The 'Phantom Division' and ten minutes that shortened World War II in Europe

By May 8, 1945, V-E Day, the 9th Armored Division gained a wealth of combat experience in a relatively short amount of time. Though untested, the division would distinguish itself during the Battle of the Bulge, buying precious time for Allied units to regroup and disrupting the precise German timetable. Due to their ability to seemingly show up all along the line of advance and thwart German efforts, the 9th was bestowed the nickname the “Phantom Division.”  The 9th then participated in the drive to push the Germans back and through determination and a little bit of luck, managed to open up the first bridgehead across the Rhine. The sheer tenacity of the 9th Armored Division shortened the Allies’ war in the European Theatre.

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The Battle of the Bulge

The 9th Armored entered the line shortly before the Battle of the Bulge and conducted patrols in what was deemed a quiet sector. On 16 December 1944,  it became one of the units that bore the brunt of the German onslaught. The 9th received their baptism by fire fighting the Nazis smashing through the Ardennes Forest. The division’s three combat commands – similar in structure to modern brigades – were spread across the front lines and found themselves defending some of the most important sectors.

There are widely considered to be two crucial fights during the battle that proved to be turning points: the siege of Bastogne in the south and the Battle of Elsenborn Ridge. The 9th Armored’s Combat Command B (CCB) was deployed to St. Vith, Belgium in the vicinity of Elsenborn Ridge, Combat Command Reserve (CCR) was around Bastogne when the Germans attacked while Combat Command A (CCA) was in Luxembourg.

A column of U.S. troops from the 9th Armored Division, an armored car of the headquarters company, moving on winter road

A column of U.S. troops from the 9th Armored Division, an armored car of the headquarters company, moving on winter road (U.S. Army photo)

Combat Command A faced off against the Wehrmacht Seventh Army in the vicinity of Echternach, Luxembourg. It was the task of the Seventh Army to secure the southern flank of the entire German operation. However, CCA held their sector of the front against relentless attacks denying the Germans of their goals. During the fighting CCA’s 60th Armored Infantry Battalion had been surrounded, Stars and Stripes reported:

Nobody told the doughs of the 60th Armd. Inf. Bn. to pull out, so they stayed and fought until word finally got through to them. A few days later they showed up in German helmets and with blankets draped over their shoulders, their rifles slung with bayonets fixed. They walked through German lines that way… They kept right on going until they reached the U.S. lines. After that, they fought some more.

After being relieved by elements of the 6th Armored Division, Combat Command A was immediately pressed into the drive to relieve the beleaguered defenders of Bastogne.

Combat Command B was deployed further north near St. Vith, Belgium having planned to support the 2nd Infantry Division in an upcoming offensive action. When the Germans attacked the 2nd Infantry Division alongside the rookie 99th Infantry Division blunted the advance at Elsenborn Ridge while CCB drove south to help secure the vital crossroads at St. Vith with the remnants of the 7th Armored Division, 28th Infantry Division, and the 106th Infantry Division which had lost two-thirds of its fighting strength. With things going poorly to the north further German units poured south to St. Vith but the units of CCB put up a stubborn resistance. Finally, on 23 December, after delaying the Germans for 6 days CCB withdrew from St. Vith. However, during the fighting the BBC had reported that “the brightest spot along the western front is at St. Vith.” To which an American soldier replied “if this is a bright spot what the hell is going everywhere else?” But the actions of the 9th had severely disrupted the German plans.

While the 9th Armored’s other two commands were fighting elsewhere Combat Command Reserve was fighting a delaying action at Bastogne. CCR was tasked with blocking German forces advancing on Bastogne at all costs and did so for nearly 48 hours before falling back onto Bastogne itself. The Reserve Command’s delaying action gave the 101st Airborne Division time to reach Bastogne and establish a defense. Once Bastogne was surrounded the survivors of CCR fell under the command of Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division where they were formed into a provisional “fire brigade” known as Task Force SNAFU. This mobile reserve acted as a rapid response force to threatened areas of the line. As history has shown the battle at Bastogne proved to be pivotal and if it weren’t for 9th Armored’s Reserve Command the battle might not have even taken place. For their actions during the battle, Combat Command Reserve was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

Had the Germans been successful in any of the areas in which the 9th Armored Division was operating, the Allies could have incurred significantly more casualties or even prolonged the war. As the units of the 9th were relieved they were pulled off the line and sent to the rear to recuperate and rearm for the upcoming counter-offensive. The American forces pushed the Germans back and drove toward the Rhine and an entrance into the German heartland while the Phantom Division waited for its opportunity to rejoin the fight. That opportunity came on 28 February 1945.

