“But the Germans, General, the Germans!”
—Major General Sosabowski, at the briefing for Operation Comet
The II SS Panzer Corps
The formation that played the critical role in defeating the Allies in Market Garden was II SS Panzer Corps, consisting of the 9th Waffen-SS Division Hohenstaufen and the 10th Waffen-SS Division Frundsberg. These two elite divisions had played a leading part in freeing the First Panzer Army from encirclement by the Russians in April. They then took part in the Normandy battles from the beginning of July onward. By early September, the corps had been reduced to about 6,500–7,000, of whom a small majority were Frundsberg men. Both divisions were officially down to Kampfgruppe (Battle Group) strength, but their fighting quality was high and their leadership exemplary.
The corps commander was SS-Lt. General Wilhelm Bittrich, whom Roy Urquhart described as a leader of “tremendous professional ability.” The acting head of Hohenstaufen was SS-Colonel Walter Harzer, who was young, articulate, able and ambitious. Both Bittrich and Harzer were Anglophiles, which accounts in part for the healthy respect which both sides held for each other. The commander of Frundsberg was SS-Maj. General Heinz Harmel, whom the historian of the Waffen-SS, Col. General of the SS Paul Hausser, referred to as a leader of “proven ability.” He was known to the troops with warmth as Der alte Frundsberg (Old Frundsberg Himself).
During the retreat of II SS Panzer Corps from the Falaise pocket on 21 August, command and control of Army Group B broke down completely. Model rarely knew where his units were or what shape they were in, receiving information that was either out of date or otherwise unreliable. Hausser, the commander of II SS Panzer Corps before he was promoted to head Seventh Army, was carried out of the Falaise Pocket, badly wounded, on the hull of one of the last remaining tanks from 1st SS Panzer Division.
During this chaotic period, Bittrich, who had taken over from Hausser, still found time to demand 111 new tanks on 26 August. On 3 September, Model had ordered all SS armored divisions to refit north of Namur in Belgium; this order was apparently never received by Bittrich. By 4 September, Bittrich had been out of touch with Army Group B for three days. He made his way on foot to Model’s HQ near Liege and received verbal orders to disengage and move north into Holland for rest and refitting. Both the 9th and 10th SS divisions began withdrawing on 5–6 September, advanced units of the former reaching the Arnhem area by the evening of the 6th.
Bittrich then discovered to his chagrin that in refitting his two divisions they were to be split up; Frundsberg remaining in the Arnhem area and Hohenstaufen entraining for Siegen in the Reich, just east of the Ruhrindustriegebiet. Hohenstaufen was ordered to hand over its remaining armor and vehicles to Frundsberg, but these were still with the division on D-Day, when only technical and administrative units had left for Germany. Despite the corps order, both divisions were prepared for imminent action.
Hohenstaufen was divided into nineteen Alarmheiten, each of about company strength, comprising about 2,500 men in total. Most of these “alarm companies” were stationed 10–15 km northeast of Arnhem so that they could be brought to bear against any landing west of the city as well as north and east. Particularly crucial was the location of the 9th SS Reconnaissance Battalion at Beekbergen. In defiance of the order to hand over their vehicles to Frundsberg, the Hohenstaufen men disabled them in various, reversible ways such as having the tracks removed. While most of the vehicles were already loaded onto flatcars ready to move to Siegen, the battalion was otherwise poised to descend on Arnhem and points south.
Most of the corps had been thoroughly trained in anti-paratroop operations in France in 1943. Where the corps was deficient was in transport; the alarm units having to travel, for the most part, on foot or by bicycle. Communications with Harzer’s HQ at Beekbergen outside Apeldoorn and between the companies were also so poor that the resulting siege of Frost’s battalion at the Arnhem bridge was achieved as much by luck as by design.
Frundsberg’s Harmel, with more men and heavy weapons than Hohenstaufen’s Harzer, also reorganized his division so that by 17 September he could call upon three battalions of Panzergrenadiere motorized infantry, a tank group of Panzerkampfwagen (Panzer) IVs in Vorden, and a flak (anti-aircraft) regiment in Dieren. Panzergrenadier Regiment 21, with a complement of 12 anti-tank guns, was stationed at Deventer.
The dispositions of Frundsberg are essential to an understanding of the German reaction on D-Day. The division’s reconnaissance battalion under SS-Major Brinkmann was at Borculo and Eibergen, east of Harmel’s HQ at Ruurlo, and the furthest of all the Panzer Corps units from Arnhem. The units at Vorden, Dieren and Deventer were also further from Arnhem than those of Hohenstaufen. The only units close to Arnhem were Battalion Euling at Rheden and the battery of artillery at Dieren commanded by SS-Lt. Colonel Ludwig Spindler. The reason they were there was that they had been transferred to Frundsberg from Hohenstaufen; after the airborne landings, Spindler took charge of all Hohenstaufen units that were put into the fight against the First Parachute Brigade.
