In the early months of 1945, the war in Europe was coming to a conclusion.
In mid-to-late February, the Russians, driving from the east, were pushing the German army backward and had arrived less than 100 miles from Berlin. Poland, where the war had begun in 1939, was almost completely in the hands of the Soviets. After the bloody Battle of the Bulge, the American, British, French, and Canadian troops were pushing into Germany from the west and entering the Ruhr, where Germany’s industrial might was located.
It was during this time, on March 2, 1945, when General George Patton radioed one of the most brilliant and smart-assed messages to Allied Supreme Headquarters.
Despite the way the war was playing out in the west, all was not well within the Allied ranks. There was a distinct rivalry between the Western Allies’ top two general officers, the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Lieutenant General George Patton. Privately the two detested each other and were always trying to outdo the other.
With the war winding down, the Allied Supreme Commander in the West, General Dwight Eisenhower, was once again giving the main axis of attack to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Eisenhower’s plan called for the destruction of German forces west of the Rhine River to be followed by the British and Canadian forces of the 21st Army Group attacking northern Germany, north of the Ruhr, and across the northern plain. His thrust included having the American Ninth Army under Lieutenant General William Simpson placed under his command.
This chafed the Americans, Patton, and his superior, General Omar Bradley, the commander of the 12th Army Group. To make matters worse, both the 95th Infantry Division and the 17th Airborne Division were taken away from the 12th Army Group and assigned to Montgomery in the north. The 95th, (the Iron Men of Metz), had taken part in the 3rd Army’s fiercest battles under Patton, in the ancient fortress city of Metz and the German border town of Saarlautern, and were some of his more experienced troops.
Bradley and Patton, unfairly or not, pointed to how slow Montgomery had been in taking Caen in Normandy and to the failed Operation Market-Garden in Holland.
Caen was a D-Day objective of the Canadians as the town was a major hub of roads, railways, and communications. Yet, located nine miles inland, taking Caen on June 6 was overly ambitious. The Germans also reinforced the town with Panzer divisions. Caen wasn’t finally taken until two months later.
Market-Garden was supposed to be a “dagger thrust” into Germany over the Rhine by having three airborne divisions seize a series of bridges. Bradley had derisively called it a “butter knife thrust.” Even if the area was lightly defended (as intelligence had said), it would have been a tough schedule to keep. But the Germans had shipped several SS Panzer units to Holland to rest and refit. Against lightly armed paratroopers, the SS units successfully cut the highway in several places and the operation failed.
Now in late February, Patton’s forces were relegated to an “aggressive defense” and later were to engage with the First Army in a double envelopment thrust of the Ruhr, but they most definitely had a complementary role in support of the British.
Patton was having none of this. The Third Army was aggressively pushing the Germans in the Eifel region, a hilly, heavily forested area with three large rivers that were swollen with melting winter snow.
He launched what he called “armed reconnaissance” of German defenses in front of his army in accordance with the “aggressive defense” approach. Third Army troops undertook that approach with parts of seven divisions. Its objectives were as listed Prüm, Bitburg, and the city of Trier on the Mosel River.
Trier was an ancient city. It was where the Celtic Treveri tribe (where the city got its name from) had resided. Julius Caesar and his legions took the city after a revolt in 58-50 BC. Some of Rome’s best and most famous cavalry troops came from the region.
The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHEAF), Eisenhower’s HQs, radioed Patton’s army to halt outside of Trier because it “would take four divisions” to seize the city. Unbeknownst to SHEAF, Trier was already in American hands, as the 10th Armored Division had pushed through with the infantry.
Patton then sent his now-famous message, “Have taken Trier with two divisions… what do you want me to do, give it back?”
He further incensed Montgomery when — as the British commander was about to launch a great set-piece battle with airborne troops seizing bridgeheads across the Rhine and a huge amphibious operation — Patton, following Bradley’s orders to “take the Rhine on the run,” did exactly that.
By the morning of March 23, Patton had pushed six battalions across the Rhine at Oppenheim with his engineers building pontoon bridges and attacking aggressively. That operation cost a total of just 28 troops killed and wounded.
The day before the huge operation by Montgomery in the north, one of Patton’s staff officers announced in a staff meeting at higher headquarters that the Third Army had crossed the Rhine at 10 p.m. on March 22, “without the benefit of aerial bombing, ground smoke, artillery preparation and airborne assistance.” It was a total dig at the British commander and it did nothing to alleviate the hard feelings between the two men.