‘[GIs] who last week still wondered why we fought the Germans and their beliefs got their answer at the Dachau prison camp’

The last weeks of World War II in Europe have, with a handful of exceptions, long been perceived as the pursuit of shattered German armies by the victorious Western Allies, the smashing of the last Nazi strongholds by the Soviet hammer. The scenes that purport to show an easy, quick, and Homerian victory—Sherman tanks rumbling through destroyed German cities, Hitler’s suicide, the Soviet banner flying above the ruined Reichstag—have become well established in the popular imagination.

For the American GIs entering the heart of Germany, however, April 1945 was a month filled with some of the most brutal fighting of the war, when the horrors of the Nazi regime were finally revealed to the world. In fact, some GIs, witnessing the atrocities committed against their own and against those held in the concentration camps they liberated, would find themselves “raging inside with boiling hatred,” as one GI recalled, and met violence and cruelty with violence and cruelty.

The curtain went up on Nazi Germany’s last act with the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen on March 7, 1945, which opened the way for the Allies’ final thrust. For the Americans, it was an opportunity to use their greatest strengths, mechanization and firepower, to overwhelm the Wehrmacht once and for all. It was the perfect type of campaign for the U.S. Army.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s final offensive was led by the most powerful forces in American military history: Gen. Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group, consisting of Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’s First Army and Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Bradley’s northern flank was secured by the U.S. Ninth Army under Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, assigned to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s British 21st Army Group; his southern flank was secured by Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers’s 6th Army Group.

The first goal of the breakout was to encircle and destroy German Army Group B, led by Field Marshal Walter Model, which was attempting to hold the critical industrial regions of the Ruhr area. For the Germans, the Ruhr was a strategic necessity, because it was also a strategic weakness: to lose the Ruhr was to lose the war. As the Americans exploded out of their bridgeheads to the south, and the British out of theirs to the north, the Ruhr became a death trap for Model.

The U.S. Army’s 83rd Infantry Division would play a critical role in the race to cross the Elbe River and crush Model’s army. After supporting the crossing of the Roer River in March, the 83rd was assigned to XIX Corps for the deathblow. In addition to the 83rd, XIX Corps also had the tough 2nd Armored Division; the 29th “Blue and Gray” Division, which had spilled its first blood on Omaha Beach and was one of the premier American divisions of the war; and the battle-hardened 30th Infantry Division. Together they formed a single fist for the drive to the Elbe.

One veteran of the 83rd would proudly note, “We set new infantry speed records—records that surpassed those of even the best Allied armor.” Indeed, the 83rd would earn the nickname “Rag Tag Circus” because the troops, in an effort to move faster, confiscated a motley batch of vehicles. The commander of the 83rd’s 329th Infantry Regiment later recalled, “To us, it was no circus. Admittedly, however, we may have looked like a summer carnival group entering a country town as we dashed along the highways and byways of the Prussian provinces, for we had pressed into service every conceivable means of transportation we encountered.”

The men could sense that the only thing that lay between them and the end of the war was a final push into the enemy’s heartland. The GIs of the 83rd covered 280 miles in 13 days, tightening the noose on the German troops in the Ruhr and chasing the 2nd Armored’s advancing spearheads. The 329th and its sister regiment, the 330th, raced ahead of the rest of the division, taking nearly 60,000 prisoners as Model’s Army Group B disintegrated.

By April 1, the Americans had closed the pocket completely, and began to squeeze. Tens of thousands of German troops laid down their arms as the pocket slowly collapsed. By April 18, more than 325,000 German prisoners filled the overflowing Allied POW camps.

It is this image of hordes of German prisoners surrendering to GIs—propagated by a pliant press corps for a home audience concerned about the heavy casualties during the Battle of the Bulge—that has become fixed in Americans’ minds.

