Military history

Part Four
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THE SIEGE

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EARLY MORNING MIST rising from the Rhine swirled around the Arnhem bridge and the silent darkened houses surrounding it. A short distance from the northern ramp, the Eusebius Buiten Singel—a long, landscaped boulevard bordering the historic inner city—stretched back toward the outlying areas north and east and ended at the Musis Sacrum, Arnhem’s popular concert hall. On this Monday, September 18, in the thin, indistinct light, the ancient capital of Gelderland appeared deserted. Nothing moved in the streets, gardens, squares or parks.

From their positions around the northern end of the bridge, Colonel Frost’s men could begin to see for the first time the whole sprawl of the city with its houses and municipal buildings: the Court of Justice, Provincial Government House, State Archives buildings, the town hall, general post office and the railroad station less than a mile to the northwest. Nearer, the Church of St. Eusebius, with its 305-foot-high steeple, dominated the city. Few of Frost’s men, looking warily out from shattered windows and freshly dug foxholes in a perimeter composed of eighteen houses, realized that the great church now had a sinister significance. German snipers had moved into the tower during the night. Carefully concealed, they, like the British, waited tensely for full light.

The battle for the bridge had raged all night. A midnight lull had been short-lived. When the fighting broke out again, it almost seemed that each man was engaged in individual contest. Twice during the night Frost’s men had tried to rush the southern end of the bridge, only to be beaten back. Lieutenant John Grayburn, leading both charges, had been badly wounded in the face, but stayed on the bridge and oversaw the evacuation of all his men to safety.* Later, truckloads of German infantry tried to ram their way across the bridge, only to be met by the concentrated fire of the British troopers. With flamethrowers, Frost’s men had set the vehicles on fire. Panzer Grenadiers were burned alive in the inferno and fell screaming to the Rhine one hundred feet below. The acrid smell of burning rubber and thick black smoke eddying up from the debris hampered rescue parties from both sides searching for their wounded among the bodies littering the bridge. Lance Corporal Harold Back, in one such party, was helping to carry wounded into the basement of one of the houses held by Frost’s men. In the darkness of the cellar, he saw what he thought were a few candles burning. Injured troopers were laid out all over the floor and suddenly Back realized that what he saw were tiny fragments glowing on the bodies of some of the wounded. Hit by splinters from phosphorous shells, the men were glowing in the dark.

Inexplicably, in these first moments of daylight, the battle halted again. It was almost as though both sides were drawing a deep breath. Across the road from Frost’s battalion headquarters, on a side street under the ramp itself, Captain Eric Mackay made a quiet reconnaissance of the houses that his little force of engineers and small groups of men from other units now controlled. During a vicious nighttime battle, Mackay had managed to hang on to two of the four houses in the area and set up a command post in one of them, a brick schoolhouse. The Germans, counterattacking, had crept through the landscaped grounds to toss hand grenades into the houses. Infiltrating the buildings, the Germans fought a deadly, almost silent hand-to-hand battle with the British. Ranging through the cellars and from room to room, Mackay’s men drove back swarms of the enemy with bayonets and knives. Then, taking a small group of men, Mackay went out into the bushes after the retreating Germans. Again, with bayonets and grenades, the British routed the enemy. Mackay was hit in the legs by shrapnel and a bullet punctured his helmet, grazing his scalp.

Now, checking his troopers, Mackay discovered casualties simiar to his own. Adding to his problems, the supply situation was not good. There were six Bren guns, ammunition, grenades and some explosives. But Mackay had no antitank weapons, little food and no medical supplies except morphia and field dressings. Additionally, the Germans had cut off the water. Now, all that was available was what the men still had in their canteens.

Terrible as the nighttime fighting had been, Mackay maintained a fierce determination. “We were doing well and our casualties were comparatively light,” he recalls. “Besides, now with the coming of daylight, we could see what we were doing and we were ready.” Still, Mackay, like Frost, had few illusions. In this most deadly kind of fighting—street by street, house by house and room by room—he knew it was only a question of time before the British garrison at the bridge was overwhelmed. The Germans obviously hoped to crush Frost’s small force, by sheer weight of numbers, within a matter of hours. Against such powerful and concentrated attacks, all that could save the courageous defenders at the bridge was the arrival of XXX Corps or the remaining battalions of the 1st Parachute Brigade still fighting their way into the city.

