Preparation for Combat
By Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn
On March 8, 1944, confidential orders from the War Department were received at Division Headquarters transferring Major General Edward H. Brooks to an overseas command which late proved to be that of Commanding General of the Second Armored Division. General Brooks led the Second Armored Division over the beaches of Normandy shortly after D-Day and, as a part of the First Army, participated in the Saint Lo breakthrough shortly thereafter with brilliant success. General Brooks led the pursuit of the First Army northward to the Belgium border. During this pursuit, he with a small number of his staff and a small detachment ambushed a sizeable German column and through effective command control, resulting in prompt reinforcement, practically annihilated the hostile force. Because of the outstanding achievements of the Second Armored Division under his leadership, General Brooks was soon elevated to command the VI Corps, which assignment he held at the end of the war.
On the departure of General Brooks, Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn assumed command of the Division. On March 16 War Department orders were issued confirming, officially, his assignment as division commander.
The division, on the departure of General Brooks, also lost the Chief of Staff who had so ably handled all staff matters since its activation, Colonel Charles D. Palmer. Charlie Palmer joined 'Ted' Brooks as Chief of Staff in the Second Armored Division and moved with him to the VI Corps in the same capacity where he was promoted to Brigadier General in the early Spring of 1945.
With General Kilburn moving up to division headquarters from CC A, a new realignment in command channels became necessary. For the resumption of a strenuous training schedule, after the readjustment of equipment incident to the movement of the division from the Desert to Camp Cooke, the following command slate materialized:
Division Commander: Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn
Commanding CCA: Colonel Willard A. Holbrook (transferred from Division Trains)
Commanding CCB: Colonel Thomas Stark
Commanding Division Reserve: Colonel Virgil Bell
Division Artillery: Colonel John H. Howard
(Replaced Colonel William Gilmore who had departed for an important assignment in Italy and who shortly thereafter was promoted to Brigadier General)
Division Trains: Colonel Robert Lowe
It is of interest to note here that all battalion commanders announced on the reorganization of the division in September, 1943 were still serving in those positions and were to continue to do so until the end of the war with two exceptions; Lieutenant Colonel Theodore G. Bilbo who left command of the 490 F.A. later to become Executive Officer of CC A, and Lieutenant Colonel James R. Hoffman of the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion who was injured in action on the first day of combat. It was a most fortunate record for a division to go through the combat experienced by the 11th Armored Division with only one casualty among Battalion commanders; although Joe Ahee was out of action for 24 hours with an embarrassing wound. To replace Colonel Palmer as Chief of Staff, Colonel Wesley W. Yale arrived on April 3 and assumed that position.
Preparatory to leaving the desert, the division received orders to evacuate to Camp Cooke all motor equipment in its possession as well as other motor equipment in various motor pools scattered throughout the desert as the War Department had resolved to liquidate the Desert Training Command at that time. With an abundance of motor vehicles of all types, the movement to Camp Cooke was materially facilitated. Upon arrival at Cooke it was found that all motor equipment of the 6th Armored Division, including tanks, was available to the division, the 6th having departed for the ETO. From the accumulated equipment now present at Cooke, the division was enabled to equip itself promptly and effectively for the important training ahead, although it meant again the usual prodigious and efficient efforts of all maintenance echelons.
Excess motor equipment was turned in at Camp Roberts wherein lay an unusual incident insofar as the division was concerned. For the only time in its existence, the division was charged indirectly with improper care of motor equipment. For the movement of the division from the desert, our identification symbols had been placed on the bumpers of all vehicles. It was thus that vehicles turned into Roberts bore the 11th AD. The Inspector General of the Army, visiting that camp at this time noted some of these vehicles and indicated that they showed signs of abuse. When presented with information that we merely had evacuated the vehicles from the desert and the "11th AD" was installed only for the overland march, the matter was clarified and dropped.
With the approach of D-Day, which was common knowledge, our ensuing training was considered in the light of "pay dirt". The following objectives were emphasized:
Final qualifications in marksmanship with all weapons, both of an individual character and of a crew nature, including the 57mm Anti-tank Cannon.
Final phases of artillery firing including fires over tanks and infantry, concentration of massed fires, etc.
Tactical employment of tanks in various roles—offense, delaying action, defense, etc.
Communications—perfection of individual operators up to combat command and division control nets, emphasizing use of simple and effective code procedures.
Constant small exercises utilizing all supporting fires— machine guns, mortars, bazookas, artillery.
Platoon, company and battalion problems culminating in the employment of small task forces using small detachments of all arms—infantry, tanks, engineers, medical, etc.
During this period, also, stress was paid to high standards of unit internal housekeeping with kitchens and messes receiving particular attention. As a result, our standards of sanitation were acknowledged in all subsequent inspections from higher levels.
It was evident at this time that our remaining opportunities for training might be limited. It appeared appropriate, therefore, for the new division commander to orient all members of the division on the aspects present under such circumstances. Accordingly, at an assembly of the division on March 24, the following features of an effective combat force were covered:
Discipline—Only a division with great esprit and pride can be said to hold high standards of discipline, for that intangible virtue is based primarily on self respect as well as respect for those individuals from whom the fibers of discipline emanate in any group—discipline based on loyalty springs from the top, in the squad, the platoon, company all the way up.
