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There at the End: The U.S. 16th Armored Division’s Liberation of Plzen

on Sat, 03/02/2013 - 18:49

By Bryan J Dickerson*

Prologue – Plzen, Czech Republic, Saturday 6 May 2000,

On this warm sunny day, I stood among several hundred people who had gathered on Husova Street; several blocks from Plzen’s Republic Square.  55 years ago on this very day, soldiers of the U.S. 16th Armored Division had rolled into Plzen and liberated its people from six oppressive years of German occupation (pictured here - Photo Courtesy of Jaroslav Peklo).  Later on that same day, other soldiers from the U.S. 97th and 2nd Infantry Divisions had arrived to help secure the city.  Today, the people of Plzen had gathered to dedicate a new memorial in honor of their liberators.   The crowd in attendance included many American veterans from all three U.S. Army divisions.  They included Vern Lewellyn, George Thompson, Gene Eike, Chuck Schaefer, OJ Mooney, and Charlie Savage of the 16th Armored Division.  

The dedication ceremony featured representatives of the City Government of Plzen, the Czech Government, and the Czech Armed Forces.  16th Armored Division Association President George Thompson was one of the featured speakers.  After George’s speech, the new memorial was unveiled; a glass pyramid resting on steel supports - with the 16th Armored Division’s insignia and words of remembrance etched into the glass. 

Introduction

When considering U.S. armored operations during the European Campaigns of the Second World War, several famed divisions immediately come to mind.  During the Battle of the Bulge there was the stubborn defense of St. Vith by the 7th Armored Division, and the relief of Bastogne by the 4th Armored Division.  In March of 1945 the U.S. 9th Armored Division captured the only intact bridge across the Rhine River.  In April 1945 the U.S. 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions encircled the Ruhr.  Yet another U.S. Armored Division, one much less well known ended up playing a key role in the closing days of the war in Europe.  In its one and only combat operation, the 16th Armored Division liberated the city of Plzen in western Czechoslovakia – an operation that may have been light in casualties but that played a critical part in a much larger drama setting up the contours of post-war Europe.  However, before we cover the 16th Armored Division’s role during the frenetic closing days of the Second World War in Europe let’s first take a look at the form and structure chosen for it and the U.S. Army’s other Armored Divisions. 

Altogether, the United States Army organized, equipped and deployed sixteen armored divisions to the North Africa – European Theater of Operations.  Armored divisions participated in the North African campaigns, the invasion of Sicily, the Italian campaigns, the liberation of Western Europe and the conquest of Germany.  The armored divisions brought tremendous mobility, firepower and organizational flexibility onto the battlefields. 

During World War Two, the U.S. Army ultimately employed two methods for organizing its armored divisions.  Initially, U.S. armored divisions were organized as “heavy” divisions with twice as many tank units as infantry units.  Though the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions retained their organizational scheme throughout the war, battlefield experience showed the Army that a greater balance of combat forces was needed.[1]

The result was the creation of the “light” armored division in the fall of 1943.  But for the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions this organizational scheme was utilized for all other armored divisions; 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 20th, and the 1st Armored Division when it was re-organized following the North Africa campaign.  The “light” armored division employed a Division Headquarters, three Combat Command (A, B and Reserve) Headquarters and thirteen organic battalions.  Each armored division contained three battalions each of tanks, armored infantry and armored field artillery as well as a mechanized cavalry squadron for reconnaissance, and armored engineer, armored medical and armored ordnance battalions.  “Light” armored divisions were further bolstered by permanently assigned tank destroyer and self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery battalions and other support units as needed.[2]  

The “Light” armored divisions had an authorized strength of 10,670 personnel.  The division’s primary offensive combat power was provided by its tanks and armored vehicles.  The armored division was authorized 195 M-4 medium tanks mounting either 75mm or 76mm guns, 77 light tanks, fifty-four self-propelled artillery pieces and 466 half-tracks.  The light tanks were either M-5s which mounted a 37mm main gun or the much improved M-24 Chaffee which had a 75mm main gun.  Artillery fire support was provided primarily by M-7 self-propelled guns with 105mm howitzers with each tank battalion also having a number of M-4 tanks containing short-barreled 105mm howitzers instead of 75mm or 76mm guns in their turrets.  Half-tracks transported the infantry and performed a variety of support roles.  The cavalry squadron contained light tanks and armored cars.  Attached tank destroyer battalions were equipped with either the M-10, M-18 or M-36 tank destroyers, mounting 75mm, 76mm or 90mm anti-tank guns respectively in open-topped turrets.[3]

The 16th Armored Division was officially activated on 15 July 1943 at Camp Chaffee in northwest Arkansas.   Major General Douglass T. Greene was the Commanding General of the new armored division.  The 16th Armored Division was organized under the “light” armored division Table of Organization:

Division Headquarters and Headquarters Company

Headquarters and Headquarters Company / Combat Command A

Headquarters and Headquarters Company / Combat Command B

Headquarters and Headquarters Company / Combat Command R

Headquarters and Headquarters Battery / 16th Armored Division Artillery

Headquarters and Headquarters Company / 16th Armored Division Trains

5th Tank Battalion

16th Tank Battalion

26th Tank Battalion

18th Armored Infantry Battalion

64th Armored Infantry Battalion

69th Armored Infantry Battalion

393th Armored Field Artillery Battalion

396th Armored Field Artillery Battalion

397th Armored Field Artillery Battalion

23rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron

516th Counterintelligence Corps Detachment

216th Armored Medical Battalion

137th Armored Ordnance Maintenance Battalion

Military Police Platoon

216th Armored Engineer Battalion

156th Armored Signal Company[4]

The 16th Armored Division spent the next year and a half training at Camp Chaffee and preparing itself for eventual deployment to the European Theater.  “Training was hard but rewarding,” recalled Capt. Howard Painter, commander of Company B, 18th Armored Infantry Battalion.  “It was gratifying to see that we were becoming a unit capable of making a contribution to the war effort of our country.”  In September 1944, Brigadier General John L. Pierce assumed command of the division.[5]

Lt Col William G. Smith Jr. was the commander of the 216th Armored Engineers Battalion.  A 1938 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Smith had served with six other armored divisions before being assigned to the 16th Armored Division.[6]

George Thompson joined the 16th Armored Division’s 137th Armored Ordnance Battalion in December 1943 as a wheeled vehicle mechanic.  He later attended tank mechanic school.  The 137th Armored Ordnance Battalion was unique in that many of its original members had experience in the automotive industry prior to the war.[7]

Brief Overview of the European Campaign 1944 - 1945

While the 16th Armored Division was still training at Camp Chaffee, the Allied Expeditionary Force launched Operation Overlord on 6 June 1944 in the Normandy region of north-west France.  Airborne forces landed on the flanks of the invasion area and then six Allied infantry divisions stormed ashore.  The Germans were taken completely by surprise and Allied forces were able to establish a secure beachhead.  For the next several weeks, the Allies and Germans fought a brutal war of attrition in the Normandy hedgerows.  In late July, Allied forces were able to break through the German lines and push across France with lightning speed.  Another Allied invasion force landed in southern France in August and pushed north.  By early September, the two Allied forces had linked up and seemed likely to push through all the way into western Germany.  But severe logistical problems halted the Allied advance.  A combined airborne / ground assault by British and American forces in Holland fell short of achieving a lodgment across the Rhine River.  Heavy autumn rainfalls combined with the Allies’ logistical difficulties and stiffening German resistance to force the Allied advance to a near standstill.[8]   

Unbeknownst to the Allies, the Germans were planning a massive counter-offensive through the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg, the very same region where they had poured through in May 1940 in their Blitzkrieg offensive which quickly overran France.  On 16 December 1944, three German armies struck the U.S. First Army’s heavily outnumbered U.S. VIII Corps.  Before they were stopped by American reinforcements, the German panzers had punched a sixty-mile deep ‘Bulge’ in the First U.S. Army’s lines.  But the Battle of the Bulge proved to be disastrous for the Germans.  By the end of January 1945, the original First Army lines had been restored and the Germans had lost hundreds of irreplaceable panzers and tens of thousands of soldiers.[9]  

Throughout February and into March of 1945, the Allies pressed forward into Germany and reached the Rhine River.   Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower’s intention was for all of his armies to reach the Rhine before attempting to cross the last natural barrier into the heart of Nazi Germany.  The capture of the only intact bridge across the Rhine at the town of Remagen by the 9th Armored Division forced a change in Eisenhower’s plans.  Other U.S. divisions were rushed across the bridge and subsequent bridges erected in the vicinity to exploit this fortunate opportunity.  By the end of March, all Allied armies had crossed the Rhine. 

