Obersturmbannführer Walther Harzer

Walther Harzer on parade alongside Viktor Graebner

Obersturmbannführer Walther Harzer


Unit : Headquarters, 9 S.S. Panzer Division 'Hohenstaufen'


Although only a 32 year old Lieutenant-Colonel, Walther Harzer was the temporary commander of the 9 S.S. Panzer Division 'Hohenstaufen'. On the 2nd September 1944, whilst fighting a desperate rear-guard action against American tanks of the 1st US Army, Harzer and his Headquarters became cut off, at Cambrai, from the rest of the Division as the Allied armour swept forward. Under cover of darkness, Harzer and his column of vehicles were led out of Cambrai by civilians who were sympathetic to their cause. By dawn he was still in the Allied side of a fast-moving No-man's land and so decided to hide during the day and move on again at night. By the 5th September, Harzer's column had still passed undetected, even though they were riding directly in the trail of the vanguard of the 2nd British Army. As they neared Brussels, a number of German stragglers who had been left behind were gathered up and taken with them to Brussels, which at this time was still in German hands. Harzer rejoined his Division, which was soon redirected to the general Arnhem area.


Harzer offers the following description of himself away from the battlefield: "I was not much of a reader. When I went home on leave I would perhaps read a novel at the front I rarely read. I had no time. In the little spare time which I had I used to love tinkering with vehicles of all sorts. I would go to the motor pool and with a mechanic take engines apart."


Shortly after midday on Sunday 17th September, Harzer was on parade in Hoenderloo when the approach of the Airborne armada could be heard. He later said, "As the troops were moving off to their quarters and the officers and myself were making for the officers' mess for lunch, we saw the first British parachutes in the sky over Arnhem. It could not be deduced at this stage that a large-scale operation was under-way and we sat down quietly to lunch."


The following is taken from an interview with Walther Harzer, by Cornelius Ryan.


'I had had certain plans which were disturbed by the landing. My birthday is on September 29 and I was expecting to go home to celebrate it. I had been looking forward to this but was not able to leave immediately after the battle was over and had to wait until October. I then had a belated birthday celebration.'


'Model came every day to my H.Q. during the battle. On the 2nd day he told me of the plans which had been found in a glider shot down near General Student's H.Q. He received the plans themselves on the third day. General Student himself spent several days at my H.Q. He was not there in a commanding capacity but merely wanted to observe the development of the battle. He was surprised that the bridges were not blown since we had the plans for the operation.'


'I first met Field Marshal Model on the eastern front in April 1944. I was an officer on the general staff and had been for three years. Model asked me: "Where are your troops?" I answered: "I just got here 5 minutes ago." He retorted: "That's beside the point." I was also covering up for Bittrich's absence. He had made a detour via Berlin, I think he had a little dancer there, and had told me to go on ahead. I think Bittrich finally arrived quite quickly, having somehow managed to get one of these recce planes although at this time high-ranking officers were forbidden to fly, especially close to the front lines. It was considered too risky and we could not afford to lose any generals. But what could a pilot do who was ordered by a general to fly him somewhere? They often did refuse.'


'Model behaved exactly the same way in Arnhem. He was a brilliant improviser and had no patience with bunglers and slow-pokes. I told him: "I don't have enough troops." Curtly he said: "I'll get you some." And he did. We kept getting reinforcements quite steadily, but already by the 18th we had Knaust's battalion which, although made up of many sick and convalescent men or hastily trained youth, distinguished itself at Arnhem and Elst. Model also got me tanks, "Königstiger", and flamethrowers. Since we had very few armoured vehicles Major Spindler who commanded an armoured infantry regiment was committed as infantry. He was to throw up a blocking line between Arnhem and Oosterbeek. He had two other Kampfgruppen under him, each respectively commanded by Captain von Allwörden and First Lieutenant Harder. They had odd units composed of navy and airforce personnel. It was completely to their credit that they managed to get these soldiers fighting.'


'When I first spoke to Bittrich after the landing, it was on the telephone, he asked me: "Well Harzer, what shall we do?" I told him: "You had better concentrate on the 10th Division for now, General." Major-General Harmel had taken off for Berlin the night before. He should not have gone personally. Model, of course, knew nothing about it. He would have relieved him of his command if he had known.'


'Standing in the freight station of Arnhem on the Sunday morning was a train carrying heavy infantry weapons which were intended for AOK 15 on the coast of Holland. The train was to go to the Hague. When the bombing started on Sunday at about 0900 hrs, the Dutch workers disappeared and the train was left standing there. I think it was Spindler who first discovered it. On the 5th or 6th day my troops took the station and we were able to get these arms.'