Military Courtesy—There is only one standard, high. Several laudatory messages were read from various letters and military reports illustrating the current reputation of the division in both civilian and military spheres.
Maintenance—Only vehicles which run are effective in combat. Lives may depend on the excellence of maintenance at that time. Maintenance of weapons, and of personnel from the point of view of medical attention and operation of messes is equally important.
Training for combat—A definite objective in every day's training. No unit must suffer the consequences of lost time and lowered morale induced by ill prepared training periods. Now was the time for combined training to inculcate mutual confidence; infantry in tanks—tanks in the infantry—both in our artillery.
Mental preparation for combat—Now was the time to visualize the shock and rigors of battle. Training to produce as close simulation to combat as possible. The first days of combat at Bastogne paid with interest the days of training now at Cooke.
High standards—All adjacent units to adopt the standards of the division—not the division falling to the standards of any neighbors. The division to excel in any undertaking. The unconfirmed report that certain young women of the community considered members of the division below par in dancing must cease. To overcome such delinquency, the prohibition against the wearing of light civilian shoes was herewith rescinded. Even in the field of jitter-bugging, the division would excel.
On March 31 an additional assembly was conducted involving only the officers of the division in order to re-orient certain factors of importance to all leaders. The first obligation and duty of an officer concerned the care and welfare of men whose fortune it was to fall under his command.
Only those who set example by precept in personal and military conduct met the standard of an accepted leader within the 11th AD.
The activities of the division during the period April-August may be covered under the following general features: During April and May small unit problems were conducted concurrently with final phases of marksmanship.
In June every unit of the division conducted a problem under combat command, Reserve and Trains Headquarters supervision. Each problem included at least one black-out march. Training for the month culminated in combat command and reserve command exercises, utilizing all arms in a fire problem. By this time the fires of our artillery had become highly efficient and every problem involved the use of artillery overhead firing.
Artillery firing went on constantly. A minor incident on May 12 restricted materially our available firing areas. On that date, with all battalions participating, a fluke ricochet struck the crack Daylight Limited of the Southern Pacific. Fragments penetrated the dining car injuring two persons. As a precaution, the northern artillery area was withdrawn from use, which thereafter confined all firing to the southern area.
With battle lessons coming in from the Pacific and from Europe, particularly after D-Day, much attention was given to air ground liaison and the principles of close air support for ground troops. As no Army Air Force tactical elements were available on the West Coast, rather close ties were established with the Navy Training Command with headquarters at San Diego. Admiral Ralph Davis demonstrated the greatest interest and arranged for the participation of naval close support aviation in several exercises with the division.
On July 18 word was received that Major General Charles L. Mullins, Commanding General 25th Infantry Division (previously CG, CCB) had requested the assignment of Colonel Stark as his Chief of Staff. Official orders were received within a few days confirming this new assignment for Colonel Stark. On August 15, Colonel J. J. B. Williams, who had served as Patton's Chief of Artillery in North Africa and who was currently on duty with the Armored Force Center reported at Cooke as our new Chief of Staff. Colonel Yale left the position of Chief of Staff for reassignment as the new commander of CC B.
By the first of August our preparatory measures for movement overseas were well along. As a final gesture of combat training, before packing weapons and turning in vehicles prevented their use, arrangements were made for a concluding problem utilizing all arms along lines of the most recent combat lessons. On August 8, with the Corps Commander, Major General John Millikin, present, the division undertook a rather formidable exercise in conjunction with a large contingent of naval aircraft in close support. The entire division, less participating troops, occupied grandstand seats for the event. After an artillery preparation with salvos falling some 500 yards in front of the spectators, the engineers of Lieutenant Colonel Inge with accompanying infantry in support, reduced a simulated enemy fortified strong points. Two task forces then advanced as a coordinated attack on a distant objective under the support of naval dive bombers. Our measures for air-ground liaison proved effective, as the objective came under prompt and severe punishment from the air. After leading tanks had over-run the hostile position, the exercise terminated in an assault by tank borne infantry to occupy the dominating high ground and initiate a pursuit while the artillery, by overhead fire, searched the routes of retirement of the simulated enemy. The entire event was executed with precision to the entire satisfaction of the division commander and the approval of the corps commander.
While orientation for movement overseas started as early as June, practical measures started in earnest after the first of July. Medical requirements such as various innoculations as well as dental corrections were processed on a 24-hour schedule. Each unit established a key group qualified in all details of packing with the 56th Engineers acting in the leading role for the division.
On June 1, a message to division headquarters inquired as to whether the division could be ready for overseas service by July 1. The answer by the division commander to higher authority was an unqualified "YES". Although unconfirmed, it was later learned that the foregoing inquiry was based on a request from General MacArthur's Headquarters that the 11th A.D. be made available to the Pacific. It is to be assumed the Combined Chiefs of Staff decided that the maximum armored strength be assembled in the ETO, hence our decisive role at Bastogne and historic pursuit into Eastern Europe.
During our tour at Camp Cooke a number of notable persons visited the division.
