Chapter 24: Into the Heart of Germany
“No one slept, no one ate, no one did anything but attack and push on, attack and push on.” So the tankers of XIII Corps’ 5th Armored Division described their dash from the Rhine to the Elbe.
Passing to Ninth Army control on the morning of 31 March, the 5th’s tankers crossed the Rhine that same day over a ponton bridge at Wesel, where the British Second Army’s bridges had just been turned over to Ninth Army on orders from Field Marshal Montgomery. By the time the last elements of the armored division reached the bridge night had fallen, and as the men crossed the river they entered a nearly surreal atmosphere. Floodlights split the darkness and shone on the water; antiaircraft guns pointed toward the sky. In the glare of the lights barge-mounted pile drivers were pounding, while plumes of smoke from busy tugboats silhouetted huge cranes.1 Two important bridges were under construction. Ninth Army engineers were driving piles for a fixed highway bridge, and ADSEC engineers were building a railroad bridge. All were working around the clock so that the combat forces, racing across tactical bridges, would not run out of supplies before they could reach the heart of Germany.
Months before, Colonel Itschner and his ADSEC staff had established dumps of material for the railroad bridge, planned as a single-track span on steel girders supported by light steel trestles and timber-pile piers. The planners had intended to use the site of a destroyed German railroad bridge downstream from where the Lippe River entered the Rhine. When the engineers reconnoitered the far bank, however, they found the damage there too extensive for quick repair and had to settle on a site upstream near a wrecked highway bridge to which the Germans had added a single-track rail line. This substitution meant a very long bridge since it added to the Rhine section of twenty-three spans (1,753 feet) a section of six spans (463 feet) over the Lippe. Luckily, the supply of meter-depth I-beams needed for girders had been assured when the Hadir Steel Mill in Luxembourg became operational in October 1944.
On 29 March a large force under Col. James B. Cress began work. The organization consisted of the 1056th Port Construction and Repair Group; elements of the 341st, 355th, and 1317th Engineer General Service Regiments; and an engineer construction battalion, a dump truck company, an engineer maintenance company, and a welding detachment. Several nonengineer units
were included—a Signal Corps battalion to provide communications, a Transportation Corps harbor craft company to control water traffic, and a U.S. Navy detachment to assemble barges. The around-the-clock work was hard and dangerous, and the construction cost the lives of three men of the 355th Engineer General Service Regiment. This first railroad bridge across the Rhine opened to traffic at 0100 on 9 April, only ten days, four hours, and forty-five minutes after the first pile was driven; it was named the Major Robert A. Gouldin Bridge for an officer of the 355th Engineer General Service Regiment who lost his life during the construction.2
Ninth Army’s fixed timber-pile highway bridge was placed about seventy-five yards upstream of the wrecked German bridge (the railroad bridge was about the same distance downstream) to take advantage of existing roadnets.3 The span was to carry three lanes—two-way Class 40 and one-way Class 70 traffic. The builder was the 1146th Engineer Combat Group, using the 250th, 252nd, and 1256th Engineer Combat Battalions, aided by detachments from ADSEC’s 1053rd and 1058th Port Construction and Repair Groups and a U.S. Navy Seabee maintenance unit.
The first step was to construct an embankment on the near side of Wesel to carry an approach road. To obtain the needed fill, the engineers demolished old Fort Blucher and carted the rubble to the site. Work on the bridge itself began on 31 March. Like the railroad bridge, the highway bridge was very long, spanning the Rhine (1,813 feet) and the Lippe (411 feet). The western and eastern approaches to the two rivers totaled more than 2,000 feet. Open to truck traffic during the early afternoon of 18 April, the span was called the Roosevelt Bridge in memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who had died less than a week before.4
Ninth Army’s Dash to the Elbe
Rolling over the ponton bridge at Wesel with the 5th Armored Division on 31 March was the division’s organic 22nd Armored Engineer Battalion. To get the armor over streams on the way to the Elbe, the engineers carried a truckload of lumber to refloor bridges and treadway to use at crossing sites where bridges were down.
On the route along the northern edge of the Ruhr Pocket, the first water barrier in the 5th Armored Division’s path was the Dortmund-Ems Canal. The original plan had been to bridge the canal at Muenster, from which good roads led eastward; but south of Muenster near Senden, on the right flank of the advance, Combat Command Reserve ran into fire from German 20-mm. flak guns, bazookas, small arms, and tanks. The armored division commander, Maj. Gen. Lunsford E. Oliver, decided to cross the canal at Senden and move south, skirting the pocket of resistance. The task of getting the tanks across the canal fell to CCR’s engineers, Company
C of the 22nd Armored Engineer Battalion.
Orders came at 2100 on 31 March for CCR’s armored infantry to establish a bridgehead on the far bank of the canal to protect the engineers working on the bridge, but no mention was made of how the infantrymen were to get across. After two men making their way down the bank in the dark found some rowboats, the infantry rowed over the canal to set up a defensive perimeter. At 0400 on Easter, the engineers began installing treadway. Four hours later in a light rain the tanks started to cross the canal, and by the morning of 2 April all Combat Command Reserve was over. The bridge also carried Combat Command B and the motorized 84th Infantry Division, which was following the armor. Later XIII Corps engineers came up and repaired a German bridge over the canal; the 5th Armored Division’s Combat Command A used this span after it cleaned out the German pocket south of Münster.
Racing northeast in the rain through the spring-green countryside on the morning of 2 April, the tank columns began to encounter roadblocks. Some were merely logs stacked on the road; others consisted of two emplaced cylinders, one on either side of the road. These the Germans made by driving a circle of wooden piles in the ground, filling the center with dirt or crushed rock, and blocking the gap between the cylinders with a truck or wagon. There was also the “rolling roadblock”—a huge drum filled with gravel or dirt. None of the roadblocks delayed the advance for very long; few were manned and some had not even been completed. When the Germans did man the blocks, the Americans could normally eliminate the covering fire, and then the engineers with the help of tanks could destroy all but the most elaborate obstacles in fifteen to twenty minutes.
On 3 April the engineers became involved in an attempt to seize bridges across the Weser River. Small assault teams of engineers, tanks, and infantry were organized to take the bridges by surprise, but they found all bridges blown. There followed five days of effort to seize bridges, and the tankers, pounding swiftly down the autobahn, at one point got close enough to see a bridge intact, only to hear a dull boom and watch the girders falling into the river. All efforts failed. On 8 April Combat Command Reserve was ordered to cross the Weser over a bridge in the XIX Corps zone at Hameln of Pied Piper fame.
