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Chapter 12:

Flesh Against Steel

II SS Panzer Corps defeats Operation Market Garden.

In the first week of September 1944, Willi Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps was ordered to move to a reorganizing and refitting area north of the Dutch town of Arnhem. The unit had been in action continuously for just over two months, and was now desperately in need of a quiet period to get itself ready for battle again.

Plans were already in train to bring Bittrich’s two divisions, the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg, back up to strength, and Arnhem seemed like a good place to begin this time-consuming task. There they would be safe from Allied attack. Lightly wounded personnel were sent to hospitals in Germany in order to recover, and those in need of training were sent on courses in specialist depots.

map 14

Operation Market Garden: The British Plan

Remaining in the Dutch barracks which had been taken over by the Waffen-SS corps were probably no more than 6000 men, who were equipped with whatever tanks, artillery and vehicles they had managed to bring with them out of France. No longer worthy of the title “division”, the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg were dubbed divisional Kampfgruppen. It was doubtful if the whole of the corps would be able to put more than 30 tanks or assault guns into the field.

Walther Harzer’s Hohenstaufen was then ordered to move to Germany to be rebuilt there. Before it left, it was to hand over its remaining operational vehicles and heavy weapons to Heinz Harmel’s Frundsberg, which was to remain in Holland. At the same time as this reorganization process was under way, contingency orders were issued stating that the two units were to be prepared to dispatch “alarm” Kampfgruppen to crisis zones. Not believing intelligence reports that the Allied advance had run out of steam, Harzer decided to keep hold of many of his precious remaining tanks and heavy weapons until the very last minute, in case he had to send his men into battle. He simply ordered their tracks to be removed so they would be classed as non-operational and therefore exempt from the transfer instructions.

The conventional organization of both divisions had all but collapsed. Instead, the remaining troops were grouped into a number of ad hoc Kampfgruppen. Harmel gutted his panzergrenadier heavy weapons companies to form the division’s only antitank gun company. Likewise, all the armoured half-tracks in the division were grouped in the reconnaissance battalion to provide him with a powerful strike force. The artillery regiment’s self-propelled gun drivers and crews were all transferred to the panzer regiment, and all the infantry were combined into three weak panzergrenadier battalions.

Building the front at Eindhoven

What new equipment had arrived – mainly 15 Panzerjäger IV self-propelled guns – had been dispatched to the Dutch-Belgian border, under the command of Kampfgruppe Hienke. This was formed around one of Frundsberg’s panzergrenadier battalions, an engineer and reconnaissance company. Hohenstaufen was ordered to provide an additional panzergrenadier battalion for this force, which was helping to build up the front south of the Dutch city of Eindhoven. It was increasingly involved in a series of inconclusive engagements along the border, and was sent into action in a futile attack against the Neerpelt bridgehead on 15 September, in which three of the Panzerjäger IVs were knocked out.

Harzer, although preoccupied with preparing to move his division by train to Germany, ordered his troops to form 19 company sized quick-reaction infantry Kampfgruppen. Much of his divisional equipment was being loaded on trains when the first Allied airborne landings occurred. His division was the closest to Arnhem itself, with the Frundsberg Division garrisoned farther to the north and west near Apeldoorn. Also in the Arnhem area were two other Waffen-SS units, which were not under II SS Panzer Corps command. Major Sepp Krafft commanded a Waffen-SS noncommissioned training depot to the west of Arnhem itself, and in the outskirts there was also a 600-strong battalion of Dutch Waffen-SS infantry.

Bittrich had his headquarters in a small village nearly 10km (6.2 miles) to the east of Arnhem where, in between planning the rebuilding of his corps, he would fume about how the Führer had lost the war. Once an ardent Nazi who had transferred to the Waffen-SS from the army, Bittrich was now thoroughly disillusioned with the war, and was particularly unhappy when several of his old army comrades were arrested and executed after the 20 July Bomb Plot. He, however, remained a very professional officer. His corps headquarters remained largely intact, and Bittrich had enough military pride left to ensure no one could accuse him of being unprofessional. If II SS Panzer Corps was called to fight, it would give a good account of itself.

