In the thousand-year-old Dutch village of Driel, people listened intently. Even before dawn, restless sleepers woke and lights came on behind shuttered windows. Initially there was only a sense of something unaccountable taking place somewhere beyond the immediate, physical surroundings. Gradually vague impressions took form. In the far distance came a muted, continuous mutter.
Barely audible, but persistent, the sound reached the village in waves. Unable to identify the subtle noise, many listened instinctively for some change in the flow of the nearby Lower Rhine. In Holland, half of which lies below sea level, water is the constant enemy, dikes the major weapon in a never-ending battle that has gone on since before the eleventh century. Driel, sitting in a great bend of the Lower Rhine, southwest of Arnhem, capital of Gelderland, has an ever-present reminder of the struggle. A few hundred yards to the north, protecting the village and the region from the restless 400-yard-wide river, a massive dike, topped by a road, rises at places more than twenty feet high. But this morning the river gave no cause for alarm. The Neder Rijn swept peacefully toward the North Sea at its customary speed of two miles per hour. The sounds reverberating off the stone face of the protective dike came from another, far more ruthless, enemy.
As the sky lightened and the sun began to burn off the mist, the commotion grew louder. From roads due east of Driel the villagers could clearly hear the sound of traffic -- traffic that seemed to grow heavier by the minute. Now their uneasiness turned to alarm, for there was no doubt about the identity of the movement: in this fifth year of World War II and after fifty-one months of Nazi occupation, everyone recognized the rumble of German convoys.
Even more alarming was the size of the procession. Some people later recalled that only once before had they heard such a flow of traffic -- in May, 1940, when the Germans had invaded the Netherlands. At that time, swarming across the Reich frontier ten to fifteen miles from Driel, Hitler's mechanized armies had reached the main highways and spread swiftly throughout the country. Now, over those same roads convoys seemed once more to be moving endlessly.
Strange sounds came from the nearest main road -- a two-lane highway connecting Arnhem, on the northern bank of the Lower Rhine, with the eighth-century city of Nijmegen, on the broad river Waal, eleven miles to the south. Against the low background throb of engines, people could plainly identify individual noises which seemed curiously out of place in a military convoy -- the scrape of wagon wheels, the whir of countless bicycles and the slow, unpaced shuffling of feet.
What kind of convoy could this be? And, more important, where was it heading? At this moment in the war Holland's future could well depend on the answer to that question. Most people believed the convoys carried heavy reinforcements -- either pouring into the country to bolster the German garrison or rushing south to halt the Allied advance. Allied troops had liberated northern France with spectacular speed. Now they were fighting in Belgium and were said to be close to the capital, Brussels, less than one hundred miles away. Rumors persisted that powerful Allied armored units were driving for the Dutch border. But no one in Driel could tell for sure exactly the direction the convoys were taking. Distance and the diffusion of sound made that impossible. And because of the nightly curfew the villagers were unable to leave their houses to investigate.
Plagued by uncertainty, they could only wait. They could not know that shortly before dawn the three young soldiers who constituted little Driel's entire German garrison had left the village on stolen bicycles and pedaled off into the mist. There was no longer any military authority in the village to enforce the curfew regulations.
Unaware, people kept to their homes. But the more curious among them were too impatient to wait and decided to risk using the telephone. In her home at 12 Honingveldsestraat, next to her family's jam-and-preserves factory, young Cora Baltussen called friends in Arnhem. She could scarcely believe their eyewitness report. The convoys were not heading south to the western front. On this misty morning, September 4, 1944, the Germans and their supporters appeared to be fleeing from Holland, traveling in anything that would move.
The fighting that everyone had expected, Cora thought, would now pass them by. She was wrong. For the insignificant village of Driel, untouched until now, the war had only begun.
Fifty miles south, in towns and villages close to the Belgian border, the Dutch were jubilant. They watched incredulously as the shattered remnants of Hitler's armies in norther France and Belgium streamed past their windows. The collapse seemed infectious; besides military units, thousands of German civilians and Dutch Nazis were pulling out. And for these fleeing forces all roads seemed to lead to the German border.
Because the withdrawal began so slowly -- a trickle of staff cars and vehicles crossing the Belgian frontier -- few Dutch could tell exactly when it had started. Some believed the retreat began on September 2; others, the third. But by the fourth, the movement of the Germans and their followers had assumed the characteristics of a rout, a frenzied exodus that reached its peak on September 5, a day later to be known in Dutch history as Dolle Dinsdag, "Mad Tuesday."
Panic and disorganization seemed to characterize the German flight. Every kind of conveyance was in use. Thronging the roads from the Belgian border north to Arnhem and beyond were tracks, buses, staff cars, half-track vehicles, armored cars, horse-drawn farm carts and civilian automobiles running on charcoal or wood. Everywhere throughout the disorderly convoys were swarms of tired, dusty soldiers on hastily commandeered bicycles.
There were even more bizarre forms of transportation. In the town of Valkenswaard, a few miles north of the Belgian frontier, people saw heavily laden German troopers laboriously pushing along on children's scooters. Sixty miles away, in Arnhem, crowds standing on the Amsterdamseweg watched as a massive black-and-silver hearse pulled by two plodding farm horses passed slowly by. Crowded in the casket space in back were a score of disheveled, exhausted Germans.
Trudging in these wretched convoys were German soldiers from many units. There were Panzer troops, minus tanks, in their black battle suits; Luftwaffe men, presumably all that remained of German air force units that had been shattered in either France or Belgium; Wehrmacht soldiers from a score of divisions; and Waffen SS troops, their skull-and-crossbones insignia a macabre identification. Looking at these apparently leaderless, dazed troops moving aimlessly along, young Wilhelmina Coppens in St. Oedenrode thought that "most of them had no idea where they were or even where they were going." Some soldiers, to the bitter amusement of Dutch bystanders, were so disoriented that they asked for directions to the German frontier.
In the industrial town of Eindhoven, home of the giant Philips electrical works, the population had heard the low sound of artillery fire from Belgium for days. Now, watching the dregs of the beaten German army thronging the roads, people expected Allied troops to arrive within hours. So did the Germans. It appeared to Frans Kortie, twenty-four-year-old employee in the town's finance department, that these troops had no intention of making a stand. From the nearby airfield came the roar of explosions as engineers blew up runways, ammunition dumps, gasoline storage tanks and hangars; and through a pall of smoke drifting across the town, Kortie saw squads of troops rapidly working to dismantle heavy antiaircraft guns on the roofs of the Philips buildings.
All through the area, from Eindhoven north to the city of Nijmegen, German engineers were hard at work. In the Zuid Willemsvaart Canal running below the town of Veghel, Cornelis de Visser, an elementary-school teacher, saw a heavily loaded barge blown skyward, shooting out airplane engine parts like a deadly rain of shrapnel. Not far away, in the village of Uden, Johannes de Groot, forty-five-year-old car-body builder, was watching the retreat with his family when Germans set fire to a former Dutch barracks barely 300 yards from his home. Minutes later heavy bombs stored in the building exploded, killing four of de Groot's children, aged five to eighteen.
