Operations of L Co, 13th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division
Crossing the Roer River and Attack on Düren, Germany
23 – 25 February 1945, Rhineland Campaign
(Personal Experience of a Platoon Leader)
Capt Alexander F. Berol
This archive covers the operations of L Company, 13th Infantry Regiment, 8th US Infantry Division in the attack on Düren (GER) after the crossing of the Roer River, February 23-25 1945. In order to provide an orientation, it is necessary to briefly discuss the events prior to this action. The 8ID prior to Feb 7 1945 had had a holding mission along the west bank of the Roer River, in the vicinity of the Hürtgen Forest (GER), just along the Belgian border. On Feb 7, the 8ID, pursuant to orders from VII Corps, was relieved by the 1ID and given the mission of relieving elements of the 104ID on the west bank of the Roer River in the vicinity of Düren.
The 13th Infantry Regiment relieved the 414th Infantry Regiment of the 104th Infantry Division in the vicinity of Gürzenich, Rolsdorf and Derichsweiller with the mission of preparing for crossing the Roer River, and seizing the city of Düren, and establish the Corps bridgehead on or about Feb 14 1945. The plans for a jump off on Feb 14 were abruptly altered on Feb 9 when the Germans opened the gates of the Schwammenauel Dam (Rurtalsperre Schwammenauel) to the south or towards the source of the Roer River. This created an impassable barrier in the 13-IR sector, as the Roer which had been fordable was now a raging torrent, approximately 10 to 15 feet deep, with a current speed of 10 to 15 miles per hour. The creation of this man made barrier, while postponing the scheduled attack, gave all US units an opportunity for development and practice in the art of river crossing, an opportunity to continue the build up of supplies and equipment, an opportunity to further train any new replacements and most important of all, an opportunity for detailed study of maps and the latest aerial photographs, as well as daylight visual reconnaissance of the western portion of Düren.
Supplies and equipment to include supporting units were poured into this area so that the general area of Derichsweiler-Gürzenich resembled a rear area supply point rather than a reserve battalion sector, all within mortar range of the enemy. Training in river crossings took place, however the practice was on a small almost still-water creek. The equipment used was standard engineer assault boats operated by engineer personnel. Intensive study of all maps and aerial photographs was done by all personnel down to and including squad leaders. Visual reconnaissance over a large sector of Düren was made by all personnel. The 13-IR was, as were all units in this general sector, committed, yet awaiting the drop in the Roer River. It had the 1st Bn deployed in defensive positions in the town of Rolsdrof, along the western banks of the Roer. The 2nd and 3rd Bns were in Derichsweiler and Gürzenich respectively in assembly areas awaiting jump off day. This regiment had the 104-ID on the left and the 28-ID of its own division on the right. The 3rd Bn was billeted in the town of Gürzenich with no tactical formation as use was being made of suitable quarters along the one large main street of this town, L Co., the to be reserve company of the attack, was well set up in the most comfortable quarters to be found in its section of town. The plan for the 13-IR was for the 2nd and 3rd Bns to attack abreast through the 1st Bn with, the 2nd Bn on the right and the 3rd Bn on the left. The 13-IR was opposed by elements of the 12. Volksgrenadierdivision, the 353. Infanteriedivision and the 363. Infanteriedivision. The combat efficiency and Esprit de Corps were very high, as all troops were rested, well trained, fully equipped and rearing to go. During the period of waiting for the Roer River to recede to normal the only combat realized was some light mortar fire as well as propaganda leaflets issuing the 8-ID an invitation to attempt the river crossing. These rather than cause any alarm brought to mind how did the Germans know who was waiting to cross plus a feeling of slight amusement.
(Illustration) River Crossing at Dornot, Germany : (above), Infantrymen carry an assault boat down the Moselle River. (below), Members of 2nd Bn, 11th Infantry regiment cross the river at Dornot.
The enemy was well set defensively although the number of troops apparently was not too great. It is believed their morale and efficiency was high as they had their river, in addition to a well dug-in set of defensive positions, protected by minefields. The terrain on both sides of the river was similar, flat with good footing, as the spring thaw was about over and the ground had partially dried out. However, armor, if and when used would be required to stay on roads. The enemy had the advantage of a more built up area, and a slight advantage of long range observation as the eastern side of Düren was the commanding ground in this area. The weather was fair with visibility well over 3000 yards although generally overcast skies. Logistical support for the offensive was excellent, despite the heavy mud in the roads as well as heavy rains in early February. The improved weather after February 15 assisted with the logistical problem so that no items were in short supply. The enemy supply situation was known to be poor due to our Air Force constantly bombing their supply dumps, road nets and key railroad yards. This bombing as well as strafing further reduced the number of motor vehicles they could muster to support any operation.