In Arnhem’s Tafelberg Hotel, Field Marshal Walther Model was trying to patch together his hopelessly undermanned and under-equipped army group to defend the northwest border of Germany. He had a reputation of being a great improviser and, after his successes on the Eastern Front, was nicknamed the “Führer’s Fireman”. Even at this point of the war, he was still ultra-loyal to Hitler and could still be counted on to follow the Führer’s orders to the letter. He was sitting down to lunch on 17 September with his staff when hundreds of aircraft were heard flying overhead. Operation Market Garden had begun.

By the beginning of September, the Allied armies in France and Belgium had largely outrun their supply lines, which stretched all the way back to the Normandy beaches. The Germans had destroyed or still held every port on the French Atlantic coast, and the approaches to the huge Belgian port of Antwerp were still covered by German guns. With only a fraction of the needed supplies coming ashore, the Allied armies could no longer advance into Germany on a wide front. The recently promoted Field Marshal Montgomery successfully lobbied the Allied supreme commander, Eisenhower, to allow him to drive into Holland to seize bridges over the Rhine, and then turn right to advance into Germany’s industrial heartland of the Ruhr.

Multiple airdrop

The normally cautious Montgomery now came up with a very ambitious and daring plan to capture the strategic bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem with a parachute drop by the British 1st Airborne Division. The US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would also be dropped to seize the bridges across the Waal and Maas rivers, as well as the Willems and Wilhelmina canals, to allow the tanks of the British XXX Corps to motor 103km (64 miles) up from Belgium to relieve the troops on Arnhem bridge. In total some 35,000 Allied paratroopers and glider-borne troops would be dropped in the largest airborne operation in military history. Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks would predict that his XXX Corps would be in Arnhem in 60 hours.

The official history of General Eisenhower’s headquarters wrote of Operation Market Garden:

“It seemed to fit the pattern of current Allied strategy. It conformed to General Arnold’s recommendation for an operation some distance east of the enemy’s forward positions and beyond the area where enemy reserves were normally located; it afforded an opportunity for using the long-idle airborne resources; it was in accord with Field Marshal Montgomery’s desire for a thrust north of the Rhine while the enemy was disorganized; it would help reorient the Allied drive in the direction 21st Army Group thought it should go; and it appeared to General Eisenhower to be the boldest and best move the Allies could make at the moment. The Supreme Commander realized that the momentum of the drive into Germany was being lost and thought that by this action it might be possible to get a bridgehead across the Rhine before the Allies were stopped. The airborne divisions, he knew, were in good condition and could be supported without throwing a crushing burden on the already overstrained supply lines. At worst, General Eisenhower thought the operation would strengthen the 21st Army Group in its later fight to clear the Schelde estuary. Field Marshal Montgomery examined the objections that the proposed route of advance ‘involved the additional obstacle of the Lower Rhine ... as compared with more easterly approaches, and would carry us to an area relatively remote from the Ruhr.’ He considered that these were overridden by certain major advantages: (1) the operation would outflank the Siegfried Line defences; (2) it would be on the line which the enemy would consider the least likely for the Allies to use; and (3) the area was the one with the easiest range for the Allied airborne forces.”

When RAF reconnaissance Spitfires photographed German tanks near Arnhem, the deputy commander of the First Airborne Army, Lieutenant-General Frederick “Boy” Browning, ignored the intelligence. Other Allied intelligence officers discounted the idea that the remnants of II SS Panzer Corps could put up serious resistance. The party was on, and nothing was going to spoil the show – except Bittrich’s panzer troops.

