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Rhineland, Phase 2
Early February, 1945 - March 21, 1945




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Opening the Flood Gates

The "Spearhead" Division rumbled out of Belgium on a misty, wet day in early February. The roads were deep in mud, but ice and snow had disappeared and spring was definitely on the way. The new assembly area was familiar terrain; tanks and half-tracks clattered back into the pill-box dotted hills of Stolberg and Breinig, into the shattered towns of bitter memory. At full strength, rested and ready, the 3rd tensed for the H-Hour of combat. This time it was to be a smash across the Roer and a powerful offensive to reach the Rhine. General Courtney Hodges expected his First Army to destroy much of the German's potential power strength in the campaign about to begin.

In the meantime, melting snow and a heavy rainfall had swollen the Roer River. German engineers further aggravated the situation by opening floodgates. The muddy torrent was as effective a barrier as the old Siegfried Line. There was nothing to do but wait for a lowering of the stream levels. Artillery and air preparation went on, and the 104th and 8th Infantry Divisions jockeyed for their positions. These doughs were to cross the river first.

On February 23, the doughboy assault teams jumped off and crossed the still swollen river. By the 25th all crossings had been secured and Duren was cleared. Elements of the 3rd Armored Division were alerted for movement and orders came down to combat commanders.

In the misty half-light of dawn on February 26, the First Army's big steel cutting edge moved out. In multiple columns, Combat Command "A" on the right, and Combat Command "B" on the left, the "Spearhead" Division crossed the Roer behind Major General Terry Allen's "Timberwolves," shook loose, and began to drive!

Here was no Ardennes of ice and bitter snow, of impossible conditions and a bow to enemy initiative. This was it - the old, pounding, smashing pursuit, the fortified towns, each with its main streets barricaded, vehicles overturned and buildings smoldering in ruin. German dead lay by the roadside among the pagan effects of their falling empire: the swastika flags, the official papers of Nazi government, and the litter of cross-marked personal belongings, brownshirt uniforms and cheap splendor that marked the Reich in its most arrogant days.

Before the early sunset on February 26, Task Force "X" had captured Blatzheim and penetrated Bergenhausen despite heavy and accurate anti-tank fire. Task Force Kane and the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, commanded by leather-lunged, irascible Colonel Prentice E. Yeomans, had cleared Manheim. General Boudinot's Task Force Welborn was doing as well; it reached the outskirts of Elsdorf while Task Force Lovelady followed swiftly. Combat Command "Reserve" was still held in abeyance slightly to the rear.

On February 27, the dusty, speeding tankers of Task Force "X" blasted into Kerpen on the Erft Canal. Now the division was less than nine miles from Cologne. Task Force Kane had reached Sindorf against anti-tank, artillery, and small arms resistance. Mine fields slowed the attacking armor but did not halt the push in any respect.

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Objective: Cologne (Köln)

In Sindorf, Lt. Richard J. Robertson and his men surmounted a heap of obstacles to accomplish their mission.

Robertson had been ordered to establish a road block at a vital crossing near the town. Originally, the plan called for medium tanks and infantry to shove on through the particular area, but somehow there was difficulty. The doughs were pinned down and the Shermans were late because of muddy terrain. Robertson, and his featherweight force of light tanks, went on.

It was anything but easy. A tank-roller, used for the clearing of mine fields, was hit by high velocity fire and destroyed. A tank-destroyer, trailing the column, unaccountably hit a mine. Anti-tank and small arms fire mounted in intensity. Artillery blanketed the area. Sgt. Andrew J. Narolis, commanding an armored car, received head wounds when a shell burst beside his vehicle. The plucky non-com attended to a wounded infantryman before seeking aid for his own hurts.

After furious fighting to the position, Robenson's light tanks set up the desired road block and outposted the area. In spite of heavy enemy action, the small group held.

The first American shells fell into the western suburbs of Cologne on this date. They were fired by the 991st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, an attached unit of the "Spearhead" Division. Gunners of the 991st dropped a number of 155 mm projectiles into the city from the extreme range of 26,100 yards, thus adding another "first" to an already brilliant record.

Now, with the Erft Canal constituting the last barrier before Cologne, Major General Rose committed his reserve force. Combat Command "Howze" rolled forward in two task forces, one led by Lt. Colonel Walter B. Richardson, and the other by Lt. Colonel Hogan, both Texans and longtime rivals. In order to speed them forward, General Rose promised a case of scotch to the first task force commander across the vital water barrier.

