“Only Our Eyes Are Alive”

FROM the Swiss border to the North Sea, across the fronts of almost eighty Allied divisions in seven armies, none of this mattered at the moment, not a whit. What preoccupied several million soldiers was the effort to find a bit of warmth in the frozen night, and perhaps a lukewarm meal rather than congealed hash in a cold can, and to live to see the next dawn, and then the next, and the next after that. The autumn rallying cry of “Win the War in ’44” had been supplanted by the sour “Stay Alive in ’45.” A soldier in the 70th Division spoke for many GIs in a letter to his parents in Minnesota: “My mind is absolutely stripped of any traces of reason for war.… Maybe the overall picture justifies what goes on up here, but from an infantryman’s point of view, it’s hard to see.”

The harshest winter in decades compounded the misery, even after the German retreat from the Bulge. “My hands shivered like tuning forks,” wrote one private in Lorraine. “But worst of all, the cold had settled in my spine.… I was a bundle of icy vibrations.” A soldier in the 84th Division described awakening in a slushy foxhole to find his feet “encased in a block of ice up to my ankles”; comrades chipped him free with bayonets. Impassioned debates raged over “whether sleeping with hands in the crotch or the armpits was the best way to avoid frostbite.” Troops jerked awake by gunfire left patches of hair stuck to the icy ground. Soldiers fashioned crude igloos or huddled over tiny fires fueled with cardboard scraps from K-ration boxes. GIs became adept at chopping a small divot from the frozen ground with a pickax, then detonating a quarter-pound TNT block to finish excavating a foxhole. Graffiti scribbled on a concrete fortification in Lorraine read: “Austin White, Chicago, Ill., 1918. Austin White, Chicago, Ill., 1945. This is the last time I want to write my name here.”

A SHAEF plan to cut one million cords of firewood by February 1 fell short by 964,000 for want of tools and lumberjacks. Coal production in Europe fell 40 percent in January, partly because Belgian miners went on strike; frozen canals impeded deliveries of what stock there was. GI work details spent a month slicing peat from Norman bogs for fuel before abandoning the task as pointless. Sled dogs shipped from Alaska and Labrador to evacuate the wounded in snowy terrain arrived after the spring thaw, and so gave the field armies only useless, barking mouths to feed.

A lieutenant in the 99th Division wrote his wife in January:

To date, I’ve slept on a mattress, a steel deck, a wet concrete floor with a little straw on top, dirt floors, a bed, a stretcher, on an LST, in a truck, in a foxhole, across the front seats of a jeep, in a rope hammock, in cellars, first, second, and third floors, in a pillbox, on the back window shelf of a command car, in haylofts, on snow, and in shacks.

There were horrors to see, hear, and smell, horrors to relive and remember because they could never be forgotten. A soldier from the 75th Division described an hour in a foxhole with a mortally wounded comrade and no morphine: “I tried to knock him out. I took off his helmet, held his jaw up, and just whacked as hard as I could.… That didn’t work. Nothing worked. He slowly bled to death.” Another GI assigned to police corpses from the battlefield wrote:

Everywhere we searched we found bodies, floating in the rivers, trampled on the roads, bloated in the ditches, rotting in the bunkers, pretzeled into foxholes, burned in the tanks, buried in the snow, sprawled in doorways, splattered in gutters, dismembered in minefields, and even literally blown up into trees.

When a reporter asked a private in the 23rd Infantry what he wanted Americans at home to know, he said, “Tell ’em it’s rough as hell. Tell ’em it’s rough. Tell ’em it’s rough, serious business. That’s all. That’s all.” A nurse in Seventh Army wrote her family in January: “Admitted a 19-year-old from Texas last night who had both legs blown off by a shell. He was unhappy because now he could never wear his nice cowboy boots. He died before he could be taken to surgery.” Another nurse, in a Third Army shock ward dubbed the Chamber of Horrors, said, “Maybe it’s a good thing their mothers can’t see them when they die.”

Prison-camp guards opened the locked boxcars on a freight train carrying captured Germans across France to find that 104 had suffocated. Their pleas and shouts had been ignored, and investigators found “evidence of teeth marks and clawing on inner walls.” Eisenhower wrote Marshall, “I certainly loathe having to apologize to the Germans. It looks as if this time I have no other recourse.” His message to Berlin, sent through the Swiss, read: “The supreme commander profoundly regrets this incident and has taken steps to prevent its recurrence.”

