The setting in a novel can provide a unique location for events to unfold. Some authors use real places and real historic landmarks in their books. I recently read “At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen and she used Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness as her setting. Other authors create completely fictional locations to suit their needs. And some create fictitious locations based on actual places. This is what I did in my novel, Kitty’s War.
While doing research for Kitty’s War, I needed a fictional location for the 8th Air Force Second Combat Bombardment Wing Headquarters where the main characters got together. I knew that during WWII the English took over large country houses and estates for use by the military and some of these were assigned to the growing American forces. These estates were ideal for the Air Force because they provided enough space for construction of air fields and temporary buildings for housing and other needs. The large homes were perfect for headquarters.
My image of an English country house was something like Highclere Castle used for the setting of Downton Abbey. I couldn’t use that one so I went in search of houses that were actually used by the military. That’s how I found Elveden Hall. It had a fascinating history including that it had been owned by Maharaja Duleep Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire, during his exile in England. While living there he completely redesigned the interiors of the house to resemble the Moghal palaces in India.
During WWII Elveden Hall served as headquarters for the 3rd Bomb Division, also known as the 3rd Air Division. That made it perfect for my purpose. I made changes so that it is more a fictional location that a real one, such as adding a hospital and air field which were not actually on the grounds and changing the name to Ellingham Castle . For more information about the US Air Force in England during WWII, including a picture of a Women’s Army Corps corporal working at Elveden Hall, follow this link.
I have not been the only one who thought Elveden Hall would make an interesting setting. Several movies have been shot there including “Eyes Wide Shut” where director Stanley Kubrick used the interiors to create a unique atmosphere. This YouTube video of one scene shot there will give you an idea of the interior of this unique house.
When Hitler declared war on the United States, U-boat captains delighted in the opportunity to hunt along the east coast of America. They had roamed the coast of Europe, stalked the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic and guarded the entrance to the Mediterranean. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany declared war on the U.S. Before these momentous events there had been tension and confrontations between German U-boats and American ships as they assisted the English and Canadians in escorting ships transporting goods across the North Atlantic. When war was declared, the U-boats headed for the east coast of the U.S. where they found easy pickings in unarmed and unescorted American merchant ships. The Germans called it “Operation Drumbeat.”
Shipping along the east coast from Maine to Florida, as well as along the Gulf coast, became targets. Along the eastern seaboard One hundred and twenty-one (121) merchant ships were either sunk or damaged during 1942 alone. Why were they such easy targets?
The merchant marine vessels had no protection. They were unarmed and they had no military escorts. Although the war in Europe had been raging since 1939 and the German U-boats had been attacking ships in the Atlantic headed for England, the United States was woefully unprepared to protect vital shipping along her coast line. Also early in the war the United States did not have strict black-out rules. It took a while for many areas to realize that light from the shore endangered ships at sea. German U-boats could target ships at night by tracking the vessel’s silhouette against the light from the shore.
Imagine standing on the shore and watching a ship burning after it had been hit by torpedoes. That’s what happened along the shores of Florida in early 1942. Read an interesting interview with German U-boat Captain Hardegan where he tells of sinking a tanker off the coast of Jacksonville in April 1942. He saw the ship against the lights from the beach and after it was hit he said he could see the people on shore watching it burn.
We don’t often think about the number of ships and the number of lives lost by the Merchant Marines. Their task was vital and their losses were higher than other military branches. But they weren’t technically military despite their critical role in transporting all kinds of materials.
Something had to be done to stop the loss of life and vital cargoes. Initially the focus had been on protecting the west coast, but it didn’t take long to recognize the threat of the German U-boats along the eastern seaboard. The Navy and the Coast Guard increased patrols searching for the U-boats by sea. The Army Air Corps flew patrols along the coast and the Civil Air Patrol was established to fly additional patrols searching for the enemy.
Meanwhile, shippers had to find a way to safely transport vital cargo including shipments of oil. They turned to transport through the intracoastal waterway. This protected route utilized existing rivers, waterways and canals to ship a variety of cargo in barges. Improvements to depth and width of this waterway enabled larger vessels to pass through this route.
The Navy organized escorted convoys of merchant ships traveling along the east coast. That, combined with increased Air Corp bomber activity, reduced the number of ships sunk. By 1943 fewer merchant vessels went down and numerous U-boats were sunk off the eastern coast of the United States.
The remains of sunken merchant ships and German U-boats can be found all along the east coast. See this article and photographs about ship wrecks off the coast of North Carolina.
In my novel, Kitty’s War, the hero floats toward shore in a raft after his merchant ship was sunk off the east coast. Stories of this little known part of the war inspired the opening of my novel where the hero and heroine meet for the first time. You can purchase Kitty’s War on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, iTunes, Kobo and The Wild Rose Press.
With this post I will finish my series of posts on the exploits of the 30th Infantry Division during World War II. I have been distracted by other events in my life (like selling my first novel). Nevertheless, I need to bring their story to a conclusion and, in doing so, tell of some interesting occurrences during the last days of the war.
After crossing the Rhine River on March 24, 1945, the 30th pushed into the heart of Germany. By the 28th, the 8th Armored Division passed through their lines and the mission of the 30th was to follow behind and mop up. After Dorsten fell on March 29, XIX Corps took command of the 30th. By April 1, Old Hickory was reassigned to following the 2nd Armored Division on a long road march eastward towards Berlin. Before them lay the Teutoberger Wald, the place where the Germanic tribal chief, Hermann, defeated the Roman legions of Varus in 9 AD. The 2nd Armored Division left the Autobahn, which veered north at this point, and crossed the long ridge of the Teutoberger Wald with the assistance of the 30th. A German Officers Training School aided regular troops to resist the Americans in the rough, steep, heavily forested terrain. They tried to take a stand on Monument Hill, the site of the Hermannsdenkmal (the statue commemorating famous battle), but Old Hickory defeated them.
