The Tanker’s Pilgrimage | Tank Week

| September 17, 2018
Categories: Learnin'
Tags: Tank Week

If you were a tanker, or you’re a tank-loving historian, you’ll want to learn more about the Tanker’s Pilgrimage, or perhaps to make it yourself.

Much like faithful Muslims and their Hajj, I believe every tanker is bound by honor to perform a tanker’s pilgrimage at least once in his (or now her) life. Be it a visit to Fort Knox’s Armor Museum, or General Patton’s grave, or laying hands on a Mother Mark I at Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Ordnance Museum, those of us who crewed our nation’s steel beasts should pay physical homage to those who fired main guns and coax from Shermans, Pershings, Walker Bulldogs or Renault FT-17s. Or maybe our allies who faced the enemy in Matildas, Chieftains, and T-34s. Maybe even those who crewed Panzers.

I’ve been to the Knox and Aberdeen museums, and for my next tanker’s pilgrimage I wanted to visit Raseiniai, Lithuania, where a single Soviet KV-1 or KV-2 tank sat on a crossroads and held up an entire German armored division’s advance for two days. The KV may have been broken down and unable to move, but whatever the reason, the crew didn’t flee into the countryside or nearby village. Instead they stayed at their stations and destroyed a battery of 50mm guns, inflicted heavy casualties on multiple tank companies and forced them to break off their attack, and responded to a nighttime combat engineer attack with a resounding “Not impressed, comrade.”

In fact, after the tank was finally taken out by a combined infantry, armor and 88 assault, the German grunts had a nasty surprise when the tank they thought was dead began slowly traversing its turret. A German soldier dropped a grenade through an 88 hole and finally killed the last surviving crewman, no doubt as he was laying the main gun sights onto a Panzer in eager anticipation of killing one last Fritz before bleeding out.

One KV tank and its crew in particular were of great significance during the Battle of Raseiniai during Operation Barbarossa.

A destroyed KV tank and fallen crew. We are unsure what battle this is from.

The five men in the tank were, depending on who you ask, buried with full military honors by the Germans, or they escaped, or they were dug up in 1965 and properly reburied. And there’s the rub. I planned on visiting those graves to honor them in person – and make no mistake, I do honor them, commie or not – but I have this thing about historical accuracy. We know the KV standoff actually happened because the Germans documented it, but we don’t know how badly the Soviets propagandized it, or if the alleged graves of the crewmen are really their graves. One might make the epic trek to Raseiniai only to discover uninterested locals ignoring lost gravestones over who knows whose bodies. That would suck.

So I’ve settled on a new pilgrimage destination: Cologne, Germany, site of one of the last tank duels of World War II. And we don’t have to worry about propaganda or local folklore muddying the story, because it’s on film. It has also been exhaustively documented on this incredible website, and this associated modern day guide to the site of the battle.

On March 6th, 1945, American tanks of the 3rd Armored Division supported infantry advancing into Cologne, toward the city’s famed cathedral. Among those tanks but for some reason not in the lead was one of the Army’s few T-26 Pershings, a vast improvement over the Sherman with a bigger gun and thicker armor. An ugly collateral damage incident occurred early in the day when the T-26 gunner, Corporal Clarence Smoyer, engaged a civilian vehicle he mistook for a German Army staff car. The male driver was killed, and the young female passenger badly wounded. Infantrymen briefly checked on her but preoccupied as they were with the advance left her for following troops to recover. But according to a German witness, in one of the many millions of horrible tragedies that befell innocent civilians caught on battlefields, that beautiful young woman was inadvertently run over and killed by an American tank backing like mad from German gunfire.

A civilian casualty of the 3rd Armored Divisions advance into Cologne.

Shortly afterward, two Shermans, one on each side of the street, approached the Cologne cathedral on the Komödienstrasse (Komodien Street, I think). The Sherman on the right was commanded by Lieutenant Karl Kellner. Unbeknownst to the tankers, a German Panther was apparently backed into a nearby subway tunnel. The Panther saw Lt Kellner’s Sherman and put two rounds through it. The rounds killed driver PFC Julian Patrick and loader Tech Sgt Curtis Speer, blew Lt. Kellner’s leg off, and wounded the gunner and A-driver.

Lt Kellner bailed out, Garand in hand, the stump of his leg trailing smoke. The gunner, 19 year-old Corporal John Gialluca, clambered out behind him and nosedived off the turret.

Sherman tanks vs. Panther tank during the Battle of Cologne.

