all the way to Berlin.
THE BROAD, DEEP WATERS of the Rhine River stretched out like an impassable chasm before the US Ninth Army as it arrived opposite the great industrial city of Dusseldorf on March 1, 1945. Beyond the mighty river lay the Americans' target: the heart of Germany, last refuge of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime, the Third Reich. There was no way around the Rhine; a disastrous attempt in the Netherlands had proven that back in September. So the Ninth Army had come to the towns of Neuss and Oberkassel, on the river's west bank opposite Dusseldorf, with the same mission as Allied forces all along the Rhine's winding path: to find an intact bridge.
If the Ninth Army could find its way across the Rhine, there would be nothing to stop it until it stood at the very threshold of Berlin, capital of Nazi Germany--nothing except, perhaps, the onrushing front lines of the allies from the east, the Soviet Red Army.
The Western Allies' movement to the Rhine had started in January 1945, when American troops ousted the last German forces from the Bulge, the dangerous salient created by Adolf Hitler's December 1944 counterattack in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. As US divisions reclaimed lost ground, General Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, announced the next goal: to clear enemy forces from Germany's Rhineland region.
Ike wanted all his armies to draw up to the Rhine River more or less abreast before crossing, but first he redistributed divisions between the two massive army groups in his Allied Expeditionary Force. During December's crisis in the Ardennes, all forces north of the Bulge, including the US First and Ninth Armies, had been part of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group. The only American army to remain in Lieutenant General Omar Bradley's US Twelfth Army Group at that time was Lieutenant General George S. Patton's Third Army. Now, with the German drive defeated, Eisenhower returned Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges's First Army to Bradley's group. But to bolster Montgomery's drive in the Rhine front's northernmost sector, Eisenhower left the US Ninth Army under British command.
The Ninth Army was a relative newcomer to Europe, activated in September 1944. Its headquarters may have lacked the colorful characters that populated other armies, but it quickly built a reputation for quietly getting the job done thanks to its commander, Lieutenant General William H. Simpson. The tall, lanky Texan was a 1909 West Point graduate and a veteran of 1916's Punitive Expedition in Mexico and of World War I's Western Front. From his Great War experience he had drawn the lesson "never send an infantryman where you can send an artillery shell."
Both Eisenhower and Bradley thought highly of Simpson and his army. Bradley described the Ninth Army as "uncommonly normal," the army that he "could count on simply to go about its business uncomplainingly and effectively, in contrast to the bumptious, noisy Third and the jealous, prima-donna First." "Texas Bill" Simpson's patience and professionalism would face a new test under Montgomery, a leader many American generals found insufferable.
Montgomery's plan to clear the Rhineland was a two-pronged thrust set to begin in early February. One prong, Operation Veritable, would send the First Canadian Army southwest from the Dutch city of Nijmegen through the Reichswald, the thick forest between the Meuse and Rhine rivers. The second prong, Operation Grenade, would funnel the Ninth Army north across the Roer River to link up with the Canadians and cut off German forces west of the Rhine.
Foiled by a Flood
VERITABLE BEGAN on February 8 after a British Royal Air Force bombing and a massive cannonade. Late winter snow and rain, plus tough German resistance on terrain that favored the enemy, dealt the Canadians some of their bitterest fighting of the war. And the help they were counting on from Simpson wasn't coming. The Ninth Army, scheduled to advance two days after the Canadians, was stuck. Montgomery's plan had failed to account for the enemy's ability to flood the Roer River.
The several Roer Valley dams had been key American objectives since the previous fall. In German hands, they were weapons; opening them could flood battlefields downstream, blocking the Allies' path. A week before Veritable kicked off, elements of the US First Army on Simpson's right had tried to break through and capture the two largest dams from behind. The first dam, on the Roer's Urft tributary, was captured intact on February 4. But when American infantrymen and engineers captured the Schwammenauel Dam three days later, its discharge valves had been smashed by the retreating Germans, slowly flooding the Roer Valley.
