From Bob Swirsky, 486th AAA Bn, WWII  Feature Index      NEXT

Article about the 3rd Armored Division
Saga Magazine - February, 1963 issue

Enlarge above double-page spread

  Above sub-headline: "First U.S. unit to enter Germany, the men of the 3rd Armored paid heavily along the combat road to win their battle honors."


Text of Article:

By Richard Tregaskis

[NOTE: Richard Tregaskis (1916­73) was a noted war correspondent and writer whose reporting included World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. His books include Guadalcanal Diary, John F. Kennedy & PT-109, The Rock of Anzio: From Sicily to Dachau - A History of the 45th Infantry Division, and Soldiers on Skis: A Pictorial Memoir of the 10th Mountain Division.]

The tankers, troopers and armored infantrymen of the 3rd Armored Division - who eventually earned the nickname, "Spearhead" - had the honor of leading the U. S. First Army during an important part of the dash across France. They saw the vaunted German armies which had fought so savagely at Normandy fleeing in a mad haste to reach the safety of the Siegfried Line. They took grim satisfaction in pounding away at a reeling enemy so that he could not stand and fight if he wanted to. Later, they drove into Hitler's Third Reich ahead of any other U. S. division, helped close the ring around the Ruhr and plunged their armored dagger deep in the German heartland. By war's end they were among the army's most distinguished and decorated armored units.

But they paid a bitter price for their battle honors.

Green to the ways of combat warfare, they had entered battle in the hedgerow fighting of Normandy. While other armored units had experienced combat against the renowned German panzer units, the 3rd had to get its baptism of fire in the worst possible tank terrain. In the fluid situations of early July. difficult for veteran troops, awesome for new men, they suffered heavy losses in learning the art of war. Their strength and drive were spent lavishly - often uselessly - in the early days through faulty tactical decisions. The thing that most hurt American boys used to the idea of superior U.S. technology was finding out that German panzers could only be beaten by superior numbers of tanks. Worse, their harder-hitting 88 had a muzzle brake to hide the blast of firing, and German powder produced less smoke than ours - both of which items contributed to making their tanks much harder to spot. And they were good. The Germans had perfected panzer warfare before the Americans entered the war.

Colonel John A. Smith, Jr., a tall, earnest Texan who served as chief of staff during the Division's entire battle history, put it bluntly: "We can thank God we had arithmetic on our side - or, as the French used to say, 'Beaucoup de materiel.' "

So the Spearhead men went to work on their problems. Imaginative Division engineers of the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence C. Foster, came up with a device: a two-bladed hedge chopper that could be mounted on the forward end of a tank. It punched paths through the hedgerows that enabled the armored infantrymen to lead and protect the tanks in the checkerboard warfare of the bocage country. Later, this idea was modified with an equally ingenious variation: a tank mounting a bulldozer blade, used to carve its own attack route when the roads were jammed with traffic and refugees.

Committed at Villiers Fossard shortly after St. Lo - where it got a bloody nose - the Division entered the rolls of war. It learned about combat while actually engaged with the enemy, solving problems as it drove across France, capturing a dozen small towns. Meeting superior German tanks with superior numbers, it perfected the art of camouflage and paid special attention to deployment to compensate for tanks that gave themselves away when they fired. It was given time to round off the rough edges. Its principal sparring partners in the early days were the tough paratroopers of General Rudeker von Heyking's 6th Parachute Army - elite fighters who made the Spearhead men feel outmatched at times.

After the "blooding" period ended, the 3rd Armored came under the close scrutiny of Supreme Headquarters. The Division's erratic moves and tentative maneuverings had been costly in casualties - something was wrong. Eisenhower, apprised of the situation, had a painful choice confronting him - one he could not avoid. He made his decision, relieving Major General Leroy H. Watson - who was reported cracking under the strain of command. General Watson was shifted "upstairs," to a staff position in the 12th Army Group Headquarters. The date was August 7, 1944.

In General Watson's place, Eisenhower put a 44-year-old veteran of African tank fighting, the aggressive young chief of staff of the 2nd Armored Division, Major General Maurice Rose. Tall, handsome, always impeccably uniformed, General Rose was a driving leader who possessed great tactical intelligence. He was taken from the same mould as General George Patton.

One of Patton's favorite corps commanders, Major General Ernest Harmon, who had commanded the 2nd Armored Division in Africa with Brigadier General Rose as his chief of staff, made the definitive statement on Rose's driving aggressiveness: "The only way to stop Maury Rose," he said, "is to promote him to major general and give him a division of his own."

A veteran of the disastrous American defeat at Kasserine in Africa, Rose had fathomed the German tactic of using tanks as rolling artillery, their fondness for quick exploitation of salients into enemy lines. So he knew that numerical superiority, coupled with relentless drive, was the best technique U.S. tankers could use to prevent piecemeal defeat. Further, he agreed with Patton that the place for a tank division commander was up front, leading his troops. Thereafter, he could usually be found close to the action, traveling with his division's "cavalry," the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.