In places such as Eindhoven, where school buildings were set ablaze, fire brigades were prevented from operating and whole blocks were burned down. Still, the sappers, in contrast to the fleeing columns on the roads, gave evidence of following some definite plan.
The most frantic and confused among the escapees were the civilians, German, Dutch, Belgian and French Nazis. They got no sympathy from the Dutch. To farmer Johannes Hulsen at St. Oedenrode, they looked "scared stiff"; and they had reason to be, he thought with satisfaction, for with the Allies "snapping at their heels these traitors knew it was Bijltjesdag ['Hatchet Day']."
The frantic flight of Dutch Nazis and German civilians had been triggered by the Reichskommissar in Holland, the notorious fifty-two-year-old Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and by the ambitious and brutal Dutch Nazi Party leader, Anton Mussert. Nervously watching the fate of the Germans in France and Belgium, Seyss-Inquart on September 1 ordered the evacuation of German civilians to the east of Holland, closer to the Reich border. The fifty-year-old Mussert followed suit, alerting members of his Dutch Nazi Party. Seyss-Inquart and Mussert were themselves among the first to leave: they moved from The Hague east to Apeldoorn, fifteen miles north of Arnhem. Mussert rushed his family even closer to the Reich, moving them into the frontier region at Twente, in the province of Overijssel. At first most of the German and Dutch civilians moved at a leisurely pace. Then a sequence of events produced bedlam. On September 3 the British captured Brussels. The next day Antwerp fell. Now, British tanks and troops were only miles from the Dutch border.
On the heels of these stunning victories, the aged Queen of the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, told her people in a radio broadcast from London that liberation was at hand. She announced that her son-in-law, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard, had been named Commander in Chief of the Netherlands Forces and would also assume leadership of all underground resistance groups. These factions, comprising three distinct organizations ranging politically from the left to the extreme right, would now be grouped together and officially known as Binnenlandse Strijdkrachten (Forces of the Interior). The thirty-three-year-old Prince Bernhard, husband of Princess Juliana, heir to the throne, followed the Queen's announcement with one of his own. He asked the underground to have armlets ready "displaying in distinct letters the word 'Orange,'" but not to use them "without my order." He warned them to "refrain in the enthusiasm of the moment from premature and independent actions, for these would compromise yourselves and the military operations underway."
Next, a special message was broadcast from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, confirming that freedom was imminent. "The hour of liberation the Netherlands have awaited so long is now very near," he promised. And within a few hours these broadcasts were followed by the most optimistic statement of all, from the prime minister of the Dutch government in exile, Pieter S. Gerbrandy. He told his listeners, "Now that the Allied armies, in their irresistible advance, have crossed the Netherlands frontier...I want all of you to bid our Allies a hearty welcome to our native soil...."
The Dutch were hysterical with joy, and the Dutch Nazis fled for their lives. Anton Mussert had long boasted that his party had more than 50,000 Nazis. If so, it seemed to the Dutch that they all took to the roads at the same time. In scores of towns and villages all over Holland, Nazi-appointed mayors and officials suddenly bolted -- but often not before demanding back pay. The mayor of Eindhoven and some of his officials insisted on their salaries. The town clerk, Gerardus Legius, thought their posture ridiculous, but he didn't even feel badly about paying them off. Watching them scurry out of town "on everything with wheels" he wondered: "How far can they get? Where can they go?" There was also a run on the banks. When Nicolaas van de Weerd, twenty-four-year-old bank clerk, got to work in the town of Wageningen on Monday, September 4, he saw a queue of Dutch Nazis waiting outside the bank. Once the doors were opened they hurriedly closed accounts and emptied safety deposit boxes.
Railway stations were overrun by terrified civilians. Trains leaving for Germany were crammed to capacity. Stepping off a train on its arrival in Arnhem, young Frans Wiessing was engulfed by a sea of people fighting to get aboard. So great was the rush that after the train left, Wiessing saw a mountain of luggage lying abandoned on the platform. In the village of Zetten, west of Nijmegen, student Paul van Wely watched as Dutch Nazis crowding the railroad station waited all day for a Germany-bound train, which never arrived. Women and children were crying and to Van Wely "the waiting room looked like a junk store full of tramps." In every town there were similar incidents. Dutch collaborators fled on anything that would move. Municipal architect Willem Tiemans, from his office window near the great Arnhem bridge, watched as Dutch Nazis "scrambled like mad" to get onto a barge heading up the Rhine for the Reich.
Hour after hour the traffic mounted, and even during darkness it went on. So desperate were the Germans to reach safety that on the nights of September 3 and 4, in total disregard of Allied air attacks, soldiers set up searchlights at some crossroads and many overloaded vehicles crawled by, headlights blazing. German officers seemed to have lost control. Dr. Anton Laterveer, a general practitioner in Arnhem, saw soldiers throwing away rifles -- some even tried to sell their weapons to the Dutch. Joop Muselaars, a teen-ager, watched a lieutenant attempt to stop a virtually empty army vehicle, but the driver, ignoring the command, drove on through. Furious, the officer fired his pistol irrationally into the cobblestones.
Everywhere soldiers tried to desert. In the village of Eerde, Adrianus Marinus, an eighteen-year-old clerk, noticed a soldier jumping off a truck. He ran toward a farm and disappeared. Later Marinus learned that the soldier was a Russian prisoner of war who had been conscripted into the Wehrmacht. Two miles from Nijmegen, in the village of Lent on the northern bank of the Waal, Dr. Frans Huygen, while making his rounds, saw troops begging for civilian clothing, which the villagers refused. In Nijmegen deserters were not so abject. In many cases they demanded clothing at gunpoint. The Reverend Wilhelmus Peterse, forty-year-old Carmelite, saw soldiers hurriedly remove uniforms, change to suits and set off on foot for the German border. "The Germans were totally fed up with the war," recalls Garrit Memelink, Arnhem's Chief Forestry Inspector. "They were doing their damnedest to evade the military police."
With officers losing control, discipline broke down. Unruly gangs of soldiers stole horses, wagons, cars and bicycles. Some ordered farmers at gunpoint to haul them in their wagons toward Germany. All through the convoys the Dutch saw trucks, farm wagons, hand carts -- even perambulators pushed by fleeing troops -- piled high with loot filched from France, Belgium and Luxembourg. It ranged from statuary and furniture to lingerie. In Nijmegen soldiers tried to sell sewing machines, rolls of cloth, paintings, typewriters -- and one soldier even offered a parrot in a large cage.
