US infantry v Panzers in house to house fighting

Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers from the American 17th Airborne Division pass through Dorsten in Germany, while an Achilles tank destroyer waits, 29 March 1945.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers from the American 17th Airborne Division pass through Dorsten in Germany, while an Achilles tank destroyer waits, 29 March 1945.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers of the 17th US Airborne Division, Germany, 29 March 1945.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers of the 17th US Airborne Division, Germany, 29 March 1945.

The penetration into Germany was now proceeding on a broad front, with the British, Canadian and US Armies all involved in daily battles, large and small.

Raymond Gantter had arrived in France in September 1944 as a replacement private with the US 1st Infantry Division. A relatively old man at 30 years old, by March 1945 he was a sergeant in charge of a platoon.

He devotes a whole chapter to the fighting his Company was involved in throughout 28th March, the battle for the small town of Geisbach. He began the day with a pre – dawn reconnaissance with a small squad to find the way into the town for the whole Company. Shortly after the Company arrived, as they were clearing the the town from house to house, a group of Panzers and self propelled guns arrived and the situation was reversed. They had stumbled upon a marshalling area for German armour preparing a counter-attack.

With an honesty that is typical of of his memoir, he describes how his men fell back in retreat, out of his control. On meeting his Company commander he was ordered back into town, at which point two of his men fell out with “battle nerves”. The day was far from over:

The platoon now consisted of fourteen men, and I formed two squads of seven men each. The captain and I walked to the edge of the road and he pointed out where he wanted us to go. He talked easily and warmly, saying it was a dirty job but it had to be done, and the curse on my conscience lightened a little. I had the choice of returning by the road, risking fire from the enemy-occupied buildings, or going back the long way, up the creek. The road was the shorter route, and I chose that.

A last checkup of weapons and ammo and we were off, snaking from building to building and moving steadily back to the junction and the walled courtyard. It was a happy return: Shorty was there. He was in the cellar of the house with a weapons platoon survivor named Johns who was a helluva good Joe. It was good to see Shorty. En route to the creek he’d found his way blocked by the guns of an S.P. and he’d been forced to crawl back to the house. He and Johns had stuck it out alone there, almost entirely surrounded by Germans. We maneuvered into position, a few men at this vital point, a few men at that. We were back at our old stand on the company’s left flank. The remnant of the third platoon was on our right.

The hours that follow are blurred and lost. The things I remember are vivid with the clarity of nightmare, real enough in the physical terms of their expression but terrifying through distortion, twisted and hideous because some fundamental discipline had been violated. There was shelling and there were tanks and self-propelled guns, the rattling cough of machine guns and burp guns, the high staccato of rifles.

These provided the orchestration for certain tableaux: dusty glimpses of gray uniforms, green uniforms… the flicker of movement in the window of the house across the street, and your hands swinging the rifle to your shoulder in a single fluid motion … the patient resistance of the trigger under your tightening finger, the sudden punch of recoil… the stone barn and the thorny hedge… the dead soldier who lay on his face in the ditch, his hand stretched to the gray stone, the blackthorn. His head was bare and he was very blond, very young… the nape of his neck as defenseless as a child’s. On the edge of the road lay his bazooka… so near, only a grave’s length away.

The Germans were all over: in the houses across the street, in the house next door, in the fields and orchards. They were sure of their victory now, and a little careless.

Glancing up the road, I spied two Germans less than a hundred yards away. They were sprawled carelessly in the ditch near the junction, a light machine gun mounted beside them. They were smoking cigarettes with an air of indolent assurance. At my wave, Lieutenant Freeman joined me at the comer of the barn; we chose targets wordlessly and fired.

The enemy was now solidly entrenched in the houses across the road. A little below us the road bent sharply, curving into the heart of town, and the large building at the bend in the road was infested with snipers.

Peering around the dung heap that sheltered me, I studied the windows of the house, hoping for an incautious German to show himself.

Suddenly a German soldier ran from the courtyard, disappearing around the bend in the road before I could raise my rifle. Cursing my slowness, I waited for another German to make a move. Fifteen seconds later a second man sprinted from the courtyard, and my finger was already tightening on the trigger when I realized that this man was American. He was empty-handed and his head was bare, and before he vanished around the bend in the road I recognized him as Weymeyer, a third platoon man. But what the hell… ? As I blinked in startled wonder, another German darted from the courtyard and after Weymeyer, and again I was caught with my sights down.

I heard the story later: Weymeyer had been captured, dis-armed, and ordered to follow the first German to the place where American prisoners were being collected. Somewhere beyond the bend in the road Weymeyer had overtaken the first German. Seizing his erstwhile captor’s rifle, he beat him to death with it and escaped before the second guard reached the scene. (Weymeyer was sent to OCS in Paris, and his boldness became a company legend.)

Another incident of the day: a German tank rolled up to a house where a few stubborn Americans still held out and thrust the muzzle of its 88 in the front window. The tank commander stood in the open turret and in perfect English made a speech to the doggies within, advising them in tones of good- humored cajolery to come out and surrender peaceably “because you’re already whipped and you’ll only get killed if you continue to fight.”

While he wooed them, they left quietly by a rear window, crawled to the house next door, and shot him as he harangued the empty building. (I talked with some of these men later: they were cocky with triumph but still bristling at the recollection of the German officer’s arrogance. “The nerve of that sonofabitch!” they said. “The nerve… !”)

See Raymond Gantter: Roll Me Over: An Infantryman’s World War II .

A Sherman Crab crew of 1st Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry share a brew with American 16 Corps engineers, Germany, 28 March 1945.
A Sherman Crab crew of 1st Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry share a brew with American 16 Corps engineers, Germany, 28 March 1945.

British infantry attack against dug in Fallschirmjäger

Troops of the 6th King's Own Scottish Borderers advance warily along a lane, past the bodies of German soldiers, east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
Troops of the 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers advance warily along a lane, past the bodies of German soldiers, east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
43rd (Wessex) Division troops and vehicles in the main street of Xanten, 11 March 1945.
43rd (Wessex) Division troops and vehicles in the main street of Xanten, 11 March 1945.

