World War II Europe
Eastern Edge of the Hurtgen Forest
Cold, wet and hungry Soldiers hunkered down in foxholes, side by side with complete strangers. In two weeks, the 22nd Infantry had lost 151% of its riflemen while fighting for six thousand yards of ground in the Hurtgen Forest. Urged forward time after time, the line companies had endured an onslaught of German artillery barrages, machine gun fire and minefields. Many attacks had been stopped cold, smothered by German shells and bullets. So many men had been lost that the rifle companies were filled with green replacements thrown into the line with bewildering speed. Once considered the pride of the 1st Army, the 22nd had become a shell of its former self.
The attacks continued with relentless intensity until the 22nd Infantry had lost almost all its veteran dogfaces, the men who had come ashore at Utah Beach earlier in the summer. Somehow, the regiment ground forward, inch by inch against withering fire and counter-attacks until by the end of November, one of the 22nd Infantry’s battalions had reached the outskirts of Grosshau, Germany, the last town before the Roer Plain. Take the town and another push would thrust the entire 4th Infantry Division into open ground where the 5th Armored Division, waiting in reserve, would exploit.
On November 27, 1944, B Company 1st Battalion 22nd Infantry advanced into a German kill zone while pushing on for Grossau. Pinned down by machine gun fire, B Company was soon hit by an artillery and mortar barrage. With casualties mounting, an acting squad leader named Private Marcario Garcia launched a one-man attack on the machine gun nest. Despite being wounded, he pressed his assault, killed three Germans and knocked out the machine gun. He returned to the company line, which was now being raked by another machine gun nest. He located it and stormed the nest, killing three more Germans and capturing four others. The second attack freed up B Company and the advance continued. Only then did Garcia go to the rear for medical treatment.
Private Garcia received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, the first Mexican citizen to receive America’s highest award for bravery. He became an American citizen in 1947. Shortly after President Truman bestowed the MOH on him at a White House ceremony in 1945, Garcia tried to order food at a restaurant south of Houston, Texas. The owner refused to serve him because he was Hispanic. When Garcia protested, the owner beat him with a baseball bat. Walter Winchell later reported on the incident, and Garcia’s beating became a rallying point for Latino-Americans.
On the 29th, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry fought its way into Grosshau with the help of a platoon of tanks. The Germans defending the town refused to surrender, and the fighting devolved into point-blank building-to-building battles. Grossau, which had been subjected to countless barrages of American artillery, was almost completely destroyed in the fighting. Germans held out in cellars and within the ruins until nightfall, but the 3rd Battalion eventually cleared them out and secured the town.
One more push and the regiment would clear the Hurtgen Forest and break into the open ground beyond. The regiment was ordered forward, reinforced by the 46th Armored Infantry Battalion, the regiment tried to clear the Hurtgen on the 30th. Little progress was made beyond reaching the woodline on the far side of Grosshau.
On the 1st, 2-22 and the 46th tried again. The men ran into a massive German artillery barrage that pinned them down and savaged their ranks. The Germans counter-attacked and flung the 2nd Battalion back. The Germans were stopped only when the battalion’s reserves were thrown into the fight. By the end of the day, 2-22 was down to a hundred and twenty-five men.
Colonel Charles T. Lanham, the 22nd’s commanding officer, saw that his men had nothing left to give. With his battalions down below company strength and the Germans massing on his northern flank for another counter-attack, he organized a scratch force composed of headquarters troops and supply clerks. That gave him a hundred man reserve.
Lanham was a highly regarded officer who’d been with the 22nd since Utah Beach. Known for his grit, he was also a warrior-poet and short story writer. Ernest Hemingway befriended him that fall while the 22nd fought its way through the Siegfried Line and later described him as, “The finest and bravest and most intelligent military commander I’ve ever known.”
The Germans hit Lanham’s 3-22 the next day in a furious counter-assault. The onslaught was too much for the battalion, and one skeletal company was overwhelmed. The Germans poured into the regiment’s rear, hitting both the headquarters of 1st and 3rd battalions. Lanham ordered his men to hold on and keep fighting. He threw in his scratch reserves, supported by a few tanks. They contained the German breach, cleared it and restored the line.
That night, the 4th Infantry Division commander, Major General Raymond Barton, sent in a regiment from the 83rd Infantry Division to effect a relief in place. As it was underway, the Germans hit the 22nd again and overran part of 1-22. Again, headquarters troops and a few men from a heavy weapons company contained the German attack and eventually threw it back. Later that day, as the 22nd was pulling out, about thirty Luftwaffe fighter-bombers made a final, parting attack on the regiment. Fortunately, the trees that had sheltered the German defenders from American air power returned the favor for the 22nd that day, and few men were hit in that last crucible in the Hurtgen Forest.
In eighteen days of close quarters combat among the woods and hills of the Hurtgen, the 22nd Infantry suffered 2,773 casualties. They’d gone in with a total strength of about 3,200 men. Everyone suffered, not just the line units. In the Hurtgen, there were no rear areas, only targets for German long-range artillery. During the battle, Lanham’s men captured 762 German soldiers. They had advanced six thousand yards and had taken their main objective despite some of the worst terrain and most formidable defenses the U.S. Army encountered in Europe during World War II.
This week, Bloomberg News reported that the new Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, was in Washington D.C. for meetings and asked the White House for some time with the President while he was here. According to reports, the White House staff did not even respond. This broke with a long standing tradition that when the Secretary General of NATO was in D.C., the President always made time to see him. Full article is here: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-03-24/obama-snubs-nato-chief-as-crisis-rages.
