18 John Frostbrug

The John Frostbrug (John Frost Bridge) is probably the best-known place on the Freedom Trail Arnhem. Named after the commander of the British 2nd Parachute Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel John Dutton Frost (1912-1993), it keeps alive the memory of the Battle of Arnhem.
There have been many allied versions of the fighting for the Rhine Bridge, so this article intends to emphasise the German viewpoint, with occasional contributions from Dutch and British sources.
During the period 1940-1945 the river crossing was destroyed twice (or perhaps we should actually say three times) by hostilities. On 9 May 1950 a new bridge was opened. It was built to the original design and rests on the old foundations.

A monumental bridge

The memory of the September days of 1944 is kept alive with a plaque, a memorial and two name-boards. The name-board with the Pegasus emblem of the 1st British Airborne Division was unveiled on 16 September 1978 by - the then retired - Major General Frost in the presence of his wife, burgomaster Hans Roelen (and various other dignitaries), inhabitants and British veterans.
On the same day the general unveiled a brass plaque on one of the small houses on the west side of the northern ramp. The plaque was inscribed:


A day later John Frost was also able to unveil a memorial bearing text written by poet Jan H. de Groot (1901-1990):

In March 2001 the John Frostbrug was officially recognised as a municipal monument. [1] In the run-up to the 60th commemoration of the Battle of Arnhem the bridge underwent a comprehensive programme of refurbishment. The railings were painted Bordeaux red, redolent of the maroon-red of the Pegasus emblem, and the other parts of the bridge were also given a fresh coat of paint.

Kampfgruppe (Battle group) Sonnenstuhl

On Sunday morning 17 September 1944, SS-Sturmbannführer Hans-Georg Sonnenstuhl, commander of SS-Panzer Artillerie Regiment 10 from 10. SS-Panzer Division “Frundsberg”, was on his way from North Brabant to his regiment’s new camp in Zutphen with a small group of staff officers and men. When they reached the Maas-Waalkanaal west of Nijmegen his vehicles were attacked by allied fighter-bombers. None of the vehicles was hit and Sonnenstuhl gave the order to proceed towards Arnhem:

“We crossed Arnhem Bridge at about 13.00 hours. Everything was quiet in the city; nothing suspicious to be seen. Truly, a city on a Sunday afternoon. I had hardly arrived at my command post in Zutphen when an urgent message from the divisional staff came in on the radio. The division’s chief-of-staff, SS-Hauptsturmbannführer Büthe, was on the line and gave me the following message:

‘Enemy parachutists have landed in Arnhem, and the commander is still in Berlin at the headquarters of the SS. SS-Obersturmbannführer Paetsch (deputy division commander) cannot be reached anywhere. Therefore, as highest-ranking officer, you must take command of our Arnhem defence area. Centres of attention are especially the Rhine bridges. Alarm units are already on the way and I shall be sending you still more reinforcements.’

(…..) As far as manpower was concerned I had just two alarm companies at my disposal [improvised units to be used in the event of an allied attack]. One of these was the crew of a light battery that had already been sent as infantry to “Sperrverband Heinke” (Blocking Line Heinke) [in the south of the Netherlands]. All I could assemble were 65 NCOs and men and three officers, with only light weaponry – no machineguns!” [2]