The fighting in World War II is sometimes characterised as the brilliant German military mind, with his skilfully deployed troops and highly motivated men being overcome by the overwhelmingly better firepower of the Allies with their air superiority. Such a characterisation ignores the reality of most battlefields at the time. Ultimately it was necessary for the Allied men on the ground, the infantry, to get to grips with the opposition, often in a very real sense. No amount of firepower could overcome well dug in defenders alone.

The battle in Germany was fought against a mixed collection of defenders, some diffident, some very determined. Yet by now the Allied infantry had become a match for the best of them and were equally skilled and determined. It was the individual tenacity of the ordinary infantryman, together with the courageous leadership seen at section level (25th March), or at the Platoon leader level (26th March) that won the overall battle. An insight into the Company level command completes the picture.

Twenty three year old Peter Hall was a Temporary Major commanding ‘A’ Company in the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, 43rd Wessex Infantry Division, they faced German Fallschirmjäger, parachute troops, in prepared positions on an autobahn :

The autobahn was not, really an autobahn at all. It was still under construction. It was a heaped-up embankment which offered superb fields of fire against an assaulting force. Furthermore, this excellent defensive position was occupied by elite and determined parachutists and backed by skilled enemy artillery. The enemy had had time to site machine-gun positions forward of the autobahn. The 27th March was going to prove, for both sides, a very hairy day!

It was a miracle of military efficiency that, in spite of incredible logistical difficulties, we crossed the start line on time, and with the correct groupings. Then, things started to go wrong. From start line to the objective for the assault the distance was about 1000 yards.

We, the infantry, had to advance over flat, open country, with practically no cover from the enemy’s machine-gun fire. And this was intense! We had to rely, solely, on the principle of fire and movement (which I have described earlier) and close with the enemy as quickly as we could.

An additional complication was that, although the actual day of our assault was sunny, the ground was sodden and muddy. It eventually proved impossible for tank movement. Although this was a major disadvantage, it did not detract from the ferocious firepower that my supporting troop of tanks were able to bear onto the enemy. This was a contributing factor to our final success in this particular, hard-fought engagement.

‘A’ Company had advanced to within about 200 yards of our objective when our supporting tanks bogged down. Stuck in the mud. I went forward to the troop leader’s tank and pressed the button on the rear of the vehicle. This should have made it possible for voice communication between us by telephone. For some reason it was not working! The tank just sat there like an enormous iron elephant’s turd. No response from the crew inside. Their machine gunner continued to pour hot lead into the heaped-up autobahn – but not where I wanted it!

It was vital that I talk to the troop leader, and so I clambered up onto the tank and banged, with the butt of my machine pistol, onto the closed-down lid of his turret. An age seemed to pass. I felt like Long John Silver’s parrot, perched on his shoulder when he was leading the pirate charge against the stockade in Treasure Island. I was 10 feet off the ground and there was a lot of ‘rubbish’ roaring about.

Under these circumstances, an infantryman finds that the ground would be a very pleasant place to be! Eventually, the turret trap opened. The troop leader’s head appeared. “What the bloody,” he started to say. “Shut up and listen!” I snarled. “You’re stuck and can’t move. We can and we’re going to. I’m going to do a shallow right-flanking movement onto the objective so that we won’t mask your fire. You will concentrate everything you’ve got onto the following specific areas.” I indicated them by pointing.

“Keep an eye on our movement. It won’t be text-book pretty but we will go split-arse. When you see a red verey light, you will stop firing AT ONCE! Got that?” “Wilco,” he said. “Wilco” means I hear and will comply.

[He then sprinted across the battlefield to arrange supporting fire from the neighbouring ‘D”Company]

I sprinted back noticing little splashes of mud exploding around me. I was being targeted by a Spandau machine-gun. I managed, somehow, to step up a gear or two! I made it back to Peter Wade’s platoon.

“Peter” I gasped, “We’ve got masses of covering fire. We’re going to attack in echelons of platoons. That’s your objective. Get going!” “Right,” he answered. “Nice day, isn’t it?”

Off he went, but unfortunately, not very far. An undetected Spandau machine-gun, immediately on the right flank of his advance and forward of the main enemy positions, opened fire. Peter was severely wounded in the leg and a number of his guys were killed. Although wounded, Peter threw a smoke grenade to his right which obscured the view of the enemy from our advance. A vital factor in our eventual success.

“‘A’ Company,” I yelled, “Follow me!” We dashed forward, rather like a bunch of Fuzzie-Wuzzies in the battle of Omdurman. I would not have scored any ‘Brownie points’ for this manoeuvre had it been an exercise on Salisbury Plain, but we made it.

As we hit the objective what I knew would happen, did! The enemy hit the position which we, minutes ago, had occupied, with a most ferocious Artillery Hate. Fritz was employing his normal defensive tactic: slow down the assault with small arms fire and then, hit it with all the big stuff at your command. In this battle there was lots of it; our speed of advance frustrated the enemy by seconds!

I was sorry for the tankies but, not unduly concerned. Cocooned as they were in their iron contraptions, the worst that they could expect was a headache, unless a tank sustained a direct hit in its petrol tank. I was much more concerned with my own wounded and about ‘D’ Company who had no such protection. However, we had turned the enemy’s flank. ‘A’ Company had kicked open the door and the eventual success of the battalion attack was assured.

This is part of a longer account which appears in Rogers and Williams (ed): On the Bloody Road to Berlin: Frontline Accounts from North-West Europe & the Eastern Front, 1944-45, from his unpublished memoirs, Tales of a Disorderly Officer.

A universal carrier and Humber scout car with infantry of 43rd (Wessex) Division during the advance on Goch, 17 February 1945.
A universal carrier and Humber scout car with infantry of 43rd (Wessex) Division during the advance on Goch, 17 February 1945.
Two young German soldiers, one injured, the other dead. As they advanced into Germany, the Allied soldiers were constantly surprised at the extreme youth of the enemy forces.
Two young German soldiers, one injured, the other dead. As they advanced into Germany, the Allied soldiers were constantly surprised at the extreme youth of the enemy forces.

