Military history

Chapter Ten

Closing to the Rhine: February 1-March 6, 1945

AT THE BEGINNING of February the front lines ran roughly as they had in mid December, but behind the lines the differences were great. On December 15 the Germans had crowded division on top of division in the Eifel, while the Americans in the Ardennes were badly spread out. On February 1 the Americans had division piled on division in the Ardennes, while the Germans in the Eifel were badly spread out. The Germans felt the Americans were not likely to attack into the Eifel, which was heavier forest than the Ardennes. That, however, was exactly what Patton and Bradley wanted to do. With most of First and Third armies already in the Ardennes, it made sense to conduct an allout offensive from there. For the soldiers of ETO that meant another month of struggling through snow or mud to attack a dug-in enemy.

Conditions in February were different from January, yet just as miserable. A battalion surgeon in the 90th Division described them: "It was cold, but not quite cold enough to freeze. Rain fell continually and things were in a muddy mess. Most of us were mud from head to foot, unshaven, tired and plagued by severe diarrhoea. It was miserable. As usual, it was the infantrymen who really suffered in the nasty fighting. Cold, wetness, mud, and hunger day after day; vicious attack and counterattack; sleepless nights in muddy foxholes; and the unending rain made their life a special hell." They were hungry because, much of the time, supply trucks could not get to them. Between heavy army traffic and the rain, the roads were impassable. The engineers worked feverishly day and night throwing rocks and logs into the morasses, but it was a losing battle.

What was unendurable, the GIs endured. What had been true on June 6, 1944, and every day thereafter was still true: the quickest route to the most desirable place in the world-home!-led to the east. So they sucked it up and stayed with it and were rightly proud of themselves for so doing. Private Jim Underkofler was in the 104th Division. Its CO was the legendary general Terry Alien; its nickname was the Timberwolf Division; its motto was, "Nothing in hell will stop the Timberwolves."

"That might sound corny," Underkofler said in a 1996 interview, "but it was sort of a symbolic expression of attitude. Morale was extremely important. I mean, man alive, the conditions were often so deplorable that we had nothing else to go on but your own morale. You know, you're sitting there in a foxhole rubbing your buddy's feet, and he's rubbing yours so you don't get trench foot. That's only an example of the kind of relationship and camaraderie we had."

THE STRAIGHT line between Aachen and Cologne lay through Diiren, on the east bank of the Rur River. But rather than going directly, Bradley ordered the main effort made through a corridor some seventeen kilometres wide, south of the dreaded Hurtgen Forest. By so doing, the Americans would arrive at the Rur upstream from the dams and, once across the river, be free to advance over the Cologne plain to the Rhine without danger of controlled flooding. The first task was to get through the Siegfried Line. And every man in an ETO combat unit was well aware that this is where the Germans stopped them in September 1944.

The generals were all enthusiastic for this one. General Walter Lauer, commanding the 99th Division, paid a pre-attack call on Sergeant Oakley Honey's C Company, 395th Regiment. Honey recalled that Lauer stood on the hood of a jeep and gave a speech, saying we had fought the enemy "in the woods and the mountains and had beaten them. Now we were going to get a chance to fight them in the open." Honey commented, "Whoopee! Everyone was overjoyed. You could tell by the long faces."

On February 4, C Company pushed off into the Siegfried Line. Honey recalls "charging into a snow storm with fixed bayonets and the wind blowing right into our faces. After moving through the initial line of dragon's teeth we began encountering deserted pillboxes. At one command post out came ten Germans with hands in the air offering no resistance."

Private Irv Mark of C Company said the enemy troops "were waiting to surrender and the one in charge seemingly berated us for taking so long to come and get them. He said, 'Nicht etwas zu essen' (nothing to eat). Strange we didn't feel one bit sorry for them."

Few companies were that lucky. Sergeant Clinton Riddle of the 82nd Airborne was in Company B, 325th Glider Infantry. On February 2 he accompanied the company commander on a patrol to within sight of the , Siegfried Line. "The dragon teeth were laid out in five double rows, staggered. The Krauts had emplacements dotting the hillsides, so arranged as to cover each other with cross fire."