Frundsberg, most of it further away from Arnhem than Hohenstaufen, was directed on to Nijmegen, including Euling’s battalion. There, Frundsberg barred the way to Arnhem, which was even more important than the success of Hohenstaufen and SS Training Battalion Krafft in checking the British at Arnhem-Oosterbeek. The actions of Frundsberg were the death-knell of Market Garden.
On 17 September, Frundsberg was without its commander. During the Normandy battles, there had been rumblings of dissent among the Waffen-SS leadership. Discontent with the military direction of the war had reached such a pitch that Rommel, the commander of Army Group B, hatched a plan to end the war on the Western Front. He sounded out several of his commanders, including those of the Waffen-SS. Hausser, Bittrich, even Sepp Dietrich, an old Nazi and the longest-serving of the senior SS commanders, all expressed support.
The plan was that Hitler would be arrested but not killed and Rommel would direct an orderly withdrawal to the Siegfried Line and invite the Western Allies to occupy France. But then Rommel was wounded in an air attack on 17 July and Army Group B was without a commander until Model took over on 17 August. The attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July caught these western conspirators by surprise and Rommel later killed himself, not because his plot had been discovered but because his name was on a list of senior figures designated by the 20 July conspirators to take over from Hitler.
Bittrich’s diatribes against the military leadership during the Battle of Normandy had reached the ears of the Reichsfuehrer SS, Heinrich Himmler. The last straw came when Bittrich heard that Col. General Erich Hoeppner, his former commander on the Eastern Front, had been condemned to death by hanging. Bittrich exploded in fury, saying that such a disgraceful fate meant the end of the German Army. Himmler dismissed Bittrich although his senior officer, General Hans Eberbach of the Fifth Panzer Army, refused to let him go. Himmler tried again during the Arnhem battle but Model again refused to release Bittrich, quite possibly saving his life.
Unfortunately, Bittrich still needed to plead the case for more heavy weapons and equipment from the SS-Fuehrungshauptampt (Operational Department). Since Frundsberg was in the most immediate need of heavy weapons, it was Harmel who was sent to Berlin, unbeknownst to Model. The fact that he left his division shows that Bittrich had no inkling at all of the massive attack that was to fall on the Germans from Eindhoven to Arnhem. Harmel left Ruurlo by car on the evening of 16 September and met with SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Hans Juettner, the head of one of the two vast military bureaucracies governing the Waffen-SS, and Himmler’s military Chief of Staff. Juettner promised 1,500 recruits but was noncommittal about heavy weapons. Negotiations were overtaken by events and Harmel was summoned by teletype back to Arnhem on the afternoon of the 17th.
The Germans certainly anticipated Allied paratroop landings in offensive actions to follow up their retreat. In general, they expected the landings to be larger than those in Market and much deeper behind the German lines. The only inkling that the Allies had of the Germans anticipating Market Garden were Ultra decrypts of 14 and 15 September, showing the Germans expected large-scale air landings in Holland and a thrust by ground forces on both sides of Eindhoven to Arnhem.
The decrypt of 15 September is particularly revealing. The message was decoded at a time when, apart from the military situation at Brest, most of the decrypted messages concerned the Aegean, the Adriatic and the Mediterranean. The Germans correctly identified XXX Corps and speculated that a further corps would be brought up to the front line. They also projected that 800 to 900 tanks would be available, which was an overestimate. However, the Germans were correct in their speculation that a ground offensive would take place, moving up on both sides of Eindhoven to Arnhem, with the aim of cutting off German forces in the western Netherlands. These projections were not passed on to the lower commands. A warning by a German agent in neutral Sweden that something quite close to this scenario was about to take place reached Berlin only on D-Day.
Lower down the chain of command, the greatest likelihood was thought to be a ground offensive from Neerpelt in support of the Americans to the south. Model’s staff speculated that the Allies would advance from the Neerpelt bridgehead, concentrate between the Maas and the Waal, then move east toward that part of the Ruhrindustriegebiet east of the Rhine. Any parachute landings would be in the Ruhr area.
When the blow fell, both Bittrich and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) thought that the aim was to prevent reinforcement at the northern end of the West Wall by Fifteenth Army in an Allied attempt to open the way to Muenster. Hitler refused to allow reinforcements from Fifteenth Army toward Eindhoven that would weaken the approaches to the Scheldt. His grasp of military reality at this point was greater than that of subsequent military historians.
At the time of Market Garden, Hitler was already planning what became the Ardennes offensive in December. He received the news of the landings with great calm, possibly because of his confidence in Model and the preparations he had made. Hitler’s military situation conference, of which only parts of the record have survived, began at midday and continued until 0207 hours the next morning. The conference was typical in that it was rambling and unstructured, switching back and forth from one general topic to the other, without systematic reports from the Army Groups or theaters. The flow was interrupted by reports on the military situation in the Netherlands, which started at around 1700 and continued until the small hours.
