Steinbergen, Germany, 9 April 2016
I spent a long weekend in Steinbergen, Germany, where my father-in-law, Aarol “Bud” Irish, was ambushed by Nazi SS troopers while on a reconnaissance patrol on April 9th, 1945. Three members of his five-man patrol were killed, his driver was wounded, and he was clubbed over the head and left for dead by the Germans. He later received the Silver Star for his heroism after he insisted on returning to the scene guiding an ambulance to rescue his driver and the wounded tankers who had been sent in after his patrol and had their tanks destroyed.
I spent Friday and Saturday (8-9 April) riding my bicycle all around the area, using Bud's letters and a variety of military history references to understand the battle for the Wesergebirge and to try to find the location where the ambush took place. I learned a lot about what happened here from 8-11 April 1945.
This trip was important to me for several reasons. For one, I am very interested in military history. I also love to hike and bike, and a chance to combine military history, hiking and biking in Germany is irresistible. This place also has a great significance to my family. The events of that day had a profound effect on Bud Irish, and impacted the way he lived his life after the war:
“I can’t explain it, but when you know that because someone else took all the bullets that might otherwise have gotten you, a person feels he just can never do enough to make up for them.”
– Corporal Bud Irish, April 1945
Before I describe my trip, here is a little background:
The events I was researching here took place from 8-11 April, 1945, in an area known as the “Wesergebirge”, or Weser Hills. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesergebirge ) This is a long, steep, heavily-wooded chain of hills that runs east-west for about 15 miles or so from the Weser River. It is steep and impassable except at certain passes or gaps in the hills. If you look at the satellite view on Google Maps you can see it stands out from the more open country to the north and south, effectively dividing the area in two. On the Google map below, Steinbergen is to the east of where the pointer defaults to, just northeast of the town of Rinteln, and south of where B83 crosses under A2.
Google Map of Wesergebirge
The references I started out with were Bud’s letters (published in the book “A Thousand Letters Home” by Bud’s daughter and my wife, Teresa Irish (www.AThousandLettersHome.com ). He was a corporal in the 102d Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop of the 102d Infantry Division. He and his men led the way as the 102d fought their way across Germany. Bud wrote very detailed descriptions of where he’d been and what he saw, which gave me a good idea where to start.
|Bud's recon team in his jeep "Why Worry", April 1944|
I also had excerpts from the book “102d Through Germany”, the divisional history published shortly after the war. It gave valuable information about the division’s campaigns, including a map of the division’s movements during this time.
|Map of the Wesergebirge campaign from "102d Through Germany"|
Finally, I had read some local German history on the area that I found on the internet, which made me very optimistic that I could find the spot he wrote about in his letters. They are in German, but I’ll include the links here just for completeness:
By April, 1945, the Allied armies were driving rapidly through Germany. German resistance was scattered, but strong in places. Many thousands of German soldiers were surrendering, but there was still a lot of very tough fighting going on as they hit areas where the Germans had been able to organize a defense. The 102d crossed the Weser River on 9 April 1945 and drove to the east, splitting up and moving on both the north and south sides of the Wesergebirge. This was some of the toughest country to fight in because of the steep, heavily-wooded hills.
From “102d Through Germany”, 9 April 1945:
“…a two jeep patrol was ferreting out strong points for CT 406. As Sergeant John H. Davis, Erie Penn, and Corporal Aarol W. Irish, Hemlock, Mich, cautiously headed up the road towards Steinbergen, heavy machine gun fire raked the road from hidden positions…”
From Bud’s letter to his parents dated 12 April 1945:
"It all seems like a bad dream now and the time that went by seemed like years…We had to jump from our jeep when the Germans started shooting with everything they had, and it so happened that right where we stopped were a few rocks to give us protection. The fellows with armored cars did all they could to get us under cover, but no one could move an inch from cover without getting it. My buddy and I laid behind the rocks while bullets hit so close that pieces of stone would hit us and a small piece even hit my cheek. There aren’t words to say how scared we were and how hard we prayed. The only satisfaction I’ve got is to know I hit two of them with bullets from my rifle and saw them fall. Two days later found them still there, dead…”
From Bud’s letter to his fellow veteran Lowell Adelson in 2002:
“The S.S. must have sighted in on our jeep right away as one of the first bullets hit the front tire and another went thru the steering wheel and Cliff’s right wrist. He jumped out on the left side, I jumped out on the right, and Eldon Case jumped over the back (planned in advance if we were ever hit)… Where I jumped out by the road was a large stone or marker, I’m not sure which, about six inches high and a yard wide. The shooting had stopped and Case crawled over and lay beside me. We hoped Cliff had jumped in the ditch and escaped on the other side. It was all quiet, we had no time to make radio contact. The horror had been over in seconds, and then we looked up over the stone and saw probably 50 - 100 S.S. storm troopers coming down the road toward us. There was an officer in front with a small machine gun. About 25 yards away they spotted us and Eldon Case said, “My God, they’re going to get us” or “they’re going to get me,” I never really knew which. The S.S. officer emptied his machine gun at us and every bullet went into the ground and into Case. We were so close together I could feel them hit. I either buried my face into the dirt, or my guardian angel pushed it there. They slammed Case over the head with a gun butt and then me.”
