This was a US strategic offensive between Koblenz and Köln in western Germany (1/7 March 1945).
The offensive was undertaken by Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s 1st Army and Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and was designed to take the two armies through the Eifel region and the defences of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ to the line of the Rhine river in two primary thrusts between a point to the north of Köln in the sector of General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee, and Koblenz in the sector of General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army. 1
Although the US attacks in the Eifel and the triangle of the Saar and Mosel rivers did not accord with the strategic thinking of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding the Allied 21st Army Group in the north of the Allied line facing the Germans on the Western Front, they did in fact aid his forces inasmuch as they limited the number of formations the Germans could otherwise have freed for movement to the north.
The US operations, which on 7 February had retaken the last vestiges of the ground the Germans had gained in ‘Wacht am Rhein’, also improved the operational and tactical situation of the 12th Army Group for the eastward move to the Rhine river whenever this should be demanded, and denied hard-pressed German units the respite they needed so badly.
In laying the plans for extending the scope of the US operations of the limited attacks in the Eifel and Saar-Mosel triangle, Bradley had to take into account not only his task of protecting the right flank of Hodges’s 1st Army as far as the Erft river in ‘Grenade’ but also the extra task entrusted to him on 20 February by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding the Allied expeditionary armies on the Western Front. Thus before he could turn the full weight of his army group to reaching and securing the western bank of the Rhine river, Bradley had to extend the protection of the right flank of Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s 9th Army by clearing a triangle of land between the Erft and the Rhine extending to the north from Köln to the confluence of the two rivers near Düsseldorf.
Bradley entrusted the task to the 1st Army, which detailed Collins’s VII Corps to complete the task. Once it had achieved this, the VII Corps was then to take Köln and after that move to the south along the Rhine river. As Collins turned to the south, other formations of the 1st Army were to start a narrow thrust from the area of the road hub of Euskirchen to the south-east to the Ahr river, and thence move to link with a thrust by Patton’s 3rd Army through the Eifel, and thus trap the German forces in the northern part of the Eifel. This plan received the codename ‘Lumberjack’.
Despite the fact that it had given up formations to strengthen the 9th Army, the US 12th Army Group was still very powerful, for its 1st Army had 12 divisions (three of them armoured) and Major General Donald A. Stroh’s understrength 106th Division and two cavalry groups, and its US 3rd Army had 10 divisions (three of them armoured) and two cavalry groups. Both armies also had powerful artillery support, and had the advantage of being near major railheads (that of the 3rd Army in the city of Luxembourg and that of the 1st Army in Liége).
US intelligence estimated that there were some 40,000 German troops in front of the 1st Army and about 45,000 facing the 3rd Army, but these were probably over-estimates.
During the later part of February there were no significant changes in the German forces facing the 1st and 3rd Armies except those caused by ‘Grenade’ and the 3rd Army’s operations in the Saar-Mosel triangle. Attacked by the VII Corps in ‘Grenade’, the most southern formation of von Zangen’s 15th Army, namely Krüger’s LVIII Panzerkorps (despite its name without any Panzer division), had been driven back, in some places behind the waterway system based on the Erft river and Erft Canal. Striking to the north-east after crossing the Erft, the VII Corps would encounter the remnants of Köchling’s LXXXI Corps and General Fritz Bayerlein’s so-called Korps ‘Bayerlein’, the latter composed of what was left of Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s (from 6 March Oberst Helmut Zollenkopf’s) 9th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision after their heavy losses in ‘Grenade’.
From a boundary with the 15th Army immediately to the south of Düren, von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee had three corps holding the line behind the Roer river and its upper tributaries while waiting for the change in zones with the 15th Army that was to happen on about 1 March, starting with the exchange of the two army commanders, von Manteuffel and von Zangen.
Commanded at this point by General Hans Felber, the 7th Army occupied the region behind the Prüm and Kyll rivers, and expected more attacks by the 3rd Army.
In reaching the Erft river late on 27 February, the VII Corps completed the task with which it had been entrusted in ‘Grenade’. But as a result of its additional tasking, namely the protection of the 9th Army’s flank all the way to the Rhine, the corps paused on the Erft no longer than was required to expand the bridgeheads established on 27 February and to complete bridging operations. By the end of 1 March, the VII Corps was beyond the Erft complex astride the main roads leading from Jülich and Düren in the direction of Köln. Despite the limited efforts of the Luftwaffe, which could seldom commit anything more than single aircraft, the US Army’s engineers had quickly completed six tank-capable bridges across the Erft. The German resistance was light in most places, and generally took the form of mortar fire and shells from self-propelled guns. Only at Mödrath, lying between the river and the canal, was there a solid defence. Here a local defence force, reinforced by stragglers from the LVIII Panzerkorps’ units, held contingents of the 121st Infantry, part of Major General William G. Weaver’s 8th Division, for two days until a battalion of the 28th Infantry crossed the Erft river farther to the north and struck ar the Germans’ right flank. The conspicuous feature of the terrain immediately beyond the Erft river, to the west and south-west of Köln, is the Vorgebirge, which is a low plateau-like ridge some 25 miles (40 km) long. This ridge’s slopes were broken by numerous lignite surface mines with almost vertical sides. Abandoned mines had been filled with water, so creating large lakes, often limiting movement to the width of the roadways. There were also many factories and towns. To the north-west of Köln, the country is generally flat and pastoral, dotted with villages and small towns, particularly along the major highways radiating from Köln.
Because of its role in shielding the 9th Army’s flank, the VII Corps was to make its main effort to the north of Köln, leaving the city to be taken later. Collins divided responsibility for his formation’s task between Major General Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division and Major General Walter E. Lauer’s 99th Division. The most important contribution was to be made by the armour, which was strengthened for the first phase of the break-out from the Erft river bridgehead by the attachment of the 395th Infantry of the 99th Division. Rose was directed to attack to the north from the bridgehead with the object of cutting the road between Köln and München-Gladbach at Stommeln, thus severing a vital artery leading into the 9th Army’s flank, and then was to turn to the north-east and reach the Rhine river at Worringen, 8 miles (13 km) downstream of Köln. The object was therefore to split the German defence quickly and forestall any attempt by the remnants of the Panzer divisions of the Korps ‘Bayerlein’ to reorganise and counterattack. Meanwhile, the 99th Division’s infantry was to clear the ground between the 3rd Armored Division and the Erft river with the aid of the 4th Cavalry Group, while the 8th and 104th Divisions on the corps’ right wing fought their way through the lignite-mining district in the direction of Köln.
The US armour attacked before daylight on 2 March and was generally successful, but failed to precipitate the immediate break-out which had been anticipated. Extemporised German groupings, mainly of the 9th Panzerdivision, fought well from behind the anti-tank ditches and obstacles constituting an extension of the third line of field fortifications the Germans had prepared behind the Roer river. The gains here were insufficient to have any effect on the counterattack projected for that day by the 11th Panzerdivision into the 9th Army’s flank, and this failed only because of the 9th Army’s capture of Mönchengladbach, which prevented Generalmajor Horst Niemack’s Panzer-Lehr-Division from launching its converging thrust.