Forward Platoon makes contact as they enter Germany

Winston Churchill crosses the Rhine in a jeep with Lt-Gen Miles Dempsey, GOC 2nd Army, 26 March 1945.
Winston Churchill crosses the Rhine in a jeep with Lt-Gen Miles Dempsey, GOC 2nd Army, 26 March 1945.
40mm Bofors gun of 319 Battery, 92nd (Loyals) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment in action in the ground support role east of the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
40mm Bofors gun of 319 Battery, 92nd (Loyals) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment in action in the ground support role east of the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery, the latter standing in a jeep, talking to Scottish troops near the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery, the latter standing in a jeep, talking to Scottish troops near the Rhine, 26 March 1945.

The Allies had consolidated their position over the Rhine. The fighting from now on was very unpredictable, the German forces were still capable of putting up very significant resistance and the battle for western Germany was far from won. Yet the quality and resolution of their forces varied enormously – and nobody knew quite what the next encounter with them might bring.

Sydney Jary commanded 18 Platoon of the 4th Battalion The Somerset Light Infantry, as they began their advance into the heart of Germany:

The Battalion crossed the Rhine in Buffaloes, amphibious tracked vehicles, on the morning of 26th March. From that day a new war started, the kind of war envisaged fifteen years before by General Fuller and Captain Liddell Hart: a war of rapid advances by armoured columns supported by motorised infantry. These were mainly platoon and company encounters, but a vicious battalion battle did take place at Lochem. This pattern continued until we reached Bremen.

With cohesion rapidly disintegrating, the Germans were organised into battle groups of anything from platoon to battalion strength: ad hoc formations ranging from pathetic Volksturm (Home Guard) to experienced SS and parachute detachments and even an officer cadet training school. Some put up token resistance and ran away. The best, including the officer cadets, fought with skill and ferocity.

Our day usually started before first light when orders for the next day’s advance were given, including the planned route, objectives and details about the armoured regiment we were to support. We usually “married up” with our armour soon after dawn. Sometimes we rode hanging on to the tanks; at other times troop-carrying vehicles were available.

About two miles to our front across flat and unfenced farmland lay Sinderen, a small village five miles east of the Rhine. Our advance was to take us there along a straight road, bare except for one house on its right hand side and about eight hundred yards short of the village. “D” Company led the Battalion with 18 Platoon forward. We had a troop of Sherman tanks under command which followed my Platoon along the road.

It was a dry day and we advanced quickly to within one hundred yards of the lone house. For no good reason the leading Sherman suddenly moved forward of our leading section and halted beside the house. It had barely stopped when I saw it shudder and a small cloud of dust arose from it. A second later I heard a resounding metallic clang and the whip crack of a high velocity gun.

As we rushed forward to surround the house the Sherman’s crew baled out shaken but unharmed. Two MG42s opened fire, sending long bursts high over our heads: a sure sign of inexperience.

Taking up positions around the house, the Platoon went to ground and followed its usual drill. In an advance to contact, when 18 Platoon came under fire — even if the enemy was unlocated — our Bren gunners fired one magazine in their general direction. Each rifleman also fired five rounds rapid. My idea: I considered it good for our morale and it showed the enemy that we were aggressive. It also gave me time to think.

I surveyed our front through my binoculars. At first I could see nothing, but a haystack to our right front interested me. It seemed to be moving slightly. Suddenly it fell apart and a German Mk IV self-propelled gun drove away from it with some soldiers hanging on top. One of our Bren gunners immediately poured bursts of fire at this tempting target. This was taken up by our second Bren but the third gun, being behind the house, could not engage. The self-propelled gun, which had obviously knocked out our Sherman, got away. Its passengers did not.

After this little episode I thought it time that I told Freddie, who was three hundred yards behind, what had occurred. I was briefing my runner, Private Thomas, behind the house when I heard the cry: “Sir, they are charging us.” Sure enough, from about one hundred and fifty yards ahead, a well spread out line of about twenty Germans were putting in a bayonet charge. Brave lads, they didn’t stand a chance. I gave no orders except “Cease fire”. Not one got within seventy yards of us.

See Sydney Jary: 18 Platoon. For a long time 18 Platoon was on the reading list for aspiring British officers at Sandhurst, ’18 Platoon’ is one of the best subalterns books – probably the best – to come from the Second World War.’General Sir David Fraser GCB OBE DL

Teenage German POWs captured east of the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
Teenage German POWs captured east of the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
A line of German prisoners taken by 6th Airborne Division at Hamminkeln, 26 March 1945.
A line of German prisoners taken by 6th Airborne Division at Hamminkeln, 26 March 1945.

A brittle German resistance continues to be dangerous

British paratroops in Hamminkeln during the Allied airborne landings east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
British paratroops in Hamminkeln during the Allied airborne landings east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
British airborne troops with a 6-pdr anti-tank gun in Hamminkeln, Germany, 25 March 1945.
British airborne troops with a 6-pdr anti-tank gun in Hamminkeln, Germany, 25 March 1945.

The Allies were suddenly firmly established on the east bank of the Rhine. The last natural German defence line had been breached and the expected battle of attrition avoided. It was also a massive psychological blow to many of the German troops, in many minds there was no rational explanation why the war should go on.

As the Nazis used ever more ruthless measures to deal with anyone even suspected of straggling or desertion, it remained difficult for German troops to surrender, even if they, and sometimes even their officers, saw no point continuing. There were a number of instances of a apparently strong resistance suddenly collapsing. Allied troops would come to resent Germans who fought and killed and then, when their position became untenable, suddenly surrendered and expected to be treated honourably.