Once across the Weser CCR’s tanks ran into increasing enemy resistance. Although the engineers lost some of their trucks to 20-mm. flak fire, they managed to keep up with the attack, filling craters in the roads and removing mines and roadblocks from the path of the fast-moving armored columns. The attack proceeded so swiftly that soon bridges were being captured intact. The engineers’ main tasks then became removing bombs (some of them American 500-pound aerial bombs) buried in bridge abutments and emplacing flooring that would carry tanks.
On 12 April Combat Command Reserve reached the Elbe. After two days of searching for bridge sites the engineers started to install a bridge at Sandau, but while they were assembling bridge equipment orders came that no bridge would be built.5
South of XIII Corps in the dash to the Elbe was the bulk of XIX Corps, which also sent some elements even farther south to aid in reducing the Ruhr Pocket. Its rapid sweep to the Elbe was spearheaded by the 2nd Armored Division and its 17th Armored Engineer Battalion. By the end of the first week of April the 2nd Armored Division had crossed the Weser on treadway bridges its engineers had built and the Leine River on bridges captured intact. On 11 April, after taking the great Hermann Göring Steel Works southwest of Braunschweig, the tankers made a 73-mile march in a single day to reach the Elbe just southeast of Magdeburg at Schoenebeck. There, as the armor drew within a few feet of a still standing bridge, heavy German antiaircraft shelling demolished it.
The tankers then sent for DUKWs. After nightfall on 12 April the DUKWs carried two battalions of armored infantry across the river just south of Magdeburg and before daylight next morning crossed an infantry battalion of the 30th Division. No antitank guns, tanks, or tank destroyers could get across because the water on the near side was too shallow for vehicular ferries.
After dark on 12 April the 17th Armored Engineers began to build a tread-way bridge, but shelling from large guns at Magdeburg, increasing with daylight, slowed the work. The engineers set out smoke pots and by noon on 13 April had advanced their bridge to a point within twenty-five yards of the far bank. Two hours later German shellfire destroyed it. Enemy fire also defeated an effort to construct a ferry. The engineers deposited rubble in the river to form a loading ramp and managed to anchor a guide cable to the east bank. Then, as the first raft carrying a bulldozer approached the far bank, German artillery severed the cable, and the raft careened downstream.
The XIX Corps was unable to get tanks across to the precarious bridgehead, where the infantry was being attacked by tanks and assault guns of the new Twelfth Army, which the Germans had hastily formed of young men from army schools, over-aged conscripts, and other remnants. Accordingly, the XIX Corps commander ordered the infantry to abandon the bridgehead and withdraw. Tanks and infantry of the 2nd Armored Division then moved south to use a XIX Corps crossing over the Elbe at Barby, five miles upstream and out of range of the artillery at Magdeburg. There the 83rd Division’s 295th Engineer Combat Battalion, supported by the 992nd Engineer Treadway Bridge Company, had built the first bridge over the Elbe on 13 April. The engineers named the span the Truman Bridge in honor of the new commander in chief. Two days later the 234th Engineer Combat Battalion built another treadway in the same area. The Germans tried in every way, including the use of frogmen, to destroy both bridges but were unsuccessful.
The engineers called their Truman Bridge “Gateway to Berlin”; but it had hardly been built when they learned that it was, in fact, a gateway to nowhere. On 15 April the word came that
there was to be no drive to Berlin and no advance beyond the Elbe.6
First Army’s Drive to Leipzig and Beyond
On 5 April, after the attack to seal off the Ruhr ended, First Army’s V and VII Corps began a drive east to the Leipzig area, where most of the remaining German industrial capacity was concentrated and where General Eisenhower believed the German government was fleeing.7 The 3rd Armored Division, leading the VII Corps advance, was delayed two days by resistance at numerous roadblocks. The V Corps’ leading infantry division, the 69th, ran into determined resistance at Hann-Muenden on the Weser and also was stalled for two days. But V Corps’ other spearhead unit, the 2nd Infantry Division, had a comparatively clear route and by nightfall on 6 April was crossing the Weser in assault boats, thus gaining a bridgehead only one day after Ninth Army had crossed.
On 7 April V Corps engineers built a treadway over the Weser at Hameln for the rest of the 2nd Infantry Division and next day helped the 69th Division cross the narrow Werra River via another treadway. On 8 April the engineers built a second treadway over the Weser, this time for the 9th Armored Division at Hann-Muenden, an industrial center where the engineers uncovered a Panzer Pioneer School with a supply of all types of land mines—including Russian ones—as well as German building equipment and tools.
On 10 April General Bradley removed restrictions on eastward movement. That day the 9th Armored Division, once over the Weser, passed through the 2nd and 69th Infantry Divisions and raced ahead. Its leading elements were accompanied by V Corps engineers, who undertook reconnaissance and erected signs with the distinctive, pentagonal V Corps insignia.8
With little rest during the long drive after the Rhine crossing at Hoenningen, the V and VII Corps engineers were as weary as the tankers and infantrymen who, according to correspondent Hal Boyle,
threw themselves down in fields for a nap whenever the columns paused. They are moving across wide rolling farm lands along roads blanketed with blinding yellow dust. Trucks going back for supplies occasionally drive with their lights on so that the vehicles moving forward won’t crash into them in the yellow fog. Black pillars of smoke from enemy vehicles can be seen on the horizon as the tanks smash slowly forward against stiffening resistance from German troops who fight until surrounded or they are out of ammunition and then surrender and say amiably, “The war will be over in two weeks.”9
Approaching the Saale River on 12 April, the 9th Armored Division ran into an area known to the Allied airmen as “flak alley”—one of the heaviest concentrations of antiaircraft guns (mainly 88-mm.) in Europe. Emplaced in an arc around Leipzig to protect neighboring synthetic oil refineries and related industries, including Germany’s
largest synthetic rubber plant, were about a thousand antiaircraft weapons, depressed for ground fire. The armored division’s leading task force on the north lost nine tanks when it came up against the first German position. (Map 30)
Because of the flak guns, the V Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner, ordered the 9th Armored Division to bypass Leipzig and push on to the Mulde River. Coming up to the Saale River at Weissenfels on 13 April, part of the armor crossed on a bridge captured intact, the rest on a 240-foot treadway that corps engineers constructed the next day. The infantry divisions following in the wake of the armor crossed on the treadway and in assault boats. The 9th Armored Division drove east toward the Mulde, crossing the Weisse Elster near Zeitz on bridges the Germans did not have time to destroy. The two infantry divisions turned north to attack Leipzig, the 2nd moving against the city from the west, the 69th from the south. On 15 April leading elements of the armor reached the Mulde at Colditz, twenty miles southeast of Leipzig. Combat Command Reserve crossed the river on a railroad bridge and released 1,800 prisoners of war at a camp there, but did not advance much beyond the Mulde.
