Everywhere to Hide
To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilization.
- George Orwell
Situated in the wide valley of the Main River in the center of Bavaria, where the Romantic Road (Romantische Straße) begins in the north, is the beautiful baroque city of Würzburg. The city sits about halfway between Frankfurt and Nürnberg. Standing on the banks of the Main River, overlooking the city, is a mighty fortress, the Festung Marienberg. The Germans built this fortress in stages between 1200 and 1600. For four hundred fifty years, it was the residence of the prince-bishops who ruled the city.
Before the war, Würzburg had been known for its university. In fact, many students of the University of Würzburg rose to international fame, including - ironically - the prime minister of Britain during the war, Sir Winston Churchill. Adding to the irony was the fact that due to its lack of tactical value, the Allied bombers left the city untouched for most of the war. However, Würzburg suffered the tragic distinction of being the last city the British Royal Air Force destroyed. The final decision to bomb the city came from the highest levels of British government as part of their attempt to break the spirit of the German people.
The bombing began in February 1945, with the worst of it occurring on March 16, 1945, when four hundred thousand bombs were dropped on the city. The bombing raid lasted only twenty minutes, but destroyed 87 percent of the city.
A teenage girl who survived the bombs in February and lived through the March 16 bombing recalls her father pulling the lid over their dungeon in the basement and then hearing the roar of planes and the shrill whistle of falling bombs. This brought an “unconquerable fear.” She recalls that the impact of the bombs felt like an earthquake and the shelter began to rock. With that, she held on tight to her mother. Finally, the bombs stopped falling and the noise of the planes faded until dead silence. Her father opened the lid from the cellar, looked around, and said, “Oh my God, there is nothing left but piles of rubble and a burning inferno.” They all began to cry. What took generations and centuries to build, the British bombers destroyed in less than a half hour. All told, the British bombing caused five thousand civilian deaths.
Prior to this final massive bombing raid, many of the civilians (more than half the population of seventy-five thousand), had fled the city. Those who stayed, in order to avoid the coming firestorm, ran for their lives and tried to reach the banks of the Main River or the edge of town.
Meanwhile, Bill and the Forty-Second had arrived in the heartland of Germany. This was a game changer. In 1944, the German High Command had designated certain cities in Germany as “combat commands,” and had ordered those occupying combat commands to fight to the last man. The Germans designated Würzburg and Schweinfurt as “combat commands,” and the American Command assigned the Forty-Second to take both of these cities.
As the winter of 1945 faded into spring, the Germans knew that the battle for the homeland had begun. On February 26, Paul Hausser, the German SS commanding general of Army Group G, had sent the following message and order to all those Germans defending the homeland: “The execution of all measures in the east necessitates a holding of the lines in the west. There is no compromise here either. . . . He who gives up the fight is not only a coward but he betrays also our women and children. . . . All soldiers separated from their units who are found loitering on roads, in towns, with the trains, claiming to be stragglers, are to be executed on the spot.”
There was no equivocation; the new SS commander of Army Group G was setting the tone for his conduct of operations. Discipline would be maintained and there would be no compromise in the determination to win. Because of such orders, it was common for American soldiers in the spring of 1945 to see Germans who refused to fight hung in public places; often on lampposts. Bill had already seen some of that.
Apart from being motivated by public hangings, many men felt a sense of duty; a conviction that as German fighting men, they were bound to defend the Fatherland against an alien enemy. The foregoing attitude bred contempt for the American adversary. Not just a xenophobic view that foreigners weren’t equal to Germans, but a belief that the individual American was the antithesis of the “master race.” A faith in Hitler reinforced this basic conviction.
Young German boys also internalized the order to fight for their homeland. One describes what happened to him at the time: “Towards the end of the Second World War, when I was sixteen years old, I was taken out of school and put into the army. After a brief period of training at a base several kilometers east of Würzburg, I arrived at the front. The front, by that time, had already crossed the Rhine into Germany and approached a small town west of Würzburg in which our superiors instructed us to defend to the last. There were well over a hundred in my company, all of whom were very young. But we all were ready to fight until the last. One evening the company commander sent me with a message to battalion headquarters. I wandered all night long through destroyed, burning villages and farms, and when in the morning I returned to my company I found only the dead, nothing but dead, overrun by the American Army. I could see only dead and empty faces, where before I had shared childhood fears and youthful laughter. I remember nothing but a wordless cry. Thus, I see myself to this very day, and behind this memory all my childhood dreams crumble away.”
