Opening Up the Rhine
American commanders sensed that the way to the Rhine was finally open. As February ended, some units leaped forward as many as 10 miles. As Gillem pushed, his soldiers fell into a pattern. First, they made a fast march to the outskirts of a town. Then the troops deployed and launched a coordinated attack. Finally, the soldiers would mop up, reorganize, and dash to the next town. Hundreds of prisoners fell into Gillem’s hands, including a complete artillery battalion—guns, commander, and all. With speed the order of the day, Gillem passed the 5th Armored through the 102nd Division and ordered it to take the lead on February 28. Determined to keep pace, infantrymen from the 84th Division mounted tanks and vehicles. Further reinforced on March 1 by the 79th Infantry Division, Gillem ordered his men to carry the attack as far as it could go. The charge to the Rhine was on. The Associated Press credited the “small, hard-fisted” general—Gillem—with leading the breakout.
As Grenade broke open the front, commanders eyed any still-standing Rhine bridges, including the 1,640-foot Adolf Hitler Bridge at Krefeld-Uerdingen. Technically, the bridge sat within XIII Corps’ zone, but it was also within easy reach of XIX Corps, which by now had advanced far enough to straighten out the salient. Simpson warned Gillem that he might have to shift the corps’ boundary. At nightfall on March 1, part of the 2nd Armored Division of XIX Corps reached a point three miles from the bridge. Simpson was absent, so his G-3 ordered the boundary change. Gillem bristled. He argued that the terrain around Krefeld-Uerdingen was bad for tanks and that his own 84th and 102nd Divisions were just as close. Gillem lost the debate and probably enjoyed little satisfaction when XIX Corps’ armor ran into the very problems he had predicted. Gillem hoped that his units could turn things around and reach the Rhine before XIX Corps troops claimed the new boundary, but his men got tangled up in Krefeld. The Germans ended the debate by dropping the Hitler Bridge into the Rhine. Operation Grenade had shot its bolt.
Gillem’s Push Through Central Germany
On March 23, the British 21st Army Group launched Operation Plunder, a massive assault crossing of the Rhine. Simultaneously, the Ninth Army began a companion operation called Flashpoint. Gillem’s role was secondary. His artillery fired away to help the British crossing while XIII Corps merely demonstrated along its front. A week passed. The XIII Corps simply held its front while others crossed.
Yet Eisenhower had another job in mind for Gillem. As American forces finished reducing the Ruhr pocket, Eisenhower directed General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group, including the Ninth Army, to drive across central Germany and link up with advancing Russian forces. Simpson gathered his corps commanders and announced a new assignment: the divisions were to march for the Elbe. Simpson did not have to add that the advance would bring the Ninth Army tantalizingly close to Berlin—closer than any other Allied force.
At 7 am on March 31, Gillem’s corps crossed the Rhine on a bridge in the British zone. The next morning, Easter Sunday, XIII Corps attacked toward the key German cities of Munster and Hanover. Gillem’s command was a familiar one: the 84th and 102nd Infantry and 5th Armored Divisions again marched with Gillem. The recently attached 17th Airborne joined them. Gillem put his armor and motorized infantry units in front and ordered them to ride east as fast as they could. If the tankers ran into resistance, Gillem wanted them to go around and let follow-on infantry handle it. In Munster, the 17th Airborne had to stop to clear the bombed-out city block by block. Elsewhere, XIII Corps troops found that the heavy antiaircraft guns defending German cities and industrial sites were just as effective against ground forces. At Herford on April 2, the 5th Armored had to fight its way past several hundred German soldiers backed by 88mm self-propelled guns.
None of this stopped Gillem’s advance. The XIII Corps seemed to gain momentum with each passing day. On April 4, the 5th Armored Division reached the Weser River crossing the next day after waiting to allow the infantry to catch up. Five days later, the 5th Armored reached the halfway point between the Rhine and Berlin. Occasional resistance continued to flare up, but speed and firepower told. On April 10, aided by a captured map of the city’s defenses, corps elements captured Hanover in a single day.
