56th Armored Engineer Battalion
56th Armored Engineer Battalion was activated as part of the 11th
Armored Division on August 15, 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana. The battalion consisted of a Headquarters
Company, four line companies (A – D), and a Bridge Company (E Company). Line platoons were designated First, Second,
and Third. Each platoon had First,
Second, and Third Squads.
intensified in June 1943 as the engineers participated in the Third Army
Louisiana-Texas maneuvers. The 56th
engineers returned to Camp Polk in late August.
September, the battalion moved west by motor convoy and train to Camp Barkeley,
near Abilene, Texas. Their Texas tenure
was brief. A month later, the 56th
Engineers were on the move again.
mid-October, the battalion found itself in the Mojave Desert of
California. The men’s new home was Camp
Ibis near Needles, California. Training
was rugged in the barren mountains and shifting sand dunes. Troops baked in the day and shivered at
battalion spent five months sharpening combat skills at Camp Ibis, then shifted
to more hospitable quarters at Camp Cooke near Lompoc, California. Gone were desert tents; Camp Cooke had
barracks near the Pacific Ocean.
Camp Cooke was not a resort. Seasoned
by the Louisiana-Texas and desert maneuvers, the 11th Armored
“Thunderbolts” ironed out assault and range problems on the pacific coast. The men also got ready for the trip
overseas. Gear was waterproofed,
packed, and loaded onto rail cars. The
Thunderbolts clambered aboard Pullmans.
long train chugged east. Some of the
men caught glimpses of their homes from the train windows. Nobody was allowed off the train except for
occasional calisthenics along rail sidings.
On September 24, 1944, the battalion arrived in Camp Kilmer, New
Jersey. The next stop would be England.
September 28, the battalion packed up again and headed for New York harbor
where the U.S.S. Hermitage weighted anchor with the engineers on board. Scuttlebutt had it that the ship was bound
for Normandy. But 10 days out of New
York, the Hermitage docked at Southampton, England. The engineers, 676-strong, boarded a train for a short trip to
Melksham, Wiltshire. They camped in
24-man quonset huts at Sandridge Park for a five-week stay.
a three-week staging at Codford, the 56th AEB were ready to cross
the English Channel. On December 15th
the men and their equipment were carried safely over to Cherbourg on a British
about 11 a.m. on December 16th the engineers caught their first
glimpses of Europe. It was foggy, but
the Thunderbolts could see sunken ships as well as bomb and bullet-blasted
buildings along the Cherbourg waterfront.
As battalion truck convoys moved inland, the engineers took particular
interest in German pillboxes that had been riddled by artillery fire.
Briquebec the battalion met its drivers and vehicles, which came across on LSTs
and Liberty Ships. They camped in a
rain-sodden apple orchard that soon became a mini-sea of mud. On December 18th the Thunderbolts
were ordered to the St. Nazaire pocked to relieve the 94th Infantry
Division. They moved out on December 19th.
days before, the Germans launched a massive attack along a 50-mile front in the
Ardennes Forest. Enemy tanks and
infantry caught First Army soldiers by surprise and pushed a deep bulge into
Allied lines. The gap had to be
11th Armored Division turned around and headed east to join
Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s already famous Third Army. Heading out on December 21st, the
Thunderbolts headed through LeMans, Chartres and Versailles, Paris, Chateau,
Thierry, Rheims, and on to Sissone.
11th Armored was divided into three Combat Commands; A, B, and R
(Reserve). Under a new table of organization
that went into effect at Camp Barkeley, the 56th Battalion consisted
of three line (or combat) companies, A – C, along with a Headquarters Company,
which handled supplies and administrative details. In almost all war time assignments, Company “A” fought with
Company “B” with CCB, and Company “C” with CCR.
Sissone, the 56th Engineers rolled onto Charleville on the Meuse
River. The front lines were about 20
miles away; there were rumors that the Nazis had broken through and were
heading toward the Thunderbolts.
Bridges over the Meuse were to be held or blown up. The Engineers were confident they could do
whatever was necessary.
German counterattacks were threatening the vital Neufchateau-Bastogne Road, the
only link to the hard-pressed American defenders of Bastogne, who had been
relieved by the Fourth Armored Division.
If Bastogne held, the enemy drive likely would fail.
11th Armored was ordered to help keep open the Neufchateau-Bastogne
Road for the 101st Airborne Division and the other GIs in Bastogne. The “Thunderbolts” turned
over the Meuse River defense to the 17th Airborne Division and
rushed 85 miles to the vicinity of Neufchateau. The division and the 56th Armored Engineers received
their baptism of fire on December 30th.
and CCB attacked abreast. Company “A”
of the 56th Battalion advanced with Thunderbolt tanks and
infantry. On December 31st
the attack reached as far as Remagne.
Company “B” advanced with CCB through Lavaselle and Houmont. It was cold and snowy but the Germans were
being driven back.
December 31st CCR, with Company “C” of the 56th
Engineers, captured key terrain near Pinsamont and surged forward to Acul. On January 1st CCB captured
Chenogne and the next day took Mande St. Etienne.
January 4th – 11th, the Thunderbolt Division, except for
its artillery, was in corps reserve.
The 56th Engineers repaired their vehicles, cleaned and
checked their weapons and took care of a few odd jobs such as filling in shell
craters on roads, destroying captured
German equipment, and repairing bridges.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant John J. Ducey and Corporal Richard A. Davidson won
Belgian Croix-de-Guerre medals for having forced the surrender of 50 German
soldiers in a Belgian town. Because the
enemy troops gave up without a fight, the town did not have to be destroyed.