Another German boy, Dieter, also describes his experiences: “When I joined the Hitler Youth, Austria and Czechoslovakia had already been annexed by Germany - to create what Hitler called Lebensraum or living space for the Germany people. When war finally broke out in September 1939, I was only eleven years old. When I entered the Hitler Youth we were given a choice of entering different groups within the organization, for example flying. My choice was Die Sprache-HJ in which I would study languages to be come an interrogator. Despite my youth, I already was able to speak some English, so this is where I was placed. I felt good with the placement, because I would be able to contribute to my country’s victory, and not have to carry a rifle and kill anyone. Things changed in the Spring of 1945. I had just turned sixteen and without the need for interrogators, I had been conscripted to fight. I was issued a Mauser rifle and given three short weeks of military training. Then, I and about forty other conscripts were loaded on a train heading for the front. None of us, except the group leader, had any military or battle experience. The group leader had seen his share as he was wounded on the Russian front. However he didn’t say much to any of us. By this time the front was in Germany and we ended up in Würzburg. When we got off the train, at the main bahnhof [train station] in the northern part of the city, we saw where the American airplanes had bombed other trains and we were greeted with seeing dead bodies and parts of bodies. The group leader then said that they were mostly kinder [children] just like us and never even got a chance to fire their rifles. To this day, I still cannot remember how I survived those next few days in Würzburg, but somehow I did and ended up being captured by the American army.”
Rudolf, a seventeen year-old member of the Hitler Youth talks about his encounter at Würzburg. “Our company was transported by trucks to Rothenburg. Armed with infantry weapons, we marched from Rothenburg ober Tauber, which lies south of Würzburg, into the ruins of Würzburg at the end of March 1945. The bricks of the burnt and collapsed houses were still warm from the allied bombing which ten days earlier had destroyed most of the city. The order which came from Field Marshal General Kesselring to the city commander Oberst Richard Wolf was to defend every house and street to the last man. By the first week of April, the Americans were entering the city. As we approached the city cemetery near the Residenz [southern section] we suffered our first wounded. We ran into heavy American rifle fire. Afterwards we took up positions on the railway embankment east of the city cemetery. At dawn we received orders to launch a counterattack. We took about half the street opposite the embankment. Towards midday we were forced back to our starting position on the embankment by American soldiers with bazookas and machine guns. On the next day, with the help of comrades, I carried one of our wounded to the field hospital. After delivering our wounded comrade, hospital nurses suggested that I stay there and surrender later to the American troops. Since I was only seventeen years of age I struggled with my thoughts over what I should do. I thought what would happen to me as a prisoner of war or if the SS came to the field hospital. I decided to leave but couldn’t reach my company any more as the American troops had advanced further. By taking a detour, I managed to get out of the city and reach another company near Rottendorf, about six miles east of the center of the city of Würzburg. There, I had to man a machine gun.”
In Würzburg, mothers, the very young, the very old, and the sick were told that they should leave the city. Then orders were given that “whoever remains in the city belongs to a battle group which will not know any selfishness, but will know only unlimited hatred for this cursed enemy of ours. They will know only complete sacrifice for the Führer and the nation. Day and night we will work. We will commit all our power to do the enemy the greatest possible damage because we know that Germany will live if we are prepared to give our lives.”
To German Divisional Command, it was now clear that the enemy was advancing across the Main River. The river wound back and forth through the Rainbow Division’s path toward Würzburg. There, within the city, it looked to the Americans that the Germans planned to stage a defense. Later, the U.S. Army learned that the defense was mounted with a collection of German soldiers who had fled into the city. The soldiers consisted of a well-organized, fanatical Volksstrum (“People’s Storm,” or a citizen’s army), along with Hitler Youth and SS. All were commanded by the city’s chief of police, Oberst Richard Wolf, who was a retired army Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel) who saw action at the Russian front.
