Campaigns of the 9th SS-Panzer Division Hohenstaufen (Part II).
From Arnhem, in the Ardennes and to Hungary to the end of the war.
To Part I: 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen.
Actually Arnhem was only intended as a meeting point for the 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen, which in the meantime consisted of less than 3,000 men. From there, after handing over its remaining tanks and artillery to the Frundsberg Division, the division was to be transported by rail to Germany for a complete replenishment.
However, on 17 September 1944, just when the division was already loaded up except a reinforced alarm battalion, the allied operation ‘Market-Garden’ took place in Holland. This assault consisted of the ground offensive ‘Market’ by units of the British 2nd Army and 1st US Army and the air landing ‘Garden’ of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, with the aim of securing the bridges over the Waal near Nijmegen and over the Lower Rhine near Arnhem.
If the Germans were surprised by the Allied air landing, the Allies were equally surprised to have jumped off into two Waffen SS tank divisions. Even in their depleted condition, they were still a strong opponent against the lightly armed airborne troops.
The vehicles of the Hohenstaufen Division were hectically unloaded from the railway wagons and the other elements were retrieved. Most of the remaining soldiers of the division were combined into the Kampfgruppe Harzer (Combat Group), which was led by SS-Standartenführer Walter Harzer.
Around 9,000 British paratroopers had landed in the area around Wolfheze, which was about 7 miles (ca. 11 km) west of Arnhem on the northern bank of the river. The paratroopers who made the advance to occupy the northern end of the bridge were about 700 men strong and from the 2nd and 3rd British Paratroopers Battalions.
They made another attempt to cross the bridge, but fierce German fire forced the paratroopers to concentrate on consolidating their positions at the northern end of the bridge and waiting for reinforcements. Thus, the southern end of the bridge remained in German hands.
General Bittrich’s orders to the soldiers of the 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen were to occupy and hold the place and the bridge and to stop any advance of further British paratroopers from the west to Arnhem.
During the Battle of Arnhem the division troops were divided into further, smaller battle groups, which were used as blocking forces. Some parts, however, swarmed from Arnhem to Neerpelt in the southwest. In addition, the experienced Waffen SS men were reinforced with soldiers from other commandos, some of whom were still under training or even from the German Kriegsmarine.
While the masses of the British 1st Airborne Division tried to fight their way along the northern bank from their jump-off zone to Arnhem and to the bridge, the German resistance brought them to a halt at Oosterbeek, just outside the town.
The original plan was that the airborne troops would only hold the bridge for a day or two before the ground forces made their way from the south to their relief. The advance of the British XXX Corps, led by the Guard Armored Division and the 43rd Wessex Division, through a narrow corridor. Thus, the only light armed British airborne troops came under increasing pressure of the soldiers of the Waffen-SS.
In the following days Model constantly sent reinforcements to the German troops who had surrounded the British paratroopers. Despite desperate fights, the British positions around Oosterbeck and at the bridge in Arnhem itself were constantly compressed.
The British forces at the bridge finally surrendered on 21 September 1944. At the intervention of the medical officer of the Hohenstaufen Division, SS-Sturmbannführer Egon Skalka, an armistice was organized on 24 September, allowing 700 wounded British paratroopers to be evacuated from the combat zone. The next day another 500 wounded British were handed over to the Germans.
The German soldiers were impressed by the courage and tenacity of the British airborne troops and the British survivors later reported that their treatment by the Waffen-SS men was more than correct, even ‘friendly’.
The arrival of the heavy Panzer Abteilung 503 of the army with King Tiger tanks finally destroyed every hope of the allied relief troops to still be able to fight their way to the trapped ones.
Therefore, on September 25, 1944, the order was issued to the still fighting survivors of the British 1st Airborne Division to retreat. Those who were able to cross the Rhine in assault boats of British and Canadian engineers were evacuated until the next day.
