Photos, Articles, & Research on the European Theater in World War II
You tankers remember the horror of the days of Bastogne and the burning and exploding hulls of your comrades' tanks.
You infantrymen remember your friends who caught it from a bunker in the Siegfried Line, so that you might go on. And you artillerymen know with what courage your buddies lent the support of their weapons to the attack.
You hard-working men of the supply services who forced trucks through icy, traffic-laden roads of the Ardennes, all the way into tank-convoyed lanes in "Indian Country," remember those who paved the way with their lives so that the road could be opened.
The Division dedicates this booklet to those whose lives were lost in keeping the Thunderbolt running.
THE STORY OF THE
Yet, here was the 11th, 500 miles from Lorient, smashing into the enemy's crack 5th and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions, and holding the vital Neufchateau-Bastogne highway. Once again, the speed of American armor had baffled the Germans.
The 11th was assigned to the Lorient Pocket on the day first elements of the division landed at Cherbourg. But that day was Dec. 16, when Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt unleashed his massive counter-offensive in the Ardennes. That scrapped original plans.
Tanks, half-tracks, armored cars, peeps and trucks took off in a dash through the rubbled towns of Normandy, the Seine Valley, northeast through the Argonne to the banks of the Meuse River. Bitter cold, rain and snow made the march a rugged test of armored skill.
On the Meuse, elements of the division were tactically deployed for the first time. Assigned to the river from Givet to Verdun, Combat Command A, commanded by Brig. Gen. Willard A. Holbrook, Jr., was divided into two task forces for patrol activity. All bridges across the river were prepared for demolition in the event Germans broke through.
In the meantime, the sole supply corridor to the embattled Americans in Bastogne was being threatened by German counter- attacks. Again the 11th changed its plans, turned the Meuse River defense over to the 17th Airborne Div., and on Dec. 29 roared 85 miles to an assembly area near Neufchateau.
Without a pause, the division launched into its first action. Attacking abreast, CC A and Col. Wesley W. Yale's CC B jumped off at 0730 next day with the 41st Cav. Recon Sqdn. Within an hour, the drive ran smack into an enemy attack headed for the highway.
The fighting was fierce and bitter. One CC B tank force punched its way into Lavaselle and seized high ground near Brul and Houmont. Despite a heavy artillery barrage that night, all gains were held.
Reserve Command, under Col. Virgil Bell, struck next day, grabbed key terrain southwest of Pinsamont. Pressing on to Acul, CC R doughs were pinned down by heavy enemy artillery and mortar fire.
Twice, in the slugging battle, CC B armored doughs tried to seize the town of Chenogne but each time superior forces drove them off. The third and final assault was launched on New Year's morning. Tanks and artillery laid down massed fire while the infantry followed up. The town was completely secured by noon.
While CC B regrouped, 13 artillery battalions hurled a paralyzing barrage of fire on the heavily defended Bois des Valets. Armored doughs penetrated the thick woods cleaned it out. Seizure of this key point doomed the German effort to cut the supply route.
CC B next caught Mande St. Etienne in a pincers move Jan. 2, 1945, and held it against a powerful counter-attack.
Screened by harassing artillery fire, the division was relieved the next day by the 17th Airborne Div. The Thunderbolt Division - 11th Armored -- had tackled two ace Nazi divisions, punched them back six miles in five freezing days, cleared 30 square miles of rugged terrain, liberated more than a dozen towns and ended the threat to the supply route.
The division suffered heavy casualties in its combat baptism but it had inflicted greater losses on the enemy. After nearly two and a half years of training, the 11th had earned its spurs.
Activated Aug. 15, 1942, at Camp Polk, La., the 11th Armored trained and maneuvered in the Louisiana woods for a year, then moved to Camp Barkeley, Tex. After advanced training, it prepared for overseas duty at Camp Cooke, Calif., undergoing tough desert maneuvers. Arriving in England Nov. 12, Thunderbolts readied for combat with two more months' training on Salisbury Plain. Two weeks after leaving England, the division, under Brig. Gen. Charles S. Killburn, was in the front lines.
