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Tank Driver: With the 11th Armored from the Battle of the Bulge to VE Day

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Tank Driver is the story of a young man’s combat initiation in World War II. Based on letters home, the sparse narrative has the immediacy of on-the-spot reporting. Ted Hartman was a teenager when he was sent overseas to drive a Sherman tank into combat to face the desperate German counterattack known as the Battle of the Bulge. Hartman gives a riveting account of the shifting tides of battle and the final Allied breakout. He tells about the concentration camps, the spectacle of the defeated Germans, and the dramatic encounter with Russian soldiers in Austria that marked combat’s end. This is a vivid, personal account of some of the most dramatic fighting of World War II.

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1 The Army Beckons

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The Army Beckons

In 1943, I was a high school senior in Ames, Iowa. The world was at war and the United States was deeply involved in that war. It was an accepted fact that every male would be called into one of the armed services upon reaching the age of 18. Early that year, all of the boys in my class were invited to take the A-12/V-12 examination given by the army and the navy. When those of us taking the examination scored above a certain level, we would qualify to be sent to a university by the armed service of our choice and would avoid the draft.

Those preferring the navy would enlist in that branch and be enrolled directly into the V-12 program at designated universities across the nation. Those choosing the army were to enlist and be assured of at least six months of university work before being called to active duty. Once activated, the recruit would be sent for thirteen weeks of basic training followed by enrollment in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) at a university. Several of my classmates and I received letters that we had passed, so we hitchhiked to Des Moines, Iowa, where we went to the army recruiting station and enlisted on May 18, 1943. After a physical examination, we were sworn in as members of the Army of the United States on inactive duty.

 

2 Basic Training at Camp Roberts

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Basic Training at Camp Roberts

Our train from Los Angeles took most of the night to reach Camp Roberts, California, where it pulled onto a siding that took us directly into the camp, arriving at 6 A.M. Army trucks met us and took us to the barracks of the 51st Field Artillery Battalion. The first part of the process for us was to be interviewed to see if we had any special skills that would determine where we might be assigned. I had taken typing in high school; once the interviewer learned this, he decided that I would go to the army clerical school. Those of us designated as clerks were then trucked over to the 56th Field Artillery Battalion, where all of those attending clerical school were assigned.

Slightly more than two weeks had elapsed since being called to active duty and we were settled into typical army barracks at Camp Roberts, ready to start basic training. Camp Roberts was a huge army camp constructed near the Pacific Coast halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The purpose from the very beginning was to provide basic training for soldiers in both infantry and field artillery. It was a temporary military installation and was very plain and utilitarian. (Despite its “temporary” classification, it is still in use by the army today, over fifty years later.)

 

3 ASTP at the University of Oregon

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ASTP at the University of Oregon

The train we boarded in Paso Robles was the regularly scheduled train that ran from Los Angeles to Oakland. When we reached Oakland, we swung our duffel bags (which held all of our earthly possessions) onto our backs, climbed off the train, and set out to find the railroad car that we were to board for the next segment of our trip. When we asked for directions, we were directed out to the freight yard.

After walking for what seemed like several miles, we found our car, a strange-looking thing that reminded us of a small freight car. It turned out to be the latest in troop transport, called a troop sleeper. Six men rode in facing seats in each compartment by day and then, at night, converted it into three stacked bunks on each side that were crosswise to the car. The head of the bed was at the windows on one side while the feet rested toward the aisle which ran by the windows on the opposite side of the car. Each car contained six similar compartments. We were told that the troop sleeper was smaller, lighter, and held more men (thirty-six) than a typical Pullman car. The bunks were quite comfortable, long enough, wide enough, and definitely better than a short, cramped Pullman bed.

 

4 Camp Cooke

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Camp Cooke

The special troop train was full, carrying 500 soldiers who had been in the Army Specialized Training Program at the University of Oregon. The 11th Armored Division, to which all of us were assigned, had sent officers, noncommissioned officers, and mess sergeants (cooks) to be in charge of our entire group. The mess sergeants set up kitchens in two baggage cars and fed us our meals en route. We even had a doctor on board who conducted daily sick call.

Our destination was Camp Cooke, California, an armored force base located near the Pacific Ocean, a little more than 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The route of travel was the reverse of the one we had taken to Eugene four months earlier. Having boarded the train in the early evening, we slept through southern Oregon and northern California, so missed the timber country. We did see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge as we came through the Bay Area. There were numerous shipyards and many ships docked at wharves.

 

5 Going Abroad

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Going Abroad

By early September 1944, we had been at Camp Cooke, California, for six months. After this period of intense training, bivouacs, combat simulation, and several inspections by high-ranking generals, the 11th Armored Division was declared ready for overseas movement. Somehow we had become melded together.

