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The Ruhr Battle: Encircling the German Army

Ruhr Map
Map of the Ruhr Pocket
Courtesy of Major Ken Hechler

The allies eyed the great German industrial complex in the Ruhr Valley as the heartbeat of the Nazi war machine. Five armies planned to encircle this valley and squeeze out its life-giving blood. On March 28th, 1945, the human vise tightened. Montgomery's British Army came down from the north, Simpson's 9th Army took positions to the rear, Bradley's 1st Army (99th Division) moved east out of the Remagen bridgehead; Patton's 3rd Army guarded the south flank, and the Canadian 3rd Division guarded the northeast. The Rhine river lay to their back.

The attack, lead by the 99th Division, began on April 5, 1945 and lasted twelve days. Major General Walter E. Lauer, Commanding General of the 99th, stated that "the Battle Babies were deliberately selected by higher headquarters for this ardurous task primarily because they had become experienced mountain fighters. The 99th Division cut their teeth on the steep hills of the Ardennes and the east bank of the Rhine when they established the Remagen bridgehead."2

The German resistance was fanatical. Hitler had lost all touch with reality--his sole war strategy had become "no withdrawal." Williamson and Millet state in their book, A War to be Won, that "as long as the Germans had guns and ammunition, they died for the Fuhrer. The number of Americans killed in April, 1945, was 10,677--almost the same number that died in June, 1944 and 1500 more than died in February, 1945. The real German collapse did not come until the last week of April. By that time 317,000 Germans had been taken prisoner in the Ruhr Pocket."3

As German soldiers were taken prisoner, many other people were liberated. General Lauer reported that "slave laborers (French, Belgian, Polish, Dutch, Italian, and Russian) lined the roads and streets and cheered...as Americans went by. Russians with smiles as big as Russia itself stood smack in the middle of the road and shook hands with GIs.... Laughing, hilarious Frenchmen grabbed surprised doughboys and planted humid kisses on their cheeks."4

2Lauer, Walter E. Battle Babies. Nashville, Tennessee: The Battery Press, 1950. p 250.

3Williamson, Murray, and Allan Millet. A War to be Won. USA: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2000. p 480.

4Battle Babies, p 234.

Ruhr Battle Memories

At the end of March, 1945, before the Ruhr Pocket attack, Arlinghaus was searching a small town for German soldiers. He was surprised at the pristine beauty of this little town. The streets were clean, the grass freshly mowed and the houses immaculate. The war had forgotten this little place while on its bloody rampage of death and destruction. Arlinghaus wondered if it had been spared because of the nearby hospital.

Once again, each squad took a street to search the houses. Arlinghaus walked behind a small, silver haired woman as she lead him from room to room. As they walked down the second story staircase, he stopped on the landing and looked at a padlocked wooden door. His stomach turned over as he imagined German soldiers, guns at the ready, standing behind this door. Arlinghaus asked the woman in German what was behind the door. When he received no answer, he asked her to step out of the way and raised his gun to shoot the lock off the door. Trying to buy more time, he asked her to step back farther and again raised his gun to the lock. Suddenly she reached into her busom and produced an old-fashioned key. She was pale and trembling as he unlocked the door. Arlinghaus was weak with relief when he saw a goat peering out at him from the shadows. Meanwhile, the woman was borderline hysterical. Arlinghaus tried to calm her by saying "Das ist gut, mama!" (This is good, mother). He asked her for some milk, but she continued to shake and turned nearly ashen. After several repeated requests, she went to a backyard well and bought up a pitcher of cool milk and served him a cup. Seeing her continued distress, he asked "Was ist los, mama?" (What is wrong, mama?) Getting no reply, Arlinghaus left the house but continued to be puzzled by the woman's behavior.

Later, he related this story to his buddies and was told of a similar incident. Another American soldier had discovered chickens hanging in an attic, and this family, too, had become overly distraught. After awhile, someone found an answer to the mystery. If a German citizen was caught hoarding food, the German soldiers shot them immediately. The body must remain in the street for three days as a warning to other citizens that all extra food must be sent to the front lines.

Playing Soldier

It was a beautiful day in this beautiful town. After finishing the ardurous task of searching homes for German soldiers, Arlinghaus stretched out on a bank near the hospital grounds to enjoy the sunshine. He noticed a group of twenty kids aged nine or ten playing soldier and watched intently as each took a turn being the leader. "Kehrtwendung!" shouted an innocent looking lad. The entire group turned stiffly to the right. "Vorwaerts Marsch!" he yelled with authority. The entire group marched forward. They stopped dead in their tracks when their playmate shouted "Halt!" and snapped to attention with his command "Achtung!" Arlinghaus was amazed at the professionalism of the first-order drill he had just witnessed. "Damn they're good," he thought.