War made the warriors sardonic, cynical, old before their time. “Will you tell me what the hell I’m being saved for?” a captain in the 30th Division mused after surviving a bloody attack on the West Wall. Another soldier replied, “For the Pacific.” To a GI in the 100th Division, “it wasn’t so much fear of death as the uncertainty of life.” One squad leader found his battle-weary men “impassive, lethargic, uncommunicative.” Some deliberately extended an arm or leg from their foxholes in hopes of the proverbial million-dollar wound, but for most “each succeeding town came and each succeeding town went, and we continued dying a thousand deaths.” After the Germans ambushed his patrol, a soldier in the 275th Infantry wrote, “Things didn’t go exactly as planned. They usually don’t.” To Lieutenant Paul Fussell, the bitterest lessons of combat were indeed “about the eternal presence in human affairs of accident and contingency, as well as the fatuity of optimism at any time or place.”

All planning was not just likely to recoil ironically; it was almost certain to do so. Human beings were clearly not machines. They were mysterious congeries of twisted will and error, misapprehension and misrepresentation, and the expected could not be expected of them.

There was nothing for it but obduracy, to soldier on even for those who were not soldiers. “How hard I have become,” an American Red Cross volunteer told her diary in February. “Emotions which formerly would have wracked my soul leave me almost untouched. It’s a hardness of survival.” A soldier in the 84th Division described seeing GIs using a severed German head as a soccer ball in an icy pasture; when a mortar round blew apart a U.S. trooper in a nearby street, he added, “I sat and ate my food. I had not known him.” J. Glenn Gray, a counterintelligence officer, wrote in his journal, “Yesterday we caught two spies.… One had to be severely beaten before he confessed. It was pretty horrible.… I thought of the Hamlet line as most appropriate, ‘’Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart.’”

Not all would learn to hate. Nor would all find satisfaction, even exhilaration, in killing the Huns, Heinies, Hermanns, Lugerheads, Jerries, Fritzes, Boches, Krauts, Katzenjammers, Squareheads. A survey of four thousand GIs found that although four-fifths expressed strong hatred toward German leaders, less than half voiced hatred toward German soldiers. But by late winter enough haters and killers filled the ranks to constitute a ferocious killing engine. After Malmédy, an officer in the 35th Division wrote: “A hatred such as I have never seen has sprung up among us against Hitler’s armies and all of Germany.” A British soldier added, “The question of killing does not present itself as a moral problem any more—or as a problem at all.”

“Slowly it is beginning to dawn on them that the only good German is a dead German,” the XII Corps chief of staff wrote his parents. “The result is that we’re killing more and taking fewer prisoners.” While smashing up a German house, a 2nd Division soldier bellowed, “Screw the bastards and all their works. Shit on them. Piss on them.” A Canadian soldier wrote, “When the Jerries come in with their hands up, shouting ‘Kamerad,’ we just bowl them over with bursts of Sten fire.” A lieutenant in the 15th Infantry told his diary, “Sergeant Burton, somewhat inebriated, shoots two Krauts who are trying to surrender.… Some of our best men are the most murderous.”

Fussell described how GIs in his 103rd Division found some fifteen Germans cowering in a deep crater in the forest.

Their visible wish to surrender—most were in tears of terror and despair—was ignored by our men lining the rim.… Laughing and howling, hoo-ha-ing and cowboy and good-old-boy yelling, our men exultantly shot into the crater until every single man down there was dead.… The result was deep satisfaction.

“Killing is an obsession,” a private in the 86th Division wrote his parents. “What code could withstand it?”

*   *   *

At 7:30 A.M. on Wednesday, January 31, a U.S. Army weapons carrier clanked up to a gray farmhouse with orange shutters outside Ste.-Marie-aux-Mines, an Alsatian town long celebrated for mineralogy, fifteen miles northwest of Colmar. A scrawny, handcuffed twenty-four-year-old private from Michigan named Eddie D. Slovik stepped from the rear bay, escorted by four MPs. A Vosges snowstorm had delayed their journey from Paris through the Saverne Gap, and Private Slovik was late for his own execution. No task gripped Eisenhower with more urgency than clearing the Colmar Pocket to expel the enemy from Alsace and shore up the Allied right wing. But first, a dozen riflemen were to discharge a single, vengeful volley in the high-walled garden of 86 Rue du Général Bourgeois.

As a miscreant, Private Slovik was more bumbling than iniquitous. First arrested at age twelve, he quit school at fifteen, and served jail time for burglary, assault, and embezzlement. Originally declared 4-F by a draft board and exempted from conscription for what the British would call “LMF”—lack of moral fiber—he was reclassified 1-A, an indication of the desperate need for infantrymen. Inducted in late 1943, Slovik arrived in France in August 1944, was assigned to the 28th Infantry Division, and promptly deserted. Perhaps his only endearing trait was a uxorious devotion to his wife, Antoinette, to whom he wrote 376 letters, in pencil, during his 372 days in the Army. “I fought to make you love me,” he told her, adding, “I think I’m going to have a lot of trouble. Army life don’t agree with me.”

