Sunday, September 28, 2008

Battle For The Ruhr

Last night, I finished reading Derek Zumbro’s “Battle For The Ruhr: The German Army’s Final Defeat In The West”.

As far as I can ascertain, Zumbro’s book is the only book written in English devoted exclusively to this brief but seminal battle, a battle that effectively ended Germany’s fortunes in the Western Theater within days after it began. Perhaps the battle’s sheer brevity, as well as its lack of overt drama, has kept previous writers away from the subject.

“Battle For The Ruhr” was published in 2006. My father and my brother read “Battle For The Ruhr” last year, but I never got around to reading the book until the last couple of weeks, when I started reading it in conjunction with the much longer “The Arms Of Krupp” by William Manchester.

Zumbro has had a varied career, once serving as a Navy SEAL officer, among many other things. He is currently Military History Coordinator at the University Of West Florida. Because of its Pensacola location, the University Of West Florida has many connections with various branches of the U.S. military. The school is renowned for its marine archeology program (shipwrecks). Zumbro is perhaps best known as a translator from the German of World War II-era documents and books.

The Ruhr, bordered by The Rhine and Ruhr Rivers, is the former industrial heartland of Germany. The Ruhr was developed into a manufacturing center in the 19th Century, transformed into the Kaiser’s most important center of arms production during World War I, occupied by French soldiers in 1923 because of Germany’s failure to fulfill its reparations obligations under The Treaty Of Versailles, and modernized into Germany’s arms-production powerhouse during the period of National Socialism. For over a century, The Ruhr was Germany’s Detroit-Cleveland-Pittsburgh all rolled into one, although today the cities of The Ruhr look no different than old textile towns in New England, heavy manufacturing having long since declined in what was once Europe’s most concentrated industrialized zone.

Zumbro begins his tale by setting the stage as it existed at the beginning of 1945, immediately before The Battle For The Ruhr began. He recounts the Allied Army’s race across France and portions of Belgium and The Netherlands in the latter half of 1944 as it made its way to the German border. He offers a capsulation of The Battle Of The Bulge, the last-ditch attempt by Hitler to halt the advance of the Allied Army into Germany itself.

Zumbro also describes the Allied bombing campaign against The Ruhr, a campaign that began in 1942 and peaked in 1943 and 1944. That campaign turned most of The Ruhr into rubble long before Allied soldiers first stepped onto German soil.

The first major bombing of The Ruhr and nearby industry centers occurred in 1942, when the first 1000-bomber raid against Germany was launched, with Cologne as its target. Cologne was so severely damaged by that raid that its civilian population was relocated for the remainder of the war.

Although the city of Essen (with its Krupp Werks) was always the most well-known Ruhr manufacturing center, it was the city of Dortmund, The Ruhr’s largest city, that was the primary target of Allied bombers. A city with well over half a million persons during the war years, Dortmund was the most-heavily-bombed city in all of Germany. Only seven per cent of the city center was left standing at war’s end, and only 35 per cent of the giant Dortmund metropolitan area survived Allied bombs. After the conclusion of the war, when it came time to discuss rebuilding the city, Dortmund city fathers seriously considered reestablishing the city elsewhere.

Another notable victim of Allied bombing of Ruhr environs was Wuppertal, the first city in Germany to suffer a firestorm through bombing. Although the Wuppertal firestorm is not as well-known as the firestorms that were to destroy Hamburg and Dresden, the Wuppertal firestorm was the model for the Hamburg firestorm that was to follow two months later. The techniques for creating the Hamburg firestorm were tried out and perfected at Wuppertal. It was at Wuppertal that Allied war planners learned to combine incendiary and conventional explosive devices in order to maximize the destructive effect of air raids. The city of Wuppertal practically disappeared in the firestorm, with 6,000 persons losing their lives in a virtual dress rehearsal for Hamburg, where destruction and death were to be inflicted from the skies on an even more unimaginable scale.

The first engagement in The Battle For The Ruhr was in March 1945. The engagement was accidental, and purely fortuitous for the Allies. Small in scale though it was, it is the most famous incident of The Ruhr campaign, and got The Battle For The Ruhr under way earlier than the Allies expected (or even necessarily wanted).