The second of April was a day of movement for the Forty-Second into a position for the assault on Würzburg. Fortunately for the men, the weather was cooperating. It was warm and sunny, and would remain so for the next three days.
In early 1944, after bombing the monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy, the Allies learned an important lesson: it is much easier for the enemy to defend a city that has been bombed to rubble. The Allies found out the hard way that no matter how much you bomb a city or fortification, there will be many men who survive. The fallen debris of buildings creates countless hiding places and options for cover. As a result, the infantrymen taking Monte Cassino quickly discovered that the rifle was the essential combat weapon of the war. Warfare there, as it would be in Germany, was soldier against soldier.
After the bombing of Monte Cassino, General Mark Clark stated, “I say the bombing of the Abbey… was a mistake… It only made our job more difficult, more costly in terms of men, machines and time.” Air Chief Marshall Harris said concerning the bombing of cities, “Attacks on cities are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and so preserve the lives of allied soldiers.”
Although the Allies were supposed to have learned this important lesson in Italy, more than twelve months later, they repeated the same mistake, and instead of breaking the German people’s spirit, they simply created countless hiding places for German defenses. So, once again, the infantrymen will have to clear a city that has been severely bombed, and on April 2, the division commander sent his men into Würzburg. In the case of Würzburg, however, the situation would be much worse than what the men experienced at Monte Cassino.
The original plan called for the Twelfth Armored Division (the Hellcats) to push within a few miles of the city, with the 222nd Infantry driving ahead quickly. The hope was to capture Würzburg, and then race on for Schweinfurt. The balance of the Rainbow was to continue eastward, crossing and re-crossing the Main River and sweeping any enemy it found, before it reached the Main River north of Würzburg. The contingency was if the 222nd was having difficulty assaulting Würzburg, the 232nd Infantry would feint a crossing about two miles north of the city, and the 242nd would then cross near Retzbach (about fourteen miles to the north), move southeast and assault the defenders from the rear.
On the night of April 2, the 222nd reached the Main River opposite Würzburg and found that the Germans blew the bridges across the river. Combat Command of the Twelfth Armored Division found that they could not proceed. So much for the original plan.
The city itself lay in a valley with high ground to the north. On the west side of the river was the huge Festung Marienberg - Marienberg Castle - overlooking the city and the Main River. Across the front of the castle, the Nazis had painted “Heil Hitler!” (Later, the men would replace these words with the inscription “Forty-Second Infantry Rainbow Division” with the sign of the colors of the rainbow.) The city looked like it had been hit by an atomic bomb. The buildings had no roofs, and the partially standing walls provided for piles of rubble that blocked the city streets. Even after a bridge was repaired, the rubble in the city prevented the Twelfth Armored Division’s tanks from entering or maneuvering within its limits.
When the 222nd reached the Main River, they had a choice: they could either attempt to continue the assault or pause there until engineers could bring up assault boats, and make the attack then. General Collins decided to go.
Shortly before dawn on April 3, a group of Rangers of the Second Battalion of the 222nd, commanded by Second Lieutenant Dixon C. Rogers and Platoon Sergeant Michael Wargok, found a rowboat along the river. Part of the platoon got in and rowed across. They returned the boat, and another group made the crossing.
The Rainbowmen didn’t fire a shot during these two crossings, although the Rangers later took twenty-nine Germans out of two strong points that commanded the river where the boats had crossed. Perhaps the Germans had failed to see the Americans crossing, but more likely, they had mistaken them in the darkness for an ordinary rowboat of fleeing German troops entering the city.
With two boatloads of Rangers across, the Second Battalion established a small bridgehead. Now the engineer assault boats from Company A of the 142nd Engineer Battalion arrived to ferry the entire Second Battalion of the 222nd over the river before the day was over.
To cover the assault, the men created a smoke screen and maintained it throughout the day. The first assault boat, loaded with eleven infantrymen and three engineers, was in midstream when the Germans opened fire on it with rifles and single barrel 20-mm anti-aircraft guns known as the Flak 38. Fortunately, due to the extensive smoke screen, the Germans couldn’t get an accurate shot. Throughout the day, however, the Germans kept firing on the boats. Despite the continued assault and the strong current of the river, the engineers managed to get all the men across.