The month of April witnessed the near collapse of the German Army forces in the west.  Allied armored and mechanized forces rushed across central Germany.  Allied forces discovered the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps at such infamous places as Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau.  By mid-April, the capture of Berlin seemed within reach of British and American forces but Eisenhower recognized that the Soviets were in a far better position to capture the city so he directed his forces to halt well short of the city.  American and French forces overran southern Germany and pushed into Austria.[10]

On 18 April, elements of the 90th Infantry Division of General George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army reached the 1937 Czechoslovak - German border and crossed into the Nazi-occupied Allied nation.  Eisenhower’s primary focus was to prevent the formation of the “National Redoubt” area of last ditch fanatical Nazi resistance rumored to be occurring in southern Germany and western Austria.  So after reaching the Czechoslovak border, Eisenhower turned Third U.S. Army to the south-east and pointed it towards Austria.[11]

For the rest of the month, XII Corps of Third U.S. Army advanced parallel to the border as it protected the army’s left flank during the drive to Austria and conducted several cross-border operations.  The 2nd Cavalry Group liberated the border town of Asch and the 97th Infantry Division liberated the city of Cheb. 2nd Cavalry Group also undertook two daring raids to rescue Allied prisoners of war and to rescue the famed Lippizzaner performing horses of the Spanish Riding School from behind enemy lines.  The 90th Infantry Division liberated the Floessenbuerg Concentration Camp.   By month’s end, Third U.S. Army held positions along and over the Czechoslovak border and were driving into Austria.[12]

Entering the Fight

16th Armored Division’s long-awaited journey to the frontlines in Europe began in January 1945.  Having completed their training, the division left Camp Chaffee by train and travelled north through St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois.  Then they headed east to Buffalo, New York and continued on eastward.  On 28 January 1945, they arrived at Camp Shanks near Orangetown, New York.  Occupying over 2,000 acres on the Hudson River some 30 miles north of New York City, Camp Shanks was the U.S. Army’s largest Port of Embarkation in the U.S.  Over a million soldiers passed through here on their way to the European Theater.  Here at Camp Shanks, the soldiers of the 16th Armored Division made their final preparations for overseas movement.[13]

Their stay at Camp Shanks was brief.  On 5 February 1945, the soldiers began embarkation on the ships that would take them to France.  The passage across the Atlantic Ocean commenced and the division’s units arrived in stages at the port of LeHavre on the English Channel between 11 and 17 February.  They were now part of the Fifteenth U.S. Army.  Recognizing the importance of having experienced combat leaders in his division, BrigGen John L. Pierce requested that some officers with combat experience be transferred into the 16th Armored Division.  One of these new officers was Major George B. Pickett, Jr., who had formerly served as Executive Officer of 42nd Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division during the Battle of the Bulge.  Pickett joined the 16th Armored Division in mid-April and assumed command of the 64th Armored Infantry Battalion. As Allied armies advanced towards the Rhine River, the 16th Armored Division remained in Theater Reserve in the vicinity of Elbeufren-en-Bray, in the Seine-Inferieure region of France until mid-April 1945.[14]   

Finally as Allied armies were rushing across Germany, the 16th Armored Division was hastily moved forward.   On 17 April, the division crossed into Germany and was assigned to Third U.S. Army.  The Division Headquarters was set up at the city of Kaiserslautern.  From here they continued eastward to the city of Mainz.  On 20 April, the 571st Anti-aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion (Self-Propelled) was attached.  The 571st AAA AW Battalion consisted of armored half-tracks mounting quad-fifty caliber machine guns for defense against low altitude enemy aircraft.  After remaining near Mainz for a week, the division continued on to Wurzburg.  On 28 April, they relieved the 71st Infantry Division at the city of Nuernberg and began performing security and occupation duties.  The 23rd Cavalry Squadron was detached and assigned to the 86th Infantry Division.  As part of that division, the Squadron engaged in combat operations from the Isar River to Wasserburg and rejoined its parent division on 4 May at Nuernberg.[15]

The Situation in Early May 1945

The 1937 Czechoslovak – German border region was mountainous and heavily wooded which channelized vehicular movement through defensible mountain passes and gaps.  Once through these mountains, the terrain leveled out into rolling farmland and the road network improved significantly.  The region’s most important city was Plzen, with its massive Skoda Works industrial complex and a large airport currently utilized by the remnants of the German Luftwaffe.

 Since the middle of April, Third U.S. Army had been advancing parallel to the border.  It’s XII Corps with 2nd Cavalry Group and the 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions were screening the ever-lengthening Third Army left flank.  XII Corps’s other divisions – 26th Infantry, 5th Infantry and 11th Armored – were already into Austria.  Concerns over this flank prompted Twelfth U.S. Army Group (Gen. Omar Bradley) to have First U.S. Army send its 1st Infantry Division south to the Czechoslovak border so that XII Corps could tighten up its lines.  Plans were also in the works to transfer V Corps from First U.S. Army down to Third U.S. Army to further aid the drive into Austria.[16]

The German forces defending the Czechoslovak border belonged to General Hans von Obstfelder’s 7th Army.   Having been devastated during the Normandy Campaign and again in the Ardennes Counter-offensive, the German 7th Army was a shell of its former self.  It consisted of the severely depleted 2nd Panzer Division, Wehrkreis XIII (training and replacement command absorbed into the 7th Army), an engineer brigade, an Officer Candidate School, and the 11th Panzer Division.   Only the 11th Panzer Division was near its authorized manpower strength, but like the 2nd Panzer Division, it was short of tanks.   Supplies in general were insufficient with an acute shortage of fuel that rendered the two panzer divisions virtually immobile.  Lacking sufficient forces to cover the entire border, 7th Army’s defense consisted only of strong-points and roadblocks.  A counter-attack using the 2nd and 11th Panzer Division’s had been ordered against Third U.S. Army’s left flank in late April but lack of fuel prevented it from being launched.[17]

The city of Prague and its immediate environs comprised the jurisdiction of Wehrkreis (Military Area) Prague.  Within this area were two divisions of regional defense troops under the command of General Rudolf Toussaint.  They were primarily engaged in guarding various locations of military importance in and around Prague.[18]

Elsewhere, the Soviet Army was pressing westward through central Czechoslovakia.  As a result, German forces were being steadily pressed into a pocket in western Czechoslovakia.  An estimated 141,000 German troops were believed to be in this pocket, the vast majority of whom were confronting the Soviets in an effort to enable German civilians and other German forces to escape Soviet capture.  In late April, Field Marshall Ferdinand Schoerner assumed command of all German forces in the Czechoslovak Pocket.  A notorious brutal commander, Schoerner promptly ordered the 11th Panzer Division to leave the Czechoslovak border areas and head east to fight the Soviets.[19]

The 11th Panzer Division’s commander, General Wend von Wietersheim, knew full well what Field Marshall Schoerner’s orders to head east to fight the Soviets meant for his soldiers:  death on the battlefield or years of captivity in a Soviet prisoner of war camp with little chance of survival.  With the assistance of 2nd Cavalry Group’s commander, Colonel Charles H. Reed, General von Wietersheim surrendered the bulk of his division to Brigadier General Herbert Earnest on 4 May 1945.  The 2nd Infantry Division played a supporting role in processing the German surrender.  Several days later, the remainder of the 11th Panzer surrendered to the 26th Infantry Division in south-western Czechoslovakia.  The effect was an unmitigated disaster for 7th Army.  “The unexpectedly hurried departure of the 11th Pz [Panzer] Div [Division] meant the exposure of our southern flank and clearance of the Taus-Pilsen road for the Americans,” General Karl Weissenberger, commander of Wehrkreis XIII, later wrote.[20]  

Day of Decision – 5 May 1945

For the last several weeks, debate had been raging at the highest levels of the Allied High Command over whether or not to liberate western Czechoslovakia and more specifically, the capital city of Prague.  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the British Chiefs of Staff, the British Foreign Office, the U.S. State Department and pro-democracy Czechs and Slovaks pressed for Third U.S. Army to liberate Prague and as much of western Czechoslovakia as possible as a possible counter-balance to Soviet machinations to install pro-Soviet Czech and Slovak Communists in power in the liberated country.  Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, did not want to hazard American lives for post-war political purposes and did not want to offend the Soviets.  U.S. President Harry S. Truman, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and the other U.S. Chiefs of Staff supported Eisenhower’s decision as the Theater Commander in Europe.   Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, the Soviet High Command and Czech and Slovak Communists all wanted a pro-Soviet Communist government installed in Czechoslovakia.[21]

By early May, General Eisenhower was satisfied that the National Redoubt was nothing more than a figment of Nazi propaganda.  The rapid and minimally opposed occupation of the National Redoubt area by Third and Seventh U.S. Armies had proven that fact.   The complete capitulation of Nazi Germany was only days away.  Adolf Hitler and several of his senior leadership had already committed suicide.  The Soviets had captured Berlin.  In the north, British Field Montgomery Sir Bernard Montgomery’s forces had driven to the Baltic Sea at Luebeck and linked up with Soviet forces who arrived several hours later.  In the center, First U.S. Army had linked up with Soviet forces on the Elbe River the week before.  To the south, U.S. and French forces were nearing to juncture with other Allied forces driving up from Italy.  The only remaining German forces of any appreciable size were in western Czechoslovakia.[22]  

Eisenhower decided to send Third U.S. Army to help the Soviets clear the remaining German forces out of Czechoslovakia.  On 4 May, he sent a message to the Soviets informing them of his decision to send Third U.S. Army eastward to the line Karlovy Vary – Plzen – Ceske Budejovice with a possible further advancement to the west bank of the Vltava River.  Since the Vltava River flowed through Prague, this implied a possible advance to liberate at least part of the Czechoslovak capital.  Eisenhower also sent orders to Gen. Bradley for Third U.S. Army to conduct the operation.[23]

