Chapter 21: From the Rhine to the Elbe
SINCE the second week of January, when the complete elimination of the enemy salient in the Ardennes had become merely a question of time, General Eisenhower and his subordinates had been making plans for the resumption of offensive ground action. The strategy agreed in all essentials with the campaign plans of early December 1944. Projected operations fell into three general phases. During the first phase, while Bradley’s U.S. First and Third Armies continued their systematic pursuit of the enemy in the Ardennes area and General Devers’ U.S. Seventh Army and French First Army eliminated German resistance west of the Rhine on the Alsace-Lorraine front, Field Marshal Montgomery was to launch the major offensive toward the Rhine north of Düsseldorf. The immediate aim in all areas was to achieve a maximum destruction of the German forces west of the Rhine. Once the Allied armies had reached the Rhine, the establishment of strong bridgeheads across that river would be the next task. The last phase of operations envisaged powerful drives into the heart of Germany, the destruction of all her remaining forces, and finally a junction with the advancing Russians.1
The Advance to the Rhine
Field Marshal Montgomery had three armies at his disposal for the offensive in the north. On his left flank was the Canadian First Army, holding the front from Boxmeer to Nijmegen and thence to the North Sea. In the center was the British Second Army, occupying the front from Boxmeer south to Roermond. The right flank was held by the U.S. Ninth Army, occupying a line generally along the Roer River between Düren and Roermond. The Canadians were to open the offensive (Operation VERITABLE) on 8 February, moving southeast
from their forward positions in the vicinity of Nijmegen, and clear the enemy out of the area between the Rhine and Maas rivers as far south as Geldern and Xanten. General Dempsey’s British Second Army was temporarily to hold the Maas River line in its sector, to advance subsequently in the Venlo area, and to provide reinforcements to the Canadian First Army as required. General Simpson’s American forces were to commence their attack (Operation GRENADE) on or about 10 February, driving east and northeast across the Roer from the vicinities of Jülich and Linnich to eliminate all German resistance west of the Rhine between Düsseldorf and Mors. Strong support for these operations was to be furnished by the U.S. First Army, which was to secure the Roer River dams, to eliminate enemy resistance on the upper reaches of the Roer, and thence to press its attack northeastward to the Rhine in order to protect the right flank of the Ninth Army.2
The Canadians started their offensive on the scheduled date in spite of the wretched condition of almost all roads in the battle area. The attack, having been preceded by extensive air interdiction operations during 1–7 February against the enemy’s rail and road network west and east of the Rhine and launched with very strong support from heavy, medium, and fighter-bombers on D-day, initially made substantial progress. On their northern flank the Canadians captured Cleve on 11 February, and two days later a small force reached the Rhine opposite Emmerich. Elsewhere on the front, despite extensive mine fields and the quagmirish condition of the low, marshy ground, the attacking forces made fair gains. By 13 February the entire Reichswald was cleared of enemy troops.
Enemy resistance, however, began then to stiffen. Reinforced by a hasty shift of several divisions from other sectors of the western front, the Germans contested viciously every foot of the Allied advance and impeded its progress further by the breach of a number of dikes.
Although Goch had been cleared of all enemy resistance on 21 February, Xanten, less than ten miles to the east, was not captured until 8 March. During the next two days the Germans, hard pressed by the Canadians from Xanten, the British from Sonsbeck, and the Americans from Rheinberg, withdrew across the Rhine at Wesel, destroying the bridge behind them. The weather during 6 to 10 March, except for 9 March, was very unfavorable for flying and prevented the fighter-bombers
from taking advantage of the traffic congestion at the Wesel bridgehead.3
Air cooperation during the VERITABLE operation was furnished almost exclusively by Second TAF except for the night of D-day and several subsequent days when heavy, medium, and fighter-bombers of other air forces operated in strength in the immediate battle area. During the preparatory period, 1–7 February, aircraft of Second TAF flew over 3,000 sorties, attacking road and rail movement, supply and communications centers, POL depots, bridges and ferries west and east of the Rhine. During the night of 7/8 February more than 700 heavy bombers of RAF Bomber Command dropped over 2,000 tons of bombs on the defended towns of Cleve and Goch, while night fighters of Air Marshal Coningham’s Second TAF carried out widespread harassing attacks against the enemy’s movements on roads and rails leading to the intended assault area. On the day of the ground attack fighter-bombers of this tactical air force flew 1,211 sorties in direct support of the ground forces and on armed reconnaissance. Except for a few days in late February and early March when weather curtailed operations sharply, the tempo of air cooperation never slackened and afforded the enemy no respite from constant harassing by day and night. Altogether 21,976 sorties were flown by Second TAF in support of this campaign from 1 February to 11 March.4 At the end of the first three weeks of February, rail-cut claims stood at 444 and the destruction of locomotives and motor transports was listed at 205 and 503, respectively.5
Heavy bombers of 38 Group, fighter-bombers of XXIX TAC, and medium bombers of the 9th Bombardment Division joined the attack for several days. The RAF heavies attacked Calcar, Udem, and Weeze on 8 February and on subsequent nights staged repeated attacks on Rees, Isselburg, and other defended villages. The fighter-bombers for the most part operated just south of the battle area, cutting rails at strategic points on the lines leading north from Rheydt, Neuss, Krefeld, and Kempen. The mediums attacked communications centers, marshalling yards, and defended villages on six days between 8 and 21 February. Materborn, Xanten, Geldern, Calcar, Cleve, Emmerich, Kempen, and Rees were among the primary targets in medium attacks intended not merely to wreck the enemy’s defenses in these towns and villages but to destroy them as communications centers. Despite weather conditions which often necessitated blind bombing,
the damage wrought was very heavy, especially at Rees and Geldern where fire destroyed nearly 90 per cent of the built-up areas and at Xanten where half of the residential area was severely damaged.6
Enemy air opposition throughout the period was negligible. Only on 14 February, when aircraft of Second TAF flew 1,890 sorties and when the ground forces were already in complete control of the Reichswald area, did the Luftwaffe react in some strength, flying over 100 sorties by conventional day fighters and a sizable numbcr of jet planes. Neither type of aircraft displayed any eagerness to engage in combat. But as everywhere else on the western front, flak was very heavy at almost every target attacked. The American medium bombers suffered few losses on their operations, though flak caused damage to over 400 planes.
Ninth Army’s offensive got under way late. The build-up of the army had been accomplished with great speed, despite atrocious weather and appalling road conditions. First Army’s V Corps, under orders to take over part of Ninth Army’s front in the Düren sector and to capture the Roer dams, also met its time schedule. Pushing forward in deep snow through the extremely difficult terrain of broken hills, over roads which were heavily mined, and through numerous villages each of which required stiff fighting before the advance could continue, V Corps cleared the Monschau Forest on 6 February, captured Schmidt in the Hürtgen Forest on the 8th, and two days later captured the dams, but not before some damage had been done to the control gates of one. The resultant heavy flow of water from the upper reaches of the Roer, aggravated by thaw and heavy rains, caused the river to overflow its banks downstream in the Düren–Julich area, thus necessitating a postponement of the main offensive until 23 February.
