By Captain Dick McCoy
There were three defensive fortifications that drew a lot of attention during WWII. The first of these was the Maginot Line, built by the French after WWI. It was a magnificent fortress stretching from the Alps all the way across the border of France and Germany, finally terminating in Belgium. The Belgians built a complimentary section that continued the defensive line against Germany but it was not as extensive as the French effort. Above ground the line was represented by a series of concrete and steel forts, fully manned by both cannon and lighter, automatic weapons. In places the Maginot was three stories deep. It had an extensive series of RR lines, hospitals, ammunition and storage bunkers and other essentials deemed necessary by the French high command. The line was never tested because the Germans bypassed it, sweeping to the North through the Ardennes region, as they had in 1914.
The second mighty fortification was completed last. It was the Atlantic Wall. Essentially this fortification came about through the efforts of Field Marshall Edwin Rommel, the Panzer genius who had commanded the Afrika Corps. After being driven out of Africa in 1943, Rommel was assigned responsibility for coordinating the defenses of the Atlantic seaboard, stretching from the English Channel to the Bay of Biscay. Rommelís defense concept, which was classic armor doctrine, was to build a series of strong points along the coast, creating forts where needed, maximizing beach obstacles to slow down the invader, and holding the bulk of his troops in reserve, ready to respond with overwhelming force when the location of the enemyís main effort was determined.
Fortunately for the Allies, der FŁhrer disapproved this concept and insisted on holding most of the reserve to meet anticipated attacks in the Pais de Calais area.
The third set of fortifications were those comprising the Seigfried Line - a massive construction of concrete forts along the border of France and Belgium, roughly opposite the Maginot line, but extending through the Ardennes further to the North. It was a perfect picture of German organization and engineering precision. Interlocking fields of fire were standard throughout. Defenses were located in depth. Tank obstacles (dragons teeth) of reinforced concrete and steel, effectively barred movement, while placing enemy armor in the range of concentrated anti-tank fire. Barbed wire served to impede the advance of the invading infantry, permitting the artillery to mass fires in the area of the attack. When the Allies dashed across France in August, they reached and penetrated the Seigfried defenses before the remnants of the Werhmacht could man the Western Wall.
Then the British began an ill-fated series of airborne attacks in Holland and Belgium, putting such a heavy demand on gasoline that Patton was forced to stop and go on the defensive while Monty displayed his generalship.
After the Bulge, the Allied armies began to move forward again in the direction of the Fatherland. During the month of February, while the 11th Armoredís tank battalions engaged in maintenance, the three Armored Infantry Battalions were employed under Reserve Combat Command (CCR), to penetrate the Western Wall .After each successful attack, the troops of the Armored Division were pulled out and other units moved through to exploit the success.
In early March, the Division was called upon a third time to effect a penetration of the Seigfried. Remembering their experience after the first two attacks, the troops were determined to get through and keep going when the break came. Shortly after the first of the month, orders came.
Breakthrough To the Rhine
Lt. Col Wray Sagaser, Commander of the 41st Tank Battalion, briefed his company commanders on the plan. We were to leave our assembly area, cross the Prum River and move into an attack area some six miles to the east. We moved out at 0730 the following day. (Due to the northern latitude and the time of the year, it was just about dawn when we began to move). We traveled about 25 miles in bitterly cold weather that moved in following an all night rain. Although we were prepared to cross the Prum River during the night, these plans depended on the success of the 4th Infantry Division in establishing a bridgehead first.
Word came down of determined enemy resistance and we were led to expect hard fighting. The tattered remnants of the 5th Parachute Division remained a rallying point for odds and ends of numerous Werhmacht units. It is amazing how a few good men can serve to steady the line and inspire other, less disciplined troops, leading them to fight rather than run. At any rate, the enemy had not given up.
The attack began against surprisingly light resistance. During the day, the task force made steady progress as it threaded its way through the densely wooded hills in the vicinity of Prum. We came up on a prominent piece of terrain overlooking Prum, and observed the city lying in ruins. Dead German troops, mute testimonials to the determined attack of the 4th Infantry, were strewn all over the terrain near the road.
