the Rhine, he saw that twelve antiaircraft positions had been knocked out. Only one gun was left but its barrels were twisted and bent. Now that the city was without electricity, Unck was faced with his own problems. The technicians could no longer make gas. After the fuel remaining in the three huge gasometers was exhausted, there would be no more. Aside from coal and firewood, Arnhem was now without electricity, heating or cooking fuels.

Thousands of people remained cloistered in their churches. In the huge Dutch Reformed “Grote Kerk” Church alone, there were 1,200 people, Sexton Jan Mijnhart remembers. “Even though we had clearly heard the bombs exploding outside,” he says, “the Reverend Johan Gerritsen had calmly continued his sermon. When the power was cut off, the organ stopped. Some one of the congregation came forward and began pumping the bellows manually.” Then, against a background of sirens, explosions and thundering planes, the organ pealed out and the entire congregation stood up to sing the “Wilhelmus,” the Dutch national anthem.

In the nearby Calvinist church, near the Arnhem railroad station, Gijsbert Numan of the resistance listened to a sermon delivered by Dominee Both. Numan felt that even the intense bombing would not deter the Germans from carrying out their threat to execute civilian hostages sometime during the day in reprisal for the resistance’s attack on the viaduct. His conscience bothered him as he listened to Dominee Both’s sermon on “the responsibility for your acts toward God and your fellow man,” and he decided that once the service had ended, he would give himself up to the Germans. Leaving the church, Numan made his way through the littered streets to a telephone. There, he called Pieter Kruyff and told the regional commander his decision. Kruyff was blunt and to the point. “Rejected,” he told Numan. “Carry on with your work.” But Kruyff’s was not to be the final decision. Market-Garden would save the hostages.

In Nijmegen, eleven miles to the south, bombers had hit German antiaircraft positions with such accuracy that only one was still firing. The great, towering PGEM power station, supplying electricity for the entire province of Gelderland, had received only superficial damage, but high-tension wires were severed, cutting off power throughout the area. A rayon factory near the PGEM station was badly damaged and ablaze. Houses in many parts of the city had received direct hits. Bombs had fallen on a girls’ school and a large Catholic social center. Across the Waal in the village of Lent, a factory was destroyed and ammunition dumps exploded.

In the city’s air-raid command post, the staff worked by candlelight. The air-raid workers were more and more puzzled by the stream of reports piling in. Working at his desk in semidarkness, Albertus Uijen registered the incoming reports and found himself growing more confused by the moment. The widespread bombings gave no clear picture of what was happening, except that all German positions on Nijmegen’s perimeter had been attacked. The principal approaches to the city—Waalbrug, St. Annastraat and Groesbeekseweg—were now blocked off. It almost seemed that an effort had been made to isolate the city.

As in Arnhem, most people in Nijmegen sought shelter from the fighters continually strafing the streets, but Elias Broekkamp, whose house was not far from the Waal bridge, had climbed to the roof for a better look. To Broekkamp’s astonishment, so had the personnel of the German Town Major’s office, five houses from Broekkamp’s. The Germans, Broekkamp remembers, “looked very anxious. I looked, obviously, full of delight. I even remarked that the weather was lovely.”

Nurse Johanna Breman watched Germans panic during the strafing. From a second-floor window of an apartment building south of the Waal bridge, Nurse Breman looked down at “wounded German soldiers helping each other along. Some were limping quite badly and I could see many with bandages. Their tunics were open and most had not even bothered to put their helmets on. On their heels came German infantrymen. As they headed toward the bridge, they fired into the windows whenever they saw Dutch peering out.” When the Germans reached the bridge approaches, they began digging foxholes. “They dug everywhere,” Miss Breman remembers, “next to the street leading up to the bridge, in grassy areas nearby and beneath trees. I was sure the invasion was coming and I remember thinking, ‘What a beautiful view of the battle we shall have from here.’ I had a feeling of expectancy.” Nurse Breman’s expectations did not include her marriage some months later to Master Sergeant Charles Mason of the 82nd, who would land in Glider 13 near the Groesbeek Heights, two miles southwest of her apartment.

Some towns and villages on the edges of the major Market-Garden objectives suffered damage as severe as the principal targets and had little, if any, rescue services. Close by the hamlet of Zeelst, approximately five miles west of Eindhoven, Gerardus de Wit had taken shelter in a beet field during the bombings. There had been no air raid alarm. He had seen planes high in the sky, and suddenly bombs rained down. De Wit, on a visit to his brother in the village of Veldhoven, four miles south, had turned around, pulled off the road and dived into a ditch adjoining the field. Now, he was frantic to get back to his wife and their eleven children.