By 2130 on February 27, the men of Task Force Hogan had crossed the Canal at Glesch, using a partially destroyed foot bridge. At Paffendorf, Richardson's men waded and clambered over a second twisted span. Although Colonel Hogan reached the east bank of the key canal first, it was Richardson who put in the first bridge and later had the first tanks rolling on to the plain before Cologne. The fate of the scotch is not recorded, but it is doubted that either commander would have found time to enjoy it during the drive.

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"People's Army" at Church

Pushing relentlessly, men of Task Force Lovelady met the Reich's much publicized "Volkssturm" in Berrendorf. Five hundred of the town's civilians had gathered in a little Roman Catholic church to await the coming of the Americans. With them were 87 members of the German "People's Army." With invasion at their doorstep, these reluctant warriors had chosen to wait in the place of worship rather than draw arms at the local Nazi headquarters and fight it out with the invaders. The Volkssturm was not impressive. These last-ditch soldiers taken at Berrendorf were just tired old men with deadly fear in their eyes. Their attitude indicated the state of German morale. They knew that no defense could step the drive to the Rhine. The extensive earthworks and trench systems which had been steadily constructed during the past five months had proved little obstacle to the tanks and infantrymen of the 3rd Armored Division - chiefly because the "Spearhead" attack was swift and enemy troops had no opportunity to properly man their fortifications.

GI's made another startling discovery at Berrendorf. They found a triple suicide. They were just an average German family - a middle aged man, his wife, and their twenty-year-old daughter. They lived in a good home on the main street of town, and they had a little dog, a sort of mongrel dachshund. The old man was thin and mustachioed. His wife was very heavy in the German way of the hausfrau - and Elizabeth, the daughter, was just another of those plump, slacked and sweatered frauleins who looked coyly at passing Americans and were willing to be nice for a bar of chocolate.

Only Elizabeth wasn't making with the coy glances any more - because she was dead. So were her parents. So was the small, dubious dachshund. They all lay together on the straw, each with a cord fastened tightly around his neck. They'd done a good, efficient job of it too. The bodies lay where they had been cut down. The severed ropes dangled grotesquely from a rafter. There was a table. There were a couple of notes.

Elizabeth's note was to a certain Gefreiter - how she ever expected it to be delivered was not immediately explained. The note merely reminisced - "and how nice it was when you used to come and visit," mentioning the tragedy only in a closing, "hope you will not hate us for what we have decided to do." The other note was brief and to the point. Its gist was that "we cannot live in shame any longer."

The three had taken their own lives. Germany had asked for war - now it rolled through the streets of her small towns. Here was a tragedy, and yet it was a direct boomerang to these people who had applauded death and destruction for the rest of Europe. American guns had not totally destroyed Berrendorf. In fact this house was undamaged; yet three corpses lay on the straw in this dim barn. Outside, American armor thundered toward the front.

American troops, familiar with death by gunfire, gazed silently at the ropes which had provided a way out for these three. There was something akin to wonder on the GI faces. They couldn't understand such philosophy.

Death, of course, no longer had a deep meaning to these soldiers. It was part and parcel of the job and they had become accustomed to the sight and the stench of the battlefields. Each of the small fortified towns was a shambles by the time the 3rd Armored Division had passed through. The defenders lay where they had fallen among tangled equipment and debris of a vain stand.

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Assault on Cologne

The bridgehead over the Erft was expanded considerably on February 28, and enough armor was brought into the area to repel a coordinated infantry-tank counter-attack. The 3rd regrouped and made plans for the forthcoming assault on Cologne. Heavy mortar and artillery concentrations harassed bridgehead forces, but Division Artillery traded blow for blow with enemy guns. Jerry was nervous and as soon as dusk arrived he began to do something about the "Spearhead" threat. Scores of German airplanes appeared over division positions in an attempt to silence Colonel Brown's artillery. All night long the Luftwaffe whipped over the area, dropping bombs and dodging the ack-ack thrown up by the 486th Armored Anti-Aircraft Battalion and other First Army units. It was a trying night for men of the commands. There was the constant hum of aircraft, each individual machine sounding as though it was missing on two cylinders. Then there'd be the eerie, rising whistle of the bombs and, if they were close, the unbelievably loud crash and slide of broken masonry. Gunners of the 67th Armored Field Artillery Battalion suffered losses, but several of the German planes were knocked down and the artillery never flagged.

