The Beginning of the End: Mannheim, WW-II
by John Alrich, Company A Scout, 71st Infantry Regiment
"Abject fear and surrender showed in his eyes and face. Because he was German, we could not easily communicate but I needed to determine only two things--was he armed or had he any documents which would be useful to his interrogator back at the Allied prisoner-of-war camp? A slight man, almost frail, about a half-foot shorter than his peers, he was dressed in the cap and ill-fitting uniform of Hitler's Volkssturn, the aged last defenders of the “Thousand Year” Third Reich. Judging by his short-cropped gray hair, his scraggly, unshaven face, he must have been in his sixties and God only knew when he had last eaten, slept or washed. It is this man and this situation which is etched in my memory. It happened on the 29th of March, 1945 in the city of Mannheim, Germany, about four weeks before Hitler's suicide on April 30th. right - blown bridges before Mannheim
I was an infantry rifleman, 44th Division, 7th US Army, and had been fighting in Europe since mid-October, the previous year. Most of the time we had very limited knowledge as to how the Allies were progressing in pushing back the Nazi forces except, of course, for action in our narrow, limited sector. Unless I could see, feel, hear, taste, or touch it, it seldom entered my thought process. Obeying orders, attempting to capture or kill the enemy, and surviving were all that really mattered. At times, some details about the war were available in the Army newspaper, “Stars and Stripes,” but most of the time this source was not accessible. It is from this limited vantage point that I relate what I still remember doing and observing some fifty-six years ago.
The weather was crisp, clear and cold with some ice sheets which had not yet been baked and vaporized by the sun, still glistening in patches of shallow pools. For several days before entering Mannheim, our Company was pushing eastward towards the Rhine River along with an attachment of medium tanks, probably Sherman, and Tank-Destroyers--a rare situation for our Company to have such formidable armor and fire-power. Our route was generally through open fields and light brush where tanks could easily navigate and our orders were to bypass the small towns and villages unless they offered resistance.
If we did meet trouble, and this happened only once or twice, we formed a broad skirmish line and our artillery pieces pretty much destroyed the town or, at the least, fired until the enemy’s weapons were silenced. Then we continued on until late dusk. I was told this “slash and burn” strategy was quite deliberate; we wanted to break the German’s will to fight against what must have been apparent to them to be our overwhelming weaponry, materiel, and manpower. I am sure the word of what we were doing traveled quickly ahead of us and lives on both sides, hopefully, were saved.
At this time, most of us were either walking or riding on the backs of tanks so we covered perhaps fifteen or twenty miles a day, packing on our backs our weapons, ammunition, sleeping bags, extra blankets and socks, ponchos, canteens, K-rations, etc.--I think by this time most of us no longer carried gas-masks--and taking short breaks, perhaps once an hour. Since we were seldom under fire, tension was light and I remember thinking I might survive the war after all.
Several days before reaching Mannheim, I was riding on a Sherman when the tank tread broke, stopping the tank and its riders until repairs could be made. Incidentally, the US produced about 40,000 of these tanks by 1945 and they were used not only by the US but also the British and the Soviets. About fifteen minutes after we were stalled, a fearful, wet, bedraggled, almost frozen adolescent German soldier, probably a fifteen-year-old Hitlerjugend, came out from under a small bridge over a stream where he had been attempting to hide until we passed. Our untimely delay forced him to either freeze to death in the shallow stream or give himself up. The latter was an easy choice.
He had no weapon--perhaps it was under the bridge, we didn’t look. We told him to take off his overcoat and shirt, we gave him a blanket to cover himself and the tanker warmed his clothes on the radiator of his tank before sending our not too unhappy defender of the German Reich to our rear as a prisoner-of-war. Shortly after this, the tank tread was repaired and we pushed on.
“Germany’s eighth largest city, Mannheim, with a metropolitan prewar population of 500,000 is situated on the right bank of the Rhine River. It is divided into a northern and southern half by the Neckar River, which flows into the Rhine at that point. Mannheim was the largest city taken by the Regiment and was the first real street fighting encountered since Sarrebourg.” 71st Infantry Regimental History.