In this he was not unique. Indiscipline had become a nagging worry for Eisenhower: nearly 11,000 general courts-martial would be convened for serious crimes committed in Europe by U.S. soldiers, in addition to 126,000 special and summary courts-martial for lesser infractions. “Disciplinary conditions are becoming bad,” Eisenhower had told his diary in November. A month later he advised subordinates, “The large incidence of crimes such as rape, murder, assault, robbery, housebreaking, etc., continues to cause grave concerns.” A French prefect lamented that “the liberators have turned into looters, rapists, and killers,” and a newspaper in Cherbourg declared, “Never has one witnessed such debauchery.” (“Unfortunately,” a U.S. Army provost marshal conceded, “the editorial is justified.”) General Juin wrote Eisenhower that civilian women dared “not to go about their daily chores even when accompanied by a man for fear of being accosted by American soldiers.” Although less than one-half of one percent of Allied troops in Europe were implicated in serious offenses, a SHAEF memo in late January noted that “a considerable percentage of the French civil population” believed that GIs behaved badly, if not criminally.

Severe punishment had a fitful deterrent effect. A study of military offenders found that many had “mental ages of seven or eight”; some were psychopaths or chronic alcoholics. Of fourteen hundred convictions for violating Article of War No. 64—striking an officer, drawing a weapon on an officer, or “willful disobedience”—the average sentence for infractions in combat was fifteen years’ imprisonment. Thirty-year sentences for felonious behavior were not uncommon, and any jail term over six months also drew a dishonorable discharge. Four hundred and forty-three death penalties were imposed on GIs, most for murder or rape, and a severely disproportionate number fell on black soldiers, often after dubious due process. Seventy executions took place in Europe, including several public hangings; War Department Pamphlet 27-4 specified that the hangman’s rope was to be “manila hemp, 1¼ inches in diameter … stretched to eliminate any spring,” and coated “with wax, soap, or grease to ensure a smooth sliding action through the knot.”

Desertion, defined by the U.S. military as an unauthorized absence of two months or more, was as old as warfare, and historically it was a capital crime punished by a firing squad. The British had handed down more than 3,000 death sentences from 1914 to 1920, and had executed about 10 percent of those condemned—before abolishing the death penalty for cowardice and desertion in 1930. The German military issued 50,000 military death sentences in World War II, with half or more carried out. Twenty-one thousand soldiers would desert from the U.S. Army during the war; less than half had been caught by the late 1940s. Of nearly 2,000 deserters convicted in Europe, 139 received death sentences. But the United States had not actually executed a deserter since 1864.


Slovik was arrested in October after living for weeks with a Canadian unit. Offered amnesty if he went to the front, he refused, vowing, “I’ll run away again if I have to.” He was convicted following a two-hour court-martial in the Hürtgen Forest on November 11. From a jail cell in Paris he appealed his death sentence to Eisenhower in a six-paragraph clemency plea. “How can I tell you how humbley sorry I am for the sins I’ve comitted.… I beg of you deeply and sincerely for the sake of my dear wife and mother back home to have mercy on me,” he wrote, according to the author William Bradford Huie. “I Remain Yours for Victory, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik.” Unfortunately for the condemned, the supreme commander reviewed the petition at the nadir of the Bulge, on December 23, during a session in his Versailles office known as “the Hanging Hour.” Eisenhower not only affirmed the sentence, but decreed that as a lesson to shirkers it be carried out by Slovik’s putative unit, the 109th Infantry Regiment, in General Dutch Cota’s 28th Division. “Darling,” Slovik wrote Antoinette, “I’m in a little trouble.”

The MP guards had lost the handcuff key during the trip through the Vosges, and a hacksaw was used to free the prisoner’s wrists so that he could be properly bound with nylon parachute cord. A priest heard his confession and handed him twenty-eight letters from the wife who would soon be a widow. Cota convened the firing squad of twelve specially chosen sharpshooters to remind them that they were “the finest marksmen in the Army”; a physician gave a tutorial on the location of the heart, but, considering the point-blank range of twenty yards, chose not to pin a target on Slovik’s chest. He was hooded with a black sack, sewn by a local seamstress in accord with the Army regulation “to cover the head and neck of the prisoner and to obscure all light.” A blanket was draped over his shoulders against the cold. Slovik declined to make a final statement other than to ask, “Please shoot straight so I won’t have to suffer.”

Gray overcast roofed the garden at ten A.M. as Cota, clutching a brass-handled swagger stick, stood in the snow with forty-two other witnesses. Murmuring a prayer, the condemned man shuffled through an archway and was lashed to a six-foot stake. The firing squad appeared in quick step, halted, faced right, shouldered rifles, and on command cut loose a smoking volley. Eleven bullets struck Slovik, including two in the left arm; not one hit his heart. Even the Army’s finest marksmen trembled at such an awful moment. Three physicians with stethoscopes listened to the wounded man’s shallow breathing and irregular heartbeat as the squad prepared to reload. “The second volley won’t be necessary,” a doctor pronounced at 10:08 A.M. “Private Slovik is dead.” Cota, who in the past eight months had endured Omaha Beach, St.-Lô, the Hürtgen Forest, and the Bulge, later described this episode as “the toughest fifteen minutes of my life.”