In the last week of March, a letter from the Secretary of War advised that the Postmaster General, the Honorable Frank C. Walker would visit the division. Mr. Walker participated in a luncheon at Division HQ Staff Mess which impresses him to this day. In addition to witnessing the training under way at the rime, one vehicle of each type within the division was assembled for his inspection. The NCO in charge of each vehicle described the mechanical features and tactical purpose of it. Mr. Walker was not only highly impressed with the quality of Army vehicles but more so with the poise and quality of the men who operated them in the 11th AD. The highlight of the Postmaster General's visit was the opportunity of seeing Captain Robert Ameno of the 41st Tank Battalion. Within a short time Louise Walker, daughter of the Postmaster General and Mrs. Walker, and "Bob" Ameno were married. Captain Ameno, the highest type of American young manhood, was killed in action at the head of his tanks in a most gallant maneuver on our first day of combat at Bastogne.
On May 2, General Marshall paid a surprise visit to the division. The division commander received implicit instructions that no program of a special nature was to be prepared or followed, nor would any information ensure as to the presence of the Chief of Staff at Cooke. General Marshall visited the training areas of each type unit undergoing routine schedules; however, with all radios in the division fairly active it is questionable as to whether his approach to any area was any great surprise. The Chief of Staff was impressed with the standards of training he witnessed, especially a firing problem under way by the infantry under the supervision of Virgil Bell. The concluding event of his visit involved a talk to all officers and NCO's (first three grades) of the division in which the principal topic concerned the need of the most expeditious manner of ending the war with minimum casualties. On June 5 Mr. Peter B. Kyne, the eminent author, paid us a visit as the guest of the division commander, an old friend of long standing. The high touch of Peter Kyne's visit comprised a one-man tank exercise. As an Artillery battery commander in the First World War, he was accustomed to only indirect fire with his 75's. Since that war, it had been his aspiration to fire a 75mm as a direct fire weapon; the tank was the answer. Accordingly under the tender care of a selected tank crew of the 41st Tank Battalion, Peter Kyne lined up on his first target at 1100 yards and in his words "knocked the hell out of it". With direct hits on the next two rounds, the exercise was completed and the participants, including the tank, returned to the Company motor pool; the eminent author was content. During the stay of Peter Kyne, the division received another distinguished gentleman through the good offices of G-1, "Ole" Olson, — Mr. Jim Jeffries, former heavyweight champion of the world. Both visitors attended a camp boxing card where "Jim" officiated as referee. Both were impressed with the offensive power of every Thunderbolt fighter including the renowned "Andy" Anderson of the 42nd Tankers.
Visits from various inspection groups occurred frequently. Two parties from the Armored Force Center at Fort Knox looked us over in April and again in July. On both occasions, their comments registered the high standards of training and maintenance found in all units. Inspectors from the Chief of Ordnance and other agencies conveyed similar laudatory views. The climax in inspections took place in the latter part of August when Lieutenant General Ben Lear, Chief of Ground Forces, with a considerable staff spent two days looking us over before we started for the Port of Embarkation. At the same time Major General Charles L. Scott, Chief of the Armored Force was present. General Scott was interested, particularly, in the training of tank marksmanship then in final stages. In July the Division Commander with Combat Command and Reserve Command commanders had attended a special course at Fort Knox stressing the highlights of a newly conceived procedure along this line of training. On their return, the features of this new procedure were immediately instituted in the Division with the result that all tank personnel had completed the course prior to departure from Cooke. General Scott was elated with his observations in the division. General Lear was especially interested in the progress of the Orientation and Educational measures developed in the Division. He requested that our measures be outlined in the way of an S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure) which was accomplished superbly by Lieutenant Harold Gilliam and his crew of assistants including Ted Cronyn. Our S.O.P. as provided the Army Ground Forces was subsequently distributed to the Army at large.
During our stay at Cooke, a number of events, beyond the purview of routine training took place.
On March 11, 12 and 13 a selected group comprising all arms participated in an elaborate War Bond Drive" in the amphitheater at San Diego. For three consecutive nights, this group of Thunderbolts, under the charge of Lieutenant Colonel Bray, C.O. of the 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, demonstrated modern war before crowds of 30,000 or over. Every feature of war by small elements, which was practical, was introduced into the demonstration. On the final night, the work of the detachment was witnessed by high Army and Navy brass including the division commander before a S.R.O. crowd. Numerous letters were received at Division Headquarters commending the outstanding performance of these representatives of the Division as well as their exemplary appearance and conduct in San Diego.
On the Fourth of July the Division was represented at Santa Barbara in a most spectacular demonstration. Again the spirit to excel was manifest in the appearance of all equipment and the personal conduct of every member participating. Again laudatory letters were later received expressing esteem for members of the Division by the California public.
On Easter Morning the Division Chaplain, Chaplain Johnston, organized a sunrise service. Although on the chilly side by way of weather a large attendance gathered for services. It was the initial appearance of the division's choir which was to reap much appreciation as time went under the inspirational leadership of Chaplain Hamilton of the Division Artillery. All who were privileged to hear this men's choir fell under its spell. Requests came in from San Diego to Seattle and as far East as Salt Lake City for its presence.