THE BIG PINCH
Attacking in column formation along the Longchamps-Bertogne highway northeast of Bastogne, CC A sparked the drive. Massed artillery fire adjusted by liaison planes pulverized an enemy counter-attack. Division engineers quickly breached a mine field that threatened to slow the advance.
Farther east, CC B plunged through Foy and Recogne to Noville where the column was forced to halt before stiffening resistance. By-passing Noville on Jan. 15, CC B seized high wooded ground east of the town. Meanwhile, CC A cleared Pied Du Mont woods, captured 400 enemy prisoners. A sudden counterattack which knocked out nine tanks prevented further gains.
Elements of the 41st Cav. Recon Sqdn., commanded by Lt. Col. Herbert M. Foy, Jr., probed to the northeast in advance of combat commands, seeking contact with First Army patrols. Early Jan. 16 they met troops of First Army's 2nd Armd. Div. at Grinvet, on l'Ourthe River just west of Houffalize. Initial contact was followed by CC A's infantry, which battled artillery and sniper fire, blasted through road blocks. Furiously resisting Germans fired small arms, artillery and rockets at the advancing troops in a vain attempt to drive them out. Div Arty answered with a crushing barrage of 12,000 rounds.
The linkup was secure. Enemy units attempting to withdraw from the huge trap were cut off and mopped up by supporting infantry. The way was paved for an all-out smash at the enemy's touted Siegfried Line.
In the drive for Houffalize, there were numerous examples of heroism. Sgt. (then Cpl.) Wayne E. Van Dyke, Havana, Ill., gunner in Co. B, 41st Tank Bn., earned a Silver Star for his action at Noville. When his tank was knocked out by an 88, he was left in the town with a seriously wounded driver and bow gunner. The tank commander and loader went to the rear to direct other tanks around the town. Van Dyke pulled the driver and bow gunner from the tank, dragged them over to a church wall, played dead while German troops marched through the town.
Van Dyke sprawled on the driver who was suffering from shock. Once, a curious German came over to the apparently lifeless group and looked at the bow gunner's wrist watch but didn't touch him.
After lying in this position for two hours, Van Dyke brought the two men into the church and placed the driver, who was unable to go farther, near the altar. Having given him first aid, Van Dyke and the bow gunner crawled back to their lines. The driver, in the meantime, was treated by a German medic and next day was rescued by his own men when they pushed into the town.
Another Co. B, 41st tanker, T/5 (then Pfc) Herbert Burr, Kansas City, Mo., found himself the only one of his crew able to carry on after two 88 hits knocked out his tank just outside of Houffalize. With the tank commander and gunner dead, the loader wounded, driver evacuated, the turret burning, Burr remained in the assistant driver's seat and fired his machine gun at the enemy shielded by a haystack. After knocking out the crew, Burr pulled the wounded loader from the burning tank, crawled 200 yards through snow back to the CP, dragging his helpless buddy. Then he crept back to the tank, extinguished the fire and drove it back. Burr was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Capt. John F. Maggesin, Aurora, Ill., 42nd Tank Bn., won a Silver Star for leading his company against a counter-attack after his own tank was knocked out. Capt. Maggesin directed the assault from atop his tank, then rescued two wounded men under fire.
Alone in a tank hit by enemy fire, Lt. William J. Kieffer, Rockford, Ill., an artillery observer, directed effective fire on anti-tank guns by radio. Lt. Kieffer also was awarded a Silver Star.
At the edge of the line, CC R pulled a fast one. The Germans were expecting an armored frontal attack with the usual heavy artillery preparation. Instead, the command jumped off before dawn without artillery.
The surprise was complete. When dawn came, Nazis manning the bunkers and pillboxes found themselves surrounded -- all their carefully plotted interlocking fields of fire outflanked and three towns taken.
Later, when CC R struck the main defenses of the Line the job had to be done the usual way. With heavy artillery preparation, the 63rd and 55th Armd. Inf. Bns. jumped off Feb 6 from high ground overlooking the Line near Lutzkampen. Progress was slow as armored doughs cut their way through the barbed wire and mine fields. Lutzkampen fell the next day. Positions then were consolidated and preparations made for the last lunge against the Line.