A priest anointed the body with oil. Slovik would be buried outside a World War I cemetery at Oise-Aisne, near Soissons, in row three of Plot E—a hidden, unsanctified tract reserved for the dishonorable dead. ’Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.

*   *   *

Eisenhower acknowledged a gnawing obsession with the Colmar Pocket. He called it “the one sore on the whole front,” and insisted that “we must get cleaned up in the south, even if it is going to hold up the offensives in the north.”

In this he would be further frustrated, for Hitler showed no inclination to forswear his 850-square-mile swatch of Alsace, stubbornly held by 23,000 Wehrmacht troops. Deep trenches zigged and zagged across snowy terrain now seeded with minefields, and more than a dozen Alsatian villages had been converted into fortresses around the pocket’s 130-mile perimeter. Perpetual smoke screens hid rail and road bridges across the Rhine, as well as ten ferry sites, frustrating AAF bombers trying to sever German supply routes. Allied engineers upstream had released more than two hundred floating contact mines, to no avail. The Führer even awarded an Iron Cross for valor to one particularly durable span near Brisach.

General Devers’s initial effort to reduce the pocket through Operation CHEERFUL, an ill-named double envelopment, had foundered in late January on French inadequacy. In the south, General de Lattre’s I Corps fired off the entire French artillery ammunition consignment in a fruitless barrage, then lost half its tanks to mines and antitank guns. By early February, after eleven days of flopping around on “polished ice terrain,” not a single objective had been captured. The French II Corps, attacking from the north on a seven-mile front, did a bit better, but enemy graffiti scribbled on walls throughout the pocket—“Elsass bleibt deutsch,” Alsace remains German—still obtained.

Franco-American fraternity, always delicate, grew brittle. “Having gained surprise in both north and south, we have been unable to exploit,” Devers told his diary. “Continual trouble with Gen. de Lattre.… Situation on the front does not look good.” The French, he lamented, lacked “the punch or the willingness to go all out.” General Leclerc’s refusal to take orders from De Lattre, again, led Devers to observe that if he “were in the Russian army he would be shot.” When Devers repeatedly pressed De Lattre to close up his straggling line, the Frenchman snarled, “Goddamn it! Am I commander here or not? If I am, let me command. If not, relieve me.” Eisenhower privately complained, “We have certainly been let down by the French.”

American units had their own difficulties. Cota’s 28th Division, consigned to De Lattre’s French First Army in mid-January, was described as “exhausted and depleted” after the Bulge. When the veteran 3rd Division joined the French II Corps in attacking north of Colmar, soldiers donned mattress covers or improvised nightshirts for camouflage and carried wooden planks to cross the countless streams braiding the marsh flats. But no plank would support a Sherman M-4, and the first tank in an armored column crashed through a frail bridge over the Ill River at Maison Rouge; the mishap left three infantry battalions exposed to a panzer counterattack on the far bank. Terrified GIs scoured across the plain “in flight and panic,” splashing through the icy, steep-banked Ill while enemy grazing fire lashed their backs with white tracers. “It was like a goddamned scene from Civil War days,” a captain reported. One regiment lost 80 percent of its combat kit and 350 men, many of them taken prisoner while hiding in boggy burrows. “Our clothes were so frozen after we were captured,” wrote one private, “that we rattled like paper.” As a taunt, enemy gunners fired leaflet canisters stuffed with the names of GIs now in German custody.

Audie Murphy helped redeem the day with valor uncommon even by his standards. Since advancing up the Rhône and across the Vosges with the 3rd Division, Murphy—who was still not yet old enough to vote or to shave more than once a week—had collected two Silver Stars, a battlefield commission, and a severe wound that turned gangrenous and cost him several pounds of flesh whittled from his right hip and buttock. Rejoining the 15th Infantry in mid-January after two months’ recuperation, he soon took command of the same company he had joined as a private in North Africa two years earlier; it was now reduced to eighteen men and a single officer, himself. On January 26, two hundred German infantrymen with half a dozen panzers attacked from the woods near Riedwihr. Clutching a map and a field phone, Second Lieutenant Murphy leaped onto a burning tank destroyer and for an hour repulsed the enemy with a .50-caliber machine gun while calling in artillery salvos. He “killed them in the draws, in the meadows, in the woods,” a sergeant reported; the dead included a dozen Germans “huddled like partridges” in a nearby ditch. “Things seemed to slow down for me,” Murphy later said. “Things became very clarified.” De Lattre described the action as “the bravest thing man had ever done in battle,” but Murphy reflected that “there is no exhilaration at being alive.” He would receive the Medal of Honor.

