A general-turned-historian reveals the remarkable battlefield heroics of Major General Maurice Rose, the World War II tank commander whose 3rd Armored Division struck fear into the hearts of Hitler's panzer crews.
“The Panzer Killers is a great book, vividly written and shrewdly observed.”—The Wall Street Journal
Two months after D-Day, the Allies found themselves in a stalemate in Normandy, having suffered enormous casualties attempting to push through hedgerow country. Troops were spent, and American tankers, lacking the tactics and leadership to deal with the terrain, were losing their spirit. General George Patton and the other top U.S. commanders needed an officer who knew how to break the impasse and roll over the Germans—they needed one man with the grit and the vision to take the war all the way to the Rhine. Patton and his peers selected Maurice Rose.
The son of a rabbi, Rose never discussed his Jewish heritage. But his ferocity on the battlefield reflected an inner flame. He led his 3rd Armored Division not from a command post but from the first vehicle in formation, charging headfirst into a fight. He devised innovative tactics, made the most of American weapons, and personally chose the cadre of young officers who drove his division forward. From Normandy to the West Wall, from the Battle of the Bulge to the final charge across Germany, Maurice Rose's deadly division of tanks blasted through enemy lines and pursued the enemy with a remarkable intensity.
In The Panzer Killers, Daniel P. Bolger, a retired lieutenant general and Iraq War veteran, offers up a lively, dramatic tale of Rose's heroism. Along the way, Bolger infuses the narrative with fascinating insights that could only come from an author who has commanded tank forces in combat. The result is a unique and masterful story of battlefield leadership, destined to become a classic.
“Gen. Rose’s story is now wonderfully told by Daniel Bolger, himself a three-star general who in retirement has become a masterly historian… The Panzer Killers is a great book, vividly written and shrewdly observed.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Hitting like a Sherman cannon, Daniel Bolger’s The Panzer Killers drives the reader through a curtain of steel, shells, concrete, and flesh and into the heart of Germany’s Third Reich. What unfolds is a captivating story of an unsung Jewish rabbi’s son who led America’s deadliest tank division across a river of blood to the cusp of victory.” —Jonathan W. Jordan, national bestselling author of Brothers Rivals Victors
“Major General Maurice Rose finally gets his due in The Panzer Killers. Written with insight only a general turned historian could have, Daniel Bolger brings to life World War II's best tank commander in a riveting account of armored combat.” —Kevin Maurer, #1 New York Times bestselling coauthor of No Easy Day and author of Rock Force: The American Paratroopers Who Took Back Corregidor and Exacted MacArthur's Revenge on Japan
“[Daniel] Bolger, who has himself commanded an armored division, gives a solid military insider’s view of how armor, infantry, artillery, and air support cooperate on the battlefield.... He also offers pointed observations about Rose’s relations with the major figures of the Allied war effort, including Montgomery, Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, and other less-familiar figures. A fascinating look at World War II as reflected in the career of an important yet largely forgotten Allied general.” —Kirkus
“Bolger excels at the details of battle… An exciting story well told…. Enthusiasts of military history will love this book.” —Library Journal
“Engrossing… superb… A valuable addition to one of the war’s most celebrated division commanders.” —The Association of the US Army
Daniel P. Bolger, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, was a combat commander in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A top graduate at The Citadel and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Bolger earned a Phd in history from the University of Chicago. His military awards include five Bronze Star medals (one for valor) and the Combat Action Badge. He teaches history at North Carolina State University.
Lightning Joe's Lament
There are more tired division commanders than there are tired divisions.
General George S. Patton, Jr.1
Brigadier General Maurice Rose knew what he was doing in Normandy. Too many of his Allied peers did not. Though the human cost was high, the mighty D-Day landings came off pretty effectively, smashing through the hard crust of Adolf Hitler's Fortress Europe. What came next didn't go well at all.