Soldiers who rushed to the tank found Gialluca laying beside the track, wounded, 1911 in hand. They dragged him and Lt Kellner away to apply first aid, but Kellner was too far gone and died minutes later. Another soldier, A-driver Oliver Griffin, also made it out despite his wounds.

T-26 Pershing against a German Panther near the cathedral during the Battle of Cologne.

The Panther then (or maybe before hitting the Sherman) took a position directly in front of the cathedral. Perhaps they didn’t realize how many American tanks were around, or maybe they felt compelled to defend the cathedral, a powerful national symbol, so they left good concealment and stopped in the open. That was a bad move.

The T-26 Pershing that had been involved in the earlier collateral damage incident received new orders: advance toward the street parallel to the dead Sherman, turn toward the cathedral on the Marzellenstrasse, find the Panther, and kill it. The tank commander, Sgt Robert Early, first went into a building with a combat cameraman named Jim Bates to look for the tank. He spotted it, told Bates to stay there and take cool pictures, and went back to his Pershing. Bates filmed what happened next.

The Pershing moved up. According to gunner Cpl Smoyer, “…as we entered the intersection, our driver had his periscope turned toward the Panther and saw their gun turning to meet us. When I turned our turret, I was looking into the Panther’s gun tube; so instead of stopping to fire, our driver drove into the middle of the intersection so we wouldn’t be a sitting target.” But the Panther didn’t fire. It’s likely the crew didn’t recognize the Pershing as American since the Pershing was so new that even American troops were mistaking them for German tanks. Corporal Smoyer, the Pershing’s gunner, opened up.

German Panther tank fighting an American T-26 Pershing near the cathedral during the Battle of Cologne. The 3rd Armored Division was supporting advancing Allied infantry.

His first round blasted through the Panther’s hull. Bates’ camera clearly caught the flames visible through the hole in its side armor. The German crewmen began scrambling from the turret as another round blasted through their turret. Tracers, maybe from Smoyer’s coax, skipped off the front slope, narrowly missing a desperate, smoking crewman. Smoke poured from the turret as a third, and maybe a fourth, crewman rolled off the hull and sprinted toward relative safety. One crewman was struggling to get out of the commander’s hatch when a third round hit the base of the turret, likely killing him. Flames enveloped the Panther, and an American who looked inside later saw one burned crewman.

German Panther tank fighting an American T-26 Pershing near the cathedral during the Battle of Cologne. The 3rd Armored Division was supporting advancing Allied infantry.

German Panther tank fighting an American T-26 Pershing near the cathedral during the Battle of Cologne. The 3rd Armored Division was supporting advancing Allied infantry.

Corporal Smoyer ceased fire, having avenged the deaths of Lt Kellner and his men.

German Panther tank fighting an American T-26 Pershing near the cathedral during the Battle of Cologne. The 3rd Armored Division was supporting advancing Allied infantry.

The Pershing crew. Smoyer is third from right, without helmet.

By some miracle, two Panther crewmen survived. And that’s okay. They weren’t nazi camp guards, they were young men defending their home from foreign invasion. Right or wrong, they did what probably every last one of us would do. I don’t hold it against them.

A visitor to Cologne today would discover that its grand cathedral, symbol of German faith and site of one of the most memorable battles of history’s most intense war, is no longer a church. It’s now a museum, with (to my knowledge) no memorial to the German sons who fell by its doors, nor to the Americans who died to free Germany from an ideology that nearly destroyed it.

But if you ever have the chance to make this Tanker’s Pilgrimage, please stop at this spot to remember the brave sacrifices of Lt Kellner, PFC Patrick, and Tech Sgt Speer, and thank fate for the survival of Gunner Gialluca and Loader Griffin.

Then pause a moment here, and ponder what you would have done had you been in that Panther, with angry Americans to your front and vengeful Soviets at your back, tasked with defending a dying regime whose decisions were destroying your beloved country.

And finally stand here, where Cpl Smoyer looked through his main gun sight and blasted three accurate rounds through the Panther’s armor, undoubtedly after forcing himself to stop thinking about the innocent German civilians he’d unintentionally shot earlier that day. The war was still raging, he still had a job to do, and as odd as this may sound to civilians, I give him all the credit in the world for shaking off that horrible mistake and focusing on the mission. War isn’t easy, tragic mistakes are made, and a soldier’s job is to push through those tragedies toward victory.

Despite those losses on March 6th, 1945, our tankers pushed on to victory. Someday I’ll make my Tanker’s Pilgrimage, to honor their losses and that victory.


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