The 600 men of the 41st Tank Battalion completely filled the two troop trains comprised of Pullman sleeper cars and dining cars which left Camp Cooke on September 12, 1944. Each train took a different route across the United States. The train I was on left Camp Cooke, traveled south to Los Angeles, and then took an eastward route across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. It left Texas at the northeast corner, went across Arkansas, and then turned south into Mississippi, completely bypassing Louisiana. We wondered if this was to miss the congestion caused by the number of army and navy installations there. In Mississippi we turned east and crossed Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia, before heading north to New Jersey. The heat of summer was still with us. Since our train car had no air-conditioning, we had to keep the windows open to get any air movement. Once again we found ourselves covered with soot from the coal-fired steam engine. Our destination was the port of embarkation at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

 

6 England

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England

The day after our arrival in Longbridge Deverill was Sunday, so several of us went to the village church for the morning service. The church was a handsome stone building dating back to the thirteenth century and had been consecrated by Thomas à Becket. The pipe organ was hand pumped and nicely tuned. We enjoyed the Church of England service and noted the similarities between it and the Episcopal service.

A few days later, we were moved by trucks to nearby Tilshead, where there was a large armored center for the British army. Surrounding it were broad expanses of land suitable for field training and tank maneuvering in addition to repair and maintenance facilities for the tanks. A plus for us there was a movie theater and other recreation facilities. Shortly after moving to Tilshead, we received our new Sherman tanks, which had come to England on another ship in our convoy.

All of the tank weapons and their component parts were made of polished metal and came packed in wooden boxes. In order to keep them from rusting in the salty sea air, they had been coated with Cosmolene, a very oily wax material. The best way to remove Cosmolene was to dip the coated parts in boiling water until the material melted off. For days on end, we filled large metal drums with water, brought the water to a boil over a coal fire under the drum, and then immersed the coated parts in the boiling water. After the Cosmolene melted off, the part was dried, coated with light oil, and ready for installation in the tank. This process of getting the equipment ready for the entire tank took three weeks of tedious work. We had begun to assume that the rainy season was all the time, as we cleaned most of the Cosmolene off the weapons in the rain. Rain or shine, though, we carried out our normal activities.

 

7 Forced March across Northern France

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Forced March across Northern France

On the night of December 19, 1944, we sailed from England. While on board the LST, we were told that our orders were to go to L’Orient and St. Nazaire, cities on the southwest coast of France, where we were to contain or eliminate an isolated pocket of German troops. Since these cities were on the Atlantic coast, the Germans had been able to bring in necessary supplies by ship and thus hold on to their position. This mission sounded interesting and did not appear to have the same dangers that would be associated with outright combat.

We arrived in Cherbourg harbor the next day, but for reasons unknown to us, we were not allowed to disembark from the LST until the following morning. Our battalion of eighty tanks and some twenty other vehicles left the ship and moved in convoy along the highway for thirty miles to the small resort village of Barneville on the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula, where we camped.

 

8 Entry into Battle

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Entry into Battle

While still in England, the 11th Armored Division was organized into three combat units, Combat Commands A, B, and R (Reserve). Each combat command was considered a complete fighting unit and contained the following organizations:

One tank battalion

One armored field artillery battalion

One armored infantry battalion

One armored engineer company

In addition, the division retained control of the following organizations to serve all three combat commands as needed:

Headquarters, 11th Armored Division

One armored medical battalion

One armored military police platoon

One armored signal company

One cavalry reconnaissance squadron mechanized

One ordnance maintenance battalion

This organizational structure provided an effective system for combat in which three separate objectives could be operational at the same time. The 41st Tank Battalion was assigned to Combat Command B. In each tank battalion there were three medium tank companies and one light tank company—Companies A, B, C, and D.

 

9 The Ambush at Noville

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The Ambush at Noville

After rest and recuperation in Bercheux, Belgium, we were ordered back to the battlefront on January 12th, 1945. By this time, the battle line was slightly north of Bastogne, not far from where it had been when we were relieved nine days earlier. Our orders were to move north to the village of Villeroux. There had been more snow and freezing rain and the roads had become extremely icy, so our tanks were sliding in all directions. It took us fourteen hours to go eight miles.

The following day we moved through Bastogne and stopped for the night south of Foy near the IP (Initial Point, the point of entry into battle the next day). After a supper of cold C-rations and a cup of hot coffee made on the little stove in our turret, we set up the guard schedule so that each member of our crew would take a two-hour turn during the night while standing in the tank commander’s hatch. Each of us “slept” while sitting in the seat we normally occupied. This was the usual sleeping arrangement when in dangerous territory.

