Military history

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FROM BERLIN TO THE WESTERN FRONT, the German high command was stunned by the sudden Allied attack. Only in Arnhem, where the British 1st Airborne Division had dropped almost on top of General Bittrich’s two panzer divisions, was the reaction both fierce and quick. Elsewhere, baffled and confused commanders tried to determine whether the startling events of September 17 were indeed the opening phase of an invasion of the Reich. A ground attack by the British out of Belgium had been anticipated. All available reserves, including General Von Zan-gen’s Fifteenth Army, so worn down that men had little else but the rifles they carried, had been thrown into defense positions to hold against that threat. Trenches had been dug and strategic positions built in an all-out effort to force the British to fight for every foot of ground.

No one had foreseen that airborne forces would be used simultaneously with the British land advance. Were these airborne attacks the prelude to an invasion of Holland by sea, as Berlin feared? In the hours of darkness, while staff officers tried to analyze the situation, reports of additional airborne attacks further confused the picture. American paratroopers, their strength unknown and their units still unidentified, were in the Eindhoven-Nijmegen area; and the British 1st Airborne Division had clearly landed around Arnhem. But now new messages told of paratroopers in the vicinity of Utrecht, and a totally bewildering report claimed that airborne forces had landed in Warsaw, Poland.*

At Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s headquarters in Koblenz, the general reaction was one of astonishment,* The crusty, aristocratic Von Rundstedt was not so much surprised at the nature of the attack as by the man who, he reasoned, must be directing it—Montgomery. Initially, Von Rundstedt doubted that these sudden and apparently combined land-and-air operations were the opening of Eisenhower’s offensive to invade the Reich. The Field Marshal had long been certain that Patton and the American Third Army driving toward the Saar posed the real danger. To combat that threat, Von Rundstedt had committed his best troops to repulse Patton’s racing tanks. Now Germany’s most renowned soldier was caught temporarily off balance. Never had he expected Eisenhower’s main offensive to be led by Montgomery, whom he had always considered “overly cautious, habit-ridden and systematic.”

He was astounded by the boldness of Montgomery’s move. The messages pouring in from Model’s headquarters carried a note of hysteria attesting all the more to the surprise and gravity of the attack: “We must reckon with more airborne landings being made at night … the enemy obviously believes his attack to be of major importance and the British have achieved considerable initial success against Student and pushed forward to Valkens-waard … the position here is particularly critical … the lack of fast, strong reserves is increasing our difficulties … the general situation of Army Group B, stretched as it is to the limits, is critical … we require, as fast as possible, panzers, artillery, heavy mobile antitank weapons, antiaircraft units, and it is absolutely essential that we have fighters in the sky day and night …”

Model ended with these words: “… the main concentration of the Allies is on the northern wing of our front.” It was one of the few times Von Rundstedt had ever respected the opinion of the officer he had caustically referred to as having the makings of a good sergeant major. In that fragment of his message, Model had stripped away Von Rundstedt’s last doubts about who was responsible for the startling developments. The “northern wing” of Army Group B was Montgomery.

During the night hours it was impossible to estimate the strength of the Allied airborne forces in Holland, but Von Rundstedt was convinced that further landings could be expected. It would now be necessary not only to plug gaps all along the German front but to find reserves for Model’s Army Group B at the same time. Once again, Von Rundstedt was forced to gamble. Messages went out from his headquarters transferring units from their positions facing the Americans at Aachen. The moves were risky but essential. These units would have to travel north immediately, and their commitment in the line might take forty-eight hours at minimum. Von Rundstedt issued further orders to defense areas along Germany’s northwest frontier, calling for all available armor and antiaircraft units to proceed to the quiet backwater of Holland where, the Field Marshal was now convinced, imminent danger to the Third Reich lay. Even as he worked steadily on through the night to shore up his defenses, Germany’s Iron Knight pondered the strangeness of the situation. He was still amazed that the officer in charge of this great Allied offensive was Montgomery.

