Blog 04/19/2021 - Death of the Wehrmacht

Death of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group B in The Ruhr Pocket: The lead elements of the two Allied Army Groups linked up on 1 April 1945 east of the Ruhr River to create a massive encirclement of 370,000 German troops.

While the bulk of the U.S. & British forces advanced east towards the Elbe River, some 18 U.S. Divisions remained behind to destroy the isolated forces of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group B. The Ruhr Pocket was closed on 1 April by the lead elements of U.S. Ninth Army & First Army pincers meeting near Lippstadt, Germany. By April 4, the encirclement was completed and the Ninth Army reverted to the command of General Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group. Within the Ruhr Pocket some 370,000 German soldiers, 14 divisions of Army Group B & two Corps from the First Parachute Army, altogether the remnants of 19 divisions & millions of civilians were trapped in cities already heavily damaged by numerous bombings.

However, to get home, the Americans had to go through Model & Army Group B, whose armies were still strong enough to bloody an attacker foolish enough to launch a frontal assault. As the Soviets had repeatedly learned, even weakened German units usually had cohesion, battle-experienced troops & morale enough to gut a clumsy assailant. If German boys were willing to fight & die hard in Poland, the Caucasus & in the Crimea, there was no reason to think they would fold on home soil.

Above all, there was Model’s ruthlessness: toward his officers & men, toward the enemy, toward Soviet civilians unlucky enough to have lived in his zones of operation. During the German Ninth Army’s 1943 retreat at Orel, he infamously evacuated the district’s entire population, with great loss of life. In 1944, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens died in concentration camps behind his lines in Latvia. These deeds landed him high on the Soviet list of war criminals. He even made Hitler uncomfortable. “I trust that man to make it happen,” the Führer, a WWI combat veteran declared, “but I wouldn’t want to serve under him.”

Facing the Allied armies were the remnants of a shattered Wehrmacht, some understrength divisions, a few SS training units & large numbers of Volkssturm (militia units for aging men, including some World War I veterans), Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) units (composed of boys as young as 12) as well as combat service support forces & Luftwaffe Flak & maintenance crews. Only 20% of the Army Group German soldiers or 75,000 had infantry weapons, with another 75,000 having just pistols only. Ammunition & fuel supplies were at critically low levels. Model's requests for an airlift were dismissed out of hand by Hitler owing to Allied air supremacy & the state of the Luftwaffe’s heavy lift capability. All of Model's requests to withdraw before the encirclement or break out after the creation of the pocket were denied by Hitler, who expected "Fortress Ruhr" to hold out for months & occupy hundreds of thousands of Allied troops. The staff of Army Group B knew they only had food supplies for three weeks owing to the millions of civilians that also had to be fed.

While the main operations were directed eastwards to central & northern Germany, elements of three U.S. Armies concentrated on the pocket. Model's troops put up a strong resistance along the Dortmund–Ems Canal & the Sieg River-line, holding their ground from 4 April to 9 April & even launching a counterattack against the U.S. 75th & 95th Infantry Divisions (IDs) near Dortmund. For every German city or town that capitulated, another fought in the rubble for every building. Bürgermeisters of some German cities presented white flags to the advancing U.S. troops, such as at Duisburg & Essen (surrendering to the U.S. Ninth Army on 10 April) while Wehrmacht troops at Dortmund, Wuppertal & Hamm fought fanatically for days to their complete exhaustion. The presence of SS troops was a common element in motivating most instances of all-out resistance.

In the south, the attack of the U.S. III Corps & XVIII Airborne Corps on 5 and 6 April was delayed by German troops, who skillfully used the rugged terrain of the heavily forested Sauerland district to force the Americans to fight for every stream & town. The Germans fought strongly for the city of Siegen to prevent the U.S. from breaking out to open ground. The heavily outnumbered & outgunned Germans could ultimately do nothing more than delay the U.S. advance, who were covering approximately 6 miles per day.

By 11 April, German combat strength had weakened to such an extent that they were only defending roadblocks & built-up areas along main roads, supported by a few tanks, assault guns & flak guns. At one point, the Germans covered a valley in a thick smokescreen, delaying the 7th Armored Division (AD) for some time. Throughout the battle, U.S. Generals in the south failed to use their two armored divisions properly, attempting to unleash them on the Germans at every opportunity but failing due to poor command decisions which left them stuck behind the U.S. IDs for most of the pocket's reduction.