The 325th Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division, and the 4th Cavalry Group were attached at this time. Bergheim and Kenton fell to the 395th Regimental Combat Team, and the enemy lost those hills, east of the Erft, from which he had been observing, and shelling, American bridging operations.

The push for Cologne began on March 2 when reconnaissance elements cleared an area northwest of Niederaussem and Task Force Richardson pounded into the town. Later, a remarkable incident was recorded in Niederaussem when Division Forward Echelon moved in on the heels of assault elements. A German high explosive shell landed outside the CP and a fragment whirled through the open window. When Lt. Colonel Wesley A. Sweat and his G-3 section examined the damage they found that the one tiny piece of red hot metal had pierced the exact center of the division's new objective on the operations map! Also at Niederaussem, war correspondents had merely to look out of the window at division Forward Echelon headquarters and they could see the battle progressing less than 1,000 yards away. They agreed that General Rose preferred the front line to a more healthy place somewhere in the rear.

By March 3, the "Spearhead" was poised less than four miles from the outskirts of Cologne. Task Force "X" of General Doyle O. Hickey's CC "A" had taken Fliesteden along with many prisoners.

There was heavy fighting in each of the towns which guarded approaches to the big city. At Busdorf, men of Colonel Pane's command knocked out several self-propelled guns. A pitched battle developed at Stommein, but the determined tankers and infantrymen of task forces under Colonels Richardson, Lovelady, and Hogan, beat their way through a defense which included armor, anti-tank guns, and mines. The assault forces continued to batter ahead, aided by the ever-present Thunderbolts of 12th TAC.

Colonel Prentice E. Yeomans' 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion received the order it had been waiting for on the evening of March 3. The light tanks, tank-destroyers and armored cars of the battle group moved out under cover of darkness and pushed swiftly ahead. The way led over flat lands between little, shell battered towns. In this night operation, the 83rd's doughboys led, slogging along in well spaced double columns. Behind them the tanks and tank-destroyers followed cautiously. A battery of rocket launchers was active to the right front, and once "Screaming Meemies" fell close to the column. The men hugged the ground and sweated it out for dragging moments. There was little cover, but the threatening shells fell short. The column moved on.

At Roggendorf, the recon troopers found a well dug-in defense protecting ferry sites, so the lightly armored but swift elements of the "Spearhead" turned north toward Hackhausen. Here they captured a battery of 105mm guns, still hitched to prime movers, and a huge munitions dump of the Wehrmacht.

After taking Hackhausen, the next mission involved a direct patrol action to the Rhine. Lt. Charles E. Coates and a specially chosen trio: Lt. Lawrence E. Grey, S/Sgt. Paul H. Julian, and Sgt. Aaron Muller, set out immediately. They travelled light with faces blackened.

It was a dark, miserable morning, black as pitch. A cold wind was blowing from the north and the men shivered constantly. Still they remained alert and once hugged the ground as a group of enemy soldiers passed nearby.

Travelling cross-country, Coates and his men finally came upon a road which they recognized from map study of the area. It paralleled the river. There was a scattering of traffic and a few Jerry infantrymen nearby, their voices carrying in the early morning air.

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A Peek at the Rhine

Presently the patrol moved across the road. There below them was the mud and the swift current of Germany's sacred Rhine. It was 0420 hours on the morning of March 4, 1945, and these four men of the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion were the first Americans of the First Army to reach the last great water barrier protecting Hitler's Third Reich.

After securing Hackhausen, Colonel Yeoman's elements joined the troops of Colonel Lovelady in an attack on Worringen and Roggendorf. By twilight of March 4, both towns had been taken. The 4th Cavalry Group mopped up further to the northwest of Hackhausen. Now the bulk of the " Spearhead" was ready to slam a steel wedge into the heart of Cologne.

At 0710 hours on March 5, 1945, Colonel Leander L. Doan's crack Task Force "X" entered Cologne through the northwest suburbs and was soon fighting through the Binkendorf area. These tankers and infantrymen, engineers, artillerists and personnel of all the other arms and services which made up the team of the "Spearhead" were the first Americans to enter the big city.

