Military history

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IN ALL THE PANIC and confusion, the first German senior officer to raise the alert was General Wilhelm Bittrich, commander of the II SS Panzer Corps. At 1:30 P.M., Bittrich received his first report from the Luftwaffe communications net that airborne troops were landing in the Arnhem vicinity. A second report, arriving minutes later, gave the assault area as Arnhem and Nijmegen. Bittrich could not raise anybody at Field Marshal Model’s headquarters at the Tafelberg in Oosterbeek. Nor was he able to contact either the town commander of Arnhem or General Student at his headquarters in Vught. Although the situation was obscure, Bittrich immediately thought of General Von Zangen’s Fifteenth Army, most of which had escaped across the mouth of the Schelde and into Holland. “My first thought was that this airborne attack was designed to contain Von Zangen’s army and prevent it from joining with the remainder of our forces. Then, probably, the objective would be a drive by the British Army across the Rhine and into Germany.” If his reasoning was correct, Bittrich believed that the key to such an operation would be the Arnhem-Nijmegen bridges. Immediately he alerted the 9th Hohenstaufen and the 10th Frundsberg SS Panzer divisions.

Lieutenant Colonel Walter Harzer, commander of the Hohenstaufen, attending the luncheon following the decoration of Captain Paul Gräbner, was “in the middle of my soup” when Bit-trich’s call reached him. Tersely, Bittrich explained the situation and ordered Harzer to “reconnoiter in the direction of Arnhem and Nijmegen.” The Hohenstaufen was to move out immediately, hold the Arnhem area and destroy airborne troops west of Arnhem near Oosterbeek. Bittrich warned Harzer that “quick action is imperative. The taking and securing of the Arnhem bridge is of decisive importance.” At the same time, Bittrich ordered the Frundsberg Division—whose commander, General Harmel, was in Berlin—to move toward Nijmegen, “to take, hold and defend the city’s bridges.”

Harzer was now faced with the problem of unloading the last Hohenstaufen units, due to leave by train for Germany in less than an hour—including the “disabled” tanks, half-tracks and armored personnel carriers he had been determined to keep from Harmel. Harzer looked at Gräbner. “Now what are we going to do?” he asked. “The vehicles are dismantled and on the train.” Of these, forty vehicles belonged to Gräbner’s reconnaissance battalion. “How soon can you have the tracks and guns put back?” Harzer demanded. Gräbner immediately called his engineers. “We’ll be ready to move within three to five hours,” he told Harzer. “Get it done in three,” Harzer snapped as he headed for his headquarters.

Although he had guessed right for the wrong reasons, General Bittrich had set in motion the panzer divisions that Montgomery’s intelligence officers had totally dismissed.

The officer who had been ordered out of Oosterbeek to make way for Field Marshal Model’s headquarters found himself and his men based almost on the British landing zones. SS Major Sepp Krafft, commander of the Panzer Grenadier Training and Reserve Battalion, was “sick to my stomach” with fright. His latest headquarters, in the Wolfheze Hotel, was less than one mile from Renkum Heath. Bivouacked nearby were two of his companies; a third was in reserve in Arnhem. From the hotel, Krafft could see the heath “jammed with gliders and troops, some only a few hundred yards away.” He had always believed that it took hours for airborne troops to organize, but as he watched “the English were assembling everywhere and moving off ready to fight.” He could not understand why such a force would land in this area. “The only military objective I could think of with any importance was the Arnhem bridge.”

The terrified commander knew of no German infantry close by, other than his own understrength battalion. Until help could arrive, Krafft decided that “it was up to me to stop them from getting to the bridge—if that’s where they were going.” His companies were positioned in a rough triangle, its base—the Wolfheze road—almost bordering Renkum Heath. North of Krafft’s headquarters was the main Ede-Arnhem road and the Amsterdam-Utrecht-Arnhem railway line; to the south, the Utrecht road ran via Renkum and Oosterbeek into Arnhem. Because he lacked the strength to maintain a line from one road to the other, Krafft decided to hold positions roughly from the railroad on the north to the Utrecht-Arnhem road to the south. Hurriedly, he ordered his reserve company out of Arnhem to join the rest of the battalion at Wolfheze. Machine-gun platoons were dispatched to hold each end of his line while the remainder of his troops fanned out in the woods.

Although lacking men, Krafft had a new experimental weapon at his disposal: a multibarreled, rocket-propelled launcher capable of throwing oversized mortar shells.* Several of these units had been left with him for training purposes. Now he planned to use them to confuse the British and give an impression of greater strength; at the same time, he ordered twenty-five-man attack groups to make sharp forays which might throw the paratroops off balance.

As Krafft was issuing his directions, a staff car roared up to his headquarters and Major General Kussin, Arnhem’s town commander, hurried inside. Kussin had driven out of Arnhem at breakneck speed to see at first-hand what was happening. On the way he had met Field Marshal Model heading east toward Doetinchem. Stopping briefly on the road, Model had instructed Kussin to raise the alert and to inform Berlin of the developments. Now, looking across the heath, Kussin was flabbergasted at the sight of the vast British drop. Almost desperately he told Krafft that somehow he would get reinforcements to the area by 6 P.M. As Kussin started out to make the drive back to Arnhem, Krafft warned him not to take the Utrecht-Arnhem road. Already he had received a report that British troopers were moving along it. “Take the side roads,” Krafft told Kussin. “The main road may already be blocked.” Kussin was grim-faced. “I’l get through all right,” he answered. Krafft watched as the staff car raced off toward the highway.

He was convinced that Kussin’s replacements would never reach him, and that it was only a matter of time before his small force would be overpowered. Even as he positioned his troops along the Wolfheze road, Krafft sent his driver, Private Wilhelm Rauh, to collect his personal possessions. “Pack them in the car and head for Germany,” Krafft told Rauh. “I don’t expect to get out of this alive.”

At Bad Saarnow near Berlin, the commander of the 10th Frundsberg Division, General Heinz Harmel, conferred with the chief of Waffen SS Operations, Major General Hans Juttner, and outlined the plight of Bittrich’s understrength II Panzer Corps. If the corps was to continue as an effective combat unit, Harmel insisted, “Bittrich’s urgent request for men, armor, vehicles and guns must be honored.” Juttner promised to do what he could, but he warned that “at this moment the strength of every combat unit is depleted.” Everyone wanted priorities, and Juttner could not promise any immediate help. As the two men talked, Juttner’s aide entered the office with a radio message. Juttner read it and wordlessly passed it to Harmel. The message read: “Airborne attack Arnhem. Return immediately. Bittrich.” Harmel rushed out of the office and got into his car. Arnhem was an eleven-and-a-half-hour drive from Bad Saarnow. To his driver, Corporal Sepp Hinterholzer, Harmel said: “Back to Arnhem—and drive like the devil!”

*This weapon should not be confused with the smaller German mortar thrower, Nebelwerfer. Krafft maintains that there were only four of these experimental launchers in existence. I have not been able to check this fact, but I can find no record of a similar weapon on the western front. There is no doubt that it was used with devastating effect against the British. Countless witnesses describe the scream and impact of the oversized mortars, but, inexplicably, there is no discussion of the weapon in any of the British after-action reports.

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