Among the retreating Germans there was no shortage of alcohol. Barely five miles from the German border in the town of Groesbeek, Father Herman Hoek watched horse-drawn carts loaded down with large quantities of wines and liquors. In Arnhem, the Reverend Reinhold Dijker spotted boisterous Wehrmacht troops on a truck drinking from a huge vat of wine which they had apparently brought all the way from France. Sixteen-year-old Agatha Schulte, daughter of the chief pharmacist of Arnhem's municipal hospital, was convinced that most of the soldiers she saw were drunk. They were throwing handfuls of French and Belgian coins to the youngsters and trying to sell bottles of wine, champagne and cognac to the adults. Her mother, Hendrina Schulte, vividly recalls seeing a German truck carrying another kind of booty. It was a large double bed -- and in the bed was a woman.
Besides the columns straggling up from the south, heavy German and civilian traffic was coming in from western Holland and the coast. It flooded through Arnhem and headed east for Germany. In the prosperous Arnhem suburb of Oosterbeek, Jan Voskuil, a thirty-eight-year-old chemical engineer, was hiding out at the home of his father-in-law. Learning that he was on a list of Dutch hostages to be arrested by the Germans, he had fled from his home in the town of Geldermalsen, twenty miles away, bringing his wife, Bertha, and their nine-year-old son. He had arrived in Oosterbeek just in time to see the evacuation. Jan's father-in-law told him not to "worry anymore about the Germans; you won't have to 'dive' now." Looking down the main street of Oosterbeek, Voskuil saw "utter confusion." There were dozens of German-filled trucks, nose-to-tail, "all dangerously overloaded." He saw soldiers "on bicycles, pedaling furiously, with suitcases and grips looped over their handlebars." Voskuil was sure that the war would be over in a matter of days.
In Arnhem itself, Jan Mijnhart, sexton of the Grote Kerk -- the massive fifteenth-century Church of St. Eusebius with a famed 305-foot-high tower -- saw the Moffen (a Dutch nickname for the Germans, equivalent to the English "Jerry") filing through the town "four abreast in the direction of Germany." Some looked old and sick. In the nearby village of Ede an aged German begged young Rudolph van der Aa to notify his family in Germany that they had met. "I have a bad heart," he added, "and probably won't live much longer." Lucianus Vroemen, a teen-ager in Arnhem, noticed the Germans were exhausted and had "no fighting spirit or pride left." He saw officers trying, with little or no success, to restore order among the disorganized soldiers. They did not even react to the Dutch, who were yelling, "Go home! The British and Americans will be here in a few hours."
Watching the Germans moving east from Arnhem, Dr. Pieter de Graaff, forty-four-year-old surgeon, was sure he was seeing "the end, the apparent collapse of the German army." And Suze van Zweden, high-school mathematics teacher, had a special reason to remember this day. Her husband, Johan, a respected and well-known sculptor, had been in Dachau concentration camp since 1942 for hiding Dutch Jews. Now he might soon be freed, for obviously the war was nearly over. Suze was determined to witness this historic moment -- the departure of the Germans and the arrival of the Allied liberators. Her son Robert was too young to realize what was happening but she decided to take her daughter Sonja, aged nine, into town. As she dressed Sonja, Suze said, "This is something you have to see. I want you to try and remember it all your life."
Everywhere the Dutch rejoiced. Dutch flags made their appearance. Enterprising merchants sold orange buttons and large stocks of ribbon to the eager crowds. In the village of Renkum there was a run on the local drapery shop, where manager Johannes Snoek sold orange ribbon as fast as he could cut it. To his amazement, villagers fashioned bows then and there and proudly pinned them on. Johannes, who was a member of the underground, thought "this was going a bit too far." To protect the villagers from their own excesses, he stopped selling the ribbon. His sister Maria, caught up in the excitement, noted happily in her diary that there was "a mood in the streets almost as though it was Koninginnedag, the Queen's birthday." Cheering crowds stood on sidewalks yelling, "Long live the Queen!" People sang the "Wilhelmus" (the Dutch national anthem) and "Oranje Boven!" ("Orange Above All!"). Cloaks flying, Sisters Antonia Stranzky and Christine van Dijk from St. Elisabeth's Hospital in Arnhem cycled down to the main square, the Velperplein, where they joined crowds on the terraces of cafés who were sipping coffee and eating potato pancakes as the Germans and Dutch Nazis streamed by.
At St. Canisius Hospital in Nijmegen, Sister M. Dosithèe Symons saw nurses dance with joy in the convent corridors. People brought out long-hidden radios and, while watching the retreat flood by their windows, listened openly for the first time in long months to the special Dutch service, Radio Orange, from London's BBC. So excited by the broadcasts was fruit grower Joannes Hurkx, in St. Oedenrode, that he failed to spot a group of Germans back of his house stealing the family bicycles.
In scores of places schools closed and work came to a halt. Employees at the cigar factories in Valkenswaard promptly left their machines and crowded into the streets. Streetcars stopped running in The Hague, the seat of government. In the capital, Amsterdam, the atmosphere was tense and unreal. Offices closed, and trading ceased on the stock exchange. Military units suddenly disappeared from the main thoroughfares, and the central station was mobbed by Germans and Dutch Nazis. On the outskirts of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, crowds carrying flags and flowers stood along main roads leading into the cities -- hoping to be the first to see British tanks coming from the south.
Rumors grew with every hour. Many in Amsterdam believed that British troops had already freed The Hague, near the coast about thirty miles to the southwest. In The Hague people thought the great port of Rotterdam, fifteen miles away, had been liberated. Rail travelers got a different story every time their trains stopped. One of them, Henri Peijnenburg, a twenty-five-year-old resistance leader traveling from The Hague to his home in Nijmegen, a distance of less than eighty miles, heard at the beginning of his journey that the British had entered the ancient border city of Maastricht. In Utrecht he was told they had reached Roermond. Then, in Arnhem he was assured that the British had taken Venlo, a few miles from the German border. "When I finally got home," he recalls, "I expected to see the Allies in the streets, but all I saw were the retreating Germans." Peijnenburg felt confused and uneasy.
Others shared his concern -- especially the underground high command meeting secretly in The Hague. To them, tensely watching the situation, Holland seemed on the threshold of freedom. Allied tanks could easily slice through the country all the way from the Belgian border to the Zuider Zee. The underground was certain that the "gateway" -- through Holland, across the Rhine and into Germany -- was wide open.
The resistance leaders knew the Germans had virtually no fighting forces capable of stopping a determined Allied drive. They were almost scornful of the one weak and undermanned division composed of old men guarding coastal defenses (they had been sitting in concrete bunkers since 1940 without firing a shot), and of a number of other low-grade troops, whose combat capabilities were extremely doubtful, among them Dutch SS, scratch garrison troops, convalescents and the medically unfit -- these last grouped into units aptly known as "stomach" and "ear" battalions, because most of the men suffered from ulcers or were hard of hearing.
