• JP

WORLD WAR II: RACE TO SEIZE BERCHTESGADEN


In May 1945, as the war in Europe drew to a close, two great prizes remained. The first, Berlin, was almost completely in the hands of the Soviets. The second, Berchtesgaden, home to Adolf Hitler’s famous mountain retreat, remained to be captured.

For months, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and other Allied commanders had worried about the possible existence of a ‘national redoubt’ in Bavaria and Austria. They were concerned that thousands of Nazi diehards would take to the rugged mountains, sustain themselves with copious supplies stored up over the course of many years and fight a guerrilla-style war against the Allies. Fortunately, the redoubt existed more in the minds of German propagandists and the nightmares of Allied leaders than in the Bavarian Alps. By May most Allied officers had begun to understand this. They faced a German army with very little fight left. Hordes of prisoners clogged the autobahn. The German soldiers still resisting did so primarily against the Russians and most of the others fled westward in hopes of surrendering to the British or the Americans.

Accordingly, Berchtesgaden changed from a strategic to a prestige objective. This was the place where Hitler had planned his conquest of Europe, the place where he had hosted heads of state, the place where the German dictator had relaxed and held forth on various topics to an intimate retinue of party cronies. It was the second seat of government outside of Berlin. Every Allied unit in the area, whether French or American, desperately wanted to capture Berchtesgaden. The unit that did so would win for itself historical immortality as the conquerors of the crown jewel of Hitler’s evil empire. At least that was the thinking.

The 7th Infantry Regiment, the ‘Cottonbalers,’ had fought its way from North Africa to Germany. The unit enjoyed a proud combat heritage dating back to the War of 1812. During World War II, the regiment, operating as part of the 3rd Infantry Division, carried out four amphibious invasions, numerous river crossings and fought in such costly battles as Sicily, Anzio, southern France, the Vosges and the Colmar Pocket. Quite probably no other regiment in the U.S. Army in World War II exceeded the 7th in combat time.

The proud veteran soldiers of this tradition-rich unit were among those vying to seize Berchtesgaden. They figured it was their just dessert after so many hard years of fighting. Many of them had heard stories about the food and liquor stored at ‘Hitler’s house.’ On May 2, fresh from the capture of Munich and a tour of the infamous Dachau concentration camp, the regiment was back on the move, this time bound for Salzburg, Austria, which it took with no opposition.



National ArchivesTroopers from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment march into Berchtesgaden the day after the 7th Regiment moved through the town.


Unlike the Cottonbalers, the men of the 101st stayed.

The easy capture of Salzburg surprised 3rd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. John W. ‘Iron Mike’ O’Daniel because he expected a tough fight, like the one his troops had experienced a couple weeks earlier at Nuremberg. In looking at a map, O’Daniel realized that the 7th Infantry was now in perfect position to make a dash for Berchtesgaden. The lure of capturing this objective was well nigh irresistible. ‘By that time the prize of Berchtesgaden was so radiant that it was obvious that considerable fame and renown would come to the unit that was first to reach Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest,’ Major William Rosson, one of O’Daniel’s staff officers said. ‘We were resolved to be the first into Berchtesgaden.’

There was only one problem with that resolution. Eisenhower and his Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) staff had already bestowed the honor upon two other units, the French 2nd Armored and the American 101st Airborne divisions. If the French got Berchtesgaden they would see it as an enormous triumph over Germany, or at the very least some kind of redress for the humiliation of their defeat in 1940. If the 101st captured the prize, Eisenhower expected that it would only add an additional laurel to a unit that was now arguably the most famous outfit in the Army after its epic stand at Bastogne. Eisenhower was doubtless aware of the 3rd’s proximity to Berchtesgaden, but given that the general and other brass expected the 3rd Division to run into a real fight in Salzburg, they probably dismissed O’Daniel’s division as a likely contender. Of course, events on the ground confused such easily formulated intentions.