As darkness descended on 2 March, the US armour had expanded the Erft river bridgehead to a depth of 3 miles (4.8 km), which carried it beyond the northern reaches of the Vorgebirge into open country. From that point the Germans would be able to undertake only delaying actions, almost always in towns and villages since the flat terrain afforded few military features.
Although reinforced from time to time by stragglers spilling across the Erft river in front of the 9th Army’s attack, the Korps ‘Bayerlein’ had no depth in which to attempt to mount an effective defence. Extemporised groupings, normally including a few tanks or self-propelled guns, had to gauge their defence carefully to avoid being overrun in any one place lest there be nothing left to defend the next place. That fact was demonstrated early on 3 March when two task forces of Brigadier General Doyle Hickey’s Combat Command ‘Hickey’ moved before dawn to take the Germans by surprise in two villages to the south-west of Stommeln. So complete was the surprise in the first village that the US armoured infantrymen suffered not one casualty. At both villages the Germans were annihilated, leaving nobody to attempt to hold the last village before Stommeln, the division’s intermediate objective.
Colonel Robert L. Howze’s Combat Command ‘Howze’ closed on Stommeln from three sides. Despite an extensive anti-tank minefield covered by a relatively strong concentration of anti-tank guns, the columns converged on the town late in the afternoon. Aided by the attacks of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt heavy fighter-bombers on the anti-tank defences, the columns cleared the last elements of the German resistance by the fall of night. Rose meanwhile sent a column from his reserve, Brigadier General Truman E. Boudinot’s Combat Command ‘Boudinot’, beyond Stommeln to a village just 4 miles (6.5 km) from the Rhine river. Only one more town lay between the armour and Worringen, its final objective.
The 99th Division had made comparable progress on the left, cutting the road between Köln and Mönchengladbach at several points late on 3 March.
Nor was success confined to the left wing of the corps. Moving toward Köln on each side of the road and adjacent but incomplete Autobahn linking the Aachen and Köln, the 104th Division made short but nonetheless important gains, as did the 8th Division advancing astride the road linking Düren and Köln. Also tasked with the protection of the corps’ open right flank, the 8th Division had the slower going but still took the second row of towns beyond the Erft river and gained a firm hold on western slopes of the Vorgebirge. The 104th Division cleared a large forest area lying astride the road linking Aachen and Köln, and crossed the crest of the Vorgebirge.
Even though the 3rd Armored Division still had several miles to cover before it reached the Rhine river, Collins now decided that the time was right to shift the emphasis of the VII Corps’ operation from the northward thrust to the capture of Köln. The armoured advance had already divided the Korps ‘Bayerlein’ from the LXXXI Corps, leaving the remnants of the latter formation as the only obstacle before Köln. For two days the 9th Army’s right flank had been anchored on the Rhine river at Neuss, so that any threat still posed by the 11th Panzerdivision was insignificant. Right through this day US fighter pilots had reported the movement of large numbers of Germans across the Rhine river on ferries and small craft, and the VII Corps had taken more than 1,800 prisoners. Late on 3 March Collins ordered Rose to continue to the Rhine river at Worringen on 4 March, but also to switch a force south-east against Köln, and to return the 395th Infantry to the 99th Division to enable the latter to clear all the land north-west of Worringen with the aid of the 4th Cavalry Group. Not wanting to suffer the delay implicit in Collins’s order, Rose sent forward patrols of the 3rd Armored Division’s 83rd Reconnaissance Battalion early in the evening of 3 March, and this established that the sole town still in German hands before the Rhine river at Worringen was strongly defended. Lacking the strength for an assault, the reconnaissance battalion turned to the north and, using smaller roads, bypassed the town, and in the process surprised and captured a battery of artillery and 300 Germans. Before daylight a four-man patrol reached the Rhine river to the north of Worringen. A task force of Combat Command ‘Boudinot’ moved up the main road at dawn, cleared the defended town, repulsed a counterattack by 200 infantry supported by five tanks, and reached Worringen and the river.
The continued advance of the 99th Division on the left of the VII Corps suggested that no realistic threat was posed by the Korps ‘Bayerlein’. Unknown to the Americans, the splitting of the Korps ‘Bayerlein’ and the LXXXI Corps had resulted in the organisational transfer of the hard-hit 9th Panzerdivision to the LXXXI Corps, leaving Bayerlein with only one Kampfgruppe of the 11th Panzerdivision and stragglers of Generalleutnant Hanskurt Höcker’s 59th Division. These manned extemporised defences facing against a south-easterly offensive by the 9th Army, so the 99th Division could attack rapidly from the flank and rear. In such a situation the primary concern of Bayerlein, his staff and the 11th Panzerdivision was an escape across the Rhine river. Despite Adolf Hitler’s insistence that there be no withdrawal, by the evening of 3 March most supporting units had fall back across the river, and the 11th Panzerdivision possessed only a small bridgehead on the western bank of the Rhine river to the north of Worringen. On 5 March Bayerlein finally received approval to fall back. Throughout the day rearguards fought hard to hold open two ferry sites, and with the end of daylight the last elements of the Korps ‘Bayerlein’ left the western bank.
The VII Corps’ attack on Köln began on the same day. The defence of this city, the fourth largest in Germany, was vested in the LXXXI Corps, now heading little more than the staffs and a few other elements the 9th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Augustus Dettling’s 363rd Volksgrenadierdivision, and Generalmajor Walter Denkert’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision. Köchling was to use what was left of these three formations, which had the overall strength of two weak regiments, to hold a so-called outer ring in the city’s suburbs, while policemen, firemen and anybody else who could hold a rifle fought from an inner ring deep within the city. Among the defenders of the inner ring were the Volkssturm, a levy of old men and youths Hitler had ordered to rally to the last-ditch defence of the Reich.
As the 3rd Armored Division, 104th Division and 8th Division drove toward Köln on 5 March, the German resistance was strongest in the north, where the 3rd Armored Division faced the decimated but apparently indestructible 9th Panzerdivision, and in the south where the 8th Division at the end of the day still was 2 miles (3.2 km) short of the city limits. The relatively slow progress of the 8th Division reflected not only the problems associated with an attack through the coal-mining district but also the fact that the division was striking the northern flank of the LVIII Panzerkorps. Even so, the 3rd Armored Division entered Köln soon after the break of day, and was followed two hours later by the 104th Division from the west. In a foretaste of what was to become increasingly common as the Allied armies streamed out into the main part of Germany to the east of the Rhine river, the hardest fighting developed around an airfield. Here the Germans turned 16 88-mm (3.465-in) Flak guns on fixed mounts against the tanks of Combat Command ‘Hickey’. The tanks finally destroyed the guns in a massed charge under cover of a smoke screen. Almost all of the 9th Panzerdivision’s resistance ended soon after this after the divisional commander, von Elverfeldt, was killed.