To the Dutch the Allied move seemed obvious, invasion imminent. But its success depended on the speed of British forces driving from the south, and about this the underground high command was puzzled: they were unable to determine the precise extent of the Allied advance.
Checking on the validity of Prime Minister Gerbrandy's statement that Allied troops had already crossed the frontier was no simple matter. Holland was small -- only about two thirds the size of Ireland -- but it had a dense population of more than nine million, and as a result the Germans had difficulty controlling subversive activity. There were underground cells in every town and village. Still, transmitting information was hazardous. The principal, and most dangerous, method was the telephone. In an emergency, using complicated circuitry, secret lines and coded information, resistance leaders could call all over the country. Thus, on this occasion, underground officials knew within minutes that Gerbrandy's announcement was premature: British troops had not crossed the border.
Other Radio Orange broadcasts further compounded the confusion. Twice in a little more than twelve hours (at 11:45 P.M. on September 4 and again on the morning of September 5) the Dutch Service of the BBC announced that the fortress city of Breda, seven miles from the Dutch-Belgian border, had been liberated. The news spread rapidly. Illegal, secretly printed newspapers promptly prepared liberation editions featuring the "fall of Breda." But the Arnhem regional resistance chief, thirty-eight-year-old Pieter Kruyff, whose group was one of the nation's most highly skilled and disciplined, seriously doubted the Radio Orange bulletin. He had his communications expert Johannes Steinfort, a young telephone-company instrument maker, check the report. Quickly tying in to a secret circuit connecting him with the underground in Breda, Steinfort became one of the first to learn the bitter truth: the city was still in German hands. No one had seen Allied troops, either American or British.
Because of the spate of rumors, many resistance groups hurriedly met to discuss what should be done. Although Prince Bernhard and SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) had cautioned against a general uprising, some underground members had run out of patience. The time had come, they believed, to directly confront the enemy and thus aid the advancing Allies. It was obvious that the Germans feared a general revolt. In the retreating columns, the underground noted, sentries were now sitting on the fenders of vehicles with rifles and submachine guns at the ready. Undeterred, many resistance men were eager to fight.
In the village of Ede, a few miles northwest of Oosterbeek, twenty-five-year-old Menno "Tony" de Nooy tried to persuade the leader of his group, Bill Wildeboer, to attack. It had long been planned, Tony argued, that the group should take over Ede in the event of an Allied invasion. The barracks at Ede, which had been used to train German marines, were now practically empty. De Nooy wanted to occupy the buildings. The older Wildeboer, a former sergeant major in the Dutch Army, disagreed. "I don't trust this situation," he told them. "The time is not yet ripe. We must wait."
Not all resistance movements were held in check. In Rotterdam, underground members occupied the offices of the water-supply company. Just over the Dutch-Belgian border in the village of Axel, the town hall with its ancient ramparts was seized and hundreds of German soldiers surrendered to the civilian fighters. In many towns Dutch Nazi officials were captured as they tried to bolt. West of Arnhem, in the village of Wolfheze, noted principally for its hospital for the mentally ill, the district police commissioner was seized in his car. He was locked up temporarily in the nearest available quarters, the asylum, for delivery to the British "when they arrived."
These were the exceptions. In general, underground units remained calm. Yet, everywhere they took advantage of the confusion to prepare for the arrival of Allied forces. In Arnhem, Charles Labouchère, forty-two, descendant of an old French family and active in an intelligence unit, was much too busy to bother about rumors. He sat, hour after hour, by the windows of an office in the neighborhood of the Arnhem bridge and, with a number of assistants, watched German units heading east and northeast along the Zevenaar and Zutphen roads toward Germany. It was Labouchère's job to estimate the number of troops and, where possible, to identify the units. The vital information he noted down was sent to Amsterdam by courier and from there via a secret network to London.
In suburban Oosterbeek, young Jan Eijkelhoff, threading his way unobtrusively through the crowds, cycled all over the area, delivering forged food ration cards to Dutchmen hiding out from the Germans. And the leader of one group in Arnhem, fifty-seven-year-old Johannus Penseel, called "the Old One," reacted in the kind of wily manner that had made him a legend among his men. He decided the moment had come to move his arsenal of weapons. Openly, with German troops all about, he and a few hand-picked assistants calmly drove up in a baker's van to the Municipal Hospital, where the weapons were hidden. Quickly wrapping the arms in brown paper they transported the entire cache to Penseel's home, whose basement windows conveniently overlooked the main square. Penseel and his coleader, Toon van Daalen, thought it was a perfect position from which to open fire on the Germans when the time came. They were determined to live up to the name of their militant subdivision -- Landelyke Knokploegen ("Strong-arm Boys").
Everywhere men and women of the vast underground army poised for battle; and in southern towns and villages, people who believed that parts of Holland were already free ran out of their homes to welcome the liberators. There was a kind of madness in the air, thought Carmelite Father Tiburtius Noordermeer as he observed the joyful crowds in the village of Oss, southeast of Nijmegen. He saw people slapping one another on the back in a congratulatory mood. Comparing the demoralized Germans on the roads with the jubilant Dutch spectators, he noted "wild fear on the one hand and crazy, unlimited, joy on the other." "Nobody," the stolid Dutch priest recalled, "acted normally."
Many grew more anxious as time passed. In the drugstore on the main street in Oosterbeek, Karel de Wit was worried. He told his wife and chief pharmacist, Johanna, that he couldn't understand why Allied planes had not attacked the German traffic. Frans Schulte, a retired Dutch major, thought the general enthusiasm was premature. Although his brother and sister-in-law were overjoyed at what appeared to be a German debacle, Schulte was not convinced. "Things may get worse," he warned. "The Germans are far from beaten. If the Allies try to cross the Rhine, believe me, we may see a major battle."
Hitler's crucial measures were already underway. On September 4 at the Führer's headquarters deep in the forest of Gôrlitz, Rastenburg, East Prussia, sixty-nine-year-old Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt prepared to leave for the western front. He had not expected a new command.
Called abruptly out of enforced retirement, Von Rundstedt had been ordered to Rastenburg four days before. On July 2, two months earlier, Hitler had fired him as Commander in Chief West (or, as it was known in German military terms, OB West -- Oberbefehlshaber West) while Von Rundstedt, who had never lost a battle, was trying to cope with the aftermath of Germany's greatest crisis of the war, the Allied invasion of Normandy.
The Führer and Germany's most distinguished soldier had never agreed on how best to meet that threat. Before the invasion, appealing for reinforcements, Von Rundstedt had bluntly informed Hitler's headquarters (OKW -- Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) that the Western Allies, superior in men, equipment and planes, could "land anywhere they want to." Not so, Hitler declared. The Atlantic Wall, the partly completed coastal fortifications which, Hitler boasted, ran almost three thousand miles from Kirkenes (on the Norwegian-Finnish frontier) to the Pyrenees (on the Franco-Spanish border) would make "this front impregnable against any enemy." Von Rundstedt knew only too well that the fortifications were more propaganda than fact. He summed up the Atlantic Wall in one word: "Humbug."