That evening, the sergeant ordered Arlinghaus and another platoon member, Burchell, to stand guard at the top of a hill. Close to the road, a group of empty houses were visible in the moonlight. Burchell took the first watch while Arlinghaus slept in the entrance hallway of one of these houses. Suddenly, a rough hand on his shoulder shook him awake. "Someone's coming," Burchell whispered hoarsely. Arlinghaus heard the faint Boomp! Boomp! sound of hob-nailed boots coming down the road. As they approached, he and Burchell hid behind a tree. Arlinghaus bellowed "Halt!" The forty-eight or so German soldiers stopped in their tracks. Arlinghaus commanded in German "Left face!" and they immediately turned to the left. The soldiers were puzzled and began talking among themselves. Arlinghaus yelled "Achtung!" and they clicked their heels and snapped to attention. He was happy that his earlier playground training had paid off but had no idea what to do next. He asked if anyone spoke English, and a young soldier stepped forward. Arlinghaus stated matter-of-factly, "My German is not that good, tell them that they are surrounded and to put their weapons on the ground." The soldiers did as commanded and Arlinghaus barked "Vorwaerts Marsch!" The men marched forward while Arlinghaus circled around the back of the line trying to keep an eye on them. One soldier began talking and was ordered to the back of the line.

As they marched on, the moonlight ran for cover behind clouds and tree tops; the darkness became oppressive. Fear began whispering in his ear: "What will you do if these German soldiers realize they are surrounded by two men?"...and "How far down the road is the American platoon? Shouldn't you be there by now? Perhaps you took a wrong turn?" In the blackness of the night, Arlinghaus at last saw the faint silhouettes of K Company camped along side the road. He immediately called for the Lieutenant who materialized instantly beside him. The German soldiers were surrounded and taken prisoner. They spent the night in a fenced in area for cows. The Lieutenant sent additional men to confiscate the rifles left lying in the middle of the road. He said to Arlinghaus "Good job! Go get some sleep--someone else will finish your guard duty." Arlinghaus thought this was the perfect reward.

The next morning, the American soldiers were ready to pull out and lined up on both sides of the road in combat formation. Two limosines slowly rounded the top of the hill, heading towards them. The car's partial roof made it obvious that the passengers were German brass sitting ramrod straight in the back seat. Looking quite pompous, they drove about one-half mile through the lines of American soldiers before it dawned on them that they were surrounded by the enemy. The German officers began to chuckle sheepishly once they realized their mistake. They fully expected to be with their own platoon which had been captured the night before. The Americans thought it was hilarious and their stomachs ached from belly laughing. Some of the men were requesting "souveniers" and the German officers graciously gave away their helmets and medals before being taken prisoner.

More German Prisoners

German Generals
German Generals-POWs
Courtesy of US Army

German soldiers surrendering became a common sight in these last days of March. Arlinghaus was ordered to stand guard over two prisoners, a German and an Italian. His orders were that if they tried to escape, shoot them. The prisoners sat in a small ditch, and Arlinghaus sat against a tree, smoking a cigarette. The German eyed him with disinterest while the Italian whined on and on. The March night was frigid and the men let it be known that they were cold. Arlinghaus continued to reply, "I'm cold, too." The German pointed to a haystack not to far away and asked if they could bring back hay to cover themselves. At first, Arlinghaus said no, but then thought "What the hell, why not?" He marched them to the haystack several times to get armloads of hay. Every now and then Arlinghaus caught the German watching him, but for some reason, Arlinghaus did not feel sleepy. He did envy the fact that eventually the prisoners fell asleep in their warm ditch while he remained awake and cold the entire night. The next morning, a truck pulled up and they were sent on their way.

At one point, an SS officer was taken prisoner and bought to their outfit. Arlinghaus watched as the Lieutenant marched the officer to an out of the way spot and marked a six-foot length with the heel of his boot. He shouted to the SS officer to start digging his own grave. The prisoner took the shovel and arrogantly started to work, showing absolutely no fear. The joke was on him, he was actually digging a latrine.

Around March 30, 1945, the soldiers realized that the enemy was on the run. K Company came upon a prisoner of war camp located near Dollar that had been liberated. (This was the only POW camp that Arlinghaus remembered). The streets were filled with the 300 or so British field officers and enlisted men, some who had been prisoners since Dunkirk. The GIs were giving the newly freed soldiers cigarettes and candy bars. The crowd was euphoric.