I do not recall how we crossed the Rhine and entered the northern half of Mannheim nor have I found reference to this detail anywhere else. By this time most of the bridges in Germany were destroyed by Allied bombings--I have read that Mannheim was heavily bombed as early as December, 1940 by British Wellingtons and a number of times subsequently--so presumably we crossed on military pontoon bridges built by the Army Engineers.
Although we did not know it at the time, the city was divided into two factions--the civilians who wanted to surrender their city and a military rear guard garrison who, probably on Hitler’s direct orders, wanted to defend the city south of the Neckar. Unexpectedly and probably uniquely, one of our officers received a telephone call at his command post in a still-standing building. It was from a civilian leader in the southern part offering surrender. Quoting from our Regimental History:
“He asked to meet an Allied delegate at 1810 (6:10 PM) near the remains of the blown center bridge. Our artillery ceased firing and American representatives led by Colonel Dulaney was at the appointed spot at 1800.Ten minutes later the German commander directed an intense concentration in artillery and flak fire at the Neckar’s northern bank. This barrage lasted approximately ninety minutes. His apparent intention was to wipe out the American party. In this he was unsuccessful; but the surrender move was temporarily halted.”
The next day, again the intrepid German civilians asked to meet with our force commander and surrender and, again, the German commander sent over an artillery barrage. And, of course, our US artillery responded with high-explosives and white phosphorous shells aimed where it was believed the garrison was still in place. However, by this time, the Germans had withdrawn and some arrangement had been made with a responsible civilian group on the other side of the Neckar for a cease fire which held this time. We then crossed the Neckar in light assault boats and by mid-morning, our entire Battalion had moved to the southern side without further incident.
The city had been leafleted from Allied aircraft several days before we entered, telling all Germans in the locality to leave their homes, lay down their weapons and collect in their underground bomb shelters awaiting the Allied advance. Of course, any further resistance would be met with the full force of the Allied Armies. We did meet some resistance after entering the city north of the Neckar, but generally the population complied with Allied orders.
I was told, along with several other GI’s, to bring the people out of their shelter and assemble them in a large group--there must have been several hundred in our sector--inside an adjoining courtyard. Anyone in uniform was segregated for search and interrogation and the civilians were checked visually. As I recall, the bomb shelter was excavated several stories underground and all utilities such as water, electricity and ventilation still seemed to be working.
I routinely searched one level of the bunker as the Germans were leaving and, much to my surprise and pleasure, in a small footlocker I found a cache of hand weapons, including a P-38 pistol and a Mauser machine pistol, wooden holster included. The P-38 was a high production hand gun used to replace the costly Luger and the Mauser was from WW-I design. Its wooden case could be attached to the pistol’s handle making it somewhat like a carbine. I mention this level of detail because in the unwritten rules of war, the person who finds an interesting weapon can usually keep it if he can carry it. I gave most of the other small arms away but I kept the Mauser and the P-38, which I later traded for the Luger I still have. I carried both weapons on my waist belt throughout the rest of the European war. I felt that carrying the extra six or eight pounds was well worth the trouble. Unfortunately, I sold the Mauser many years ago to a collector.
After separating those in uniform and those obviously civilian, mostly women and perhaps a few children (like the Brits, most of the children presumably had been sent away to rural sections of Germany for their protection), we began searching for weapons which could be hidden on the person, such as knives and explosives.
The frail old Volkssturm with the scraggly beard was one of my first searches. He seemed obviously innocent and free of weapons but strangely nervous. I patted him down carefully until I felt a small, soft lump under his clothing. The lump turned out to be a chamois bag pulled closed at one end with a leather thong. When opened, the contents revealed a beautiful gold chain of perhaps fifteen links and weighing several ounces. Admittedly, my first impulse was to pocket the chain and treat it as some kind of booty--this was done all the time, particularly with watches and cameras. On second thought, I knew that the memory of stealing what was probably the last piece of barter this broken, old man had would trouble me for the rest of my life. I returned the bag and chain to him and was rewarded with surprise and tearful, beaming gratitude.
At the next search point, I suspect the chain was taken from him as booty. Such acts of cruelty are the wages of war."