By Lieutenant Colonel James T. McGhee*
“I swear to you, Adolf Hitler, as Fuhrer and Reichschancellor, loyalty and bravery. I vow to you, and those you have named to command me, obedience unto death, so help me God.”
This oath, taken by each member of the Waffen SS, summarized their unflinching obedience to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. Although rightly condemned as a criminal organization following the Military Tribunal at Nuremburg, the Waffen SS, more specifically its Panzer Divisions, also ranked as among the most effective of any German military formations. These divisions included the 1st SS Panzer Division “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler”, 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”, 3rd SS Panzer Division “Totenkopf ”, 5th SS Panzer Division “Wiking”, 9. SS-Panzer Division “Hohenstaufen”, 10. SS-Panzer Division “Frundsberg”, and the 12. SS -Panzer Division “Hitlerjugend”.
Each of the SS panzer divisions listed above displayed the attributes associated with those of elite organizations. Though listed among the elites, the performance of 9th SS Hohenstaufen is less publicized than most of the other SS Panzer Divisions despite its participation in some of the most significant battles of World War II. Why does Hohenstaufen reside in the shadow of the other divisions, and does it deserve the title of an “elite”?
The answer to the first question is complex and there are likely a number of reasons why Hohenstaufen is often forgotten. First, Hohenstaufen arrived late onto the battlefields of Europe, seeing its first action in the spring of 1944. Second, none of the most notable or infamous Waffen SS personalities (including Michael Wittmann, Ernst Barkmann, Jochen Peiper, and Kurt ‘Panzer’ Meyer) about which many histories have been written, were members of the Hohenstaufen. The division’s history also lacks well publicized atrocities – such as the war crimes commonly committed by many of the SS divisions including; the 1st SS Leibstandarte’sties to the Malmedy Massacre, the 2nd SS Das Reich’s massacre of French civilians, and the 3rd SS Totenkopf’s murder of English prisoner’s of war at Le Paradis and their direct ties to the concentration camps. Finally, the Hohenstaufen never developed the fanatical reputation among scholars as those who carried the name of the Fuhrer on their coveted cuff titles, as did the 12th SS Hitlerjungend (Hitler Youth) and the 1st SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler.
To answer the second question regarding whether Hohenstaufen deserves to be considered an elite unit, one must first define what attributes are commonly associated with the elite Waffen SS formations. The title of elite often revolved around organizations starting from a base of highly motivated volunteers chosen for their high standards of physical fitness. From there, these soldiers received excellent training, were armed with the most modern military weapons and were led by strong, charismatic leaders. They were aggressive almost to the point of recklessness when conducting an attack and fanatical in the defense. Finally, the elite formations were able to maintain high levels of morale and camaraderie even in the face of defeat. A short history of the organization and combat performance of the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen from its conception in December 1943 to its final battle in April 1945 will show that it displayed such attributes and should be remembered as one of Nazi Germany’s elite combat formations.
In 1943 and as the tide fo the war began to turn against Hitler, with the fall of Stalingrad and the loss of North Africa being of particular significance, he placed a greater demand upon the men of the Waffen SS.  On 31 December 1942, Hitler had agreed to the formation of two additional Waffen SS divisions; the 9th SS Hohenstaufen and the 10th SS Frundsberg. These new formations were to recruit heavily from the 1925-26 year groups, making their core cadre approximately 18 years of age on average. However, the recruitment of volunteers for the new divisions was disappointing. As a result, for the first time, the Waffen SS resorted to large-scale conscription. Between 70 and 80 percent of these youths who met the standards for service with the Waffen SS were conscripted.
As previously stated, one mark of the elites was their ability to attract highly motivated volunteers. This initial conscription would seem to indicate that the Hohenstaufen was not formed as an elite organization. In his book, Hitler’s Elite Guard at War, The Waffen SS, George Stein records that the conscription of these youths was met with anger and as a result of these complaints, the conscripts, according to SS Obergruppenfuhrer Juttner were, “to be kept in training for a month or so and then offered the choice of volunteering or being released from the SS service”. According to Stein the overwhelming majority chose to stay.