Very simply, as the situation existed on the morning of May 4, the French 2nd Armored and the American 101st Airborne, the ‘Screaming Eagles,’ were not in as good a position to take Berchtesgaden as O’Daniel’s 3rd Infantry Division. His 7th Regiment controlled the only two remaining bridges over the Saalach River. One was a damaged railroad bridge outside Piding and the second a small wooden bridge nearby. Anyone wishing to get to Berchtesgaden would have to cross the Saalach over one of these bridges. On the morning of the 4th, even though his earlier request to capture Berchtesgaden had been denied by superiors, O’Daniel decided to make the attempt anyway. The tactical situation dictated this course of action but, more than that, he wanted the great prize for his division. The 3rd ‘Rock of the Marne’ Infantry Division had suffered more casualties than any other division in the U.S. Army. It had fought its way from the beaches of North Africa to the Bavarian Alps, all without a great deal of publicity. O’Daniel felt, perhaps with some justification, that his men deserved the chance.

At about 1000 hours that morning, O’Daniel visited the German-born Colonel John A. Heintges, the commander of the 7th Infantry. Heintges, a popular commander, had ordered his engineers to work feverishly through the night to strengthen the railroad bridge so that it could accommodate the 7th Infantry’s vehicles.

O’Daniel and Heintges spoke alone. Although there had been a small snowstorm a couple days before leaving a few inches of snow on the ground, this day was warm and clear. O’Daniel turned to Heintges, ‘Do you think you can go into Berchtesgaden?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Heintges responded. ‘I have a plan all made for it, and all you have to do is give me the word and we’re on our way.’

O’Daniel asked him if the railroad bridge was ready. Heintges nodded. ‘I did not get permission to go into Berchtesgaden,’ O’Daniel told him. ‘Do you think you can do it?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Well, go.’

Heintges did not waste a second. He immediately spoke with his 1st and 3rd battalion commanders and told them to move out.

The troops, along with their armored and artillery support, crossed the bridge and fanned out. The 1st Battalion, led by the regimental ‘Battle Patrol,’ a special reconnaissance formation under the command of Lieutenant William Miller, headed west on the most direct route, through Bad Reichenhall, while the 3rd Battalion swung east on the autobahn. The two pincers were supposed to proceed deliberately, not recklessly, and meet in Berchtesgaden. In the meantime, O’Daniel set up a roadblock and plenty of guards at the valuable bridge his men had just crossed. He left orders that no one was to cross without his express orders and immediately set about making himself difficult to contact.

After cruising through Bad Reichenhall, Miller’s Battle Patrol and the 1st Battalion ran into some resistance at a mountain pass. Some SS troops were defending the pass, a natural defile that could have held up the battalion indefinitely. The Cottonbalers simply backed up, set up their artillery and fired away at the SS, who melted back into the mountains. From there the Americans hit a few roadblocks and mines but nothing really serious.

In the east, L Company led the 3rd Battalion down the autobahn. The commander of L Company, Lieutenant Sherman Pratt, had risen from the ranks to become an officer. Bright, articulate, upbeat and blessed with great resolve, he had found opportunity in the Army as an escape from economic privation and family problems. He had joined the 7th in 1939 and immediately took to military life.

By the time the regiment entered combat in North Africa in November 1942, Pratt had risen to sergeant. For the next 212 years he served with the 7th Infantry in various NCO jobs. At Anzio he was severely wounded by German artillery, but he managed to return in time for the breakout and liberation of Rome. Eventually his superb battlefield leadership led to an opportunity for a commission, and he took it. He quickly rose from platoon leader to command of L Company. Pratt was the very embodiment of those 7th Infantry veterans who had fought their way across two continents, in the process suffering tremendous adversity. He and so many other survivors wanted Berchtesgaden as a reward for overcoming that adversity.



National ArchivesTroopers of the 3rd Division question recently surrendered German troops on the road to Berchtesgaden. As they advanced, the ‘Cottonbalers’ from the 7th Regiment moved cautiously, suspecting a German ambush along the road to Hitler’s retreat. Fortunately for them, resistance was almost nonexistent.