'My chief of staff was a Captain Schwarz. He usually stayed at the Command Post to receive and send out all communications. My Command Post was on the road to Apeldoorn on the edge of Arnhem. It had been the area commander's H.Q. This commander was General Kussin. He was killed already on the first day. His Ia came to see me and told me that the late Kussin's H.Q. would make a good command post because it was a central point of telephone communication. It had been a communications centre for years and the enemy knew this. This was the Dutch telephone network on which we relied here. We used the same cables but different switchboards.'


'Kussin's Ia was an old man who belonged to the Reserves. He was about 60. When he learned of Kussin's death he came to see me and said: "My General is dead. You must transfer your command post to the area commander's H.Q. From there you can telephone anywhere." This was about 1800 hrs on the 17th. He waited long enough to see me and my staff installed - I had brought radio equipment - then sighed with relief and said: "The boys are here." Then he disappeared. At least he stuck around long enough to tell me about Kussin and the telephone network. The other 20 or so soldiers on Kussin's staff had long ago disappeared.'


'As a special precaution I had captured Tommies kept in the garden of the area commander's H.Q., now my command post. The first prisoner I saw was on the 2nd day. He was an officer and I spoke with him, trying to get some information or to confirm our guesses as to the operation's objective. The Tommies sat around in circles of ten, cooking or smoking, I figured that the Tommies would not bomb their own men so they were a sort of insurance. When I had time I went out in the garden and strolled through the little groups, joking with them, or talking to one who looked interesting. I knew already on the second day that this airborne unit was the 1st British Airborne because the prisoners brought in wore red berets. This is why we gave them the name of red devils.'


'Graebner had made a rush to get over the bridge at 1709 hrs. He had crossed successfully but when he tried to get back he was unable to do so. The English had positioned anti-tank guns on the northern ramp of the bridge and shot at Graebner and his SPW's as they were coming over. Of the 40 SPW's I think he lost at least 12 which remained lying on the bridge and blocking the way. Graebner himself died in this attempt to return to Arnhem. After he had crossed the bridge he had been put under command of "Frundsberg" and in return Brinkmann and his recce unit were put under my command. Brinkmann fought at the bridge. When the orders were changed and Frundsberg was given the task of freeing the bridge, Brinkmann came under Frundsberg's command and Graebner was supposed to come back to me. It had taken Graebner no more than five hours to put the vehicles back together which had been reported as out of order.'


'Bittrich came to my command post every day at least once, usually in the morning. He would ask me the latest developments. "Well, Harzer, how are things going? How have you divided the different units? Where are you using them?" Bittrich realised quite quickly what the general situation was.'


'Although we had the operational orders, these were not all that useful. The only previsions they gave concerned the landing. So we did not really trust the captured plans. We did not know how the enemy would react. We did not even know for sure that the plans were genuine. The first 3 or 4 days we were afraid that the English would suddenly swerve and march to the Ruhr area. We thought that they would do what we Germans would have done, that is advance. Since they had landed west of Oosterbeek we thought they would first assemble then wheel north and head towards Germany. Model, who often came, even when Bittrich was not there, thought the same thing. This is why we did not panic. We did not think Arnhem was their objective. Model thought this until he saw that the British were not active. It seemed quite natural to assume from the area where they had landed that their intention was to wheel towards Bocholt, that is towards the Ruhr. But on the third or fourth day it became quite clear what their objective was. The British sent out no recce units or patrols, used no assault troops but deemed to adopt a purely defensive position. It was obvious that they wanted the Arnhem bridge and those who reached it held on desperately from a defensive position. We knew then that they expected reinforcement and realized that it was to be the British 2nd Army. At first we expected that the XXX Amd Corps would arrive sooner, since the Airborne Division was obviously a spearhead. Model was convinced it would come up faster than it did and would link up with the paratroopers within 3 or 4 days. Of course Model always prepared for the worst; that way, he said, he could never be caught by the short hairs.'


'At first... the orders were that the 9th Division was to take care of the Arnhem area; it was also to send out recce units towards Nijmegen and west of Arnhem. The 10th was to go down to Nijmegen over the Arnhem bridge and hold the Nijmegen bridges. When the British took the northern end of the bridge this threw a spanner in the works because we first had to free it to allow the 10th to get down to Nijmegen, Bittrich ordered the Brinkmann Kampfgruppe transferred back to the 10th as it was already fighting at the bridge; then it became the 10th's business to free the bridge. Knaust was put under the command of the 10th since he was fighting at the bridge and he remained under the 10th at Elst... the 10th {were} fighting at the bridge and the 9th fighting in West Arnhem.'