There was furious tank and anti-tank warfare as the American elements pushed toward the center of their objective. Under a smoke screen, the tanks clattered forward with infantry riding on their decks. Sixteen dual purpose 88mm anti-aircraft guns were overrun at the airport by Task Force Lovelady.

In Cologne, the largest of Hitler's cities to fall to an American or a British attack, Combat Command "B" faced greatest resistance when it attempted to reach the river front. Here, ferries were busily engaged in removing beaten troops from the west to the east bank of the Rhine. In spite of a stubborn, dogged delaying action, Task Force Welborn took a number of towns on the outskirts and moved into the city a short while after CC "A" had reported entry.

Heavy fighting continued during March 5, with Jerry forces using dual purpose anti-aircraft guns, panzerfausts and small arms. Lt. Hugh U. McBirney, leading a platoon of Shermans, battled anti-tank defenses and dodged the big rocket explosives all day. There were plenty of snipers in the wreckage of the city. Sgt. John Burleson observed one and his gunner, Cpl. Hubert Foster, fired once with the tank's 76mm gun.

"Get him?" Burleson asked tersely.

"Don't know," Foster said, "but he was standing behind thai wall - And now there ain't no wall!"

It was like that all the way. Cologne, pounded by allied bombers and shell fire, was a sniper's paradise. Each Kraut had to be separately located and dug out of the ruins.

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Hohenzollern Bridge Blown

On March 6, as 3rd Armored Division elements probed closer to the river, the enemy blew the great Hohenzollern Bridge. It was the last hour of Nazi controlled Cologne. Armored infantry, shorn of armor in combat, went plodding in two well spaced lines down the battered streets. Behind them rolled the tanks. On this last day of resistance, American forces were taking no chances. The team was clicking. Engineers searched for mines and were thankful to find none. Rubble and broken glass crunched beneath the feet of the infantry.

An unnatural silence had settled over the great metropolis. Sporadic mortar fire still crumped loudly in the stillness, and a few snipers kept tumbling out of the high-piled ruins. German resistance had grown spotty toward the last but there was still an occasional whirr of artillery and a heavy blast as the enemy's big 380 mm guns attempted to lay down harassing fire. 1st Sgt. Lamar McCrary, a famous "Spearhead" doughboy, advised a group of war correspondents to "get your steel helmets on if you want to live." McCrary wasn't inferring that German defensive fire was heavy; he merely found that garrison caps resembled the headgear worn by defending Krauts. McCrary's troops had been fighting steadily for days. When they sighted the enemy it was only for a brief moment. They were quick on the trigger and very accurate. There just wasn't time to consider a strange uniform.

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Duel at the Cathedral

The armored infantry, supported by tanks, cleared the area about Cologne's famous Dom cathedral and reached the Rhine on March 6. General Boudinot's elements also reached the river, clearing a factory district which was defended by last-ditch resistance. A sullen plume of black smoke hung over the great Hohenzollern Bridge, but it appeared that Cologne was swiftly passing into the limbo of "rear echelon." There was, however, a final, convulsive struggle to be decided before the city was secure.
A pair of army photographers, T/3 Leon Rosenman, and T/4 James Bates, shooting motion pictures of a Panther tank they believed to be knocked out, were shocked when the big enemy vehicle suddenly turned to open fire on an American Sherman. The Sherman was hit and three Yanks, possibly the last to die in the attack on this great Rhineland city, were killed.

One of the division's new M-26 Pershing tanks accepted the challenge and fired on the Mark V almost immediately. After a swift exchange of armor-piercing rounds, the Nazi panzerwagon burst into flames and burned fiercely in the very shadow of the cathedral. The cameramen got it all - a sequence of battle which ranks high among great war pictures.

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A Dead, Once Great City

By March 7, Cologne was completely cleared by the spearheading 3rd Armored Division, and by the 104th and 8th Infantry Divisions. It was a dead city, a place of rubble which represented five years of aerial bombardment and final invasion by ground forces. Although it had taken ground action to apply the coup de grace, tankers needed no argument to convince them of the importance of air power. The evidence was there to see. Cologne was not a pretty place. The rail marshalling yards were total ruin. Factories, for the most part, had returned to the dust. Public utilities were a joke and the highways were mountainous with rubble. Even the old cathedral was painfully damaged; shrapnel marks scored its frescoed walls; the stained glass windows were gone; and one wing lay in tangled wreckage.