The final assault began Feb. 17, CC R, following up a tremendous artillery barrage, stabbed two kilometers through the main defenses to seize Grosskempenberg. The desperate, stubborn enemy used every weapon available to halt the drive but Thunderbolt doughs pressed on to wrest two more kilometers the following day. Roscheid, key point in the center of the line, fell by
Blasting pathways through the dragon's teeth, clearing menacing mine fields and booby traps, the 56th Armd. Engr. Bn. commanded by Lt. Col. Andrew V. Inge, opened the hole for the tanks and half-tracks which followed almost immediately.
North and northwest of Roscheid, an area three miles wide and two miles deep was breached. During the costly operation, 197 bunkers and pillboxes were crushed, 432 prisoners taken and approximately 400 Germans killed.
The 11th was now in open terrain, but soft, sticky ooze replaced the frozen ground that the hard-driving Thunderbolt tanks had encountered. While plans were perfected for the next drive, tankers and doughs took an earned respite.
NEXT STOP THE RHINE
Maneuvering freely, the tanks swept across the favorable terrain, backed up by punishing massed fire from artillery and TDs. Close behind, half-tracks brought up supporting infantry. At the end of the day, CC B had advanced four miles, seized Fleringen.
In the meantime, CC A joined the attack, drove on Wascheid while the 56th Engineers cleared extensive mine fields.
Resistance began to crumble under the trip-hammer blows of the 11th. Wallersheim and Budesheim fell to CC B after five enemy tanks and six 88s were knocked out. Seizing Scheuern, Kalenborn and Roth, CC B raced on, reaching the Kyll River at Ober Bettingen and Nieder Bettingen March 4. A bridgehead was swiftly established and under terrific fire from enemy forces dug in on the opposite bank, the engineers began construction of a treadway bridge.
At Gerolstein, reached by the 90th Inf. Div., CC A crossed the Kyll on a captured span. Abandoning its bridging operations at Nieder Bettingen, CC B swung south to cross the Kyll behind CC A.
The Kyll crossing broke the Wehrmacht's back in the 11th's sector. Fighting only delaying actions at roadblocks, mine fields and blown bridges, the enemy retreated to the east. CC A smashed to the outskirts of Kelberg, seized the town on the night of March 7 despite anti-tank, mortar and rocket fire. Six enemy tanks were destroyed.
Driving through Mayen to Andernach on the Rhine, CC A cut the confused Nazi columns to ribbons. Simultaneously, CC B struck northeast from Kelberg through Mullenbach and Kempenich to the Rhineland town of Brohl. Both Andernach and Brohl fell March 9: Thunderbolt units rolled north along the Rhine to meet First Army forces and snap shut a steel trap on six enemy divisions.
It was in Andernach that a lesson learned 25 years ago by two 11th commanders paid off. Two cavalry officers in the American Army of Occupation after World War I studied the Andernach sector during maneuvers held along the Rhine. On many of the maneuvers Capt. Virgil Bell, Columbus, Ga., was involved in the defense of the town while 2nd Lt. Willard Holbrook, Washington, D.C., took part in the attack.
When the Thunderbolt division seized Andernach, Brig. Gen. Holbrook led CC A into the town. Col. Bell commanded CC R.
Results of the drive included the capture of dozens of towns, 10,663 prisoners, including the CG of the 277th Volksgrenadier Div. and his staff. Credit for the capture of the Nazi major general went to S/Sgt. Carlton E. Cassidy, Clayton, N.J., who was on a foot reconnaissance mission. Passing a cafe in a small German village, Cassidy signaled his squad to stand by while he went in to investigate.
Armed with a .45 pistol, he pushed open the door and bumped into two Wehrmacht soldiers emerging from the cellar. They immediately threw up their hands and asked if they could go downstairs and bring up their comrades. The "comrades" turned out to be the general and his complete staff, consisting of 24 officers.
Swinging south, the 11th took off March 17 in Third Army's drive to clean out the Saar-Moselle-Rhine pocket. Under command of Maj. Gen. (then Brig. Gen.) Holmes E. Dager, the Thunderbolt division spanned the Moselle in the Kobern-Winningen area as part of XII Corps.
