Death in the West: The Battle of the Ruhr Pocket

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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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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