On April 7th the 117th Regiment cleared Hamelin minus K Company who had been left behind to guard an Allied Prisoner of War camp. During the advance the 30th took over an assortment of installations, including airports, hospitals, training camps and German research facilities. All had to be guarded in addition to the thousands of German prisoners. Feeding the prisoners, freed POWs and slave laborers fell to the military which was unprepared to care for such numbers.
The 30th’s next objective was Brunswick. The German commander, General Veith, called for a truce to negotiate a surrender of the city, but after a meeting with General Hobbs, Commander of the 30th, the Germans refused the terms of “unconditional surrender.” The conference was only a delaying tactic to allow the German Army to escape. Fighting resumed almost immediately with the 117th Regiment attacking and the 120th moving into position to block escape from the city. By April 12 the 3rd Battalion of the 117th remained to mop up Brunswick while the remainder of the 117th along with the 120th pushed eastward toward the Elbe River. (The 119th was attached to the 2nd Armored Division at this time.)
After Brunswick fell, the 743rd Tank Battalion and infantry from the 119th Regiment were proceeding toward Magdeburg when they passed through the town of Farsleben. Lead elements found a long freight train stopped on the track. The Nazi guards attempted to flee from the Americans but were captured. The train had a full head of steam and was awaiting orders when the Americans showed up. It didn’t take long to determine that the old freight cars contained 2,500 Jewish prisoners who were being moved from Bergen-Belsen prison camp to some unknown location in the east. Problem was that the Russians were advancing from the east. The bridge over the Elbe had been destroyed and at one point the Nazis ordered the crew to drive the train into the river which would have killed all aboard. Shocked by their discovery the Americans could scarcely believe the condition of the prisoners. Frank Towers tells the story of the liberation of the train and the following events in a section of the book “The Fighting 30th Division – They Called Them Roosevelt’s SS” by Martin King, David Hilborn and Michael Collins. You can also watch and listen to Frank Tower’s account of the incident in an interview by University of Florida oral history program on YouTube.
Although the 30th Infantry Division had been issued maps through to Berlin, the order came down that they were to take Magdeburg and stop on the banks of the Elbe River. The Russians would proceed from the east and the two allies would meet at the Elbe. Many in the 30th were disappointed at not getting to push on into Berlin.
Magdeburg appeared an easy task. There were hopes of a surrender but when men went in to discuss it with the German commander they found him either unwilling or unable to surrender the city. Before the attack by both the 30th Infantry Division and the 2nd Armored Division, bombers unloaded on the already damaged city. Within twenty-four hours Magdeburg was cleared. It was April 18, 1945.
With orders to hold at the Elbe, Old Hickory’s fighting in Europe came to an end. While they waited for the Red Army and the German surrender, which finally came on May 8, 1945, the 30th occupied the area and took 7,468 prisoners. Some crossed the river to escape being captured by the Russians. All along the line the large numbers of surrendering German soldiers became a burden on the Allies to feed and house. In addition, there were thousands of freed slave laborers and liberated prisoner of war camps to deal with. Contact with the Russians came on May 4th.
Old Hickory moved south from Magdeburg to Thuringia and assumed occupation duty after the surrender. Near the end of June, the 30th learned they had been chosen for redeployment to the Pacific Theater. Their orders would carry them home, to the United States, to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Those individuals with enough points to be discharged were transferred primarily to the 76th Infantry Division with lower point individuals from the 76th moving into the 30th to replenish its ranks. These transfers due to points often explain why a veteran’s discharge papers show him in a different division from the one he fought with.
In July, the 30th moved across Europe to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Havre, France. The bulk of the division crossed the channel to England to await shipment to the U.S. That’s where they got the news that Japan had surrendered August 15, 1945. The 119th Regiment had sailed from France on August 12 so they were at sea when word came. All the men of Old Hickory let out a sigh of relief. Their fight was over. On Aug. 16th the division boarded the Queen Mary and sailed for home where the 30th Infantry Division was deactivated on November 25, 1945. The 30th Infantry Division left a glorious record of bravery, hard fighting and sacrifice in which we can all take pride.
Several people have contacted me asking how to get information about a family member who served in the military in World War II. I do not profess to be an expert on researching individual veteran’s records but since I have done some research I can provide a little guidance.
I have been immensely fortunate that I have records directly from the veteran for my most immediate family members who served in WWII. I have a copy of my father’s discharge paper and a box of letters he wrote to my mother during the war. We have my father-in-law’s copy of his unit history from the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. These histories were published right after the war and I have learned that they are both rare and valuable. The family also has his discharge paper. These can be very helpful as a starting place in searching for records.
On the other hand, last year when I was searching for information about my father’s cousin, Herman Connell Jr., who was killed in Europe in 1945, I found out just how difficult it was when you had very little specific information about the soldier. All I had was his name and the unit he served in which was on his gravestone. I was able to compile a story about his unit and the action they were in at the date of his death but I couldn’t get any specific information about his individual experiences.
The inquiries I received prompted me to look for some guide to searching for records. What I found was an excellent book which contains an enormous amount of information. “Finding Your Father’s War” by Jonathan Gawne is a must-have book for anyone looking for information on someone who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. I would even go so far as to say that it is a must-have book for anyone writing about World War II. It deals with the Army only, no Navy or Marines. It does include information about the Army Air Corp since during WWII the fly boys were part of the Army. It wasn’t until after the war that the Air Force became its own branch of the service.