route-of-the-9th-armored-division-map

Seizing the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen

On that day, the 9th Armored Division began its own attack toward the Rhine making good progress against the German opposition. In the days follow American units reached bridge after bridge on the Rhine just in time to see the Germans blow the bridge they were hoping to capture. As luck would have it, one American unit – the 9th – arrived to find one still intact, the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. The lead elements of CCB reached Remagen to find the Germans retreating. Tanks and infantry were ordered to move quickly but quietly through the town. However, multiple sources reported the bridge was scheduled for demolition at 1600, and when word reached the Commanding Officer of CCB it was already 1515 – they had 45 minutes to take the bridge. He immediately informed the commander of the assault forces and told them to get to the bridge as quickly as possible to which the commander replied: “Sir, I’m already there.”

Though they were at the bridge, it was still in the hands of the Germans who were determined not to let the Americans take it intact. Upon seeing the Americans, German engineers set off an explosion in the roadway hoping to slow the American advance. They also opened up with everything they had from the opposite bank. By the time the Americans were ready it was 1550, they had 10 minutes to save the bridge. The lead elements of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion began the assault and charge onto the bridge. Just as they did the Germans set of an explosion at the far side of the bridge; a final failed attempt at demolishing the bridge. The blast momentarily stunned the infantrymen but they quickly regained their senses and again set up across the bridge followed closely by combat engineers who climbed under the bridge set about cutting the wires to the explosives. The soldiers pressed on not knowing if the bridge would be blown up underneath them at any moment. They captured the German machine gun positions in the towers overlooking the bridge, then Sgt. Alexander Drabik led his squad in a mad dash for the far side of the bridge, dodging German fire and returning some of their own as they went. Sgt. Drabik and his squad arrived unscathed and were the first Americans across the Rhine – the 9th had grasped the slightest of holds.

As more men arrived they began clearing the Germans defending the far side of the bridge. They stormed the towers and captured the machine gun crew before throwing their guns in the river. They climbed up the cliffs to take out snipers and they endured mortar and artillery barrages but they were holding on. At night fall only a reinforced company, about 120 men, held the far side of the bridge but by midnight the engineers had cleared the armor to begin crossing.

Initially, before reports of the bridges capture had reached higher headquarters, CCB, 9th Armored Division had been order to continue south to link up with other forces. Brigadier General Hoge, CO CCB made the fateful decision to disobey those orders and reinforce his small contingent that had already crossed the bridge. Finally, as word began to spread Gen. Omar Bradley ordered other units diverted to Remagen to cross the bridge and get into Germany. Though the 9th Armored had captured the bridge at Remagen that was not part of the initial plan and in fact there were other plans underway in other areas designed to cross the Rhine. When Eisenhower’s dinner was interrupted by the news he told his guests “that was Brad. He’s got a bridge across the Rhine. And he apologized for it, said it was badly located at Remagen.”

Americans from 9th Armored across the bridge at Remagen.

Americans from 9th Armored across the bridge at Remagen.

Meanwhile, the American build up continued as units from all around, particularly anti-aircraft battalions, moved to the area to defend the bridgehead. No sooner was this done than the Germans began throwing everything they had at destroying the bridge. Counterattacks were made, air raids were launched, and sappers even attempted an infiltration downstream to blow the bridge but the Americans held and the bridge stood. The men of the 9th even erected a sign saying “Cross the Rhine with dry feet courtesy of the 9th Armored Division.” Finally, on March 17th after continual pounding the bridge collapsed but not before it had allowed 5 divisions to cross the Rhine and gave time for two pontoon bridges to be built nearby.

Cross_the_rhine

The actions of the men of the 9th Armored at Remagen contributed immeasurably to shortening the war in Europe. It took the Allies four months to cross the Roer River and the Germans were expecting to be able to rest and refit before putting up a staunch defense of the Rhine. The 9th’s breakthrough caused a lot of confusion and meant the Germans could no longer conduct a prolonged defense. It also allowed Eisenhower to alter his plans for ending the war. He praised the troops for seizing the opportunity, while others, such as General Patton, took the opportunity to gloat that they had beaten Montgomery across the Rhine. If not for the 9th Armored Division’s decisive actions and tenacity during the Battle of the Bulge and in capturing the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, it is likely the war in Europe would have continued past May 1945 and cost many more Allied soldiers their lives.

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