21st Armored Infantry Battalion (AIB)
The 21st Armored Infantry Battalion was created from the 2nd Battalion of the 55th Armored Infantry Regiment at Camp Polk, Louisiana in the fall of 1943. Major Milton H. Keach was commanding officer.
The men were part of the new 11th Armored Division, which the Army activated at Camp Polk on August 15, 1942. Some of the men were army veterans, others were draftees and volunteers; together they trained hard and sharpened their battle skills in the Third Army’s big Louisiana-Texas maneuvers in 1943. Afterwards the division shipped out to Camp Barkeley, Texas.
The toughest training came next in the blistering heat and swirling sands of the Mojave Desert in California. The division moved into tents at Camp Ibis, near Needles, and practiced war amidst desolate dunes, prickly cactus, lizards, and barren mountains.
Nicknamed the “Thunderbolt Division,” the 11th Armored headed farther west to Camp Cooke, California. Soldering was easier; Camp Cooke had barracks that caught the fresh breezes off the Pacific Ocean. But the Army needed the 11th Armored elsewhere. Orders to move out arrived and on September 14, 1944 the battalion boarded a Southern Pacific troop train which chugged eastward.
On September 19th the battalion was in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. The men figured they were bound for Europe, but when and where only the brass knew. On September 27th, the 21st AIB was on a train again, but this time the ride was short – to Pier 51 in New York harbor. The men climbed aboard the U.S.S. Hermitage, flagship of a convoy bound across the Atlantic. Two days later the convoy sailed east.
The Hermitage docked at Southampton, England on October 10th. Another train awaited; this one took the Yanks to Camp Upton Lovell in Wiltshire for final preparations for combat. It was almost winter before the 21st Battalion would move to France.
Orders came for December 13th. First to leave were battalion vehicles, which were driven back to Southampton and loaded onto a Liberty Ship that sailed for France about midnight on December 14, 1944. The ship arrived uneventfully at Cherbourg where the drivers and vehicles awaited the men of the battalion, who were scheduled to leave Southampton on December 15th.
On December 16th the battalion and its vehicles were in camp at Barneville, France. Heavy rains turned roads and fields into quagmires. Everybody shivered in the cold and damp.
The battalion was ordered to move south and help clear out a pocket of stubborn German resistance at St. Nazaire. The 21st moved out on December 18th and traveled 120 miles to near Rennes. The men stayed in camp the next day and got ready to move on December 20th. There were rumors that orders would be changed, but nobody seemed to know why or where the 21st AIB was headed.
The “where” was several miles east in the dark Ardennes Forest of Belgium. In deep secret, the Germans massed a huge army and launched a desperate counterattack against thinly held American lines. The German offensive rolled forward on a 5-mile front, pushing the American back in what would be called the Battle of the Bulge.
The 11th Armored was called off St. Nazaire and sent on a 500-mile dash to Belgium. The Meuse River was vulnerable to German attack and the 11th Armored was ordered to hold the Meuse between Sedan and Givet.
Christmas came a day later for the 101st Airborne Division and the other defenders of Bastogne, key to the Battle of the Bulge. On December 26th the 4th Armored Division broke through to relieve the town. The Thunderbolts were ordered forward to help protect Bastogne’s crucial lifeline, the Bastogne-Neufchateau Road.
On the night of December 29th the battalion was near Molinfaing, where the men were told they would jump off before daylight without any reconnaissance. Some of the doughs laughed; they knew that was impossible.
The battalion was in good shape at the start of the Ardennes operation. There had been the usual problems with vehicles put to hard use, but nothing serious. That was fortunate because the battle would strain men and machinery to the limit.
The 21st Battalion went into combat as part of TF Pat. The objective was the Belgian village of Chenogne. The attack did not go as planned. German troops showed up where they were not supposed to be; communication and coordination between American units was poor. Tanks and halftracks were set ablaze.
On December 31st TF Pat fought on toward Chenogne. The Americans attacked again after daylight. The Germans fought hard and cleverly; the enemy hid tanks under haystacks. American casualties mounted. The 22nd Tank Battalion lost two Shermans as they entered Chenogne. The enemy destroyed two more Shermans and a light Stuart tank in the town. But Chenogne fell to the Thunderbolts.
Things went more smoothly after Chenogne. The Thunderbolts captured Mande St. Etienne, Foy, and Cobru, then bypassed Noville to capture the woods east of the town. One company of armored infantry rode on tanks while the other two companies followed in halftracks.
On January 17, 1945 the 21st AIB was relieved by the 101st Airborne Division. For the Thunderbolts, the heaviest fighting in the Bulge was over. The Germans were retreating eastward behind the division’s next big objective: the Westwall, the massive Nazi defense line American and British soldiers dubbed the Siegfried Line.
The 11th Armored division was ordered to hit Hill 568 in the Siegfried Line, a belt of pillboxes, bunkers, and other strongpoints protected by infantry, artillery, and armor. The Thunderbolts attacked on February 6th with the 21st Battalion in Combat Command Reserve (CCR). Despite strong enemy resistance the 11th Armored fought through the Siegfried Line on February 22nd.
