After the first reports of Allied airborne landings in the southern sector of the city, Colonel Henke of the 1st Parachute Training Staff, located at the Nebo Monastery south of the city, sounded the alarm for all ground units quartered in Nijmegen. With men from the homeland defense units, permanent personnel of the training staff, men from the railroad security guard, and stragglers from fragmented units, Henke secured the southern rim of the city and occupied a bridgehead across the Waal. His mission was to keep open both bridges along the northern riverbanks to the north of the city, with his left and right flank leaned against the rim of the village of Lent.
Allied parachute and airborne glider troops had already landed around Arnhem when orders arrived directing the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion, 21st SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment into action. The mission was to attack forward toward the Rhine and the bridge at Arnhem. Lacking vehicles, the men acquired bicycles from the general population. Trapp encountered several Army stragglers fleeing the city, many yelling, “Run away! The Tommies have landed!”
At the outskirts of the village, the men abandoned their bicycles and proceeded forward in a tactical column. Close to the front of the houses, the 3rd Company, 21st SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment, moved ever closer to the bridge. The civilian population was nowhere to be seen, and the homes seemed abandoned.
After crossing several streets, the machine-gun company approached individual British airborne supply canisters that littered the road. The search of nearby houses began immediately when small arms fire erupted from all sides. Lacking weapons, the Germans recovered weapons and ammunition from dead British soldiers. The process of ferreting out British paratroopers, hiding in the compartmentalized alleyways of the inner city, proved very difficult. House-to-house close combat became a necessity, and several entryways were found mined with improvised explosive devices. Slowly, the German perimeter around the paratroopers tightened. When German troops reached the Rhine River by the evening, the Arnhem Bridge was in view. British defensive fire intensified and the fighting continued throughout the night, from house to house. No soldier thought about sleep.
As the German troops pressed forward, Rudi Trapp emplaced his heavy machine gun tactically to provide covering fire at various street corners. British paratroopers tried evading the encirclement and ran from one house to another. Wounded British shared Trapp’s position. One British soldier had been hit in the testicle and was in severe pain. Trapp and other SS men evacuated wounded British from the front lines and brought them to the rear for medical attention. The Germans recovered Dutch civilians, also wounded during the fighting. Among the Dutch was a severely injured woman. Civilians hiding in the cellars were forced out into the open when many homes caught fire during the fighting.
Supplies arrived during the night for Trapp and his comrades. They received Panzerfausts, ammunition, and assault rifles. However, basic food provisions were not included. The men looted food stocks from nearby abandoned cellars, which primarily consisted of pickled fruit. A chocolate warehouse was located along the Rhine River road, but no trace of chocolate was found. A three-wheel bicycle found in a warehouse was impounded and used to carry weapons, ammunition, and heavy guns to and from the front lines.
Luftwaffe forward observers arrived amidst the rubble and sketched out the terrain where Trapp and his company were located. These sketches were given to Stuka divebomber squadrons to guide them in precision bombing sorties. In the end the Stukas never came. Actually, Trapp was very happy the Stukas did not come, considering he was the recipient of the botched close air support during the fighting at Buczacz.
Instead, ground support arrived in the form of an Army field howitzer. The gun provided direct fire support, from the Rhine road, for the attacks. The gun effectively placed preparatory assault fire on several houses, which were later overrun by Trapp and his company. Many of the British defenders were killed in their fighting holes from falling debris.
Kampfgruppe Henke was not equipped or trained well enough to engage in battle. The Kampfgruppe consisted of approximately 750 primarily older men, and a number of antiaircraft batteries to protect the bridge and provide antitank defenses. Kampfgruppe Henke was organized in the following manner:
HQ Henke Parachute Training Regiment
6 Replacement Battalions (consisting of 3 companies)
Herman Göring Company Runge
NCO School Company
Railway Guards/Police Reservists (consisting of 2 companies)
Antiaircraft Battery (88mm & 20mm guns, dispersed)
Nijmegen remained free of Allied forces until dark. However, during the night on 18 September, the Allies managed to push German security forces back into the inner city.
In the evening on 17 September, forward scouts of the 9th SS Reconnaissance Battalion reported back to the battalion that Nijmegen and both bridges were in German hands. Moreover, no Allied attacks against the bridges were reported. The battalion commander Gräbner foresaw a threat by Allied forces and ordered it to return to Arnhem, rather than scouting against Nijmegen. South of Elst, Gräbner permitted scouts to contact the Kampfgruppe at Nijmegen. Portions of the 9th SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion returned to Arnhem during the night on 18 September. Heavy casualties were suffered on the Rhine Bridge. Burning armored half-tracks littered the entire width of the road. The residual elements remained on the southern banks and sealed off the bridge along a front, facing north, barring the Allies from advancing from the south. The small contingency prevented the Allies from capturing the southern approach to the bridge.
Around midnight, the 10th SS Panzer Division received superseding orders from the II SS Panzer Corps that diverted the division from their original route of march over Arnhem. Instead, they were directed to travel southeast of Arnhem over the lower Rhine and utilize a ferry service. From there, the division was to capture Nijmegen and establish a bridgehead on the southern bank of the Waal; both bridges were to be prepared for demolition.
