Death in the West: The Battle of the Ruhr Pocket

A powerful coalition defeated the Wehrmacht in World War II, particularly on the Western Front. Occasionally, however, the fighting boiled down to a one-on-one affair—and so it was in the Ruhr in 1945.

Let us begin by comparing the character arc of the two adversaries. The German Wehrmacht had dominated the fighting early in the war by rewriting the book on mechanized operations, but it had gone downhill ever since. By 1945, losses were soaring, replacements weren’t keeping up, and second-rate Volksgrenadier and third-rate Volkssturm formations formed an increasing percentage of the order of battle. Indeed, the Wehrmacht wouldn’t have been in the field at all were it not for non-German foreigners. They ran the gamut: entire allied field armies (Romanians, Hungarians, Italians, and Finns); smaller volunteer “legions” recruited from the occupied countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Baltic states) or from enemy POWs (many of the Soviet Union’s Baltic and Caucasian peoples, for example, Armenians and Georgians, Azeris and Turkmen); and finally the Hiltswilligen or Hiwis, hundreds of thousands of Soviet auxiliary volunteers who formed and manned much of the Wehrmacht’s logistical network. German weapons—Tiger tanks and Me-262 jet aircraft—might be quite advanced, but the men at the front rarely saw enough of them to make a difference. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, appointed German supreme commander in the west (OB-West) in March 1945, once complained that leading German armies this late in the war was like “being a pianist asked to play a Beethoven sonata before a large audience on an old, rickety, out of tune piano,” and for all the self-serving and self-exculpatory pathos, he was telling the truth.

The US Army, by contrast, joined the war late and stumbled in its debuts in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. That last campaign, in particular, exposed grave weaknesses in command, maneuver, and combined arms. It had come of age during the great campaign of 1944, which was based around a cadre of hard-hitting and aggressive corps commanders. By 1945, the Americans were as seasoned and professional as anyone in the field. Their material support—weapons, fuel, ammunition, food—was lavish, and US officials liked to brag that the GI was “the best-paid and best-fed soldier” of all time. Bristling with modern equipment and vehicles—tanks, halftracks, self-propelled artillery—the US Army was the most mobile in history—and one of the most lethal. If an American unit found a seam in enemy defenses, it could slash through like lightning, and once in contact it could hurl more brute firepower than any force in history. The amount of artillery the Americans rained down on their enemies never ceased to shock the Germans, who had to be more selective about what they obliterated. Finally, US commanders had a truly Olympian weapon upon which they could call: wave after wave of fighters and fighter-bombers like the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang. US airpower made it nearly impossible for the Germans to move by day. In March, all these advantages came together in the greatest American victory of World War II. The battle of the Ruhr Pocket has never won the attention it deserves, but it was something rare in military history. World War II was messy and unpredictable, and plans rarely worked out in the way the generals had conceived them. In the Ruhr, however, the US Army lived the dream: establishing full-spectrum dominance to win a decisive victory at minimal cost.

The Western Allies were a bit slow off the mark in 1945. The supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had a huge force under his command, some 5 million men in three army groups: 21st in the north, consisting of British, Canadian, and US forces under Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery; the all-American 12th in the center under General Omar Bradley; and 6th in the south, with US and French forces under General Jacob L. Devers. But January saw the Allies still trying to shake off the after-effects of the great German offensive in the Ardennes Forest—the Battle of the Bulge. Even after they righted themselves and resumed the advance, the going was slow, with a month of gritty fighting needed to clear the densely populated Rhineland and close up to the great river itself. Allied armies were still 300 miles from Berlin, however, and final victory seemed a long way off.

The Rhine was a serious obstacle. River-crossing operations are highly complex by nature, requiring careful planning, tight cooperation between infantry, engineers, and artillery, and time to prepare. But in one of the war’s most dramatic moments, the looming barrier suddenly vanished. As General John W. Leonard’s 9th Armored Division (a component of US III Corps under General John Milliken, part of General Courtney Hodges’s 1st Army) approached the Rhine at Remagen on March 7, the Americans were astonished to see that the Ludendorff Bridge over the river was still standing. American tanks rushed it just as the Germans set off explosives. The bridge lifted off its foundations, then settled back down again—intact. Suddenly and incredibly, the Allies were over the Rhine. “Hot dog, Courtney!” Bradley responded when Hodges told him the news. “This will bust him wide open.” Within the hour, Hodges was pushing every man and vehicle he could across the bridge, forming a powerful bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Rhine.