As the evening approached, the commander of the 1st Army shifted the southern boundary of the VII Corps to the south-east with the object of providing room for the 8th Division to drive to the Rhine river in the area to the south of Köln and thereby cut the Germans’ last avenue of escape by land.
On the following day, 6 March, the 3rd Armored Division drove quickly through the flattened centre of Köln, and reached the Hohenzollern bridge, only to find it now had a 1,200-ft (1100-m) gap in it.
By 12.00 on 7 March almost all of Köln had been cleared. No road or rail crossing of the Rhine river remained intact in this area. One battalion of the 8th Division’s 28th Infantry meanwhile reached the river to the south of Köln.
For the third time in less than a fortnight, the German forces were split. The remnants of the LVIII Panzerkorps, along with elements of the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, which had fallen back from Köln to the south, established a last-ditch defensive position across an eastward bend of the Rhine river but began to evacuate the position early in the next morning.
The VII Corps had successfully completed its tasks in the drive to the Rhine river in exactly two weeks, at one and the same time spearheading the 1st Army and protecting the flank of the 9th Army.
In operations from 25 February, only two days after the VII Corps had attacked the Roer river line, other parts of the 1st Army had also become part of the US race to the Rhine river. The operations had begun with limited goals, though with the certainty that later they would be expanded. The plan was to uncover the line of the upper Roer river, protect the VII Corps during its added assignment beyond the Erft river, and at the same time approach the Rhine river. Hodges directed Millikin’s III Corps, which had joined the 1st Army in the reorganisation which had followed the halting of the main effort in the Eifel, to cross the Roer river in the area to the south of Düren and reach the Erft river to the north of the road centre of Euskirchen. When the VII Corps wheeled to assault Köln, the III Corps was to cross the Erft river and advance to the south-east to converge with the 3rd Army in the area of Ahrweiler, the first basic objective of ‘Lumberjack’. The two corps then were to clear the western bank of the Rhine river between the Ahr river and Köln. At the same time Major General C. Ralph Huebner’s V Corps was to advance its left wing as far as Euskirchen to protect the southern flank of the III Corps and prepare itself for further eastward advance.
Facing the problems of the swollen Roer river roaring through the gorge upstream of Düren, Hodges devised a crossing plan that removed the need for another tussle with this waterway. He ordered one division of the III Corps to use the bridges of the VII Corps at Düren, and then attack to the south to clear bridge sites farther upstream. Each division in the corps in turn was to use the neighbouring division’s bridges, repeating the attack to the south in order to clear additional bridge sites. Finally, one division of the V Corps was to use the bridges of the III Corps to get beyond the waters of the Roer river reservoirs.
Two battalions of Brigadier General Clift Andrus’s 1st Division started the operation during the morning of 25 February, a few hours after the 8th Division reported that it had the required footbridge and a Bailey bridge available at Düren. Crossing in the sector of the adjacent division not only avoided frontal attack across the Roer river, but also allowed attached armour to cross with the infantry and lend weight to the drive upstream into the right flank of Oberst Kurt Hummel’s 353rd Division of Krüger’s LVIII Panzerkorps. At 12.00 one of the infantry battalions attacked the Roer valley town of Kreuzau and made such progress that 40 minutes later engineer units, which had been waiting impatiently just to the west of the river, were able to start building a footbridge within the 1st Division’s sector.
As the night of 25 February drew in, the 1st Division’s bridgehead had been firmly established without the loss of a single man in the crossing of the river. The infantry battalions of two regiments were across, and forward positions were as much as 1.5 miles (2.4 km) beyond the river. On the next day, as the 1st Division expanded its bridgehead with emphasis on gaining more of the Roer river’s eastern bank upstream to the south, engineers erected a Bailey bridge which enabled the 39th Infantry of Major General Louis A. Craig’s 9th Division to repeat the river-crossing manoeuvre late in the afternoon.
Before daylight on 27 February, troops of the 9th Division attacked to the south in order to clear their own bridge sites at Nideggen. Here the German resistance was stronger than that faced by the 1st Division, primarily because the 9th Division had crossed into the sector of Püchler’s LXXIV Corps and encountered a relatively battle-worthy unit, Generalleutnant Richard Schimpf’s (from 1 March Oberst Helmut von Hoffmann’s and from 8 March Oberst Karl-Heinz Becker’s) 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision. Benefiting from a hasty reorganisation following the Allies’ counter-offensive in the Ardennes region, the division mustered its full complement of three parachute regiments, though all of these were below establishment in manpower.
The 311th Infantry of Major General Edwin P. Parker’s 78th Division crossed the Roer river on the last day of February through the 9th Division’s sector and immediately attacked to the south, covering more than 1 mile (1.6 km) against Generalleutnant Eugen König’s 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision.
This completed the river-crossing manoeuvre of the III Corps, but as the 78th Division created its own bridgehead plans proceeded for the V Corps to follow a similar procedure to get itself past the Roer river reservoirs. Millikin got his armour into the fighting as rapidly as possible once the difficult terrain of the Eifel lay behind his forces. Combat Command B of Major General John W. Leonard’s 9th Armored Division was to attack to the east between the 1st and 9th Divisions to reach the Erft river several miles downstream of Euskirchen, while Combat Command A was to move to the south and enter the zone of the 78th Division, then wheel to the east in the general direction of Euskirchen. Combat Command A was later to be joined by the rest of the 9th Armored Division operating in a ‘zone of advance’ within the sector of the 78th Division, which was behind schedule. The 14th Cavalry Group was to follow combat Command A and protect the corps’ southern flank.
After attacking in the early afternoon of 28 February, before dawn on the following day Combat Command B reached a point abreast of the most advanced battalions of the 1st Division along the Neffel stream, midway between the Roer and Erft rivers. Beginning its attack a day later, on 1 March, Combat Command A almost immediately ran into a defensive position behind the upper reaches of the Neffel stream and barring the way to Wollersheim. Held by units of the 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision, the position was reinforced by several tanks and assault guns. When an attack by dismounted armoured infantrymen failed to carry it, Combat Command A paused for the night and waited for the arrival, during the following morning, of an infantry battalion from the 78th Division.
On 2 March the III Corps was able to begin a general exploitation right along its front. A double envelopment by the 52nd Armored Battalion of Combat Command A and an attached battalion of the 310th Infantry took the position at Wollersheim, while the 310th Infantry launched the 78th Division’s eastward drive and came almost abreast of Combat Command A. The two advances brought an end the determined defence put up by the 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision. To the north the 353rd Division and 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision, the latter trying to prevent any southward enlargement of the 78th Division’s bridgehead, were already reduced to attempting isolated delaying actions. Püchler’s LXXIV Corps had only a weak Kampfgruppe of Generalmajor Friedrich Kittel’s 62nd Volksgrenadierdivision, which had been reorganising behind the line at the time the US attack began. He sent the Kampfgruppe to the north in an effort to maintain contact with the crumbling LVIII Panzerkorps, but the Kampfgruppe was so lacking in strength that the attackers hardly noticed its presence.