Light resistance met CC R as it swept through Altlay, Lauzenhausen, Buchenbeuren, Rhaunen and Sulzbach. Attacking in the afternoon, CC A tore through Kappel toward Kirchberg. In a closely coordinated air-ground strike, the division raced ahead 30 kilometers the following day, adding Kirchberg and Gehweiler to the lengthening string of towns taken.
At Kirn there was scattered resistance; bridges were blown over the Nahe River, but the attack rolled through Marxheim and Meisenheim. Enemy bazookas, AT guns and infantry held up the advance at Meisenheim, but they soon were overcome by dismounted infantry. Five thousand Germans were captured March 19 alone.
Teaming up for the final blow, CC A and CC B smashed to within a few kilometers of the ancient Rhineland city of Worms. After contacting the 4th Armd. Div., CC A wheeled to the north, began mopping up remnants of German resistance on the morning of the 21st. Thrusting southward, CC B met determined opposition at an airfield on the outskirts of Worms, crushed it in one hour.
Another Thunderbolt mission was accomplished. In a 50-hour, 75-mile dash,
THE SPRINT BEGINS
By-passing Gelnhausen, CC A sped on to converge with CC B on Fulda, key communications center, March 31. While CC B blasted the town, supporting infantry rushed up from the rear, moved in and cleaned out the defenders.
The division changed its course sharply April 1. Nazi big shots, fleeing from Berlin in the face of the Red Army threat to the capital, were reported to have moved to the vicinity of Arnstadt and Kranichfeld, due east of Fulda.
Hitler himself was said to be in the group. The division plunged into the Thuringian Forest, headed for the towns of Oberhof and Suhl.
Taking parallel routes, CC A and CC B spurted 30 miles beyond Fulda to the Werra River near Meiningen. At Grimmenthal, the division liberated 400 Allied prisoners. Suhl, one of the two objectives in the lightning drive, was reached by CC A April 3, but it took a day's stiff fighting to clear the town of stubborn Volkssturm troops.
Despite a delay at the Werra because of a blown bridge, CC B reached Oberhof the afternoon of April 3, met strong resistance which was knocked out by heavy artillery bombardment. The town was secured the following morning.
While the two columns drove to the Werra, CC R swept from Steinbach Hallenberg to seize Zella Mehlis, home of the famed Walther small arms plants. Here, the 22nd Tank Bn. captured one of the largest concentrations of pistols, rifles and automatic weapons in Germany.
Said 1st/Sgt. Daniel H. Boone, Naples, Tex., Co. B, 22nd: "I feel like I'm sitting on the vault at Fort Knox, Ky., where they keep all the gold. And, on the other hand, I'm so sick of looking at German pistols that I never want to see another."
The two combat commands, CC A and CC B, drove on in parallel columns. Themar, Scheusingen and Hildburghausen fell in rapid succession to CC A, while CC B knocked out Zeilfeld. Resistance was expected in Coburg where the two columns were to converge but the garrison at Coburg Castle, on the outskirts of the city, surrendered after its officers deserted. When the columns entered the city April 10 they found the civilians removing the roadblocks and white flags flying from the windows.
Striking swiftly on the 12th, CC A swung to the northeast to take Kronach, and the next day entered Kulmbach where light small arms fire was encountered. While part of the command was clearing out the town, other elements sped on, to occupy Stadt Steinach and Unter Steinach. In this drive .two 240mm railway guns were captured intact as well as an experimental electronics laboratory specializing in ultra-high frequency radio which had been moved from Berlin only a few days before.
Thunderbolt tankers also ran up against a group of teenage youngsters, some of whom were only 13 years old. The youths had been given uniforms a few days previous to the Americans' approach and had been ordered to leave the town. Homesick, hungry and tired, they were picked up while carrying white flags by an MP detachment under Maj. Ernest L. Booch, Quincy, Ill., and returned to their homes.