The Germans had little choice but to retreat eastward to new defensive positions behind the Prum and Kyll Rivers. The 21st Battalion moved forward with CCA and CCB. On March 4th the battalion crossed the Kyll River near Oberbettingen, it was not easy.
A bridge over the river had been blown but two companies managed to pick their way across on the smashed spans. About 200 yards beyond the bridge was a cliff where 75 to 100 snipers fired on the infantry, forcing them back.
Artillery and tank fire rained down on the enemy positions but the Germans would not submit. After dark, the battalion mounted a frontal and flanking attack that finally dislodged the Germans. The 21st battalion lost 14 men killed and 39 wounded.
On March 7th Company “A” ran into heavily defended roadblocks near Glees. It was cleared without any loss of American life and the way was now open to the next big objective: the Rhine River. The division reached the Rhine at Andernach and Brohl.
In mid-March the Thunderbolts, part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army, were ordered south to Worms for a linkup with the First Army, thereby cutting off large German forces still west of the Rhine.
The 21st Battalion drove through Buchenburen, Rockenhausen and reached an airfield near Worms on March 21st. The Germans had abandoned the field but enemy planes showed up and strafed the Americans but caused no casualties.
The battalion crossed the Rhine on March 29th and headed to Hanau. The biggest bother was muddy roads; German resistance was crumbling everywhere. On March 31st German warplanes attacked the column at Grossbender but again caused no casualties or damage to vehicles.
The next day the 21st Battalion encountered Nazi troops. German snipers killed two men and wounded 11 more. Advance assault guns went into action and knocked out 10 to 15 halftracks, killed 100 to 300 enemy soldiers and demolished a small town nearby.
On April 2nd the battalion approached Oberholf where a 200-yard-long roadblock and a Tiger Tank menaced the Americans. Oberhof was a hospital town surrounded by thick woods. The infantry had no trouble taking the town in which enemy casualties totaled 50 killed and 200 to 300 prisoners. The 21st Battalion discovered about 14,000 wounded Germans soldiers in hospitals.
The battalion paused in Oberhof to allow the trailing infantry and supply and gas trucks to catch up. Occasionally, Germans in the woods harassed the battalion with sniper and bazooka fire. Five GIs were killed and 10 were wounded in seizing the town.
On April 8th the battalion approached Zielfeld and the Germans opened fire with nebelwerfers wounding 10 men. The 21st rolled on to Coburg were Hungarian troops began to be encountered. The Nazi allies quickly surrendered.
At Zeitlitz the battalion forded the Main River. Poor roads slowed the advance. But on April 14th the 21st Battalion reached Bayreuth, the Bavarian hometown of the composer of Richard Wagner. Five day later the battalion was in Grafenwohr.
On April 22nd the 21st Battalion was alerted to assist CCA at Weiden but help was not needed. After taking Cham the next day, the battalion reached CCA and the Americans saw first-hand evidence of Nazi atrocities. They overtook a column of 10,000 prisoners being marched from a concentration camp. The SS guards escaped into the woods and patrols were sent after them. Some of the prisoners killed a few of their former captors.
On April 24th the battalion drove toward Regen. The Thunderbolts made good progress until they reached the Regen River and found a bridge blown. The infantry dismounted and ran into machine gun and mortar fire. A company found a footbridge and flanked the Germans. Tank fire wiped out the enemy force of 150 newly commissioned Nazi officers.
The next day the battalion turned east 10 miles north of Passau. The Germans fought back at Perlsruth but were defeated. On April 26th the battalion moved to Wollaburg and sent heavy reconnaissance patrols probing toward the Austrian border.
On April 29th the battalion reached Rohrenbach and prepared for dismounted action against Passau where the SS reportedly had created a strong defense line. The battalion recon platoon ran into dug-in infantry at Krepelburg but blasted them out with bayonets and hand grenades. About 25 enemy soldiers were killed and 100 prisoners were taken.
At Kringell the battalion avoided a booby-trapped roadblock and witnessed the firepower of the new Pershing medium tanks. One of them knocked out a Panzer Mark IV at 2,000 yards.
An April 30th the battalion moved southeast along the Danube to Oberkappel. The only enemy troops in the area were Hungarians, who surrendered in droves. At Lembach on the Muhl River, the advance was slowed by a blown bridge, rain, and a late spring snow. Engineers built a bridge and the battalion rumbled across.
On May 4th the battalion was over the Muhl and driving on Zwettl. Germans began surrendering in large numbers. At Galneukirchen, thousands of prisoners were bagged. Guards from the Mauthausen concentration camp came in to surrender; the camp was liberated the next day. Replacement troops arrived at the battalion. Battalion brass complained that they were echelon soldiers, mostly Air Corps, who had not been sufficiently trained. But the war was almost over; German’s surrender took effect on May 8, 1945. It was a day of mixed emotions, joy at the prospect of returning stateside, and sadness in recalling comrades killed in battles across four countries.
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