The British advance

Meanwhile Lieutenant Colonel John D. Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion was on the way to the road bridge via Utrechtseweg, Benedendorpsweg, Klingelbeekseweg, Onderlangs and Rijnkade. ‘A’ Company led the way and at approximately nine o’ clock in the evening reached the target. The first attempt to cross the bridge to the south bank was beaten back by an armoured vehicle with a 20 mm quick-firing gun and machine-gunners from SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteiling 9, the reconnaissance unit of 9. SS-Panzer-Division “Hohenstaufen”, which had been sent to Nijmegen that afternoon. [3]`
A new attempt by another parachute platoon under Lieutenant Andy McDermont also failed. The fire from a flamethrower operated by a two-man sapper team accidentally hit a wooden ammunition store next to one of the two bunkers on the bridge. The explosion that ensued set fire to the paint on the bridge steelwork.
Colonel Frost sent an engineer officer back along Rijnkade to look for boats which might possibly be used to ferry a platoon across the river. At that moment that was all he could spare because his ‘B’ Company had been held up on the western outskirts of Arnhem, and ‘C’ Company was advancing along Utrechtseweg towards the Ortskommandantur (see point 5).
The only reinforcement to arrive that evening and night were 1st Parachute Brigade HQ, ‘C’ Company of the 3rd Parachute Battalion (see also point 36) and a few support units such as a re-supply platoon. At 23.30 Frost had approximately 680 officers and men under command. Others had been taken prisoner near Lauwersgracht and in Koningstraat (see point 29 Lauwersgracht and point 24 Duivelshuis, plus others). Next morning an additional 30 men of the 9th Airborne Field Company, Royal Engineers, arrived at the bridge as well as the majority of ‘B’ Company. By 8 am Monday morning there were some 725 officers and men at the bridge. There were to be no more additions.

The first German reactions

The British airborne landings on Sunday came as a complete surprise to the Germans. To the north-east of Arnhem was the depleted II. SS-Panzer Korps of SS-Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich, which had suffered heavy losses in Normandy and Northern France. Small so-called battle groups were hastily put together from infantrymen, artillery units and a few tanks stationed in North Brabant and elsewhere. Of the two divisions in the corps, 10. SS-Panzer-Division “Frundsberg” was worst off. Its commander, Brigadeführer Heinz Harmel, was in Berlin asking for reinforcements and equipment for his division. His place as division commander was temporarily filled by his chief-of-staff, SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Paetsch. The number of officers and men was very small due to the heavy losses suffered in France. Some companies were even under the temporary leadership of NCOs or Privates First Class. [4]
9. SS-Panzer-Division “Hohenstaufen” was in better shape, seeing that its SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 9, was up to strength with forty armoured vehicles. SS-Obersturmbannführer Walter Harzer, the deputy division commander, had indeed handed virtually all his heavy equipment over to SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl-Heinz Euling’s 1. Bataillon of the SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 19, but, against Bittrich’s orders, had held back the reconnaissance unit. Thus, the first German counter-attack was carried out by units of 10. SS-Panzer-Division “Frundsberg” – because of having the most armoured vehicles and tanks. Meanwhile, Obergruppenführer Bittrich assembled all other reserves he could find, intending to send them to Arnhem as quickly as possible. Therefore, the Frundsberg division was given the task of opposing the British parachutists until reinforcements arrived.
1. Kompanie of SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 10, commanded by SS-Obersturmführer Karl Ziebrecht reached the bridge from the Westervoortsedijk direction shortly after the first British attack. His armoured vehicles were fired at as they tried to drive up Nijmeegseweg. Not knowing the enemy strength, Ziebrecht pulled his unit back. He reported by radio that the British had reached the bridge. [5]
At about midnight a second German counter-attack took place from the direction of the boulevards. SS-Sturmbannführer Sonnenstuhl and his small provisional group had arrived in Arnhem earlier that evening and marched in file along both sides of the boulevards, eventually reaching the beginning of Nijmeegseweg. Near Willemsplein the commander had received some reinforcements, including a platoon from the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a para-military department of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, German National Socialist Labour Party). Over the coming days these units would be referred to as “Kampfgruppe Sonnenstuhl”. He himself recalls the advance to the bridge:

“Then, having advanced so far without enemy resistance, I thought it was now just a simple sprint to the bridge, still approximately 300 metres ahead of us. But we were hardly half way when we were blasted from both sides. The bridge ramp was occupied! The old fighting spirit flared up and every (….) figure was given a lively ‘greeting.’ As we learnt later from the prisoners we interrogated, the enemy had been greatly surprised: “Waffen-SS”.