At last an Allied preponderance began to crush the pocket. An exasperated Eisenhower committed a U.S. corps, the XXI, for a total of four American divisions to bolster De Lattre’s eight; the reinforcements gave Devers better than a five-to-one advantage in men, tanks, and artillery ammunition. “God be praised!” the French commander exclaimed. By Friday, February 2, the 28th Division had cleared Colmar’s outskirts, then stood aside to let French tanks liberate the town. “Your city,” De Lattre said, “has found the motherland and the tricolor once more.”

By February 5, columns from north and south had joined at Rouffach, cleaving the Geman pocket in half. From the north the 3rd Division enveloped Neuf-Brisach, another of Vauban’s seventeenth-century strongholds, known as the City of Ramparts. Brutal fighting with tanks, mortars, bazookas, and grenades swept across the Jewish cemetery. GIs bellowed “Hindy ho, you bastards!”—an approximation of “Hände hoch,” Hands up—although one regiment reported that “the men did not take any prisoners because they would have gotten in the way.” Hundreds of Germans pelting south from Neuf-Brisach were butchered by artillery, like “clay pigeons in green uniforms.” A French patriot showed GIs a narrow tunnel leading from a dry moat beneath the citadel’s northeast wall, but only seventy-six German soldiers were found alive within.

At eight A.M. on Friday, February 9, enemy demolitionists dropped the last bridge into the Rhine at Chalampé with a spectacular splash. “My dear French comrades,” De Lattre said, “you have been artisans of a great national event.… Germany passed its last night in France.” (Actually a corner of northeastern Alsace was to remain in Hitler’s custody for a few more weeks, as well as several French ports.) The pocket was finally eradicated, even if the job had taken three times longer than the week De Lattre had anticipated. Trucks hauled German bodies to yet another mass grave—“entangled among each other like so many frozen, dead chickens in packing cases,” in a GI’s description. Colmar had cost 20,000 Franco-American casualties, by De Lattre’s tally; the Germans reported more than 22,000 killed or missing. Fewer than 500 men had escaped from each of the eight German divisions defending Hitler’s purchase on Elsass.

As the U.S. Army concluded with justification, Germany’s Nineteenth Army “had been sacrificed for no appreciable gain.” The German host that had begun retreating within hours of the Allied landings in southern France six months earlier was now a silent, spectral memory, a legion of shades.

*   *   *

Pulverizing the Reich from above now intensified with a fury no nation had ever endured. Thousand-bomber Allied raids had become common, even quotidian. The first 22,000-pound British “earthquake bomb” was dropped on Bielefeld in early spring, gouging a crater thirty feet deep and wrecking a hundred yards of rail viaduct. Forty more would fall, each with a power exceeded among air munitions only by the atomic bomb. The M-47 100-pound phosphorus bomb fell for the first time in late January; deemed an “excellent antipersonnel incendiary weapon” by AAF tacticians, each canister carried six times the hellfire of a 155mm artillery phosphorus round. Innovative applications of napalm also flourished because, as Robert A. Lovett, the U.S. assistant secretary of war, explained, “If we are going to have a total war we might as well make it as horrible as possible.” SHAEF issued a forty-three-page list of German monuments, historic sites, and objets d’art to be spared, “symbolizing to the world,” in Eisenhower’s words, “all that we are fighting to preserve.” In a letter to his family, an American corporal put such rarefied sentiments in perspective. “Thanks to the Allied air forces,” he wrote, “most of Europe resembles Stonehenge more than anything else.” One enemy city after another had been reduced to what the German writer W. G. Sebald would call “lifeless life.”

British air strategists considered taking the war to small German municipalities, but concluded that bombers could obliterate only “thirty towns a month at the maximum”; destroying one hundred such Dörfer would “account for only 3 percent of the population.” A more lucrative target was Berlin, known to pilots as “Big B,” which housed not only the regime but 5 percent of Germany’s Volk. Two months had passed since Berlin was last clobbered, and George Marshall at Malta advocated bombing Big B again to impede German reinforcement of the Eastern Front and to curry Soviet goodwill. In this the British eagerly concurred: Bomber Harris had long urged bludgeoning Berlin until “the heart of Nazi Germany ceases to beat.” By one calculation, a no-holds-barred bombardment could kill or injure 275,000 Germans; it would also “create great confusion” and “might well ruin an already shaky morale.”

Skeptics objected only to be shouted down. General Doolittle, the Eighth Air Force chief, believed that “the chances of terrorizing into submission” people who had already been bombed repeatedly since 1942 were “extremely remote.” Flight crews dreaded the most viciously defended city in Europe. “Big B is no good as a target,” one airman said. “I don’t believe in spite bombing.” But in a note scribbled to Beetle Smith, Eisenhower had written, “I agree the project would be a good one.”