With a final leap, advance units of XIII Corps reached the Elbe on April 12. Gillem’s tankers hit the river at Tangermunde, just 53 miles from Berlin, after riding 120 miles in 120 hours. Showing remarkable speed, corps infantry units closed on the Elbe four days later. Gillem’s units were now closer to Berlin than any other Americans, so it was disappointing when Eisenhower ordered Simpson to halt and leave Berlin to
the Russians. “I really believe that the Ninth Army could have captured Berlin with little loss well before the Russians reached the city,” Simpson later wrote. Instead, Gillem’s men turned their attention to clearing bypassed pockets of resistance.
Eliminating the hangers-on wasn’t simple. A large number of German soldiers were hiding in the forests west of Gillem’s command post in Klotze. Even more serious was the presence of Panzer Division von Clausewitz, a unit of about 50 tanks and additional experimental and outdated armor manned by the staff and students of a panzer training school. Ordered to attack south into the Ninth Army left flank, the German forces severed Gillem’s supply line and struck multiple rear locations. At one point, the enemy cut telephone cables to Gillem’s headquarters, disrupting communications for two days.
Gillem’s response was Operation Kaput, which at first utilized two infantry regiments, the 11th Cavalry Group, and a combat command of the 5th Armored. It eventually required all of his divisions, including the newly attached 29th. Spreading out, the columns reduced pocket after pocket until one last group of Germans was trapped in the Klotze Forest. A combined assault of artillery, armor, and infantry wiped out the resistance.
Last Offensive of the Ninth Army
After Kaput, XIII Corps drew the honor of conducting the last Ninth Army offensive. On April 20, a new boundary was drawn between the Ninth Army and British forces to the north. Since Gillem’s corps was on the Ninth Army’s north flank, the general picked up an additional 30 miles of front along the Elbe. The area was still teeming with German forces, so Gillem sent the 5th Armored and the 29th and 84th Infantry Divisions, backed by some additional artillery, into the area on April 21. The Germans fought back with tanks, assault guns, mortars, and heavy minefields, and it took Gillem’s troops three days to link with British forces and finish mopping up. Afterward the corps resumed its watch along a 300-mile stretch of the Elbe.
A chaotic situation existed along the river. Thousands of enemy soldiers, including the remnants of two German armies, came to the river to surrender. Similar numbers of displaced persons flocked westward. In all, some 80,000 prisoners ended up in XIII Corps pens. Gillem enclosed many of his prisoners on the grounds of a transmitter station, surrounded with tanks, and provided medical care before moving them to the rear. The arrival of the advancing Red Army was notable. As Gillem watched, the east bank soon looked like a “really beautiful Oriental rug roadway” as the Russians discarded loot from German homes. The XIII Corps’ first contact with a Russian unit, which Gillem identified as the 3rd Russian Cossack Corps, proved a trifle dangerous. Gillem marveled at the various ethnicities represented in the Russian corps, as well as the careless way they brandished their Tommy guns.
The linkup with the Russians ended 180 days of combat in the European Theater for XIII Corps. It had been a solid performance. From November 1944 to May 1945, Gillem’s corps had marched more than 300 miles from the Siegfried Line to the Elbe and captured more than 247,000 prisoners as well as several key German cities. “It has been a privilege for me to have been your commander these 180 days,” Gillem told his corps. “I can tell you only, in all sincerity, that I have never served with finer soldiers.”
Alvan Gillem’s Legacy
Few officers of his rank had contributed as much to Allied victory as Gillem. Although one of 34 Army officers to command a corps during World War II, Gillem was one of only four corps commanders who had not attended an advanced infantry or artillery course before the war. He was also the only man to lead three different corps. While the battlefield performance of his XIII Corps spoke for itself, his most significant contribution was with armor. As one of the first armored commanders in the U.S. Army, Gillem helped lay the groundwork for success in World War II. His pioneering training regimens affected every subsequent campaign where American tanks fought, from North Africa to Western Europe. Yet the unassuming general never received his full due, in part because he shied away from publicity. He was proud of the fact that he did not write a book about his battlefield experiences. “All I want to do is to carry on right through and clean up this job that’s been given us,” Gillem wrote.