The armored column made it way steadily east, maintaining a column of companies. The tank battalion had been reinforced with a company of armored infantry, a platoon of armored engineers, and a platoon of AAA. The 4th Division, whose tired infantry had made it all possible, was incredulous at the armored columnís speed of movement. A lieutenant from the 4th related how they had fought all day (the day before) and had made only some 400 yards toward their objective. Actually, the combination of an armored division working closely with a heavy infantry division was simply too much for the beleaguered defenders. The attack was a text book example of maintaining unrelenting pressure on an enemy that had been dislodged and defeated in the field.
The next day proved to be somewhat different. The task force reached the banks of the Kyll River in the vicinity of Ober-Bettingen. The bridges had been blown over the Kyll and although the river was not wide, its banks were very steep and the river itself was deep. It formed a barrier to the advancing tanks. The accompanying infantry were able to cross the river, but determined enemy resistance - small arms and mortar fire - denied the attacking troops ready access to the East bank of the river.
The call went out for the Engineers - but it developed they had no bridging. The bridging equipment was far back in the column. A winding road through hilly terrain and steep slopes, made it impossible to get the bridging up quickly and maintain the momentum of the attack. This oversight resulted in our Division commander, Brigadier General Charles Kilburn, losing his command and his star. General George Patton was ruthless in weeding out senior officers he considered incompetent. To Patton, failure to keep bridging well to the front in an armored advance, was prima facie evidence of incompetence. Notwithstanding General Kilburnís excellent results in the fighting around Bastogne and on to the hook-up with First Army at Houffalize, Patton decided to relieve him. He was replaced with Brigadier General Holmes Dager, a man who had served with Patton and who had proved his mettle with the 4th Armored Division. We were sorry to see General Kilburn go. He was a good commander, and we liked him.
For the best part of the afternoon, the tanks supported the attack, providing covering fire from positions on the west bank of the Kyll. Nevertheless, the infantry and the Engineers were not successful in establishing a working bridgehead. Night fell with a determined enemy still very much in evidence. [As I write this, bear it mind that the action I am describing took place 57 years ago]. I was there at the river bank most of the afternoon, keeping the CO advised of the action taking place in my sector while the company commanders gave their attention to the battle. We did not lose any tanks, because there were no enemy tanks in the area, nor were there any AT guns. The tanks could not get across the river, and they were unable to roll over the infantry in their accustomed manner. The east bank of the Kyll was flat and open. It was almost like a park. The moment a man showed himself, enemy troops spotted him and took him under fire with automatic weapons and mortars. It was a pretty deadly situation. We lost a number of men that afternoon - mostly infantry and engineers.
Dash to the Rhine
That night we experienced something strange, new and different. A detachment of troops equipped with huge searchlights pulled into the area and began to bounce light off the bottoms of the clouds that covered the sky. An eerie sort of light filled the area.
Artificial moonlight! One could certainly see more with it than without it. It was not like daytime, but it was light!
About the time we began to get accustomed to the strange light from the clouds, we went through our normal resupply. Gas, ammunition, and a hot meal. Who could ask for anything more? Our S4, Captain Nate Swerdlow, from Galveston, TX, was in charge of the battalion trains. He arranged for the resupply every night, just as soon as the cover of darkness made it feasible to bring up the 6x6 trucks with the supplies we needed. He did a great job - always. The kitchen crews from the various companies accompanied the supply trains and provided the hungry warriors with a hot meal.
A second thing happened that night that I will never forget. As I sat there on the river bank, after dark, wondering what the next day would bring, I tuned one of my radios to the command net. (I donít remember if it was the Combat Command net or the Battalion Command net - it made no difference). I heard someone say something to the effect, "Turn on your headlights and come down here to Check Point XX". You are to break off action immediately and cross the river, courtesy of the 90th Division. They have a bridgehead and they have a bridge!"
Now think about the situation. We had been fighting all afternoon. Very little progress. Had lost a number of troops to a determined enemy. First the artificial moonlight and now - turn on your headlights and cross the river - tonight!
We couldnít believe our ears but we soon decided we had better do exactly what we were told, whether it made sense or not. All along the banks of the Kyll, vehicles of all types turned on their headlights. Thousands of vehicles! Thousands of lights!