A floodwall along the riverbank protected the first troops entering the city. From there, the Rangers sent out patrols that expanded the bridgehead and destroyed a machine gun that had a different river crossing site under direct fire. At that point, squads from Company E (of the 222nd) had crossed the river and won an area about two hundred yards deep between two of the Würzburg bridges.
From the less developed outskirts in the south, the Germans were able to maneuver two medium tanks close enough to the city to counterattack this force, but a bazooka-man from Company E moved up through the rubble, got within their range and was able to disable one with a hit to its track. Without the ability to advance past the disabled tank or maneuver around it, the other stopped and backed away. Company G then crossed the river and enlarged the bridgehead, allowing some of the men to enter the outskirts. By 3:30 p.m., the bridgehead was six blocks wide and seven blocks deep.
Back at the river, the engineers had constructed a ferry and were now bringing jeeps with radio equipment across the river. The First Battalion of the 222nd crossed the river and secured the bridgehead. Then engineers began the construction of a Bailey bridge across a blown span of the main bridge.
Meanwhile, after the 232nd Infantry reached and cleared the vicinity of Marienbrunn (about twenty miles to the west), command then ordered them out toward Würzburg. After an all-night march, they approached the Main River from the southwest side of Würzburg, and prepared to cross the river the moment the bridge was completed.
The Bailey bridge was complete enough before dawn on the morning of April 4 to permit foot troops to cross it. The men of the 232nd got over the bridge before daylight and moved into the area the 222nd had previously cleared. Both regiments prepared to attack, while General Collins decided to hold the 242nd in reserve.
Without sleep, the 232nd with Company C as the leading element and the one hundred fifty or so men of Easy Company on its flank, the attack began. April 4 was a foggy morning. At 5:00 a.m., moving through the town, the Third Battalion was on the left, the First Battalion was in the center, and the Second Battalion was on the right.
Private Ray Deming, C Company of the 232nd remembers entering Würzburg. “Our company was put on point to enter the city. I remember having a real uneasy feeling because the fog was laying low making it real hard for us to see the enemy, especially among the rubble. Out of nowhere, a German grenade lands near my platoon and we all dove for cover. Okay, survived that, I thought. We continued, and suddenly a kraut pops up and starts shooting at us with some kind of hand held machine gun I’d never seen before. A couple of guys got hit. I and the guy next to me figured we could flank the kraut’s position and get him from behind. When we got there, he was gone. Like a ghost. Couldn’t figure out where he went. I knew right then, we were in deep shit.”
Command ordered all the battalions to begin clearing the city. Bill remembered this; he’d said to the guy next to him that he was so scared that he could piss his pants. Easy Company (of the 232nd), was able to secure a beachhead along the waterfront. Unlike patrolling in the Hardt mountains where Easy Company was broken up into smaller units, since that time, the company had mostly worked together as an entire unit. The situation in Würzburg will force them into smaller units once again. Within an hour they were pushing forward into the heart of the city, into the stone wasteland that was once Würzburg.
Bill saw firsthand what the air corps did in bombing the city. He didn’t see a single roof; only the more fortunate buildings still had four walls. However, despite the destruction, Easy Company quickly learned that the results of the bombing aided enemy resistance more than the original buildings would ever have done.
While going door to door, some of the men noted that the situation started to get blurry. Brick walls towered over them, framing broken staircases - for that nothing changed. But as they went through each building, the men thought, “Shouldn’t this place be crimson with blood?”
The men of Easy Company found that they had to climb walls and through windows to navigate. The close proximity of Germans hidden in the rubble prevented any artillery or air support. As a result, the 745s were on their own. Worse yet, the Germans were expecting this type of warfare, and many of them had been training for it for the last few weeks. Besides placing snipers in numerous hiding places on just about every block of the city, the Germans recently developed two specialized guns.
The first was the Sturmgewehr (literally “storm rifle,” or as we know it today, the assault rifle) and the second was the Krummlauf. The Krummlauf was simply a Sturmgewehr with a 90-degree curved barrel and a special site that allowed the Germans to see and shoot around corners without being exposed. In the final months of the war, both of these weapons were distributed and stockpiled in many larger German towns and cities.
