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This Day in History: A memorable WWII tank battle in Cologne

On this day in 1945, Americans capture the city of Cologne, Germany. The town had already been shattered by years of aerial raids. Now, as World War II was coming to an end, Germans began to flee before the oncoming American tanks.

Yet the commander of one German Panther tank refused to go. Instead, he made a last stand in front of Cologne Cathedral, one of the few buildings to remain mostly intact.

A U.S. soldier stands near the burned out Panther tank. The text on the sign reads: "SIGHT SEERS KEEP OUT! Beyond this point you draw fire on our FIGHTING MEN HE RISKS HIS LIFE 24 HOURS A DAY DO YOU??

The Panther tanks were heavier and tougher than the American Sherman tanks. Indeed, that Panther soon knocked out a pair of M4 Sherman tanks, killing or wounding several of our soldiers.

But Americans had another, newer tank: the Pershing. One crew was nearby and swung into action. Its commanding officer hoped to attack the Panther from a side street before the Germans knew what was coming.

The move was nearly fatal.

Inside the German tank, the crew sensed that something wasn’t right. The tank’s turret was turned so that its muzzle was aimed at the side street. Just then, the Pershing came around the corner.

The Germans had never seen an American tank like the one coming towards them. It wasn’t a Sherman. Was it one of their own? They were confused, and they made a critical error: They hesitated.

Clarence Smoyer was the 21-year-old tank gunner inside the Pershing. He immediately saw the German muzzle aimed at the Americans. Normally, a tank would stop so the gunner could stabilize his gun, but Smoyer didn’t have that kind of time.

He fired on the move, taking everyone off guard.

He’d scored a direct hit, but Smoyer didn’t know that at first. He fired again. But he still wasn’t sure if the Panther was permanently disabled. Would a German use his last dying breath to fire at the Americans? Smoyer fired one last time.

The Pershing crew that fought in Cologne. Clarence Smoyer is top center, without a helmet. Photo by Jim Bates, a First Army Signal Corps photographer attached to the 3rd Armored Division.

Throughout these events, an Army photographer had his movie camera rolling. More than 50 years later, Smoyer finally saw that film.

“[I]t brought chills to my body,” he told an interviewer. “It took me right back to the awful feelings, all the bad stuff . . . . It was a real challenge to watch it, but I did.”

The face-off in front of the cathedral wasn’t the only thing caught on film. Just before the engagement with the Panther, Smoyer had swapped fire with another German tank. A young German woman, Katharina Esser, had been caught in the crossfire and mortally wounded.

Smoyer couldn’t shake his guilt, but a trip to Cologne in 2013 perhaps helped. Once there, he met Gustav Schaefer, one of the German tank gunners.

“It was a big gamble traveling to Cologne just to shake someone’s hand,” Smoyer acknowledged. “I met him at Cologne Cathedral. I told him, ‘The war is over, now we can be friends.’ He said, “Ja. Ja. Gute.” . . . We became like comrades in our three days together.”

It turns out that both men had been living with feelings of guilt. Both thought their shot was the one that killed Esser. “He was firing at me,” Smoyer said. “I was firing at him. She drove through that. We still don’t know which of our bullets hit her.”

Perhaps Esser’s family had the best perspective on it? They later met Smoyer in Cologne and one member was asked if he blamed Smoyer for his great-aunt’s death.

“Yes and no,” he mused. “Is there really responsibility in a war like the Second World War. . . . Is there responsibility for the death of one person? I don’t think so.”

Either way, Smoyer lit a candle for Esser in Cologne Cathedral. He still wanted one thing: “I ask her forgiveness if it was my shot that harmed her.”

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