With the British in the north completing the capture of Walcheren, and the Canadians rolling up the Scheldt estuary, the US forces further south were impatient to get going again after the supply problems began to ease. Now they would head across the Roer river to the Rhine itself.
Omar Bradley, commanding US 12th Army Group, was waiting for the beginning off the attack with Courtney H. Hodges, both of them as frustrated with the rain as Patton was becoming. They were both elated to find the sun shining on the morning of the 16th November so that the visibility was good enough for heavy bombers from England to launch the attack:
At 12:45 air thundered in on schedule. Twelve hundred bombers of the Eighth Air Force flying in box-tight formations, an equal number of RAF heavies, flying dispersed in the manner of night bombers.
To prevent a repetition of the short drop at St. Lo [in July], we had posted jeeps with vertical radio beams to mark the front lines by radar. For visual guidance to the target a line of barrage balloons with cerise panels aflixed to their backs had been hoisted 1,500 feet into the air. For added insurance the 90-mm. AA guns marked the front with a line of colored flak, 2,000 feet below the bombers.
Only two clusters of bombs fell behind our lines, the result of faulty bomb racks. One “friendly” casualty was reported; it was nothing more than a minor wound.
But though the air bombing had shattered an enemy division and churned up the neighboring terrain, it failed to tear a hole in his line through which our infantry and tanks could be pushed on to the Rhine. The German had skillfully laid out his defenses in depth behind a carpet of mines and field fortifications. With his back to the Rhine, he now fought for each grubby crossroads village as if it were the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Meanwhile Goebbels had warned von Runstedt’s troops in the Rhineland that this was a fight to the finish, a fight in which weakness would bring defeat and eventual exile to the Siberian labor camps.
As the enemy fell back he left a trail buried in rubble, for he held grimly to each position until we pulverized it. When G-2 interrogated an intelligent young officer of the Wehrmacht to ask if he did not regret this unnecessary destruction of his homeland, the PW shrugged and replied, “It probably won’t be ours after the War. Why not destroy it?”
On the ground Belton Y. Cooper with the 3rd Armored Division was watching the launch of the offensive from Hill 287, where P-47 dive bombers followed up after the heavy bombers and then the tanks went in:
Simultaneously with the heavy air strike, the ninety battalions of field artillery opened up, concentrating particularly on the villages.
Combat Command B assembled just south and west of hill 287. As the task forces proceeded over the crest of the hill and passed through our infantry lines, they were exposed to the full effect of the German minefields.
Each task force had one flail tank. As the flail tanks crested the hill, they passed through our infantry line directly into the minefields. Although the tanks had to contend not only with mines but with an extremely soggy field, they made an initial good showing. The flying chains detonated several mines, and the explosions created additional craters. But finally, due to the combination of the muddy fields and the fact that the horsepower needed to turn the flail took too much power away from the tracks, both flail tanks became mired in the mud.
They made excellent targets and were soon knocked out. The second tank in each column had no choice but to go around the flail tanks and continue the attack. A tragic domino effect followed.
The first tank proceeded around the flail tank and made its own way for several yards before striking a mine and becoming disabled. The next tank bypassed the first tank and tried to go its own way for several yards, then it struck a mine and became disabled.
This process continued until eventually one tank got through the minefield and proceeded with the attack. The next tank behind it tried to follow the same path, and sometimes it would get through the minefield successfully. However, by the time the third tank tried to come through in the same tracks, the soft ground would mire the tank so deeply that it would stick, in spite of the “duck feet” we had bolted on the track connectors.
All the stuck tanks became sitting ducks for the murderous German anti-tank fire. The Germans continued to fire at the tanks until they set them on fire. When the crew tried to bail out, they immediately came under concentrated automatic weapons fire.
These brave tankers knew that the tanks would be at an extreme disadvantage in the muddy minefields, but they pressed on with the attack. This was one of the most courageous tank attacks of the entire war. It started with sixty-four medium tanks, and we lost forty-eight of them in twenty-six minutes.
A proportional number of soldiers died in this terrible fight. By nightfall, Task Force 1 had reached the vicinity of Hastenrath after taking tremendous losses. One column started out with nineteen tanks, including a flail, and ended up with four by the end of the day. The other fifteen were lost in the minefield.
The surviving tanks were further exposed because the infantry had a difficult time coming forward to support them. The minefields were also heavily infested with anti-personnel mines. These were deadly to the infantry, who were under extremely heavy small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire.