Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Rag-Tag Circus

It was seventy years ago in early April 1945 that the US 83rd Infantry Division was given the nick-name “Rag-Tag Circus.” Originally known as the Ohioan from when the division was originally activated in 1917 at which time it consisted of men from primarily from Ohio.  After the division’s effort of being first at the Rhine its commander Major General Robert Macon opened a competition to rename the division as he preferred a name more accurately reflecting the national makeup of the division in this war. A naming contest would see Thunderbolt become its new name by the end of April.  In a move reminiscent of today's companies and their "branding" the division newspaper would take on the same name.  Why would some reporters, we ask, provide a nick-name like the "Rag-Tag Circus" to a now well-recognized division?  This was at the same time that other commentators were, as noted in the division history, running out of adjectives to describe the exploits of this division of American soldiers. Not bad adjectives, but good adjectives. This post will focus on the exploits of the 83rd Division in early April 1945, and a member of the US Counter Intelligence Corps attached to the division. The division is moving to the heart of Beast.
83rd Division"Thunderbolt"
Newspaper April 1945 
This blog’s previous post, “Prepare to March” noted that the 83rd was in Holland for training, having moved there from Neuss, Germany, on the west bank of the Rhine River. The training was mainly in regard to river crossings. However, as the division moved east it would come across all sorts of terrain, from rivers and spring flowered meadows to snow covered forest and mountains. Prior to heading into the heart of the Beast, Berlin, another task had to first be completed. The allied advance into Germany from the west was to be accomplished by three great army groups. The 83rd was part of the north located Twenty-first army group under British Field Marshall Montgomery, the second group was the Twelfth Army group under US General Omar Bradley, and southern portion of the advance was occupied by the US Sixth Army Group under General Devers. Each army group was itself composed of spectacular, and colorful, men, most well-known would have been General Patton, who commanded the US Third Army which was under Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group. The 83rd was part of the US Ninth Army which was under the Command of General Simpson. In deference to the ego of Montgomery, the 83rd was held up from crossing the Rhine after having reached it on March 2. Monty insisted on being the first to cross. Even though Montgomery has been describe as impatient, it was well known if you wanted something timely done, you did not ask the Field Marshall from Britain. The moment of glory in crossing the Rhine was to go to Montgomery, to whom the US Ninth Army was now attached, at least that was the plan. In a move showing disregard for the Field Marshall, Patton would have his Third Army beat Monty to the punch.
After Action Report from a Regiment of the 83rd
 Infantry Division for April 1--4, 1945
The first objective of this advance, however, was not Berlin. Rather it involved encircling of the Ruhr industrial valley, home of many of the industries critical to the German war machine. Over 4.6 million allied soldiers were moving from the west into Germany. As noted by Cornelius Ryan in his book The Last Battle (1966), the divisions formed a “violent, gaudy parade.” Montgomery would begin his move across the Rhine on 24 March, as part of Operation Varsity Plunder, with the US Ninth Army to meet with the US First Army, which was under Bradley's army group. The First Army would move from the west and head north with the intent of meeting the US Ninth near Paderborn Germany. Originally anticipated to take months to encircle, the collapsing condition of German troops gave the allies an ability to move much faster than anticipated, and these two armies would meet just east of Lipstadt (west of Paderborn) in a matter of a few days--on April 1. An unwelcome April Fool’s day present for the Third Reich. The US 83rd Division would depart Holland, cross the Rhine and move into Germany on March 29. CIC Special Agent Roy Hovel would find time to write a three page letter home on March 31. Headlined “Germany,” the letter would begin by saying: “Well, Holy Saturday night and another wild day ended. I’m fairly certain of being able to go to mass in the local civilian church tomorrow morning and am fortunate in being able to do that even though it’s Easter.” He then notes that it has been some time since he last wrote and hopes that they are not worried.
Rag-Tag Circus Article
"Stars and Stripes"
Roy Hovel then gives some special news. His is set to marry his girlfriend from Luxembourg (April Fools!!) Actually there was special news. “While in Holland,” he states, “I received the Bronze Star upon recommendation of Capt. Vietor. I thought it was very nice of him. Col. Desbotels (spelling?), G-2 of the division pinned it on me. I was the only one and first in the detachment to get it but I suppose you are not very clear in what it means and frankly I’m not either.” He never goes on to say why he received it, although he does appreciate the fact that the medal gives him five more points toward a discharge. The CIC was often noted as being the “Corps of Indignant Corporals” since an act of congress extremely limited their officer. Sayler notes in his book on the CIC, that men in the CIC would have been officer material in any other branch of the service. The reason why Roy Hovel received the medal may be lost to history, as his personnel file was among many others to have been lost in a fire at a facility in St. Louis. Was it related to his close call in December, or the one on March 10, or his interrogation of a prisoner or spy? We may never know.