Allied bombers and fighter-bombers hit targets all over southern Holland during the morning of 17 September, but the veteran Waffen-SS men took little notice. They had been bombed and strafed on a daily basis for the past two months, so it had lost its novelty. Harzer even went ahead with a ceremony to present the Knight’s Cross to the commander of his reconnaissance battalion, SS-Hauptsturmführer Viktor Graebner. After 13:00 hours, when the first British paratroopers started to land to the west of Arnhem, Bittrich swung into action, alerting his troops with a warning order that was issued at 13:40 hours. With these brief orders he set in train the German counteroffensive that was to defeat Operation Market Garden. Harzer was ordered to assemble his Kampfgruppen and move with “absolute speed” to contain and defeat the British airborne Oosterbeek landing. Meanwhile, the Frundsberg Division was to race south and hold the Nijmegen bridges across the Waal to stop reinforcements reaching Arnhem.

Within minutes of receiving their orders, Waffen-SS units sprang into action. Harzer’s men began moving into the town by whatever means they found: trucks, tanks, halftracks, cars, trams, even bicycles. SS-Obersturmbannführer Ludwig Spindler, commander of the division’s artillery regiment, was given command of the Kampfgruppe that would hold the western edge of Arnhem. At the same time its tank, artillery and reconnaissance units began getting the vehicles that had been deliberately put out of action to stop them being transferred to the Frundsberg Division into some semblance of working order. In two hours, his 400 men and 40 vehicles were rolling out of their camp towards Arnhem town centre. They had orders to move ahead of the Frundsberg and secure Nijmegen bridge.

map 15

Arnhem and Nijmegen: Allied Drop Zones

On the drop zones west of Arnhem, 8000 British troops were forming up and preparing to move off to their objectives. Within minutes, Krafft’s trainee NCOs were in action, fighting in the forests around the British drop zones, delaying their advance for vital hours. One British airborne unit, the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (2 PARA), slipped past Krafft’s men and was soon marching into the town centre. Minutes before 2 PARA reached Arnhem bridge, Graebner’s column raced across the huge structure and within an hour the men were in Nijmegen. An improvised Luftwaffe and police Kampfgruppe had already secured the strategic bridge and Graebner had little to do. The Frundsberg Division was equally quick off the mark, and its reconnaissance battalion, under SS-Sturmbannführer Brinkmann, was on its way to Nijmegen. As the column of armoured halftracks approached Arnhem bridge, it came under fire from British paratroopers. 2 PARA now held the northern edge of the bridge and several blocks of buildings nearby. Harmel was away in Berlin arranging for new equipment for his division, so his chief of staff, SS-Sturmbannführer Paetsch, issued orders for the units heading to Nijmegen to be diverted to an improvised ferry across the Rhine that had been established upstream from Arnhem at Pannerden. Brinkmann was told to do what he could to contain the British on the north bank of Rhine and prevent further reinforcements from reaching the bridge. He set about his task with relish.

Far to the south, Kampfgruppe Heinke was soon in action against XXX Corps’ Guards Armoured Division as it pushed up the main road towards Eindhoven. Artillery barrages and air strikes smashed the German paratroopers defending the road, and when the Waffen-SS Panzerjäger IVs tried to help, several were knocked out. British Shermans were soon streaming northwards.

Heavy fighting now raged all around Arnhem as Harzer threw more and more troops into action to stop the British establishing a firm base. Speed of response was more important than strength or coordination. It was imperative that the British be denied the chance to establish themselves in firm positions. Spindler first threw two companies of artillerymen, fighting as infantrymen, into action during the evening of 17 September. Two bigger infantry Kampfgruppen then joined the battle. The following day, two more Kampfgruppen arrived, along with the first tanks and assault guns from the Hohenstaufen, as well as army units. The battle for Arnhem bridge burst into life on the morning of the 18th, when the British paratroopers heard a column of tracked armoured vehicles approaching. Graebner, being an aggressive and self-confident officer, had heard that British troops had cut him off in Nijmegen and, on his own initiative, had returned to clear the bridge for reinforcements. This was to be a coup de main raid to take the British by surprise and scatter them by shock action. Waffen-SS armoured halftracks, Puma armoured cars, Volkswagen jeeps and Graebner’s captured British Humber scout car raced over Arnhem bridge at 48km/h (30mph), with Waffen-SS troopers training their machine guns and rifles on the high buildings overlooking the elevated highway. Two vehicles got across the bridge unscathed and then the British Paras opened fire. Machine guns, mortars, PIAT bazookas, Sten guns and rifles raked the column. One halftrack took a direct hit and veered out of control before turning over. Other vehicles went out of control, crashing into each other and effectively blocking the road. Two vehicles crashed over the side of the elevated road. A handful of Waffen-SS men in the tangled wreckage tried to return fire. For almost two hours the carnage continued, until at last the remnants of Graebner’s force pulled back to safety at the southern edge of the bridge, leaving 12 wrecked vehicles behind. Scores of the reconnaissance men were dead, including their commander.

