Military history

Chapter 2
 
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FROM 800 FEET UP, the lines of men and vehicles seemed endless. Peering out of his unarmed Piper Cub, the scouting plane Miss Me, Lieutenant Duane Francies gazed down fascinated at the spectacle below. The landscape swarmed with troops, tanks and vehicles. Ever since late March, when the last of the armies crossed the Rhine, Francies had watched the breakout develop. Now the great river was far behind, and off to the right and left and stretching ahead as far as Francies could see was a vast khaki panorama.

Francies pushed the stick forward and Miss Me swooped down along the boundary of the British Second and U. S. Ninth armies. He waggled the wings, saw the answering waves of the troops, and headed due east to take up his task as the “eyes” of the leading tank columns of the 5th Armored Division. Victory was near, of that he was sure. Nothing could stop this advance. It seemed to the 24-year-old pilot, he later recalled, that “the very crust of the earth itself had shaken loose and was rushing like hell for the Elbe,” the last major water barrier before Berlin.

What Francies saw was only a minuscule part of the great Allied assault. For days now, in biting cold, in driving rain and through mud, in sleet and over ice, all along the Western Front from Holland almost to the Swiss border, a 350-mile-wide torrent of men, supplies and machines had been flooding into the German plains. The last great offensive was on. To destroy the German military might, seven powerful armies—eighty-five huge divisions, five of them airborne and twenty-three armored, the bulk of the immense Western Allied force of 4,600,000 men—were swarming into the Reich for the kill.

Makeshift flags of surrender—white sheets, towels, scraps of cloth—hung everywhere. In the towns and villages frightened Germans, still dazed by the battles that had washed over them, stared in amazement from doorways and shattered windows at the vast strength of the Allies that flowed all about them. The operation was gigantic, its speed breathtaking.

Hammering down every road were convoys of tanks, self-propelled guns, heavy artillery, armored cars, Bren gun carriers, ammunition conveyors, ambulances, gasoline trucks and huge Diesel transporters towing block-long trailers loaded with equipment—bridging sections, pontoons, armored bulldozers and even landing craft. Division headquarters were on the move, with their jeeps, staff cars, command caravans and massive radio trucks sprouting forests of trembling antennae. And in wave after wave, choking every road, were the troops—in trucks and on the backs of armored vehicles, marching by the sides of the motorized columns or slogging through the adjoining fields.

They formed a violent, gaudy parade, and in their midst were battle flags, regimental badges and insignia that had made history in World War II. In the divisions, brigades and regiments were Guardsmen who had fought the rearguard action during the evacuation of Dunkirk, bearded Commandos in faded green berets, veterans of Lord Lovat’s brigade who had raided the coasts of occupied Europe in the darkest years of the war, tough Canadians of the famous 2nd Division who had landed at Dieppe in the bloody rehearsal for the Normandy invasion. In the armored columns, pennants fluttering, were a few of the original “Desert Rats” of the 7th Armored Division who had helped run Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to ground in the Libyan sands. And riding high above the tremendous din of men and arms was the skirling music of the “Devils in Skirts,” the 51st Highland Division, their pipes sounding the prelude to battle as they had always done.

In the phalanxes of Americans were divisions with impudent names and colorful legends—the “Fighting 69th,” the 5th Armored “Victory Division,” “The Railsplitters” of the 84th Infantry, the 4th Infantry “Ivy Division.” There was the 2nd Armored, “Hell on Wheels,” whose unconventional tank tactics had caused havoc for the Germans all the way from the wadis of North Africa to the banks of the Rhine. There was the 1st Division, “The Big Red One,” with a record of more assault landings than any other American unit: the 1st, together with one of the oldest U.S. forces, the tough, tradition-steeped 29th “Blue and Gray” Division, had hung on when all seemed lost to a narrow strip of Normandy beach called “Omaha.”

One unit, the illustrious 83rd Infantry Division, which was moving as fast as an armored task force, had recently been nicknamed “The Rag-Tag Circus” by the correspondents. Its resourceful commander, Major General Robert C. Macon, had given orders to supplement the division’s transport with anything that moved; “no questions asked.” Now the Rag-Tag Circus was going flat out in a weird assortment of hurriedly repainted captured German vehicles: Wehrmacht jeeps, staff cars, ammunition trucks, Mark V and Tiger panzers, motor bikes, buses and two cherished fire engines. Out in front, with infantrymen hanging all over it, was one of the fire trucks. On its rear bumper was a large, flapping banner. It read, NEXT STOP: BERLIN.