In addition, the Germans had stockpiles of the MG 42 (Maschinengewehr 42 or Machine Gun 1942), which was a general purpose machine gun capable of firing up to fourteen hundred rounds per minute. The MG 42 replaced the MG 34 and due to its simpler design and cheaper manufacturing cost, it was mass produced. The GIs nicknamed this gun “Hitler’s buzz saw,” as it had a distinctive sound. The soldiers feared this gun. Also, there was the Mauser 98, which was an accurate and reliable sniper rifle. The Rainbowmen encountered all these weapons at Würzburg, and would continue to defend against them in most places in the coming weeks.
The Germans placed their snipers mostly in high places with good fields of fire. As Bill entered Easy Company’s designated patrol area, sniper fire hit his platoon. This is when Bill’s sharpshooter training came in handy. Bill’s squad sergeant knew of his sharpshooter skills and designated him as the squad’s counter-sniper, despite this being Bill’s first time in sniper duty.
The sergeant went over the plan with the men. When moving forward in their patrol area, Bill would stay back. Once the squad started taking sniper fire, Bill needed to take cover, but in a place that would allow him to see all around (if possible). Then he and the others would stay put searching for the sniper.
Once the German sniper was located, they would lay a trap, which consisted of another GI from the squad distracting the German sniper into firing at him without putting himself in too much danger. Each situation was different. Sometimes, the men simply had to throw some rocks out into the street to get a German to shoot. More often, the German was too experienced to fall for that; in which case, a man from the squad ran out in the open to draw the sniper’s fire. That is when Bill would engage, for as soon as the German exposed himself, Bill would be ready to fire.
Bill’s squad was advancing when a single shot rang out, a sharp sound like a snapping stick. A sniper. When two more shots rang out, everyone ran for cover. One of the sniper’s bullets hit a soldier who went down and was bleeding in the open. His comrade dashed out to pull him back to cover, only to get hit after a fourth shot rang out. Nevertheless, the second soldier was able to pull the other to cover. Others in the squad thought that they heard the shots coming from above. Soon the German was located in a third-story window of a building about one hundred yards from their position.
A guy in the squad motioned to Bill, pointing to the window that contained the sniper. Bill settled in and found a good place to take cover and sight his rifle onto that window. Then came another shot from the German who saw Bill’s position. The shot hit extremely close to Bill’s foot. However, Bill saw the German this time. He was peeking out and scanning the area, with his large gray coat and high-collar helmet. Then came the distraction. Another guy from the squad, who was across the street, ran from his position behind some rubble to a doorway twenty-five feet away. The German exposed himself to take the shot. Bill squeezed the trigger of his M1 Garand and the report echoed within the narrow streets. Instantly, the German slumped forward.
The sergeant then gave the signal for the squad to move forward slowly and quietly. As they moved forward, some of the men would enter buildings to make sure they were clear. If the Americans knew Germans occupied a building, bazooka teams would perforate a building floor by floor, from attic to street, forcing the defenders into cellars. Very often, the Americans would throw hand grenades into open doors and windows before entering, just in case anyone might be in the building. Once inside, the men searched every stairwell, closet, coal bin, and sewer.
After the Rainbowmen searched a building and cleared it, they would move on, but often Germans were hiding in underground tunnels and simply moved to a different building. The Americans knew nothing of these tunnels before moving into the city. It became something like an extended game of “Whac-A-Mole.” As hiding places for the Germans, the tunnels in Würzburg became the most insidious for the GIs to deal with.
Lieutenant Bjelland of Easy Company recalled, “Sometimes, it didn’t matter how quiet we moved, because in this city, the enemy was dug in and sometimes was waiting in cellars and tunnels. The Germans would wait until we passed their position, then jump up and fire from behind. Often, the men had to get right on top of the Germans before you got into a firefight. During the taking of Würzburg we took a lot of casualties to small arms fire because it was very close fighting.”
The going was slow, and the GIs cleared the first block. Then the second block of their patrol area produced another German sniper. The men used the same plan and Bill killed his second target, while the rest of his platoon cleared the buildings.
