Thursday, March 14, 2019

War is Hell

It is the Sixth of March, the year is 1945. German forces are in retreat on all fronts, the war is nearly over. For the diehards, the fight continues...

American forces have entered the city of Köln, most of the German troops in the area have been pulled back across the Rhine River, but at some time late Monday or very early on that Tuesday, at least three Panzerkampfwagen V Panther tanks have been ordered into the city.

Someone, somewhere, didn't get the word that the Germans were pulling back. After the tanks rumbled over the Hohenzollern bridge, German engineers were preparing to blow that bridge. All is confusion, army officers don't want to blow the bridge, knowing that there were still troops fighting on the west bank of the Rhine, in and around Köln, one SS fanatic was determined to blow the bridge, come what may. For his trouble, a German army officer drew his Walther PPK and shot the SS man.

The bridge was blown up anyway.

Stranding a small element of the German Army's 106th Panzerbrigade (Armored Brigade). Two Panthers went one way after crossing the bridge, the vehicle commanded by Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Wilhelm Bartelborth went another direction, which placed him and his crew in the vicinity of the famous twin-spired Kölner Dom (Cologne cathedral). There they would meet two American tanks, one an M4 Sherman, the other the very new T26 Pershing.
Kölner Dom in 1945 (left) and today.
Although the following graphic depicts a PzKw VI Ausf B Tiger, more commonly known as a King Tiger (Königstiger auf Deutsch), the crew make up as shown applied to both the PzKw V Ausf D Panther and the M-4 Sherman. Each vehicle had a five man crew and the crew positions were similar on both of those vehicles. The exception being that on the Sherman, the commander and gunner positions are switched.
Tank crew positions, Germany.
Crew positions in the Panther commanded by Oblt Bartelborth are shown below. (This is an earlier version of the Panther, Bartelborth's tank was an Ausf A, which oddly enough, is a later version that the Ausf D shown below.)

The crew positions for the M4 Sherman and the T26 Pershing are depicted below -

T26 Pershing
As I mentioned last Saturday, I planned on watching the documentary about the "tank duel at Cologne" over at Amazon Prime. Which I did, the first two parts were the only ones applicable to the fight near the cathedral, the third and fourth parts can be skipped. It's obvious (to me at any rate) that the documentary was put together by a journalist, not an historian. Though he did a lot of good research, the documentary is colored by a certain amount of opinion which led nowhere and left me wondering what the fellow's point was. There was some good footage in the piece.

One thing I learned is that while there were a number of cameramen on scene, they were, in my opinion, uniformed journalists. The guy who shot most of the film claimed to have seen things which his film doesn't show. Another cameraman claimed to have great film of the action from an entirely different angle. Unfortunately he was never able to actually produce the film. Maybe it never existed or perhaps was inadvertently destroyed, we'll never know.

One thing I do know, is that on 06 March 1945, a Tuesday, three tanks met in combat. Out of fifteen crewmen aboard those tanks, five died. In addition, a civilian vehicle wandered onto the scene, driving between the positions of the Pershing and the Panther. Both vehicles opened fire on the car, killing the driver and wounding his female passenger badly. While U.S. Army medics treated her at the scene, they had to move on, hoping no doubt that she would be picked up later.

She was not, evidence at the scene seemed to suggest that she and the wrecked vehicle were driven over by another tank. Sad, but there was one bright spot in this otherwise tragic story. The woman's sister never knew of her fate, she had just gone missing. Years later when the documentary was put together, only then did she learn of her sister's fate. At least she learned what had happened to her sibling. Many people in those days simply vanished, their fate unknown, but presumed to be dead.

In front of the cathedral.
The two M4 Shermans advanced slowly down the sides of the street, driving carefully so as not to get hung up in the rubble of the destroyed buildings to either side. Both drivers had their heads out of their hatches for better visibility. There is just too much rubble, seeing no possible path forward, both Shermans stop.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a 75 mm round from a German gun hit the tank on the right commanded by Second Lieutenant Karl E. Kellner. The shot killed the driver Private First Class Julian Patrick and the loader Technician 5th Grade Curtis Speer instantly, it also severed 2Lt Kellner's left leg just below the knee.