Hitler linked the paratroop landings with a coastal invasion. He also expected further landings on the following day and mused that the capture of his headquarters was worth the risk of two parachute divisions. He later “used strong language” about the folly of allowing bridges to fall intact into the hands of the enemy.
One officer at the conference speculated with great prescience that the offensive was aimed at the Zuyder Zee, more accurately at the IJsselmeer to the south. The officer was Lieutenant Colonel Waizenegger, adjutant to General Jodl, chief of the operations staff of the OKW. Waizenegger connected the ground assault from the Neerpelt bridgehead with the airborne operation. Though the picture was incomplete, Hitler’s HQ got a fair indication of the forces that could be brought to bear, including the 107th Panzer Brigade to the east of the Corridor, Poppe’s 59th Division from Fifteenth Army, and the 406th Division from Wehrkreis VI, the German military district on the Dutch border. There was much uncertainty and discussion about the strength and deployment of the First Parachute Army. II SS Panzer Corps was not mentioned, except for the battalion already detached to counter any advance from Neerpelt.
Bittrich’s reaction was both rapid and pertinent. He ordered Hohenstaufen, the closest to Arnhem of his two divisions, to secure the Arnhem bridge and destroy the British formations that had landed at Oosterbeek to the west. A top priority was to keep the British away from the bridge.
Equally important was Nijmegen. He ordered Frundsberg to proceed immediately south to defend the Nijmegen bridge from the south bank of the Waal, seeing that Second Army would move through Nijmegen to Arnhem. At the same time, he ordered a reconnaissance in the direction of Emmerich and Wesel; the Allies learned from an Ultra decrypt early on D+2 that the Germans thought there had been paratroop landings in the vicinity of Emmerich as well as Nijmegen and Arnhem.
Bittrich also ordered a reconnaissance toward Nijmegen, to precede the move south by Frundsberg. Since the Hohenstaufen reconnaissance battalion at Beekbergen was far closer to Arnhem than that of Frundsberg, he transferred it to the command of Frundsberg and sent it south, over the Arnhem road bridge. The Frundsberg reconnaissance battalion was later ordered to secure the Arnhem bridge for the division’s move south.
Model’s reaction was different from that of Hitler. Early on, he ordered the bridges not to be blown, as they would be needed for a counterattack. This instinct for a counterattack while fighting a major defensive battle was typical of Model. His personal reaction was less typical: the sight of parachutists caused the hurried evacuation of his HQ and departure with unseemly haste to Bittrich’s HQ at Doetinchem, east of Arnhem. By the time of Model’s arrival, Bittrich had already issued orders to his corps; Model, known for meddling in the lower orders of command, could only confirm what Bittrich had already undertaken. He later received a description of the entire battle plan, taken from a downed American glider which had crashed near Student’s HQ at Vaught on the outskirts of ’s-Hertogenbosch.
Student sent the plans by radio to Model, who had received them before the end of D-Day. Model was sceptical about the plan but it indicated no action different from what was already under way. Even the next day, Model considered that the aim of the Allied operation was to capture him and his headquarters; he marveled repeatedly at his own escape. He was no doubt influenced by the warnings of landings near his headquarters that he had received previously from his SS and Luftwaffe colleagues.
Model’s handling of the battle was perhaps his best military moment. He took II SS Panzer Corps under direct command and confirmed the order that Bittrich sent to his troops at 1730 hours. Beyond that, Model divided the defense into three sectors. The First Parachute Army was to halt the British ground offensive and eliminate the 101st Airborne Division on the Son-Veghel road. Kampfgruppe Chill was already in place to oppose the ground offensive, the 59th Infantry Division in transit west of Tilburg was to engage the 101st, and the 107th Panzer Brigade was diverted from its move to the Aachen sector to oppose the 101st from the east. Second, Wehrkreis VI was ordered to nuetralize Allied paratroopers on the Groesbeek Heights, to defend or retake the road and rail bridges over the Waal, and to prepare for offensive operations toward the south. Lastly, the Netherlands Command was called on to undertake operations against the British in Arnhem-Oosterbeek, under Christiansen’s operations and training officer, Major General Baron Hans von Tettau. These orders were in place before midnight on D-Day.
A premise of Allied strategic thinking for Market Garden was that it would take many weeks for a limited number of German divisions, between six and twelve, to arrive by train from Denmark and the Reich. The SHAEF Intelligence Summary of 13 September said that the German “CiC West can expect no more than a dozen divisions within the next two months to come from outside sources to the rescue.” Instead, the Germans pulled together, with astonishing speed and efficiency, a large number of disparate units already in the vicinity, though the myth that the German cupboard was bare persisted long after the war’s end.