The senior people should have seen the trouble coming. Overall Allied ground force commander in Normandy General Bernard Law "Monty" Montgomery made his reputation on carefully planned operations. His famous triumph at El Alamein, Egypt, in 1942 marked a turning point in the war against Germany. Weeks before the first landing craft touched sand, Monty charted his view of how the war would go in the three months after D-Day. The British general worked with his staff to create a map with successive phase lines marked for D-Day through D+90. He forecasted taking Carentan on D+1, Caen about D+3/4 (maybe even on D-Day), Cherbourg by D+8, St. L™ at D+9, Coutances on D+12, Falaise by D+17, Avranches and Mortain at D+20, Argentan on D+25, and the French capital city of Paris by D+90.2 The map was neat and flat and made of high-quality paper.
Actual ground in Normandy was another matter altogether. Seen from an airplane, the bocage country looked like a patchwork quilt with uneven pieces: triangles, squares, rectangles, strips, and other odd shapes, each delineating a field of a quarter to a third of an acre. Around every area stood a dirt wall up to four feet thick and up to fifteen feet high, topped off by thick shrubbery and stands of trees that added another three to fifteen feet of height. Most of these sturdy barriers had been in place since the era of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy circa 1066. The bocage proved sodden, cut up by narrow dirt roads, and only too resistant to Allied bulldozers and high explosives.3 Plus, it was full of Germans.
Monty's neat timetable didn't allow for any of that. It went right out the window. By late July, Carentan and Cherbourg had been taken, both well behind schedule. The south part of Caen town remained in German hands, as did Falaise and Avranches. As for Paris? It might as well have been on the back side of the moon. The Allies were stuck in Normandy, chopping their way forward hedgerow by hedgerow. To go a mile and a half through typical Norman bocage, one of Maurice Rose's U.S. Army tank companies of seventeen M4 Shermans could expect to face thirty-four separate earthen ramparts. To breach them demanded a half ton of demolition charges per hedgerow, in total seventeen tons of high explosives.4 And that only shifted the dirt.
Killing the Germans cost extra, a lot extra. By one estimate, along with all the tank rounds, rifle bullets, and aerial bombs, it took about 200 artillery rounds to eliminate a single German defender. At that rate, it would require seven million U.S. artillery shells to wipe out the 35,000 or so German combat troops facing the Americans in Normandy. Put another way, American gunners needed to fire their maximum rate for a hundred days-and hope the Germans didn't reinforce, counterattack, or shoot back. Even the well-supplied U.S. Army struggled to meet such profligate requirements. The Germans, of course, did not cooperate in the least.5 All of this pain, and more, came with the hedgerows of Normandy.
"I couldn't imagine the bocage until I saw it," said Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley after the war. Not prone to swearing, a frustrated Bradley called the Norman terrain "the damndest [sic] country I've seen."6 Somehow, in all of the concentration on getting ashore under fire-admittedly a huge challenge-Monty, Bradley, and the rest of the top leadership paid almost no attention to the ground behind the waterfront. Then Brigadier General James M. Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division said it best: "Although there had been some talk in the U.K. before D-Day about the hedgerows, none of us had really appreciated how difficult they would turn out to be."7
Bradley surely didn't anticipate the problem. Figuring out the battlefield belonged to Bradley, who didn't come across as a military savant. Rather, he reminded you of the guy who lived next door. These days, if Americans remember him at all, it's thanks to the brilliant portrayal by Karl Malden in the 1970 movie Patton. In one of the film's many face-offs between everyman Bradley and the larger-than-life Patton, the two argue about a unit's position. Patton offers an airy dismissal, and Bradley retorts, "I can read a map."8
Well . . . maybe.
The American First Army commander liked to pride himself on his grasp of infantry tactics and spent endless hours studying military maps. His superior in Sicily-and subordinate in France-Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., found this affectation annoying.9 After seeing Bradley in command in Tunisia and Sicily, Patton recognized that his infantry counterpart might be a pleasant fellow and a decent sort, but the man could not translate the squiggles on a map to the actual ground. Bradley knew the weapons ranges and the doctrinal frontages but found it impossible to envision it all on real dirt. The old military joke that when the ground and the map disagree, go with the ground. Bradley invariably went with the map, and it's not clear he quite understood that, either. He just didn't get it.