On 2 March the 1st Division pushed forward to reach a position less than 3 miles (4.8 km) from the Erft river, while in the centre Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division crossed this waterway along the road linking Euskirchen and Köln. Behind Combat Command B, one regiment of the same division advanced to a point within 2 miles (3.2 km) of the Erft river.
To many of the III Corps’ men, 2 March and the days which followed it were characterised by mud and fatigue. As light snow flurries ended in the middle of the morning, the warmth of the sun triggered a slight thaw which turned roads and fields into clinging mud. The mud and daytime attacks alone would have been enough to tire the men, but every commanding officer pushed his men through much of the night in an effort to overcome the advantage that flat, open fields afforded the Germans in daylight.
At higher command levels, the period between 2 and 5 March was characterised by boundary changes and the shifting of units in response to revisions to Bradley’s original plan for the clearance of the western bank of the Rhine river. As a result of the comparative ease with which the III Corps was advancing, the change limited the responsibility of the VII Corps to the city of Köln, while the III Corps was to clear the western bank of the Rhine river throughout the rest of the 1st Army’s zone from Köln to the Ahr river. At the same time the III Corps retained responsibility for crossing the Ahr river and establishing contact with the left wing of the 3rd Army.
The first shift came on 2 March when Millikin transferred the 14th Cavalry Group to his northern flank for attachment to the 1st Division in anticipation of widening this formation’s sector. The boundary change became effective on the following day as Major General Willard S. Paul’s 26th Division crossed the Erft river and began to climb the Vorgebirge, to the south-west of Köln, 7 miles (11.25 km) from the Rhine river. While Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division halted on the Erft river, awaiting relief by units of the 1st Division, Combat Command A took the walled town of Zülpich against little more than token resistance. At the end of the day Millikin assigned the 9th Armored Division a specific zone between the 9th and 78th Divisions.
Despite the importance Bradley and Hodges attached to the gaining of bridgeheads over the Ahr river as a means of ensuring a link between the 1st and 3rd Armies, it is clear from orders issued by Millikin and his divisional commanders that the Rhine river was proving itself to be an irresistible attraction to the US commanders. The 1st Division was to reach the river in the area to the north of Bonn, the 9th Division was to take Bonn, and one column of the 9th Armored Division was to reach the Rhine river midway between Bonn and the Ahr river. Only one column of the 9th Armored Division, protected on the southern flank by the 78th Division operating in a confined sector, was directed specifically toward the Ahr river.
The emphasis on the Rhine river in the area round Bonn coincided with the expectations of Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’. Believing that the primary effort of the III Corps was being directed against Bonn, Model began to make ambitious but futile plans to reinforce the city with the 11th Panzerdivision once that formation had withdrawn from the triangle between the Erft and Rhine rivers to the north of Köln, and even to counterattack with this Panzer division.
von Zangen’s 15th Army saw matters in a different light. In driving to the Erft river, von Zangen believed, the III Corps had cleared the cup of a funnel marked on one side by the Eifel and on the other by the Vorgebirge. The obvious move at this point, Zangen believed, was a drive down the spout of the funnel from Euskirchen to the south-east of Rheinbach and the Ahr river, and thence along the northern bank of the Ahr river to the Rhine river at Sinzig and the nearby town of Remagen.
This last was of particular importance because it was there that a railway bridge was being provided with a plank flooring to allow its use by the motor transport required for the vital supply artery to the 15th Army. To block the way to Remagen, von Zangen asked permission to withdraw his LXVI Corps and LXVII Corps from the Eifel area, where they faced the probability of being cut off even if they succeeded in the increasingly unlikely task of holding their ‘Westwall’ positions. Model refused the request, and ordered that the two corps should continue to hold their ground in conformity with Hitler’s long-standing orders to relinquish no part of the ‘Westwall’ without a fight. If forced back, Model agreed, the LXXIV Corps was to retreat in the direction of Bonn.
To von Zangen and all other German commanders in the area, further attempts to hold ground to the west of the Rhine were clearly wrong. The only hope, they believed, lay in a quick withdrawal to save as much strength as possible to fight on the eastern bank as the Americans tried to cross the Rhine river. In this capacity the LXXIV Corps may be taken as a typical case: what was left of the corps was incapable of a real fight for even such an important objective as Euskirchen, a road centre which was yielded on 4 March, after only very light resistance, to Combat Command A of the 9th Armored Division. The Germans could now only rarely mount counterattacks in more than company strength, and then generally without artillery support. Furthermore, the LXXIV Corps was split as continued advances by the 78th Division on the southern wing of the III Corps drove the 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision back onto the neighbouring LXVII Corps. The split had become irreparable on 3 March when the 2nd Division of the V Corps crossed the 78th Division’s Roer river bridges and headed to the south through the Eifel in the direction of Germünd at the head of the Roer river reservoir system.
The US formation boundary adjustments continued on 5 March when Hodges made the change that allowed the 8th Division of the VII Corps to drive to the Rhine river in the area to the south of Köln. Later the same evening Hodges also adjusted the boundary between the III and V Corps, turning this boundary distinctly to the south-east to a point on the Ahr river upstream of Ahrweiler, thereby providing the III Corps with more than 10 miles (16 km) of front on the Ahr river. These two moves eliminated any lingering misconception about the importance Bradley and Hodges attached to crossing the Ahr river. Early in the next day, Millikin shifted all his divisional objectives to the south-east: the 1st Division to Bonn, the 9th Division to Bad Godesberg, the 9th Armored Division to Remagen and the Ahr between Sinzig and Bad Neuenahr, and the 78th Division to Ahrweiler.
The formation which was to meet the 1st Army’s formations along the Ahr was the 3rd Army. This had started the operation late in February and the first days of March with ‘probing attacks’ which resulted in the capture of Trier and advanced the VIII Corps to the Prüm river and the XII Corps to the Kyll river. The options which Patton now in theory had were whether to turn to the south-east and envelop the Saar industrial area, or to head through the Eifel to the Rhine river.
But Bradley had already made the decision for him: the 3rd Army’s objective was the Rhine river. On the assumption that this job would be achieved in short order, Patton planned a secondary attack to set the stage for the subsequent clearance of the Saar area. To Major General Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps, Patton assigned a narrow one-division zone north of the Mosel river running from the Kyll river to one of the large northward loops of the Mosel river, some 36 miles (58 km) downstream of Trier. The zone enclosed a shallow depression lying between the high ground of the Moselberge, which extends parallel with the Mosel, and the main Eifel massif. Clearing it would provide access to the transverse valley leading to the Mosel river at Bernkastel and thence into the heart of the Saar. To Bradley’s protest that the 3rd Army would become too thinly spread and therefore incapable of making a concerted drive to the Rhine river, Patton replied that the terrain and the road network in the Eifel in any case permitted a concentrated drive by no more than two divisions.
