Pursuing the Wehrmacht deep into occupied Western Europe during World War II, the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Division ran into an obstacle in Soissons, France. Soldiers from the hard-charging tank division came across a bridge the Germans had not destroyed, but the Americans feared crossing it – in part because of the possibility of mines or sabotage.
That’s when their 44-year-old commander, Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, approached the bridge. Rose asked if anyone had checked it for signs of sabotage. When his men said no, he crossed it in the face of enemy fire. His men followed, and the pursuit continued.
This is part of the narrative of an extraordinary general who commanded an extraordinary division. Rose was a Jewish-American military commander who won unprecedented victories over an enemy that committed atrocities against Jews in Europe. Under his inspired leadership, his division would achieve a number of firsts during World War II, including becoming the first to cross into Germany and breach the Reich’s Siegfried Line (aka the Westwall), and the first to cross the Rhine.
Tragically, its commander would not live to see the end of a war he had helped hasten toward its end. On March 30, 1945, Rose was killed in action outside Paderborn, Germany, the highest-ranking Jewish-American service member killed in Europe during World War II.
Now his incredible role in the campaign across Western Europe is chronicled in a new book by general-turned-author Daniel P. Bolger, “The Panzer Killers: The Untold Story of a Fighting General and his Spearhead Tank Division’s Charge into the Third Reich.”
Bolger says Rose “was clearly a very focused guy, from a Jewish family, following the Nazis quite closely.” He did not have time for anything “but the mission,” he adds.
Bolger, himself a practicing Catholic, embarked on a military career starting in college. He attended The Citadel military academy in South Carolina in the 1970s, which is where he first learned about Rose. Gen. Mark Clark, the former Allied field commander in Italy during World War II, came to speak to a group of cadets that included Bolger. Clark mentioned a general he had not known before the war, but turned out to be a great one – Rose.
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From then, Bolger relays, he knew he had to learn more. That he did, although between then and writing his book about Rose, he amassed experience and accolades in his 35 years in the U.S. military. He rose to the rank of lieutenant general while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, including in advisory roles, while earning multiple decorations. Today he is a history professor at North Carolina State University and is the author of several other books.
He began researching his latest book a couple years ago, including through the extensive archives of the 3rd Armored Division at the University of Illinois at Champaign.
The book focuses on Rose’s time commanding the division – “really where he made his great contributions to the war effort,” Bolger explains.
A tough-looking officer
The division was founded in 1941, and before Rose took over it was floundering – as was the Allied cause in France after the Normandy landings of 1944. A frustrating conflict ensued in the hedgerows of France, with the Germans seemingly having an edge in their terrifying, technologically advanced Panzer tanks.
Then, several inspired decisions by U.S. commanders led to increasing responsibilities for the man who would ultimately effect a breakthrough: Rose, a veteran of the North African and Sicily campaigns, who had previously served in World War I. Gen. George S. Patton selected him for a prominent leadership role in the days following Normandy. And in late July 1944, VII Corps commander Gen. Joseph Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins placed Rose in charge of the 3rd Armored Division.
The book cites one soldier in the division, George Bailey, who called his commander “the toughest looking officer I have ever seen. There was not a man in division headquarters who did not fear Rose,” he said.
Rose was the son and grandson of rabbis, and his parents immigrated from Russian-controlled Poland to the United States in the late 19th century, changing their surname from Rauss. He was born in Connecticut in 1899, and after going to high school in Denver when his family relocated to Colorado, he joined the Colorado National Guard. He had a complex relationship with his ancestral faith, and listed his religion as Protestant on his Army record.
He married twice and had two children – Michael with his first wife, Venice; and Maurice Roderick “Reece” with his second wife, Virginia. Michael eventually joined the Marines, and went on to serve in Vietnam.
As the new commander of the 3rd Armored Division, Rose “had the skill and understanding of how to use modern weapons,” Bolger says. He rode on the front lines in a jeep equipped with a radio – just like Patton did – so he could communicate from the field. He had the “ability to inspire soldiers … he was the right guy at the right time,” he adds.