One motivating factor for these conscripts to stick it out may have been the veteran leadership cadre of officers and NCO’s gathered to form Hohenstaufen’s core. From the beginning of their training, these leaders impressed upon the recruits that they were members of an elite organization. These NCOs and officers were for the most part veterans who had come from the other Waffen SS divisions. They deliberately fostered a close relationship between themselves and their men. Expected to rise from the ranks, Waffen SS officers, like their peers in the regular German army, often earned the respect and loyalty of their men by leading from the front and never asking them to do anything that they would not do themselves..
From the beginning of 1943 through March 1944, the Hohenstaufen conducted an intensive training program at multiple locations in France. Created primarily as a motorized reserve for the Western Front, the training of the Hohenstaufen included special training to counter airborne landings by paratroops. It was a rigorous training program that emphasized sport, physical fitness, and above all, field craft. SS veteran Friedrich-Karl Wacker remembers,
“Our training was indeed hard, especially in the divisions that were formed later in the war, such as the 9. SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen, 10. SS-Panzer-Division Frundsberg and 12. SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. These were the last divisions that were able to make use of the relative peace in the West for their training, before the D-Day invasion in June 1944. However, it was very intensive. They all received the most up-to-date and modern equipment but, because they were so well equipped, a great deal was expected of them when they went into action.”
At the beginning of November, 1943 the Hohenstaufen was reorganized as a panzer division. With the designation of a full panzer division, the Hohenstaufen received the most mobile and powerful weapons available. In addition to the standard small arms, mortars, flak batteries, towed artillery, and heavy machine guns, they were equipped with Panzer IV’s, formidable Panzer V “Panthers”, half tracked personnel carries called shutzenpanzerwagen (SPW) some armed with anti-tank guns or rockets, and mobile artillery platforms such as the 10.5cm “Wespe” and the 15cm “Hummel”.
Proclaimed ready for combat at the end of March 1944, the 9. SS Hohenstaufen was ordered to the Eastern Front to help restore the front and relieve elements of the German 1st Panzer Army surrounded at Tarnopol. They were motivated, well trained, superbly equipped, and although they lacked combat experience, were led by veteran NCOs and officers who were returning to face an old enemy. 
Nevertheless the realities of the elements and fighting conditions on the German Eastern Front greatly hampered all combatants, regardless of their training. The young soldiers of the Hohenstaufen received their baptism of fire on the Eastern Front. Melting snow and sudden rains turned the roads into a morass, nearly impassable by most wheeled vehicles and extremely difficult for even the tracked SPWs. These road conditions placed a severe stress on both men and machines. A 35-kilometer march could take as long as 14 hours to complete. Though the poor weather helped to slow the Red Army’s march west it had far greater logistical backing to help slog through the mud. For the Germans mobility was everything; particularly for the panzer divisions whose greatest advantages revolved around their mobility.
A second problem facing the division was the piecemeal nature of its deployment. Committed to the relief attack before the entire division arrived at its debarkation station, Hohenstaufen’s component battalions lacked the time to concentrate into effective combined arms battle groups or even conduct proper reconnaissance. Instead the division moved to the front in a haphazard fashion over roads in name only.  The following description of the roads presents the difficulties faced by German and Soviet units fighting in Eastern Europe during the spring thaw of 1944; “The highway consumes the material of the vehicles and gnaws at the strength of the driver. The mud of the spring penetrates every seam and crack, mixes with the oil of the machines, and wears the hinges and bearings.” Ultimately, the disjointed and tardy German attack to relieve the garrison at Tarnopol ended in failure. Only a few of the German 1st Panzer Army’s beleaguered defenders were able to break out of the pocket. The SS grenadiers of the Hohenstaufen had just learned that good training and equipment, experienced leadership and high morale were not enough to ensure victory on Eastern Europe’s battlefields.
During the final days of April 1944, the Hohenstaufen was withdrawn to act as a mobile reserve for Heeresgruppe Nordukraine in anticipation of a renewed Russian offensive. On 6 June 1944, while the Hohenstaufen was refitting in the Ukraine, allied forces began the invasion of Normandy, and opened a second front in the West. Within six days, the Hohenstaufen received new orders and began entraining their equipment for a movement back to France. The order signed by Field Marshall Model somewhat bombastically remarked, “I am certain that you will accomplish your new missions in the spirit of our slogan, ‘No soldier in the world is better than the soldiers of Adolf Hitler!’”