While the bulk of Allied soldiers was resting, recovering from the effects of The Battle Of The Bulge, small reconnaissance parties explored the western bank of The Rhine, probing for weaknesses in German defenses. One party on expedition found, to its amazement, that a rail bridge over The Rhine at Remagen had not been destroyed but remained in place, providing a direct crossing into Germany. The bridge at issue was The Ludendorff Bridge, named after World War I General Erich Ludendorff. Although it had been constructed during The Great War to facilitate movement of men and arms directly to The Western Front, The Ludendorff Bridge had not been completed until after World War I had already ended—and, in any case, rail tracks leading to and from the bridge had not even been laid while the earlier conflagration was under way, and were not to be laid until well into the 1920’s.

Military history, going back thousands of years, has proven that armies that wish to prevent an enemy from crossing a river must defend such a crossing by remaining on the same side of the river as the enemy. Only in this way may a river crossing be prevented.

While this may seem counter-intuitive, an army that tries to defend against a river crossing from the opposite side of the river is destined to be ineffective against a determined opponent. This is because the army whose goal is to make a crossing can always identify weakly-defended areas, while the defender is obliged to stretch its defenses along the entire length of the opposite riverbank. Further, an army can always find a way to cross a river quickly and easily (boats, barges, hastily-erected pontoon bridges) and overcome local defensive positions with relative ease.

Hitler’s generals understood this, but Hitler did not, and Hitler ordered his generals to withdraw across The Rhine and to offer defense against the Allies upon German soil.

This was a disastrous decision, and it was instantly disastrous. The Allies had no plan even to cross The Rhine at Remagen, but as soon as Eisenhower learned that one of The Rhine’s bridges remained intact, he immediately altered his original plan and his original timetable for invading Germany and adjusted to circumstances he could not possibly have anticipated. One of Eisenhower’s greatest strengths was his flexibility, a quality that served him well time after time throughout the war (and in his later career, too).

Although the nearest Allied tank group was over twenty miles away from Remagen, and although no major army group was closer than one day’s march from Remagen, Eisenhower ordered one tank group and one small brigade to proceed to Remagen immediately and to secure the bridge. Further, Eisenhower promptly issued General Orders, and within an hour the rest of the army was in maneuvers, close behind the advance brigade, marching toward Remagen.

After a brief skirmish, the Allies seized The Ludendorff Bridge against a small German unit. German forces attempted to blow up the bridge as the battle progressed, but their explosives were of the wrong type—they were industrial explosives, not military explosives—and of insufficient quantity to do anything other than damage the bridge.

Within days, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were on German soil, as were thousands of tanks and an assortment of heavy artillery. Not only was the Remagen rail bridge used to transport men and weapons onto German soil, but two temporary pontoon bridges were constructed alongside it, too. All three bridges were used to hasten the march of men and material into Germany.

Hitler ordered the bridge destroyed by any means necessary, even ordering that V-2 rockets be used to destroy the bridge. Hitler’s generals, afraid to remind him that V-2 rockets were too inaccurate to strike a target as small as a bridge, caused eleven V-2 rockets to be launched toward Remagen. Several of these V-2 rockets killed German civilians living in the town, absolutely terrifying the local population. One V-2 rocket actually came within 300 yards of one of the bridge’s pylons. In addition to launching V-2 rockets, the Germans attempted to destroy the bridge through artillery, dive-bombers and underwater divers equipped with mines.

The structure finally failed ten days after the Allies began crossing the bridge, a victim of structural collapse. The bridge had not been engineered to withstand a nonstop traffic flow of heavy Sherman and Pershing tanks and other heavy vehicles. Twenty-eight Allied soldiers lost their lives when the causeway finally fell into The Rhine.

An enraged Hitler ordered an inquiry into those responsible for not destroying the bridge at Remagen, demanding that all culprits be shot. Hitler’s generals, fearing their own necks, complied, convening a kangaroo court that found five lower-level officers guilty of treason. Four of the five officers were summarily executed. The fifth, convicted in absentia, was already an Allied prisoner of war, and survived the war.