The Tigers and Panther Panzer tanks were superior to their American counterpart, the Sherman, in some aspects, Bolger says. Yet Rose figured out ways to beat them, as did some of his colleagues. They shot at the side or rear of a Panzer, and employed other means, such as U.S. Air Force support, artillery cannons and engineers working with explosives or tank destroyers.
“All these things together were overwhelmingly influential against better German tanks,” the author notes. These improved approaches led to breakthrough after breakthrough for the 3rd Armored Division.
Bolger says the division soom picked up the nickname “Spearhead.” “It’s what they were in so many attacks: the spearhead. From fighting in Normandy, breaking up the hedgerows, to driving across France, to the spearhead into the German Westwall.”
There were some bumps along the way. Rose received a dressing-down from the equally hard-charging VII Corps commander, “Lightning Joe” Collins, for being too aggressive. And the Germans could strike back on occasion, which happened with the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Yet this led to another achievement for the division, as it collapsed the German bulge from the northern side.
From there, the Spearhead Division went into Germany again, and set another first by crossing the Rhine. By this time, the Americans were accumulating ample evidence of Nazi atrocities.
“Everybody knew hard-core Nazis shot their prisoners, especially SS troops,” Bolger says. “It was not a surprise. Rose was fighting in North Africa and Sicily. He and his soldiers knew this. The real shock was coming across a fact that first came out as a rumor.” On the Western front, “The Germans, the Nazis, did most of their extermination work, most of their slave labor work, in the Reich itself.”
The 3rd Armored Division liberated 85 prisoners from a Cologne jail that was ostensibly for political prisoners. “There were certainly Jewish people who were not criminals, not burglars,” Bolger recounts. “They were rounded up and put in a [state] prison.”
Meanwhile, the retreating Germans brought other prisoners eastward with them. Rose and his division kept marching in that direction, past the Westwall and the feared fortifications called the Dragon’s Teeth.
As the general continued pushing forward, he twice engaged in unexpected confrontations with enemy forces at close range. In modern warfare, Bolger notes, “Face-to-face combat, seeing your enemy in uniform, is not typical.”
Rose survived the first occasion, shooting a German opponent up close. A few days later, however, on March 30, 1945, he was killed near Paderborn. His death resulted in a war crimes investigation.
After Rose’s death, the Jewish-American press publicized his religious identity, which surprised colleagues in the military. “America’s Jewish community embraced Maurice Rose in death,” Bolger writes in the book, adding, “He became the martyred Jewish general, slain by vicious Nazis.”
Two well-meaning chaplains ensured that his gravesite was marked by a Star of David. Yet the Army changed it to a cross because Rose had identified himself as Protestant on his military record. This is how his grave in the Netherlands remains today, according to the book.
Multiple buildings bear his name, including Army barracks in Connecticut and a hospital in Denver. There are also Army barracks in Germany named after him; the soldiers stationed there included a draftee called Elvis Presley.
Nevertheless, Rose is less remembered than colleagues such as Patton. Bolger attributes this to multiple factors. He cites the momentous events that occurred after Rose was killed in action –from the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the surrender of Germany and Japan. He also wonders whether Rose’s colleagues did not wish to encourage his type of aggressive leadership. He also speculates about the role of antisemitism in the U.S. Army.
“We have to mention it,” Bolger says. “His peers didn’t know Rose was Jewish. It was different after he was killed in action. The Jewish-American press knew and immediately started writing about it.”
The U.S. Army at the time, Bolger notes, “was not overtly antisemitic, but he certainly would have been treated very differently if Rose had been perceived as Jewish.”
Bolger’s biography restores the achievements of a Jewish general who helped hasten the end of the Third Reich – including by getting his men to cross that bridge. “Rose saw it as doing his job, no big deal about it,” Bolger says. “He said, ‘Anybody check the bridge? No? OK, I’ll go out and do it.’ They followed his example.”
“The Panzer Killers: The Untold Story of a Fighting General and his Spearhead Tank Division’s Charge into the Third Reich,” by Daniel P. Bolger, is published by Dutton Caliber, priced $30.