There were three great army groups. Between Nijmegen in Holland and Düsseldorf on the Rhine, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group had erupted across the Rhine on March 23 and was now racing across the Westphalian plains, north of the great Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial mainspring. Under Montgomery’s command and holding his northern flank was the Canadian First Army under Lieutenant General Henry D. Crerar. In the center was Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British Second Army (the most “allied” of all the Allied armies, the Second had, besides British, Scottish and Irish units, contingents of Poles, Dutch, Belgians, Czechs—and even a U.S. division, the 17th Airborne). Driving along the Army Group’s southern flank was Montgomery’s third force: Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s powerful U. S. Ninth Army. Already Montgomery’s forces had left the Rhine almost fifty miles behind.

Next in the Allied line, holding a front of about 125 miles along the Rhine from Düsseldorf to the Mainz area, was the Twelfth Army Group under the quiet, unassuming General Omar N. Bradley. Like Montgomery, Bradley had three armies. However, one of them, the U. S. Fifteenth under Lieutenant General Leonard Gerow, was a “ghost” army; it was being prepared for occupation duties and for the moment was playing a relatively non-active role, holding the western bank of the Rhine, directly in front of the Ruhr, from the Düsseldorf area to Bonn. Bradley’s strength lay with the powerful U. S. First and Third armies, a force totaling close to 500,000 men. General Courtney Hodges’ U. S. First Army—the “workhorse” of the European theater and the army that had led the Normandy invasion—was surging south of the Ruhr, charging east at a breakneck pace. Ever since the capture of the Remagen bridge on March 7, Hodges had steadily enlarged the bridgehead on the Rhine’s eastern bank. Division after division packed into it. Then on March 25 the men of the First had burst out of the lodgement with incredible force. Now, three days later, they were more than forty miles from their jump-off point. Storming across central Germany next to the First Army was General George S. Patton’s famous U. S. Third Army. The controversial and explosive Patton—whose boast was that his Third Army had traveled farther and faster, liberated more square miles of the continent and killed and captured more Germans than any other—racked up another first. He had stolen Montgomery’s thunder by secretly crossing the Rhine on the run more than twenty-four hours before the Twenty-first Army Group’s much-publicized assault on March 23. Now Patton’s tank columns were advancing eastward at the rate of thirty miles a day.

Next to Patton and on the right flank of General Bradley’s command was the third great Allied ground force, General Jacob Devers’ Sixth Army Group. Devers’ two armies—Lieutenant General Alexander Patch’s U. S. Seventh and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s French First—held the front’s southern wing for roughly 150 miles. The armies of Patch and Patton were driving almost abreast of each other. De Tassigny’s army was fighting over some of the most rugged terrain on the entire front, through the mountainous Vosges and Black Forest. His force, the first post-liberation French army, had not existed six months before. Now its 100,000 soldiers hoped there was still time before the war ended to settle accounts with les boches.

Everyone had a score to settle. But along the Western Front the German Army scarcely existed any longer as a cohesive, organized force. Decimated during the Ardennes offensive, the Reich’s once-powerful armies had been finally smashed in the month-long campaign between the Moselle and the Rhine. Hitler’s decision to fight west of the Rhine rather than withdraw his battered forces to prepared positions on the eastern banks had proved disastrous; it would be recorded as one of the greatest military blunders of the war. Nearly 300,000 men had been taken prisoner and 60,000 were killed or wounded. In all, the Germans lost the equivalent of more than twenty full divisions.

Now it was estimated that although more than sixty German divisions remained, they were merely paper divisions, with only 5,000 men apiece instead of the full-strength complement of 9- to 12,000 each. In fact, it was believed that there were barely twenty-six complete divisions left in the West, and even these were ill-equipped, lacking ammunition, drastically short of fuel and transport, artillery and tanks. In addition, there were the shattered remnants of divisions, splintered SS groups, anti-aircraft gun troops, thousands of Luftwaffe men (the German air force had almost disappeared), quasi-military organizations, Home Guard Volkssturm units composed of untrained old men and boys, and even cadres of teen-age officer cadets. Disorganized, lacking communications and often without competent leaders, the German Army was unable to stop or even slow up the systematic onslaught of Eisenhower’s armies.