Now, as morning turned to afternoon on the 4th, Pratt and his company rolled cautiously down the autobahn. ‘After an hour or so we had covered almost 10 miles, or approximately half the distance to the objective,’ Pratt reported. ‘The going, however, was weird and scary. I was most apprehensive. The hills on both sides of the gorge were steep, and we were confined in a very narrow and restricted area.’ In other words, the terrain was ideal for an ambush and, for all Pratt knew, plenty of SS troops waited around the next bend. The only excitement came when an American tank opened up on a German armored car and blew it up. The column proceeded unmolested all the way to Berchtesgaden, arriving there at 1600. ‘Berchtesgaden looked like a village from a fairy tale,’ Pratt said. ‘Its houses were of Alpine architecture and design. Some had gingerbread decorations.’

Pratt’s group got to Berchtesgaden shortly after a platoon from the 7th Regiment’s Battle Patrol entered the town at the head of the 1st Battalion at 1558. There were some German soldiers in the town, but they were in no mood to fight. Isadore Valenti, a medic with K Company, wrote, ‘.50-caliber machine-gun carrying jeeps and half tracks took up positions inside the square, bagging the entire enemy force in one quick move.’ Valenti and the other Cottonbalers captured 2,000 enemy soldiers. ‘The streets were lined with German officers and a few noncommissioned officers and other ranks as well,’ Major Rosson recalled. ‘The officers were in their gray long coats, with side arms and baggage, awaiting orders.’ Among the prisoners was Hermann Göring’s nephew Fritz. The younger Göring presented himself to Heintges, who had come into town with the 1st Battalion. ‘He surrendered to me in a typical military fashion,’ Heintges remembered. ‘He took off his belt with pistol and dagger and handed it to me in a little ceremony in the square right in the middle of Berchtesgaden.’ After the surrender Göring and Heintges went into a local Gasthaus and split a bottle of wine. Heintges then asked Göring why he remained in the town. ‘He said that he had been left behind to turn over his uncle Hermann Goring’s administrative headquarters and all the records,’ Heintges remembered. The Cottonbalers found the headquarters to be a complex of one-story buildings. Inside were the records for the Luftwaffe.

As soldiers of the 1st and 3rd battalions began exploring the town, Lieutenant Pratt took one of his platoons and some tanks on a mission to ‘liberate’ Hitler’s home on Kehlstein Mountain a few miles outside of town. A complex that included an SS barracks and the homes of other high-ranking Nazi leaders surrounded the Führer‘s house. ‘We were winding our way up the steep and winding mountain road,’ Pratt recalled. ‘The air was clear and crisp with almost unlimited visibility. We rounded a bend and there before us in a broad opening lay the ruins of what had once been Hitler’s house and the SS barracks.’ The Royal Air Force had bombed much of the complex on April 25. Pratt and other 7th infantrymen dismounted and began poking around the buildings. ‘Everyone in my group was struck into silence…by the significance of the time and place. After all the years of struggle and destruction, the killing, pain and suffering…here, for sure, was the end of it.’ Pratt and his men engaged in some minor looting and then went back into Berchtesgaden. A few other Cottonbalers inspected the elevator shaft that led to the teahouse atop Kehlstein Mountain.

At the same time, Valenti, the veteran medic who had seen a great deal of tragedy and heartbreak over the past two years, also explored Hitler’s house and some of the buildings around it. ‘We couldn’t believe what we saw. The walls were covered with shelves and the shelves were stocked with all kinds of wines, champagnes and liqueurs. The food bins were well stocked with a variety of canned hams, cheese and two-gallon cans containing pickles.’ Valenti and his friends sat in Hitler’s great room, where he had once entertained heads of state, and drank his wine. Before the war, Valenti, the son of Italian immigrants, had been a coal miner. He never dreamed he would get to see something like this. He persuaded a buddy to take a picture of him lounging on the hillside next to Hitler’s house.



National ArchivesSoldiers of O’Daniel’s hard-fighting division enjoy the fruits of their labors by toasting with wine taken in the Nazi complex at Berchtesgaden.


Sixty years later, the tales of the parties thrown in and around the Nazi complex on V-E Day are legendary and offer a fitting conclusion to the story of the Allied campaign to liberate Europe.