One of the outstanding events of a religious character grew from the inspiration of Chaplain Gilbert who had but recently joined the division from a tour in Alaska. Great stress was evident on all sides on the features of P.O.M. Father Tom suggested that perhaps some thought could be given to the spiritual S.O.P. and he suggested a Three Day Retreat for all members of the Catholic faith in the Division, further that such ceremony take place in the last week of June in the Mission at Lompoc, which had been rehabilitated in recent years. While some 3,000 members of the Faith were initially expected to participate, it was found that only some 1200 could be accommodated in the Mission. On June 25 some 1200 Catholic members of the Thunderbolts marched solemnly across the rolling California hills towards the Mission. Half way the column was joined by a robed member of the Order operating the Mission who, holding high a Cross, led the procession to the Holy grounds where a century ago the Dons of early California had worshiped.
For two days, given to individual silence and meditation, the participants benefited from the rituals of the Retreat. A stout-hearted Irish mess sergeant from the 42nd Tank Battalion with his kitchen crew assured all attendants adequate physical sustenance. Fathers of the Passionate Heart Order assured spiritual progress and sustenance to each individual. On the third day, with the Archbishop of Los Angeles officiating confirmation ceremonies took place. After the confirmation, the entire group was addressed by the Division Chaplain, Mr. Joe Scott, a noted orator of Eucharistic renown, General Kilburn and Archbishop Moncrief. A most appealing and inspiring sermon by the Passionate Father conducting the retreat terminated the ceremonies. The press as well as motion picture news agencies carried the details of the Retreat throughout the nation.
On August 15 the Division celebrated its second anniversary. Colonel Olson, G- 1, and Major Knapp (Joseph A.) Division Special Service Officer organized and presented a most complete and elaborate series of activities. The day was highlighted in the evening when a notable array of Hollywood celebrities participated in an entertainment attended by a capacity crowd of the division.
By the first of August War Department plans for our movement overseas had definitely crystallized. The latest in advanced weapons and equipment was being received daily, issued to appropriate units and carefully packed for shipment. Final details, prescribed by the official POM Manual, were being given constant attention.
One of the first orders received concerned the movement of an advance party to Elmira, New York, the Holding and Reconsignment point for the New York Port of Embarkation. The party was to consist of key members of the various services, Ordnance, Quartermaster, Signal, Medical and Engineers. Their function was to receive and check all equipment, principally combat vehicles completely equipped for combat, earmarked for the 11th Armored Division. As a precautionary measure, the Division Commander elected to increase the party, as designated by higher headquarters, by a considerable number (35) of additional officers and assistants. This course of action proved most effective. The Division party at Elmira, operating on a 24 hour schedule, had soon identified our equipment to the last vehicle, and so reported to the Division Commander at Cooke.
Now occurred an untoward incident. The Thunderbolts were definitely scheduled to follow overseas the 10th Armored Division. At this time higher authority decided to transfer the 86th Infantry Division to Cooke. In order to economize on critical railroad facilities it was further decided to delay our movement until the arrival of rail equipment bearing elements of the 86th Division. As sea transport had been set up for the 11th AD, the War Department now issued instructions for the movement of the 12th Armored Division to New York in order to utilize the shipping already set up for the Thunderbolts. As the equipment for the 12th Armored had not yet arrived at Elmira, the next step was to issue the greater part of our equipment to them. It was this series of events which delayed our departure for England and resulted ultimately in our assignment to the VIII Corps where combat objectives were given frequently far remote from those appropriate to an Armored Division.
One incident arose at this time indicating a manner in which the best laid plans go astray. After our advance party reached Elmira, new tables of equipment were published authorizing two-way radio, transmitting as well as receiving, for all tanks. Heretofore only two tanks out of five in a platoon were so equipped. The value of such equipment was so obvious that the division commander spared no efforts in seeing that every Thunderbolt tank was so equipped. Contact with the party at Elmira assured all that such radio equipment would be secured. When our tank equipment was diverted to the 12th Armored this issue had to be re-initiated from scratch. Urgent messages were dispatched to Ground Forces to expedite delivery. On his way East the division commander stopped in Washington with a primary aim of securing this radio equipment. Within 24 hours assurance was given that the extra radio sets would be delivered within the week at the NYPE. A timely check there later located the equipment in a box car at Cleveland, Ohio. Drastic messages succeeded in placing this valuable equipment in our hand in time to be loaded just prior to the departure of our convoy.
About the third of September our first business-like movement took place when our advance parry, with personnel from every unit departed for the ETO under Colonel Holbrook. By the time the party reached New York, it was under Brigadier General Holbrook to the delight of the entire division. General Holbrook led his personnel aboard the HMS "Queen Mary" for the crossing. Aboard on the trip was a VIP in the person of the Honorable Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain. Before landing in England, the top brass in the party had enjoyed luncheon as guests of the Prime Minister as well as prodigious liquid refreshments into the late afternoon. As our original overseas orders intended our landing on the beaches at Cherbourg, General Holbrook immediately departed from Southampton for that destination. As later explained, our advance party actually received us in Southern England.
By September 10 our movement toward Europe was well under way with our troop trains departing from Cooke as often as the units of the 86th Division unloaded. Insistence on immaculate kitchen cars on departure delayed briefly a few trains; however, when it was evident to Southern Pacific officials that we would not load until kitchen cars passed inspection, a little further delay was experienced.