With the offensive from the Rhine barely a week old, the racing armies from Montgomery’s and Bradley’s groups were already closing in on the last German stronghold: the heavily defended Ruhr. Simultaneous with the developing drive eastward, three U.S. armies had suddenly and abruptly wheeled to take on the envelopment of the Ruhr from north and south. On the north, Simpson’s Ninth Army changed direction from due east and was beginning to march southeast. To the south, Hodges’ First and Patton’s Third armies, moving parallel, with Patton on the outside, were also turning and heading northeast for a link-up with Simpson. The trap had been sprung so quickly that the Germans—principally Field Marshal Walter Model’s Army Group B, a force of no less than twenty-one divisions—seemed almost unaware of the pincers closing around them. Now they were threatened with encirclement, caught up in a pocket some 70 miles long and 55 miles wide—a pocket that Allied Intelligence said contained more men and equipment than the Russians had captured at Stalingrad.

In the overall plan to defeat Germany, the crossing of the Rhine and the capture of the Ruhr had always been considered essential—and formidable—objectives. The sprawling industrial Ruhr basin, with its coal mines, oil refineries, steel mills and armament factories covered almost 4,000 square miles. It had been thought that its capture might take months—but that was before the German debacle on the Rhine. Now the pincer maneuver—the stratagem of the quiet Missourian, Omar Bradley—was being executed at breathtaking pace. The Americans were moving so fast that division commanders now talked of completing the encirclement in a matter of days. Once the Ruhr was sealed, Germany would have little strength left to impede the progress of the great Allied offensive. Even now the enemy was so disrupted that there was no continuous defense line.

So disorganized were the German forces, in fact, that Major General Isaac D. White, commanding the U. S. 2nd Armored Division, ordered his men to bypass any major resistance and keep on going. The 2nd, spearheading the Ninth Army’s pincer movement along the northern rim of the Ruhr, had thereupon dashed more than fifty miles in just under three days. The Germans fought hard in isolated pockets but the 2nd encountered more trouble from blown bridges, hurriedly erected roadblocks, minefields and bad terrain than from enemy action. It was the same nearly everywhere.

Lieutenant Colonel Wheeler G. Merriam, leading the 2nd’s dash with his 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion, was encountering a great deal of confusion and very little fighting. On March 28, with his tanks spread out on either side of a main railway line running east and west, Merriam called a halt to report his new position. As his radio man tried to raise headquarters, Merriam thought he heard a steam whistle. Suddenly a German train, filled with troops and hauling flat cars loaded with armored vehicles and guns, puffed along the line, passing right through his units. Germans and Americans gazed at each other in amazement. Merriam, looking up at the Wehrmacht soldiers leaning out of the train windows, was so close that he distinctly noted “the individual hairs on men’s faces where they hadn’t shaved.” His men, flabbergasted, gazed after the train as it headed west. Not a single shot was fired by either side.

At last, galvanized into action, Merriam grabbed the radio telephone. Some miles to the west, the Division Commander, Major General White, saw the train come into sight at almost the same time that he heard Merriam’s excited warning on his jeep radio. White saw an MP, directing the and’s columns, suddenly halt the traffic that was moving across the tracks—and then White, like Merriam, stood mesmerized as the train rolled by. Seconds later, field telephone in hand, White was calling for artillery fire. Within minutes, the 92nd Field Artillery, set up farther west, let loose a salvo that cut the train cleanly in two. Later it was discovered that the flat cars carried numerous anti-tank guns, field pieces and a 16-inch railway gun. Captured soldiers who had been on the train said that they had been completely ignorant of the Allied advance. They had thought the Americans and British were still west of the Rhine.

Confusion was both an ally and a foe. Lieutenant Colonel Ellis W. Williamson of the 30th Infantry Division was moving so fast that he was even fired on by the artillerymen of another Allied division. They thought Williamson’s men were Germans retreating to the east. Lieutenant Clarence Nelson of the 5th Armored had an equally bizarre experience. His jeep was shot out from under him and Nelson jumped into a half-track which came under heavy fire. He ordered a tank to wipe out the enemy strong-point. It moved out, breasted a hill, and fired two rounds—into a British armored car. The occupants were irate but unhurt. They had been lying in wait hoping to find a target of their own. And Chaplain Ben L. Rose of the 113th Mechanized Cavalry remembers a tank commander reporting solemnly to the group leader: “We advanced the last hundred yards, sir—under grass. Resistance is heavy—both enemy and friendly.”