At 1930, Bradley telephoned Patton with Eisenhower’s orders to attack to the Karlovy Vary – Plzen – Ceske Budejovice line.  In addition, Bradley was transferring First U.S. Army’s V Corps to Third U.S. Army for Patton to use in his offensive.  Patton immediately called V Corps’s commanding general, Major General Clarence Huebner, and ordered him to attack the following morning with the intention of securing the city of Plzen. The new 16th Armored Division would be given to V Corps for the attack on Plzen. Patton’s Chief of Staff Major General Hobart Gay called XII Corps commanding officer, Major General S. LeRoy Irwin, and ordered his corps to advance on Prague with the 4th Armored Division and the 5th and 90th Infantry Divisions.  His 11th Armored and 26th Infantry Divisions would cover the corps’s right flank as they advanced north-east into Czechoslovakia.  Both V and XII Corps were to attack the following morning with their infantry divisions to open up routes for their armored divisions to pass through.[24]

Major General Huebner asked to use the more experienced 9th Armored Division for the Plzen attack instead of the 16th Armored Division. This was not a slight against the 16th Armored Division.   The 9th Armored Division had fought in the Ardennes Counter-Offensive, seized the Remagen Bridge and driven across central Germany.  With the war in Europe winding down, Patton, however, wanted to get the new 16th Armored Division into the final fight.  So, 9th Armored Division would detach its Combat Command A to spearhead 1st Infantry Division’s drive on Karlovy Vary while the rest of the division was held in reserve.[25]

The 16th Armored Division Heads for the Front

The next day, 5 May 1945, the infantry divisions of V and XII Corps began the attacks to open up the routes for the armored divisions to exploit.  In the north, 1st Infantry Division pushed eastward from the vicinity of Cheb and the 97th and 2nd Infantry Divisions pushed east to open up the main routes to Plzen.  On V Corps’ right, XII Corps sent 90th and 5th Infantry Divisions and the 2nd Cavalry Group to open up the mountain passes that 4th Armored Division would use for its advance on Prague.  At first, the Americans were coldly greeted by Sudeten Germans but after entering into the area populated by the Czechs, each town and village exuberantly greeted the Americans as liberators. The people turned out to greet the Americans dressed in their finest attire and bearing gifts of food, beverages and alcohol.  For many American soldiers, the scenes were reminiscent of liberating France the previous summer.[26]

While V and XII Corps were attacking into Czechoslovakia, the 16th Armored Division was still over a hundred miles to the west at Nuernburg.  After being relieved of their security responsibilities, the 16th Armored Division rushed its units eastward to Waidhaus, Germany with Combat Command B in the lead.  Division Headquarters was established in an old railroad car in Waidhaus, and the combat commands took up positions that night inside Czechoslovakia in the rear of the U.S. infantry’s front lines.[27]

When Company C of the 137th Armored Ordnance Battalion rolled into Nyrany, they were the first Americans to enter the Czech village.  Some German soldiers attempted to resist the Americans but were quickly subdued.   “I can remember some firing and having rifle bullets come too close for comfort to me,” recalled Sergeant George Thompson.  He marched a group of German prisoners through the village and turned them over to Military Policemen for transport to a prisoner of war camp.  While doing so, Sgt Thompson and his soldiers had to prevent the Czech villagers from exacting revenge on their German oppressors.[28]

Word of the advancing Americans spread quickly throughout western Czechoslovakia.  Czech patriots in Prague, Plzen and numerous towns responded by launching local uprisings against the German occupiers.  In Prague, an understanding was reached between the city’s garrison commander, General Rudolf Toussaint and the Czech patriots to not fire on each other but Field Marshall Schoerner quickly dispatched SS troops to suppress the uprising. Toussaint had been trying unsuccessfully for several days to contact General Patton to negotiate a surrender of his forces.   The situation in Prague was further complicated by a division of former Soviet prisoners of war led by Soviet General Andrei Vlasov.  Vlasov’s divisions had been fighting for the Germans.  Now with the end of the war imminent, they decided to switch sides and help the partisans against the Germans.  Fearing Soviet reprisals, the Czech leaders requested that these Soviet soldiers leave Prague.   In Plzen, the German garrison was commanded by Lt General Georg von Majewski who had about 10,000 troops under his command.  His deputy was Major General Gerhard Mueller. The Czech patriots rose up and demanded that von Majewski surrender the city.  Von Majewski refused, saying that he would only surrender to the Americans.  Thus an uneasy standoff ensued as both sides waited for the American Army to arrive, albeit for far different reasons.  For the Germans, the arrival of the Americans meant protection against Czech retributions and deliverance from Soviet captivity.  For the Czechs, it meant that their long nightmare of Nazi occupation would be over.[29]

Preparing for Battle

Late on 5 May 1945, the 16th Armored Division completed its movement into the V Corps area of operations.  Their mission was to pass through the forward lines of the 2nd and 97th Infantry Divisions and push eastward to liberate Plzen, western Bohemia’s largest and most important city.   All three of the division’s combat commands would be involved.  Colonel Charles Noble’s Combat Command B (CCB) would make the main effort down the Bor-Plzen Road and seize the high ground west of the city.  On a parallel road to their south, Lt Col Thoss B. Beck’s Reserve Command (CCR) was to cover CCB’s flank and seize high ground east of Plzen.   Lt Col Shelby F. Williams’s Combat Command A (CCA) was to follow Noble’s forces in support and reserve.  Completion of these movements would put the division in position to liberate the city.[30]

On the eve of its first combat offensive, the 16th Armored Division was organized as thus:

 

Division Headquarters

Division Artillery Headquarters

Division Trains

 

Combat Command A –  Lt Col Shelby F. Williams

5th Tank Battalion

18th Armored Infantry Battalion

393rd Armored Field Artillery Battalion

Troop A, 23rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron [Mechanized]

Company A, 216th Armored Engineer Battalion

Company A, 216th Armored Medical Battalion

Battery A, 571st Antiaircraft Artillery [Automatic Weapons] Battalion

 

Combat Command B – Col. Charles B. Noble

64th Armored Infantry Battalion

16th Tank Battalion

396th Armored Field Artillery Battalion

Battery B, 571st Antiaircraft Artillery [Automatic Weapons] Battalion

Troop B, 23rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron [Mechanized]

Company B, 216th Armored Engineer Battalion

Company C, 137th Armored Ordnance Battalion

Company B, 216th Armored Medical Battalion

 

Reserve Command -  Lt Col. Thoss B. Beck

26th Tank Battalion

69th Armored Infantry Battalion

397th Armored Field Artillery Battalion

Company C, 216th Armored Engineer Battalion

Battery C, 571st Antiaircraft Artillery [Automatic Weapons] Battalion[31]

Standard procedure for U.S. armored divisions was to form combined arms task forces within their combat commands for operations.  Several days prior, each of the 16th Armored Division’s three combat commands accordingly formed several task forces consisting of tanks, armored infantry, armored field artillery, engineers, medics, and communications and supply troops. 

For his combat command’s assault, Col. Noble formed three task forces:

 

            Task Force A (Lt. Col. George B. Pickett)

                        64th Armored Infantry Battalion (minus Company B)

                        Company A, 16th Tank Battalion

1 platoon, D Company, 16th Tank Battalion

                        Troop B, 23rd Cavalry Squadron

                        1 platoon, 216th Armored Engineers Battalion

 

            Task Force B

                        16th Tank Battalion (minus Company A)

                        B Company, 64th Armored Infantry Battalion

                        1 platoon, 216th Armored Engineers Battalion

 

            Task Force R

                        CCB Headquarters

                        396th Armored Field Artillery Battalion

                        Company B, 216th Armored Engineers Battalion (-)

                        Company B, 216th Armored Medical Battalion

        Company C, 137th Armored Ordnance Maintenance Battalion

        B Battery, 571st Antiaircraft Artillery [Automatic Weapons] Battalion[32]

 

Similarly Reserve Command formed its task forces as such:

 

            Task Force Horrocks

                        69th Armored Infantry Battalion (minus Company B)

                        Company B, 26th Tank Battalion

                        One Platoon, Company C, 216th Armored Engineers Battalion

                        One Platoon, Battery C, 571st Antiaircraft Artillery [Automatic Weapons]

                            Battalion

 

            Task Force Baker

                        26th Tank Battalion (minus Companies B and C)

                        Company B, 69th Armored Infantry Battalion

                        One Platoon, Company C, 216th Armored Engineers Battalion

                        One Platoon, Battery C, 571st Antiaircraft Artillery [Automatic Weapons]

                        Battalion

           

            Task Force “R”

                        Reserve Command Headquarters

397th Armored Field Artillery Battalion

                        Company C, 26th Tank Battalion

                        Company C, 216th Armored Engineers Battalion (minus two platoons)

                        Battery C, 571st Antiaircraft Artillery [Automatic Weapons] Battalion (minus two

        platoons)[33]