The reality is that even after the mass surrenders at the Ruhr pocket, the Nazi regime, in its death throes, fought more viciously than ever. The 83rd, reaching the Elbe River at Barby, found itself entangled in house-to-house fighting with die-hard Nazis; Germany’s hastily raised civilian army, the Volkssturm, made up mainly of older men and boys; and remnants of the Wehrmacht—all supported by the occasional band of Hitler Youth. Sgt. Hobart Winebrenner of the 90th Division’s 358th Infantry related how roughly the Americans dealt with some of that resistance. When his unit moved into Mainz, “the older locals, realizing that only formalities remained, cooperated fully. But the Hitler Youth provided some of the stiffest resistance. Those aspiring young terrorists refused to quit…there was nothing quite like losing three or four friends to a kid with a rifle on a rooftop. Then the rosy-cheeked peach-fuzzed-faced freaks had the nerve to smile at us, laugh and ask for a cigarette. Let me say that some of those cocky little assassins needed extensive dental work by the time they made it back to the POW cage.”

The American response to the brutal fighting was substantially different than it had been in France, Belgium, or Holland. For the individual soldier, Germany was the cause of the war: the home of the mad dictator who had forced many of them from civilian to military life, cost them friends, and committed unimaginable atrocities. So the U.S. Army, especially at the lower levels of command, took a heavy-handed approach to the treatment of Germans, civilians and soldiers alike. If a village or town offered no resistance, its civilians would be spared the wrath of the GIs. However, the entire town would be held accountable for the acts of individual Germans.

Looting by GIs was just one type of punishment. Sgt. Oakley Honery of the 99th Infantry Division later said, “There was an unwritten code. If you had to fight for a town, anything in it was yours. If we were allowed to walk in unopposed, we treated the population much better.” Ted Hartman, a tanker in the 11th Armored Division, was involved in the fighting for the city of Regen on April 24, when “late that afternoon, a couple of the doughs [infantrymen] threw Thermite grenades and set fire to some buildings in Regen…a woman came over to one of our tanks and asked if we provided fire-fighting equipment, as her home was next door to one of the burning buildings.” The American tankers, amazed that a German civilian would expect them to put out a fire they had just started, responded by calling over one of their own who spoke German. Hartman recalled that the translator “really told her off. He took her up the street and showed her American blood and said he didn’t care if her home did burn down.”

Such destruction was magnified many times when an entire village was held accountable. Hartman wrote that if, “after ridding the berg of enemy soldiers, our men caught any fire, we’d burn the village to the ground, no questions asked.” When they entered the town of Unterbreizbach, locals fired on the advancing Americans, and the 358th burned the town down. It had the desired effect. “For the next 50 miles, frantic folks, waving white sheets and pale pillowcases, met us before we even neared their villages. They’d obviously heard about the encounter and wanted to make certain to avoid a sequel. Along this stretch, resistance wasn’t light, but rather nonexistent.”

When the 11th Armored Division’s Combat Command B entered Austria, a sniper killed the commanding officer of the lead company. Col. Wesley Yale, Combat Command B commander, ordered, “These six checkpoints [towns] ahead will be burned to the ground by nightfall. These people have got to learn that resisting is useless.” The GIs were a long way from the soft, green recruits who were drafted or volunteered in 1942. After watching American troops loot German towns that had resisted, future military historian Sgt. Forrest C. Pogue was reminded of the destruction of southern towns by the Union during the American Civil War. Southerners in the U.S. Army who were in the invading forces, he wrote, “should now understand about Sherman’s men.”

While GIs were not nearly as brutal as the Soviets were in their advance across Poland and eastern Germany, the first discoveries of the concentration camps and the increasing number of Allied troops murdered by Germans hardened the Americans even more.

Andrew Adkins, a lieutenant in the 80th Division’s 317th Infantry Regiment, recalled, “Part of a squad from Company E, 317th Infantry, had been caught in a house sitting out in the open. The circumstance was a bad one, and they had a choice of surrendering or being killed. They chose to surrender and came out with their hands up. Three of them had Lugers strapped to their belts; they had taken them from Kraut prisoners captured a few days earlier. Their SS captors didn’t even question them. Instead, they put a bullet through each of their heads…two of their buddies who managed to get away told us what happened…we hadn’t taken many SS prisoners, but we decided that from now on no SS troops would be taken alive.”

When Adkins’s platoon arrived at the concentration camp at Buchenwald, their hardness intensified. There, they “adopted” two Soviet lieutenants who had been captured at Stalingrad two years before. The Soviets had a burning hatred for the SS, and the Americans put them to work. Adkins recalled, “They wanted to stay with us until we met up with the Russians. When we got to Weimar, the major put them in GI uniforms. They were happy to take care of any SS troops for us.”