Bronze Star earned by Roy Hovel in March 1945
Photo by author
For three days after crossing the Rhine, and while following behind the US 2nd Armored division, the 83rd would slug it out with German forces. While the First and Ninth US Armies would meet on April 1, it take longer for the enclosure to fully take hold. Over 400,000 German troops were trapped; 320,000 would be taken prisoner. On Easter Monday (April 2), Roy Hovel would find time to once again pen a letter home. He was in receipt of their March 10 letter and a box of cookies, which were “pretty beaten up.” Later in the letter he notes that Easter Sunday “was just another day of work for me, and a long hard day at that. I didn't have a chance to even get to church as I had planned.” As part of his explanation he simply said that he was able to “see a lot of Germany that day however and am enjoying it a lot.” The work of the CIC was in full gear.  Interrogation of informants and some prisoners, cull out spy networks, and prevent sabotage, among their other duties. Perhaps the most dangerous time in war is when the enemy has nothing to lose, and this would not be lost on some fanatical Hitler soldiers.
Roy Hovel Sergeant Patch
Photo by Author 
The US Army was making its presence known. Villages and cities were surrendering as the army moved eastward. It was not uncommon for Allied troops to be entering one side of a city, and having German troops depart at the other side. Roy Hovel’s April 2 letter goes on to say that “the people now seem rather glad to see the troops and have the war over. Of course they are by far the more fortunate ones in the war.” He says later that “they (German troops) are very confused…and I doubt if they will recover enough to stage a good defense, though one can never tell what may happen yet.” He does note that the house in which he is currently staying is in good shape with not even a broken window, has electricity and running water, and steam heat; he notes an ability to have a bath the prior night. This is related to the point where he says “we now find the cities fairly well intact.” Although, perhaps most poignant is when he comments that “Tulips, flowering shrubs, flowers (are now blooming and flowering) etc. and it helps freshen and brighten up the world.” Small signs of spring can help brighten one’s day even in the midst of the horrors of war. He has seen the horrors of war. He was among the hedgerows of Normandy, which formed a natural growing abatis. He was part of the liberation of Luxembourg. He worked through the woods of the Hurtgen forest. He survived the snows and cold of the Ardennes. And, he was part of the first division to move from the Roer and reach the Rhine. He is now among the final push to end the war in Europe.
Newspaper map on movement to Ruhr
Upon the US First and Ninth armies meeting west of Paderborn on April 1, the Ninth Army, which included the 83rd division, became part of Bradley’s Twelfth Army group. No longer were they under Monty the Field Marshall, but under the overall command of the most recent US four star general. This was perhaps best. While the British war planners were meticulous, they had forgotten to build in two, one-half hour tea times each day for their units, causing traffic jams and delays for units behind. US Army Air General Matthew Ridgeway would demand release from Montgomery and be allowed to assist the Ninth US Army as it moved east. Coordination of air and ground forces is important, and tea time just did not cut it in a time of war. Monty’s delays were too much for him. If Montgomery was said to be impatient, it was probably for tea time. An impatient man would not stand for tea time, and I should know as I have been living with myself for 57 years.  Perhaps this is one reason why the US had to bail the Brits out of two world wars.
March 31, 1945 News article
The day after the industrial Ruhr area was encircled Eisenhower issued orders for Bradley to “mop up the…Ruhr…launch a thrust with its main axis: Kassel-Leipzig…seize any opportunity to capture a bridgehead over the River Elbe and be prepared to conduct operations beyond the Elbe.” (Ryan, 283) Was Eisenhower, who Atkinson reported in his 2013 book The Guns at Last Light as having closed the door to Berlin on March 28, now leaving the door open? Of more interest are the follow up instructions of April 4 that Bradley would spell out in “Letter of Instructions, No. 20” directed to the US Ninth Army. The instructions first note a need to drive a line from south of Hanover to Hadelsheim (which is about 70 miles from the Elbe River) to then begin phase 2 of the operation. The “Letter” went on to read: “Phase 2: Advance on order to the east…exploit any opportunity for seizing a bridgehead over the Elbe and be prepared to continue the advance on BERLIN or to the northeast.” (Ryan,  283)   Were the troops finally going to get to their final prize? The US Second Armor Division, known as “Hell on Wheels” was called upon to lead the spearhead of the charge to the Elbe and beyond. General White believed once he got a bridgehead on the Elbe he could be in Berlin in two days. Some reports say the 8th armored was to protect the right flank of the 2nd, but as they were busy in cleaning up the Ruhr pocket, an infantry division was assigned the task.