“From that time on things were a little foggy for me. I sort of remember them searching my pockets and taking the only thing I carried on missions, a folder with the picture of my girl I hoped to marry with my serial number on the back. All was silent. They must have returned to the mountains. Later two 701st buttoned down tanks went by somewhere near. I heard big gunfire in front but didn’t know whose it was, and then all was silent again. Time passed by and I realized the S.S. must have taken my wristwatch. Next that I remember was a sorrowful call for help! I didn’t answer, for sometimes the enemy was known to do that, and when the soldier answered they put a bullet through his head. I finally decided it was real and asked, “Who are you?” He replied, “I’m from the 701st. They blew up our tank, the others are dead and I crawled back here. I’m shot through the belly and bleeding to death.” I told him, “Lie close to the ground, take off your belt, put it over the wound and shut off the blood. Is there anyone else?” Another voice said, “Yes, and I am shot thru the thigh.” I said, “Do what I told the other fellow. I can really run and if I can escape, I promise you, I will come back with an ambulance if I have to steal one.”…
“I don’t know how much time had passed. I started to run, zigzagging like we were taught to do. About half way back to the village and houses, I remember crossing a small bridge over a creek. I jumped from the road landing with a splash. Someone shouted, “Irish.” It was Cliff Vohrer lying in the water with blood flowing from his wrist and coloring the water. I used his belt to stop the blood flow and he wanted to go with me. I told him two of us would never make it, but I would get an ambulance and come back for him and the two other fellows. I had my breath back and took off again on a dead run. Reaching the houses I saw one of our men standing in the doorway. For some reason I didn’t stop running ‘til troops stopped me three or four houses later where we were out of view. Captain Shanks from the 701st listened while I told him all that had happened. Also, more of our recon were there and called up the medics. There was some discussion about sending in an ambulance as it was reported the Germans had killed seven medics in the past 10 days as I recall it. I told them I had made a promise to three wounded men that I would be back with an ambulance if I had to steal one. Some person then asked if I would be willing to go back with them, standing on the running board, waving a medic flag and show them where the wounded men were. I agreed and without a shot being fired by the Germans, we picked up the three men. Then, I don’t remember for sure, but I believe someone shoved a needle in me, loaded me in an ambulance and I woke up sometime at daylight the next morning in the hospital tent…”
“The next days were a blur at best, ‘til I remember Sergeant Erickson telling me I had to get dressed up. He helped me shine my shoes and said the general was coming for inspection the next morning and 100% of the troop had to be there. When they called my name, “Will Corporal Irish please step forward?” I thought they were going to court martial me for something that must have happened that I couldn’t remember. Instead, they pinned a Silver Star on my chest and my living buddies had their picture taken with me.”
|Corporal Aarol "Bud" Irish receiving the Silver Star|
“Bill King, Georgia; Aarol Irish, Mich; |
Irve Hayes, Mich; Warren Cooley, Mich.
Buddies throughout WWII. Taken day
Irish received Silver Star for gallantry in action.”
These letters gave me several clues to finding the location of the ambush. I needed a place where the road passed by a mountainside headed for Steinbergen. It needed to be within running/walking distance of another village where the HQ was set up, and should have a little river with a bridge in between. In comparing the descriptions in Bud’s letters with maps of the area, I had narrowed the possibilities down to about three or four places I thought I should look.