During late January and early February, while Ninth Army was readying its plans and moving into position, XXIX TAC had drawn up a comprehensive program of air action in support of the ground offensive. The plan called for the use of large forces of heavy bombers and of every available medium and fighter-bomber of the Ninth Air Force which could be spared from other sectors of 12th Army Group’s front.7 Because of prior commitments other air organizations showed little disposition to direct the major part of their forces to this operation. Moreover, second thought suggested that some features of the plan represented an overestimate of the need. A new plan adopted
on 5 February called for a concentrated effort west of the Rhine by medium bombers of the 9th Bombardment Division and by the fighter-bombers of XXIX and IX Tactical Air Commands.
To XXIX TAC went the primary responsibility for road and rail bridges at Kapellen, Noithausen, and Grevenbroich; for railroad bridges at Buir, Morken, Neuss, and Geistenbeck; for road bridges at Zieverich and Lippe; for marshalling yards at Lippe and Harff; for the Dülken road center; and for the rail chokepoint at Horrem. This program west of the Rhine was to be reinforced by armed reconnaissance missions against transportation east of the Rhine from Duisburg in the north to Bonn in the south. The air-ground cooperation program provided for one fighter-bomber group to be assigned to each of Ninth Army’s three corps and one group to each of its two armored divisions. In order to enable the command to meet such extensive commitments, Ninth Air Force assigned to it on 8 February two additional fighter-bomber groups, bringing its combat strength to five fighter groups. General Nugent’s request for an additional two groups was turned down, although an arrangement was effected whereby, in case of real need, he could call upon two groups of Weyland’s XIX TAC.8 Since Nugent’s command was under the operational control of Second TAF, and thereby 21 Army Group, both Ninth Air Force and 12th Army Group were reluctant to assign the command more units than absolutely necessary on the ground that whatever came under the control of Field Marshal Montgomery was difficult to get back.9 To IX TAC were assigned transportation targets affecting the enemy’s capacity to resist the VII Corps drive toward the Roer River dams.
Virtually unflyable weather during the first week of February limited XXIX TAC’s operations to a small number of armed reconnaissance missions between Düren and Cologne. As during the second week flying conditions improved, the fighter-bombers made every effort to destroy the rail and road bridges assigned to them. While success was achieved against some road bridges, only slight damage was inflicted upon the rail bridges. The latter, of concrete construction and of very short span, were found to be beyond the capabilities of the fighter-bomber pilots, whose skill at dive bombing appeared to be very low. A decision was therefore reached that the command would henceforth concentrate upon rail-cutting on the dense network of lines joining Cologne, Grevenbroich, Rheydt, Neuss, München-Gladbach, Viersen, Krefeld, and Kempen and upon communications
centers, Marshalling yards, strongpoints, and command posts west of the Rhine. By 21 February the pilots had claimed destruction of 217 motor transports, 15 tanks and armored vehicles, 819 railroad cars, 132 locomotives, 322 buildings, and 43 gun positions in addition to 342 rail cuts and 108 road cuts.10 Area cover had also been maintained during Ninth Army’s moves into position and many escort missions had been flown for protection of the medium bombers.
IX TAC continued the interdiction program west and east of the Rhine which had contributed so effectively to the defeat of the enemy’s Ardennes offensive. During the early days of February, when the enemy was making large-scale withdrawals from the Ardennes, the fighter-bombers found very fruitful targets along the lines leading to Bonn and Cologne. Particularly successful were the attacks on the Sinzig–Ahnveiler–Dumpelfeld and Bonn–Euskirchen–Kall lines on 2 February. Six days later an exceedingly heavy harvest was reaped on the rail lines east of the Rhine between Cologne, Bonn, and Coblenz. As the target date for GRENADE neared, the fighter-bombers accented their armed reconnaissance in the immediate rear of the enemy’s Roer positions. Bridge attacks proved to be no more successful than those of XXIX TAC. Consequently, the effort was shifted to rail-cutting and to attacks on rolling stock, highway vehicles, marshalling yards, and buildings. Precaution was taken not to disclose the forthcoming river crossings by laying on attacks upon targets farther south, especially in the Zülpich, Euskirchen, Liblar, and Rheinbach areas.11
Operation CLARION on 22 February* served in some measure to take the place of the heavy preassault operations originally planned by XXIX TAC. Although the heavies operated in areas generally remote from the immediate seat of the ground battle, the tactical air forces were out in strength all along the front of their respective armies in attacks which helped, by the disruption of enemy communications, to ease the way for the ground offensive launched the next day. The heavies were out again in a repeat performance of the preceding day’s attacks when the Ninth Army began its offensive on 23 February. The ground movement had begun under cover of darkness in the early morning hours after forty-five minutes of intense artillery bombardment. Some difficulty was experienced with the swift current of the Roer, but once across the river the troops met
* See above, pp. 732-35.
only moderate resistance. Accurate German artillery fire at times hampered bridging operations, but strong air support was provided throughout the day and bridgeheads established by both the Ninth and First Army troops expanded rapidly.
XXIX TAC on 23 February flew 613 sorties, a new record for the command. Its 405th and 373rd Fighter Groups, cooperating with XIII and XIX Corps respectively, attacked the communications centers and defended areas of Lövenich, Titz, Katzen, Setternich, Hambach, and Padern among others. The day’s armed reconnaissance undertaken by the five fighter-bomber groups resulted in claims to the destruction of 52 locomotives, 755 railroad cars, 254 motor transports, 15 tanks or armored vehicles, and 7 gun positions. In addition, over 100 rail cuts were claimed. With the exception of four days (26 February and 4, 5, and 6 March), the weather continued to permit the maximum employment of the command’s striking power.
The following reports from XIII Corps are typical of numerous expressions of appreciation by ground force commands:
On the afternoon of 23 Feb, elements of the 84 Infantry Division were advancing from Rurich to Baal. No adequate antitank weapons had as yet crossed the Roer. Enemy tanks were seen in Baal. Flying conditions were poor with low ceiling and limited visibility. A squadron of the 405 Group attacked these tanks. Ground reports that two of these tanks were destroyed, two were damaged. Baal was occupied that night.