Almost immediately, the Division's tempo and tone changed. The men responded to Rose's firm guiding hand and began to drive forward despite the tactical difficulties presented by the terrain. It was bad enough for the tankers to realize they were mismatched against the German tanks, but for every green infantryman who tastes battle for the first time, it is a traumatic shock to discover how heavy the losses are in the "Queen of Battles." Placing the word "armored" before "infantry battalion" is no protection to the flesh-and-blood men who still do their job in the open - out ahead of the tanks. But they took it and they kept driving. They had to - or risk being outdistanced by their commanding general. This is best illustrated by a story told by the chief of staff, the tall Texan, Colonel Smith: "We were all afraid General Rose was going to get himself hurt or killed because he spent so much time with the forward elements," Smith said. "One time, when we were leading the First Army advance across France, we were held up at a river crossing (the Aisne, near Soissons). We thought the bridge had been mined. The general was up with the reconnaissance, as usual, and he had gone ahead on foot to cross the bridge, with his jeep following, to see if the bridge was mined. All of a sudden, German machine guns opened up, and he nearly lost his life. He got away all right, but I was very worried. I never had a cross word with him, except that one time.

"I spoke to him, and said: 'General, we're leading the First Army and we can't afford to have you hurt.'

"He looked at me in that cold way he had when he was angry. He always called me John, but this time he said, 'Smith, there's never any such problem. I know where I should be. If you talk like that again, you're relieved.'

"I never brought the subject up again. Just as we were afraid he would be, he finally was killed. But until then, he was one of the greatest field commanders of the war."

General Rose's risks had their salutary effect on the efficiency and bravery of the men in his division, which Rose bragged was the greatest tank force in the world.

When General Rose took over command of the 3rd Armored near Chatillon, France, August 7, almost immediately the outfit went on the attack, battling 50 miles against determined opposition in ten days to help "almost close" the famous Argentan-Falaise gap which trapped 10,000 of Field Marshal von Kluge's troopers in a vise of American and British armed strength.

General Rose worked out some of the kinks in the attack techniques of the 3rd Armored in this stretch. The liaison with the P-47 and P-38 fighter-bombers that maneuvered over the four armored columns comprising CCA and CCB was improved. Close coordination was worked out by radio so that the Jugs (P-47s), and twin-boom P-38s worked just ahead of the armored columns as a kind of winged artillery, to take out enemy tanks and gun positions. Twice in this period, bombs dropped by Jugs hit by mistake among the 3rd Armored ranks, killing one soldier, wounding a dozen others - but eventually the close support was worked out. To take this and the other necessary steps. General Rose risked his neck at the point of the attack, and summoned every bit of inventiveness at his command.

The long-barreled M-10s of the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, which mounted a better gun than the Sherman tanks, were used more extensively when the enemy brought up their heavily armored Mark V Panthers and 75-ton Mark VI Tigers. In one such engagement, firing at point-blank range of 25 yards, one M-10 commander, Corporal Joseph Juno, hit through the massive frontal armor of two Panthers with two shots within a few seconds, then was himself hit by exploding German ammunition as he scrambled down from his TD to help the enemy wounded.

Under General Rose's aggressive command, the 3rd Armored tankers plunged deep into enemy territory, using the aforementioned tank-dozers - General Sherman M-4 tanks with bulldozer blades mounted on the front - to make their own improvised roads where main routes were blocked.

The men of the armored infantry regiments learned to fight while surrounded deep in enemy territory. They frequently rode on the outside of the tanks into attacks. Sergeant William Alberti, of the 32nd Armored Infantry Regiment, rode the blade of a tank-dozer near Fromental, cradling a Tommy gun in his arms for protection while he directed the tank driver along the best path.

Near Couptrain, on the road to Fromental, Sergeant Lafayette Pool, better known as "The Texas Tanker," was at the point of a column of CCA tanks in his Sherman called In The Mood. Sergeant Pool suddenly saw some German soldiers running through underbrush ahead of him, and yelled into his radio: "I ain't got the heart to kill 'em." But in a few seconds, German automatic fire snapped in his direction, and Pool started to fire savagely, yelling to PFC Bert Close at the machine gun next to him: "Give it to 'em, Close!" Under Maury Rose, the men were finding their fighting mood.

Near Ranes on this same stretch, when the Division was stuck out on a salient and surrounded by enemy, the armored troopers learned the cold, no-quarter fighting that comes behind enemy lines. On August 15, near Fromental, an SS patrol worked its way into positions of the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, captured an officer and four men, and killed all but one man, who escaped. This action turned the Spearhead men into dedicated killers and prepared them for their first big job.