The VIII and XII Corps faced the Hohe Eifel, which was a region even more rugged in places than the western reaches of the Eifel which the corps had already defeated. There, in an effort to overcome the broken ground, the limited roads generally follow the low ground along the river valleys, somehow eventually ending up at the Ahr, Rhine and Mosel rivers. In this type of terrain, if it was to hope to keep pace with the 1st Army on the open Köln plain, the 3rd Army would have to work on the basis of considerable daring.
When the 3rd Army’s long-term air support arm, Brigadier General Otto P. Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Command, reported that the Germans were already revealing signs of a withdrawal and would probably limit themselves to blocking positions along the roads, Patton was well satisfied. He ordered that once the VIII and XII Corps had established bridgeheads over the Kyll river, an armoured division of each corps was to thrust rapidly to the north-east along the better roads without regard to the wooded heights between these roads. Artillery and tactical warplanes were to take care of any German resistance located on the high ground until motorised infantry could follow to secure the gains.
Since Bradley’s ‘Lumberjack’ plan had allocated the primary responsibility for linking the 1st and 3rd Armies along the Ahr river to the former, Patton was free to think primarily in terms of reaching the Rhine river. He directed Middleton’s VIII Corps to gain the river around Brohl, mid-way between the Ahr river and the Rhine river town of Andernach, while Eddy’s XII Corps approached the river at Andernach. When Patton’s orders were issued, the VIII Corps stood generally along the Prüm river, still some 10 miles (16 km) short of the Kyll river. As a corollary to successful clearing of the Vianden bulge, the 6th Cavalry Group and Major General Robert W. Grow’s 6th Armored Division had made substantial advances beyond the Prüm river, but they were in the south of the corps zone and thus comparatively distant from the main roads leading to the Rhine river at Brohl and, moreover, the 6th Armored Division was earmarked for early transfer to the SHAEF reserve. Thus Middleton ordered Brigadier General Harold W. Blakely’s 4th Division, at Prüm, to enlarge its bridgehead over the Prüm river, opening the way for Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn’s 11th Armored Division to pass through it and attack directly to the east in an effort to jump the Kyll river before striking out to the north-east and so reach the Rhine river. The 4th Division was to follow and mop up, Brigadier General Frank L. Culin’s 87th Division was to protect the northern flank, and Brigadier General Herbert L. Earnest’s 90th Division, taking the place of the 6th Armored Division, was to advance on the southern wing.
With units of the XII Corps already up to the Kyll river, Eddy allocated the task of establishing the required bridgehead to Major General S. LeRoy Irwin’s 5th Division. Then Major General Hugh J. Gaffey’s 4th Armored Division was to pass through and push through on a north-easterly axis to Andernach. The 5th Division and Major General Horace L. McBride’s 80th Division were to follow, while Major General William R. Schmidt’s 76th Division protected the right flank.
On the German side, the clearly imminent offensive of the 3rd Army was viewed with considerably more than just anxiety as the February attacks in the Eifel had already inflicted very major damage on the 7th Army, and the question of how long this formation could hold its position in the Eifel depended entirely on how soon and how vigorously the US forces attacked. A breakthrough across the Kyll river could prove fatal, not only to the 7th Army but to the LXVI and LXVII Corps constituting the centre and southern wing of the 15th Army, and also to the whole of General Hermann Förtsch’s 1st Army, which was the northern wing of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s Heeresgruppe ‘G’. In the event that the 1st and 3rd Armies were able to effect a swift junction along the western bank of the Rhine river, the two corps of the 15th Army would be encircled, and in the same process the 3rd Army’s clearance of the northern bank of the Mosel river would expose from the rear the ‘Westwall’ defences in the Saar, still held by the 1st Army.
A partial solution, as Felber of the 7th Army perceived, was for his army to pull back from the Eifel and protect the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘G’ by defending the line of the Mosel river. However, in view of Hitler’s continuing orders not to withdraw, no one higher up the German chain of command took Felber’s proposal seriously. The only change made was the 2 March transfer of the 7th Army from Heeresgruppe ‘B’ to Heeresgruppe ‘G’. By vesting control in the army group headquarters which had most to lose should the 7th Army collapse, the change suggested some strengthening of the 7th Army by Heeresgruppe ‘G’, but in reality the change merely shifted from one army group headquarters to another the unhappy responsibility for the continued torment of the 7th Army. From the confluence of Kyll and Mosel rivers near Trier to a point near Prüm, the 7th Army had a front of some 35 miles (56 km). The most seriously threatened sector, Felber believed, was that in the centre opposite Bitburg, for here the opposition was the 4th Armored Division, a formation which had fully earned the respect of its German opposition. Felber therefore shifted to this sector the headquarters of the Generalleutnant Ralph Graf d’Orilia’s (from a time in March Generalleutnant Max Bork’s) XIII Corps on the premise that d’Orilia, only recently arrived at the front, would be steadier in command of the LIII Corps during the forthcoming crisis than von Rothkirch und Trach, who for weeks had seen the steady destruction of his formation.
Thus the new disposition of German corps, from north to south, was the LIII Corps near Prüm, the XIII Corps opposite Bitburg, and General Dr Franz Beyer’s LXXX Corps between Bitburg and the Mosel river. The 7th Army’s order of battle comprised a nominal 10 divisions, but only two of these, the remnants of Generalmajor Meinrad von Lauchert’s 2nd Panzerdivision to the east of Bitburg and Oberst Peter Körte’s 246th Volksgrenadierdivision hurried from what was now the 15th Army’s sector too late to save Bitburg, could contribute anything more than a small Kampfgruppe. Both divisions were to remain with the XIII Corps in keeping with the German belief that the 3rd Army’s main thrust would be made there with the 4th Armored Division. Because the attack by the VIII Corps would spill over the 7th Army’s northern boundary against the extreme southern wing of the 15th Army, another division with some creditable fighting power remaining to it, Generalmajor Sebastian Ludwig Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjägerdivision of General Walther Lucht’s LXVI Corps, would also be involved. Neither the 7th Army nor the 15th Army possessed any reserves, although the 7th Army did have a separate tank battalion with some 10 to 15 PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks. Felber wished to sent this battalion to his centre opposite Bitburg, but his headquarters was still searching for sufficient fuel to move the tanks from a field repair shop in the sector of the LIII Corps when the US offensive was launched.
Because of its task of getting from the Prüm river to the Kyll river, the VIII Corps was the first to attack. Indeed, since the southern wing of the corps had not stopped its attack after clearing the Vianden bulge and since the XX Corps and the 76th Division of the XII Corps were still engaged in the last stages of Trier’s capture even as March started, there was no real pause between the February probing attacks and the March offensive. The 4th Division, tasked with the enlargement of its small bridgehead over the Prüm river before the 11th Armored Division passed through it, found its effort difficult as a result largely of a defence centred on the 5th Fallschirmjägerdivision. Afforded a measure of respite since the US drive on Prüm had become bogged down on 10 February, the Germans were in the position to mount their defence in well-organised positions in which unusually large numbers of machine guns had been installed. So determined was the resistance that at one point Middleton pushed back the time of the armoured exploitation by one day, although subsequent gains persuaded him to reinstate the original schedule.