The Division occupied Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for final processing. Within a few days, statements of camp officials indicated that the Thunderbolts were unusually efficient in all processing details. Reports, likewise, indicated that troop trains arriving with units of the Division were the cleanest and best organized to reach Camp Kilmer over a considerable period. Arrangements were made to see that every member of the Division had an opportunity to see and visit the city of New York.
Just prior to sailing, General Kilburn held his final assembly of the division in this country. Four factors in the days ahead were stressed.
In all further opportunities for training, the strictest attention would be paid to assure that every available supporting weapon was utilized. Any weapon not firing was a weapon wasted. No hostile objective would be subdued with human blood and sacrifice when the same could be achieved by firepower. Let massed fires play their part. From the first action let the Germans realize that to snipe a Thunderbolt from the depths of any building meant total destruction of that building. The Germans could either die or surrender, but once our units were within a town or village he could not snipe and live.
That with winter approaching, bad weather would be the normal situation. Therefore, every member of the Division was to expect the rigors of inclement and severe weather and be mentally and physically prepared for it. The wet rain of Southern England and the snow and subzero weather at Bastogne tested the mettle of the Division in these respects with normal effects on the tasks at hand. That no division would go into combat where its individual members nor its collective units were better prepared for eventualities nor with better prospects of valiant and effective action than the group of American soldiers in the present assembly.
On the afternoon of September 27 our advance parties left Camp Kilmer to board the ships on which the Division would sail. Colonel Bell had been designated Troop Commander aboard HMS "Samaria" and Colonel Lowe commander of troops aboard USS "Hermitage".
On the following day, September 28, in accordance with a rigid troop movement table, the remainder of the Division boarded trains at Camp Kilmer and transferring to ferries on the West Bank of the Hudson River was landed at piers adjacent to either the Samaria or Hermitage. With each man carrying every item of individual combat equipment, including weapons, only men in prime physical condition could have negotiated the steep and slippery gangplanks onto the vessels. The gracious and patriotic women of the American Red Cross, ever present with our troops, were on hand with hot coffee and doughnuts which were enthusiastically accepted by all ranks.
By dark, the division was aboard with some 5,000 on the "Samaria" and some 4,800 on the "Hermitage". Late in the evening the Postmaster General came aboard the Samaria to bid his son-in-law, Captain Robert Ameno, 41st Tank Battalion, a last farewell and to bid "good-luck' to General Kilburn and Colonel J. J. B. Williams, Chief of Staff.
Shortly after midnight, in the early hours of September 29 we were headed for our rendezvous with the minions of Hitler. With daylight, we discovered that we were in a convoy of some 48 ships under a Commodore, U. S. Navy. The horizon disclosed a number of destroyers and corvettes busily occupied against enemy submarine threats. Within the 48-ship convoy it was understood that our combat equipment, including all vehicles and tanks, was complete and would be available to us almost immediately after debarkation. Such was not to prove to be the case.
On this first morning, the Master of the Samaria disclosed to the division commander that our destination was Cherbourg. With our advance party probably already there the situation appeared most satisfactory. The first four days of our voyage followed a routing pattern with moderate weather and no signs of German submarines. On the fifth day our course swung to the southeast on a drastic tangent. The submarine warning system had disclosed a wolf pack concentrating along our previously charted course.
On the sixth day out of New York, Captain Bates of the "Samaria" informed General Kilburn that our destination had been changed to England. Later, it was advised that condition of the beaches near Cherbourg were no longer in shape to receive heavy combat loads such as tanks and heavy motors.
Late on the afternoon of October 10 the dim and misty shores of Southwestern England first appeared to curious eyes. At the same time it was announced that the "Samaria" would tie up at Liverpool while the Hermitage would unload at Southampton. By daylight October 11 the "Samaria" was anchored off Liverpool. By dark, General Kilburn and Colonel Williams with Captain Robert Neiman, Aide to General Kilburn, were over the side by Jacob's ladder and soon in Liverpool to check the details of unloading and concentrating the Division.
On the 12th of October the first units of the Division stepped ashore on British soil. News from General Holbrook disclosed that our advance party, less detachments, had returned and taken over our billets in Southern England. As units on the "Samaria" debarked under a schedule prepared by the Transportation Corps of the Liverpool Section, CZ, ETO, they entrained for travel to the south. At the same time a similar procedure was being followed for all units leaving the "Hermitage".
On this date, General Kilburn was handed three highly significant letters.
The first letter signed by Captain O. Bateman, Master HMS "Samaria" read in part, "I would like to express my admiration of the officers and men under your command, and also to add that in my opinion they are the best disciplined division it has been my honour to transport overseas." It may be stated here that Captain Bateman, for the greater part of the war, from 1939 through 1943, had been Vice Commander of HMS "Queen Mary"; he remarked that during the entire war he transported on vessels on which he served over one million troops of the Allied Forces, British, Canadians, Australians, Americans, etc.
The second letter signed by Colonel Grover C. Davis, Transport Commander, HMS "Samaria", read in part, "Your officers and men are the finest I have ever carried and you are to be congratulated as their leader."