'Harmel arrived at my command post on the morning of the 18th. I saw him at about 1100 hrs and had to orientate him on the situation. He said: "I'm ordered to go down to Nijmegen with my division. Do you have the bridge open yet? Get rid of these Tommies, Harzer." I answered: "Me? I'm seeing to it that the paratroopers don't get into Arnhem. I don't have time to take care of the bridge at the same time. The bridge is your look-out. You figure out how to free it." When Harmel first arrived at my command post I kidded him, saying: "You have a nerve being away in Berlin and not with your troops at a time like this." Harmel answered: "I had bad luck." I told him that a recce unit was already over the bridge. This was Graebner's unit which Model had ordered me to send down to the Waal River to help hold the bridge. Model had said there was already an anti-aircraft unit down at the Nijmegen bridge.'


'Bittrich on the 18th gave the order that the 10th Division had to free the bridge and ordered the transfer of Graebner's recce unit to Harmel's division cancelled. Harmel directed the firing at the bridge in open artillery positions. He was using heavy mortars. He also had the guns shoot point-blank at the houses, slowly advancing. The British did not budge from their positions. They held out to the end. Most of them were old hands at this and had at least five years' front experience.'


'On the 3rd day, I think, we were brought the signals and manuals which had been captured in the glider, to be used in asking for supplies. When I saw them I said: "Well we'll be able to get all the supplies we need thanks to the British Airforce." As a matter of fact many of these odd units we had, such as the West Waal workers and Railroad workers who carried old French rifles were then equipped with captured British guns. Happily we were kept amply supplied in ammunition by the British airforce. The first day these men carried the guns they had been taught how to use them before we could send them out to fight. At least they had good weapons and free ammunition.'


'I did not know that Major Krafft and his battalion were in Oosterbeek and already engaged in fighting against the British paratroopers. It was certainly very lucky that he was there and Krafft did a good job of holding back the British until he had to draw back. I put Krafft's name on the list when I asked for Knight's Crosses for several of the commanders who had distinguished themselves during the battle. I don't know why he did not receive a decoration. It was between 1500 and 1600 hrs that Bittrich told me of the existence of Krafft's battalion and told me to make contact with him. I had already been told to form a line blocking the way into Arnhem. I was not able to contact Krafft at once but when he withdrew he ran into Spindler's men and was told that he was now under the command of the 9th Division.'


'I saw the fighting in Arnhem which was very confusing. Often the English were on the first floor and the Germans on the ground floor. They were shooting through the ceilings, the windows etc. I remember one incident. When the British paratroopers first arrived in Arnhem there was a great deal of confusion. They did not meet with much resistance either. In the soldier's recreation centre about 80 soldiers were sitting around, drinking coffee and playing cards. Their weapons were leaning against the wall. In walked a handful of British paratroopers and ordered the German soldiers to put up their hands. Then they had a cup of coffee and went away again.'


'We were getting reinforcement steadily but it was not the best kind. Of the 7 and 8 companies only a few had experienced soldiers. Nevertheless after the 5th day I felt that I had the upper hand. We had pushed the British back into such narrow confines that they could do little but defend themselves.'


'The 1st Airborne was an elite troop who had been particularly well trained, especially for close combat. Most of them were young men. The house to house fighting was very bitter in Arnhem and in Oosterbeek. There were some funny things due, I think, to the British's funny sense of humour. They played records on a record player they had found in a house. It was odd to hear dance music and the noise of firing together.'


'This was a very fair battle. We showed all due respect to a worthy enemy. For example there was the truce which was requested on the 23rd or 24th. It was Colonel Warrack who went to the Schoonord Hotel with two other men, I think, and asked to see the divisional doctor. Our doctor was Dr. Skalka, a young man but very competent. He had instructions to do what he could for the British wounded. When Warrack asked to be taken to the Division commander, Skalka agreed. They got into a jeep flying the red-cross flag and drove to my command post. I was surprised when they arrived because Skalka had not blindfolded Warrack. Warrack now knew the exact location of my H.Q. When I pointed this out to Skalka, he laughed and said he would be very much surprised if Warrack could find his way here again. "Not the way we drove!" he said.'


'I spoke to Warrack who requested that the British wounded be evacuated from the perimeter since they no longer had the room or the supplies to take care of them. This meant calling a truce for a couple of hours. I agreed because... I liked the English. I had been in England before the war as a student and had good memories of this time. I told Warrack that I was sorry that our two countries should be fighting. Why should we fight, after all? Warrack looked very haggard and worn. He was offered some cognac but refused because he said it would make him ill. He had not eaten for some time. He was given some sandwiches.'


'It was agreed that the British wounded would be brought to the St. Elizabeth Hospital where they would be treated by English and Dutch surgeons. This zone was declared neutral and no guards were set around the hospital. So there were both English and German soldiers here being tended by English, Dutch and Germans, and receiving German supplies. It was my men who transported the wounded back and forth. After the first day there was a short truce around the Tafelberg where the British had their field hospital, to evacuate the wounded. This truce was respected by all although necessarily there were incidents. A soldier, British or German, would forget and continue firing. I think once Dr. Skalka was shot at going through the front lines into the British sector. But the British officer who accompanied him yelled and cursed at the paratrooper who had opened fire on them. Skalka was not injured. I think the common soldier was impressed by the truce and fairness of the fighting on both sides. Some had never experienced this type of fighting before, especially if they had fought only on the western front. There was mutual respect between the British and German soldiers.'