Meanwhile, CC B swung to the south, captured Mainleus. Then, a flying column of the 41st Cav. Recon Sqdn. Raced to Bayreuth, 20 miles away. Reaching the outskirts of the historic Bavarian city, famed for its Wagnerian music festivals, negotiations began for its surrender,
The defenders were given three hours to give up. Shortly before the time expired, the town was reported clear except for some fanatics. To meet possible resistance, tanks and infantry rushed into the city which fell with little trouble. Later in the day, elements of the 71st Inf. Div. moved in, and the 11th pulled out to an assembly area north of the city.
Two tank men, Pfc Al Houska, Portland, Ore., and Pfc Chester Gajda. Detroit, Mich., captured five Germans on a hilltop overlooking Bayreuth. The two tankers headed for a plowed corner of a field to dig foxholes in the soft ground. Just inside the fence, in high grass, they found the Germans, armed with bazookas. The Nazis, overawed by the armored vehicles in the vicinity, threw down their arms and surrendered.
Jumping off again April 19, the 11th captured the Wehrmacht training center of Grafenwohr. The town was the combined Fort Knox and Fort Sill of the Germany Army, the birthplace of German panzer tactics. American tankers tested the terrain, found it like Louisiana.
The largest chemical warfare supply dump in Germany also was captured, with an estimated 3,000,000 rounds of chemical artillery shells and thousands of gas mines.
The Thunderbolt drove on. Leading elements liberated 1722 Allied prisoners at Weiden
Men of the 11th had a first-hand glimpse of SS atrocities in their drive to the Danube. Hundreds of bodies of political prisoners lay along the route of march, which led from the Flossenburg concentration camp. The SS had marched the prisoners out of the camp and killed those who could not keep up. On the way, tankmen liberated thousands of undernourished Allied prisoners of war.
Reaching the Regen River April 24, the rapid advance was halted by a blown bridge at the village of Regen. Dismounted infantry from CC B crossed the stream and seized the town after a short but sharp struggle. That night the 56th Engineers threw a treadway bridge across the river and the column resumed its advance next morning.
Smashing ahead, CC A swept through Grafenau, overtaking the Japanese legation of 37 men, women and children fleeing to Vienna by rail. Freyung fell to CC A on the morning of April 26 while CC B swung south of the city, and early that night the advance elements of CC A crossed the Austrian border.
As the main bodies of the division moved up and consolidated their positions in the next four days, heavy resistance developed at the border town of Wegscheid. Small arms, mortar, anti-tank and artillery fire burst from the town itself and surrounding woods. Div Arty moved up, amid a devastating barrage. Infantry closed in from the east and north, gained the summit of a series of hills overlooking the town, and on the night of April 30, stormed into the town and cleared it.
The end of April found the fast-stepping 11th Armored the easternmost division in the American Army, 250 miles from Fulda and with a record bag of prisoners. In the swift onslaught the Thunderbolt had liberated more than 3000 Allied PWs and hundreds of German political prisoners. As the end of the war neared, the 11th was poised for the last strike into Austria.
THE LAST BORDER
Wrote Russell W. Davenport in the New York Post:
There is no doubt in my mind that the most important "secret weapon" of this war is the tremendous driving power of the Americans. These boys of Gen. Dager's 11th Armored have never been in reserve for more than a few days at a time since they landed at Cherbourg last December. According to the speedometer of one of the original headquarters half-tracks, they have traveled 1599 miles. Those are not merely road miles; they are combat miles.
After two days of bitter fighting along the approaches to the key Austrian city, the 11th entered Linz May 5 through Urfahr, a neighboring city across the Danube River. Leading citizens of the two cities attempted to negotiate a conditional surrender by which German soldiers could be allowed to withdraw and fight the Red Army approaching from the east. Brig. Gen. Holbrook rejected the offer, ordered his troops to enter Urfahr and Linz.
Despite rejection of the German's terms, the 11th found Linz undamaged and not a shot was fired in defense. The tankers, accustomed to the stony silence of German civilians, were amazed by the Austrian welcome. Women and children showered their vehicles with flowers. Housewives brought out pitchers of cider and bottles of wine.
The liberation of tattered, starved-looking laborers, mainly Russians, Poles and Yugoslavs, resulted in dancing in the streets.