The two infantry divisions moved cautiously against Leipzig, hoping at this late stage of the war to keep casualties down. On the west the 2nd Infantry Division launched night attacks to surprise the crews of the flak guns. Because these crews were unaccustomed to ground combat the tactic usually worked, but in this case the infantry suffered heavy casualties before breaking into Leipzig from the west and the south on 18 April. Prolonged negotiations for surrender ended on 20 April, and the 2nd and 69th Infantry Divisions moved on to the Mulde to relieve the 9th Armored Division.
At Leipzig the main concern of V Corps engineers was the water system, damaged by Allied bombing and shelling. Although the water supply was low, it was adequate until German water works employees could undertake repairs, supervised by American engineers. In addition, V Corps engineers took on a job that was normally not their function—repairing a railroad. Reconnaissance showed that the 150-mile railroad line from Muehlhausen to Leipzig could be opened for traffic if about 2,000 feet of bomb-cratered line were refilled, ballasted, and laid with track. The 1121st Engineer Combat Group’s 254th Engineer Combat Battalion accomplished the work, taking great pride in naming the repaired road the “Snortin’ Bull Express.” The rail service carried to Leipzig gasoline for the spearhead units, thereby freeing for normal engineer duties the companies that the 1121st Engineer Group had furnished to haul fuel to the front. On the return trip to Muehlhausen the train carried to the rear German prisoners of war and Allied soldiers released from German prison camps.10 Following the linkup of U.S. and Russian forces on 25 April, V Corps engineers erected a Bailey bridge over the Mulde at Eilenburg so that the American commanders could cross the river and meet the Russians at Torgau on the Elbe River.
The men of VII Corps’ 3rd Armored Division, swinging eastward in early April north of the V Corps drive, came to feel that “there was always one more river.”11 Col. Mason J. Young, the VII Corps engineer, had long since learned that he could not count on finding German bridges still intact. Therefore, when VII Corps’ combat units approached the Weser River on 7 April, he was prepared for a crossing. The organic divisional engineers—the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion supporting the 1st Infantry Division on the left of the 3rd Armored Division and the 329th Engineer Combat Battalion supporting the 104th Infantry Division on the right—had assault boats, storm boats, infantry support rafts, and material for footbridges so that they could make an assault crossing and establish a bridgehead. Then VII Corps’ 1106th Engineer Combat Group was to build the bridges the 3rd Armored and 1st Infantry Divisions would require and the 1120th Engineer Combat Group those needed at the 104th Infantry Division’s crossing.12
Reaching the Weser at Gieselwerder at midafternoon on 7 April, the leading elements of the 104th Division saw an arched iron bridge still standing. As the Americans dashed toward it, the Germans blew the span. A German tank and about fifty infantrymen left in the town put up a fight, but by dark resistance was over. All night trucks carrying assault boats rolled into Gieselwerder, and before dawn two battalions were crossing in the boats and on a footbridge the 329th Engineer Combat Battalion had built. By noon on 8 April the combat engineers were constructing treadways and infantry support bridges at this and other sites. Late that night the 3rd Armored Division’s tanks began crossing; before sunset on 9 April the combat commands had crossed the river and, branching out, had captured twenty-two towns beyond the Weser.
At dusk on 11 April assault elements of two task forces of Combat Command B, 3rd Armored Division, one commanded by Col. John C. Welborn, the other by Lt. Col. William B. Lovelady, entered Nordhausen. Here, on the eastward route nearest to the Harz Mountain area, Hitler was attempting to mount a counteroffensive to relieve his forces in the Ruhr Pocket, using troops of the newly formed Twelfth Army. General Huebner ordered the 3rd Armored Division to block exits from the Harz Mountains and sent his 1st Infantry Division and part of his 104th Infantry Division into the mountain redoubt.
Nordhausen was also a place of utter horror. In a concentration camp with a capacity of about 30,000, the tankers discovered the pathetic remnants of a slave labor force used in huge underground factories, one for manufacturing V-2 rockets. Many of the living, in the last stages of starvation and too weak to move, were lying alongside the emaciated dead. The tankers of the 3rd, their historian recorded, “were in a savage mood as they went on to the final battles.”13
The armor fought the last battles between the Saale and the Mulde without infantry support, except from their
organic armored infantry units. The 104th Division had orders to stop on the way and capture Halle, the tenth largest city of Germany, which held out until 19 April. Meantime most of Combat Command B, still in the lead, stalled in front of strong enemy panzerfaust positions and antitank fire. Only Task Force Welborn, which hit the softest spot in the German defenses, was able to keep up its momentum. This task force soon reached an autobahn leading north, and by the evening of 14 April one of Welborn’s infantry patrols arrived at the point where the autobahn crossed the Mulde on a steel-girder, two-span bridge two miles south of Dessau. The infantrymen found the autobahn bridge still standing, but before the rest of the task force could come up, the Germans destroyed it. Colonel Welborn thereupon ordered engineers to bring up boats for an assault crossing. The 294th Engineer Combat Battalion sent forward fourteen boats, but by the time the boats arrived early in the afternoon Welborn had decided that the infantry could cross on the destroyed autobahn bridge. The infantry started crossing at 1600, protected by a smoke screen.
Building a new bridge alongside the autobahn bridge did not appear too difficult at first, for the river was narrow and required not more than 150 feet of treadway. But the engineers had
hardly begun to inflate pontons when enemy artillery fire fell on them, killing one and wounding three. This fire was so accurate that it stopped the work in midafternoon. Next morning, 16 April, after a crane had put a powerboat into the water to tow pontons to the far bank, German artillery fire hit and set afire a truck arriving with pontons. Two engineers dragged from the blazing truck were seriously burned. All that day and into the moonlit night, enemy shellfire forestalled all bridging work.