One of the main reasons Gawne focused on the Army was that a fire in 1973 destroyed much of the individual service records as well as the company level records. The Navy, Marine and Coast Guard records were not burned and are available through those branches.
Some things discussed in “Finding Your Father’s War” I had already figured out from various sources. If I’d had this book it would have been so much easier and faster. There are other useful tidbits in Gawne’s book that I did not know. If you are trying to put together the pieces of someone’s military service these little details can yield a wealth of understanding.
I’ll give you some examples just to give you a feel for what I am talking about.
One of the things that I had already figured out from the many memoirs I’ve read was the structure of an Army Infantry Division. Each division had three infantry regiments thus it is referred to as a triangular organization. A division also had division artillery and division headquarters where all the support units were attached. Continuing with the triangular organization each infantry regiment was divided into three battalions plus headquarters. Although each infantry regiment had a unique number (the 30th Infantry Division consisted of the 117th, 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments), the battalions were simply numbered 1st, 2nd and 3rd (so the 117th Infantry Regiment had a 1st Battalion, a 2nd Battalion and a 3rd Battalion plus Headquarters). Each Battalion was made up of three rifle companies and a heavy weapons company. A letter designated each company but the letter designation wasn’t the same in each battalion. Instead it went like this: 1st Battalion consisted of Company A, Company B, Company C and Company D, the last being the heavy weapons company; 2nd Battalion consisted of Company E, Company F, Company G and Company H, again with the fourth one being heavy weapons; 3rd Battalion consisted of Company I, Company K, Company L and Company M, again Company M was heavy weapons and the letter J was skipped. So if you know your Army veteran was in Company H, he would have been in the heavy weapons company of the 2nd Battalion. This can be helpful since many historical accounts of battles refer to the battalion.
Something I learned from “Finding Your Father’s War” is that the soldier’s serial number isn’t just a random number assigned when he entered the service. The number will tell you something about the soldier. Serial numbers with no letter prefix means the soldier was an enlisted man. The prefix “O” indicates he was an officer. Others with letter prefixes included nurses, warrant officers, WAC’s and others. If the first number was a “1” the soldier was an enlistee. If it was a “2,” he was in the National Guard. A “3” meant he was drafted. Late in the war some draftees were given serial numbers starting with a “4.” The second digit in the serial number tells the geographic region of the country the soldier was in when he entered the service. These numbers correspond to the service commands within the United States. A map is included in the book.
In addition to this book there are numerous resources online that can help you. The National Archives, the Center for Military History, division organizations websites and Facebook pages, and even sites like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. Local historic societies and local newspapers may be a source since many servicemen had articles written about them during the war. Family stories and even old pictures can provide clues especially if you know what to look for.
Good luck in searching for your WWII veteran’s records. It is always fascinating to learn about an individual’s service during the war when millions were in uniform and had such a variety of experiences.
By the end of January 1945 the Allies had fought their way back to the positions they occupied before the Battle of the Bulge. Six weeks of fighting in the worst winter many had ever seen where the weather was as much of an enemy as the Germans. The 30th Division assembled near Liernieux, just west of St. Vith, Belgium, where they had been sent to recover from both the cold and the battle casualties. Rumors abounded about what would come next. Would they tackle the Sigfried Line again? Or was something else in store?
After months of fighting the 30th had become a well-oiled fighting machine. Experienced officers and non-coms knew how to plan an attack and how to carry it out. With replacements coming up they knew how to train and quickly assimilate them in with the more experienced soldiers. So it was no surprise when they were reassigned to the Ninth Army and trucked north to take part in clearing out the section of the Rhine valley facing the industrial center in the Ruhr valley.
Returning to the Aachen area and the flat lands of the Cologne plain, Old Hickory received a tough assignment – a treacherous stretch of the Roer River between Julich and Duren, due west from Cologne. The Germans flooded the river by blowing up the control sluices on one of the dams upstream so the Roer crossing, originally planned for February 10, was delayed. Knee deep water covered the lowlands on either bank of the Roer. Like the previous fall when Old Hickory sat facing the Sigfreid Line for two weeks, now they faced the Roer waiting for it to subside. They again used the time for training the men, for reconnaissance and planning. But this time the attack would be across a river rather than against the pillboxes of the Siegfried line.
When they left the Ardennes, the 30th Division along with the entire Ninth Army traveled in secret. They removed shoulder patches and vehicular markings. They assigned code names to roads and telephone exchanges. All to keep the Germans from knowing the Allies exact plans. Although Axis Sally spoke of the 30th returning to the Aachen area, the tactic worked. For once the Germans lost track of Old Hickory.
Waiting for the river to subside didn’t mean the division was without casualties. German artillery pounded the western bank and the Luffwaffe flew regular missions including the first sightings by 30th Division men of German jet-propelled aircraft. Edward C. Arn, in his memoir “Arn’s War,” tells of being wounded by artillery fire while reconnoitering one of his platoon’s positions near the Roer.
Before the 30th finally crossed the Roer on February 23, 1945, the biggest artillery barrage in Europe up to that date pounded the Germans on the Eastern shore. The 30th’s assigned 8,000 yards of front received fire from the Division Artillery, plus three 18-piece battalions of 2nd Armored Division’s self-propelled artillery, the 823rd Tank Destroyer’s 36 guns and guns from Corp and Army battalions totaling 246 guns firing. Wow!
While part of the 234th Engineer Combat Battalion ferried men across in Alligators, armored amphibious vehicles, and in assault boats, other engineers struggled to build a footbridge across the Roer, all under the cover of a smoke screen provided by the 82nd Smoke Generator Company. On the far shore the 30th faced little resistance, thanks to the artillery, and quickly accomplished their assigned tasks.