Montgomery let Simpson decide whether to risk crossing the river, and Simpson ruled it out. He was unwilling to risk isolating his lead elements on the far side of a flood, cut off from the rest of the Ninth Army. So the Canadians and Brits fought through the Reichswald alone, battling troops of the German 15th and 1st Parachute Armies, who were able to concentrate their fire on the threat in front of them, unworried about their flank. The Ninth Army stayed put, waiting for the flood to subside.
It was February 23 when the Roer was finally low enough for Simpson to cross. He ordered his infantry regiments across in assault boats at 3:30 a.m. after a brief but overwhelming artillery barrage. It took several days for engineers to get bridges across the river so armor could join the fight, but by February 28 the entire Ninth Army had broken out of its bridgehead, and Operation Grenade exploded into the enemy's rear areas.
The Roer crossing was a learning moment, and the next issue of the GI publication Stars and Stripes included lessons learned. On the "do" list were: "Overhaul your storm boat motor before a major crossing," "Organize your assault boat teams and have experienced paddlers," and "Have plenty of spares of everything on hand." The "don't" list was: "Trust to luck that the motor will run when you want it to," "Throw away your paddle or let your boat drift away after you have reached shore," or "Ever assume that most things will go according to plan."
With the British and Canadians pushing down from the northwest and Simpson's Americans pushing up from the southwest, the Germans were suddenly in a desperate situation. Despite pleas from Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the German command er in chief on the western front, Hitler refused permission for withdrawal. By early March, Simpson's troops were clearing all opposition from the Rhine's west bank, having killed an estimated 6,000 enemy troops and taken some 30,000 prisoners. The Germans were reduced to fighting a series of delaying actions while the bulk of their surviving troops retreated across the river.
"Don't Go Across"
AS THE ALLIED ARMIES FIRMED UP their positions along the Rhine's west bank, the new priority became finding a bridge that the Germans hadn't destroyed. It was no easy task, as Simpson's men discovered at Neuss and Oberkassel, opposite Dusseldorf, on March 1.
Simpson inserted Major General Robert C. Macon's 83rd Infantry Division on the right flank of the army's XIX Corps early that day, and after a stiff fight, by nightfall Neuss had fallen to one of the 83rd's regiments. Ascending a tall grain elevator there, American officers could see Dusseldorf--what one described as a "dead, lifeless giant"--on the river's far side. But Neuss's three Rhine bridges had been destroyed.
Just downstream at Oberkassel, elements of the 83rd Division's 330th Infantry Regiment took a different approach. A task force, consisting of Lieutenant Colonel George Schuster's 3rd Battalion with a company of tanks and a platoon of tank destroyers all disguised to resemble German panzers, set out after nightfall. German speaking GIs from Schuster's outfit rode atop the vehicles, and the rest of the men followed on foot as inconspicuously as possible.
The masquerading task force made its way through Oberkassel, advancing undetected almost to the river by 4:30 the next morning. At one point, a Wehrmacht unit marched past in the opposite direction; the Americans gave the customary "Heil Hitler" salute when challenged, and both groups moved on without incident. As the sky grew lighter with the approach of dawn, however, an alert German sentry discerned the column's true identity and took off on his bicycle to spread the alarm. American soldiers shot him, but in doing so they lost the element of surprise. Oberkassel came alive with wailing sirens and gunfire.
BY 9 A.M. the disguised American tanks and tank destroyers had fought their way through a final roadblock. Schuster's men, along with a battalion of the 331st Infantry, were within sight of the bridge. "Both battalions were on the approaches to the bridge when it was blown by the enemy at 0937," recounts a regimental after-action report.