2Lt Kellner managed to leverage himself out of his hatch, the gunner Corporal John J. Gialluca also bailed out of the stricken tank. Assistant driver Private Oliver P. Griffin also got out through his hatch. The tank commander, 2Lt Kellner, though he managed to scramble to safety, died shortly thereafter of his wound.

The second tank's crew had jumped out to assist their comrades in the stricken Sherman. They were in no position to engage the German tank which had hit Kellner's tank.

Meanwhile, the Panther which had destroyed Kellner's tank, under the command of Oberleutnant Wilhelm Bartelborth had quickly backed up into cover behind one of the numerous ruined buildings in the area, having spotted movement down a second street leading to the cathedral.

That tank, a rare T26 Pershing commanded by Robert Early, had just spotted the enemy vehicle backing up. They couldn't get a shot at the tank itself, so Early ordered his gunner, Clarence Smoyer to put a round into the building where he suspected the German was hiding. Figuring that perhaps they could still put an armor piercing round into the enemy tank even thought they couldn't see the tank, Smoyer fired the Pershing's gun.

The shot tore down the front of the building next to the Panther, Bartelborth ordered his driver forward as he swung the turret to his right, figuring a quick shot might kill the American tank. As the Panther moved into the open, Bartelborth hesitated, the tank down the street was unfamiliar, perhaps it was one of the other Panthers from 106 Panzerbrigade?

That hesitation cost him his tank and the lives of two crewmen. The Panther was shaken as a 90 mm round from the unfamiliar tank slammed into the tank. Almost immediately the Panther started to burn.

Time to get out!

Though the following film has some errors, it presents a different look at the tank duel in front of the cathedral, I thought it worth sharing.

To the memory of brave men, in a bitter war fought over seventy years ago -

Crew of the Sherman -
Tank Commander Karl E. Kellner
Gunner John J. Gialluca
Asst. Gunner Curtis Speer
Driver Julian Patrick
Asst. Driver Oliver Griffin

Crew of the Pershing -
Tank Commander Robert Early
Gunner Clarence Smoyer
Asst. Gunner John Deriggi
Driver William McVey
Asst. Driver Homer Davis

Crew of the Panther -
Tank Commander Wilhelm Bartelborth - survived the war
König - survived the war
Unknown crewman, wounded, died later in hospital
Unknown crewman, died inside the tank
Unknown crewman, survived the battle, ultimate fate unknown



  1. I’ve seen that cathedral in person, it was mind-bending in a few ways. First off - look at it. Secondly, I’m from a part of the world where a building from 1800 is considered a historical landmark. They started building that in the 1200s? Also, how the heck did Germany rebuild after the war? That’s an unimaginable reconstruction project to me. (Enter the Trümmerberg...)

    1. The largest town near where I lived was Heinsberg, it was mostly destroyed in WWII. But there are buildings in the smaller villages dating to the 1600s. Pretty amazing. (Where I live now was also founded in the 1600s as well, though there aren't any buildings from that era that I'm aware of, many dating from the 1700s are still around.)

      Remember, the Marshall Plan financed the bulk of the rebuilding of Germany. Though the Germans did work their butts off to do the actual labor.

    2. Though a lot of the big building from the medieval period still exist in one form or another, such as the ghost of the cathedral shown above, most of Germany was destroyed by itself in the 30 Years War. And then Napoleon came along...

      We see the same thing in a shortened time sense with the Great Unpleasantness of 1861-1865, down here, in the South. Washington DC definitely has a pre-British/post-British burning amongst some neighborhoods. Chicago, at one time, was very much pre-Great Fire/post-Great Fire.

      But we don't have that soul-crushing systematic rebuild required by total war.

      I read a book about the Berlin Airlift of 1948. The writer had an interesting view of different nationalities. The French, when we took a town, lined up to complain about what a mess we made. The Belgians alternated between complaining and trying to be too helpful. The Germans? Well, first thing usually the Mayor or whomever was left of the local power, priest, teacher, whatever, would organize body disposal, reassign people and families to adequate housing and then start brick collection and sorting for the rebuild. A kind of 'Oh well, here we go again' attitude that is very much American (which makes sense, considering how Germanic our nation used to be...) It was also touched on in "Band of Brothers."