The Germans’ loss of the bridge at Remagen is one of the most famous episodes of the war, a seemingly miraculous piece of good luck for the enemy. But a closer inspection tells a different story. Like all the Rhine bridges, Remagen had its own dedicated defensive force, a special staff under General Joachim von Kortzfleisch and a small mixed forced of infantry and engineers. Their primary task was to defend the bridge or, failing that, to destroy it. But the Rhine was still a rear area at this point in the war. Instead of sheltering behind the mighty river, German armies in the west were fighting well in front of it, defending themselves along smaller watercourses like the Roer and the Ahr. Even the smallest tactical retreat required permission from the top, and no one was allowed to prepare rear-area defensive works on the fighting bank of the Rhine. A general retreat across the Rhine—an operation involving millions of soldiers and tens of thousands of vehicles—required just as much planning as an assault across it. It was a strategic redeployment of the first order, not a minor tactical maneuver to be improvised in a day or two.

And therein lay the problem. Ordered to defend every last village west of the Rhine, the German army was dug in, flatfooted, and no longer capable of maneuver. All it would take was for one those highly mobile, fully motorized Allied armies to crack open a seam and it would be full speed ahead to the Rhine. That had been the US 9th Armored Division. And once the 9th arrived in front of Remagen, it found not a prepared defensive position but merely a river—plus a great deal of confusion on the far side as the Germans frantically tried to improvise their defenses or blow the bridge. But given the speed of the US advance, it is not surprising that they found a big bridge rigged with an insufficient explosive charge, with wiring that probably could have used a few more days to install and test. So the Allies had gotten lucky, certainly. But if it hadn’t happened at Remagen, it might well have happened somewhere else.

Nevertheless, the loss of the bridge at Remagen led to a furious reaction from Hitler—and not just from Hitler. The final year of the war was a time in which a soldier of the Wehrmacht might be executed for any number of activities under the general heading of “cowardice” (Feigheit) or “criminal neglect of duty” (Dienstpflichtverletzung). After receiving a preliminary report, the Führer ordered the arrest of four officers involved in the action: Majors Hans Scheller, Herbert Strobel, and August Kraft, as well as Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Peters. Certainly none of the four had acted particularly heroically. Scheller, for example, was the officer in charge at the bridge on March 7. He reacted slowly to the onrush of the Americans, failed to hold them up on the western bank as originally planned, and was sheltering in a nearby tunnel rather than supervising on site while engineers under his command tried to blow the bridge. That was enough for Hitler to dispatch a “flying tribunal” (fliegendes Standgericht), essentially a drumhead courtmartial, to Remagen. Field Marshal Walter Model of Army Group B, the field commander most directly concerned with the affair, now intervened, however. He did so not to save the lives of his men, as one might expect, but rather to try the accused himself—and to order their execution. The trials took place on March 13–14 in Model’s presence, without benefit of attorney or ever a stenographer, and Model had all four men shot on March 14.

Getting over the Rhine allowed the US Army to reopen mobile operations. Blocking the American path was Model’s Army Group B, with 5th Panzer Army on his right and 15th Army on the left. The 5th Panzer was defending the Ruhr, one of the Reich’s last remaining heavy industrial centers, home to the massive Krupp Steel Works at Essen, while 15th Army was hastily redeploying against the expanding US bridgehead at Remagen. For all the troubles the Germans were having by this point in the war, those two armies were still strong enough to cause trouble—and mass casualties—to any attacker foolish enough to launch a frontal assault. Seizing the Ruhr and striking a blow at German heavy industry had been part of the Allied operational plan even before D-Day. But fighting through the Ruhr—with all its cities, factories, and millions of civilians—had real bloodbath potential and could easily turn into a super-Stalingrad, an urban battle on an unimaginable scale. For that very reason, Eisenhower’s plan had always been to encircle German forces in the Ruhr, not blast through them frontally. Often maligned as a somewhat dull, broad-front strategist—keeping all his armies moving forward in lockstep—Ike could spot a battlefield opportunity—and he got one at Remagen.