83rd Division History Snippet on Harz Mountains
The 83rd infantry division would be that division, and it would play a big role in what was to come next.  But, there was a big problem for the 83rd after having received these orders. A long known element of warfare is that an army moves on its stomach. Men need to eat, ammunition needs to be provided, and gasoline needs to be supplied. The transport vehicles for the 83rd had been dispatched for the purpose of resupply and hence were unavailable for movement of troops and material. But ingenuity would come into play. As Ryan notes in his book: “Major General Robert C. Macon’s highly individualistic 83rd Infantry Division, the ‘Rag-Tag Circus’ was going hell-for-leather toward the Elbe….” (285). The name “Rag-Tag Circus” was given to the 83rd by a variety of reporters but the nick-name reached iconic status in an article for “Stars and Stripes” by staff writer Ernest Leiser, which documented the exploits of the 83rd in reaching the Elbe River. A contest was on between the 2nd Armored and the 83rd. Macon was determined to be the first infantry division to reach the Elbe, cross it and move to Berlin. He had his men assemble a menagerie of mostly motley vehicles nicely obtained from a variety of sources. It was composed of, among other vehicles, former German staff cars and trucks, two fire trucks, some wheel barrows, and even a former German airplane (and they even found a division member to fly it). Some had green olive paint slopped on, with a white star painted over. Others would not get such paint job. Roy Hovel was lucky that he had fixed his jeep while in Holland. Ryan notes that “but for a number of US Army trucks interspersed among its columns, it might easily have been mistaken for a German column” (285). Every enemy unit or town the 83rd had taken, had its rolling stock utilized for the 83rd. Men were dangling from any piece of equipment to hitch a ride. Some even carried in the wheel barrows. The manner of acquisition was usually by gun point. Roy Hovel did his part, in an April 9 letter home he notes that “I acquired a nice enclosed trailer for the staff. It’s a bright red, and I have to find some paint as it too conspicuous this way.” Paint was in short supply, so picture a bright red trailer being pulled behind his jeep or a staff truck. His letter is silent on the means used to obtain this bright red trailer. The 83rd did not want to play second fiddle to a bunch of guys in tanks.
Crossing the Rhine
Map from Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light
General White, who led the 2nd Armored, was concerned enough to say, as quoted by Ryan (288): “No damned infantry division is going to beat my outfit to the Elbe.” The 83rd would use a leapfrogging technique. When one of their lead divisions or companies would encounter resistance that group would fight, but units behind would move and bypass the conflict to continue the movement.  They continued to move eastward.  The men of the US army, whether it be in infantry or armor, wanted to reach Berlin. Eisenhower may have thought it no longer a serious objective, but that was not the thought of the men on the road.
Operation Varsity Plunder.  Montgomery's Army Group moves
across the Rhine River
Map from Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light
Three amusing stories stand out about the Rag-Tag Circus while on the road to the Elbe. First, the airplane noted earlier was thought by some, in another American division, to be part of the Luftwaffe. It was after all a Luftwaffe plane. As it was flying overhead members of the division took cover only to peer up and see the underside of the wing painted US Army olive green with a white star and the words “83rd Inf. Div.” painted alongside. The 83rd now had its own air force to complement that of the Luftwaffe. The second story involved a car speeding along and dashing in and out of other vehicles and continually honking its horn. After a few minutes it captured attention, when some US troops realized that it was not captured German staff car, but one containing a German general, who had a look of confusion on his face. Third, the “Circus” overtook a German convoy led by a Colonel and his staff. The record is unclear as to whether or not the German Colonel was named Klink, but one thing is sure, parts of the German army were quickly becoming more bungling than Col. Klink and Sgt. Schultz of Stalag 13. As amusing as those stories are they are more than offset when the 83rd came across two German boys, ages 9 and 11, with rifles and wearing Wehrmacht uniforms. Within a week, however, the 83rd would come across something even more gruesome and horrible.
Roy Hovel
Family photo
What they would see would feed a desire to get more quickly to Berlin.  While some of the US divisions may have had it relatively easy, others were seeing a completely different situation.  SS troops, other groups of Nazi soldiers, and the fanatical Hitler Youth were fighting to the end. The 84th Infantry Division of the Ninth Army wanted to get to the Elbe as well, but was given order to capture Hanover, a city of 400,000. This would cost them significant time, but it was a major duty. Eisenhower would visit the the commanding general of the 84th, Alex Bolling, during their time securing Hanover.  Bolling recounts the Supreme Commander as asking: “Alex where are you going next?"  Bolling would respond "General we’re going to push on ahead. We have a clear go to Berlin and nothing can stop us.” Eisenhower would put his hand on Bolling’s arm and retort: “Alex, keep going. I wish you all the luck in the world and don’t let anybody stop you.” (Ryan, 292). An interesting statement given Eisenhower’s orders of March 28.
Encircling the Ruhr Industrial Valley
Map from Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light
The war did not stop for Easter. A lack of transportation was not going to delay the Thunderbolt Division.  The Thunderbolt would come to be recognized by a nickname. General Simpson, leader of the US Ninth Army would say of the orders given to move, that he wanted to get an armored and infantry division on the autobahn to the Elbe, with plans to commit the rest of the Ninth if they got the bridgehead “and they turn us loose.” He was also noted as saying—“Damn, I want to get to Berlin and all of you people right down to the last private, I think, want it too.” (Ryan 284). The men of the Ninth Army in general, and the 83rd Division in particular had turned into a fighting machine and they wanted Berlin. The 83rd would keep pace with the second Armored Division. At times it would pull ahead. It was full speed ahead. Recently decorated CIC Special Agent, Technical Sargent Roy Hovel would be kept busy. Seven days would pass between his April 2 and 9 letters home, with six more to the letter following April 9. Tune in to a future post to find out who wins the race to the Elbe River, and what political controversy would arise for the “Rag-Tag Circus” also known as the US 83rd Infantry Division.

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