Enemy fire ceased. The enemy couldnít believe it either. But we pulled up stakes, formed a column on the highway, journeyed south about five or six miles and crossed the river. Once across, we did not occupy an assembly area. We encountered a third very strange thing. We found a section of the German Autobahn! We simply got on the autobahn, that night, and raced to the East with our immediate objective - the Rhine River which was 80 miles away.
Most of us had never seen a divided highway. I certainly never had. When we saw that magnificent highway, stretching away to the East - smooth road - very few obstacles. We put the pedal to the metal! I had a light tank powered with twin Cadillac engines. The manual said the tank would run 45-50 miles per hour. That night and the following day, we learned our M5 light tanks would do 65 mph! The M4 medium tanks would do about 30-35.
Although most of us did not know it, the 90th Infantry Division had been motorized and was closely following the 11th Armored. George Pattonís ability to employ armor and infantry divisions was enhanced by the superb staff work of Third Armyís headquarters.
The staff alone could not have achieved these results apart from Pattonís constant, personal presence at key sectors of the front . His firsthand knowledge of the situation gave him the confidence to deploy his major troop units in a masterful demonstration of generalship that the world has rarely been observed in any age.
Thousands of demoralized German soldiers from all branches of the Wehrmacht were captured during the swift advance to the Rhine. There was little opposition! Except for occasional blown highway overpasses and bridges, The Werhmacht was gone. We simply drove to the Rhine.
While we were sightseeing, several highly significant events had taken place. Up in the First US Army sector, elements of the 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 9th Armored Division had found a bridge across the Rhine - intact ! It was unbelievable! The troops dashed across the bridge, which was fully wired to be blown [destroyed]. The explosives were in place. Why the enemy did not blow the bridge, only the Lord knows. First Army got across the Rhine.
Patton was fit to be tied. Hence the order for the 11th to drive hell-bent for the Rhine. Lights on! Donít stop! By pass and haul ass!" We got to the west bank of the Rhine 24 hours after First Army crossed.
Montgomery, who had planned to be the first across the Rhine, was still "swarming," collecting his troops for a grand, cross Rhine assault. It would be several weeks before Monty could have made it. He was fuming. Couldnít stand the Americans for their cheeky attitude, and he despised Patton. Nevertheless, the Americans were across!
We came to a stop in a little village named Burgbrohl. It was a quiet little village on the west bank of the Rhine, not too far from the famous river. We enjoyed a couple of days rest. Then came new orders.
Crossing the Moselle
Frustrated by his inability to get across the Rhine and continue his run for Berlin, Patton turned his attention to Third Armyís South flank. The Moselle River formed a natural boundary stretching diagonally from the Vosges mountains northeast to the Rhine. The US Seventh Army, under General Alexander Patch, was moving out of the Vosges into the plain that stretched away to the east and the Rhine. Third Army deployed the VIII, XII and XX Corps in a sweep across the Moselle to the Rhine. The 4th , 10th, 11th, and 12th Armored Divisions, and the 4th (?), 5th , 76th, 89th and 90th Infantry Divisions were among a total of five Armored and ten Infantry Divisions used in the Moselle operation. Like a door hinged on the left flank, the Third Army launched its hinged attack across the Moselle toward the Rhine. Opposition was light.
The infantry divisions secured bridgeheads across the Moselle and the armor passed through; the infantry then followed , mopping up as the advance moved along.
At some point along the way, while Task Force Sagaser was in column formation, and the advance guard was giving its attention to an enemy road block of some description. I was sitting on the turret ring of my light tank , approximately a half mile from the point of action. Without warning, one lone enemy mortar round came in and exploded in the dirt next to my tank. I was hit by a piece of shrapnel from the exploded round. The round penetrated my right abdominal wall and the war was over for me.
After that, it was a matter of being evacuated to a field hospital, a trip that took several hours. Sometime during the next 12 hours, I was operated upon, sewn up, and pronounced fit. The only problem was that I had to recover from the surgery. I was flown to a general hospital in England where I was a recovering patient on May 8th, when the war officially ended.