 

10 First and Second Drives to the Rhine

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First and Second Drives to the Rhine River

We were relieved from the front and sent to Champs, northwest of Bastogne, for a rest. After three days, we were ordered to the front to serve as backup to Combat Command A while they eliminated the remaining part of the Bulge. We camped a few miles to the northeast of Noville in a forest that had previously been occupied by the Germans. It was evident that they had been there for some time from the spent German rifle shells and the foxholes. The foxholes were very deep and neat and had been covered with pine boughs by the Krauts to protect themselves from the aerial explosions of our artillery shells.

While camped in that forest, we received word that elements of the 41st Cavalry probing toward Houffalize had met troops from the Second Armored Division of the U.S. First Army. This event effectively closed the Bulge and trapped a large number of German soldiers. Reconnaissance troops had gone thirty miles without making contact with the enemy. This had to mean that the Krauts had withdrawn, perhaps even as far as the Siegfried Line on the western border of Germany. The Germans called this line the Westwall.

 

11 Bloody Easter

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Bloody Easter

We enjoyed the several days in Worms, as it was a fascinating historic old city. We were staying in beautiful homes, as nice as many in the United States, and had discovered fine wine cellars in many of them, so we were in no rush to leave. The time came, though, for us to relocate closer to the point where we were to cross the Rhine River. We moved about twenty-five miles north of Worms and camped in a field near the town of Framersheim.

Under cover of darkness, a number of Third Army units had been able to cross the river and establish a foothold on the east bank. This group included elements of an infantry division who crossed the river in assault boats and a tank company who “swam” across in amphibious tanks. Once a bridgehead was established, the engineers followed up and began placing cables across the wide, wide river as the first stage in the construction of a pontoon bridge.

Before dawn on Thursday, March 29th, we broke camp and moved to Oppenheim. I was still the driver of Lieutenant Ready’s tank. As we approached the bridge across the Rhine, we found ourselves under the cover of an immense smoke screen that had been produced by the 161st Smoke Generating Company to keep our troop movements hidden from the enemy.

 

12 Bayreuth to Grafenwohr

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Bayreuth to Grafenwohr

After four days in the woods outside Oberhof, where we worked on our tanks, we started our road marches with greater enthusiasm, as we could see the continuing collapse of the German army. We moved south thirty-three miles, a shorter gain than usual, and stopped in a roadside field for the night. After a peaceful stay, we started a drive toward Pfersdorf, meeting only light resistance.

We arrived in Pfersdorf the afternoon of April 8th, where our crew was assigned to the house of an elderly woman. Since we did not allow any German civilians to remain in the houses we occupied, she was moved to the home of a friend amid much loud complaint. Her house was so filthy that we had to clean it thoroughly before we could possibly stay there. As it turned out, we were in Pfersdorf for three days and this gave us more time for the ever-present need to perform maintenance on the tanks.

Thanks to the ingenuity of the GI, we had eaten very well for the past few days. We continued our search for fresh eggs each night where we stopped. A common sight was an American soldier carrying an empty helmet to use as a basket for eggs. We learned to ask in German, “Haben Sie eier” (Do you have eggs)? The substitute phrase was, “Ich möchte eier” (I want eggs). We usually found them in the local cold-storage locker or in a farmer’s hen-house. During our searches, we also discovered that many of these farmers had their own wine collection, so the second task each night was to look for wine to have with our supper.

 

13 Release of Concentration Camp Prisoners

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Release of Concentration Camp Prisoners

After spending the night in Amberg, we were ready to move out by 8 A.M., but suddenly we were told there would be a delay of several hours. By now we were in east central Germany, where we were meeting more resistance. Often we had such delays and rarely knew why. We accepted the fact that it was usually for a good reason, perhaps even our own protection.

About mid-morning we finally started moving at a good pace with very little opposition. The countryside was heavily wooded and hilly, the type of topography where tanks can get ambushed if they are not on the alert. As we were passing through one village, the townspeople told us that SS soldiers were in the woods on the other side of town. After we shot up the woods with machine guns, we learned that the rumor was false. We had long since decided to take no chances, so we were doubly prepared.

We assumed that many of the men from the villages that we were entering now were serving in the German armed forces, as the inhabitants seemed to be mostly older women. Tanks are very noisy, and their image engenders fear. Our entry into most of the villages was a surprise, so many of the women were crying, presumably frightened about what our tanks or we might do.

 

14 The Fierce Battle for the City of Regen

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The Fierce Battle for the City of Regen

What a wonderful night we had sleeping in good beds in Cham.

Just before we pulled out that morning, our mess truck arrived and served a delicious breakfast of French toast. The mess section was composed of four men who rode in a two-and-a-half-ton GMC truck with their stoves and equipment. They were armed with only light weapons and passed dangerous spots many times to bring hot food to 140 men in Company B. They deserve great credit for their dedication and fearlessness.