So rapid were the maneuvers and so fast were the German defenses crumbling that many commanders worried more about fatalities from road accidents than from enemy fire. Captain Charles King of the famed British 7th Armored Division begged his men to “be careful driving on these roads. It would be a pity,” he warned, “to die in an accident just now.” A few hours later King, one of the original Desert Rats, was dead; his jeep had hit a German landmine.

Most men had no idea where they were or who was on their flanks. Forward units, in many instances, were already running off their maps. The resourceful scouts of the 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion were not in the least concerned. They were using emergency charts: silken handkerchief-size U. S. Air Force escape maps supplied to all combat fliers earlier in the war to help them slip out of enemy territory if they were shot down. The 82nd scouts confirmed their positions simply by checking with German signposts. In the 84th Division sector, Lieutenant Colonel Norman D. Carnes discovered that in his whole battalion there were only two maps left showing proposed advances. He was not worried either—not so long as his radios worked and he could keep in touch with headquarters. Lieutenant Arthur T. Hadley, a psychological warfare expert attached to the 2nd Armored Division, who used a loudspeaker on his tank instead of a gun to demand the surrender of German towns, was now using the maps in an ancient Baedeker guide intended for tourists. And Captain Francis Schommer of the 83rd Division always knew where he had led his battalion. He just grabbed the first German he saw, stuck a gun in his ribs, and in fluent German demanded to know where he was. He hadn’t had a wrong answer yet.

To the men of the armored divisions, the advance from the Rhine was their kind of warfare. The snaking lines of armor that now thrust, bypassed, encircled and carved through the German towns and armies were offering a classic example of armored tactics at their best. Some men tried to describe in letters the great armored race to the east. Lieutenant Colonel Clifton Batchelder, commander of the 1st Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment, thought that the drive had “all the dash and daring of the great cavalry operations of the Civil War.” Lieutenant Gerald P. Leibman, noting that as the 5th Armored Division cut through the enemy, thousands of Germans were left behind fighting in isolated pockets, wrote tongue-in-cheek that “We are exploiting the enemy’s rear areas afterbreaching his frontal positions.” To Leibman the attack was reminiscent of General Patton’s armored dash out of the Normandy hedgerows, in which he had also participated. “No one eats or sleeps,” he noted. “All we do is attack and push on, attack and push on. It is France all over again—except this time the flags flying from the houses are not French Tricolors, but flags of surrender.” In the Devonshire Regiment racing along with the British 7th Armored Division, Lieutenant Frank Barnes told his friend Lieutenant Robert Davey that “it is wonderful to be going forward all the time.” Both men were elated, for at the briefing before the attack, they had been told that this was the last great push and that the ultimate objective was Berlin.

Field Marshal Montgomery had always known that Berlin was the ultimate objective. Quick to anger, impatient of delays, temperamental and often tactless, but always both realistic and courageous, Montgomery had fixed his sights on Berlin as far back as his great victory in the desert at El Alamein. The one man who had unreservedly said “Go” when weather might have delayed the invasion of Normandy, he now demanded the green light again. In the absence of any clear-cut decision from the Supreme Commander, Montgomery had announced his own. At 6:10 P.M. on Tuesday, March 27, in a coded message to Supreme Headquarters, he informed General Eisenhower: “Today I issued orders to Army Commanders for the operations eastwards which are now about to begin…. My intention is to drive hard for the line of the Elbe using the Ninth and Second Armies. The right of the Ninth Army will be directed on Magdeburg and the left of the Second Army on Hamburg….

“Canadian Army will operate … to clear Northeast Holland and West Holland and the coastal area to the north of the left boundary of the Second Army….

“I have ordered Ninth and Second Armies to move their armored and mobile forces forward at once to get through to the Elbe with utmost speed and drive. The situation looks good and events should begin to move rapidly in a few days.

“My tactical headquarters move to northwest of Bonninghardt on Thursday, March 29. Thereafter … my headquarters will move to Wesel-Münster-Wiedenbrück-Herford-Hanover—thence by autobahn to Berlin, I hope.”

