FIELD MARSHAL GERD VON RUNDSTEDT’S high-risk gamble to rescue the remains of General Von Zangen’s encircled Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais was paying off. Under cover of darkness, ever since September 6, a hastily assembled fleet consisting of two ancient Dutch freighters, several Rhine barges and some small boats and rafts had been plying back and forth across the three-mile mouth of the Schelde estuary ferrying men, artillery, vehicles and even horses.
Although powerful coastal guns on Walcheren Island protected against attack from the sea, the Germans were surprised that Allied naval forces made no effort to interfere. Major General Walter Poppe expected the convoy carrying his splintered 59th Infantry Division to be “blown out of the water.” To him the one-hour trip between Breskens and Flushing “in completely darkened ships, exposed and defenseless, was a most unpleasant experience.” The Allies, the Germans suspected, completely underestimated the size of the evacuation. Certainly they knew about it. Because both Von Rundstedt and Army Group B’s commander, Field Marshal Walter Model, desperately in need of reinforcements, were demanding speed, some daylight trips had been made. Immediately, fighters pounced on the small convoys. Darkness, however unpleasant, was much safer.
The most hazardous part of the journey was on the Schelde’s northern bank. There, under the constant threat of Allied air attack, Von Zangen’s forces had to follow a single main road, running east from Walcheren Island, across the Beveland peninsula and into Holland. Part of the escape route, at the narrow neck joining the mainland, was only a few miles from Antwerp and British lines on the Albert Canal. Inexplicably the British even now made no serious effort to attack north, spring the trap, and cut the base of the isthmus. The escape route remained open. Although hammered by incessant Allied air attacks Von Zangen’s Fifteenth Army would eventually reach Holland—at a most crucial moment for Montgomery’s Market-Garden operation.
While the Fifteenth Army had been extricated more by calculated design than by luck, now the opposite occurred: fate, the unexpected and unpredictable, took a hand. Some eighty miles away the battered armored units of Lieutenant General Wilhelm Bittrich’s elite, veteran II SS Panzer Corps reached bivouac areas in the vicinity of Arnhem. As directed by Field Marshal Model on September 4, Bittrich had slowly disengaged the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions for “refitting and rehabilitation.” Model had chosen the Arnhem area. The two reduced, but still tough, divisions were fanned out to the north, east and south of the town. Bittrich assigned the 9th SS to a huge rectangular sector north and northeast of Arnhem, where most of the division’s men and vehicles were on high ground and conveniently hidden in a densely wooded national park. The 10th was encamped in a semicircle to the northeast, east and southeast. Thus, camouflaged and hidden in nearby woods, villages and towns—Beek-bergen, Apeldoorn, Zutphen, Ruurlo and Doetinchem—both divisions were within striking distance of Arnhem; some units were within a mile or two of the suburbs. As Bittrich was later to recall, “there was no particular significance in Model choosing the Arnhem vicinity—except that it was a peaceful sector where nothing was happening.”
The possibility that this remote backwater might have any strategic value to the Allies was obviously discounted. On the morning of September 11, a small group of Model’s staff officers was dispatched in search of a new site for Army Group B’s headquarters—in Arnhem.
One of Model’s aides, his general headquarters administration and transportation officer, thirty-five-year-old Lieutenant Gustav Sedelhauser, later remembered that “we visited the 9th and 10th SS division headquarters at Beekbergen and Ruurlo and General Bittrich’s command post at Doetinchem. Then we inspected Arnhem itself. It had everything we wanted: a fine road net and excellent accommodations. But it was not until we drove west to the outlying district of Oosterbeek that we found what we were looking for.” In the wealthy, residential village just two and a half miles from the center of Arnhem was a group of hotels, among them the gracious, white Hartenstein, with its broad expanse of crescent-shaped lawn, stretching back into parklike surroundings where deer roamed undisturbed, and the smaller, two-story, tree-shaded Tafelberg with its glassed-in veranda and paneled rooms. Impressed by the facilities and, as Sedelhauser recalled, “especially the accommodations,” the group promptly recommended Oosterbeek to the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hans Krebs, as “perfect for Army Group B’s headquarters.” Model approved the decision. Part of the staff, he decided, would live at the Hartenstein, while he would occupy the more secluded, less ostentatious Tafelberg. Lieutenant Sedelhauser was delighted. Since his tenure the headquarters had never remained anywhere for more than a few days, and now Sedelhauser “was looking forward to some peace and a chance to get my laundry done.” By September 15, Model directed, Army Group B’s headquarters was to be fully operational in Oosterbeek—approximately three miles from the broad expanse of heaths and pastureland where the British 1st Airborne Division was due to land on September 17.