On 17 April work resumed under a smoke screen. By afternoon about fifteen pontons were in the water, but then enemy artillery scored a direct hit, killing one engineer, wounding eight, and knocking many more into the water. Arriving on the scene, the commander of Combat Command B suspended operations, and shortly after dark orders came to pull back to the near bank of the MuIde.14
Third Army Reaches Austria
After crossing the Rhine at Oppenheim, Third Army’s spearheading XII Corps crossed the Main on battered bridges still standing between Aschaffenburg and Frankfurt am Main. Then the corps left the Rhine-Main plain and headed through rolling forested hills and open farmlands, using the Frankfurt-Dresden autobahn toward the corps’ next objective, Chemnitz, south of Leipzig and ten miles beyond the Mulde.
Leading the advance, Combat Command A of the 4th Armored Division struck its first obstacle on 1 April at the Werra River. Bridges were down, and next morning when the 24th Armored Engineer Battalion began to build tread-ways at two towns, German planes swooped low to attack, while direct fire came from the east bank. The armored infantry finally managed to cross despite small-arms fire; next day the tanks crossed the Werra and were again rolling east along the autobahn.15
At Leina the tankers came to a blown overpass that forced them off the autobahn. In any case the 4th Armored Division received orders to backtrack, swing north, and assist in an attack on Gotha. After the town fell, the armor moved south to Ohrdruf, finding a small but gruesome concentration camp. There Combat Command A remained six days. Starting east on 12 April the 4th Armored Division tankers—having by then come under the command of XX Corps—found that demolitions made using the autobahn too dangerous and took to the fields on either side.16
For infantry vehicles the Frankfurt-Dresden autobahn was literally the backbone of Third Army’s push east during the first half of April. Engineers found that their largest task was not spanning rivers but building bridges over or around the autobahn’s damaged overpasses and underpasses. At the rivers the enemy occasionally delayed construction, not only at the Werra but also at the Elster, where the bridge site was dominated for a time by a battery of 88-mm. guns. Yet the
Fulda, Werra, Saale, and Elster Rivers presented few engineering problems because they were low, making nearly all fordable.17
Bridges on the autobahn were normally quite large. Fortunately the Germans usually blew only one span, and when a Bailey could not bridge the gap the engineers would construct a tread-way bypass. But so many bridges were down that the engineers began to run out of material. One very wide gap they simply filled with earth; at another site that required a large amount of Bailey bridging, the engineers used bents to make a Class 40 double-single Bailey. Elsewhere, the Germans had buckled two center stringers of a four-stringer bridge and had blown holes in twenty-five feet of the roadbed. Here, building piers to strengthen the buckled stringers was especially difficult because the slope beneath was so steep. Unable to use a bulldozer, the engineers had to work with picks and shovels, and the bents had to be constructed on level ground and moved into position with block and tackle.18
On 13 April the 4th Armored Division, leading the XX Corps, reached the Mulde and by nightfall had seized four bridges intact. During the sweep to the Mulde the engineers of the 1154th Engineer Combat Group, supporting the XX Corps drive, carried out reconnaissance of roads and minor road clearance and repairs. The Germans were being pushed back so rapidly that they were unable to do enough damage to slow the advance.
The XX Corps expected to go on to Dresden, but a directive from General Eisenhower on 15 April brought about a radical change in plans.19 Having decided not to go to Berlin, Eisenhower directed the 12th Army Group to hold along the Elbe-Mulde line with the First and Ninth Armies and sent the Third Army southeast down the Danube valley into Austria for eventual linkup with the Russians.20
New plans required the reshuffling of corps. The VIII Corps went to First Army, to remain along the Mulde; III Corps’ six divisions, having completed operations in the Ruhr, turned south to take over the right flank in Patton’s drive; XX Corps was to move forward in the center and XII Corps on Third Army’s left. Third Army was to be strengthened to fifteen divisions, many of them newcomers to battle. Because the regrouping took time, the drive in force could not begin until 23 April although XII and XX Corps actually started to advance three or four days earlier.
By 22 April forward troops of XX Corps were southeast of Nuremberg, only forty miles from the Danube. Leaving the Berlin-Munich autobahn, the corps turned southeast toward Regensburg, where the Danube turns almost at a right angle to flow southeast, paralleling the Czechoslovakian border. On 24 April a task force of the 3rd Cavalry Group (Mechanized), leading the XX Corps advance, reached the Danube southwest of Regensburg. Supported by a company of the 245th Engineer Combat Battalion, the cavalry task force began crossing in assault boats the following night.
The 1139th Engineer Combat Group built the first bridge over the Danube to support XX Corps’ 71st Infantry Division, newly arrived at the front. By 2215 on 26 April the group’s 160th Engineer Combat Battalion had completed an M2 treadway at Sulzbach, just east of Regensburg. While the bridge was being built, group engineers also helped the 71st Division’s organic 271st Engineer Combat Battalion to move infantry across in assault boats.21
Three Danube tributaries—the Isar, Inn, and Enns Rivers—impeded the drive southeast down the broad Danube valley. At the Isar the engineers found the current too swift for paddled assault boats. Instead, some of the infantry crossed in motor-driven storm boats, while other troops used a damaged railway bridge, at one place climbing hand over hand.
Arriving on 2 May at the Inn River, which marked the border with Austria, 71st Division scouting parties found all bridges down but discovered two large dams that might be used for crossings. In a determined effort to seize the dams before the Germans could blow them, infantrymen of the 71st Division fought their way across, captured German demolition crews just in time, and cut wires that would have set off explosions. By midnight the 71st Division had two bridgeheads across the dams, thereby becoming the first Allied unit to enter Austria from the west.