Plan of the 3rd Battalion
On Feb 15, the 3rd Bn in its assembly area in Gürzenich had the following plan of attack. Upon receipt of D-day orders, it would jump off from its line of departure, the west bank of the Roer River, by use of engineer assault boats and attack the city of Düren. I and K Cos were to attack abreast with K on the right and I on the left followed by Bn Hqs, and L Co in reserve. The Heavy Weapons Co was, until the balance of the battalion had crossed the river, to be in general support with both its machine guns and its mortars.
On Feb 21, the long awaited word for the attack was received. The scheduled time was to be 0330 hours on Feb 23. The artillery preparations were to start at 0245 hours and were to be the heaviest artillery barrage ever fired by the 8-ID’s Artillery. This barrage was to be further intensified by VII Corps and 1A’s Artillery, plus all the mortars of the regiment. To give some picture of the intensity 60-MM mortars had only one target each, an area of twenty-five square yards, as out of the target area, would have been over lapping fire with heavier weapons. As a further indication the VII Corps Artillery had by 2200 hours, Feb 23 1945, fired 86000 rounds.
Plan of L Company
L Co as the battalion reserve, with the balance of the battalion, during the night of Feb 11 was to move from its assembly area in Gürzenich, to final assembly areas in houses just back from the river in Rolsdorf. It was anticipated that the first units would be across the river by 0400 hours.
The plan for crossing was to be as follows :
1st Plat, followed by the Weapons Plat minus the light machine guns which were with the two assaulting platoons.
The 60-MM mortars after taking their part in the initial barrage were more or less instructed to follow along as their use was not anticipated. Needless to say all men had all the ammunition they could carry, as all except those members of crew served weapons had at least three hand grenades, a well filled belt plus two bandoleers of extra ammunition. L Company once across the river was to follow I Company through the main part of town, which was on the battalion left flank.
Preparation for the Attack
At 0245, the artillery preparation began with a deafening roar as the artillery, Division, Corps and Army, plus unit mortars started really pouring thousands of shells into the city of Düren. This barrage fell on the east bank of the river, on the water front buildings and then further back into the heart of the once proud German city. While other units in this theater may have had heavier fire, it seems upon looking back impossible because what had been a still night with the muffled noises of troops moving, suddenly and abruptly became a version of the Hell of a Hollywood produced battlefield.
Düren, Germany, before and after
Dueren : Anna Kirche (Anna Chruch)
Dueren : Koelnerstrasse (Road to Koln)
Dueren : Truemmerfelder (Literally : Ruins Park)
Dueren : Weiherstrasse (Stream Road) and Railways Ruins
Dueren : Wasserturm (Water Tower)
Dueren : Marienkrankenhaus & Centrum (St Marie Hospital & Town Center)
Dueren : Stadt Theater (City Theater)
Crossing of the Roer River
The artillery lifted from the east bank and water front buildings at 0330 when the initial units of the 3rd Bn, Plats of I and K Cos shoved off from the west bank of the Roer River in engineer assault boats powered with outboard engines. These motors were to have been warmed up during the preparation but many failed to start, so the first wave saw some transported by power boat, and some going across under the power of paddle wielded by the infantry. German mortar and artillery fire raked the east bank and the river, knocking out boats, causing casualties and generally raising havoc with our troops. The first wave saw one officer per company, each with approximately half of his platoon across the river where they deployed into a few buildings on the river bank. The return trip was even more disastrous to the engineer boats as practically all were either swept downstream where they either crashed into pilings of a knocked out bridge, that formerly connected Düren with Rolsdorf, or were swept into the sector of the 104-ID where many men were rescued. This left the small first wave the bridgehead for the 3rd Bn, 13-IR. During the balance of the morning, until daylight, constantly under heavy enemy fire, frantic efforts were made to cross the Roer by the use of cables stretched across the river to guide the few remaining assault boats. These experiments helped cross the balance of the platoon of F Co and almost a full platoon of K Co before they were knocked out.