At night (…..) all we could do was quietly take up positions and close off all access roads. Next day at first light we went further. (…..) Despite their superior numbers (which we now knew) the enemy still did not attack us on that Monday morning. [6] Nevertheless, we had to find a way to stop him shooting at us from the upper floors of the buildings and the roofs.” [7]

A third German attack, from the east this time, began at about 1 am. This involved Kampfgruppe Reinhold, a scratch group led by SS-Sturmbannführer Leo H. Reinhold. The most formidable unit at his disposal was a part of 10. SS-Panzer-Division “Frundsberg” - the 1st Battalion SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 22 of SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl-Heinz Euling. This unit amounted to approximately 200 officers and men. At the corner of Badhuisstraat and Nieuwe Kade it was held up by a platoon from ‘C’ Company, 3rd Parachute Battalion (see also point 36). Other units of Kampfgruppe Reinhold became bogged down at Westervoortsedijk and by the Van Limburg Stirumschool.

Monday 18 September

Early in the morning Sturmbannführer Sonnenstuhl had set up an improvised command post in a corner house, probably in Velperweg or Steenstraat. He was totally unaware of any other German presence around the bridge until he received a visit:

“At 10 am the commander of SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 10, SS-Obersturmbannführer Brinkmann, suddenly appeared at my battle post, having come via small pathways and over garden walls. He informed me that my left flank (east side) was now linked down as far as the bank of the Rhine. However, he had been given a new attack policy from II. SS-Panzer Korps. He was to be deployed on the other side of the Rhine. His battle group would be relieved by SS panzer grenadiers during the day. SS-Obersturmbannführer Brinkmann and I said our farewells and that was the last I saw of him that week at Arnhem bridge.” [8]

Sonnenstuhl possibly made a mistake when he wrote his account. As far as is known Brinkmann remained on the east side of the northern ramp of the Rhine Bridge in Arnhem and SS-Sturmbannführer Reinhold and his battle group left for Nijmegen via Pannerden. SS-Hauptsturmführer Euling remembers being relieved by Kampfgruppe Knaust, a battle group consisting of Wehrmacht units. [9] Major Hans-Peter Knaust and his ‘press ganged’ unit had travelled through the night from Bocholt to Arnhem.

Brigadeführer Heinz Harmel, commander of 10. SS-Panzer-Division “Frundsberg” had also had a long journey. He was in Berlin when news of the British airborne landings west of Arnhem came in. He left immediately for his headquarters in Ruurlo. He found no-one there, but found out it had been moved to Velp. His deputy SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Paetsch was pleased to see him:

“Paetsch’s first words were: “Thank God, you’re back!”. (…..) He began telling me what had happened and what the orders from SS-Obergruppenführer Bittrich were. I was totally unaware of the situation and its seriousness. I had heard the sounds of battle as we approached Arnhem. I was dog-tired because I had not slept that night and the evening before I could only manage a few cat-naps in the car on the way to Berlin. It was impossible to make a quick assessment of the situation.  Everything was confused and uncertain.

After speaking to Paetsch I spoke to Bittrich by ‘phone. He repeated the orders more or less as I had already been given. I then decided to take a look for myself and left for the centre of Arnhem.

On the way to Arnhem along Velperweg, I stopped off at Sonnenstuhl’s command post where I requested and was given two tanks. I continued on with the two tanks until I reached Velperplein and left one behind there. I went with the other tank along Eusebiusbinnensingel towards the bridge. It had already been blocked with British anti-tank mines and the fighting was intense. I got as close to the bridge as possible. I saw the body of a dead soldier lying there that had not been recovered because it was in the British line of fire. There were many enemy snipers in the cellars and on the roofs of the surrounding houses.

I decided that the only way to deal with them was to use heavy artillery on the houses. There were guns available so I had them positioned in the middle of the wide street [Nijmeegseweg] and gave the order to fire. We began directly under the eaves and fired metre for metre until the houses collapsed. I lay on the ground between two guns and directed the gunfire.

Alas we couldn’t go on for too long because the British had set up a heavy gun in a bunker [a small house on the west side of the northern bridge ramp] and concentrated their fire on our artillery. We had to pull back. [10] I could not remain in Arnhem because my task was to get my men to Nijmegen. I would like to have stayed. For me it was a new kind of battle experience.” [11]

After the war Harmel’s part in the battle was called into question, and in the late nineties this led to a split in the Suchdienst Kameradschaft Frundsberg veterans’ organization into a small group with the same name and the new Truppen Kameradschaft Frundsberg. The latter group had no doubts about Harmel’s performance but the first did, based on reports and accounts from high-ranking officers of 10. SS-Panzer-Division “Frundsberg”, which give an entirely different view of Harmel’s actions.