Had Bradley spent enough time under fire, experience might have helped him bridge the gap, to fill in the hole in his talents. But after his 1915 graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, the future First Army commander spent World War I guarding copper mines in Butte, Montana, then training new troops at Camp Dodge, Iowa, getting ready for a deployment order that never came. Between the world wars Bradley attended U.S. Army schools and taught at some, too, including the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and his alma mater, West Point.10 His calm, studious demeanor reminded many of a Missouri schoolteacher, which he might well have been had he not chosen to serve in uniform. In any event, it all added up to years of theoretical map studies and not much practical hands-on troop command, let alone messy field exercises. The grand masters like Carl von Clausewitz spoke of a general's coup d'oeil, the ability to size up crucial ground at a glance, envisioning combat moves in time and space.11 Napoleon and Wellington could do it. So could Lee and Grant in their time. Patton, too, had that gift, as did Maurice Rose. Not Bradley.
Limited brushes with the enemy made little impact. Sent forward in World War II at the behest of his West Point classmate General Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower-another very savvy American senior leader who missed the Great War of 1914-1918-Bradley experienced some close calls from hostile air attacks and artillery in North Africa and Sicily, but didn't follow Patton's example of seeking frontline action.12 Bradley thought that to be grandstanding, not generalship.
At the request of the genial Eisenhower, well-known (and widely read) combat correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote stories about Omar Bradley, the modest "G.I. General." Other than proving that even Ernie Pyle could be buffaloed by Ike the smiling four-star, the Pyle articles played well on the home front and seem to have made Bradley happy. Bradley's own soldiers ignored the press buildup and the low-key, self-effacing Bradley, too.13 They never saw him up front. He was just a name somewhere back there. Way back there.
By nature, Bradley preferred to run his war from a command post with good wire and radio communications and lots of well-marked map sheets. He didn't even move off the heavy cruiser USS Augusta and onto land in Normandy until D+4, June 10, 1944. Patton had been on the beach early in both the Morocco and Sicily assaults, seeing, being seen, and generally raising hell with friend and foe alike.14 That wasn't Omar Bradley's style.
Now as his First Army bogged down in the Normandy bocage, Bradley stared at his eight-foot-tall map board and looked at the aerial photographs and just couldn't figure it out. Naturally, Patton would have known what to do. Of course he would. Patton knew all about the bocage. The mercurial cavalry general read Edward A. Freeman's magisterial The History of the Norman Conquest, toured the area before World War I, and spoke fluent French.15 The Patton method would be to go to the nearest hedgerow and pitch into things, getting subordinates energized to try stuff, to experiment, to solve the puzzle. He'd generate action, but there'd be a maintenance bill. In his wake, Patton left a lot of broken crockery. He talked too much to journalists, bad-mouthed the British, and in Sicily slapped two soldiers hospitalized with battle fatigue, all incidents that Bradley abhorred, as did Ike. So Patton, who'd led Seventh Army in Sicily, topped out at command of Third Army. He wasn't in Normandy yet. Bradley was.
Those G.I. general puff pieces meant nothing in the high summer of 1944. To deal with "the Gethsemane of the hedgerows,"16 Omar Bradley chose a way that suited him. He found a general who could read the map, the ground, and the enemy.
Joseph Lawton Collins looked like a general: handsome, stalwart, with piercing dark eyes and a square jaw. He had coup d'oeil, all right, taking it all in rapidly, deciding quickly, and issuing clear orders. Collins demonstrated a knack for going right to the problem point and applying effective pressure. He wasn't afraid of getting shot at, but he saw his role as getting others to face fire and get results. Day and night, you'd find him restlessly prowling division, regimental, and battalion command posts, poking and prodding. Joe Collins was all about achieving outcomes and doing so with urgency. His nickname was "Lightning Joe."
