Military history

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FIELD MARSHAL MODEL was still shaken when he reached General Bittrich’s headquarters at Doetinchem. Normally, it would have taken him no longer than half an hour to cover the distance, but today, because he had made numerous stops along the way to alert area commanders to the airborne assault, the trip had lasted well over an hour. Although the Field Marshal seemed calm, Bittrich remembers “his first words to me were, They almost got me! They were after the headquarters. Imagine! They almost got me!”

Bittrich immediately brought Model up to date on the latest information received by II SS Panzer Corps. No clear picture of the Allied intent was emerging as yet, but Bittrich told Model his own theory: that the assault was aimed at containing the Fifteenth Army while the British Second Army drove for the Ruhr. That would require the Allies to capture the Nijmegen and Arnhem bridges. Model disagreed completely. The Arnhem bridge was not the objective, he said. These airborne troops would swerve and march northeast for the Ruhr. The situation, Model believed, was still too obscure for any final conclusions. He was puzzled as to why airborne forces had landed in the Nijmegen area. Nevertheless, he approved the measures Bittrich had already taken.

Bittrich still pressed the subject of the bridges. “Herr Field Marshal, I strongly urge that the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem be immediately destroyed,” he said. Model looked at him in amazement. “They will not be destroyed,” he told Bittrich firmly. “No matter what the English plan, these bridges can be defended. No. Absolutely not. The bridges are not to be blown.” Then, dismissing the subject, Model said, “I’m looking for a new headquarters, Bittrich.” Before Bittrich could answer, Model said again musingly, “You know, they almost got me.”

At his headquarters at Vught, Colonel General Kurt Student faced a dilemma: his First Parachute Army had been split in two by the airborne assault. Without telephone communications and now solely dependent on radio, he was unable to direct his divided army. For the moment units were fighting on their own without any cohesive direction. Then, by a momentous and fantastic stroke of luck, an undamaged briefcase found in a downed Waco glider near his headquarters was rushed to him.

“It was incredible,” Student says. “In the case was the complete enemy attack order for the operation.” Student and his staff officers pored over the captured plans. “They showed us everything—the dropping zones, the corridor, the objectives, even the names of the divisions involved. Everything! Immediately we could see the strategic implications. They had to grab the bridges before we could destroy them. All I could think of was, ‘This is retribution. Retribution! History is repeating itself.’ During our airborne operation in Holland in 1940, one of my officers, against strict orders, had taken into battle papers that detailed our entire attack, and these had fallen into enemy hands. Now the wheel had turned full circle. I knew exactly what I had to do.”*

Model, as yet, did not. Student had never felt so frustrated. Because of his communications breakdown, it would be nearly ten hours before he could place the secret of Market-Garden in Model’s possession. The secret was that the Arnhem bridge was of crucial importance. The captured plans clearly showed that it was Montgomery’s route into the Ruhr.

This was the kind of battle that Model liked best: one that demanded improvisation, daring and, above all, speed. From Bittrich’s headquarters, Model telephoned OB West, Von Rundstedt. With characteristic abruptness, he described the situation and asked for immediate reinforcements. “The only way this airborne assault can be defeated is to strike hard within the first twenty-four hours,” he told Von Rundstedt. Model asked for antiaircraft units, self-propelled guns, tanks and infantry; and he wanted them on the move to Arnhem by nightfall. Von Rundstedt told him that such reinforcements as were available would be on the way. Turning to Bittrich, Model said triumphantly, “Now, we’ll get reinforcements!” Model had decided to operate from Doetinchem; but, although he was apparently recovered from the shock of his hasty departure from Oosterbeek, this time he was taking no chances of being caught unawares. He refused accommodations at the castle; he would direct the battle from the gardener’s cottage on the grounds.

Bittrich’s early foresight was already having its effect. Sections of Harzer’s Hohenstaufen Division were heading swiftly toward the battle zone. Harmel’s Frundsberg Division—Harmel himself was expected back from Germany during the night—were on the move, too. Bittrich had ordered Harzer to set up his headquarters in a high school in the northern Arnhem suburbs overlooking the city, and that transfer was underway. But Harzer was chafing with impatience. The armored vehicles that had been scheduled to leave for Germany in the early afternoon were still being refitted with tracks and guns. Harzer had already moved the units closest to the British landing and drop zones into blocking positions at points west of Arnhem. For the moment, he had only a few armored cars, several self-propelled guns, a few tanks and some infantry. Still, Harzer hoped that by employing hit-and-run tactics he could halt and confuse British troops until the bulk of his division was again battle-ready.

Curiously, Harzer did not even know that Major Sepp Krafft’s SS Panzer Grenadier Training and Reserve Battalion was in the area and, at the moment, the only unit in the path of the British airborne forces. Harzer concentrated his own strength on the two major highways running into Arnhem: the Ede-Arnhem road and the Utrecht-Arnhem road. Certain that the paratroopers must use these main arteries, he placed his units in a semicircular screen across the two highways. By oversight, or perhaps because he lacked sufficient forces at the moment, Harzer failed to position any groups along a quiet secondary road running parallel to the northern bank of the Rhine. It was the single unprotected route the British could take to the Arnhem bridge.

*In the legend of Arnhem the story of the captured documents, like that of the spy Lindemans, is always included. Some accounts claim that the Market-Garden plan was found on the body of a dead American captain. I interviewed Student and examined all his documents. At no point does he confirm that the briefcase was carried by a captain. Nor is there any such mention in official British and American records. Perhaps, since Student says that the plans came from “a Waco freight glider,” it was generally assumed that only American personnel were aboard. However, part of General Browning’s Corps headquarters flew to Holland in Wacos; and one of these did crash-land near Student’s headquarters. In any case, whether the personnel were British or American, I think it highly unlikely that the entire Market-Garden operational plan could have been in the possession of a captain. First, great care was taken in the distribution of the plan; and second, each copy was both numbered and restricted solely to officers of staff rank.

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