His operational plan called for a classic pincer maneuver by two armies. Hodges’s 1st Army would break out of the Remagen bridgehead and drive east. Meanwhile, 90 miles north, US 9th Army under General Walter H. Simpson would cross the Rhine at Wesel, part of Montgomery’s multiarmy crossing operation code-named Operation Plunder. Once over the river, the 9th, too, would motor east. Essentially, the Americans would have one army on the Ruhr’s northern flank and another on its southern. At this point, both armies would wheel inward, turn toward one another, and link up behind German Army Group B to encircle and destroy it. The plan was risky, since the two US armies would be out of contact with one another as they came forward. It relied on surprise, speed, and the immobility of German forces due to fuel shortages and Allied air attacks. Speed was essential. No one in the world was better than Model at stamping a reserve force out of nothing and whipping together a fighting force out of infantry replacements, march battalions, and rear-area clerks. If he managed to do so now, he could make a great deal of trouble for Hodges and Simpson.

Every plan has its risks, however, and the Allies had calculated this one expertly. Allied intelligence had drawn a remarkably detailed and accurate portrait of the German defenders by now. In the south, Hodges would target German LXVII Corps under General Otto-Maximilian Hitzfeld, holding the left (southern) flank of the 15th Army. Hitzfeld had been through hard fighting in the Rhineland, then had been the corps commander responsible for losing Remagen. His corps was understrength, undersupplied, and especially underfueled and had largely ceased daily reconnaissance patrols—a sure sign that élan was ebbing. In the north, however, 9th Army was certain to move more slowly. Hodges was coming out of a bridgehead over the Rhine, but Simpson’s forces were not yet over the river, and he was serving under Montgomery, a congenitally cautious commander who liked to line things up and take his time. Moreover, the terrain east of Wesel was marshy and wooded, and reconnaissance flights had just identified a German Panzer division (the 116th under General Siegfried von Waldenburg) in reserve in this sector. Indeed, Montgomery had already decided to expand his crossing operation to include a two-division airborne drop, Operation Varsity, to disrupt the defenses and keep German mobile reserves from getting to the front.

Montgomery launched Operation Plunder (now Plunder-Varsity) on March 23, kicking things off with a massive, 4-hour, 4,000-gun artillery barrage, followed by airborne drops by British 6th and US 17th Airborne Divisions. Although the parachute troops took heavy casualties, the crossing forces got over the Rhine against weak resistance and formed a bridgehead on the far bank. Simpson’s US 9th Army now prepared for a breakout offensive to the east, with 8th Armored and 2nd Armored Divisions probing for weak spots in the German line. As predicted, the going was slow, and 9th Army took a full week to chew through the Germans and the terrain, aided every step of the way by heavy US artillery fire and nonstop attacks by tactical airpower. Not until March 29 did Simpson break through into the clear, heading east.

While 9th Army was fighting forward, 1st Army at Remagen put on one of the greatest American shows of the war.83 Hodges had three heavy corps arrayed abreast north to south: VII under General J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins; III (General James Van Fleet); and V (General Clarence R. Huebner)—all crowded into a 35-mile strip on the eastern bank of the Rhine. All three corps were bulging with manpower and equipment, and, as always, firepower support was extravagant. The attack opened before dawn on March 25 and simply vaporized the German defenders. Even the weather cooperated, offering a crystal-clear day that allowed XIX Tactical Air Command to roam the skies and swoop down at will on the hapless Germans below. By noon, all three US corps had made a clean breakthrough out of the Remagen bridgehead, advancing 12 miles the first day and 20 miles on the second. The pace was frenetic, and US infantry often hitched a ride on the nearest Sherman tank to keep up rather than wait for their trucks. Already, US columns were taking the surrender of thousands of Germans, including 17,000 by III Corps on March 26 alone. A few German units attempted to launch counterattacks, but US momentum smothered them before they got started, and most GIs probably never even noticed them.

