A black Opel automobile raced through the streets of Cologne, Germany, on March 6, 1945. The driver, 40-year-old Michael Delling, was making a run for it. Rather than stay in the city as American and German troops fought, he and his clerk, 26-year-old Katharina Esser, chose to run for the last remaining bridge to the east. Making his way through the rubble-strewn streets, Delling dashed into an intersection near the city’s famous cathedral. The split-second decision was fatal. Machine-gun fire tore into the car. Tracer bullets ripped through its thin metal shell and into the bodies of the two civilians. The car came to a stop; Deller was dead, slumped over the steering wheel, and Esser managed to open the passenger door before tumbling to the pavement.
A few yards away American Corporal Clarence Smoyer released the trigger of the coaxial machine gun in his T26 Pershing tank. The car looked like a German Army staff car, so he fired on it. He had no idea who sat inside. A few blocks in the other direction, German tanker Gustav Shaefer peered through his Panzer IV’s sights. He saw the orange American-style tracers flashing through the intersection. Were the Americans coming? He had to be ready. A dark shape appeared, and the young tanker squeezed the trigger on his own coaxial machine gun. Green German tracers lashed out as well, smashing into the staff car and blowing out its windows. Gustav saw the woman fall out of the car and wondered what she was doing in a combat zone.
It was a terrible tragedy of war, an accident no one wanted but could not be avoided. It would haunt Clarence for decades, but that was for later; the war continued. A block away another German tank, a Panther, lay in ambush. The crew spotted a Sherman approaching and fired. The round struck squarely, knocking out the American tank. The high-velocity projectile severed the tank commander’s leg. He tumbled out of the hatch onto the Sherman’s engine deck but died a few minutes later in the rubble of Cologne. The Panther moved from its hiding spot to take up position in a square, ready to continue the fight.
Clarence and his crew sat in their Pershing less than 300 yards away. Their tank carried better armor and a more powerful gun than the Sherman. A combat cameraman caught the attack on film and then came back to the Pershing to ask for help destroying the Panther. Clarence’s tank commander, Sergeant Robert Early, went forward to scout the situation. Minutes later, the Pershing rumbled forward to engage the Panther at point-blank range.
The rest of this story is the climax of Spearhead: The World War II Odyssey of an American Tank Gunner(Adam Makos, Ballantine Books, New York, 2019, 385 pp., maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index, $28.00, hardcover). The book shows the world of tank crewmen at the gunsight level as they struggle to fight and survive the dreadful conclusion of the war in Europe.
This new work is engaging and dramatic, giving the reader a sense of the strain and emotion of a tank crew manning one of the U.S. Army’s then-new Pershing tanks in early 1945. The author also covers how the crew got to that point along with the experiences of the armored infantrymen who accompanied them and the German tankers who opposed them. The book concludes by revealing how these men dealt with their memories postwar. It is also well illustrated. The writing is insightful and does an excellent job bringing the tanker’s war to light.