Meanwhile the intrepid engineers completed a treadway bridge in just twenty-one and a half hours allowing tanks and trucks to cross the river. In the next few days Old Hickory took town after town as they moved ever closer to the greatest obstacle between the Allies and the heart of Germany – the Rhine River.
On March 6, 1945, the 30th Division returned to Maas, Netherlands, to prepare for their next assignment – spearheading the Ninth Army’s attack across the Rhine. Again preparation made all the difference.
It was March 24, 1944, when all three regiments of the 30th crossed the great river at the same time along a five mile stretch from south of Wesel to Mehrum. Naval assault boats ferried, tanks, tank destroyers and infantry men continuously across the great river. That’s right – the U.S. Navy hauled boats inland for this vital operation.
Engineers constructed a pontoon bridge for the tanks and other vehicles in record time again under cover of a smoke screen.
The 117th history says the First Battalion of that regiment went first with the Third Battalion carrying the stormboats to the river’s edge so the assault troops would be fresh. It was 2:00 AM on March 24th. With little resistance by midnight the 117th had reached their assigned positions and moved on toward the next town.
For the first few hours after the crossing Old Hickory encountered only light German resistance. Then the 116th Panzer Division moved into their path. One of only two German mobile divisions available, the 116th focused on holding back the 30th while the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division spread out facing the British and Canadians further north. The enemy’s backhanded compliment to the 30th Division wasn’t appreciated by the men on the line.
The 30th doggedly fought their way eastward against armor and anti-aircraft guns lowered to fire at ground troops. After days of continuous fighting fatigue added to the stubborn enemy resistance to slow down Old Hickory. Plans for the 8th Armored Division to pass through the 30th and take on the fight called for the 30th to advance far enough to allow the armor to take over in open country. Old Hickory’s boys fought on taking Gahlen in street fighting against determined resistance. Finally on the morning of March 28, 1945, the 8th Armored Division came forward and took over the fight. Nearly 100 hours after their assault across the Rhine, Old Hickory finally got some much needed rest.
The 30th Division wasn’t through fighting. It would be over a month before Germany finally surrendered. Even at this late date, more would die before the war was over.
I’m a writer. So when I read a memoir or a historical account I’m always looking for something I can use in my writing. Sometimes it’s a story idea. Sometimes it’s how the person reacts to the situation. Sometimes it’s how two people meet. And sometimes it’s very specific details of the combat experience that can be used to recreate a realistic combat scene in a story.
In reading Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald I discovered incredibly rich detail about his combat experience. In addition to detailed descriptions of terrain, weather and military procedures, MacDonald relayed his feelings during each episode, not just saying “I was frightened,” but saying “My body began to shake uncontrollably. My voice trembled despite my efforts to control it.” These realistic and vivid descriptions are all through the book.
Captain MacDonald joined I Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division in September, 1944, as a replacement Company Commander just after they had captured Brest on the French coast. Almost immediately they were loaded in French forty-and-eight freight cars and transported across France to Longuyon. From there they convoyed by truck to Belgium where they relieved elements of the 28th Division along the Siegfried Line near St.Vith. Along the way MacDonald got to know his more experienced men, both his platoon leaders and the men who would man his Command Post, and worried about gaining their acceptance.
MacDonald describes the procedure of taking over the positions including the guides assigned to walk them to their positions, the discussion with the Company Commander he was relieving, and an account of the defensive positions themselves. My writer’s eye marveled at the detailed description of the interior of the pillbox used as their command post, at the explanations of the deployment of his men, at his impressions of how the combat veterans accepted their new, twenty-two-year-old, inexperienced captain who felt so insecure in his first combat experience. Then later, during German attacks, he describes the process of communicating with the battalion to call in artillery fire to protect the riflemen in forward foxholes and the problems with broken phone lines and dying radio batteries at critical times.
The book follows MacDonald’s journey from the pill boxes on the Siegfried Line on to other defensive positions along the Belgium-German border as the autumn progressed and the weather deteriorated. In early December, the 2nd Division was ordered further north for an offensive against the Roer River dams. They were relieved by the 106th Division, newly arrived from the U.S. MacDonald describes them as “equipped with the maze of equipment that only replacements fresh from the States would have dared to call their own… and horror of horrors, they were wearing neckties!” The 106th took over positions in the proximity of St. Vith, Belgium, on December 11, just five days before the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge would begin.
The 23rd’s new positions were located in “a giant fir forest” where they de-trucked “half-frozen from a five-hour nightmare of cold, snow and hazardous blackout driving.” They were greeted by “a foot of frozen whiteness covering the ground.” They then hiked a mile along an icy highway, crossed a small, icy stream and up-hill on a one-way trail to a point in the snow-covered forest designated as their new home. MacDonald said “I felt like crying.” This was a far cry from the comforts of their last positions. Yet their kitchen truck was able to follow them and provide a hot breakfast.
After word filtered in about a German attack, MacDonald tells of his meeting at battalion headquarters where he received orders to move to an assembly area in support of the 99th Division whose area had been penetrated. “We would take blanket rolls, three meals of K-rations and packs.” These scenes of meetings with commanding officers and discussions of details about deploying his men on short notice along with his anxiety about going on the offensive after only defensive action bring the reader into the moment. And they help me as a writer, and non-military person, visualize the situation.
I Company would go on to frantically try to hold their assigned positions against the German onslaught and ultimately have to scatter and withdraw. In the mêlée MacDonald is wounded and berates himself for not holding while worrying about his men who he can’t account for. Again the reader is right with them.