The Germans’ sturdy resistance was not limited just to the sector of the 4th Division. Protecting the corps’ left flank by reducing the ‘Westwall’ defences on the Schnee Eifel ridge, the 87th Division found that the fortifications were still moderately effective. Passing through the infantry shortly after 12.00 on 3 March, Combat Command B of the 11th Armored Division attacked to seize crossings of the Kyll river in a large bend to the north of Gerolstein, some 11 miles (17.75 km) to the north-east of Prüm.
Delayed by a measure of confusion, the US armour did not advance as much as 2 miles (3.2 km) during the operation’s first afternoon. Even so, it was clear that the Germans could muster no real strength short of the Kyll river once the US armour got into its stride. By a time late in the afternoon of 4 March, the men of Combat Command B were overlooking the Kyll river from heights 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south-west of Gerolstein, but patrols sent down to the river were taken under concentrated small arms fire from both the eastern bank and high ground in the bend of the river. An unexpectedly great volume of anti-tank and artillery fire also fell on the US forces from the eastern bank. Having followed the path of least resistance, the US armour had come up to the Kyll to the south of its intended crossing site, at a point where troops trying to cross would be exposed to fire not only from dominating ground beyond the river but from the large bend as well. Impressed by the terrain and the volume of German fire, and apparently reluctant to risk involving the armour in what could be a lengthy river-crossing operation, Kilburn requested infantry help for his 11th Armored Division, suggesting that while the 4th Division cleared the high ground in the bend of the Kyll river, his Combat Command B might swing to the north and cross the river to the north of the bend.
Middleton signalled his approval, but the manoeuvre took time, particularly as the determined German defence, again found primarily by the 5th Fallschirmjägerdivision, kept one regiment of the 4th Division out of the bend in the river through much of 5 March. By 6 March, the fourth day after passing through the 4th Division, Combat Command B finally managed to get some troops across the Kyll river, but these comprised only armoured infantry supported by a few tanks and tank destroyers which managed to cross by a ford before the river bed gave way. Even with a foothold already established on the eastern bank, Kilburn remained reluctant to commit his armour to the river-crossing operation. Again he prevailed on Middleton for permission to use elements of the 4th Division. Only after the infantry had expanded the foothold gained by Combat Command B were the tanks and tank destroyers able to renew the drive toward the Rhine river.
While the armour dallied, more ambitious formations elsewhere in the VIII Corps rapidly forced a revision of the basic plan for the crossing of the Kyll river. Assigned to protect the corps’ left flank, the 87th Division proceeded once step further than this, overtook the armoured spearhead, and jumped the Kyll river just after 12.00 on 6 March by means of a bridge it captured before the Germans had blown it. The 90th Division, committed during 2 March on the corps’ southern wing to relieve the 6th Armored Division, achieved an even more striking advance. At the point on the Kyll river to the south-west of Gerolstein which Kilburn had earlier rejected as a crossing site, a task force organised around the divisional reconnaissance troop and two attached medium tank companies jumped the river before daylight on 6 March. At the same time, men of the 359th Infantry crossed a few hundred yards farther to the south. By a time late in the afternoon, elements of the 90th Division had taken Gerolstein and established a bridgehead some 2.5 miles (4 km) wide and more than 1.5 miles (2.4 km) deep.
Early in the evening Middleton ordered Kilburn to alert his Combat Command A to cross the Kyll river through the 90th Division’s bridgehead; ultimately Combat Command B backtracked and also used the 90th Division’s crossing site. Just before daylight on 7 March, the 90th Division’s engineers, who had worked through the night with the aid of searchlights, completed a Bailey bridge over the Kyll river, and in the middle of the morning Combat Command A started to cross. The 11th Armored Division was at last able to get started in earnest on an exploitation that was to have proceeded without interruption from a start five days earlier.
Yet Kilburn’s units would have to hurry if again they were not to be overtaken by events precipitated by more audacious units, for to the south, opposite Bitburg, the XII Corps had struck a decisive blow. Well versed in the techniques of river crossing, the 5th Division sent patrols across the Kyll river before daylight on 3 March, then threw footbridges across the river to permit most of two battalions to cross near Metterich, due east of Bitburg. Fanning out to the high ground, the infantry cleared Metterich before the fall of night even as the divisional engineers started to erect in a vehicle bridge, which was completed before the break of day on 4 March. Except against the crossings themselves, the Germans reacted strongly, at one point launching a determined counterattack supported by three tanks, apparently of the 2nd Panzerdivision, but without success. By the fall of night on 4 March the bridgehead was ready for exploitation.
It was only a question of when Patton opted to launch the 4th Armored Division. The only real concern of Patton, Eddy and Gaffey, the armoured division’s commander, was the weather as several days of alternating rain and rapidly melting snow, night-time freeze and day-time thaw, had already crippled the generally poor roads of the Eifel, and continued rain could become a severe hindrance to the plan for the armour to drive boldly forward on the existing roads, leaving the ground between the roads to be controlled by air and artillery power. Yet weather alone was deemed an insufficient reason to delay the exploitation, and the armour was warned to move at the break of day on 5 March.
Gaffey’s orders were explicit: passing through the 5th Division’s bridgehead, two combat commands were to drive to the north for a distance of some 8 miles (13 km) along parallel roads in the rear of the Germans’ Kyll river defences and then, after cutting the lines of communication immediately to the rear of much of the XIII Corps and part of the LIII Corps, were to wheel to the north-east near the village of Oberstadtfeld, some 5.5 miles (8.9 km) to the south-east of Gerolstein and make for the Rhine river near Andernach, where they were to seize any bridges which were still intact.
With Combat Command B in the lead, the two combat commands began to drive forward as rapidly as they could manage. As the tanks approached the first village to the north of the 5th Division’s front, German artillery and rocket fire descended round them, but they nonetheless pressed ahead. Although tactical air support was impossible in the prevailing conditions of rain, snow flurries and overcast, the US armoured units increased the speed of their advance. In one day the armoured units of Combat Command B broke through the northern wing of the XIII Corps, plunged deep into the southern wing of the LIII Corps, and took more than 1,000 prisoners. The fighting at the end of the day at Weidenbach resulted from a desperate effort by von Rothkirch und Trach to delay the advance with the only reserve he could assemble, one Nebelwerfer brigade. Draining the last drops of fuel from command cars and other vehicles, von Rothkirch und Trach also managed to send toward Weidenbach a few of the Tiger tanks that had been under repair, but these failed to arrive during the night and were lost in the next day’s fighting. von Rothkirch und Trach also ordered Oberst Theodor Tolsdorf’s 340th Volksgrenadierdivision, holding positions along the Kyll river to the west of the US breakthrough, to pull back during the night along a secondary road still open to the north of Weidenbach.
