Private 1st Class Alfred Ringsdorf

 

Unit : Reserve Battalion, 16th S.S. Panzer Division, attached to 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, 1st Company, Bataillon I, 21 S.S. Panzergrenadier Regiment, 10 S.S. Panzer Division

Awards : Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class

 

The following is an interview with Alfred Ringsdorf, recorded on the 28th November 1967. My thanks to Robert Shaw for providing the website with a copy.

 

"I had joined the Waffen-SS in August, 1940, when I was 17. When I fought in the battle of Arnhem I was 21 years old and a private 1st class. After the battle I was promoted to corporal (SS-Unterscharführer) and received the Iron Cross, 2nd class. I later received the Iron Cross, 1st class.

 

I belonged to a Reserve Battalion in the 16th SS-Panzer Division. Two friends of mine, Robert Klapdor and Paul Rosenbach, and myself were on our way to Arnhem from Bad Tölz in Germany. We were supposed to be outfitted there. We were on a freight train and when we arrived outside Arnhem on September 18 we could not go into the city. It was about 8:00 o'clock in the morning. Then we heard bombers and we sprang from the train and took cover under a viaduct nearby.

 

While we were under this viaduct two officers came along in a Volkswagen and told us to report to the "Gefechtstand Sonnenstuhl" (Sonnenstuhl Command Post). My friends and I reported to this Command Post. The major there attached me to the 1st Company of the 1st Battalion of the 21st Panzergrenadier Regiment. The Company Commander was First Lieutenant Vogel who fell during the action at Arnhem Bridge. I took over command of the 1st Squad in the 1st Platoon.

 

When we arrived we had no arms. It was late Monday afternoon when we were given arms in a villa which had an anti-tank gun near it. We were handed out machine guns, carabines, handgrenades and a few bazookas. There was only a limited amount of ammunition. I think that I received only three magazines which was not very much. But we were supposed to be getting more supplies later.

 

We then started out for the centre of Arnhem. By the time we arrived we could see that close combat and street fighting had already taken place. I presumed that this fighting had been between the paratroopers and the troops who were in Arnhem when they arrived. To get to the end of the bridge we went by the Soldiers' Recreation Centre. It was near the church that we had our first serious fighting. There was a large square there. The houses in the area had been damaged quite heavily by bombing. We had difficulty advancing because we had to work our way through the rubble.

 

I remember that at one point I was standing by the ruins of a tall house with my squad, when a platoon of engineers from the "Wehrmacht" arrived. It was commanded by a lieutenant whose intention was to get rid of the machine gun nest in a house on the square with a demolition charge. This machine gun made it impossible for us to cross the square and toss the demolition charge into the house. I volunteered and covered by the fire of my squad and of the engineers I dashed across this open square. I stopped behind a tree near the cellar window from which the shooting came and I tossed the charge through the window. The English were not shooting at this point because they had to keep under cover while my men kept up a steady barrage of fire. I had scattered my men in the rubble. The engineers stayed by the tall house.

 

As soon as I had tossed the charge into the cellar I started running back still under cover of the firing. As I approached the tall house there was a terrible crash and the shell of the house crumbled before my eyes burying the lieutenant and his engineers. I don't know whether an anti-tank gun shell had hit it or what had happened. But I broke out in a cold sweat. If I had not volunteered to take the demolition charge because I knew where the machine gun nest was, it would have been my men and I under that heap of bricks and dirt. There must have been about 10 to 15 men buried under there. The ironic thing was that the charge did not even explode. I don't remember how we finally did get rid of that machine gun nest.

 

We had followed the Rhine part of the way until we saw the bridge and now we got into action around a big red building which I was told was a school. It may have been this orphanage where the nuns were. I went inside it during the fighting and it looked like a convent. There were English soldiers in there. I remember a First Lieutenant Miller who gave me some cigarettes. The English soldiers still had some cigarettes. We no longer had any.

 

So we got to the square near the Town Hall and that was where we got stuck. Then came the engineers. They must have had to blow up a bridge somewhere. Anyway they were all killed when the house fell on them. My men were safe because I had had them scatter in the rubble.

