CHAPTER II   COMBAT ASSIGNMENT            [1] prev contents next

 

Finally the English Channel . . . England
. . . and the Theater of Operations . . .


CHAPTER II

COMBAT ASSIGNMENT


 

A feeling of tense excitement, of history in the making seemed to be in the air. The dull, deadly months of training and waiting were over. ONAWAY had achieved its goal; the 76th had finally reached the Theater of Operations. The day and the hour were definitely marked when Maj Gen Schmidt disembarked from the SS Richardson at Southampton, England, midafternoon of 21 December 1944.

"Put that date down, you krauts, along with a flock of other dates! Together they spell the end of Wehrmacht and Nazi and almost of Germany itself."

Gen Schmidt was very sure and very proud of his command, in spite of having lost almost half the division on each of two occasions between October 1942 and April 1943 for a total of 911 officers and 38,412 enlisted men shipped as reinforcements since activation. But he arrived with a division up to full Table of Organization strength, a wealth of youth in the lower ranks, a large number of non-commissioned officers and key men who had been well seasoned during the long training period, and a staff of officers whose fine qualities he had come to know in considerable detail. The commander and most of his staff were shortly transported to Bournemouth, in the south of England, where the division's advance Command and Staff Detachment, led by Brig Gen Francis A. Woolfley, had established its command post.

The 76th Division on foreign soil represented a long, grueling uphill climb; a struggle to preserve spirit and power of team in the face of replacement calls nibbling at its ranks. A cadre man in the 304th Infantry Regiment once expressed it this way:

"Every day I go out with the men, just 'raw meat' they were at first, and I give 'em settin'-up exercises. I drill 'em over hell and half the state of Wisconsin; I go over the obstacle course with 'em; I get my belly on the ground and show 'em how to shoot; I give 'em classes in everything from sex to spottin' airplanes and try to be patient with the characters who don't want to learn something. I go over the routes for special hikes, then hoof it with them. I stay up nights and sweat out the best way to put the training program over, and get up the next day with bags under my eyes and bags under the bags and try to act full of pep.

"Well, in the course of plenty of time the men shape up, and 1 can see we got a bunch as hard as nails who know their stuff and can work together like the parts of a clock. I'm slappin' my chest and tellin' everybody we got a bunch that can lick the best damn troops Hitler ever had -- when +, ! ! ? + ?. [Sorry, this is not a dictionary of army cusswords.] -- the big boys in Washington take the works apart, pull out parts of the well-oiled machinery, and send me more 'raw meat'. Oh well, c'est la guerre."

Hard as nails, and can work
together like the parts of a clock . . .

Morale, from the moment the division knew it was committed as an integral team, reached a new high; even among that group who had made most of the ocean crossing "by rail" and swore they'd never return to the U.S.A. except by air. After two and one-half years of training, the command had arrived. Now there was going to be action.

The various elements of the division did not enter England at the same port, but all assembled and were billeted in Bournemouth and its environs. 776th Ordnance, for instance, was quartered in a barracks that had housed soldiers who, a century ago, crossed the English Channel to help Napoleon meet his Waterloo. The 301st Medical Battalion set up in the little town of Christchurch, as picturesque a reminder of by-gone centuries as any to be found in England.  No one unit had it any better or any worse than the rest of the division  when it came to housing. Rooms were bare, heating and plumbing facilities meager. There may not have been all the comforts

Southern England . . . .  Bournemouth, the vacationland and the playground of the British . . .

of home, but a division prepared to bivouac in pup tents looked at its roof overhead and considered it "a bit of good luck, eh what?"

The number of buildings available for division billeting was in an area evacuated by England when, at one period of the war, she had expected to defend it against German invasion. By December 1944, however, numbers of the population had returned to shops and homes; dances were in season; a municipal symphony orchestra performed weekly; and the 76th, in the heart of absorbing historical and architectural points of interest, found varied means of off-duty recreation.

A picturesque reminder of
by-gone centuries . . .  In the heart of absorbing points of interest . . .

The pass policy, while hemmed in with certain precautionary restrictions, was liberal. Before many days passed, ONAWAY men were like old hands with pence, shillings, pounds; knew the taste of sweets, trifles, warm brew; took tea and scones at four-thirty; traded hospitality rations with friendly English families; visited London; felt like Pied Pipers as queues of children pursued them in the streets with "Any gum, chum?"; discovered that some Englishmen dressed like country squires, madrigals were not sung at the drop of a hat, there actually was such a dance as the "Lambeth Walk", and that the English girls took to sweaters and jitter-bugging with a grace

and stamina equal to their bobby-sox cousins across the pond.

The immediacy of war, however, was never forgotten. Bomb craters, shattered buildings, beach defenses, barbed wire and camouflaged emplacements protruded through the brave casualness with which Bournemouth conducted itself. The sight of maimed veterans on crutches out for a bit of sun, the conversation at the Red Cross club with recuperated soldiers enjoying a few hours leave from a nearby hospital, brought the battle closer home with a sudden new impact, sharper than the daily threat of enemy "V" bombings. Eloquent, too, was the strict rationing which the firm English resolve had borne stoically ever since 1939. Items of food and drink took on a significance greater, and the English people were looked on with a feeling warmer, than any the GI's ever had understood before. In the evenings at Retreat formations along that South England shore, as the band played The National Anthem, as hands and hearts saluted Old Glory, many a Yank pinned his thoughts to the music that wafted across the Channel. "Can you hear that, Germans? We're coming. We're coming."

Queues of children always handy with
their favorite question, "Any gum, chum?"

How to get going an organized training program was a particularly tough problem. No one knew how long the division would stay in England. Around Bournemouth there weren't any training areas big enough to accommodate such a large body of troops. Training aides had been left behind in the States due to the limitations placed on shipping weight, and quick replacement of the thousands of small items under this heading was impossible in the United Kingdom. Still worse, no OI (organization impedimenta) or TAT (to accompany troops) equipment was immediately available. Firing ranges were limited in number and quality. Radio silence was mandatory except for simple testing of equipment. In spite of all these difficulties and transportation problems, training proceeded in areas at some distances from Bournemouth, where small-scale problems could be conducted. In the face of the major equipment problem, schedules were set up and followed to include particularly: physical conditioning, care and cleaning of weapons, bomb reconnaissance, night activities and battle experiences. Many officer and NCO schools were conducted. The type and quality of training accomplished in England are more clearly described in the words of the Assistant Division Commander, Brig Gen Woolfley:

"The obstacles to training encountered in England did not hamper seriously our preparation for combat. During our brief stay in Bournemouth we sought to improve the high standard already set by the division in physical conditioning, maintenance of arms, vehicles and equipment, appearance and discipline. Throughout this training we emphasized command responsibility and mental conditioning for combat by building up a state of confidence in leadership, weapons and training. In short, we employed every training moment to improve our teamwork by a final review of the fundamentals. In the words of the mechanic, we 'tuned the motor' for combat."

 


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