The legendary Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, renowned for his victories in the North African deserts in the first years of the war and sent by Hitler to command Army Group B under Von Rundstedt, was equally appalled by the Führer's confidence. To Rommel, the coastal defenses were a "figment of Hitler's Wolkenkuckucksheim [cloud cuckoo land]." The aristocratic, tradition-bound Von Rundstedt and the younger, ambitious Rommel found themselves, probably for the first time, in agreement. On another point, however, they clashed. With the crushing defeat of his Afrika Korps by Britain's Montgomery at El Alamein in 1942 always in his mind, and well aware of what the Allied invasion would be like, Rommel believed that the invaders must be stopped on the beaches. Von Rundstedt icily disagreed with his junior -- whom he sarcastically referred to as the "Marschall Bubi" ("Marshal Laddie"); Allied troops should be wiped out after they landed, he contended. Hitler backed Rommel. On D Day, despite Rommel's brilliant improvisations, Allied troops breached the "impregnable" wall within hours.
In the terrible days that followed, overwhelmed by the Allies, who enjoyed almost total air supremacy over the Normandy battlefield, and shackled by Hitler's "no withdrawal" orders ("Every man shall fight and fall where he stands"), Von Rundstedt's straining lines cracked everywhere. Desperately he plugged the gaps, but hard as his men fought and counterattacked, the outcome was never seriously in doubt. Von Rundstedt could neither "drive the invaders into the sea" nor "annihilate them" (the words were Hitler's).
On the night of July 1, at the height of the Normandy battle, Hitler's chief of staff, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, called Von Rundstedt and plaintively asked, "What shall we do?" Characteristically blunt, Von Rundstedt snapped, "End the war, you fools. What else can you do?" Hitler's comment on hearing the remark was mild. "The old man has lost his nerve and can't master the situation any longer. He'll have to go." Twenty-four hours later, in a polite handwritten note, Hitler informed Von Rundstedt that, "in consideration of your health and of the increased exertions to be expected in the near future," he was relieved of command.
Von Rundstedt, the senior and most dependable field marshal in the Wehrmacht, was incredulous. For the five years of war his military genius had served the Third Reich well. In 1939, when Hitler cold-bloodedly attacked Poland, thereby igniting the conflict that eventually engulfed the world, Von Rundstedt had clearly demonstrated the German formula for conquest -- Blitzkrieg ("lightning war") -- when his Panzer spearheads reached the outskirts of Warsaw in less than a week. One year later, when Hitler turned west and with devastating speed overwhelmed most of western Europe, Von Rundstedt was in charge of an entire Panzer army. And in 1941 he was in the forefront again when Hitler attacked Russia. Now, outraged at the jeopardy to his career and reputation, Von Rundstedt told his chief of staff, Major General Gunther Blumentritt, that he had been "dismissed in disgrace by an amateur strategist." That "Bohemian corporal," he fumed, had used "my age and ill health as an excuse to relieve me in order to have a scapegoat." Given a free hand, Von Rundstedt had planned a slow withdrawal to the German frontier, during which, as he outlined his plans to Blumentritt, he would have "exacted a terrible price for every foot of ground given up." But, as he had said to his staff many times, because of the constant "tutelage from above," about the only authority he had as OB West was "to change the guard in front of the gate."
From the moment of his recall and his arrival at the end of August at the Rastenburg Wolfsschanze ("Wolf's Lair"), as it was named by Hitler, Von Rundstedt, at the Führer's invitation, attended the daily briefing conference. Hitler, according to the Deputy Chief of Operations General Walter Warlimont, greeted his senior field marshal warmly, treating him with "unwonted diffidence and respect." Warlimont also noted that throughout the long sessions Von Rundstedt simply sat "motionless and monosyllabic." The precise, practical field marshal had nothing to say. He was appalled by the situation.
The briefings clearly showed that in the east the Red Army now held a front more than 1,400 miles long, from Finland in the north to the Vistula in Poland, and from there to the Carpathian Mountains in Rumania and Yugoslavia. In fact, Russian armor had reached the borders of East Prussia, barely a hundred miles from the Führer's headquarters.
In the west Von Rundstedt saw that his worst fears had been realized. Division after division was now destroyed, the entire German line thrown helplessly back. Rear-guard units, although surrounded and cut off, still clung to vital ports such as Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre, Brest, Lorient and St. Nazaire, forcing the Allies to continue bringing supplies in from the distant invasion beaches. But now, with the sudden, stunning capture of Antwerp, one of Europe's greatest deep seaports, the Allies might well have solved their supply problem. Von Rundstedt noted, too, that the tactic of Blitzkrieg, perfected by himself and others, was being borrowed with devastating effect by Eisenhower's armies. And Field Marshal Walter Model, the fifty-four-year-old new Commander in Chief, West (he took over on August 17), was clearly unable to bring order out of the chaos. His front had been ripped apart, slashed in the north by tanks of the British Second Army and the U.S. First Army driving through Belgium toward Holland; and, south of the Ardennes, armored columns of the U.S. Third Army under General George S. Patton were heading for Metz and the Saar. To Von Rundstedt the situation was no longer merely ominous. It was cataclysmic.
He had time to dwell on the inevitability of the end. Almost four days elapsed before Hitler allowed Von Rundstedt a private audience. During his wait the Field Marshal stayed in the former country inn reserved for senior officers in the center of the vast headquarters -- a barbed-wire-enclosed enclave of wooden huts and concrete bunkers built over a catacomb of underground installations. Von Rundstedt vented his impatience at the delay on Keitel, the chief of staff. "Why have I been sent for?" he demanded. "What sort of game is going on?" Keitel was unable to tell him. Hitler had given Keitel no particular reason, short of an innocuous mention of the Field Marshal's health. Hitler seemed to have convinced himself of his own manufactured version for Von Rundstedt's dismissal on "health grounds" back in July. To Keitel, Hitler had merely said, "I want to see if the old man's health has improved."
Twice Keitel reminded the Führer that the Field Marshal was waiting. Finally, on the afternoon of September 4, Von Rundstedt was summoned to Hitler's presence, and, uncharacteristically, the Fuhrer came to the point immediately. "I would like to entrust you once more with the western front."
Stiffly erect, both hands on his gold baton, Von Rundstedt merely nodded. Despite his knowledge and experience, his distaste for Hitler and the Nazis, Von Rundstedt, in whom the Prussian military tradition of devotion to service was ingrained, did not decline the appointment. As he was later to recall, "it would have been useless to protest anyway."