Immediately, the division placed the Kampfgruppe Reinhold in march over Zevenaar and then on to Pannerden. The 1st Company of the 10th Pioneer Battalion assumed the lead at the point. The objective was to propel the 1st Company, 10th SS Panzer Pioneer Battalion, forward against Nijmegen, after crossing the lower Rhine (Pannerdian Canal) at the ferry cross-over points with rubber assault boats and other acquired boats. Together with the 9th SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion, expected to arrive at any moment, the pioneer company was to be attached to the local unit and facilitate ejecting the Allies, who had infiltrated the city during the night. Moreover, the 1st Company, 10th SS Panzer Pioneer Battalion, was tasked with the preparation for the demolition of both Waal bridges. Army Group B reserved the right to rescind the order to blow up the bridges.
The decisive task around Nijmegen fell to the 10th SS Panzer Division: to prevent the American 82nd Airborne Division from making contact with the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem. Nonetheless, while the entire division knew of the objective, Kampfgruppe Reinhold was responsible for preventing a link before the bulk of the division arrived at the battlefield.
Considering the pioneer and antiaircraft battalions that were detached earlier but particularly needed at the crossing-points west of Pannerden, the bulk of the 10th SS Panzer Division redirected over Doesburg and Doetinchem.
During the first morning hours on 18 September, the Allies attempted to expand their bridgehead north of the Arnhem Bridge. Battalion Euling engaged the attackers and thwarted the Allied attempt. Around 0400 hours, Battalion Knaust, a training and replacement battalion, arrived with four weak companies, consisting of wounded or disabled soldiers, and ten older tanks along the northeastern fringe of Arnhem. Bittrich ordered the Battalion Knaust attached to the Kampfgruppe Brinkmann. The battalion replaced Battalion Euling, squad for squad, to allow the latter to resume its mission as part of Kampfgruppe Reinhold. However, the relief took longer than expected as individual groups from the battalion engaged in close combat.
Around the same time, the commander of the division Heinz Harmel returned from Bad Saarow and arrived at the forward divisional combat command post at Velp. After a short orientation by the 1st General Staff officer, Harmel made his way to the entrenched Kampfgruppe Brinkmann, located near the bridge along the outskirts of the city. Every house and every floor was bitterly contested. Harmel ordered the employment of a divisional light howitzer battery in the gardens along the road approaching the bridge; the houses on the opposite side were taken under direct fire. Shortly thereafter, Harmel reported to the commanding general of the II SS Panzer Corps (within the immediate vicinity) and assumed command of the battle around the Arnhem Bridge.
In terms of additional armored assistance, only a single company of old Army Tigers were available to support combat operations of the 10th SS on 19 September. The veteran Army captain Hans Hummel commanded the company of Tigers, which gained experience during the fighting in Sicily, at which time Hummel was wounded when he commanded the 2nd Company, 504th Heavy Panzer Battalion. The company organized as an alarm unit in early July 1944, for which Hummel gathered members of his former company from the Wehrkreiskommando Münster, the Wehrmacht District IV. The company, christened Heavy Panzer Company Hummel, was specifically organized to support the coup d’état against Hitler on 20 July.
The Heavy Panzer Company Hummel received the alarm and activated on 18 September at Sennelager. The company unloaded at the train station at Bocholt. From the station, they traveled 80 km, but only two Tigers, those belonging to Lieutenant Knack and Sergeant Barneki, reached Arnhem. The remaining tanks suffered from mechanical failures but arrived in Arnhem shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, in accordance with the OKH directive of 15 August 1944, the 506th Heavy Panzer Battalion was refitted and freely organized in Ohrdruf with King Tigers or Tiger IIs. Under the new organization, the staff and tank companies reassigned the supply and service units into a supply company. The battalion staff and staff companies were amalgamated with the flak platoons. Under the command of Army Major Lange, forty-five King Tigers were allocated to the battalion between 20 August and 12 September. During the training that emphasized contending with aerial threats, several vehicles caught on fire. The fuel-line linkages on many tanks were not completely sealed and the fuel reservoir access ports were located too close to the very hot exhaust pipes. Despite inspections by members of the Heereswaffenamtes or Army Ordnance Department, the deficiencies were never adequately corrected.
Upon the arrival of two Tigers from the Heavy Tank Company Hummel, Kampfgruppe Brinkmann and all its elements returned under the control of the 10th SS Panzer Division. According to Harmel, Field Marshal Model ordered the 10th SS Panzer Division to fight to open a line of communication to Nijmegen, and ensure for the speedy resupply of all German units in that area.
The commander of the 10th SS Panzer Division personally led the attack against the bridge throughout the entire day and night of 19 September. The divisional combat command post was moved throughout 18 September from Velp to Pannerden.
Army Major Hans-Peter Knaust, commanding Battalion Bocholt, led by example and with a wooden prosthetic leg. The battalion displayed its worth during the attack against the bridge by ensnarling the enemy, from house to house, in close combat for hours. The defending soldiers of the British 1st Airborne Division fought courageously but at a great cost. According to Heinz Harmel, the fighting spirit and skill of the British airborne equaled his own division; Harmel considered them honorable and just in battle.
