Day by Day in the Ruhr Pocket ...
7 April 1945
At daybreak I Company sent a patrol down the dirt road to its left to contact K Company and bring chow forward. A group of infiltrating Germans were encountered and after a few were killed the rest surrendered.
Chow was distributed to all companies, prisoners taken during the preceding night were evacuated and ammunition was re-supplied by the Battalion Ammunition and Pioneer platoon, capably led by Lt. James Hilmar.
From the prisoners, who seemed almost eager to give information, it was learned that the Krauts had moved two companies into the area during the night and were planning to attack the ground occupied by Companies I and K. It was apparent that the Germans did not know that their objectives were held by American troops.
The influx of surrendering Germans continued during the day and all told the same story. There was a definite lack of organization in the enemy forces and small groups or individuals were found wandering aimlessly in the woods looking for a place to surrender. Though the GIs were glad to see the Germans giving up, it was hard to watch their enemies go back to the safety and relative comfort of a PW enclosure.
At 1555 hours the battalion was once more ready to attack. All three companies jumped off to the northeast as planned, with L Company heading for the little village of Alzen, I moving into Hofferhof, and K Company attempting to get control of the road between the towns of Morsbach and Steeg.
K Company's immediate objective consisted of two sections of high ground overlooking Wisser Bach which was a small creek that followed the road from Steeg to Morsbach. The two sparsely wooded knolls were separated by a dirt road that joined the highway less than a mile east of Morsbach. Two platoons were sent forward; one with the mission of taking the high ground to the right and setting up a road block on the highway, and the other with the mission of securing the high ground to the left.
Both platoons reached their objectives shortly after jumping off but while they were still digging in the enemy began throwing direct artillery fire from the front and right flank. In addition the GI's began receiving sporadic but effective machine gun fire. The concentration of enemy fire eventually made the exposed positions untenable, and word was sent back that it was inadvisable to try to hold the ground and would be better to pull back and consolidate the day's gains by forming a unified defense.
Meanwhile, L Company was moving north from K's left rear. The town of Alzen lay huddled in an open draw surrounded on three sides by thick woods. Heavy machine guns from M Company were set up, on the line of departure and the mortars began firing from a little farther back as targets presented themselves. The two forward observers had a clear view of the objective from an OP near the wood line about 350 yards from the town, and the softening up process began.
The first platoon had moved off on the left flank, and the second platoon was on the right with the light machine guns. The third platoon was in support.
The first counter action by the enemy came, as the scouts leading the first platoon were about halfway across the open area. A 20 mm gun began sending a stream of explosive shells into the fringe of woods and the first platoon was forced to double-time across the field and down into the town where it was engaged in a fire fight. It was either remain in the-deadly fire of the 20mm gun or close with the enemy.
The second platoon moved through direct 88 fire to the north end of town and set up a defense on the reverse slope with the light machine guns. By this time the first platoon had chased the Krauts out of its section of town and Capt. Barzelay had followed, in with his radio operator.
The support platoon cleared the woods to the east and southeast searching for the 20 mm gun but was unable to find it. Using one or two squads to a house the company cleared the buildings one by one and reassembled to set up the night's defenses.
The heavy machine-guns were placed by the machine-gun platoon leader in such a position as to take some of the pressure off K Company which had suffered heavy casualties before pulling back to a position out of the ring of relentless Kraut fire.
While K and L were fighting for their objectives, Company 1, on the battalion's right flank, ran into stiff opposition on the road to Steeg. Leaving the woods in the vicinity of Dietershagen, Lieutenant Ochs' men had moved down across a stream and into Hofferhof where only a little resistance was met in two of the houses. The town was quickly cleared and four German riflemen were captured.
At 1700 the company started off to the east with one of M Company's platoons trailing the column. The enemy intelligence section was, evidently not functioning as well as Lieutenant Janes' "I & R" men. On several occasions the company ran into Germans who thought the road still belonged to Deutschland. Two Krauts approaching on motorcycles were ambushed and killed, an another was taken alive when he came riding down the road on a bicycle. A little later a Volkswagen came up the road behind the column of American soldiers and the driver was killed.