Starting August 25 near Corbeil, south of Paris, the 3rd Armored was the spearhead of the U.S. First Army in its sweep across northern France. The 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions, the stalwarts of the First Army, followed in the 3rd Armored's trail as its 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion built a 540-foot bridge across the Seine and charged into Quincy-sous-Senart and Fontenay Tresigny. Hitting only slight resistance, CCA and CCB bowled across the Marne River, and were the first Americans into Chateau-Thierry.

The speed of the 3rd Armored caught many German units by surprise. Most of them were trying to withdraw toward Belgium, but many were flanked by the Spearhead drive. Near Pont D'Arcy at dawn of August 28, a fragmentary German force, cut off by a 3rd Armored column, tried to smash through the Division Forward Echelon bivouac.

General Rose had his headquarters with this unit, and knew exactly what to do. The Shermans, TDs, and massed .50-calibers of the anti-aircraft halftracks smashed two German 88 guns, three 20 mms, four trucks loaded with troops, two weapons carriers and a motorcycle. When the fire fight was over, they counted ten dead and 70 prisoners of war. The victory was not bloodless for the Americans: One officer was dead and three enlisted men wounded.

Farther north and west the 3rd Armored plunged, charging into Braisne and Soissons, and surprising two German troop trains near the Braisne station. The first unit vehicle to spot a train was an anti-aircraft half-track commanded by Sergeant Hollis Butler. It was dusk when Butler saw a long line of flatcars loaded with staff cars, weapons carriers and a tank - and in the same train, nine passenger coaches, many of the windows blocked by soldiers. At Butler's command, his crew poured .50-caliber machine-gun fire into the dim shape of the train. The locomotive exploded with a flash of yellow fire and a hissing sheet of steam. The Germans, black-uniformed SS Panzer grenadiers, dashed to the Panther tank on one of the flatcars.

Other Germans fired burp guns from the train, the windows flashing with rapid "paper cutter" bursts as the SS troopers tried to get the massive Panther turret to swing around, but failed.

By this time, other guns of the 3rd Armored's CCA had come up, Shermans and TDs in force. Around the station yard the 76 guns thundered and blasted, machine-gun fire marked the night with streaks of fire as weapons blasted the train from many directions. Suddenly, it was all over as dozens of Germans threw up their hands yelling, "Kamerad!"

Later that same night, another train chugged into the station from the west, a train of flatcars loaded with equipment, including four of the latest Mark VI (Tiger) tanks. The train was spotted by men of the 32nd Armored Regiment, attached to CCA. When a cascade of fire smashed into the train, it stopped dead and German troops aboard climbed down to surrender. Third Armored Tankers swarmed over the new Tigers and placed neat charges in the muzzles of the proud 88 guns, the blast shredding them like celery stalks. At almost the same time, CCB tankers intercepted another German freight train at nearby Soissons, and blasted it from the tracks, leaving the cars burning.

That was August 25. Next day, the Division drove on to the Aisne River, and it was there that General Rose went ahead of his own reconnaissance to check for mines in the bridge across that stream - and forever set the record straight about his desire to be at the point of his attack. For his bravery under enemy machine-gun fire that day, the general was later awarded the DFC. Seen everywhere by his men, he was providing the kind of example no platoon leader or platoon sergeant could ignore. Now the men added offensive drive to their battle hardness.

From the Aisne, the 3rd Armored Division burned a path of conquest across northeast France. Laon, Sedan, Charleville were reached and passed, against confused German rearguard resistance. Then the Division veered north toward the Belgian border, going through Hirson and Vervins toward Mons. The overall plan was to get in behind a large body of German troops, perhaps half of the enemy Seventh Army, and block their withdrawal toward the Siegfried Line defenses.

General Rose led his outfit with such speed that almost complete surprise was achieved. Scarcely a day or night passed without the Division's overtaking a German column rolling slowly along the French or Belgian roads, who were astounded to find themselves cut up by one of four powerful American armored columns, and blasted by artillery, 76 mm. tank guns, ripping .50-calibers and the screaming Thunderbolt dive-bombers which hovered over the Spearhead armor in every moment of clear weather.

Shortly after noon on September 2, units of the 83rd Reconnaissance, with General Rose among them, crossed the Belgian border and passed through the town of Maubeuge where mobs of excited townspeople screamed a welcome to the first American land forces to enter their country. CCA and CCB roared ahead to Mons and took a position along the hills west of the city, scene of a bitter Allied defeat in World War I. Now, the 3rd Armored was about to even the score with a dazzling Allied victory.

For the next two days, elements of General Rudiger von Heyking's crack 6th Luftwaffe Field Division and other German Seventh Army elements kept colliding with Rose's units. General von Heyking had a report that the field south of Mons was clear. He tried to rush his forces through the supposed gap, and ran smack into Spearhead units which shot them up badly. The Germans pulled out, only to be mauled again when they tried to slip through at another point. It was a fluid situation with actions starting and breaking off all over the countryside.