Liberation Day – 6 May 1945

Early on the morning of Sunday 6 May 1945, V and XII Corps of Third U.S. Army renewed their drives into western Czechoslovakia with their armored divisions rushing through the forward positions of the infantry divisions.   In the north, Combat Command A pushed down the road to Karlovy Vary with the 1st Infantry Division following behind.  In XII Corps’s area, the 4th Armored Division pushed north-eastward through the mountain passes held by the 5th and 90th Infantry Divisions and headed for Prague.  Further south, the 26th Infantry Division attacked to the north-east in the direction of Ceske Budejovice.  Meanwhile the 11th Armored Division continued its drive in Austria.  By the end of the day, numerous towns had been liberated, tens of thousands of German troops and civilians had surrendered and Eisenhower’s Karlovy Vary – Plzen – Ceske Budejovice restraining line had been reached in several places.[34]

At 0430, Troop B, 23rd Cavalry Squadron began CCB’s advance on Plzen down Highway 14 and passed through the 97th Infantry Division’s positions at Stribro without incident.   Soon after, the cavalrymen began to encounter surrendering German troops.  Not stopping to take them prisoner, the Americans directed them to the rear and kept pushing forward.[35]

The Advance Guard followed Troop B forty-five minutes later.  By 0600, all of CCB was heading east.  To provide flank security, Lt Col Pickett grouped a platoon each of tanks and armored infantry under the command of 1st Lt Gilbert Casper.  Team Casper advanced along a parallel road to the south of the main CCB columns, overcoming several roadblocks and capturing 350 Germans at the town of Stod outside Plzen.  Some German resistance was met by Task Force A at the town of Sulislav and overcome.[36]

Preceding Task Force B was a recon team in a jeep consisting of the 16th Tank Battalion’s operations officer and three soldiers. Near Kozolupy, the recon team ran into a German pillbox situated atop a railroad embankment and two German 88mm guns.  Fortunately for the Americans, these 88s were set up for anti-aircraft defense and could not be brought to bear on the American vehicles.  Nevertheless, the Germans resisted with small arms fire.  One of the recon soldiers, Private First Class Robert Ifland, attempted to outflank the pillbox but was mortally wounded. Despite his wound, he kept the pillbox under fire and directed a patrol to capture it from the rear. Fifty Germans and eight vehicles were captured. For his actions, PFC Ifland was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously.[37]

Less than two hours into the attack, Troop B of the 23rd Cavalry arrived in the outskirts of the city. At this point, Col. Noble made a momentous decision.  “My orders were to ‘seize and hold’ the high ground west of the city of Pilsen, which meant to halt west of Pilsen, but the knowledge that the other Combat Commands would soon follow gave me added confidence,” Col Noble later recalled.  “I, therefore, decided to continue the advance and attempt to take the city, which would serve as a fortress against enemy armor and infantry.”  It was an audacious decision for Noble had only 2,500 men and the German garrison was estimated at over 10,000.[38]

Noble’s gamble worked. By 0800 the lead elements of Task Force A arrived in Republic Square at the center of Plzen. They were greeted by thousands of cheering Czechs exuberant at their liberation from the Germans. The Czechs showered their American liberators with flowers, food, and their world-famed Pilsner beer.  After giving orders for the cavalry to set up outposts on the roads leading into the city, Col. Noble headed to Republic Square. As more American vehicles and soldiers arrived in the square, they, too, were greeted by the joyous crowds.  “People were all waving and handing out flowers and jugs of beer,” recalled Sergeant O. J. Mooney of the 396th Armored Field Artillery Battalion.[39]

Within an hour or so of the first American units arriving at Republic Square, the Division Commander Brigadier General John L. Pierce arrived there as well.  Addressing the assembled crowds, Pierce gave the liberated city back to the people of Plzen.  The crowd responded with thunderous cheers.[40]

Malvina Zagicova, aged 16, and Vera Fiedlerova, aged 20, were two of the thousands of Plzen residents who turned out to welcome their American liberators.  “Every inhabitant tried to express his joy and gratitude,” Malvina later recalled.  “I remember the smiling soldiers throwing sweets, chocolates etc., among the people, especially when they saw a child or young girl,” recalled Vera.  “Such a day cannot be forgotten.  I can say, it was one of the happiest days of my life.”[41]

Nevertheless, there still was a war on. Tank and infantry teams were dispatched to block the six main roads leading into Plzen.[42]

The celebration in Republic Square was short-lived. At around 1000, German snipers perched high up in the steeple of St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral in the center of the square opened fire on the crowd below. Other German snipers opened fire from nearby houses. The crowds dispersed to find cover. American machine gun crews returned fire on the snipers. Sgt O. J. Mooney’s M7 self-propelled gun had a fifty-caliber machine gun so he and his crew used it to return fire on the German snipers.  The Germans were no match for the 16th Armored soldiers and their machine guns mounted on armored vehicles. A squad of soldiers ascended St. Bartholomew’s steeple and captured the Germans holed up there. Other Americans fanned out and subdued other pockets of snipers.[43]

Both Malvina Zajicova and Vera Fiedlerova were among the crowds of Plzen citizens in Republic Square when the German snipers opened fire. They rushed to find cover from the firing.  “From our shelters we observed with amazement and admiration the battle experience and courage of G.I. Joes,” recalled Malvina years later.  Vera also described the dramatic scenes in Republic Square:

"People are running to the shelters in nearby houses.  The talk finished.  Americans are shooting on the tower and in the same time shooting is heard from various parts of town…Americans   are separating but they stay calm and even with smiles.  After some time and shooting the [German] riflemen are captured."[44]

Having secured Stod, Team Casper proceeded to the Plzen Airport. By 0835 the airport was secured. In doing so, Team Casper captured some 97 German aircraft, a battery of 88 mm guns, twenty 40 mm anti-aircraft guns, over 650 German prisoners and numerous vehicles.[45]

After overcoming the German pillbox near Kozolupy, Task Force B continued on to Plzen. At around 1030, the lead elements reached the city’s outskirts and began clearing out snipers. Despite the snipers, B Company of the 64th Armored Infantry Battalion pressed onwards and ended up in Republic Square. The rest of the Task Force remained in the outskirts of the city until late afternoon because the center of town had become congested with American vehicles. Around 1700, B Company of the 16th Tank Battalion came under machine gun fire. The lead tanks knocked out the machine gun with high explosive fire and killed eight Germans. By day’s end, the Task Force had taken 791 prisoners.[46]

 Advancing behind and to the north of Combat Command B, Combat Command A (CCA) was also split into several tank / infantry task forces. They reached Plzen before 1700 and quickly became embroiled in firefights with small pockets of German soldiers. Two American soldiers were wounded. The command continued through Plzen and took up positions north-east of the city, fully expecting to advance on Prague.  “The Czech people were overjoyed at their liberation and celebrations were going on all over the city,” recalled Harley Barrs of Company B of CCA’s 18th Armored Infantry Battalion.  “We were given food and drink and had a chance to enjoy real Pilsener beer from the Pilzen brewery.”  Years later, Capt Howard Painter recalled, “No person will ever forget the happiness and music and street dancing exhibited by the population of Pilsen after being liberated from the Germans.”[47]

 Staff Sergeant Gene Eike was a squad leader with B Company of the CCA’s 18th Armored Infantry Battalion.  Eike’s column encountered German sniper fire as they passed through the northern part of Plzen.  In the eastern side of Plzen, they set up defensive positions. Then Eike’s company commander ordered him to take six of his men and a half-track and locate Highway 19 which ran from Plzen to the town of Rokycany on the road to Prague.  “Well we took off looking for it and as we got to each little town, the people would meet us and greet us, and throw wreaths and insist we stop and make a speech and the Mayor would have to kiss me,” Eike later recalled.[48]

To Combat Command B’s south, Combat Command R provided flank security for the division while advancing along several roads leading to Plzen. Hardly any opposition was encountered. Reserve Command was diverted into Plzen. Entering Plzen around 1530, the command encountered stubborn pockets of German snipers. These were eliminated with liberal use of tank and machine gun fire. Eight Germans were killed and another 515 were captured or surrendered at a cost of two U.S. soldiers wounded. The command proceeded through the city and took up positions on the road to Prague. They, too, expected to continue on to Prague.[49]

While the Americans were spreading out to secure the city and its environs, the commander of the German garrison in Plzen, Lt. Gen. George von Majewski, his deputy Major General Gerhard Mueller, von Majewski’s staff and their wives were gathered in his headquarters.  Eventually, von Majewski sent a former Czechoslovak Army officer to locate the commander of the American forces and inform him that the German garrison commander desired to negotiate a surrender of the city.[50]

Before the Czechoslovak officer returned, however, Lt Gen. von Majewski and his staff received an unexpected guest:   2nd Lt Charles Schaeffer, Adjutant of the 216th Armored Engineers Battalion.  Schaeffer had entered the building and to his surprise, met a German general coming down a flight of stairs.  The general motioned for him to follow him upstairs.  Schaeffer followed the German general and then suddenly found himself in the presence of the German commander and his staff.  Schaeffer immediately sent another U.S. lieutenant to find a senior officer. Not long afterwards, that lieutenant returned with CCB’s executive officer Lt. Col. Percy Perkins.  Perkins demanded that von Majewski surrender unconditionally. After signing the surrender document, the German commander shot himself fatally in the head with a pistol that he had managed to hide from the Americans.[51]