The company had barely started moving again when still another German jeep approached from the rear. This one was carrying two captains and a lieutenant. One of I Company's bazooka men stopped the vehicle with a direct hit and there was a short exchange of small arms fire that ended with the death of one of the officers and the capture of the other two.
The first platoon, which had been leading the attack, moved off to the left to clear a group of buildings, and the second platoon moved on through. About 600 yards from Steeg the first squad had arrived at some houses on the right when two German tanks were spotted coming onto the highway.
Immediately, two bazooka teams took up firing positions in the ditch at the side of the road. There was a bend in the highway several hundred yards in front of the bazookas and the GIs in the ditch lay very still and waited. The wait was not long.
The first of the tanks lumbered into view and the long gun began to belch flame and high explosive. The bazookas opened up at the same time but the first round whistled down the middle of the road and missed. Another dark hulk rolled, up beside the first and both tanks directed their fire at the buildings that sheltered men of I's first and second platoons.
The red tile-roofed houses stood behind small trees that lined both sides of the road and the tank gunners began throwing shells at the trees. The shells ripped into the new spring foliage and exploded against the twisted branches sending hot shell fragments in all directions. A tree-burst is the most wicked type of artillery fire. GIs hugging the damp earth beside the houses had no protection from the descending fragments.
In an attempt to take some of the pressure off his men, Lieutenant Ochs brought the company's 60mm mortars into play. Within a matter of seconds the mortar men had zeroed in and were lobbing shells at the two tanks. The increase in fire forced the Germans to back up.
Enemy machine gun and sniper fire from the right flank had increased and casualties in the two groups of buildings had mounted to eight wounded and two killed.
The 60's began to run low on ammunition and were forced to lift their fire. The tanks started down the road again and gray-coated German Infantry could be seen coming over the rise of ground in front of Steeg. There were an estimated 130 enemy riflemen in the counter-attacking force.
Some of the second platoon got out from tinder the fire and moved into a creek bed on the left. The "536" radios had failed, but the company commander managed to get word out for his men to fall back to a hill southwest of the village and reorganize for another attempt.
The GIs had to cross 300 yards of open country through a hail of deadly fire from the "88's" and machine guns on the Kraut tanks, and two men were cut down by direct hits as they raced for cover in the woods on the other side of the field.
Most of the company got across to the high ground and permission was requested to return to the first objective taken that day.
When Company I moved back into the woods around Hammer to set up its defenses that night, the list of missing men was a large and bitter thing. Because of the heavy concentration of enemy fire, the company had been unable to evacuate its wounded. Others were cut off by the enemy counterattack and some never received word to leave town.
There were fifteen men, including the 4.2, mortar observer, who had been cut off but managed to keep contact by 300 radio. While trying to get back to the American lines, they sent patrols out from time to keep track of the enemy and radioed their location to battalion headquarters. The mortar observer even directed artillery fire by radio. It was three days before they found their company again and by that time they had picked up twenty prisoners. Twelve of the original 15 Americans returned safely.
That night, L Company found its town difficult to defend because of the numerous draws and depressions in the surrounding terrain. Light machine guns were set up on the high spots under the direction of 2nd Lt. Robert Hibbard who led a squad of his own up under heavy enemy mortar fire to establish a strong outpost. Wire was laid to him there and all night there was a protective ring of machine guns around the company area.
60 mm. mortars put in their usual overtime. During the long hours of darkness they fired half of their basic load, making the night as uncomfortable for the Krauts as possible.
The Battalion's 105s, under Captain M. L. Smith, FA, fired a few supporting rounds, and the only counter fire came from some enemy self-propelled artillery that was silenced between 0200 and 0300 hours.
When I Company's soldiers moved back to dig in for the night, they discovered Germans in the positions they had taken the evening before. At 2300, twenty-three prisoners were taken and more came strolling in at intervals throughout the night.
As darkness thickened into deep night on the 7th of April 1945, there were several hundred American men scattered through the wooded hill-land southwest of the German village of Steeg. For a few, the night had brought peace, forever. But for the living the night was to be only another long wait for the new day. A new day and a new list of dead and wounded and missing.