Relieved by the 65th Inf. Div., the 11th pushed out of Linz. Advancing down the Danube, a reconnaissance patrol uncovered two notorious concentration camps at Mauthausen and Gusen. Here were 16,000 political prisoners, representing every country in Europe, all reduced to living skeletons and ridden with disease. The bodies of more than 500 were stacked in an area between two barracks. The few long-term prisoners still alive said that at least 45,000 bodies had been burned in the huge crematorium in four years. Other thousands were killed in the gas chambers, injected with poison or beaten to death.
The 11th rushed all available medical facilities to Mauthausen to prevent further loss of life while cavalry patrols probed eastward, seeking contact with the Red Army advancing westward from Vienna. At 1550, May 8, Troop A, 41st, commanded by Lt. Kedar B. Collins, Albany, Ca., met a patrol of the Soviet Seventh Guards Div., first unit of Third Army to link up with the Red Army.
The meeting took place in the midst of battle. The Soviet patrol of seven tanks was following the trail of its planes strafing and bombing a German column of SS Panzer troops. In the face of the Soviet advance, the American patrol, consisting of an armored car and three peeps, was almost taken under fire.
Sgt. John L. Brady, riding in the lead peep, leaped up and shouted: "We are Americans!" Lt. Gene Ellenson, Coral Cables, Fla., and Lt. Richard L. Lucas, Mt. Carmel, Ill., shot up flares to identify their nationality. The Red Army troops replied with their flares and jumped out to join the Americans. First Yank to meet the Soviet patrol was T/4 Frank H. Johnson, Reno, Nev., who was greeted by Lt. Fyodor A. Kiseyev.
T/Sgt, Clarence L. Barts, Chicago, at the time of the meeting, was mistaken for a German. The Red Army soldiers demanded his pistol. When they learned he was an American, they hugged and kissed him.
Others who took part in the historic junction of the victorious armies were Cpl. Theodore Barton, Brisbane, Australia, a released PW who acted as interpreter; Pfc Robert P. Vanderhagen, E. Detroit, Mich.; T/Sgt. Joseph P. McTighe, Louisville, Ky.; Cpl. Will Richmond, Trenton, N.J.; Pfc Michael Tancrati, Springfield, Mass.; Sgt. Marvin H. Estes, Montrose, Colo.; T/5 Andrew Florey, Medford, Ore.
Later that day, commanders of three German military units offered to surrender unconditionally to the division. These were the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, with 50,000 troops; the 8th German Army, strength 100,000; the Russian Forces of Liberation, a Nazi-sponsored army, 100,000 strong. All were told to remain in place.
Following the surrender, men of the Thunderbolt Division could take stock of their achievements. They had captured 76,229 prisoners, nearly twice as many as were taken by the entire American Army in World War I. The figure did not include 10,000 prisoners turned over to supporting infantry divisions for evacuation or 34,125 German troops who violated surrender terms by fleeing from the Red Army. These troops were rounded up and turned over to the Soviet forces.
The 11th had swept across Germany in one of the swiftest advances in military history, captured hundreds of cities and towns, destroyed a good part of the German forces and liberated thousands of Allied prisoners and slave laborers.
To accomplish its mission, the 11th functioned as a smooth-working, hard-striking team. Besides the armored infantry and tank battalions, the 183rd FA Gp. and attached units played an important role. Troops such as the 575th AA Bn., 705th, 602nd and 811th TD Bns., 991st Engr. Trdwy Br. Co., and 996th Engr. Trdwy Br. Co. helped in beating the Germans into submission. In many of the battles the 11th had the support of the XIX TAC.
Men of the 81st Medic Bn. worked tirelessly, treating and evacuating casualties swiftly and efficiently. Vehicles and weapons were kept in fighting trim under all conditions of weather and terrain by the 133rd Ord. Bn. Truck drivers of the 381st QM Trk Co., and 659th QM Truck Co., not only delivered over ever-lengthening lines but on one occasion dismounted and fought with the infantry. Wire men, radio operators and messengers came in for their share of praise also.
It was a team that adapted itself smoothly to ever-changing conditions under the control of the division staff, a team that met and defeated the best the enemy could throw against it. The 11th Armored accomplished every mission, made a combat record in which every Thunderbolt soldier could take genuine pride.