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
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
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
The events I was researching here took place from
8-11 April, 1945, in an area known as the “Wesergebirge”, or Weser Hills.
) This is a long, steep, heavily-wooded chain of hills that runs east-west for about
15 miles or so from the Weser River.
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 (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
|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.
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.
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
From Bud’s letter to his parents dated 12 April
"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
“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
|Corporal Aarol "Bud" Irish receiving the Silver Star|
“Bill King, Georgia; Aarol Irish, Mich; |
Irve Hayes, Mich; Warren Cooley, Mich.
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:
"Die alten Männer Steinbergens, die nicht zur Wehrmacht eingezogen
waren, mußten unter Leitung des Steinberger Försters Reinhard, Anfang 1945 am
Westhang der Hirschkuppe viele Fichten fällen und diese zu über 2 m langen
Stücken zersägen. Daraus wurden drei massive Panzersperren gebaut, eine im
Fuchsort an der alten B 238 Richtung Rinteln, eine zweite im Arensburger Paß an
der B 83 Richtung Bückeburg (ca. 300 m von der Autobahnbrücke in Richtung
Steinbergen der B 83) und eine an der Straße nach Obernkirchen und ins
"...Bei der anderen Panzersperre, die im Arensburger Pass, wurden
mehrere amerikanische Panzer durch fanatische junge SS-Soldaten mit
Panzerfäusten abgeschossen. Dieser Paß durch das Wesergebirge sollte mit aller
Macht verteidigt werden. Dort wurde noch gekämpft, während Bad Eilsen schon
längst durch die Amerikaner besetzt war. Am Hang der Hirschkuppe gab es schwere
Kämpfe und viele tote deutsche - 25 sind
bekannt - und eine unbekannte Zahl tote amerikanische
"At the beginning of
1945, the old men of Steinbergen who hadn't been drafted into the Army had to
cut down many trees on the west side of the Hirschkuppe and saw them into
pieces over 2 meters long under the direction of Forester Reinhard. From these,
three massive roadblocks were built, one in Fuchsort on the old B238 in the
direction of Rinteln, a second in the Arensburger Pass on B83 in the direction
of Bückeburg (about 300 meters from the Autobahn bridge in the direction of
Steinbergen) and one on the road to Obernkirchen and in Auetal..."
“...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
number of dead 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 five 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
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.
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
But I thought it was worth a
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
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).
out there is a large house/mansion there (a “Schloss”, which can be anything from
a large house up to a real palace).
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.
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
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
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 learned his marital status, number of kids,
their ages, etc.
Sorry, I didn’t get their
names so don’t ask).
e 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Division had already passed by on the north, and had then moved
on as the 102d moved in.
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
Infantry Division had crossed the Weser River on 7 April and
begun fighting their way east.
moved quickly, bypassing strong points of enemy resistance.
The 102d came in behind and had the unenviable
job of finding and clearing these out.
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
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
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 reached 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”.
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.
like Rinteln, was planned and built as a fortified city by the Counts of
Schaumburg in the 13th
It holds the distinction of having been the
first town in history 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.
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 were most likely more defensive
positions further south on the hill on the right side of
the road, creating a defense in depth.
This is a link to a video I made while standing on the site of the photos above:
360 degree panoramic video of the ambush site.
(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.
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.