The Seaforth Highlanders encountered one such incident in their attack on Groin. Lance-Corporal Green tells the story:

We were all in No 5 section,’ he said. ‘There was a Corporal Purchase, and Gray was the bren gunner, and there was Hayes, and Hay and Hanson, and myself . we’d been together a long time ? right through everything – and we were all good mates. Captain Gardiner came up and called for volunteers, and Corporal Purchase says “We’ll go.” Captain Gardiner says: “It’s important. The place must be got. ” And the Corporal says: “We’ll do the job properly if I have to do it myself. ”

‘We got 16 Platoon to put down mortar smoke and high explosive in front of us, and set off down the road. The house and the trench were on the left of the road, and that was the side where Mr. Manson was held up, so when the smoke cleared a bit and we were fired on we dived into the ditch on the right. It was a good ditch and we were able to work along it fairly fast until we hit the drain.

That was the start of the business. The drain cut the ditch and the road at right angles, and a wee bridge carried the road over it; so of course that meant we couldn’t crawl any farther. It meant we would have to nip out of the ditch, run across the bridge, and get back into the ditch on the far side. The Boche were only seventy yards away. They weren’t fast enough to catch Purchase and Gray when they made a dive for it; but of course they were just waiting for us, and whenever we showed ourselves we got a burst through our hair.

‘We thought the pair of them would wait for us and give us covering fire to help us over the gap: but nothing happened. I stood up beside a telegraph pole, and before a burst put me back into the ditch again I’d just time to see three spandaus and a hell of a lot of Boche in a big trench, and Purchase and Gray disappearing round the end of a house about forty yards away from them.

‘The bullets were going through the grass a foot above our heads. We heard a bren firing, and then a sten, and we heard them shouting: “Give up, you bastards! The Seaforths are here!” That must have been when they charged. There were a few bursts of spandau, and then silence.
‘We knew what that meant. They were our mates, and we were all boiled up. “To hell with this,” I said. “Come on.”

‘We ran over the bridge, and into the ditch again, then across the road to the cover of a house, and then round to the Boche side. Purchase was lying about twenty yards from the trench, and Gray was almost inside it. There wasn’t a scrap of cover for the last forty yards. The two of them had gone at it baldheaded, and there were three spandaus and forty-six men in the trench. Of course they were hit. They were hit all over. But they’d made the Boche look their way, and 16 Platoon had been able to get into the big house while the panic was on.

‘We were mad when we saw them lying there. We didn’t know what we were doing. We stood in the open, not even shooting, and called the Boche for all the names in creation, and yelled at them to come out. And so help me, they did. A wee white flag came over the edge, and then an officer, and then two or three, and then the whole issue. Forty-six of them. The officer was one of those right clever baskets – big smiles all over his face ….

‘Purchase was the best section leader ever we had.’He died. Gray, though he had a burst clean through him, lived to receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal and survive the war. His bren was found actually inside the German trench.

The whole circumstances of the attack can be read , with an accompanying map, at 51st Highland Division.

DUKW crews (including one soldier wearing a top hat) rest by the roadside east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
DUKW crews (including one soldier wearing a top hat) rest by the roadside east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
DUKW amphibious vehicles ferrying supplies across the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
DUKW amphibious vehicles ferrying supplies across the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
A Universal carrier unloaded from a Hamilcar glider during the Rhine crossing, 24-25 March 1945.
A Universal carrier unloaded from a Hamilcar glider during the Rhine crossing, 24-25 March 1945.
A Class 40 pontoon bridge over the Rhine, 25 March 1945
A Class 40 pontoon bridge over the Rhine, 25 March 1945

Bitter struggle to end Japanese resistance in Mandalay

Two British soldiers on patrol in the ruins of the Burmese town of Bahe during the advance on Mandalay.
Two British soldiers on patrol in the ruins of the Burmese town of Bahe during the advance on Mandalay.
Troops of the Indian 19th Division in action against Japanese positions on Mandalay Hill overlooking the city.
Troops of the Indian 19th Division in action against Japanese positions on Mandalay Hill overlooking the city.
A Japanese supply dump burning in Mandalay after an Allied air attack.
A Japanese supply dump burning in Mandalay after an Allied air attack.

The British advance south in Burma was making dramatic strides. After taking Meiktila they moved on to Mandalay, arriving on the outskirts of the city on the 9th March.

There followed some very intense, fierce fighting as the Japanese sought to defend their positions from underground bunkers established in old Buddhist temples and catacombs. The terrain was very different but the techniques for overcoming the Japanese would have been very familiar to the US Marines on Iwo Jima.

John Masters was an officer with the 19th Indian ‘Dagger’ Division:

We stood, so to speak, on top of Mandalay. We also stood, at much closer range, on top of a good many Japanese. The temples, cellars and mysterious chambers covering Mandalay Hill were made of reinforced concrete.

The 4th Gurkhas had taken the summit, and no Japanese was alive and visible; but scores of them were alive, invisible, in the subterranean chambers.

A gruesome campaign of extermination began, among the temples of one of the most sacred places of the Buddhist faith. Sikh machine-gunners sat all day on the flat roofs, their guns aimed down the hill on either side of the covered stairway.

Every now and then a Japanese put out his head and fired a quick upward shot. A Sikh got a bullet through his brain five yards from me.

Our engineers brought up beehive charges, blew holes through the concrete, poured in petrol, and fired a Very light down the holes. Sullen explosions rocked the buildings and the japanese rolled out into the open, but firing. Our machine-gurmers pressed their thumb-pieces. The japanese fell, burning.

We blew in huge steel doors with Piats, rolled in kegs of petrol or oil, and set them on fire with tracer bullets.

Our infantry fought into the tunnels behind a hail of grenades, and licking sheets of fire from flame-throwers. Grimly, under the stench of burning bodies and the growing pall of decay, past the equally repellent Buddhist statuary (showing famine, pestilence, men eaten by vultures) the battalions fought their way down the ridge to the southern foot — to face the moat and the thirty-foot-thick walls of Fort Dufferin.

Pete brought up the medium artillery, and the 5-5s hurled their 60-pound shells at the wall, over open sights, from four hundred yards. The shells made no impression. He called in the air force. P-47s tried skip bombing, B-24s dropped some 1,000-pound bombs, some inside the fort and some outside – among our troops.

