42nd Armored Tank Battalion (ATB)
The 42nd Armored Regiment was organized on August 15, 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana. Commanded by Colonel Leo B. Conner, the outfit was one of two armored regiments in the new 11th Armored Division. In 1943, the 42nd Armored Tank Battalion was created from the third battalion of the 42nd Armored Regiment; Lieutenant Colonel Joe Ahee was commanding officer.
Some of the men were Army veterans, other were draftees and volunteers. Everybody trained hard at Camp Polk and in 1943, they joined in the Third Army’s big Louisiana-Texas maneuvers. Afterwards the division shipped out to Camp Barkeley, Texas.
The hardest training for the 42nd would be at their next stop, the Mojave Desert in California, where men and machinery were tested by blazing heat and ever-blowing sand. The men pitched tents at Camp Ibis, near Needles, and trained for war amidst sand dunes, cactus, and desolate mountains.
From Camp Ibis, the 11th AD moved west again to the Pacific Coast to Camp Cooke, California (now Vandenberg AFB). There were barracks and soldier life was easier on the seashore. But the Army needed the 11th AD in Europe so orders to move out arrived. In mid-September, the 42nd men were aboard a train chugging east to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
In late September the battalion boarded the U.S.S. Hermitage and sailed for England. In mid-October the troopship landed at Southampton and the GIs moved inland to camps. Men and equipment were readied for combat across the English Channel in France. The move would come in mid-December.
The battalion and the rest of the division stepped ashore in the war zone at Cherbourg, France. It was cold and rainy; there was mud everywhere but no Germans. A force of enemy troops was holed up at St. Nazaire. The 11th Armored was supposed to help finish them off but events in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium caused a big change in plans.
On December 16th the Germans launched a massive counterattack on a 50-mile front in the Ardennes. The thinly held American lines were pushed back in what would be called the Battle of the Bulge. The Americans needed reinforcements; the 11th Armored Division was ready and dashed 500 miles across France to the battlefront.
At first, the 11th AD was ordered to hold a section of the Meuse River where a German attack was expected. But on December 26th the 4th Armored Division broke through German lines and relieved Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne Division and other troops had been surrounded. Bastogne’s relief was a turning point in the Battle of the Bulge.
But the battle was far from over. Bastogne’s only connection with the rest of the American army was a highway running southwest to Neufchateau. The 11th Armored was sent from the Meuse to protect the highway and attack the Germans.
On December 29th the 42nd ATB moved out as part of two task forces, Blue and White. Their mission was to push back enemy forces from the south, then go north around Bastogne.
The Germans blasted the Americans with a heavy artillery barrage and stopped the attack. TF Blue shifted right and tried to get through Rondu and Nimbermont. The Germans continued to pound TF White with artillery.
Early on December 30th the 42nd Battalion was ordered to attack again, this time TF Blue would be in the lead. The Thunderbolts moved up to Rechrival where enemy gunners kept up steady barrages of artillery and rocket fire through the night.
The Thunderbolt attack was successful but at a loss of one man killed and 10 wounded. The next morning orders came to withdraw because there wasn’t enough infantry support to outpost the newly won positions. Reluctantly the 42nd ATB moved back to Rechrival and Brul.
From January 2nd to January 11th the battalion remained in general support of the 17th Airborne Division, which had earlier relieved the 11th AD. The Thunderbolts moved from area to area as the front shifted. Orders were to be prepared for any German attack wherever it might start.
There was no contact with the enemy, so the battalion repaired damaged tanks and halftracks, replacement equipment also arrived. The 42nd ATB brass estimated that the outfit had knocked out 18 German tanks, damaged two more and wrecked and undetermined number of trucks and other vehicles.
On January 12th the battalion was ordered to move to an assembly area near Longchamps and get ready to attack toward Bertogne and Compogne, then seize the high ground south of a strategic crossroads at Houffalize. The attack would start the next day.
The attack began with an artillery barrage and an air strike. As the tanks moved out, a mine disabled one. Engineers quickly cleared the minefield and the attack reached Bertogne without much enemy opposition. The attack resumed on January 14th but the Germans decided to make a stand on the Bertogne-Compogne road. Also, nearby woods were full of enemy troops.
The Thunderbolts pushed ahead to Compogne. Fearing they would be outflanked or surrounded, the Germans retreated north toward Rastadt. But armor of Companies “C” and “D” of the 42nd Battalion blasted the Nazis and took a heavy toll of enemy soldiers and self-propelled guns. With that, the Germans tried to get back to Compogne, but then surrendered. More than 400 prisoners were taken.
The infantry got reorganized at Rastadt and Compogne and everybody expected a German counterattack; it came late in the afternoon, but was turned back. On January 16th CCA’s attack resumed and the Germans retreated. “Just a march with a little sniper fire thrown in,” Ahee described it. In early afternoon the battalion was on the high ground near Houffalize. At the same time, First Army units arrived on the high ground north of the town.