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Turning slowly in midair on the end of their ropes, Aunt Effie and Uncle Otto gazed mournfully down on the rubble-filled Berlin courtyard. From the back balcony of his second-story Wilmersdorf flat, Carl Wiberg spoke softly and encouragingly to the dachshunds as he pulled them up to safety. He was putting them through the air raid escape procedure he had devised, and the dogs, after weeks of training, were now well conditioned. So were Wiberg’s neighbors, although they thought that the Swede’s concern for his pets was excessive. Everyone had grown accustomed to the sight of Aunt Effie and Uncle Otto, coats brushed and gleaming, going up and down past the windows. No one paid much attention to the dangling ropes, either, which was exactly the way Wiberg wanted it. One day, if the Gestapo ever closed in, he might have to go over the back balcony and make his getaway down the same ropes.

He had thought out everything very carefully. A single slip could mean his exposure as an Allied spy, and now, with Berliners growing daily more suspicious and anxious, Wiberg was taking no chances. He had still not discovered Hitler’s whereabouts. His casual and innocent-seeming questions apparently evoked no suspicion, but they turned up no information, either. Even his high-ranking friends in the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe knew nothing. Wiberg was beginning to believe that the Führer and his court were not in Berlin.

Suddenly, as he lifted the dogs onto the balcony, the doorbell rang. Wiberg tensed; he was not expecting visitors, and he lived with a gnawing fear that one time he would go to the door and find the police. He carefully freed the dogs and then went to the door. Outside stood a stranger. He was tall and husky, dressed in working clothes and a leather jacket. Balanced on his right shoulder was a large carton.

“Carl Wiberg?” he asked.

Wiberg nodded.

The stranger dumped the carton inside the door. “A little present from your friends in Sweden,” he said with a smile.

“My friends in Sweden?” said Wiberg warily.

“Oh, you know damned well what it is,” said the stranger. He turned and went quickly down the stairs.

Wiberg softly closed the door. He stood frozen, looking down at the carton. The only “presents” he got from Sweden were supplies for the Berlin espionage operation. Was this a trap? Would the police come bursting into the apartment the moment he opened the box? Quickly he crossed the living room and looked cautiously down into the street. It was empty. There was no sign of his visitor. Wiberg returned to the door and stood for some time listening. He heard nothing out of the ordinary. At last he lugged the carton onto the living-room sofa and opened it. The box which had been so casually delivered contained a large radio transmitter. Wiberg suddenly discovered he was sweating.

Some weeks before, Wiberg had been notified by his superior, a Dane named Hennings Jessen-Schmidt, that henceforth he was to be “storekeeper” for the spy network in Berlin. Ever since, he had been receiving a variety of supplies through couriers. But up to now he had always been warned beforehand, and the actual deliveries had always been handled with extreme caution. His phone would ring twice, then stop; that was the signal that a delivery was to be made. The supplies arrived only during the hours of darkness, and generally during an air raid. Never before had Wiberg been approached in broad daylight. He was furious. “Somebody,” he was later to put it, “had acted in a very naïve and amateurish way and seemed bent on wrecking the entire operation.”

Wiberg’s position had become increasingly dangerous; he could not afford a visit from the police. For his apartment was now a virtual warehouse of espionage equipment. Cached in his rooms were a large quantity of currency, some code tables and a variety of drugs and poisons—from quick-acting “knockout” pellets, capable of producing unconsciousness for varying durations of time, to deadly cyanide compounds. In his coal cellar and in a rented garage nearby was a small arsenal of rifles, revolvers and ammunition. Wiberg even had a suitcase of highly volatile explosives. Because of air raids, this consignment had worried him considerably. But he and Jessen-Schmidt had found the perfect hiding place. The explosives were now in a large safety deposit box in the vault of the Deutsche Union Bank.

Wiberg’s apartment had miraculously survived the air raids up to now, but he dreaded to think of the consequences if it were hit. He would be immediately exposed. Jessen-Schmidt had told Wiberg that at the right time the supplies would be issued to various groups of operatives and saboteurs who would shortly arrive in Berlin. The operations of these selected agents were to begin on the receipt of a signal sent either by radio or through the courier network from London. Wiberg expected the distribution to be made soon. Jessen-Schmidt had been warned to stand by for the message sometime during the next few weeks, for the work of the teams would coincide with the capture of the city. According to the information Jessen-Schmidt and Wiberg had received, the British and Americans would reach Berlin around the middle of April.

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