From the Woolner Family
© Leslie Woolner Bardsley
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Frank Woolner
Journalist, Headquarters, 3rd Armored Division

A version apparently written after the war for publication in the
Worcester Sunday Telegram Magazine (Mass.) in 1945


SOMEWHERE IN GERMANY, March, 1945 -- So we reached the Rhine. There it was, wide and curving, silver in the late afternoon sunlight. I'd always wanted to see the storied river - but not this way. I'd hoped to come in peace time, to cross the Hohenzollern bridge at Cologne and then to follow the entire valley, the fabled Rhine of the Nibelungian tales and the Loreleiberg. I'd wanted to talk to the people of this city and to see the magnificent old cathedral as it was before the war. Of course, that was an impossibility now.

"We come as conquerors," said General Eisenhower to the enemy, and there was no doubt about that in anyone's mind. The communiques that tell of 1000 bombers over a city can never adequately picture the destructive power of such a force. You have to go and see for yourself.

Cologne is not a pretty place. The rail marshalling yards are total ruin. Factories, for the most part, have returned to the dust. Public utilities are a joke, and the highways are mountainous with rubble. Even the old cathedral has been damaged; shrapnel marks score its frescoed walls, the stained glass windows are gone, and one wing lies in tangled wreckage.

I'll never see old Cologne, because it is gone. If Worcester's [Mass.] Tommy Powers, or Bob Gray, or Stanley Reska, or any of the rest of us return to this city after the war, we'll feel too many old memories to be comfortable. I'm afraid we'd walk down the streets warily, looking for the sniper in the window and marking each spot where the armor fought, or the Panthers died.

When the Third Armored "Spearhead" Division hit Germany in September, 1944, it was in a last burst of effort. Our supply lines could not keep up. We were running on nerve and mechanical miracles. Vehicles needed maintenance. Men were haggard with fatigue. But we went on through the line and we hit Stolberg, took half of it - and paused. The pause lasted for nearly four months, and then we were jolted by German Gen. von Rundstedt's Christmas breakthrough into Belgium.

So the 3rd picked up its tracks in a hurry and went down to blunt the panzer armies and to help in the counterattacks in Arctic temperatures which turned back and defeated the powerful offensive. That was a vicious fight, the hardest in the career of this big steel striking force. Corp. Raymond O. Wallman, of 3 Otto Avenue, Worcester, was with his anti-aircraft battalion when it was attached to the famous "Task Force Hogan." TF Hogan, a battle group of the 3rd Armored Division, was cut off by German forces for five days and had to completely destroy its vehicles and march out through German lines on Christmas night. It was no fun for Ray or his crewmates.

Pfc. Robert E. Gray of 11 Winthrop Street, with the division's armored infantry, found that cold weather was a greater enemy than the Nazis. It snowed furiously in Belgium, and it was cold with a sweeping wind. Snow covered the fields of anti-tank and personnel mines. Frozen ground made foxhole construction a nightmare. Men came out of the line continuously with frozen feet. S. Sgt. Thomas F. Powers Jr., of 39 Beaver Street, a tank destroyer supply man, turned his quarters into a rest center. They called it "Task Force Powers," and someone even painted that legend on a sign to hang outside.

Pfc. Stanley Reska of Winter Street, Worcester, an assistant gunner on a tank-destroyer, spent most of his evenings traversing the big 90mm gun so that its cradle would not freeze solid. No campaign is pleasant, but Winter warfare is a soldier's idea of hell on earth.

Then, suddenly, the "bulge" had been deflated, and the "Spearhead" came out of the line for a short rest in Belgium. Almost miraculously, the sun came out, the snow disappeared, and we began to look toward Spring.

One day the inevitable order came down - we were moving up. It was Germany again. New tanks, new guns, and the latest equipment were issued. The 3rd Armored Division was ready. This time we were going to the Rhine. We were glad to get moving. The hardest part of warfare is the "sitting around," the waiting for something to happen.

We jumped off across the Roer river at Duren behind Maj. Gen. Terry Allen's 104th "Timberwolf" Infantry. Then, the "Spearhead" began to drive. It was the old smashing pursuit, the fortified towns, each with its main street barricaded, vehicles overturned and buildings smouldering.

In a church at Berrendorf, the armored infantry found more than 500 civilians and 87 of the much publicized Volkssturm. They were just tired old men with deadly fear in their eyes. They had chosen one of two alternatives - to go to the Nazi headquarters where their hastily issued arms were stored, or to await capture in the village church. They never hesitated.

In Germany, of course, there is always the possibility of guerilla warfare by armed civilians. We had some sniper fire, but most of the townspeople seemed almost glad that the war, for them, was finished. German girls, in slacks and sweaters, glanced coyly at passing Yanks. Older people wandered aimlessly through the ruins. We couldn't feel sorry for them. They'd asked for it. Hitler said: "Give me five years and you will not recognize Germany again." His words, in this instance, were true.