During the night of 23–24 Feb, XIII Corps bridges in the vicinity of Linnich were attacked by GAF planes and two bridges were destroyed. ... Cover for the bridges was requested. Squadrons of the 405 Group kept cover over the bridges despite a ceiling of only 1500 feet. No further attacks were made. Critical equipment, tanks, artillery, and antitank guns passed safely over the remaining bridges. Air superiority, temporarily lost, was restored and with it freedom of movement behind our own lines.12
Determined enemy resistance in Jülich, aided by the rubble resulting from artillery and air attacks, was overcome on 24 February. Two days later the bridgehead had been expanded to a depth of ten miles and a width of twenty miles. Thereafter the Ninth Army advance gained momentum in every direction. München-Gladbach and Neuss were cleared of the enemy on 2 March. Krefeld fell two days later. By 6 March, Ninth Army was in control of the west bank of the Ilhine from Neuss to Rheinberg and in position to assist the British Second Army. Meanwhile, all enemy resistance to the rear in the Roerniond–Venlo area had been taken care of by the Ninth’s XVI
Corps.13 The fighter-bombers of XXIX TAC, counting operations dating back to 1 February, had flown a total of almost 7,000 sorties in support of this advance to the Rhine. Claims for destruction or serious damage to 22 bridges, 89 gun positions, 1,323 buildings, 2,808 railroad cars, 77 tanks and armored vehicles, and 838 motor transports, together with 156 highway and 843 railway cuts, summed up the statistical evidence of the command’s accomplishment.14
Very few missions of direct support were flown by the fighter-bombers of IX TAC in connection with First Army’s drive toward the Roer River dams. The hilly and heavily forested area in which the fighting took place and the absence of appreciable enemy movement on the few available roads made such cooperation generally unprofitable. The fighter-bombers therefore concentrated their effort on a continuation of the interdiction program west and east of the Rhine which had contributed so effectively to the defeat of the earlier German counteroffensive. On 23 February, when VII Corps launched its attack across the Roer, they flew 661 sorties, the largest day’s effort by the command since the summer of 1944. During the course of the days, the towns of Arnoldsweiler, Merzenich, Oberzier, Stockheim, Golzheim, Bergheim, and Eller were severely damaged. In addition to 63 rail-cuts, good results were achieved against gun positions and road and rail transport. VII Corps captured Düren on 25 February, established bridgeheads over the Erft River on the 28th, and by 4 March had patrols at the Rhine, south of Cologne. Several suburbs of that city were captured on the following day, and by 7 March the entire city was in American hands. Inclement weather on 6 and 7 March shut down on all air operations, thus permitting the enemy to effect a fairly orderly withdrawal across the Rhine and to destroy all bridges behind him.15
The operations of the fighter-bombers during the Ninth Army-VII Corps thrust to the Rhine were greatly reinforced by medium bombers of the 9th Bombardment Division. The 1,576 medium bomber sorties flown from 23 to 28 February inclusive were expended almost exclusively in support of these two ground organizations. Communications centers east and west of the Rhine served as the chief targets.16
SHAEF in January had prescribed for First Army (excepting its VII Corps) and for Third Army the maintenance of an aggressive defense along their existing lines of battle. Probing attacks designed to
improve positions suited to future offensive action, or to prevent the withdrawal of cnemy forces to Montgomery’s front, would be undertaken as circumstances peimitted and in coordination with limited offensive action by 6th Army Group along the southern sector of the Allied line. Elimination of the Colinar pocket, which since early December had been a source of irritation and concern to SHAEF, was the immediate task of 6th Army Group. To the undermanned French First Army in Alsace fell the responsibility for opening the attack on the Colmar pocket. The French I Corps launched Operation CHEERFUL on 20 January with an assault against the southern side of the pocket to the Thann–Mulhouse area. This drive, handicapped by blizzards and generally foul weather, soon bogged down in the face of tenacious German resistance. On the northern side of the pocket French II Corps, strengthened by American units, jumped off on the night of 22/23 January with the initial objective of clearing the region north of the Colmar Canal. After five days of hard fighting, the second drive also had fallen short of success. The pace of the offensive quickened, however, when the U.S. XXI Corps moved into the line between the two depleted French corps and on 29 January began to batter its way southeast toward Neuf-Brisach. The pocket was soon shredded: Colmar fell on 3 February; two days later XXI and I Corps linked up at Rouffach; and on the following day XXE Corps reached the Rhine near Neuf-Brisach. By 9 February the remnant of the German Nineteenth Army had been cleared out of southern Alsace.17
American and French aircraft of First Tactical Air Force made notable contributions to the execution of Operation CHEERFUL despite poor weather, which – especially during the early phase of the offensive – hindered air operations, and despite initially weak liaison between French air and ground commanders, which provoked a protest from General de Lattre. Mediums of the U.S. 42nd Bombardment Wing and the French 2e Brigade de Bombardement, the latter operating under American control, struck at road and rail bridges, marshalling yards, barracks areas, and supply dumps with some success but failed to knock out the two vital Rhine River rail spans at Brisach and Neuenburg. Fighter-bombers of the U.S. XII Tactical Air Command and the French First Air Force, aided by Ninth Air Force units, carried the brunt of the aerial assault and achieved more impressive results. Badly hampered at first by unfavorable flying conditions, the
fighter effort mounted sharply as the campaign progressed. French and American Thunderbolts, ranging over the pocket and beyond the Rhine, smashed at enemy fortifications, guns, armor, and troop concentrations in close-support missions and created havoc in close and wide interdiction attacks against motor transports, horse-drawn vehicles, bridges, rail lines, and marshalling yards. A commendation from U.S. 3rd Infantry Division and laudatory statements by the commanding generals of U.S. XXI Corps and French First Army testify to the general effectiveness of First TAF’s close-support work; and the fact that German Nineteenth Army could extricate only 4,000 of its combat infantry from the pocket indicates the potency of General Saville’s* interdiction campaign.18
While General de Lattre’s French First Army was reducing the Colmar pocket, the U.S. Seventh Army front in northern Alsace and the Saar remained relatively quiet. After 9 February, with its rear and right flank now secure, Seventh Army prepared for a limited drive designed to shorten the XV Corps line, eliminate bulges near Gros Réderching and Welferding, and win advantageous jump-off positions for the major assault to follow. The slow, unsensational push to the north got under way on 15 February; by early March all objectives had been achieved. General Patch’s forces were now in position for a joint offensive with Third Army against the last German salient west of the Rhine.19
Though XII TAC’s fighter-bombers had furnished close support to this preparatory offensive with rocket, bombing, and strafing strikes against enemy strongpoints in the Gros Réderching area and at Hartungshof and other places, Webster’s First TAF† during this period concentrated on medium and fighter-bomber attacks against transportation objectives, particularly the rail network north of Seventh Army’s front, in an attempt to reduce the flow of supplies to German Army Group G in the Saar–Rhine–Moselle salient. Systematic hammering at railway cars, locomotives, rail bridges, and marshalling yards cut German rail traffic critically and forced the enemy to take to the roads where his convoys were pounded by fighter-bombers. When intelligence reported that German ammunition supplies were
* Brig. Gen. Gordon P. Saville succeeded Maj. Gen. Ralph Royce as commander of First Tactical Air Force on 29 Jan. 1945.
† Maj. Gen. Robert M. Webster assumed command of First Tactical Air Force on 22 Feb. 1945 and remained in command for the duration of hostilities.
dangerously low, American and French Marauders diverted part of their effort, beginning 25 February, to a series of effective raids on ammunition dumps at Siegelbach and Kirkel.20
Meanwhile, the probing operations of 12th Army Group had slowly gained momentum. Aided by the enemy’s commitments to Montgomery’s front, the First and Third Armies forced upon the Germans a retreat from one position to another, and on 3 March both armies received authorization for drives to the Rhine. By 12 March, except for a few enemy pockets, the west bank of that river north of the Moselle had fallen into American hands.