The Hohenstaufen arrived in Normandy with the II SS Panzer Corps and its sister division, the 10. SS Frundsberg on 23 June. Originally, the Corps was to counterattack the British and Americans near Bayeux in order to drive a wedge between the two armies. For this planned counter attack, the Heavy SS Panzer Abteilung 102 arrived to support the II SS Panzer Corps. This unit was armed with the nearly impregnable heavy Panzer VI “Tiger” tanks. The “Tigers” outclassed every Allied tank on the Western Front in terms of firepower and armor, though in part because of their massive size were prone to mechanical failures and burned through extroadinary amounts of oil. Nevertheless, given their superb hitting power and armored protection, the panzer crews arrived in Normandy full of confidence.
That said, the planned counter attack never materialized. The Allies had won the build up of troops of men and material and had begun expanding their beachhead with a relentless series of assaults that completely upset German timetables. With little opportunity to do more than react to the incessant pressure brought by the Allies the grenadiers of the 9. SS Hohenstaufenfound themselves in a deadly war of attrition.
The battles in Normandy were very different from those fought on the German Eastern Front. Both the terrain and the enemy the Germans faced brought many new challenges. For instance, the terrain in Normandy was often crisscrossed with fields surrounded by thick hedgerows. Called the bocage, the countryside severely restricted the maneuver of tanks and armored vehicles and limited their fields of fire. Thus, the terrain took away mobility but on the other hand provided limited protection and concealment from the allied fighter-bombers that dominated the skies over Normandy. Historian George Stein writes, “In the West the SS troops had to face what they bitterly called the Materialschlacht. Against heavy naval fire, unending streams of tanks, fully motorized infantry, superior artillery, and above all crippling attacks from the air, even the determination of the SS troops came to nothing.”
The 9th SS Panzer division was involved in the brutal fighting around the city of Caen and perhaps most notably the bloody combat to seize and hold the critically important heights along Hill 112. Here, the men of the Hohenstaufen tested their training, equipment, and their believed superiority as soldiers against Allied forces with great material strength but also important fighting attributes of their own. 
In spite of being forced onto the defensive the morale of Hohenstaufen’s men remained high as they defended the heights and inflicted heavy casualties on the Allies. The number of Allied tanks destroyed by the Hohenstaufen from their first engagement on 28 June through 1 July included 62 Churchill II and III, and Shermans. However, the attacks had not achieved any tactical success and casualties for the division were also high at over 1,800. The Division commander, Standartenfuhrer (Colonel) Stadler, who assumed command on 3 July, reported the following regarding the fighting in Normandy,
“With every attack repelled, the confidence of the troops grew stronger, whereas the enemy’s aggressive spirit seemed to decrease more and more. Although his attacks were always preceded by heavily massed artillery barrages lasting for hours, his tanks and infantrymen advanced only hesitatingly and very carefully and having suffered some casualties or losses, immediately turned around to have the artillery go into action again. The latter then even increased its intensity of fire, if a further intensification was at all possible. During those days, the enemy artillery fire reached such a pitch that veterans of the First World War unanimously agree, it surpassed even the fire in the trenches during the tremendous battles of materiel during the war.”
The complete superiority of the Allies gradually reduced the combat effectiveness of all the Waffen SS divisions in Normandy. The 9th SS Panzer Division was no exception.  The 9th SS Division having sustained extroardinarily high casualties could no longer be considered a full division. Its two regiment’s were combined into one called Panzer Grenadier Regiment “Hohenstaufen”.
At the end of July, the U.S. Army launched “Operation Cobra” and broke through the German lines at St. Lo. The breakthrough threatened to surround the German Armies in Normandy. The Pzr. Gdr. Rgt. “Hohenstaufen” fought fanatically against British attacks during the first weeks of August. With the assistance once again of Tiger Abteilung 102, they inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. . However, their defenses and those of the remaining German formations in Normandy were not strong enough to prevent the threatened encirclement. Hohenstaufen was ordered to escape and on 18 August managed to avoid being encircled. Its remnants, 30% of its authorized strength, prepared a defensive line to protect the northern flank and help keep open the escape corridor out of the “Falaise Pocket”.