In March, after recovering from his wounds and receiving a medal, MacDonald is reassigned to Company G as the Americans push into Germany and cross the Rhine. He recounts the anxiety as they enter each German village never knowing whether they would meet gunfire, surrendering German soldiers or gawking civilians. More than once large anti-aircraft guns fired at them as a few Germans tried to desperately fight on.
MacDonald had an extraordinary memory to be able to recall so many details included in the book, written in 1947, three years after the events. It was not surprising to learn that MacDonald became a military historian after the war. He wrote two of the U.S. Army’s official histories of the European campaign.
I’ll mention what I thought was an interesting tidbit. MacDonald mentions many men by name along with their hometowns. At one point he mentions meeting Captain John M. Calhoun of Athens, Tennessee, who was then commander of F Company 23rd Regiment. Knowing that Athens, Tenn. was the headquarters of B Company, 117th Regiment, 30th Infantry Division when they were federalized in 1940, I went to their history which lists all the members of B Company at the time of federalization. Sure enough, John M. Calhoun was listed as a Private First Class. The B Company history states that in 1942 twenty-two of its enlisted men were sent to Officers Training School. Captain Calhoun was apparently one of those and he ended up in the 2nd Division as a Company Commander.
Recently my husband and I drove down to Camp Blanding and toured the Camp Blanding Museum located just off Florida State Road 16 at the entrance to the base. Since it was a typically hot and humid Florida day, we spent most of our time inside the museum building. Before leaving we walked around viewing the monuments for each division that trained at Camp Blanding and looking at some of the WWII vintage equipment on display. We hope to return when it is cooler so that we can venture further and see more of the equipment including some more modern tanks, helicopters and planes.
Our original intent was to learn more about the 30th Infantry Division since we knew that Old Hickory had trained at Camp Blanding before going overseas. What we learned was that nine full divisions trained at Camp Blanding before it became a replacement training center.
Camp Blanding is situated in Clay County, Florida, near Starke. The 73,000 acre military reservation, which includes Kingsley Lake, is the training facility for the Florida National Guard as well as a Joint Training Facility for U.S. military, international forces and various other agencies. In 1939 Florida established the base for training the Florida National Guard. At the beginning of World War II the U.S. Army took it over to train the federalized national guard units as well as portions of the regular army.
Once under the control of the federal government, Camp Blanding rapidly expanded so that it could accommodate at least two divisions for training. Construction boomed, employing thousands. As the troops moved in the area soon grew to be the fourth largest city in Florida.
The first housing for the troops consisted of pyramid tents, to which wooden floors and walls were added. Due to the ankle-deep sand, wooden walk-ways were constructed and drills had to be conducted on the paved roads.
In the beginning, the 31st Infantry Division made Camp Blanding its home. The 31st, known as the Dixie Division, consisted of the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida National Guard. With capacity for two divisions to train, the 43rd Infantry Division moved to Camp Blanding. The 43rd, or Winged Victory Division, was made up of the Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island National Guard. Thus streets were named for the respective states, both north and south, and locations within those states. With units from the deep south and the northeast training at the same base, the old north-south rivalries emerged, but remained relatively good-natured.
When the 31st Division and the 43rd Division left Camp Blanding to eventually serve in the South Pacific, the 36th Infantry Division, made up of the Texas National Guard, moved in. They were soon joined by the First Infantry Division, the only Regular Army division to train at Camp Blanding. These two divisions ended up in North Africa, then Sicily and Normandy for the “Big Red One” and Italy for the Texans.
By August of 1942 the 79th Division, an Army Reserve unit, occupied Camp Blanding. And the 29th Infantry Division, also known as the “Blue and Gray” since it was made up of the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and District of Columbia National Guard, arrived in the Florida camp.
It wasn’t until October 1942 that the 30th Infantry Division came to Camp Blanding for training. The North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee National Guard, all components of the 30th, remained in Florida until May of 1943. From Blanding Old Hickory participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers, then moved on to Indiana and Massachusetts where they shipped out for Europe in February 1944. A few days after D-Day the 30th landed in Normandy and fought almost continuously until they met up with the Russians in May 1945.
Two other U.S. Army Reserve Divisions also trained at Camp Blanding. The 66th Infantry Division, called the “Black Panthers,” was activated in April 1943 at Blanding. In June 1943 the 63rd Infantry Division was formed at Camp Blanding. They used the nickname “Blood & Fire.” Both went on to fight in Europe.
In 1943 the Florida base took on a new role as an infantry replacement training center, soon becoming the largest such training facility in the country. With the fighting going on in the Pacific, North Africa and Italy, it became clear that replacements were needed to fill the ranks depleted by casualties, so bases like Camp Blanding became vital to the war effort. And with the capture of prisoners on the battlefields the need for Prisoner of War camps arose. So a portion of the military reservation was converted to a prison camp and eventually housed some 378,000 German POW’s.
The inauspicious Camp Blanding with its pine trees, sand and picturesque lake played a major role in training U.S. troops during World War II. An estimated 800,000 soldiers trained at the Florida base during the war. Although now it has reverted back to its original purpose, we should not forget what the base contributed during the desperate years when the world struggled to defeat the Axis powers.
The Camp Blanding Museum pays tribute to all the divisions who trained here. Exhibits tell of each divisions training and combat experiences. Uniforms, weapons, medical gear, and much more provide the WWII amateur historian ample food for thought. To read more about Camp Blanding’s history, read the article by Jim Ashton on the 30th Infantry Website.
In the book store I purchased a book about the 30th Division and another about Florida’s role in WWII. My husband got another “Old Hickory” hat. He loves wearing the 30th hat with their eye-catching insignia because it spurs so many comments and has started several long conversations on a subject he thoroughly enjoys.