 

Then we started this fighting from house to house. We sat in a house on one side of the street and the English soldiers sat in a house across the street. I remember being in one house when surprisingly enough Rosenbach showed up. He had been separated from his squad. He decided to stay with me until he could rejoin his own squad. We started to search the house for Englishmen. We were on the top floor and wanted to come down again when some English soldiers started shooting at us from across the street. They were shooting through the windows in the stairwell so that we could not use the stairs. We had to retreat into one of the rooms. They started firing through those windows. I could not even get near the windows to see where they were. I finally managed to get a look at where they were. I opened a window and braced my bazooka against the sill and aimed just below the window where they were sitting. I had to have a solid target or the bazooka shell would not have exploded. The bazooka blasted a big hole where the English had been and it was quiet again.

 

Then the English began drawing back and we could finally advance, pushing them back and back. But again we were stopped by their intensive firing from the school. This is when I was suddenly ordered to report to our Battalion Commander. He told me that we had to gain ground at all costs. I went back and told my men to use all the handgrenades possible on the school. I told the ones to throw their grenades a short distance, others to throw theirs a little further and others to throw theirs still further. We split up the throwing so that the English were under constant handgrenade attack. The handgrenades fell constantly and simultaneously at these three ranges. This caused enough confusion on the side of the English to enable us to gain more ground in this area and to continue our advance. I was lucky there in having good soldiers who followed my instructions exactly. Many of them had decorations or received one later.

 

I certainly had not expected when I came from Germany to find myself in the midst of bitter fighting in a very restricted area. It was the hardest battle I ever took part in, especially in such a small area. It was always close-range fighting, with no definite demarcation lines between the English and the Germans. The English were everywhere and often a bare 5 metres away. The streets were for the most part very narrow, sometimes no more than 5 or 6 metres wide. We sat on opposite side of the streets, almost face to face and fired away. We had no "Spurmgeschütz" (self-propelled gun), only infantry weapons such as tommy guns, carabines and handgrenades. We had to fight every inch of the way to get to the end of the bridge. We had to clean out one corner after another.

 

The houses were burning in our sector and it was terribly hot. I got cinders in my eyes more than once and the smoke made them smart. It also made you cough. Ashes and dust from the rubble made things even worse. It was hell.

 

As soon as we would gain some ground First Lieutenant Vogel would pull in some more of the company to occupy what we had taken. My squad and four others acted as a sort of storm troop. Then our rear would be protected by the rest of the company preventing other English soldiers slipping around behind us and trapping us.

 

It was around this time in the fighting that I had an experience I shall never forget. I suddenly saw a head duck down in a cellar. It wore an English steel helmet with camouflage on it. My immediate reaction was to toss a handgrenade through the cellar window. Then I heard a voice yelling "No! No!", and the sound of moans. I had already pulled the pin on my grenade so I tossed it in the direction of another building which I knew to be occupied by the enemy. Then I went down into this cellar, alert for any trap, and entered saying "Hands up." The cellar was full of wounded English soldiers. They were all very frightened and excited so I said "It's O.K., it's good." I took them prisoner and had them taken back off the lines to be tended. I was very glad that I had not thrown that grenade in here. This took place on the Tuesday or Wednesday. These wounded men were quite helpless and many had to be carried away. They looked terrible.

 

This whole area around the school was strenuously defended. We had managed to get through to the School, to this large square near it. There was a garage on the square which had a large iron gate. It had been twisted off its hinges by a bazooka shell. First Lieutenant Vogel was standing by this gate and I had already crossed the square. I had a perfect view of the whole square. I'll never forget this scene, especially this huge gate. The English lay nearby. Suddenly Vogel was ripped open from top to bottom by machine gun bullets. I saw him later. It was terrible. He fell some 20m from me. Suddenly we were without a commander. I spontaneously took over. I had had some training and knew what had to be done in such a case. But it was a terrible blow.