THUNDERCLAP, as the “project” was code-named, dumped 2,279 tons of bombs on Berlin on February 3, at a cost of almost two dozen B-17s lost to flak. The single heaviest raid to hit Big B in the war proved a disappointment: only one ton in three detonated within a mile of the aim point, and some groups managed to miss the world’s sixth largest city altogether. The German regime claimed 20,000 dead, and the AAF official history later put the figure at 25,000; subsequent analyses lowered the THUNDERCLAP death toll to 2,893, plus another 2,000 injured. No one surrendered.

Even so, bombs smashed rail stations, marshaling yards, and neighborhoods—also electronics, leather, and printing plants; hotels; newspaper offices; and various government buildings, including the Air Ministry, the Foreign Office, Gestapo headquarters, and the Reich Chancellery. “It was a sunny, beautiful morning,” a German woman wrote. “Blooming blue hyacinth, purple crocuses, and soon-to-bloom Easter lily.… One should never enjoy such things.” Terror swept a subway station, according to a Wehrmacht account, and “the people literally ripped clothes from each other’s bodies. They totally forgot themselves in their panic and were hitting each other.” Others were said to herd together “like deer in a storm.” A survivor recounted how phosphorus bombs “emptied themselves down the walls and along the streets in flaming rivers of unquenchable flame.” The raid rendered 120,000 Germans homeless. A diarist described Berliners as “marching backwards in time” to become cave-dwellers and added, “Only our eyes are alive.”

Other elaborate air missions followed throughout February, among them Operation CLARION, an assault by 3,500 bombers and almost 5,000 fighters meant to further eviscerate German transportation and remind small-town Germans in “relatively virgin areas” of their mortality. Trains, rail stations, barges, docks, and bridges were bombed and strafed, but neither a general collapse of the Reichsbahn nor weakened civilian will could be detected. “Perhaps it was a case,” the AAF posited, “of trying to injure the morale of a people who had no morale.”

Most infamous of the winter raids was the attack on Dresden by more than eight hundred Bomber Command aircraft during the night of February 13, followed over the next two days by almost as many Eighth Air Force bombers. Discrete blazes confederated into a firestorm with superheated winds capable of uprooting trees and peeling shingles from rooftops. “Chimney stacks fell down just from the echo of my voice,” a schoolgirl later reported. “I saw a pile of ashes in the shape of a person.… It was my mother.” Asked to assess the raid, Bomber Harris replied, “Dresden? There is no such place as Dresden.” Nazi officials claimed 200,000 dead in a city jammed with refugees from the east, but an exhaustive inquiry more than half a century later lowered the figure to 25,000. Among those hauling bodies to cremation pits were SS squads experienced in such matters from duty at Treblinka; also pressed into service was Private First Class Vonnegut, captured on the Schnee Eifel two months earlier. “Dear people,” he wrote his family in Indiana:

We were put to work carrying corpses from air raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

Each night and each day, bombing snuffed out another corner of the Reich. More than one German dwelling in every five was destroyed from the air, leaving 7.5 million homeless during the war and more than 400,000 Germans dead. Devastation scorched seventy cities, and carbonized bodies lay stacked in countless black windrows. Of the vast Krupp factory in Essen, a witness would report that “the biggest armament works in the world is incapable of producing a hairpin.” Time described how Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Wuppertal, Bochum, and other industrial hubs “burned like torches for a night, smoldered for a day, then lay blackened and dead.”

Yet still the lifeless life lived on. Even General Spaatz decried “the chimera” of bringing Germany to her knees from twenty thousand feet. Only subjugation and occupation would persuade the Reich that the Reich was finished. Only conquest would end the war.

*   *   *

Field Marshal Montgomery had a conqueror’s glint in his eye as he set in motion the battle he hoped would lead to Berlin. Montgomery’s plan was to begin on Thursday, February 8, with 340,000 troops in the Canadian First Army plowing southeast up the left bank of the Rhine from Nijmegen in Operation VERITABLE. Two days later, in Operation GRENADE, the U.S. Ninth Army with another 300,000 men would lunge northeast across the Roer on a forty-mile front, reinforced on the right flank by 75,000 First Army men from Joe Collins’s VII Corps. This American horde, bristling with two thousand guns and fourteen hundred tanks, was to join the Canadians shoulder to shoulder on the Rhine before enveloping the industrial Ruhr.

But no crossing could be made on the Roer—a modest stream that paralleled the Rhine—until the Schwammenauel and Urft dams upstream were seized to prevent the Germans from uncorking floodwaters at an indelicate moment. Efforts in the late fall to capture or bomb the waterworks had failed, and “damn the dams” remained a tiresome malediction in American headquarters. Not until those bugaboos were eliminated could the Roer be vaulted, the Rhine attained, and the Ruhr captured.