It had been a night of unceasing horror for the SS soldiers who fought near the bridge. Colonel Harzer, apparently satisfied that he had halted Urquhart’s battalions, had underestimated both the number and the caliber of the men who had reached the northern end. Harzer did not even bother to order his few self-propelled guns to be brought up as support. Instead, squad after squad of SS were thrown against the British positions in the buildings around the ramp. These tough units met a foe most of them remember as the fiercest soldiers they had ever encountered.

SS Squad Leader Alfred Ringsdorf, twenty-one, an experienced soldier who had fought in Russia, was on a freight train heading toward Arnhem where, he was told, his group was to be refitted. There was utter confusion at the Arnhem station when Ringsdorf and his men arrived. Troops from a hodgepodge of units were milling about, being lined up and marched off. Ringsdorf’s unit was told to report immediately to a command post in the city. There, a major attached them to a company of the 21st Panzer Grenadier Regiment. The squad had arrived without arms, but by late Sunday afternoon they were outfitted with machine guns, carbines, hand grenades and a few Panzerfauste.* Questioning the limited amount of ammunition, they were told that supplies were en route. “At this time,” says Ringsdorf, “I had no idea where we were going to fight, where the battle was, and I had never been in Arnhem before.”

In the center of the city, there was evidence that heavy street fighting had already taken place. For the first time, Ringsdorf learned that British paratroopers had landed and were holding the northern end of the Arnhem bridge. No one seemed to know how large the force was. His squad was assembled in a church and given their orders. They were to infiltrate behind the buildings on either side of the bridge ramp and rout out the British. Ringsdorf knew how deadly this kind of fighting was. His experiences at the Russian front had taught him that. Yet, the men in his command were seasoned young veterans. They thought the battle would be brief.

All through the area leading to the bridge, the squad saw houses heavily damaged by bombing, and the men had to work their way through the rubble. As they neared the perimeter positions the British had set up around the north end of the bridge, they came under intense machine-gun fire. Pinned down, the squad was unable to get within six hundred yards of the bridge approach. A lieutenant called for a volunteer to cross the square and toss a demolition charge into the house where the heaviest machine-gun fire seemed to be centered. Ringsdorf volunteered. Under covering fire, he dashed across the square. “I stopped behind a tree near a cellar window where the shooting was coming from and tossed the charge inside. Then I ran back to my men.” Lying in rubble waiting for the explosion to go off, Ringsdorf looked back just as a tall house on a corner, where a number of German engineers were sheltering, was suddenly hit by shells. The entire front of the house crumbled, burying everybody. It struck Ringsdorf that had his own men been there, the entire squad would have been wiped out. At that moment, the demolition charge he had thrown into the cellar exploded on the street not far from where he lay. The British had tossed it back out the window.

At nightfall various squads began to infiltrate the buildings to dig the British out. Ringsdorf’s objective was a big red building which, he was told, was a school. Heading toward it, his squad quickly encountered alert British marksmen who forced the Germans to take refuge in a nearby house. Smashing the windows, the SS men opened fire. The British immediately took cover in the house next door and a vicious fire fight began. “The British shooting was deadly,” Ringsdorf recalls. “We could hardly show ourselves. They aimed for the head, and men began to fall beside me, each one with a small, neat hole through the forehead.”

With losses mounting, the Germans fired a panzerfaust directly at the British-occupied house. As the shell crashed into the building, Ringsdorf’s squad charged. “The fighting was cruel,” he remembers. “We pushed them back room by room, yard by yard, suffering terrible losses.” In the middle of the melee, the young squad leader was ordered to report to his battalion commander; the British, he was told, must be driven out at all costs. Back with his men, Ringsdorf ordered the squad to dash forward, lobbing showers of grenades to keep the English under constant attack. “Only in this way,” says Ringsdorf, “were we able to gain ground and continue our advance. But I certainly had not expected when I came from Germany to find myself suddenly engaged in bitter fighting in a restricted area. This was a harder battle than any I had fought in Russia. It was constant, close-range, hand-to-hand fighting. The English were everywhere. The streets, for the most part, were narrow, sometimes not more than fifteen feet wide, and we fired at each other from only yards away. We fought to gain inches, cleaning out one room after the other. It was absolute hell!”

Advancing cautiously toward one house, Ringsdorf caught a glimpse of an English helmet with camouflage netting momentarily outlined in an open cellar doorway. As he raised his arm to throw a grenade, he heard a low voice and the sound of moaning. Ringsdorf did not lob the grenade. Silently he moved down the cellar steps, then yelled, “Hands up.” The command was unnecessary. In Ringsdorf’s words, “Before me was a frightening sight. The cellar was a charnel house full of wounded English soldiers.” Ringsdorf spoke soothingly, knowing that the British would not understand his words, but might comprehend his meaning. “It’s O.K.,” he told the wounded men. “It’s all right.” He called for medics and, collecting his prisoners, ordered the British moved back of his own lines for attention.