Late on 3 May XX Corps gave all units the mission of establishing contact with the Russians at the Enns River. Moving over two bridges captured intact beyond Lambach, motorized patrols of the 71st Division on 7 May encountered the headquarters of the Russian 5th Guards Airborne Division near St. Peter, Austria. That day the American patrols withdrew behind the Enns after they received the orders that ended hostilities in Europe.22
Advancing to the left of XX Corps down a narrow corridor between the Czechoslovakian border and the Danube, XII Corps had to cross the Naab and the Regen, both tributaries of the Danube. Engineers of the 1135th Engineer Combat Group, supporting XII Corps, found that assault crossings were unnecessary, for resistance was light, mainly scattered small-arms and panzerfaust attacks. The engineers quickly installed tactical bridging and almost immediately replaced such spans with fixed bridges. On the extreme left of the XII Corps advance, in rolling, pine-covered, upland country near the Czechoslovakian border, an armored task force found the Naab so shallow that tanks and other armored vehicles were able to ford it.
On 30 April, an overcast day with some snow, the 1135th Group received orders to plan for an assault crossing of the Danube at Passau; it was canceled when orders came to remain north of the Danube. On 4 May the group completed a ponton bridge at Passau and two days later had a treadway over the Danube at Deggendorf. The XII Corps, arriving just ahead of XX Corps, captured an intact highway bridge over the Danube at Linz, but had hardly
begun to press southeast when word came of the German surrender.23
On Patton’s right III Corps, with the 86th and 99th Infantry Divisions and the 14th Armored Division, drove south through a corridor between the XX Corps zone and the Berlin-Munich autobahn. Here as in the other zones, the only real obstacles were rivers, first the Altmuehl, then the Danube, and beyond the Danube the Isar and the Inn. All bridges were down.
The 99th Infantry Division, whose own 324th Engineer Combat Battalion had the support of the 1159th Engineer Combat Group’s 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, met heavy enemy opposition at the Altmuehl. The division undertook several night assault crossings and by the evening of 26 April was on the banks of the Danube—not the blue Danube the men had imagined, but “a muddy, dirty, yellow colored, fast flowing, smelly river.”24 The division’s heavy equipment and supplies arrived promptly, thanks to a treadway the divisional engineers had quickly built over the Altmuehl.
Shortly before noon on 27 April the troops began to move across the Danube in assault boats from four sites. One
site was hit by heavy small-arms and artillery fire from well dug-in and concealed enemy positions. But at the other three the troops met little opposition, and the 324th Engineer Combat Battalion, with the help of the 291st, began constructing a ponton bridge near Kienheim at an old boat landing. The road seemed to the division’s commanding general “ideal for our purpose.”25
So it might have been in good weather. But it rained during the afternoon, and when heavy engineer trucks began to haul bridging equipment down to the banks of the Danube, the roadbed disintegrated into a seemingly bottomless marsh. By putting down gravel and stone and corduroying the road with logs cut from nearby forests, the engineers were able to move pontons down to the river. Working all night and all the next day, part of the time under German artillery fire, the engineers completed the bridge before dark on 28 April. The division’s trucks and tanks began to roll toward the bridge, then bogged down so badly that the engineers had to use tractors to tow them out of the marsh and onto the bridge apron. The work of reinforcing the road resumed, continuing after dark by turning on truck headlights. This was the first time in the war the engineers supporting the 99th Infantry Division had been permitted to use lights at night. No hostile fire fell because infantry had crossed the bridge on foot and had driven the German artillery out of range.
By nightfall of 29 April elements of the 99th Division had reached the Isar at two towns, Moosburg on the near bank and Landshut astride the river. At Landshut, where the enemy put up a stiff fight, the 99th Division infantry climbed over the debris of a blown bridge at Moosburg, ran across on a dam nearby, and paddled over the Isar in assault boats. To get the 14th Armored Division tanks in position to help in the fight required strenuous engineer effort. Working under artillery fire the engineers built a short treadway from the near side of the Isar to an island in the river. From there the tanks fired on Landshut, which fell early on 1 May. By dark all elements of the 99th Division had crossed the Isar.
Advancing toward the Inn River in a light snowfall, the infantry soon outdistanced the armor, road-bound because of soggy fields and stopped by blown bridges. The 99th Infantry Division was the first III Corps element to reach the Inn, but it was to go no farther. Just before noon on 2 May, corps ordered the division to halt and await new orders. Within sight of the Bavarian Alps, the division received the news that Germany had surrendered.26
Seventh Army to the “Alpine Fortress”
Breaking out of its Rhine bridgehead near Worms with the mission of protecting 12th Army Group’s right during its drive toward Leipzig, Seventh Army advanced on a 120-mile-wide front—more than double the width of the army sectors within 12th Army Group. The Seventh Army commander, General Patch, gave XV Corps the main role on the left, ordered XXI Corps to drive east in the center, and sent VI
Corps to the south on the right. When the drive began early in April the 6th Army Group commander, Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, restricted the VI Corps drive because he did not have strength for an all-out advance. The weak link was the First French Army, which had to keep some troops on the west bank of the Rhine facing the Black Forest, others along the French-Italian frontier, and still others at ports along the French Atlantic coast.27
Making the main thrust on the north, XV Corps advanced rapidly. Although some of the towns in the corps’ path, notably Aschaffenburg, were resolutely defended, the combat units met only sporadic resistance while marching to their objective, the Hohe Rhoen hill mass, during the first week in April. The Germans derisively called their own roadblocks 61-minute blocks because, they said, “It will take the Americans sixty-one minutes to get past them. They will look at them and laugh sixty minutes and then tear them down in one.”28
More troublesome to the engineers was debris on the roads—German vehicles that American tanks, artillery, and planes had destroyed.29 Debris also filled the streets of the fire-scarred towns, and the engineers went in to clear the streets while fighting was still going on. The 14th Armored Division, leading the XV Corps advance, met its first serious resistance at Lohr. The engineers entered the town at nightfall to find it “afire from the shelling, the flames leaping through the darkness and crackling through the madness of the firing; the smoke was in your eyes and nose, and the weird shadows of the men running, and of the tanks, and of nothing at all (at night, in a burning town, in war) leapt and jumped along the walls.”30
Moving along with the combat troops during the rapid march, the engineers had some strange encounters. One occurred near Lohr. Lt. Melvin O. Robinson of the 125th Armored Engineer Battalion, reconnoitering in his jeep with his driver, Pfc. George A. Bartels, saw a Mark VI tank by the road. The two men were approaching it cautiously to see whether it was mined, when all at once they were surrounded and fired upon by a party of twenty-one German soldiers. Neither American had time to fire, and both were wounded. Then the Germans threw down their weapons and surrendered. Toward the end of the week, two jeeploads of engineers starting out one night to look for a bivouac ran into an ambush at a roadblock. A mortar round killed one man and wounded another. The rest of the men were taken prisoner, but before the night was over tankers of the 14th Armored Division found and released them.31
Resistance decreased as the troops reached the narrow, winding roads of the Hohe Rhoen. On 8 April Seventh Army’s armor established contact with Third Army, and the time had come for XV Corps to turn southeast.
