In early March 1945 the American troops entered an almost deserted area that had been transformed from a city with a population of half a million to sea of ruins containing forty thousand inhabitants.
In early February, 1945, the control of the crossings were transferred to the German Army Groups from where they were subordinated to specific military units. Despite exercising command of the bridges, not a single soldier, artillery piece, or armored vehicle was permitted to withdraw to the safety of the east bank of the Rhine.
At the end of February, 1945, Major Friedel of the Wehrmacht high command recorded:
The defensive battle west of Cologne remains of foremost importance. Some of the important observations: It appears certain that the enemy, primarily the British, as observed since the beginning of the invasion, will adhere to his methodical method of fighting: Determine a limited goal of attack, prepare for a break-through in the area with heavy artillery fire with use of enormous amounts of artillery ammunition. In the attack that follows the armor is used less for a break-through than for local neutralizing of resistance, then securing the captured territory with more artillery barrages ahead of slowly advancing armor and infantry units. The front-line troops are of the opinion that only in isolated instances can the Allies be prevented from reaching their daily objectives…
During the night of 23 February the American forces along the Ruhr front between Düren and Roermond unleased a massive barrage on the makeshift Wehrmacht defenses remaining west of the Rhine. Under the umbrella of artillery fire the Allies pushed thirty divisions along a forty-mile front toward the east. The advance threatened to encircle and destroy all remaining defenders between the Rur and Rhine rivers. The advance was marked by the dismal scene of columns of disarmed soldiers in field-gray marching toward the west, hand held high over their heads or assisting sick and wounded as they made their way into the prisoner of war cages.
The roads leading to the great Rhine city of Cologne were also under incessant attack from Allied air power. An inhabitant of Cologne, observing the approaches to the city, wrote:
In bright sunlight the American Jabos, mostly the fast, twin-fuselaged Lightnings, fell upon their ground targets like falcons. I could clearly see how they released the five hundred pound bombs, which fell to the earth like strands of silver pearls. Then one could hear the detonations and saw the cloud from the explosions rising like mushrooms in the distance.
Despite the extensive damage inflicted upon Cologne by fleets of bombers in months of bombing campaigns, there remained a large civilian population within the city, many of whom were working feverishly to prepare for the Allied onslaught.
With the advance toward Cologne, the American forces encountered for the first time the last-ditch levy scraped together by Nazi functionaries for defending the Reich – the Volkssturm. Along the Militärring, the major road encircling the city, the Volkssturm units were at work digging tank trenches and fox holes in preparation for the coming battle. Poorly armed elderly men and teenaged boys prepared to meet the oncoming Americans with obsolete small arms and Panzerfausts. Most had experienced only rudimentary training. The units, armed with a variety of rifles dating from before the First World War, were sparsely supplied with a handful of ammunition. The shortage of supplies rendered it impossible to fire the weapons with live ammunition. Training had been conducted in a simulated manner; the live ammunition was saved for the serious business of killing Allied soldiers. Most of the Volkssturm troops wore little in terms of uniform, the majority were clad in civilian clothing and sported a reluctantly donned armband printed with the national emblem and the words Deutsche Wehrmacht. Even the lack of steel helmets required the erstwhile defenders to wear their civilian caps, among which a smattering of alpine-style Hitler Youth headgear could be seen.
At the end of February, the local leading Nazi Party functionary, Kreisleiter Schaller, announced during a meeting of district party authorities that Cologne would be defended. On 1 March, 1945, his superior, Gauleiter Josef Grohé had ordered the evacuation of women and children and all other non-combatants. It was his last official act as Gauleiter in Cologne. On 5 March, after the demolition of the Hohenzollern Bridge by retreating Wehrmacht troops, the Gauleiter climbed into a boat and fled to the east bank of the Rhine. He later took refuge with other party officials in Bensberg castle.
The order for evacuation was ignored by many of the inhabitants who were eager only to see the war, and their misery, come to an end. Despite the approaching front, the citizens of Cologne exhibited a remarkable level of morale interspersed with moments of resignation and humor. An often, albeit surreptitiously heard rhyme in Cologne in the closing days sounded Es geht alles vorüber, es geht alles vorbei, auch Adolf Hitler, mit seiner Partei (It will all be over, it will all be past, also Adolf Hitler, with his party).