With the detonation of the Oberkassel bridge, it seemed the Germans had managed to check the Allied advance at the edge of the Rhine. Simpson, however, saw the situation differently. His patrols were reporting an enemy completely disorganized after Operation Grenade and incapable of stopping an immediate crossing. Simpson wanted his Ninth Army to make an assault-boat crossing north of the Dusseldorf area near Urdingen, where the open terrain favored a rapid breakout. Such a crossing might shorten the war considerably, Simpson believed. But when he brought the idea to Montgomery, the field marshal responded with a terse "Don't go across."
Montgomery had his own plans for a massive, set-piece crossing of the Rhine some weeks hence. So the Ninth Army sat and waited. On March 7, the eyes of the world fixed on Remagen, some 70 miles south of Dusseldorf, as the US First Army's 9th Armored Division dramatically seized the Ludendorff Bridge. And on March 22, the attention was on Oppenheim, about 98 miles farther south, as the 5th Division of Patton's Third Army swarmed across the Rhine in assault boats, just as Simpson had proposed two weeks earlier.
While they waited for Montgomery's grand crossing, Simpson's units manned a series of outposts along the Rhine's west bank. Private First Class Kenneth G. "Bud" Mueller of Belleville, Illinois, a foot soldier in Schuster's 3rd Battalion of the 330th Infantry, wrote home to his fiancee and future wife Betty Braun, "There isn't too much doing right now. Every once in a while a barrage of German artillery comes in, but it isn't too bad. We are throwing plenty of it back at them and I know that they are sweating it out more than we are."
There were numerous German civilians still in Oberkassel, Mueller noted. The Americans kept them under close watch, allowing them out of their homes just three hours each morning to look for food. "It's hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones" wrote Mueller, "so I don't trust any of them." In a deserted house, Mueller and his buddies found a canary. They named him Champ and kept him as a company mascot. "He really is a good singer," Mueller wrote home.
More serious concerns lay ahead of Mueller and his fellow Ninth Army GIs, dangers of which they were painfully aware. "On a clear day," he wrote to his fiancee on March 16, "you can see the Jerries moving around on the other side of the river."
Encircling Germany's Defenders
In contrast to the American Rhine crossings farther south, the 21st Army Group's crossing at Wesel, starting on the night of March 23, involved more than a million troops. Massive artillery and air bombardments came first, and two airborne divisions dropped in behind the weak and disorganized German defenses.
It was a very British moment. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was present, and the order to begin was "Two if by sea" (suggesting "the British are coming," from the story of Paul Revere's famous ride). Clearly, Montgomery envisioned a secondary role for the Americans. But the Yanks were crossing in force, too. Upriver from Wesel, before dawn on March 24, Montgomery's US XVI Corps crossed after an hour of shelling by more than 2,000 guns, with waves of infantrymen in motorized assault boats tearing across the Rhine against sporadic German resistance. Once the east bank was secured, engineers quickly set to work laying a bridge that tanks could cross.
Despite bottlenecks and disputes between US and British commanders over use of the bridges, within a week the Ninth Army was pushing eastward along the Lippe River (an east-bank Rhine tributary) through the outskirts of the Ruhr, Germany's densely populated industrial district. By March 29, the Ninth Army's 2nd Armored Division was rolling through Haltern, some 25 miles east of Wesel, against crumbling German resistance. Macon's 83rd Infantry Division followed in trucks borrowed from the XIX Corps's artillery--and in captured vehicles, including a commandeered fire engine festooned with signs proclaiming "Next stop Berlin."
To the south, on Simpson's right flank, Hodges's US First Army had broken out of its Remagen bridgehead. It began driving northeast to encircle the Ruhr from the south and to meet up with the Ninth Army near Paderborn, nearly 114 miles east of Wesel. Hodges's lead division, the 3rd Armored, gained ground by leaps and bounds, unimaginable a month earlier. Entire towns were captured undamaged.