Though most of the German garrison simply surrendered, scattered pockets of diehard German soldiers continued to fire on the Americans from numerous places in the city. For the remainder of the day, the 16th Armored soldiers fought to subdue these pockets. That afternoon, they were joined by elements of the 97th Infantry Division. Defensive positions were set up around the city. U.S. soldiers cleared out pockets of German snipers and soldiers holed up in several churches, the Jewish synagogue, the Opera House and the Gestapo headquarters. They also processed over 8,000 German soldiers, most of whom had surrendered peacefully. In its first and only combat action of the war, the 16th Armored Division had liberated Plzen at a cost of one killed and six wounded.[52]

Prague Cries for Help

Word of the Americans’ arrival in Plzen spread quickly through western Bohemia.  To the east in the Czechoslovak capital, Czech patriots had seized a number of key places in the city but were now coming under attack from the SS troops dispatched by Field Marshall Schoerner to suppress the uprising.  By radio and by messenger, the Czechs in Prague cried out to the Americans to rescue them from the brutality of the SS troops.  Radio broadcasts from Prague like this one conveyed the dire situation of the people in the embattled city:  “Calling all Allied armies. We need urgent help. Send your planes and tanks. The Germans are advancing on Prague. For the Lord’s sake, send help.”[53]

In Plzen and throughout the forward areas liberated by Third U.S. Army, Czech civilians pleaded with the U.S. soldiers to rush to the air of their countrymen in Prague.  Messengers came from Prague itself to request immediate U.S. military assistance.  U.S. soldiers could hear the radio broadcasts pleading for help on their own radios.  “One of the most terrible three days of my life after our war was over was hearing the Czechs in Prague crying out for help over the radio,” recalled 1st Lt Robert Gilbert, of the 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.  Soldiers in the 4th Armored Division, the 16th Armored Division, 2nd Infantry Division and other Third U.S. Army units in Czechoslovakia received Prague’s cries for help and sympathetically passed them up the chain of command.[54]

Even as American soldiers were clearing out diehard German snipers in Plzen, efforts to continue the drive eastward on Prague were underway.   An Office of Strategic Services team led by Capt. Eugene Fodor had already met with leaders of the Prague uprising the day before and reported back to Gen. George S. Patton that the Germans refused to surrender to the Czechs but were willing to surrender to the Americans instead.   On the afternoon of 6 May, advance elements of the 16th Armored Division and the 4th Armored Division were heading for Prague.  As Gen Patton would later write in his memoirs, “…reconnaissance elements of the Third Army were in the vicinity of Prague, and by that act marked the furthest progress to the east of any western army.” Edward Krusheski of the 69th Armored Infantry Battalion later recalled that his company was ordered to seize one of the bridges over the Vltava River for follow on forces to use in reaching Prague.  “We got to about 11 miles southwest of Prague,” he later recalled.  “But we were ordered to return 75 miles back to Pilsen.” Col. George B. Pickett Jr., commanding CCB’s Task Force A, sent the Reconnaissance Platoon of his 64th Armored Infantry Battalion to recon the route to Prague.  They got half-way there before being recalled by higher headquarters.[55]

Halted Before Prague

“In view of the radio reports that the Czechoslovakian citizens had taken Prague, I was very anxious to go on and assist them, and asked Bradley for authority to do so, but this was denied,” Patton wrote in War As I Knew It.  Patton pleaded his case with his superior, Twelfth U.S. Army Group commander Gen. Omar Bradley.  While sympathetic, Bradley could not authorize Patton to go beyond Eisenhower’s restraining line and so he relayed Patton’s request to Eisenhower.  The Supreme Commander refused Patton’s request and ordered Bradley to stop Patton at the Karlovy Vary – Plzen – Ceske Budejovice line.  Late on the morning of 6 May, Bradley relayed Eisenhower’s orders to Patton, informing him that “Ike does not want any international complications at this late date.”  Unable to convince his superiors otherwise, Patton began reining in his advancing divisions.  But doing so proved difficult, and as a result, a number of units, including CCA of the 9th Armored Division, and units of the 1st, 2nd and 5th Infantry Divisions were still advancing on the morning of 7 May 1945.[56]  

Third U.S. Army could easily have liberated the city of Prague and rescued thousands of Czech patriots from the brutality of the German SS troops still fighting in the city.  With the exception of these SS troops, the German soldiers and civilians in Prague had had enough of the war and were making their way west to surrender to the Americans. In fact, the German commander in Prague General Toussaint decided to evacuate the city on 7 May but the SS troops continued to fight on regardless of his orders.  By the afternoon of 6 May, the 4th and 16th Armored Divisions were heading towards Prague with the 2nd, 97th, 5th and 90th Infantry Divisions following them to consolidate their gains.  In the north, CCA 9th Armored Division and the 1st Infantry Division were heading towards Karlovy Vary on a route that led to Prague.  In addition, Combat Command B and Reserve Command of the 9th Armored Division still had not been committed to the offensive.  Unlike the Soviets who were encountering fanatical German resistance on their own drive on Prague, the Americans were encountering little or no opposition.  Most Germans opposing the Americans were content to be taken prisoner, secure in the knowledge that capture by the Americans meant escaping indefinite Soviet captivity. As Gen. Bradley wrote in his memoirs, “Indeed had SHAEF remanded its order, he [Patton] could probably have been in Wenzel Square [Wenceslaus Square in Prague] within 24 hours.”[57]

Writing after the war, Lt Col George Pickett and Capt Edgar Millington of the 64th Armored Infantry Battalion summarized the significance of Third U.S. Army not being allowed to liberate Prague.  “Prague is the Paris of Czechoslovakia,” they wrote in an April 1951 article for Combat Forces Journal.  “All roads --- political, cultural, historical – lead to Prague.  Our failure to go into Prague was a defeat for our side.”[58]

So why did Eisenhower halt Patton and allow the Soviets to capture Prague?  The answer lies in the re-emergence of political hostilities between the Soviet Union and the U.S. / Great Britain.  On 4 May 1945, Eisenhower had broached the idea of advancing to the Vltava River in a message to the Soviet High Command.   Replying for the Soviet High Command the following day, General Aleksei Antonov reminded Eisenhower that the Soviets had halted their forces short of the lower Elbe River at Eisenhower’s request and he expected him to return the favor in Czechoslovakia to avoid a confusion of their respective forces.  “The fine hand of the Soviet Foreign Office could be seen in Antonov’s attitude --- Czechoslovakia was to be in the orbit of the Soviet Union and Czech gratitude to America for the liberation of their capital was not part of the program,” General John Deane, Head of the U.S. Military Mission, Moscow, later wrote in his memoirs.[59]

There were two problems with General Antonov’s reply.  The first deals with the lower Elbe River.  In the opening days of May, the Soviet armies were driving in northern Germany towards the Baltic Sea near Luebeck;  a combined British / American force under Field Marshall Montgomery’s command was also driving towards Luebeck with the intention of preventing the Soviets from gaining access to Denmark.  The Soviets had not halted their forces --- Montgomery’s troops had gotten to Luebeck first.  The second problem deals with Antonov’s concerns over the juncture of American and Soviet forces.   Eisenhower and Bradley, too, were greatly concerned that U.S. and Soviet forces might crash into each other and cause unnecessary “friendly fire” casualties.  If the Soviet intention was to avoid such collisions, then a well-defined geographical feature such as the Vltava River was a much better halt line than an arbitrary line drawn on a map from Karlovy Vary south to Plzen and then onto Ceske Budejovice.  Indeed, to the north, the Elbe River had been used for this exact same reason only two weeks before.  No, the Soviet reply to Eisenhower’s proposed advance to the Vltava River was a purely political move designed to grab Prague for the Soviets, aid the Czechoslovak Communists, and prevent post-war American influence with the new Czechoslovak government which was then in the process of being formed.[60]

The End of the War and One More Mission for the 16th Armored Division

In a school house in Reims, France, representatives of the Third Reich surrendered to the Allied Powers on 7 May 1945.  All hostilities were to cease at 0001 local time on 9 May 1945.  General Eisenhower immediately ordered all of his forces to halt in place and not advance any further.  As part of the surrender protocols, all German forces not within American lines prior to midnight 8 May 1945 belonged to the Soviets.  Thus, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers and civilians became engaged in a literal race of life and death to reach American lines before the surrender deadline.