 

Something else happened which shook me. I took a prisoner, quite a heavy, strong man. I had him stand up and raise his hands so that I could search him. I bent down in my search and at that very moment he uttered a "Oh" and crumpled up dead. It was an English bullet meant for me which had killed him. For one moment I was paralyzed. Then I broke out in a cold sweat and driven by habit I dove for cover. I had been in Russia and was used to thinking always of how best to keep alive but this incident really shook me.

 

After Vogel died and I took over command we continued our attack on this school-building. There were English soldiers in there and also German prisoners. These German prisoners were a motley crew - old veterans who had occupied Arnhem, paymasters etc. There were many burnt-out buildings and houses around this school.

 

We kept throwing handgrenades and firing in the direction of the school. Our firing however was not enough and the English were also firing at us so we were at an impasse. I finally went to the artillery in the large street with the lawns in the middle and asked them to shoot at the school. They were shooting by levels, lower and lower every time. I wanted to shoot very low because the English seemed to be holed up in the cellar. So these 88's began shooting at the school. They had a clear field to do this.

 

At the same time the house to house fighting went on too. These English were stubborn and some would always pop up somewhere. This was terrible because you never knew from where you might be shot at. Close combat such as I experienced in Arnhem and then later in Elst is the worst type of fighting. It is terrible to fight man against man, to see the enemy in the face. I remember being pinned down by firing for a short time and there was a wounded English man lying near me and I could do nothing. Finally I was able to get out of this spot and had to leave him lying there. I saw him again later. He was still alive and one of my men took him away.

 

I saw some Dutch civilians during the fighting. They came out on the street to bandage the wounded. We used to try and avoid shooting them although this was not always possible. They only came out at the beginning of the battle. After that it got too bad, especially when we were busy with the English soldiers in the school.

 

One day a man carrying a white flag came out of the school. He wanted a truce just for the school. When he came out I ordered the firing to cease. All units were given this order and gradually all firing stopped. When it had stopped completely I stood up and went forward to meet this man. He asked me to take him to our commander. I had him taken to the Battalion Command Post by one of my men. There it was agreed that all the dead and the wounded would be handed over to us but on condition that the German prisoners also be surrendered to us. In fact the English had requested that the artillery fire be stopped because they had German prisoners in the school. They agreed to our terms, however.

 

It was then that I went inside the school and brought out all these old veterans, paymasters, administration soldiers etc. I spoke with some of the English soldiers. They seemed very depressed which was not surprising. Then the next day, after the truce was over, the artillery, 88's etc., was moved up around the school. This was done at dawn and they began firing immediately into the school, without interruption. This did not last long. The white flag went up again and the English surrendered. I think there may have been 150 to 200 soldiers in the school. I saw them again when it was all over and they were being marched away to a gathering place for prisoners. It was just as well that they surrendered when they did. It would have been pointless to go on with this artillery fire battering them.

 

I think the most terrible thing for me in this battle was the fact that it was all close combat. As I said it was one man against another, face to face and also you never knew where the enemy would pop up.

 

What most impressed me was the fairness of the English soldier. He fought hard and well. In some ways I felt sorry for the English because they were brave soldiers but they were outnumbered. All they could do was defend themselves until they received the order to give up.

 

I'll say I was scared! I was especially scared when I was ordered to go into this field of rubble with my men. I had about 10-12 men and we constituted an assault group. I was ordered to cross it which meant fighting our way through and liberating it.

 

My friends Rosenbach and Klapdorn were not in my squad but in another one in the same company. They also moved up after our assault squads, mine included, had opened up the way for them. This was on the last day. My responsibility was limited to my men so I did not know what was going on in other platoons or squads. All I know is that we were in constant need of reinforcement, that we needed more men all the time and that each time we asked reinforcements were sent.

 

The worst thing for me was when this wonderful officer, First Lieutenant Vogel, was killed in such a dreadful manner. I had only met him on the Monday but I had felt instant liking for him. He was like a father to the men and when I saw him fall before my very eyes it was a great shock. I had spoken with him perhaps only a half-dozen times. When I first met him then when I used to report to him. He would always say: "Be careful. It is better to stay in one position at times. The English will eventually have to draw back and everything will go like clockwork. I'd like to see you again alive." He always spoke very calmly, very quietly.

