Ginkel Heath – Propaganda and Reality in MARKET-GARDEN
During the afternoon of September 18th, 1944—day two of Operation Market-Garden, the Allied airborne attempt to seize bridges at Arnhem, Holland—a cameraman of Propaganda Kompanie Benchter runs for cover in the woods adjoining SS-Captain Helle’s battalion headquarters. From his position, overlooking Ginkel Heath—Drop-Zone Y for the incoming Allied paratroopers—he films the hotly contested landing of the British 4th Parachute Brigade.
That unexpected air-landing and a perfectly timed counterattack by the 7th Kings Own Scottish Borderers during the engagement proved a serious setback to the German effort to destroy the Allies’ attempt to establish a bridgehead north of the Rhine Rive. This, however, is not what the German propaganda department wanted Herrenvolk on the homefront to believe …
The German Propaganda department used images shot by the aforementioned cameraman quite extensively in their weekly newsreel from the front, Die Deutsche Wochenschau.
It is interesting to see how events around the cameraman unfold, and how the images he shot were used to create a fictional interpretation of the Arnhem battle. The scenes in this particular newsreel were very rare this late in the war: German units in action, Allied planes burning and crash-landing, and paratroopers descending amidst German tracers and bursts of shrapnel.
These may have been the first pictures of success that could be used by the German propaganda department following the disaster in Normandy and the headlong retreat to the border of the Reich. It’s no surprise, therefore, this footage was fully exploited in order to keep up the sagging German morale. A narrator described the hotly contested Allied landings in the Arnhem region by saying, “hundreds of paratroopers are killed before they reach the ground” and “thousands have been killed near the landing zones.” This interpretation of events is, however, in stark contrast with what really happened at Ginkel Heath.
So, what do we really see in this newsreel?
First of all, what we witness are not the initial landings on September 17th but those of the second wave on the 18th. The drop-zone (DZ) was under direct fire, but the Germans did not control the entire perimeter as suggested by the narrator. Brigadier John W. Hackett’s 4th Parachute Brigade, numbering 2.000, jumped into a hail of fire and suffered considerable casualties, but again, not as crippling as suggested. Neither was the battle for Ginkel Heath a victory for the Germans; it was in fact, almost a disaster. In short, everything about the narrator’s story is wrong.
After the initial landings in the afternoon of September 17th a division-sized Kampfgruppen, Division von Tettau, was scraped together from the units stationed west of Arnhem. Their mission was to contain the threat and close the drop zones (DZs) and landing zones (LZs). At dawn the next day six battalions—SS-guard, SS-training, Luftwaffe, Kreigsmarine and Wehrmacht units—advanced from Wageningen in the direction of Oosterbeek and Arnhem beyond. After initial failure, the DZ at Ginkel Heath was re-captured and those to the south threatened, with the British troops pushed back over a five-mile front. By early afternoon most of Ginkel Heath, rather flat and completely open terrain surrounded by woods to the south and west, had been cleared. SS-Wachbattalion III Nordwest, commanded by SS-Captain Helle, formed up to chase the 7th Kings Own Scottish Borderers (7 KOSB) from the eastern treeline and their last foothold on the heath. In the midst of these preparations, at 1500 hours, a buzzing sound filled the sky: the aerial armada bringing in the second wave of Major General Robert Urquhart’s 1st Airborne Division was approaching. This was the signal the British on the ground had been waiting for. As the German cameraman ran and Helle’s Nordwest SS-battalion watched in awe, the 7 KOSB attacked to sweep clean Drop-Zone Y just prior to the landing.
SS-Wachbattalion III Nordwest was a small unit of six guard companies and one heavy-weapons platoon, 400–600 strong. It had been formed in 1942 to guard the concentration camps spread throughout Holland and was composed of collaborating Dutch volunteers wishing to avoid the Arbeiteinsatz (forced labor), along with Ukrainians and recuperating German wounded. Even by the low standards of the garrison of Holland, the members of the battalion were physically unfit and lacked the training, equipment and morale necessary for front-line duty. Nevertheless, on the 17th, they had been close to the drop-zones west of Arnhem and thus formed a part of Division von Tettau. Their initial actions showed their lack of training as they attacked down a road in column, suffering heavy casualties. A subsequent concerted attack with neighboring units in the early afternoon had more success and swept the 7 KOSB from Ginkel Heath, though suffering heavy casualties yet again. It was these six bloodied companies that now found themselves seriously outnumbered and assailed from the front and from the sky.