On the night of January 16th the 42nd ATB helped organize the sector for defense. But on January 17th the battalion was relieved and moved back to Longchamps, then to Buret. It stayed in general support of the 17th Airborne until January 26th.
The Americans won the Battle of the Bulge but not without paying a terrible price. The 42nd Battalion lost four officers and 36 enlisted men, all killed. Another 127 were wounded and 13 were reported missing in action. The Germans also knocked out 23 of the battalion’s Sherman medium tanks and 12 light tanks.
Having been defeated, the Germans retreated eastward behind the Westwall, Hitler’s vaunted steel and concrete defensive barrier. Allied troops dubbed the belt of pillboxes, bunkers, and other fortifications the “Siegfried Line”.
The 11th Armored Division attacked the line in February and broke through into Germany. The Thunderbolts raced across the Prum River and bore down on the next objective: the Kyll River, beyond that were the Rhine River and the German heartland.
The 11th AD’s breakthrough operation began on March 7th. The Thunderbolts crossed the Kyll River through bridgeheads established by the 4th and 90th Infantry divisions. TF Ahee, still part of CCA, was to clear a route to Dries and if possible to press on to Kelberg.
The task force rolled forward. Enemy resistance was light but the weather was miserable – cold, rain, and fog. Seven enemy tanks were knocked out and about 50 prisoners were taken in the running action. The task force lost three tanks, no killed and four wounded.
The task force reached Dries, then sped on toward Kelberg. Enemy infantry harassed the column from the woods but was quickly neutralized by tank fire on the move. At Kelberg, the enemy established a strong rear guard while the main force retreated eastward.
The task force opened fire with its assault guns, artillery, and tanks, killing and wounding several Germans soldiers. The Germans fired back with artillery and nebelwerfers (Screaming Meemies). Ahee said it was the heaviest he had experienced in combat.
But the American fire was more effective, jamming the fleeing enemy soldiers on the road out of Kelberg. Air strikes further pounded the Germans leaving the road littered with burning, bomb-blasted vehicles. Meanwhile, a tank-Infantry force swarmed into Kelberg and forced the surrender of most of the Germans defenders – an artillery battalion without supporting infantry. Meanwhile, the main body of the task force attacked from the west, overcoming a roadblock near town.
With Kelberg in American hands, 11th AD brass figured German resistance would be light the rest of the way of the Rhine. On March 9th CCA, which included TF Ahee, moved out toward Andernach on the Rhine. The brass was right, the Germans were surrendering in droves.
The 42nd Battalion reached Andernach without trouble and took up positions on the high ground west of the river where fire could be directed against enemy troops who might try to escape across the Rhine. In mid-March the Thunderbolts got new orders: sweep south across the Moselle to Worms, also on the Rhine. The idea was to help trap large German forces still on the west side of the river.
Leading CCA, TF Ahee crossed the Moselle on March 17th and drove to Kirchberg where the enemy had built a 200-yard deep abatis (obstacle) across the road. The roadblock was cleared and German infantry ran away. South of Kirchberg the column ran into a hastily sewn mine field, which was quickly cleared. The battalion rolled on, to Dickenscheid, Gehlweiler, Simmern, and Merxheim, where the Germans put up stiff resistance. However, American armor and infantry overwhelmed the enemy.
At Marnheim a blown bridge slowed the column but a treadway fixed the problem. Beyond Marnheim there was no more enemy resistance. After reaching Worms, TF Ahee mopped up bypassed enemy units along the west bank of the river.
The 11th AD crossed the Rhine on March 28th. The next day TF Ahee led the Thunderbolts across the Main River at Hanau. At Ruckingen 300 Hitler Youth tried to stop the column with automatic weapons, bazookas, and mortars. Most of the teens were killed in house-to-house fighting.
Held up at Ruckingen, TF Ahee fell to the rear of the Combat Command Column, but was back in the lead the next day. More towns were reached and passed: Breitenborn, Wittgenborn, Spelberg, and Hellstein. The Germans put up a fight at Wallroth but failed to stop the Americans
The Thunderbolts bypassed Fulda but encountered stubborn enemy resistance at Suhl. In early April the division was redirected south toward Bavaria. On April 11th Coburg surrendered. That same day the 42nd Battalion was shifted to Combat Command Reserve. CCR followed behind the attacking columns and its main mission was the processing of thousands of enemy prisoners and guarding supply routes.
The Thunderbolts crossed into Bavaria and captured Bayreuth, the home of German composer Richard Wagner. The division continued to drive south.
Army brass believed the Nazis would make a last stand in a National Redoubt high in the Alps. As it turned out, there was no such strong point.
The division and the 42nd ATB crossed the German border into Austria in early May. The 42nd Battalion was almost swamped with prisoners. The end of the war came on May 8th with the Thunderbolts in or around Linz, Austria on the Danube.
In combat the 42nd tankers lost 70 men killed in action, more than 200 were wounded or injured. During training in the United States, four others drowned when their tank overturned during a night exercise.
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