The Urft fell easily in early February, but only because German defenders had rallied round the Schwammenauel and the twenty billion gallons it impounded. For nearly a week the green 78th Division, reinforced by a regiment from the 82nd Airborne and eventually the veteran 9th Division, had retaken ground won and then lost in the Hürtgen battles of late fall: the Kall gorge—where dozens of decaying, booby-trapped corpses of 28th Division troops still lined the trail—and then Kommerscheidt, and finally ruined Schmidt, captured in a cellar-to-cellar gunfight on February 8 after forty battalions of U.S. artillery made the rubble bounce. The Schwammenauel stood two miles away.

At eight P.M. on Friday, February 9, a battalion of the 309th Infantry crept from a tangled wood to find the dam intact and imposing: 170 feet high, 1,200 feet across, and almost 1,000 feet thick at its base. German mortar and artillery rounds rained down, and muzzle flashes winked from the far shoreline, answered by an eventual forty thousand U.S. shells. Silvered by flare light, five engineers and an escort of riflemen trotted across the dam as an ominous rumble rose from the Schwammenauel valve house below. Finding that a bridge across the sluiceway had been destroyed, the men hopped over a guardrail and slid down the dam’s northern face to enter a doorway far below. Stifling heat and pressure made breathing difficult—“it was like going in a tunnel under the sea,” one lieutenant recalled—but no explosives were found within. Engineers had calculated that German demolitionists would need a half million pounds of TNT to blow a hole in the massive structure.

But mortal wounds had already been inflicted. Other patrols found the gatehouse, power room, and discharge valves thoroughly wrecked: an unstoppable cascade of water fifteen feet wide was pouring from floodgates ninety feet below the dam’s lip. German dynamite also had jammed open the valve on a penstock carrying water from Urft reservoir to the Schwammenauel basin, guaranteeing that the Roer valley would be flooded for days by 100 million tons of water.

Snowmelt and rain had already made the Roer unruly, as readings taken at gage stations every two hours made evident. Now the river rampaged. The ominous code word “Johnstown” alerted Ninth Army of inundations to come, although with a rising tide rather than a wall of water. Overnight the Roer rose eight inches, and kept rising.

With Montgomery’s concurrence, Lieutenant General Bill Simpson, the Ninth Army commander, postponed his attack at the Roer for twenty-four hours, then delayed it again indefinitely. Engineers reported that currents upstream were racing at nearly ten miles an hour, too swift for bridging, and aerial scouts above Linnich downstream found that a river usually one hundred feet wide from bank to bank now stretched a thousand yards, and in some spots more than a mile.

For nearly a fortnight, fifteen American divisions would wait on the west bank for the reservoirs to drain and the torrent to abate. Fortunately, patience and common sense were among the military virtues accorded Simpson, the son of a Confederate Army veteran who became a Pecos River rancher. Lean, angular, and six foot four, with a helmet that fitted his shaved head like a skullcap, Simpson credited his wife as “the balance wheel that settled me down.” Combat experience in the Philippines, Mexico, and the Meuse-Argonne taught him as a young officer to “never send an infantryman where you can send an artillery shell.” “He is excellent in every respect,” Eisenhower told Marshall, and Bradley called Ninth Army “uncommonly normal.” An admiring AAF officer wrote that Simpson “had the perfect calm, poise, and surety of an experienced professor. He displayed no anxiety, no uncertainty, and his whole headquarters reflected his character.”

While Simpson bided his time, the Canadian First Army, composed of both British and Canadian corps, of necessity carried the weight of the Allied attack. The ponderous, muddy trudge from Nijmegen—“a bitter slugging match,” in Eisenhower’s phrase—averaged a bit more than a mile a day through the sloughs and thickets between the Rhine and the Maas, bagging eleven thousand enemy prisoners and reducing a score of German villages to half-timbered ash. “Machine guns are crackling now like fire rushing wildly through dry bracken,” wrote R. W. Thompson, a reporter for London’s Sunday Times. The sight of evening barrages, he added, “reminds me of the Jabberwock: ‘with eyes of flame came wiffling through the tulgy wood, and burbled as he came.’” Rundstedt on February 12 reported that Army Group B had fewer than three hundred tanks and an infantry strength of under seven divisions; each German battalion was said to face the equivalent of an Allied division. As in Sicily and Normandy, Montgomery’s forces would pin down substantial enemy reserves, permitting an American breakthrough.

*   *   *

At length Ninth Army was ready to take up the cudgels. Hoping to catch the enemy by surprise several days before the Roer spate had fully subsided, Simpson on Thursday, February 22, ordered Operation GRENADE launched the next morning; he then watched Bing Crosby in Going My Way, tossed down a nightcap, and went to bed. Hardly had the crooning ended than, at 2:45 A.M. Friday, two thousand massed guns cut loose. “The light from the flash of the cannon and explosion of the rounds was so brilliant,” a lieutenant colonel in XIX Corps reported, “that you could read a document in the dark of night without any impression that there was flickering light.”