In those two days and nights, a period which became known as the Battle of Mons, there were no non-combatants. The cooks, mechanics and truck drivers of the Division Rear, and Maintenance and Supply constantly fired their .50s, carbines and M1s at German vehicles and foot soldiers appearing out of nowhere.

The slaughter was heavy and Germans by the thousands began to surrender. Included was a good bag of German general officers: Von Heyking, the brilliant military leader who had blitzed Crete in the early stages of the war, and put up two of the war's outstanding defenses at Monte Cassino in Italy and St. Lo in France, among them.

The Division's military police, commanded by Major Charles S. Kapes, had herded about 4000 prisoners into the walled enclosure of a sugar refinery in Mons, when a German force took them under machine-gun and mortar fire. Major Kapes and his 47-man detachment blazed back at the scattered figures of Germans making the attack; killed and wounded a handful with well-directed fire, and then took the surrender of the attacking force of 300 more Krauts. A few minutes later, a company of German paratroopers stormed the small separate prisoner stockade where the generals were being held. Their objective was to liberate their generals - but they underestimated the hitting power of the 3rd Armored.

The paratroopers hit a roadblock of the 36th Armored Infantry riflemen and were mowed down by the American .50s and 76 mm guns.

On the second day of the battle the 3rd Armored had established a firm line with the 1st Infantry Division, and together they finished the job of chopping up and capturing the confused remnants of the German Twenty-Seventh Army. The action was wild and nearly continuous. A platoon of M-10s from the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion knocked out 20 German vehicles in a six-hour period. In the midst of the fight a squad of signalmen, from the 143rd Armored Signal Battalion, spotted a German halftrack clanking along with a load of soldiers. Corporal Francisco Bolla commanded the section. T/5 John E. Kelley first spotted the track when it was past his position, and passed on the word to the next .50-caliber machine gun manned by Privates Leonard Ethridge and Stanley Presgrave. Kelley whispered into his field phone:

"German half-track loaded with Krauts heading your way."

"Okay," Ethridge answered. "Chalk him up!" And the .50-caliber's tracers sliced across the German truck, stopping it cold, and knocking down the troops as they tried to jump clear. A few lived to surrender.

Lieutenant Vernon Dingley and Sergeant Tony Bocchino in a Sherman tank named Eliminator saw a column of German artillery hurrying eastward, part of the Krauts's frantic effort to bring troops back to their rear and man the Siegfried Line. The German column included five 170 mm. artillery pieces, one 88, and 125 trucks and horse-drawn wagons.

Eliminator, in a central position among a column of M-4s, began firing into the enemy force. Other tanks raked the column from one end to the other - a slaughter that ended with the surrender of a few survivors.

By this time, the coordination of 3rd Armored forces with fighter-bomber cover was working almost perfectly, and normally each column had an air support controller who rode in a special tank with forward elements. Whole German columns were stalled by expert bombing, then worked over by repeated strafing passes. One German officer surviving such a routine said: "You Americans don't want to fight, you just want to slaughter us."

When the tally of the Battle of Mons was added up, the score was 26,000 prisoners: roughly 9000 taken by the 3rd Armored, and 17,000 made captive by the following 1st Division. The number of enemy killed ran into the thousands. The 3rd Armored losses were slight.

General Rose had congratulations from his immediate boss, Major General Joseph Lawton "Lightning Joe" Collins, commanding the Seventh Corps. Almost in the same breath, General Collins ordered the 3rd Armored to continue the attack east toward Namur, Liege and the German border.

General Rose was proud of those orders, and proud of his division. But before the Division shoved forward again, the handsome general called in his two combat command generals. Generals Hickey and Boutinot, and his chief of staff, Colonel Smith, and had a special parley.

Colonel Smith recalls that General Rose's instructions went something like this: "Pick out a new nick-name for the Division. 'Always Dependable' - that's no good. Get a name that does them justice."

Someone - Smith doesn't recall who - came up with a new nickname: "Spearhead!" General Rose agreed, and ordered that the word SPEARHEAD be added as a black-on-yellow flash at the bottom of the Division shoulder patch.

On September 4, the Division got underway for Charleroi, Namur and Liege. With almost no resistance, except from displaced Belgian civilians who slowed its progress through urban areas, the Division charged eastward over the rolling Flemish hills. Charleroi and Namur were passed with only slight resistance, but as the columns swept toward Huy and Liege, members of the Belgian Resistance, the celebrated Armee Blanche whose information was generally more reliable than the corresponding French FFI's, reported that the Germans seemed to be preparing defenses along the Meuse River near Liege.

Rose developed a plan which would follow the pattern American armies had used successfully from North Africa and Guadalcanal on: a frontal attack on the enemy's main defenses, and at the same time an end run by another force that would sweep around the enemy's flank and catch him by surprise on his unprotected flank, or better still, the rear.

