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A Brief History of the Thunderbolt Division

The 11th Armored Division was activated on August 15, 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana. From that date until June, 1944, the Division underwent combat training at Polk and Camp Barkeley Texas, desert maneuvers at Camp Ibis, California, and combat readiness training at Camp Cooke, California.

In July 1944, preparations began for overseas deployment. On September 27th, the division embarked from Staten Island, New York, aboard the troop ships HMS Samaria and USS Hermitage to join the largest Atlantic convoy of WWII. On October 12th the troops disembarked on English soil, moving into training quarters on and near the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

In early December, the Division was deployed to continental Europe, landing in Normandy, and moving south to a marshaling area at Rennes. The intended mission was to reduce remaining pockets of enemy resistance along the French coast at Lorient and Saint Nazaire.

The German attack through the Ardennes caused an abrupt change of orders. The Division embarked on one of the most grueling forced marches in American military history, covering over 350 miles across France in four days. By December 23rd, the division had joined General George S. Patton’s US Third Army, and was deployed defensively along a 30 mile reach of the Meuse River, extending from Sedan to Givet. Shortly afterward, orders came to advance another 85 miles northeasterly into Belgium, assuming attack positions in the vicinity of Neufchateau.

The first combat occurred on December 30th, when the Division engaged head-on the fanatical Füher Begleit Brigade and the Panzer Lehr Division south of Remagne. Over the next several days, a furious battle raged, as these enemy forces along with the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division and the 26th Volksgrenadier Division sought to close the relief corridor into Bastogne from the south. The 11th Armored and adjacent units fought them to a standstill. During this period, the Division suffered heavy casualties from enemy action, as well as from the bitter cold. However, the enemy paid a heavier price, and the vital supply line into Bastogne remained open.

On January 13th, the Division mounted a two pronged spearhead attack from the Bastogne enclave,
moving from Longchamps northwesterly through Bertogne, and northeasterly through Foy and Noville to high ground south of Houffalize. Contact was made with the 2nd Armored Division of the First Army on January 16th, ending the Nazi ill fated attempt to reach Antwerp, to divide the allied forces, and to retake Luxembourg and Belgium. The enemy suffered huge losses in men and materiel, and the way was opened for an all out assault on the vaunted Siegfried line, and on Germany itself.

On January 20th, the Division attacked northeasterly through Bourcy and Buret, and by the 22nd had reached its objective north of Troisvierges. Moving on across northern Luxembourg, the Siegfried line was assaulted in force on February 6th. Intensive attacks continued until February 18th, by which time the line had been breached, and the way opened for armor led attacks on the Rhineland.

As the Division advanced into Germany in early March, fanatical resistance was put up by the elite German 5th Parachute Division . In freezing weather with snow flurries, the towns of Fleringen, Wallersheim and Budesheim were captured, as the Division relentlessly advanced on the Kyll River, the last major barrier west of the Rhine River. On March 7th, a surprise attack was made across the Kyll, and by nightfall the town of Kelberg was captured, with heavy enemy losses.

With the fall of Kelberg, major enemy resistance was shattered, and the Division made a quick dash to the Rhine. On March 9th, the west bank of the river was reached at Brohl and Andernach. The drive netted thousands of prisoners, vital enemy ordnance and supplies. From a strategic standpoint, it effected a link up with the US First Army, closing the mouth of a huge pocket, and isolating six German divisions west of the Rhine.

On March 16th, the Division withdrew to the west, and attacked southeasterly , crossing the Moselle River in the vicinity of Bullay. After pushing 70 miles against scattered resistance, the Rhine was again reached in the vicinity of Worms. This drive netted more than 20,000 prisoners from disorganized and demoralized German units.

After spending several days in defensive positions along the west bank, the Division crossed the Rhine on the Third Army’s pontoon bridge at Nierstein on March 28th, and immediately attacked northeasterly toward Hanau and Fulda. On March 30th, a stubborn battle developed in the vicinity of Gelnhausen. The key communications center of Fulda was contained by artillery fire, and left for supporting infantry units to clear out.

Leaving Fulda, the Thunderbolt drove on, blazing a fiery spearhead deep into the very heart of Germany. So swift was the advance that the enemy was completely disorganized. Supporting infantry units were often left 50 to 70 miles behind. On April 2nd, bridges across the Werra River were captured intact, and hundreds of allied captives, military and political prisoners, were freed from a prison compound and hospital at Grimmenthal.

Moving into Thuringia, on April 3rd considerable resistance was encountered at Suhl and Oberhof. The towns were overwhelmed after preparatory artillery attacks. On April 4th one of the largest ordnance materiel hauls was made at Zella Mehlis, where four Walther Arms plants were captured

Between April 6th and April 10th, the Division’s axis of attack shifted southeasterly, paralleling the Czechoslovak border, and driving into Bavaria, leaving supporting infantry units far behind. Some elements of the Division suffered casualties from bypassed pockets of SS troops. On April 7th, at Schleusingen, cavalry and engineer units were ambushed, with resulting casualties and equipment loss. A counterattack crushed enemy resistance and recaptured some of the men and equipment.

In rapid succession, many towns, including Themar, Oberlauter, Coburg, Kronach, Kulmbach and Bayreuth fell to the 11th, in spite of increased presence of German military aircraft. Continuing the attack, the 11th captured Grafenwohr, with military facilities including the largest reported German chemical warfare dump in existence. Over 3,000,000 rounds of chemical filled ammunition was taken, along with enormous quantities of other ordnance materiel and food stores.
On April 22nd, 1722 allied prisoners were released from captivity at Weiden. Further on, approaching Cham, roadsides were littered with bodies of political prisoners who had been executed by their SS guards in order to prevent their release. An airdrome, source of much recent harassment by enemy aircraft, as well as Marshall Kesselring’s private train, were also seized in the Cham area.

Proceeding on toward the Austrian border, enemy pockets of resistance were overcome in sharp engagements at Regen and Wegesheid. On April 26th Thunderbolt patrols crossed the border into Austria, and some task force units patrolled northeasterly into Czechoslovakia. Overcoming resistance, blown bridges, and roadblocks at Neufelden and Rottenegg, the Division forced surrender of Linz on May 4th. The heavily mined Adolph Hitler Bridge across the Danube River at Linz was captured intact. Engineer units promptly defused and removed tons of explosives from that bridge and the adjacent railroad bridge.

On May 5th, a cavalry patrol unexpectedly encountered German forces guarding the death camp complexes of Gusen and Mauthausen. The patrol returned with 1800 prisoners, to the great surprise of their commanders. Action was immediately taken to restore and maintain order in the camps, to provide medical assistance to the starving inmates, and to provide for burial of thousands of victims of Nazi brutality.

Cavalry patrols linked up with Russian forces advancing from the east at Amstetten on May 8th,
the day following the German surrender. Thus ended the combat record of the Thunderbolt Division
In 5 months of combat, the Division took a total of 76,229 prisoners, not including 10,000 who were turned over to supporting infantry units, and 34,125 who were returned to Soviet jurisdiction under the terms of surrender.

Following termination of hostilities, and until it was disbanded in September 1945, the Division engaged in occupation duties. These included providing medical and other aid to freed prisoners from the death camps, processing and returning displaced persons, processing and returning prisoners of war, and supporting local authorities in maintaining order in the civilian population.

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