Onward came the Americans, reaching Giessen and Marburg on day four (March 28). With 1st Army already 80 miles from the starting line, the time had come to make its great wheel to the north, cutting across the rear of Army Group B, linking up with 9th Army, and encircling the entire German force in the Ruhr. The commander of 3rd Armored Division, General Maurice Rose, assembled a task force under Lieutenant Colonel Walter B. Richardson and gave a simple order. “Just go like hell,” he ordered. The objective was Paderborn, 60 miles due north.’

The ride of Task Force Richardson was an epic in miniature. Slashing north, firing on the run, and cutting across columns of German stragglers, Richardson rode his column hard. He eluded roadblocks where he could and blasted through the others, making 45 miles in one day. But when the task force reached Brilon, 15 miles south of Paderborn, the column halted while Richardson’s exhausted force did a thorough reconnaissance of a champagne warehouse. Next morning, his groggy crews finally met actual German resistance, an ad hoc battalion thrown together by cadets from an SS training center, supported by sixty Tiger and Panther tanks. A tough scrap ensued over the next two days, and when General Rose came up to supervise the fight on March 30 he was killed when his personal reconnaissance column—two jeeps, a motorcycle, and an armored car—had the bad luck to bump into German Tiger tanks from the 507th Battalion. Nevertheless, US forces kept coming up, sidestepping SS defenses at Paderborn and heading west toward Lippstadt. As always by this point of the war, the Germans could not keep up with American speed.

At Lippstadt, the lead elements of the two US armies—the 9th coming over from Wesel and the 1st coming up from Remagen—made contact. It was April 1, Easter Sunday, just after noon. The pincers snapped shut—and the US Army had its greatest encirclement of the war. Model’s Army Group B—5th Panzer and 15th Armies, including seven corps and nineteen divisions, with all their support troops and headquarters—was surrounded, trapped in an egg-shaped pocket 30 miles by 75 miles in diameter. Enclosed in the ring were no fewer than twenty-six generals and even a naval officer, Admiral Werner Scheer, commander of Defense District I in Essen.

While the Americans maneuvered, Model and his army group sat still. Since 1945, historians have drawn up a litany of reasons why. Half-strength divisions, low fuel, Allied command of the air, morale collapse among the rank and file, and of course, the refusal of the Führer, Adolf Hitler, to countenance even the smallest tactical retreat: Model was caught in a perfect storm of military disaster. But one other fact deserves mention: the blistering tempo of the American rush had forced German headquarters on all levels to flee their posts or dive for cover. By the second day, Model had lost contact with the commander of his 15th Army, General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen, whom he presumed captured or killed. Zangen was neither, but he was equally unable to raise Model by radio. Model appointed another commander and ordered him to launch a counterattack with units from 15th Army—at the precise moment that Zangen was trying to form his stragglers into a new defensive position to the east. No wonder so many German soldiers were confused. Inside the pocket, Model himself first wanted to fight on, then gradually came to see the hopelessness. From outside, the High Command in Berlin demanded that Model stay put and defend Fortress Ruhr. Hitler promised to send a newly formed army, the 12th under General Walther Wenck, to relieve the Ruhr and hinted that new wonder weapons were on the way that would turn the tide of battle. But it soon became clear to Model that neither 12th Army nor miracle weapons were going to show up anytime soon.

During the week following Easter, the Americans solidified the ring around Army Group B, placing four corps along the perimeter. All four immediately launched concentric drives against the outmanned and unsupplied enemy, herding the Germans into a smaller and smaller space, packing them together, and making them an even more lucrative target for US firepower. By April 11, the pocket was half as large as it had been on April 1; by April 14, US attacks toward the town of Hagen had sliced the pocket in half again. Here and there, German troops were already surrendering, often under the urging of the local civilian population. The locals soon learned that any sign of resistance—a German sniper shot, an infantry skirmish, or a random mortar round—seemed to madden the “Amis.” The result was almost always the same: a hailstorm of US fire flattened the town and killed German soldiers and civilians alike. Artillery units attached to US XVI Corps on the northwestern edge of the pocket, for example, fired no fewer than 259,000 rounds in fourteen days. Assuming that the other three corps kept pace, American guns may well have fired a million shells during the two-week battle.