During most of February, when Third Army was slowly pushing forward through the mud and slush of melting snows in the rugged Eifel terrain and along the north bank of the Moselle, the primary program of XIX TAC’s fighter-bombers was rail and road interdiction. There were the usual missions of armed reconnaissance against defended localities and marshalling yards, rail-cutting, bomber escort, alert patrol, and as the month wore on, attacks against airdromes, fuel and ammunition dumps, and motor transport depots. Notable success was achieved against road and rail bridges in the area along the Moselle, especially at Bullay, Eller, and Nonnweiler. Many successful sorties were also flown in direct cooperation with the ground forces, particularly in connection with the establishment by VIII and XII Corps of bridgeheads over the numerous rivers where heavy enemy fire and swift currents made crossing operations difficult. The steadily mounting destruction of enemy transport and equipment was highlighted by attacks on 23 February, when an aggregate of 517 sorties was flown, and 269 tanks and armored vehicles, 1,308 railroad cars, and 724 motor vehicles were claimed destroyed or damaged.
When toward the close of February, Third Army plunged through the Siegfried Line and then in March commenced lightning-like drives across the Moselle into the enemy’s rear, the fighter-bombers were presented with a happy hunting ground. The disorganization and confusion wrought annong the enemy by the three converging attacks from the north, west, and south brought about a precipitate attempt at evacuation. The resultant congestion of all types of vehicles on roads leading eastward was tremendous. Fortunately, with the exception of the period from 4 through 8 March when a total of only fifty-nine combat sorties was flown, the weather permitted large-scale operations
daily. Alert tactical reconnaissance kept a vigil of all roads, spotting large concentrations of retreating enemy transport and then leading fighter-bombers to the kill. Records of sorties flown and claims of destruction of transport were established one day, only to be surpassed within a few days.21
Interesting testimony to the effectiveness of the fighter-bomber is furnished by an order issued by Field Marshal Model in February, addressed as follows:–
TO ALL DRIVERS AND PASSENGERS. WHOEVER CAMOUFLAGES LIVES LONGER! CARBINES AND MARCH DISCIPLINE VERSUS STRAFING! 10 DAYS SPECIAL FURLOUGH FOR SHOOTING DOWN ENEMY STRAFER!
The Anglo-American ground-attack aircraft are the modern highwaymen. They are searching not only for columns of traffic, they are hunting down every gasoline truck, every truck with ammunition.
Our fighters and antiaircraft have had considerable success during the days of the great winter battles. But fighters and antiaircraft cannot be everywhere.
... EVERY SOLDIER CAN AND MUST JOIN IN THE FIGHT AGAINST GROUND ATTACKERS! ... SPECIAL FAVORS WILL BE SHOWN SUCCESSFUL GUNNERS AND UNITS. EACH SOLDIER WHO KNOCKS DOWN AN ENEMY STRAFER WITH HIS INFANTRY WEAPON RECEIVES 10 DAYS SPECIAL FURLOUGH! UNITS WHICH HAVE BEEN PARTICULARLY SUCCESSFUL IN SHOOTING DOWN ENEMY GROUND-ATTACKING AIRCRAFT WITH INFANTRY WEAPONS WILL RECEIVE SPECIAL RATION ALLOTMENTS!
Therefore: SEEK COVER FIRST, Then: FIRE AWAY! ...22
On 11 March, General Patch outlined his objectives in Operation UNDERTONE – a combined Third Army-Seventh Army assault on the triangle of the Saar-Palatinate. Seventh Army, with attached French elements, was to attack to the north, smash through the Siegfried Line, destroy German First Army, race to the Rhine, and establish a bridgehead on the east bank of the river. But even before Seventh Army unleashed its offensive on 15 March, the fate of German Army Group G in the triangle had been sealed when Third Amy’s XII Corps suddenly wheeled south, crossed the lower Moselle on 14 March, and thrust at the rear of the enemy forces facing Seventh Army. The collapse of the northern side of the triangle did not, however, appreciably lighten enemy resistance to Seventh Army’s onslaught, which began on schedule. During the first five days of the offensive, Seventh Army’s biggest but least vital gains were on the right flank, where VI Corps advanced twenty miles from the Moder River to the Siegfried Line and then ground to a halt. To the west,
XV and XXI Corps slowly chewed their way through the Siegfried defenses. Saarbrücken fell to XXI Corps on 20 March. On the same day the 254th Infantry of 63rd Infantry Division broke through the line near Oberwürzbach. Other penetrations followed in quick succession along the XXI and XV Corps sectors as German resistance crumbled. The entire western end of the front now broke up: on the left, XXI Corps units linked up with Third Army’s XX Corps at Neuenkirchen on 20 March; in the center, on the following day Combat Command A of 6th Armored Division led the XV Corps lunge from Homburg past Kaiserslautern to Bad Dürkheim on the Rhine. By 25 March, Seventh and Third Armies had destroyed the triangle and shattered German Army Group G.23
First Tactical Air Force, which had been held by wretched weather to 1,980 sorties during CHEERFUL, went all out during the ten days of UNDERTONE and chalked up a remarkable total of 12,392 sorties by pushing its flyers to the limit of their endurance. During the first forty-eight hours of the ground offensive, the aerial onslaught was devoted largely to close-support missions. Fighter-bombers, smashing at strongpoints, defended villages and troop concentrations along the entire front, achieved fine results and so disorganized some German units as to make them easy prey for advancing US. infantry. Mediums, working with superb precision, saturated enemy fortifications with 628 tons of bombs in an area measuring 7,000 by 3,800 feet near Zweibrücken and dropped 246 tons more on other Siegfried Line targets east and west of the town. These artacks did little actual damage to the fortifications but almost totally demoralized the Cernian defenders. Though the Marauders again bombed enemy defenses – this time southwest of Landau – on the 19th, they concentrated during tlie last seven days of UNDERTONE on rail and road escape routes in the Saar and transportation objectives in the Mannheim and Heidelberg areas east of the Rhine. As the front began to cave in and the enemy attempted to flee across that river from the Saar-Palatinate trap, First TAF fighter-bombers had a succession of field days. Lack of usable rail lines forced the Germans to jam the few main roads that funneled into Germersheim on the Rhine. Day after day, XII TAC planes relentlessly ripped and pounded at the long columns of trucks, tanks, and horse-drawn carts, Claims of vehicles destroyed or badly damaged soared over the 4,000 mark. The climax came on 22 March when VI Corps credited the air arm with the destruction of a German infantry division near Dahn.24
Across the Rhine
First Army’s advance to the Rhine at Cologne had been followed by one of the major breaks of the war. On the morning of 7 March units of the 9th Armored Division, driving hard along the west bank of the river south of Bonn, found the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen left intact by the withdrawing enemy. The bridge had been the object of repeated air attack during the Battle of the Bulge and had only recently been repaired after a long period of unserviceability. It had been scheduled for attack that morning by IX TAC’s 36th Fighter Group, but the mission had been canceled because of the weather.25 A last-minute attempt at demolition by the enemy, undertaken in the absence of the senior officer responsible, had left the bridge but slightly damaged.26
With dash and daring, infantry and tank units seized the unexpected prize by racing across the bridge to the eastern bank of the river. On orders from General Bradley all available forces pushed across with utmost speed, and by the close of 8 March the bridgehead had been enlarged to something like a mile and a half in both depth and width. The Germans, taken completely by surprise, initially offered only slight resistance but by the 9th they had brought the area under long-range artillery and dive-bombing attack and had inaugurated moves by ground units designed to contain or destroy the bridgehead. On both 7 and 8 March the weather made it impossible for IX TAC to lend the support of its fighter-bombers, and for the rest of the first week of fighting the ground forces had to depend almost entirely for cover on their own antiaircraft units. German aircraft, attacking below the consistent cloud cover, managed to inflict occasional casualties on the ground troops but were never able to hit the bridge.