Then I read the German history sites, and my search narrowed dramatically. They described the defense of Steinbergen in some detail. To the west of town, the defensive positions were manned by Volksturm troops (Home Guard). According to this account, they were forced to dig fighting positions and were given Panzerfausts (anti-tank rockets), but they all disappeared before the Americans arrived. To the north of the town, the Arensburger pass was defended by “fanatical SS officer candidates from the nearby SS academy at Braunschweig”. Bingo! This had to be the place. The websites even had photos showing the hillside where the defense was set up – a place called the “Hirschkuppe”. B83 runs south past the mountain through the Arensburger Pass toward the town of Steinbergen. About 300 meters south of the Autobahn on B83, on the eastern wide of the mountain, west of the road, is the spot where the SS set up their ambush.
Description in German:
“...At the other roadblock, the one in Arensburger Pass, several American tanks were destroyed by fanatical young SS-soldiers with Panzerfausts. This pass through the Wesergebirge was to be defended with all possible strength. There was still fighting there, when Bad Eilsen had already been occupied by American troops. On the slopes of the Hirschkuppe there was heavy fighting and many dead Germans – 25 are known – and an unknown total of American Soldiers.”
Link to the photos:
That was the extent of my knowledge when I went to go see what it all looked like on the ground.
I drove up on Thursday (it’s about six hours north of Stuttgart). My route coincidentally took me to the west, so that I approached the Wesergebirge moving west to east, the same way the 102d would have done. I passed through the Teutoberger Wald (Forest), another historical place I wish I had time to explore. This was the place where three Roman legions had advanced into Germanic territory in AD 9 to chastise the barbarians. Instead, they were completely destroyed, and Rome more or less left the Germans alone after that. Passing through there kind of set the stage for my weekend.
I crossed the Weser River and drove east along the Autobahn, turning off on B83 to go south into Steinbergen. This was exactly the location that my research indicated the ambush had taken place, so it was a really interesting way to drive into the town for the first time!
I stayed in Steinbergen in the hotel “Steinberger Hof”. It was very conveniently located just down the road from where I wanted to look. Fortunately, the food is excellent, as it also seems to be the only restaurant in town! I got up on Friday morning, had breakfast, and headed up the road toward the Arensburger pass and the Hirschkuppe, hoping to find the spot.
My bike is a hybrid “Trekker” type bike – kind of a cross between a road/commuter bike and a mountain bike. It has some mountain bike features like a shock absorber in the front fork and 27-speeds with good low gears, but it definitely does not have mountain bike tires. German bike paths are mostly paved or gravel, but the footpaths can be muddy, and here I even got off of those. So it wasn’t too long before the bike was locked to a tree and I was climbing around the hillside on foot.
The area I was looking was on the west side of B83, about 300m south of the Autobahn bridge, as described in the German descriptions of where the SS set up their defenses. The hillside is very steep in that area, and flattens out a little as you go further south towards town. I got to the area on the hillside where I thought it was likely that the SS had their positions, then I climbed down to the road to see if I could find a “large stone or marker… about six inches high and a yard wide.” The road has been widened since 1945 into a four-lane highway, so there was very little chance of finding it. But I thought it was worth a look.
I didn't find the stone, but examining the road made it clear why. The east side of the road (on the left heading into town) drops off quite steeply into low, swampy ground with several ponds. The former two-lane road most likely followed what are now the northbound lanes. When they widened it to create two new southbound lanes, they would have cut into the hill on the west side, changing the lay of the land significantly. It now slopes up very steeply from the southbound lanes, and the shoulder of the old two-lane road where Bud and Don Case would have jumped out and crawled behind the rocks is completely paved over.
While I was down on the road looking around at all this, I got an unexpected bonus. There was a road crew doing street repairs right across from where I was standing. As I stood studying the terrain, looking up and down the road, and consulting my map, one of the workers came over and asked me if I was lost and if he could help. He thought I was a hiker, and wanted to tell me that it was dangerous to walk on that stretch of road. When I told him what I was doing there, his face lit up. He told me that he is interested in the military history of the area, knows a lot about the battles, and has several relevant books in his library at home. We discussed the details some more, until his coworkers called him back to work. We traded phone numbers and agreed to meet later that evening for a beer.
I looked up and down the road some more, then went back to my bike and rode up the other road that goes under the Autobahn bridge (Arensburger Strasse, L442). It turns out there is a large house/mansion there (a “Schloss”, which can be anything from a large house up to a real palace). This one looks abandoned or at least unoccupied, and all the property east of B83 between the two roads south of the Autobahn bridge is part of the grounds and posted no trespassing, so I couldn’t go in. This was a shame, because there are some ponds and streams in there, and I suspect that the bridge that Bud saw his wounded driver Cliff Vohrer sitting under is probably in there – it would be the logical place to run after getting ambushed from the west side of the road.