The battle of Normandy had been lost and the Waffen SS Panzer Divisions had paid a terrible price in both men and equipment. The Regiment “Hohenstaufen” had been defeated, but not destroyed as a fighting unit. Its officers were able to maintain good order, discipline, and conduct an organized retreat. By the end of August, a general retreat to the West Wall was unavoidable. That said, the depleted formation still had some bite. On 2 September, now Kampfgruppe “Hohenstaufen” fought a successful defensive action at Cambria destroying over 40 enemy tanks. Ultimately, the division arrived in their new assembly areas on the 8th of September near the city of Arnhem. From here the survivors were expecting to reorganize and receive replacements and equipment.
The 9th SS Panzer Division had been in involved in constant combat for over two months. Their personnel strength had been bled down from 18,000 to approximately 6,000, which included severe shortages of officers and NCOs. On 10 September, the Hohenstaufen was ordered to turn over its remaining operational vehicles to its sister unit, the remnants of SS Panzer Division Frundsberg. Two grenadier battalions and an artillery battalion were also transferred. This left the Hohenstaufen with only a cadre of approximately 2,500 men. These men along with their remaining equipment were ordered back to the homeland for reorganization. Before their departure was complete, the British 1st Airborne Division began landing east of Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden. The remaining grenadiers of the Hohenstaufen, instead of finding themselves on trains back to their homes, found themselves once again in the middle of a great battle.
Unfortunately for the Allies the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen had been specially trained to counter airborne landings as part of their preparation to defeat the Allied invasion of France. Immediately upon notification, the quick reaction companies of the Hohenstaufenorganized themselves for action. Their orders were to conduct reconnaissance in the cities of Arnhem and Nijmegen and to defeat the British paratroopers landing east of Arnhem near the town of Oosterbeek (see the picture included herein from the German archives,Bundesarchiv Bild 101II-M2KBK-771-34, and of two Flakpanzer IV from Hohenstauffen participating in the fighting in and around Arnhem). The reconnaissance battalion led by Hauptsturmfuhrer(Captain) Graebner, who at the time of the airborne landings was receiving the Knights Cross for his actions in Normandy, was able to assemble 40 armored vehicles and have them ready for action within two hours (albeit his men would be decimated by the elite British paratroopers when they attempted to advance over the bridge at Arnhem).
The quick assemblage of the Hohenstaufen was a direct reflection of the SS leadership and discipline of the SS grenadiers. An SS officer reflected, “These soldiers were thinking about their families, as everything had virtually been packed for the move to Siegen. The mood was resigned – ‘here we go again!’ They were inevitably disappointed at first, but the officers and NCOs were able to overcome this and get the soldiers quickly into action.”
SS Obersturmbannfuhrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Spindler exemplified the leadership qualities of the officers of the Hohenstaufen. At 34 years old, Spindler was the respected commander of the armored artillery regiment. During “Market Garden” he commanded 16 separate ad hoc units. His command, designated Kampfgruppe Spindler, and the sperrlinie or blocking line he created on the western approaches into Arnhem during the night of 17-18 September was according to historian Robert Kershaw, “to affect the outcome of the battle of Arnhem decisively.”
The fighting in and around Arnhem was different than what the Hohenstaufen encountered in Normandy. The British paratroops were scattered, lightly armed and possessed no armor. Despite good weather, the Allied fighter-bombers did not provide the British paratroopers with adequate air support. 
The fighting in and around Arnhem was brutal, and often fought at very close quarters among the gardens, hedges, and buildings of Arnhem and Oosterbeek. Again, the advantages of mobility and firepower that the available panzers brought to the battlefield were limited. Urban combat is routinely a war of attrition and for many German units fighting in Arnhem including the battle groups of the Hohenstaufen, casualties may have been as high as 50%. After nine days of fierce fighting, the remnants of the British 1st Airborne Division retreated across the Rhine. Of the 10,000 British Paratroopers who jumped or glided into “Market Garden”, less than 2,100 escaped. Approximately 1,500 were killed, 2,200 were wounded, and the rest were taken prisoner. Operation Market Garden had failed and the soldiers of the Hohenstaufen had won a hard-earned victory. The commander of Kampfgruppe Hohenstaufen, Standartenfuhrer Walter Harzer was awarded the Knight’s Cross to the Iron Cross for his unit’s actions. It was the last real victory of the war for any of the Waffen SS Divisions.