At this perilous moment in history, with so many challenges facing our brothers and sisters in Europe, it is important to remember the historical bonds our nations have forged in the defense of common principles. It is also important for Americans to remember that the contributions made by every nation, especially during WWII, all played important roles in the ultimate victory that restored peace to Europe for a generation.
Jen Stoltenberg is Norwegian. He served as Prime Minister and as the head of the Labor Party, as well as in many other positions since his election to Parliament in the early 1990s. Today’s post is an homage to the Secretary General’s nation and its vital (if virtually unknown) contribution to the victory in Europe during WWII. I
The Ships that Saved the Cause
In the spring of 1940, as Norway succumbed to the German onslaught, the Royal Navy evacuated King Haakon VII and much of his government’s senior leadership. The fight would continue, despite the conquest of their homeland. Setting up in London, the Norwegian government-in-exile possessed an ace-in-the-hole that soon played a crucial role in the ultimate defeat of the Third Reich.
In 1939, though Norway’s population barely topped three million people, the country boosted the world’s fourth largest merchant marine force. With a thousand, modern vessels, the Norwegians could haul more cargo than just about anyone else on the planet. Want oil moved across the Atlantic? Call the Norwegians. Their fleet included a whopping twenty percent of all tankers on the planet in 1939. The Norwegians were the masters of the seafaring arteries between Europe and the rest of the world.
Despite the German invasion and the Luftwaffe’s depredations, the fleet survived virtually intact. When King Haakon reached London, he delivered the 4.8 million ton Norwegian merchant marine to the Allied cause. This was manna from heaven for Great Britain, whose survival soon depended on these ships. By 1942, forty percent of Britain’s oil rode to the Home Islands aboard Norwegian tankers. Without their contribution, England would surely have been doomed, but the Norwegian crews never received credit for this crucial component to the Allied victory.
The price paid to keep Britain in the war was a steep one. Fully half of the Norwegian merchant fleet was destroyed by U-boats, mines and the Luftwaffe. These five hundred ships took three thousand unheralded, heroic men down with them.
Though the German conquest of Norway seemed at the time to be a tremendous victory, there was a hidden dimension the Third Reich never envisioned. The Nazi invasion in the north ultimately delivered to the British the very means of their salvation.
When the Axis invasion of Russia began in 1941, the Romanian Air Force totaled about six hundred aircraft. In the early phases of the war, the Romanian Air Force flew an unusual collection of British, French, Polish and German-designed aircraft, including the Heinkel-112 fighter that never saw widespread use with the Luftwaffe. Gradually, the British and French-built aircraft were replaced with more modern German fighters and bombers, including the Junkers Ju-88, the Heinkel He-111 and the legendary Junkers Ju-87 Stuka. The Romanians acquired about a hundred and fifty Stukas and used them on the Eastern Front all the way through the 1944 campaign to provide close air support to Axis units.
Some of the Romanian fighter squadrons were equipped with the I.A.R.-80 and 81, a homegrown design capable of speeds up to 350 mph. Rounding out the fighter force were German-supplied Messerschmitt Bf-109’s. Romanian fighter pilots were well-trained and quite capable. During three years of fighting, they claimed over two thousand aerial victories, and several of their aces were credited with sixty kills or more. The USAAF encountered Romanian interceptors many times during the 15th Air Force’s campaign against the Ploesti oil fields.
In August 1944, a coup toppled the pro-Axis government and Romania switched sides. With USAAF support, the Romanian Army held off a German attack against their capital. Fighting raged between once close-Allies as the Romanian Army later went on the offensive and drove the Wehrmacht away from the vital oil fields around Ploesti. By the time the war ended the following spring, the Romanian Army had captured over 50,000 German troops. These POW’s were turned over to the Red Army, where they suffered through years of captivity in Siberia.
In an ironic twist, the Romanian Air Force’s final kill took place between one of its Messerschmitt Bf-109G’s and a Luftwaffe 109K. When the war ended, the Romanians continued to use their 109’s for several years, and the I.A.R.-81’s remained in front line service until 1948. Gradually, though, the wartime aircraft they had acquired gave way to a Soviet-sponsored modernization program. Today, the Romanian Air Force flies an interesting mix of both NATO and Russian aircraft, and is on tract this year to receive its first batch of F-16 fighters.
During the Second World War, the United States produced thousands of aircraft, guns, artillery, vehicles and ships that its armed forces never used. Instead, these weapons from the great “Arsenal of Democracy” were sent to other Allied nations fighting desperately to stem the tide against the Axis Powers. Well known are the Bell P-39 Airacobras that reached Russia and performed excellent duty as ground attack aircraft. The P-51 Mustang, the F4U Corsair, Grumman F4F Wildcat, the TBM Avenger all served in with the British Fleet Air Arm or Royal Air Force, as well as in other Allied nations during the war.
But some lesser known types were sent overseas as part of the Lend Lease effort. Perhaps one of the more unusual was the Brewster SB2A Buccaneer. Designed before the war as a carrier-based dive bomber, the British and Dutch were so desperate for such an aircraft that they placed orders for it before the prototype even flew in 1941. When it finally did, the aircraft’s performance proved to be such a disappointment that the contracts were largely canceled. A few Brewsters, dubbed Bermudas by the FAA, saw limited service as training aircraft and target tugs, but its role as a combat dive bomber had been eclipsed by better aircraft.
The British also used the legendary Consolidated B-24 Liberator, though not primarily as a strategic bomber but as a long range anti-submarine aircraft. And after the Fall of France, the Douglas DB-7 Boston ended up in RAF service flying low altitude, short-ranged hit-and-run raids against German targets on the Continent. The Boston became a mainstay of the RAF’s light attack units in 1942-43, equipping about two dozen squadrons before ultimately being replaced by the DeHaviland Mosquito in the later stages of the war.