This time General Rose assigned General Doyle Hickey's CCA the frontal attack, and used General Truman Boutinot's CCB for the end run. The columns of CCA were to drive straight east toward the batteries of 88s the Germans had hastily assembled along the Meuse near Liege. CCB was to swing wide through the mountains to the south and circle Liege. Characteristically, Rose went along with CCB on their rough-country end run. It all worked according to plan. In the first part, the frontal attack, cool, pipe-chewing Hickey led the clanking columns of CCA up to the western approaches of Liege, and was met by whooshing, crashing fire of massed 88s.

By now Hickey's tankers were smooth-performing veterans. They knew what to do. The reconnaissance units, screening out front with light tanks, jeeps (called "peeps" by the armored troops) and swift armored cars, halted when they were taken under fire, took cover momentarily and sent back word to Hickey's CP about the opposition ahead. The weather was bad and the P-47s could not come up, so word was passed to the Division artillery, traveling well back in the columns, to come up and be of service.

The self-propelled 105 mm guns of the 67th Armored Field Artillery battalion trundled off the roads and took positions in the fields. The short-barreled howitzers began to fire, their crews adjusting their fire from the orders of the FOs. Now the Division's 105s began to pound the 88s in Liege.

Meanwhile, Combat Command "Boutinot" was charging along the mountain roads south of Liege, hoping to evade the bulk of the German forces which, according to the Belgian Resistance, was conspicuously absent from the southern part of Belgium. With the forward elements, as usual, was General Rose, riding in an unprotected jeep.

The information from the Belgian Resistance, or Armee Blanche, was correct: there was only the slightest opposition encountered by CCB in this long end run. The force thus came into position south and east of Liege, found a bridge over the Meuse intact, crossed it - and found themselves looking at the German defense positions from the rear.

The Germans, battered from the west and flanked from the south, began a hasty withdrawal, and again 3rd Armored roadblocks corralled hundreds of prisoners. One general, Konrad Heinrich, commander of the 89th Infantry Division, was machine-gunned to death as he tried to crash a roadblock in a civilian car. At another roadblock, which accounted for 35 enemy vehicles in two days, another German ranking officer, General Bock von Wolfingen, surrendered at gunpoint.

The people of Liege thronged to welcome the American tankers who liberated them, but the Spearhead Division was already charging eastward toward the Siegfried Line.

The 3rd Armored "Air Force," the little L-4 observation planes that spotted for the Division's artillery, reported several German columns hightailing toward the Siegfried, ahead of the Spearhead. If it hadn't been for the Division's victory at Mons, there would have been at least 30,000 Germans to fight - troops desperate to reach the Siegfried. The whole history of the Western Front in World War II would probably have been different.

But as it was, the Spearhead boys caught a few of the German outfits they had missed at Mons, and sliced them up there in eastern Belgium. And they called in the screaming P-47s of the 9th Tactical Air Force to work over the fleeing enemy columns to the Belgian valleys. Thus, when Hitler ordered the Bulge (Ardennes) counterattack in December he did not have sufficient strength to exploit his salient, a break for U.S. forces which they owed to the 3rd Armored Division.

And when, on September 12, the advance elements of the Spearhead struck into Roetgen, the first town over the border of Germany, and at the same time, a few miles to the north, looked down a hill at the "dragon's teeth" of the Siegfried, the 3rd Armored could be glad that previously they had decimated the German strength in northern France and Belgium. The Germans had fewer men than they needed to man adequately the deep steel and concrete fortifications.

But there were enough to raise plenty of hell with Combat Command A when it made the Allies' first assault on the Siegfried Line at 0800 hours on the morning of September 13.

The plan was for 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment - of CCA - to charge through the tank barrier behind a heavy barrage of Division artillery, point-blank supporting fire of tank-destroyers, mortars and assault guns. Then Division engineers would blast a path through the dragon's teeth.

The foot-soldiers darted through the dragon's teeth and started up the slope toward the low-domed German fort concealed on the next ridge-top and were raked by a murderous criss-cross of machine-gun fire. Lieutenant Colonel L. L. Doan, overall commander of the attack, called for artillery fire on the German pillboxes and machine-gun nests. The air rang with the shriek and crash of TD and 105 fire.

Small-arms battles raged around the German strong-points. One steel-and-concrete pillbox was surrounded by men of C Company, who yelled at the Germans to surrender. The Germans yelled back in English: "Go to hell," and blasted away with machine guns. The TDs took the pillbox under a shattering storm of direct fire. Shells poured like a hail of dynamite into the enemy position. Soon afterward someone inside yelled "Kamerad! Kamerad!" and 12 shell-shocked Krauts filed out, hands in the air.