One aspect of my morning exploration really pointed up the value of walking the terrain. Studying the maps and written accounts beforehand, I had been confused about how and where Bud could have run back to the village, if this was in fact the place. This would have required him to cross the Autobahn, which would be difficult anywhere except where the roads crossed it. But when I saw it in person, I realized that the entire stretch of Autobahn from just west of B83 to just east of Arensburger Strasse (the road to the east that makes a kind of triangle with the Autobahn) is a huge, high bridge with multiple arches. It would have been very easy to run through the swampy woods around the Schloss and cross under the Autobahn anywhere along this stretch. I had missed this when looking at the map, although the bridge symbols are there when you look very carefully. The aerial photo below (from the German website) shows the whole area. I just hadn't made the connection until I saw it in person. This shows the value of direct reconnaissance, and the importance of what Bud's team was doing. You can look at maps all day long, but until you go there and see it, you don't really know.
|The Autobahn bridge, looking south. Schloss Arensburg is at|
left center, with the Hirschkuppe on the right. The lighter
areas are the cliffs and high ground that were defended by the SS.
All this only took part of the morning, so I decided to wait to look around anymore until after I’d met with my prospective new friend. I rode my bike over to Rinteln, a historic old fortess town on the Weser southwest of Steinbergen. It was really cool – nearly every building in the old town was several hundred years old, with Fachwerk (exposed wood frame) construction. It’s what every town in Germany probably looked like before they got plastered by bombs and artillery in WWII and had to be rebuilt. I had a nice afternoon there, and then rode back to my hotel to meet with my new friend.
He came at about 6:00 PM, and we spent a couple of hours talking about the WWII history and a lot of other stuff. (Of course, to answer the questions Teresa will undoubtedly ask me, I had to learn his marital status, number of kids, their ages, etc. Sorry, I didn’t get their names so don’t ask). ;) we looked at the books he had brought along, as well as my maps. He told me a lot of the history of the area and pointed out some things to see, many of which were already on my list.
When it was time for him to go, I offered him the copy of “A Thousand Letters Home” that I had brought along, as a “thank you” for spending the time with me. He accepted it, but insisted on giving me one of his books in return. I had already written down the title and author, intending to buy it, but this was even better! We wrote inside the covers to commemorate the occasion, and he went home to his farm where he collects tractors and works on restoring the Fachwerk house (See, Teresa, I did pay attention to something besides guns and military history!). J
The book is called “Damals” (“Back Then”), a history of the Second World War between Teutoburger Forest, Weser River, and Leine. It is perfect – very specific to this area, and to the period in question.
I look forward to reading the whole thing, but I zeroed in on those passages that directly relate to my quest, and learned something very interesting that cleared up a point that I had found confusing. The 102d Division map shows an axis of advance moving eastward directly down the spine of the Wesergebirge. On 9 April It stops at the Arensburger pass, then shows further progress east on 10-11 April. But for the other descriptions to make sense, Bud’s patrol had to be coming in from the north, meaning they’d advanced on the terrain north of the Autobahn or perhaps on the Autobahn itself. I finally decided that the arrows on the map were not exactly accurate, but showed the general direction of movement.
What the book “Damals” made clear to me was something I didn’t know before – the 102d Infantry was *not* the first U.S. division to fight through this area. The 84th Division had already passed by on the north, and had then moved on as the 102d moved in. From pp 137-138:
“Der Arensburger Pass blieb noch weitere Tage uneinnehmbar. Die 84. US-Inf.-Div., war nach Hanover weitergezogen. Einheiten der mit Sauberungen des Hinterlandes bauftragten 102. US-Inf.-Div. sollten sich mit dieser “harten Nuss” weiterbeschaeftigen. In der Nacht von 10. Zum 11. April wurde Artillerie eingesetzt….”
Translation: “The Arensburger pass couldn’t be taken for several more days. The 84th US Infantry Division was ordered on toward Hanover. The 102d US Infantry Division, charged with cleaning out the rear areas, had to take over cracking this “tough nut”. In the night from 10-11 April, artillery was brought into action…”
So - The U.S. 5th Armored Division and 84th Infantry Division had crossed the Weser River on 7 April and begun fighting their way east. They had moved quickly, bypassing strong points of enemy resistance. The 102d came in behind and had the unenviable job of finding and clearing these out. Sometimes euphemistically called “mopping up”, this is actually very dangerous work. This is exactly what the division history said Bud’s patrol was doing as they approached the still-defended Arensburger pass. They found the strong point the hard way, and the next couple of days saw heavy combat in the area as American artillery pounded the town and surrounding hills, and the infantry and armor pushed through.
