Acting Corporal Helmut Buttlar

 

Unit : 4th Battery, S.S. Flak Abteilung 10, 10 S.S. Panzer Division

Awards : Iron Cross Second Class

 

I request that the observation of the British Lord Moran be used as a forward  to my report about Arnhem:

 

"Will power and the courage [to exert it], which are required in war, belong to an entirely different category than spontaneous rules of behaviour, which one needs, for example, in order to become a good boxer. In a battle situation, eye to eye with the enemy, it is not a matter of solving visual problems, rather it is a question of how one conducts oneself, when dangers present themselves that one has not expected or foreseen which one has to cope with [and] overcome in a flash. This requires a power of decision dependent on one's will."

 

Up to the beginning of the invasion battle I was the driver of a 12-ton half-track with the 3rd Battery of SS First Lieutenant Hans Fröhlich. At this time I was - without wanting it at all or being able to prevent it - "promoted" [i.e., arrested] three times. First of all to two times three days of construction work, one soon after the other and, only a short time later, to five days military detention, and, thanks to the division judge with the proposed addition from SS Main Operations Department, [I was sentenced to] over a year at Danzig-Matzkau, to be served after the victorious war.

 

Then I was fortunately ordered, along with my half-track, to go to the 4th Battery of the SS Anti-Aircraft Battalion 10 under the highly qualified SS First Lieutenant Gottlob Ellwanger, who a few weeks later, probably without the knowledge of the division judge, spontaneously promoted me to SS Acting Corporal and decorated me with the Iron Cross 2nd Class for bravery in the face of the enemy.

 

The reason for this was the number 1 gunner SS Sergeant R. Schifferegger from Kitzbühel in Austria, who, after breaking out of the encirclement of Falaise, was incapable of bringing his men - myself included - to the border of the Reich. As a lowly gunner I took over the power of command at that time in the midst of a completely messed up situation and brought our entire gun team by horse and wagon behind the German lines on the evening of the allied recapture of Lüttich.

 

Somehow we received marching orders to report up in Holland at a front dispatch station of the 10th SS Armored Division "Frundsberg." On the way there we also went to Arnhem. En route some of us remained behind with sore feet; other comrades, scattered Frundsberg men, joined us. At the central depot in Arnhem, a police barracks, we had spent the night and had received an extremely meager breakfast. That prompted us to wait in the barracks for lunch before wanting to set out again to get to our "Frundsberg" [unit]. It was Sunday, the 17th of September, 1944, and we hadn't yet scraped the last spoonful of the - likewise meager - Sunday stew from our plates when the Englishmen came - this time from above.

 

We received marching orders to go to the SS Training and Replacement Battalion of SS Major Sepp Kraft in Oosterbeek. In a flash we grabbed our weapons and ammunition, commandeered a mini-bus and sped away. On the way we ran into a group of fleeing base wallahs [service troop personnel] who reported that Oosterbeek was already occupied by the evil enemy, which cancelled our marching orders. Because of this situation we were now on our own, since no one paid any further attention to us. None of us knew what was supposed to happen next, but everyone wanted to stay with our little group. Therefore we all decided to forge ahead on our own responsibility. Since one of us had to be in control, we held a brief Frundsberg council of war and my comrades unanimously decided that I should take over command. Now then. About 300 meters from the railway embankment before Oosterbeek I had the Frundsberg group take cover and alertly check in all directions. We then stalked in groups of 4 as a reconnaissance patrol westward towards enemy-occupied Oosterbeek.

 

On an elevation near the railroad station Oosterbeek-Laag there were hundreds of curious Dutch people of both sexes and of all age groups moving about. Among them, almost in their midst, were several British paratroopers, who were being greeted by the Dutch at the top of their voices and refreshed with tea or whatever from thermos bottles. We were standing about 50 meters away from this drama as the crow flies, more perplexed than paralyzed up on the embankment which led to the railroad bridge over the Rhine and upon which we had climbed to watch out for the enemy.

 

At first we were undecided about what we should be doing there. I was reluctant to give the order to fire, to simply shoot into the crowd of Dutch people just to eliminate a few Englishmen. Then the civilians suddenly discovered us and crying loudly - I can still hear that today - "The 'Moffen' [assholes - Note: Moffen does not literally mean "assholes", it is akin to "Boche" or "Kraut"] are coming," they scattered in all directions, some of them falling over one another. The Tommies rushed toward us and we toward them and everyone demanded that the other side should surrender with "hands up", which no one wanted to do. And then we all threw ourselves behind some sort of cover and blasted away at one another.