Many historical accounts or discussions about the Second World War in Europe skim over the events of the fall of 1944. They focus on the D-Day Landings and the battle in Normandy. Next comes the liberation of Paris and the race across France to the German border. From there they jump to the Battle of the Bulge and cover the terrible winter of 1944-45. Yet from the first of October through mid-December, 1944, intense battles raged all along the German border.
Until my husband got me interested in researching the 30th Infantry Division, I knew little about the fight to breach the Siegfried Line. I had heard of Aachen but didn’t really understand what happened there or its significance. So in this post, I will continue my discussion of the 30th Division’s combat experiences beginning where I left them along the infamous Siegfried Line not far from the historic city of Aachen.
At the beginning of October, 1944, the 30th Infantry Division faced the German border from southernmost Holland only a few miles from Belgium. Before them lay a section of what the Germans called the West Wall, a series of pill boxes, trenches, tank traps and dragon’s teeth built in the 1930’s to defend Germany from the French. The West Wall, also known as the Siegfried Line, was intended to provide a defensive position from which the Germans would attack, rather than fortifications to defend like the French Maginot Line.
After the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland, the Third Reich no longer needed the West Wall defenses, so they stood unused and neglected. But when the Germans rapidly withdrew to their borders in the summer of 1944, the Wehrmacht again occupied the West Wall fortifications. They quickly repaired and reinforced the last line of defense of their homeland. In the area around Aachen the West Wall extended from the north around both the eastern and western sides of the ancient city.
Aachen held great significance as a symbol of German supremacy. The city had been Charlemagne’s capital during the time of the Holy Roman Empire or the “First Reich.” Determined to hold the city, Hitler and his henchmen moved more troops into the area for its defense. On the other side, the Allies were just as determined to make Aachen the first German city captured.
In the last half of September the 1st Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Division crossed into Germany from Belgium south of Aachen and attacked through a gap in the West Wall fortifications. By the end of September they reached the southern edge of the city, but determined German resistance brought them to a stand-still. To relieve the pressure on the forces of VII Corps the XIX Corps attacked from the north through the heavily fortified Siegfried Line or West Wall. The 30th Infantry Division led the way followed by the 2nd Armored Division while the 29th Infantry Division guarded their flanks.
On October 2, 1944, the 117th and 119th Regiments of the 30th launched the attack. The 117th on the left attacked through Marienberg while the 119th on the right went through Rimburg. The Americans crossed the Wurm River under heavy German fire. After crossing the narrow, steep-banked stream, they climbed up to the railroad track just beyond. Ahead lay the numerous pill boxes of the Siegfried Line. One by one the 30th captured or destroyed the German fortifications which were barely touched by the pre-attack bombing. Old Hickory sharpshooters took out numerous German machine gunners by firing through the narrow pillbox ports. On October 3rd the 117th took Palenberg and controlled much of Ubach. By October 7th the 117th occupied much of the city of Alsdorf opening the way to Aachen.
The 2nd Armored Division followed the 30th’s initial attack and swept north and east to Frelenberg and Beggendorf expanding the bridgehead into Germany. With their objectives met the 30th and 2nd Armored hoped for a break to rest and regroup. It was not to be. XIX Corps and VII Corps wanted to press on and link up thus surrounding Aachen and forcing its surrender. So Old Hickory pressed on southward to Wurselen where the intense German resistance halted their progress. Both sides utilized everything they had from artillery barrages to bombing to tanks and anti-tanks to house-to-house fighting.
Meanwhile the 1st Division fought off repeated counter attacks to hold on to the ground already taken. On Oct. 8th the First Division began an offensive to take the high ground southwest of Aachen including a high point dubbed “Crucifix Hill,” where they were to link up with the 30th Division.
To break up the 30th’s stalemate, on Oct. 16th the 117th and the 120th Regiments undertook a diversionary attack east of the main force which successfully drew the German artillery fire away from the 119th and 116th Regiments. That afternoon Company E 117th Regiment attacked through a wooded area held by the Germans toward a railroad. The intent was to convince the enemy that it was the main attack. Despite heavy casualties the 117th repeatedly attacked the German forces successfully diverting them away from the 119th pushing south toward the 1st Division positions.
Elements of the 30th from XIX Corp and the 1st from VII Corp finally linked up on October 16th. Street fighting continued in Aachen for another week. Finally, on October 21st, the last garrison in Aachen surrendered.
From the kickoff on October 2 to the final surrender of Aachen the 30th Infantry Division suffered approximately 3,000 casualties. Few of the old National guardsmen remained. Not many who landed with the Division on Omaha Beach were still with the division. Some who had been wounded along the way and sent to hospitals to recover would rejoin the 30th in later battles. Despite the turnover in personnel the 30th Infantry Division proved to be a formidable force in Europe. For their “Diversionary attack in the Battle of Aachen Gap” Company E, 117th Infantry Regiment received a Presidential Citation.
The first breach of the Siegfried Line and the battle to capture the first German city, Aachen, in October gave the Allies hope that the war could be won by Christmas. Little did they know what Hitler had planned.
Read more about the battle for Aachen on the following sites:
This is the second post in a series following the 117th Regiment (originally the Tennessee National Guard) of the 30th Infantry Division through their World War II combat experiences. My primary reference has been an excellent and detailed account of the 30th entitled “Workhorse of the Western Front – The Story of the 30th Infantry Division in World War II” by Robert L. Hewitt. I have also gleaned valuable information from the Unit History of Company B, 117th Regiment and the 30th Division Old Hickory websites. As I continue to research the 30th, I find their story more and more fascinating. I hope you do, too.