Returning from the patrol, the captain ordered an attack. "It was cold and the snow was deep," Riddle recalled. "There was more fire from the emplacements than I ever dreamed there could be. Men were falling in the snow all around me. That was an attack made on the belly. We crawled through most of the morning." Using standard fire-and-movement tactics, the Americans managed to drive the Germans beyond the ridge. "When we reached the road leading through the teeth," Riddle said, "the captain looked back and said, 'Come on, let's go!' Those were the last words he ever said, because the Germans had that road covered and when he was half-way across he got hit right between the eyes. There were only three of us in our company still on our feet when it was over."

Another twenty-five men turned up, and the new CO, a lieutenant, began to attack the pillboxes along the road. But the Germans had been through enough. After their CO fired the shot that killed the American captain, his men shot him and prepared to surrender. So, Riddle relates, "when we reached the pillboxes, the Germans came out, calling out

'Kamerad.' We should have shot them on the spot. They had their dress uniforms on, with their shining boots. We had been crawling in the snow, wet, cold, hungry, sleepy, tired, mad because they had killed so many of our boys." The Americans were through the initial defences of the Siegfried Line, and that was enough for the moment.

THE 90th DIVISION reached the Siegfried Line at exactly the spot where the 106th Division had been decimated on December 16. At 0400, February 6, the 359th Regiment of the 90th picked its way undetected through the dragon's teeth and outer ring of fortifications. Shortly after dawn pillboxes that had gone unnoticed came to life, stopping the advance. A weeklong fight ensued.

The Germans employed a new tactic to confound the Americans. Captain Colby explained it: "Whole platoons of infantrymen disappeared as a result of the German tactic of giving up a pillbox easily, then subjecting it to pre-sighted artillery and mortar fire, forcing the attackers inside for shelter. Then they covered the doorway with fire, blowing it in. The men soon learned it was safer outside the fortifications than inside."

Patton inspected a command pillbox: "It consisted of a three-storey submerged barracks with toilets, shower baths, a hospital, laundry, kitchen, storerooms, and every conceivable convenience plus an enormous telephone installation. Electricity and heat were produced by a pair of diesel engines with generators. Yet the whole offensive capacity of this installation consisted of two machine guns operating from steel cupolas which worked up and down by means of hydraulic lifts. As in all cases, this particular pillbox was taken by a dynamite charge against the back door." To Patton, this was yet another proof of "the utter futility of fixed defences. In war, the only sure defence is offence, and the efficiency of offence depends on the warlike souls of those conducting it."

That point was equally true when applied to the Atlantic Wall. At the Siegfried Line in February, as at the Atlantic Wall in June 1944, the Germans got precious little return on their big investment in poured concrete.

LIEUTENANT John Cobb, 82nd Airborne, had arrived in France on January 1. By the end of January, he was a veteran. On February 8 his platoon was to accompany a squad of engineers using mine detectors to clear a trail across the Kail River valley.

The site had been the scene of a battle in November in which a battalion of the 28th Division took a terrible pounding. Cobb's was the first American unit to move back into the valley, dubbed by the 28th "Death Valley." Cobb described what he saw: "Immobile tanks and trucks and the bodies of dead American soldiers were everywhere. The snow and cold had preserved the dead and they looked so life-like it was hard to believe they had been dead for three months. It was as if a snap-shot of a deployed combat unit had been taken, with everything as it was at a given moment in the past. The command posts, the medical aid station with men still lying on their stretchers, and the destroyed supply trucks were all in their proper places just as if someone had set up a demonstration from the field manual-but the actors were all dead."

By February 8, Ninth Army, north of Aachen, had gotten through the Siegfried Line and closed to the Rur, but it could not risk an assault across the river so long as the Germans held the upstream dams. First Army, meanwhile, was working its way through the Line south of Aachen. On the tenth, V Corps won control of the dams, only to discover that the Germans had wrecked the discharge valves, thus creating a steady flooding that would halt Ninth Army until the waters receded.