Ironically, the five officers found responsible for failing to destroy the bridge at Remagen had not even been assigned to its defense. Victims of bad luck and bad timing, they were merely passing through the area at the moment the Allies began operations at Remagen. The five German officers attempted to assist first in defending and later in blowing up the bridge. Four of them lost their lives simply because they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The highest-ranking general who approved their executions was Field Marshall Walter Model, in charge of Army Group B, the only remaining German Army in the West and the Army assigned to defend The Ruhr. Model failed to use his authority or his personal connections with Hitler to protect these innocent men, allowing them to be sent to undeserved deaths. His reward was a congratulatory telegram from The Fuhrer.

Model was a defensive genius, assigned command of Army Group B based upon his many successes on The Eastern Front (he had inflicted upon General Zhukov that general’s greatest defeat of the war). Hitler believed that Model was the only German general with the skills and tenacity necessary to keep the Allies out of The Ruhr and, by extension, the rest of Germany. Model may have been one of the greatest defensive generals who ever lived, but Model is little-remembered today, largely because only generals demonstrating genius in offensive maneuvers are rewarded by history with immortality. An authoritative, comprehensive biography of Model is long overdue.

Despite his vaunted defensive capabilities, Model was outmatched. Model’s Army Group B was quickly, almost instantly, overrun by the Allies. Literally within days of The Rhine crossing by the Allies at Remagen, Model’s entire army was completely encircled and entrapped within The Ruhr Pocket. The war in the West was effectively over.

A German force of roughly 450,000 men, helpless and trapped, was shelled and bombed by the Allies for three weeks. During the onslaught, its number was reduced to roughly 325,000. Ignoring Hitler’s orders to fight to the last man, Model discharged from service the oldest and youngest soldiers of Army Group B, telling them to go home. Shortly after this gesture, Model dissolved Army Group B entirely, instructing the remaining men to protect themselves by whatever means they could until cessation of hostilities. Model shot himself not long after issuing these orders (months earlier, Model had learned that the Soviets intended to hold him accountable for war crimes on The Eastern Front).

Why did Army Group B collapse so quickly? Much of the collapse had to do with General Omar Bradley and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, whose encirclement plan, flawlessly executed, worked to perfection. In addition, much of the success was due to superior quantities of armor, fuel and ammunition on the side of the Allies. Finally, overwhelming superiority in the air at this late stage of the war meant that Allied fighters and bombers could roam the skies over Germany virtually at will, no longer fearing anti-aircraft flak or enemy fighters.

Military historians have long questioned whether Field Marshal Model even tried to prevail in The Battle For The Ruhr. A master of extricating his armies from similar situations on the Eastern Front, Model appeared not even to try to extricate Army Group B from its encirclement by the Allies. No doubt he was aware that the war was already lost, but why did Model not attempt to evacuate his army to the East? No one will ever know the answer to that question, given Model’s suicide. Some speculate that he was simply exhausted, some speculate that he saw no point in extending the hostilities by an attempted breakout, and some speculate that his personal loyalty to Hitler required him to remain in The Ruhr Pocket, as he had promised (although his forces were no longer fighting).

Much of Zumbro’s book discusses what was happening on the ground immediately prior to and during the period in which Army Group B was entrapped in The Ruhr Pocket. Zumbro conducted numerous and extensive interviews with surviving German soldiers and surviving German civilians who lived through this horrible (but, mercifully, very brief) period.

Zumbro’s interview subjects revealed that, by this stage of the war, German civilians were hoping for nothing more than survival and a quick end to the war. Civilians were no longer supportive of local officials, ignoring their orders and blandishments whenever possible, and actively encouraging German soldiers to abandon the Army and to return to their homes and families. Aside from a few high Nazi functionaries who continued zealously to believe in their cause to the bitter end, the populace was more or less in passive if not active resistance mode, and perhaps even in outright revolt. Citizens were no longer listening to Reich radio—instead, they were getting their news from German-language broadcasts of the BBC (at least when they had electricity)—and they were no longer obeying local Party directives. Parents were hiding their sons from conscription, knowing that youths as young as twelve were being commandeered into service of The Reich. Civilians were sabotaging the work of Party officials, destroying Party-issued public notices and orders, and stealing Party property, especially vehicles and precious fuel. Average citizens were offering civilian clothing to soldiers so that they might escape Army service and find a hiding place in which to wait out the war.