The fighting around Mortain ended on August 13, 1944. With no time to rest the 117th Regiment and the entire 30th Infantry Division moved northeast encountering some enemy opposition but nothing substantial. After crossing the Seine near Mantes-Gassicourt, some 25 miles west of Paris, the 117th relieved the 79th Division. It took them two days to clear the German defenders from the high ridges on the north bank. By August 30 enemy opposition along that section of the river collapsed.
Orders came for the 30th to proceed to the French-Belgium border as part of a First Army task force commanded by Brigadier General William K. Harrison Jr. Without enough trucks to transport the entire division, the 117th remained behind in reserve while the 119th and 120th along with various support units – 125th Calvary Squadron, 30th Reconnaissance Troop, 743rd Tank Battalion, 118th Field Artillery Battalion, Company “A” 105th Engineer Battalion, and Company “A” 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion – headed for Tournai, Belgium. After beating back the German rear guard, who attempted to delay the Americans while the bulk of their army retreated, the 30th Infantry Division became the first American division to enter Belgium on September 2, 1944.
The 117th Regiment followed on September 4, camping near the famous Waterloo battlefield. Assuming the Germans would take a stand at the Meuse River, command ordered “Old Hickory” to proceed across Belgium toward the Meuse and the southern border of Holland. Lack of gasoline forced the soldiers to go on foot, slogging through the rain and mud for the over one hundred mile trek. What would have taken one day by truck became an exhausting three-day march.
On the west bank of the parallel waterways of the Meuse/Maas River and the Albert Canal, the 30th poised west and south of Maastricht, Holland, readying their attack on the most heavily fortified area along the border between Belgium and Holland. Organizing the scattered units of their retreating forces, the Germans scrambled to man the natural and man-made defenses in an effort to slow the Allies advance.
Attacking on September 10, “Old Hickory’s” regimental columns moved forward with the 117th to follow the 119th. Despite the enemy blown bridges at Vise, Belgium, south of Maastricht, the 119th managed to cross the dual waterways. At the same time the 120th took the locks on Maastricht Island, further north, and then proceeded to capture the famous Fort Eben Emael finding the Germans had deserted it. By the morning of the 12th the 117th streamed across the river at Vise. Company A of the 117th pushed northward and became the first Allied unit to cross the Belgium-Holland border and enter Holland.
Lieutenant Elwood G. Daddow, Company B, 117th Regiment, defied the danger of a German counter-attack to retrieve a dispatch case from a damaged German command car. The case contained papers and maps indicating the German plans for withdrawal and deployment of their forces along the Siegfried line as well as other pertinent data. With the extensive enemy reorganization due to their rapid retreat to the German border, this intelligence proved invaluable.
The battle for Maastricht and the surrounding area continued through September 14th with ongoing counter-attacks by the Germans. Pressing eastward “Old Hickory” pushed on toward the Siegfried Line also known by the Germans as the West Wall. Significant enemy artillery fire greeted the Americans for the first time since Normandy. On September 18 the 117th took up positions facing the Siegfried Line near Scherpenseel.
In the weeks since leaving Mortain, the fighting and the casualties had been light compared to Normandy. The demonstration of welcome in the towns liberated along the way was different as the 30th moved from France and its wild hugs and kisses to Belgium with its enthusiastic greetings to Holland with its smiles and waves. All were equally glad to be freed from the German occupation but the Americans learned quickly that the cultural differences between the countries meant there were differences in how they showed their gratitude.
In mid-September, with supplies still being brought ashore on the landing beaches of Normandy and supply lines stretched for hundreds of miles across France and Belgium, the shortage in all essentials from fuel to ammunition to food forced the Allies to halt their advance. An attack on the German homeland called for not only sufficient men and equipment but also the essential supplies to sustain the push into Germany. So the 30th settled in waiting for the Red Ball Express to deliver the much-needed materiel. They utilized the time in planning and training for the coming battle, along with a little rest and relaxation for the men, including hot showers, hot food and movies.
Although the 30th had trained in the U.S. for three and a half years before embarking for England and had trained for months in England before landing in France, the tremendous casualty rates left few men who had specialized training in weapons like the flame-throwers, bazookas, or demolition charges that would be needed in assaulting the Siegfried Line pill boxes. Command decided that everyone should be trained in all weapons and instituted an intense training program. This training allowed the replacements and the recently promoted non-com’s and officers to forge themselves into effective fighting units.
To prepare for the assault on the Siegfried Line specific information on the terrain ahead was compiled utilizing aerial photographs and reconnaissance patrols into dangerous enemy territory. With this information an elaborate sand table model was constructed in the command post. The sand table gave the men a visual representation of what lay ahead and what their specific objectives were. Men were rotated off the line to study the terrain depicted on the sand table. This detailed preparation would prove invaluable in the assault into Germany.
The 117th would breach the Siegfried Line and go on to help take Aachen, but more about that in the next post.
The 30th Infantry Division’s record in World War II garnered them the title of “Workhorse of the Western Front” by the Allies and “Roosevelt’s SS” by the German high command. Since the “SS” were Germany’s most elite troops, this reference by the enemy was high praise. The 30th’s nickname “Old Hickory,” in honor of Andrew Jackson, and their distinctive patch originated during their service in World War One where they fought with distinction. Since the division was originally created from National Guard units and since I am from Tennessee, I’ll focus my comments on the 117th Regiment made up of the Tennessee National Guard.
The unit history of Company B of the 117th Regiment, based in Athens, Tennessee, provides an interesting insight into the men who made up the Tennesseans in the 117th Regiment of “Old Hickory.” These were men who grew up together, some were related and many had fathers or uncles who had served in the 30th Division during WWI. In 1938 Company B had an authorized strength of three officers and sixty-one enlisted men. Federalization came in September 1940 and the strength increased to five officers and one hundred men. There were eight groups of brothers on Company B’s roster at that time.