The liberation of the concentration camps in the last weeks of the war shaped the individual American soldier as much as the race for the Elbe River. On April 29, 1945, at the Dachau extermination camp, one group of American soldiers that had seen too much snapped.

GIs from the 45th “Thunderbird” Division entered Dachau on April 28–29, 1945, and one of their first discoveries was a train filled with decaying bodies. The SS had attempted to evacuate inmates from Buchenwald to Dachau to escape the Americans, but the Allied air forces had destroyed the rail network. The SS had left the prisoners to die—and the bodies were discovered by the infantrymen of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry. The GIs were sickened and furious. When they reached Dachau, they found that much of the SS garrison was still there. Dachau was an SS training facility as well as a death camp, so a fair number of SS men, in various stages of training and at various levels of complicity, were in or around the area. For the men of I Company, the scenes of mindless, institutionalized death—bodies piled 15 feet high, the stench of death, the skeletal survivors—and the presence of the SS guards still at the camp became too much.

Lt. William P. Walsh, commander of I Company, was later quoted as saying that the first person he saw at Dachau, besides dying survivors of the camp, was “this German guy…he must have been about six-four or six-five, and he’s got beautiful blond hair. He’s a handsome-looking bastard and he’s got more Goddam Red Cross shields on and white flags…. My first reaction is, ‘You son of a bitch, where in the hell were you five minutes ago before we got here, taking care of all these people?’…. Well, everybody was very upset. Every guy in that company, including myself, was very upset over this thing, and then seeing this big, handsome son of a bitch coming out with all this Red Cross shit on him.” Walsh could take it no more. The handsome German was shot by one of Walsh’s men while “trying to escape.” The SS men were separated from the Wehrmacht prisoners and herded away by the Americans. Walsh took four into a boxcar and unloaded his .45-caliber pistol into them. He ordered that a .30-caliber Browning machine gun be set up to guard a large group of prisoners. The SS men, having already heard the shots of the Americans throughout the camp, panicked and tried to run.

Then the killing began. Only when the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, arrived at the camp late that afternoon did the killing end, and then only by Sparks’s personal intervention. He wrote decades after the incident that “as I watched, about fifty German troops were brought in from various directions. A machine gun squad from Company I was guarding the prisoners. After watching for a few minutes, I started for the confinement area (the concentration camp), after taking directions from one of my soldiers. After I had walked away for a short distance, I heard the machine gun guarding the prisoners open fire. I immediately ran back to the gun and kicked the gunner off the gun with my boot. I then grabbed him by the collar and said: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He was a young private about nineteen years old and was crying hysterically. His reply to me was: ‘Colonel, they were trying to get away.’ I doubt that they were, but in any event he killed about twelve of the prisoners and wounded several more.” Despite Sparks’s best efforts to stop the killing, an estimated 50 SS guards were killed execution-style by the men of I Company.

Soon, rumors and incriminating photographs appeared. Lieutenant Colonel Sparks, Lieutenant Walsh, and several others were charged with violating the Geneva Convention. According to some, in a viewpoint reflected in the 2006 documentary Massacre at Dachau, General Patton ordered that a report on the incident by the Seventh Army’s assistant inspector general be sealed and classified. Whatever the truth of the matter, no American soldier was ever found guilty of killing the SS guards.

The men of I Company were not the only ones to be affected by the camps or to take their anger out on the Germans. Hartman, the tanker from the 11th Armored Division, recalled that his unit was ordered to escort some 18,000 German prisoners with only 36 tanks, and turn the prisoners over to the Soviets. Hartman noted, “Machine guns went off at least five times during the thirty minutes we were there. We had a good idea that they weren’t firing aimlessly just to frighten the Krauts. After this short meeting [with the Soviets], we started back. On our return, I saw at least ten dead Germans lying beside the road…we were too fresh from concentration camp scenes to think much about it at the time.”

The final weeks of the war in Europe, on the western as well as the eastern fronts, were far from a casual occupation. For the individual GI, the sleepless, rapid advance through bombed-out cities, the occasional brutal fighting for small villages whose names the rifleman never knew, and the discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust defined the end of World War II. The final offensive to break Nazi Germany justified their presence there, and revealed war at its most elemental and violent level.