This same pattern went on for the many city blocks within the patrol area for Bill’s squad, working time and time again. Bill killed several German snipers that day, one with a shot right to the forehead. He didn’t remember how many, exactly; counting them would have just been a distraction. A distraction he couldn’t afford, as there were enough distractions, some of them horrifyingly sensory.
No one in boot camp had ever told him that there was a stench to battle, of cordite and blood, of human waste and, as one soon realizes, death. Then there was the “human factor.” Toward the end of the day, the men were double-checking to see whether the downed Germans were really dead or faking. Bill came up to one who was laid out on the street with his blue eyes wide open, eyes that seemed to be looking at what was in his hand. The German was dead, bled out, but what he was holding was a picture of his family, his wife and two boys.
Because of that day, although Bill was one of the “replacements,” he had begun to earn the respect of his peers. He was killing Germans. The experienced guys started to rely more and more on his ability to accurately shoot his rifle, kill Germans, and save their lives.
During a lull in the action, the men grabbed a quick bite to eat. Bill asked the guy next to him, Paul, who had been with the unit since January, what brought him there. Paul thought for a second and then said, “When I went in, I was eighteen. I thought it was all glory and you win lots of medals. You think you’re going to be the guy. Then you find out the cost is very great. Especially when you don’t see the kids you were with when you went in. Living with it can be hell. It’s as if the devil presides in you. I knew what I signed up for, and if this answers your question, yes, I would do it again.”
Bill heard Paul’s response, but he also saw the emptiness in his eyes, like a ghost tired of haunting. “Well,” Bill thought, “someday this war will end, and when it does, all of this in Würzburg will just be a memory.”
Despite the banter between the men, there was an unwritten rule that you didn’t become friends with the guy sharing your foxhole. Bill had seen enough killing already to have learned that lesson. In fact, although he was friendly, he never did get close with any of the men in his squad, platoon, or company. He would never attempt to reach out to any of the men after the war either.
The plan now was for the 222nd Infantry to clear the northern portion of the city while the 232nd cleared the southern portion. Here is where the Rainbowmen met some bitter and more organized resistance. German civilians joined military personnel in battling the American attackers. City firemen and policemen also joined in the defense of the city. Nearly every house and building contained snipers, and Panzerfausts. As skirmishes developed, defenders would retreat into the networks of underground tunnels, and then sneak up behind the Rainbowmen, attacking from the rear.
In some streets, as recalled by Sergeant Gerald Sullivan, “the small arms fire came from everywhere and at the same time nowhere. It was the utter randomness of killing, the feeling that it induced that I or any man could die at any second.” That feeling haunted Sergeant Sullivan and others for many years later.
Ordered by his company commander to take the schoolhouse in his sector, Sullivan assembled his men to make a frontal assault against an enemy of unknown numbers. “Let’s go,” ordered Sullivan. Then he and his men scrambled up a pile of rubble which had been shielding them. Sullivan stumbled and fell flat on his face. His helmet came off as he dropped his “greaser.” He was stunned for a moment, but got up, retrieved his weapon and kept going. The fighting intensified as Sullivan and his men approached the schoolhouse, but in the end, they took their objective.
James Pettus, Company K of the 232nd found himself in the thick of it too. “I and my men were pinned down by sniper fire,” said Pettus. “We were unable to progress without being killed. With the help of a friend in my unit, we snuck around the rubble, located the snipers and took them out of the fight.” By the end of the war, for this and his other numerous acts of gallantry, Pettus was awarded the Bronze Star.
As the fighting intensified, contact between the platoons of Easy Company of the 232nd had now become vague, and resolved itself into squad actions, each squad an independent attacking unit with its own objectives. Squad leaders seized the initiative and showed resourcefulness in the use of their weapons; this contributed greatly to their success.
Sergeant McDavid, who’d lose his life that day, was one of those squad leaders in Easy Company of the 232nd. He was in command of a light machine-gun squad, and had chosen a gun position so effective, a rifle platoon was able to advance under his gunfire and clear out a nest of snipers. His courage and self-sacrifice saved numerous lives. For his action, the army posthumously awarded him the Bronze Star.