Allies had stopped the German attack the day after Christmas. On that day the Fourth Armored Division
broke through and relieved Bastogne. On
January 3rd the First Army began a counterattack from the
north. Third Army attacked from the
south toward Houffalize. The idea was
to squeeze the Germans.
the Thunderbolt Division as spearhead, Third Army’s VIII Corps attacked on
January 13th. CCA tanks
rolled forward through the snow until they reached an enemy mine field halfway
through the Bois De Nom De Falize. It
was the job of the 56th Engineer men to get rid of the hidden
explosives that barred the way to Bertogne.
Second and Third platoons of Company "A" were detailed to remove and destroy what turned out
to be many Teller mines. Sergeant
Liberman, with a picked crew consisting of Vivian, Lewis, Heiser, Fontaine,
Sullivan, and DeHaan cleared the mines.
Sergeant Celani and his squad gave right-flank security, while Sergeant
Parkhurst and his squad took care of the left flank.
next morning it was the Third Platoon’s turn.
Their objective was a heavily booby-trapped abatis about a mile south of
Bertogne. Helped by Bill Williams and
his trusty angle dozer, the engineers cleared away the obstacle. However, Williams hit a trip wire with his
dozer blade and ended up in the hospital.
Sergeant Fowble took over and finished the job.
on January 14th CCB, with Company “B” of the 56th
Engineers, attacked and took Foy, which the Germans recaptured from the 101st
Airborne Division during the night of January 13th. CCB also took Noville. Thunderbolts of the 56th
Engineers mined and repaired some roads and under the cover of darkness built
bridges across some small streams.
January 15th CCA and the 17th Airborne Division entered Bertogne. All three Platoons of Company
“A” of the 56th AEB led the way, clearing mines for the tanks and
footsoldiers that would follow.
First Platoon swept eastward toward Compogne.
When the men were relieved by the Second Platoon, they were able to help
a tank company get through the Pied Du Mont woods. The Second and Third Platoons both worked on the road to
Compogne. They found several box mines
and abatis, which they cleared in short order.
the night of January 15th , Company “A” bivouacked near Compogne. A patrol found a bridge
blown; CCA headquarters got word in time to prevent any delay the next day as
the column moved on toward Houffalize and the First Army. After a day of clearing abatis and bypassing
shell craters under mortar and machine gun fire, the company camped hear
January 16th Company “B” of the 56th Enginers was ready
to push on to another objective; the severing of the supply route to Houffalize
and the linkup with First Army driving down from the north. Near the junction of the approach road to
Wicourt, several mines were found. The
company formed part of the CCB defense line at Houffalize until the 17th
Airborne showed up as welcome relief.
For the next two days the
company rested but also swept roads for mines, checked buildings for
booby traps, and destroyed enemy equipment.
the bulge erased, the 11th AD turned to another important objective:
Hitler’s vaunted Westwall, dubbed the “Siegfried Line” by Allied soldiers. The defense line was a wide belt of mines,
barbed wire, tank traps, dragon’s teeth, concrete pillboxes, and gun
emplacements, all supported by German tanks, infantry, and artillery. The job would take teamwork from Thunderbolt
armor, infantry, and engineers.
engineers practiced for the assault by test-firing explosives and building
dummy pillboxes for mock attacks. The
Thunderbolt Division attacked on February 6th with CCR in the lead.
men made good progress with the 56th Armored Engineers blasting
pathways through the concrete dragon’s teeth, clearing mine fields, and
defusing booby-traps. The men of the
Battalion also built a Bailey Bridge over the Our River and stayed hard at work
keeping vital roads in decent shape.
more than one occasion they turned lumberjacks, sawing down appropriately sized
trees to “corduroy” bad spots in roads.
There were also mines to find and clear and more bridges to build.
March 1945, Patton was ready for his dash to the Rhine River with the 4th
and 11th Armored Divisions as his spearheads. The 56th Engineers, attached to
all three combat commands, again found plenty more engineer work on the
fast-moving drive: clearing mines and roadblocks, filling in shell craters in
roads, and building more bridges, often times under enemy fire.
First and Third Armies met along the Rhine, trapping thousands of German
prisoners and capturing tons of enemy equipment. On March 28th the 11th AD crossed the Rhine
at Openheim and drove deep into Germany with the 56th AEB again
clearing mines, building bridges, and smoothing out rough spots in roads. The advance was almost dizzying as the
Thunderbolts roared through Darmstadt, Hanau, Fulda, and Suhl, where they
turned south toward Kulmbach and Bayreuth.
Cham on April 23rd Company “A” of the 56th Engineers
removed the largest abatis it had encountered on the drive … about 30 trees,
one with a three-foot diameter trunk, had been felled across the road. Working by moonlight, the engineers removed
May 2nd the 11th AD roared across the border into Austria
where the 56th Engineers continued to show their ingenuity. The Germans had blown the brides over the
Muhl River, so the engineers blew up a little down stream dam, thereby making
the crossing easier at a ford it also built over the stream.
May 7th, four bulldozers and party of men from the 56th
AEB were sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp to help bury 3,000 inmates
who had perished in the notorious Nazi prison.
The men dug huge trenches for the victims of German atrocities.
The Thunderbolt Division was in Austria on May 8th when Germany surrendered. Colonel Andrew V. Inge’s battalion went overseas with 675 men. The unit suffered 30 killed in action, 115 injured in action, and 121 wounded in action.
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