The third letter was signed by Captain J. T. Talbert, U. S. Navy, commanding USS "Hermitage" and read in part,
"This ship has transported in the last two and one-half years a fair sized Army, and I can assure you that the personnel of your division, which it was our privilege to transport, were by far the best organized and most outstanding that the ship has ever carried."
At nightfall, October 13 the Division was again concentrated in the training areas of Southern England.
While the area and billets assigned the Division were satisfactory from the viewpoint of shelter, they were entirely unsatisfactory from a training angle. The area was roughly 60 miles from north to south and some 40 miles from east to west. Measures were instituted without delay to improve the situation. The need for more adequate training areas than were now provided became more acute when it was found that only a portion of our equipment had arrived with our convoy. It was evident, therefore, that with late arrival of training and combat equipment the time element might prove a serious factor in our readiness for combat. Accordingly, every argument was presented London and the British Billeting Committee to afford better and more ample facilities. By the middle of November, the Division had been regrouped at the expense of time and a burden on units involved but with justifiable results.
Knowing that late receipt of equipment might result in a mental let-down, the division commander specified that during the period October 15-November 15 every member of the Division would be afforded an opportunity of visiting London. With the outstanding caliber of our personnel, such education advantages were matters of obvious recognition. Prior to our departure for the Continent in December, the greater number of our men had seen practically all points of historic interest in Southern England. Realizing that our equipment could not catch us for a considerable period, request was made and authority issued for a series of groups from the Division to visit the front. These groups extended down to battalion commanders and their key staff officers. By pre-arrangement, different groups went to various parts of the front, with the result that by early December, we had a comprehensive picture of the different tactical problems and countermeasures existing among all American Corps and especially armored divisions.
In addition to the 11th AD in the south of England we found on our arrival the 12th Armored Division occupying Tuthall Barracks. This establishment had been designed and constructed primarily to provide the requirements of an Armored Division. Here again, the delay in our movement overseas proved a burden to the division. The 12th Armored moved to the Continent about the middle of November and within a short time the Commander had requested, by name, the assignment of the 11th AD. Being only partially equipped at that time the foregoing request could not be mer by SHAEF.
During our stay in England the Division received a number of distinguished visitors. Perhaps one of the most illustrious was Lieutenant General Sir Hugh Elles who commanded the Southern Region in the British Administrative Command. General Elles had the distinction of commanding the first tank action in modern annals when he took the First Tank Brigade into the attack at Cambrai. Sir Hugh was most generous in his comments on the personnel and activities of the division on his departure. In early November General Brooks had requested the services of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Chalmers G-3, as Deputy Chief of Staff, VI Corps. This meant a promotion to the grade of Colonel for "Black Jack" so that no objection was interposed on his projected reassignment.
To replace Chalmers, Lieutenant Colonel Spelman Downer Executive Officer, CC A, was brought up to Division Headquarters. After much discussion and consideration Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Bilbo, Jr., C.O., 490 Field Artillery, was relieved of his command assignment and replaced Downer as Executive Officer CC A. The command of the 490 F. A. diverted to Lieutenant Colonel Harold H. Davitt, Jr., who commanded that unit brilliantly in action in the same fashion as did Ray Lumry and Louis Alt with the 491st and 492nd, respectively.
By the end of November, the Division was once more in possession of practically all combat equipment, although a slight shortage in radio sets existed for an additional 10 days. Opportunities had been provided for every unit to fire all weapons newly received, including the artillery 105's and the 76mm Tanks. The first week in December found us ready for any eventuality.
News of the next move was not long delayed. By December 3 advance orders directed preparations for a move to ETO. An advance party, again under General Holbrook, was dispatched to Southampton. The first echelons of the division were m move on December 10. The division commander was advised, confidentially, that our destination would be Liege, Belgium, for duty with the First Army. By December 12, over half of the division was in movement. That evening an urgent message from Captain William D. Marland, CC A, liaison officer for the Division at Cherbourg, was received by General Kilburn. The message was to the effect that drastic changes in our orders had been issued; that the situation was such as to warrant General Kilburn awaiting the arrival of Captain Marland in England. The following day, General Kilburn traveled to London and found that the division was now slated to proceed to Chateau Briand to relieve the 94th Infantry Division and assume the containment mission against German forces in St. Nazaire and Lorient. Steps were taken immediately to divert our advance party from LeHavre to Cherbourg. General Kilburn, that day (13th) flew to Cherbourg and on December 14 arrived at Chateau Briand to initiate action in relieving the 94th Division.
General Holbrook succeeded in promptly swinging his advance party to Cherbourg, although a few unit detachments were still missing at LeHavre, their LST having failed to show up. By December 18, several battalions of the division had landed at Cherbourg, had combat loaded with ammunition under severe conditions at ammunition dumps now located in knee-deep mud, and were enroute south towards Rennes. Colonel Virgil Bell was utilizing his accustomed drive and energy in moving the remainder of the Division out of Southampton, although a considerable portion, especially the service contingents, was still in their billets in England.
At dusk on December 16, faint bits of news reached Chateau Briand of a formidable German counteroffensive somewhere on the front of the Twelfth Army Group. In the meantime the majority of the division staff had reached the new Command Post and all hands were busy in the final features of the plans to relieve the 94th. On the following day our plans for containing St. Nazaire and Lorient were complete. Assignments to each combat command had been developed and the location and make-up of Colonel Bell's Reserve Command were confirmed.