Crossing the Roer along the Front Line (Illustration)
(Example) Alligators used by the 115-IR in crossing a flooded Roer River near Broich – taken by second battalion command Maj Al Warfield (April 1945)
(Example) Roer River crossing, C Co, 299CEB puts up a footbridge in support of 16IR (Feb 25 1945)
Daylight, Feb 23, saw these two small portions of the battalion across and that’s all, because as soon as it was daylight the fire controlled from observation points made it all but impossible to operate along the river. Attempts were made to bridge the river, but they proved disastrous, as no one could, under these conditions, accomplish any mission. It was during this time Lt Col Leonard S. Wilhelm, CO of the 3rd Bn was killed.
Distinguished Service Cross
Awarded posthumously for actions during WW II. SYNOPSIS : Lt Col Leonard S. Wilhelm (ASN : 0-24177), United States Army, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with the 13-IR, 8-ID, in action against enemy forces on Feb 23 1945. Lt Col Wilhelm’s intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty at the cost of his life, exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 8-ID, and the United States Army – General Orders : HQs, 1A, General Orders No. 53 (1945)
During the day of Feb 23, the units in Düren were forced to do the job intended for a battalion as no help other than fire support could be given them. L Co, the balance of the battalion and all service units spent the day under a cover of smoke from 4.2′(in) mortars, in getting more equipment ready to cross the river as soon as darkness fell. One idea was introduced of using a flying ferry operating on a cable utilizing the river current as a means of power, as an expedient.
NARA-EUCMH -(SC-411938) Signal Corps Photo #ETO-HQ-45-15407 (Braun) Released by Field Press Censor, February 26 1945 Düren, Germany, Infantrymen of B Company, 1st Bn, 13th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division (1st Army) light up last cigarettes before pushing off against another objective, a German held barrack in Düren (Feb 24 1945)
NARA-EUCMH – (SC-201386) Proud and pleased, these Yanks with the 8th Infantry Division (1st Army) are the first Allied armored group to enter the battered German city of Düren (Feb 24 1945)
As soon as darkness fell the operation of river crossing started again to get troops across both by boat and by the new method of a flying ferry. This expedient worked so well that by 2200 the 3d Bn was on its way. The balance of I and K Cos were crossed to assist their elements and to forge ahead in the attack on Düren. These companies were followed by Bn Hqs which set up its CP in what was left of a building near the former main highway bridge into the city. L Co still in battalion reserve crossed after the Bn Hqs Group. As portions of it crossed the river it gradually formed a unit in a reserve area in rubble of buildings near the Bn’s CP. Shortly after L Co crossed the VII Corps engineers had completed construction of a bridge into the city. This bridge was under construction for over ten hours, a job which normally would have been completed in two or three, so severe was the accurate shelling of this area. With the crossing of the entire battalion and the completion of the bridge, just about twenty-four hours behind schedule, all were set to really enter and clear the western section of the city and proceed to the regimental objective, the railroad running northwest to southeast on the eastern side of the City of Düren.
The Change of Mission
The mission of L Co was soon altered as progress of both I and K Cos was slower than had been expected due to greater sections of the city containing larger and larger numbers of delaying positions as the higher ground away from the river was approached and the attack of the 2nd Bn on the right veered away from the 3rd Bn’s line of attack. It is believed much of this German troop strength was forced into this sector by the 104-ID, on the left, which was ahead of the 13-IR. This compelled the battalion commander to commit his reserve leaving the battalion only with a reserve of portions of Hqs Co. L Co was committed between I and K Cos, to enable K Co to swing to the right in the general direction of the 2nd Bn, and attempt to establish contact with them.
L Co joined the actual attack at 1300 on Feb 24 in the western third of Düren approaching the heart of the once thriving city of 30000. The formation for the attack was, 2nd and 1st Plats in assault, each with attached machine guns, followed by the 3rd Plat, Hqs Co and Weapons Plat minus its machine guns. In moving up to occupy the area between I and K Cos, the 1st Plat was to receive its greatest casualties of the attack. This entire platoon sought cover from the ever incoming artillery, in the entrance of what had been a large school, when with German good luck, a very large shell, approximately 240-MM, landed near the entrance, killing four men and wounding seven additional, including one squad leader and two assistant squad leaders. The two assault platoons made their contact with I Co on the left and K on the right and started forward under some light mortar fire, and some machine gun fire from buildings, quite a distance to the front. The orders were to clear out the buildings as the unit progressed, so forward motion was very slow. The buildings, many of them were shells with cellars, somehow standing up under tremendous piles of rubble, at first contained few if any Germans, and those quite willing to surrender, but after about two blocks resistance stiffened.