See John Masters: The Road Past Mandalay

It was not until the 21st that the British found a way into the old redoubt of Fort Dufferin through the sewers – but the remaining Japanese had withdrawn during the preceding night.

Royal Air Force Thunderbolt fighters in formation during operations against Mandalay. In order to clear the Japanese from Mandalay the Allies made full use of their air superiority.
Royal Air Force Thunderbolt fighters in formation during operations against Mandalay. In order to clear the Japanese from Mandalay the Allies made full use of their air superiority.
British artillery bombards Fort Dufferin, the key to the Japanese defences at Mandalay.
British artillery bombards Fort Dufferin, the key to the Japanese defences at Mandalay.
An aerial view of Fort Dufferin at Mandalay under aerial attack.
An aerial view of Fort Dufferin at Mandalay under aerial attack.

Fresh U.S. troops move up to the front line

Cologne was bombed by the RAF for the last time on 2nd March and occupied by US troops on 6th March. The Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) stands seemingly undamaged (although having been directly hit several times and damaged severely) while entire area surrounding it is completely devastated. The Hauptbahnhof (Köln Central Station) and Hohenzollern Bridge lie damaged to the north and east of the cathedral. Germany, 24 April 1945.
Cologne was bombed by the RAF for the last time on 2nd March and occupied by US troops on 6th March. The Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) stands seemingly undamaged (although having been directly hit several times and damaged severely) while entire area surrounding it is completely devastated. The Hauptbahnhof (Köln Central Station) and Hohenzollern Bridge lie damaged to the north and east of the cathedral. Germany, 24 April 1945.
Infantrymen of the 4th Infantry Division move through the debris littered city of Prum, Germany.
Infantrymen of the 4th Infantry Division move through the debris littered city of Prum, Germany. 1 March 1945.

The United States would suffer over 550,000 casualties in north west Europe between the invasion of France in 1944 and the end of the war, 104,000 men would die in this theatre alone. The British were now struggling to replace the casualties that they had sustained. America had a steady supply of young men who would fill the gaps in the ranks. There were men yet to cross the Atlantic who would have still have time to die in the cause of freedom.

In March the casualty rate was similar to that of July 1944, the height of the Normandy fighting. Amongst those arriving fresh to the battlefield and yet to see action was eighteen year old rifleman Jack R Blann:

We moved out of town a little distance directly toward Cologne and soon came to the top of a hill where there were bodies of dead Germans laying everywhere. There were two German Mark 5 tanks knocked out over on one side of the hill and there were dead German soldiers laying all around the vehicles. We felt that this action must have occurred all day before, although the vehicles were still smoking.

Beside one of the vehicles, we noticed that one of the Germans was still alive, even though he had been blown almost in two and his legs were missing. His eyes were open and he was moaning. There was no way that this man could recover from such wounds. In fact, we couldn’t understand how he had managed to live this long. We were all disturbed by the suffering that the man must be enduring, so one of the officers walked over and closed the man’s eyes, and shot him in the head with his forty five.

From the hill, you could see the battle line still quite some distance in front of us and you could see the bursting artillery in the distance all along the front. The panorama stretching before us reminded me of some of the panoramic drawings of battles that I had seen in Life Magazine. The line seemed to bulge out in the direction of Cologne and it looked as if some of our troops must be getting pretty close to the big city.

At this time, a big armada of B-26’s flew over and began to bomb Cologne and the roads around the city. We were so close to the bombers that we could see the bombs as they left the planes. There was no flack going up against them, probably because the retreat had thrown the antiaircraft defenses into confusion.

Some of the men looked around the dead Germans on the ground around us to see if there were any valuables that might be worth picking up. As for myself, I never became hardened enough that I could loot the dead. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the dead soldiers. It was hard enough to just look at these men, killed at such a young age.

One good looking young German boy had long black hair that was usually combed straight back from his forehead. Now it had fallen forward over his face. I could see myself lying there.

We left the hill and went down into a little ravine where we waited for our orders. While we were there, chow came up and we had a hot meal. I picked up some old German and French money laying on the ground in the ravine, probably discarded by some of the looters because it apparently had no value.

Then it began to sprinkle, and we began huddling around each other to talk about what the future might hold for us. All of us were hoping that maybe we would never catch up with the front line, but of course, we all knew that sooner or later we would.

See Jack R Blann: A private’s diary: The battle of Germany as seen through the eyes of an 18 year old infantry rifleman

See Hyperwar for casualty figures.

A medic helps an injured soldier through a rubble filled street. Saar-Lautern,-Germany 3 March 1945
A medic helps an injured soldier through a rubble filled street. Saar-Lautern,-Germany 3 March 1945

An infantryman makes his first kill

"Then came the big day when we marched into Germany--right through the Siegfried Line."
“Then came the big day when we marched into Germany–right through the Siegfried Line.”
 A mortar crew of the 20th Division runs for cover between bursts of German shell fire in Julich, Germany. 23 February 1945.
A mortar crew of the 20th Division runs for cover between bursts of German shell fire in Julich, Germany. 23 February 1945.

Raymond Gantter was one of hundreds of thousands of “replacements” – young US infantrymen who only joined their unit when they arrived in France or Germany. They often had a difficult time assimilating into groups of more experienced soldiers. Gantter was one of the lucky ones, a relatively older man who soon found his feet and moved rapidly through the ranks in the remaining few months of the war.

Late February saw Gantter occupying a ruined house on the front line in Germany as his squad awaited a German counter-attack:

It’s hard to write this next part, because this is where I killed a man. The first one. The first one I was sure of.

It ought to be told simply, because it’s important that you should understand what it’s like — how you feel when you have trapped a small, running creature between the cold sights of a deliberate gun and pulled the trigger, and suddenly the creature has stopped running and is lying there, and now it’s a man and his body is naked and soft and crumpled.

It ought to be told without hint of boast, and yet so that you would see there’s something of the bragging boy in the sense of achievement; it ought to be told without sentiment, and yet so you would see what a big thing it is.

I saw a German soldier rise from behind the protective shoulder of the ridge and start to run to the rear, sprinting across the open field toward the hills. Perhaps he was a runner, a messenger – I cannot remember that he carried a weapon.