On 1 October 1944, the Hohenstaufen was transferred to Western Germany to be brought back to division strength. The young SS men, who had trained so diligently in France the year before, had been decimated through the battles of Normandy and Holland. Those who survived were veterans, battle hardened through those difficult challenges. These men formed the backbone of the reorganized 9th SS Panzer Division. Replacements arrived from the SS replacement units, and many of the original volunteers returned from hospitals after having been wounded in Normandy. Approximately 30% of those who arrived were former Luftwaffe personnel. These men were mostly from staff organizations, Flak units and ground personnel. They were neither trained nor highly motivated to join a front line combat unit such as an SS Panzer Division. The burden fell once again on the young SS officers and NCOs to motivate and train these recruits to perform their missions within the division. “The greatest efforts of our young Komapanie Chiefs were, according to Obersturmfuhrer (1st Lieutenant) Steinbach, required in the correct psychological handing of these men that were coming to us.”
The division was brought back up to 80% of its authorized strength by the end of October. The real problems remained training and the receipt of new equipment. Special accelerated training programs were created but there was a shortage of experienced trainers. Equipment arrived slowly never reaching above 70% of the authorizations. By the beginning of December however, the division was out of time. Hitler had ordered a new offensive in the Ardennes. The Hohenstaufen along with the SS Divisions Leibstandarte, Das Reich, and Hitlerjugend were organized into the 6th SS Panzer Army. This formation was to spearhead the last great German offensive in the West.
Hohenstuafen moved by rail to their assembly areas on December 12. It had only been two months since the decimated battle groups of the Hohenstuafen had been pulled off the front lines for reorganization. “It’s reconstitution as a Panzer Division, albeit weaker than planned, in such a short time and in the face of Allied heavy bombing campaigns, must be considered as nothing short of remarkable.”
The Ardennes offensive, later to become known by the U.S. Army as the Battle of the Bulge, began on 16 December 1944. The Hohenstaufen was initially held in reserve waiting to exploit the planned breakthrough. Initial progress of the attacking divisions was good but the attack soon stalled. Severe shortages of fuel, over congested roads, the 6th SS Panzer Army’s abysmal leadership, and the U.S. Army’s dogged resistance had brought to a halt the elite Panzer Divisions that Hitler had placed so much hope in.
Hohenstaufen joined the offensive on the 18th of December. They fought in the dense forests around the towns of St. Vith and Bastogne. The difficult terrain, poor weather conditions, shortages of fuel and Allied combat power once again proved lethal. By the beginning of January the commander the 20th Regiment wrote, “Through unfavorable circumstances (inadequate training of the men and serious shortages of supplies, in particular clothes and shoes) I have very high casualties; mostly due to artillery and, whenever the weather clears, from Jabos. Yesterday, I received 200 replacements, unfortunately, almost all old men from the Ukraine, some of whom neither speak nor understand German.”
The Ardennes offensive failed to achieve its primary objectives of seizing the port of Antwerp and dividing the Allied armies. The Hohenstaufen like the other divisions that took part was forced to retreat. Once again, the elite Waffen SS Panzer Divisions had failed to achieve their objectives. Although no records of the Hohenstaufen’s casualties exist, Tieke estimates that they may have been as high as 30%. One of the most notable losses was SS ObersturmbannfuhrerSpindler, the artillery officer whose kampfgruppe had played such a decisive role in the victory at Arnhem.
On January 16th, the 6th SS Panzer Army was ordered to withdraw from the fighting in the Ardennes and begin immediately to prepare for another offensive. This time the target would be the city of Budapest and the oil fields of Hungary. Three days earlier, an attack by the SS Totenkopf and SS Wiking Panzer Divisions had failed to relieve the German garrison surrounded at Budapest. Hitler called a halt to the operation and ordered the SS Panzer Divisions of the 6th SS Panzer Army to refit. The German High Command ordered that the divisions complete refitting by the 30th of January. The 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen conducted a fighting retreat back to the Reich until they were relieved on 25 January.