Almost cursorily, Hitler outlined Von Rundstedt's task. Once more Hitler was improvising. Before D Day he had insisted that the Atlantic Wall was invulnerable. Now, to Von Rundstedt's dismay, the Führer stressed the impregnability of the Westwall -- the long-neglected, unmanned but still formidable frontier fortifications better known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. Von Rundstedt, Hitler ordered, was not only to stop the Allies as far west as possible, but to counterattack for, as the Fuhrer saw it, the most dangerous Allied threats were no more than "armored spearheads." Clearly, however, Hitler was shaken by the capture of Antwerp. Its vital port was to be denied the Allies at all costs. Thus, since the other ports were still in German hands, Hitler said, he fully expected the Allied drive to come to a halt because of overextended supply lines. He was confident that the western front could be stabilized and, with the coming of winter, the initiative regained. Hitler assured Von Rundstedt that he was "not unduly worried about the situation in the west."
It was a variation of a monologue Von Rundstedt had heard many times in the past. The Westwall, to Hitler, had now become an idée fixe, and Von Rundstedt once again was being ordered "not to give an inch," and "to hold under all conditions."
By ordering Von Rundstedt to replace Field Marshal Model, Hitler was making his third change of command of OB West within two months -- from Von Rundstedt to Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, to Model, and now once again to Von Rundstedt. Model, in the job just eighteen days, would now command only Army Group B under Von Rundstedt, Hitler said. Von Rundstedt had long regarded Model with less than enthusiasm. Model, he felt, had not earned his promotion the hard way; he had been elevated to the rank of field marshal too quickly by Hitler. Von Rundstedt thought him better suited to the job of a "good regimental sergeant major." Still, the Field Marshal felt that Model's position made little difference now. The situation was all but hopeless, defeat inevitable. On the afternoon of September 4, as he set out for his headquarters near Koblenz, Von Rundstedt saw nothing to stop the Allies from invading Germany, crossing the Rhine and ending the war in a matter of weeks.
On this same day in Wannsee, Berlin, Colonel General Kurt Student, fifty-four-year-old founder of Germany's airborne forces, emerged from the backwater to which he had been relegated for three long years. For him, the war had begun with great promise. His paratroops, Student felt, had been chiefly responsible for the capture of Holland in 1940, when some 4,000 of them dropped on the bridges of Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Moerdijk, holding the vital spans open for the main German invasion force. Student's losses had been incredibly low -- only 180 men. But the situation was different in the 1941 airborne assault of Crete. There, losses were so high -- more than a third of the 22,000-man force -- that Hitler forbade all future airborne operations. "The day of parachute troops is over," the Führer said, and the future had dimmed for Student. Ever since, the ambitious officer had been tied to a desk job as commander of an airborne-training establishment, while his elite troopers were used strictly as infantry. With shattering abruptness, at precisely 3 P.M. on this critical September 4, Student emerged into the mainstream once again. In a brief telephone call, Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Hitler's operations chief, ordered him to immediately organize an army, which the Führer had designated as the "First Parachute Army." As the astounded Student listened, it occurred to him that "it was a rather high-sounding title for a force that didn't exist."
Student's troopers were scattered all over Germany, and apart from a few seasoned, fully equipped units, they were green recruits armed only with training weapons. His force of about ten thousand had almost no transportation, armor or artillery. Student didn't even have a chief of staff.
Nevertheless, Student's men, Jodl explained, were urgently needed in the west. They were to "close a gigantic hole" between Antwerp and the area of Liège-Maastricht by "holding a line along the Albert Canal." With all possible speed, Student was ordered to rush his forces to Holland and Belgium. Weapons and equipment would be issued at the "railheads of destination." Besides his paratroopers, two divisions had been earmarked for his new "army." One of them, the 719th, Student soon learned, was "made up of old men stationed along the Dutch coast who had not as yet fired a single shot." His second division, the 176th, was even worse. It consisted of "semi-invalids and convalescents who, for convenience, had been grouped together in separate battalions according to their various ailments." They even had special "diet" kitchens for those suffering from stomach trouble. Besides these units, he would get a grab bag of other forces scattered in Holland and Belgium -- Luftwaffe troops, sailors and antiaircraft crews -- and twenty-five tanks. To Student, the expert in paratroop warfare and supertrained airborne shock troops, his makeshift army was a "grotesque improvisation on a grand scale." Still, he was back in the war again.
All through the afternoon, by telephone and teletype, Student mustered and moved his men out. It would take at least four days for his entire force to reach the front, he estimated. But his toughest and best troops, rushed in special trains to Holland in what Student called a "blitz move," would be in position on the Albert Canal, as part of Model's Army Group B, within twenty-four hours.
Jodl's call and the information he himself had since gathered alarmed Student. It seemed apparent that his most seasoned group -- the 6th Parachute Regiment plus one other battalion, together totaling about three thousand men -- probably constituted the only combat-ready reserve in the whole of Germany. He found the situation ominous.
Frantically, Field Marshal Walter Model, Commander in Chief, West, tried to plug the yawning gap east of Antwerp and halt the disorderly retreat from Belgium into Holland. As yet no news of Von Rundstedt's appointment as his successor had reached him. His forces were so entangled, so disorganized that Model had all but lost control. He no longer had contact with the second half of his command, Army Group G in the south. Had General Johannes Blaskowitz, its commander, successfully withdrawn from France? Model wasn't sure. To the harassed Field Marshal the predicament of Army Group G was secondary. The crisis was clearly in the north.
With dispatch and ferocity, Army Group B had been split in two by armored columns of the British and Americans. Of the two armies composing Army Group B, the Fifteenth was bottled up, its back to the North Sea, roughly between Calais and a point northwest of Antwerp. The Seventh Army had been almost destroyed, and thrown back toward Maastricht and Aachen. Between the two armies lay a 75-mile gap and the British had driven through it straight to Antwerp. Plunging along the same route were Model's own demoralized, retreating forces.
In a desperate effort to halt their flight, Model issued an emotional plea to his troops.
...With the enemy's advance and the withdrawal of our front, several hundred thousand soldiers are falling back -- army, air force and armored units -- troops which must re-form as planned and hold in new strong points or lines.
In this stream are the remnants of broken units which, for the moment, have no set objectives and are not even in a position to receive clear orders. Whenever orderly columns turn off the road to reorganize, streams of disorganized elements push on. With their wagons move whispers, rumors, haste, endless disorder and vicious self-interest. This atmosphere is being brought back to the rear areas, infecting units still intact and in this moment of extreme tension must be prevented by the strongest means.
I appeal to your honor as soldiers. We have lost a battle, but I assure you of this: We will win this war! I cannot tell you more at the present, although I know that questions are burning on your lips. Whatever has happened, never lose your faith in the future of Germany. At the same time you must be aware of the gravity of the situation. This moment will and should separate men from weaklings. Now every soldier has the same responsibility. When his commander falls, he must be ready to step into his shoes and carry on...