Through the zones of both XV and XXI Corps meandered the Main River, making so many loops and turns that it had to be crossed not once but several
times—when XV Corps’ 3rd Infantry Division turned south on 11 April the division crossed the Main for the fourth time.32 Most of the bridges over the Main were down, but the crossings presented no special engineer problems. The river was fordable in places, and Seventh Army had plenty of DUKWs to help in the crossings.
In the XXI Corps sector a regiment of the 42nd Infantry Division and a combat command of the 12th Armored Division reached the Main opposite Würzburg on the night of 2 April to find the three bridges across the river down. Unwilling to wait for the 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion to arrive with assault boats, a party of Rangers crossed just before dawn in a rowboat they had found along the bank. They reached the far bank unobserved and sent the boat back for another load. The two boatloads of Rangers had established a small bridgehead by the time the engineers came up.
Daylight revealed a surprising scene. Across the river rose the ramparts of the huge Marienburg Castle. On one of the retaining walls the Germans had painted in large white letters “Heil Hitler!”
As the first engineer assault boat of eleven infantrymen and three engineers reached midstream, the Germans opened fire with rifles and 20-mm. antiaircraft guns. The guns were not very accurate, possibly because the Germans were unable to depress the barrels sufficiently, but throughout the day shells fell around the boats. In spite of enemy fire and a swift current, the engineers managed to get an entire infantry battalion across before the day was over. While the infantry enlarged the bridgehead the engineers built a ferry for jeeps, ambulances, and radio equipment and began constructing a Bailey across a hole the Germans had blown in a substantial stone bridge leading into the castle area.
Before dawn on 4 April foot troops (but not vehicles) were able to use the Bailey bridge. To bring armored aid to the infantry the engineers erected a treadway bridge. While the fight was raging in the city early next morning, a party of about two hundred Germans made a desperate, last-ditch attempt to reach and destroy the treadway and to demolish the Bailey, which was still not complete. The attack stalled a hundred yards short of the Bailey bridge, and by the end of the day the battle for Würzburg was over.33
On the following day, 6 April, the 42nd Infantry Division moved northeast toward the corps’ next objective, Schweinfurt, the center of the German ball-bearing industry. The main problem was 88-mm. guns ringing the city. These weapons had made Schweinfurt one of the costliest of all targets for Allied bombers and, because the guns could be depressed for ground fire, would very likely make it costly for ground troops as well. The plan was to encircle the city with the 42nd’s three regiments. No assault river crossing was required, but to enable a combat command of the 12th Armored Division to swing south of Schweinfurt and cut the enemy’s escape route to the east, the 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion built a tread-way over the Main at Nordheim. The
encirclement was successful, and with the close support of medium bombers most of the 88-mm. guns were destroyed. By 13 April XXI Corps was ready to turn southeast and help XV Corps capture Nuremberg by attacking the suburb Fuerth.
Nuremberg lay in a broad valley veined by three rivers with confusing names. The Rednitz, flowing from the south, and the Pegnitz, from the east, joined at the northern boundaries of Fuerth to form the Regnitz. The river crossings were not difficult. For ex ample, in the XV Corps’ zone, under cover of darkness the 3rd Infantry Division made unopposed crossings of both the Regnitz and a man-made stream paralleling it, Ludwigs Canal; the 45th Infantry Division crossed the Pegnitz over a bridge captured intact. Within the city, through which the Pegnitz and the canal ran, all bridges were down, but troops could cross on the twisted girders of blown bridges.
The engineers’ hardest task was removing roadblocks, which were numerous and strong and included streetcars derailed and placed sideways, barriers of logs, and huge chunks of scrap iron and steel. Another engineering task that was to prove increasingly important went to the 40th Engineer Combat Group’s 2831st Engineer Combat Battalion, attached to the 3rd Division. As the infantry progressed through the city the engineer battalion assumed the guard of enemy installations, not only the usual railroad yards and factories but also important Nazi Party offices in Nuremberg. Eighty-six such installations had been discovered by the time Nuremberg fell on 20 April.34
The XV Corps’ next objective was Munich. Then the corps was to plunge into an area the Germans called the Alpenfestung (“Alpine fortress”) and the Americans called the National Redoubt, presumably located in the mountains of southern Bavaria, western Austria, and northern Italy. General Eisenhower believed that the Germans intended to withdraw into this mountain fortress. To block such a move, he directed 6th Army Group to advance into a wide area containing the passes into the Italian Alps, including the famous Brenner Pass. The Alpine fortress region extended from Salzburg on the right, in the XV Corps line of march, to Lake Constance on the left, where VI Corps was heading.35
While XV and XXI Corps were making grand sweeps to Nuremburg, VI Corps, on the right of the Seventh Army sector, halted early in April before strong German resistance at the Neckar and Jagst Rivers. About ten miles north of Heilbronn, an important communications center, the Neckar forks. Its right fork, the Jagst, flows northeast, then southeast through the town of Crailsheim. Along the arc of the Jagst between Heilbronn and Crailsheim, the enemy unexpectedly delayed VI Corps for about ten days.
Combat commands of the 10th Armored Division, spearheading the 63rd and 100th Infantry Divisions, found the bridges over the Neckar and Jagst down. While the bulk of the armor waited for
bridging at the most important objective, Heilbronn, the 63rd Division crossed the Neckar on a treadway downstream at Mosbach and began reconnoitering the north bank of the Jagst.
Considered the gateway to Bavaria and the Alps, Heilbronn was strongly defended. On 4 and 5 April three battalions of the 100th Division managed to cross the Neckar and establish tenuous bridgeheads in a factory area on the far bank, but German artillery on heights above the city prevented the construction of a treadway bridge and destroyed ferries that might have taken tanks across.