There were the usual dead of both sides, something to which a soldier becomes accustomed. Death hasn't the deep meaning it had back home in peace time; it's part and parcel of the job.

In one of the small, fortified towns, we found a whole German family which had committed suicide. There were three bodies, that of a middle-aged man, his wife, and their teen-aged daughter hanging from nooses in a roadside barn. The family dog, a tiny, mongrel dachshund, was also there, throttled. An American soldier surveyed the group perplexedly, then snapped his fingers. "I got it," he said. "The dog was disgusted - he hanged the family and then committed suicide!"

During the drive to the Rhine, we used to wonder about the Luftwaffe. About once a week, before our jump-off, there had been sweeps - six or seven Messerschmitts or jet-propelled jobs, which are very fast. They'd whip over at extremely low altitudes, strafe, drop their bombs and then try to scoot back before the anti-aircraft or the P-47's could nail them.

One night, while we were shelling Cologne, the Luftwaffe sent 75 planes over in an attempt to silence our big guns. That was a trying night; you'd hear the planes humming, each one sounding as though it was missing on two cylinders, and then there'd be the eerie, rising whistle of the bomb and, if it was close, the unbelievably loud crash.

To my knowledge, not one gun position was hit, but five soldiers were killed when a bomb hit their billets nearby. The morning afterward I saw the smoking remains of one night raider. G-2 reported others shot down. We decided that the Luftwaffe had used up its week's rations of gasoline and that we wouldn't be bothered for a few days. We weren't, either!

After crossing the Erft Canal, the drive for Cologne and the Rhine was launched. A reconnaissance task force of the division, under Lt. Col. Prentice E. Yeomans of Syracuse, N.Y., spearheaded far in the lead and reached the river above Cologne at 4:10 a.m. on March 4. Th main force moved swiftly toward the city. At 7:10 a.m. on March 5, Col. L. L. Doan's Task Force "X" was in Cologne, the first Americans of the First United States Army to reach that long sought city. Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, commanding general of the "spearhead," (afterward killed) entered the metropolitan district that morning.

There was furious tank and anti-tank warfare. German forces using dual-purpose anti-aircraft guns and the big bazookas which they call "Panzerfaust," or tank-killer. The ruins of the city were alive with snipers and machine-gun teams. Systematically, the infantry hunted them out.

On March 6, as our elements probed closer to the river, Jerry blew the great Hohenzollern bridge across the Rhine. The pillar of black smoke rose up almost behind the twin spires of the famous cathedral. Later that day, I walked behind the lead tank to the Cologne cathedral.

There was an unnatural silence over the city. Sporadic mortar fire crumped to our left and a few snipers came tumbling out of the powdered and high-piled ruins. They held their hands over their heads and looked thoroughly beaten. Most wore fragments of uniforms, augmented by civilian clothing.

Up ahead in two, long, well spaced lines, the armed infantry (shorn of armor in combat) advanced. The tank rumbled behind them. We reached the west wing of the great cathedral. At first glance it appeared to be undamaged, but later inspection showed that one wing had been practically destroyed and that the entire edifice had been badly scarred.

On this last day of organized resistance, correspondents of the world's press services worked close behind the attacking forces. One doughboy grabbed an English correspondent and told him to wear a helmet if he wanted to live.

Although the city appeared quiet, there was still a great deal of danger in cleaning out the small pockets of fanatic resistance. Snipers appeared with clockwork regularity, and were killed, or captured and sent to the rear.

An Army photographer, shooting motion pictures of a Panther he thought to be already destroyed, almost fainted when the big vehicle suddenly turned and opened fire on an American Sherman. The Sherman accepted the challenge and placed three armor piercing rounds in the Nazi panzerwagon which then burst into flame. The cameraman got it all. He was a very scared, but happy guy as he dashed for the press camp.

[Webmaster's Note: The above incident actually involved a new 3rd Armored M-26 Pershing tank which attacked the Panther after it had knocked out a 3rd Armored Sherman. Type "Bates" (the name of the cameraman) in Site Search for the complete story, including photos.]

Cologne was taken and the 3rd Armored Division had come to the end of another swift drive. We'd reached the Rhine, first of the heavyweight First Army units. Once, we all thought that the war would end here. Now we all believed that it would go on. We might even have to meet the Russians in mid-Germany.

Three hundred miles to Berlin! It wasn't so far, we argued. There was a day when the "Spearhead" dashed 55 miles in a running fight. That was in France, from Mayenne to the vicinity of Rânes. We looked across the big river and began to get restless. It's tough to sit around and wait ... .

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