It had been at once agreed by First Army and IX TAC that the primary responsibilities of the latter would be to provide cover, by day and night, and to maintain an intensified allied reconnaissance for the purpose of interdicting enemy reinforcements. Only with the 13th did the weather permit any consistent fulfilment of the first obligation, and not until 9 March could the fighter-bombers make their weight felt in interdiction. But the 9th Bombardment Division, though bombing blind, went to work on the 8th.
Because of the enemy’s shortage of fuel and motor transport, rail lines, especially those leading south from the Cologne area, west from
the Siegen–Wetzlar area, and northwest from Frankfurt, were considered the most critically important. On the 8th some 300 mediums bombed the marshalling yards at Altenkirchen, Berg-Gladbach, the communications centers of Eitorf, Troisdorf, Geistingen, and Siegburg, and the Autobahn overpass at Buisdorf. On the next day a stronger force was dispatched against similar targets south of Remagen, with concentration on the marshalling yards at Wiesbaden, Butzbach, and Niederhausen and armored-vehicle store depots at Dotzheim and Wiesbaden. The weather still forced resort to blind bombing and results were satisfactory only at the marshalling yard of Wiesbaden North and at the Dotzheim depot. For four more days most of the work was done blind, but by 14 March it was deemed safe to release the mediums for interdiction in the Ruhr. On 11 and 13 March they had struck a number of airfields from which the enemy operated against the bridgehead, especially those at Lippe, Rreitscheid, and Ettinghausen.27
A favorable break in the weather on 13 March had enabled IX TAC’s fighter-bombers to take over the major responsibility. Beginning on that day and continuing through the 14th, the command flew over 6,000 sorties and dropped more than 2,000 tons of bombs on a wide assortment of rail and road targets. Claims included over 1,700 motor transport, over 200 tanks and armored vehicles, nearly 200 locomotives, better than 3,500 railway cars, and nearly 500 railroad cuts. In addition, the fighter-bombers attacked enemy strongpoints, gun positions, troop concentrations, supply and ammunition dumps, and defended villages. Area cover over the bridgehead was maintained whenever the weather permitted. The GAF’s chief intrusion came on 13 March, when approximately 130 sightings were reported, but few of the enemy were willing to accept combat. Heavy attacks were laid on GAF bases at Lippe, Ettinghausen, Kirthorf, Würzburg, and Neustadt.28 By 20 March interdiction of the bridgehead was almost complete. Between 9 and 17 March the enemy had made desperate attempts to move up the main elements of eleven divisions, but he had been unable to mount an all-out counterattack. By 24 March First Army’s bridgehead was ten miles deep and thirty-five miles long and extended in an arc of varying depth from north of Bonn to south of Neuwied. And on the next day First Army was in position to take the offensive out of its bridgehead.29
Two days earlier Patton’s rampaging forces, after a rapid drive from
their Moselle River bridgehead, had crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim. Very few of the enemy’s completely demoralized forces in the Saar and Palatinate had managed to get across the river. The ceaseless pounding which his communications centers had received by air attack and the steady build-up of the Remagen bridgehead had argued that the Germans would not be able to offer an effective resistance to this new crossing of the Rhine. But to make doubly sure, XIX TAC had hurriedly initiated on 21 March a program of rail interdiction extending from Limburg southward to Mannheim.30 After a crossing effected during the night of 22/23 March without the benefit of aerial support, XII Corps rapidly expanded its bridgehead on the following day. On 25 March two additional crossings were effected farther south, one at Boppard and the other in the vicinity of Lahnstein, and Patton stood ready to launch a major thrust into the heart of Germany.
Already, in the north Montgomery had hurled across the lower Rhine the large forces which represented the principal Allied bid for an early victory. Preceded by elaborate air preparation, the drive got under way on schedule during the night of 23/24 March. The plan called for the British Second Army to strike across the Rhine between Wesel and Rees and thence to attack north and northeastward between Münster and Rheine, and for the US. Ninth Army, having crossed below Wesel, to strike eastward toward Münster and Paderborn. First Allied Airborne Army in Operation VARSITY was to drop and airland two British airborne divisions in the path of the Second Army to facilitate the deepening of its bridgehead and the link-up with Ninth Army. Profiting from the experience with the Arnhem drops of the preceding year, the airborne troops were to be dropped after the main assault forces had crossed the river and in close enough proximity to the river to be within range of supporting artillery on its west bank. Virtually the entire strength of the Allied strategic and tactical air forces was committed to supporting operations, which included a three-day softening up of the battle area immediately before D-day.31
The major targets assigned for the preparatory period had already been subjected to more or less continuous attacks since mid-February with the adoption of a program for the “Interdiction of Northwest Germany.” This plan provided for the sealing-off of the Ruhr from the rest of Germany by an interdiction line commencing at Bremen and then running in a rough arc south and southwest through fifteen
key communications and transportation centers and ending at Neowied on the Rhine. Destruction of seventeen rail bridges and rail viaducts along this line, combined with attacks on several canals linking this vital industrial area with the rest of Germany, would, it was hoped, have a paralyzing effect upon the enemy’s economic and military potential, particularly since his industries and coal resources in the east were either in Russian hands or in immediate danger of capture. West of this interdiction line, attacks were to be staged against every important communications center, marshalling yard, repair and maintenance center, industrial and production area, and many other targets.
The work was begun in mid-February and continued to 21 March, with virtually every air weapon, when it could be spared from other operations, contributing to the effort. The transportation system within the Ruhr alone was the target for 31,635 tons dropped by 10,948 heavy and medium bombers of the RAF and USAAF between 1 and 21 March. Bridges and viaducts along the periphery, having experienced occasional heavy bombing prior to 21 February, were subjected to almost incessant attacks thereafter. From 21 February to 21 March, a total of 5,657 tons was dropped on them in 1,792 heavy and medium bomber sorties. Despite energetic repairs, by the latter date ten of the bridges had been destroyed and five rendered unserviceable. The remaining two, though heavily damaged, appeared to be still passable. To the devastation wrought by the heavy and medium bombers was added the very successful fighter and fighter-bomber operations of Second TAF and XXIX TAC. With the completion of their operations on 10 March, the fighter aircraft of these two organizations switched their main effort from close cooperation to attacks on the Ruhr. Most of the 7,311 sorties flown between 11 and 21 March were directed against the Ruhr’s rail and road transportation systems.32
To reduce the threat of enemy air action during the forthcoming river crossings, the Eighth Air Force attacked ten airfields to the north of the intended assault on 21 March, and on the following day an additional five air bases to the south of the Ruhr. The known jet fields were singled out for especially heavy saturation in attacks delivered by a grand total of 1,730 bombers. Most of the fields were rendered inoperative for several days, and escorting fighters in strafinq attacks claimed the destruction of numerous aircraft on the ground. In addition to these airfield attacks, the heavy bombers attacked barracks
and military camps on 22 March and strategically situated marshalling yards on the following day. A total of 3,859 heavy bomber and 1,584 fighter sorties represented the Eighth’s contribution to Montgomery’s offensive during the three days immediately preceding the jump-off.33 During these same three days over 2,000 medium bombers of 9th Bombardment Division concentrated their main effort upon the destruction of communications centers, marshalling yards, and flak positions. Particularly devastating results were achieved against the towns of Dinslaken, Schermbeck, Coesfeld, Stadtlaken, and Borken. Very successful also were the attacks on flak positions, as is evidenced by the declining rate of aircraft damaged during the operations. On 21 March, 179 planes were damaged by antiaircraft fire, the following day 125, and on the 23rd of March only 96. Only five bombers were lost on all these operations.34
The fighter-bombers of XXIX TAC, flying 1,413 sorties, had as their major tasks the destruction of rail facilities and road transport, the escort of medium bombers, and attacks upon airfields. Particularly successful were the attacks of 22 March and especially those directed against the airfields at Münster and Handorf. Rail cuts and the destruction of much rolling stock and motor transport were achieved oil armed reconnaissance missions.35
The heavy bombers of RAF Bomber Command attacked several communications centers, achieving especially good results on their daylighr operations of 22 March when 2,869 tons of heavy explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on the towns of Bocholt, Dorsten, Dülmen, and Hildesheim, and on the Bremen–Arndorf bridge. The mediums and fighter-bombers of Second TAF, flying 3,290 sorties, attacked transportation targets, strongpoints, troop concentrations, airfields, ammunition dumps, and other targets within the northern part of the Ruhr. RAF Fighter Command flew a total of 1,242 escort, rail-cutting, and patrol sorties.36 The total air effort during this three-day “processing of the terrain” amounted to some 11,000 sorties. Apart from the physical destruction wrought and the casualties inflicted, the unremitting bombing and strafing attacks achieved a shattering effect upon the morale both of the civilian population and of the troops.