Most of the Cottonbalers did not visit the Berghof, as the home was known. They were down in Berchtesgaden hunting for other treasures. Heintges, who had set up his command post in a small hotel, watched in great amusement as his men availed themselves of a nearby warehouse full of cheese. ‘Our soldiers were rolling these big cheese wheels down the streets. I don’t know how many dozens of these cheeses we found and rolled out.’ The troops found plenty of shelter along with various bottles of liquor, more food and a couple of Göring’s special automobiles, one of which was bulletproof and could fit 14 people. The soldiers also found Lt. Gen. Gustav Kastner-Kirkdorf, a member of Hitler’s staff, dead in his bed. He had committed suicide with a Luger pistol, and his brains were all over his plush pillow. A Cottonbaler officer promptly liberated the Luger. Some of Heintges’ other officers brought him a Nazi flag that had flown over Hitler’s house. The colonel ordered that it be cut into pieces and passed out among his officers. Later that evening he was sampling some of the local food when his S-4 reported a major find: In a storage vault underneath a villa, soldiers had discovered Hermann Göring’s personal liquor stock. The stash, remembered Heintges, consisted of ‘16,000 bottles of all kinds of liquor. We had Cordon Rouge, Cordon Bleu Champagne…and we had Johnny Walker’s Red Label, Black Label, American whiskeys. You name it, we had it. Hermann Göring was well supplied.’ Knowing that other units would soon descend on Berchtesgaden, Heintges quietly arranged for six of his trucks to haul much of the liquor to Salzburg, where his 2nd Battalion could safely hide it. This was the largest single trophy the Cottonbalers collected from Berchtesgaden. Most of the humble foot soldiers would leave the area with only small items that could be easily carried.



National ArchivesLieutenant Colonel Kenneth Wallace (right) speaks with the mayor of Berchtesgaden and local dignitaries after entering the town on May 4.


Throughout May 4, as the 7th Infantry moved into Berchtesgaden and established control of the area, O’Daniel made sure that the bridges over the Saalach remained closed to the French and the 101st. At approximately 1700, French General Jacques Philippe Leclerc attempted to cross the railroad bridge with his division and head for Berchtesgaden. Cottonbalers would not let him cross. ‘He was standing upright in his vehicle assuming the role of commander with authority and great assertiveness,’ Major Rosson said. Another Cottonbaler officer, Lt. Col. Lloyd Ramsey, told the French general that he had orders to let no one cross. Fuming, Leclerc demanded to speak to O’Daniel. After trying to give him the runaround, Ramsey and the officers agreed to Leclerc’s request. The two generals argued for a time. Leclrec demanded that he be allowed to pass; O’Daniel just as stridently refused. Only when O’Daniel received word that Heintges had, in fact, reached Berchtesgaden, did he allow the French and the 101st to pass. Earlier the Screaming Eagles had succeeded in finding a small footbridge and sending some patrols across, but they were nowhere near Berchtesgaden and, if they wanted to cross in real strength, they needed O’Daniel’s bridges. Countrymen or not, O’Daniel would not let them pass until the race was over and his men had won the prize. The French and Screaming Eagles were mixed up in a traffic jam near the railway bridge at the Saalach. Not until later in the evening of May 4, approximately 2000, did the first French troops reach Berchtesgaden. The paratroopers got there the following morning, probably sometime between 0900 and 1000.

In the early morning hours of May 5, a polite French staff officer visited Heintges and worked out the occupation zones in the area. ‘I took the railroad track which ran right through the middle of Berchtesgaden,’ Heintges remembered. He gave the French everything else, including Hitler’s home and its environs. ‘This was a terrific psychological thing for the French,’ he said. ‘So, I gave it to them because I knew that it would be a good thing for international politics.’

In so doing, Heintges unwittingly sowed the seeds for trouble. Several hours later, well after sunrise, Heintges decided that he and his soldiers should hop aboard trucks and jeeps, go back up to the ruins of Hitler’s house and raise the American flag. By that time, French soldiers had blocked off the approaches to the complex. This was their occupation zone, and they obviously thought of themselves as its conquerors. Most likely, the French soldiers had no idea that the 7th had taken the place first. By allowing the French to set up their occupation zone here, Heintges had directly created this problem. When he and his men attempted to drive into the complex, the French halted them. ‘I’m the…commander of the regiment that captured this place,’ Heintges said. ‘We’re just going up there with our troops to look over the place and raise our flag.’