To the people of the Ruhr, the Americans seemed to arrive out of the blue. The good burghers of Gesseln, near Paderborn, were attending a delayed Easter Mass on Tuesday, April 3, when they heard the clanking and roaring of engines in the streets of their little village. “Herr Vicar, they are here,” a woman whispered to the priest, “they are already here.” At that very moment a 76mm cannon from an American Sherman tank poked through the church door, trained directly at the altar. US soldiers defused the situation by entering the church, kneeling, and praying the Mass with the parishioners.

Things didn’t always end so happily. The battle wrought enormous physical destruction. Factories closed and production ceased, as did the distribution of food and goods to the region’s cities and suburbs. Electricity, water, and sewage all broke down in this densely populated area—a recipe for disease if the battle dragged on. The Ruhr’s prosperous middle classes rushed to their local banks to pull out their Reichmarks, currency that would soon be worthless. Meanwhile, bands of Russian and Polish laborers from the Nazi empire roamed the countryside, pillaging what they could. When to run up the white flag and surrender to the Americans became a crucial question for German civilians. Doing so too early meant falling afoul of the Nazi authorities who were demanding a fight to the finish; doing so too late could mean a violent introduction to the American way of war. All too often, the local Nazi bigwig called upon his townsmen to fight to the death and then fled just before the enemy attacked.

On April 14, with the pocket torn in two and German units running out of ammunition and food, mass surrenders began. The 116th Panzer Division, for example, had neither a single serviceable tank nor an artillery round left to its name. Thousands and then tens of thousands of German soldiers responded to US loudspeaker calls to surrender or simply made for the nearest US unit, white flag or handkerchief in hand. The number of prisoners exceeded all expectations, amounting to 317,000 men, twice the US intelligence estimate. The human herd rolled in, held in POW cages that were little more than open fields with inadequate food and facilities.

Rheinwiesenlager, the Germans called them—“Rhine meadow camps”—stretched as far as the eye could see.

One man didn’t surrender, however. Field Marshal Model, crushed by the totality of the defeat, as well as the news that the Soviet government had listed him as a war criminal, was growing more despondent by the hour. “What is left for a defeated general?” he asked his chief of staff, General Carl Wagener, on April 17. “In ancient times they took poison.” Like Hitler, Model had often complained about the “cowardice” of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus in letting himself be taken prisoner by the Soviets at Stalingrad. “A field marshal does not become a prisoner,” Model had muttered. “Such a thing is just not possible.” By April 19, Model was on the run from the Americans, a fugitive commander without an army. He was sitting in a forest clearing, “repeatedly stung by mosquitos,” when a radio broadcast came on the air. Josef Goebbels always spoke to the German people on the eve of Hitler’s birthday. Model listened on a portable radio as Goebbels condemned those who waved “the white flag of surrender.” Only “unshakeable faith” in Hitler would do now. “We stand by him as he has stood by us in Germanic loyalty,” the doctor proclaimed. “He shall remain for us what he is and always was: Our Hitler!”

Something snapped in Model as he heard that last line. Was it the scales falling from the field marshal’s eyes? A guilty conscience for giving up the fight? Or just the depression of defeat? He began to rage:

And those are the men one has trusted, blindly trusted, closing one’s eyes to retain their trust. I had blindly taken the responsibility for compliance with soldierly duty in a just war. A just war led by those frauds? And how many sacrifices have I demanded from my soldiers only to serve these swine?

Certainly, no one in the officer corps had served Hitler more faithfully. Two days later, the field marshal took leave of his aides in a beautiful copse of tall oaks outside of Duisburg and shot himself with his Walther 6.35mm service pistol.

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