But there were still many enemy strong-points directing machine-gun fire, and well-placed mortar bursts were falling among the unprotected American men along that slope above the dragon's teeth, where men of the 23rd Engineers worked frenziedly to blast the concrete tank obstacles. A couple of the stubby concrete pyramids blew up in clouds of earth and explosive, but the path was not all the way through.

Then Colonel Doan saw a path that had already been opened - a narrow clearing possibly wide enough for a tank, which had apparently been made by farmers from the adjoining fields, and it hadn't yet been replugged by German soldiers.

Doan dispatched a "Scorpion," or flail tank, which is a Sherman with a revolving drum of chains at the front, to the area, to clear a path through the mines. The tank waddled into the opening, with its chain-flails flopping in front - and in a minute it was stuck!

The flail chains had become entangled in the wreckage of a couple of dragon's teeth. Now the tank's powerplant screamed as Sergeant Sverry "Weegie" Dahl, the tank commander, ordered his driver to rock the monster free. Two Sherman tanks came up behind to help, but the flail tank seemed helplessly stuck.

German mortar fire was still falling on the hillside beyond the dragon's teeth, and small-arms fire ricocheted among the concrete barriers, but the crew of the flail tank piled out of their vehicle and began to work feverishly to disentangle the flails. German machine-gun and sniper fire snapped near them, but they finally freed the flails. The two following tanks pulled the flail tank clear. Then the Scorpion roared forward again into the gap - and a line of Shermans followed. The enemy small-arms fire slackened as the American tanks labored up the hillside. The first ring of the famed Siegfried Line had been broken.

From there on the Spearhead tanks and armored infantrymen roamed through the Siegfried fortifications without meeting much resistance, cleaning up pockets of enemy troops. Of the 20 tanks that followed the flail through the gap in dragon's teeth, seven were knocked out, and the riflemen lost many men, including Captain Louis F. Plummer (wounded and evacuated), who had led the first group up the hillside above the tank barrier.

The mass of the Spearhead armor filtered through the break in the Siegfried, making the hold of the Americans on this section of the German defensive line secure. Some of the soldiers captured in the area were evidence that at this point the bottom of the German barrel was being scraped for soldiers: many genuine 4Fs surrendered, including several aged veterans of World War I. One non-com, aged 63, had been a non-com in 1914. Another had only one leg. Others were extremely young, only 16 or 17.

The 3rd Armored now coiled its might on the edge of the Rhineland and waited for the infantry divisions of the First Army to come up and reinforce them. The 1st and 9th Divisions came up, but after the breathless dash across France, Belgium and the edge of Holland, all of the outfits, especially the Spearhead, needed maintenance, repair and reinforcement. The Rhine, lying just ahead, would demand immense strength, and the Germans, it was felt, would fight determinedly there.

The thinly stretched American divisions halted just inside the German border, while thousands of trucks charged across Europe to bring them fresh troops, food, gasoline and ammunition. On the other side, the German commander, Von Rundstedt, was using the time to do the same - to rush reinforcements and supplies from all parts of Germany to bolster the ailing front, one of many sore spots that now afflicted the Nazis.

During this time, October-November, 1944, many generals were predicting that the war would be over by Christmas. In northern Europe, British and American forces had almost reached the Rhine. In the south, Patton had made a wide swing across Central France and penetrated the Saar as far as Metz. And massive Allied bomber raids had crippled Germany's supply of vital materials such as gasoline and steel.

But on December 16, 1944, Von Rundstedt gathered five panzer divisions, and a half-dozen infantry and paratroop divisions, at the center of the Western Front, opposite Luxembourg and Southern Belgium, and drove in between the far-stretched positions of the American First and Third Armies. It was a blowy, rainy, wintry day in the Ardennes. The 3rd Armored, bivouacked near Stolberg in the Rhineland, was ordered south, CCA to support the American Corps near Eupen, CCB to La Gleize. The 703rd Tank Destroyers were detached and sent to aid the 1st Infantry Division. In the confusion of the Ardennes fighting, as the American Army commanders sought to shrink Von Rundstedt's salient, the 3rd Armored was broken into several small "fire brigades," and sent to various trouble spots on the front.

For a perilous few days, as snow fell and Allied planes were unable to fly, it looked as if the Germans might break through to Liege. For a time part of CCB was surrounded by the elite First SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Panzer Division. It had a desperate battle for existence, but wouldn't surrender.

With only part of CCA under his direct command, General Rose had to be satisfied with delaying tactics in the chaotic, fluid front. But he managed to hold the Manhay-Houffalize road, even though several of his units, like Task Force Hogan (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sam Hogan), were surrounded.

The Germans besieging Hogan in the snowy Marcouray sector sent him a messenger demanding surrender. Hogan told the German emissary: "If you want this town, come right in and take it." Hogan was practically out of both gasoline and ammunition - but the bluff worked. The Germans tried a brief assault, but were discouraged by expert fire from Hogan's tankers, and settled for siege tactics.