As the troopers were brought out of the cellar, Ringsdorf began to search one of the walking wounded. To his astonishment, the man uttered a low moan and crumpled at Ringsdorf’s feet, dead. “It was a bullet meant for me,” Ringsdorf says. “The English were protecting their own. They couldn’t know we were trying to save their wounded. But for one moment, I was paralyzed. Then I broke out in a cold sweat and ran.”

As the British troopers hung on grimly around the school, Ringsdorf knew that even his elite unit was not strong enough to force a surrender. As dawn broke on Monday, he and the depleted squad retreated back up the Eusebius Buiten Singel. Encountering an artillery commander, Ringsdorf told him that “the only way to get the British out is to blast the buildings down, brick by brick. Believe me, these are real men. They won’t give up that bridge until we carry them out feet first.”

Master Sergeant Emil Petersen had good reason to reach the same conclusion. He was attached to the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Work Service) and, as Germany’s manpower shortage became increasingly acute, Petersen and his thirty-five-man platoon had been transferred to a heavy antiaircraft unit, then to an infantry outfit. They had retreated all the way from France.

On Sunday afternoon, waiting at the Arnhem station for transportation back to Germany where they were to be reorganized, Petersen’s platoon had been mobilized and told by a lieutenant that they were to be committed against British airborne troops who had landed in the city. “The unit we joined consisted of 250 men,” Petersen recalls. “No one had any weapons. Only I and four others had machine pistols.”

Petersen’s men were tired. They had been without food for twenty-four hours, and the sergeant remembers thinking that had the train been on time, the platoon would have been fed, would have missed the battle and would have reached home in Germany.

At an SS barracks, the group was issued weapons. “The situation was laughable,” Petersen says. “First, none of us liked fighting with the Waffen SS. They had a reputation for being merciless. The arms they gave us were ancient carbines. To break open mine, I had to bang it against a table. The morale of my men was not exactly high when they saw these old weapons.”

It took some time to make the guns serviceable and, as yet, the unit had not received any orders. Nobody seemed to know what was happening or where the men were to be committed.

Finally, at dusk, the group was marched off to the town commander’s headquarters. Arriving, they found the building deserted. Again, they waited. “All we could think about was food,” says Petersen. Eventually, an SS lieutenant arrived and announced that the men were to push through the center of the city to the Rhine bridge.

The unit marched in platoons down Markt Street toward the Rhine. In the dark they could see nothing; but, Petersen recalls, “we were conscious of movement all around us. Occasionally we heard shooting in the distance and the sound of vehicles. Once or twice I thought I saw the dull silhouette of a helmet.”

Less than three hundred yards from the bridge, Petersen was aware that they were passing through lines of soldiers and he guessed the group he was with must be replacing these men. Then one of the soldiers said something that, to Petersen, was unintelligible. Instantly Petersen realized that the man had spoken English. “We were marching alongside a British unit heading, like us, for the bridge.” The mistaken identity was suddenly apparent to everyone. An English voice yelled out, “They’re Jerries!” Petersen remembers shouting, “Fire!”

Within seconds the street reverberated with machine-gun and rifle fire as the two forces fought face to face. A stream of bullets missed Petersen by inches, ripping through his knapsack. The force of the fire slammed him to the ground. Quickly, he took cover behind a dead comrade.

“Everywhere you looked, men were firing from scattered positions, often mistakenly at their own side,” Petersen remembers. Slowly he began to crawl forward. He came to an iron fence enclosing a small park and climbed the fence. There, he found most of the other survivors of the German platoons sheltering among trees and shrubs. The British had drawn back to a group of houses on both sides of the park, and now in the little square the Germans were caught in a crossfire. “I could hear the screams of the wounded,” Petersen says. “The British fired flares pinpointing our positions and cut our group to pieces. Fifteen men in my platoon were killed in less than five minutes.”

Just at dawn the British stopped firing. The Germans also halted. In the early light, Petersen saw that of the 250 men who had set out for the bridge, more than half were either dead or wounded. “We never did get near the approaches to the bridge. We just lay there and suffered, without support from the vaunted SS or a single self-propelled gun. That,” Petersen says, “was our introduction to the Arnhem battle. For us, it was nothing less than a massacre.”

