Daniel Ford, Wall Street Journal 05.15.2021
Maurice Rose was a lean and handsome man, a warrior, and the son of a rabbi. He never seems to have mentioned his religion to his fellow soldiers, and his grave is marked by a Christian cross in the Dutch cemetery where he came to rest, the highest-ranking American officer killed by enemy fire in Europe. Few Americans have heard of him, though thousands of Cold War soldiers ought to remember his name from the troopship General Rose that carried them overseas in the 1950s and 1960s.
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' has a tantalizing subtitle: "The Untold Story of a Fighting General and His Spearhead Tank Division's Charge Into the Third Reich." For once, the phrasing is fully justified.
The book begins without its central character, in the bocage (farmland) of Normandy in June 1944, soon after D-Day. The fields were separated by berms up to 4-feet thick and 15-feet tall, topped by thick shrubs and trees. Each hedgerow was defended by unseen Germans with fast-firing MG34 and MG42 machine guns -- "the best in the war," Mr. Bolger tells us -- backed by cannon and rocket. The inexperienced Americans took terrible casualties. Each square they conquered led to another, and another after that, through July 1944. Never has the bocage been more vividly described: "this chess board from hell," as Mr. Bolger calls it.
Mr. Bolger divides Allied generals into a small number who pushed hard and got the job done -- George Patton foremost among them but also J. Lawton Collins -- and a larger number who stayed far back from the fighting, studied their maps, and moved units around with little sense of the land or the enemy. He doesn't disguise his contempt for the arrogant Englishman Bernard Montgomery or, among the Americans, the overcautious Omar Bradley and the slow-moving Courtney Hodges. Indeed, it's not clear that he entirely approves of the man directing the Allied campaign, Dwight Eisenhower, a great leader but a man with no actual combat experience.
In August 1944, "Lighting Joe" Collins fired the underperforming commander of his 3rd Armored Division and sent for Maurice Rose to take over. Rose wasn't a West Pointer, hadn't gone to university and perhaps didn't graduate from high school. But he had proved himself as an infantry lieutenant in 1918 and again as a brigadier general in 1943, commanding a tank force in the conquest of Sicily. He had a reputation for leading from the front, and Collins liked that.
Under their new commander, the 14,000 men of 3rd Armored Division raced the British north through France, sometimes covering as much as 90 miles in a day. In a typical incident on Aug. 28, the troops hesitated at a railroad bridge near Soissons, northeast of Paris, until Rose drove up in his jeep and braced the colonel in charge. "What's going on?" he demanded. "Why have you halted?" He heard the excuses and cut them off. "Has anyone checked the bridge?" No one had. "Then I'll do it myself," Rose said. Which he did, a 44-year old general doing a soldier's job, looking for mines under rifle, machine gun, and mortar fire.
The division reached Belgium on Sept. 2, 1944, the first Allied unit in the country, even arriving ahead of some retreating German units. Two weeks later, 3rd Armored was in Germany, Rose wore the two stars of a major general, and the division had earned the fighting name it still bears: the Spearhead.
But nobody is immortal. Rose's command post had the radio call sign Omaha Forward. Fate and the German panzers caught up with the aggressive general on March 30, 1945, when his jeep got a bit too far forward. In a similar foray three days earlier, Rose had shot one enemy soldier and captured 12 more with his pistol. Now, though, his luck ran out. He was found dead on the ground, his body unsearched by German tankers who apparently never dreamed that they had bagged a two-star American general.
"The Panzer Killers" is a great book, vividly written and shrewdly observed, as when Mr. Bolger defends the often-ridiculed U.S. Sherman heavy tank. Certainly it was hopelessly inadequate against the much heavier Panthers and Tigers. But the German army had few of these leviathans, and Mr. Bolger makes the case that the despised Shermans and their resourceful crews fared quite well against the panzers they usually encountered. Another revelation was the narrowness of Montgomery's front and how much of the fighting was left to the Americans . . . and to the Russians, of course. The Soviet Union was as profligate with the lives of men as the United States was with weapons -- "send a bullet, not a man," as the author regularly notes of the American approach to war.
And unlike lazier historians, Mr. Bolger never falls into abusing the term "Nazi" by attaching it casually to Germany's fighting forces. That pejorative appears only 50 times in more than 400 pages, and each time it is justified, as when he tells us that the 2nd SS Panzer Division was manned by "notorious slayers imbued with Nazi propaganda." The Nazis ruled wartime Germany and the lands it conquered, but the battles were fought mostly by patriotic and apolitical soldiers, as formidable in the defense as they had been on the attack.
My sole quarrel with Mr. Bolger is his insistence that the four-wheel-drive light truck used by Gen. Rose was a "peep," a term almost never used after 1941. It was a jeep, for crying out loud, the progenitor of today's trademarked Jeep and indeed of the SUVs in so many American driveways.
Mr. Ford is the author, most recently, of Cowboy: The Interpreter Who Became a Soldier, a Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam.
Posted June 2021. Websites © 1997-2021 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved. This site sets no cookies, but the Mailchimp sign-up service does, and so does Amazon if you click through to their store.