Follow the Leader

Courtesy of James Neighbours

In early April, at 2 a.m., the Company K Lieutenant approached Arlinghaus and three other men. He began briefing them about the next day's happenings. Arlinghaus realized the oddity of the situation--they were rarely told anything in advance. The Lieutenant, looking weary, said that the 1st Army, 99th Division, had been chosen to lead the Ruhr Valley attack. The 394th Regiment will head out. Arlinghaus thought, "a regiment contains a lot of men, no problem." Then the Lieutenant said "the 394th Regiment's 3rd Battalion will go to the front." Arlinghaus began to worry, hearing that his Battalion would be out in front. His ears pricked up and he listened intently as the Lieutenant said the words he didn't want to hear--"the 3rd Battalion's Company K will lead with their 3rd Platoon." Arlinghaus was in Company K's 3rd Platoon. Arlinghaus couldn't believe what he had just heard. "I'm First Scout for 3rd Platoon's 3rd Squad," he heard himself say. "Is that me you want out there?" "That's right, we're to advance twenty miles tomorrow, so get some sleep; we leave at 4 a.m." said the Lieutenant.

After walking for about an hour, Arlinghaus viewed a town from the hillside that was jammed with traffic and pedestrians. Leaflets had been dropped by airplanes warning the people to surrender or have their houses burned. As Arlinghaus entered another town, its main street was empty except for a mayor and four or five other town officials standing at the end of the road. White flags dropped out of windows one at a time as he came within thirty feet of them. Suddenly, several very aggressive long-necked geese began hissing at him and pecking violently at his legs. He realized that he was being watched from every window. His inclination was to wring the necks of the geese but didn't know what to do. Much to his relief, the geese tired of aggravating him and waddled away. The town officials reached out to shake his hand, but Arlinghaus's orders were to walk past them saying "The captain's in the back." The men looked mortified as he walked around them, uttering this curt comment. Arlinghaus thought, "What do they expect, a kiss on both cheeks?" He and his fellow scouts met up with some French prisoners who worked on a farm. The prisoners said that the Germans had come through about an hour ago and were really dragging butt. Arlinghaus half expected a rear-action guard to give them trouble, or a town to refuse to surrender. He continued walking briskly over hilly terrain and was surprised and relieved when the towns surrendered.

Sewing Up the Pocket

Courtesy of James Neighbours

Around noon, Arlinghaus's unit fell back in reserve while another group took the lead. They were not so lucky. Thirty minutes later, war broke out in the next town. Soldiers were killed or wounded. The advancing armies were trapping the Germans in a pocket; there was no where to run or hide. Like frightened, wounded grizzlys, the Germans had re-grouped and taken a stand. They struck back with all their might. (A Company K soldier gave Captain Simmons this diary of Company K's march through the Ruhr Pocket):
  • April 7th - Moved to Fleckenberg
  • April 8th - Attacked Wormbach and began "Ruhr Pocket" drive
  • April 10th Moved to Bracht
  • April 11th-On to Fretter
  • April 12th -On to Hagen
  • April 14th - Moved into Westig and took Iserlohn.
  • April 15th-On to Balve
  • April 16th-On to Achimbrock
  • April 17th-On to Limberg--not much resistance. The Ruhr pocket cleaned out.

The largest city in the 99th's line of attack was Iserlohn. Major General Lauer stated in his book, Battle Babies, "The 394th Infantry, in its zone of action, stormed the city of Iserlohn, using all three of its battalions. The enemy resisted stoutly, and the fight continued througout the day." Iserlohn fell on April 14th. (When discussing this in his later years, Arlinghaus could not remember fighting in Iserlohn but did remember waiting three days for the town to surrender).

Ike Congratulates 99th
Generals Ike, Bradley, Hodges, and Van Fleet
Congratulating the 99th

Once again, the night was cold and several men left the hilltop above Iserlohn to search the houses for blankets. They spent a comfortable night wrapped in the blankets but were rudely awakened the next morning by several irate older women demanding their blankets. Arlinghaus guessed they were about forty-years old. The men felt like they were being chastized by their mothers and sheepishly handed them over. (In his later years, Arlinghaus marveled at the courage of these women. How did they know they would not be shot?)

Arlinghaus noticed an unarmed German soldier walking around with nothing but a radio strapped to his back. Apparently, the German army had sent several of these men up into the hills to determine if there were holes or escape routes through the enemy lines, and then radio this information back to the Germans. Of course, there were no holes. The soldier's radio was confiscated. When the news came that Iserlohn had surrendered, the Ruhr pocket became history.

There was no rest for the 99th Division, as it had become one of the top notch fighting outfits in the E.T.O. Their job was to go where the fighting was, and there were still Nazis full of fight in the Bavarian Alps. Therefore, they ended their association with the 1st Army and were re-assigned to Patton's 3rd Army.

To be continued....

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