Prising out the Paras

The British Paras were not going to be removed easily. Army panzers were brought up to reinforce Brinkmann’s Kampfgruppe, and a determined effort was launched to blast out the British. As the battle was raging at Arnhem bridge, Spindler was continuing his effort to hold the 1st Airborne Division, which was pushing eastwards to help their comrades in the centre of the town. Spindler’s force had grown to 1000 men in several independent Kampfgruppen, backed by 30 tanks. An ad hoc division of army and Waffen-SS units was also trying to build a front to block the British move westwards and to seal them in a Kessel. The Germans were closing in.

During the morning of 18 September, Harmel returned to Arnhem and quickly received his orders from Bittrich, who declared: “Schwerpunkt (main effort) is south.” No effort was to be spared to hold Nijmegen bridge and prevent a link-up between the British tanks and their airborne troops. All night his troops had been labouring to get the Pannerden ferry working and, by late morning, Waffen-SS engineers on trucks and riding bicycles at last reached Nijmegen. They immediately began preparing it for demolition. At midday, SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Heinz Euling arrived to assume command of the bridge defence Kampfgruppe. Soon, armoured halftracks, mortars and four Panzerjäger IVs were rumbling over Nijmegen bridge. Artillery batteries were established on the north bank of the Waal to provide support.

Laying the trap

When American paratroopers edged into Nijmegen they were met with a heavy barrage of German artillery and mortar fire, sending them scurrying back to seek cover. More Frundsberg reinforcements arrived during the day, and Euling’s men began laying minefields and barbed wire, as well as building field fortifications. Harmel set up his command post on the north bank of the Waal, from where he could observe the key bridge. Model relayed to him the Führer’s orders that the bridges were not be blown, but held to allow a German counterattack to restore the front along the Dutch–Belgian border. Harmel was having none of this nonsense, though, and was determined to order the bridge to be blown if British tanks attempted to cross. Late in the afternoon, German observation posts south of Nijmegen reported British tanks operating with the American paratroopers.

Throughout the afternoon and into the night of 18/19 September, fighting raged in Arnhem. Tiger tanks were brought up to blast the paratroopers on Arnhem bridge and the army’s 280th Assault Gun Brigade arrived to support Spindler’s drive against the main British force. Slowly, the Germans were becoming more organized and effective. A concerted defence line was established and the first counterattacks were launched. Losses were heavy on both sides, with most German Kampfgruppen losing 50 percent casualties. The German armour was decisive, allowing the outnumbered Waffen-SS Kampfgruppen to stand off and blast the British out of their positions.

The date 20 September signified the decisive phase in the battle. The Guards Armoured Division had linked up with the 82nd Airborne Division and planned to seize the Nijmegen bridge during the day. Harmel had some 500 Waffen-SS troopers in the town fighting alongside a similar number of Luftwaffe, army and police troops. 88mm and 37mm Flak guns were emplaced in order to protect the large road ramps leading up to the bridge, and the Panzerjäger IVs were also in the town.