The 10th Armored Division had to use the 63rd Division’s bridge downstream at Mosbach and so was unable to help in the attack on Heilbronn. Instead, it became involved in a battle for Crailsheim. The town fell on 6 April, but the Germans succeeded in cutting its line of communications and continued to counterattack strongly. Crailsheim became “another Bastogne.” By 11 April Maj. Gen. Edward H. Brooks, commanding VI Corps, decided it was not worth the effort to hold the town; that night the armored division withdrew. The tankers turned west, forded the shallow headwaters of the Kocher River, and headed for a meeting with the infantry east of Heilbronn.36
In the meantime, the infantry of the 100th Division was putting up a desperate fight for Heilbronn. By the afternoon of 7 April the 31st Engineer Combat Battalion had almost completed a treadway when German artillery scored a direct hit on it. The following morning the engineers emplaced a second treadway. Some tanks and tank destroyers managed to cross before the Germans destroyed the span at noon, but even with the help of tanks the 100th Division was unable to push east of Heilbronn until 14 April.37
By 17 April engineers of the 540th Engineer Combat Group, in close support of VI Corps, were building bridges over the Neckar, the Jagst, and the Kocher to get men and supplies forward for a push across the Danube and into the Alpine fortress.38 Leaving Stuttgart to the First French Army, VI Corps raced toward the Danube. The first crossings the corps made came around midnight on 23 April. The 10th Armored Division used three bridges captured near Ehingen, while the 44th Division employed a treadway south of the town. Part of the infantry division turned north to assist in the capture of the medieval city of Ulm, astride the Danube. In the path of this force lay the Iller River, flowing into the Danube near Ulm. In the swift current the infantry’s assault boats capsized, forcing one company to cross on cables, hand over hand, while engineers placed heavy logs across blown bridges for catwalk crossings.
Two combat commands of the 10th Armored Division, racing more than twenty miles ahead, reached the Iller during the night of 24 April, and a company of the division’s 55th Armored Engineer Battalion built a treadway bridge near Dietenheim. An incident at this bridge typified the fluidity of pursuit warfare. A trapped German column attempted to escape over the treadway
in the darkness, using a captured American truck to lead it. The Germans almost succeeded. When the Americans discovered that the column was German, a wild firefight erupted, during which an engineer bulldozer operator used his blade to bring down a German officer.39
Although disorganized, the enemy was still capable of placing dangerous obstacles in the path of tanks. As the 10th Armored Division moved into the Bavarian Alps, it found bridges over deep gorges destroyed, huge craters blown in the roads, and fields mined. At one point the Germans had rolled down the hairpin curve of a mountain road a 200-yard-wide avalanche of boulders, gravel, and logs.
On 30 April the armor halted at the resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen; infantrymen of the 44th and 103rd Divisions took up the advance through the Alpine passes to the Inn River valley, nestling between the precipitous mountain ranges of the Bavarian Alps on the north and the Tyrolean Alps on the south, along the border with Italy. The 44th Division, heading for Resia Pass on the Austrian-Italian border, slowed early at a point where the enemy had blasted away a cliffside road.40 A bypass had to be found. Then the troops were hindered by snowbanks blocking the roads and falling rain, mixed with snow. On 5 May, when surrender negotiations began and all advances in the VI Corps sector halted, the division was still more than twenty miles short of its goal.
The 103rd Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe and headed for Innsbruck and the Brenner Pass, had better luck. By the evening of 3 May the division was in Innsbruck, and one of its motorized regiments was on its way to the Brenner Pass, headlights blazing; at 0150, 4 May, McAuliffe’s men took the pass. Later in the morning advance parties sent over the border into Italy met Americans from the U.S. Fifth Army, thus fulfilling a prediction made by General Eisenhower when he left the Mediterranean for the European theater late in 1943 that he would meet the soldiers of the Mediterranean command “in the heart of the enemy homeland.”41
The last Alpine pass to be captured was at Salzburg, important because the Germans fleeing from Patton’s Third Army might attempt to use it. On 1 May XV Corps, in position to move swiftly down the Munich-Salzburg autobahn, was assigned to capture Salzburg. After assault crossings of the Danube and Lech Rivers on 26 April, XV Corps took Munich by nightfall of the thirtieth. Through the city ran the Isar River, which might have delayed the advance, but with the help of German anti-Nazi resistance forces ten bridges within the city were seized intact. Leaving the 45th Infantry Division to garrison Munich, Maj. Gen. Wade H. Haislip, the XV Corps commander, assigned the capture of Salzburg to the 3rd Infantry Division with the 106th Cavalry Group attached and the 20th Armored Division, a newly arrived unit that had
replaced the 14th Armored Division. The 42nd Infantry Division was to secure crossings for armor at the Inn River, the last major barrier to the Alpine fortress area. The advance was to begin on 2 May.42
One task force of the 3rd Infantry Division was already moving on 1 May. In an unseasonable May Day snowstorm, whipped by a cold wind from the Alps, the force sped down the autobahn to cut off escaping Germans and secure bridges across the Inn. At Rosenheim the Americans found three bridges. Two they captured without difficulty, but the third—the most strategically located and the only one capable of carrying tanks—was defended briefly by a small party of Germans. The infantry task force took the offensive, but stopped at the bridge, which had mines strewn along its flooring. Then the task force commander noticed a smoldering fuse beneath the bridge and cut the primacord just in time to prevent the detonation of a huge amount of explosives. This bridge not only took the divisional tanks over the Inn but also enabled the 3rd Division to win the race for Salzburg—the advance of the 20th Armored Division had slowed when the 42nd Infantry Division was unable to find an intact bridge in its area. Not until late on 3 May did tanks of the 20th Armored cross the Inn, using a dam near Wasserburg.
By nightfall on 3 May elements of the 3rd Infantry Division, racing down the autobahn, had reached the Saalach River, only five or six miles southwest of Salzburg.43 In the lead was the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Infantry. The regiment was an old one with a great deal of esprit de corps—its crest and colors carried a cotton bale, symbolizing service under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, where it had used such bales as breastworks. It had landed in North Africa on 8 November 1942 and had been fighting ever since. Finding all three bridges over the Saalach down, the 10th Engineer Combat Battalion crossed the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry, in assault boats. By dawn on 4 May the infantry was entering Salzburg. The city quickly capitulated. By then it was plain that German resistance in the Alpine fortress, or National Redoubt, was no more than a mirage.