Preceded by a tremendous artillery barrage – according to Field Marshal Montgomery the two attacking armies were supported by over 1,900 medium and heavy guns – the British Second Army commenced its assault at 2100 hours on 23 March and the Ninth Army at 0200
hours on the following morning. The crossings were effected against light opposition, and firm footholds were immediately secured and expanded.
The stage was thus quickly set for the airborne assault. Half an hour before the arrival of the airborne trains, which had been scheduled to take place at 1000 hours, medium and fighter-bombers of Second TAF and Ninth Air Force carpeted the vicinities of the selected drop and landing zones with fragmentation bombs in order to immobilize the flak batteries which might have escaped destruction in the previous days’ attacks. At 0953, seven minutes ahead of schedule, the first pathfinder aircraft of the 2½-hour-long airborne train appeared over the target. Escort to the target area had been provided by 213 fighters of RAF Fighter Command and by 676 fighter-bombers of the Ninth Air Force. Around the target area itself Second TAF had a screen of 900 aircraft, furnishing front-line cover, escort, and patrol. The southern flank of the battle sector was patrolled by fighter-bombers of IX TAC, while in the eastern sector 1,253 Eighth Air Force fighters guarded against any intrusion of hostile aircraft, some of them even providing cover for 150 heavy bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force which bombed Berlin as a diversionary operation. The landing and dropping of the two airborne divisions was accomplished without enemy air interference and suffered very little from antiaircraft fire. Of the 2,046 aircraft and gliders dispatched by the U.S. IX Troop Carrier Command, 2,029 accomplished their mission successfully. The operations of the RAF’s 38 and 46 Groups were crowned with equal success, 832 of the 880 aircraft and gliders dispatched reaching their designated areas. The load carried on this initial operation comprised 14,365 troops, 109 tons of ammunition and explosives, 645 vehicles, 113 artillery weapons, and other equipment and supplies.37 An hour after the drops and landings had been completed 237 bombers of the Eighth Air Force dropped 598 tons of additional supplies to the airborne troops with excellent results.38
During the day Eighth Air Force also smashed again at the airfields from which the GAF might seek to interfere, sending over 1,406 of its bombers against sixteen different air bases. Medium bombers of 9th Bombardment Division and of Second TAF, in addition to antiflak operations, attacked communications centers, marshalling yards, bridges, and troop concentrations. Fighter-bombers of XXIX TAC flew 716 sorties in bridge cover for Ninth Army’s assaulting troops
and in attacks against flak positions, troop concentrations, supply and ammunition dumps, airfields, defended villages, and rail and road traffic. Second TAF gave prearranged cooperation to Second Army and carried out armed reconnaissance throughout its assigned zone of operations. The punch-drunk Luftwaffe, after the punishing blows of the preceding days, managed to put up about 100 to 150 sorties, but only a few of the 62 Allied losses sustained in the day’s 7,000 sorties were chargeable to aerial combat. No less indicative of the overwhelming mastery enjoyed by the Allied air forces is the fact that claims to enemy aircraft destroyed stood at the modest total of 81, and most of them on the ground.39
By the afternoon a firm link-up had been effected between the airborne troops and Second Army. Contact was also established with Ninth Army, whose two divisions had established a strong bridgehead south of the Lippe Canal. The lower Rhine was bridged at last.
Then, on 26 March, 6th Army Group effected several crossings of the Rhine in the Worms area, the stage was set for a final drive into the heart of Germany from Mannheim in the south to Emmerich in the north. In Ninth Army’s sector of the front the bridgehead was slowly but steadily expanded during the closing days of March in the face of heavy small-arms, machine-gun, and artillery fire. On 31 March a breakthrough was achieved by the 2nd Armored Division, which that day advanced 35 miles eastward and on the following day (1 April) made contact with First Army’s 3rd Armored Division at Lippstadt, near Paderborn. Effective as of midnight of 3 April, Ninth Army was restored to General Bradley’s command. The encirclement of the Ruhr had been achieved, and XVI Corps was directed to assist First Army’s VII Corps with the reduction of enemy resistance in the so-called Ruhr Pocket. The enemy was given no chance to form a cohesive plan of defense, and on 18 April all organized resistance ceased with the surrender of over 300,000 troops.