Hour by hour, men of the two missing battalions of the 1st British Airborne Division somehow reached the bridge. They had managed, by twos and threes, to fight through Colonel Harzer’s defense ring to the north and west. Many were wounded, hungry and cold. They would add to the medical and supply problems of Colonel Frost’s group. But in these hours, the stragglers were proud and in high spirits, despite their exhaustion and wounds. They had arrived where briefing officers back in England and their own commanders had told them to come. They streamed in from every unit that had started out so confidently for the Arnhem bridge the previous afternoon, and by dawn on the eighteenth Frost estimated that he now had between 600 and 700 men on the northern approach. But each hour that brought more troopers to the bridge brought, too, the increasing sounds of mechanized equipment as General Harmel’s armored units entered the city and took up positions.

Even the German armor found Arnhem a hazardous and frightening place. Along various routes throughout the city, ordinary Dutch civilians had blocked the roads. Braving German and British bullets, men and women living in the fighting areas had begun to collect the dead—British, German, and their own countrymen. Sergeant Reginald Isherwood, of the 1st Battalion, finally found his way to the center of Arnhem at daybreak, after a hazardous night on the roads. There he saw “a sight that will live with me until the end of my days.” The Dutch, emerging from basements, cellars, gardens and wrecked buildings, were collecting bodies. “They carried the wounded to makeshift dressing stations and shelters in the basements,” Isherwood recalls, “but the bodies of the dead were stacked like sandbags in long rows, the heads and feet placed alternately.” The proud, grieving citizens of Arnhem were laying the bodies of friend and foe alike across the streets in five-to-six-foot-high human roadblocks to prevent German tanks from reaching Frost at the bridge.

For the civilians in the inner city, dawn brought no release from the terror and confusion. Fires were out of control and spreading rapidly. Huddled in cellars and basements, few people had slept. The night had been punctuated by the crash of shells, the dull crump of mortars, the whine of snipers’ bullets and the staccato burst of machine guns. Strangely, outside the older part of town, the citizens of Arnhem were untouched by what was happening, and they were totally confused. They telephoned friends in the inner city seeking information, only to learn from the frightened householders that a pitched battle was taking place on the northern end of the bridge, which the British were holding against repeated German attacks. It was obvious to the callers that German troops and vehicles were moving into the city from all directions. Yet the faith of the Dutch did not falter. They believed that liberation by the British and Americans was imminent. In these outer parts of the city, people prepared for work as usual. Bakeries opened, milkmen made their rounds, telephone operators, railroad employees, utility workers—all were on their jobs. Civil servants were planning to go to work, firemen still attempted to keep up with the ever-growing number of burning buildings and, a few miles north of Arnhem, Dr. Reinier van Hooff, director of Burgers Zoological Gardens, tended his nervous, skittish animals.* Perhaps the only Dutch who knew the extent of the battle were doctors and nurses who answered calls constantly throughout the night. Ambulances raced through the city, collecting casualties and rushing them to St. Elisabeth’s Hospital on the northwestern outskirts and to smaller nursing homes within the city. No one in Arnhem realized as yet that the city was already a no man’s land and that the situation would grow steadily worse. Arnhem, one of the most scenic spots in the Netherlands, would soon become a miniature Stalingrad.

The Dutch in the inner city were, however, aware almost from the beginning that liberation would not come easily. In the middle of the night at the government police station on Eusebiusplein, less than a quarter of a mile from the bridge, twenty-seven-year-old Sergeant Joannes van Kuijk heard a quiet tapping at the station door. Opening up, he saw British soldiers standing outside. Immediately Van Kuijk asked them in. “They wanted the answers to all sorts of questions bearing on the locations of buildings and landmarks,” he remembers. “Then a number of them left and began digging themselves in across the road in the direction of the bridge—all of it done as silently as possible.” In front of a doctor’s house nearby, Van Kuijk watched as the British set up a mortar site and then positioned a 6-pounder antitank gun in a corner of the doctor’s garden. By dawn, Van Kuijk saw that the British had formed a tight perimeter around the northern extremity of the bridge. To him, these soldiers acted less like liberators than like grim-faced defenders.

On the other side of Eusebius Buiten Singel, the winding, grassstripped boulevard close by the bridge, Coenraad Hulleman, a labor mediator staying with his fiancée, Truid van der Sande, and her parents in their villa, had been up all night listening to the firing and explosions around the schoolhouse a street away, where Captain Mackay’s men were fighting off the Germans. Because of the intensity of the battle, the Van der Sandes and Hulleman had taken refuge in a small, windowless cellar beneath the central portion of the house.