It occurred to me later that he must have been young and very green, because he ran in a straight line, an easy course to follow with the sights of a rifle. He had unbuttoned his over-coat for greater freedom in running, and the skirts flapped like huge blue wings around his legs.

He was a moving dot of blue, a clumsy blue object to be stalked deliberately… now, impaled within the sights, the blue coat was enormous, presenting itself to my squinted eye like a cloud, like a house, like a target painted solid blue on the firing range at Camp Wheeler.

I squeezed the trigger and he fell. He did not move again, and the skirts of the blue overcoat made a patch of unnaturalcolor in the field where he lay.

For a moment I was triumphant and my eyes lingered on my prize, confirming it. There he was! … He was there, still lying there, and it wasn’t a game any longer. He hadn’t risen to his feet, dusted himself off, and thumbed his nose at me gaily before starting to run again. He lay there, quiet now, and he hadn’t moved, and I laid my rifle on the floor of the attic – carefully, because of the plaster dust – and put my head in my hands. I wanted to be sick, but there wasn’t time to be sick.

And I thought, Poor bastard … he was hungry and cold, too … scared and homesick and missing his people and tired of war. And I was sick and ashamed because I never hated him, never him specifically, and I never wanted to kill him.

And it was an evil and an ugly thing that this man, this particular Hans or Ludwig or Emil, should lie dead on a field because I had willed it; it was an evil and an ugly thing that this particular man should never again hear music or feel the hands of his children upon his face.

Then I picked up my rifle and went back to my job. The fight lasted throughout the day, and other men in blue-gray went down, not to move again, but their falling did not hit me as a personal thing. They were moving targets, that was all. But again and again my eyes turned back to the figure lying quiet in the stubble, the blue overcoat like wings beside him.

See Raymond Gantter: Roll Me Over: An Infantryman’s World War II

American soldiers hold up a sign reading "This is Julich Germany, sorry it is so messed up, but we were in a hurry! 29th (Blue & Grey) Div." 24 February 1945.
American soldiers hold up a sign reading “This is Julich Germany, sorry it is so messed up, but we were in a hurry! 29th (Blue & Grey) Div.” 24 February 1945.
A young German officer captured by troops of the 102nd Infantry Division , Ninth US Army near Gevenich, Germany, February 1945.
A young German officer captured by troops of the 102nd Infantry Division , Ninth US Army near Gevenich, Germany, February 1945.

Cliff climb assault surprises Germans on Riva Ridge

Pioneers of the 10th Mountain Division, the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion, training in the United States in 1941.
Pioneers of the 10th Mountain Division, the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion, training in the United States in 1941.
10th Mountain Division soldiers with snow shoes. 10 Jan 45,coming past the last contact with the accepted front. 2 Tank Destroyers are used for direct fire against any positions the enemy tries to build or any movement that may be observed.
10th Mountain Division soldiers with snow shoes. 10 Jan 45,coming past the last contact with the accepted front. 2 Tank Destroyers are used for direct fire against any positions the enemy tries to build or any movement that may be observed.

The US Army had initiated the 10th Light Division (Alpine) in 1943, it was redesignated the 10th Mountain Division in 1944. Drawn from a mixture of skiers, climbers and outdoors men from a wide variety of backgrounds they trained in the Rocky Mountains before arriving in Europe in late 1944.

The precipitous mountains of Italy had proved to be natural defensive territory for the Germans, often providing positions impregnable to the average Allied soldier .

On the night of 18th-19th February 700 men of the 86th Regiment made one of the most audacious mountain attacks of the war, climbing five different routes up a 2,000 foot mountainside to attack the Riva Ridge, two of the routes requiring fixed ropes.

The attack proceeded according to plan. Only one contact with the enemy was made and that was B Company on trail #2. As the assault platoon reached the top of M. Cappel Buso the Krauts opened up with machine guns and machine pistols.

Taking advantage of lessons learned previously not to return fire at night, the leading echelon continued to move forward and the Krauts pulled out. Not a shot was fired by our men.

All columns reached their objectives without a casualty. The Krauts had pulled back in their dugouts for the night, not leaving a man in position. The ultimate had been gained, surprise was complete, and an important difficult, rugged terrain feature had been taken without a casualty.

See Report by Lt Col Henry J. Hampton

While the major elements of our attacking force were engaged in the darkness and bitter cold below Monte Belvedere, teams of picked rock climbers of the 1st Battalion of the 86th were assembling coils of ropes over their shoulders and clusters of pitons and other rock-climbing gear on their belts.

All the years of alpine training on Mount Rainier and Camp Hale, so publicized in newsreels and Hollywood movies, were now about to be tested. In fact, what developed was to be the only signicant action in which the 10th had to use this most specialized kind of training. Nevertheless, no one in the War Department or in the 10th could later deny that this single exploit on Riva Ridge justied all the demanding training that had gone before.

A dusting of new snow covered the rock face and upper slopes of the mountains. The valley floor was a quagmire of freezing mud. Searchlights behind the combat area scanned the low—hanging wall of clouds and reflected a scattered, shadowy light over the terrain below. But the valley itself and the ridges were dark.

Climbing in the dead of night, members of the teams hammered steel pitons into the cracks in the rock, attached snap links to them, and then fastened ropes to the links which, hanging down, offered lines which those who followed could use to pull themselves up the vertical face of the ridge.

When the advance teams reached the top at approximately midnight, they signaled to the 1st Battalion units below that they could begin the ascent in force. These units advanced in a column of companies toward the foot of Riva Ridge and then split up, each taking a different route up the face of the cliff.

Fortunately, the haze which hung over the lower elevations of the ridge continued to help conceal the attacking mountaineers. With a biting and wet wind whipping them about, the climbers clambered cautiously up the wet rocks with the aid of the preset ropes, fearful that any dislodged rock that clattered down the cliff face would be followed by bursts of enemy machine guns and grenades.