He earned that one on Guadalcanal in command of the 25th Infantry Division, the "Tropic Lightning" Division. Few would call the bloody, protracted jungle slugfest on Guadalcanal any kind of blitzkrieg. But the Americans won and Collins and his soldiers did their part. When combat veteran Collins came to Europe to take command of VII Corps, he said his troops had bestowed the title on him.17 Maybe so. He made sure the "Lightning Joe" moniker made it out to the press. Reporters like colorful generals. Collins wasn't anywhere near the Patton or MacArthur level of outsized personality. Still, by D-Day, Lightning Joe he was. Now he had to live up to it.
He did so. Collins was probably the best division commander in the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater of operations and then the best corps commander in the European theater of operations. After the war, he'd go on to wear four stars and become U.S. Army chief of staff, the pinnacle of any soldier's dreams.18 Yes, he was ambitious and not shy about it. But like Babe Ruth pointing to the fence then smacking a home run, Collins backed it up time after time.
Collins was a man in a hurry. When the United States joined the Great War, Collins and his classmates graduated early from West Point in April 1917. He missed the shooting war but at age twenty-two commanded a battalion in the occupation of prostrate Germany in 1919. In World War II, Collins became the youngest division commander in the Pacific and the youngest American corps commander. Good enough for most-but not for Lightning Joe Collins. By June 1944, Collins's classmate Mark W. Clark already wore three stars and commanded Fifth Army in Italy; Clark's soldiers liberated Rome on the eve of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Another classmate, Matthew B. Ridgway, commanded the 82nd Airborne Division and was leading the way in the Norman hedgerows, rifle in hand. Ridgway was marked for corps command, too. Collins intended to get ahead of both Clark and Ridgway, and to do that, he needed to deliver success with VII Corps. Ridgway's deputy, Brigadier General Jim Gavin of West Point's Class of 1929, summed up Joe Collins as "runty, cocky, confident, almost to the point of being a bore."19
Aside from his sometimes obvious self-promotion-not unusual in general officers, although most favored Bradley's more understated style-Collins shared a trait with German Colonel General Eduard Dietl, the tough-as-nails commander way up north on the Finnish-Russian front. The line went that Dietl was the best officer in the German army. The problem apparently involved Dietl's belief that every other German officer should be that way, too.20 Collins certainly subscribed to that idea, at least with regard to subordinates. Perfect was good enough.
Because the majority of Collins's subordinates did not measure up to their general's exacting standards, the VII Corps commander chose to just do it himself. Collins handled the thinking. He directed minor tactics, to include personally placing battalions on the ground.21 Joe Collins just needed good executors who did exactly what they were told to do. His consistent micromanagement filled in the blanks. Collins didn't encourage initiative, although he appreciated it in the rare cases when it arose. As for those who couldn't keep up, Collins had a quick trigger. Stumblers got fired. As the VII Corps crossed Europe, Lightning Joe torched a lot of colonels and generals. If you kept your job under Collins, you knew how to carry out your orders regardless of terrain, weather, time, Germans, or casualties. In retrospect, it seems heartless. But heartless measures win wars, especially against an opponent as tenacious as the Nazi Germans.
The Germans in the bocage stymied Bradley and Montgomery and a host of other corps and division commanders. Not Lightning Joe. He'd already dealt with awful terrain on Guadalcanal and New Georgia, not to mention unyielding adversaries, on the other side of the world. While Bradley fretted in front of his maps and Monty worried about the schedule, Collins went to work.
"Send a bullet, not a man."22
That solved it. It took about six weeks to figure out the details, but Lightning Joe grasped the top line right away. He'd learned it on Guadalcanal.23 And he applied the method in the Norman countryside.
The decision to rely on volume of weapons, not numbers of people, was baked into the American cake from the outset of World War II. It's an old adage that generals refight their last war, and the American generals of World War II certainly did. George Patton relived his tank exploits from the Great War. Omar Bradley immersed himself in his maps and musings from the campaigns he fought on paper teaching at West Point and Fort Benning. Lightning Joe Collins saw Guadalcanal in the thickets of the bocage. Maurice Rose re-created his stirring armored drive on Palermo, Sicily. Middle-aged men like to revisit their glory days. Generals are no exception.