The German attacks continued through Christmas - a confused, terrifying, bloody Christmas Day during which many American fighting men thought the game was lost, and casualties mounted by the hundreds. But General Rose, unshaken even when a German V-l "buzz bomb" landed 100 yards from his jeep, remained cool and kept his scattered forces fighting. Then American reinforcements began to arrive in small numbers on the snowy battleground.

By December 30 the Germans were retiring in the face of mounting American reinforcements - under pressure by all U.S. units. When the Spearhead Division was pulled out to rest and refit in early January, its losses totaled 1473 casualties, 187 of them killed in action, the rest wounded or missing. They had lost 125 medium tanks, 38 light tanks, six artillery pieces, 158 trucks, jeeps and other vehicles.

But the balance was in their favor. Enemy battle casualties were estimated at 2245, plus 2510 prisoners. Enemy materiel destroyed amounted to 98 tanks, 20 self-propelled guns, 76 trucks, 23 anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, and eight artillery pieces.

By February 15, 1945, the Spearhead Division was ready to go again. On February 22, it was advancing on the Roer River and the Rhineland city of Duren - moving fast ahead of the supporting foot-slogging divisions, as in France and Belgium. But now the skies were gray and cold, the roads muddy and the signs were written in German.

It charged through Sindorf, Pattendorf, Berrendorf, Morschenich, Niederaussem; resistance was light, sometimes almost pitiful. The Germans had shot their bolt in the Ardennes. There were hundreds of thousands of German troops inside Germany, but resistance was disorganized after the Bulge. On March 3, the Spearhead had reached Busdorf, less than four miles from the holy Rhine city of Cologne. In two days, CCA and CCB had cracked their way into the cathedral city, the largest German city yet to fall on the Western Front.

German troops fought for every block of the bombed-out city, with 88s, machine guns, Panzerfausts (German bazookas), and sniper fire.

One Spearhead tank commander, Sergeant John Burleson, spotted a sniper in a wrecked building and pointed him out to his gunner, Corporal Hubert Foster. Foster fired once with the tank's 76 gun.

"Get him?" Burleson asked.

"Don't know," Foster answered, "but he was standing behind that wall- and now there ain't no wall!"

One fact made the conquest of the great Rhine city swifter: the Division had been issued a few new M-26 Pershing tanks and tank-destroyers with 90 nun guns, more powerful even than the German 88s. At last the American tanks could duel with Panthers and Tigers on something like even terms. In the shadow of Cologne's great cathedral, a Panther, which had just destroyed one of the Spearhead's older tanks, a Sherman (killing the three American crewmen), was hit by an armor-piercing round from a new M-26. The German tank burst into flames and exploded. The tankers were wildly eager to meet the German panzers now - with a chance to even old scores.

Working with the 104th and 8th Infantry Divisions, the 3rd Armored cleared the bombed-out city of enemy by March 7, rested for two weeks, and on March 20 began to move out on a new assignment to the south. They were entering the last phase of the Spearhead's campaign in Europe - which would bring them their most brilliant victory, and at the same time, their saddest loss.

The Division crossed the Rhine by pontoon bridge at Honnef, and rumbled into the industrial Ruhr. Again, as in northern France, General Courtney Hodges' First Army had the most important target, the center of German war production, and General "Lightning Joe" Collins, who commanded one of Hodges' two Corps, flung Maurice Rose's armored division into the spearhead position.

On March 25, Division columns roared into action: the 83rd Recon tanks, armored cars and jeeps were at the front (with General Rose); the squat, heavy-shouldered shapes of the Shermans and Pershings rumbled in column behind them; the new TDs with their long-barreled 90s, followed along with the engineers, the signalmen, ambulances, and the long trains of artillery and supply vehicles, exhausts ripping the air of a gray dawn - an armored division moving into battle.

For the first two days the advance went slowly. Parts of the German Fifth Panzer Army, under General von Manteuffel, fought a hard withdrawing action through Eudenbach, Griesenbach, Maulsbach and Altenkirchen. Then, suddenly, on a sunny spring day, the combat commands began to make speed against light resistance. And as before, the speed of the tanks caught many German outfits by surprise. The towns of Herborn, Dillenburg, Bottenhorn, Holyhausen fell, and the Dill River was swiftly crossed.

Prisoners began to surrender by the hundreds. Colonel Yeomans, boss of the 83rd Recon, called in by radio: "We have so many prisoners we don't know what to do with them!" Even General Rose, in his jeep with his aide. Major Robert Bellinger, and his driver, T/5 Glen Shaunce, rounded up 12 prisoners after a pistol duel with 15 enemy along a lonely road near Rehe, and held them at pistol point until MPs came to pick them up.