Inevitably some rocks did fall, causing the climbers to halt in dread anticipation of the hail of death to follow. “Perfect fear casteth out love,” joked the Briton Cyril Connolly in his travesty of I John 4:18, and members of the 10th came to fully appreciate that remark in this introduction to combat.

By 4 A.M. on February 19, all three companies of the 1st Battalion, 86th, and Co. F of the 2nd had reached their separate objectives on top of the ridge unseen and had charged the holding units of the German 1044th Infantry Regiment with rifles and grenades. Surprise was complete.

“I don’t see how you did it,” one German defender stated. “We thought it was impossible for anyone to climb that cliff”

With the coming of daylight, the Germans began to launch the expected counterattack after counterattack, accompanied by heavy artillery fire on the ridge.

When accurate counterartillery bursts repulsed one attack, the Germans came back with their hands up, feigning surrender. After nearing the 1st Battalion positions, they dropped and began firing again, but were finally driven off with heavy casualties. One platoon alone, with the help of our supporting artillery, accounted for 26 Germans killed, 7 captured, and countless wounded.

Robert B. Ellis: See Naples and Die: A World War II Memoir of a United States Army Ski Trooper in the Mountains of Italy

American soldier putting chains on his truck’s tires on a snowy mountain road. 6 Jan. 1945
American soldier putting chains on his truck’s tires on a snowy mountain road. 6 Jan. 1945

‘The only way out’ for an infantryman

Vickers machine gunners of the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, 15th (Scottish) Division, lay down harassing fire in support of forward elements during the battle for Goch, 20 February 1945.
Vickers machine gunners of the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, 15th (Scottish) Division, lay down harassing fire in support of forward elements during the battle for Goch, 20 February 1945.
A universal carrier and Humber scout car with infantry of 43rd (Wessex) Division during the advance on Goch, 17 February 1945.
A universal carrier and Humber scout car with infantry of 43rd (Wessex) Division during the advance on Goch, 17 February 1945.

The British Canadian advance on the northern flank in western Europe was making progress, pushing out of the Reichswald Forest and entering the first German towns.

For the men who had been in the line since August the unrelenting business of the infantry was taking its toll. Every day the casualties mounted. The ordinary soldier was only too aware that his number would be up sooner or later. There was only one way out of their situation, other than death.

R.M Wingfield had recently been promoted to Corporal in charge of a section of his infantry platoon.

Ahead, up a slight gradient four hundred yards in front of us, was the anti-tank ditch.

There was someone in there.

We lay down to regroup. All was ready. There was only one thing left to do. No—one wanted to give the order. I gulped and, turning to my section, shouted, “Fix bayonets!” That seemed to bring us all to life. I heard the nasty snick of the bayonets locking home. I pulled out the “Safety” of my Sten and stood up. Men to right and left stood up.

No-one moved. We all stared at the ditch ahead. This was a bayonet charge. We had practised it before, stupid men in training trying to raise an empty scream while prodding a sand- bag. This thing was no practice. It was the dread problem of “Him or Me”; that problem which had never arisen yet and which we assumed would never arise. These men in the ditch were not going to give up easily. Oh God, let it be him!

I fingered my Sten, looked to right and left and set off at a rapid walk. I glanced at my mate “Smoky” on my right. He licked his lips, grinned a dead grin and closed me to bring me under the protection of his bayonet. I should have to spray with my Sten and hope for the best.

The alignment was all to hell. I was leading an arrow-head. We broke into a trot, a run, a mad charge, screaming, yelling. One hundred yards away the lip of the ditch was lined with waving bits of white paper.

“So you’re trying to pack up now, you bastards! It’s too bloody latel” we roared and swept on. I sprayed a burst at the paper. It went down. Fifty yards . . . forty yards . . . thirty . . . twenty . . . and, with a wild yell, I was over and in.

The trench was ten feet deep. I hit the bottom with a crash and saw grey-green figures. I squeezed the trigger. Oh, God! A jam! Before I could shake out the cartridge a voice said: “What the fornication do you lot think you’re doing?”

We had charged our own “B” Company with an assortment of Germans varying from very dead to petrified with fright.

The next ten minutes, with the bubble of fear pricked, were spent in mutual recriminations, curses and remarks on the Higher Authority’s ancestry. There might have been serious casualties, casualties which would have been unnecessary.

Some stupid bastard had blundered. It was a bloody miracle we won the war when nobody knew where the hell anybody else was half the time.

In the middle of the curses and attempts to regroup Jerry Defensive Fire came down. We hit the ground, “B”, “D” and the German prisoners in a hopeless jumble.

The gunnery was, fortunately, of a low standard as no shells came in among us. One straggler on the edge of the ditch was hit in the shoulder as he dived into the trench, rolling to the bottom in a shower of earth and stones.

We bandaged him as neatly as we could. He didn’t seem too bad, so we said how much we envied him, wrapped him in his gas-cape to prevent shock and gave him a cigarette. From the smile on his face we gathered that “Jack” was certainly All Right.

The barrage stopped.

That seemed to be the lot for the time being. We consolidated. I helped to booby-trap the trench with trip-flares and the inevitable tin cans.

Two men took the only casualty to the Regimental Aid Post. We watched him go with envious eyes.

Shortly after this Wingfield was himself wounded, in the stomach, and after an unnerving several hours on the battlefield, was eventually retrieved by the stretchers bearers. He recovered to write his memoirs. See R M Wingfield: The Only Way Out

Sherman Firefly tanks move through the ruins of Kleve on their way to support the attack on Goch, Germany, 16 February 1945.
Sherman Firefly tanks move through the ruins of Kleve on their way to support the attack on Goch, Germany, 16 February 1945.
Churchill tanks drive along a badly damaged street in Kleve, Germany, 12 February 1945.
Churchill tanks drive along a badly damaged street in Kleve, Germany, 12 February 1945.

Infantry battalion attack into the Reichswald Forest

Universal carriers of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders in the Reichswald forest, 10 February 1945.
Universal carriers of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders in the Reichswald forest, 10 February 1945.
Men of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and Churchill tanks in the Reichswald forest, 10 February 1945.
Men of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and Churchill tanks in the Reichswald forest, 10 February 1945.