'We had captured some enemy jeeps but at first we could not use them because the rotor had been removed by the enemy. So when my men went to the Tafelberg to help move the wounded to the St. Elizabeth Hospital while they were waiting for the British to bring out the wounded they stole the rotors from the enemy jeeps standing outside the Tafelberg. The enemy had spares anyway. We used these jeeps later in the Ardennes. In fact I was ordered to hand them over to OBW shortly after the battle but I refused saying that these were almost our only vehicles and that we had won them. So then I was given other vehicles in exchange. The jeeps were better though. I think in all a total of 2,200 men were evacuated from the perimeter until the end of the battle.'


'I got no sleep during these days although we ate well, even luxuriously, thanks to the British supplies. There were things in the supply cases which we had not seen for years, such as chocolate and real coffee.'


'I received a message at about 0800 hrs on the 26th that there was no more opposition from the enemy. We knew that something had been going on during the night on the river but we thought that it was reinforcements trying to get to the north bank. I immediately ordered that the wounded be rounded up and tended. Then at about 0900 hrs I went into Oosterbeek and the perimeter myself. I drove in quite slowly on the large road from Arnhem to Oosterbeek. Large trees lined both sides of the road. These were scarred and torn by bullets. Many houses were damaged. They had suffered from the enemy bombing. There were still bodies strewn around this area. German medical crews were working to clear the area. They were helped by some Dutch civilians. These were the civilians who had been trapped in the cellars during all the fighting. In Arnhem and in Oosterbeek, outside the perimeter, we had started gradually evacuating Dutch civilians. There had been some casualties among them. This was done starting in the centre of Arnhem where the fighting was heaviest and spreading outwards, about 500 metres at a time. I had seen many of them go past my command post heading for Apeldoorn or Velp.'


'The worst sight was the Hartenstein. It looked terribly bleak and desolate. The ground around it was ploughed up. This made a very strong impression on me. There were so many things scattered around. Abandoned bits of equipment. I went inside where things looked even worse. In the cellar, in this low room, were still bodies. The place stank of carbon and medicine. The remains of medical supplies still lay there. There was so much debris, broken glass, splintered beams etc. I went out behind the Hartenstein to the tennis courts. That was where the German prisoners had been kept. There were not many, fewer than a hundred. They had not been given any spades by the British to dig trenches and had dug miserable holes with spoons, hands, whatever they could think of. Some had been wounded and a couple killed.'


'I could not go too close to the river bank because the 43rd was still shooting from the other side. I then drove on further west to Wolfheze and other landing zones. As I approached these areas I could see gaily coloured parachutes still hanging in the trees, some with the bodies of the paratroopers dangling. The trees here were also damaged by bullets, shells, etc. I wanted to see the gliders and to count how many had landed. There must have been close to a thousand. Our troops had already looted the gliders. They were especially interested in the radio equipment. In fact these gliders had a certain type of radio equipment which I had never seen before. A number of the gliders had been shot down and had crashed to the ground. They were pretty smashed up and lay at odd angles. The gliders were ordered burned. We could not use them and if the enemy came up this way we did not want them to use them.'


'The losses on both sides were staggering. When on the 26th or 27th the Wehrmacht issued a report stating the losses in men and materiel on the British side, there was panic in Britain. I think they were shocked that so many men and so much materiel had been lost in an operation which had failed. It was also incredible that the British had lost since their force was so superior to the force which had defeated them. To calm them, Churchill went on the radio and told the British people that the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht had grossly exaggerated the figure. The casualty figure exceeded the number of men committed. I had to do a recount for the supreme command and I think I came out with an even higher figure. We had also captured a great deal of war materiel.'


'After the battle I remember speaking to a British officer of the same rank as myself. I was considered a very young Lt. Colonel but I think he was even younger than I was. I commented on this fact, congratulating him. But he laughed and said that at least my rank was permanent whereas his was temporary. After the war he would again be only a major. Apparently they did this in the British Army in order to have a full complement of officers, they promoted temporarily very young officers. His name may have been Lonsdale, I don't remember.'


'I received my Knight's Cross directly from Bittrich. It had been requested and approved quite early in the battle. Knaust and Spindler received theirs from Model.'


Years after the Battle, Harzer wrote, "It is with personal pride that I regard this German victory, because it was achieved not by regular units, but by railway workers, Arbeitsdienst and Luftwaffe personnel as well, who had never been trained for infantry work and were actually unsuitable for house-to-house fighting."


Thanks to Henriëtte Kuil-Snaterse.


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