About 8:30 on the morning of April 24th, we pulled out, retraced our steps to the highway, and then turned south. Our platoon was in the lead again. We reached the edge of the village of Miltach and coiled while the artillery got set up. Then we proceeded on our drive. Art was spotting for us and the artillery in the overhead Cub plane. He really did much of the work this day while telling us about entire convoys of Krauts on the roads to our sides that were trying to escape from us. He was in constant radio contact with the artillery and directed them to fire on those enemy columns. At one point, he contacted the Air Corps and asked them to send P47 fighter planes to strafe the columns. The planes arrived shortly thereafter, swooped down, and released their rockets just as they reached the Krauts. It was an incredible sight. By destroying the enemy on both sides of our drive, the Air Corps and the artillery made it possible for us to continue our primary advance. Somehow we knew, though, that we would meet the enemy that day.

 

15 The Intensity of the Drive Continues

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The Intensity of the Drive Continues

Just as we were ready to leave Regen, C Company passed through us to take the lead. We were happy to see them, as this meant that we would be able to give up the point. It also meant that the engineers had finished constructing a bridge over the Regen River, so supplies and other support systems could come through. Many signs pointed to an approaching VE Day, and we were getting anxious. However, there was no way we could discontinue our offensive drives until we received the cease-fire order.

It was the morning of April 25th. Just as we started out, we passed the medics. I spotted Brig Young, a friend from University of Oregon days, and waved as we went by. As a medic, his duty was to provide first aid and to evacuate any men who had been wounded. It was always a grim reminder to see the medics, no matter how much we appreciated them.

We learned that our commanding officers were determined to rectify yesterday’s situation where we were ordered into battle without artillery support. This day, we proceeded very slowly, giving ample time for the field artillery to set up between each drive. We asked them to burn most of the villages along the route, as we didn’t want to suffer any needless injuries and deaths this close to the end of the war in Europe. As the day unfolded, our advance continued to go well, so it appeared that the backbone of resistance had been broken by our successful campaign on the previous days.

 

16 Mauthausen, Gusen I, and Gusen II

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Mauthausen, Gusen I, and Gusen II

After camping northeast of Zwettl the night of May 3rd, we met no resistance as we advanced into Gallneukirchen the next day, where we joined the other companies of our battalion. We were assigned houses to stay in, which meant the inhabitants had to move out. Our chaplain arrived, so we had church services in the local Protestant church. In contrast to the low attendance at Camp Cooke and in England, a surprisingly large group was there. As we were coming back from services, guns started going off. We were fearful that some sort of counterattack was starting.

Then battalion headquarters announced that all of the German troops in Austria had surrendered. This information was misinterpreted by some of the staff as total German surrender and that the war was over. Even though this was not true, it wasn’t surprising that such a rumor could set off some celebration. The past two weeks had been filled with immense tension for us, as there were so many signs pointing to the end of the European war. We relaxed somewhat that night and then had very good church services on Sunday, May 6th.

 

17 Mass Surrender and Death March

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Mass Surrender and Death March

The third day after we arrived in Linz, our company was ordered back to Gallneukirchen. We were to accept the surrender of an entire German army corps coming from the East that had refused to obey orders from our command headquarters to surrender to the Russians. They were determined to be taken prisoner by the American army. When we reached Gallneukirchen, we made a huge circle in the same field on the outskirts of town that we had used previously. We placed our tanks around the periphery and put the Germans in the center of this circle. This arrangement allowed us to guard them more effectively.

Then they began to come, all 18,000 of them, including some women and children. It was an orderly group. They marched in and set up camp in a very organized fashion. We had been concerned about what they would eat, as we had no food available for them. However, they brought their own supplies and seemed to have enough for everyone. Our other concern was how to provide enough water for this many people, as our water supply was very limited. In addition, May was the hottest season of the year in this area. To solve this, the Quartermaster Corps found some army tank trailers and brought them in filled with water.

 

18 Adjusting to Peacetime

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Adjusting to Peacetime

As World War II came to an end, the army had to make plans for sending the American soldiers back to the United States. Because of the large number to be returned, both from Europe and the Far East, there was a relative shortage of ships to transport the troops. The army developed a point system that would determine when an individual soldier would be eligible to be sent home for discharge. Points were granted for the number of months in the army, months in combat, months as a prisoner of war, months in the Army of Occupation, and certain other things. When points were initially counted, many longtime soldiers had more than eighty points, so they were among the first groups to return. As more soldiers were shipped home, the number of points required began to drop. When points were first counted, I had forty-one. When I received my orders to go home, they had increased to fifty-two. Until we had enough points, most of us were to be a part of the Army of Occupation.

 

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