Although planes were strafing, De Wit decided to risk the trip. Raising his head to look across the field, he saw that “even the leaves were scorched.” Leaving his cycle behind, he climbed out of the ditch and ran across the open field. As he neared the village, he noted that bombs presumably intended for the Welschap airfield outside Eindhoven had fallen, instead, directly on little Zeelst. De Wit could see nothing but ruins. Several houses were burning, others had collapsed; and people stood about dazed and crying. One of De Wit’s acquaintances, Mrs. Van Helmont, a widow, spotted him and begged him to come with her to cover a dead boy with a sheet. Tearfully, she explained that she could not do it herself. The child had been decapitated, but De Wit recognized the body as a neighbor’s son. Quickly, he covered the corpse. “I didn’t look at anything more,” he remembers. “I just tried to get home as quickly as possible.” As he neared his own house, a neighbor who lived opposite tried to detain him. “I’m bleeding to death,” the man called out. “I’ve been hit by a bomb splinter.”

At that moment, De Wit saw his wife, Adriana, standing in the street crying. She ran to him. “I thought you’d never get here,” she told him. “Come quickly. Our Tiny has been hit.” De Wit went past his injured neighbor. “I never thought of anything but my son. When I got to him I saw that the whole of his right side was open and his right leg was cut almost through. He was still fully conscious and asked for water. I saw that his right arm was missing. He asked me about his arm and, to comfort him, I said, ‘You’re lying on it.’ “As De Wit knelt by the boy, a doctor arrived. “He told me not to hope anymore,” De Wit remembers, “because our son was going to die.” Cradling the boy, De Wit set out for the Duc George cigar factory, where a Red Cross post had been set up. Before he reached the factory, his fourteen-year-old son died in his arms.

In all the terror, confusion and hope, few of the Dutch saw the vanguard of the Allied Airborne Army. At approximately 12:40 P.M., twelve British Stirling bombers swept in over the Arnhem area. At 12:47, four U.S. C-47’s appeared over the heaths north of Eindhoven, while two others flew across the open fields southwest of Nijmegen, close to the town of Overasselt. In the planes were British and American pathfinders.

Returning to his farm bordering Renkum heath, less than a mile from Wolfheze, Jan Pennings saw planes coming from the west, flying low. He thought they had returned to bomb the railway line. He watched them warily, ready to dive for cover if bombs dropped. As the planes came over Renkum heath, the astounded Pennings saw “bundles dropped, and then parachutists coming out. I knew that in Normandy the Allies had used parachutists and I was sure this was the beginning of our invasion.”

Minutes later, cycling up to his farm, Jan shouted to his wife, “Come out! We’re free!” Then, the first paratroopers he had ever seen walked into the farmyard. Dazed and awed, Pennings shook their hands. Within half an hour, they told him, “hundreds more of us will arrive.”

Chauffeur Jan Peelen too saw the pathfinders land on Renkum heath. He recalls that “they came down almost silently. They were well-disciplined and immediately began to peg out the heath.” Like other pathfinders north of the railway line, they were marking out the landing and dropping zones.

Fifteen miles south, near the town of Overasselt, nineteen-year-old Theodorus Roelofs, in hiding from the Germans, was suddenly liberated by 82nd Airborne pathfinders who landed in the vicinity of the family farm. The Americans, he remembers, were “scouts, and my big fear was that this small group of braves could easily be done away with.” The pathfinders wasted little time. Discovering that the young Dutchman spoke English, they quickly enlisted Roelofs to help as guide and interpreter. Confirming positions on their maps and directing them to the designated landing sites, Roelofs watched with fascination as the troopers marked the area with “colored strips and smoke stoves.” Within three minutes a yellow-paneled “O” and violet smoke clearly outlined the area.

The four C-47’s carrying the 101st pathfinders to zones north of Eindhoven ran into heavy antiaircraft fire. One planeload was shot down in flames. There were only four survivors. The other three planes continued on, and the pathfinders dropped accurately on the 101st’s two zones. By 12:54 P.M. dropping and landing zones throughout the entire Market-Garden area were located and marked. Incredibly, the Germans still had not raised an alarm.

At Hoenderloo barracks, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Harzer, commander of the Hohenstaufen Division, toasted newly decorated Captain Paul Gräbner. A few minutes before, Harzer had seen a few parachutes fall to the west of Arnhem. He was not surprised. He thought they were bailed-out bomber crews. In Oosterbeek, at the Tafelberg Hotel, Field Marshal Model was having a preluncheon aperitif—a glass of chilled Moselle—with his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hans Krebs, the operations officer Colonel Hans von Tempelhof and the headquarters adjutant Colonel Leodegard Freyberg. As administrations officer Lieutenant Gustav Sedelhauser remembers, “Whenever he was at the headquarters, the Field Marshal was punctual to a fault. We always sat down to luncheon at precisely 1300 hours.” That time was H Hour for the Market forces.

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