On March 30, the 3rd Armored Division advanced 45 miles in a single day and arrived outside Paderborn. But here the tank column was brought up short. The town was home to a major training center for SS panzer troops--Nazi loyalist tank men. The trainees there mounted a resistance that was both fanatical and skillful. One 3rd Armored Division task force ran into a scratch unit of German Tiger and Panther tanks manned by students and instructors. The SS men ambushed the American column, inflicting heavy losses including the destruction of more than two dozen tanks and other vehicles. The Germans cornered division commander Major General Maurice Rose when his jeep took a wrong turn. Rose was shot and killed, possibly while trying to surrender.
Rose's death underscored a bitter reality: many of the German forces that were still fighting were SS units (Schutzstaffel, or "Protection Squadron," the National Socialist party's armed wing) or Hitler Youth, zealously committed to Hitler and his Nazi ideology and regime. American soldiers, determined to make it "home alive in '45," took no chances. Bud Mueller wrote home, "When we go into an attack all I carry is rations and ammunition and I really load myself down with it.... Before I left the States I thought it would be hard to shoot another man. But after you have Jerries shooting at you it becomes easy to kill them.... I found out the only good German over here is a dead one. A lot of the boys weren't so lucky."
IN ANOTHER LETTER MUELLER WROTE, "The more a person sees of the German soldiers, the worse he hates them. I've seen quite a few of them, helped capture them and helped guard them, and also helped take some of them back to the rear. They will machine gun you and try to snipe you and then when you capture them they try to throw their arms around you and call you 'comrade.' I think once in a while the American soldiers are a little too easy with them."
The number of Germans raising their hands and shouting "Kamerad!" was about to grow dramatically. Not pausing long to dwell on its losses, the 3rd Armored continued to push north, and on April 1 linked with the Ninth Army's 2nd Armored Division just north of Paderborn. Between the two encircling American armies lay the remnants of Field Marshal Walter Model's once mighty Army Group B, along with elements of the German 15th Army, 5th Panzer Army, and 1st Parachute Army. The overwhelming power of four American army corps, supported by air forces, now focused on destroying the German forces in the Ruhr Pocket, a battlefield 70 miles wide and 50 miles deep. In mid-April, Model dissolved his remaining forces and ordered those who could to try to break out. Asking his staff, "What is there left to a commander in defeat?" he drove to a forest north of Dusseldorf and killed himself with his service pistol. When the entire Ruhr was finally secured, the Americans counted 323,000 prisoners taken--the largest mass German surrender thus far.
To the Gates of Berlin
WITH THE RUHR ENCIRCLEMENT ACCOMPLISHED, Eisenhower returned Simpson's Ninth Army to Bradley's Twelfth Army Group on April 4, over Montgomery's protests. During the final phase of operations on the Western front, Montgomery's 21st Army Group was to advance northwest toward the Netherlands and north toward the Baltic Sea, positioning itself for possible intervention in Scandinavia should German forces there refuse to surrender.
The American divisions were now massed east of the Ruhr pocket, ready to pierce into the German Reich's vitals. On the other side of Germany, the Soviets had begun their own spring offensive, moving westward from the Oder River. The farther east the Western Allies could meet the Soviets, the more advantage the west would have in determining who would control postwar Europe. But the Western Allies were at a disadvantage; they were still more than 200 miles from Berlin, while the Red Army was just 50 miles from there.
What Eisenhower's troops did not know was that Eisenhower had already decided not to bother with Berlin. The Soviets were already too close to it. Besides, at the February 1945 Yalta Conference in the Crimea, the leaders of the "Big Three" Allied powers--US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Churchill, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin--had already carved out their postwar occupation zones in Germany. Seeing no reason to expend more lives for territory that would ultimately be turned over to the Soviets, Eisenhower planned to advance no farther than the Elbe River, some 70 miles from Berlin's center.