Meanwhile Ninth Army’s two other corps, the XII1 and XIX Corps, kept up their drives eastward. Overcoming small-scale but fierce resistance, especially by Hitler Youth and flak troops, both corps drove hard across the Weser, capturing Hannover on 10 April, Brunswick on the 12th, and Magdeburg on the 17th. Ninth Army’s mission was
accomplished and it was now directed to remain on tlie defensive along the Elbe River.40
While First Army’s left flank in early April was engaged in reducing the enemy garrison in the Ruhr, the rest of General Hodges’ forces were rapidly driving eastward. As almost everywhere else on the fluid front, the enemy’s plight was desperate, and, except for rare local situations, the disorganized and scattered remnants of his armies were able to halt but momentarily the armored thrusts toward the Harz Mountains and the Elbe. On 14 April the Mulde River was reached. Halle and Leipzig were captured on the 19th. The newly formed German Eleventh Army, which had been encircled in the Harz Mountains during the course of these advances, surrendered on 21 April after a fierce but brief and futile attempt to break out of its encirclement. Four days later, patrols of the 69th Division established contact with the Russians at Torgau on the Elbe. The western and eastern fronts were now linked and Germany was cut in two.41
Third Army’s offensive east of the Rhine recalled to mind its dashing drive of the preceding summer. Except for occasional brief halts to overcome local resistance or to effect side-slipping moves in accordance with directives from headquarters, the drive became a sweeping end run across the enemy’s southern flank. Darmstadt had been captured on 25 March. That same day three crossings were made over the Main River, and by 1 April, with 4th, 6th, and 11th Armored Divisions in the lead, thrusts were rapidly developing to the northeast and southeast. On the northern flank Kassel was seized on 4 April. In the center, Mulhouse, Gotha, and Eisenach were captured on the 5th. Equally swift were the advances on the southern flank where Weimar fell on 13 April and Jena and Erfurt on the following day. Bayreuth was seized on the 15th. Three days later the Czechoslovakian border was reached. Further south, Regensburg was taken on 26 April. By the close of the month Third Army had pushed deep into Czechoslovakia and into the Danube Valley. Enemy opposition on German soil in Third Army’s zone of operation had ceased to exist.42
Beyond the Rhine, from the last days of March to mid-April, General Devers’ 6th Army Group surged forward to carry out its initial mission of protecting Patton’s onrushing right flank. On Seventh Army’s left, XV Corps on 28 March moved out of its bridgehead and cut to the northeast in the direction of the Hohe Rhön. Despite bitter local resistance at such points as Aschaffenburg and Gemünden, XV Corps
hurdled the Main River, knifed through the Spessart Mountains to the Hohe Rhön, and, after cleaning out most of the Hohe Rhön hill mass by 9 April, swerved southeast for a drive on the Nazi holy city of Nürnberg. XXI Corps, in Seventh Army’s center, rolled easily through the Odenwald but was forced to annihilate the entire garrison at Würzburg before it could take the ruins of the city on 5 April. The ball-bearing manufacturing center of Schweinfurt also offered terrific opposition before it fell on 12 April. XXI Corps now turned southeast to keep pace with XV Corps. On Seventh Army’s right, XI Corps seized Heidelberg without a fight but had to slug its way through the streets of Heilbronn for nine days until the enemy finally yielded that Neckar River rail center on 12 April. Meanwhile, VI Corps units which had thrust rapidly to Crailsheim were almost cut off and forced to pull back temporarily. To the south, French First Army overcame initially stubborn opposition to capture Karlsruhe on 4 April and Baden-Baden eight days later.43
In mid-April, Seventh Army turned south and southeast, won Nurnberg on 20 April after four days of hard house-to-house fighting, broke past the Danube River line at various points in the next few days, took Ulm on the 25th and Munich on the 30th. To Seventh Army’s right, French First Army made equally rapid progress as its spearheads dashed to the Swiss border at Bask, isolated the enemy in the Black Forest, seized Stuttgart on 23 April, and swept past Lake Constance into the western corner of Austria. The end came when troops of Seventh Army’s VI Corps captured Innsbruck in the Austrian Tirol on 3 May, and at 1051 the following morning met U.S. Fifth Army near Vipiteno on the Italian side of the Brenner Pass.44
Except for occasional morning fog which restricted operations to the afternoon and for a few totally nonoperational days, good flying weather obtained throughout the month of April, permitting Ninth Air Force to record over 32,000 sorties for the month. And with that the job was for all practical purposes done, as a drop to little more than 2,000 sorties during the first eight days of May indicates. For the fighter-bombers the primary duty was to provide cover and support to the rapidly moving armored columns and other forward elements. The chief difficulty arose from the fact that the pace of the ground advance often left the bases from which the planes operated so far behind as to restrict their time over the battle area. Armed reconnaissance flights roamed virtually without interference in search of priority
targets – marshalling yards, rail and motor transport, and enemy airfields. The chaos occasioned by the enemy’s hurried withdrawals presented the fighter-bombers with fat targets on road and rail. When the claims were totaled for the period extending from 1 April through 8 May they showed 10,136 motor transport, 1,290 horse-drawn vehicles, 1,418 locomotives, 6,683 railway cars, and 591 armored vehicles and tanks. Rail cuts were 532 and road cuts 133.
The Luftwaffe, flying an average of 150 to 200 sorties per day, gave little trouble. Its effort was concentrated on Third Army’s front during the last days of March and in early April, when Patton’s offensive was getting momentum. In mid-April, when 21 Army Group was beginning to register swift advances, GAF efforts shifted somewhat to the north, only to be shifted back again to the south toward the end of April. Lacking fuel and skilled pilots, the Luftwaffe also quickly felt the effect of a serious “housing problem” as one complex of airfields after another fell into Allied hands. Increasingly, its surviving strength was crowded into a relatively small area in west and south Germany, northern Czechoslovakia, and Austria. The congested fields there made inviting targets, and the Ninth’s fighter-bombers claimed over 1,400 planes destroyed on the ground during the last month of operations.
The primary mission of each tactical air command came to a close when the army with which it was associated reached its final objectives or was prevented from further advances on orders from higher headquarters. In the case of XXIX TAC this took place on 20 April, after Ninth Army had reached the Elbe. Thereafter the fighter-bomber activities consisted mainly of uneventful cover over Allied airfields, an occasional escort of medium bombers, and patrol flights over the frontline troops. Combat operations of the IX TAC were brought to formal conclusion on 25 April, when First Army made junction with Russian troops on the Elbe. Operations during the remaining few days of April and early May were largely confined to escort missions, airfield cover for loading or unloading transport aircraft, front-line patrols, and an occasional attack upon the few remaining enemy airfields. Since Third Army engaged the enemy until the day of the final surrender, XIX TAC’s combat activity was not concluded until 7 May. However, unfavorable weather during the last ten days of the war and lack of targets had sharply curtailed the number of sorties flown.45
Medium bomber operations during this closing phase of the war
showed a very sharp decline from the record established in March, when 13,642 sorties had been flown. In April, because of ten totally nonoperational days and rapidly disappearing targets, the corresponding figure stood at 7,133. Attacks during the first,nine days of April were directed chiefly against oil refineries, petroleum storage areas, ordnance and supply depots, and marshalling yards. The heaviest attack on such targets took place on 9 April, when 729 aircraft struck oil storage facilities at Bad Berka, the ordnance depot at Amberg Kummersbrück, the ordnance and armored-force vehicle storage depots at Naumburg, and the marshalling yards at Jena and Saalfeld. The rapid disintegration of German resistance in First and Third Armies’ sectors of the front after 9 April and the Allied belief that a desperate last-ditch resistance might possibly develop in the so-called National Redoubt (the mountainous areas of south Germany and Austria) brought about a change of target priorities for the medium bombers. The accent was now placed upon hastening the process of enemy disintegration through attacks on ordnance depots, motor transport and tank factories, and interdiction of the National Redoubt. Very serious damage was caused at the ordnance depot at Kempten on 12 and 16 April. The motor transport assembly plant at Bamberg suffered nearly 50 per cent destruction on 11 April. Severance of the National Redoubt from the rest of Germany was the object of a number of missions on 12, 18, 19, and 20 April when very successful attacks were made against the rail and Autobahn bridges at Hof, the rail junctions at Falkenburg and Jüterbog, the marshalling yards at Ulm and Neu Ulm, and the rail center at Wittenberg. In addition to these operations, the mediums carried out leaflet missions in the Ruhr area, attacked several jet airfields in southern Germany, and, in response to direct army requests, staged several very successful attacks against communications centers or defended cities blocking or seriously interfering with the advance of the ground forces.46