    3. I lived there for quite a while, I really like the Germans. Hard workers too. They also work smart.

      My father was in Berlin during the airlift, he didn't have many stories, it was business as usual for them, for the German civilians it was a different story altogether.

    4. "The writer had an interesting view of different nationalities." I read a book some time ago which said that the GIs liked the Germans better than the French ( when they got into Germany after fighting through France ) because the Germans were more like themselves than the French whose attitudes and cleanliness were not up to what the GIs thought were proper. Which accords with what Andrew wrote: "(which makes sense, considering how Germanic our nation used to be...)".

      Thanks for the post.
      Paul L. Quandt

    5. Back in the day, when I worked on AWACS, there were stories about how a certain defense contractor treated the nations who operated that aircraft. Periodic visits to the contractor's main facility occurred on certain occasions, typically with the release of a new version of the software. The groups who operated that aircraft were the Americans, the British, NATO, and the French. Based on who was visiting, the contractor would invite the Americans, the Brits, and/or NATO to a party at the end of the visit, the French were told, "Have a nice trip home."

      I can't vouch for that personally, but a fellow in a position to know told me that story. I believe it.

  2. Geeez.....tank warfare at distances where one shot kills, irregardless of armor. Who shoots first lives.....maybe...Well done on the research Sarge. Remembering those who died in total war.

    1. Yeah, point blank range. Shoot first and live.

    2. ... still safer than being an infantryman, in statistical terms.

    3. Not to mention getting to ride everywhere.

    4. Correction - Who shoots first correctly lives. Blasting off a quick shot at the wrong angle or part of the tank that is close to yours (or, worse, better than yours,) like the gun mantle (that big chunk of armor that goes around the gun on the front of the tank) does nothing more than really annoy the men inside said steel chunk o' machinery. A good gunner would study what enemy armor he could, whether via pictures or in person, to find all the weak and tasty spots to plunk a round or three of AP ammo.

      Same with a gunfight, he who shoots correctly (correctly being hitting the other dude or dudette (sad that these fallen times we have to shoot women, too...) in a place that will cause said dude/ette to be incapacitated) lives... maybe...

    5. And Sarge the last comment, and given the opportunity to fix tracks, repair machinery, put up with freezing/burning temperatures while in a cast-iron pot, etc...

      Tanks have some perks, but they also have some negative drawbacks.

    6. Beans the 1st - first shot always rattles the other guy, if it's accurate then he won't be rattled, he'll be dead. At those ranges, the Panther's gun would always penetrate. Same goes for the Pershing.

    7. Beans the 2nd - all jobs have drawbacks. I'll take the cast-iron pot. If you're in the infantry and you don't like to dig, you're in the wrong line of work.

  3. Interesting to note
    As I do with all things.....head to google earth...and streetview.

    on the corner where the Panther was hit

    Is today a franchise outlet of McDonalds

    1. Can't say I'm all that surprised.

      Yeah, I like doing that with Google Earth myself.

  4. Stupid tourists. (referring to the sign re: sightseers, and the car of civilians.) Amazing that anything was left of the car, being caught between two tanks duking it out.

    We see the same thing here during the lulls in hurricanes and such, idjits driving when and where they shouldn't be. Y'all up northways where white stuff still occurs see the same thing. People out in conditions where they don't belong.

    "Oh, I'm bored. Let's go see the tanks fight each other." Um. No. Nope. Cellar. Let's go inventory the dirt chunks in the cellar. Much better to get a good thorough look at the sump...

    1. It was more of a case of "let's get the Hell out of town," from the footage I saw they were heading for the Rhine.

      People do weird stuff when danger shows up, some hunker down, some panic and run into the open. Guess which group survives to reproduce?

    2. About 50-50. Sometimes hunkering down isn't the solution.

  5. I was fortunate to visit that Cathedral in Cologne. It looks almost exactly like that black and white photo- as the years of city grime have taken their toll. There is restoration going on, but it's a slow process. It's amazing that the church wasn't destroyed.

    1. Amazing that it survived. After the last air raid on Cologne, the ground troops were told to spare the cathedral if at all possible.

  6. Thank you for finishing up the tale! I have also read that the U.S. troops liked the Germans better, as they immediately got to work cleaning up, while the French complained.


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