At the same time, the populace was also infuriated with the Allies, having endured indescribable suffering since bombs began falling on The Ruhr in 1942. In late March 1945, a British bomber crew, parachuting from a doomed aircraft, was brutally murdered by enraged civilians of The Ruhr shortly after crew members landed safely on the ground.

The end to The Battle For The Ruhr came quickly, much more quickly than Eisenhower and his generals had ever expected. Within a month of The Rhine crossing at Remagen, fighting in The Ruhr had ceased, the Allies had more than 300,000 new prisoners of war on their hands, and the Allies had advanced to the banks of The Elbe, where they waited for the Russians to end The Battle Of Berlin.

For some, the end of The Battle For The Ruhr came brutally and tragically. Gestapo officials engaged in a murderous rampage in the final days of the battle, executing forced foreign laborers, Russian prisoners of war, domestic political opponents, and even captured Allied soldiers and airmen (Army Group B had turned its few Allied prisoners over to the Gestapo, not knowing what to do with them at this late stage of the war). No one will ever know the precise number of innocents murdered by the Gestapo during those few days, but one group execution of 300 persons has been documented, another group execution of 250 persons has been documented, and yet another group execution of 50 persons has been documented. All were murdered within hours of their potential liberations. There were, no doubt, vast numbers of additional individuals executed singly and in small groups. In the early days of the occupation of Germany, Allied soldiers frequently came upon mass graves throughout The Ruhr. In most cases, the Allies were never to learn the identities of those who had been killed, or the perpetrators of the crimes.

Zumbro’s book ends with The Ruhr moving into the occupation phase at war’s end. He paints a very gloomy picture of The Ruhr’s future as it looked in late 1945, a resolution of the book I found odd. Everyone knows that The Ruhr was the first part of Germany to recover economically in the post-war period and that The Ruhr has gone from economic triumph to economic triumph over the last sixty-three years. Why pretend, in 2006, that readers are unaware of the ultimate outcome of The Ruhr’s fortunes?

The outlook for The Ruhr may have looked bleak in 1945, but by 1950 The Ruhr was on the rebound, the centerpiece of a joint German/French reindustrialization effort that soon was to lead to the creation of the Common Market. Indeed, The Ruhr of the 1950’s WAS the Common Market, the multi-national trading pact that, decades later, was to evolve into today’s European Union.

It is strange for Zumbro to end a book published in 2006 in such a fashion.


  1. Andrew,

    It IS extremely odd that this author would end the book as you describe. The Ruhrgebiet is the most populated area of modern Germany. It is so crowded in fact that the natives joke about the ubiquitous "pressing of folk" there. My friend in Duesseldorf always complains - and not only when the fair is on.

    He may think that this book is weird.


  2. Hey, Dane.

    I don’t think the book was weird so much as slightly ungratifying.

    The battle itself was so short and such a cakewalk that perhaps the subject does not lend itself to book-length treatment. After all, what happened can be described adequately in two pages: two Allied Armies crossed The Rhine at two different points; one headed north and one headed south; the Allies formed a circle around The Ruhr and met on the other side; they pounded the Germans trapped in the pocket for three weeks until the German Army dissolved—and that’s the end of the story, folks. I believe Zumbro included interviews with German survivors in order to provide a fresh perspective on what, after all, is a simple and oft-told tale.

    Have you read the Manchester Krupp book? I’m about two-thirds through the book now. Germans contend that the Manchester is riddled with factual errors. One corrective book in German was published in 2001 and another corrective book in German was published in 2002.

    Manchester tells a good story, mostly, but he hates Germany and Germans in general, and he specifically hates the Krupps. His prejudices mar his book.