 

In the DWZ = Deutsche Wehrmachtszeitung [German Armed Forces Newspaper] of the 24th of January, 1964, was printed what the author Lothar van Greelen had written in the book "The Western Front 1944, Sold and Betrayed" about the railroad bridge at Arnhem. What he wrote is correct, aside from a few details, which I will come back to:

 

"The duel was quickly decided by Buttlar personally. Despite the enemy fire at close range, the acting corporal foolhardily stood up and threw the first hand grenade. Additional grenades followed. After a few moments four dead Englishmen lay abandoned in the sand of the roadway. The Germans retrieved one wounded comrade. Now Buttlar no longer relented. Having noticed the advance of the Englishmen onto the railroad bridge, he grouped all of his men together and attacked on both sides of the railroad embankment before the leading edge of the British battalion could set about taking the bridge. To be sure, the attackers were soon met with a half of English mortar shells, but they were not to be deterred. Meanwhile the British had occupied the Oosterbeek-Laag Station, however the Buttlar group took the railroad station by storm and shortly thereafter took up a position to the south of the underpass."

 

"From here they were in a position to control the route of advance of the Englishmen and the railway embankment up to the bridge with their light infantry weapons. The Englishmen also ran promptly up to the underpass and came under the raging fire of Buttlar's men. Since the British expected resistance of strong German forces, an erroneous conclusion with serious detrimental consequences, they stopped advancing and regrouped. The paratroopers of Frost's battalion tried in vain to take the railroad embankment; they were repulsed decisively. Here the Frost battalion experienced its first failure, even before the Battle of Arnhem had really begun."

 

"While that was happening SS Major Sepp Kraft had succeeded in effecting the engagement of engineers on the south bank of the Rhine. These engineers went about preparing the demolition of the bridge protected by the covering fire of the Buttlar group. The engineers worked feverishly. And not in vain. For suddenly the guns of the "Frundsberg" men fell silent. They had used up all of their ammunition. Resigned [to the situation] Acting Corporal Buttlar gave the order to disengage from the enemy. Immediately the British pushed forward [in the wake of the retreating Germans], occupied the railroad embankment and stormed toward the bridge. But hardly had the first Englishmen set foot on the railroad bridge, when an enormous pressure wave swept over the terrain. With a thunderous roar the steel structure flew into the air."

 

"The Buttlar group had accomplished its task. Later it perished in the Battle for Arnhem. Buttlar himself was seriously wounded. For that reason no one found, either on the British or on the German side, an explanation for who had actually offered the resistance on the railroad embankment of Oosterbeek and how it in fact happened that the British Paratrooper Battalion Frost was not able to take the railroad bridge."

 

"No one knows what course the Battle of Arnhem would have taken, if a determined group of twelve young Frundsberg soldiers under the leadership of a determined nineteen year old SS acting corporal had not at the right time and at the right place confronted the attacking enemy with unbelievable bravery." That's all that Lothar van Greelen has to say [about this incident].

 

Well now, I couldn't have written it better myself, however, I will conclude with some corrections, as I indicated I would to begin with: We knew nothing at all about the business with the engineers on the southern side of the bridge from our position on the north side of the bridge. When we had to pull back from the bridge ramp, because we had no more ammunition, we were at first howling with rage, but immediately thereafter we were once again happy and in good spirits, when the railroad bridge exploded - for us a complete surprise. Also the "Buttlar group" did not perish in the Battle of Arnhem; on the contrary, we continued to fight in the area of the highway bridge in the battle group of the 1st Battalion/SS Armored Infantry Regiment 21, as I will subsequently describe. To be sure some of us did not survive [that battle].

 

"The Moffen are coming!" (in German: "die Arschlöcher kommen" ["the assholes are coming"]) shall be the title of the continuation of the report of my experiences in the battles in Arnhem, for we Germans are still called "Moffen" by our Dutch neighbors regardless of our ages.

 

We were travelling on Sunday evening, the 17th of September, 1944, as night fell, along the Rhine highway back towards Arnhem. Aside from a few superficial wounds and scratches the men of the Frundsberg group Buttlar had come through the battle at the railroad bridge more or less unscathed; to be sure, [we were] extremely hungry and thirsty.

 

In the night before Monday, the 18th of September, 1944, we took up quarters close to the Rhine in an abandoned house and kept very quiet, since we didn't have any more ammunition at all. We heard the Tommies go by and assumed that we would find ourselves behind the enemy front. Therefore, first of all, it was a matter of waiting because of the darkness, and then, in the early morning, of forming a reconnaissance patrol, to reconnoiter the situation. Hunger and thirst could somehow be appeased from the nearby, likewise abandoned, cellars through preserved fruit supplies. Guards were posted and everyone was able to sleep for a few hours.

 

Monday morning came; I selected four plucky men and went on the warpath with them, armed only with a few hand grenades and two folding spades. In the east, in the area of a large church and from the direction of the highway bridge, intense battle noise could be heard and we crept cautiously toward it, for where there is shooting going on, our own soldiers would have to be involved. We didn't get very far. Dutchmen appeared and suddenly yelled out loudly: "Moffen, Moffen, Moffen," probably in order to draw the attention of the Tommies to us. Since we had no desire to be taken into captivity without a fight, we made threatening gestures with our - empty! - machine pistols which made the Dutchmen fall silent and run away, went back to our group and waited for dusk so that we could try together to break through the English front line somewhere.