The defense of Cologne was less strategic than symbolic, for little remained in the city worth defending. The last major air raid occurred on 2 March, 1945. At 10:00 a fleet of British Halifax and Lancaster bombers approached the ruins of the city. A swarm of fighter-bombers led the way, attacking tactical targets that included the air raid warning system. The staff of Cologne’s flak defense system had been transferred from their headquarters in the Post stadium to the east bank of the Rhine; few had suspected that the Allies would expend more material upon the field of ruins that had once been the Rhineland’s proudest city. The fleet of bombers passed at low altitude over a company of reluctant Volkssturm soldiers.
Volkssturm soldier Willy Weirauch, shocked by the spectacle of the oncoming aircraft, waited expectantly for orders from his elderly commander. Without a word, the group of teenagers and elderly reservists began tossing aside their antiquated firearms and running desperately for cover. No sooner had they gained the dubious safety of an air raid bunker when a massive explosion rent the air. The breathless Volkssturm members were thrown to the concrete floor by the blast; the steel doors of the bunker were ripped from their frames and hung warped and useless. The roar of the explosions deafened their ears, the pain from the air pressure was excruciating. The bombs fell without interruption. The air would momentarily clear as one squadron passed overhead en route to the city center, and within seconds a follow-on attack would pass overhead. The soldiers discerned the sounds of screaming bombs over the roar of the explosions as the attackers progressed further east into the heart of Cologne.
The raid lasted sixty minutes. Most of the city’s inhabitants who had not previously fled the city were surprised by the attack, and the lack of warning produced catastrophic results. Caught in the open, the citizens sought any form of shelter as the bombers passed overhead. Some of the inhabitants reached the safety of the crypts within the badly damaged Saint Gereons Church. They crowded together in the darkness and attempted to wait out the attack, with screams, cries and prayers penetrating the air over the sounds of droning motors and exploding bombs. The earth shook and the church tower swayed within the pressure waves of exploding bombs; the walls continued to hold.
Other Cologne inhabitants were not so fortunate. The cleric of the Saint Georgs Church in the Waidmarkt was buried beneath the rubble of his church. Hundreds of others lay submerged beneath shifting rubble or were entombed in collapsed cellars. That afternoon the city suffered another, albeit smaller air raid of some one hundred fifty aircraft.
The soldiers of Willy Weirauch’s Volkssturm unit remained huddled in the cellar after the droning of bombers faded in the distance, and slowly the group began exiting the shelter. Finding himself alone in the bunker, Willy Weirauch stared at the floor in the dim light and pondered the situation. Not knowing whether his parents had survived the raid, he wanted only an end to the torment of life amid the ruins. With his right hand he reached to his left shoulder, grasped the Volkssturm armband, and tore it from his jacket. Tossing the insignia to the floor, he sprang from the bunker and headed through the ruins toward his home. His brief service as one of Hitler’s soldiers had come to an end.
The air raid of Friday, 2 March, represented the last raid to be endured by the city. The raid served to increase the confusion that prevailed in the city as the advancing Allies drew nearer. The victims of the raid were hastily buried wherever possible. Any remaining air defense units began transferring their equipment and personnel to the east bank of the Rhine. Most transport was conducted over the still-standing Hohenzollern bridge. The other major bridge spanning the Rhine in the city, the Hindenburg bridge, was no longer available. Heavily damaged by previous raids and weakened by masses of refugees and heavy traffic in the closing days, it had collapsed into the Rhine on 28 February, carrying an undetermined number of soldiers and refugees into the Rhine.
The railway authorities received instructions to transfer all undamaged rolling stock to the east bank. Isolated soldiers, alone or in small groups, threaded their way through the ruins in the direction of the Hohenzollern bridge, intent on not being abandoned on the west bank in the face of the oncoming Allies. Many of the soldiers who were from the area elected to discard their Wehrmacht uniforms and slip into the surrounding countryside to await the end of the war amongst friends or family members.