All-day bombardment

British guns bombarded the German positions throughout the day, and American paratroopers and British Grenadier Guards edged into the suburbs of Nijmegen. The bombardment knocked out the key 88mm Flak guns that provided the main defence of the bridge approach routes. In the afternoon 40 British tanks moved up to the riverbank and started to fire smoke shells onto the far bank to the west of the bridge. A battalion of US paratroopers then raced forward with canvas assault boats and set course for the northern bank of the Waal. German mortars and 20mm Flak guns raked the boats, killing or wounding half the Americans, but they kept going through the maelstrom. Once ashore, they scattered the few old men and boy soldiers holding the rear end of the bridge. As the river assault was under way, a squadron of British tanks rushed the southern edge of the bridge. Several tanks fell to Panzerfaust fire from the Waffen-SS men. The tanks just kept moving and, within minutes, were up on the bridge, machine-gunning the Frundsberg engineers who were still placing demolition charges. American paratroopers followed close behind. Watching horrified from his command post, Harmel immediately ordered the bridge to be blown. The engineer officer kept pressing the detonation switch. Nothing happened. Artillery fire had damaged the initiation cable; Nijmegen bridge was in British hands. Harmel was dismayed; the road to Arnhem seemed open, yet the Shermans just stopped. They had run out of fuel and ammunition and needed replenishment. Also, more infantry were needed to clear the villages along the single road north to Arnhem, otherwise German guns would be able to pick off the British tanks with ease.

Dash for freedom

The vital British infantry were still stuck in Nijmegen, fighting Euling’s men. During the night the Waffen-SS officer gathered 100 or so of his remaining men together and made an escape bid. As they listened to more British tanks rolling over the Nijmegen bridge, Euling led his men on the walkway underneath it to the north bank and safety. They had put up determined resistance and delayed the British at a decisive moment in the battle. The price for this success was high. More than 260 German bodies were found in the ruins of Nijmegen.

On Arnhem bridge itself, meanwhile, 2 PARA was on its last legs. Out of ammunition and with almost every soldier dead or wounded, including its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Frost, the battalion surrendered during the morning of 21 September. They had no idea XXX Corps tanks were only 17km (10.5 miles) away. Thus ended an epic battle.

Even before the remains of Graebner’s vehicles had been removed from Arnhem bridge, reinforcements were on their way to help Harmel block any further move north by the British armour. Four StuG IIIs and 16 Panzer IVs of Frundsberg’s Panzer Regiment had been ferried across the Rhine on 20 September and, by the early hours of the following morning, had set up a “stop line” north of Nijmegen. The whole of the “island” between Arnhem and Nijmegen was low-lying marsh or prone to flooding. Any kind of movement off roads was impossible for tanks or wheeled vehicles, and very difficult for infantrymen. Harmel skilfully placed his forces to dominate the road from Nijmegen to Arnhem. British fears about being picked off on the raised road by German antitank fire were found to be fully justified when the Guards Armoured began advancing at 11:00 hours. When the first Irish Guards Sherman reached the outskirts of the village of Elst, a high-velocity 75mm round blew the tank’s tracks off. More guns opened fire and four tanks were soon blazing on the road, which was now blocked. British infantry tried to attack across the open fields but were soon pinned down by Harmel’s artillery. At midday on 21 September, eight Panther tanks led columns of Frundsberg panzergrenadiers across Arnhem bridge and moved to join Harmel’s depleted Kampfgruppe north of Nijmegen bridge. With the arrival of these reinforcements, any chance the Allies had of reaching Arnhem was doomed.

Out of Arnhem

Harzer’s troops continued to press back the eastern flank of the British force east of Arnhem. He ordered his Kampfgruppe to form small penetration teams, each led by a couple of StuG IIIs, to push forward into the British lines. In addition, more guns were brought up to blast the British.

South of the Rhine, a brigade of Polish paratroopers was dropped just behind the Frundsberg’s “stop line”. With customary promptness, Harmel reorganized his small Kampfgruppen to contain the new landing. A battalion of sailors was thrown in to hold the Poles and 16 88mm Flak guns were positioned to cover the road from Nijmegen. Batteries of Nebelwerfers were brought up to stop the Poles massing for infantry attacks. Every attempt to break through his line was rebuffed with heavy losses.