From Monday afternoon the German forces were divided into two battle groups: Kampfgruppe Knaust in the east (Westervoortsedijk to Nieuwe Kade) and Kampfgruppe Sonnenstuhl to the north (Eusebiusbinnensingel to Eusebiusbuitensingel). The west side was not entirely sealed off due to lack of resources. This had enabled ‘B’ Company of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, minus one platoon, to join Lieutenant Colonel Frost’s force at the bridge during the morning.
That same morning an attack by SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 9 from Elden became stranded on the anti-tank mines that Lieutenant D.M. Douglas’s Assault & Pioneer Platoon had put down on Sunday evening. Corporal Leslie McCreesh, the platoon’s PIAT gunner, was in the Rijkswaterstaat building in Eusebiusbinnensingel and recalls that an anti-tank gun was also used against the armoured vehicles. He himself was operating a PIAT with Corporal Arthur Rattray and knocked out an armoured vehicle. Rattray was killed two days later. [12]
Private Sid Blackmore was also a PIAT gunner with ‘A‘ Company. He tells about the German attack:

“We used everything we had against the Germans on the bridge. A huge amount of ammunition was expended holding them off. As you know, we didn’t get any reinforcements or fresh supplies.” [13]

The failed attack by the German reconnaissance unit was portrayed in the classic 1977 film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. In this sequence the fictitious British character Harry appears, an officer with a black umbrella. The character dies lying next to Lieutenant Colonel Frost in a cellar.

But it is not all fantasy because Major Digby Tatham-Warter, commander of ‘A’ Company, was noticeable during the Battle of Arnhem for the black umbrella he had found somewhere. He carried it as a symbol of recognition, for he had difficulty in remembering passwords. On Monday evening he had to take over command of the 2nd Parachute Battalion from Major David Wallis, the deputy commander. Wallis had been killed by so-called ‘friendly fire’ while making a night-time inspection round. When a sentry called for the required password he apparently had answered too softly.
Lieutenant Colonel Frost had already taken command of all British units around the northern bridge ramp, so Tatham-Warter was made temporary battalion commander. Padre Bernard Egan remembered how the major came up to him during a German mortar attack and escorted him safely to the other side of the road with the words:

“Don’t worry, I’ve got an umbrella.” [14]

The actions of another British officer did not go unnoticed, either. Twenty-six year-old Lieutenant John H. Grayburn commandeered 2 Platoon from Major Tatham-Warter’s ‘A’ Company and led his group in attacks on several occasions. Although wounded in the shoulder in the evening of 17 September he remained with his platoon.

On 19 September the house being defended by Grayburn and his men was set on fire. Throughout the day all enemy attacks had been repelled, but when it became obvious that the fire could not be extinguished the lieutenant ordered his platoon to leave the house. He reorganized his unit and that of the badly-wounded Lieutenant McDermont and took his chequered group to a new position underneath the bridge ramp.
A day later Grayburn and his platoon carried out another small counter-attack in which the enemy was  temporarily driven out from under the bridge pillars, and sappers were able to remove explosive charges that the Germans had placed. He was wounded in the back but refused to go to the aid post. That evening, during a new German tank-supported infantry attack, he stood in full view of the enemy, directing his men to another position. Grayburn was finally killed by tank fire.
Private Sid Blackmore was there when Grayburn died:

“It was a very chaotic situation around the bridge. Day was night and night was day. We had to leave the burning house, Bob Lygo and myself. We got to the steps next to the bridge [Marktstraat, on the west side of the bridge ramp] and when we fired the first grenade from our PIAT, it bounced off the Tiger tank. The tank crew then opened fire with their machinegun and Lieutenant Grayburn was killed. He was posthumously promoted to Captain and awarded the Victoria Cross.