Believing that the Americans would halt their operations during the night, von Rothkirch und Trach intended the 340th Volksgrenadierdivision to establish a blocking position at Oberstadtfeld, but hours before dawn on 6 March the US combat command was on the move again. The tanks entered Oberstadtfeld long before the men of the 340th Volksgrenadierdivision arrived, forcing the Germans to abandon all vehicles and artillery and to try to escape by infiltrating their way to the north-east across the tail of the US column.
Unlike Combat Command B, Combat Command A of the 4th Armored Division found the going slow on 5 March, primarily because it had been relegated to secondary roads farther to the east. Boggy from the alternating freeze and thaw process, the roads and a demolished bridge over a small river at the village of Oberkail limited the day’s advance to a few miles. Hardly had the men of Combat Command A warmed the engines of their vehicles on the morning of 6 March than continuing reports of rapid gains by Combat Command B prompted Gaffey to order Combat Command A to follow in the other combat command’s wake on the main road, leaving the secondary roads to the 5th Division. This latter was now experiencing major difficulties not so much from any German effort but traffic delays on narrow, poorly surfaced and winding roads. Until all the 4th Armored Division’s vehicles had cleared the bridgehead, the armour had priority; yet the infantrymen also were under orders to move swiftly lest the armour get too far beyond the reach of infantry support. With great distances hampering radio communications and the roads too congested for motor messengers, orders to forward units of the 5th Division had to be dropped from liaison aircraft.
The weather on 6 March was once more so adverse, with rain and fog, that tactical warplanes could again provide no support. But the US armour scarcely needed it, for the Germans were in a state of confusion. Even though the armoured units did little more than clear the Germans from the road and its shoulders, the US forces found that their concern, before the launch of the operation, that the Germans might continue to defend from the woods and adjacent high ground, did not materialise, and large numbers of German troops in fact poured down from the hills and part of the woods and villages to surrender. At one point, so many surrendering Germans were massed round a column of tanks of the 37th Tank Battalion that von Rothkirch und Trach, driving past in his command car, assumed it was a German formation and was captured.
Monitoring the US radio net, German intelligence quickly learned of von Rothkirch und Trach’s capture and the extent of the penetration achieved by Combat Command B. Apparently with approval of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, Model tacitly acknowledged the fact that the LIII Corps had been cut off from the rest of the 7th Army by subordinating the corps to the 15th Army, whose LXVI Corps and LXVII Corps still held portions of the ‘Westwall’ opposite the V Corps. Model also ordered forward a new commander for the LIII Corps, Generalmajor Walther Botsch, who earlier had been charged with preparing defences of a bridgehead to be held on the western bank of the Rhine river between Bonn and Remagen. Even though formations of the 1st Army were fast approaching both of those towns, Model considered the need for a new commander for the LIII Corps that he refused to allow Botsch to wait long enough to brief his successor on the situation at Bonn and Remagen.
From that point onward, no German commander can have retained any real hope for the continued defence of Germany to the west of the Rhine river either by the LIII Corps or by the other two corps of the 15th Army still in the Eifel, namely Lucht’s LXVI Corps and Hitzfeld’s LXVII Corps. The three corps were clearly in imminent danger of encirclement. It was without question now a matter of trying to save whoever and whatever to help defend the line of the Rhine river, but because of Hitler’s control of every command level, no commander was prepared to authorise any withdrawal. Botsch, the other corps commanders, von Zangen at the 15th Army, and Model at Heeresgruppe ‘B’ all focused on the issue of defence, assembly and counterattack orders that bore no relationship to the real situation in the Eifel. In the process, each protested to his next higher commander the idiocy of it all. Model ordered the 11th Panzerdivision, or rather what was left of it after withdrawal from the triangle between the Erft and Rhine rivers to the north of Köln, to recross the Rhine river at Bonn and counterattack on a south-westerly axis toward Rheinbach to cut off spearheads of the 1st Army’s III Corps: this was palpably impossible, for the remnants of the Panzer division would be too late even to recross the Rhine river, much less plan and launch any counterattack.
Still convinced that the III Corps’ primary objective was Remagen rather than Bonn, von Zangen ordered Hitzfeld’s LXVII Corps to take under command the 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision, which already been driven back onto this corps by the southern wing of the III Corps’ attack. Hitzfeld was then to transfer his ‘Westwall’ defence tasks to Lucht’s LXVI Corps, and with the 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision and his own corps’ 89th Division and 277th Volksgrenadierdivision, led by Generalleutnant Walter Buns and Generalleutnant Albert Praun respectively, counterattack on 7 March into the flank of the III Corps to the south-east of Rheinbach to cut the ‘funnel’ leading to the Ahr river and Remagen. After making the usual protest that the project simply was not feasible, Hitzfeld went through the motions of readying his formations for the ordained counterattack. Already the corps was in a somewhat better position to assemble than might have been expected, for as early as 3 March the 89th Division and 277th Volksgrenadierdivision had begun limited withdrawals from the ‘Westwall’ positions in the vicinity of the Roer river reservoirs. By 6 March the two divisions were some 5 miles (8 km) to the rear of their original lines, almost out of contact with the Americans except on the right wing where Brigadier General Eugene L. Harrison’s 2nd Division of Huebner’s V Corps had joined the general offensive. Even so, it was impossible for Hitzfeld to assemble a force suitable for the counterattack against the continuing advances of the III Corps in the north and the north-eastward thrusts of the VIII Corps. About all Hitzfeld accomplished in that direction was further disruption of road movement already choked by columns of retreating German troops, and the exposure of the northern flank of the LXVI Corps.
Continued adverse weather was the only thing which prevented Allied warplanes from turning the entire situation to utter chaos. The position of Lucht’s LXVI Corps, still holding some ‘Westwall’ positions astride the Weisserstein watershed, was most perilous of all. Already the southern wing of the corps had been forced back by the VIII Corps’ drive to the Kyll river to the north-east of Prüm. With the northern flank exposed by Hitzfeld’s withdrawal, Lucht’s divisions were now in serious trouble, a fact underscored early on 6 March when Huebner started to widen the thrust of his V Corps, up to this time limited to the 2nd Division on his northern wing, by sending Major General Emil F. Reinhardt’s 69th Division to the east in the centre of his zone.
It would be driven home with even greater emphasis the next day when the 28th and 106th Divisions, commanded by Major General Norman D. Cota and Brigadier General Francis A. Woolfly respectively, also joined the attack. While a regiment of the 2nd Division plunged forward 10 miles (16 km) and took an intact bridge over the Ahr river, a column of the 28th Division overran Lucht’s command post, bagging most of the corps headquarters, including the chief-of-staff. Lucht himself escaped because he was away at the time.