On the 8th February the British XXX Corps had launched Operation Veritable, a massive combined attack, with the Canadian 1st Army, that was part of a larger Allied plan to push the Germans back to the Rhine. A significant part of the attack went through the the German ‘Imperial Forest’, the Reichswald.

In the British Army the largest single tactical infantry unit was the Battalion, comprising around a 1000 men when at full strength, organised into four Companies, each with subordinate Platoons, and a Headquarters unit. Many British Regiments had several Battalions, which might fight in completely different theatres from each other. The 5th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, recruited from the far north of Scotland, found themselves in the Reichswald, beginning their attack on the 9th February.

The following description of one day’s fighting describes how a battle might unfold for a typical battalion strength infantry attack. Their objective was the Hekkens/Kranenburg crossroads, about 600 yards beyond a known anti-tank ditch through the forest. Somewhere in the forest they knew they would encounter German parachute troops, known to them as “the little para boys”, because of their youth, although respected for their fighting abilities:

At 0100 hours on February 11, “C” Company led off cautiously down the road, with “D” and “A” following, and a heavy barrage sweeping the ground ahead of them; and as far as the bend in the road they met nothing. Heavy rain was falling. Progress was slow and there were many halts, but nevertheless we were advancing and our hopes began to rise.

After half an hour the leading section approached the anti-tank ditch, and as they went forward to investigate it all hell broke. Spandaus opened up all along the front, straight lines of tracer were striking the trees and flying off in all directions, grenades burst.

They went to ground in a ditch by the roadside, with the Germans still firing at point-blank range. There was a hurried consultation, carried on in whispers in case the Germans would hear it, and a section was sent to work round the flank and discover the enemy strength; but before they had gone far, four more spandaus opened up and pinned them.

There were more consultations, more expeditions; and always there were more spandaus. The Germans were in the ditch in strength, and try as we might we could not get to grips with them.

… [They now threw the reserve ‘A’ Company into the battle – but they came under heavy mortar fire as they approached the German flanks. The survivors from ‘B’ Company had been dispersed amongst the other three companies to make up for heavy casualties earlier]…

The Colonel — he had already been wounded in the neck, but refused to do anything about it — made his mind up. He tried our reserve wireless set, but there was heavy interference and he could not make himself understood. He went back to tell Brigadier Cassels that we could not reach Hekkens without tanks.

The Brigadier promised us tanks in the morning, and a scissors bridge to get them over the ditch.

The Colonel returned and found little improvement. It was an abominable place. “C” Company and Battalion H.Q. were so close to the Germans that they could hear the N.C.O.’s giving their fire-orders; and the leading men were inside grenading range. The ditch was deep, but not deep enough to stand in.

There was so little room that at one time men were lying on top of each other three-deep to keep under cover. Outside, the fixed lines of the spandaus were firing tracer at stomach-height; and the only safe way forward was to crawl along the ditch, over all the bodies. In places the piles of humanity were so deep that even this method left the crawler exposed.

The stretcher-bearers, unable to stoop and carry simultaneously, did magnificent work in carrying the wounded back through the hail of bullets in the open, but many of them were hit.

Leslie Forshaw-Wilson, who took over command when Colonel Sym went to Brigade, had been wounded before he could issue any orders. Hector Mackenzie took over and continued to explore the enemy flanks.

The Colonel resumed command, and gradually the congestion in the ditch was sorted out. Bodies were only one deep now. The firing slackened. By dawn only a few snipers were active, and after the alarms of the night there was relative peace.

Then began a long and anxious day. The lull did not last. Shortly after daylight the Germans concentrated every weapon they had, and for hours on end we were shelled and mortared and grenaded. The spandaus were firing almost continuously, now so deadly that it was impossible to move in the forward positions.

Shells were bursting in the trees, not in ones or twos, but by the score, throwing great splinters of steel and wood at the men lying prone in the ditch. We heard the pop-pause-pop-pause-pop of the mortars, flattened ourselves and counted twenty; and down they came all round us, bursting in the treetops, on the road, everywhere. There was a nasty little yellow rifle grenade, too (it was one of these which had wounded the Colonel) which we had not met before and did not want to meet again. Casualties were mounting, and still the stonk of high explosive continued.

The tanks arrived in time to scupper a counter-attack coming in at us from the right; but neither they nor the bulldozer which accompanied them could linger, for an eighty-eight had come to life and was cracking armour-piercing shells straight down the road. They withdrew.

We felt very lonely. Between the bursts of firing we could hear the rain dripping from the branches of the trees. Our ammunition began to run low, and men risked their lives to carry fresh supplies up the ditch. All the time the stretcher-bearers were carrying casualties back. Food arrived, but it could not be issued.

Late in the morning the Colonel, who should have been in hospital hours before, passed out cold (‘I can’t think why,’ he said afterwards) and his place was taken by Major Powell.

At mid-day we were ordered to withdraw. Donnie Munro was killed carrying the message to the forward companies.

The tanks retumed a little later and kept the German heads down while we drew back into the forest. And that was the end. Our job, though we only then realised it, was done. We had not taken the Hekkens crossroads, but we had pinned down every German capable of defending them and another brigade had been able to walk in behind the backs of the defence.

It met hardly any opposition: every reserve the Germans possessed had by this time been drawn up to our ditch. When the Para-boys found they were almost surrounded they melted away, and the Hekkens/Kranenburg road was clear from end to end.

Our two nights in the Reichswald had cost us nineteen killed and sixty-five wounded.

See Alastair Borthwick: Battalion: British Infantry Unit’s Actions from El Alamein to the Elbe, 1942-45

A Canadian soldier of the Calgary Highlanders occupying a former German trench in the Reichswald forest, 11 February 1945.
A Canadian soldier of the Calgary Highlanders occupying a former German trench in the Reichswald forest, 11 February 1945.
Churchill bridgelayer and fascine carrier in the Reichswald forest, 12 February 1945.
Churchill bridgelayer and fascine carrier in the Reichswald forest, 12 February 1945.