 

In the evening bursts of fire from some Model 42 machine guns could be heard not far from where we were. We had to get over there! It wasn't completely dark yet, when we came upon our comrades who were giving the Englishmen the proper heavy punishment in the area of the bridge. Was that ever a joy! We were interrogated immediately by the battle group I/21, supplied with weapons and the necessary ammunition and already we were involved in house-to-house combat to teach the Englishmen the meaning of fear. To be sure, at night all cats are grey, but several houses were already in flames and we could determine where we were and where the enemy was. In this way we advanced house by house on the west side of the bridge and it got to be a rough night. At some point, totally exhausted, I found a few hours of sleep in some protected corner, but I was awakened again by a detonation in the immediate vicinity and [the fighting] continued again. The Tommies attempted a counterattack and some of them were already located at our backs.

 

I found myself alone in this situation and defended myself. At least I fired around 200 rounds from my machine pistol toward the penetration point in the shortest possible time and had not only kept the Englishmen at bay, but had even repulsed them. But I too left my position after I had shot up my last magazine. Taking several empty magazines and a gas mask case full of ammunition with me, I jumped through a broken window pane into the ground-level living room of the adjacent house and landed literally in the arms of my comrade Emil Paulig. Good old Emil was somewhat disconcerted that I had plopped down on him and he wanted to excuse himself because he had been in the way when I jumped through [the window]. (Even this sort of thing happened at that time and one does not forget it.)

 

I asked Emil to kindly give me a full magazine, instead of excusing himself in such a stupid way. He gave me one of his "shell silos" and while loading it into my old machine pistol I burned my right paw miserably; that's how hot my gun had gotten because of all the shooting. With long strides we reached the next block by way of the rear yards and there quickly [darted] into the closest house. Loud screaming resounded from the apartments - all the doors were open - as soon as we appeared. About 20 women and children were on the ground floor and they implored us with much wringing of their hands to spare them and to disappear again. To calm them down I explained to them that we would just reload our weapons and catch our breath for a moment and then we would leave again. Emil Paulig secured the house entrance door from one of the apartment doors with his machine pistol while I filled up the empty magazines with cartridges from my full gas mask case. Then I searched through the kitchen cabinet for some sort of fat, probably to the astonishment of the Dutch housewives. [I] found a piece of bacon, took the full magazine out of my pistol and carefully greased the spring and lock. When I shoved the magazine back into my machine pistol with the ball of my thumb, a shell that was still in the barrel went off and the glass from the kitchen cabinet door lay shattered on the floor. All of the Dutch people in the house began screaming "bloody murder".

 

Just an incidental remark about all of this: At that time we became acquainted with various kinds of Dutch people. For the majority we were the "Moffen" and these people made us feel that. Other Dutch people, on the other hand, behaved like normal civilians and we young soldiers didn't touch a hair on their heads.

 

I still remember, it must have been on Tuesday, that the Dutch "Moffen-criers" acted like spectators at a soccer match and from the "bleachers" on the roofs and higher windows roared "Moffkapott" in approval, and whistled and clapped when one of our comrades got shot. This unreal and one-sided spectator noise did not stop until an airforce four-gun anti-aircraft barrage intervened and thus silenced the Dutch spectators.

 

The house where I inadvertently shot up the kitchen cabinet was somehow burned down after we left in the subsequent course of the battle (but not by us!). The inhabitants were evacuated from Arnhem. At the end of the fifties they returned to Arnhem and also visited the Swiening family. Jo Swiening reported to them: "You won't believe who was here for a visit, the little black German devil who was shooting around in front of our house." This visit, that Swiening described, was more by chance, when I took a weekend trip to Arnhem and Oosterbeek with my wife shortly before that time and right away found my old rifle pit, a little shaft next to the entrance of house number 72, in which the shut-off valves for gas and water were located. As I was looking around I was so deep in thought that I was completely unaware that I was on someone else's property and I was startled when a Dutch woman addressed me with the words: "Isn't that the little black devil from back then?"

 

Well, it was I; at just 175cm [approx 5'9"] and 19 years of age I was at that time taller than Mr. and Mrs. Swiening. In spite of that, even 15 years later, I was still "the little German boy, the black devil from back then" in the memory of these people. Following [the encounter with Mrs. Swiening] my wife and I were the guests of this family for several days and, of course, the topic of conversation was almost exclusively "that time," the days in September, 1944.