Cologne was a perfect specimen for the study of air-ground, cooperation. Here was a great German city which, by location and facilities, was a natural nerve center of Nazi communications with the rest of western Europe. Through its rail yards shuttled the troops of Rommel and von Rundstedt for the defense of Normandy, the war materiel, the tanks, the guns and equipment of the Wehrmacht. This was the funnel through which much of Germany's power spilled into Belgium and France. It was an important place, a thriving metropolis of neat, concentric streets and roaring industry. Cologne had been a seat of German culture and religion, a focal point of power and, at the last, a bastion of defense for the Third Reich.

The great Nippes marshalling yards, through which elements of Task Force Welborn advanced, bore the heavy mark of the USAAF and the RAF. Roundhouses and repair buildings were masses of tangled wreckage. Hundreds of freight cars and oil tankers rusted in silence on the broken sidings. There were scores of bomb craters and occasional duds, upended sections of track and powdered ruin everywhere.

Major William J. Derner, inspecting the yards, estimated that 800 cars were undamaged and might be put to use immediately by the allies. As many more were destroyed. Two carloads of 80mm mortar ammunition, which could be used by American forces, were left behind. There was one complete load of 75mm anti-tank gun tubes, the German loss of which was a great satisfaction to Colonel Welborn's tankers. Ammunition of all kinds, including a carload of heavy 24 centimeter stuff, lots of engineer equipment, including a salt water diving suit, and eight carloads of ordnance spare parts, were lost to the German war effort.

Although the railroads of the big Rhineland city appeared to be completely given over to the military, strange cargoes alternated with the explosives, medical equipment, and army salvage. There was, for instance, a load of Cologne water and another freighter packed solidly with horse meat. Tankers debated the aromatic merits of the ten-day-old horse flesh against the toilet water - so often used by German troops - and couldn't reach any agreement. Personal belongings, coal, sugar beets, and other like items, filled more cars. Russian slave laborers, Poles, and a smattering of Frenchmen who had been held captive by the German government, systematically looted cars and stations. American MP's restored order with some difficulty.

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Liberation of a Political Prison

On March 8, "Spearhead" troops liberated inmates of the notorious Staats Gefangt Prison which housed political enemies of the Third Reich. Eighty-five miserable human beings, some of them so weak that they were unable to move, and others who had been hiding in the inner recesses of the building, were all that remained of an original 800. The others had either expired in the prison or had been evacuated east of the Rhine.

In addition to suffering from malnutrition, many of the inmates of Staats Gefangt had contracted typhus. American authorities moved the ill to a military hospital and fed the others preparatory to repatriating them.

There was a strange letdown after the flaming excitement of combat. Cologne was quiet. An occasional artillery shell came lobbing across the river and mortars still erupted in evil crumps of sound, but "incoming mail" was light. "Spearhead" personnel cleaned up, performed maintenance on their vehicles and prepared for the next drive - the offensive which almost certainly meant the end of the war in the west. There was plenty of Cognac and Champagne in the city and no one suffered for lack of drink.

Rumors immediately began to ricochet through Cologne. There was some speculation on the further action of the 3rd Armored Division. One remarkable story declared that the "Spearhead" was scheduled to halt at Cologne. The yarn was either accepted as accurate, or laughed to scorn. Most of the tankers and infantrymen, much as they hated combat, would have felt left out of the party if the division was indeed pulled out of action. These men had been the first team of the First Army since Normandy. They were the first through the Westwall, the first to take and hold a German town. The 3rd had a reputation.

When Major General J. Lawton Collins later presented Division Headquarters Company and Forward Echelon a Distinguished Unit Citation for heroism in action, he said: "Since the St. Lo days I have commanded a great many divisions. All of them were fine, but a few were great - and this is one of the great divisions."

Down at Remagen, the 9th Armored Division had concluded another brilliant operation by seizing the Ludendorff Bridge across the Rhine on March 7. Now First Army elements were engaged in defending the vital span against suicide attacks by the Luftwaffe and in expanding the bridgehead. Presently the 3rd Armored Division received new orders. The combat commands moved out, Combat Command "Howze" first, on March 20, and the remainder of the division on the 23rd. The "Spearhead" crossed Germany's sacred river by way of a pontoon bridge at Honnef. The last rat race was about to begin.

Next Chapter: Central Germany

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