It was late evening when the staff car carrying General Wilhelm Bittrich from his headquarters at Doetinchem arrived in the darkened streets of Arnhem. Bittrich was determined to see for himself what was happening. As he reconnoitered through the city, fires were still burning and debris littered the streets—the effect of the morning’s bombing. Dead soldiers and smoldering vehicles in many areas attested, as Bittrich was later to say, to “the turbulent fighting that had taken place.” Yet, he had no clear picture of what was happening. Returning to his own headquarters, Bittrich learned from reports received from two women telephone operators in the Arnhem Post headquarters—whom he was later to decorate with the Iron Cross—that the great highway bridge had been taken by British paratroopers. Bittrich was infuriated. His specific order to Harzer to hold the bridge had not been carried out. Now it was crucial that the Nijmegen bridge over the Waal river be secured before the Americans in the south could seize it. Bittrich’s only chance of success was to crush the Allied assault along the corridor and squeeze the British to a standstill in the Arnhem area. The paratroopers now on the north end of the Arnhem bridge and the scattered battalions struggling to reach them must be totally destroyed.

The top-secret Market-Garden plan that had fallen into Colonel General Kurt Student’s possession finally reached Field Marshal Model at his new headquarters. He had abandoned the gardener’s cottage on the Doetinchem castle grounds and moved about five miles southeast near the small village of Terborg. It had taken Student the best part of ten hours to locate the Field Marshal and transmit the document by radio. Arriving in three parts and now decoded, Market-Garden lay revealed.

Model and his staff studied it intently. Before them was Montgomery’s entire plan: the names of the airborne divisions employed, the successive air and resupply lifts ranging over a three-day period, the exact location of the landing and drop zones, the crucial bridge objectives—even the flight routes of the aircraft involved. Model, as Harzer was later to learn from the Field Marshal himself, called the plan “fantastic.” It was so fantastic that in these critical hours Model refused to believe it.

The plans were too pat, too detailed for credibility. Model suggested to his staff that the very preciseness of the document argued against its authenticity. He stressed again his own firm conviction that the landings west of Arnhem were the spearhead of a large-scale airborne attack toward the Ruhr, via Bocholt and Minister, some forty miles east. Additional airborne landings should be expected, he warned, and once assembled would undoubtedly swerve north and then east. Model’s reasoning was not without validity. As he told his staff, “If we are to believe these plans and are to assume that the Arnhem bridge is the true objective, why were not troops dropped directly on the bridge? Here, they arrive on vast open areas suitable for assembly, and moreover, eight miles to the west.”

Model did not inform General Bittrich of the document. “I never realized until after the war,” says Bittrich, “that the Market-Garden plans had fallen into our hands. I have no idea why Model did not tell me. In any case, the plans would simply have confirmed my own opinion that the important thing to do was prevent the link-up between the airborne troops and the British Second Army—and for that, they certainly needed the bridges.”* One officer under Bittrich’s command did learn of the document. Lieutenant Colonel Harzer seemed to be the only officer outside the Field Marshal’s staff with whom Model talked about the plan. Harzer recalls that “Model was always prepared for the worst, so he did not discount it entirely. As he told me, he had no intention of being caught by the short hairs.” Only time would tell the Germans whether the document was, in fact, genuine. Although the temperamental, erratic Field Marshal was not fully prepared to accept the evidence before him, most of his staff were impressed. With the Market-Garden plan in their hands, Model’s headquarters alerted all antiaircraft units already on the move of the drops that the plan said would take place a few hours later.

One assumption, at least, was laid to rest. Lieutenant Gustav Sedelhauser, the general-headquarters administrative officer, recalls that on the basis of the captured documents, Model was now of the opinion that he and his Oosterbeek headquarters had not been the objective of the airborne assault after all.

*The R.A.F. did drop dummy paratroops over a wide area around Utrecht, diverting some German troops for days. No troops were dropped on Warsaw and the report may have been garbled in transmission or, more simply, may have been the result of unfounded rumor.

*“When we first informed Von Rundstedt’s headquarters of the airborne attack,” Colonel Hans von Tempelhof, Model’s operations chief, told me, “OB West seemed hardly perturbed. In fact the reaction was almost callously normal. It quickly changed.”

*OB West was not informed of the captured Market-Garden plans either; nor is there any mention in Model’s reports to Von Rundstedt of the documents. For some reason Model thought so little of the plans that he did not pass them on to higher headquarters.

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