Just go like Hell!

By Scott Parrino 03 Aug 2003 0

"Just go like Hell!" - March 30, 1945

Within the sphere of the First Army advance, the VII Corps was on the inside of the wheel slowly being formed around the Ruhr. Thus it was the obvious choice to make the main effort to close the deadly ring around nearly half a million German soldiers. The other two Corps of the First Army would proceed on a northeasterly direction to protect the flank of VII Corps as it headed north in the direction of General Simpson's Ninth Army fighting its way south. This was not a new experience for General Collins or his men. It was his corps that led the fighting around Cherbourg and later through the hedgerows of Normandy. His units were also the ones to first have a crack at the Siegfried Line in October. They were also heavily involved in the fighting during the Battle of the Bulge. It seemed that the men led by General Lawton B. Collins were natural born fighters and could somehow always get the job done.

On March 29th, the 3rd Armored division was to lead the attack. From it three task forces were formed. Two of them would run parallel to each other. They would be the sharpened tip on the armored spear that would thrust deep into the heart of Germany. Lieutenant Colonel Walter B. Richardson would lead the first group. Once chosen, he reported to his superior, Colonel Robert Howze, commander of Combat Command Reserve, 3rd Armored Division. The commander of another task force, Lieutenant Sam Hogan, accompanied him. Col. Howze, normally a rather reserved officer, was full of excitement. As he faced the two lieutenant colonels, he blurted out, "We'll move. We'll really go!" He then pointed to Paderborn on the map and took a long look at Richardson.

It was more than 100 miles to Paderborn and the enemy was in between in uncertain strength. Richardson could hardly believe what he was hearing. "You mean - get to Paderborn in one day?" Howze nodded energetically. He explained that Hogan's task force would cover the left flank, and a second, Task Force Welborn, would cover the right. The rest of the division would keep up as best they could. The exact details of the order were, "Tomorrow you leave for Paderborn. Just go like hell! Take the high ground at Paderborn airport." This would be the meeting point between the 3rd Armored Division of the First Army and the 2nd Armored Division of the Ninth Army. A huge chunk of the German forces would then be trapped. Richardson, weary from a week of hard fighting, felt the fatigue slip away as the excitement of doing the very thing armored units were designed to do was falling into his lap.

Task Force Richardson was built around the 1st Medium Tank Battalion of Combat Command Reserve. It consisted of some 50 Shermans, 12 M-5 light tanks, 3 new Pershings, and a couple of dozen half-tracks filled with soldiers. Nearly 500 armored infantry would go along, riding in personnel carriers or on the backs of the tanks for quick deployment. For readily available artillery support, a couple of M-7 Priests self-propelled artillery pieces would accompany them. Speed was the key. They were to get there quickly!

On March 29th, at 6:00AM, the Task Force was rolling. He was free to move on the road, on the shoulders, across country: in short, whatever it took to get to Paderborn expeditiously. A few jeeps and a half-track filled with engineers led the way. Behind them came Richardson's jeep and three Shermans stripped of excess equipment and riders. Behind them were seventeen Shermans and three big Pershings with their powerful 90mm guns. Following that was the staff of the task force, then another seventeen Shermans, the light tanks, the self-propelled guns and then the half-tracks with the infantry and supplies. It was a mobile, battle-ready unit and full of enthusiasm about the run.

They proceeded at a break-neck pace, often at speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour. They took out a German train and its supply cars as it passed nearby, then overran some nominally held enemy emplacements along the road. Other Germans watched in shocked disbelief or dove for cover as the American tanks rolled down the highway. When they finally hit a roadblock, the Shermans crashed through it and the journey continued. By dusk, the group had covered nearly 80 miles. Passing through the town of Brilon, an order came down from General Rose, commander of the 3rd Division, to secure it. Richardson was in no waiting mood at that point. Dispatching a few tanks and an infantry company to eliminate any enemy there, he kept moving.

By this time darkness had overtaken them. Richardson searched for the right road to Paderborn from just north of Brilon. He and a young lieutenant debarked from the jeep and began walking. Behind them four Shermans edged up. They kept getting closer and closer, one even nudging Col. Richardson in the back. As the officer got off the road, the tank followed him. Noticing how erratic the tank's behavior was, he gave frantic hand signals with a flashlight, ordering it to stop. When it finally did, the tank following smacked into the rear of the first. Then the third and the fourth also hit the tanks in front of them. The hatch on the first tank popped open. Richardson ordered the lieutenant to climb aboard the tank and see "what the hell" was going on.

The young officer investigated and returned with a distraught look on his face. He informed the Colonel that the tank commander was sitting there glassy-eyed with two open bottles of champagne clutched between his legs. It was then discovered that a warehouse of the intoxicating liquid had been "liberated" and passed around to the entire group. Richardson quickly got on the radio and told his exec to get the rest of the task force out of Brilon at once, even at gunpoint if necessary. By now he was forced to call a halt for the night. Now he had smashed tanks and "smashed" crews! Word had reached him of possible enemy presence just ahead. His men were in no shape for a fight that night. Instead they were to gas up, eat, and get a few hours' sleep. The movement ahead would begin at down on the 30th, with a big hangover to welcome the sunrise.

During the night, word came to General Model, commander of Army Group B, of the rapid advance of an armored column from the southwest. There was danger of any escape from the Ruhr being suddenly closed. Model received permission from Kesselring to utilize units of his XIII Corps to cut off this spearhead and annihilate it.

On the morning of the 30th, with no knowledge that even then German units were attacking forty miles behind him and cutting him off, Richardson lined up his attack against Paderborn. It was a chilly, foggy morning. At the first crossroads they came upon, two Panther tanks knocked out two of Richardson's lead Shermans. Once they were dispatched, the column, now more cautious, moved ahead. Finally, within three miles of the objective, a sizable force comprised of students of the 271st SS Panzer Reconnaissance Training Battalion and tanks from the SS Tank Replacement Battalion were waiting. They had together formed a group called "SS Ersatzbrigade Westfalen." During the early morning hours some 20 tanks and nearly 200 infantrymen had drawn up hastily prepared defensive positions against the Americans.

A fierce firefight ensued that lasted for six hours. The morning mist hung low to the ground most of the morning and was eventually replaced by gray and black smoke from firing and burning tanks scattered across the countryside. By early afternoon both sides withdrew and caught their breath. Richardson was by now in desperate need of ammunition and parts for his tanks. It was then that he received word of the attack in his rear with his column cut off from the rest of the 3rd Armored division.

Captain Frank J. Lillyman, Pathfinder of the 501st Regiment, 101st Airborne. Captain Lillyman was the first Allied soldier of Operation Overlord to set foot on European soil. Photo Credits: "101st Airborne Division, Normandy" by Mark Bando

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