The book has a lot of photos, and these two were especially interesting and relevant:
|"This Ami (American) quickly reads a letter from |
home, to raise his morale at the last minute. Two
hours later he crossed the Weser River with his unit."
|This photo shows vehicles crossing the Weser River |
on a pontoon bridge.
Friday had been a very interesting day! I went to bed with big plans for Saturday.
On Saturday 9 April (today), I got up and took an ambitious (for me, anyway) bike ride east along the Wesergebirge toward a local castle called the “Schaumburg”. According to my new German friend, “there is a town in Illinois that was founded by people from this town”. I confirmed that I knew the town, and told him that my friends and I used to go there and hang out in Woodfield Mall (when it was just about the *only* mall around – Hawthorne hadn’t been built yet and Old Orchard was boring – Woodfield was the place to go).
So I visited the castle at Schaumburg, which was interesting, and then continued on down onto the flat countryside south of the Wesergebirge to the town of Hessisch Oldendorf. This town was also an older town with a lot of Fachwerk buildings, although substantial numbers of newer buildings told me it probably was heavily damaged in the war. It was doubly interesting from a military history standpoint. First, when the 102d Infantry took Hessisch Oldendorf on 11 April, that was considered the end of the battle for the Wesergebirge. They then moved on to other areas, and eventually to occupation duty. Oldendorf, like Rinteln, was planned and built as a fortified city by the Counts of Schaumburg in the 13th century. It holds the distinction of having been the first town in history to have to have been taken in a battle in which artillery was the deciding factor (28 June, 1633, during the 30 Years War).
I rode back to Steinbergen across the low country by the Weser River, enjoying the beautiful sunny April weather. It was cool enough to be very comfortable riding, but with plenty of green, lots of buds on the trees, and birds singing, it really felt like Spring.
When I got back to Steinbergen, I decided to visit the cemetery, as I understood that some of the German soldiers who had died defending the pass were buried there. My friend said he thought maybe there were also Amerians there. There were a number of graves, some with names and several that said “Unbekannte Deutsche Soldat” (Unknown German Soldier). Most had dates of April 1945. I didn’t see any American graves, though. I sat there for awhile in their silent presence, reflecting.
After visiting the cemetery, I rode back to the Arensburger Pass and walked the terrain again, partly just to be there on 9 April, and partly because I wasn’t satisfied with the photos I’d taken on Friday. I took some photos and a video of the area.
|This the site where I believe the SS had their ambush |
position set up. You can just see the Autobahn bridge
in the background, looking north on B83.
|This is the view looking south down the road towards |
Steinbergen. There could have been more defensive positions
anywhere on the right side of the road all the way to town.
360 degree panoramic video of the ambush site. (YouTube link)
(Note: In the video narration, I mentioned that I thought I was about 200 meters south of the Autobahn. Looking at the map and aerial photos afterwards, I believe it was closer to 300).
After making the video, I made a stunning discovery. On the ground very close to where I was standing, I found a small stone marker about four inches square, with a cross carved in the top. It is a different type of stone than that which naturally occurs in the area – it actually looks like rough, unpolished marble. It is also completely immovable – it only sticks up a couple inches above the ground but feels as if it’s very deeply buried. It is definitely a deliberate marker – almost certainly marking the place where a German soldier (or soldiers) died.
This confirmed to me beyond a doubt that I had found the spot where the German defenders had set up their positions. (You can actually see this marker just left of center in the second photo above, but I had not yet noticed it). Who knows – this could even be for the German soldiers that Bud wrote about having killed before he and Don Case ran out of ammunition and were overrun. In any case, this one simple stone affected me as much or more than anything else I had seen all weekend.
It was a very eerie feeling to stand on that spot and imagine the hell that had taken place there 71 years earlier between the young men of two opposing armies. It’s one thing to read books and look at maps, but there’s something about actually walking the ground and knowing “this is where it happened” that makes you really pause and think. It’s one of the reasons I like to visit historic places.
I’m glad I came here. I never got to meet Teresa’s dad, but this makes me feel a little closer to him somehow. RIP, Bud Irish, and thank you to the Greatest Generation.