German soldiers were not the only people seeking refuge from the oncoming Allies. After weeks of haranguing the populace to fight to the last man, the Nazi Party officials were fleeing toward the east in increasing numbers. As late as 4 March, 1945, the Nazi officials in Cologne had advised the local German military commander that Cologne had to be fiercely defended. “The Volkssturm can stop the American tanks with panzerfausts,” they had announced.
The actions of many officials, however, belied their propaganda. Nazi offices became scenes of feverish activity as files and documents were burned to prevent incriminating evidence from falling into the hands of the Americans. Distinctive brown and gold uniforms, trimmed with swastika armbands that evoked an earlier age for the Nazi leadership, were hastily tossed out of windows to lie in the streets and alleys. Nazi banners, parade regalia and the obligatory, oversized photographs of the Führer, found in all official buildings, were hastily buried or burned by nervous inhabitants. The bible of the Nazi Party, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, was purged from residences and shop windows. There were no Nazis in Cologne; the Allies were to find only innocent victims of Nazi oppression.
As Volkssturm members and foreign laborers on the outskirts of Cologne constructed long, winding trenches and tank traps with shovels and picks, files of refugees passed en route to the Rhine and the safety of the east bank. An inhabitant wrote of the exodus:
The people make their way over the roads from the front area. Horses, wagons, a cow tethered with a halter, piles of linens bundled in sheets and tied with string to hand-carts. Farm wagons have been converted to temporary shelters, swaying wooden contraptions with peep holes. And there are the women limping on wounded feet as they proceed onward with painful faces, benumbed by artillery barrages, tormented by the bombs. There are the children, penal battalions, flocks of prisoners, a caravan of misery, of hunger, of thirst and of hopelessness.
During the night of 3 March, Allied aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets over the tortured city. With the sunrise, the inhabitants emerged from their cellars and bunkers to find rubble-clogged streets littered with the small notes imploring the citizens to disobey the directives of the Nazi leaders. The Allies were asking the inhabitants not to evacuate the city, and advised them that they had nothing to fear from the Allied troops. It made little difference to most of the residents; they were weary, hungry and there no longer existed a means of fleeing the city. Besides, it was clear that flight over the Hohenzollern bridge to the east half of the city would only be delaying the inevitable.
At 07:00 on Monday, 5 March, the American Third Armored Division launched a final advance on Cologne. The GI’s, under the command of General Maurice Rose, cautiously felt their way toward the heart of the city. The experienced soldiers did not fully expect to find the city empty; there would be defenders. They were not mistaken. Waiting for the advancing GI’s were remnants of General Köchling’s LXXXI Corps, consisting of units from the 363rd Volksgrenadier Division, the 9th Panzer Division and the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division. The total strength of his forces represented approximately two regiments. Kochling’s defenses consisted of two main lines of defense. The Militärring, the roadway encircling the city’s perimeter, was defended by the regular military forces at his disposal. The next line of defense was the “green belt” defended by police, fire department personnel, and any para-military units that had not already evaporated in the face of the oncoming American tanks. The units were augmented by the final Volkssturm levies of old men and boys, cripples and disabled veterans who were still capable of carrying a weapon. The Allied intelligence reports that the German Army was now reduced to stragglers and last-ditch conscripts was of little comfort to the U. S. infantrymen advancing cautiously through the ruins. They had long ago learned that even a cripple or an aged reservist could be deadly if he was determined to make the ultimate sacrifice for Hitler in an obviously lost war.
Despite the dangers awaiting in the blocks of rubble ahead of the advancing Americans, they could not delay in moving ever eastward toward the Rhine. The Hohenzollern Bridge still lay ahead, beyond the twin spires of the Cologne Cathedral. The prize was to advance with enough speed to capture the bridge intact. However, the Wehrmacht had become skilled in leaving a path of destruction in their wake, thus the infantrymen and tank crews held few illusions that an intact bridge would be standing for them.
Encountering resistance after penetrating the Militärring, the lead armored elements destroyed an 88mm anti-tank position and plowed forward, raking buildings and possible resistance locations with machine-gun and tank fire. Resistance increased as the lead elements penetrated deeper toward the heart of Cologne. Anti-aircraft guns fired from fixed embrasures until over-run by tanks or destroyed by infantrymen probing their way through the rubble. Dead and wounded of both sides were left in the wake of the advancing units. The commander of the 9th Panzer Division, Major-General Freiherr von Elverfeldt, fell before American guns as his rearguard was decimated.