There followed a long series of instructions in which Model "categorically" demanded that retreating troops should immediately "report to the nearest command point," instill in others "confidence, self-reliance, self-control and optimism," and repudiate "stupid gossip, rumors and irresponsible reports." The enemy, he said, was "not everywhere at once" and, indeed, "if all the tanks reported by rumormongers were counted, there would have to be a hundred thousand of them." He begged his men not to give up important positions or demolish equipment, weapons or installations "before it is necessary." The astonishing document wound up by stressing that everything depended on "gaining time, which the Führer needs to put new weapons and new troops into operation."
Virtually without communications, depending for the most part on radio, Model could only hope that his Order of the Day reached all his troops. In the confusion he was not even sure of the latest position of his disorganized and shattered units; nor did he know precisely how far Allied tanks and troops had advanced. And where was the Schwerpunkt (main thrust) of the Allied drive -- with the British and Americans in the north heading for the Siegfried Line and thence across the Rhine and into the Ruhr? Was it with Patton's massive U.S. Third Army driving for the Saar, the Siegfried Line and over the Rhine into Frankfurt?
Model's dilemma was the outgrowth of a situation that had occurred nearly two months earlier at the time of Von Rundstedt's dismissal and Hitler's swift appointment of Von Kluge as the old Field Marshal's successor. On sick leave for months from his command in Russia, Von Kluge happened to be making a courtesy call on the Führer at the precise moment when Hitler decided to dismiss Von Rundstedt. With no preamble, and possibly because Von Kluge happened to be the only senior officer in sight, Hitler had named the astonished Von Kluge Commander in Chief, West.
Von Kluge, a veteran front commander, took over on July 4. He was to last forty-four days. Exactly as predicted by Von Rundstedt, the Allied breakout occurred. "The whole western front has been ripped open," Von Kluge informed Hitler. Overwhelmed by the Allied tide pouring across France, Von Kluge, like Von Rundstedt before him, found his hands tied by Hitler's insistent "no withdrawal" orders. The German armies in France were encircled and all but destroyed. It was during this period that another convulsion racked the Third Reich -- an abortive assassination attempt on Hitler's life.
During one of the endless conferences at the Führer's headquarters, a time bomb in a briefcase, placed by Colonel Claus Graf von Stauffenberg beneath a table close to Hitler, exploded, killing and wounding many in the room. The Führer escaped with minor injuries. Although only a small elite group of officers were involved in the plot, Hitler's revenge was barbaric. Anyone connected with the plotters, or with their families, was arrested; and many individuals, innocent or not, were summarily executed. Some five thousand people lost their lives. Von Kluge had been indirectly implicated, and Hitler also suspected him of trying to negotiate a surrender with the enemy. Von Kluge was replaced by Model and ordered to report immediately to the Führer. Before leaving his headquarters the despairing Von Kluge wrote a letter to Hitler. Then, en route to Germany, he took poison.
When you receive these lines I shall be no more [he wrote to the Führer]....I did everything within my power to be equal to the situation...Both Rommel and I, and probably all the other commanders here in the west with experience of battle against the Anglo-Americans, with their preponderance of material, foresaw the present developments. We were not listened to. Our appreciations were not dictated by pessimism, but from sober knowledge of the facts. I do not know whether Field Marshal Model, who has been proved in every sphere, will master the situation. From my heart I hope so. Should it not be so, however, and your new weapons...not succeed, then, my Führer, make up your mind to end the war. It is time to put an end to this frightfulness....I have always admired your greatness...and your iron will...Show yourself note also great enough to put an end to this hopeless struggle....
Hitler had no intention of conceding victory to the Allies, even though the Third Reich that he had boasted would last a millennium was undermined and tottering. On every front he was attempting to stave off defeat. Yet each move the Führer made seemed more desperate than the last.
Model's appointment as OB West had not helped. Unlike Von Rundstedt or, briefly, Von Kluge, Model did not have the combat genius of Rommel as support. After Rommel was badly wounded by a strafing Allied plane on July 17, no one had been sent to replace him. Model did not at first appear to feel the need. Confident that he could right the situation, he took on Rommel's old command as well, becoming not only OB West but also Commander of Army Group B. Despite Model's expertise, the situation was too grave for any one commander.
At this time Army Group B was battling for survival along a line roughly between the Belgian coast and the Franco-Luxembourg border. From there, south to Switzerland, the remainder of Model's command -- Army Group G under General Blaskowitz -- had already been written off. Following the second Allied invasion on August 15, by French and American forces in the Marseilles area, Blaskowitz' group had hurriedly departed southern France. Under continuous pressure they were now falling back in disarray to the German border.
Along Model's disintegrating northern front, where Allied armor had torn the 75-mile-wide gap in the line, the route from Belgium into Holland and from there across Germany's vulnerable northwest frontier lay open and undefended. Allied forces driving into Holland could outflank the Siegfried Line where the massive belt of fortifications extending along Germany's frontiers from Switzerland terminated at Kleve on the Dutch-German border. By turning this northern tip of Hitler's Westwall and crossing the Rhine, the Allies could swing into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of the Reich. That maneuver might well bring about the total collapse of Germany.
Twice in seventy-two hours Model appealed desperately to Hitler for reinforcements. The situation of his forces in the undefended gap was chaotic. Order had to be restored and the breach closed. Model's latest report, which he had sent to Hitler in the early hours of September 4, warned that the crisis was approaching and unless he received a minimum of "twenty-five fresh divisions and an armored reserve of five or six panzer divisions," the entire front might collapse, thereby opening the "gateway into northwest Germany."
Model's greatest concern was the British entry into Antwerp. He did not know whether the huge port, the second-largest in Europe, was captured intact or destroyed by the German garrison. The city of Antwerp itself, lying far inland, was not the crux. To use the port, the Allies needed to control its seaward approach, an inlet 54 miles long and 3 miles wide at its mouth, running into Holland from the North Sea past Walcheren Island and looping alongside the South Beveland peninsula. So long as German guns commanded the Schelde estuary, the port of Antwerp could be denied the Allies.
Unfortunately for Model, apart from antiaircraft batteries and heavy coastal guns on Walcheren Island, he had almost no forces along the northern bank. But on the other side of the Schelde and almost isolated in the Pas de Calais was General Gustav von Zangen's Fifteenth Army -- a force of more than 80,000 men. Though pocketed -- the sea lay behind them to the north and west, and Canadians and British were pressing in from the south and east -- they nevertheless controlled most of the southern bank of the estuary.
By now, Model believed, British tanks, exploiting the situation, would surely be moving along the northern bank and sweeping it clear. Before long the entire South Beveland peninsula could be in their hands and sealed off from the Dutch mainland at its narrow base north of the Belgian border, barely 18 miles from Antwerp. Next, to open the port, the British would turn on the trapped Fifteenth Army and clear the southern bank. Von Zangen's forces had to be extricated.