 

I noticed particularly that the English were very good sharpshooters and that most of the German soldiers, dead and wounded, were hit in the head.

 

The fact that I always led the way, that is that I always went first, at the head of my commando, probably saved my life many times. The enemy rarely shoots at the first man they see but wait to see if there are more soldiers coming. They let the first couple of men go by then attack those coming up next.

 

Vogel fell on the Tuesday or Wednesday. I can't remember exactly.

 

The last day, after everything was over, the prisoners had been marched away, we assembled. I was responsible for assembling the company whose command I had taken over after Vogel fell.

 

I am not really a religious man but I prayed during this battle. I said to myself, "The good Lord will help me.", then I waited for the next hour to come. This is absolutely true, you can ask my mother about this, my sister too. I told them about it. No one who has lived through such a terrible experience, whose life had hung by a thread, can tell me that he was not afraid. I don't care if he has the Knight's Cross with diamonds I am sure he was afraid. I lived through this battle and of this you can be sure, everyone was afraid even if they did not always show it. I often asked God just whose side he was on but somehow I was convinced that he was on our side.

 

The only casualties I know of which were caused by houses toppling are the ones of which I told you. And believe me this is not a thing a man forgets when he actually sees it happening.

 

I do not remember seeing any birds, cats or dogs during the fighting. In fact I did not even hear a bird sing until after it was all over. We were then brought to a depot, a sort of park just outside Arnhem, where we were all assembled. That was when I sort of came to myself again. That morning I had handed the company over to another lieutenant, after things were wound up, and then we were brought to this place. This company was not at full strength. We had a fighting force of about 120 to 130 men at the beginning of the battle. I think that we had had reinforcements, perhaps another company, but I don't know exactly.

 

Anyway it was when we were gathered all together that I consciously heard a bird singing. It was like coming back to life, as if during the battle I had been living in suspension. I was suddenly alive again and realized that I had come through it alive.

 

I do not remember any British being taken prisoners in a cinema. This must have been another company. Nor do I remember anything of a weird nature happening. I can remember three or four cases when wounded were taken away under the protection of a red cross flag. This was done on both sides and both sides respected this flag.

 

Although we did not get any sleep at night it was quieter in comparison with action during the day. We exchanged shots but did not move around very much. It would have been too risky. We would probably having stumbled right into the enemy. This happened often enough during the day anyway.

 

When I was talking with the man carrying the white flag he gave me cigarettes. This was on the day of the truce, just before the end of the battle. He was an officer and was the one who went back to the Battalion Command Post. This truce took place the same day that First Lieutenant Vogel fell. There was no more shooting that day in this area until the following dawn. But during that night the artillery was drawn up in a ring around the school area. They did not shoot until dawn when the truce was over. The English, however, had been told that this artillery would be firing intensively until they gave up. They refused to give up then, but after a few rounds of firing the white flag went up. Then it was all over. I remember that it was at this time that Paul Rosenbach was lightly wounded. It was a head wound. he had taken his steel helmet off during the night and forgotten to put it back on. We often took off our helmets at night. They got so heavy after a whole day.

 

I remember the water being cut off but it did not bother me much. My squad and I had tea and coffee in our canteens. It wasn't real coffee or tea but it was liquid.

 

When the English came out after having surrendered they came out holding their heads high. They looked proud and not at all defeated. I felt a great deal of respect for them and I felt sorry for them too. I respected the way they had fought, it was so fair. I showed them that I respected them. But I felt sorry for them because they looked so worn, haggard and exhausted. We were also tired but we had won.

 

I think I saw Colonel Frost and I spoke with one high-ranking officer. I don't think it was Frost but I really don't know. Frost did not surrender. He stayed to the very last and never did surrender. He was informed that it was useless to fight any longer, that he should give up and avoid further pointless bloodshed on either side. He answered, however, that he would go on fighting with the rest of his men. This in itself alone commands respect.

 

I did not have any opportunity to talk with the English soldiers. I spoke to the officer who asked for the truce and during the truce we joked a bit with the English. We laughed and we said: "Prima, Tommies, prima gekampft!" (Great, Tommies, great fighting!) After all we were all soldiers and had no reason to be unfriendly.