Next thing I remember was waking up in hospital. I had been hit in the legs and head. I had been extremely lucky, but I lost a lot of friends.” [15]

Bullet marks can still be seen on the treads of the steps on the west side of the ramp. A bridge pillar on the east also shows traces of bullet strikes, and on a corner a piece of concrete has been partially shot away. The fact that, despite tank and artillery support, the Germans, too, had a difficult time is made clear when one considers such things as the large number of German dead and the manner in which veterans speak with respect when referring to their former British opponents.

A German victory

Over the following days the Germans received more and more reinforcements. Mortar fire increased and the British ammunition had shrunk to almost nothing. Food supplies were also low and the number of dead and wounded rose because of the increased mortar fire and artillery shelling. A German 88 mm Flak gun to the south of the bridge played a large part in this. With barrel depressed it fired shell after shell into the houses on the west side of the bridge; those defended by ‘B’ Company.
“Arnhem, panorama from the Big Tower” is written on the back of this photo. The Eusebiuskerk was regularly used as a vantage point by photographers, and this image gives an excellent picture of the situation between the church and the road bridge. Unfortunately, when the shot was taken and by whom is not given, but the photo probably dates from the late nineteen-thirties.
Mrs E.C. Bitter-van Dijk, 19 at the time, lived in number 3 Marktstraat, halfway between the Rijksarchief (State Archive) and battalion headquarters of the 2nd Parachute Battalion in Dr. Van Niekerk’s house. She wrote about the fighting on Monday and Tuesday:

“Towards evening the Germans appeared and our house was hit by a shell. There was not much sleep that night because the Germans were also shooting from the south bank of the Rhine. We saw that the small wooden sheds on the bridge ramp had been set on fire. Living on the first floor became too dangerous so we moved down to the ground floor where there was a ‘church room’.

By early morning of 19 September the Germans had penetrated as far as the Markt and we saw a German officer ensconced in a line 2 tram. We heard the Germans yelling their orders. The British succeeded in driving the Germans out. They fired from the cellars of the surrounding buildings. The Germans nevertheless returned and began setting fire to the houses.

Our situation had worsened, not least because our house had already been hit by six shells. We stayed in the rear of the house where it was still more or less safe. Even more buildings caught fire. A shell had hit the attic: it appeared to have been a dud!  Meanwhile a sea of fire was approaching our house. What next? Flee for our lives?

From our house we could see the dead and wounded lying in the street, the wounded calling for help. We decided to flee anyway because our house was now on fire. We shouted ‘fire, fire’, trying to attract the attention of the British soldiers opposite us who were shooting. The gunfire stopped for a second and we crept along a wall away from our house in single file, preceded by a British parachutist. We found refuge in the Rijkswaterstaat building in Eusebiusbinnensingel.

The cellars of the building were full of wounded British soldiers. The caretaker was still living there and there were other ‘refugee’ Arnhemmers present.” [16]

The German strategy was simple but effective. They first set up their units around the British positions at the bridge. At the same time they carried out attacks from the east, starting already in the evening of 17 September and continued the following night. Firstly, in order to prevent a British breakout, the houses in Walburgisplein and the Paleis van Justitie (Palace of Justice) on the Markt were set on fire.

This strategy was extended on 19 and 20 September. The resolute actions of the Arnhem fire service from the Beekstraat fire station thwarted the German plans so the firemen were sent away. On Wednesday afternoon a small group was allowed to fight a fire in the inner city, but not St. Eusebiuskerk, because the British parachutists had now been driven to the west side of the bridge ramp and the houses on the east side had been captured. The Germans were afraid the enemy would escape to the Markt and so machineguns and artillery pieces were positioned there.
A cease-fire was arranged on Wednesday evening so that the British wounded could be evacuated from the burning Rijkswaterstaat building. At 7.45 pm two young Dutchmen, Klaas Deerman and Lambert van Essen, 17 and 19 respectively, were shot dead in Eusebiusbinnensingel, i.e. killed during the short cease-fire. [17] For a long time it was assumed they had been killed because they had given signals to the British parachutists. It is much more likely that they were murdered for aiding the British wounded, just as the five Dutchmen were murdered in Bakkerstraat on Monday evening (see point 28).
The last message sent by the British radio-telegraphist from the bridge that night was: “Out of ammunition. God save the King”. German tanks then began rolling across the bridge heading south in order to halt the advance of British 30 Corps. In the afternoon of 21 September the remaining group of British defenders was forced to give up the fight: the men were simply out of ammunition, surrounded, and exhausted.
The destruction of the Rhine Bridge

On 7 October 1944 American B-26 Marauders from the 344th Bomb Group attacked the bridge to deny the Germans its use, thus preventing them from reinforcing their troops in the Betuwe. The bombing did not cause total destruction. Although vehicles were unable to use it, it was indeed possible to fit an emergency bridge to the collapsed sections.