The Cologne citizens cowering in cellars met the noise of approaching battle with a mixture of fear and relief. They felt relief that the battle would soon end and for them peace, albeit under occupation by enemy forces, would begin. Their feelings of relief were dampened by memories of Nazi propaganda that reported Allied plans to deport Germans for slave labor, the rumors of rapes and murders. After all, they concluded, an enemy that would relentlessly incinerate entire cities filled with civilian inhabitants was capable of anything. However, if nothing else the arrival of the Americans would bring change, and most survivors in the rubble were convinced that life couldn’t get any worse than what they had endured over the last weeks. They had arrived at a point where they believed “an end with terror is preferable to terror without end.”
After a series of skirmishes with scattered German units on the outskirts of the city, the American columns halted at the “Green Belt”, the inner road network that encircled the oldest section of the heart of the city. Here they consolidated their forces, evacuated the wounded, replenished fuel and ammunition, and prepared to assault the final, inner city the following day. The inhabitants of the city in the outer ring huddled in their cellars, shocked at the display of military might they had witnessed. The night of 5-6 March resounded with the unintelligible shouts of commands in English, the rattling of half-tracks, and the rumble of heavy armored vehicles taking position in the ruins.
As the sun rose on Tuesday, 6 March, the columns moved out of their positions toward the heart of the city. Curious onlookers began to emerge from their shelters to observe their conquerors and gathered in small groups to discuss their fate. American reconnaissance aircraft, circling lazily in a clear sky over the blocks of rubble, reported any suspected enemy positions to the armored units below. The streets remained ominously silent; no German defenders moved to repel the cautious but relentless advance of the enemy forces. The evidence of German military presence remained sparse, but the streets still held the mute witnesses to the last deadly air raid upon the city. The American soldiers discerned the stench of death that emanated from the ruins and mixed with the familiar smell of exhaust fumes, cordite and cosmoline. Hardened by months of combat, they gave little notice to mangled corpses of bomb victims that still lay in their path.
Toward the inner city resistance slackened, and the American tanks increased speed. Onlookers began gathering at intersections to view the column of American vehicles, flanked by ranks of infantrymen, snaking through the city. White flags mushroomed from windows and rooftops. Most of the inhabitants were unaware of the progress made by the Allies over the past days. There had been no electricity since the last major air raid, and they hungered for information regarding the latest developments in determining Germany’s fate. As the American point elements penetrated deeper into the heart of Cologne, the last German military units cleared the Rhine and sought the temporary safety of the east bank, leaving a ragged rearguard behind. American infantrymen were approaching the banks of the Rhine when the ruins of the city were rocked by a massive explosion. The Hohenzollern Bridge, the pride of Cologne and the vital link between the east and west sectors of the city, plunged into the Rhine.
Clarence Smoyer, a World War II veteran from Allentown, was known as the “Hero of Cologne” after he and his unit in their tank Eagle 7 destroyed an enemy tank during fighting in Cologne, Germany.
The column slowly approached the twin spires of the seven hundred year-old Cologne Cathedral, left a blackened shell by the numerous bombing raids over the course of the war. The magnificent structure, the enduring symbol of Cologne, had suffered extensive damage during a raid in 1943 but had remained standing. During the course of the war the cathedral had endured hits from twelve high explosive bombs, countless incendiary bombs, and nineteen artillery rounds. It now served as a beacon for the oncoming Americans. The bark of a heavy weapon broke forth from the concealment of a nearby building, the lead Sherman rocked to a halt and burst into flames. A second tank, a new Pershing quickly rotated its turret and opened fire on the German panther, putting it out of action with a direct hit. The German crew bailed from the smoking vehicle and disappeared into the surrounding ruins. The Americans proceeded onward, albeit cautiously. Suddenly the tankers and infantrymen were met by the sight of a vast expanse of water flowing through the ruins. Far away to the east they could discern other fields of ruins beyond their reach, separated by the expanse of water. The U. S. First Army had reached the Rhine.