Victory turns into Defeat
As the Propaganda Kompanies‘ cameraman was filming the action Batallion Nordwest fell apart. Most companies fled right away. Only two companies (3rd and 4th) and Hauptscharfuhrer (Sergeant-major) Einenkel’s heavy-weapons platoon formed “hedgehogs” and something of a coherent, all-round defense. SS-Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) Paul A. Helle panicked, ran out the back door of his headquarters and fled northwards. Many of his troops did the same and fled or surrendered even before the last of the paratroopers had landed on the heath. The cameraman had a good view of the Dakota transport planes overhead, some of which had been hit by flak, and the subsequent descent of the paratroopers. Even though it was not as murderous as Die Deutsche Wochenschau wished those watching its newsreel to believe, for the paratroopers it still must have been hell to descend into the small-arms fire of 3rd and 4th company intermixed with 20mm flak and mortar and machine-gun fire from the heavy-weapons platoon.
Leonard Derek Moss, 4th Parachute Brigade, remembered his jump into this cauldron of fire:
Bullets whizzed past from the ground and anti-aircraft shells continued to explode all around. The ground was rushing upwards quickly. 400 feet … It was chaos below. Men ran all over the place avoiding enemy fire. Mortar shells exploded throwing up clouds of smoke and dirt while fires burned out of control … Paratroopers were landing all around. It was chaos as heavy machine gun fire raked the area from concealed German positions in the woods. Men were being hit, wounded, killed. Gunfire exploded nearby, ripping into the ground, throwing up puffs of dirt. The air was alive with flying lead.
Trying to fight off attacks from all sides, the remnants of Nordwest‘s 3rd and 4th company and Einekel’s platoon gave up their position and attempted a haphazard fighting withdrawal to the north. The cameraman must have joined them after he had shot several minutes of footage—showing much more courage then most soldiers of SS-Battalion Nordwest had shown. He managed to capture unique material, and a full minute of his footage was used in that week’s Wochenschau to show those at home images of German soldiers fighting valorously, tenaciously—and victoriously, something far from the reality of what was actually happening during the time the cameraman was filming.
It was all over in a matter of minutes. Had the 7th KOSB not counterattacked as the second wave of paratroopers arrived, the German propaganda might well have been right. General Hackett thanked the 7 KOSB “for getting the paratroopers such a good landing.” Still, during the landing, the 4th Parachute brigade lost over 200 soldiers, 10% of its strength.
The 7 KOSB and 4th Parachute Brigade never reached their intended target, the Arnhem bridges, and were pushed back into the Oosterbeek perimeter along with most of the 1st British Airborne Division. Relief would come too late and most of them had to surrender.
SS-Wachbatallion Nordwest had ceased to be an effective unit, losing over half its number, either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Helle’s adjutant: SS-Untersturmführer Albert Naumann, gathered what was left. Incorporated into an experienced SS-regiment, the battalion suffered heavy casualties yet again on the 22nd and was subsequently withdrawn from combat.
The battle for Ginkel Heath had only been a side note to the much larger spectacle at Oosterbeek and Arnhem, but a minute of historic footage remains to remind us of this bloody fight—which was not what the German propaganda purported it to be.
Click here to view a BBC animated map of the battle for Arnhem.
About the Author:
"Singleton Mosby" is the pseudonym of Mark Spierenburg, author of The Art of Armchair Warfare blog. He is a gamer, writer, wine lover and classic car enthusiast but perhaps foremost an amateur historian. His main fields of interest are the American Civil War and the Napleonic era, as well as near-Eastern and Mughal history. At college he spent more time reading history books than paying attention in class and, thus, soon left school on an uncertain path. He now works at the office during the day and plays and writes about historical wargames at night. A glass of great wine, fireplace blazing and Napoleon looking down. Life is a bliss.