On Monday morning, 18 September, additional Allied paratroopers landed on the opposite side of the river. Trapp and his few remaining comrades were surrounded. Trapp mounted the heavy machine gun on a tripod, for better targeting. However, he was out of ammunition.
A half-track arrived in order to recover the men killed in action from between the opposing two lines of battle. Trapp manned the two vehicle machine guns and provided cover fire as the vehicle descended into the fight. One soldier was killed when hit in the heart after a projectile traveled through his Soldbuch or soldier’s pay book. He was barely nineteen years old.
The 3rd Machine Gun Company retained the half-track; it was the only vehicle in the sector between the church tower and the ramp to the river bridge. Using the half-track, Trapp and two other SS troopers were selected to establish contact with the adjacent Kampfgruppe, locked in combat beyond the ramp of the bridge. To achieve their objective, they had to pass under the ramp. The remaining company machine guns were to suppress the British antitank gun emplaced along the bridge, which had excellent observation across the roads along the riverbanks. Bernd Schulz, a farmer from Sendenhorst near Münster, was one of the last of the old fighters and was assigned as a driver. During the situation briefing, Schulz began to cry and had a bad feeling about the mission. Despite his misgivings, the men carefully stuffed their camouflage jacket pockets full of egg hand grenades and belts of ammunition for the MG-42.
No sooner had the half-track sped across the intersection when an antitank projectile hit the driverside of the vehicle. The half-track lurched to a stop; Schulz was killed instantly when the projectile hit him. The two remaining men exited the vehicle and darted into a demolished house, which was between two Allied defensive positions. In order to escape their predicament, Trapp provided suppressing machine-gun fire as his comrade ran across the street. As Trapp prepared to cross, several British soldiers suddenly surrounded Trapp. Using hand grenades to keep the British at bay, Trapp escaped across the street and jumped over a river wall and into the Rhine. After removing his wet clothing on the back of a half-sunken dredge, he swam toward friendly lines in his undergarments, armed only with a pistol. Shortly thereafter, Trapp reached his unit and received replacement clothing and equipment from fallen comrades. For Trapp, the fighting continued until he was wounded in Elst, when a bullet hit his knee. He was evacuated to the rear in a half-track, along with the commander of the Kampfgruppe Knaust. The major showed Trapp his wooden leg and commented, “Don’t worry. I was able to walk again.”
SS-Hauptsturmführer Schwappacher personally made several reconnaissance excursions into the area around Nijmegen earlier that morning to clarify the situation, which allowed him to place heavy artillery fire on Allied troop concentrations around Berg en Dal. Around 1000 hours Allied forces moving north toward the city were subjected to observed artillery, as well as on the main approaches east of the city. Around noon, Allied troops attacking northward that reached the road-triangle at the southern rim of the bridge were stopped by artillery fire from batteries of the 5th Company, SS Artillery Training and Replacement Regiment. Additional artillery fire allowed infantry from the Herman Göring Company Runge and the forward observers to relocate to the northeast along the railroad line. Schwappacher managed to gain considerable advantages with a single heavy artillery battery that gained fire control over the entire area of operations.
The 1st Company, 10th SS Panzer Pioneer Battalion, crossed the lower Rhine at Pannerden first and reached the bridge at Nijmegen, on 18 September, in vehicles and bicycles. However, the 9th SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion had yet to arrive at their forward position at the Nijmegen Bridge. Both German and British forces engaged in costly street fighting in the center of the city. Members of the Dutch underground also participated in the fighting.
Around midday on 18 September, the commander of Kampfgruppe Reinhold arrived from Pannerden-Bemmel at the Waal River Bridge. Located south of Lent, Reinhold arrived with Battalion Euling, but missing those elements that could not be disengaged in time from the fighting at Arnhem. The timely arrival of Euling allowed nearby homeland defense units and the 2nd SS Pioneers to provide the additional energy needed to ward off several Allied attacks against the Waal bridges. Shortly thereafter, the half-track company and battalion staff of Battalion Euling rolled across the bridge at full speed. The bridge was under fire by Allied artillery. The remainder of the battalion arrived throughout the afternoon in trucks and on bicycles. However, due to the increase of artillery fire, only portions of the battalion managed to cross the bridge. Other portions of the battalion crossed the river upstream in rubber rafts. SS-Hauptsturmführer Euling established his combat command post in the city citadel, between the two bridges of Nijmegen. Local troops fighting under the command of Major Ahlborn were subordinated to Battalion Euling. The 9th SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion reported the bulk of the battalion to be located at Elst and, according to rumor, designated as the division reserve. According to Harmel, the Kampfgruppe 9th SS Panzer Division requested the return of the 9th SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion to the II SS Panzer Corps. Sensing a certain lack of dependability, Harmel ordered the battalion to secure their lines south of Elst, launch an attack to stop an Allied advance from Nijmegen to the north, and reconnoiter points of opportunity against new airborne landings south of Arnhem.