Word was passed down the chains of command to halt Third Army units.  XII Corps and V Corps consolidated their positions, participated in liberation festivities with the Czechs and processed the huge mass of Germans flooding into American lines.  “They [the Germans] were coming in everything that would move,” recalled Col. William Smith, Jr., commander of the 216th Armored Engineer Battalion.  “We had all kinds of vehicles and all kinds of animal-drawn equipment.  They were just coming in in tremendous numbers.”  Staff Sergeant Gene Eike also was involved with processing the flood of Germans surrendering to the Americans.  “The Germans just poured through our lines running from the Russians,” he later recalled. “They were coming in from all directions.  We didn’t have enough men to guard them.”[61]

Though the German High Command had surrendered at Reims early that morning, there were still many German forces continuing the war either through ignorance of the surrender or outright refusal to obey it. Most of these forces were under the command of Feldmarschall Ferdinand Schoerner. With German communications in a poor state and Schoerner's well-known opposition to surrendering, Eisenhower sent a representative of the new German government and its leader Grossadmiral Karl Doenitz to deliver news of the surrender to Schoerner. Colonel Meyer-Detring, head of the Wehrmacht High Command Planning Section, was selected to deliver this message on their behalf.[62]

V Corps was ordered to provide an escort for Meyer-Detring and his interpreter Lt. Verber from its 16th Armored Division. The escort consisted of Lt. Col. Robert H. Pratt - Assistant V Corps    G-3(Operations) Officer, the Executive Officer of the division’s 23rd Cavalry Squadron Major Carl O’Dowd, a small force from Troop B led by Lt. Gerard Dalton, the Squadron medical officer Capt. Stewart Kephart, two U.S. Army newspaper correspondents, a correspondent from Reuters News Agency, and a Czechoslovak Army officer.   Altogether Pratt’s team consisted of over 40 men, five M-8 armored cars, three jeeps, and an ambulance.[63]

Col. Meyer-Detring was flown under guard to Plzen airport, arriving there in the early evening of 7 May. Speed was essential. The escort party was immediately assembled and they headed off for Prague traveling at 40 miles per hour with headlights blazing and white flags of truce flying. Their progress was delayed by crowds of Czech citizens who gathered to greet them in many of the towns and villages that they passed through.[64]

Inside Prague the Czechs were still battling the Germans. Not long after midnight, Pratt’s team met first with the partisan leaders and then with German commanders in the city. From the latter, it was learned that Schoerner was not in Prague; rather he had set up a headquarters at Welchow --- some 120 kilometers further east near the Polish border. So the Pratt Mission left Prague and headed east to find Schoerner.[65]

Soon after leaving Prague, two of the jeeps suffered tire damage from spikes placed in the road by Czech partisans and were forced to drop out of the column. The team’s progress was slowed by Czech road blocks and a brief but bloodless run-in with Russian guerrilla forces operating in the German rear area. By late morning, the Pratt Mission reached Schoerner’s headquarters. While Meyer-Detring met with the recalcitrant Feldmarschall and delivered news of the German surrender, the Americans were fed breakfast by the Germans.[66]

With their mission accomplished, Pratt and his men headed back to Plzen. In Koenigsgrad, they stopped to secure fuel and were caught up in an impromptu end of the war / liberation celebration held by the people of the town. After extricating themselves from the festivities, Pratt and his men sped back to Plzen, and arrived there around 1800. The two missing jeeps and their crews returned to American lines several days later after having been the guests of first a group of surrendering German soldiers and later a Czech/ Russian guerrilla force. Schoerner himself never surrendered; he was captured in eastern Austria two weeks later and handed over to the Soviets.  The Soviets in turn sentenced him to 10 years in prison for war crimes.  After returning to West Germany, the new government tried and convicted him of killing German soldiers in the closing days of the war.  He served another four years in prison.[67]

In making their journey to Welchow which is near the Czechoslovak - Polish border, Pratt and his team earned the distinction of having advanced the farthest east of any unit of the western Allies.  The Pratt Mission was a unique way for the newly arrived 16th Armored Division to conclude not only its only combat operation but also to conclude the Second World War in Europe.[68]

Afterword

At 0001 local time on 9 May 1945, the Second World War in Europe officially ended.  Third U.S. Army forces in western Czechoslovakia had some time to celebrate with the newly liberated Czech people but disarming and accepting the surrender of the remaining German forces took precedence.  Now as an Army of Occupation, Third U.S. Army engaged in processing German prisoners of war, repatriating liberated Allied prisoners of war and civilian refugees, maintaining order in the liberated areas and assisting the Czechs with re-building their country.  One of Sgt George Thompson of the 137th Armored Ordnance Battalion’s tasks at this time was to fix captured German trucks and vehicles and turn them over to the Czech people for their use.  The war in the Pacific still raged, so the redeployment of U.S. forces back to the United States for transfer to the Pacific was begun. 

XII Corps and most of V Corps left Czechoslovakia by the end of May 1945.  The 2nd Infantry Division and the 16th Armored Division remained in western Czechoslovakia until the middle of June 1945 assisting with the rebuilding of that country.   U.S. forces remained in Czechoslovakia until December 1945 to help the Czechs.  The 16th Armored Division returned to the U.S. on 13 October 1945 and was deactivated two days later at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

The Communists took over Czechoslovakia in February 1948 and immediately undertook a systematic campaign to re-write the U.S. Army out of the history of WWII in Czechoslovakia.   The people of Plzen never forgot their liberators.  After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 deposed the Communists, the Czechs invited their American liberators to return for liberation anniversary ceremonies which continue to be held annually to this day.

Though they did not enter the front lines until literally the closing days of the war in Europe, the 16th Armored Division successfully undertook an audacious attack which resulted in the liberation of one of Czechoslovakia’s largest cities and forever endeared themselves to a people long oppressed by Nazi Germany and by Soviet Communism. 

The 16th Armored Division was there at the end.

*The author served as a Religious Program Specialist in the U.S. Navy Reserve for eight years, mobilizing and deploying twice to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He served with the U.S. Marines MWSS-472 from January 2008 until June 2011 and served as Assistant Squadron Historian in 2009 and Squadron Historian in 2010/2011 as a collateral duty.  He was honorably discharged in June 2011 as a Religious Program Specialist First Class (Fleet Marine Force).



[1] Robert S. Cameron, Mobility, Shock, and Firepower:  The Emergence of the U.S. Army’s Armor Branch, 1917 – 1945.  (Washington DC:  Center of Military History, 2008).  See Chapter 13 specifically.;  Robert R. Palmer, “Reorganization of Ground Troops for Combat.”  Found on pages 261-384 of Kent Roberts Greenfield, Robert R. Palmer and Bell I. Wiley’s The Army Ground Forces:  The Organization of Ground Combat Troops.  In the series The United States Army in World War II.  (Washington, DC:  Center of Military History, 1987).   See Part V specifically for the armored forces reorganization.;  Mary Lee Stubbs and Stanley Russell Connor.  Army Lineage Series  Armor-Cavalry Part 1.  (Washington DC:  Office of the Chief of Military History, 1969), pp. 58-63.;  George Forty, United States Tanks of World War II In Action.  (NY:  Blandford P, 1983), pp. 22-28.; George Forty, U.S. Army Handbook 1939-1945.  (NY:  Barnes & Noble Books, 1995), pp. 79-86. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] U.S. Army.  U.S. Army European Theater of Operations.  History Section.  Order of Battle of the United States Army.  World War II. European Theater of Operations.  Divisions.  (Paris, France:  December 1945), pp. 546-551, 559.  Hereafter cited as US Army Order of Battle.

[5] Dale Weaver. Editor. 16th Armored Division History, Patton’s Third Army - WWII.  Privately published by the 16th Armored Division Association in 1986.;  Lt Col. Howard Painter, USA, (Ret.).  Company Commander.  Company B.  18th Armored Infantry Battalion.  Combat Command A. 16th Armored Division.  “Recollections.”  Weaver, pp. XIII-20 to XIII-22.

[6] William G. Smith. Colonel. Battalion Commander. 216th Armored Engineers Battalion / 16th Armored Division. Interview by Author at 16th Armored Reunion, 16 Oct. 1998.  Hereafter cited as Smith Interview.

[7] George Thompson.  Sergeant.  137th Armored Ordnance Maintenance Battalion.  16th Armored Division.  E-mail to the Author – 11 February 2013.

[8] For a more detailed discussion of the European Campaign, I recommend the following:  Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beach to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997); Charles B. MacDonald, The Mighty Endeavor. (New York: Da Capo P, 1969).  MacDonald was a captain in the 2nd Infantry Division during the liberation of western Czechoslovakia and later a U.S. Army historian.; Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany 1944-1945. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana U P, 1981); and the U.S. Army’s official histories of World War Two, published as the series The United States Army in World War Two.  I would recommend specifically Gordon A. Harrison’s Cross-Channel Attack, Martin Blumenson’s Breakout and Pursuit, Hugh M. Cole’s The Lorraine Campaign, Charles B. MacDonald’s The Siegfried Line Campaign, Hugh Cole’s The Ardennes:  Battle of the Bulge, Charles B. MacDonald’s The Last Offensive, and Jeffrey J. Clarke and Robert Ross Smith’s Riviera to the Rhine.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] U.S. Army.  Third U.S. Army.  After Action Report.  3 vols.  U.S. Army Military History Institute Archives.  Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.  [Hereafter the After Action Report is cited as TUSA AAR.]  [Hereafter the Archives is cited as USAMHI Archives.];   Charles M. Province, Patton’s Third Army:  A Chronology of the Third Army Advance  August, 1944 to May, 1945.  (NY:  Hippocrene Books, 1992).