Late in the afternoon of September 4 at Army Group B's headquarters southeast of Liège in the village of La Chaude Fontaine, Model issued a series of orders. By radio he commanded Von Zangen to hold the southern bank of the Schelde and reinforce the lesser ports of Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais, which Hitler had earlier decreed were to be held with "fanatical determination as fortresses." With the remainder of his troops the hapless Von Zangen was to attack northeast into the avalanche of British armor. It was a desperate measure, yet Model saw no other course. If Von Zangen's attack was successful, it might isolate the British in Antwerp and cut off Montgomery's armored spearheads driving north. Even if the attack failed, Von Zangen's effort might buy time, slowing up the Allied drive long enough for reserves to arrive and hold a new front along the Albert Canal.
Exactly what reinforcements were on the way, Model did not know. As darkness fell he finally received Hitler's answer to his pleas for new divisions to stabilize the front. It was the terse news of his replacement as Commander in Chief, West, by Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Von Kluge had lasted forty-four days as OB West, Model barely eighteen. Normally temperamental and ambitious, Model reacted calmly on this occasion. He was more aware of his shortcomings as an administrator than his critics believed. Now he could concentrate on the job he knew best: being a front-line commander, solely in charge of Army Group B. But, among the flurry of frantic orders Model issued on this last day as OB West, one would prove momentous. It concerned the relocation of his II SS Panzer Corps.
The commander of the Corps, fifty-year-old Obergruppen-führer (Lieutenant General) Wilhelm Bittrich, had been out of touch with Model for more than seventy-two hours. His forces, fighting almost continuously since Normandy, had been badly mauled. Bittrich's tank losses were staggering, his men short on ammunition and fuel. In addition, because of the breakdown of communications, the few orders he had received by radio were already out of date when Bittrich got them. Uncertain of the enemy's movements and badly in need of direction, Bittrich set out on foot to find Model. He finally located the Field Marshal at Army Group B headquarters near Liège. "I had not seen him since the Russian front in 1941," Bittrich later recalled. "Monocle in his eye, wearing his usual short leather coat, Model was standing looking at a map and snapping out commands one after the other. There was little time for conversation. Pending official orders, which would follow, I was told to move my Corps headquarters north into Holland." With all possible speed Bittrich was directed to "supervise the refitting and rehabilitation of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions." The battered units, Model told him, were to "slowly disengage from the battle and immediately head north."
The almost unknown Bittrich could hardly foresee the critical role his 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions would play within the next two weeks. The site Model chose for Bittrich was in a quiet zone, at this point some seventy-five miles behind the front. By a historic fluke, the area included the city of Arnhem.
The headlong retreat of the Germans out of Holland was slowing, although few of the jubilant Dutch realized it as yet. From the Belgian border north to Arnhem, roads were still choked, but there was a difference in the movement. From his post in the Provincial Building above the Arnhem bridge, Charles Labouchère saw no letup in the flood of vehicles, troops and Nazi sympathizers streaming across the bridge. But a few blocks north of Labouchère's location, Gerhardus Gysbers, a seller of antique books, saw a change take place. German troops entering Arnhem from the west were not moving on. The compound of the Willems Barracks next to Gysbers' home and the streets in the immediate vicinity were filling with horse-drawn vehicles and disheveled soldiers. Gysbers noted Luftwaffe battalions, antiaircraft personnel, Dutch SS and elderly men of the 719th Coastal Division. It was clear to Arnhem's resistance chief, Pieter Kruyff, that this was no temporary halt. These troops were not heading back into Germany. They were slowly regrouping; some horse-drawn units of the 719th were starting to move south. Kruyff's chief of intelligence for the Arnhem region, thirty-three-year-old Henri Knap, unobtrusively cycling through the area, spotted the subtle change, too. He was puzzled. He wondered if the optimistic broadcasts from London were false. If so, they were cruel deceptions. Everywhere he saw the Dutch rejoicing. Everyone knew that Montgomery's troops had taken Antwerp. Surely Holland would be liberated within hours. Knap could see the Germans were reorganizing. While they still had little strength, he knew that if the British did not come soon that strength would grow.
In Nijmegen, eleven miles to the south, German military police were closing off roads leading to the German frontier. Elias Broekkamp, a wine importer, saw some troops moving north toward Arnhem, but the majority were being funneled back and traffic was being broken up, processed and fanned out. As in Arnhem, the casual spectator seemed unaware of the difference. Broekkamp observed Dutch civilians laughing and jeering at what they believed to be the Germans' bewildering predicament.
In fact the predicament was growing much less. Nijmegen was turning into a troop staging area, once more in the firm control of German military.
Farther south, in Eindhoven, barely ten miles from the Belgian border, the retreat had all but stopped. In the straggling convoys moving north there were now more Nazi civilians than troops. Frans Kortie, who had seen the Germans dismantling antiaircraft guns on the roofs of the Philips factories, noted a new development. In a railway siding near the station he watched a train pulling flatcars into position. On the cars were heavy antiaircraft guns. Kortie experienced a feeling of dread.
Far more disheartening for observant Dutch was the discovery that reinforcements were coming in from Germany. In Tilburg, Eindhoven, Helmond and Weert, people saw contingents of fresh troops arrive by train. Unloaded quickly and formed up, they set out for the Dutch-Belgian border. They were not regular Wehrmacht soldiers. They were seasoned, well-equipped and disciplined, and their distinctive helmets and camouflaged smocks instantly identified them as veteran German paratroopers.
By late afternoon of September 5 Colonel General Kurt Student's first paratroop formations were digging in at points along the north side of Belgium's Albert Canal. Their haste was almost frantic. Student, on his arrival at noon, had discovered that Model's "new German line" was strictly the 80-foot-wide water barrier itself. Defense positions had not been prepared. There were no strong points, trenches or fortifications. And, to make matters worse for the defenders, Student noted, "almost everywhere the southern bank dominated the northern side." Even the bridges over the canal were still standing. Only now were engineers placing demolition charges. In all the confusion no one apparently had ordered the crossings destroyed.
Nevertheless, Student's timetable was well planned. The "blitz move" of his airborne forces was a spectacular success. "Considering that these paratroopers were rushed in from all over Germany, from Güstrow
The Classic History of the Greatest Airborne Battle of World War II
Bridge Too Far
The Classic History of the Greatest Airborne Battle of World War II
A Bridge Too Far is Cornelius Ryan's masterly chronicle of the Battle of Arnhem, which marshalled the greatest armada of troop-carrying aircraft ever assembled and cost the Allies nearly twice as many casualties as D-Day.
In this compelling work of history, Ryan narrates the Allied effort to end the war in Europe in 1944 by dropping the combined airborne forces of the American and British armies behind German lines to capture the crucial bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem. Focusing on a vast cast of characters—from Dutch civilians to British and American strategists to common soldiers and commanders—Ryan brings to life one of the most daring and ill-fated operations of the war. A Bridge Too Far superbly recreates the terror and suspense, the heroism and tragedy of this epic operation, which ended in bitter defeat for the Allies.