The reconnaissance groups of the three tactical air commands flew 3,980 sorties during the month of April, the effort consisting of 2,727 visual and tactical reconnaissance sorties, 99 weather, 970 photo, and 180 miscellaneous reconnaissance sorties. Except for the first week of the month when weather severely hampered operations, the reconnaissance aircraft furnished the air and ground forces detailed and up-to-date information on the position and movement of enemy troops and materiel in all major areas of interest to them.47
The experience of the First Tactical Air Force, which included medium bomber miits, may be taken as representative of the last phase of the air-ground war. Just before the last German salient west of the Rhine had been completely obliterated, First TAF planes were active east of the river in support of Third Army’s bridgehead at Gernsheim. Thunderbolts and Spitfires hammered at front-line towns as far north as Coblenz and cut all of the rail arteries leading into Mannheim. On 23 March, the day that Third Army crossed the Rhine, American Marauders belonging to First TAF successfully bombed the crowded marshalling yards at Heidelberg and French mediums hit railroad bridges on the Neckar River, thereby depriving the Germans of badly needed railborne supplies. Four more medium attacks on Neckar rail targets the next day added to the enemy’s logistical griefs. When Seventh Army established its bridgehead east of Worms, fighter-bombers swarmed over the front and beyond to the Stuttgart area in an assault against rail and road bridges and other objectives. The fighters hacked at a convoy of 150 motor transports at Sinsheim and claimed 50 vehicles destroyed and 25 damaged. Similarly, when French First Army vaulted the Rhine, Allied aircraft on armed recce gave valuable support by lashing at enemy strongpoints, troop trains, and trucks.48
Up to 28 March, the mediums concentrated the greater part of their effort on such normal interdiction targets as key bridges, rail embankments, and marshalling yards; armored-vehicle repair shops and supply depots received only secondary attention. Communications objectives were dropped to second place on 28 March, when top priority was given ordnance installations used for armored-vehicle repair, storage, and supply; POL refinery and storage installations reappeared in third place on the list of B-26 targets. The change in medium bombardment policy was based upon an awareness of the crucial importance of repair and supply depots to the Germans, who, unable to maintain a continuous ground defense line, had no choice but to fall back from one strategic reserve center to the next. An equally cogent reason for the policy change was the probability that further major assaults on rail communications in southern Germany would be more damaging to General Devers’ swiftly advancing armies than to the enemy.49
After 28 March communications targets actually dropped to the bottom of the priority list. The last rail mission flown by First TAF mediums came on 31 March, when B-26’s of 42nd Bombardment Wing effectively bombed the rail yards and quay sidings in Heilbronn. On
the same day, French Marauders signaled the opening of the new campaign with an attack on a motor transport depot at Böblingen, southwest of Stuttgart. During the first nine days of April, the campaign went into high gear as American and French mediums pounded supply depots at Vaihingen, Tübingen, and in the Ludwigsburg area, oil stores at Geislingen and Weissenhorn, and ammunition dumps at Kleinengstingen, Gailenkirchen, and near Poppenweiler. After taking time out on the 10th for a devastating battering of enemy strongpoints in beleaguered Schweinfurt, the B-26’s returned to their main task; they revisited the oil storage depot at Geislingen and twice bombed an ammunition dump at Strass, near Ulm. In mid-April, the medium effort was diverted for several days to support of the offensive against German forces in the Gironde estuary area of western France; but thenceforth, with the exception of attacks on airdromes in the vicinity of Ulm and two more missions in the west, the Marauders again concentrated on depots and dumps during the last days of operations. Characteristically, in their final raids against targets in the Reich, First TAF’s B-26’s on 25 April bombed ammunition factories and storage areas at Schwabmünchen and Ebenhausen. The April campaign, which robbed the enemy of desperately needed fuel, munitions, and other supplies, also shattered all previous records as the mediums flew 3,434 sorties and dropped 4,983 tons of bombs. Seven bombers were shot down: one by flak and six by enemy aircraft.50
During 6th Army Group’s drive from the Rhine River bridgeheads to the mythical National Redoubt, fighter aircraft of XII Tactical Air Command and French First Air Force furnished close support to the ground offensive, carried out armed recce forays, escorted the mediums, flew night fighter and photo reconnaissance missions, and conducted counter-air force operations against the suddenly revived Luftwaffe. At Aschaffenburg, where XV Corps ran into furious and protracted resistance, P-47’s hammered at enemy defenses for more than a week. On 31 March the air effort reached a peak when 331 aircraft were dispatched against Aschaff enburg and gave troop concentrations, armor, motor transports, and heavy-gun positions a severe beating. Similarly, during the bitter battle for Nürnberg, fighter-bombers helped to crush the defending garrison with a series of dive-bombing and strafing attacks on machine-gun nests and other enemy strongpoints. After Nürnberg fell, First TAF planes swarmed over Bavaria and harried the hapless Germans all the way south to Munich. On 27 April, forexample, one squadron of Thunderbolts scored a spectacular success
against a concentration of about 200 motor vehicles in woods southwest of Augsburg; the P-47’s strafed and dive-bombed relentlessly until, after fifteen passes, the Germans surrendered. The fighters maintained an aerial guard over the area while Allied infantry moved up to take over the prisoners. But generally, as the war entered its last days, fighter activities dropped sharply, though some attacks were made against such familiar targets as ammunition dumps, motor transports, and isolated pockets of resistance in southern Bavaria and the Redoubt itself.51
In late March and April, after the ground situation had already become hopeless, the German Air Force came to life for the first time on this front since January. The Luftwaffe’s final effort – a feeble one at best – was brought about primarily by the forced transfer of jet and conventional enemy air units from the north into southern Germany. There, even as 6th Army Group’s advance pushed them into a retreat from one air base to the next, Luftwaffe elements went over to the attack. The enemy, perpetually plagued by fuel shortages, disrupted communications, and hasty changes of station, was incapable of more than sporadic spurts of activity against First TAF medium bomber formations and Allied ground forces. The Luftwaffe’s last bid, led by Jagdgeschwader-53, was not impressive. Though the enemy managed to fly over seventy-five single-engine daylight sorties on 7 April, for example, his daily operations rarely had more than nuisance value. Luftwaffe fighters did succeed, however, in knocking down four Marauders as late as 26 April.52
Following carefully formulated plans and aided by photographic reconnaissance and intelligence reports, Allied fighters systematically. patrolled and attacked active German airfields. Six airdromes in the Stuttgart area received constant attention from First Tactical Air Force planes beginning 26 March. In April, when the Luftwaffe units pulled back to the southeast, Allied planes followed them and kept up the assault. Day by day, the enemy became more constricted and resorted to increasingly desperate measures such as attempting to hide his planes in woods near airdromes and alongside Autobahns. The futility of the GAF’s last stand is indicated by First TAF’s counter-air claims for the period 23 March to 8 May: in the air, 87 destroyed, 11 probable, 53 damaged; on the ground, 793 destroyed, 47 probable, 681 damaged. In the same period, the cost of the aerial offensive in support of 6th Army Group was approximately 100 American and French aircraft of all types.53