As with Bill, many of the men of Easy Company found in Würzburg that the war became a personal affair between themselves and a sniper. An Easy Company GI described the experience: “A sniper’s finger squeezes the trigger and a bullet crumples through your helmet into the soft gray sponginess of brain substance in the medulla lobe of a man’s soul. Then you were dead. But if the bullet ripped through your helmet and not with only a headache, a slight scratch, then you were more than lucky, you were alive.”
By 6:30 p.m. of April 4, Easy Company of the 232nd had broken out through to the edge of town and began to converge on a large park containing a temporary German Army field hospital. Here, there was a flurry of fighting and some men of Easy Company exposed themselves to draw fire while the medics would dash out to bring back American wounded. By nightfall, the 222nd Infantry had cleared forty-five blocks of the city and the 232nd had cleared fifty-five blocks.
These gains brought the 222nd to a main railroad line in the northern portion of the city. There they met a line of enemy entrenched in foxholes. At that point, the 222nd stopped their attack for the night and maintained the formation they had used throughout the day, with the First Battalion on the right and the Second Battalion on the left. In the south of the city, Easy Company of the 232nd made a defensive line in several partially ruined buildings.
During the night of April 4, the Germans attempted to infiltrate through division lines and return into the city through the tunnels. However, the Rainbowmen discovered the infiltrating forces and wiped them out. At 5:15 a.m. on April 5, the Nazis launched a counterattack from the extreme southern portion of Würzburg. Their fanatical attack consisted of approximately two hundred men attempting to reach and destroy the Bailey bridge that the Forty-Second’s engineers had finished constructing.
Command again called in Easy Company of the 232nd Infantry. With support from elements of the First and Third Battalions, they met the attack and stopped it after it had penetrated to within one hundred yards of the Bailey bridge. After a heavy firefight lasting about forty-five minutes, Easy Company finally accomplished driving back the enemy that had Company I of the Third Battalion surrounded. The men inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and took eighty prisoners.
During the German counterattack of April 5, Sergeant Petro, of the 232nd Easy Company, led his squad in the direction of enemy fire, which was pouring out from a nearby church tower. Sergeant Petro bravely entered the tower, killing five of the enemy with his rifle. This aggressive and courageous action encouraged his squad, who ended up killing fifteen and wounding twenty of the enemy, thereby removing a serious pocket of resistance that had been holding up the battalion’s advance. Sergeant Petro’s actions earned him the Bronze Star.
After reorganizing, the Third Battalion, 222nd Infantry attacked and crossed a separate railroad line in the northern portion of the city and cleared the remaining buildings there. During that engagement, Company M found itself in a firefight with an enemy patrol. The First Battalion of the same regiment attacked the high ground above the city and took prisoners. Easy Company of the 232nd continued the attack to the south and then east and cleared the remaining portion of the city in their zones against scattered resistance.
The 222nd Infantry continued its own attack and reached the high ground on the north/eastern outskirts of Würzburg. Then command took the 242nd out of reserve and sent it into the city to search all buildings, cellars, tunnels, and areas previously cleared by the 232nd Infantry.
While the 242nd was performing its search, the 232nd was regrouping in a large building. From there, they started to take on sniper, burp gun (MP 40, Maschinenpistole 40 or Machine Pistol 1940), and Panzerfaust fire in yet another German counterattack. Lieutenant Linberg sent out Easy Company to reconnoiter the situation. Silence was essential to staying alive. Most platoon leaders dared not speak or even whisper commands, but just made hand gestures to direct their men.
The different platoons were now spread out. It wasn’t long before they confronted the now-familiar sound of the notorious MG 42 machine gun. Gunfire rang out from various positions hidden among the rubble and within the buildings keeping the men from Easy Company pinned down. One of the machine guns had Bill’s platoon trapped. The MG 42 was firing from a high position in a building across a field about two hundred yards away.
There was no effortless way to dispatch the Germans, as they had the entire field covered. In addition, two-man crews were operating these MG 42s. This allowed one to fire the weapon while the other fed the ammo belt. Because of this, if one man was killed, the other could take up the firing. Bill’s platoon sergeant decided to deploy the same tactic as before - send out a decoy man to draw German fire, and have Bill use his sharpshooter skills to kill the German.