When Botsch arrived to assume command of the LIII Corps, he discovered that he had almost no combat troops under command. Such as there were, namely the minuscule remnants of Generalmajor Erwin Kaschner’s 326th Volksgrenadierdivision and Tolsdorf’s 340th Volksgrenadierdivision, the corps' chief-of-staff, Oberst Siebert, had organised into Kampfgruppen and allocated the only task that was feasible, the harassment of US columns as best they could.
During 6 March, Combat Command B of the 4th Armored Division advanced another 13.5 miles (21.75 km), which was about half the distance between the jump-off on the Kyll river and the Rhine river near Andernach, then wheeled to the north-east off the main road in the direction of the communications nexus at Mayen, which added another 5 miles (8 km) to the day’s progress before Combat Command B stopped for the night because of crumbling roads. Other than a growing problem of handling hundreds of prisoners, the combat command had encountered no real difficulties right through this day except for an undefended roadblock that took about an hour to remove, and occasional fire from assault guns or isolated pieces of field artillery on the flanks.
Although Combat Command A attempted to diverge from the route of Combat Command B to force a second passage a few miles to the south, demolished bridges eventually forced that combat command to move to the north and advance in the wake of Combat Command B.
The infantry divisions of the XII Corps were meantime still finding it hard to progress with any momentum because of boggy roads, demolished bridges, heavy traffic, and sometimes determined resistance. Having turned to the north immediately after crossing the Kyll river, the armour had left the infantry to deal with Körte’s 246th Volksgrenadierdivision and von Lauchert’s 2nd Panzerdivision, upon which Felber had based his impossible hopes of stopping the US armoured thrust.
As night fell on 6 March, neither the 5th Division nor the 76th Division, the latter having crossed the Kyll river to the south-east of Bitburg, held bridgeheads more than a few miles deep. Matters would improve only slightly for the infantry divisions on 7 March. A German counterattack, launched before dawn, drove a battalion of the 5th Division from a village on the north-eastern edge of the bridgehead. Although real and disturbing to the men and commanders who had to overcome it, when considered against the backdrop of developments elsewhere in the Eifel on 7 March, this resistance was negligible and indeed pointless.
It was on this day that defences of the LXVI Corps and LXVII Corps in front of Huebner’s V Corps began to fall apart, and on the same day the 11th Armored Division of Middleton’s VIII Corps at last got across the Kyll river in strength at Gerolstein and advanced 11 miles (17.75 km). As night fell, the armour took the important crossroad village of Kelberg and, in the process, compelled Botsch and his headquarters troops to flee.
Even more spectacular and finally decisive was the advance on 7 March of the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command B. Backtracking several miles to get onto a better road and so avoid the crumbling roads which had stalled advance during the previous evening, Combat Command B attacked in early morning through rain and fog. Brushing aside indecisive resistance in the first village, the column paused on the fringe of the second, Kaisersesch, while a German-speaking soldier, using an amplifier, demanded surrender. A motley assortment of German troops meekly complied. Racing on, the armour of Combat Command B encountered no resistance for the next 5 miles (8 km) until it reached Kehrig. This time a demand for surrender drew more fire from Panzerfaust rocket-launchers and anti-tank guns, but an artillery concentration on the town brought a quick end to the German defence. From that point, the advance was little more than a road march with the men of Combat Command B signalling German soldiers to the rear to be taken prisoner. Here and there along the road clusters of impressed labourers of almost every European nation waved and cheered.
As night descended, the leading element of Combat Command B was on the reverse slope of the last high ground to the west of the Rhine river, only 3 miles (4.8 km) from this great watercourse, across from Neuwied just to the north of Koblenz. The drive to the Rhine river had been all but completed in slightly more than 60 hours, and in the process the 4th Armored Division had taken 5,000 prisoners, captured or destroyed a mass of German matériel including 34 tanks and assault guns, and killed or wounded 700 Germans. The division had itself lost only 29 men killed, 80 wounded and two missing. In the process, the armour had spread havoc through whatever cohesion still remained in the German defence to the west of the Rhine river and to the north of the Mosel river. Everywhere irregular columns of German troops on foot, interspersed with a confusion of motor and horse-drawn vehicles, struggled to reach the Rhine river in the hope of finding a barge, a ferry or even a bridge still standing. Other Germans gave themselves up by the hundreds, particularly in front of the V and VIII Corps, while still others attempted to slip behind the armoured spearheads and escape to the south across the Mosel river.
Yet for all the striking success of the drive, a chance to cap it with an even more spectacular achievement remained. Unknown to the personnel of the 4th Armored Division, a few miles upstream from the position of Combat Command B, halfway between Andernach and Koblenz, near the village of Urmitz, the Kronprinz Wilhelm railway bridge was still intact. Although the 4th Armored Division was under orders to seize any bridge over the Rhine river which was still standing, nobody had entertained any real expectation that this would be possible, and in line with Eisenhower’s plan for a major effort across the Rhine river by Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, the thoughts of the 3rd Army’s senior commanders were turning from the Rhine river to the Mosel river, which Patton hoped to cross in order to trap the Germans in the ‘Westwall’ between his formations and those of Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army of Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers’s Allied 6th Army Group farther to the south. Aerial reconnaissance had already confirmed that no bridge still stood across the Rhine in the 3rd Army’s zone.
In keeping with that report and to avoid exposing tanks and other vehicles to anti-tank fire from the eastern bank of the Rhine river and to the fire of stationary anti-aircraft guns ringing nearby Koblenz, the men and vehicles of the 4th Armored Division stopped short of the Rhine river itself and remained under cover on the reverse slope of the last high ground short of the river. The coming of daylight on 8 March provoked something of a mystery. From the high ground observers could see Germans retreating individually and in ragged columns toward what the maps showed to be a railway bridge near Urmitz. Because of haze and generally poor visibility, they were unable to make out a bridge, but presumably the Germans were moving there to make their way across the Rhine river. As the day wore on, some prisoners and civilians said the Germans had already destroyed several spans of the railway bridge while others reported that the bridge still stood.
Combat Command A had readied an attack to be launched before daylight on 9 March to drive to the bridge and seize it if it was still intact, when word came that Bradley had approved the 3rd Army’s turn to the south across the Mosel river. The 4th Armored Division was to change direction and try to seize a bridge over that river. Soon after daylight on 9 March, after Combat Command A had abandoned its plan to drive for the bridge at Urmitz, the Germans demolished it. Close investigation explained the conflicting reports the Americans had received. The Germans had earlier destroyed two spans of the railway bridge, but beneath the rails had suspended another tier for vehicle traffic. It was the makeshift bridge that they destroyed early on 9 March. Whether Combat Command A could have taken the bridge before the Germans blew it was problematical, for by that time the Germans had become extraordinarily wary of bridges falling into Allied hands.
That was because, just a few miles to the north in the zone of the III Corps, the 9th Armored Division, only recently reoriented to make its primary effort to seize crossings of the Ahr river, had found the 'Ludendorff' bridge across the Rhine river at Remagen to be damaged but still standing, and taken it. The 12th Army Group’s way into the heart of Germany now lay open.