 

I do not remember the name of Logan or Wilson but I do remember a doctor who was a very good doctor and a very friendly man. Actually there was no animosity on either side, no hatred. The English lost after a very hard and fair fight. They were then taken prisoner not by us because we had to go to Elst but a unit from the Wehrmacht took in direction of Germany.

 

I do not remember being in the Town Hall although I may have been there at some time. I was all over the place during the fighting wherever there was shooting going on.

 

There were no "Sturmgeschütz" in my area. I remember seeing them come up only on the day when it was all over. They may have shot once or twice together with the artillery. But then the white flag came up and it was all over.

 

After this fight we went south of Arnhem to Elst. We went over the bridge on which lay burnt-out vehicles. The drivers were still inside. They were burned and charred black. We went over the bridge in SPW's [Schützenpanzerwagen - armoured scouting car].

 

We had only a couple of hours' breathing time before we went down to Elst. It was the same day that we were assembled in this depot. We had been brought there in trucks. Before we were loaded on SPW's and sent down to Elst the Battalion Commander addressed us. He thanked us for our courage during the recent action and told us that he regretted not being able to give us any time to rest. There was more fighting to be done, another matter to be cleaned up. I thought to myself: "Here we go again. Things are going to be hot again."

 

The casualties were very high. They must have been about 50%.

 

We did not go directly down to Elst but lay in an open area not far from the road, just south of the Rhine. That same evening we were somehow encircled. Then I was given the mission of going down to Elst to see Major Knaust. I set out with 7 or 8 men in an SPW. A couple of men had already tried to get through but their vehicle was not armoured. One had gotten back to say that they had been stopped by enemy fire. I took this SPW and we went through these meadows, cut by narrow ditches. We followed some small roads figuring we would have a better chance. I myself sat at the machine gun and fired constant bursts right and left until we got to Elst.

 

At Elst I was shown the way to a building where I would be able to find Knaust. There I was shown into a smoke-filled room. Some Wehrmacht officers sat there and among them a one-legged man. I did not know this was Knaust and I thought to myself: "Well, he's worse off than I am."

 

Then this man spoke up and said he was Knaust. He said: "Where do you come from, son?" I explained to him who I was, where I came from and why I had come. I told him we were surrounded and needed some support to get out of there. I told him that we had been heading in this direction and with some help we could be here by dawn. He nodded and said: "Here have a drink." So I had a drink.

 

I did not know that some English soldiers had reached the Rhine from the south thanks to fog. But there certainly was fog. It helped me get through to Knaust. It helped get back to my unit as well.

 

We were stuck on the southern bank of the Rhine being shot at from four sides. There must have been a small ring of Allied soldiers there. They shot the first vehicle which tried to get through. Then I got through to Knaust, taking narrow lanes, shooting constantly with the machine gun.

 

I also remember the typhoons. They fired at us and caused quite a lot of damage.

 

The day after my quick trip down to see Knaust and back we finally got down to Elst. We had managed to fight through the ring of Allied soldiers. This was lucky because Knaust did not really have enough troops to come and help us out. He had other things to do. When we got down to Elst we heard how he had stopped some soldiers who were running away and I can tell you that Knaust was glad to have these soldiers and to have my unit as well.

 

In Elst I was positioned in a house with a meadow behind it. I had to defend the house. There were still a couple of Dutch women in this house. They were very frightened and hid in the cellar. Then the English troops came up the street with Sherman tanks. I had thought when we took up our position in this house that we would have a little peace and quiet. So I had sat down at the piano and begun to play some songs. My favourite was "Ich bin dein Kamerad" (I'm your buddy). Suddenly there was a booming sound and a great gaping hole in the wall. The English had come up in their tanks and shot through the wall. We quickly ran out behind the house to take cover. But the shells went right through the house and out the other side so we had to dive into a small canal which was behind the house. We would emerge once in a while to see if it was safe and then we would have to dive back into the water. Finally a couple of Tiger tanks came along, they were Wehrmacht tanks, and they took care of the Shermans. So suddenly we were on the front lines again. They had us by the short hairs for a while, the English.

