Operation Battle of Kassel

The 'Battle of Kassel' was fought between US and German troops for the city of Kassel, 87 miles (140 km) to the north-east of Frankfurt-am-Main (1/4 April 1945).

The battle resulted from the push of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army to the north-east from the region of Frankfurt and Mainz, and ended in a US victory. Opposing the 3rd Army’s 80th Division, commanded by Major General Horace L. McBride, were a German infantry replacement battalion, some heavy tanks and anti-aircraft guns. While the Germans gave battle at Kassel, it is worth noting that their army was on the brink of collapse as the forces of the Western Allies and the USSR continued to make deep inroads into Germany from the west and east respectively. The German defence of Kassel in no way materially impeded the Allied advance, and, one month after the battle ended, Germany was forced to capitulate.

After Germany’s 'Wacht am Rhein' offensive in the Ardennes, the US 3rd Army had driven to the east and south-east into Germany, capturing Prüm and Trier. This advance brought Patton’s troops to the Rhine river, which they crossed at Oppenheim, near Mainz, on 22 March. While Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army was marching on Paderborn, the 3rd Army was advancing on an approximately parallel course farther to the east to cover the 1st Army’s right flank and to prevent any attempt by the Germans to relieve their troops trapped in the Ruhr pocket. Moving to the east from its bridgehead across the Rhine river, the 3rd Army’s XII Corps, commanded by Major General Manton S. Eddy, fought through scattered German opposition and reached Frankfurt on 26 March. After Frankfurt, Kassel was the largest city in the state of Hesse and had a population of 200,000 in 1939. Another of the 3rd Army’s formation, Major General Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps, was directed to capture it. By March 30, elements of the 3rd Army were nearing Kassel after an advance of some 140 miles (220 km) in eight days.

By this stage of the war, much of Kassel’s centre lay in ruins as the city had been bombed 40 times by the Allied air forces. Among the bombing targets in the city was the Henschel factory complex, which produced PzKpfw VI Tiger II heavy tanks. As the Americans approached, the Henschel factory finished work on 13 Tiger II machines, which were pressed into service by two companies of the 510th and 511th schwere Panzerabteilungen. Deployed on a military training ground to the south of the city was a battery of 88-mm (3.465-in) anti-aircraft guns manned by men of the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a paramilitary labour service. Besides the tanks and anti-aircraft guns, the Germans had several hundred men of the 15th Panzergrenadier-Ersatz-und-Ausbildungs-Bataillon (Panzergrenadier replacement and training battalion) with which to defend the city. The German high command had designated Kassel as a Festung (fortress) with orders to resist to the last round: in the event, however, the designation of the city as a Festung had little impact on the outcome of the battle. In command of the city’s defence was Generalmajor Johannes Erxleben, a communications officer with little battle experience.

On 30 March, seven Tiger II tanks headed to the south toward Fritzlar. Some 1.85 miles (3 km) to the north-east of Fritzlar, the Tiger II tanks fought an encounter engagement with an armoured spearhead of the 3rd Army, resulting in damage to or destruction of six US tank destroyers. The German tanks, however, were forced to retreat when their unit was subjected to heavy artillery fire. On 1 April, leading elements of McBride’s 80th Division approached Kassel from the south, but were forced to halt by fire from the Reichsabeitsdienst anti-aircraft battery on the Dönche training ground, which was a relatively flat area that allowed the 88-mm (3.465-in) guns to engage in long-range fire. On 2 April, the Americans responded with heavy artillery fire and destroyed the German battery. The US 318th Infantry moved one battalion into the wooded high ground, the Habichtswald to the west of Kassel, while the 319th Infantry crossed the Fulda river and moved to the north along its eastern bank. The 80th Division’s third regiment, the 317th Infantry, was in divisional reserve. By the end of the day, western and southern suburbs of Kassel had been occupied by the Americans.

In the south, German infantry of the 15th Panzergrenadier-Ersatz- und Ausbildungs-Bataillon, mounted in 15 half-tracked vehicles and supported by about 12 tanks, moved to the south and surprised elements of the 1/318th Infantry. The subsequent exchange of fire saw six US tank destroyers knocked out and one Tiger II damaged. The German infantrymen were separated from their tanks by enfilading fire of US troops who had pulled back from the road. The German tanks continued to the south until they were hit by a barrage from 155-mm (6.1-in) guns, which destroyed two tanks with direct hits. A second and similar German assault was less successful and also repelled by artillery fire.

Having reorganised, men of the 80th Division, with the support of M16 half-tracked vehicles each mounting four 0.5-in (12.7-mm) heavy machine guns, closed on the German Kaserne (barracks) from which the previous days attack had been launched. M16 vehicles of the 633rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery (Heavy Weapons) Battalion subjected the German base and its defenders to blistering fire and forced the capitulation of the base’s garrison.

The 318th Infantry’s advance to the north into Kassel was blocked by a railway embankment some 49 ft (15 m) high, below which there ran a street. The underpass was blocked by a German self-propelled gun whose fire commanded the approach to the underpass. After US attempts to take the embankment had been repelled by Germans dug in on the other side, the 1/318th Infantry managed to cross the embankment to the north-west and approached the flank of the German positions. Early on the morning of 3 April, the battalion took the surrender of some 500 German troops who believed their defensive position was compromised.

There was house-to-house fighting in Kassel from 2 April, but the Germans were too few in number to mount an effective defence, and the US forces pushed into the city’s centre, fending off local counterattacks by infantry and tanks. US tanks and the 319th Infantry were meanwhile approaching Kassel from the eastern bank of the Fulda river. The 317th Infantry was guarding the US flank in the west and the 318th Infantry pushed through the city, arriving in the vicinity of Erxleben’s command bunker at 09.00 on 4 April. Faced with the collapse of his defences, Erxleben despatched an officer early on April 4 to discuss surrender terms with the Americans. The US reply was that the Germans had to cease resistance without any ceasefire for the evacuation of the wounded or civilians, or the fighting would continue. At about 11.00 on 4 April, US tanks crossed the Fulda river from the east and moved toward the centre of Kassel. At 12.00, Erxleben capitulated and was taken prisoner along with 1,325 of his men, effectively ending the 'Battle of Kassel'.