Ninth Army spearheads slashing eastward had yet to receive the news about Berlin, however. Simpson's divisions took Hanover, about 183 miles from the capital, on April 10, and began racing to see who would establish the first bridgehead over the Elbe. In the lead was Combat Command B of the 2nd Armored Division. On April 11 it covered more than 50 miles to arrive at the outskirts of Magdeburg on the Elbe, only 50 miles southwest of Berlin's outskirts. The Germans had destroyed the river's bridges, but on April 12 three battalions of armored infantry made an assault crossing. They carved out a tenuous bridgehead that soon became the target of such zealous counterattacks by local forces of the composite Scharnhorst Division that Major General Isaac D. White, the 2nd Armored Division's commander, feared his soldiers on the Elbe's east bank might be wiped out.
Close behind the 2nd Armored was Macon's 83rd Infantry Division, with its ever-growing menagerie of captured German vehicles hastily given a coat of olive drab paint and a white star to identify them as property of the US Army. Delighted news correspondents traveling with the division dubbed the outfit the "Rag-tag Circus." Macon's soldiers, who had been in combat almost constantly over the last 10 months, were not amused and insisted they be referred to by their official nickname, the Thunderbolt Division.
THE 83RD REACHED THE ELBE at Barby on April 13, just as the 2nd Armored Division's Magdeburg bridgehead started collapsing. In contrast to the 2nd Armored's tough fight downstream, crossing the river at Barby was easy for the 329th Infantry's two lead battalions, "just like a Sunday picnic with no fire of any kind," in the words of one participant. Colonel Edwin "Buckshot" Crabhill, the 329th's commander, exhorted his men to keep moving: "Don't waste the opportunity of a lifetime. You're on your way to Berlin."
In a short time, 83rd Division engineers established the Truman Bridge, a pontoon span across the Elbe, named in honor of the new US president Harry S. Truman (Roosevelt had died at Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12). By the night of the 14th, both the 83rd and elements of the 2nd Armored were crossing. Simpson had six divisions prepared to cross the river and his Ninth Army staff already had a plan "to enlarge the Elbe River bridgehead to include [the Berlin suburb of] Potsdam." With patrols less than 50 miles from the city, he was certain he could reach the German capital within 48 hours.
Dilemma on the Elbe
NOW THAT AMERICAN TROOPS WERE actually poised at the very threshold of Berlin, Eisenhower had to make a firm decision. After initially resigning himself to letting the Soviets take Hitler's capital, he had vacillated, encouraging Major General Alexander Boiling, commander of the Ninth Army's 84th Infantry Division, to "keep going ... and don't let anybody stop you" before reaching Berlin. Now Ike decided conclusively to halt his hard-charging front lines at the Elbe.
Eisenhower had his reasons. Bradley had estimated that taking Berlin would cost 100,000 casualties. Considering that no matter what the US Army did the city would be divided into four occupation zones, including a Soviet one, it seemed like a waste of American lives. Further, Eisenhower was concerned over rumors that the Nazis had created a national "redoubt" in the Alps, a hidden fortress from which they hoped to prolong the war indefinitely. Although rumors of the redoubt would later be refuted, the combination of other factors--including the possibility that hostilities might break out with Soviet forces pushing westward and intent on taking as much of the former Reich as possible for their own purposes--finally made up Eisenhower's mind.
So, on the morning of April 15, Simpson received a call from Bradley. He was to fly to Twelfth Army Group headquarters immediately. Bradley had something important to talk about, too important to discuss over the phone. When Simpson arrived at the airfield in Wiesbaden, Germany, the two generals shook hands and Bradley got right to the point: "You must stop on the Elbe. You are not to advance any farther in the direction of Berlin. I'm sorry Simp, but there it is."
"Where in the hell did you get this?" demanded Simpson.
"From Ike," said Bradley.
The Red Army would fight the battle for Berlin. Simpson was terribly disappointed. "I was heartbroken and got back on the plane in a kind of a daze," he wrote. "All I could think of was 'How am I going to tell my staff, my corps commanders and my troops?' Above all, how am I going to tell my troops?" After the war he wrote, "I really believe that the Ninth Army could have captured Berlin with little loss and well before the Russians reached the city."