Suddenly, one of the men ran out into the open in a zigzag pattern, darting among the rubble. The Germans lit up their machine gun on him and Bill took aim and shot. The German machine gun went silent. However, just as Bill’s platoon began to move forward, the MG 42 rang out again. Bill and the rest of the platoon all fired in the direction of the MG 42. The German gun went silent a second time.
After the Second Battalion cleared the MG 42s, command ordered it to move east on through the remainder of the city. In pushing forward, the battalion used high-velocity weapons (mostly bazookas) to demolish obstacles in the roadways, clearing the way for jeeps and tanks. However, on this side of the city, the men still had to deal with clearing buildings too.
There were fewer buildings here, and there were no tunnels to deal with, but the men still had to enter the buildings and search for the enemy. The men usually entered a building in pairs. Bill remembers rushing into a destroyed building with another guy from his squad. They soon found themselves in close quarters with active defenders. They both leaped atop a pile of rubble and started firing their M1 Garand rifles into the small group of Germans who were attempting to throw grenades at them. As the men blasted away, a grenade landed between them. Bill shouted “GRENADE!” and with that, they both leapt back to the other side of the pile just in time before the grenade exploded.
On the other side, shielded from the explosion, they both maneuvered around while continuing to fire their rifles until their clips were empty and the Germans were dead. Time to reload and get to the next building. However, in the next building - the last on this particular block - the serpent lay dormant; no hostile fire materialized.
Sergeant Frates and his men in Easy Company of the 232nd reached their points of resistance far into the eastern center of the city. By nightfall, despite that the city had been split in pieces, some of the squads were struggling to hold their gains because the German infiltration continued. Snipers would crawl through the rubble into buildings which had already been cleared by Frates’ men and then open fire on them from behind.
For Frates’ men, mopping up such resistance usually meant sudden death for either an American or German. They kicked in doors, lobbed in grenades, ran inside to see who was still alive, who wanted to surrender, and who wanted to die. Then they yelled upstairs for others to come down and give up. If nobody answered, they had to creep upstairs to check, hoping there weren’t more Germans waiting for them with grenades.
In Würzburg, many units of the Rainbow found that when running from one house to another, or across a street, it was safest to do so in squads, each man a few yards from the next. Snipers, with their bolt action Mausers, didn’t usually fire at groups, preferring the lone soldier. Squads had a tendency, if they lost a man, to hunt down the sniper with a vengeance. As a consequence, few snipers were taken alive.
Another lesson learned in Würzburg was that just like killing, surviving this kind of warfare required one to act counter intuitively. When bullets started buzzing past, the men instinctively wanted to drop their heads and dive for the ground. But if they all did so, even among the rubble, they became clustered and an ideal target for an MG 42. So they learned they should always hold their heads up with their eyes open and stay on the attack. It was the best way to stay alive.
The Second Battalion of the 222nd continued to clear the enemy from the city, destroying enemy equipment and explosives. Once this was completed, they occupied the high ground on the city’s perimeter. On April 6, the weather started to change and clouds rolled in. The Second Battalion continued patrolling the high ground and now encountered little enemy resistance. However, from a hill in the northeast portion of Würzburg, the Germans fired mortars into the Third Battalion of the 222nd. As a result, Company L attacked the hill and silenced the mortar. That was the last of the resistance the Rainbowmen would have to endure around the city.
The battle for Würzburg was now over and the division was ready to strike northward along the Main River for Schweinfurt a little more than thirty miles away. Schweinfurt was one of the most important industrial cities in Germany. Although some of the defenders of Würzburg had already fled for Schweinfurt, the Rainbowmen captured more than twenty-five hundred Germans in the taking of the city.
As the Rainbow started on its next mission, hardly a jeep left Würzburg that didn’t contain at least a few bottles of champagne plundered from the battered cellars of the city. A spoil of war that the officers, grateful to their men for their outstanding service, would save until after the war to share with all the Rainbowmen.
The trek to Schweinfurt would be a hike, so to pass the time, the men started talking about the Hitler Youth: the supposed “boy soldiers.” The word was, “Don’t be fooled by their age; these boys are trained killers.” Others said, “Do not trust them and take no pity on them, for although they may look innocent, if given the opportunity, they will shoot you in the back.”