Originally authorized for one year under Federal control, world unrest led to an extension. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the National Guard remained part of the U.S. Army for “the duration.” Under federalization enlistees, draftees and officers transferred from other divisions diversified “Old Hickory” with men from all over the country.
In September, 1940, the 30th Infantry began three and a half years of training, preparing for the fight everyone knew would eventually come. During this time many of the 30th’s officers and non-coms were transferred to other divisions as cadre (experienced soldiers responsible for turning new recruits into battle-ready soldiers). All of Company B’s original five officers were sent to officers training and reassigned to other divisions. In addition twenty-two of the company’s enlisted men were trained as officers and reassigned. These reassignments spread the influence of this small company of Tennessee National Guardsmen throughout the Army.
The 117th Regiment arrived in England in February, 1944, along with the rest of the 30th Infantry Division and its support units. They landed in France on Omaha Beach in mid-June. Although they came under enemy artillery fire in their assembly area, Company B’s first real combat came in early July, 1944, with the crossing of the Vire River. They fought through the hedgerows of Normandy learning the essentials of live combat that could not be taught in training. Due to casualties four different officers commanded Company B 117th Regiment in the nine day period July 7-16. On July 20th St. Lo was taken and the Allies took this opportunity to “break out” of the small area they held along the Normandy Coast.
On July 24, 1944, three divisions, the 30th, 4th and 9th, comprised “Operation Cobra.” The 30th lined up its regiments for the attack – the 119th and 120th Regiments and two battalions of the 117th, with the remainder of the 117th held in reserve. The massive bombing by the Army Air Force preceding the infantry’s attack went badly. Bombs fell short and landed on the 30th, causing 152 casualties. Command stopped the main body of bombers and delayed the attack for a day. On the next day the Army Air Force made the same disastrous mistake, bombing short and causing 662 more casualties for the 30th. That day the operation proceeded with the remnants of the 30th plus reserves attacking in their sector as planned. Despite heavy casualties from “friendly fire,” the remaining men of “Old Hickory” pulled together and did their job. Although the Germans survived the bombing with little damage, the American attack was successful. By the end of July the Allied armies had “broken out” of their limited foothold on French soil and had opened a narrow corridor along Normandy’s western coast allowing Patton’s Third Army tanks to pour into the interior.
In the three weeks from the crossing of the Vire to the capture of Tessy-sur-Vire, the 30th Infantry Division suffered the most casualties of their entire combat experience in WWII. Other more famous battles lay ahead for the division but none would be as deadly. After the fight for Tessy-sur-Vire, the 30th rested for a few days. Replacements arrived but not near enough to make up for the men who had been lost.
On August 6th, orders came for “Old Hickory” to take over 1st Division positions in and around Mortain so the 1st could pursue the Germans further south. The American lines faced the German-held territory to the east with the 30th’s position around Mortain on the southern end. Beyond Mortain small, mobile Americans units chased the Germans further inland.
A short distance to the west of the 30th’s position was Avranches and the narrow corridor supplying the Third Army and elements of the First Army pushing further into France. Unknown to the Allies, the Germans were massing forces for a counter-attack. They saw their chance to cut off Patton’s army by attacking west to the coast at Avranches, cutting the American supply lines, and thus bottling up Patton in Brittany and restricting the rest of the Allies to Normandy. The German plan could have worked – if the 30th Infantry Division hadn’t stood in their way, blocking key roads and holding the only high point in the area.
The 117th Regiment took up positions around St. Barthelemy just north of Mortain. They set up road blocks using anti-tank guns, established their headquarters, and occupied positions vacated by the 1st Division. No tanks were available. German aircraft attacked before the 117th could settle in, followed by heavy artillery bombardment. Early on August 7 the tanks of the 1st SS Adolf Hitler Division encountered the road blocks and knocked out the anti-tank guns, but not before some of their tanks and other mobile equipment were destroyed. The 1st Battalion of the 117th took the brunt of the attack. Although the Americans scattered and sought shelter, they did not withdraw. Without tank support, the infantry men used bazookas, machine guns, mortars and rifles to fight off the German onslaught and blocked one of the main routes to the coast. With limited communication with each other or their headquarters, small units fought ferociously. A squadron of British Typhoons provided the only effective air support by flying low and destroying German tanks, troops and vehicles. Read a fascinating account from the RAF at http://www.oldhickory30th.com/RAFatMortain.htm.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Regiment occupied Hill 314 (named for its height) which overlooked the plain east and south of Mortain. Surrounded by the Germans, artillery Forward Observers called in fire almost continuously and men fought hand-to-hand as the Germans repeatedly attempted to take the hill. Isolated and low on supplies, the Americans held out on the hill for six days without reinforcement or resupply.
The 117th stopped the German advance in the area around St. Barthelemy, an action for which they received a Presidential Citation. The 119th defended the road through Juvigny and the ridge road through Le Mesnil-Adiele which represented the deepest German penetration toward the sea, while the 120th clung to the high ground on Hill 314.
By August 12th the German offensive lost steam and they pulled back. The 30th drew a deep breath of relief as reinforcements rolled in. But there would be no rest. With only a day to regroup and receive replacements, “Old Hickory” pushed eastward chasing the withdrawing Germans.
After the war the importance of the battle surrounding Mortain became clear. Surviving German commanders cited the loss at Mortain as critical to holding France and defeating the Allies. The German counter-offensive was their last chance to stop the invasion. Afterwards their focus became the defense of their homeland.
The exciting story of the 117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division continued on until the final German surrender. In my next post I will continue to discuss the 30th and their exploits after Mortain.