 

I only saw Harmel much later in Rhedt after this part of the fighting was over.

 

Rosenbach was no longer with me in Elst.

 

We were only two or three days in Elst and pulled out on the 25th or so. We then went back to Arnhem. This time we had to be ferried over. The bridge was destroyed. We went on fighting in Rhedt, another spot of concentrated action.

 

I did not know about the 1st British Airborne crossing over the Rhine. I don't think any of them were taken prisoner. In fact I don't remember any prisoners being taken between Nijmegen and Arnhem.

 

We had been told on the day that the fighting was over in Arnhem what the objective of this operation had been. We were told that the Allies had intended to take Arnhem and from there to swing as quickly as possible into the Ruhr area. Then they told us that the cade of Arnhem had been dealt with successfully when we had defeated the British at the northern end of the bridge. Now we had to deal only with remnants of troops and that practically speaking we only had to clean up some of the peripheral areas. The defeat in Arnhem meant the failure of the Allied operation.

 

I learned that everything was over on the 27th. I had had to go to Arnhem because of my injured arm. While there I learned that we had defeated the British Airborne at Oosterbeek and that the soldiers in Arnhem-Oosterbeek were to have a couple of days' rest. I don't know whether they actually did or not or any of the details of the end of the fight because I was sent back to Germany for treatment in a hospital.

 

My army had been injured in Elst when these tanks had shot through the wall. A piece of debris hit my arm as I was playing the piano. It was not an open wound and so I just put an elasticized bandage on and carried on. But it swelled terribly and finally I was sent back to Germany.

 

Robert Klapdorn was with me in Elst and until Rhedt. Then I reported for treatment in Arnhem and was sent home. One thing I'll never forget is the song I was playing when my arm was struck. It was "I want to be your buddy". Then we had run out behind the house across a small field and had jumped into the small canal. As I was running my pants were shot open between the legs. It felt pretty cold and drafty but it didn't stop me from running.

 

I think this battle was the hardest because it was close combat.

 

The most terrifying moment for me was when I saw Vogel fall, ripped open by bullets. Also when I had to cross that field of rubble to fight my way through to the school. This was the worse moment because I was really afraid of being killed.

 

Both sides fought cleanly and well. One thing for which I was grateful is that I did not throw the grenade into the cellar where lay the wounded.

 

I first saw Knaust sitting in this smoky room in the building on the edge of Elst. He seemed quite relaxed, sitting back in his chair, but he looked worn out. He looked quite startled when he saw me and asked me where I had come from. He shook his head when I told him and said: "So you managed to get through?" He then looked at the message I had for him - I had not seen it - with his rather poppy eyes. He was a fine man and a good one, Knaust. I know he received the Knight's Cross. I never saw him again.

 

We knew that paratroopers had landed near s'Hertogenbosch and near Arnhem. At first we were concerned only with Arnhem, and in particular the Arnhem road bridge. We had to clean up Arnhem as quickly as possible because there was some danger of a breakthrough from the English. We knew this breakthrough had to be prevented. However we could only do one thing at a time. We were committed in an area and we did what we had to do. We did not know everything that was happening. So I did not know that it was Knaust who stopped the British advance. I don't know why the British tanks did not keep advancing. After leaving Elst we had to go and fight elsewhere anyway. The war just went on. We certainly were grateful when the British stopped advancing because if they had kept advancing and if they had fanned out we would have been wiped out.

 

Why the British stopped I don't know. I know that there was a great deal of confusion on both sides. German soldiers had broken through the English lines in certain places and so there were British soldiers here and next to them German soldiers and further perhaps American soldiers. We learned this by radio. Also I knew that the tanks could not leave the road without great risk. So when they stopped we were at first tense and nervous then finally relieved when they made no move.

 

At the end of the battle I was promoted to corporal and given the Iron Cross second class.

 

I remember in the hospital where I was most of the wounded came either from the Eastern front or from the battle in the Arnhem area.

 

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