With streets as final protective lines and entrances to further penetration, slow progress slowed down even more. Each squad and platoon started to really fight to gain ground. Artillery supporting fires were not of much assistance, as buildings gave the enemy the necessary cover from fragmentation, so the only gain was by fire and movement, with good use being made of hand grenades. The 2nd Plat after gaining about two blocks to the business heart of the city was held up by one enemy machine gun, apparently high up in a building to their front, firing thru gaps in buildings and between buildings. This fire although plunging, was accurate, as it accounted for one man killed and three wounded. Finally about four men with a BAR by use of rubble for cover, were able to flank this gun to find them in a second story of a false fronted building, and kill two die hard Germans. The progress of the 3rd Plat continued to move along slowly, as building after building was searched for enemy. A few Germans were flushed out, some to become more or less happy prisoners of war, some to withdraw to the rear and some to be killed by hand grenades, which preceded the men into buildings. The balance of L Co was following the assault platoons in bounds, without seeing any action of any kind, other than, the flow to our rear of the prisoners. The mortar section so far, had not fired a round other than in the original preparation of the city.
This slow progress continued for the units on the left and on the right until late in the afternoon when K Co on the right, on a more or less exposed flank, received a minor counterattack as they paused in a somewhat open area. This became a serious fire fight for a few moments, until artillery from the 8-ID, 41-FAB landed squarely on the attacking Germans, causing numerous casualties and a hasty withdrawal. L Co’s progress was speed-ed by direction of the battalion commander who contacted the three companies on line thru the wire which each unit was laying as it moved forward. It was now about 1600, Feb 24, with resistance quite light. As the platoons continued in the assault in coordination with the other units of the battalion, the clearing of buildings became somewhat sketchy so that, we learned later, Hqs Bn began to take prisoners who realized their part of Düren was definitely in the hands of the American forces.
With darkness rapidly approaching, progress slowed down as contact and control were much reduced in a night with a cloud covered sky. The same absence of light which hindered our progress, favored the Germans, who wished to pull back rather than face the assaulting wave of American troops, so even with slow movement forward, it was steady and block consuming. With the approach of daylight L Co as well as the adjutant units were approaching the outskirts of Düren after a night of practically no action. L Co had received sporadic mortar and artillery fire but without observation, this was merely harassing, as no casualties were received. A few times, one or two Germans had manned an automatic weapon and fired a few bursts along the company front, however no one was killed and only three were wounded. Once these bursts were fired from a point the gun would be picked up, and moved back, so in all but one case a search of the area where it was believed the fire came from was to no avail.
The once case occurred in the 3rd Plat area, when one squad was searching for the gun position. The squad had with complete silence covered a large building, and sent two men in as an advanced group to start the search. These men walked thru the main entrance which faced to the left from the line of attack when they rounded a hall and at the same time spotted two Germans in the act of picking up a gun. It was a pleasure, they said, as each man got a German, which completely removed this small piece of resistance. As day break, 0600 neared, L Co still pushing forward thru the gradually thinning portion of the city, advanced more rapidly. During this period one isolated prisoner who spoke quite good English gave himself up to a member of the 2nd Plat. He claimed he had left his unit in their withdrawal to wait for us, as he had enough of a losing war. This prisoner stated that at about 0400, with the approach of the American forces, the balance of the defenders of this portion of Düren had withdrawn to the town of Merzenich, east of the city.
The end of Düren proper, was reached about 0630, and from there, to the regimental objective, was one smooth clean sweep with no opposition. By 0700 on Feb 25, I, K and L Cos stood on the final objective, the railroad around the eastern side of the city. To sum up the results of the operation : L Co, 3rd Bn, 13-IR, attacking twenty-four hours behind schedule after elements of the battalion established a small isolated bridgehead, and after long preparations which had been hard and costly, did clear and take its’ portion of Düren, and did assist in taking the regimental objective.