[12] Ibid.;  A note on geographical names.  Because western Czechoslovakia (Bohemia) was historically settled by both Czechs and Germans, many towns in this area have both German and Czech names and spellings.  Thus the city of Cheb is known as Eger in German.  In this article, the Czech name/spelling will be used primarily.

[13] David Levin, “Remembering Camp Shanks,”  Hudson Valley Magazine.  (August 16, 2010).  Accessed online at http://www.hvmag.com/Hudson-Valley-Magazine/September-2010/Remembering-Camp-Shanks/ on 24 January 2013.

[14] See Order of Battle of the United States Army.  World War II. EuropeanTheater of Operations.  Divisions.;  Capt. Edgar N. Millington, USA.  The Operations of the 64th Armored Infantry Battalion (16th Armored Division) at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, 5 – 7 May 1945 ( Central Europe Campaign) (Personal Experience of a Machine-Gun Platoon Leader).  Advanced Infantry Officers Course 1948-1949.  The Infantry School.  Fort Benning, Georgia, pp. 6-7.  Posted online by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS.; Lt Col. George B. Pickett, USA, and Capt. Edgar N. Millington, “The Pilsen Story.”  Combat Forces Journal.  (April 1951), pp. 33-36.  [Hereafter cited as “The Pilsen Story.” 

[15] Ibid.  See also entries for these dates in Province’s Patton’s Third Army.

[16] TUSA AAR.;  See also Province’s entries for the first days of May 1945.

[17] TUSA AAR.;  Freiherr von Gersdorff, “The Final Phase of the War:  From the Rhine to the Czech Border,” draft trans. from the German.  (Oberursel, Germany:  U.S. Army, Europe - Historical Division [Foreign Military Studies Branch,] March 1946).;   Karl Weissenberger, “Battle  Sector XIII (Wehrkreis XIII) (May 1945),”  (Karlsruhe, Germany:  U.S. Army, Europe - Historical Division [Foreign Military Studies Branch,] 1946).    After the war, US Army historians interviewed hundreds of captured German officers.   These historical reports are now kept at the U.S. Army Military History Institute and the National Archives.  

[18] Rudolf Toussaint. "Military Area Prague." Karlsruhe, Germany: US Army, Europe – Historical Division [Foreign Military Studies Branch], written sometime between 1945 & 1954. Copy located at US Army Military History Institute.

[19] Lt. Col. George Dyer, XII Corps:  Spearhead of Patton’s Third Army, (privately published by the XII Corps Historical Assocation, 1947),  pp. 424-6;  U.S. Army.  Third U.S. Army.  XII Corps.  90th Infantry Division.  After Action Report - Month of May 1945.  Record Group (RG) 407.  National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  Archives II – College Park, Maryland.;  John Colby, War From the Ground Up,  (Austin, TX:  Nortex  P, 1991), pp.466-9.; For 2nd Infantry Division’s role, see Combat History of the Second Infantry Division in World War II.  (Nashville, TN:  printed for the division by Battery Press, 1946), pp.150-1.;  For the 26th Infantry Division’s role, see Brig. Gen. William W. Molla’s “The Surrender of the 11th Panzer Division.” Yankee Doings  (the newsletter of the 26th Division Association:  Dec. 1995), pp.57-9.;  Weissenberger, p.8.;  Brigadier General Raymond E. Bell Jr. USA (Ret.) “Giving Up the Ghost.”  World War II magazine.  See the September 2005 issue.  Brig. Gen. Bell’s father, Colonel Raymond E. Bell was commander of the 90th Division’s 359th Infantry Regiment and was involved with the surrender of the 11th Panzer Division.     

[20] Ibid.

[21] The emergence of the U.S. / Soviet Cold War as demonstrated by the military and diplomatic events in Czechoslovakia in 1945 was the subject of the author’s Masters Thesis.  Bryan J. Dickerson, “Czechoslovakia 1945:  Prelude to the Coming U.S. / Soviet Cold War.”  (Masters Thesis, Monmouth University, 1999).;  See also Forrest C. Pogue’s  “The Decision to Halt at the Elbe.” Command Decisions. ed. by Kent Roberts Greenfield. (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1959), pp. 374-387. ;

[22] Ibid.

[23] “SCAF (Supreme Commander Allied Forces) to Bradley [12th Army Group] and 9th Air Force Commanding General 4 May 1945.” SCAF Cable No. 335. Found in Nevins, Arthur S. Brigadier General, USA. Chief of

Operations Planning Section. Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force. G-3 (Operations) Division. Personal Papers. USAMHI Archives.;

[24] TUSA AAR, pp. 392.; U.S. Army. V Corps. Operations in the ETO 6 January 42 - 9 May 45. (Germany:

1945). USAMHI Library, pp. 450. [Hereafter cited as V Corps in ETO].; Hobart Gay, Major General, USA. Chief of Staff. Third U.S. Army. Diary. Personal Papers. USAMHI Archives, p.919.; U.S. Army. Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Message from Eisenhower to Bradley - Ref No. FWD-20726 6 May 1945. Outgoing Message File. RG407. NARA.; U.S. Army. Twelfth U.S. Army Group. Letter of Instructions No. 22 - 4 May 1945. RG407. NARA.

[25] Ibid.

[26] TUSA AAR.; V Corps in ETO, pp. 450.; Combat History of the Second Infantry Division in World War II. (Nashville,

TN: printed for the division by Battery Press, 1946) pp. 150-1.; The First - A Brief History of the 1st Infantry

Division, World War II. (Cantigny, IL: privately published the Cantigny First Division Foundation, 1996),

p.49. This is a re-print of a history printed by the division following WWII.; U.S. Army. 97th Infantry

Division. 303rd Infantry Regiment. After Battle Report. 12 May 1945. RG407, NARA.; U.S. Army. 2nd

Infantry Division. 23rd Infantry Regiment. After Action Report for May 1945. Czechoslovakia: 5 June

1945. [Hereafter cited as 23rd Infantry AAR.]; Zdenek Roucka, Jaroslav Peklo, and et. als. Americans in West Bohemia 1945 - Exclusive Pictures. (Plzen, Czech Republic: ZR&T, 2000).; U.S. Army. 2nd Cavalry Group. 2nd Cavalry Squadron. After Action Report - May 1945. RG407, NARA.; 90th Infantry Division AAR for May 1945.; The Trident

Heritage: A Brief History of the 97th Infantry Division and the 97th Army Reserve Command. (Maryland:

privately published by the Headquarters of the 97th Army Reserve Command, 1988);

[27] Millington, pp. 7-8.; “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 33-34.

[28] George Thompson. Sergeant. Mechanic. Company C / 137th Armored Ordnance Battalion / 16th

Armored Division. Phone Interview by Author 18 January 2000.

[29] John MacCormac, “Czech Patriots Take Prague, Then Beg Aid as Foe Attacks,” New York Times. 6

May 1945: 1+.; U.S. Army. SHAEF. Incoming Message File. “Czechoslovak Military Mission (SHAEF) to SHAEF

Main - 5 May 1945 (Ref No. RR-17730),” RG 407, NARA.; Americans in West Bohemia 1945.; Gerhard Mueller, "The Occupation of Pilsen By The U.S. 16th Armored Division - 16th [sic] May 1945." trans. by H. Hintemann. ed. by Col. W. S. Nye. (Germany: U.S. Army, Europe – Historical Division [Foreign Military Studies Branch], 1954), USAMHI Library.;  For more about the Vlasov Army see Catherine Andreyev, Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement:

Soviet Reality and Emigre Theories. (Cambridge: U P, 1987). See also John Toland, The Last 100 Days. (NY: Random House, 1966), pp. 576-8.   Vlasov and most of his troops were ultimately captured and killed by the Soviets. 

[30] U.S. Army.  16th Armored Division.  After Action Report - 9 June 1945.  RG407, NARA.  [Hereafter cited as 16AD AAR];  Col. Charles Noble.  Commander.  Combat Command B / 16th Armored Division.    “Noble’s Nostalgic Notes:  A 16’ner’s Experiences in World War II,” pp.XXIV-1 through 9 in Dale Weaver’s 16th Armored Division History, Patton’s Third Army – WWII.  “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 34-36. 

[31] 16th Armored Division AAR.

[32] 16th Armored Division AAR.; Millington, p. 9.; “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 34-36.

[33] 16th Armored Division AAR.

[34] See the Third U.S. Army After Action Report, V Corps in ETO, and LtCol Dyer’s history of XII Corps for more details.

[35] Ibid.;  16th Armored Division AAR.;  Millington, p. 12.; Noble, pp.xxiv-4.; “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 35-37.

[36] Ibid.

[37] U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. Combat Command B / 64th Armored Infantry Battalion. After Action Report. Czechoslovakia: 19 May 1945. RG407, NARA. [Hereafter 64AIB AAR.]; U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. Combat Command B. 16th Tank Battalion. After Action Report. Czechoslovakia: 19 May 1945. RG407, NARA. [Hereafter

16th Tank AAR].; U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. Combat Command B. 16th Tank Battalion. Unit History.