The men on the front lines were as yet unaware of the summit level decisions that had already been made. On April 18, traveling toward the Elbe bridgehead with the 330th Infantry, which had been detached from the 83rd Division to mop up German resistance in the Harz Mountains, Bud Mueller wrote, "I hope this time we don't stop until we reach Berlin. The sooner we get there and finish them off the sooner this war will end." It wasn't long, however, before it became obvious that Berlin was no longer on the Ninth Army's agenda. Two weeks later, Mueller wrote home from the Barby sector that there was no longer any German shelling, so the infantry had challenged the medics to a Softball game, and beat them 15 to 2. "The game was honest too," Mueller joked, "because the chaplain was umpiring."
Soon there came a transfer of power. The 330th Infantry Regiment's after-action report for May 5, 1945, records that "Russian forces began movement toward the Elbe River to assume control of the bridgehead occupied by the Division.... F and I Companies, under the command of Major Allen, with orders to be out of the bridgehead by 0730 (6 May) remained ..., awaiting the Russians." By 9:00 Elbe bridgehead was firmly in Soviet hands.
By May 1, German resistance along the Ninth Army's front had almost completely ceased. In their outposts along the Elbe River, Simpson and his men settled into a mission of occupation and military government. The shooting war was over, and despite the disappointment of having to hold back and allow the forces of another flag to conquer Hitler's capital, it was good to be alive, to daydream about going home--and to take pride in a hard-fought contribution to victory and peace.
KEN S. MUELLER, a Cold War-era army and marine veteran, is the son of the late Betty and Private First Class Kenneth G. "Bud" Mueller. A professor of history and political science, he resides in Lafayette, Indiana, with his wife and two sons.
Caption: Background: American assault boats are strewn alongside a demolished German bridge at Linnich, Germany, on February 23, 1945. Infantrymen of the US Ninth Army's XII Corps left the boats behind after using them to cross the Roer River that morning. By February 28, the entire Ninth Army would be across, ready to press on to the Rhine River and into the very heart of Nazi Germany. NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Caption: Above: Roer River water pours through the Schwammenauel Dam's sluices. As the Ninth Army approached in early February 1945, retreating Germans jammed the dam's valves open. Opposite, top: It took weeks for the resulting flood to subside. These 84th Division engineers are preparing to cross the Roer at Linnich on February 23. Opposite, center: Three days later, Ninth Army commander Lieutenant General William Simpson (right, facing camera) explored the far bank at Julich. With him is British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery (center, facing camera).
Caption: Above: Perhaps it was the Adolf Hitler mustache that led a Signal Corps photographer to single out this POW, one of many the Ninth Army captured after it crossed the Roer. Opposite: More enemies awaited across the Rhine--Field Marshal Walter Model and his Army Group B.
Caption: Montgomery nixed a Ninth Army surprise crossing of the Rhine near Dusseldorf in early March 1945. But by the month's last week, Simpson finally had his whole army across. Here, over a temporary bridge on the Rhine, German POWs march west while US supply trucks head east behind the Ninth Army.
Caption: The Elbe River at Barby, Germany, seen from the air on April 24, 1945, shows signs that the Yanks have arrived--pontoon bridges, and barges hauling in supplies. The Ninth Army's 83rd Division had reached Barby on the 13th, and crossed easily. Berlin, the Nazi German capital, only about 100 miles away, was the next stop on the Americans' itinerary--or so they thought.
Caption: On April 10, tanks and infantry of the Ninth Army's 84th Division fight their way into Hanover, some 180 miles from Berlin, passing dead German troops along the road. The Ninth Army was on track to reach Berlin swiftly, and Simpson believed his men could take the city with relatively few losses. But a decision had already been made farther up the command chain: the Soviets would capture Berlin.
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|Title Annotation:||US Ninth Army during the Battle of Berlin|
|Author:||Mueller, Ken S.|
|Publication:||America in WWII|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2017|
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