Training was not the only task facing Gillem and his men. When American armor suffered some early defeats in North Africa, Gillem sprang to its defense. “Used in the proper combination, tanks are demoralizing and effective,” he wrote. “And in an armored division, tanks are used in the proper combination. Fighting an enemy is like hunting birds. You’ve got to ‘bird dog.’ Flush out your enemy and then do your shooting. Many tools are available to the armored commander, and they will do their job provided they are properly used.”
Gillem’s nomadic journey from post to post finally ended in December 1943 when he was given the command he would keep for the duration of the war: XIII Corps. Europe was the corps’ ultimate destination, thanks to Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, commander of the Ninth Army. In May 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, asked Simpson to select his corps commanders from a list of 10 men. Gillem was Simpson’s first choice.
Arriving in England, Gillem champed at the bit to get into action, but at first he was asked to play a logistics role. In August, XIII Corps was assigned to receive troops from the United States and forward them to the Continent. As the Normandy invasion progressed, Gillem was responsible for the swift and uninterrupted movement to the mainland of Patton’s troops. The following September, he led his headquarters to a staging area in Normandy. Neither troops nor supplies were available, but Gillem was ordered to advance to the front. When the Ninth Army was assigned a sector north of Aachen in November, Gillem moved his headquarters to Tongres, Belgium.
On November 8, 1944, Gillem’s corps went into the lines near Geilenkirchen, Germany. Initially assigned the 113th Cavalry Group and 102nd and 84th Infantry Divisions, Gillem’s job was to contain the enemy while the Allies prepared for their next offensive. First, however, the Allies had to deal with German-held Geilenkirchen, a salient that menaced the Ninth Army’s left flank. Geilenkirchen sat on the boundary between Simpson’s army and British forces to the north. Preferring a single commander for the reduction of the salient, Allied commanders put the British in charge. On November 12, the British XXX Corps replaced XIII Corps but temporarily kept Gillem’s rookie 84th Division.
The attack on Geilenkirchen, codenamed Operation Clipper, began on November 18. Hoping to encircle their target, American troops aimed for the high ground east of town while British soldiers looped around town from the west and north. The attackers enjoyed early progress, but obstinate German defenders held fast. German resistance prevented a complete success, but the Allies reduced enough of the salient to minimize the enemy threat. Afterward, Gillem and XXX Corps commander Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks traded unit patches. “[Your patch] will remind me of your excellent cooperation, and I shall keep it as one of my most prized souvenirs of the war,” Horrocks told Gillem.
Thanks to the partial success of Clipper and the Ninth Army’s offensive toward the Roer River, which was already under way, Simpson decided to insert Gillem’s XIII Corps. On November 24, the 7th Armored Division joined the 102nd and 84th Divisions and the 113th Cavalry Group. Simpson hoped that Gillem could attack right away, but Gillem needed more time to marshal his new units and incorporate reinforcements. Simpson pushed the corps’ attack date back to November 29.
Gillem’s task was to drive northeast, capture Linnich, and cross the Roer River. He also had to eliminate what remained of the Geilenkirchen salient, starting with pillbox-studded Toad Hill and the surrounding villages. He assigned that job to the Railsplitters of the 84th Division. Rather than launch a frontal assault, division commander Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Bolling planned to capture Toad Hill and the closest village before hitting the remaining villages from the rear. Gillem assigned the 113th Cavalry to take over part of the 84th’s front. The 102nd would advance on the 84th’s right, protect Bolling’s flank, and take Linnich. The 7th Armored Division remained in reserve.
Drive to the Roer
On November 29, following several days of preparatory artillery and air strikes, XIII Corps attacked. The bombardment did little good; Gillem’s men immediately ran into fierce German resistance. Gillem was not surprised. The day before, he had decided to alter his plan after intelligence detected strong German reinforcements moving into the area. Reacting with the maturity of a tested corps commander, he ordered the 102nd Division to assume the corps’ main effort on the second day and push hard for the Roer.
The 102nd found the going easier on day two of the offensive, but it was still no cakewalk. German soldiers in front of General Frank Keating’s division fought tooth and nail from concrete bunkers. German artillery hurled shells across the Roer River. “Never again was the Division to experience such severe artillery fire,” a veteran later wrote. Rain, mud, and cold were the soldiers’ constant companions. When two of the regiments ground to a halt, the 102nd reserve regiment, reinforced by a tank battalion and supported by dive bombers, slipped through and captured Linnich on December 1. Meanwhile, the 84th Division continued wading through stout German defenses. Blockhouses, dug-in Tiger tanks, and dozens of small-arms defense posts and antitank ditches faced the Americans. Finally, the defenders of Toad Hill and its neighboring villages succumbed. On December 4, XIII Corps reached the Roer River at a cost of about 3,000 casualties, including 318 killed. The Allies were still far from their ultimate objective, the Rhine.
A short pause followed to allow the Army to recuperate. For Gillem’s corps, this meant pulling men back from the front to rest up for the next operation. It became a longer pause than expected when the Battle of the Bulge erupted. Simpson postponed all plans for advancing to the Rhine and instead did what he could to help erase the Bulge, sending several divisions to the Ardennes and extending his lines to allow neighboring armies to send troops. Gillem retained the 102nd and picked up the 29th Infantry Division, which worked hard to create an illusion of strength and deter a new German attack.
Gillem’s corps resumed the offensive in February 1945 with Operation Grenade, an assault designed to vault the Roer River and advance to the Rhine. It would be launched along with other Allied operations to the north and south. Gillem drew an important assignment in Grenade. After crossing the river, XIII Corps was to seize a small plateau between the Roer and Rhine. Once that target was in hand, Gillem was to wheel north and clear the banks of the Roer to enable XVI Corps to cross.
Gillem was directly responsible for laying and executing his corps’ plans, but he did not do it alone. His philosophy was to involve his staff officers deeply in planning. “Most of his directives are general as to method, minutely specific as to objective,” a subordinate recalled. Gillem would listen “carefully to advice and suggestions and seldom discard a staff officer’s proposal without first indicating its weakness.” In the end, Gillem and his staff resolved to attack with the 102nd Division on the right and the 84th on the left, while the 5th Armored waited 15 miles behind the lines. Reinforcements arrived, massive air support gathered, and enough artillery was assembled to fire two or more shells into every yard in front of Gillem’s line. Soon all was ready, but the Germans had other ideas. They flooded the Roer by blowing the discharge valves on the dams, forcing a delay of nearly two weeks.
In the dark early morning hours of February 23, the thunder of more than 2,000 guns announced the start of Operation Grenade. The skies turned into a dome of yellow fire as the guns dotted the horizon and momentary patches of red erupted from the direct hits of shells. The infantry followed 45 minutes later. At 3:30 am, thousands of soldiers piled into paddle-operated assault boats, ferries, and LVTs (Loading Vehicle, Tracked) and slid into the dark, cold Roer. Under a thick smokescreen, the first waves reached the far bank with little trouble, but then the going got rougher. After turning north to clear the east bank of the Roer, the 84th Division entered the key crossroads village of Baal. The Railsplitters had to fight off multiple German counterattacks, but one soldier hung an “annexed to Texas” sign in the village. The 84th’s four-mile advance was the most spectacular of the day, according to the corps historian. Employing bazookas and artillery fire, sometimes on their own position, the Ozark Division narrowly held its gains.