Support of Alsos
In the last half of April, with German armies collapsing, Allied technical teams moved into Germany in the VI Corps area to capture German scientists, documents, and equipment in order to assess their contributions to the German war effort. Because of the progress the United States had made in achieving nuclear reactions in the Manhattan Project, the most urgent of these efforts sought intelligence on how close the German scientists were to building a fission bomb that, even at that late hour, might change the course of the war. An investigation team of nuclear scientists had already been active in Alsace, capturing almost 1,000 tons of uranium ore and various equipment in the 6th Army Group area. Associated with the American nuclear research effort in the United States and operating under the code name ALSOS, the team, commanded by Col. Boris T. Pash, now sought to seize the remaining uranium supply,
the research documents and laboratories, and the brains behind German nuclear science.44
To support these scientific teams, SHAEF assigned each army group command a so-called T-Force headquarters to which scientific personnel were assigned when they arrived in the theater. The technical experts and theoretical scientists usually were accompanied by a complement of combat troops to protect them and by combat engineers who could serve that purpose but whose main task was to dismantle captured equipment and laboratories. In General Devers’ headquarters, the I 269th Engineer Combat Battalion provided combat engineer support for the 6th Army Group T-Force.
Intelligence gathered in ALSOS operations before the 6th Army Group crossed the Rhine pointed to the existence of a dispersed research complex centered on the villages of Hechingen, Bisingen, and Tailfingen nestled at the eastern edge of the Black Forest.
Colonel Pash’s target area lay in a broad valley laced with the tributaries of the Neckar River, a region of charm and natural beauty. At the western end of the valley lay Freudenstadt, some twenty-five miles east of the Rhine at the same latitude as Strasbourg in Alsace. From Freudenstadt southeast curved a rough arc of small towns that marked the scientific mission’s line of advance across thirty-five miles of German countryside. Denied an airborne operation to secure this area, Pash decided instead on an unsupported thrust into the hills, risky as it was in the face of small and scattered, but still combat ready, groups of German soldiers and SS troops.
Colonel Pash’s difficulties were compounded by the sudden successes of the First French Army. On 16 April the 6th Army Group had drawn army boundaries in the area to leave the city of Stuttgart in the Seventh Army zone of operations. French forces had cleared the east bank of the Rhine opposite Strasbourg by that date and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, ignoring General Devers’ restrictions on his movements, exploited his advantage to thrust north and seize Stuttgart by 22 April. This forced Colonel Pash to move his team across a French rear area, a feat that took resolution, considerable bluff, and occasional strong language with French soldiery. The French Provisional Government never knew the nature of the search missions, but suspected that General Devers hoped to capture the remnants of the Vichy French regime, which had taken refuge in the German city of Sigmaringen, some fifty miles south of Stuttgart.
The 1269th Engineer Combat Battalion less its Company B, left behind with the 6th Army Group T-Force, joined the ALSOS team at Freudenstadt on the morning of 21 April; the engineer contingent became Task Force White, after its commander, Lt. Col. Willard White. The entire command of scientists, engineers, and British technicians was known as Task Force A.45
The same morning Task Force A set out on Colonel Pash’s Operation BIG from Freudenstadt through the quiet town of Horb to Haigerloch, twenty miles east of Freudenstadt. Here the elated scientists made their first big discovery. As the engineer troops consolidated the group’s position in the town, the ALSOS team shot open a bolted door sealing the entrance to a cave in the side of a cliff. Inside, the team found a large chamber and several smaller rooms crammed with instruments, control boxes, and an array of cylinders described by a frightened German technician as a uranium machine. Though missing its uranium element, the device was an operating atomic pile, captured undamaged.
While the scientists, with engineer help, spent two days dismantling the equipment, Colonel Pash led most of the engineers to the Bisingen-Hechingen area, the next populated complex. Spurred by statements of Germans captured at Haigerloch, the force went in search of the missing uranium and other German scientists in the vicinity. Early engineer patrols ran into increasing signs of enemy small unit activity. Bisingen itself was quiet when the engineer column snaked into the town, but as the scientists left to explore Hechingen four miles to the north, a skirmish between engineers remaining in Bisingen and some German stragglers set off a show of resistance to the American troops by the hostile inhabitants. Colonel White put the whole battalion on alert, and the incident passed without further development, though the men advancing into the last town occupied during Operation BIG were considerably more edgy for this experience.
Early on 24 April, Company A, bayonets fixed, moved on Tailfingen, ten miles by road southeast of Bisingen. In Bisingen and Hechingen some twenty-five noted German nuclear physicists and their staffs had surrendered and under interrogation had revealed the location of other German technical facilities in the town Task Force A now approached. Although expecting resistance, the engineer column pulled into Tailfingen after encountering little more than a roadblock on the way. By noon the troops had established Task Force A in Tailfingen and had surveyed the area for signs of German military activity. The atmosphere here contrasted sharply with that in Bisingen the day before. The laboratory staff of nuclear physicist Dr. Otto Hahn was cooperative as was the burgermeister, and the task force soon had the information it needed.
The last discoveries of Operation BIG were at hand. In a cesspool in the town the team found a large metal container holding the valuable secret research papers of the Hahn laboratory. The Allied technicians then moved to a plowed field outside the town to supervise a hastily impressed German excavation crew, whose digging uncovered a large wooden platform. Drawing back this cover, they found a neat stack of dark ingots—the missing uranium from the pile at Haigerloch. A nearby gristmill yielded up three large drums of heavy water, used to control the reaction in the pile.
The engineers loaded this treasure aboard the battalion’s trucks with some strain, the scientists hardly concealing
their amusement at the surprise of the troops as they loaded the trucks. The deceptively light-looking stack of ingots, about two cubic feet in size, weighed over two tons, uranium being among the densest elements.
With the entire supply of German uranium in Allied hands, Operation BIG ended, as did the 1269th Engineer Combat Battalion’s association with the ALSOS team. The battalion returned to the 6th Army Group T-Force at Munich in the closing days of the war.46
Engineer units were a central element in the last six weeks of the war against crumbling German forces in the heart of the Reich. In the war of pursuit that eventually cut Hitler’s dwindling territory in half, the race to the Elbe in the north and into Austria and Czechoslovakia in the south was a matter of bridges and open roads. Along lines of communications from French and Dutch ports to the most forward fighting front, engineers supported the advance that contributed to the final collapse of the Nazi regime.