The British landed about 9,000 airborne troops at Arnhem and later another 3,000 Polish paratroopers to support them. It is estimated that about 8,000 of these 12,000 men were either killed or captured. German losses, on the other hand, amounted to just over 3,000 men.
Finally, the 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen could be transported to Germany on 30 September as planned for a longer recovery, refreshment and re-equipment. SS-Standartenführer Harzer was awarded the Knight’s Cross in recognition of the performance of his troops. This was only one of the twelve Knight’s Crosses awarded to members of the Division during the Second World War.
Battle of the Bulge
For the next operation, in which the 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen was to take part, it was refreshed again to almost 20,000 men. But not all the new soldiers were of impressive quality, as this included a large proportion of Luftwaffe personnel. The division was also miserably short of tanks, vehicles and equipment and some of its units reported a shortage of up to 50 percent.
Nevertheless, the division was transferred to the Eiffel on 12 December and prepared for the unfortunate Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge). The Hohenstaufen Division became part of the 6th SS-Panzer Army, together with the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte-SS-Adolf Hitler, the 2nd SS-Panzer-Division Das Reich and the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth. They were all under the command of SS-Obergruppenführer ‘Sepp’ Dietrich.
The task of the SS tank army was to advance along the northern flank of the offensive as far as Antwerp. The city was the decisive Allied supply port.
The Hohenstaufen Division reached Blankenheim at the beginning of the offensive on 16 December 1944 and received the order to deploy only on the afternoon of 19 December as element of the II SS-Panzer Corps together with the 2nd SS-Panzer-Division Das Reich.
The 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen was forced to advance four whole days over completely blocked advance roads, before it reached the front line.
Advancing to Poteau on the right flank of ‘The Reich’, she saw the first heavy battles as her soldiers ran into units of the 82nd US Airborne Division, which brought the Hohenstaufen Division to a halt at Bra.
So the division turned south and attacked Grand Lalleux and pursued the Americans as they withdrew from their salient at St Vith.
On December 22 the US troops managed to cross a bridge over the Salm River at Vielsalm and then partially destroy it in order to prevent the soldiers of Hohenstaufen from further persecution.
Only on December 24 was the division finally able to cross the Salm and marched towards Vaux-Chavanne, where it was involved in further heavy fighting.
On January 3, 1945, the Hohenstaufen Division attacked Rastadt to force the American defenders of Bastogne back into a smaller pocket. At the side of the 1st and 12th SS-Panzer-Divisions, the 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen also made good progress at the beginning. But in the meantime all German units were so weakened that they could no longer exploit such breakthroughs due to lack of strength, ammunition and fuel.
So the Hohenstaufen Division had to retreat step by step towards Dochamps-Lon and fight several retreat actions around Salmchateau.
By the end of December 1944, the Hohenstaufen Division had only 30 tanks left ready for action and some of its Panzergrenadier battalions were hardly a company strong.
When the Ardennes offensive finally disintegrated, Hitler ordered the withdrawal of his elite formations from the Waffen-SS. These were intended for his next, equally insane plan, a counteroffensive on the Eastern Front.
The 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen was finally pulled out of the front line on 24 January 1945.
After a short recovery, the division was moved to Hungary at the beginning of March 1945. It was placed under the command of the II SS-Panzer Corps of Dietrich’s 6th SS-Panzer Army, which was to take part in the ‘Frühlingserwachen’ (spring awakening) operation. This counteroffensive at Lake Balaton was aimed at recovering Budapest and the important oil fields lost to the Red Army the previous month.
Up to this point, the personnel losses of the Hohenstaufen Division had been largely compensated – at least in terms of the number, because the draftees now even included Ukrainians who did not even speak German. Nevertheless, the division had still not received enough tanks and artillery.
The spring dew weather, however, came early in 1945 and the soil was a muddy swamp area. When planning the operation, however, it was still assumed that the ground for the tanks would be frozen as hard as iron.