The leadership of the Hohenstaufen Division and the other SS Divisions, after sustaining heavy casualties and huge losses of equipment during the Ardennes offensive, were once again reorganized to conduct a major offensive. Replacements consisted mostly of untrained Luftwaffe and Navy personnel.
Hohenstaufen began its attack as part of Operation Spring Awakening on the morning of 6 March 1945. The attack followed a short artillery barrage and was conducted without the time to conduct a reconnaissance of the area. The weather was poor with temperatures being just above freezing. The snow fell, but muddy road conditions hindered an assault conducted into the teeth of Soviet defenders ready and waiting for the Germans. Standartenfuhrer Stadler remembers, “A massed Panzer attack is simply impossible. The entire landscape has turned to softened mud in which everything sinks. Obersturmbannfuhrer Telkamp, a prudent panzer commander, led the most advanced Kompanie personally and had to determine that his Regiment could not be committed because the heavy vehicles sank into the mud. After two panzers had disappeared in the filth up to their turrets, the attack on a broad front by the advancing Grenadiers could only still be supported by one panzer company from the only highway in the attack sector. Since the Russians expected our attack, the Regiment soon received heavy defensive fire from all weapons. Under these circumstances, the attack only went forward with difficulty.”
The attack advanced slowly and the combat strength of the Hohenstaufen division melted away. Russian counterattacks put the division on the defensive. Again, Stadler reported, “The Russians attacked all day long in battalion and regimental strength from their well constructed positions. Since they knew the terrain well, the support by artillery, heavy mortars and tanks was targeted and effective. Scarcely was an attack repulsed when the Russians appeared again in another place. The Hohenstaufen kept up its high morale, as it, under the given circumstances, was able to hold of all the attacks and make them extremely costly for the enemy. Unfortunately, our own losses were equally high.”
Two of the defining factors of an elite formation are its ability to maintain its morale and conduct a fanatical defense in the face of defeat. In Hungary, the Hohenstaufen sealed their status as one of the elite. Wilhelm Tieke describes the action, “On March 22, 1945, the 9th SS Panzerdivision, under its commander, Oberfuhrer Stadler, fought to the point of self sacrifice. It served to hold a reception position for the forces fighting their way out of the area of Stuhlweissenburg. In relation to this, the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking reads: ‘It must be remarked at this point that the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen played a decisive part in the fortunate breakout of Wiking. Contrary to orders, Stadler had pushed his front as far forward as possible to the northern part of Lake Balaton in order to hold the sector open for the Division.’”
Operation Spring Awakening was a death ride for the Waffen SS Panzer Divisions. The 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen conducted an orderly retreat back into Germany and finally surrendered to the U.S. Army on 8 May 1945. Over the past year, the division had fought in many of the most significant battles of World War II. The familiar names of Normandy, Caen, Hill 112, Falaise, Arnhem, St. Vith, and Bastogne, all appear in the unit history. They fought in the bocage of France, along the dikes of Holland, in the forests of Belgium and the mud of the Eastern Front, and yet the reputation of the original elite divisions overshadows that of the Hohenstaufen.
The Hohenstaufen had fought as well as any Waffen SS formations from April 1944 to May 1945. The conditions under which they fought prevented them from conducting large-scale maneuver warfare so familiar in the histories of the SS units that participated in the invasions of France and Russia, and their demonstrated power of the panzer formations during the maneuver battles of Kharkov and Kursk. Regardless, the combat performance of the Hohenstaufen was nothing short of commendable. The division has earned its place among the elite Waffen SS Panzer Divisions.
Reference: In the Shadow of the Elites: The 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen
*Lieutenant Colonel James T. McGhee is a native of Dexter, Missouri. As of July 2012 he serves in the active U.S. Army as a Deputy Commander assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 75th Training Command in Denver, Colorado. He studied history at Southeast Missouri State University, is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and holds a Masters Degree in Military Studies from American Military University. In his spare time Todd enjoys researching and writing military history with an emphasis on Germany’s eastern front during World War
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