The news from the front was ominous—the Germans had penetrated American lines to a depth of 35 miles. General Maloney (94th) and Kilburn held hourly conferences. In the afternoon, General Kilburn motored to Rennes to look over the 21st Armored Infantry under Hoffman, the 55th Armored Infantry under Hearn and the 490 F.A. under Davitt, all having arrived at that point under the control of CC B and Colonel Yale. To check last minute details with the Brittany Base Section, in Rennes, General Kilburn visited that headquarters and was handed this message: "Suspend all movement 11th Armored Division in place and await further orders—Signed Lee." The message was paraphrased to Holbrook at Cherbourg with instructions to get word to Bell at Southampton.
The discussions within the staff went on far into the night. On the morning of December 19, word reached Division Headquarters that the 11th Armored Division would move as promptly as possible on three routes to the vicinity of Reims in SHAEF Reserve. The Zone of Communications under Lieutenant General John C. H. (Courthouse) Lee required all of the 19th to develop routes of march, gasoline supply, etc.
The Thunderbolts headed East at daylight of December 20. Yale led the group now in bivouac at Rennes. Holbrook started CCA and those units waiting at Cherbourg. Bell put the heat on loading the last of our units out of England. Six hundred miles away by circuitous routes marked with temporary bridges lay the first march objective in Europe.
General Kilburn accompanied by Colonel Williams and Captain Neiman headed for Paris. With the mud and muck of winter ahead it was imperative that our new tanks be equipped with "track extensions" before our first action; the best source of supply was Paris. Within 48 hours, 8000 pounds of medium tank track extensions were on the way to Soissons for installation on our tanks. Just how much these accessories were to benefit many of our tank crews during those first bloody days at Bastogne may be questionable; yet there is satisfaction in the knowledge that no effort ever was spared in the Division to secure every possible advantage for its members by every staff and command echelon.
At a visit to SHAEF on December 22, the division commander was advised in an informal manner that, perchance, the 11th Armored Division might prove to be the lone remaining combat element between the advancing Germans under Von Rundstedt and the Atlantic Ocean. That afternoon, having been preceded by Colonel Williams General Kilburn headed for Reims. Arrival there found General Lee and his Reims commander in a rather portentious conference discussing the adequate defense of the Meuse River. The knowledge that the Thunderbolts were concentrating on Reims dispelled materially the heavy atmosphere of anxiety. (Note: With the remaining elements of the Division still moving out of England, the wheels and tracks of our march columns continued their grind over the roads of France. In the meantime General Kilburn had been placed in charge of all defenses along the Meuse River from Verdun to Givet, some 160 miles. A large portion of the Division Staff was assembled at Charleroi coordinating this mission. In fact CC A had been ordered bivouacs north of that city for use as a mobile reserve. Together with three battalions of French Resistance Forces, CC A, on arrival was to push reconnaissance elements well to the east of the river.
Christmas Day 1944 found the Division still moving on the Reims area with the Division Commander and Staff engaged in a mission remote from dose contact with our own elements. During the day, great fleets of C-47's (Cargo Planes) soared over Charleroi headed for the embattled forces at Bastogne to drop desperately needed supplies. The spirit of Christmas was not with us, but the situation of other men caught in the merciless pressure of the Bulge made our position enviable by comparison. On the following day, the 26th, a message to this effect was phoned to General Kilburn from both SHAEF and General Bradley's Twelfth Army Group, "Your friends to the north may give a party. It may be a large affair, but only a part of your family is invited to participate in some phases of it"—Transcribed, "The British forces to your north may execute an attack; their attack to be reinforced by certain elements of the 11th AD."
In accord with the foregoing message, word was received from the VIII Corps requesting the Division Commander to join in a reconnaissance with staff members of the Corps for assembly areas near Givet. General Kilburn with Lieutenant Colonel Downer, G-3, and General Holbrook and Staff spent the greater part of the day on this purpose. On returning to Charleroi late in the afternoon, it was found that the 17th Airborne Division had arrived in such force as to enable them to assume the defense of the Meuse. Our staff lost no time in departing for the Division C.P. which had been installed in a French manor house some distance northeast of Reims. The assembled staff on the evening of the 27th was a welcome sight to General Kilburn who had been out of direct contact with the division since the 13th of the month. It was this night that the news was announced that the last of our units had closed in their assigned bivouacs at two o'clock that morning.
The first event on the morning of the 28th was a meeting of all unit commanders and staffs at the Division CP. Without delay the combat groupments of the combat commands and reserve command were designated with the directive that liaison agents would report at once to appropriate headquarters. Likewise the immediate preparation of an operating signal annex and other features of a SOP character, incident to our current situation were directed for early distribution. The remainder of the daylight hours were given to checks of supply matters to assure adequate issues of ammunition, gasoline, etc. A liaison officer already had been dispatched to the VIII Corps. (Captain Emmett Keough). The wide dispersion of the division, with CC A north of Charleroi, gave some concern.