As the planned date for the offensive approached, Hitler’s paranoia that the Soviets would recognize his plans increased, and he forbade reconnaissance patrols to be sent out so that the enemy would not be forewarned. He also forbade to bring large numbers of vehicles to the front. For this reason, numerous soldiers and vehicles had to march up to 11 miles (18 kilometers) through marshy terrain before reaching their starting positions.
The soldiers were therefore already frozen, wet and exhausted before the battle even began. Everything was in vain, because the Soviet intelligence had recognized the German intentions long before the start of the offensive on 6 March.
Virtually right from the start, the German advance remained stuck in the deep ground of the spring dew weather, which began much too early. At the same time, the equipment, troop command and professionalism of the Red Army had improved considerably since the Operation Barbarossa of June 1941, and the Waffen-SS soldiers struggled to advance against a very strong and determined opponent.
The Soviets, for their part, opened a massive counteroffensive on 16 March, and in less than a week the German front in Hungary was torn open, with the Red Army penetrating gaps as wide as 60 miles (100 kilometres).
Leaving behind hundreds of tanks and vehicles that had got stuck in the mud, the German troops had to retreat as far as Austria and to the gates of Vienna.
During this offensive, an incident occurred that led to the break in the loyalty of many Waffen-SS soldiers. On his way to the headquarters of the 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen, General Hermann Balck, commander of the 6th Army, discovered fleeing soldiers of the Waffen-SS.
Arriving at headquarters, he furiously attacked SS-Brigadeführer Stadler for the alleged cowardice of his men. The division commander, however, convinced Balck that the soldiers he had seen could by no means be from the Hohenstaufen division.
This led to Balck now simply blaming the 1st SS-Panzer-Division Leibstandarte-SS-Adolf Hitler. These rumors then also reached Hitler via the commander of the Army Group South, General Wöhler, who reported full of gloating that the Waffen-SS was no longer reliable. In one of his foreseeable dreaded outbursts of rage, Hitler now demanded that the elite unit bearing his name be forced to discard its unmistakable cuff tapes.
There was now a rumor that Hitler subsequently received back a fire clay pot filled with the hard-fought awards of these Waffen-SS soldiers, which was tied with a cuff band of the 17th SS Grenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen. Although there is no evidence of this, it shows how angry the offended Waffen-SS soldiers were when they told such stories.
In the meantime the 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen had practically ceased to exist as a closed unit. There were only a number of smaller, scattered battle groups left, which led rearguard battles during their slow retreat into Austria.
Surprisingly, after being beaten in pieces during the catastrophic spring offensive at Lake Balaton, the division had received sufficient replacement at the end of April to almost regain its TOE strength. However, the new soldiers were practically without sufficient training, including 17-year-olds who had just left school.
Although Hitler had taken his own life on April 30, 1945, and Berlin surrendered on May 2, the refreshed division was at that time in new positions on the Elbe to prevent American troops from advancing eastwards.
However, the Elbe was also the agreed demarcation line between Soviet troops advancing from the East and Americans coming from the West. It is therefore not surprising that the commander of the Hohenstaufen Division was anxious to bring his men to the west bank before the weapons were silent. Because their future in Soviet hands would be more than black.
That is why contact was carefully made with the approaching Americans. On 7 May 1945 the capitulation to the Western powers was signed, in which it was stipulated that only German units standing west of the demarcation line on 8 May could be taken into American or British captivity. All others who crossed this line later were to be handed back to the Soviets.
SS-Brigadeführer Stadler was determined that his men would go into captivity as a disciplined unit. After Stadler reported to American headquarters, his Waffen-SS soldiers marched in parade formation in front of the astonished American soldiers who had expected despondent and dirty prisoners who would only be too happy that the war was over.
The remains of the battle groups in Austria went into American captivity on May 8, 1945 near Linz.
Together with its sister unit, the 10th SS-Panzer-Division Frundsberg, the 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen also proved to be a first-class combat unit.