Now, at dawn, Hulleman and his future father-in-law stole cautiously upstairs to a second-floor room overlooking the boulevard. There, they stared down in amazement. A dead German lay in the middle of a patch of marigolds in the landscaped street, and all through the grass plots they saw Germans in one-man slit trenches. Glancing along the boulevard to his right, Hulleman saw several German armored vehicles parked beside a high brick wall, drawn up and waiting. Even as the two men watched, a new battle broke out. Machine guns on the tanks suddenly fired into the towers of the nearby Walburg Church, and Hulleman saw a fine red dust spew out. He could only assume that paratroopers were in lookout positions in the church. Almost immediately the tank fire was answered, and the Germans in slit trenches began to machine-gun the houses on the opposite side of the street. One of them was a costume shop and in its windows were knights in armor. As Hulleman looked on, the bullets shattered the show window and toppled the knights. Moved to tears, Hulleman turned away. He hoped the sight was not prophetic.

A few blocks north, in a house near the concert hall, Willem Onck was awakened shortly after dawn by the sound of troop movements in the street. Someone hammered on his door and a German voice ordered Onck and his family to stay inside and to draw the blinds. Onck did not immediately obey. Running to the front window, he saw Germans with machine guns at every corner of the street. In front of the Musis Sacrum was an 88 mm. battery, and to Onck’s utter amazement, German soldiers were sitting next to it on the auditorium’s chairs which they had carried into the street. Watching them chatting casually with one another, Onck thought they looked as if they were only waiting for the concert to begin.

The most frustrated and angry civilians in the area were the members of the Dutch underground. Several of them had contacted the British almost immediately at the bridge, but their help had been politely refused. Earlier, Arnhem’s underground chief, Pieter Kruyff, had sent Toon van Daalen and Gijsbert Numan to Oosterbeek to establish contact with the British. They too had found that their assistance was not needed. Numan remembers warning the troopers of snipers in the area and advising them to avoid main roads. “One of them told me their orders were to proceed to the bridge only, and they would follow their indicated routes,” Numan says. “I got the impression that they were in dread of provocateurs and simply did not trust us.”

Now, at dawn, Johannus Penseel held a meeting in his cellar with his resistance workers. Penseel planned to take over a local radio station and broadcast a proclamation that the city was free. A telephone call from Numan changed his mind. “It goes badly,” Numan reported. “The situation is critical, and I think everything is already lost.” Penseel was stunned. “What do you mean?” he asked. Numan was now near St. Elisabeth’s Hospital. The British were finding it impossible to get through the German lines and march to the bridge, he said. Penseel immediately telephoned Pieter Kruyff, who advised the group to hold back any planned activities—“a temporary nonintervention,” as Henri Knap, who attended the meeting, recalls. But the long-term hopes of the resistance workers were crushed. “We were prepared to do anything,” Penseel recalls, “even sacrifice our lives if necessary. Instead, we sat useless and unwanted. It was now increasingly clear that the British neither trusted us nor intended to use us.”

Ironically, in these early hours of Monday, September 18, when neither SHAEF, Montgomery nor any Market-Garden commander had a clear picture of the situation, members of the Dutch underground passed a report through secret telephone lines to the 82nd Airborne’s Dutch liaison officer, Captain Arie Bestebreurtje, that the British were being overwhelmed by panzer divisions at Arnhem. In the 82nd’s message logs, the notation appears: “Dutch report Germans winning over British at Arnhem.” In the absence of any direct communications from the Arnhem battle area, this message was actually the first indication that the Allied High Command received of the crisis that was overtaking the 1st British Airborne Division.

*Grayburn was killed in the battle for Arnhem. On September 20 he stood in full view of an enemy tank and directed the withdrawal of his men to a main defense perimeter. For supreme courage, leadership and devotion to duty during the entire engagement, he was posthumously awarded Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross.

*A German version of the American recoilless antitank bazooka capable of firing a 20-pound projectile with extreme accuracy.

*In the zoo were 12,000 carrier pigeons which the Germans had collected from bird keepers throughout Arnhem. Fearing that the Dutch might use the pigeons to carry reports, the birds had been confiscated and housed in the zoo. German soldiers appeared daily to count the birds and even dead pigeons were ordered kept until the Germans could check their registration numbers.

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