 

And now back to "that time" again, Tuesday, the 19th of September, 1944, when the panicky fear of Dutch women and children chased us out of the house. After that Emil and I crept cautiously away again through the yards behind the houses and thus reached the corner house on Hyennoordseweg unseen and unhindered. We went in, [climbed] up the stairs and surveyed the situation from the skylight.

 

Even though I had been a member of a anti-aircraft company in all of the battle action up to that time, in the East at Buczacz and a short time before in Normandy, I had never had the opportunity to experience an 8.8cm anti-aircraft gun in a ground battle. Here [in Arnhem] that was now possible. We were able to observe how an 8.8cm anti-aircraft gun, shoved forward by hands and shoulders, was brought into position next to the prison. Shot followed shot and building after building nearly burst apart. Because of that the prison was immediately evacuated by the guards, for, strangely enough, one had left all of the inmates of the "Bewareinghuis" [prison] behind bars and therefore the pool jailbirds were taken by us to be enemies.

 

Meanwhile I had lost sight of my comrade Emil Paulig and found myself in the plumbing shaft of house 72, which has already been described. A borrowed easy chair just fit in the hole and still left enough room for my boots. From this shaft I was able to survey the entire battle field in front of me. In addition to a flower bed in front of me provided a natural camouflage. I had spread out my arsenal of weapons in front of me ready to hand and the hand grenades were ready for use.

 

In the early afternoon two or three Englishmen came out of a bush in the front yard. Some of our people left their cover, probably out of curiosity, how would I know why, and suddenly disorderly firing raged out of hand guns along the street. It was a deceptive maneuver by the Tommies that almost worked. In a wild panic my comrades scattered from the street block and the "hands-up" Tommies had suddenly been swallowed up by the ground.

 

I had stayed in my rifle pit and just had to pull my head in a bit because of the ricocheting bullets. When I was able to glance through the flowers again, several badly wounded and also dead comrades lay in my range of vision on the battle field, on the street and in the front yards. Several Tommies now rushed out of house entrances across the street and moved forward in my direction. No more shots were to be heard from us - the German side. I fired a full magazine at the Englishmen.

 

Then my situation became untenable, because diagonally across from me a British machine gun was firing into my "fox hole" and into the house entrance next to it. At that moment I was no longer in a position to shove a new magazine into my machine pistol, so I threw a hand grenade without aiming in [the general direction] of the barking machine gun. Further hand grenades followed one after another and still the machine gun was shooting into the wall behind me. Then I pulled the pin of my last hand grenade, counted off two seconds, stood up and threw it directly [at the machine gun]. A bull's-eye! The machine gun and the gun crew fell silent. The roadway and also the front yards were covered with dead and seriously wounded. At least 25 Germans and British had to die here in a quarter of an hour.

 

In the grounds between the houses there were still Tommies at our backs. When I heard battle noise from that location, I acted in accordance with the motto: "Where there is shooting going on, we are involved." I immediately got out of my rifle pit and around the next corner I ran into my lost comrade Emil Paulig; once again a painful occurrence for him, for he lost his footing and hit his steel helmet against the sidewalk with a clatter. Now we had the Tommies cornered. [We] stormed back into the corner house at Hyennoordseweg and shot through the windows at the Englishmen with our machine pistols. The echo from the English side was, however, not absent. In a few minutes none of the windows in the corner house were left unbroken and also none of that tiles on the roof. With our small arms we were powerless against this machine gun fire.

 

[We dashed] out of the house and into the yard. There was an SS Technical Sergeant looking for his men. Emil Paulig, who was running along on my left side, told me that I would be leaving a trail of blood behind me. Flabbergasted about that, I looked at my left foot and found out that the back portion of the boot was missing and that I had also lost half of my heel. We [ducked] into a nearby vestibule and Emil helped me pull off the rest of my boot, and immediately applied a field dressing to what was left of my foot. Hopping on one leg and at the same time leaning against Emil, I went right away to a dressing station that had been set up in a doctor's office. There wounded Englishmen were also being attended to. They all made an exhausted impression and some of them looked at our SS uniforms with extreme anxiety. They were, however, treated very correctly and supplied with English cigarettes. Then I was appointed to act as a transport leader for the prisoners and off we went to Apeldoorn in a captured Land-Rover, with several wounded Tommies and a German driver. The further the vehicle got from the battle area, the more Dutch people were standing around motionless and quiet on the edge of the road. There were no more malicious shouts. And after that I never heard the word "Moff" again.

 

One of the wounded English soldiers, an older sergeant, knew some German and inquired how old I was and asked whether, at my age, I had fought at all at the front. When I said "nineteen" and also proudly announced that I had already fought with the SS Armored Division "Frundsberg" in April in Russia and in the summer in Normandy, he just said pensively, that they would not have been defeated by a German troop other than the Waffen-SS. As we then went out separate ways in Apeldoorn, we "enemies" wished one another all the best for the future with a handshake.

 

Helmut Buttlar.

 

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