Forty-five minutes later three corps plunged forward on a seventeen-mile front. Enemy fire and an unruly current still flowing at seven miles per hour would cost the assault six hundred storm boats. A footbridge installed at 4:24 A.M. promptly collapsed when rammed by a careering river craft. A falling tree and German gunners sank more foot spans, as mortar rounds walked across the water and plunging machine-gun fire chewed through GIs flailing for shore. One bridge built by 30th Division engineers was knocked out eight times before being abandoned. The damp cold prevented a battalion in Joe Collins’s VII Corps on the right flank from starting even a single outboard motor, and other boats swamped, sank, or were shot to driftwood by either enemy artillery or white-phosphorus rounds fired short from U.S. guns. A battalion commander reported “indescribable confusion.”


But within hours brute force won through. Anchor cables held fast and by seven A.M. three footbridges crossed the flood; a sturdier span opened at four P.M. Friday, bearing the first vehicles. By nightfall, the bridgehead was four miles deep, and three feeble German counterattacks had been slapped aside. Of fourteen hundred U.S. casualties, most were engineers. Simpson’s headquarters kept a one-page chart listing each battalion in thirteen infantry regiments with the notation “crossing” or “over” as appropriate. By dawn on Saturday, twenty-eight battalions from six divisions had reached the far shore, with ten more to follow by nightfall. A separate list of “cities captured”—mostly German villages, really—grew to sixteen. On Saturday evening, nineteen bridges spanned the Roer, seven of them fit for tanks. Scouts found beer on tap in a Gasthaus; other GIs captured a Nebelwerfer battery before it could fire a shot. “It looks like things are beginning to break a bit,” the 30th Division commander reported.

By Monday, February 26, as three corps fanned across a bridgehead twenty-five miles wide, Ninth Army was advancing three or four miles a day with VII Corps shielding the right flank. On Tuesday, Simpson committed his armor under orders to exploit, and columns of Shermans clattered across the Cologne plain toward Düsseldorf. Swarming fighter-bombers heckled the fleeing foe; villages with streetlights burning and trolleys running fell without a shot fired. Abruptly the war seemed to have returned, as one Army historian later wrote, “to the halcyon days of August and September.” By Thursday, March 1, Simpson’s spearhead had reached Neuss, within rifle shot of the Rhine. From the rooftop of a seven-story grain elevator, American officers with telescopes reported seeing “the dead, lifeless giant of Düsseldorf.… Of the sea of factory chimneys, one smoked; of the miles of railroad yards in the foreground, not one car moved.”

Eight bridges spanned the great river on Ninth Army’s front, and one by one German engineers blew them into the water. A ruse to seize the crossing at Oberkassel almost succeeded: the strike force moved at night, with Shermans tricked up as panzers and with German-speaking GIs perched on the fenders. The deception was unmasked only at dawn by a gimlet-eyed enemy soldier on a bicycle who bellowed in alarm. Gunfire raked the street, sirens wailed, and a pell-mell rush for the ramp ended abruptly when bridge girders, towers, and roadbed plunged into the river with a roar and another of those mighty, disheartening splashes.

Simpson now proposed a quick amphibious assault over the Rhine north of Düsseldorf. A thrust by XIX Corps could shorten the war by weeks, he believed; patrols reported that “the enemy is completely disorganized and has neither defensive forces on this side nor the far side of the Rhine capable of stopping a fast crossing.” Montgomery declined with a curt “Don’t go across,” adding that any attempt by Ninth Army to invade the “industrial wilderness” of the Ruhr without extensive, deliberate preparation was “unwise” and would risk precious bridging matériel. The field marshal’s rationale was quite plausible, but an incensed Simpson believed Montgomery coveted for himself and the British the glory of the first Rhine crossing—“a selfish idea,” in the army commander’s estimation. American officers increasingly derided the British as the “time out for tea army.”

GRENADE was over. Ninth Army in less than two weeks had driven more than fifty miles from the Roer to the Rhine. The Canadian First Army had covered forty miles, against stiffer opposition. The two forces met on March 3 at Geldern, west of Duisburg. Together they had suffered 23,000 casualties while capturing 51,000 Germans and killing or wounding 38,000 more.

Despite the staggering losses, enemy survivors escaped in good order across the Rhine before blowing six final bridges in Duisburg and Wesel. Allied armies had begun to mass along the great river, if piecemeal and without a clear sense of how or where to cross. Still, Rundstedt told Hitler that the German plight on the Western Front was “bad everywhere,” and even the Führer was forced to acknowledge “a heavy heart.”

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