The Germans were not content just to block the Allied advance south of Arnhem. XXX Corps relied on supplies coming up the single road from Belgium to ensure it could keep pushing north. Model was determined to cut this road, which was known as the “corridor”. The Waffen-SS Kampfgruppe that had been brushed aside in the first XXX Corps attack south of Eindhoven had been re-equipped and reorganized by 22 September. Its Panzerjäger IVs led a major attack on the corridor at Veghel that briefly cut XXX Corps’ lifeline. American paratroopers counterattacked, driving them off, but for several hours the corridor was closed. II SS Panzer Corps had more valuable time to beef up its “stop line” south of Arnhem.

King Tigers for Bittrich

The 1st Airborne Division continued to hold out in the face of continuous German attacks. During the night of 23/24 September, 45 army King Tiger tanks arrived to help Bittrich. He sent 30 south to help Harmel stop the Guards Armoured Division, and the rest turned westwards towards the Oosterbeek Kessel. There they were used to blast British strongpoints with spectacular effect. Determined groups of paratroopers, however, managed to knock some out with their PIAT bazookas at almost point-blank range. By 25 September, some 110 German guns were ringing Oosterbeek, bombarding the British trenches. RAF transport planes that tried to drop supplies to the beleaguered garrison had to fly through a wall of heavy Flak fire. Many of the supplies that were dropped ended up in the hands of Bittrich’s men because they had captured the British drop zones.

A “final attack” was ordered by Bittrich for 25 September. Four Hohenstaufen Kampfgruppen made good progress, thanks to heavy King Tiger support, and one unit broke through the now depleted defences and overran a British artillery battery. Realizing that his 1st Airborne Division was on its last legs, Montgomery authorized its withdrawal during the night. After swimming across the Rhine to a precarious bridgehead held by the Poles, by dawn just under 2500 men had escaped. Bittrich’s men advanced cautiously through the ruins of the Oosterbeek Kessel. They rounded up some 6000 prisoners, the majority of whom were wounded, and buried more than 1000 dead British soldiers. The Americans lost another 3000 men and XXX Corps lost 1500 men, as well as 70 tanks. Bittrich’s men were in awe of the fighting qualities of their British opponents, and the formalities of the Geneva Convention were generally observed during the battle. There were no accusations of the premeditated killing of prisoners that had sullied the reputation of Waffen-SS units in Normandy and later in the Ardennes,

The German losses were equally heavy. Some 8000 German casualties were recorded for all the units engaged during Market Garden, from Eindhoven to Arnhem. In the Arnhem area, more than 3000 casualties were inflicted on German units and 1725 of these were dead. The majority of these casualties were incurred by Bittrich’s units.

Bittrich’s men, however, had defeated Montgomery’s daring bid to end the war by Christmas 1944. The prompt reaction of the Waffen-SS panzer corps had ensured the key bridge at Nijmegen was defended and then the road to Arnhem blocked. This was the vital ground of Market Garden. Bittrich had spotted this in his orders which were issued within minutes of the first Allied paratroops landing. For the next week, he ensured his Schwerpunkt remained firmly in German hands. No matter how bravely the British paratroopers fought in Arnhem, they were doomed as soon as Harmel’s Kampfgruppe took up defensive positions on Nijmegen bridge on 18 September.

Senior British intelligence officer Brian Urquhart had this to say of Arnhem: “My job as chief intelligence officer was to try to evaluate what the enemy reactions were going to be and how our troops ought to deal with them. The British airborne troops were going to be dropped at the far end of the operation at Arnhem – it was across the third bridge, so there were three bridges that had to be captured before you got to the British airborne troops. I became increasingly alarmed, first of all at the German preparations, because there were intelligence reports that there were two SS panzer divisions right next to where the British troops were to be dropped. These were the star troops of the German Army, the 10th and the 9th SS Panzer Divisions. They had been very badly mauled in Normandy and were refitting in this area. These were the best fighting troops in the German Army and they had heavy tanks. Airborne troops in those days had absolutely nothing.... They had limited supplies of ammunition, and they could not fight heavy armour because they didn’t have the weapons to do it.”

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