At 8:30 p.m. (28th) the Division Commander's phone rang with the Chief of Staff, VIII Corps, on the other end. General Kilburn repeated this message, "Alert your division to march—Have the Signal Officer copy this coded message." To prepare the issue of orders and assure distribution down to subordinate units with a division requires six hours by all acceptable standards in Army circles. With some impatience the decoding of the message given to the Signal Officer, was awaited. When clarified, the Division had received orders to move without delay to assembly areas southwest of the beleaguered town of Bastogne. The only feasible route lay through Sedan with a one-way bridge on the Meuse River at that point. Within an hour, march orders had been prepared and issued to the major commands. By 1:00 a.m., December 29, CC A was in movement Midnight of that day was to find the 11th A.D. with a march depth in single column of over 50 miles, beyond a one-way bridge and closed in bivouac some 96 miles to the east. Only a highly efficient, well organized, disciplined division could have accomplished that fear.
The Division CP was established at Neufchateau. Enroute to that point, General Kilburn visited Headquarters VIII Corps. There the proposed plan of attack of the Thunderbolts, to relieve besieged Bastogne, was discussed. The Division was to attack at daylight, December 30 (The next morning). It was noted that the plan specified an attack by one combat command to the east and the other to the west of a heavily wooded area; a situation which precluded any possible mutual support between these two major elements. This feature was protested by the Division Commander as dangerous to the welfare of our units as well as futile towards decisive results. This protest was over-ruled on the basis that the 87th Infantry Division would attack on our left and being a green division should be supported by the availability or armor. The 11th A.D., also, was to taste combat for the first time. The plan as outlined, however, was to prevail—at a cost.
At 4:00 p.m. General Holbrook and Colonel Yale reported to the Division CP. Both had been in contact with the 6th Cavalry Group which was in contact with German Forces in the area in which we were to launch our attack. In so far as could be ascertained, two German Panzer Divisions held around which we must secure. (Soon identified as the 3rd Panzer Grenadier and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions). In addition the Reimer Brigade (an armored unit commanded by a Brigadier named Reimer who previously had been chief of Hitler's personal bodyguard. A brigade comprising selected personnel of the most flagrant type of young and brutal Nazi. Comparing tables of equipment, the German forces opposing us were potentially hr stronger in tanks than ourselves. The proposed plan of attack was discussed and instructions given for the combat commanders to conduct final reconnaissance in view of the attack orders anticipated. A concluding assembly of unit commanders would be held at 9:30 p.m. when the formal orders for the attack would be issued
In the meantime the never ending stream of vehicles continued to flow through Neufchateau on their way to final assembly positions and their rendezvous with destiny and the German. Dusk fell and gave way to a clear, cloudless sky in which glowed a brilliant full moon. The sound of airplanes announced the strafing? of our columns by small flights of Messerschmidts. Alert driving together with the effective actions of our 575th AAA Auto Weapons Battalion resulted in negligible casualties. Later the 575th was to draw first enemy blood when their guns knocked down a lone German fighter who attempted to rake the Division CP. The kitchen crew of Division Headquarters Mess brought in the first German prisoner when the wounded aviator landed by parachute close to their culinary operations. While after midnight, the mess crew, always alert ones, were on the job and pounced on the Heine the moment he struck the ground.
The formal written Corps Orders, for the attack, were delivered by Keough at dark and the provisions of the Division attack for the following morning were complete by 9:30 p.m. when the major unit commanders assembled in the caravan of the Division Commander. The widely divergent maneuver by our two combat commands, previously specified by Corps, still held. Details for the coordination of supporting artillery fires, particularly for the supporting role of Corps Artillery, were anything but clear and specific. Air-ground liaison groups of the 9th Tactical Air Force operating under the Third Army had yet to appear. Information of the hostile situation in our zone of action provided by the 6th Cavalry Group was, to the Division Commander, of a hazy and indefinite nature.
As to be proven during the five ensuing days, as now described by Robert E. Merriam in the book "Dark December", the division was to contribute hugely to the decisive Battle of the Bulge. Its gallant and impetuous assault to assure American retention of the vital road-center of Bastogne was to result in the destruction of a great part of Von Rundstedt's hordes which otherwise, on withdrawal to the East, would have manned later the Siegfried Line. As was declared afterwards by the VIII Corps Commander, the Thunderbolts saved that critical area and the attendant travail and confusion which would have prevailed had it fallen to the now desperate Germans.
By 10:30 p.m., the major unit commanders had received their orders, discussed last minute details and departed. Within a dozen hours the Division was to have tasted the rigors and the cost of modern war. The stakes were high but irrespective of cost the Division had that fiber and that caliber to meet, head on, the severest crisis of its history. We were to join that Holy fraternity who, throughout American annals, have been launched into the throes of major battle in their first engagement. Outnumbered in tanks, out-gunned in tank cannon, operating in tricky tank terrain, we were to force two crack Panzer Divisions and a picked armored brigade of the vaunted German legions to surrender over six miles of key ground. Our junction with the intrepid 101st Airborne Division assisted materially in cracking the back of the Bulge.
Only a disciplined, trained division, high in esprit and pride, with complete confidence in every member could have boasted this magnificent achievement. When the harsh winds of winter and the mild zephyrs of Spring flow over the graves of those valiant men of the division whom we left under European soil, one may distinguish, faintly but exaltedly, the undaunted refrain—"We were Thunderbolts".