While they waited, the GIs sent out reconnaissance patrols and practised river crossings. For Company K, in the centre of Ninth Army's front, that meant sending squads at night in rubber boats over the flooding Rur. Engineers worked with the infantry on assault-boat training and demonstrated the use of pontoons, rafts, smoke generators, and how to shoot communication wire across the river with rockets and grenade launchers.

D-day was February 23. After dark on the 22nd, tanks drove to the river's edge. Engineers lugged the 400-pound assault boats through deep mud to assembly areas. Huge trailer trucks with girders and pontoons for the heavy-duty bridges ground forward to final staging areas. In the 29th Division the shivering men gathered beside the boats to huddle together in the mud and water.

The river was two-to four-metres deep, 300 to 400 metres wide, with currents running more than ten kilometres per hour. On the German side the banks were heavily mined from the river to the trench system that commanded the river. Conditions were similar along the whole stretch of the Rur.

At 0245, February 23, the Rur River line, 35 kilometres long, burst into fire. It was one of the heaviest barrages of the war-every weapon the Americans had, hurled against the enemy; a 45-minute deluge of bullets and high explosives designed to stun, kill, or drive him from his position. Ninth Army alone had more than 2,000 artillery pieces firing 46,000 tons of ammunition.

"In the middle of it all," a lieutenant in the 84th wrote, "a lone German machine gunner decided he'd had enough. He fired a long burst of tracers at his tormentors. It was his last mistake. Every tank, every antiaircraft gun, every machine gunner within range returned the fire. Waves of tracers and flat trajectory rounds swept towards the hole, engulfing it in a single continuous explosion. We cheered lustily, and Captain George Gieszl commented, 'Now that's an awfully dead German.'"

At 0330 the first assault waves shoved their boats into the river. In the 84th, assault companies had several boats overturn, but most of the men swam to the enemy banks, many without weapons (there were only thirty rifles in one 130-man company). The troops moved inland. Behind them engineers worked feverishly to build footbridges and to get a cable ferry anchored on the far bank. By 0830 the job was done, and ammunition, supporting weapons, and communication wire were ferried across. By 1030 elements of the assault companies had entered the town of Dtiren.

By the end of February 24 the engineers had treadway bridges over the Rur, allowing tanks and artillery to join the infantry on the east bank. K Company crossed on a narrow swaying footbridge that night. It beat swimming, but it wasn't easy. The men had 30 or 40 pounds of gear. Half the duckboards were under water, and there was a single strand of cable for a handhold. The Germans were pumping in artillery, close enough to be disconcerting. Sergeant George Lucht recalled his dash across the bridge:

"The Germans had regrouped and their artillery was falling on both sides of the river, and I was thinking. Boy, this is just like Hollywood."

Once over the Rur there was open, relatively flat ground between the Americans and the Rhine. It was the most elementary military logic for the Germans to fall back. Why defend a plain that had no fortifications when Germany's biggest river was at your back? Yet that is what everyone knew Hitler would do-and Hitler did. He ordered his army to stand and fight. As it had neither fixed positions nor a river line for defensive purposes, the men should utilize the villages as strongpoints. These were villages inhabited by loyal Germans. When the 5th Division got into one of them, there were signs painted on the walls which said: SEE GERMANY AND DIE, ONWARD SLAVES OF MOSCOW, and DEATH WILL GIVE YOU PEACE.

Those signs didn't stay up long, because the walls came tumbling down. The GIs used the techniques of street fighting that they had learned in the fall of 1944. The most important things were to stay off the streets and "keep dispersed, move fast, and keep on moving whatever happens," one veteran explained. "Keep your head up and your eyes open and your legs moving."

THROUGH February, Patton attacked, whatever the conditions. He was at his zenith. His energy, his drive, his sense of history, his concentration on details while never losing sight of the larger picture combined to make him the preeminent American army commander of the war. He was constantly looking for ways to improve. For example, he ordered all Sherman tanks in his army to have two and a half inches of armour plate, salvaged from wrecked tanks, put on the forward hull of the tanks-and was delighted with the results; for the first time, a Sherman could take a direct hit from an 88 and survive. He also had flamethrowers mounted on the tanks, using the machine-gun aperture-and again was delighted with the results. They were highly effective against pillboxes.