The remains of the bridge were blown up in January 1945, this time by the Germans for fear of an allied offensive, which did not actually begin until April. In the spring of 1945, after the city had been liberated by the British 49th “Polar Bears” Infantry Division and units of a Canadian armoured division, Canadian sappers constructed a double Bailey bridge on Nieuwe Kade, east of the destroyed Rhine Bridge. On 8 June that year they were opened in the presence of the burgomaster Chris Matser and the Canadian Generals Charles Foulkes and Guy Simmonds, after whom the bridges were named. [18] Eventually the Rhine Bridge was rebuilt for the second time (the river crossing had already been blown up in May 1940) and was completed in 1950.
In 1945, acting head of the Arnhem Luchtbeschermingsdienst (Air Defence Service), B. van Brussel, wrote this about the recovery of the many war victims around the bridge:
“More than once various people came to the office saying there must be bodies in their gardens because of the vile, all-pervading smell. And that was true, but in these cases the smell came from British or German latrines, not decomposing bodies. The completely charred corpse of a British soldier was found during rubble-clearance at the Rijkswaterstaat building. It turned out that there were even more under the rubble, nine in all. Remains or completely decomposed bodies are found daily in the ruins of the surrounding buildings.” [19]



[1] Jos Diender, Mo(nu)menten van Stilte. Exhibition catalogue of the so-named exhibition in 2004.
[2] Hans-Georg Sonnenstuhl, Bericht H.G. Sonnenstuhl, SS-Stubaf.Rgt.Kdr.SS-Pz.Art.Rgt.10 “Frundsberg”, Die Hellebarde (1998), No. 18, 104.
[3] Marcel Zwarts, ‘SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 9 and the Arnhem road bridge’, Ministory No. 78, in Newsletter No. 90  of the Society of Friends of the Airborne Museum (June 2003), page 2.
[4] Telephone conversation between Frank van Lunteren and Horst Weber, veteran of SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 21, Monday 9 July 2007.
Zwarts, ‘SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 9 and the Arnhem road bridge’, 3.
[6] Sonnenstuhl, Bericht H.G. Sonnenstuhl, SS-Stubaf.Rgt.Kdr.SS-Pz.Art.Rgt.10 “Frundsberg”, 105.
[7] Ditto.
[8] Ditto.
Letter from Karl-Heinz Euling to Frank van Lunteren, 5 May 2007.
This was probably just a 6-pounder anti-tank gun. The British parachutists at the bridge had only four such guns.
Interview with General Harmel – November 2 and 22, December 1967, p.p. 4-5. Gelders Archive, L.P.J. Vroemen collection, 2867, file 31. Originally from the Cornelius Ryan Collection, Vernon R. Aldan Library, Ohio.
E-mail from Leslie McCreesh to Frank van Lunteren, 16 May 2007.
Telephone conversation between Frank van Lunteren and Sid G.S. Blackmore, 7 May 2007.
Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far (New York, 1974), 436.
Telephone conversation between Frank van Lunteren and Sid Blackmore.
Letter sent in by Mrs E.C. Bitter-van Dijk to the Arnhemse Courant of Friday 23 September 1994.
Death certificates of Klaas Deerman and Lambert van Essen. Gelders Archive, Arnhem register of births, marriages and deaths.
[18] J. Vredenberg, Wederopbouw. Stedenbouw en architectuur in Arnhem 1945-1965 (Arnhem, 2004), 11-12.
[19] B. van Brussel’s ac
count (December 1945), 10. Gelders Archive, Documentation collection Second World War, inventory number 4.