By the night of the 28th of March, the 3rd Armored had captured more than 3000 prisoners. Now the biggest job of their battle history had been given to Spearhead: They were ordered to swing sharply north, and race 90-odd miles to Paderborn - which was the German armored training center - and there link up with the American Ninth Army coming in from the west.

The supporting divisions of the First Army would follow in the Spearhead's tracks to reinforce their penetration. If all this could be done, the whole Ruhr section would be cut off, and with it, an estimated 376,000 German troops, caught in a nutcracker between two American armies. It was the kind of challenge General Rose liked.

He flung his division into the attack, himself, of course, up at the front. At first the attack went fast, then as the tanks hit a town called Kirchborchen, which was soon renamed "Bazooka-town" by the Spearheaders, a series of fiery explosions stopped the progress of the armored columns. Here, only six miles from Paderborn, a do-or-die force of SS Death's Head troops supported by 200 Hitler Jugend volunteers, attacked the Spearhead tanks with Panzerfaust rocket launchers. Behind them Panther tanks reinforced the defenses of the town. The fighting raged all through that night of March 30, in Kirchborchen.

But on the left flank of the Division attack, General Rose led his other units toward Paderborn, and the gate of the war's greatest flanking maneuver was nearly closed. It was a moment of great triumph for the general. His Spearhead Division had almost completed the assigned mission: 96 miles against opposition in 24 hours, to the assigned target. All that remained now was for the 9th Army to come in from the west and make the link-up which would seal off the Ruhr. The general's small convoy of vehicles - three jeeps, an armored car and two motorcycles - was following the most advanced elements of Task Force Welborn into the outskirts of Paderborn. The general's convoy was barreling along a dirt road, trying to catch up with the leading tanks. It was nearly dusk.

Suddenly, enemy anti-tank and machine-gun fire blasted from both sides of the road. A tank was knocked out by a streak of direct fire, and a jeep disintegrated under a direct hit.

The general's driver, T/5 Shaunce, spun the general's jeep to the roadside, and almost instantaneously Rose, his aide Major Bellinger, and Shaunce, hit the roadside ditch. The general kept his Tommy gun in his arms. While small-arms fire rattled ahead, General Rose got onto his radio and called back to Division Forward Headquarters asking for support to come up to reinforce the forward element, Task Force Welborn.

This was to be the Spearhead commander's last order. A moment later, he and the others saw enemy tanks approaching from the rear - the mammoth, lumbering shapes of Tigers. General Rose's small group of vehicles had no choice but to charge full-tilt after Task Force Welborn.

They raced ahead toward a crossroads where the Welborn tanks had turned right. The Germans fired a storm of bright tracers after them. One of the motorcyclists had his bike shot out from under him and scrambled aboard the armored car.

[Webmaster's Note: The next paragraph is an extreme over-simplification of events surrounding Gen. Rose's death, according to newer research results presented in the Rose biography published in 2003 and authored by Steven L. Ossad and Don R. Marsh.]

The little convoy reached the crossroads, and there, standing in the middle of the road, was a Tiger tank. Shaunce's jeep was pinned between a tree and the Tiger. Shaunce, Bellinger and General Rose climbed out of the jeep while a German soldier covered them with a machine pistol from atop the turret of the tank. By now it was almost dark, and neither could see what was happening. No one knows exactly what occurred after that - possibly General Rose reached for his .45 - but suddenly the German was firing his burp-gun and the general fell forward, shot dead.

In the confusion, Shaunce and Bellinger broke for the fields. The armored car and its crew were captured, but the rest of the general's party escaped.

Relentlessly, the Spearhead strength rolled up and knocked out the small German force.

Later, the Spearhead tankers sadly recovered the body of their distinguished commanding general. He was buried in a cemetery near Ittenbach. It was a sad blow for the Spearhead, but the general had trained them to keep on fighting. Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey, commander of CCA, moved up to take command of the Division. Hal Boyle, the AP correspondent who was one of the many war correspondent-admirers of General Rose and his Spearhead Division, wrote: "Rose lived and died as a professional, in a career he loved and followed since he was a boy of 17. He would be the last to regret that he had a soldier's ending."

Within six weeks after Rose's death, the European war was over. V-E Day came on May 8, with the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces, at a little red schoolhouse at Reims, France, the headquarters of General Eisenhower.

General Collins bid the Spearhead men farewell with official words of praise, delivered to General Hickey: "It is with great regret that the VII Corps bids adieu to its spearhead division. Since the days of the St. Lo-Marigny breakthrough, your division has led most of the great offensives of this corps ... The VII Corps is proud of the 3rd Armored Division and its great accomplishments."

The Division was proud, too; especially proud of the handsome, hard-hitting general who had led them to victory, and given his life on the field of battle. In that, he was representative of his group, a tanker's tanker. A total of 2214 officers and men of the Spearhead Division had made the same sacrifice.


Return to Top

Feature Index      NEXT