The performance of the U.S. 13th Armored Division was particularly disastrous. Two long road marches totaling 240 miles cost them 50% of their Sherman tanks by the time it reached the battle area. Completely worn out, the division was immediately thrown into action on 10 April by XVII Airborne Corps Commander MajGen Matthew Ridgway, who, under pressure from 1st Army Commander LtGen Courtney Hodges to speed up operations, ordered it to "destroy" the German forces. The division commander, MajGen John Wogan & his staff took this order literally. Communications between units rapidly broke down & the entire division was held up by a stream when it deployed to "destroy" the Germans. It failed to reach its objectives in time & was overtaken by infantry divisions. Things worsened when Wogan was severely wounded by German rifle fire near a roadblock.

On 7 April, the skies cleared & the IX & XXIX Tactical Air Commands began relentless close air support versus the remaining German defenders, strafing & bombing German troop concentrations of both motorized & horse-drawn columns. The rationing of U.S. artillery ammunition had been lifted & U.S. artillery fired 259,061 rounds in 14 days in support of XVI Corps alone.

For 13 days the Germans delayed or resisted the U.S. attempts to collapse the pocket but on 14 April the U.S. First & Ninth Armies linked up on the Ruhr River at Hattingen splitting the pocket in two. German resistance began to crumble as the smaller, eastern part surrendered the next day. The German 15th Army under General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen capitulated on 14 April, having lost all control over his subordinate formations. The Germans had continued the fight in the pocket despite no realistic hope of relief from the start, as they continued tying down 18 U.S. divisions.

Field Marshall Model also lost contact with most of his formations & commanders on 14 April & dissolved his army group the next day. Wanting to save as many lives as possible for the post-war rebuilding. He decreed the discharging of all youths & older men ordering the Volkssturm & non-combatant personnel to discard their uniforms & return home. On 16 April, the bulk of the German forces surrendered en masse to the U.S. forces.

5th Panzer Army Commander, General Josef Harpe was captured by paratroopers of the 17th Airborne Division on 17 April while trying to cross the Rhine to join German forces in the Netherlands (because of Harpe's extreme personal bravery & successful military leadership in combat, he was awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves & Swords, one of only 160 German soldiers to receive this high honor during WWII.) Ammunition supplies were exhausted on the 17th, so the non-combatant troops were be allowed to surrender on that day. All combat troops were to either break out in organized formations or drop their weapons & go home, an implicit authority to surrender. Organized resistance in the western part of the pocket came to an end on 18 April. The U.S. Army suffered 10,000 casualties while reducing the pocket.

MajGen Ridgeway CG XVIII Airborne Corps, (with MajGen James Gavin, 82nd Airborne Division) sent an aide bearing a white flag to Army Group B's Headquarters, calling on Model to surrender but the Field Marshal refused, citing his oath to Hitler. When asked for instructions by the squad leader of a German unit that was still armed, Model told them to go home as their fight was over. He then shook their hands and wished them luck.

However, he could not reconcile surrender with the demands he had placed on his officers & men throughout the war & his career. Model tried to get to the Harz mountains through the U.S. lines in a small column, but could not make it. Rather than surrender and face trial for war crimes, he committed suicide by his own pistol on 21 April.

The 317,000 German soldiers from the Ruhr Pocket & some civilians, were imprisoned in the Rheinwiesenlager ("Rhine Meadow Camp") near Remagen, a temporary prison enclosure. The Americans liberated hundreds of thousands of hungry, diseased & weakened prisoners-of-war (POWs) & slave laborers, the former consisting mainly of Red Army POWs who were very happy at their liberation. The liberated slaves also had a tendency to loot & terrorize the German population once released besides clogging the roads in front of the U.S. columns. The German civilians were incredulous at Germany's defeat so effective was Nazi propaganda. The Americans also witnessed the destruction inflicted on Ruhr cities and towns by the Allied bombing campaign. Most of the German industrial machinery was situated in protected or decentralized locations, had survived the onslaught unharmed or requiring only minor repairs and were quickly operational after their capture.