1945? RG407, NARA. [16th Tank History].; U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. 23rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. After Action Report. 28 April - 9 May 1945. RG 407, NARA. [Hereafter cited as 23rd Cav AAR.]; Noble, pp.xxiv-4.;

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.; O. J. Mooney, Sergeant. C Battery / 396th Armored Field Artillery Battalion / Combat Command B /

16th Armored Division. Interview by the Author - Plzen, Czech Republic: 7 May 2000. This was one of

several interviews that I conducted while attending the 55th Anniversary of Liberation ceremonies in the

Czech Republic in May 2000.; “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 35-37.

[40] U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. Division Artillery Headquarters. Headquarters Battery. Unit

History, 17 March 1944 to 30 May 1945. RG 407, NARA.

[41] Malvina Zajicova, Citizen of Plzen. Letter to the Author, 15 April 1998. [Hereafter cited as Zajicova

Letter.]; Vera Fiedlerova, Citizen of Plzen. “My Memories on the end of the WW 2,” from a Letter to the Author, 28 June 1998.

[42] “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 35-37.

[43] 16th Armored Division AAR.;  Mooney Interview.;  Noble, pp. xxiv-1 through xxiv-15. 

[44] Malvina Letter.;  “My Memories on the end of the WW 2.”

[45] 16th Armored Division AAR.;  “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 35-37.

[46] 16th Armored Division AAR.

[47] 16th Armored Division AAR.; U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. Combat Command A. 18th Armored Infantry

Battalion. Unit History. 1945? RG407, NARA.; Harley Barrs. Armored Infantryman. Anti-Tank Platoon / B Company / 18th Armored Infantry Battalion / Combat Command A / 16th Armored Division. "Recollections." in 16th Armored History, p.XIII-18.;  LtCol Painter “Recollections,” p. XIII-21.; “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 35-37.

[48] Gene Eike, Staff Sergeant. Squad Leader. A Company / 18th Armored Infantry Battalion / Combat Command A / 16th Armored Division. Interview by the Author at the 16th Armored Division Association Reunion, Baltimore, Maryland - 16 October 1998. [Hereafter reunion cited as 16th Armored Reunion.]

[49] 16th Armored Division AAR.; U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. Combat Command R. 26th Tank Battalion. After

Action Report. Czechoslovakia: 21 May 1945. RG407, NARA.

[50] The sources for the German surrender of Plzen are:  Generalmajor Mueller’s "The Occupation of Pilsen By The U.S. 16th Armored Division - 16th [sic] May 1945;" Col. Noble’s “Noble’s Nostalgic Notes:  A 16’ner’s Experiences in World War II.”  Though Noble was not present at the German surrender, his was briefed by his deputy, Lt Col. Perkins who was there.; and V Corps in ETO, p. 452.

[51]  Ibid.;  Lt. Col. Charles Schaeffer, USA (ret.). 2nd Lt. Adjutant. 216th Armored Engineers Battalion / 16th Armored Division. Interview by Author. Plzen. 7 May 2000.  

[52] 16th Armored Division AAR.; Trident Heritage.; “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 35-37. 

[53] Prague Radio broadcast quoted in John MacCormac, “Czech Patriots Take Prague, Then Beg Aid as Foe Attacks,” New York Times. 6 May 1945: 1+.

[54] Robert I. Gilbert, Lt. Colonel, USA (Ret.). 1st Lieutenant. Executive Officer. Company F / 2nd Battalion / 38th Infantry Regiment / 2nd Infantry Division. Phone Interview by Author, 29 March 1998.;  U.S. Army. SHAEF. Incoming Message File. “Czechoslovak Military Mission (SHAEF) to SHAEF Main - 6 May 1945 (Ref No. RR-17731),” RG 407, NARA.;  U.S. Army. 4th Armored Division. Combat Command B.    S-2 (Intelligence) Journal. RG407, NARA.; See entry for 7 May 1945. This information was sent by CCA to 4th Armored G-2 and the other two division combat commands.; U.S. Army. U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. Combat Command B. After Action Report 28 April to 9 May 1945. Czechoslovakia: 22 May 1945. RG407, NARA. [Herafter cited as 16AD CCB AAR].; U.S. Army. SHAEF. Incoming Message File. “Twelfth Army Group to SHAEF Forward - 7 May 1945 (Ref. No. QX-31923).” RG407, NARA.; U.S. Army. SHAEF. Outgoing Message File. Message from Eisenhower to US Military Mission, Moscow - 8 May 1945 (Ref. No. FWD-21001).” RG407, NARA.; U.S. Army. SHAEF. Outgoing Message File. Message from Eisenhower to US Military Mission, Moscow - 8 May 1945 (Ref. No. FWD-21006).” RG407, NARA.

[55] “The Pilsen Story,” pp. 35-37; Ladislas Farago, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph. (NY: Ivan Obolensky, 1963), pp. 785-6.; Ladislas Farago, The Last Days of Patton. (NY: Berkeley Books, 1981), pp. 49-50.; George S. Patton, Jr. War As I Knew It, (NY: Bantam, 1979), p. 309.; John Toland,The Last 100 Days. (NY: Random House, 1966)p. 566.; Edward Krusheski. Rifleman. A Company / 69th Armored Infantry Battalion / Combat Command R / 16th Armored Division. Phone Interviews by the Author, 20 June 1998 and 17 January 2000. I also had the pleasure of meeting him at the 16th Armored Division Re-union in Baltimore, MD on 16 October 1998.;  After the war, Captain Fodor would launch a highly popular series of travel guides.

[56] Bradley quoted in The Last Days of Patton. p.50, and Ordeal and Triumph, p. 787.; War As I Knew It, p. 309.; Diary of Hobart Gay, p.929.; Omar N. Bradley, A Soldier’s Story, (NY: Henry Holt, 1951), p. 549.

[57] Ibid.;  Toussaint, “Military Area Prague.”

[58] “The Pilsen Story,” p. 37.

[59] John Deane, Strange Alliance, (NY: Viking, 1947), p. 159.; The emergence of the U.S / Soviet Cold War as demonstrated by the debate over the liberation of Prague and other military / political events in Czechoslovakia in 1945 was the subject of my Master’s Thesis.  Bryan J. Dickerson, “Czechoslovakia 1945:  Prelude to the Coming U.S. / Soviet Cold War.”  (Master’s Thesis, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ, 1999).

[60] Ibid.; U.S. Army historian Forrest C. Pogue examined the controversy of Eisenhower’s decisions to not capture Berlin and to not liberate Prague in his “The Decision to Halt at the Elbe.” Command Decisions.  In the series U.S. Army in World War II - The European Theater of Operations. ed. by Kent Roberts Greenfield. (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1959), pp. 374-387.  

[61] Smith Interview.;  Gene Eike, Staff Sergeant. Squad Leader. A Company / 18th Armored Infantry Battalion / Combat Command A / 16th Armored Division. Phone Interview by Author - 29 December 2002.

[62] For the account of the Pratt Mission, the following sources were utilized:  V Corps in the ETO, pp. 454-7.; the 16th Armored Division AAR, pp. 14-15.; U.S. Army. 16th Armored Division. 23rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. After Action Report. 28 April - 9 May 1945. RG 407, NARA.; the Diary of Hobart Gay, p. 919; and Keith M. Schmedemann. Colonel, USA (Ret.). Major. Assistant G-1 (Personnel) Officer. V Corps. Phone Interview by Author. 6 May 1998.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid. 

[68] Ibid.;  Since the Pratt Mission occurred after the German surrender, the distinction of having advanced the farthest east of any combat operation belongs to another Third Army unit, the 11th Armored Division. On 6 May, patrols of its Troop B, 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron advanced to the Austrian – Czech border at Horzenschlag, which is about 40 kilometers west of the point reached by the Pratt Mission. See U.S. Army. 11th Armored Division. After Action Report. June 1945? RG 407, NARA.

Comments

Nancy Keeth's picture

This has been such an interesting article.  My brother Robert L. White was in this outfit in 44 and45.  He drove a Half-Track.  Wonder if anyone happens to remember him?  He's 88 now and I will pass on any info I receive to him.  Thanks.

Ken Johnson's picture

Thank you for such a detailed accounting of the 16th's history and their part in the liberation of Pilsen and other action in Europe. My father, Cpl. William O. Johnson, was a squad leader of a recon squad in the 26th Tank Battalion, 16th Armored Division, and all my life he told me about the division's work in liberating Pilsen and their frustration with not being allowed to continue to Prague. My father passed away in December 2010 at the age of 85 and was buried with full military honors. An honor guard was sent from nearby Fort Knox ( we live in Louisville, Kentucky)  to serve during his graveside service. I have all of his memorabilia from the war, including his uniform, photos, personal items, and medals and other items that were taken from German soldiers that surrendered to him. My family is very proud that the full story of the liberation is finally being told. I have been in contact with the Mayor and other officials in Pilsen for the past few years, and I hope to attend the Liberation Festival soon. Once again, Thank you for the detailed accounting of the 16th Armored Division and it's combat history. Sincerely, Ken W. Johnson      

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