Patton's worst enemy was the weather and what it did to the roads. The nightly freezes, the daily thaws, and the heavy traffic combined to make them impassable. Patton at one point in early February was forced to turn to packhorses to supply the front line. Still he said attack.

On February 26 elements of Third Army captured Bitburg. Patton entered the town from the south while the fighting was still going on at the northern edge of town. About this time Patton was spending six hours a day in an open jeep inspecting, urging, prodding, demanding. He crossed the Sauer River on a partly submerged footbridge, under a smoke screen (from which emerged another Patton legend, that he had swum the river).

History was very much on his mind. In the evenings he was reading Caesar's Gallic Wars. He was especially interested in Trier, at the apex of the Saar Moselle triangle, on his northern flank. The historic city of the Treveri, according to Caesar, had contained the best cavalry in Gaul. Patton wanted Trier. He inveigled the 10th Armoured out of Bradley and sent it to take the city.

Lieutenant Colonel Jack Richardson (LJSMA, 1935) of 10th Armoured led a task force in the successful attack into Trier. Driving into the city along Caesar's road, Patton "could smell the sweat of the Legions," imagining them marching before him into the still surviving amphitheatre where the emperor Constantine the Great had thrown his captives to the beasts. He could not rest. Third Army had started the February campaign further from the Rhine than any other army on the Western Front. He still had so far to go that he feared his would be the last army to cross. "We are in a horse race with Courtney [Hodges]," Patton wrote his wife. "If he beats me [across the Rhine], I shall be ashamed."

BY THE MIDDLE of the first week in March, Ninth and First armies were closing to the Rhine, threatening to encircle entire divisions. Hitler ordered counterattacks. As a consequence, thousands of German troops were trapped on the west bank, where they either surrendered or were killed. First Army intelligence declared: "Perhaps it is too early to be optimistic but everyone feels that resistance is on the point of crumbling."

Cologne was a magnet for First Army. The famous cathedral city was the biggest on the Rhine. The Germans had never imagined invaders from the west would get that far, so Cologne was defended only by a weak outer ring of defences, manned by bits and pieces of a hodgepodge of divisions, and a weaker inner ring, manned by police, firemen, and Volkssturm troops. Such forces could not long hold up an American army at the peak of its power.

Americans were pouring through the Siegfried Line. The columns were advancing fifteen kilometres a day and more. Meanwhile, the artillery was pounding the cities and bridges. Major Max Lale wrote his wife on March 2: "Tonight, just at dusk, I stood from a long distance away and watched the plumes of smoke, the flashes of flames, and listened to the long, low rumble that marked the death of one of the oldest cities in Europe."

On March 5 General Maurice Rose's 3rd Armoured Division entered Cologne, followed by General Terry Alien's 104th Division. The next day Rose's tanks reached the Hohenzollern Bridge, but most of the structure was resting in the water, as were the other Cologne bridges over the Rhine. In Cologne only the great cathedral stood, damaged but majestic. Like St Paul's in London, it had been used as an aiming point but was never knocked down.

It was carnival time. Mardis Gras came on March 7. In Cologne, one of the most Catholic of German cities, the inhabitants did their best to celebrate. Lieutenant Gunter Materne, a German artillery officer, recalled that his men investigated a ship tied to a wharf, and found it filled with Champagne and still wines. They proceeded to have a party. People emerged from cellars to join in. "And so we had a great time," Materne said. "We got drunk. People came up to me and said. Take off your uniform. I'll give you some civilian clothes. The war is already lost.'" But Materne spurned the temptation and the next day managed to get across the Rhine in a rowboat.

He was one of the last Germans to escape. The Americans had taken 250,000 prisoners and killed or wounded almost as many. More than twenty divisions had been effectively destroyed. The Allied air forces were taking full advantage of lengthening days and better weather, blasting every German who moved during daylight hours, flying as many as 11,000 sorties in one day.

On the first day of World War II, then Colonel Eisenhower had written to his brother Milton: "Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy." Now that fury was making itself manifest on the west bank of the Rhine. The Allies had brought the war home to Germany.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!